MONSTER MASH: UTTERLY RANDOM EDITION

The theme for this Monster Mash is that there is no theme. That may be cheating, but I don’t care. This is a completely random selection of movies that have nothing whatsoever to do with each other. Beware of spoilers. Here we go!

Graveyard Shift (1990)

Graveyard Shift is based on Stephen King’s short story of the same name from his 1978 story collection Night Shift, and is one of several films based on stories from the book. Graveyard Shift tells the story of a Maine textile mill suffering from what could generously be called a rodent infestation. The movie expands on some aspects of the story, giving more details to the main characters and the town the mill is in, which depends on the mill to keep it going and can’t afford to have the mill closed.

Paramount Pictures

The mill is run by a corrupt and cruel foreman named Warwick, who pays off the building inspector to keep the mill open and runs the place with an iron fist. He rounds up a group of employees to clean out the mill’s filthy basement, and in the process the group discovers a warren of tunnels underneath the mill, and a grotesque bat-like monster that dwells beneath. The monster is gross and cool-looking, and hunts the hapless workers through the subterranean tunnels. It also suffers a grisly death when the protagonist traps it in a cotton picker and the beast is ground to bits.

People who suffer from claustrophobia or have an aversion to rodents should avoid this movie like the plague, although it’s a decent horror thriller. The acting is solid and the mill itself and the tunnels beneath it look appropriately worn-out and ancient. The mill looks like it would be a wretched place to work, especially at night, which makes the movie a bit depressing at times, but perhaps that’s the point. You might need a shower and a walk outside in the sunshine after watching this one.

The movie adds more detail to some aspects of the short story, but it also dumbs some of it down. The story has multiple kinds of mutated rats lurking in the basement, but the movie just has the giant rat/bat monster, as well as your garden-variety rodents. It’s too bad that the movie doesn’t have more variety in its icky antagonists, but the rat/bat monster is cool. Maybe that’s where all the special-effects budget went and there wasn’t anything left over, I dunno.

Graveyard Shift isn’t one of the more prestigious adaptations of Stephen King’s work, and won’t be mentioned in the same breath as King classics like The Shining, Carrie, or It. But Graveyard Shift still makes for a solid creature feature, as long as you have a high tolerance for creepy crawlies.

Pumpkinhead (1988)

Pumpkinhead was the directorial debut of the legendary Stan Winston, whose resume includes Terminator, Predator, Jurassic Park, Iron Man, Aliens, Avatar, and many more. It stars Lance Henriksen as Ed Harley, a man living a simple life in the country running a small grocery store with his young son Billy. Ed and Billy and their dog Gypsy are happy together until Billy is tragically killed when he is hit by a motorcycle driven by a guy named Joel, who is in the area camping with his friends, who are also present when Billy is killed. Joel is on probation for a similar motorcycle incident and refuses to let his friends contact the authorities.

Stricken with grief and rage, Ed takes Billy’s body to a supposed witch who lives in a dingy cabin in the middle of a swamp. She tells him she can’t bring Billy back to life, and Ed tells her he wants revenge. That’s something she can help him with, but warns him that vengeance comes with a terrible price. Ed decides to go through with it and the witch brings to life a spindly demon called Pumpkinhead which proceeds to hunt down not just Joel, but all of his friends with him, even though they were not responsible for what happened to Billy and tried to do the right thing in the wake of the accident.

As Pumpkinhead begins to hunt down Joel and the other campers, Ed experiences the beast’s murders through the monster’s eyes. He realizes he has made a terrible mistake and begs the witch to call the monster off. She replies that the monster will not stop until all of its targets are dead, and warns Ed that he will be killed as well if he attempts to stop it. Ed ignores her and attempts to help the surviving campers, leading to a series of tense confrontations with the relentless demon.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

As the monster kills more, Ed and the other survivors notice that Pumpkinhead’s face is becoming more human-looking and that it is beginning to resemble Ed’s face. This leads to the realization that Ed and the monster are connected, and Ed kills himself to stop the demon and save the remaining campers, dooming himself to become the next iteration of Pumpkinhead for the next poor soul who goes to the witch seeking vengeance.

Normally I don’t go into that much detail for the plot of a Monster Mash movie, but in this case I felt it was appropriate. For a film called Pumpkinhead, there is a surprising amount of emotional depth to the story. Ed has a strong character arc for the protagonist of an 80’s horror movie with a cheesy title. He goes from happy with his son to grieving at his son’s abrupt demise, he becomes fueled by vengeance and sets loose a demon upon the people who wronged him, only to realize he made a terrible mistake and that vengeance is not the answer, as well as realizing that his actions have doomed people who were not responsible for what happened to his son, and sacrifices himself to save them.

At every step of this process, Lance Henriksen does great work in making Ed a sympathetic protagonist, his actions are extreme but understandable given his emotional turmoil. The movie also engenders a lot of sympathy for Pumpkinhead’s victims, since most of them are good people who tried to do the right thing after Ed’s son was killed. Even the initially-despicable Joel begins to see the error of his ways.

Stan Winston is responsible for some of the most iconic and influential movie monsters of all time, and the spindly, demonic Pumpkinhead may be one of his most underrated creations. The beast is genuinely creepy and its murder spree, while not as graphic as slasher films like Friday the 13th, is still quite harrowing, made all the more so by the sympathy the viewer feels for its victims.

Pumpkinhead is a surprisingly great movie that absolutely deserves its status as a cult classic. Stan Winston died from cancer in 2008 at the age of 62. It’s a damn shame he didn’t get to direct more of his own films, since Pumpkinhead shows a lot of promise for a first-time director. But his many iconic creations will live on and continue to inspire generations of aspiring filmmakers, and for that we can all be grateful.

Jurassic Park III (2001)

JP3 is the black sheep of the Jurassic Park series, the awkward middle child of the family. There were the first two Jurassic Park movies made by Steven Spielberg, and then there were the more recent Jurassic World movies with Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard. Sandwiched haphazardly in between is Jurassic Park III, directed by Joe Johnston, who made the first Captain America movie, The First Avenger, in 2010.

JP3 is barely 90 minutes long, in sharp contrast to the other four films, all of which are around two hours long. That’s because JP3 has no plot. None. Some random kid disappears in the vicinity of one of the dinosaur islands, and original Jurassic Park protagonist Alan Grant, played once again by Sam Neill, is hired under false pretenses to help look for him. The movie tries to throw in a couple of extra wrinkles to the plot, all of which are predictable and do nothing to make the movie feel like a complete story.

Universal Pictures

All of that sounded harsh, so let me clarify: I don’t hate this movie. It’s reasonably well-made and entertaining, there are fun action sequences and the Stan Winston-created dinosaurs look great. Admittedly the bird-like velociraptors are kinda dopey and haven’t aged well, but the Spinosaurus is badass. But by the end of the movie, there’s no sense of having arrived anywhere, no feeling that anything important happened. It’s a reasonably diverting way to kill an hour and a half, but it’s no surprise that JP3 is the least-remembered film in the series.

Deep Blue Sea 2 (2018)

Deep Blue Sea 2 is the recent direct-to-video sequel to the original Deep Blue Sea. It stars no one you’ve ever heard of and looks like it cost about a buck-fifty to make. The back cover of the Blu-Ray mentions the events of the original film and makes it sound like the new one is a direct sequel, but in the movie itself there are no references to the original whatsoever and aside from a vaguely similar premise the two movies have nothing to do with each other.

I will admit to having a certain fondness for low-budget, straight-to-video sequels to movies that had wide theatrical releases, A-list stars, and much higher budgets. Such low-budget schlock can be quite a bit of fun, but sadly Deep Blue Sea 2 is mostly just boring. The film’s budget must have been so low that they could barely afford to put any actual sharks in the movie, CGI or otherwise.

Warner Bros.

This poster scene is a lie, by the way. It doesn’t happen in the movie. The characters wander endlessly through flooded hallways that all look exactly the same, with different colors of lighting being the only distinguishing feature. There’s no tension or suspense, the characters are boring and the plot, if you can call it that, is a rehash of the original. Honestly, the best thing about this movie is the ample and frequently-displayed cleavage of the lead actress. It’s like the makers of this cheapie knew there was nothing else of any interest going on or anything cool to look at, so they put the lead actress in a skintight, low-cut wetsuit for most of the movie. It’s better than nothing, I guess.

The Pyramid (2014)

The Pyramid is a found-footage movie with lots of jump scares. That sentence alone should be enough to dissuade many people from seeing this film, since people love to complain about jump scares and found-footage horror films. There has been a deluge of such films ever since the massive success of the first Paranormal Activity movie in 2007 and Cloverfield in 2008. It’s been a genre of increasingly diminishing returns since then, and The Pyramid is no exception. It’s not completely terrible so much as it is exceptionally average.

As with other found-footage movies, The Pyramid claims to document actual events, which of course it does not. The fake true events that comprise the film’s story surround the discovery of a pyramid in Egypt buried 600 feet beneath the surface of the desert. This pyramid is three-sided, unlike other pyramids, and a team of five people soon ventures inside. This turns out to be a BIG MISTAKE, as they soon find themselves lost and trapped within the dusty, dark confines of the ancient structure. They also discover that they are not alone.

The problem I have with these found-footage movies is that they’re all the same. Some people hear about some weird stuff going on somewhere and gear up to investigate, only to encounter something horrible and never be heard from again. The most influential movie in the genre is The Blair Witch Project, released in 1999, a film loved and hated in equal measure. The Pyramid is The Blair Witch Project with Egyptian trappings, and follows the exact same structure as you might expect, right down to the frustratingly ambiguous ending.

20th Century Fox

So why am I talking about this film during a Monster Mash? Well, the pyramid is full of emaciated, hairless, feral cats that have adapted to their dark confines and become rather vicious. They cause plenty of problems but the main reason The Pyramid counts as a monster movie is because of Anubis, the half-man, half-jackal Egyptian god who ushered souls into the afterlife. He does quite a bit of afterlife-ushering in this movie, and his pursuit of the hapless protagonists are the best scenes in the film. He looks cool and I like the fact that he’s the main antagonist. How many other films have an actual Egyptian god stalking people? Not many.

Anubis doesn’t make The Pyramid a good movie, but at least he makes it more interesting. The found-footage angle of this movie doesn’t even make sense. These kinds of movies are meant to be composed of footage shot by the characters themselves, and as such two of the people who venture into the pyramid are members of a documentary crew. You’d think that the movie would be entirely made up of their footage, but it isn’t. The movie cheats by frequently showing much of the action in the exact same way any other movie would, only using the found-footage conceit when it’s convenient. This renders the entire point of the found-footage thing moot.

The Pyramid is a decent scare-fest but it lacks originality and its scares are mostly predictable. Anubis is a cool antagonist but his inclusion is not enough to help the film rise from the depths of mediocrity. When the inevitable “History of Found-Footage Movies” book is written, The Pyramid will be little more than a footnote.

Spawn (1997)

Calling Spawn a monster movie is a bit of a stretch, since technically it’s a comic-book superhero movie. But it’s full of enough grotesque demons and hellspawn that I figure it counts as a monster movie. It’s right in the middle section of the Venn diagram of monster movies and superhero movies. It stars Michael Jai White as Al Simmons, a black ops operative who is betrayed and killed by his shady boss Jason Wynn (played by Martin Sheen) and sent to hell. In hell Al makes a deal with a demon called Malebolgia. Al agrees to serve Malebolgia and lead the armies of hell, and in return Malebolgia will allow him to return to Earth to see his wife again.

The demon inevitably screws Al over and soon Al becomes involved in a weird and frankly rather baffling plot. I haven’t read any of the Spawn comics, but I found the story of the film to be very hard to follow. Of course Al seeks revenge on the duplicitous Jason Wynn, but there are a bunch of other characters and subplots that are thrown around haphazardly and the movie feels cluttered and unfocused.

I’ve got to talk about the CGI in this movie. It’s awful. This film has some of the worst-looking CGI characters I’ve ever seen. The Malebolgia demon looks like something from a 90’s PlayStation game, the scenes that take place in hell look like they were created on a laptop, and the final battle is nearly incomprehensible. Maybe the effects looked OK to audiences in 1997, but they haven’t aged well at all. The Matrix came out two years later and still holds up well today, but the same cannot be said of Spawn’s pixelated hellscapes.

New Line Cinema

In contrast to the lousy CGI, the film’s practical effects are quite good. Spawn himself looks really cool, and not all of the film’s CGI is bad. There are some very cool shots of Spawn’s red cape billowing out behind him that I liked a lot. Michael Jai White is an accomplished martial artist in real life (he has seven black belts) and a badass actor. He makes Al a sympathetic protagonist, despite the fact that he spends most of the movie covered in layers of makeup that make him look a bit like The Thing from the Fantastic Four, but with third-degree burns.

New Line Cinema

But White isn’t the movie’s top-billed star. The first name in the credits is John Leguizamo, one of my least-favorite actors. I find him insufferably irritating in every movie I see him in, with the possible exception of John Wick. In Spawn Leguizamo plays a demon named Clown, a fat, crude, repulsive little creature who farts green clouds and eats maggot-filled pizza, and later transforms into an ugly monster called the Violator. He’s obnoxious and unpleasant, but from what I’ve read it’s a pretty accurate representation of the character from the comics. Still, I hated him. Maybe I was supposed to, but the fact remains that he drove me nuts.

Spawn is a profoundly flawed movie, but was still fairly influential in its own way. Its protagonist was one of the first African-American superheroes on film, and the film was one of the first superhero movies to be promoted largely based on the popularity of the then-recent comic book, with Spawn having made his first appearance in 1992. Spawn is a character that could really use a new cinematic incarnation, since special effects have now caught up to the ambitions of the filmmakers of the original movie. There has been talk of a new Spawn movie with Jamie Foxx in the title role and that could be very interesting, but we’ll have to wait and see if it actually happens.

On a personal note, I remember badly wanting to see this film in 1997 when I was nine years old, and my mom steadfastly refused to let me see it. At the time I thought this was a blatant act of wanton cruelty, but of course my mom was completely right in not letting me see it, because if I had seen Spawn when I was nine it would have traumatized me for weeks. Thanks, mom.

So there you have it, a bunch of fun if mostly forgettable movies that have nothing to do with each other. Most of the movies I talked about here weren’t that great, but I still had fun watching and writing about them. I’m not going to rank them because most of them weren’t very good and I feel like deciding which one was slightly better or worse would be pointless and arbitrary, but I will say that the best film on this list is Pumpkinhead, and is the only film discussed here that I would wholeheartedly recommend. So check that one out and skip the rest. I watched them so you don’t have to.

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MONSTER MASH: AQUATIC EDITION

Earlier this month I saw The Meg in theaters, and it got me thinking about monster movies with an aquatic setting. Sharks, carnivorous fish and slimy sea monsters await!

The Meg (2018)

The Meg is a movie that I wanted to see as soon as I heard about it, since it can be boiled down to “Jason Statham fights a giant shark.” The Meg is an unapologetically silly B-movie, but it’s an unapologetically silly B-movie with a nine-figure budget. It makes me happy that Hollywood is willing to spend that kind of money on cheesy creature features. 2018 has been a good year for such films, since it has also seen the release Of Rampage and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Both films are full of plot holes and people making monumentally stupid decisions, and I enjoyed them both immensely. The Meg follows suit, and once again, I had a lot of fun with it.

Warner Bros.

The Meg of the title is a gigantic prehistoric shark, now extinct. Or is it? In the movie, of course it is not. Jason Statham plays Jonas Taylor, who encountered the beast years ago during an underwater rescue operation. No one believed him at the time but it turns out he was right all along. The Meg is a very fun movie, the kind of movie whose flaws made me like it more. Take lines of dialogue like “that living fossil ate my friend!” as an example of things about this movie that are stupid that I still really liked. That was a poorly constructed sentence, but whatever.

The Meg was directed by Jon Turteltaub, best known for the National Treasure movies starring Nicolas Cage. Why have Nicolas Cage and Jason Statham never been in a movie together? Someone needs to make that happen. Turteltaub understands the inherently ridiculous nature of the film he’s directing, and wisely doesn’t take it too seriously. The film moves along briskly and the special effects are top-notch. There’s one bit during the climax that was so awesome it made me want to stand up and cheer. The Meg is a deeply silly movie, but it’s a very enjoyable slice of popcorn entertainment.

Humanoids From the Deep (1980)

In stark contrast to the large budget and A-list stars of The Meg, Humanoids from the Deep is a cheapie from infamous schlockmeister Roger Corman. It concerns the residents of a small fishing town who are set upon by the titular humanoids, who are the result of, you guessed it, a science experiment gone wrong. The movie is every bit as cheap and forgettable as its name implies, although the humanoids themselves look appropriately slimy and gross, thanks to Monster Mash regular Rob Bottin. The movie was directed by a woman named Barbara Peeters, which is surprising when you consider the amount of sexual exploitation present in the film.

New World Pictures

Apparently this was thanks to Corman, who didn’t think Peeters’ initial cut of the film had enough nudity, so he had the movie’s second unit director film additional scenes of the humanoids assaulting women and inserted them into the film without telling Peeters. Classy. With a title like “Humanoids from the Deep,” a certain degree of tastelessness is to be expected, but Corman’s sleazy additions to the film leave a bad taste in the mouth. Let’s forget this piece of junk and move on.

Piranha (1978)

Piranha is another Corman production, and as such contains the requisite amounts of gore and nudity, but thankfully this one isn’t as mean-spirited as Humanoids from the Deep. Piranha was directed by Joe Dante, who made The Howling a few years later. It was one of many films inspired by the huge success of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws in 1975, and is generally regarded today as one of the better Jaws ripoffs, including by Steven Spielberg himself.

New World Pictures

The hungry man-eating fish of the title are yet another failed experiment, this one a military operation wonderfully codenamed Operation Razorteeth, the goal of which was to produce a resilient strain of piranha that could inhibit the movement of the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. Operation Razorteeth was shuttered when the war ended, but some of the specimens survived and are unwittingly released early in the film. Wouldn’t you know it, directly in the hungry critters’ path are a summer camp for kids and a water park resort celebrating its grand opening and is chock-full of tasty human flesh.

Piranha is a fun creature feature, and it must have been tricky to make given the technology of the time and the challenges of filming in and around water. Unsurprisingly, the movie isn’t particularly scary, though I’d imagine it was pretty gory by 70’s standards. Piranha was remade in 2010 and while I haven’t seen the whole movie, I’ve seen enough bits and pieces of it on YouTube to know that the remake is FAR more graphic than the original. Let’s just say that my use of the phrase “bits and pieces” was not coincidental. Damn, that movie is not for the faint-hearted.

DeepStar Six (1989)

DeepStar Six was directed by Sean S. Cunningham, who directed the original Friday the 13th. Despite being responsible for one of the most infamous and influential slasher movies of all time, Cunningham’s deep-sea survival adventure is nowhere near as exploitative as one might expect. It was released the same year as a bunch of other water-based horror/survival movies, including Leviathan (covered in a previous Monster Mash) and James Cameron’s The Abyss, among others.

DeepStar Six follows the same basic structure as Leviathan, right down to the first hour of the movie being pretty boring. It takes more than an hour into the 99-minute movie for the creature to show up, and even then, it’s barely in the movie. It’s some kind of giant crustacean, which is awesome. Or it would be, if it were in the movie for longer than maybe five minutes.

TriStar Pictures

The film’s title refers to the experimental underwater US naval facility in which most of the action takes place. One of the biggest problems with the film is that it doesn’t do a good job explaining what the hell the point of the station is. I didn’t even realize it was a US naval facility until I read some plot summaries online. I spent most of the movie wondering what the protagonists were even trying to accomplish by being there in the first place. Maybe there was something obvious I missed, I dunno. The Meg also had this problem, since it was never clear what the purpose of the research facility in that film was either.

DeepStar Six isn’t a terrible movie, but it is a forgettable one. The acting is solid, the characters are mostly likable, the sets have a lived-in feel, and the special effects are decent for the time. But it ultimately fails to deliver the exciting monster action, which makes it a disappointment.

Deep Blue Sea (1999)

Deep Blue Sea is a hell of a fun movie. It’s best known for one scene, in which Samuel L. Jackson is giving a rousing speech to his fellow survivors about how they are all going to survive and escape their current dire predicament, only to be unexpectedly devoured mid-sentence by a giant shark. It’s a hilarious scene, and even though I knew it was going to happen I still got a kick out of it.

The rest of the movie is quite a bit of fun as well. It was directed by Finnish director Renny Harlin, whose resume includes hits like Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger, as well as notorious flops like The Legend of Hercules and Cutthroat Island, the latter of which is one of the biggest box-office bombs of all time. Deep Blue Sea was a pretty big hit in the summer of 1999, and is my favorite of the movies in this aquatic monster mash.

Warner Bros.

The plot concerns the inhabitants of an undersea laboratory called Aquatica, where Dr. Susan McAlester (played by Saffron Burrows) has been experimenting on the brains of mako sharks in order to develop a potential cure for Alzheimer’s and other degenerative brain diseases. Something about how shark brains don’t degrade over time like human brains do, I think. I have no idea if that is remotely plausible, but it makes for a fun movie so I’m not too picky.

Anyway, Dr. McAlester’s experiments have also increased the size of the sharks’ brains, which has had the side effect of making them extremely intelligent. I don’t know if that’s how brains work, but again, I don’t much care. Things inevitably go sideways and the facility becomes flooded, turning it into an all-you-can-eat buffet for the three hyper-intelligent sharks.

Renny Harlin has a bad reputation these days, but I’ve enjoyed the films of his that I’ve seen, although to be fair I haven’t seen Cutthroat Island or The Legend of Hercules. His films are cheesy but slickly made. The effects and acting in Deep Blue Sea are solid, although some of the CGI sharks look a bit cheesy. Saffron Burrows and Thomas Jane are likable protagonists that I did not want to get eaten. Jane plays Carter Blake, the facility’s mysterious and heroic shark wrangler. I’m not making that up, he’s called a shark wrangler in the movie. Think Chris Pratt in Jurassic World, except with sharks instead of velociraptors.

Deep Blue Sea is full of fun action, narrow escapes and suspense. There are also some quality pyrotechnics and a satisfyingly gory sharksplosion to close out the movie. What more could you ask for? Check it out, it’s great fun. It’s rated R “for graphic shark attacks, and for language,” which pretty much tells you everything you need to know. And I have to give a shoutout to my favorite aquatic monster movie, Stephen Sommers’ Deep Rising, which kicked off my monster movie binge. The movie recently got a brand-new Blu-Ray release, which is a must-have if you love that silly movie as much as I do.

Buena Vista Pictures

Here’s my ranking for aquatic monster movies, including the two I covered in my first monster mash.

1. Deep Rising
2. Deep Blue Sea
3. The Meg
4. Piranha
5. Leviathan
6. DeepStar Six
7. Humanoids from the Deep

See you next time!

MONSTER MASH: WEREWOLF EDITION

There are a lot of monster movies in the world, and I realized that it would be fun to do themed Monster Mash binges. I decided to start with werewolf movies, of which there are a surprisingly high number, many of which are available for viewing on Amazon Prime Instant Video. Yay! Let’s start with a classic.

The Howling (April 1981)

A surprising number of werewolf movies are based on books. Joe Dante’s 1981 film The Howling is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Gary Brandner, published in 1977. Dante is known for films that mix horror with a dose of black comedy, such as Gremlins and Gremlins 2: The New Batch.

The Howling is a very fun movie. The main character is Karen White, played by Dee Wallace, a TV news anchor who survives an encounter with a vicious serial killer named Eddie Quist at the start of the film. Quist is shot dead during the encounter…or is he?? (Spoiler Alert: he isn’t). Following the encounter, Karen and her husband Bill are sent by her therapist Dr. Waggner to the Colony, which is an experimental resort community in the countryside where Waggner sends patients for treatment. As a side note, Dr. Waggner was played by the late, great Patrick Macnee, a man who defined the word “dapper.” Macnee died in 2015 at the age of 93 and the world is a much less classy place without him.

Dr. Waggner’s intentions are less than therapeutic, however, as it turns out that everyone at the colony (including Waggner himself) is in fact…a WEREWOLF!! These include Eddie Quist, who is very much alive, and Quist’s werewolf transformation sequence is the movie’s crowning achievement. It takes about four minutes and the effects work still holds up today. The werewolves look hairy and smelly. They have long, spindly, clawed hands, pointy triangular ears and bulbous yellow eyes. They’re awesome.

MGM

The effects were done by Rob Bottin, a special makeup effects wizard who I’ve mentioned in previous posts when I talked about The Thing, Mimic, and Deep Rising. He’s also worked on Total Recall, RoboCop, Fight Club and Se7en, among many others. The plot of The Howling is nothing to write home about, but it’s an entertaining and creepy ride with fantastic makeup effects. It was followed by a whopping seven sequels, which I’m not going to watch because apparently (and unsurprisingly) they’re all pretty bad.

The Howling has a great ending, with Karen, after being bitten by a werewolf during the film’s climax, turning into a werewolf herself live on TV and then being shot and killed by her friend Chris. The movie then cuts to a bar where the patrons debate whether what they just saw was real or special effects. We then see that Marsha Quist, one of the werewolves, has survived. She orders a burger (rare, of course) and the end credits play over footage of the burger being cooked while upbeat jazz music plays.

If all that isn’t enough, then you should probably also be aware that this movie has a werewolf sex scene. If you’ve read all that and still don’t want to see this movie, then I’m sorry, there’s nothing more I can do for you.

Wolfen (July 1981)

Wolfen is another film that is based on a book. The book is The Wolfen by Whitley Streiber, published in 1978. Out of all the movies I watched for this post, Wolfen was by far my least favorite. It’s boring as hell. With a two-hour running time, it’s also the longest of the werewolf movies I watched, and it felt like it had the least going on.

The argument could be made that Wolfen isn’t even about werewolves. The Wolfen turn out to be Native American wolf spirits, I think. They’re not actually people that turn into wolf creatures. This was disappointing to me, especially since it takes most of the movie for this discovery to be made. There’s very little action and not much suspense.

Warner Bros.

The movie starts with a wealthy couple and their bodyguard being gruesomely murdered. NYPD Captain Dewey Wilson, played by Albert Finney, investigates the case. Finney seemed bored in this movie. He doesn’t emote much, and I don’t think he smiles once in the entire film. Edward James Olmos is also in the movie, and may or may not be a shapeshifter? It’s unclear, but there is a weirdly long scene where Olmos runs around naked on the beach in front of Finney and howls like a wolf, and Finney doesn’t seem to find this particularly strange.

I like the idea of a movie being based around police investigating murders that turn out to be supernatural in nature, but this movie just didn’t do it for me. Its pace is downright languid, and there are long stretches where dramatic music is playing while nothing interesting is happening. I don’t know, maybe I just didn’t “get” this one. Maybe it was too artsy for me. Maybe I had the wrong expectations. Whatever the case, I did not enjoy Wolfen.

An American Werewolf in London (August 1981)

As you may have gathered, 1981 was a big year for werewolf movies. An American Werewolf in London was the third high-profile wolf movie of that year, and hoo boy, they saved the best for last. An American Werewolf in London is the best werewolf movie ever made, a stone cold classic that has aged like a fine wine. I am going to be effusive in my praise of this wonderful film, so if I sometimes slip into profanity, I apologize for my French in advance.

Universal

That being said, An American Werewolf in London is a goddam masterpiece. It was written and directed by John Landis, best known for classic comedies like Animal House and Blues Brothers. It stars David Naughton and Griffin Dunne as David Kessler and Jack Goodman, two American friends backpacking across Europe. David and Jack have a relaxed, easy chemistry and it is immediately easy to believe that they have been friends for years.

They’re backpacking through the moors in Yorkshire and stop for the night at a pub called The Slaughtered Lamb. The patrons give them a frosty reception, so David and Jack decide to leave after being warned by the pubgoers to keep to the road, stay off the moors and beware the moon. David and Jack promptly ignore these warnings and are attacked by a wolf-like creature, which mauls Jack to death and injures David, before it is shot dead by the locals, who have had a change of heart and decided to go out after the hapless Americans.

David wakes up in a London hospital a few weeks later and learns from the police and his doctor the official story that David and Jack were attacked by an escaped lunatic. David insists it was a large dog or a wolf of some kind, but no one believes him. David is visited by Jack, who appears to him as a reanimated, mutilated corpse. Corpse-Jack tells David that they were attacked by a werewolf, and that David is now afflicted with the curse of the werewolf and will change at the next full moon. Jack urges David to kill himself to prevent him harming anyone, and also to free Jack from being cursed to roam the earth in limbo.

David doesn’t believe him, and moves in with his sexy nurse Alex Price, played very enticingly by Jenny Agutter. I don’t know why Jenny Agutter was never a Bond girl in the 80’s, she was sexy as hell. David and Alex begin a romantic relationship, and David ignores further warnings from Jack, who looks more rotten and decayed each time he appears. At the full moon, David turns into a werewolf and goes on a killing spree.

But just saying “David turns into a werewolf” is putting it far too simply. The transformation sequence is the best werewolf transformation ever put to film. It looks downright incredible, and is 100% practical, with no computer effects. It’s flawless. Upbeat music plays during the scene, which contrasts beautifully with the horrific and painful metamorphosis David undergoes, as his bones crack and his limbs contort themselves in unnatural ways, scraggly hair grows all over his body, his mouth and nose elongate, his teeth and nails become razor sharp, and his eyes turn a sickly yellow. David screams horribly the entire time, and the viewer is left thinking, Damn, it would SUCK to be a werewolf and have to endure that. Not only does the transformation look incredible, it also makes you sympathize with the character.

Universal

The masterful effects were done by Rick Baker, a now-retired effects genius who worked on dozens of films over a career that spanned from 1971 to 2014 and won seven Oscars. He was originally going to do the makeup effects on The Howling but left that film to work on American Werewolf, leaving the job to his protégé Rob Bottin. Bottin did fantastic work on The Howling but Baker’s work on American Werewolf is second-to-none. It holds up to this day and will look every bit as good 20 or 30 years from now. Absolutely classic stuff. Baker’s work on Jack, who looks grosser and more zombie-like with each appearance, is also nothing short of amazing.

John Landis remains best known for comedy, so it should come as no surprise that American Werewolf is frequently very funny. I had to pause the movie a few times because I was chuckling so hard. When a little boy tells his mother, “A naked American man stole my balloons,” hysterical laughter is the only response. There are many other riotously funny lines, like when David tells zombie-Jack “I will not be threatened by a walking meatloaf!” and David’s attempts to get arrested once he realizes he is in fact a werewolf, when he runs up to a London police officer and starts shouting things like “Queen Elizabeth is a man! Winston Churchill was full of shit! Shakespeare’s French!” that had me laughing my ass off.

But aside from its enormous entertainment value, American Werewolf has great characters. David and Jack are immediately likable, and David is easy to sympathize with. I liked nurse Alex and was rooting for her and David, and the film’s ending, where Alex tells wolf-David she loves him just before he’s shot to death by the police, is surprisingly moving. The performances are great across the board and David Naughton is a hoot, and you’ve got to give him credit for having the guts to do the hilarious scene where he runs around the London zoo completely naked after waking up in the wolf cage the morning following his first killing spree. The soundtrack is full of ironically upbeat songs with names like Moondance, Bad Moon Rising, and Blue Moon. I love this movie so much.

American Werewolf was followed by a belated sequel in 1997 called An American Werewolf in Paris which I would have watched for this post but it’s not on Amazon Video so I couldn’t. But from what I understand I’m not missing much, since that film’s reputation is not very good. But it’s a minor loss, because An American Werewolf in London is fucking awesome. It’s funny, sexy, gory, tense, well-acted, and has incredible special effects. It’s the kind of movie that makes me happy to be alive, because movies like it exist.

Fucking great movie.

Silver Bullet (1985)

Silver Bullet is also based on a book. This time, it’s the Stephen King novel Cycle of the Werewolf, which was published in 1983 (King himself wrote the movie’s screenplay). If you’ve never heard of Cycle of the Werewolf, I’m not surprised because it’s more of a novella than a novel (or a “novelette” as the movie’s credits put it, although I’ve never heard that term before). The book is all of 128 pages long, and of those 128 pages, only 54 have actual text on them (I counted).

Each of the book’s 12 chapters takes place during a different month, on that month’s full moon, when a resident of the small town of Tarker’s Mills meets a grisly end. The book even has illustrations from comic-book artist Bernie Wrightson, and is basically a gory picture book.

The movie follows the book’s (admittedly thin) story pretty closely. The protagonist is Marty Coslaw, a paraplegic who uses a wheelchair to get around. In the book he’s 10 years old, and in the movie he’s closer to 13 or 14, and is played by Corey Haim, who died in 2010. Marty is a likable protagonist who doesn’t let his disability define him. In the movie, he has a motorized wheelchair called Silver Bullet that was made for him by his Uncle Red, played by Gary Busey.

The werewolf attacks are obviously the best parts of the movie and are quite gory. There’s a decapitation in the first five minutes so you know you’re in for a good time. The makeup effects that create the werewolf are also pretty good, and the obligatory werewolf transformation sequence is well done, although not as good as An American Werewolf in London or The Howling.

Paramount

The werewolf turns out to be Reverend Lester Lowe, the town priest. This gives a layer of irony to the scenes that show the Reverend officiating over the funerals of people he killed as a werewolf. The werewolf is a more convincing villain than Lowe himself, since the movie doesn’t give any background regarding how Lowe became afflicted with lycanthropy, so the reveal of the werewolf’s true identity doesn’t have much impact.

Silver Bullet is still an enjoyable creature feature though, with well-executed werewolf makeup effects and solid performances. It’s not particularly scary and is very much a relic of the 80’s, and all the clothes and hairstyles are universally hideous. These days it’s one of the more obscure entries in Stephen King’s film oeuvre, but it’s still worth checking out, even though you could probably read the book in about the same amount of time it would take to watch the movie.

Bad Moon (1996)

Bad Moon is yet another film based on a book. This time the book in question was called Thor, written by a guy named Wayne Smith. I hadn’t heard of the book or the movie before I started looking for werewolf movies to watch, and since the film is only 80 minutes long I decided to check it out. Thor is a German Shepherd, and apparently much of the book is told from his perspective. He is fiercely devoted to protecting his family, which in the film consists of Janet Harrison and her son Brett, who is around twelve.

Janet is surprised when she hears from her brother Ted, whom she hasn’t heard from in a while. He invites her and Brett over to have lunch with him and tells them that his girlfriend broke up with him. She invites him to stay with them for a few days, which he reluctantly accepts. However, Ted is being less than truthful with Janet, because in the first scene of the film we see Ted’s girlfriend killed by a werewolf and Ted himself is bitten before he blows the monster’s head off with a shotgun. As a result, Ted is now a werewolf.

Thor the heroic German Shepherd immediately senses something is off with Ted, and one night follows Ted into the woods where he discovers that Ted is a werewolf. But because Thor is, you know, a dog, he can’t warn his family of the danger they are in. Ted becomes aware that Thor is on to him, which sets up the main source of tension in the film.

Warner Bros.

I like this setup a lot. It’s a unique take on the traditional werewolf story, and the dog gives the best performance in the film. Michael Pare and Mariel Hemingway are both good as Ted and Janet, but the dog steals the movie. I read that three dogs were used during filming, the main one was a dog named Primo, who must have been incredibly well-trained. His reactions are spot-on and everything he does is entirely believable. It’s extraordinary that the filmmakers were able to get such a convincing performance from a dog. Somebody give Primo a Dogscar (you know, like a Dog Oscar).

The werewolf itself is mean-looking and ferocious, and the gory killings are quite brutal. The movie had to be edited down to an R-rating after it initially received an NC-17, so there is some serious gore. While the werewolf looks good, Ted’s transformation sequence is disappointing, since it uses unconvincing computer effects.

The movie is short, but the brief running time means that there is no wasted space in the movie and that everything there is there for a reason. Bad Moon is inessential werewolf cinema, but it’s still entertaining and worth checking out for the award-worthy canine acting and cool-looking monster.

Dog Soldiers (2002)

Dog Soldiers is aptly named. It follows a group of six British soldiers on a training exercise in the Scottish Highlands, where they encounter a vicious group of lycanthropes and end up trapped in a remote farmhouse fighting for their lives. The film was the writing and directing debut of Neil Marshall, an English director known for his ultra-gory action and horror films, such as The Descent, Doomsday, and Centurion. He also directed two of the most action-packed episodes of Game of Thrones, “Blackwater” and “The Watchers on the Wall”.


Kismet Entertainment Group

Dog Soldiers was a low-budget production, and it shows. The movie has a grimy look and mostly takes place in a single location. This works to the movie’s advantage however, because Dog Soldiers is the scariest and goriest film I watched for this edition of Monster Mash. Marshall is a crafty director who knows how to build suspense and tension with limited resources, and the werewolf attacks in Dog Soldiers are visceral and intense. My heart was pounding by the time the film ended.

The other films I’ve written about here have been gory, but Dog Soldiers substantially ups the gore factor. There are gallons of blood, viscera, and body parts. Dismemberment, decapitation, disembowelment: you name it, it’s here. Marshall’s films and TV work treat the human body as a canvas to be painted in buckets of red.

It’s not all blood and gore though, the movie has its share of dark humor. Take, for example, one soldier’s last words to the werewolves before they tear him apart: “I hope I give you the shits, you fucking wimp!” The end credits show a bloodied photo of the sole survivor on the front page of the newspaper, accompanied by the lurid headline: “WEREWOLVES ATE MY PLATOON!”

The main characters are played by Kevin McKidd, Sean Pertwee and Liam Cunningham, all of whom are veteran actors whose names you might not recognize but would probably recognize if you saw them onscreen and heard their voices. The werewolves themselves look good even if their movements look a bit awkward, which is probably why Marshall wisely keeps them offscreen for most of the movie. It’s impressive that the movie maintains such a high level of intensity even though the monsters are rarely seen in their entirety. Horror directors working with low budgets could learn a lot about how to build and maintain tension from Neil Marshall. He’s very clever, despite his tendency to drench the screen in buckets of gore.

So there you have it, six werewolf movies of varying quality. My rankings for them are as follows:

1. An American Werewolf in London
2. Dog Soldiers
3. The Howling
4. Bad Moon
5. Silver Bullet
6. Wolfen

I had a ton of fun watching and writing about these movies, and I’m excited to do more! Next post is going to be about Ant-Man and The Wasp, so keep an eye out for that later this week.

Until then, remember: keep to the roads, stay off the moors, and most importantly…

…BEWARE THE FULL MOON!!!

MONSTER MOVIE BINGE!! (AKA SUMMER MONSTER MASH)

I love monster movies. If a movie is full of creatures, I’m good and happy. Recently I discovered how easy it is to watch movies on Amazon Video that might be hard to find on Blu-Ray, and I’ve been on a tear of highly-entertaining creature features. Here are a few of my favorites, because there is never a bad time to watch people get eaten by tentacle monsters.

Deep Rising (1998)

Deep Rising was written and directed by Stephen Sommers, who went on to make The Mummy, The Mummy Returns, Van Helsing, and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. The movie was originally called “Tentacle.” These two facts should tell you what kind of movie Deep Rising is: it’s not remotely scary, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

The main character is Finnegan, played by Treat Williams. The producers wanted Harrison Ford, but he turned them down. The character is clearly inspired by Han Solo, except instead of a spaceship, he has a boat. He and his crew are hired by a shady group of mercenaries for some nefarious purpose that is not immediately clear, but as long as the pay is good Finnegan doesn’t particularly care what the job is.

This is a practice he will come to regret, because wouldn’t you know it, the mercenaries’ target is a state-of-the-art cruise ship which just so happens to be completely infested with slimy, sharp-toothed tentacle monsters.


Image: Buena Vista Pictures

There are a few more wrinkles in the plot, but it’s pretty rudimentary stuff. The various mercenaries are picked off in grisly ways, and there are a few survivors on the boat, one of whom is played by Famke Janssen, fresh off the success of GoldenEye a few years previously, and two years away from another hit with X-Men in 2000.

The creatures are mostly CGI, and while they do look somewhat dated by today’s ridiculously high special effects standards, they still look pretty good. The look of the creatures is fairly basic, they’re essentially tentacles with sharp-toothed maws at the end, but hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Is it weird that I had a lot of fun watching the mercenaries get eaten and dismembered? Because I really did. The movie is goofy and gory and predictable, and I enjoyed it immensely.

The Relic (1997)

The main thing people tend to remember about The Relic is that it’s really, really dark. Not “dark” as in “thematically dark”, like it deals with weighty issues and themes. “Dark” as in “lost in the woods in the middle of the night without a flashlight” dark. For much of the movie, it’s kind of hard to see.

This is both a good thing and a bad thing. On the one hand, not being able to see clearly can create tension, since you don’t know where the monster is going to come from if you can’t see much. On the other hand, watching a movie carries with it the completely reasonable expectation to be able to see what’s going on.

So yeah, The Relic is a bit of an oddity in that regard. It’s still enjoyable though, and it’s definitely scarier than Deep Rising, though not as much fun. The movie was based on the best-selling novel by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, which I haven’t read. The basic plot summary is: ancient South American monster runs amok at museum gala opening in Chicago.

The monster in question is the Kothoga, a massive, wheezing monstrosity that rips people’s heads off and eats the hypothalamus in their brains. That’s a thoroughly nasty way to kill someone, and The Relic features some gruesome kills that are genuinely disturbing, but also kind of funny in a macabre sort of way.

Image: Paramount Pictures

The main human characters are Vincent D’Agosta, a police detective played by Tom Sizemore, and Dr. Margo Green, the museum’s evolutionary biologist, played by Penelope Ann Miller. Sizemore and Miller are likable leads and the only people in the movie I did not want to get eaten. The Kothoga claims quite a few victims, and most of them I didn’t care about, either because they were jerks or I didn’t know who they were.

The Kothoga itself was designed by legendary makeup artist Stan Winston, and as a result it looks pretty great. The Relic was directed by Peter Hyams, who would later make the utterly insane 1999 Arnold Schwarzenegger thriller End of Days, which I covered in a previous post a few years ago.

I don’t know about you, but I definitely wouldn’t want my head ripped off and part of my brain eaten by a wheezing, reptilian beast, and that thought alone gives The Relic a lot of weight in the horror department that the popcorn thrills of Deep Rising can’t provide. If you want an action movie, watch Deep Rising. If you want a horror movie, watch The Relic.

Leviathan (1989)

Leviathan is probably my least favorite movie in this first round of Monster Movie Binge, but it’s still fun. It stars Robocop himself, Peter Weller, as a geologist supervising an underwater mining operation. The crew comes across the wreck of a Russian ship called Leviathan, which holds a deadly secret.

An underwater base is a good location for a monster movie, since the characters have very limited options once the tentacles show up. The monster turns out to be the result of Russian experiments with mutagens on the crewmen of the Leviathan, and they scuttled the ship once the experiment got out of control. The same mutagens infect Weller’s crew, and a mutant that looks sort of like an angler fish with human faces sticking out of it starts running amok, killing and assimilating the various crew members. Angler fish are creepy as hell by the way, google them if you don’t believe me.

Image: Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer

The main problem with Leviathan is that it feels very derivative. It’s basically Ridley Scott’s Alien meets John Carpenter’s The Thing, only underwater. It’s also a bit too leisurely, since it takes about an hour into the 98-minute movie for the monster to really start causing havoc. It was directed by George P. Cosmatos, who made one the quintessential American action movies in 1985 with Rambo: First Blood Part II. His foray into horror wasn’t as successful, but it’s still worth checking out for monster fans. It’s got another monster designed by Stan Winston, so at least it delivers in that department.

Mimic (1997)

Okay, so I wrote the entries for Deep Rising and The Relic before I saw Guillermo Del Toro’s deeply unsettling English-language debut, Mimic. If you can’t stand creepy-crawlies or the words “mutant cockroaches” are enough to make you reach for the barf bag, you will want to stay VERY FAR AWAY from Mimic. It is easily the scariest movie I’ve watched in Monster Movie Binge so far.

As the movie opens, a disease called Strickler’s disease is killing hundreds of children in Manhattan (you know things are serious when a movie starts with a DISEASE THAT ONLY KILLS CHILDREN). Deputy CDC Director Dr. Peter Mann (played by Jeremy Northam) and entomologist Dr. Susan Tyler (played by Mira Sorvino) work together to create what Susan calls the Judas Breed, a genetically-engineered insect which will release an enzyme that causes the metabolism of the Strickler’s disease-carrying roaches to accelerate, thereby causing them to starve to death.

The plan works, Strickler’s disease is eradicated, and Peter and Susan get married. But three years later, all is not as it seems. The Judas Breed were supposed to die off after a couple months, but they have not only survived, they have thrived, and are far more dangerous (and numerous) than anyone could have imagined.

This movie got under my skin. It is a truth universally acknowledged that cockroaches are vile and disgusting, and they get so much worse when they are human-sized and have developed the ability to imitate humans.

Image: Miramax Films

ICK ICK ICK NO NO NO.

Del Toro didn’t have a good experience making Mimic, since he frequently clashed with producers Bob and Harvey Weinstein (yes, that Harvey Weinstein). The Weinsteins were so difficult that for a long time Del Toro disowned the film, until he was able to put together a director’s cut, which was released in 2011 and is the version he prefers. This is the version I watched, and it is damn effective. I was cringing away from my computer screen for most of the movie.

Due to its gruesome subject matter, this is not a film that will be to every viewer’s taste. I liked it overall and appreciate the craftsmanship of it (one of the creature designers was Rob Bottin, who worked on The Thing, which has some of the coolest and grossest monsters in cinematic history), but I am in no hurry to watch it again. It’s harrowing. Still it shows why Del Toro’s name has come to be synonymous with monster movies.

So there you have it, Monster Movie Binge Part One. I’ve got more creature-filled flicks on my watch list, and there’s no time like the present to watch a monster movie.

Deadpool 2: Family is Not an F Word

Family may not be an F word, but there are plenty of other F words is Deadpool 2. It’s ironic that a movie so full of brutal violence, profane language, and raunchy humor can feel so refreshing, but such is the case with Deadpool 2, which, like its 2016 predecessor, does not give a damn about being politically correct. This may be a superhero movie based on a popular Marvel comics character, but this is not a movie to take the kids to.

Images: 20th Century Fox

Deadpool 2 presents the continued misadventures of Wade Wilson, the “Merc with a Mouth,” the self-aware, superpowered killing machine with an endless sarcastic streak and terminal cancer, although his advanced healing powers keep his cancer at bay and also make him basically unkillable.

Not that that prevents anyone from trying. Through the course of the movie, Wade is shot, stabbed, sliced, punched, thrown through walls and windows, blown up, eviscerated, and even literally ripped in half. He survives it all and always has a quip to spare.

The plot this time around doesn’t have the immediacy of the original film, but it still provides plenty of fuel for often hilarious hijinks. The antagonist is Cable, a time-traveling cyborg assassin from the future who comes back in time to kill a teenage boy named Russell, in order to prevent him from doing some bad stuff in the future. Wade takes it upon himself to protect Russell, and mayhem ensues. If that synopsis sounds familiar then you’ve probably seen Terminator 2. It’s exactly the same thing.

Deadpool 2 may not be quite as fresh as its predecessor, but its still quite a bit of fun. Cable is played by Josh Brolin, who you may remember played the infamous Thanos in Avengers Infinity War, which came out less than a month ago. He’s been busy, and he’s quite good in Deadpool 2 as well, although Cable doesn’t get as much character development as Thanos.

Wade of course calls Cable Thanos at one point, leading to confused looks from the other characters. Part of what makes Deadpool so popular is his self-awareness, which means that he knows he’s a character in a movie or comic book or what have you, and will frequently break the fourth wall and directly address the audience. The movie is very funny, and judging from the raucous laughter in the theater where I saw it last week, I’m not the only one who thinks so.

It is impossible to talk about Deadpool without talking about Ryan Reynolds, who was born to play Wade Wilson. He’s so perfect in the role that not only is it impossible to imagine anyone else playing the character, it almost seems like Deadpool and Reynolds are the same person sometimes. Seriously, it’s uncanny. If you haven’t seen it, you should watch Reynolds’ recent in-character appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. It’s hilarious and takes the movie’s meta self-awareness to a whole new level. It’s been a joy to see the trailers and commercials for the movie, they’re all very funny and creative. It must be a dream job to think of ways to advertise this movie, since you’d be able to let your imagination run wild.

Reynolds also has a screenwriting credit, along with returning writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. There are several lines of dialogue that are different in the movie and in the trailers, which makes me think that there were so many good lines that they couldn’t cram them all in the movie, so they put the best ones in the movie and some of the leftovers in the trailers. The deleted scenes on the Blu-Ray should be hilarious.

It’s also worth mentioning that the Deadpool costume Reynolds wears in both movies is 100% perfect. Not only is it completely faithful to the character’s comic book appearance, it just looks fantastic on screen. It has a certain grimy quality to it, it’s not always bright and shiny. It has a lived-in feel, which subtly helps sell all the gruesome punishment that Wade endures. Wolverine’s classic yellow-and-blue costume may look good on a comics page, but there’s a reason Hugh Jackman never wore it in any of the more than half-dozen movies in which he played Wolverine. It wouldn’t look good on the big screen, whereas Deadpool’s red-and-black costume translates perfectly to cinema.

The movie was directed by David Leitch, who made Atomic Blonde and co-directed the first John Wick. He’s a veteran stunt coordinator who knows how to deliver kinetic, bone-crunching action. The action sequences in Deadpool 2 are white-knuckled and exciting, particularly a show-stopping truck chase that is one of the best vehicular action sequences I’ve seen since Mad Max: Fury Road. He’s also good at mixing the action with the humor, particularly in the lead-up to the big truck chase, where most of Deadpool’s newly-recruited team meets a variety of grisly ends, in one of the movie’s best and most gruesome gags.

As enjoyable as the movie is, it is of course not perfect. It’s a bit of a mess tonally, and can’t always seem to decide whether it wants to be serious or goofy, at times trying for both and ending up with neither. The plot is a bit formulaic and lacks the immediacy of the first film’s single-minded quest for revenge (MUST. KILL. FRANCIS.). There are more characters this time around, which makes the film a bit unwieldy, although many of the new characters are promptly offed in various creative and grisly ways.

Post-credits scenes in Marvel movies are nothing new, but Deadpool 2 has probably the best post-credits scene in any movie ever. It’s too good to spoil, so let’s just say that Wade takes it upon himself to correct some past mistakes, with hysterical results.

The Deadpool movies are violent and vulgar and most likely not to every viewer’s taste, but I’d be lying if I said the vulgarity wasn’t part of the appeal. If 20th Century Fox keeps making R-rated superhero movies this wildly entertaining, I’ll happily keep watching them.

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is an Incendiary Masterpiece

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is a game that I did not think would exist. At the end of the previous game, 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order, I was pretty sure the game’s hero, William Joseph Blazkowicz, known to most of his friends as BJ, was dead. The announcement of the Wolfenstein II earlier this year took me completely by surprise, and I was thrilled at the chance to play another fun Nazi-blasting adventure, but I was possibly even more excited to discover that BJ had survived.

Image: Bethesda

This level of attachment to a video-game protagonist is rare for me. Wolfenstein: The New Order surprised me by how well-written it was, by how well the characters were developed and how fully-realized the game’s world was. For a game that featured a level set aboard a Nazi moon base, The New Order was shockingly good at getting the player to care about its characters. Even without the likable characters and strong world-building, The New Order still would have been a fun adventure. But the game’s creators went the extra mile in expanding on the characters and lore of the game’s universe, which made for a much richer experience.

Wolfenstein II takes all of that and dials it up to eleven. Right from the start of the new game, I was deeply invested in the story, and I cared a lot about BJ and his relationships. At the end of The New Order, BJ defeated the hideously evil Nazi General Wilhelm “Deathshead” Strasse, but was grievously injured in the process. So badly injured that, as I stated above, I thought he was toast. Wolfenstein II opens with BJ being found by his allies and stitched back together. BJ awakens months later after having been in a coma, and at first, he can’t even walk. For the first section of the game, the player controls BJ in a wheelchair.

From the very beginning, the game emphasizes BJ’s vulnerability. He’s not the same man he was in The New Order. His body is broken, and he can only walk at the start of the game once he gets a set of badass power armor. Even then, the game reminds the player how vulnerable BJ is by setting his max health at 50, half of what is usually is. The message is clear: BJ is in trouble.

This is made all the more clear once it is revealed that Anya, BJ’s girlfriend from The New Order, is pregnant with twins. For the first half of the game, BJ doesn’t want to spend time with her, since he knows how broken his body is and doesn’t have the heart to tell Anya that she’ll have to raise their kids by herself, since he’s sure he’s going to die.

Image: Bethesda

That’s heartbreaking. If you’ve never played a Wolfenstein game before, I really need to emphasize how remarkable all of this is because everything else in these games is absolutely ludicrous. The New Order and The New Colossus take place in the 1960’s after the Nazis won World War II. They were able to do this by using technology invented by the Da’at Yichud, an ancient organization of, basically, Jewish science magicians. This technology enabled the Nazis to create energy weapons, computer AI’s, and advanced armor and robots that the Allies could not defeat. The irony that, in the game’s universe, the Nazis won the war using reverse-engineered Jewish technology is very apparent. The games are full of giant Nazi robots, spaceships, and robot dogs. They’re utterly ridiculous.

So it is quite extraordinary that the games put so much effort into getting the player to care about its characters. It also helps that BJ is voiced by an actor named Brian Bloom, who gives one of the best vocal performances I’ve ever heard in a video game. He’s soulful and introspective, while still being a stone-cold badass. BJ looks quite a bit like the Houston Texans’ JJ Watt, or perhaps the New England Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski. BJ’s first appearance was in Wolfenstein 3D in 1992, in which he was simply a vehicle for killing Nazis. Part of this is due to the limited technology available to game developers at the time, but it is still nothing short of amazing that the new series of Wolfenstein games are able to turn him into a flesh-and-blood human being.

We learn a lot more about BJ’s past in Wolfenstein II. It turns out that his mother was Jewish and his father was abusive and racist. There’s a flashback sequence early in the game in which BJ’s mother hides him in the closet when his father gets home and his father angrily berates her because BJ befriended a black girl. BJ’s father hits his mother and takes BJ to the basement, where he explains his belief that other inferior races need the white man to save them. He then ties BJ’s hands to a sawhorse and forces him to shoot his dog with a shotgun.

This happens within minutes of starting the game. Wolfenstein II is not messing around. BJ encounters his father again in the present, where he learns that his mother was sent to a concentration camp because she was Jewish. BJ’s father is unrepentant and states his intention to turn BJ over to the Nazis, and BJ kills him. Wolfenstein II is a game in which the player character kills his own father, and it feels like an incredibly cathartic moment.

The relationship between BJ and his pregnant girlfriend Anya is extraordinary. Anya loves BJ and is the only person in the game who calls him William. I’ve played a lot of video games, and Wolfenstein II might be the only one in which I felt like two characters actually loved each other. I cared so much about BJ and Anya. There’s a scene late in the game in which Anya, heavily pregnant and already covered in Nazi blood, blasts more Nazis with a machine gun in each hand while BJ watches on in amazement, and I thought, these kids are meant for each other. BJ proposes to Anya at the end of the game, and one of the many reasons I hope there’s a Wolfenstein III in a few years is to see them get together.

The game’s villain is thoroughly despicable. Her name is Frau Engel, and she already has a bone to pick with BJ after the events of The New Order. She’s sadistic and vicious, at one point beheading one of BJ’s friends and dangling the severed head in front of his face while making kissing noises. She also has a chubby daughter named Sigrun, who does not follow her mother’s evil ways. Sigrun is kind and ends up joining BJ’s side and helping the rebels fight the Nazis.

Image: Bethesda

One would think that fighting to free America from Nazi control would unequivocally be a good thing, and it is, but Wolfenstein II also takes pains to show that the situation is not black and white. At one point while I was playing, after killing a few enemies in one area, going somewhere else, and then returning to the original area, I encountered more Nazis. They were talking, and before I started blasting them I stopped to listen to their conversation. One of them was expressing his shock that one of his friends had recently been killed (presumably by me), because he was just about to get married. “How am I going to tell his fiancée?” the Nazi exclaimed. This actually made me feel bad about killing Nazis in a video game. I have killed many Nazis in many video games, and not once have I ever felt bad about it. Not until Wolfenstein II.

If it wasn’t already clear, Wolfenstein II is a game with balls. It is not afraid to go to places most video games wouldn’t and I’m not just talking about the story and the characters. The entire game is politically charged, and almost frighteningly relevant to the current political climate. Most games shy away from this sort of thing, but Wolfenstein II charges into it with a full head of steam. In one level, BJ is on an undercover mission on the streets of Roswell, New Mexico, and there are fully-hooded Klansmen walking around in the street. You’re probably getting tired of hearing me say stuff like this, but I have never seen this in a game before. Later on, some of the enemies you fight are Klansmen, and Wolfenstein II is the only game I have ever played that lets you plant an axe in a Klansman’s neck.

Image: Bethesda

Later on, the player encounters Adolf Hitler himself. Hitler is an old man at this point, and he’s clearly more than a little senile. He waves a gun around and shoots people at random, pisses in a bucket and at one point collapses into the fetal position and cries for his mother. It’s a provocative scene, made even more so by how plausible it is. At the time period in which the game takes place, Hitler has had absolute power for decades, and he has become a coddled dictator who is used to getting whatever he wants. He’s well on his way to being insane (if he’s not there already) and everyone has to act like he’s infallible for fear of being shot in the face. By the way, the entire Hitler scene takes place on a Nazi base on the planet Venus, and it is incredible that the fact the Hitler scene takes place on Venus is not the craziest thing about it.

Image: Bethesda

“When you take freedom away from the American people, you are playing with fire,” BJ says to a fellow revolutionary. “And I intend to pour gasoline all over that fire.” A game like Wolfenstein II takes 2-3 years to make, so it’s not like the game’s developers saw what was happening in the news over the past couple months regarding Nazis and white supremacists and decided to put all of this politically-charged stuff in the game. It was already there to begin with. The developers have stated that the game was not intended to be a commentary on current events, but the fact that it feels like one is a testament to the strength of the game’s writing. Also, the development company that made Wolfenstein II is Swedish. Think about that.

It’s so refreshing in this era of political correctness to encounter something that does not give a damn about being politically correct. Wolfenstein II’s primary advertising tagline was “Make America Nazi-Free Again.” I love how the game’s marketing was so brazenly unconcerned about not pissing people off. And the game has drawn criticism from alt-right whackos who say it unfairly associates them with Nazis, but the game’s creators did not care and nothing about the game or its marketing was changed, which makes me love it all the more. The game’s story ends with BJ and his friends executing the evil Frau Engel on live TV, and the end credits play with the accompaniment of a metal version of the Twisted Sister song “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”

Image: Bethesda

I love Wolfenstein II. It’s bold and brazen and oh-so-satisfying. It’s also loads of fun to actually play, and isn’t so concerned with character development that it forgets to deliver on the core gameplay. The Nazi-killing action is fun, furious, and gory as hell, which is everything it should be. Please let there be a Wolfenstein III.

Recently Taylor Sheridan, the writer of Sicario and Hell or High Water, made his directorial debut with Wind River, a thriller that follows the investigation of a murdered young woman at a Native American reservation in Wyoming. It’s a chilling and excellent film, and we’ll be talking about it next week.

IT: You’ll Float Too

As of this writing, I’ve read 38 of Stephen King’s books, and IT is by far my favorite. The story of a shape-shifting, ancient evil being dwelling in the sewers beneath the streets of Derry, Maine has been terrifying readers since It was first published in 1986, and with the release of the new movie, It is set to traumatize a whole new generation. Before we get started, let me say that I will do my best to avoid spoilers for the new film, but there will be spoilers for the book. So yeah, spoiler alert for a book that was published thirty years ago. Also, for anyone who has a phobia of evil clowns, be aware that I will not be including any images that directly show the evil clown. It’s okay, you’re safe.

But you know who isn’t safe? The main characters of IT. The most obvious challenge of adapting King’s book for the screen is Its intimidating length. The novel is well over a thousand pages long, and every aspect of the story is richly detailed. Aside from Its length, the other challenge is the way in which King tells the story. Every time I think about the way King structured the novel, I am blown away. Basically, there are two main sections of the story. The first follows the main characters, who call themselves the Losers Club, as they face It for the first time as children, and the second follows the Losers as they confront It again as adults.

Image: Warner Bros.

You would think that the book would be divided into two sections, the first about the Losers as kids and the second about them as adults. But that’s not the way King does it. He doesn’t tell the story chronologically, instead bouncing back and forth between the two time periods. As the Losers grow into adulthood and move away from their hometown of Derry, they forget their experiences with It until the one member of their group who stayed in Derry calls them individually to tell them that It is back. As they return to Derry, parts of their pasts begin to come back to them, so the reader learns about their history along with them. That is a brilliant way of constructing the story, and it keeps the reader guessing for the entire time, which is no easy feat when you consider the length of the novel.

This too presents obvious problems for adaptation. It would be impossible to make one movie out of the novel and follow the structure King used, unless the movie was like five hours long. No one wants to sit in a theater for five consecutive hours, so clearly compromises must be made. The book was first adapted into a two-part television miniseries which aired on ABC in 1990. The miniseries famously starred the great Tim Curry as Pennywise the Dancing Clown, one of Its favorite incarnations. Watching the miniseries today, it’s not very scary. It’s campy and sometimes creepy, but by today’s standards it’s fairly tame. Curry is great as Pennywise, but since the miniseries was on ABC it had to adhere to broadcast standards, so it feels like a neutered version of King’s story, and most of the gore and hardcore terror of the novel is missing.

The new film is R-rated and does not have such restrictions. As such, it is free to revel in the gore and nightmarish imagery of King’s twisted imagination, and does so with aplomb. If you have a phobia of clowns, do not under any circumstances ever see this movie. It will scar you for life. This is the single scariest movie I have ever seen in the theater, and I audibly gasped a few times while watching It, which is something that simply never happens.

The makers of the new film have wisely decided to focus on one part of the story. The film only tells the story of the Losers Club as kids. This is only half the story, but makes sense in terms of adaptation. It does make me a little sad, since the way King structured the novel was one of my favorite things about It. But like I talked about earlier, filming the novel the same way it is written would be nearly impossible, so the filmmakers get a pass. Since the movie is currently making bank at the box office, a sequel is looking increasingly likely, and I am 100% on board with the same creative team making a sequel, because they nailed It.

Whew. That was probably the longest intro to any post I’ve ever written. So, what is It actually about? As great as Tim Curry’s portrayal of Pennywise is, it seems to have given people who haven’t read the book the impression that It is simply about an evil clown terrorizing children. While there is an evil clown and It does terrorize children, to think of It as just an evil clown story would be doing It a grave injustice.
There is a reason the book is about twelve hundred pages long, after all. It is a story about friendship, love, childhood, memory, overcoming trauma and fear, and being stronger together than you are by yourself. The book is terrifying and gruesome and disturbing, but It is also deeply moving. King has a wonderful understanding of his characters, and their interactions and relationships feel completely real, as both kids and adults.

Image: Warner Bros.

The characters are some of the best King has ever written, and all of them have qualities which make them unique. Stuttering Bill Denbrough is the de facto leader of the group, who has the most personal grudge against Pennywise. Richie Tozier is a loudmouth whose trash-talking and inability to shut up frequently lands himself and his friends in hot water. Eddie Kaspbrak is a hypochondriac who lives with his overbearing mother. Stan Uris is the son of a rabbi, and is the one who has the hardest time accepting the reality of Its existence. Mike Hanlon is the only black member of the group, and the only one to remain in Derry as an adult. And then there are my two favorites: sweet, chubby Ben Hanscom, who is the new kid in town and is frequently bullied because of his weight. Last but not least is clever, pretty Beverly Marsh, the only girl in the group, and whose father is a bit too concerned about her, if you catch my drift.

They all have their own encounters with various incarnations of It, and realize that they must band together in order to defeat It. It is not just an evil clown. It is an ancient, otherworldly being who is able to change Its form according to whatever Its victim is most afraid of. At first, the Losers are not sure if they have encountered the same thing, since they all experience different terrifying versions of It. But why does It like the damn clown so much? In the book, the implication is that the clown is the lowest common denominator, the thing that everyone is afraid of, so when It appears to the Losers as a group, It takes the shape of Pennywise, the most terrifying clown in history. Stephen King himself has said he will never write a sequel to It because Pennywise scares him too much, which is saying something coming from a guy who has been giving people nightmares since his first book was published in 1974.

Another brilliant thing about the book is the way King subverts people’s expectations of a horror story. In most cases, the reader or viewer of a scary book or movie is not overly concerned with the kids in the story, since the kids usually survive. King blows this out of the water in the book’s very first chapter, a hauntingly unforgettable scene in which It brutally murders Bill Denbrough’s six-year-old brother Georgie. And when I say brutal, I mean brutal. IT RIPS GEORGIE’S DAMN ARM OFF AND HE BLEEDS TO DEATH. The book takes no prisoners, and quickly establishes that the kids are not safe. They are in mortal peril, and the book uses this to ratchet up the tension and the horror.

I am happy to report that the film does the same. The movie closely follows the parts of the book that it covers, and while there are a few minor changes the overall adaptation is very faithful, and does an admirable job capturing the spirit of the book. The movie was originally going to be directed by Cary Fukunaga, who directed the brilliant first season of HBO’s True Detective. Fukunaga left the project due to creative differences and was replaced by Andy Muschietti, an Argentinean director whose only previous feature was a 2013 horror film called Mama. I haven’t seen the feature version of Mama, but I have seen Muschietti’s original short film upon which the feature version of Mama is based. The short film is on YouTube, and it is creepy as hell. Muschietti does an excellent job with It, and presents some of the most nightmarish and horrific images I’ve ever seen on a movie screen. Well done, sir.

Also excellent is the movie’s young cast. Making an R-rated horror movie starring a cast of mostly-unknown child actors is a risky proposition. But Muschietti’s efforts have paid off tremendously, since not only is It a hit critically and commercially, but Its young cast is also excellent. If the relationships between the Losers didn’t work, then the movie itself wouldn’t work, but all the young actors are fantastic. They have great chemistry with each other and there is a genuine sense of camaraderie and friendship between them. You have no trouble believing that they would die for each other. Kudos to the casting director for the movie, it must have been hard to find the right actors to play the Losers, but they’re all great. The movie also omits the book’s most controversial scene, and if you’ve read the book you know which scene I’m talking about. I think we can all agree that leaving out that scene was the right thing to do.

But of course we must address the elephant in the room. What about Pennywise? After all, Pennywise is the most famous character in the movie. In the new movie, Pennywise is played by Bill Skarsgard, who is the son of Stellan Skarsgard and brother of Alexander Skarsgard. Being an actor runs in the family I guess. Skarsgard’s performance as Pennywise is, in a word, TERRIFYING. Skarsgard said in interviews that he was aware of Tim Curry’s performance as Pennywise, and chose not to incorporate any of Curry’s mannerisms into his own performance. A wise decision, since the new version of Pennywise is bone-chillingly frightening, without a hint of the camp of Curry’s version. Skarsgard’s Pennywise is a soullessly evil monster without a shred of pity.

Image: Warner Bros.

The movie caught some flak online for its marketing, which some people thought showed too much of Pennywise, believing that the less he was seen beforehand, the more frightening he would be onscreen. Fair enough, but he is still terrifying, and the marketing did not show any of Its other incarnations. After all, Pennywise is but one of many. All of the movie’s versions of It are very scary, and many of them are different from Its forms in the book and miniseries. The filmmakers did this so the movie would feel fresh and would surprise viewers, and they succeeded. It is scary in whatever form It takes.

It is not a movie for everyone. It does not hesitate to depict graphic violence directed against children. This is evident from the opening scene, faithfully adapted from the novel, in which It relieves poor Georgie Denbrough of his arm. The sight of a young child screaming in pain as blood gushes from his severed arm is upsetting to say the least. But damn if it isn’t effective.

Another of my favorite aspects of the novel is King’s understanding of being a kid. The book explores how kids are better equipped to fight It, because they can accept Its existence in a way that adults can’t. When Georgie Denbrough first sees It in a storm drain in the book’s first chapter, King writes that were he ten years older, Georgie would not believe what he was seeing. But Georgie is six, not sixteen, so when he sees a clown in a storm drain, he accepts that It’s real without question. If an adult encountered a clown in a storm drain, he or she would make up any number of excuses to explain the sight, and would probably question his or her own sanity before accepting the reality of what their eyes show them. But as King points out, a kid does not have this problem. The movie, remarkably, captures this.

It is not all monsters and gore. The movie gives the kids time to just be kids, and is surprisingly funny at times. It shows them bonding and having fun, especially in a lovely sequence where they all jump in the lake and just horse around with each other. Their friendship feels genuine, and their relationships reminded me a bit of the kids in E.T., or JJ Abrams’ Super 8, although It is far more graphic than either of those two films. I’ve also heard comparisons to the kids in another film based on a King story, 1986’s Stand By Me. I haven’t seen Stand By Me, but I have no reason to doubt the comparison.

It is a tremendous film. I’m not going to see it again in the theater, since seeing It on the big screen once was enough, thanks. But I will be buying the Blu-Ray and watching all the special features. The movie only tells half the book’s story, but it does so extremely well, and feels like a complete story in and of itself. It leaves the story open for more, but still gives the viewer a sense of closure, and doesn’t end on a cheap cliffhanger. The acting is great across the board and the film looks terrific. The movie isn’t able to explore all of my favorite aspects of the book, since many of them are tied onto the book’s nonlinear structure, and the movie also doesn’t go into much detail about the origins of It, but these are inevitable consequences of adapting such a long book, and could be further explored in the sequel.

Image: Warner Bros.

It is one of the best-ever adaptations of Stephen King’s work, of which there are more than you realize. It is terrifying and disturbing, but unlike many modern horror films, the characters feel real and the viewer cares about them, deeply. King’s messed-up story is one of my favorite books of all time, and this is a worthy adaptation of what I consider to be a prolific writer’s masterpiece. Clearly I’m not alone in my reverence for the story, since the movie made a whopping $117 million over its opening weekend, far exceeding expectations and breaking several box office records.

Bring on Part 2. I can’t wait, although I might be watching from behind my hands.

Coming up next, another one of my literary heroes gets an adaptation. This time it’s American Assassin, starring Mitch Rapp, a kickass CIA agent from an excellent series of spy novels by the late, great Vince Flynn. See you next week for spies and assassins, and a whole lot of butt-kicking along the way.