Maestro’s Marathons: The Ancient Evil Halloween Marathon


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
Image result for Salem's Lot poster
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.

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
halloween double feature small

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!


REVIEW: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)


Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Melissa Matheson
Starring Dee Wallace, Henry Thomas, Peter Coyote, Robert McNaughton, Drew Barrymore

There are a few perfect films out there, not just for me, but for most of cinema-goers. Taxi Driver. Raiders of the Lost Ark. Star Wars. It’s a Wonderful Life. Blade Runner. These films are cherished and revered, often imitated but never fully copied. Steven Spielberg, probably the most recognized filmmaker in history, has had the fortune of making not one, but several perfect films in his career, with E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial probably being the best of the best.

After a gentle alien becomes stranded on Earth, the being is discovered and befriended by a young boy named Elliott (Henry Thomas). Bringing the extraterrestrial into his suburban California house, Elliott introduces E.T., as the alien is dubbed, to his brother (Robert McNaughton) and his little sister, Gertie (Drew Barrymore), and the children decide to keep its existence a secret. Soon, however, E.T. falls ill, resulting in government intervention and a dire situation for both Elliott and the alien.

Right away, from the strangely ominous drones over the black-screen credits, you know you’re in for something memorable. As the opening titles give way to the familiar sight of a shooting star against a calm night sky, we are treated the arrival of an alien spaceship in the woods. But unlike the at-times frightening appearance of the visitors in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, these creatures are decidedly more benevolent; they waddle under the handicap of their comically-undersized legs, their hearts glow brightly to signal startlement, and their childlike curiosity of the new world before them is charming. And then the humans show up. Dark, silhouetted figures of meddling humanity who give chase to one of the visitors in particular, who misses his ride home and begins a trek down the wooded hill to find shelter on an unfamiliar planet.

So begins Spielberg’s E.T., a film that I discovered I am still absolutely in love with to this day. Like his immediately previous efforts in Jaws, Close Encounters, and Raiders, E.T. is a technical and storytelling marvel, with little-to-no faults to be had. Everything about this movie is just perfect. Tired of that word yet? Perfect, perfect, PERFECT!!!

Spielberg has longed dismissed the film’s ostensible genre as science fiction, and prefers to think of it as a family drama, with Elliott’s family straining under the still-fresh injury of their father leaving. It’s a theme that Spielberg often comes back to, a real part of his life that he finds therapeutic release in portraying on screen, either as part of the background or as the main focus, such as right here in E.T. Together with Close Encounters, this film is his most personal, presenting the children, Elliott, Mike, and Gertie, as struggling with the hurt of divorce and finding comfort in this diminutive creature from the stars who needs their help.

Related image

In any film involving child actors, there’s the risk of the whole endeavor falling apart because of their inability to understand the work. That simply doesn’t happen here. Henry Thomas as Elliott is one of the greatest child performances around, as he exudes incredible chemistry with his on-screen siblings and mother as well as convincingly acting alongside the E.T. puppets. While McNaughton isn’t as large a factor, his role as the older brother Mike is still a source of much of the film’s comic relief and is such a valued member of the trio. Rounding them out is young Drew Barrymore, who doesn’t so much as act as she does truly converse with E.T. as a real being. Reportedly, at several points in production, she became convinced of E.T.’s reality, which isn’t too hard to believe considering how young she was and how good the on-set effects were.

Portrayed with a combination of various suits and animatronic puppets, E.T. is a fine example of the life a piece of latex can take on with the right design, execution, and tender love and care. From the design, evoking the old, wisened eyes of Albert Einstein, to the performance of the various instruments belaying a younger sense of wonder, E.T. is one of the best non-human characters ever realized. Such is his authenticity that, like the Yoda puppet from The Empire Strikes Back, never once do I look upon the old botanist’s face and see a high-tech gadget, but a living alien deserving of friendship.

Image result for e.t. the extra-terrestrial

But E.T. isn’t the only technical marvel of the film. In what I assume was an attempt to create an ethereal, dreamlike atmosphere to the idealized suburbia of Elliott’s neighborhood, many scenes are filled with whisps of vapor, allowing the light in the nighttime scenes to really pop as well as shrouding E.T. with an air of mystique, as any alien being should have. This mist of the unknown also percolates around the adult characters, who in Spielberg fashion, are concealed in silhouette until the final act, further slamming home that this story is of children, told from their point of view. (This also places a lot of the slack onto Dee Wallace, who as the children’s mother is the only adult consistently portrayed in full.)

And let’s not forget another rousing score from the master, John Williams. Alternating between quietly beautiful themes for E.T. and Elliot, and grandiose, adventurous pieces that elevate the small town setting into a mythical quest, Williams’ has delivered another score for the ages. This is how film scores are meant to be.

Related image

In 2002, for the film’s 20th Anniversary, Steven Spielberg decided to re-release the film in cinemas for a limited exhibition. Unfortunately, a little golem named George Lucas must have been sitting on his shoulder, because Spielberg decided to emulate the Star Wars Special Editions and significantly alter E.T., replacing almost all of the on-set puppetry with CGI, adding two unnecessary deleted scenes back into the film, and in the most asinine change, digitally alter the guns of the government agents chasing the children into walkie-talkies. This version was also released onto a special DVD set along with the original version.

Image result for e.t. the extra-terrestrial special edition

Luckily, Spielberg has changed his tune over the years. He admits that these alterations were a mistake, and in each subsequent re-release onto home video, he has left the Special Edition in the dust and focused solely on the original cut. If you still wish to view it however, track down the 2-disc DVD from 2002. I trust that’ll be the only viewing you have of it before you come to the same conclusion as Spielberg did.

Related image

This review only came about because I finally had the pleasure of reintroducing E.T. to my video collection after it being absent for a decade. I’d almost forgotten how good of a film it is, how touching, how funny, how relatable. Even the “evil” government agent played by Peter Coyote seems to revel in the magic of E.T.’s presence on Earth during his talk with Elliott in the emergency tent. He displays a kind of childlike wonder and gratefulness to having this experience, even though he has tainted it with his government alignment. Needless to say, I was filled with that same wonder, even fistpumping the air as the kids made their escape on bicycles, with John Williams’ excellent track blaring in my living room. So many wonderful memories, so many happy tears. Thank you Steven Spielberg. It’s always nice to live that again.

REVIEW: The Goonies (1985)


Directed by Richard Donner
Written by Chris Columbus, Story by Steven Spielberg
Starring Sean Astin, Josh Brolin, Jeff Cohen, Corey Feldman, Kerri Green, Martha Plimpton, Jonathan Ke Quan, John Matsuszak, Robert Davi, Joe Pantoliano, Anne Ramsey, Lupe Ontiveros

Following in the mighty wake of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial were a string of similarly-toned adventure films, usually starring a scrappy group of preteen children embarking an adult-free quest. The Goonies happens to be probably the best of the ’80s examples of this specific sub-genre, due in no small part to the formidable trio of filmmakers in charge of the picture.

Mikey Walsh (Sean Astin) and Brandon Walsh (Josh Brolin) are brothers whose family is preparing to move because developers want to build a golf course in the place of their neighborhood — unless enough money is raised to stop the construction of said course, and that’s quite doubtful. But when Mikey stumbles upon a treasure map of the famed “One-Eyed” Willy’s hidden fortune, Mikey, Brandon, and their friends Lawrence “Chunk” Cohen (Jeff Cohen), Clark “Mouth” Devereaux (Corey Feldman), Andrea “Andy” Carmichael (Kerri Green), Stefanie “Stef” Steinbrenner (Martha Plimpton), and Richard “Data” Wang (Jonathan Ke Quan), calling themselves “the Goonies,” set out on a quest to find the treasure in hopes of saving their neighborhood.

That trio turned out to be Steven Spielberg himself and future Home Alone and Harry Potter director Chris Columbus crafting the film’s script, and Superman’s Richard Donner behind the camera as director. Together, you could say these three were the unofficial “grown-up Goonies,” with Spielberg especially palling around with the young cast on set. And why wouldn’t he? The Goonies is marked with expansive set pieces, charming performances, and an adventure that takes the audience into the highest realms of fancy.

The cast, studded with some of the biggest names in ’80s child stars, still impresses today. The younger members form both the heart and most of the humor of the film, evidenced in the Richie Tozier-prototype of Corey Feldman’s Mouth, and Jeff Cohen’s Chuck, as lovable a fat kid as there ever will be. Far from a sad reminder of at least some viewers’ hard childhoods, Chuck is riotous fun, always ready with the right comedic line–and a spoon for stolen ice cream. Ke Huy Quan, hot off Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, portrays Data, the tech-wiz of the Goonies, and provides another facet of the film’s unique funny bone: slapstick. With each gadget failing miserably or saving the day by the skin of its teeth–literally–Data injects some good old Looney Tunes laughs into the mix that strangely works.

Image result for the goonies

While the girls of the film are much more stereotypical (which may turn off some modern viewers, but at least they aren’t to the point of being offensive), the true heart of the Goonies lies within the main brothers, Mikey and Brand. Young Sean Astin portrays Mikey in an interesting melding of sickliness, thrill-seeking, and altruism that is very endearing. Brand, whom eagle-eyed viewers will notice is played by a youthful Josh Brolin, is first depicted as a wannabe meathead, definitely a caring brother but not very charismatic. Over the course of the film he evolves, taking the pleasure of joining his brother and their friends on an epic quest that will see him earn the girl of his dreams in Andy (Kerri Green).

Image result for the goonies

But as any of these films can attest to, you need a good villain to round out an adventure, and The Goonies gives us three: the Fratelli’s. Led by the oderous Mama Fratelli, played scowlingly by Anne Ramsey, this family of crime finds its muscle, but certainly not brains, in the interesting combo of the menacing Robert Davi and the bumbling Joe Pantoliano. They’re after the pirate treasure of One-Eyed Willie, a treasure that the Goonies seek to pay off their families’ debts to the local land developer and save their homes. Vintage ’80s, amiright?

Image result for the goonies

As the Goonies travel deep below the town, encountering trap after trap set by the long-gone Willie, the film takes on a wonderful mix of old-school pulp adventure and family-centric times. It helps that the production value is more than solid: it’s fantastic, with intricate Indiana Jones contraptions working against the little heroes and a massive pirate ship for the film’s exciting climax. Special props to the makeup department for the creation of the fan-favorite Sloth.

Image result for the goonies

When it comes down to it, The Goonies is solid entertainment. The performances are wonderful, the production is epic, the story is thrilling, what more can I say? Nothing, that’s what. And I’m certainly not gonna say die–a true Goonie just won’t.


REVIEW: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)


Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Steven Spielberg
Starring Richard Dreyfuss, Francois Truffaut, Melinda Dillon, Teri Garr, Bob Balaban, Cary Guffey

Sandwiched in between two of the greatest works of his career, Jaws and E.T. the Extraterrestrial, Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, while recognized as a significant and important film, doesn’t enjoy nearly as much popularity and exposure in pop culture as those other two films. This is quite the shame, as Close Encounters represents some of the finest work Spielberg has ever accomplished.

Cableman Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) is one of several people who experience a close encounter of the first kind, witnessing UFOs flying through the night sky. He is subsequently haunted by a mountain-like image in his head and becomes obsessed with discovering what it represents, putting severe strain on his marriage. Meanwhile, government agents around the world have a close encounter of the second kind, discovering physical evidence of otherworldly visitors in the form of military vehicles that went missing decades ago suddenly appearing in the middle of nowhere. Roy, the agents, and a desperate mother named Jillian (Melinda Dillon) follow the clues they have been given to reach a site where they will have a close encounter of the third kind: contact.

Coming hot off the mega success of Jaws, Spielberg turned his attention for his fourth effort to the stars, revisiting an old idea of his centered around the UFO phenomenon. After many un-credited rewrites from such writers as Paul Schrader, John Hill, David Giler, Hal Barwood, Matthew Robbins, and Jerry Belson, Spielberg’s pet project transformed from Watch the Skies, the story of a government agent’s attempts to contact aliens, to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, featuring the more decidedly blue-collar, everyman characters of Richard Deyfuss’s Roy Neary and Melinda Dillon’s Jillian Guiler. A most fortunate decision, as this shift into the ordinary Americana gives Close Encounters a wonderfully nostalgic flavor to complement its out-of-this-world premise.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Structured into three distinct acts, Close Encounters begins by introducing the three sets of main characters in the midst of some truly remarkable and unexplainable happenings. French director Francois Truffaut, in a rare acting role, plays an official named Lacombe, working with clandestine government agents who are beginning to discover signs that an extrasolar intelligence may be ready to make contact. At the same time, in the suburbs of Muncie, Indiana, Jillian Guiler’s young son Barry takes off into the night after unseen playmates from the sky, and Roy Neary experiences the fright of his life while on the roads during a power outage. Both of their extraordinary sightings change their lives completely, especially in the case of Roy, whose journey to learn the source of a persistent vision of a nameless mountain becomes the crux of the second act.

Image result for close encounters of the third kind barry

The first act is a masterclass of setup writing. Lacombe’s team are introduced in a mysterious Mexican set piece that adds to an already palpable sense of mystery and intrigue before an impressive transition takes the audience to an air traffic control room, where operators are held on the edge of their seats listening to a UFO encounter reported by two different commercial airliners. Much of the first half of the film is skillfully packed with the cultural zeitgeist of the UFO phenomenon and its corresponding conspiracy theories, making Close Encounters perhaps a sort of precursor to Chris Carter’s infamous television series The X-Files.

Image result for close encounters of the third kind royWhere Spielberg’s touch comes in is with the second act, displaying Roy’s descent into near madness by both the unshaking vision and his obsession with finding some shred of proof that he wasn’t just seeing things that night. Some of Spielberg’s most well-known narrative trademarks begin here, most notably the absent father, personified in Roy’s forsaking of family life in pursuit of the truth. These scenes, often juxtaposed with flashes of brilliant humor by Richard Dreyfuss and Teri Garr as his bewildered wife Ronnie, begin to set the film apart from its ufological brethren, which seem more concerned with blood-sucking monsters or evil humanoids bent on universal domination. Close Encounters is a film with two ambitions: to present as scientific and realistic a depiction of the UFO phenomenon as possible, and to provide a family drama that seems to exorcise some of Spielberg’s own personal demons.

Image result for close encounters of the third kind lacombe

The third act, seeing Roy and Jillian close in on a secret government operation by Lacombe’s team at Devil’s Tower, Wyoming, is where the sci-fi roots of the picture take center stage. For a good 40 minutes of the final runtime, Roy and Jillian are witness to Lacombe’s attempt to make contact with the aliens with the use of musical motifs that they have been using during their repeated visits to Earth. In this sequence, typical science fiction archetypes of natural technological progression and utopian ideals are married with Judeo-Christian symbolism to present Roy with the ultimate door to the Heavens. It’s an increasingly wonderful vision of cinema that just builds and compounds as the viewing unfolds.

Related image

Just as important as the narrative are the technical lords of the film, best personified in cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, special effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull, and composer John Williams. Zsigmond’s photography is vast array of landscapes, ranging from far-flung deserts with unexplainable sights to everyday suburban life, and not once does his camera falter and present an insincere image. On-set lighting effects, especially during the third act, blend convincingly with Trumbull’s work, which employs the same kind of lens flare-inducing spotlighting that would later make his work on Blade Runner so memorable. Undoubtedly, however, Williams would prove to be the MVP of the three, with a score that successfully combines eerie, alien drones and swells with his signature, classical orchestra sound. His score on Close Encounters is a marvel, and easily ties with the original Star Wars score for his best work.

Despite the sheer excellence of the film, Spielberg felt that it was compromised by a reduced schedule, and in 1980 successfully lobbied Columbia Studios to allow him to finish shooting several sequences to complete the picture. Released as the Special Edition, it incorporates seven minutes of new footage while deleting or reordering several sequences from the original theatrical version. The reordering works very well, spreading the disparate journeys of Roy and Lacombe evenly across the second act whilst trimming some unneeded fat. However, one sequence in particular, Roy’s destruction of his house by the introduction of all sorts of trash to build his Devil’s Tower replica, has been foolishly removed by a squeamish Spielberg. Even worse, Columbia required him to shoot a new ending depicting the interior of the mothership as Roy enters it, killing the mystery while stopping the perfect emotional climax cold. Luckily, Spielberg was as bothered by these choices as I was, and in 1998, released a third cut known as the Director’s Cut, incorporating most of the better Special Edition cuts and ordering while thankfully reinserting Roy’s trash collection and omitting the mothership interior. All versions are readily available on DVD and blu-ray in collector’s sets.

Related image

One of the earliest films I remember watching over and over again as a child was Close Encounters. The little astronaut in me couldn’t get enough to the alien ships buzzing overhead, and its Indiana suburban setting was almost identical to my Ohio home, which certainly helps me get all nostalgic watching it now. Along with Star Wars and later Blade Runner, I consider it to be one of my “cinematic parents,” forming in me a deep fascination and curiosity with the universe above my head. How appropriate it is that Close Encounters, as Spielberg has so often articulated, seems to be told from a youthful viewpoint, a sentiment best exemplified by Barry opening the door to welcome the alien travelers into his house. While his mother reacts with fear, Barry is unafraid, trusting the light as only a child can. Much can be said of the frankly unwise and hurtful effect Roy’s decisions had upon his family, but in the end, one has to put aside these adult notions and approach Close Encounters as young Barry would. This film is all about the childhood wonder of the world around us, and as Roy walks into the light, joining his metaphorical Gods as an orphan would his long-lost parents, I still shed tears of joy on my living room couch. It is a wonderful vision, and one I am unafraid to hang on to, forever.