Horror Film Review: Altered States (dir by Ken Russell)


You gotta watch out when it comes to those sensory deprivation tanks.  They may look like fun and it might seem like a pleasant idea to spend a while floating in and out of a state of consciousness but those tanks will mess you up.  Especially if you’ve got unresolved issues with your family and religion.

Also, if you’re going to go to Mexico to try a powerful hallucinogenic, make sure you’re not appearing in a Ken Russell film because again, those drugs will mess you up.  It’s like you’ll close your eyes and, when you reopen them, you’ll be in an 80s music video or something.

Now, to be honest, Altered States came out in 1980 so it’s a bit unfair to complain that it looks like a music video from the 80s or, for that matter, the 90s.  Instead, it’s more fair to say that a lot of the music videos from those two decades looked like Altered States.  That shouldn’t be particularly surprising since this film was directed by Ken Russell and Russell was a director who specialized in combining music with wild imagery.

Altered States may have been directed by Ken Russell but it was written by Paddy Chayefsky.  Chayefsky, of course, is best known for writing the script for Network.  (He also wrote the script for the Oscar-winning film, Marty.)  Chayefsky is one of those writers who is always cited as an inspiration by writers who are trying justify being heavy-handed.  For instance, when Aaron Sorkin was criticized for both Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip and The Newsroom, his supporters started talking about how he was just carrying on the proud tradition of Paddy Chayefsky.  In his autobiography, A British Picture, Ken Russell portrays Chayefsky as being a pompous control freak who refused to allow any changes to his dialogue-heavy script.  Russell responded by directing his actors to speak the dialogue as quickly as possible, rendering much of it incoherent.  In a few scenes, he even specifically had the actors eating so that their mouths would be full as they spoke.  Chayefsky was not amused and eventually demanded to be credited under his real name, Sidney Aaron.

As for the film itself, it tells the story of Dr. Eddie Jessup (William Hurt, in his film debut), who is convinced that he can cure schizophrenia by exploring states of altered consciousness.  As mentioned above, this leads to him floating in a tank and taking hallucinogenics in Mexico.  Somehow, this leads to him turning briefly into a caveman and then into some sort of primordial energy creature.  His wife (Blair Brown) is not happy that Eddie appears to be determined to reverse evolution and return to mankind’s original form.  For that matter, Eddie’s bearded colleagues (Charles Haid and Bob Balaban) all think that he’s playing a dangerous game as well.  Eddie’s daughter (Drew Barrymore, making her film debut) isn’t particularly concerned but that’s just because she’s like five and probably thinks it would be fun to have a primordial energy monster to play with.  Anyway, it all becomes a question of whether or not all questions need to be answered and whether love can defeat science.

Anyway, this is a deeply silly movie but it’s also kind of compelling, mostly because the uneasy mix of Chayefsky’s pompous, serious-as-Hell script and Ken Russell’s aggressive and semi-satiric directorial style.  Chayefsky obviously meant for the story to be taken very seriously whereas Russell takes it not seriously at all.  Though Chayesfky and Russell ended up hating each other, Russell keeps the film from becoming the cinematic equivalent of Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s twitter account.  Chayefsky’s greatest objection was that Russell directed the actors to not only speak quickly but to also speak over each other but this actually works to the film’s advantage.  Eddie and his colleagues are young, arrogant, and determined to make their mark.  Of course, they’re going to speak quickly.  They’re excited and there’s no time to lose.  The film’s best moments are the early ones, where it’s hard not to get swept up in Eddie’s enthusiasm.  Of course, once Eddie turns into a caveman, it pretty much becomes impossible to take anything that follows seriously.

For all the talk about the origins of mankind and whether or not love can save the day, the main appeal of this film is to watch William Hurt totally freak out.  Jessup’s hallucinations allow Russell to do what he did best and they’re the highlight of the film.  Despite Chayefsky’s ambitions, you don’t watch this film for the science.  You watch it for the seven-eyed ram and the scenes of Eddie walking into a mushroom cloud.  Ken Russell was smart enough to know that audiences would take one look at William Hurt, with his WASP bearing, and totally want to see just how fucked up Eddie Jessup actually was.  On that front, Russell totally delivers.

This film is a mess but at least it’s a Ken Russell mess.

 

Horror Film Review: Firestarter (dir by Mark L. Lester)


Adapted from Stephen King novel, 1984’s Firestarter is a film about a girl with a very special power.

Back in the day, a bunch of college students needed weed money so they took part in a government experiment.  Half of them were told that they were being given a placebo.  The other half were told that we would be given a low-grade hallucinogen.

Surprise!  The government lied!  It turns out that everyone was given the experimental drug!  Some of the students ended up going crazy.  One unfortunate hippie clawed his eyes out.  Meanwhile, Vicky (Heather Locklear) gained the ability to read minds.  She also fell in love with Andy McGee (David Keith), a goofy fellow who gained the ability to mentally control people’s actions.  They married and had a daughter named Charlie (played by a very young Drew Barrymore).  Charlie, it turns out, can set things on fire!  She’s a firestarter!

Well, of course, the government can’t just leave the McGees out there, controlling minds and setting things on fire.  Soon, the McGees are being pursued by the standard collection of men in dark suits.  Vicky is killed off-screen, leaving Charlie and Andy to try to find some place where they’ll be safe.

Good luck with that!  This is the government that we’re talking about.  The thing with films like this is that the government can do practically anything but it never occurs to them to not all dress in dark suits.  I mean, it just seems like it would be easier for all of these secret agents to operate if they weren’t automatically identifiable as being secret agents.  Anyway, Andy and Charlie are eventually captured and taken to The Farm, a really nice country estate where Andy and Charlie are kept separate from each other and everyone keeps talking about national security.

Running the Farm is Capt. Hollister and we know that he’s a bad guy because he wears a suit and he’s played by Martin Sheen.  Working with Hollister is John Rainbird (George C. Scott), a CIA assassin who kills people with a karate chop across the nose.  When Charlie refuses to show off her firemaking abilities unless she’s allowed to talk to her father, Rainbird disguises himself as a custodial engineer and proceeds to befriend Charlie.  Of course, Rainbird’s plan is to kill Charlie once she’s displayed the extent of her powers….

Stephen King has written that he considers this film to be one of the worst adaptations of one of his novels but, to be honest, I think the movie is actually a bit of an improvement on the source material.  Firestarter is probably the least interesting of Stephen King’s early novels.  Supposedly, Charlie was based on King’s youngest daughter and, reading the book, it’s obvious that everyone’s fear of Charlie is mostly a metaphor for a father trying to figure out how to raise a daughter.  Unfortunately, instead of concentrating on those primal fears, the book gets bogged down in boomer paranoia about MK-ULTRA experiments.

The movie, however, is just silly enough to be kind of charming.  For example, consider the way that Andy grabs his forehead and bugs out his eyes whenever he uses his powers.  Andy’s powers may be slowly killing him but he just looks so goofy whenever he uses them that you just can’t help but be entertained.  And then you’ve got Drew Barrymore sobbing while setting people on fire and George C. Scott growling through all of his dialogue and even Martin Sheen gets a scene where he gets excited and starts jumping up and down.  (And don’t even get me started on Art Carney and Louise Fletcher as the salt-of-the-Earth farmers who try to protect Andy and Charlie….)  Some of the special effects are a bit hokey, as you might expect from a film made in 1984 but occasionally, there’s a good shot of something (or someone) burning up.  It’s all so over-the-top and relentlessly dumb that you can’t help but be entertained.  You can even forgive the fact that basically nothing happens between the first 10 and the last 15 minutes of the movie.

Firestarter‘s silly but I liked it.

The TSL’s Horror Grindhouse: Far From Home (dir by Meiert Avis)


There are several lessons that can be learned from watching horror films.  One that is often overlooked is the importance of staying out of trailer parks.  Seriously, I have lost track of how many horror films have taken place within the confines of a trailer park.  Once you see someone surrounded by RVs and mobile homes, you know that they’re probably doomed.

Take 1989’s Far From Home, for instance.

Far From Home is set in perhaps the sleaziest trailer park in America.  This place sits in the middle of the Nevada desert and is run by chain-smoking Agnes Reed (Susan Tyrrell), who has a voice like a bullfrog, a daughter (Stephanie Walski) who is obsessed with watching TV and eating fishsticks, and a delinquent teenage son named Jimmy (Andras Jones).

The only law is provided by Sheriff Bill Childers (Dick Miller), who has a squad car but apparently no deputies.  Childers is gruff but not that bad of a guy once you get to know him.  However, he’s also played by Dick Miller and we all know better than to depend on Dick Miller to maintain the peace.

There’s a gas station nearby.  A mellow Vietnam vet named Duckett (Richard Masur) owns it.  Duckett is always willing to be helpful but he rarely has any gas.  This is one of those small towns where the gas truck apparently only rolls in every two months or so.  Still, Duckett’s a nice guy and he’s full of stories about how the government used to do atomic bomb tests in the surrounding desert.

(The scenes where Duckett drives around the desert feel somewhat out of place but they’re still enjoyable, due to Masur’s eccentric performance.)

Living in the trailer park, there’s a lot of odd people.  Some of them are permanent residents while some of them are just temporarily stranded.  14 year-old Pinky (Anthony Rapp, who would go on to appear in Dazed and Confused and Rent) lives with his mother and is a permanent resident.  His mother is rarely seen, though occasionally she can be glimpsed through a window, propped up in front of the TV.  Pinky says that, when he was a kid, he and Jimmy were best friends.  But now, Jimmy and Pinky are enemies.

And then there’s Amy (Jennifer Tilly) and Louise (Karen Austin), who are just waiting for enough gas to come in to be able to get Amy’s car to start running again.  Louise is intelligent and responsible.  Amy is flighty and undependable.  As soon as one of them accidentally pulls the handle off the driver’s side door, you just know one of them is going to end up getting trapped in that car at a bad moment.

When Far From Home opens, two newcomers have moved into the trailer park.  Writer, divorced father, and self-described “former angry young man” Charlie Cox (Matt Frewer) has just spent a month with his 13 year-old daughter, Joleen (Drew Barrymore, who was 14 when she made Far From Home).  It hasn’t exactly been a great vacation and it doesn’t get any better when Charlie’s car runs out of gas.  Joleen is about to turn fourteen and she doesn’t want to spend her birthday in a crummy trailer park with her incredibly dorky dad.

However, both Jimmy and Pinky are happy that Joleen will be spending at least a day or two at the trailer park.  At first, Joleen crushes on Jimmy and then, after Jimmy reveals himself to be aggressive and unstable, she crushes on Pinky, who protects her from Jimmy.  One of the two boys is so obsessed with Joleen that he is willing to commit murder to keep her from leaving the trailer park.  But which one?

(It’s actually pretty obvious but you probably already guessed that.)

Far From Home is a film about which I have mixed feelings.  On the one hand, the movie’s totally predictable.  Characters do dumb things for no real reason beyond needing to move the plot forward.  Charlie’s parenting abilities change drastically from scene to scene.  A traumatized character goes from catatonic to recovered to catatonic again with no real explanation.

One of my main issues with the film is that there’s no real surprise about who the killer turns out to be.  Even worse, once the killer’s identity is revealed, the killer suddenly turns into one of those psychos who can come up with a dozen one-liners while trying to kill someone.  I mean, seriously, who does that?  Are movie psychos required to take a year’s worth of improv clubs and do an apprenticeship with the Upright Citizens Brigade before they’re allowed to pick up a knife?  If I was the type to commit murder (and I’m not but let’s just say that I was), I would be too busy trying to make sure everyone was dead to be witty.  I’d save the jokes until I was safely on a beach somewhere, drinking pink lemonade and keeping an eye out for Ben Gardner’s boat.  That’s just me, I guess.

And yet, there’s a part of me that really likes this stupid, stupid movie.  It’s a surprisingly well-directed film, full of artfully composed shots.  The trailer park really does take on a life of its own and the film also makes good use of a nearby abandoned apartment building.  It’s a great location and, occasionally, it lends the film a dash of surrealism.  (Of course, I guess you could legitimately ask who would build an apartment complex in the middle of the desert, especially one that’s still humming with radiation from the Atomic bomb tests, but let’s not.)  Richard Masur, Dick Miller, and Susan Tyrrell all give good performances.  For that matter, the same is true of Anthony Rapp and Andras Jones.  Neither Rapp nor Jones are to blame for the fact that they were let down by a weak script.

Though I doubt either one of them would describe Far From Home as being their proudest cinematic achievement, Matt Frewer and Drew Barrymore are totally believable as father and daughter.  In the end, that’s why I like this movie.  Whenever I’ve watched Far From Home, I’ve always been able to relate to Joleen.  When I was thirteen, I basically was Joleen.

Fortunately, though, I was never found myself stranded in a trailer park full of homicidal maniacs.

I guess I just got lucky that way.

Musical Sequence of the Day: “Notorious” from Donnie Darko (dir by Richard Kelly)


For today’s musical sequence of the day (which is a temporary feature that I’m doing until Val’s internet is working again and she can return to doing her music videos of the day), we have the “Notorious” scene from 2001’s Donnie Darko.

In this scene, Sparkle Motion performs onstage while, miles away, Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) burns down the house of creepy motivational speaker, Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze).  Playing throughout this scene: Duran Duran’s “Notorious.”

Why does Drew Barrymore hate Sparkle Motion?

This is the second scene from Donnie Darko to have been featured in this series.  Check out the “Head Over Heels” scene here.

(And yes, one reason why I love this scene is because I very much related to it.  Sparkle Motion is perhaps the most realistic part of Donnie Darko…)

Musical Sequence of the Day: “Head over Heels” from Donnie Darko (dir by Richard Kelly)


Hi, everyone!

Well, Val is having some internet issues so it’s going to be a few days until she’s able to do another music video of the day.  So, until she returns, I’m going to fill in with some of my favorite cinematic musical sequences!  These are scenes that made brilliant use of music.

And what better way to start things off than with the Head Over Heels scene from 2001’s Donnie Darko.  Directed by Richard Kelly, this scene not only makes brilliant use of the Tears For Fears song, Head Over Heels, but it also manages to introduce every character and set up almost every important relationship in the film.

It’s brilliant but I always find myself wondering what Drew Barrymore had against Sparkle Motion.

To quote Val, “Enjoy!”

Back to School #57: Never Been Kissed (dir by Raja Gosnell)


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The 1999 romantic comedy Never Been Kissed is a definite guilty pleasure of mine, and that’s not just because of the fact that James Franco has a small role in it.  Never Been Kissed is a genuinely sweet movie that might not be extremely realistic but is still enjoyable.

Never Been Kissed requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief, largely because Josie Gellar, the character who has” never been kissed,” is played Drew Barrymore.  Oh, it’s not that Josie hasn’t ever been kissed.  Instead, it’s that she’s never gotten the type of kiss that every girl dreams of getting.  She’s never been kissed by someone who she was truly in love with.  She’s never had the type of romance that everyone dreams of having (especially when they’re in high school).

However, Josie is about to get a chance to find that kiss.  Josie works for a newspaper and her editor (John C. Reilly) has just assigned her to go undercover at a local high school.  Unfortunately, Josie was traumatized by her experiences the first time that she went to high school.  (She wrote a poem for a boy, he responded by asking her to prom and then throwing eggs at her.)  On her first day as a “student,” Josie finds that she is just as unpopular as the last time but now she’s also absolutely out-of-touch with her classmates.  Fortunately, she’s befriended by Aldys (Leelee Sobieski) and, soon, Josie has finally managed to find a place with the Denominators, a group of intelligent students.

Unfortunately, hanging out with the good kids isn’t producing the type of stories that Josie’s editor wants.  He orders Josie to reject Aldys and to befriend the school’s mean girls.  After her brother, Rob (David Arquette), also enrolls in high school, he helps Josie to become the most popular girl in the school.  Soon, Josie is no longer hanging out with Aldys and has been asked to go to the prom by the loathsome Guy Perkins (Jeremy Jordan).

However, Josie has fallen in love with her English teacher, Sam (Michael Vartan).  Sam likes Josie too but, of course, he thinks that she’s a student.  Will Josie tell the truth and risk losing Sam?  Will she be able to maintain her cover even when she discovers that her new friends are planning to humiliate Aldys?  Will Josie ever truly be kissed?

Well, you can probably guess all the answers.  Nothing really surprising happens in Never Been Kissed but it’s still a likable film.  For the most part, the actors all do a good job with their stock roles and David Arquette, especially, is hilarious as a professional slacker who thrives in high school precisely because he’s never bothered to grow up.  (Of course, by the end of the film, his new high school girlfriend is wanting to know what he’s planning on doing with his life after he graduates….)  At no point is the film in any way realistic but it’s still an enjoyable way to spend 110 minutes of your life.

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Embracing the Melodrama #41: Poison Ivy (dir by Katt Shea)


“I still think about her. I guess, still love her. She might have been even more alone than I was. I miss her.” — Syvlie Cooper (Sara Gilbert) reflects on her murderous BFF Ivy (Drew Barrymore)

1992’s Poison Ivy is narrated by alienated and confused Sylvie (Sara Gilbert), a teenager who describes herself as being  “the politically / environmentally-correct feminist poetry-reading type.”  Syvlie has issues.  Her father (Tom Skerritt) is a self-righteous television pundit while her mother (Cheryl Ladd) is stuck at home, confined to bed and slowly dying.  Ivy’s only friend is her dog, Fred.  Sylvie deals with her alienation by constantly lying, often claiming that her real father is actually a black man who had an affair with her mother.

When Sylvie sees a girl (Drew Barrymore) brazenly swinging on a rope with her skirt around her waist, she is immediately fascinated. After spending a while obsessing over the girl’s physical appearance, Sylvie tells us, “Maybe I’m a lesbian…no definitely not.  I really wish we could be friends.”  Her desire for friendship continues even after Sylvie witnesses the girl violently euthanize a dog that’s been hit by a car.

Later, at school, Sylvie finds herself sitting in detention for calling in a bomb threat to her father’s show.  When the girl joins her in detention, Sylvie strikes up a conversation with her.  It turns out that the girl knows who Sylvie’s father is and that she considers him to be “an asshole.”  However, that still doesn’t prevent the girl from accepting a ride home with Sylvie and her father.  When introducing the girl, Sylvie calls her “Ivy,” presumably after one of the girl’s tattoos.  What’s interesting — and probably often missed — is that the girl herself never introduces herself as Ivy.  It’s a name given to her by Sylvie.

Not wasting any time, Ivy is soon Sylvie’s best friend and is even living in Sylvie’s house.  At first, Ivy is exactly the best friend that Sylvie needs, encouraging her to come out of her shell, take chances, and even get a tattoo.  However, soon, Ivy is not just helping Sylvie do everything that she’s ever wanted to but she’s also acting on all of Sylvie’s subconscious desires as well.  Ivy first manages to bond with Sylvie’s mother and then proceeds to seduce her father.  Finally, even Fred finds himself preferring the company of Ivy to his original owner…

Is there anything more wonderful than female friendship?  I think not but then again, that’s really not relevant to Poison Ivy because this film has not interest in being a realistic look at the relationship between Sylvie and Ivy.  Instead, it’s a hyper-stylized take on the type of material that you would normally expect to find in a trashy novel and the movie is all the better for it.  Fortunately, the movie was directed by Katt Shea who brings a sensitivity to material that a male director would probably only view as an excuse for titillation.

I think the film is best interpreted as being Sylvie’s fantasy.  In fact, I would argue that the case could be made that the entire film takes place in Sylvie’s head.  It’s her fantasy of having the type of uninhibited friend who will encourage her to conquer all of her fears and who will accept her for all of her strange quirks.  However, that’s not just Sylvie’s fantasy.  That’s a universal fantasy that every teenage girl has had (and probably a few teenage boys as well).  Is there any wonder that the film ends with Sylvie admitting that she still misses Ivy?

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