The TSL’s Horror Grindhouse: The Burning (dir by Tony Maylam)


Among some horror fans, the 1981 film, The Burning, has long had a reputation for being one of the best of the many films to come out of the early 80s slasher boom.

I have to admit that the first time I saw it, my thought process went something like this:  Oh great, more campers …. I can’t wait to see all of these people die …. God, these campers are annoying …. Thank God I never went to summer camp …. Wait, is that Jason Alexander …. when is the killer going to show up …. oh hey, that is Jason Alexander …. if I wanted to sit through a bunch of silly summer camp hijinks, I wouldn’t have gone searching for a horror film …. goddammit, was it really necessary for Jason Alexander to moon the camera …. wow, this movie is boring …. I don’t know who said this was scary but seriously …. oh God, now it’s turning into a movie about rafting …. I’ve about had it …. this movie is so bor–OH MY GOD WHAT THE HELL JUST HAPPENED! AGCK!  THERE GO HIS FINGERS OH MY GOD….

Seriously, The Burning is a film that requires a bit of patience.  You got to sit through a lot of silliness before you actually get to the horror but once you do …. oh my God!  It’s intense.  The killer in The Burning is Cropsy, a former groundskeeper who was set on fire by a bunch of campers years ago.  Now, he’s everyone’s worst nightmare — a madman with gardening shears.  It takes a while for Cropsy to really get into the spirit of things.  In fact, for a good deal of The Burning, no one is even talking about Cropsy, which is always a mistake when you’re trying to make a movie about a killer in the woods.  A young camper named Alfred (Brian Backer) keeps thinking that he see Cropsy sneaking around the camp but nobody believes him, largely because Cropsy doesn’t ever do anything to let people know that he’s back and ready to demonstrate how gardening tools can be used as an instrument of revenge.

However, once Cropsy actually gets going, he is terrifying!  The Burning is a good example of the type of horror movie that was made before the Nightmare on Elm Street series introduced the idea that killers could not only talk but also tell a lot of corny jokes.  Cropsy doesn’t speak.  Crospy doesn’t joke.  All Cropsy does is kill.  What makes Cropsy especially disturbing is that — much like the killer in The Prowler — he seems to get a lot of joy out of killing as brutally as possible.  He’s not Jason or Michael, killers who killed because that’s all they knew how to do.  Cropsy plots and calculates and hides and is basically everyone’s campfire nightmare come to life.

Now, as I said before, it does take Cropsy a while to get started.  And we do end up spending a lot of time watching campers do stupid things.  Yes, Jason Alexander is one of the campers.  He not only has hair but I think he’s supposed to be a teenager in this film.  He was 21 when the film was shot and he looks like he’s about 35.  He delivers his lines in such a way that it’s impossible not to think of The Burning as being a lost episode of Seinfeld where George Costanza goes camping.  On the plus side, he does get some vaguely funny lines, which is more than his co-stars get.

Speaking of co-stars, keep an eye out for Holly Hunter.  She was dating Jason Alexander at the time (as well as rooming with Frances McDormand) and she makes her film debut as one of the campers.  She gets one line.  “What if they don’t come back?”  It’s a good question.  What if they don’t?  (Cue dramatic music!)

Anyway, The Burning is a slasher film that requires some patience but when it needs to be scary, it gets the job done.  (The gore effects are by the one and only Tom Savini and yes, they are shocking and a bit disturbing.  If you’ve ever wanted to know what losing four fingers at once would look like, this is the film for you.)  It’s a bit too padded for its own good but Cropsy is an effective villain and the movie actually catches you by surprise regarding who survives and who doesn’t.  Amazingly, there was never a sequel to The Burning.  Personally, I don’t think it’s too late.  I want to see Jason Alexander return to the camp and finish Cropsy off, once and for all!

Guilty Pleasure No. 31: Hail, Caesar! (dir by the Coen Brothers)


Sometimes, I wonder if I was the only filmgoer who actually enjoyed Hail, Caesar! when it was released in February.

Oh, don’t met wrong.  I know that I’m being a bit overdramatic when I say that.  It got some good reviews from the critics, though the praise was rather muted when compared to the reviews that traditionally greet the latest film from the Coen Brothers.  I know more than a few people who have agreed with me that Hail, Caesar! was an entertaining lark of a film.

But I know a lot more people who absolutely hated Hail, Caesar!  Of course, no film is going to please everyone and the Coen Brothers have always had a tendency to attempt to deliberately alienate their audience.  But what has always struck me is the fact that the people who disliked Hail, Caesar seem to really, really dislike it.  Talk to them and you get the feeling that they view Hail, Caesar as almost being some sort of a crime against both humanity and cinema.

Taking place in a stylized Hollywood in 1951, Hail, Caesar! tells the story of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin).  Eddie is a shadowy figure.  As head of production at Capitol Pictures, Eddie’s job is to keep the “bad” behavior of the stars from getting out into the press.  (The press is represented by Tilda Swinton who, in a typical Coen Brothers twist, plays twin sisters who are rival gossip columnists.  If the thought of that makes you smile, you are potentially a part of the right audience for Hail Caesar.  If it makes you roll your eyes, you should probably avoid the film.)  Eddie is the most powerful man in Hollywood and he will do anything to protect the image of the American film industry.  He will lie.  He will cheat.  He will threaten.  He is so ruthless and so good at his job that even Lockheed Martin is trying to hire him away from Capitol.  And yet, at the same time, Eddie is also a family man and a Catholic who is so devout that he goes to confession on a nearly hourly basis.

(For all you non-Catholics out there, Pope Francis only goes to confession twice a month.)

Hail, Caesar! follows Eddie as he deals with a series of potential problems.  Temperamental director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) is upset because he’s been forced to cast Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich, giving the film’s best performance), a good-natured but inarticulate cowboy star, in his sophisticated comedy.  Synchronized swimmer DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansoon) is not only pregnant but unmarried as well!  (It’s the 50s, remember.)

However, the biggest crisis is that Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) has vanished from the set of his latest film. A mysterious group known as The Future has taken credit for kidnapping him.  It’s not really much of a spoiler to reveal that The Future is a cell of communist scriptwriters and they are determined to convert the rather dumb Baird to the struggle.  As opposed to most films about Hollywood in the 50s, the communist screenwriters are portrayed as being a bunch of self-righteous and rather cowardly nags, the majority of whom spend more time debating minutiae than actually trying to the overthrow capitalism.  In many ways, Hail, Caesar is the anti-Trumbo.

As you might guess from the plot description, there’s a lot going on in Hail, Caesar but none of it really adds up too much.  Nor is it supposed to.  We’re encouraged to laugh at these frantic characters, as opposed to sympathize with them.  Eddie Mannix and Hobie Doyle both emerge as heroes because they’re the only characters who remain calm and confident, regardless of what strangeness is happening onscreen.  Eddie may be ruthless, the film tells us, but at least he gets results.  Hobie may not be the smartest or most talented guy in Hollywood, we are told, but at least he doesn’t pretend to be anything other than who he is.

Hail, Caesar! is a bit of a lark, a celebration of style over substance.  As far as Coen Brother films go, Hail, Caesar has more in common with Burn After Reading than No Country For Old Men.  The film is largely an inside joke aimed at people who know the history of Hollywood, which is perhaps why some viewers reacted so negatively.  Inside jokes are fun when you’re in on the joke.  When you’re not in on it, though, they’re just annoying.

As for me, I thoroughly enjoyed Hail, Caesar!  It may not be the Coens at their best but it’s a lot of fun and it appealed me as both a history nerd and a lover of old movies.  The best parts of Hail, Caesar! are the scenes that parody the largely forgotten, big-budget studio productions of the 1950s.  This is the rare film that acknowledges that not every film made before the 1960s was a masterpiece.  The Coens love movies but that doesn’t keep them from getting a little bit snarky.  For example, check out this production number featuring Channing Tatum:

Is Hail, Caesar self-indulgent?

Yes.

Is it largely an inside joke?

Yes.

Did I absolutely adore it?

You better believe I did.

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Previous Guilty Pleasures

  1. Half-Baked
  2. Save The Last Dance
  3. Every Rose Has Its Thorns
  4. The Jeremy Kyle Show
  5. Invasion USA
  6. The Golden Child
  7. Final Destination 2
  8. Paparazzi
  9. The Principal
  10. The Substitute
  11. Terror In The Family
  12. Pandorum
  13. Lambada
  14. Fear
  15. Cocktail
  16. Keep Off The Grass
  17. Girls, Girls, Girls
  18. Class
  19. Tart
  20. King Kong vs. Godzilla
  21. Hawk the Slayer
  22. Battle Beyond the Stars
  23. Meridian
  24. Walk of Shame
  25. From Justin To Kelly
  26. Project Greenlight
  27. Sex Decoy: Love Stings
  28. Swimfan
  29. On the Line
  30. Wolfen

Insomnia File No. 4: Nina Takes A Lover (dir by Alan Jacobs)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

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Last night, if you were having trouble getting to sleep at 2 in the morning, you could have turned over to Starz and watched Nina Takes A Lover, a movie from 1994.

Nina Takes A Lover is such a typical 90s Sundance film that it could have just as easily been called Independent Movie From 1994.  Everything that we tend to associate with American independent cinema is present in this film.  It’s a relationship drama with moments of quirky comedy.  It’s set in the city and no, it doesn’t matter which city.  It could be New York or it could be Seattle or it could be Los Angeles or San Francisco.  The important thing is that it’s a city on one of the coasts, the type of city where people engage in witty banter while sharing an apple in the park or over cups of coffee at a cozy cafe that was probably replaced by a Starbucks after this film was released.  This is the type of film where the characters tell their stories in flashback while being interviewed by a bespectacled journalist.  Characters alternate between artificial small talk and sudden statements of portentous wisdom.  Of course, all of quirky drama leads up to a sudden twist.  I figured out the twist after watching about 10 minutes of the film.  Maybe audiences in 1994 were a bit more surprised.

About the only thing that keeps Nina Takes A Lover from being the most stereotypical indie film ever made is the fact that there’s no quirky criminals and nobody spends any time talking about their favorite childhood TV shows.  If Nina had only shot someone while taking a lover, this would have been the most indie film ever.

I imagine that I’ve probably made the film sound totally unbearable but I actually enjoyed Nina Takes A Lover.  Once I realized and accepted that Nina Takes A Lover wasn’t exactly going to reinvent cinema, I discovered that it was actually a very likable film.

Nina is played by Laura San Giacomo, who owns a shoe store.  Nina meets a man in the park.  The man (Paul Rhys) has no name and is merely identified as being “Photographer.” (And, of course, he’s British because this is an independent film and, in the world of indie cinema, all ideal lovers are British.)  Soon, Nina and Photographer are having a passionate and very physical affair.  However, Nina explains that she’s married and her husband will be home in three weeks.  Photographer says that he has a wife as well.  As Nina and the Photographer talk about love, marriage, and sex, they also try to figure out what they should do when the three weeks are up.

And, of course, it all leads to a twist that you’ve probably already figured out but you know what?  It doesn’t matter if the film is predictable because it’s just so likable.  Laura San Giacomo and Paul Rhys both give likable performances, they have a lot of chemistry, and the sex scenes are well-done and genuinely erotic.  The film may tell a familiar story but it tells it well.

Nina Takes A Lover is a good film to watch when you’ve got insomnia.  It won’t put you to sleep but it will definitely make the hours of darkness a little more pleasant.

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun