The TSL’s Horror Grindhouse: I, Madman (dir by Tibor Takacs)


In the 1989 horror film, I, Madman, Jenny Wright stars as Virginia.  Virginia’s an aspiring actress who makes ends meet by working in a used bookstore.  (I’m not sure how much money the typical used bookstore employee makes but I have to say that Virginia’s apartment is absolutely to die for.)  Virginia is also dating a police detective named Richard (Clayton Rohner), who is handsome and sweet and looks good in a suit.  In fact, the only problem with Richard is that he thinks that Virginia spends too much time reading trashy horror novels.  According to him, they give her nightmares and they cause her imagination to run wild.

Richard’s not going to be happy to discover that Virginia has a new favorite author.  His name is Malcolm Brand and, despite the fact that Virginia says that he’s better than Stephen King, he’s a mysteriously obscure author.  In fact, no one but Virginia seems to have ever heard of him.  Virginia has just finished reading Brand’s first book, Much of Madness, More of Sin.  Now, she simply has to find his second book, which was called I, Madman.

(Personally, I think Much of Madness, More of Sin is a brilliant title.  I, Madman on the other hand is a little bit bland, as far as titles go.)

When Virginia finally tracks down a copy of the book, she discovers that it is all about this mad scientist who falls in love with an actress.  Because the scientist is horribly disfigured, the actress rejects him.  So, the scientist starts killing people and stealing pieces of their faces, all so he can patch together a new face for himself.

It’s while she’s reading the book the strange things start to happen in Virginia’s life.  For instance, the people around her start dying.  When she witnesses one of her neighbors being murdered, she swears that the murder was committed by a man who had no nose …. just like in the book!  Richard thinks that she’s letting her imagination run wild but Virginia soon comes to wonder if maybe she’s being stalked by the real Malcolm Brand….

I, Madman is an entertaining little horror film, one that sometimes comes across as being an extended episode of something like Tales From The Crypt.  From the minute the movie started with Virginia curled up on her couch in her underwear, reading a trashy novel with her oversized reading glasses on and a storm raging outside, I was like, “Oh my God, they made a movie out of my life!”  And really, this is one of the reasons why I, Madman makes such a good impression.  As played by Jenny Wright, Virginia serves as a stand-in for every horror fan who has ever read a scary novel and immediately imagined themselves as either the protagonist or the victim.  If you’ve ever had a nightmare after reading Stephen King or watching a horror movie, you’ll be able to relate to Virginia.  Both Jenny Wright and Clayton Rohner give likable and quirky performances in the lead role and they’re surrounded by capable of character actors.

The film itself is a bit of an homage to the suspense classics of the past.  It’s easy to compare Malcolm Brand’s novel to The Phantom of the Opera while a scene in which Virginia watches her neighbor play piano brings to mind Hitchcock’s Rear Window.  When Virginia imagines herself as a character in one of Brand’s stories, the film even manages to work in some stop-motion animation.  All in all, I, Madman is an entertaining horror film, perfect for October and any other season.

Horror Film Review: Near Dark (dir by Kathryn Bigelow)


The 1987 film Near Dark is the story of two American families.

The Coltons are a family of ranchers living Oklahoma.  Loy Colton (Tim Thomerson) is the patriarch, keeping a watchful eye on his children, Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) and Sarah (Marcie Leeds).  Caleb is a cowboy and a nice guy, even if he does seem to be a little bit too naive for his own good.  After Caleb disappears one night, Loy and Sarah start their own search, traveling across the back roads of the Southwest.

The other family may not share any biological relation to one another but they definitely share blood.  They’re a group of outcasts who have found each other and now spend their nights searching for people who can satisfy their hunger.  They’re vampires, even though that’s not a word that they tend to use.  (In fact, for all the blood-sucking that goes on throughout the film, the term “vampire” is never actually heard.)  At night, they’re all-powerful but during the day, even the slightly exposure to the sun can set them on fire.

The patriarch of this family is Jesse Hooker (Lance Henriksen), a scarred war veteran.  Jesse will do anything to protect the members of his family but he expects each of them to pull their weight.  At one point, when Jesse is asked how old he is, he says that he fought for the South and that the South lost.

Jesse’s girlfriend is Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein), who is just as ruthless as Jesse.  Filling the role of oldest son is Severen (Bill Paxton), a cocky gunslinger with a quick smile and cruel sense of humor.  Homer (Joshua Miller) appears to be a 12 year-old boy but he’s actually one of the older and more violent members of the family.  And then there’s Mae (Jenny Wright), the rebellious daughter.

Mae is the one who first met and bit Caleb.  She’s the one who turned Caleb into one of them, though it takes Caleb a while to not only discover but also understand what he’s become.  When Caleb tries to escape from Mae and his new family, he becomes violently ill.  He can no longer eat human food but, at the same time, he can’t bring himself to hunt.  Instead, he’s forced to drink whatever blood Mae can provide for him.  Even when Jesse’s group attacks a redneck bar, one cowboy manages to escape, specifically because Caleb cannot bring himself to kill him.

What is Caleb to do?  He can’t return to his old family, as much as he may want to.  (It doesn’t help that Homer has developed an obsession with Caleb’s sister, Sarah.)  At the same time, his new family says that they’re going to kill him unless he starts hunting for blood.  They only thing keeping Caleb alive is the fact that Mae likes him and even she’s telling him that he’s going to have to hunt.

Meanwhile, Loy continues his own hunt, the hunt for his son….

Long before she became the first female director to win an Oscar for The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow directed this stylish vampire film.  Visually, Bigelow emphasizes the emptiness of the Southwestern plains.  Looking at the desolate landscape, it’s easy to believe that Jesse and his family could use them to successfully hide from the rest of the world.  It’s also just as easy to believe that a well-meaning but not particularly bright young man like Caleb could get lost and not be able to find his way home.  Bigelow turns the vampire family into a group of modern-day outlaws, crossing the land in their sun-proofed vehicles and trying to stay one step ahead of modern-day posses made up by concerned families and law enforcement officers who don’t know what they’re getting into.

Even if not for Bigelow’s stylish direction, the film would be a classic for just the cast alone.  Henriksen, Paxton, and Goldstein all previously appeared in James Cameron’s Aliens and they have a camaraderie that feels real.  In fact, the vampires work so well together that it’s impossible not to kind of admire them.  They’ve got it together and, even when faced with an army of police officers determined to make them step out into the sunlight, they don’t lose their sardonic sense of humor.  The much missed Bill Paxton’s performance is a hyperactive marvel, both menacing and sexy at the same time.  Meanwhile, Jenny Wright and Adrian Pasdar have a likable chemistry as Mae and Caleb while Tim Thomerson makes Loy’s love and concern for his son feel so real that adds an unexpected emotional depth to the overall movie.  The script, written by Eric Red and Bigelow, is full of quotable dialogue and the cast takes full advantage of it.

Near Dark is vampire classic and definitely one to watch this Halloween season.

4 Film Reviews: Bridge To Silence, The Chocolate War, Kiss The Bride, Wedding Daze


Last week, I watched six films on This TV.

Which TV?  No, This TV!  It’s one of my favorite channels.  It’s not just that they show a lot of movies.  It’s also that they frequently show movies that are new to me.  For instance, last week, This TV introduced me to both Prison Planet and Cherry 2000.

Here are four other films, two good and two not so good, that This TV introduced to me last week.

First up, we have 1989’s Bridge to Silence.

Directed by Karen Arthur, Bridge To Silence was a made-for-TV movie.  Lee Remick plays Marge Duffield, who has a strained relationship with her deaf daughter, Peggy (Marlee Matlin).  After Peggy’s husband is killed in a traffic accident, Peggy has a nervous breakdown.  Marge and her husband, Al (Josef Sommer) take care of Peggy’s daughter, Lisa, while Peggy is recovering.  However, even as Peggy gets better, Marge still doesn’t feel that she can raise her daughter so Marge files a lawsuit to be named Lisa’s legal guardian.  While all of this is going on, Peggy is starring in a college production of The Glass Menagerie and pursuing a tentative romance with the play’s director (Michael O’Keefe).

Bridge to Silence is one of those overwritten but heartfelt melodramas that just doesn’t work.  With the exception of Marlee Matlin, the cast struggles with the overwrought script.  (Michael O’Keefe, in particular, appears to be miserable.)  The film’s biggest mistake is that it relies too much on that production of The Glass Menagerie, which is Tennessee Williams’s worst play and tends to be annoying even when it’s merely used as a plot device.  There’s only so many times that you can hear the play’s director refer to Peggy as being “Blue Roses” before you just want rip your hair out.

Far more enjoyable was 1988’s The Chocolate War.

Directed by Keith Gordon, The Chocolate War is a satirical look at conformity, popularity, rebellion, and chocolate at a Catholic boys school.  After the manipulative Brother Leon accidentally purchases too much chocolate for the school’s annual sale, he appeals to one of his students, Archie Costello (Wallace Langham), to help him make the money back.  Archie, who is just as manipulative as Leon, is the leader of a secret society known as the Vigils.  However, Archie and Leon’s attempt to manipulate the students runs into a roadblack when a new student, Jerry Renault (Illan Mitchell-Smith) refuses to sell any chocolates at all.  From there, things get progressively more complicated as Archie tries to break Jerry, Jerry continues to stand up for his freedom, and Leon … well, who knows what Leon is thinking?

The Chocolate War was an enjoyable and stylish film, one that featured a great soundtrack and a subtext about rebellion and conformity that still feels relevant.  John Glover and Wallace Langham both gave great performances as two master manipulators.

I also enjoyed the 2002 film, Kiss The Bride.

Kiss The Bride tells the story of a big Italian family, four sisters, and a wedding.  Everyone brings their own personal drama to the big day but ultimately, what matters is that family sticks together.  Directed by Vanessa Parise, Kiss The Bride featured believable and naturalistic performances from Amanda Detmer, Talia Shire, Burt Young, Brooke Langton, Monet Mazur, and Parise herself.

I have to admit that one reason why I liked this film is because it was about a big Italian family and it featured four sisters.  I’m the youngest of four sisters and, watching the film, I was reminded of my own big Irish-Italian family.  The movie just got everything right.

And then finally, there was 2006’s Wedding Daze.

Wedding Daze is a romantic “comedy.”  Anderson (Jason Biggs) asks his girlfriend to marry him, just to have her drop dead from shock.  Anderson’s best friend is afraid that Anderson will never get over his dead girlfriend and begs Anderson to not give up on love.  Anderson attempts to humor his friend by asking a complete stranger, a waitress named Katie (Isla Fisher), to marry him.  To everyone’s shock, Katie says yes.

From the get go, there are some obvious problems with this film’s problem.  Even if you accept that idea that Katie would say yes to Anderson, you also have to be willing to accept the idea that Anderson wouldn’t just say, “No, I was just joking.”  That said, the idea does have some comic potential.  You could imagine an actor like Cary Grant doing wonders with this premise in the 30s.  Unfortunately, Jason Biggs is no Cary Grant and the film’s director, comedian Michael Ian Black, is no Leo McCarey.  In the end, the entire film is such a misjudged failure that you can’t help but feel that Anderson’s ex was lucky to die before getting too involved in any of it.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #73: St. Elmo’s Fire (dir by Joel Schumacher)


St_elmo's_fire

Oh my God!  Aren’t rich, white people just like the worst!?

Actually, usually I would never say something like that.  I usually find class warfare to be tedious and I personally think poor people can be just as annoying as rich people.  I had no interest in the whole Occupy Wall Street thing and I once referred to V For Vendetta as being V For Vapid.

No, I may not be much of a class warrior but then again, that may be because I never met any of the characters at the center of the 1985 film St. Elmo’s Fire.  Seriously, if anything could turn me into a slogan-spouting, window-smashing revolutionary, it would be having to deal with any of the self-centered, entitled characters in St. Elmo’s Fire.

St. Elmo’s Fire is about a group of seven friends, three of whom are played by actors who co-starred in The Breakfast Club.  These friends all met at and are recent graduates from Georgetown University.  St. Elmo’s Fire follows them as they laugh, love, drink, do drugs, and try to figure out what they want to do with the rest of their lives.

For instance, there’s Billy (Rob Lowe), who has big hair and wears one dangling earring.  Billy was in a fraternity and spends most of the movie wishing that he still was.  Billy also plays the saxophone and he has a wife and a kid who he has pretty much abandoned … well, you know what?  I like Rob Lowe.  He seems like a fun guy and his DirectTV commercials were all classics but oh my God, does he ever give a bad performance in St. Elmo’s Fire.  Some of it is because Billy is not a very likable character.  He’s supposed to be the rough-around-the-edges, secretly sensitive rebel type but ultimately, he just comes across as being a loser.

And then there’s Jules (Demi Moore), who does too much cocaine and, as a result, finds herself fearing that she’s on the verge of being sold into a sexual slavery.  Jules doesn’t get to do much other than be rescued by the other characters.  Fortunately, when it looks like the group is drifting apart, Jules attempts to commit suicide and brings everyone back together.  Way to be a plot device, Jules!

Wendy (Mare Winningham) is the sweet but insecure virgin who has a crush on Billy.  Wendy works as a social worker and ends up getting insulted by the very people that she’s trying to help.  Winningham gives one of the film’s better performances but you can’t help but feel that Wendy deserves better friends.

Speaking of good performances, Andrew McCarthy also gives a pretty good one.  McCarthy plays Kevin Dolenz, the idealistic writer who everyone is convinced is gay because he hasn’t had sex in 2 years.  However, Kevin is actually in love with his best friend’s girlfriend.  As written, Kevin runs the risk of coming across as being insufferably moralistic but McCarthy gives a likable performance.  He turns Kevin into the nice guy that we all want to know.

And then there’s the Breakfast Club alumni.

Alec Newberry (Judd Nelson) was the vice-president of the Georgetown Democrats but now, because it pays better, he’s taken a job working for a Republican senator.  Alec’s girlfriend is Leslie (Ally Sheedy).  Alec obsessively cheats on Leslie, claiming that he can’t be loyal to her unless she’s willing to marry him.  The group of friends is largely centered around Alec and Leslie though it’s never really clear why.  Alec and Leslie are boring characters and, as a result, they’re a boring couple.

And then there’s Kirby (Emilio Estevez).  Estevez gives a likable performance but he often seems to be appearing in a different movie from everyone else.  Kirby is working on his law degree and he’s in love with a hospital intern named Dale (Andie MacDowell).  Unfortunately, Dale isn’t as interested in Kirby as he is in her so Kirby responds by stalking her and trying to change her mind.  There’s an earnestness and sincerity to Kirby that makes you like him, even if his behavior is actually rather creepy.

As for the film itself — well, it’s directed by Joel Schumacher and there’s a reason why Schmacher has the reputation that he does.  As a director, Schumacher is good at gathering together an attractive cast but he has close to no idea how to tell a compelling story.  St. Elmo’s Fire plods along, dutifully telling its story but providing little insight or surprise.

If you’ve read some of my previous reviews, you’re probably expecting this to be the point where I argue that St. Elmo’s Fire works as a time capsule.  But, honestly, this film doesn’t have enough insight to really work as a time capsule.  I mean, if you love 80s hair and 80s fashion, you might enjoy St. Elmo’s Fire but, then again, you could always just do a google image search and have the same basic experience.