Horror Film Review: Buffy the Vampire (dir by Fran Rubel Kuzui)


Watching this movie was such a strange experience.

Now, of course, I say that as someone who grew up watching and loving the television version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Back when Buffy was on TV, I was always aware that the character had first been introduced in a movie but every thing I read about Buffy said that the movie wasn’t worth watching.  It was a part of the official Buffy mythology that Joss Whedon was so unhappy with what was done to his original script that he pretty much ignored the film when he created the show.

So, yes, the 1992 movie version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer showed how Buffy first learned that she was a slayer, how she fought a bunch of vampires in Los Angeles, and how her first watcher met his end.  But still, Joss Whedon was always quick to say that the film should not be considered canonical.  Whenever anyone on the TV show mentioned anything from Buffy’s past, they were referencing Joss Whedon’s original script as opposed to the film that was eventually adapted from that script.  (For instance, on the tv series, everyone knew that Buffy’s previous school burned down.  That was from Whedon’s script.  However, 20th Century Fox balked at making a film about a cheerleader who burns down her school so, at the end of the film version, the school is still standing and romance is in the air.)  In short, the film existed but it really didn’t matter.  In fact, to be honest, it almost felt like watching the movie would somehow be a betrayal of everything that made the televisions series special.

Myself, I didn’t bother to watch the film version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer until several years after the television series was canceled and, as I said at the start of the review, it was a strange experience.  The movie is full of hints of what would make the television series so memorable but none of them are really explored.  Yes, Buffy (played here by Kristy Swanson) has to balance being a teenager with being a vampire slayer but, in the film, it turns out to be surprisingly easy to do.  Buffy is just as happy to be a vampire slayer as she is to be a cheerleader.  In fact, one of the strange things about the film is just how quickly and easily Buffy accepts the idea that there are vampires feeding on her classmates and that it’s her duty to destroy them.  Buffy’s watcher is played by Donald Sutherland and the main vampire is played by Rutger Hauer, two veteran actors who could have played these roles in their sleep and who appear to do so for much of the film.  As for Buffy’s love interest, he’s a sensitive rebel named Oliver Pike (Luke Perry).  On the one hand, it’s fun to see the reversal of traditional gender roles, with Oliver frequently helpless and needing to be saved by Buffy.  On the other hand, Perry and Swanson have next to no chemistry so it’s a bit difficult to really get wrapped up in their relationship.

I know I keep coming back to this but watching the movie version of Buffy is a strange experience.  It’s not bad but it’s just not Buffy.  It’s like some sort of weird, mirror universe version of Buffy, where Buffy starts her slaying career as a senior in high school and she never really has to deal with being an outcast or anything like that.  (One gets the feeling that the movie’s Buffy wouldn’t have much to do with the Scooby Gang.  Nor would she have ever have fallen for Angel.)  Kristy Swanson gives a good performance as the film version of Buffy, though the character is not allowed to display any of the nuance or the quick wit that made the television version a role model for us all.  Again it’s not that Buffy the movie is terrible or anything like that.  It’s just not our Buffy!

Stay Out Of The Woods: Ticks (1993, directed by Tony Randel)


Don’t go in the wood alone, kids!  There are giant ticks out there that can attach themselves to you, lay their eggs under your skin, and then cause your face to explode when the eggs hatch!  It’s all because of the steroids that local farmer Jarvis Tanner (Clint Howard) has been using to enhance his marijuana crop.  The end result may be good weed but you will  be dead from a tick bite before you get to enjoy it.  That’s bad news for Jarvis, who keeps stepping in bear traps and who, at one point, has a dozen tick eggs drop on him.  It’s even worse news for the group of juvenile delinquents who have been sentenced to spend a weekend camping in the woods.

Mostly because the film featured the beautiful Ami Dolenz as one of the delinquents, Ticks used to be a mainstay on late night HBO.  It combines the basic features of a 50s monster movie with the gore-filled style of a 90s splatter film.  What Ticks may have lacked in originality, it made up for in scenes of people’s faces exploding.  Make no mistake about it.  This one is for splatter fans.

Ticks has an interesting cast.  If you have ever wanted to see Alfonso “Carlton” Ribiero play a gangbanger, this is the movie for you.  The nerdiest juvenile delinquent is played by Seth Green while TV regular Peter Scolari plays an idealistic social worker and Rance Howard (father of Ron and Clint) plays the local sheriff who loses his legs.  And finally, there’s Clint Howard, giving it his all in yet another straight-to-video horror film.  Clint suffers even more indignities than usual in Ticks but he never gives up hope.  Clint’s scenes were directed by the film’s executive producer, Brian Yuzna, and added after the first cut of the film was judged to be missing something.  That was a good decision on Yuzna’s part because Clint Howard is easily the best part of the film.

Today, the appeal of Ticks is mostly one of nostalgia.  This is the type of mind-warping stuff that we used to watch when we were growing up.  This is what we used to rent at Blockbuster while our parents were looking for the latest Oscar nominees.  This is what late night cable used to be all about.

Horror Film Review: It (dir by Tommy Lee Wallace)


Last month, before I saw the latest film version of Stephen King’s It, I watched the 1990 miniseries version.

This was my first time to watch the It miniseries, though I had certainly heard about it.  Most of the reviews that I had read seemed to be mixed.  Everyone seemed to agree that Tim Curry was the perfect choice for the role of Pennywise the Dancing Clown.  However, many other reviewers complained that the program’s television origins kept It from being as effective as it could be.  “Not as scary as the book,” everyone seemed to agree.  The actors who played the members of the Loser Clubs as children all seemed to receive general acclaim but not everyone seemed to be as enamored with the adult cast.  And everyone, even those who liked the miniseries as a whole, complained about the show’s finale, in which Pennywise took the form of a giant spider.

Well, I have to agree about the giant spider.  That spider looked painfully fake, even by the standards of 1990s television.  Not only does the spider look too fake to truly be scary but, once that spider showed up, that meant that Tim Curry disappeared from the film.  Curry deserved every bit of acclaim that he received for playing the role of Pennywise.

All that said, the miniseries was still a lot better than I had been led to believe.

Certainly, it’s not as frightening as the book or the movie.  Considering that the It miniseries was produced for network television, that’s not surprising.  As opposed to the movie, the miniseries attempts to cover King’s entire novel.  That’s a lot of material, even when you have a five hour running time.  Obviously, a good deal of the story had to be cut and there are a few scenes in the miniseries that feel a bit rushed.  Characters like Audrey Denbrough and Stanley Uris, who were compelling in the novel, are reduced to being mere bystanders.  Some of the novel’s most horrific scenes — like Henry Bowers cutting Ben — are either excised or heavily toned down.  If the novel was as much about the hypocrisy of the adults of Derry as the paranormal horror of Pennywise, that theme is largely left out of the miniseries.

That said, It still had its share of memorable moments.  The image of a clown standing on the side of the road, holding balloons, and waving is going to be creepy, regardless of whether it’s found in a R-rated film or on ABC.  The death of little George Denbrough is horrific, regardless of whether you actually the bone sticking out of his wound or not.  Even the library scene, in which a grown-up Richie Tozier deals with a balloon filled with blood, was effectively surreal.

As for the actors who played the members of the Losers Club, the results were occasionally uneven.  The actors who played them as children were all believable and had a credible group chemistry.  You could imagine all of them actually being friends.  As for the adults, some of them I liked more than others.  Harry Anderson, Dennis Christopher, and Tim Reid gave the best performances out of the group.  John Ritter and Annette O’Toole were somewhere in the middle.  Richard Thomas was absolutely awful and I found myself snickering whenever he was filmed from behind and I saw his pony tail.  Richard Masur, unfortunately, wasn’t around long enough to make much of an impression one way or the other.

Ultimately, though, the miniseries (much like the book) suffers because the adults are never as interesting as Pennywise.  Tim Curry dominates the entire movie and, when he’s not onscreen, his absence is definitely felt.  Watching the miniseries made me appreciate why the film version kept Pennywise’s screen time to a minimum.  Pennywise is such a flamboyant and dominant character that, if not used sparingly, he can throw the entire production out of balance.

Despite its flaws, I liked the miniseries.  Yes, it’s uneven.  Yes, it’s toned down.  Yes, it works better in pieces than as a whole.  But, taken on its own terms, It was effective.  Director Tommy Lee Wallace creates a suitably ominous atmosphere and the child actors are all properly compelling.  And, finally, that damn clown is always going to freak me out.

Just for fun, here’s a trailer for It, recut as a family film:

Film Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (dir by James Gunn)


(MINOR SPOILERS!  SPECIFICALLY, THE IDENTITY OF THIS FILM’S MAIN VILLAIN WILL BE REVEALED)

The Guardians of the Galaxy are back!

And this time, they’ve brought some new friends with them, friends with names like Kurt Russell, Sylvester Stallone, and … David Hasselhoff?

That’s right.  David Hasselhoff is now a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and somehow, it feels totally appropriate.  For all the words that have been written comparing Guardians of the Galaxy to the Star Wars franchise, it’s true ancestor is the 1978 Italian film, Starcrash.  (Perhaps not coincidentally, Starcrash was Hasselhoff’s film debut.)  Watch the trailer below and just try to tell me that you can’t imagine Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana in the lead roles.

But enough about my obsession with Italian exploitation films.  I know the question that you want answered.  Is Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 as good as the first one?

Well, it depends on how you look at it.  Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 is an absolute blast, a wonderfully entertaining film that mixes subversive comedy with sci-fi action.  Everyone from the first film — Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Karen Gillan, Michael Rooker, and the voices of Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel — is back and they’ve still got the same winning chemistry that made the first film so much fun.  Everyone is still committed to their roles, delivering even the strangest of dialogue with undeniable flair.  Nobody’s gotten bored with saving the universe yet.  The new additions to the cast are all well selected.  Kurt Russell totally disproves the assumption that MCU villains are never as interesting as their heroic opponents but, then again, it helps that he’s playing a character who has a memorable and odd backstory.  Once again, director James Gunn combines crowd-pleasing moments with his own sharp sense of humor.  If the pompous tone of Man of Steel and Batman v Superman made you sick, Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 is the perfect antidote.

Unfortunately, Volume 2 doesn’t provide the same thrill of discovery as the first film.  It’s easy to forget that, before the first film came out, a lot of people were predicting that Guardians of the Galaxy would be the first MCU film to flop at the box office.  The conventional wisdom was that, as opposed to a character like Captain America, no one, outside of a few comic book readers, knew who the Guardians of the Galaxy were.  Chris Pratt was just the goofy guy from Parks and Recreation.  A talking raccoon?  A walking tree?  It was all way too weird, the naysayers proclaimed, to appeal to a mainstream audience.

However, James Gunn proved them wrong.  Guardians of the Galaxy was not only the most successful MCU film to that date but it was also my pick for the best film of 2014.  I can still remember watching it for the first time and immediately falling in love with both the film’s skewered sensibility and Chris Pratt’s funny but soulful performance.  As opposed to a lot of films that were nominated for and won Oscars that year, Guardians of the Galaxy actually holds up after repeat viewings.

(Seriously, has anyone tried to rewatch Birdman lately?)

Going into the sequel, everyone now knows who the Guardians are and Chris Pratt is now a beloved film star.  Volume 2 has a lot to live up to and, for the most part, it succeeds.  It’s a tremendous amount of fun and, at the same time, it has a heart.  (The heart at the center of the Guardian of the Galaxy films is perhaps the biggest heart in the MCU.)

What is the film about?  Much like the first film, it’s about family.  After years of telling everyone that his father was David Hasselhoff, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) finally meets his real father (Kurt Russell), a God-like figure named Ego.  Charismatic, cheerful, and just a little bit odd, Ego seems like the perfect father figure but he has some secrets of his own.  Russell gives a wonderful performance, making Ego one of the few MCU villains to be as interesting as the heroes.

While Peter is bonding with his dad, he is also being pursued by his adoptive father, the blue-skinned space pirate named Yondu (Michael Rooker).  Yondu has been rejected by both his adopted son and the rest of his adopted family.  The other space pirates are no longer loyal to him.  His former boss (Sylvester Stallone) wants nothing to do with him.  As silly as it all may sound, it’s also unexpectedly poignant, thanks to Michael Rooker’s performance.  Rooker has appeared in several of Gunn’s films.  He’s almost the Cary Grant to Gunn’s Alfred Hitchcock.  Rooker gives one of the best performances of his careeer in the role of Yondu.  It’s tempting to be dismissive of Yondu, with his blue-skin and his Alabama accent, but Rooker makes him one of the most compelling characters to ever be found in an MCU film.

Meanwhile, Rocket Raccoon (voiced again by Bradley Cooper) has become a surrogate father figure to Groot (voice by Vin Diesel), who is still just a baby tree.  (Groot, a living tree, was reduced to just a twig at the end of the first film.  Fortunately, Rocket planted the twig and, in another few movies, we’ll hopefully have a fully grown Groot.)  Yes, Baby Groot does get to dance, again.  At one point, one of the film’s villains forbids any of his henchmen from attacking Baby Groot because he’s just too adorable to destroy.  And he’s right!  After this movie, everyone will want a Baby Groot of their own.

Gamora (Zoe Saldana) has been reunited with her sister, Nebula (Karen Gilliam) and, once again, they spend most of the movie trying to kill each other.  I have three older sisters so I related to their relationship.

And finally, Drax (Dave Bautista) is still mourning his family.  Fortunately, he gets to spend some quality time with Ego’s odd assistant, an empath named Mantis (Pom Klementieff).  Drax and Mantis both have no idea how social interaction is supposed to work and their scenes together are definitely a highlight of the film.  Bautista and Klementieff share a really likable chemistry.  Bautista is one of those actors who can make you laugh just be giving the camera a quizzical look.  Drax may not be as a complicated as the other Guardians but that simplicity often makes him as interesting as his more complex compatriots.

The film’s not only about family.  It’s also a strike against elitism and a celebration for freedom.  Over the course of two films, the Guardians have battled against both an actual god and a fanatic who claimed to speak for God.  At a time when so many movie heroes are tools of authoritarianism, the Guardians of the Galaxy stand for freedom.  In many ways, Peter Quill is as much of a symbol for liberty as Captain America.  Captain America makes his point with a shield while Peter Quill makes his case by dancing.

As might be expected from an MCU film, Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 is full of thrilling visuals, exciting battles, and quotable one liners.  Even if it never reaches the heights of the first one, it’s a blast of a film and, as Arleigh told me it would, the finale brought tears to my mismatched eyes.  See it and have a good time.

Also, be sure to stick around through the entire end credits.  Along with a lot of clues about what might happen in the future of the MCU, there’s also one final Groot joke that made me laugh out loud.

Enjoy!

 

Back to School Part II #37: Can’t Hardly Wait (dir by Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont)


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Oddly enough, the late 90s and early 2000s saw a lot of movies about teenagers that all had strangely generic names.  She’s All That, Down To You, Drive Me Crazy, Head Over Heels, Get Over It, Bring It On … the list is endless.

And then you have the 1998 graduation party-themed Can’t Hardly Wait.  Can’t Hardly Wait has such a generic name that, when you first hear it, you could be forgiven for naturally assuming that it stars Freddie Prinze, Jr.  Of course, if you’ve actually seen the film, you know that it features almost everyone but Freddie Prinze, Jr.  This is one of those films where even the smallest roles are played by a recognizable face.  In fact, there’s so many familiar actors in this film that a good deal of them go uncredited.  Jenna Elfman, Breckin Meyer, Melissa Joan Hart, Jerry O’Connell, and Amber Benson may not show up in the credits but they’re all in the film.  In fact, you could argue that Melissa John Hart, playing an impossibly excited girl who is obsessed with getting everyone to sign her yearbook, and Breckin Meyer, playing an overly sensitive lead singer, provide the film with some of its comedic highlights.

(That said, perhaps the most credible cameo comes from Jerry O’Connell.  He plays a former high school jock who ruefully talks about how he can’t get laid in high school.  He’s so convincingly sleazy and full of self-pity that you find yourself wondering if maybe O’Connell was just playing himself.  Maybe he just stumbled drunkenly onto the set one day and started talking to anyone who would listen…)

Can’t Hardly Wait takes place at one huge high school graduation party, which is actually a pretty smart idea.  The best part of every teen movie is the party scene so why not make just make the entire movie about the party?  Almost every member of the graduating class is at this party and we get to see all of the usual types.  There’s the stoners, the jocks, the nerds, and the sarcastic kids who go to parties specifically so they can tell everyone how much they hate going to parties.  Eric Balfour shows up as a hippie.  Jason Segel eats a watermelon in the corner.  Sara Rue’s in the kitchen, complaining about how everyone’s a sheep.  Jamie Pressly drinks and assures her best friend that she’s at least as pretty as Gwynneth Paltrow.  (“And you’ve got way bigger boobs!” she adds, encouragingly.)  Outside, Selma Blair frowns as someone hits on her with bad line.

Of course, Mike Dexter (Peter Facinelli) and Amanda Beckett (Jennifer Love Hewitt) are the main topic of conversation at the party.  For four years, Mike and Amanda were the school’s power couple but Mike decides to dump Amanda right before they graduate.  Mike feels that he’s going to have a great time in college and he doesn’t need any old high school commitments holding him down.  His best friends all agree to dump their girlfriends too.  Mike spends the party watching, in horror, as all of his friends go back on their promise.  Amanda, meanwhile, wanders around and wonders who she is now that she’s no longer Mike Dexter’s girlfriend.

Preston Meyers (Ethan Embry) struggles to work up the courage to tell Amanda that he’s had a crush on her ever since the first day he saw her.  Meanwhile, Preston’s best friend — the reliably sarcastic Denise (Lauren Ambrose) — finds herself locked in an upstairs bathroom with Kenny “Special K” Fisher (Seth Green).  (Needless to say, Kenny is the only person who actually calls himself “Special K.”)  Kenny is obsessed with losing his virginity.  Denise, meanwhile, won’t stop talking about the sweet and dorky Kenny that she knew way back in elementary school.

And then there’s William Lichtner (Charlie Korsmo).  He’s spent his entire life being tormented by Mike and he specifically goes to the party looking for revenge.  However, he has a few beers and quickly becomes the most popular senior at the party.  He even gets a chance to bond with Mike…

Can’t Hardly Wait is a favorite of mine.  It’s one of those films that doesn’t add up too much but it’s so so damn likable that it doesn’t matter.  It’s full of smart and funny scenes and all the actors are incredibly likable.  If you’re not rooting for Preston and Amanda by the end of the movie then you have no heart.  In fact, Can’t Hardly Wait is a lot like Empire Records.  They may not be much depth to it but it’s so sincere and earnest that you can forgive it.

You can even forgive the generic name.

Back to School Part II #24: Can’t Buy Me Love (dir by Steve Rash)


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For some reason, the 1987 comedy Can’t Buy Me Love is really beloved by clickbait headline writers.  I’ve lost track of the number of times that I’ve seen headlines like “Why We Still Love Can’t Buy My Love” or “See What The Cast Of Can’t Buy Me Love Looks Like Today!”

Why is it that the worst movies always seem to have the most rabid fan bases?  Actually, to be fair, Can’t Buy Me Love is not one of the worst movies of all time.  I watched it on Netflix a few nights ago and it wasn’t terrible.  But, at the same time, it was hardly the classic that so many articles have made it out to be.  Maybe the people writing about Can’t Buy Me Love are viewing it through the lens of nostalgia.  Who knows?  Maybe my future children will think I’m a weirdo for loving Easy A.

(They better not!  Easy A is the best!)

Anyway, Can’t Buy Me Love takes place in the same upper class suburb in which all teen films from the 80s take place.  Nerdy Ronald Miller (Patrick Dempsey) has spent the summer mowing lawns and he’s raised enough money that he can finally afford to buy a super telescope.  However, as Ronald is walking through the mall, he sees the girl that he’s been crushing on, Cindy Mancini (Amanda Peterson).  Disobeying her mother, Cindy borrowed a suede outfit without asking.  She wore it to a party, the outfit got ruined, and now Cindy desperately needs a replacement.  The leads to Ronald getting an idea.  Who needs a telescope when he can use his money to pay Cindy to be his girlfriend for a month?  Cindy can buy a new outfit and Ronald can date the most popular girl in school and become popular himself!

School begins and Ronald’s plan seems to work.  With Cindy’s help, Ronald goes from being a nottie to being a hottie!  (Yes, that’s a reference to the infamous Paris Hilton film from 2008, The Hottie and the Nottie.)  Of course, it’s a very 80s transformation.  Ronald learns about the importance of sungalsses, vests, and going sleeveless.  Along the way, Cindy falls in love with Ronald and comes to realize that her friends are all a bunch of followers.  When Ronald starts to do a spastic dance, Cindy can only watch in shock as all of her friends starts to the same dance, convinced that it has to be cool if Ronald is doing it!

Meanwhile, Ronald changes.  Being popular goes to his head.  He rejects his old friends.  He becomes a jerk.  It’s only when he discovers that his oldest friend, Kenneth (Courtney Gains, who appears in hundreds of these films), is being targeted by the popular kids that Ronald is forced to confront the type of person he has become and hopefully realize that you can’t buy love…

It’s always weird to see Patrick Dempsey in these old high school movies.  Some of that is because he was so scrawny that it’s hard to believe that he’s the same actor who made McDreamy into a household word.  Add to that, Patrick Dempsey is a good actor now.  Judging from this film, he wasn’t necessarily a good actor in the 80s.  At times, Dempsey seems to be trying so hard that it’s actually uncomfortable to watch.  Amanda Peterson, who tragically passed away last year, is a lot more natural as Cindy.

Anyway, Can’t Buy Me Love was apparently a huge hit back when it was released and it appears that a lot of people have good memories of watching it.  I thought it was kind of bland and poorly acted.  I’ll stick with Easy A.

 

Horror on TV: Buffy the Vampire Slayer 3.20 “The Prom”


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This episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer made me cry the first time I saw it. And it’s made me cry every time that I’ve watched it since.

(Along with She’s All That, It also left me with a totally unrealistic expectation of what my senior prom would be like but that’s okay.)

The Prom originally aired on May 11th, 1999.

(10/13/2015 update: Oh my God, y’all! I am so pissed off at Hulu right now! This entire show was available when I first created this post. And now, that I’ve actually published it, Hulu suddenly just wants to provide a 90-second preview. Please accept my apologies.)