Dream On: After Midnight (1989, directed by Jim and Ken Wheat)


Prof. Edward Derek (Ramy Zada) teaches a class called The Psychology Of Fear.  He claims that the things that most scare us are the things that we can believe in.  (To quote the observers from the peanut gallery, “No shit, Sherlock.”)  After Prof. Derek demonstrates fear by pulling out a fake gun and pretending to kill himself, a jock ends up pissing himself and the class is suspended.  Fortunately, Prof. Derek has a backup plan.  He invites his students to his house, where he tells them three horror stories that are all designed to prove that the scariest things are the things that could actually happen in real life.

What does Prof. Derek believe to be scary?

In the first story, it’s scary when your wife decides that the perfect way to throw a surprise party would be to trick you into thinking that you’re trapped in a haunted house and you’re going to die if you don’t start chopping off some heads.

In the second story, it’s scary when a group of girls take a wrong turn, piss off the wrong gas station attendant, and end up getting chased by pack of killer dogs.

In the third story, it’s scary with an answering service operator (played by a pre-CSI Marg Helgenberger) starts getting calls from a psycho.

None of the three stories are really that scary but the first story does have a twist ending that would have made EC Comics proud.  The third story is the best, if just because it focuses on one character and that character is played by Marg Helgenberger.  There’s also the wrap-around story involving the professor and his students.  Just when that story’s getting good, it cops out with an ending that you’ll see coming from a mile away.

With the exception of Marg Helgenberger’s segment, After Midnight is a largely forgettable horror anthology film that will be best appreciated by viewers who are nostalgic for 80s fashion and cheap special effects.

Horror Film Review: Strange Behavior (a.k.a. Dead Kids) (dir by Michael Laughlin)


I want to tell you about one of my favorite horror films.  It’s a strange one and I think you might like it.

It’s a movie from 1981.  It was filmed in New Zealand, even though it takes place in a small town in the American midwest.  It was directed by Michael Laughlin and the screenplay was written by Bill Condon, who has since become a director of some note.  This was Condon’s first screenplay.  In Australia and Europe, this movie is known as Dead Kids.  In America, the title was changed to Strange Behavior.

Here, watch the trailer:

It’s a pretty good trailer, actually.  That said, as good as the trailer may be, it doesn’t even come close to revealing just what an odd film Strange Behavior actually is.  If David Lynch had followed up The Elephant Man by directing a slasher movie, chances are the end result would have looked something like Strange Behavior.

Here’s another scene that I want you watch.  It’s kind of a long scene, clocking in at 7 minutes.  But I want you to watch it because, in many ways, this scene is the epitome of Strange Behavior:

Strange Behavior is perhaps the only 80s slasher film to feature a totally random and totally choreographed dance number.  It comes out of nowhere but, in the world that this film creates, it somehow feels totally appropriate.  Of course, the nun is going to announce that she’s not wearing any underwear and then pretend to stab a guy in the back.  Of course, the cowboy’s going to throw up and then want to go out to his car with his date.  And of course, a bunch of people in costume are going to end up dancing to Lightnin’ Strikes.  In Strange Behavior, the strangest behavior is the only behavior that makes sense.

As for the film itself, it’s a mix of small town melodrama, slasher horror, and gentle satire.  Teenagers are being murdered by other teenagers and no one is sure why.  The chief of police, John Brady (played by character actor Michael Murphy, who gives a quietly authoritative performance that counters some of the weirdness of the rest of the movie), is trying to solve the crimes while trying to cope with the mysterious death of his wife.  His son, Pete (Dan Shor), is going to the local college, where classes are taught by a professor (Arthur Dignam) who died years ago but who filmed a few lectures before passing.  To make extra money, Pete does what many of the local teenagers do — he volunteers for medical experiments.  Researcher Gwen Parkinson (Fiona Lewis) oversees the experiments, handing out pills and occasionally administering a hypodermic needle to the eyes of a test subject.  Gwen is always cool, calm, and collected.  When one irate father draws a gun on her, Gwen quips, “I can’t stop you.  I don’t have a gun.”

But there’s more to this movie than just medical experiments and murder.  Strange Behavior is full of wonderfully eccentric supporting characters.  Other than John, there’s really nobody normal to be found in either the town or the movie.  Pete’s best friend, Oliver (Marc McClure), is cute and dorky.   Barbara (Louise Fletcher) just wants to marry John and live in a town where dead bodies don’t turn up in the middle of corn fields, propped up like scarecrows.  John’s best friend and fellow cop, Donovan (Charles Lane), has been around forever and has a great, no-nonsense approach to even the strangest of things.  When it becomes obvious that John is not going to be able to solve the murders on his own, big city cop Shea (Scott Brady) shows up and wanders ineffectually through the movie, spitting out hard-boiled dialogue like a refugee from a 1930s gangster flick.  And finally, receptionist Caroline (Dey Young) sits at her desk in the clinic, gossiping about the patients and smoking cigarette after cigarette.  Caroline is probably the smartest person in the movie.  As an administrative assistant, I appreciated that.

It’s an odd little movie, which is why I love it.  Laughlin, Condon, and the entire cast created a world where everything is just a little off-center.  It makes for terrifically entertaining and weird movie, one that works as both satire and straight horror.

Strange Behavior is a film that deserves to much better known than it currently is so my advice is go watch it and then tell you friends to watch it too.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Apollo 13 (dir by Ron Howard)


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I just finished watching the TCM premiere of the 1995 Best Picture nominee, Apollo 13.  Of course, it wasn’t the first time I had seen it.  Apollo 13 is one of those films that always seems to be playing somewhere and why not?  It’s a good movie, telling a story that is all the more remarkable and inspiring for being true.  In 1970, the Apollo 13 flight to the moon was interrupted by a sudden explosion, stranding three astronauts in space.  Fighting a desperate battle against, NASA had to figure out how to bring them home.  Apollo 13 tells the story of that accident and that rescue.

There’s a scene that happens about halfway through Apollo 13.  The heavily damaged Apollo 13 spacecraft is orbiting the moon.  Originally the plan was for Apollo 13 to land on the moon but, following that explosion on the craft, those plans have been cancelled.  Inside the spacecraft, three astronauts can only stare down at the lunar surface below them.

As Commander Jim Lovell stares out the craft’s window, we suddenly see him fantasizing about what it would be like if the explosion hadn’t happened and if he actually could fulfill his dream of walking on the moon.  We watch as Lovell (and, while we know the character is Jim Lovell, we are also very much aware that he’s being played by beloved cinematic icon Tom Hanks) leaves his foot print on the lunar surface.  Lovell opens up his visor and, for a few seconds, stands there and takes in the with the vastness of space before him and making the scene all the more poignant is knowing that Tom Hanks, before he became an award-winning actor, wanted to be a astronaut just like Jim Lovell.  Then, suddenly, we snap back to the film’s reality.  Back inside the spacecraft, Lovell takes one final look at the moon and accepts that he will never get to walk upon its surface.  “I’d like to go home,” he announces.

It’s a totally earnest and unabashedly sentimental moment, one that epitomizes the film as a whole.  There is not a hint of cynicism to be found in Apollo 13.  Instead, it’s a big, old-fashioned epic, a story about a crisis and how a bunch of determined, no-nonsense professionals came together to save the day.  “Houston,” Lovell famously says at one point, “we have a problem.”  It’s a celebrated line but Apollo 13 is less about the problem and more about celebrating the men who, through their own ingenuity, solved that problem.

That Apollo 13 is a crowd-pleaser should come as no surprise.  It was directed by Ron Howard and I don’t know that Howard has ever directed a film that wasn’t designed to make audiences break into applause during the end credits.  When Howard fails, the results can be maudlin and heavy-handed.  But when he succeeds, as he does with Apollo 13, he proves that there’s nothing wrong with old-fashioned, inspirational entertainment.

Of course, since Apollo 13 is a Ron Howard film, that means that Clint Howard gets a small role.  In Apollo 13, Clint shows up as a bespectacled flight engineer.  When astronaut Jack Swiggert (Kevin Bacon) mentions having forgotten to pay his taxes before going into space, Clint says, “He shouldn’t joke about that, they’ll get him.”  It’s a great line and Clint does a great job delivering it.

Apollo 13 is usually thought of as being a Tom Hanks film but actually, it’s an ensemble piece.  Every role, from the smallest to the biggest, is perfectly cast.  Not surprisingly, Bacon, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise, Kathleen Quinlan, and Ed Harris all turn in excellent performances.  But, even beyond the marquee names, Apollo 13 is full of memorable performances.  Watching it tonight, I especially noticed an actor named Loren Dean, who played a NASA engineer named John Aaron.  Dean didn’t get many lines but he was totally believable in his role.  You looked at him and you thought, “If I’m ever trapped in space, this is the guy who I want working to bring me home.”

Apollo 13 was nominated for best picture but it lost to Mel Gibson’s film Braveheart.  Personally, out of the nominees, I probably would have picked Sense and Sensibility but Apollo 13 more than deserved the nomination.

Back to School #37: Back to the Future (dir by Robert Zemeckis)


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Well, this is certainly intimidating.

Earlier today, I was sitting at my day job and I happened to glance down at my to-do list to see what I was scheduled to review next in my Back To School series and there, listed at #37, was a somewhat popular film from 1985.  The name of the film was Back To The Future and…

Oh, you’ve heard of it?  And you already know what the movie’s about because literally everyone on the planet has either seen Back to The Future or knows someone who has seen Back To The Future and loves it so much that they can tell you every little detail about the adventures of Marty McFly, Doc Brown, and that time-traveling DeLorean?

Well, just be quiet and bear with me.  I always like to give a plot synposis in my reviews.  For one thing, it’s a good way to let you know who plays who in the film.

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So, Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is, despite his somewhat embarrassing last name, a perfectly normal American teenager.  He lives in a nice, small town.  He has a pretty girlfriend (Claudia Wells).  He likes to ride his skateboard.  He likes to play guitar (though he’s deemed to be “too loud” by at least one of his teachers).  The high school’s principal (James Tolkan) often gives him a hard time for being late but other than that, Marty seems to be a pretty regular guy…

Except his family has some major issues.  His mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson) is an alcoholic who won’t stop talking about how she first met her husband George (Crispin Glover) after her father hit him with his car. George, meanwhile, is a total wimp who is continually bullied by his boss, Biff (Thomas F. Wilson).  Marty’s older siblings (Marc McClure and Wendie Jo Sperber) are both living directionless lives and Marty has every reason to fear that he might end up following them.

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Fortunately, Marty has a best friend named Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) who has built a time machine inside of a luxury vehicle.  Late one night, Doc recruits Marty to help him test out the machine but what Doc didn’t mention is that in order to power his time machine, he had still plutonium from a group of terrorists.  Those terrorists show up and kill Doc.  Marty flees in the car and soon finds himself trapped in 1955.

Marty manages to track down the younger version of Doc Brown and the two of them start trying to work out how to get Marty back to the future.  (We have a title!)  Marty, of course, wants to warn Doc about what’s going to happen in 1985 but Doc insists that Marty tell him nothing about the future.  Doc also tells Marty that he has to be very careful, while in the past, not to change the future.

McFly!

Too late!  Marty has already met teenage Lorraine.  See, Marty happened to spot George up in a tree, peeping on Lorraine as she undressed.  (“He’s a pervert!” Marty exclaims.)  When George falls out of the tree and lands in the street, Marty pushes him out of the way of an approaching car.  Marty gets hit by the car, which is being driven by his own grandfather.  So now, Marty has essentially prevented his parents from meeting and, as a result, the McFly children are slowly fading from existence.

So, before Marty can go back to 1985, he has to get George and Lorraine back together.  The main problem, of course, is that Lorraine now has a crush on her own son…

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Wow, that’s a lot of plot there.  There’s a lot going on in Back to the Future and there are times when it almost feels like a dozen different films in one.  It’s a science fiction film, with Doc and Marty spending a lot of time trying to figure out how to make a time machine work with 1955 technology and weather.  It’s an action film, with Marty fleeing terrorists in 1985 and Biff in 1955.  It’s a romance, with the always endearingly weird Crispin Glover and Lea Thompson making for an odd but cute couple.  (Thought it’s wrong on so many levels, Thompson and Fox also have a lot of chemistry and are cute together, as long as you ignore the fact that they are playing mother and son!)  It’s a frequently hilarious comedy, with the entire cast giving heartfelt performances.  It’s an anthropological study, comparing the 50s and the 80s.  It’s a satirical look at how teenager’s tend to view their parents, with Marty discovering that everything that he’s assumed at his mom was basically incorrect.  And finally, it’s a surprisingly subversive film, with Marty and Lorraine’s 1955 relationship constantly running the risk of turning into an Oedipal nightmare.

And yet the entire film flows together so perfectly that you’re never aware of just how busy it all really is.  Between director Robert Zemeckis’s sure-handed direction, the clever script by Zemeckis and Bob Gale, and a uniformly excellent cast, Back to the Future is one of those films that verges on being flawless.

And, for that reason, it can be very intimidating to review.

I just don’t know how I’m going to do it…

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