Maestro’s Marathons: The Ancient Evil Halloween Marathon

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It’s that time again! The spooky, spectral time of ghosts and demons and all sorts of frightening beasts from the Beyond…it’s October!

Ancient Evil Halloween Marathon

It could be anything. An ancient monster that just won’t die. An alien infestation consuming your body. The spectre of the night encased in silent, human form. Whatever you fear, it could be anything this Halloween!
This October, The Movie Maestro brings to you 13 nights of terror as the shadows of eons past return to wreak havoc on humankind! From October 19th to the Festival of Samhain on the 31st, you will be witness to ?? films of increasing dread as the forces of pure evil from days gone by lunge for the kill!

Unlike the American Spirit Marathon, the October/Halloween event will be slightly changing with each iteration, presenting a different theme each year. This year, in light of the massive success of the new adaptation of Stephen King’s It, the theme will be Ancient Evil. Everything from alien creatures millions of years old to the Deadites of the Middle Ages, from eldritch monsters beyond our reality to the pure, ageless evil behind the eyes of Michael Myers, all of it will be coming for you!

The Picks:

Salem’s Lot
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We begin the marathon with a tale from the Master of Macabre’s past: Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot. Released in 1979 as a miniseries, like the better-known It, Salem’s Lot presents us with an interesting take on the vampire mythos. Taking place in King’s old standby state of Maine, the small town of Jerusalem’s Lot becomes the modern-day breeding ground for a new and vicious group of blood-suckers, led by the monstrous Kurt Barlow and his sinister assistant, the eloquent Richard Straker . This film is pulling double-duty within our marathon due to its director–the late Tobe Hooper, who sadly passed away earlier this year. Still early in his career, Hooper relishes the chance to create a foreboding atmosphere, infusing Salem’s Lot with an eeriness that persists to this day. While there is a remake with the always perfect Rutger Hauer as Barlow, I’m sticking with the original out of respect for Hooper and the grisly Nosferatu-like visage of this film’s king vampire.

The Evil Dead
Related imageAt once Sam Raimi’s debut and magnum opus of horror, Evil Dead is still enduring in several forms; comics, a Showtime TV series, a remake, and even a musical have been released alongside the two more successful sequels, and Raimi himself has become quite an eccentric and eclectic filmmaker in the decades since. For this marathon, we’ll go back to the beginning, when the demons were first unleashed and the evil in the forest was no laughing matter. Ash, played as always by the immortal Bruce Campbell, and his friends arrive at a secluded cabin in the woods for a carefree weekend away from civilization. Instead, they find a scene of slaughter, and the Necronomicon, a book of demonic spells, wrapped in flesh and inked in blood, which releases a horde of Kandarian spirits, determined to possess the kids through rape and mutilation. Phew, that was a brutal mouthful. And so is this movie, to this very day.

The Cabin in the Woods
Image result for the cabin in the woods posterWhile we’re on the subject of cabins and mutilation, let’s keep this theme rolling with Drew Goddard’s excellent deconstruction of classic horror movie tropes, The Cabin in the Woods. Co-written with Joss Whedon, Cabin explores another group of kids’ run-in with supernatural torment deep in the forest, but with a more funny twist…and a strange little Office Space-style conspiracy running in the background. Did I say Office Space? It’s more like Office Space by way of H.P. Lovecraft, we’ll just say that. I’ll also say that this is how Cabin ends up on my Ancient Evil marathon, but to say more might truly spoil the whole thing, so just pop it in and enjoy a stoner, a jock, a virgin, a slut, and whatever that other guy was stumble through a nightmare scenario of movie monsters, all controlled by two sweaty office workers who complain about their wives’ hormones.

Nosferatu the Vampyre
Image result for nosferatu the vampyre posterFrom pop culture exploitation to art-house cinema we go, with this, probably the most haunting rendition of Bram Stoker’s tale of the ultimate vampire, Dracula. King of the Undead and cursed by God Himself, Count Dracula feeds on the blood of the living to sustain his damned existence, bringing his horror to the shores of England when he sets his sights on the lovely Mina Harker. While any of the myriad versions of Dracula will do here, such as the classic 1931 production starring Bela Lugosi, one of the Hammer films starring Christopher Lee, or the Francis Ford Coppola remake with Gary Oldman, I have decided to spice things up a bit with Werner Herzog’s homage remake of Nosferatu. Not having to worry about copyright enfringement anymore, Herzog has returned much of the original Dracula characters to the fray, but with his hypnotic direction at the helm, Nosferatu the Vampyre makes for an interesting detour in our marathon.

The Mummy (1997)
Image result for the mummy 1997 posterSometimes, you just need some good, fun escapism. After the trance-like Nosferatu, why not take a moment to recuperate with Brendan Frasier as he battles it out with Imhotep, the rotting star of 1997’s The Mummy? 3000 years ago, in the empire of Egypt, Imhotep was the high priest of the dead, the chief holy power in the realm and second only to the Pharoah himself–too bad he and his lady love decided to murder him. So begins an epic, Indiana Jones-like odyssey with Frasier’s Rick O’Connell fighting alongside Rachel Weisz and others to prevent the ancient blasphemer from unleashing the power to destroy the world. While this installment is much heavier on action and adventure, it still has quite a few good scares for the more timid among us. And, let’s face it, it is miles ahead of the new Tom Cruise-starring version, so why not relive old times, when all was right with the world?

The Shining
Image result for the shining posterTime for a break from the ancient evil! Since Stephen King stories seem to be on a roll lately, let’s go back to one of the earliest hits from his bookshelf, this one by one of the greatest filmmakers of them all, Stanley Kubrick. While the menace isn’t quite ancient, it’s still pretty old–the Overlook Hotel, imbued with evil by the spirits of the dead within its walls, be they massacred Indians or axe-murdered twins. Ugh, those twins. Jack Torrence, played both frighteningly and hilariously by Jack Nicholson, is soon under the spell of these ghastly ghosts, and your only hope is….Shelly Duvall and a little kid? Well, take heart, because Shelly is tougher than she looks, and that kid has a little ability that can make or break your chances for survival. So go ahead. Kick back, relax, turn the thermostat way down, and enjoy a creepy night in at the Overlook. Now say it with me…”HEEEEEERE’S JOHNNY!!!”

The Fog
Related imageNope! Break’s not over yet! John Carpenter is a filmmaker you’ll be seeing pop up on my radar a lot, considering, you know, just how good he is. Any genre he works in, be it sci-fi, romance, action, and yes, horror, he just nails with an offbeat sense of coolness, like he can do no wrong. This time, we’ll be taking a look at one of his more dreamlike entries, a film about spooky tales on the water in the midst of the night…The Fog. The Californian town of Antonio Bay is about to celebrate its 100th anniversary when paranormal activity begins to occur at a frightening rate. In the midst of the chaos comes a massive fogbank, bearing down on the town. Within are the restless spirits of a long-dead clipper ship, ready to take six lives in retaliation for a buried secret in the town’s sordid history. Did I mention this movie has Jamie Lee Curtis AND Adrienne Barbeau? For pure, high-seas ghostly terror, sit down with the original Fog.

It
Image result for it posterYou knew it was gonna end up on the list somewhere. Now the magnum opus of Stephen King flicks, Andy Muscietti’s adaptation of It has, in many eyes, supplanted the old miniseries, taking the number one spot in lists of evil, scary clowns. But It isn’t just a clown; Pennywise may be the physical face of this extraterrestrial terror, but It’s true form may just be too terrifying for we puny humans to behold. Crashing to Earth billions of years ago, It has finally awakened to feast on its favorite meals: fear and the flesh of children. It is the Eater of Worlds; the Sum-Total of Every Nightmare Ever Had; and now It will face its greatest foes: The Losers Club, a group of youngsters with foul mouths and a sense of unity that may be their only weapon to combat this Eldritch beast. While you will have to go out to your local theater this year to see it, if you haven’t yet, It is one hell of a horror film that you will not be disappointed in.

TRIPLE FEATURE: John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy
apocalypse triple feature smallReady for a long evening? Try John Carpenter’s thematic Apocalypse Trilogy, featuring three films that portray the beginning of the end of the world. Start off with the director’s bonafide classic The Thing, starring Kurt Russell as the manly MacReady as he and the other crewmen of a U.S. Antarctica base face off against an alien creature which can perfectly mimic any lifeform it reaches…even one of them. Continue with Prince of Darkness, a bizarre yet incredibly fun combination of time travel and demonic possession that pits college students and Donald Pleasance as a crusty old preacher against the literal forces of evil: Satan and the Anti-God. Close out the triple feature with In the Mouth of Madness, in which Sam Neill plays John Trent, a private investigator on the trail of missing horror novelist Sutter Cane, who’s new book may spell doom for the human race.

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare
Image result for new nightmare posterMade as an afterthought coda to the main six films of the Nightmare on Elm Street series, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is actually probably the most creative of all those films. Delving heavily into metatextual territory, New Nightmare takes place in our world, starring the real-life actors who made the Nightmare series playing themselves. Heather Langenkamp is now a mother trying to put her horror movie past behind her, but when her young son begins having vivid nightmares at about the same time her husband begins work on a new Nightmare film. Soon, Freddy Krueger begins appearing in the real world–but it isn’t Freddy Krueger. As Craven himself cryptically explains, long ago a terrible demon was locked away in a story…and it will take a new one to contain him again. Featuring hellish imagery and some of the best dream-scares of the whole series, New Nightmare is a fine addition to this marathon.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Related imageTaking another detour on our list of ancient evil films, we arrive in the twisted plains of deep Texas, where the meat is much more than just tainted. A horror hallmark, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre should be on everybody’s Halloween viewing lists, even more so after the unfortunate death of Tobe Hooper. A group of teens on a pleasure trip is about to find out the Texas meaning of good eats when they encounter an unsettling hitchhiker and nasty old gas station barbecue. After some choice scares, continue on into the ominous landscape, unaware of the family of psychopaths ready to butcher them all with hammers, straight-razors, and gas-powered chainsaws like prime-angus beef. An uncompromising, gruesome, and at times amusing descent into hellish heat and the stench of the slaughter, TCM provides full-bore slasher scares with none of the camp, and even less of the blood. What? You want blood? Don’t worry; your imagination will fill in the blanks.

It Follows
Related imageNot quite a detour, It Follows occupies an interesting spot on this list, as the main monster of this film’s origin is never revealed. Nonetheless, it is an unsettling thing to experience, and why not include it on the list for that very reason? Jay is your typical teenage girl who has just experienced her first sexual encounter. Depending on the person, she may be receiving either a high-five or a stern stare, right? Who would have thought that she would instead be subjected to the fear of becoming prey when she finds herself relentlessly pursued by a supernatural entity that knows her every sin? Quickly becoming praised by critics, audiences, and horror buffs alike, this film won notoriety for its writer and director David Robert Mitchell, and has probably managed to do for sex what Jaws did for beaches. In other words, the Entity of It Follows has succeeded where Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, and Michael Myers have failed.

DOUBLE FEATURE: Halloween / Halloween II
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Finish off the marathon with a double feature night, containing the only films that should be watched on Halloween night: John Carpenter’s seminal classic Halloween, and its direct continuation, Halloween II! Michael Myers himself may be just a 21-year-old psychopath, but the evil living behind his young eyes is as old as time itself…

And that’s all folks! Once again, feel free to switch out some of these films for others or mix-and-match the order. The point is, this is your ultimate Halloween marathon, so you do it your way!

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REVIEW: The Fly (1986)

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Directed by David Cronenberg
Written by Charles Edward Pogue and David Cronenberg, Based on the Short Story by George Langelaan
Starring Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, John Getz

Was there any filmmaker quite like the 1980s David Cronenberg? Making a series of films that were at once grotesque and physically horrifying yet deeply intimate and human, Cronenberg brought a strange, gothic heart to the horror and thriller genres that I don’t know if I’ve ever encountered since. Right smack in the middle of all of this is The Fly, the remake of the 1958 Vincent Price hit that blows all comparisons to that work out of the water.

Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum), a brilliant but eccentric scientist attempts to woo investigative journalist Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) by offering her a scoop on his latest research in the field of matter transportation, which against all the expectations of the scientific establishment have proved successful. Up to a point. Brundle thinks he has ironed out the last problem when he successfully transports a living creature, but when he attempts to teleport himself a fly enters one of the transmission booths, and Brundle finds he is a changed man.

I remember first seeing The Fly on late night cable, and being utterly repulsed by its extreme gore. And I still couldn’t look away. Sure, part of it was my adolescent curiosity, but even then, there was something about Cronenberg’s shocker that was more than cheap blood and goo. Since then, I’ve become a fan of Cronenberg’s work, and have always attributed that to The Fly, his most commercial and successful picture.

Much of the film’s success comes from three people: Cronenberg himself, and the two leads: Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis. Goldblum, a master of performance and subtlety, dives deep into some of the best work of his illustrious career. Goldblum’s Brundle is eccentric and insecure; hiding behind a boyish shyness is an altruistic need to create, and create he has, probably the most important invention of the human race: the telepod. Davis is the hot journalist who at first seems mildly amused by the young genius, only to find herself falling for him as they document his successes and failures with teleportation.

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Themselves a couple at the time, their on-screen chemistry as first scientific partners and later as lovers is wholly believable, and genuinely touching. There are times when I want to rate them as one of the ten best movie couples ever. You know what, I am going to rate them as one of the ten best movie couples ever. Which one would they be? I don’t know, but it’s up there.

And therein lies the genius of Cronenberg’s script rewrite. Charles Edward Pogue’s original draft (which is included on the excellent Fox blu-ray), is much more flowery and sweeping, playing more like the 1958 original, and places more emphasis on the scientific aspect of the film. Cronenberg aimed for a more concise narrative framed around these two doomed lovers, and in doing so, imbued this film with a bleeding heart that far outshines the scares.

But the scares exist, and while it takes awhile to get to them, they do not disappoint. The first forty minutes or so are consumed with Brundle’s attempts to correct a major flaw in the telepod–it can only teleport non-living material. His first teleportation of an animal, a baboon, results in the film’s first horrific set-piece as the poor creature is turned inside out upon reintegration. After correcting the issue, Brundle succeeds with another baboon, but soon, his idiosyncratic insecurities rear their ugly head, and he drunkenly enters the machine…not noticing the fly that has made inside with him.

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At first, the changes are positive: Brundle can perform feats of physical prowess and seems to be wired all the time. But as the film goes on, his appearance and demeanor changes, frighteningly. His body becomes sensitive to food and external stimuli; strange, insect-like hairs sprout from his back and later his face; even his personality shifts, revealing a new Seth Brundle that is dodgy, arrogant, and all-too-willing to demonstrate his abilities, to the harm of those around him.

At about the hour-mark, the film starts to take on a more familiar sci-fi edge as Seth’s body begins to deteriorate, the fly genes manifesting in cancerous legions that tear his visage apart. Major props to Chris Walas and the rest of the makeup department, who create disgustingly logical appliances that allow Goldblum to change before our eyes into a true monster but allowing him enough freedom to create a performance. Their work is honestly second only to Rob Bottin’s creations on John Carpenter’s The Thing. All through this, Veronica is forced to watch him slowly fall away into a new, terrifying form, showcasing the quiet torment that Geena Davis so effortlessly portrays.

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The Fly is a clever bait-and-switch to armchair fans of gory horror flicks. As I did years ago, I’m sure many people tuned in or bought the DVD to see the excellent makeup effects that still make me cringe, and slowly discovered the tender undercurrent of melancholy inherent in the film. In fact, I’d go so far as to say this is one of the most depressing films I’ve ever seen. It certainly is not for everyone, and I wouldn’t begrudge someone from disliking it after a viewing, but for those that can weather the storm, David Cronenberg’s The Fly is a unique remake, taking only the barest premise and treating(?) us to a darkly humorous and sad meditation of disease, deformity, the perils of scientific progress and the tragedy of doomed love.

REVIEW: Alien (1979)

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Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Dan O’Bannon, Story by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Koto

The big one. The original. One of the most influential films ever made. Alien. Just like Blade Runner, this is one I’m a bit scared to review, as I doubt I could add anything to the already incredibly-dense discussion of this pivotal piece of work. But, fear is meant to be faced (as Ripley herself discovered), so here goes.

A commercial crew aboard the deep space towing vessel Nostromo is on its way home when they pick up an SOS beacon from a distant moon. Picking up the signal, the crew sets down on the barren planetoid, discovering a derelict alien ship, stocked with egg-like objects. One of the crew is attacked by a creature within the eggs, and is brought back aboard the Nostromo before leaving. In time, the crew realizes that they are not alone, trapped in space with an alien stowaway.

Surprisingly, I grew up seeing its sequel Aliens long before this first, classic film. It wasn’t until age 13 when I borrowed a friend’s VHS copy that I truly sunk into this flick, and every little disturbing detail it holds close. Made in the wake of the almighty Star Wars, Ridley Scott’s sophomore effort is an excellent example of many different facets of filmmaking, from set design and world building, all employed to terrifying the audience with psychosexual imagery.

Born out of the failed Alejandro Jodorowsky Dune project, Alien is mainly the brainchild of Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, who created the main storyline together after many discussions about creating the ultimate version of older B-movie storylines involving scary star beasts of the night sky. The final script by O’Bannon reflects this lineage of old-school sci-fi, whilst injecting even earlier aspects of the genre that place it square within the style of Robert Heinlein or Poul Anderson. Most engenious, of course, was the creature itself: a being that reproduces through a horrifying act of oral rape. The concept would have been daring even today, let alone in the late ’70s, and O’Bannon milks it for all its worth by inflicting its violent birthing onto a male crewmember, forcing the men in the audience to entertain fears that have been traditionally reserved for women.

Expanding on this singular vision was Ridley, already well known as a visual savant in the industry, and a team of innovative artists designing every nook and cranny on screen. Sci-fi artists Ron Cobb and Chris Foss, and legendary comic book artist Moebius Giraud were key members of this team, assembling a hard sci-fi environment with distinctly European influences. The Nostromo is so well realized, all the way down to the warning labels on the doors, that it implies a vast universe of hardware and bureaucracy outside of its bulkheads with minimal effort.

The real MVP of the design team, undoubtedly, was H.R. Giger. A Swiss surrealist painter whose work was, shall we say, nightmarish, Giger was hired on after his work had an impression on O’Bannon after meeting him on the Dune project. Giger’s sexualized, biomechanical designs appear truly otherworldly and non-human, upping the production value considerably on their own. As important as O’Bannon was to the conception of the creature, Giger’s artwork was the visual basis for its entire menace, a sexualized and vaguely humanoid monster without eyes or subtlety. After all, look at its head. That is most definitely a penis. With a toothed penis for a tongue.

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In a way, we’ve never seen a film made like this before, or since: usually, there is a single art director attached to pool the different creative styles of the concept team together. Alien chucks that out of the window with several very different chief artists working on different aspects of the Nostromo environment (the ship itself, interior hardware, space suits, etc.), and one wildly unconventional and, at the time, considered-unfilmable painter forming the basis for everything extraterrestrial. It lends the film a realism that seldom few others ever attain.

The film’s sets and props masterfully realize these unique styles, with the Nostromo set built full size and interconnected, genuinely increasing the claustrophobia on the actors, and therefore, the audience. Special marks must be heaped on Giger’s “cockpit” set aboard the Derelict, featuring the 26-foot-tall “Space Jockey” alien.

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Ridley then takes the reigns, wisely keeping the Alien hidden in darkness for the majority of its little screentime, drawing from Spielberg’s Jaws strategy of horror: less is more, imagination is better. When the Alien isn’t around, Ridley takes great glee in drawing out the suspensful atmosphere, alternating sweeping dollies and tracking shots that seem like they’re taken straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, with sublime handheld camera work that Ridley himself shot. He thrives on the slow build, and never once is it boring.

And yet, there is another side to the game die that is Alien: sound. Editor Terry Rawlings, who doubled as a sound designer, not only helps along the tension with precision cutting, but erects a sphere of emersive sound around the audience with all sorts of mechanical beeps, blips, and computerized tones. When I saw Alien last month for the Alien Day event, I was blown away by the sonic experience in a way that I hadn’t since seeing Scott’s Blade Runner on a big screen. In the quieter moments, Jerry Goldsmith’s almost experimental score takes hold, whisping through the air like a ghostly force. If you need any evidence of visual effects, art design, directing, and music combining to create an eerie atmosphere, look no further than the opening sequence, featuring titles by Saul Bass of Psycho fame:

The actors gracing the screen are a selection of America’s and Britain’s finest in simplicity, portraying a blue collar band of “space truckers” in sometimes brilliant ways. Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Koto banter back and forth, bitching about their smaller shares, pointing toward a continued class inequity in this future. Veronica Cartwright is a ball of emotion, acting as a reliable audience buffer and spoiler; Ian Holm is genuinely creepy as the aloof science officer with a big secret, and Tom Skerritt relishes in all the little quirks he brings to the very-subtly-implied sexual relationship he may be carrying on with Sigourney Weaver, in her career-defining role as Ellen Ripley. A professional woman with none of the traditionally feminine baggage, Ripley is vulnerable yet tough, exposed in a patriarchal society yet waiting to rise to the challenge, a perfect foil for the abomination of toxic masculinity in the Alien.

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All of this creates a palpable sense of tension and revulsion. Even before the seminal and incredibly bloody chestbursting scene, the film is a dark ride through a space-age haunted house. It’s no wonder that it is not only the most influential horror film of the past half-century, but also among the most influential science fiction stories. The film works both within its narrative, and as an expansive exercise in inadvertant world-building. From the society hinted at by the characters, to the eponymous Company and its sinister schemes, to the enigmatic presence of the Derelict and the Space Jockey, there’s so much to touch upon from this taut little tale.

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In 2003, Twentieth Century Fox released a Director’s Cut to theaters and home video, however, as Ridley Scott already considers the theatrical version his definitive cut, this is meant to be seen as an alternative vision. Scott was nonetheless involved, so the Director’s Cut is still a worthwhile piece of work. In order to avoid ruining the pace of the film, Scott made numerous small trims to other scenes, usually involving long takes of the set, making room for several deleted sequences. Both cuts are included on the excellent Alien Anthology blu-ray set.

Now that I’m done discussing the all of the obvious and unoriginal stuff that has most definitely been done before, what do I really think of Alien? Well, I’m not as scared of it as I used to be, but I’m still creeped out. What’s the difference? I don’t jump watching Alien, but I still check the dark corners on my way to bed after a viewing. I’m not covering my eyes whenever it emerges from the shadows to headbite one of the sorry crew, but I’m most certainly in the throes of existential terror at the prospect of such an unsettling thing, or the concept of a crashed alien ship, waiting millions of years with a payload of pure hell. That is true horror. It never gets old; it evolves.

Prelude to Alien Week

Hey everyone! In part to drum up some more readers before the big event, and also to cover some films that might only barely relate, I’ve decided that this week, May the 8th to the 14th, will officially be Prelude to Alien Week here at the Movie Maestro.

Check back throughout the week for reviews on all three Predator films as well as the Alien vs. Predator duology, plus a few more surprises. And check back May 15th for the start of Alien Week, which will be chock-full of posts revolving around that slimey, head-biting monster of the stars. Enjoy!

REVIEW: King Kong (1976)

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Directed by John Guillermin
Written by Lorenzo Semple Jr. (Original Screenplay by John Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose, Based on an Idea by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack)
Starring Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin, Jessica Lange, John Randolph, Rene Auberjonois

In the mid-1970s, Dino De Laurentiis felt like he was on top of the world. Having already produced such successes as Serpico, Death Wish, and Three Days of the Condor, he probably got a little cocky, hence his next project, a remake of the Eighth Wonder of the World itself, King Kong. Throwing $24 million at the project, it took in over $90 million, making it a certified success. But how is the film itself?

The owner of the Petrox Corporation, Fred Wilson, invests all his possessions searching for oil in an unexplored island. As his vessel leaves Surubaya, in Indonesia, a stowaway, biologist Jack Prescott, sows discord among the crew with historical accounts of a gigantic creature living on the island. While traveling, they find the castaway actress Dwan, having survived the sinking of her yacht in a life raft, and bring her on board. Together, the unlikely trio disembark onto the mysterious landmass, encountering the local natives who abduct Dwan to offer her in a sacrifice to their god, Kong, in reality a gigantic ape-like beast who makes off with the blonde-haired beauty.

The ’76 Kong is an impressive production, of that there is no doubt. Having first hired Carlo Rambaldi to design and build a full-size, 40-ft. tall animatronic Kong, they soon found out how difficult this task would be, and ended up turning to a young Rick Baker, who brought to the fray a detailed and expressive suit which ended up becoming the main method of portraying the monstrous ape onscreen. Despite the negative connotations (and inherent blasphemy to some) of going from stop-motion photography to essentially a furrier Godzilla, Baker’s work both in crafting the suit and acting within it is top rate and worthy of the Kong legacy.

The rest of the production is appropriately scaled up to compensate for the seemingly-low-tech ape himself, featuring impressive matte paintings and epic staging–three helicopters with miniguns buzz the World Trade Center? Yeah, that takes a lot of money.

The film’s screenplay, however, falters a bit. Semple, who wrote Condor for Laurentiis, opts to modernize Cooper’s tale, transplanting the action to the then-present day, updating the Ann/Jack/Carl trinity: Driscoll is now Prescott, a bearded, liberal gentleman and scientist, Carl Denham becomes Fred Wilson, a driven and greedy oil baron, and Ann is given the annoying name of Dwan, but is still an actress. Tough break. Quite frankly, as beautiful and talented as Jessica Lange is, this was her first film, so she doesn’t exactly elevate the material she is given. Most of the time she comes across as a spaced-out yuppie, regurgitating so much astrology that she single-handedly dates the film severely. Grodin doesn’t fair much better as Wilson, who while is a logical update of the Denham character, is far more mean-spirited, and therefore much less lovable. Jeff Bridges is by far the best of the three, showcasing his youthful ruggedness to ground the more intellectual streaks of the character. But, sadly, there are moments in which he just seems pretentious.

The “Skull Island” setting (it is never referred to as such in the film) is unfortunately pretty bland. For much of its appearance in the picture it simply looks like any other island, until Kong and Dwan reach the island center, and then it looks like the alien set of Star Trek: The Next Generation. In some ways you could argue that it lends a otherworldly feel to Kong’s lair, but when the ’33 Kong was giving us lush jungles with paintings and little crab grass, it leaves a lot to be desired. And then there’s the lack of life on the island. Early on in the film Prescott suggests that the fog surrounding it is generated by animal respiration. Kong must have incredible gas then, because the only other monstrous denizen we see is a rather fake-looking giant snake, which also happens to provide the only monster battle of the film. And it’s over in less than a minute. It’s as if Semple bizarrely decided to put all of his energy into the excrutiatingly dull dialogue between Bridges and Lange.

While the Kong suit and Rambaldi’s animatronic arms were worthy of praise, the rest of the effects work is wholly inconsistent.Blue screen work ranges from passable to full of washed-out blacks and matte lines. The few glimpses of the full size Kong at the stadium are laughingly bad. And I kid you not, you can see the ceiling about Baker’s head in the same scene. And in what is probably the ultimate downgrade, the thrilling Empire State Building sequence becomes boring and uninspired atop the WTC, with Kong barely putting up any fight. John Barry’s score also doesn’t live up to his usual standing, with an epic and foreboding main theme but not much else. The lazy love melody really lets the film down.

But don’t take my complaining to mean that this is a terrible film, just one with many missed opportunities. There is still lots to love: the train sequence and Kong breaking through the wall doors are mighty effects pieces, Kong himself is one of the better monster suits ever made, and as mentioned before, Jeff Bridges is always going to be at least ok in whatever he does.

So what to make of Kong ’76? I would say it is best to approach it as a curiosity, a relic from a simpler time when remakes weren’t the money model they are today. From what I see of Kong: Skull Island, it looks like they borrow quite a bit from this film, so I’d say its legacy might be secure. Whether that is true or not will have to wait for that review. As for this one, seek it out only if you are a Kong fan or an aficionado of ’70s cinema. If not, you won’t miss too much.

REVIEW: Godzilla (2014)

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Directed by Gareth Edwards
Written by Max Borenstein and David Callaham
Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Ken Watanabe, Juliette Binoche, David Strathairn, Bryan Cranston

If you don’t already know, than you will soon find out just how much of a tokusatsu and kaiju film fanatic I am; just the fact that I refer to those films by their actual subgenre terms and not just as “Godzilla” movies should begin to account for that. With this known, hear me on this: Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla is the redemption American filmmakers and audiences have been seeking since the first fumble Roland Emmerich’s film made with the Big G’s legacy. It’s probably even the best Godzilla film since the original 1954 classic. It certainly is the only one that feels like it belongs in the same class.

In 1999, the Janjira nuclear plant in Japan is mysteriously destroyed with most hands lost including supervisor Joe Brody’s (Bryan Cranston) wife, Sandra. Years later, Joe’s son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a US Navy ordnance disposal officer, must go to Japan to help his estranged father who obsessively searches for the truth of the incident. In doing so, father and son discover the disaster’s secret cause on the wreck’s very grounds. This enables them to witness the reawakening of a terrible threat to all of Humanity, which is made all the worse with a second secret revival elsewhere of an even greater threat. And yet, this new enemy of civilization may be its only hope. And its name is Godzilla.

Edwards probably had the toughest job imaginable ahead of him when he accepted the job directing this film. Having only directed one film beforehand, even if it was the critically acclaimed Monsters, this must not have instilled a lot of confidence in the fanbase. Boy, were they wrong. Everything about his gargantuan vision is perfectly suited to the King of the Monsters, and in many ways improves upon what Ishiro Honda and Tomoyuki Tanaka envisioned for their God of Destruction over 60 years ago.

However, to talk to the average moviegoer who claims to have “watched Godzirra movies back in the day,” you’d think this movie was a sin against God. “There’s not enough Godzilla!” “It’s boring and pretentious!” “Not enough monster fighting!” These are the usual complaints I heard from behind the concession counter when this film was still in theaters.And sorry, but all of these arguments betray a lack of true love for the titular creature and what he represents. Godzilla is best understood not through the prism of the seemingly-countless Vs. series of films from 1956 on (and don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of entertainment to be had there), but through the dark iris of 1954’s Gojira.

As expanded upon in The Long Take’s excellent comparison video, Edwards’ Godzilla opens the story with a disaster related to the headlines of the time: the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown becomes the Janjira tragedy. And then the new film branches off: while Tanaka’s Godzilla was always a response to unchecked nuclear testing and aggression, the title monster having been awakened and severely scarred by a nuclear bomb, Edwards’ Godzilla is impervious to the bomb, indeed, to all human attempts to destroy him. The new Godzilla represents the entirety of nature’s response to mankind’s stupidity and arrogance, effortlessly swatting away the best of our weapons and soldiers in his single-minded quest to destroy this film version’s nuclear allegory, the MUTOs.

With this, the writers achieved a distancing from the old anti-nuke allegory in a perfect way that doesn’t negate those fears; it expands upon them, bringing every human action against Mother Earth into sharp, uncompromising focus. From there, all the nitty-gritty narrative plot points become borrowed from the best of the unmade Godzilla films. The MUTOs are discovered within the carcass of another Godzilla-like creature, just like in Jan de Bont’s 1994 script. The MUTOs themselves are constantly evolving; another lifting from Godzilla vs the Gryphon. The final battle takes place in San Francisco–hello, Godzilla 3D. It’s as if the filmmakers wanted to reward us for waiting through the deaths of all of those promising projects by giving them a chance to shine through this one.

And then Edwards takes over, drawing out the suspense of the main set pieces Spielberg-style, keeping the camera fixed on a human-eye vantage point. Whether watching Godzilla stomp his enemy from an hovering helicopter shot or the male MUTO swooping over from a 40th-story window, not a single shot aimed at the monster is not in documentary style. There were a few moments where I felt like I was watching a Jurassic Park sequel.

And now comes one of the bigger complaints, and one that is hard to ignore: the human characters. Everyone gives a great performance, from Strathairn’s by-the-book command to Cranston’s tortured, obsessive search for the truth. The problem is that they all don’t do much. All of their actions contribute to the greater calamities that propel the plot along to the final confrontation. Ford is the only one who accomplishes anything worthwhile, but in the end, still fails in his mission. But I say this isn’t a failing of the screenplay, but a main feature. Looking back to the original film, the exact same problems exist: too many people who do nothing but watch, slack-jawed, in terror of the monster. Only one, Dr. Serizawa, is the man of action, defeating the beast in the end. Ford is now that character, but is infinitely more relatable as a soldier and a father–another aspect of American cinema.

I could go on and on, but I trust my point is made, or at least begun. Godzilla is more than the majority of its predecessors. It is the first successful reboot, from any country or filmmaker, of the original film. There are a handful in the Japanese series that are worthy followups, but none captures both the fear and wonder of the unknown, and the sheer power of Allmother Nature like this one. Like the incredible, bone-rattling roar of the Big G himself, Godzilla makes a mighty impression.

 

REVIEW: King Kong (1933)

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Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack
Written by James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose, from an Idea Conceived by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace
Starring Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, Frank Reicher

The big one. The Eighth Wonder of the World. A true classic if there ever was one. King Kong has been praised, studied, and pored over for close to 85 years now. What new could I possibly offer in this review? Well, let’s find out!

Bold filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) needs to finish his movie; he already has the perfect location, the mysterious Skull Island, but he still needs to find a leading lady. This ‘soon-to-be-unfortunate’ soul is Ann Darrow (Fay Wray). No one knows what they will encounter on this island and why it is so mysterious, but once they reach it, they will soon find out. Living on this hidden island is a giant gorilla and this beast now has Ann in it’s grasps. Carl and Ann’s new love, Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) must travel through the jungle looking for Kong and Ann, whilst avoiding all sorts of creatures and beasts.

The brainchild of real-life Carl Denham Merian C. Cooper, Kong quickly became the most important film not just of its time, but perhaps of all time. While Citizen Kane was more influential in terms of how Orson Welles used the camera to enhance narrative, Cooper and visual effects pioneer Willis O’Brien crafted America’s first balls-to-the-wall blockbuster picture, over 40 years before Jaws earned the moniker. From the moment the crew of the Venture reach Skull Island, the breathtaking matte paintings of its foreboding border wall dazzle. And then Kong shows up. In reality a stop-motion armature only 18 inches tall, the big ape manages to convey a lifelike quality that just convinces you totally of its authenticity, even knowing with modern eyes that it’s no more real than the action figures on my office shelves.

Such was the unbridled skill of O’Brien and model maker Marcel Delgado. Having already showed what they could do in 1925’s The Lost World, Kong represented their finest hour, in which even their mistakes became creative flourishes. Notice that Kong’s fur is constantly moving; this should be a glaring flaw in the animation process, a tell-tale sign that the model was being manipulated by human hands between frames. However, when the film premiered, critics of the time noted how lifelike it was to see the wind blowing the beast’s hair. Even in goofing, O’Brien and his team were masters of their craft.

But Kong is not the only denizen of Skull Island, as viewers discover upon viewing: a gaggle of vicious dinosaurs and giant lizards menace the actors, also brought to life by stop-motion. Despite their inaccuracy in anatomic portrayal, at least as theorized today, these creatures still amaze, as paleontologist Robert Bakker once noted in a Discovery Channel documentary: “O’Brien’s dinosaurs act and move like Jurassic Park dinosaurs. In the middle of the ’30s when most paleontologists thought dinosaurs were slow, stupid animals living alone, stuck in the swamps, he had them in dynamic action sequences. It’s a beautiful thing.” Once you see the bloodthirsty Brontosaurus attacking the search party, or the mortal combat of the Tyrannosaurus vs Kong battle, you will heartily agree.

This is not to say the visual effects are the only thing to enjoy in Kong: the acting is first-rate for the time, with Fay Wray’s charmingly cute and vulnerable Ann Darrow taking center stage. Cabot and Armstrong are more than sufficient in their roles, with Armstrong wooing the camera using his now-iconic boisterous personality. To anyone who can’t seem to get into pre-1970’s theatrical acting, try harder. You’ll be doing yourself a favor by starting with this film.

As noted before, Kong gave birth not only to many spinoffs and two high-profile remakes, but to a solidified following of effects features. For a film like this to have such sustained success during the Great Depression is a testament to that fact. And while fans and critics continue to debate whether Peter Jackson’s expensively epic remake surpassed or fumbled its predecessor’s legacy, one thing is for sure: there is no replacing the original. Kong is here to stay.