Horror Film Review: Cujo (dir by Lewis Teague)


Cujo is a such a depressing movie that I can barely stand to watch it.

Cujo, of course, is the 1983 film adaptation of the book by Stephen King.  The book is about a dog that not only gets bit by a rabid bat but also gets possessed by the spirit of Frank Dodd, the serial killer who played a major role in The Dead Zone.  The film abandons the subplot about Frank Dodd and, instead, it just deals with a rabid dog that kills a lot of people and who eventually traps Donna Trentonn (Dee Wallace) and her young son, Tad (Danny Pintauro), is a car for several days.

I have to admit that I’m really not the sort of person who should be watching a film like Cujo in the first place.  When I was growing up, I was terrified of dogs.  According to my family, I was bitten by one when I was just three years old, not that I have any memory of that actually happening.  So, up until I was 18, I couldn’t handle being around them.  Whenever I would walk home from school, I would run across the street if I heard a dog barking at me from behind a fence.  If I was out with my family and I saw a dog approaching, I would hide behind the nearest big person.

I did have one good experience with a big dog when I was about ten years old.  My family was up at the lake and this big, black dog started following us around and it was so friendly that I couldn’t help but relax around it.  My mom was like, “See, Lisa Marie, not all dogs are bad.”  We went to get lunch, leaving the dog behind.  When we returned, the dog was there.  He was excited to see my mom.  He was excited to my aunt.  He was excited to see my sisters.  Then, he took one look at me and started to growl.  I was frozen in fear, just standing there as the dog slowly stood up.  My mom immediately stood in front of me, trying to block the dog’s view while I ran back to car.  Of course, that didn’t work.  The dog started barking and then took off running after me.  His owners then showed up and grabbed the dog just as it was about to lunge at me and then they didn’t even bother to apologize!  Instead, they told some story about how some other girl had thrown a rock at the dog and, as a result, the dog always growled at “little girls.”  They acted like it was no big deal.  (My aunt later told me that she had to grab my mom’s hand to keep her from slapping the dog’s owner when they tried to blame me for what happened.)  For months afterwards, I had nightmares about that dog.

Fortunately, enough time has passed that I’m no longer petrified in fear of dogs though they still make pretty damn nervous.  That said, Cujo, with its growling and killer dog, is exactly the type of film that’s designed to prey on my deepest fears.  And yes, the movie does scare me but I have to admit that I don’t really care much about the people who get killed by Cujo.  Instead …. I feel bad for Cujo.  Yes, even though Cujo scares me to death and I’m not a dog person in general, this movie depresses me specifically because of what happens to the dog.

When we first see him, Cujo is happily chasing a rabbit.  When he gets bitten by a rabid bat, he whimpers a little and I have to say that it breaks my heart to hear it.  I mean, Cujo is just such a cute dog!  And, to be honest, he seems like the type of big dog who maybe could have convinced me that not all dogs are bad.  (There’s a part of me that really wishes that I could relax and love dogs as much as everyone else does.)  But then he gets bitten by that bat and poor Cujo!  Rabies is a terrible disease.

Cujo is a good, straight-forward horror film, one that gets the job done without all of the padding and blather that you sometimes have to deal with when it comes to Stephen King film adaptations.   (Thankfully, nobody casually talks about Shawshank Prison or taking a trip to Derry or any of that other nonsense that seems to come up in most King films.)  Dee Wallace gives a good performance as Donna Trenton, who is trapped in the car and desperate to save her child.  King has said that he felt Wallace deserved an Oscar nomination for her performance and he’s probably right

But my God, I just cannot watch this movie without crying afterwards.  I just feel so bad for that dog.

I Watched The Jackie Robinson Story


Since I was pretty much indifferent to who won the World Series this year (Congratulations, Boston), I’ve been watching baseball movies instead.  I just finished watching The Jackie Robinson Story.

The Jackie Robinson Story was made in 1950, back when Robinson was still playing second base for the Brooklyn Dodgers.  The movie not only tells the story of how Jackie Robinson became the first black man to play in the major leagues but it also stars Jackie Robinson as himself!

Starting with Jackie’s childhood in Pasadena, the movie follows Jackie as he attends UCLA, serves a brief stint in the Army, and then plays baseball on an all African-American team (Jackie played for the Kansas City Monarchs but, in the movie, the team is renamed the Black Panthers!) before eventually getting signed to join the Dodgers and integrate major league baseball.  While the movie skips over a lot of Jackie’s early life, it doesn’t gloss over the prejudice that he encountered at every step of the way.  When he wins a scholarship to UCLA, people complain that the college has already recruited too many black athletes.  Even when he’s a star player in the Negro Leagues, he still has to ask permission to enter and use the washroom in a diner.  And when he joins the Dodgers, riots are threatened if he plays anywhere in the South.  During one game, his wife (Ruby Dee) overhears the whites in the stands talking about how “the Lodge” is going to visit Jackie.  Through it all, Jackie Robinson keeps his cool and refuses to give the racists the satisfaction of getting to him.  Jackie answers every bigoted comment with the crack of his bat, leaving no doubt that he belongs in the major leagues.

Jackie Robinson was a great baseball player and a great man.  He wasn’t a great actor and, in this movie, he comes across as being stiff and nervous whenever he has to play any dialogue scenes.  But then he swings a bat or catches a ball and it doesn’t matter that he can’t act.  Jackie Robinson was an amazing player and it’s still exciting to watch footage of him today.

The Jackie Robinson Story is a rousing, feel-good baseball movie and a condemnation of racism and bigotry, in all of its insidious forms.

Jackie Robinson

Horror Film Review: I Know What You Did Last Summer (dir by Jim Gillipsie)


So, I recently read that it’s been 20 years since I Know What You Did Last Summer was first released into theaters.  This, of course, is the endlessly parodied film that not only launched the careers of Jennifer Love Hewitt, Ryan Phillippe, and Freddie Prinze, Jr. but which also served as inspiration for a countless number of YA horror stories.

Myself, I was too young to see the movie when it was first released but I do remember, a few years later, sneaking downstairs and watching it on HBO at two in the morning.  I’ve watched it several times since then.  For some reason, it’s one of those films that I always end up watching whenever I see it’s on TV.  I’m not sure why because I don’t think it’s a particularly good film.  As a horror fan, I think it’s a shame that this rather formulaic film has proven to be so influential while so many genuinely challenging horror films have been overlooked by critics and ignored by audiences.

The last time that I watched I Know What You Did Last Summer, I spent almost the entire movie yelling at Sarah Michelle Gellar.  “WHY DO YOU KEEP RUNNING UP THOSE STAIRS!?  HOW ARE YOU GOING TO ESCAPE FROM THE SECOND FLOOR!?”  Usually, I defend the stupidity of characters in certain horror films by pointing out that they’re usually in an extreme situation and it’s not easy to think rationally when you’ve got someone with an axe chasing you.  But the characters in I Know What You Did Last Summer really do test my patience.

Another thought that I had while watching I Know What You Did Last Summer was, “When did Johnny Galecki learn to act because it was definitely long after he appeared in this movie.”  Seriously, Galecki has developed into being a fairly good actor but he’s absolutely awful in I Know What You Did Last Summer.  He plays an early victim and, as much as I hate to see anyone die, it at least saved me from having to listen to another awkward line reading.

So, why do I keep watching this stupid movie?

Some of it’s because I do genuinely like the four main stars.  Like me, Jennifer Love Hewitt is a Texas girl and I imagine we both share the same struggle.  Sarah Michelle Gellar will always be Buffy to me.  Ryan Philippe’s nice to look at.  Even the reliably stiff Freddie Prinze, Jr. is rather likable in I Know What You Did Last Summer.  It’s fun to watch these four work together to try to find out who is stalking them and how it relates to the man that they accidentally killed last summer.  Of course, they’d probably be able to figure things out a lot quicker if they weren’t all so stupid but it can’t always be the members of the honor society who end up driving drunk and accidentally killing someone.

I also like the look of the film.  The film takes place in one of those North Carolina fishing villages and director Jim Gillipsie does a good job of making everything look dark, somber, and menacing.  That big hook that the killer carries with him always freaks me out.  I literally have to shut my eyes when he kills Bridgette Wilson.

And, of course, there’s this:

The “WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR!?” scene is without a doubt one of the greatest instances of overacting in the history of horror cinema.  I have literally gone hoarse imitating Jennifer Love Hewitt’s delivery of that line.  However, when it comes to why this scene is a must see, it’s not just the fact that Jennifer Love Hewitt screams the line out of nowhere.  There’s also the fact that she’s literally shouting it at no one, unless she’s attempting to address God or something.  (And judging from the overhead shot at the end of the scene, it would appear that God was listening.)  Plus, there’s that cast on Ryan Philippe and the hat on Sarah Michelle Gellar…

I Know What You Did Last Summer is a deeply stupid movie but it’s still one that I always seem to end up watching, if just so I can yell at everyone for not being smart enough to outwit a killer who doesn’t seem to be particularly bright himself.  It’s one of those films that I’ll leave on the TV if I come across it but, at the same time, it’s not a film that I ever feel the need to really pay much attention to.  It’s the cinematic equivalent of junk food, fun to eat but don’t try to shout “WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR!?” if your mouth’s full.

Horror Film Review: The Presence (dir by Tom Provost)


The Presence opens with nearly 20 minutes of near-silence.  We watch as an unnamed and emotionally unstable woman (Mira Sorvino, who is literally listed in the credits as having played The Woman) arrives at an isolated cabin.  As she settles in for what is obviously a very needed vacation, she goes about her business without saying a word.  This is because she believes herself to be alone.  However, those of us watching know that this isn’t true.  She is sharing her cabin with a silent and initially passive ghost (Shane West) and, though she can’t see him, those of us in the audience can.

Eventually, the silence is broken as other visitors come to the cabin.  There’s the boatman, Mr. Browman (Muse Watson).  There’s the woman’s boyfriend (Justin Kirk)  who unexpectedly shows up to ask the woman to marry him, a proposal which visibly upsets the ghost. Finally, there’s the Man In Black (played by Tony Curran).   Though the woman cannot see the Man In The Black, she can hear him when he whispers dark thoughts into her ear.

The ghost, however, can see the Man in Black.  The Man In Black offers the ghost a proposition.  If the ghost kills the woman’s boyfriend, the Man In Black will allow the ghost to leave the cabin.

First released back in 2010, The Presence is a film that got (and gets) next to no love from the critics and from the type of people who specialize in leaving snarky comments over at the imdb.  However, I rather like it.  Director Tom Provost makes the risky choice to emphasize atmosphere over easy scares.  The end result is a film that is full of striking images but which requires a bit more patience than most audiences are probably willing to give.  When I think about The Presence, I think about the sight of Shane West passively watching Mira Sorvino, obviously wishing he could reach out but knowing that he cannot.  It’s a haunting image, one that perfectly captures both the fear and the pathos of a good ghost story.

And that, ultimately, is what The Presence is.  It’s a good ghost story and what better time for a good ghost story but Halloween?

presence3

Film Review: The Last Exorcism Part II (dir. by Ed Gass-Donnelly)


Though it was dismissed by a lot of critics and remains underrated to this day, The Last Exorcism is one of the best horror films of the past four years.  Featuring an excellent lead performance from Patrick Fabian and an intelligent, thought-provoking plot, The Last Exorcism was both a very creepy horror movie and a surprisingly effective character study.  It even managed to be effective despite being an example of a “found footage” horror movie.

The Last Exorcism‘s sequel — the unimaginatively titled The Last Exorcism Part II — was released this weekend.  Like a lot of people, I have to admit that I wasn’t expecting much from the sequel.  The first film’s success was such a surprise that I doubted that the sequel could come close to matching it.

To a certain extent, I was right.  The sequel is nowhere near as good as the first film.  However, that said, The Last Exorcism Part II is still an above average horror film.

Ashley Bell

Wisely abandoning the whole found footage format, The Last Exorcism Part II begins with Nell (played, again, by Ashley Bell) as the only survivor from the previous film.  After escaping the cult that previously attempted to sacrifice her, Nell finds herself put into group home in New Orleans.  The group home is run by Frank Merle (Muse Watson), a friendly (if vaguely threatening) man who encourages Nell to try to move on from her traumatic past.  With Frank’s help, Nell starts to recover.  She gets a job working as a motel maid, makes friends with some of the other girls at the home, and she even starts to flirt with shy Chris (Spencer Treat Clark).

Everything seems to going so well for Nell.

Or is it?

Despite her claim that she no longer believes that she was ever possessed, Nell still finds herself being watched by menacing, masked figures who pop up on random street corners.  She still receives mysterious phone calls.  She’s still haunted by visions of her dead father walking through the dark hallways of the group home.  Nell is still having nightmares where she’s seduced by an unseen creature and her roommate and new best friend Gwen (Julia Garner) still seems to be oddly amused by any type of human suffering.

And that’s not even taking into consideration the voodoo priestess who follows Nell up and down the streets of New Orleans…

As opposed to the first film, The Last Exorcism Part II is a pretty conventional horror film.  Whereas the first film kept you constantly wondering whether Nell was actually possessed and made some surprisingly intelligent observations regarding the battle between faith and reason, The Last Exorcism Part II never gives you any reason to doubt that both the demon and the possession are real.  Whereas The Last Exorcism was a horror film that could be appreciated even by people who hated horror films, The Last Exorcism Part II is pretty much a film for horror fans only.

Fortunately, I happen to be a horror fan and I was pleasantly surprised by The Last Exorcism Part II.  While director Ed Gass-Donnelly shows little interest in rewriting the rules of the horror, he also shows that he can effectively work within the conventions of the genre.  He even uses the PG-13 rating to the film’s advantage, making up for the lack of gore by emphasizing the otherworldly atmosphere of New Orleans.

It also helps that Ashley Bell returns in the role of Nell.  As is typical of other possession movies (like the Exorcist, to cite an obvious example), the demon inside Nell can just as easily be taken as a metaphor for Nell’s emerging sexuality.  Ashley Bell gives a performance that walks a perfect line between innocence and carnality.  Much as Patrick Fabian’s performance elevated the first film, Bell’s performance elevates the second.

That said, The Last Exorcism Part II is ultimately the type of film where people tend to spend a lot of time wandering around dark hallways in the middle of the night without ever bothering to turn on a light.  It’s up to each individual  member of the audience to decide whether they’re going to demand to know why nobody turns on the lights or whether they’re simply going to enjoy waiting for the inevitable “jump” scene that we all know is coming.  If the audience is willing to set aside logic and enjoy a movie for what it is, then they are the ideal audience for a film like this one.

Perhaps not surprisingly, The Last Exorcism Part II has not received a lot of critical praise.  The film was not screened for critic prior to release and now that it has been released, it has a 15% overall rating over at Rotten Tomatoes.  However, you could have guessed that without me even telling you.  Everyone knew that the professional critics were going to hate The Last Exorcism Part II.  This is the type of film that most critics feel almost duty-bound to condemn.  This is also the type of film that reminds us of just how little the critical consensus really matters.  When judged on its own (admittedly limited) terms,The Last Exorcism Part II is an effective and creepy film.  It’s the epitome of a fun and occasionally stupid horror film, the type of movie you want to see with a group of friends who enjoy jumping at things that go bump in the night.

the-last-exorcism-part-2-poster