Original Gangstas (1996, directed by Larry Cohen)

Original Gangstas opens with shots of the deserted streets and burned-out store fronts of Gary, Indiana and narration telling us how a once great American city came to be in such disrepair.  The steel plant closed and put much of the city out of work.  While the politicians and the police looked the other way, violent street gangs rose up and took over entire neighborhoods.  Now, Gary is a shell of its former self.  Even the local movie theater has closed down.  The narrators tells us that the last movie to play at the theater was Star Wars.

Led by Spyro (Christoper B. Duncan) and Damien (Eddie Bo Smith, Jr.), the Rebels are the most feared and powerful gang in Gary.  They rule through violence and intimidation.  Talk to the police and your business is liable to get torched and you’re likely to get shot.  However, Spyro and Damien have finally gone too far and now, two men who previously escaped from Gary are returning to town to dish out some justice.

John Bookman (Fred Williamson) is a former football player who wants to avenge the shooting of his father.  Jake Trevor (Jim Brown) is a boxer who once killed a man in the ring and who wants revenge for the death of his son.  When they were young men, John and Jake were the original Rebels and now they’re getting the old gang back together again.  With the help of Laurie (Pam Grier), Rev. Dorsey (Paul Winfield), Bubba (Ron O’Neal), and Slick (Richard Roundtree), the original gangstas are going to take back the streets of Gary.

Original Gangstas was released at a time when, largely thanks to the influence of Quentin Tarantino, people were just starting to feel nostalgic for the old blaxploitation movies.  The main appeal of the film, not surprisingly, is that it brings together so many of the great blaxploitation stars and sets them loose in what was then the modern era.  (Jim Kelly is missed.)  When John and Jake talk about how they’re responsible for the Rebels, they could just as easily be talking about how they’re responsible for both all of the independent crime films that came out in the wake of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.

Original Gangstas is a tribute to both the Blaxploitation genre and the oversized personalities that made that era so memorable.  Neither Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, nor Richard Roundtree were particularly good actors but they all had so much screen presence and such an innate sense of cool that it didn’t matter whether they could convincingly show emotion or not.  (Original Gangstas gives all of the big dramatic scenes to Pam Grier, who was not only naturally cool but a damn good actress to boot.)  The minute Fred Williamson lights his cigar, he control the entire movie.  He and Jim Brown make a good team and Original Gangstas is an entertaining and violent trip down memory lane.

Horror Film Review: Stir of Echoes (dir by David Koepp)

It’s blue collar horror!

As the 1999 film Stir of Echoes shows, ghost don’t only haunt the rich and famous.  Sometimes, they haunt ordinary guys who live paycheck to paycheck and just want to be able to take some pride in having a home that’s free of secrets and evil spirits.  “Ghosts, they’re a real pain the ass sometimes, y’know what I’m saying?”

For instance, in Stir of Echoes, Kevin Bacon plays Tom Witzky.  Tom is a phone lineman who lives in Chicago.  Tom wishes that he could have been something more than a phone lineman.  He wishes that his band could have taken off and he could have been a rock star.  But, now Tom’s reached his 40s, he’s got a wife named Maggie (Kathryn Erbe), a son named Jake (Zachary David Kope), and another child on the way.  So, he works hard and then he comes home and he has a beer and sometimes, he might go to a high school football game.  It’s not a glamorous life but at least it’s something with which Tom can be happy.

Of course, then Tom makes the mistake of going to a party that’s being given by his friend, Frank (Kevin Dunn).  When Maggie’s sister-in-law, Lisa (Illeana Douglas), says that she knows how to hypnotize people, Tom scoffs and challenges her to hypnotize him.  Lisa does so and, the next thing that Tom knows, he’s sitting there with tears in his eyes and everyone laughing at him.  Even though it was only a few seconds to Tom, he was apparently under hypnosis for quite a while.  He talked about being bullied as a child.  He stuck a safety pin through his hand.  He even accepted Lisa’s suggestion that he “try to be more open-minded.”  Upset over being revealed to be vulnerable, Tom leaves the party.

Tom soon learns what it means, in his case, to be more open-minded.  Soon, Tom is hearing voices and seeing what appears to be the ghost of a teenage girl in his house.  He starts to have disturbing and violent visions.  When Tom tries to pretend that nothing’s wrong, Jake tells him that it’s okay because he can see the ghost as well.

Growing obsessed with his visions, Tom is soon tearing his own house apart in an attempt to discover what the spirits are trying to tell him.  Is Tom truly seeing ghosts or, as so many in the neighborhood suspect, is he losing his mind?

When I first started rewatching Stir of Echoes for this review, I have to admit that I was a little bit concerned.  Kevin Bacon is one of the most likable actors on the planet and this film is usually cited as featuring one of his best performances but, in the first few scenes, he seemed to be almost going a little overboard with the whole “I’m just a working class guy” routine.  But, as the film progressed, I actually came to realize that Kevin Bacon was giving a brilliant performance.  The fact that he played Tom as being so rational and almost boring during the first half of the movie made it all the more effective when he started tearing his house apart during the second.  During those scenes, Bacon plays Tom as not only someone obsessed with discovering the truth but also as someone who just wants his life to be normal again.  If he has to destroy his life to get it back, that’s what he’s going to do.

(That said, my favorite character in the film was Lisa, mostly because we share the same name and she was played by the brilliant Illeana Douglas.  The thing I loved about Lisa is that, when she was informed that she had messed up Tom’s mind, she was both sorry and proud of herself at the same time.)

Stir of Echoes is still a frightening film, one with plenty of jump scares and a subtext of paranoia as it’s revealed that both the neighborhood and Tom’s friends are full of secrets.  Because they both came out in 1999, it often gets compared to The Sixth Sense.  I like The Sixth Sense but I actually prefer Stir of Echoes, just because it’s not quite as self-important as M. Night Shyamalan’s film.  The makers of Stir of Echoes didn’t set out to change the world.  They just wanted to make a scary ghost story and they succeeded.