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!!!

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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.

Le Cinema de WTF: A Cure for Wellness

Most people probably know Gore Verbinski as the director of the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies. As successful as those films were, it’s easy to forget just how bizarre they were, as well as being easily the darkest and most violent films Disney had ever produced. Verbinski delivered another bizarre blockbuster with The Lone Ranger in 2013, but this one wasn’t nearly as successful, instead becoming one of the most expensive flops of all time.

Verbinski’s latest effort, A Cure for Wellness, was released this last February, and is one of the weirdest films I’ve ever seen. It also underperformed at the box office, grossing $26 million against a $40 million budget. Be warned, I’m going to spoil the heck out of this movie. Also, there will be a high Ick Factor, since this movie is genuinely messed up. I’ll avoid getting too graphic, but some of the subject matter in this film is disturbing and gross. You have been warned. Here we go.

Image: 20th Century Fox

The film’s protagonist is a young man named Lockhart, played by Dane DeHaan, who looks a bit like a more pallid version of Leonardo DiCaprio. Lockhart is a real jerk. He’s obsessed with his work as a stockbroker, constantly chews nicotine gum, and is rude and abrasive to others. He is soon summoned to meet with his superiors at his office, who have him read a letter written to the board of directors by the company’s CEO, a man named Roland Pembroke.

Pembroke was at a wellness retreat in Switzerland for a few weeks and has not returned. The bizarre contents of the letter seem to indicate that Pembroke has had a nervous breakdown. His bosses tell Lockhart that they are aware of some of his (Lockhart’s) illegal activities, and that he is under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission. He is ordered to go to Switzerland and bring Pembroke back, since the company is on the verge of a large merger and they need Pembroke’s authorization. There is also the implication that they will use Pembroke as a scapegoat for any corporate malfeasance.

On the way to the wellness center, which sits atop a hill, Lockhart’s driver Enrico explains to him that there is bad blood between the villagers and the people on the hill. This is because 200 years ago, the baron of the castle became obsessed with keeping his bloodline pure. As a result, he married his sister. But the story goes that she had a mysterious illness, and in his search for a cure, the baron began experimenting on the villagers. After finding the mummified corpses of the baron’s test subjects, the villagers revolted, burning the baron’s castle down and killing his pregnant wife/sister, but not before removing the fetus from her womb and throwing it in the lake.

Yuck. I told you there would be gross stuff. Upon arriving at the spa, which is built atop the ruins of the baron’s burned-down castle, Lockhart’s attempts to meet with Pembroke are met with resistance from the spa’s staff. He’s eventually able to secure a meeting with Pembroke later in the day, and tells Enrico to drive him back down the hill to a hotel. On the way, a deer runs in front of the car, causing it to crash.

Lockhart wakes up at the spa, with his right leg encased in a thick plaster cast. He meets the spa’s director, Dr. Heinreich Volmer, played by Jason Isaacs. Volmer tells Lockhart that he’s been unconscious for three days, and that his office has been informed of the accident and agreed that Lockhart should stay at the spa until further notice. Volmer tells Lockhart to try out the spa’s treatments, and to drink plenty of water. Lockhart drinks a glass of the spa’s water, and discovers a tiny creature wriggling inside a drop of water clinging to the inside of the glass.

That, of course, is a big warning sign that all is not well. Verbinski does an excellent job of establishing a creepy and ominous mood, and the entire film is soaked in dread and menace. It’s also gorgeous to look at. Some of it was filmed at Hohenzollern Castle in Germany, which reminded me a lot of Hogwarts with its sharp-looking towers pointing towards the sky. An abandoned hospital in Germany was also used for the interior locations of the spa. There are some stunning shots in this film, and Verbinski has a hell of an eye for striking compositions.

Image: 20th Century Fox

The rest of the film follows Lockhart as he attempts to unravel the mysteries of the so-called wellness center. Along the way, he meets a young woman named Hannah, played by an actress appropriately named Mia Goth who is 23 but looks about 13. It’s unclear if Hannah is a patient, but she tells Lockhart that Dr. Volmer considers her to be a “special case.” It is also unclear how old she is, she appears to be in her early-to-mid-teens but has a quality of childlike innocence. She also drinks a strange fluid from a small blue bottle on a chain around her neck, which she says are vitamins. Lockhart has seen other people at the spa doing the same thing, including Dr. Volmer himself. She lets Lockhart try some, and he says it tastes like sweaty seafood.

Lockhart meets Pembroke and convinces him to return to New York with him. But later, Lockhart can’t find Pembroke and none of the spa’s staff will tell him where he is. He steals Pembroke’s patient files, but since they’re in German he can’t read them. He discovers x-rays of Pembroke’s mouth, which appears to show his teeth falling out. Lockhart takes the files to a veterinarian in the village, who tells him that one possible cause of Pembroke’s teeth falling out is chronic dehydration. Dehydration? Lockhart is confused by this. The people at the spa drink water all the time. How could they be dehydrated?

Lockhart undergoes some of the spa’s treatments, including being submerged inside a large water tank in what I assume to be a sensory deprivation chamber. The orderly tending to Lockhart gets distracted by a nurse, and the tank begins to fill with slithery, writhing eels. One of them disconnects Lockhart’s breathing tube and he nearly drowns until the orderly and the nurse rescue him. But when he tells them something was in the tank with him, there’s nothing there.

Other strange things start happening. The handle on the toilet in Lockhart’s room rattles periodically on its own. He catches glimpses of what look like bodies being wheeled on gurneys into the ruins of the baron’s old castle late at night. A patient he befriended tells him that the baron’s child, the one removed from his wife/sister and thrown into the lake, somehow survived. Lockhart calls his bosses in New York, only to discover that they had no idea about the accident.

That night, one of Lockhart’s front teeth comes loose and he pulls it out himself. He takes it to one of the nurses, and while she is distracted, he sneaks into some of the secure parts of the hospital and makes some horrifying discoveries. He finds a room full of what appear to be dead bodies floating in tanks of water. One of them is Pembroke. He also finds a large underground chamber next to a pool of water, into which desiccated corpses are dumped and subsequently consumed by eels. He assumes that Dr. Volmer is continuing the baron’s twisted experiments. He finds an underground lair full of jars of nasty-looking things and what look like human faces floating in containers of water. On the wall, there is a painting of a woman who strongly resembles Hannah.

Lockhart, when we first meet him, is a deeply unlikable character. He’s an arrogant jerk. But his tenacity serves him well in his pursuit of the dark secret that lies at the heart of the mysterious wellness center deep in the Swiss Alps. He’s still a jerk, but he becomes a more sympathetic jerk as the film progresses. He goes through some traumatic experiences, and it’s hard not to sympathize with someone who experiences the horrors that he does. Dane DeHaan gives a compelling performance as the lead character, and Jason Isaacs, aka Lucius Malfoy, is chilling as Dr. Volmer.

Isaacs deserves credit for his restrained performance. Volmer could easily have been a mustache-twirling villain, but Isaacs underplays him, which makes him much more frightening. The movie is tense as hell, and the consistently ominous atmosphere coupled with the film’s gorgeous scenery and quality performances makes it compelling, despite the high gross-out factor. It was also a clever move to put Lockhart in a clunky leg cast for much of the movie, so his attempts to escape are hampered by his impaired mobility.

If you thought there was gross stuff earlier, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Upon being discovered, Lockhart is subjected to a horrifying dental procedure that will give anyone with a phobia of dentists or drills nightmares. He manages to escape and flees to the police in the village. The sympathetic police chief promises to help and leaves Lockhart alone to make a phone call. Looking around the chief’s office, Lockhart notices one of the small blue bottles the people from the spa use to take their so-called “vitamins.” The police chief is one of them. There is no escape for Lockhart, or for anyone at the wellness center. He is recaptured by Volmer and subjected to more “treatments.”

Image: 20th Century Fox

He starts to give in and believe that he is not well. But he has a moment of clarity and cuts open the cast on his leg, revealing that it was never broken at all. While this is happening, Hannah is in the swimming pool and has her first period. She runs to Volmer, not knowing what is happening to her. Lockhart arrives, and attempts to convince the patients that Volmer is responsible for making them sick with the tainted spa water.

He is rendered unconscious and when he wakes up, the film’s most disturbing scene commences and we finally learn the secret of what is in the blue bottles of “vitamins.” This is seriously nasty, so prepare yourself. Lockhart awakens to find himself locked in a large metal pod, in a room full of people in similar devices. Volmer appears and tells him that the water from the local aquifer has unique qualities which are toxic to humans but allow the eels living in the water to live hundreds of years. Centuries ago, the baron devised a way to filter the water through the bodies of humans, which is what Volmer now uses the patients for. The process results in the life-prolonging liquid but turns the patients into shriveled corpses, which are then fed to the eels. In a profoundly horrifying scene that is one of the grossest and most disturbing things I’ve ever seen in a mainstream Hollywood movie, Volmer forces a tube down Lockhart’s throat and pumps him full of eel-filled water, which is then distilled and collected in the blue bottles.

Disgusting. But that’s not the end. The film has one more big twist up its sleeve. Have you guessed it yet? Here it is: Volmer is the baron and Hannah is his daughter/niece, and they are both hundreds of years old, aging incredibly slowly due to the effects of the eel-water. But here’s the worst part: Volmer has been waiting for Hannah to come of age, so he can impregnate her.

ICK!!! That’s just vile. Gore Verbinski co-wrote the story with Justin Haythe, who also co-wrote The Lone Ranger, and it is one of the most twisted movies I’ve ever seen from a major Hollywood studio (the movie was released by 20th Century Fox). It’s hard to imagine how this film got greenlit in the first place, I would love to have been a fly on the wall during that pitch meeting. If I had to describe the film to someone who had never heard of it, I would call it a cross between One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Shining.

In the film’s climax, Volmer takes Hannah to his underground lair, which reminds me a lot of the Phantom of the Opera’s hideout in various movies. Before he can rape Hannah, Lockhart appears and sets the place on fire. In the ensuing struggle, Volmer tears his face off to reveal his hideously burned and scarred true face. He claims that everything he’s done has been for Hannah, and is about to kill Lockhart when Hannah plants a shovel in his head. He falls into the eel-filled water, and is consumed.

Lockhart and Hannah flee the burning castle on Hannah’s bicycle and literally run smack-dab into a car carrying Lockhart’s bosses, who have gotten fed up with waiting and come to Switzerland to find out what the hell is going on. They ask him about Pembroke. Lockhart tells them Pembroke is gone. They tell him to get in the car. He refuses. They ask what’s wrong with him. “Nothing,” he tells them. “I’m feeling much better now.” He gets back on the bike and rides away with Hannah, as an unhinged grin appears on Lockhart’s face. The film then cuts to black, and that’s the end.

Whew. A Cure for Wellness is a harrowing journey. It’s a twisted carnival ride full of increasingly nightmarish imagery. It’s the kind of movie that doesn’t get made very often nowadays. It’s an R-rated extravaganza of depraved monstrosities. It’s also two and a half hours long. I’m not surprised the movie didn’t do well in theaters, it doesn’t have much mainstream appeal. Still, Fox didn’t skimp on the marketing, since the movie had an ad during the most recent Super Bowl. Someone at Fox clearly believed in Gore Verbinski and Justin Haythe’s disturbing vision.

If reading the lurid details about the film makes you want to never ever see it, I completely understand. But I still like it. It’s encouraging to see filmmakers who aren’t afraid to let their imaginations run wild, and encouraging that there are people who support them. I’m not trying to say that A Cure for Wellness is a perfect film. Its flaws are numerous. Its intimidating 146-minute running time could have been shortened by a good twenty minutes, and some scenes drag on longer than they need to. There are plot holes and unexplained images that are thrown in seemingly for the sole purpose of messing with people. The film’s content pushes the limits of good taste more than once, and sometimes it feels like Verbinski and Haythe pile on the grotesqueries and bodily fluids simply because they can, so there is that element of artistic self-indulgence.

Still, some part of me really likes this messed-up movie, and even admires it a little bit. It’s something completely original. It’s not a prequel or a sequel or a remake. It’s not an adaptation of anything. It’s well-made, well-acted, and beautifully filmed. It also just so happens to me profoundly twisted and disturbing. It’s the kind of movie where you’re not sure what is real and what is a product of the protagonist’s increasingly unstable mind. Obviously, it’s not a movie that will appeal to everyone, but if you think you can stomach it (and don’t mind the fact that I’ve thoroughly spoiled the plot) then check it out. It’s the kind of movie where you notice things about it that you didn’t catch the first time. It’s an elaborate puzzle box of a movie that I think time will be kind to.

Coming up next, we all float down here! It’s the long-awaited new version of Stephen King’s terrifying masterpiece, IT. See you next week for scary clowns and ancient evils!

Sweet dreams!

Alien: Covenant – Slimy Aliens and Multiple Fassbenders

Alien: Covenant is a tricky film to write about. It seems like every review I read spoiled vast swathes of the film’s plot, which ticked me off to no end because the details of the film’s plot were kept mostly under wraps in the time leading up to its release, and to see reviewers casually giving away huge plot points struck me as flippant and disrespectful to people who want to go into the movie knowing as little as possible. In response to this, I am going to give away as little as possible. I will describe basic details of the film’s setup, which could be considered to have some minor spoilers, but I won’t reveal any major plot points.

Alien: Covenant is Ridley Scott’s follow-up to 2012’s Prometheus, his previous foray into the Alien franchise he started in 1979 with the original Alien film. Prometheus was a controversial movie among fans of the franchise. Some people loved it, others passionately hated it. I liked it overall, even though it was profoundly flawed in some areas. Fortunately, Scott and his screenwriters seem to have listened to people’s criticisms about Prometheus, and Covenant delivers a tighter, more contained story that answers some of the lingering questions from Prometheus while still leaving room for interpretation and further entries in the franchise.

Image: 20th Century Fox

Let me just say that this movie has a whopper of an ending, which I loved. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil it, but man, it’s a doozy. It provides closure to the film while paving the way for future sequels, which Scott says are coming. God bless the man, he’s nearly 80 years old and is still making smart, intense, gorgeous-looking sci-fi movies. Scott has said he wants to start filming the next one in 2018, so expect more slimy alien horrors in the future. Oh joy!

Covenant follows the doomed crew of the spaceship Covenant, on a colonization mission to a distant, habitable planet. En route, they pick up a transmission from a closer planet, which also appears habitable. It’s risky, but they decide to investigate. Very Bad Things happen to them. That’s all I will say about the plot.

One thing that frustrated audiences about Prometheus was that it never fully committed to being an Alien movie. Was it an Alien movie or wasn’t it? Scott and his screenwriters couldn’t seem to decide. Alien: Covenant, as befitting its title, is definitely an Alien movie. The titular aliens, the terrifying xenomorphs (although they aren’t called that in this film), are very much present, and they are terrifying.

Everything about xenomorphs scares me. Not only how they look, which is scary enough, but what they do to you is just upsetting, and sets them apart from other famous horror-movie antagonists. Sure, Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers will kill you, but a quick knifing or decapitation-via-machete is vastly preferable to the protracted, painful, humiliating ordeal a xenomorph will put you through.

It’s a testament to how good H.R. Giger’s original design of these aliens was when you realize how little their appearance has changed over the years. The xenomorphs in this film were created with motion-capture and CGI rather than the practical effects of the earlier films, which may annoy some hardcore fans of the franchise, but when the aliens look as good as they do in this film, the CGI doesn’t bother me. The slithery, hissing monstrosities are as frightening as ever.

Image: 20th Century Fox

And they are taking no prisoners. Covenant is a far more graphic film than Prometheus, which is saying something when you consider that Prometheus is a film in which the main character had an alien slug monster surgically removed from her abdomen. This movie is so bloody that at one point people actually slip and fall in the pools of viscera on the floor. Sir Ridley’s not messing around with this one, folks.

But what of the humans who have these graphic horrors inflicted upon them? I found them to be more likable than the buffoons from Prometheus. I didn’t hate every character in that movie, but they did do some really stupid things, and Covenant has less groan-inducing characters. There are a couple of moments where you think “DON’T DO THAT YOU IDIOT” but the same could be said of any scary movie. The scene-stealer is Michael Fassbender, who, without revealing too much, plays two roles, and in some scenes acts with himself. Fassbender gives both of his characters distinctive voices and body language, so the viewer can distinguish between the two of them…most of the time.

The rest of the cast is also good. Katherine Waterston plays Daniels, the main character, and she’s very likable even if her character isn’t as fierce as Sigourney Weaver’s iconic Ellen Ripley. I admire Waterston for having the courage to take the role and make it her own while knowing that she would inevitably be compared to Ripley, one of the greatest sci-fi protagonists of all time, male or female.

Image: 20th Century Fox

Alien: Covenant is a great-looking film. I’ve already talked about how good the creatures look, but the environments are also stunning, both on the Covenant in space and on the ground on the mysterious hostile planet. Ridley Scott has been directing movies for about five decades, and he knows how to make every shot in his films feel unique and give the viewer something new to look at. The movie does have one of the same issues the Star Wars sequels had, in that the technology in the film appears much more advanced than the technology in the original films, even though the new films are prequels that take place chronologically before the originals. It’s not a huge issue, but it is noticeable in comparison to the original movies.

Alien: Covenant is not a perfect film, but I think it’s an improvement over Prometheus. Covenant suffers from a few similar issues that plagued its predecessor, but to a lesser extent. It delivers the gore and the heart-pounding intensity that fans have come to expect from the series, and it’s a worthy entry to the Alien franchise.