Horror Film Review: The Crazies (dir by George Romero)

Ah, The Crazies.  The original Crazies.

This 1973 film is one of George Romero’s best non-Dead films, though it never seems to get the respect that it really deserves.  Even today, the original is often overlooked in favor of the remake.  And don’t get me wrong — the remake of The Crazies is good and it features several effective jump scares.  But the remake is a slick Hollywood film and, watching it, you always have the safety of knowing that you’re watching a slick Hollywood film.  The original, though, is rough and low-budget and it looks and it feels real.  As a result, it sticks with you long after the haunting final scenes.

The storyline is simple but effective.  People in a small Pennsylvania town are going crazy and murdering each other.  Usually, it’s impossible to tell who is infected until they’re already attacking you.  The infected are just like the zombies from Night of the Living Dead with one key difference.  The crazies may be as relentless as the Dead but they’re also human beings.  They think.  They plan.  They scheme.  And when they die, they die like humans and we’re reminded that, just a few short hours ago, they were friendly and, more or less, harmless.

The government, of course, shows up in the town and tries to contain the outbreak.  The main image that most people will carry away from The Crazies is of men in white hazmat suits, walking through small-town America and killing almost everyone they see.  As is typical for a Romero film, the so-called solution often seems to be worse than the problem.  We also get the typical conflict between the scientists and the military.  The  military wants to destroy the infected.  The scientists want to cure them.  The film is bleakly cynical as the one man who knows how to cure the disease is ignored and finally killed in a stampede of quarantined citizens.

The film follows six people as they attempt to escape from the town and avoid getting sick themselves.  Needless to say, it’s not as easy as it sounds.  The characters who everyone seems to remember are Artie (Richard Liberty) and his daughter, Kathy (Lynn Lowry).  What happens to them is perhaps the most disturbing moment in a film that’s full of them.  The other members of the group can only hope to survive, even as they slowly lose their grip on sanity.

It’s a disturbing film, precisely because it’s not slick.  The actors are not movie star handsome and the attacks are not perfectly choreographed.  The grainy cinematography gives the entire film a documentary feel and serves as a reminder that Romero made industrial films before he revolutionized the horror genre.  The Crazies works because it feel like it could be happening in your community or your back yard.  And, ultimately, it offers up no solution.  Mankind could save itself, Romero seems to be saying, if only mankind wasn’t so stupid.

Needlessly to say, a film as bleak as The Crazies was not a hit in 1973.  But it’s lived on and continued to influence other horror makers.  It’s one of Romero’s best.

Horror Film Review: Cat People (dir by Paul Schrader)


Before I get around to actually reviewing Paul Schrader’s 1982 reimagining of Cat People, I’m going to suggest that you take a few minutes to watch the film’s opening credits.  Say what you will about Schrader’s Cat People, it has a great opening, one that perfectly sets up the rest of the film.

In this version of Cat People, Irena (Natassja Kinski) is a naive young woman (and virgin) who, after the death of her parents, has spent most of her previous life in foster care.  Irena travels to New Orleans, where she reconnects with her older brother, Paul (Malcolm McDowell).  From the minute that Irena meets her brother and his housekeeper (Ruby Dee), it’s obvious that something is off.  When Paul looks at her, he does so with an unsettling intensity.  At night, while Irena sleeps, Paul wanders the dark streets of New Orleans.

One morning, Irena wakes up to discover that Paul is missing.  Having nothing else to do, Irena wanders around New Orleans.  When she visits the zoo, she feels an immediate connection to a caged panther who stares at her with a familiar intensity.  It turns out that the panther was captured the previous night, after he mysteriously appeared in a sleazy motel and mauled a prostitute.

It’s at the zoo that Irena meets zookeeper Oliver Yates (John Heard).  Oliver gets Irena a job working at the zoo gift shop. where Irena is befriended by Oliver’s co-worker, Alice (Annette O’Toole).  One day, Irena witnesses the panther kill another zookeeper before it then escapes from its cage.

That night, Paul suddenly shows up in Irena’s bedroom.  He explains to her that they are a cursed species.  Having sex causes them to turn into panthers and the only way to avoid the curse is through incest.  A terrified Irena flees her brother and soon finds herself living with and falling in love with the increasingly obsessive Oliver, all the while knowing that giving herself to him physically will lead to her transformation.

From the very first second of the film. Schrader’s Cat People is an exercise in pure style.  If the original Cat People was largely distinguished by its restraint, Schrader’s version is all about excess.  Everything that was merely suggested in the original is made explicit in this version.  As tempting as it may be to try, it’s somewhat pointless to try to compare these two versions.  Though they may both be about a woman who turns into a panther when she has sex, they are two very different films.

Schrader’s Cat People walks a very fine line between moodiness and absurdity, which is perhaps why I enjoyed it.  Making great use of both the sultry New Orleans setting and Giorgio Moroder’s atmospheric score, Cat People is compulsively dream-like and enjoyably over-the-top.  Cat People is often described as being an example of a movie that could have only been made in the coked up 80s  and truly, this is one of those films that’s so excessive that it’s becomes fascinating to watch.

(I think that often we are too quick to assume that excess is necessarily a bad thing.  If you can’t be excessive when you’ve got Malcolm McDowell playing an incest-minded cat person in New Orleans, when can you be excessive?)

Schrader’s Cat People may not have much in common with the original version but the film’s best scene is the only one that is a direct recreation of a scene from the original.  In fact, in recreating the scene where Alice is menaced while swimming in a public pool, Schrader actually improves on the original.  Brilliantly performed by both Annette O’Toole and Natassja Kinski (whose cat-like features made her perfect for the role of Irena), it’s the only scene in the film that can truly be called scary.  Starting with a tracking shock that follows Alice as she jogs, the stalking scene is practically a master class in effective horror cinema.  If nothing else, you should see Cat People for that one scene.

And you should also see it for the wonderful soundtrack!  Let’s end this review with David Bowie’s theme song, which you may also remember from Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.




What Lisa Watched Last Night: Basement Jack (dir. by Michael Shelton)

There’s several very good films that I need to review over the next few days but, at the moment, I really need to write about Basement Jack, a low-budget 2009 slasher film that I watched on Chiller.  Why do I need to write about Basement Jack?  Well, I’m already hesitant to go to sleep because I know I’m going to have nightmares about this film.  So, consider this to be my attempt at a quickie exorcism.  Indulge me because I need to get this film out of my system.

Why Was I Watching This:

I love horror movies and, even though they always seem to end up giving me nightmares, these old school slasher films are like catnip to me.  I can’t resist watching them, if just to see if they can keep the inherently predictable conventions of genre interesting.

What’s The Movie About:

Basement Jack (Eric Peter Kaiser) is a serial killer because when you’ve got a name like Basement Jack, it’s not like you’re going to become an accountant.  Anyway, Jack’s thing is that he goes from town-to-town, selects a family  to kill, and then secretly moves into their basement until there’s a thunder-storm.  Once it starts raining, Jack proceeds to brutally kill the family.

Karen (Michelle Marrow) is only person to have ever survived being attacked by Jack.  Now, Jack is obsessed with Karen and follows her from town to town.  So, Karen decides to turn the tables and she starts following Jack.  Except, of course, Jack was already following her so it would seem like for her to follow him, all she would really have to do would be turn around.  But anyway, I guess the important thing is that Karen-and-Jack have one of those hunter/hunted connections.

Jack and Karen both end up in a new small town where Jack sets off on another murder spree while Karen hunts for him.  She does this by teaming up with a seriously incompetent cop named Chris (Sam Skoryna).  Unfortunately, all of Chris’s fellow officers are 1) convinced that Karen is the murderer and 2) kinda stupid.  Will Karen be able to convince the cops that Jack is real?  Will Jack continually manage to stand back up after taking more damage than anyone should, realistically, be able to take?  And most importantly, will Lisa be able to sleep tonight?

What Worked?

Oh my God, this film should not have disturbed me as much as it did.  Seriously, I’ve seen thousands of horror movies that all had better production values, better gore effects, and better acting.  And yet, Basement Jack really made me paranoid.  I think that’s because director Shelton does manage to create a legitimate feeling of dread that saturates every ludicrous frame of this movie.  There is remarkably little humor in this film and, as opposed to a lot of slasher films, all of the victims here just come across as normal, likable people (as opposed to being slasher movie stereotypes).

Kaiser is a genuinely scary killer and Morrow makes for a sympathetic protagonist.  She brings a lot of conviction to her role.  Exploitation vet Lynn Lowry (remember her from the original Crazies and I Drink Your Blood?) plays Basement Jack’s domineering mother and wow, she is scary.

Now, I’m going to admit there’s one image in this film that I know is going to give me nightmares tonight.  It’s of a policewoman who, after being gutted by Jack, is seen lying on the floor, trying to stuff her intestines back into her body and oh my God, I wish I hadn’t seen that because it really got to me.  I’ve read several other reviews that have all criticized the CGI gore effects as looking fake.  Maybe they do, I’m not really an expert on anatomy.  All I know is that image of those intestines sprouting out across a twitching body; that image is trapped in my head.  It’s something that I truly wish I hadn’t seen but I still have to list it as something that worked because film horror is supposed to leave the viewer uncomfortable.

What Didn’t Work:

Oh, trust me, a lot didn’t work.  Like most slasher films, this one was riddled with a combination of plot holes and characters just acting as stupid as can be.

As our male lead, Sam Skoryna displayed all the charisma of a spilled intestine and, to be honest, most of the other actors gave performances that were fairly atrocious.  For some reason, one of the film’s detectives is played by musician Billy Morrison and his English accent is just so jarringly out-of-place in the film’s middle American setting.  (What makes the situation especially odd is that no one in the film ever comments on his accent.  Trust me — I live in middle America.  Hell, I’ll be really pretentious — I mean like Sasha Stone pretentious — and say that I am Middle America.  No, actually, forget I said that.  That sounds really stupid.  Anyway, my point is that if you’re the only Englishman in town, people are going to remind you of that every chance they get.)

An attempt was made to give Basement Jack some backstory and to explain why he does what he does.  And by that, I mean that this is one of those movies where the action comes to a sudden halt every few minutes juts so we can be told that a man,who hides in people’s basements and only kills when it’s raining, is mentally ill.  Gee, filmmakers, thanks for clearing that up.

And finally (SPOILER!), I am so sick of seeing slasher movies that end with a close-up of the killer’s signature killing tool just so we can suddenly see the killer’s hand come out of nowhere and grab the weapon.  I mean, is anyone ever surprised by this anymore?  I guess, at one time, this seemed like a twist ending but today, it just comes across as being lazy. (END OF SPOILER!)

“Oh my God!  Just like me!” Moments:

Just like our heroine Karen, I usually try to flirt my way out of traffic tickets as well.

Lessons Learned:

It doesn’t take much to give me nightmares.