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 Film Review: Mom and Dad (dir by Brian Taylor)


Mom and Dad, which was released earlier this year, is the story of many things.

It’s a story of the suburbs, the perfect place to buy a home and raise your family.  Nice lawns, big houses, friendly people, and plenty of buried resentment.  It’s a place that can either represent a new beginning or the death of all of your childhood dreams.  It all depends on how you look at it.  Mom and Dad opens with a suburban mom leaving her newborn in a car that has been strategically parked on the railroad tracks.

Mom and Dad is also the story of a family.  The Ryans may seem like they have it all but one only needs to look at their morning routine to see that things aren’t as perfect as they may appear.  Teenager daughter Carly (Anne Winters) is dating a guy who she knows her parents dislike.  Her younger brother, Josh (Zackary Arthur), is something of a brat.  Carly’s father, Brent (Nicolas Cage), is stuck in a monotonous job while her mother, Kendall (Selma Blair), had to give up her career to raise two children who don’t seem to appreciate her at all.  On top of all that, the grandparents (one of whom is Lance Henriksen) are coming over later for dinner.  The Ryans are a family who spend more time looking at their phones that actually talking to each other.

Mom and Dad is also the story of static.  It’s not just the metaphorical static that makes it difficult for the Carly to understand her parents.  It’s also a very real static, a hissing and popping noise that suddenly comes over radios, pa systems, and televisions and which, for reasons that are never really made clear, fills parents with rage.  When a parent hear the static, they suddenly become obsessed with killing their children.  Kendall’s sister attempts to smother her newborn while a group of new fathers gather in the hospital, shaking with rage as they stare at their babies.  Elsewhere, parents gather outside the high school, waiting for their kids to get out of school so that they can kill them.

As for Carly and Josh, they find themselves locked in their basement while, outside, Brent and Kendall plot their demise.  What makes all of this particularly disturbing (and, at times, darkly humorous) is that it’s not like the parents turn into glass-eyed zombies.  Instead, their personalities remain largely the same, except for the fact that they’re now obsessed with killing their children.  When Brent and Kendall discuss wanting to murder their children, they speak about everyday frustrations.  Brent wants to murder Carly because he caught her hanging out with her boyfriend.  Kendall wants to kill her son and her daughter because she feels like she’s had to give up her entire life just to be their mother.  The static didn’t drive Mom and Dad crazy.  Instead, it just really reminded them that sometimes, children can be a real pain in the ass to deal with.

When it was initially released, the film got a lot of attention for a scene in which an enraged Brent sledgehammers a pool table while singing The Hokey Pokey and yes, it is a classic Nicolas Cage scene.  That Cage goes totally and gloriously over-the-top as Brent shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone.  (For the record, I always enjoy a good Nicolas Cage freakout.)  Even better though is Selma Blair, who is as subtle as Cage is wild.  When Kendall talks about everything that she’s sacrificed to be a stay-at-home mom, it’s a poignant moment.  She may be trying to kill her children but you still feel for her.  Cage is, as usual, entertainingly bizarre but Blair actually gives the film some unexpected depth.

It’s a wild and deeply subversive film and definitely not for everyone.  It also features a wonderful third act twist and one of my favorite endings of the year.  Mom and Dad has its flaws but, for those who like a little satire with their horror, it’s definitely worth seeing.

A Movie A Day #269: The Horror Show (1989, directed by James Isaac and David Blyth)


For the crime of having murdered over a 100 people, “Meat Cleaver Max” Jenke (Brion James) is sentenced to death and sent to the electric chair.  Even though everyone thinks that Max was electrocuted, his electricity-fueled spirit is still alive and pissed off.  If this sounds familiar, that is because it is the exact same premise that was used in Destroyer.  The only difference is that Max is not haunting a prison and killing a film crew.  Instead, he is living in a basement and seeking revenge on Lucas McCarthy (Lance Henriksen), the cop who arrested him.

Lucas is already tightly wound.  There is a scene where Lucas is watching as his family laughs uproariously at a late night comic who is telling a not very funny joke about then-Vice President Dan Quayle.  When Lucas thinks that he sees Max on TV, he pulls out his gun and shoots the screen.  His wife, son, and daughter will probably never laugh at another joke about any vice president.  Soon, Lucas is seeing and hearing Max everywhere.  Max says that he is going to tear Lucas’s world apart and he means it.

That The Horror Show is going to be a mess is obvious from the opening credits, where the screenplay is credited to Alan Smithee.  The credited director is visual effects specialist James Isaac but most of the film was reportedly directed by David Blythe.  Isaac stepped in when Blythe was fired by producer Sean S. Cunningham.  Full of false scares and scenes where people go down into the basement for no reason other than to become Max’s latest victim, The Horror Show is usually boring, except for when it is violent, gory, and mean-spirited.  There are moments of strange attempts at humor that do not seem to belong.  In the middle of all the carnage, there is a subplot about McCarthy’s son (Aron Eisenberg) ordering case after case of Nestle Quick.  Did Nestle pay for the product placement?  Were they happy to be associated with a movie where Lance Henriksen has a nightmare that his daughter (played by DeeDee “sister of Michelle” Pfieffer) is pregnant with Max Jenke’s baby?

The Horror Show provided both Lance Henriksen and Brion James with rare starring roles and they did their best what they had to work with.  Also keep an eye out for veteran tough guy Lawrence Tierney as the warden who supervises Max’s execution.

A Movie A Day #185: Emperor of the North Pole (1973, directed by Robert Aldrich)


Emperor of the North Pole is the story of depression-era hobos and one man who is determined to kill them.

The year is 1933 and Shack (Ernest Borgnine) is one of the toughest conductors around.  At a time when destitute and desperate men are riding the rails in search of work and food, Shack has declared that no one will ride his train for free.  When Shack is first introduced, the sadistic conductor is seen shoving a hobo off of his train and onto the tracks.  Shack smiles with satisfaction when the man is chopped in half under the train’s wheels.

A-No.1 (Lee Marvin) is a legend, the unofficial king of the hobos.  A grizzled veteran, A-No. 1 has been riding the rails for most of his life.  (The title comes from the hobo saying that great hobos, like A-No. 1, are like the Emperor of the North Pole, the ruler of a vast wasteland).  A-No. 1 is determined to do what no hobo has ever done, successfully hitch a ride on Shack’s train.  He even tags a water tower, announcing to everyone that he intends to take Shack’s train all the way to Portland.

If A-No. 1 did not have enough to worry about with Shack determined to get him, he is also being tailed by Cigaret (Keith Carradine), a young and cocky hobo who is determined to become as big a legend as A-No. 1.  Cigaret and A. No. 1 may work together but they never trust each other.

Like many of Robert Aldrich’s later films, Emperor of the North Pole is too long and the rambling narrative often promises more than it can deliver.  Like almost all movies that were released at the time, Emperor of North Pole attempts to turn its story into a contemporary allegory, with Shack standing in for the establishment, A-No. 1 representing the liberal anti-establishment, and, most problematically, Cigaret serving as a symbol for the callow counter culture, eager to take credit for A-No. 1’s accomplishments but not willing to put in any hard work himself.

As an allegory, Emperor of the North Pole is too heavy-handed but, as a gritty adventure film, it works wonderfully.  Lee Marvin is perfectly cast as the wise, no-nonsense A-No. 1.  This was the sixth film in which Marvin and Borgnine co-starred and the two old pros both go at each other with gusto.  Carradine does the best he can with an underwritten part but this is Borgnine and Marvin’s film all the way.  Marvin’s trademark underacting meshes perfectly with Borgnine’s trademark overacting, with the movie making perfect use of both men’s distinctive screen personas.  As staged by Aldrich, the final fight between Shack and A-No. 1 is a classic.

Even at a time when almost every anti-establishment film of the early 70s is being rediscovered, Emperor of the North Pole remains unjustly obscure.  When it was first released, it struggled at the box office.  Unsure of how to sell a movie about hobos and worrying that audiences were staying away because they thought it might be a Christmas film, 20th Century Fox pulled the movie from circulation and then rereleased it under a slightly altered name: Emperor of the North.  As far as titles go, Emperor of the North makes even less sense than Emperor of the North Pole.  Even with the title change, Emperor of the North Pole flopped at the box office but, fortunately for him, Aldrich was already working on what would become his biggest hit: The Longest Yard.

Keep an eye out for Lance Henriksen, in one of his earliest roles.  Supposedly, he plays a railroad worker.  If you spot him, let me know because I have watched Emperor of the North Pole three times and I still can’t find him.

 

20 Horror Icons Who Were Never Nominated For An Oscar


Though they’ve given some of the best, iconic, and award-worthy performances in horror history, the actors and actresses below have never been nominated for an Oscar.

Scarlet Diva

  1. Asia Argento

Perhaps because of charges of nepotism, people are quick to overlook just how good Asia Argento was in those films she made with Dario Argento.  Her work in Trauma especially deserves to be reevaluated.  Outside of her work with Dario, Asia gave great, self-directed performances in Scarlet Diva and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things.

2. Jamie Lee Curtis

“Prom Night!  Everything is all right!”  Did you know that Jamie Lee Curtis received a Genie Nomination for her performance in Prom Night?  That could be because, in 1980, there weren’t that many movies being produced in Canada but still, Jamie was pretty good in that film.  And, of course, there’s a little film called Halloween

3. Peter Cushing

The beloved Hammer horror veteran did wonderful work as both Frankenstein and Van Helsing.  Personally, I love his odd cameo in Shock Waves.

4. Robert Englund

One, two, Freddy’s coming for you…

5. Lance Henriksen

One of the great character actors, Lance Henriksen gave one of the best vampire performances of all time in Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark.

David Hess, R.I.P.

6. David Hess

In just two films — Wes Craven’s Last House On The Left and Ruggero Deodato’s The House On The Edge of the Park — Hess defined screen evil.  If nothing else, he deserved an Oscar for composing The Road Leads To Nowhere.

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7. Boris Karloff

As our own Gary Loggins will tell you, it’s a crime that Boris Karloff never received an Oscar nomination.  He may be best remembered for Frankenstein but, for me, Karloff’s best performance was in Targets.

8. Camille Keaton

Yes, Camille Keaton did deserve a Best Actress nomination for I Spit On Your Grave.

Kinski and Butterfly

9. Klaus Kinski

The notorious and talented Klaus Kinski was never nominated for an Oscar.  Perhaps the Academy was scared of what he would do if he won.  But, that said, Kinski gave some of the best performances of all time, in films for everyone from Jess Franco to Werner Herzog.

Christopher Lee Is Dracula

10. Christopher Lee

That the amazing Christopher Lee was never nominated is a shock.  Though he will always be Dracula, Lee gave wonderful performances in films of all genres.  Lee always cited the little-seen Jinnah as being his best performance.

 

11. Bela Lugosi

The original Dracula, Lugosi never escaped typecasting.  Believe it or not, one of his finest performances was in one of the worst (if most enjoyable) films of all time, Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster.

12. Catriona MacColl

This English actress gave three excellent performances in each chapter of Lucio Fulci’s Beyond Trilogy, with her performance in The House By The Cemetery elevating the entire film.

13. Daria Nicolodi

This Italian actress served as a muse to two of the best directors around, Dario Argento and Mario Bava.  Her award-worthy performances include Deep Red and, especially, Shock.

Near-Dark-Bill-Paxton

14. Bill Paxton

This great Texas actor gave award-worthy performances in everything from Near Dark to Aliens to Frailty.  RIP.

15. Donald Pleasence 

Dr. Loomis!  As good as he was in Halloween, Pleasence also gave excellent performances in Roman Polanski’s Cul-de-Sac and a nightmarish Australian film called Wake in Fright.

Roger Corman and Vincent Price

16. Vincent Price

The great Vincent Price never seems to get the respect that he deserves.  He may have overacted at times but nobody went overboard with as much style as Vincent Price.  His most award-worthy performance?  The Witchfinder General.

17. Giovanni Lombardo Radice

The greatest of all the Italian horror stars, Radice is still active, gracious, and beloved by his many fans.  Quentin Tarantino is a self-described fan so it’s time for Tarantino to write him a great role.

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18. Michael Rooker

To many people, this great character actor will always be Henry.

19. Joe Spinell

This character actor will always be remembered for playing the lead role in the original Maniac but he also appeared in some of the most acclaimed films of all time.  Over the course of a relatively short career, Spinell appeared in everything from The Godfather to Taxi Driver to Rocky to Starcrash.  He was the American Klaus Kinski,

20. Barbara Steele

Barbara Steele has worked with everyone from Mario Bava to Jonathan Demme to David Cronenberg to Federico Fellini.  Among her many excellent performances, her work in Black Sunday and Caged Heat stands out as particularly memorable.

black-sunday

A Movie A Day #30: Prince of the City (1981, directed by Sidney Lumet)


220px-prince_of_the_city_foldedIn 1970s New York City, Danny Ciello (Treat Williams) is a self-described “prince of the city.”  A narcotics detective, Ciello is the youngest member of the Special Investigations Unit.  Because of their constant success, the SIU is given wide latitude by their superiors at the police department.  The SIU puts mobsters and drug dealers behind bars.  They get results.  If they sometimes cut corners or skim a little money for themselves, who cares?

It turns out that a lot of people care.  When a federal prosecutor, Rick Cappalino (Norman Parker), first approaches Ciello and asks him if he knows anything about police corruption, Ciello refuses to speak to him.  As Ciello puts it, “I sleep with my wife but I live with my partners.”  But Ciello already has doubts.  His drug addict brother calls him out on his hypocrisy. Ciello spends one harrowing night with one of his informants, a pathetic addict who Ciello keeps supplied with heroin in return for information.  Ciello finally agrees to help the investigation but with one condition: he will not testify against anyone in the SIU.  Before accepting Ciello’s help, Cappalino asks him one question.  Has Ciello ever done anything illegal while a cop?  Ciello says that he has only broken the law three times and each time, it was a minor infraction.

For the next two years, Ciello wears a wire nearly every day and helps to build cases against other cops, some of which are more corrupt than others.  It turns out that being an informant is not as easy as it looks.  Along with getting burned by malfunctioning wires and having to deal with incompetent backup, Ciello struggles with his own guilt.  When Cappalino is assigned to another case, Ciello finds himself working with two prosecutors (Bob Balaban and James Tolkan) who are less sympathetic to him and his desire to protect the SIU.  When evidence comes to light that Ciello may have lied about the extent of his own corruption, Ciello may become the investigation’s newest target.

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Prince of the City is one of the best of Sidney Lumet’s many films but it is not as well-known as 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Serpico, The Verdict, or even The Wiz.  Why is it such an underrated film?  As good as it is, Prince of the City is not always an easy movie to watch.  It’s nearly three hours long and almost every minute is spent with Danny Ciello, who is not always likable and often seems to be on the verge of having a nervous breakdown.  Treat Williams gives an intense and powerful performance but he is such a raw nerve that sometimes it is a relief when Lumet cuts away to Jerry Orbach (as one of Ciello’s partners) telling off a district attorney or to a meeting where a group of prosecutors debate where a group of prosecutors debate whether or not to charge Ciello with perjury.

Prince of the City may be about the police but there’s very little of the typical cop movie clichés.  The most exciting scenes in the movie are the ones, like that scene with all the prosecutors arguing, where the characters debate what “corruption” actually means.  Throughout Prince of the City, Lumet contrasts the moral ambiguity of otherwise effective cops with the self-righteous certitude of the federal prosecutors.  Unlike Lumet’s other films about police corruption (Serpico, Q&A), Prince of the City doesn’t come down firmly on either side.

(Though the names have been changed, Prince of the City was based on a true story.  Ciello’s biggest ally among the investigators, Rick Cappalino, was based on a young federal prosecutor named Rudy Giuliani.)

Prince of the City is dominated by Treat Williams but the entire cast is full of great New York character actors.  It would not surprise me if Jerry Orbach’s performance here was in the back of someone’s mind when he was cast as Law & Order‘s Lenny Briscoe.  Keep an eye out for familiar actors like Lance Henriksen, Lane Smith, Lee Richardson, Carmine Caridi, and Cynthia Nixon, all appearing in small roles.

Prince of the City is a very long movie but it needs to be.  Much as David Simon would later do with The Wire, Lumet uses this police story as a way to present a sprawling portrait of New York City.  In fact, if Prince of the City were made today, it probably would be a David Simon-penned miniseries for HBO.

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Harbinger Down Goes International


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Kickstarter, GoFundMe, Indiegogo are just a couple of ways the general public have been able to crowdfund things they really like. Crowdfunding has even entered film production with a film set for release being one of my more anticipated films of 2015.

Harbinger Down is the brainchild of Practical FX artists Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr. As more and more studios begin to rely heavily on CGI-effects for their films the practical effects and make-up FX industry has taken a major hit. We’ve already seen practical effects master Rick Baker announce his retirement from the industry and many smaller effects studios either close shop or sold to larger studios.

The film by Gillis and Woodruff, Jr. looks to bring back practical effects as not just a viable option for films looking to create fantastical creatures and effects, but also show that practical effects is an art form that lends a certain level of realism to those very fantastical ideas.

From the look of the trailer it looks like Harbinger Down takes some inspiration from two classic scifi horror films of the past with Alien and John Carpenter’s The Thing. With legendary genre veteran Lance Henriksen headlining the ensemble cast, Harbinger Down is something genre fans deserve.