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.

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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.

Logan: A Brutal and Epic Sendoff

For the longest time, I had a list of my top five favorite movies. They were Die Hard, The Dark Knight, Hot Fuzz, Casino Royale, and Gladiator. Then in 2015 Mad Max Fury Road was released, and my top five became a top six.

Well, now it might have to become a top seven.

James Mangold’s Logan is a deeply moving film, and I left the theater with tears in my eyes. I was saddened by the end of the film. Saddened by the end of a story I love, and by the fact that one of my favorite fictional characters will not be seen again onscreen the same way. But at the same time, it was a good sort of sadness, the kind of sadness that you feel when a story you love is over, but you feel that it couldn’t have ended any other way.

Logan is an aptly named film. In many ways, this is not a superhero movie. It’s not a story about Wolverine, the superhero. It’s a story about Logan, the man.

It’s also a story about the toll that all the years of fighting and world-saving can take on a person, even one with superhuman regenerating powers. This movie takes beloved and iconic characters and brings them lower than they’ve ever been before, and the results are breathtaking.

Unlike its predecessors, this is a not a family-friendly movie. Seriously, leave the kids at home for this one. The success of Deadpool last year paved the way for R-rated superhero movies, and Logan takes full advantage of the freedom provided by the R rating. This is a far more violent film than Deadpool, much more realistic and less exaggerated. There are buckets of blood and gore. Limbs and heads are severed, bodies and craniums are slashed and impaled in gruesome detail.

But the film isn’t violent just for the sake of being violent. The violence in the film comes from a place of character, and all of it has meaning. Fans have long wanted a Wolverine movie that lets him really cut loose with his claws, and this is that movie. One review I read described the movie like this: the language is blue and the violence is red. It’s a completely accurate description.

In the movie, which takes place in 2029, mutants are a dying breed. We’re told that no mutants have been born in 25 years. Logan makes a meager living as a limo driver, and hides out in a compound on the Mexican border, where he cares for an ailing Charles Xavier.

Logan and Charles have both seen better days, to say the least. Logan’s healing factor isn’t as potent as it once was, and his body has started to betray him in other ways. He wears reading glasses because his eyesight is starting to go, and when he pops his claws early in the film, one of them only comes out halfway, prompting him to look at it in bewilderment.

Charles is in arguably worse shape. He’s now in his nineties and is starting to become senile. He takes medication to suppress his seizures, and what happens when the world’s most powerful telepath has seizures? Nothing good. The first time we see Charles, he’s rambling incoherently and refusing to take his meds. He’s belligerent and uncooperative, and tells Logan how much of a disappointment he is, and accuses Logan of wishing he would just die so that he wouldn’t have to take care of him anymore. As a person with a grandparent with Alzheimer’s, all of this cut me right to the bone.

But even if you don’t know someone with a degenerative brain disease, it’s not hard to sympathize with Charles. This is a character who in his previous appearances has been the embodiment of civility and intelligence, a bastion of order in the chaos. To see him brought down so low is upsetting. It hurts.

This is a film that deals with things no other superhero or comic book movie ever has. It’s about getting old. It’s about the inevitability of death and the unstoppable current of time. It’s part western, part road-trip movie, part passing the torch to the next generation.

That next generation arrives in the form of Laura, an 11-year-old girl with the same powers as Wolverine, right down to the claws that come out from between her knuckles, who is being pursued by sinister forces. Logan reluctantly agrees to take her north to the Canadian border, to a safe haven for mutants that may or may not even exist, with the bad guys in hot pursuit. Along the way we find out more about Laura, where she came from and what she has already gone through, and the three of them, Logan, Charles, and Laura, start to become a family.

Laura is played by a young actress named Dafne Keen, making her big-screen debut. And she knocks it out of the park. Laura is silent and unexpressive for much of the movie, and when her ferocity is unleashed it’s truly frightening. The mystery of Laura’s origin is compelling and provides a strong driving force for the movie’s plot.

And it conveys so much about the personalities of Logan and Charles. Logan doesn’t want to help Laura at first. He doesn’t do that kind of thing anymore. But in the end, he can’t help it. He simply has no other choice. Charles does want to help her, perhaps feeling the same kind of motivations that led him to open his school for mutants all those years ago. Maybe he just wants some purpose to his life, some light in the darkness that the last years of his life have become.

It’s hard to tell exactly where this film fits in to the X-Men series’ cinematic continuity. The series has gone through several reboots over the years so it’s not clear what is canon and what isn’t. But that doesn’t bother me with this movie. I prefer to think of the X-Men films like I think about comics. They’re different interpretations of the same characters, and maybe they’re not meant to take place in the same universe. The point is that the fractured continuity of the X-Men film series doesn’t effect one’s enjoyment of this film. I don’t care if it takes place in the same universe or not, it’s still a superb movie.

And let’s talk for a second about Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart. The first X-Men movie came out in 2000. Jackman and Stewart have been playing Logan and Charles for nearly two decades. When we see them in such dire straits, part of the reason it’s so affecting is that we’ve never seen them this way before, and we have memories of them in better days. Seeing them brought so low would have been moving anyway, but the fact that the movie carries nearly twenty years’ worth of previous movies behind it lends it even more weight. Needless to say, both actors are magnificent in this film, in what both have said will be their final appearances as these beloved and iconic characters.

There is a lot of action in this movie, and all of it is thrilling, but not necessarily what I would call “fun.” The action is well-filmed and choreographed, and it is easy to tell what is going on. But again, this is not a fun movie in the way that, say, an Avengers movie is fun. I would equate the experience of watching it to something like watching Gladiator. Spectacular action scenes, but hard to watch because of the brutality and the sheer emotional weight. The movie is beautifully directed by James Mangold, who also co-wrote the screenplay. He also directed Logan’s previous solo movie, 2013’s The Wolverine, and has a strong understanding of what makes Logan a compelling character. He directs the film with skill and grace, and it really feels like he cares about the characters. He has created a riveting film, from its startling opening scene to its haunting final image.

The movie’s first trailer was accompanied by a Johnny Cash song, “Hurt.” The trailer was one of those rare movie trailers that turned out to perfectly encapsulate the feel of the film it was promoting. It captured the movie’s melancholy tone, while conveying the emotional strain of the pain these characters experience. The song includes the line “I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel. I focus on the pain, the only thing that’s real.” Logan and Charles live in a world of pain of all kinds: physical, mental, emotional. But the movie is about them realizing that there’s more to life than pain. There are things like love and family, and those things are what matter, those things are what last. It’s a lesson Logan and Charles have to learn the hard way, but it resonates throughout the film and beyond.

Event Horizon and Pandorum: Two Tales of Cosmic Terror

It’s hard to believe that Paul W.S. Anderson, the schlockmeister behind Death Race, Pompeii, and the entire Resident Evil series, also directed Event Horizon. It’s difficult because Event Horizon is so much smarter than those other movies. I’m not trying to say that Anderson is a stupid person, just that some of his movies are kind of dumb. Event Horizon, however, is not one of those movies.

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The easiest way of describing Event Horizon is that it’s basically Alien meets The Shining. The film takes place in 2047 and follows the crew of the Lewis and Clark, a rescue vessel on a top-secret mission, led by Captain Miller (Laurence Fishburne). The mission is so top-secret that the crew doesn’t even know exactly what it is until they have almost reached their destination. A spoiler alert is in effect from here on.

When they have been awoken from their stasis pods, they are brought up to speed by Dr. William Weir (Sam Neill), a guest on their ship. He explains to them that they are there to investigate a distress signal sent from a ship called the Event Horizon, which disappeared several years earlier. He also tells them that the Event Horizon was built to test a new experimental gravity drive he designed. The drive generates an artificial black hole in order to bridge two points in spacetime, which vastly reduces travel time over great astronomical distances.

Things start to go wrong almost as soon as the crew of the Lewis and Clark crosses over to the Event Horizon. They find mutilated bodies and crew members start to experience vivid hallucinations connected to deeply personal events from their lives. Captain Miller is haunted by a crewman he once failed to save, Weir sees images of his dead wife with bloody eyes (she is later revealed to have committed suicide), and another crewmember is hounded by the sight of her disabled son with his legs covered with maggot-infested wounds.

The crew discovers the video log from the crew of the Event Horizon, the last entry of which shows them going completely insane and violently murdering each other in a sadomasochistic orgy. Yeesh. Some of the gore scenes in this film push the limits of good taste, not to mention strain the boundaries of an R rating. Anderson’s Resident Evil movies have their share of gore, but the violence in Event Horizon makes the Resident Evil series look like Disney flicks. The initial cut of the movie was so gruesome that the studio forced Anderson to tone it down, and the thought that there was even more horrific footage that wasn’t included in the movie is chilling.

As it turns out, something went terribly wrong (surprise!) with Dr. Weir’s experimental gravity drive, and Captain Miller and Dr. Weir theorize that the ship opened a portal into a dimension outside of the known universe, which is not stated specifically to have been hell, but it’s strongly implied. After its return from wherever it went, the Event Horizon itself became a sentient being, and now torments its occupants and tries to lure them back to hell. The ship itself is evil! And while Dr. Weir later becomes possessed by the evil that controls the ship, the ship itself is the true villain. That’s quite similar to The Shining, where the Overlook Hotel is itself evil, and possesses the weak-willed to do its terrible bidding (or at least that’s my interpretation of it).

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I like this movie a lot. Its horrific violence and grotesque imagery make it a film that is not for everybody, but it’s absolutely chilling and the ideas behind it are much more interesting than anything in Anderson’s other films. It benefits from solid lead performances from Laurence Fishburne and Sam Neill, as well as strong supporting work from Jason Isaacs and Joely Richardson.

The special effects are also quite good. The movie came out in 1997 but watching it nearly 20 years later it’s easy to forget that this is a movie that is almost two decades old. The space ships in the film aren’t shiny and new-looking, like cinematic spacecraft tend to be. They look grungy and lived-in. Event Horizon is an incredibly atmospheric film, and the down-to-earth designs of the interiors of the spacecraft go a long way toward making the outlandish story believable.

Although it performed poorly at the box office and was met with generally negative reviews upon its initial release, the film has amassed a cult following. The look of the film also heavily influenced the Dead Space series of video games, in which the lived-in spaceships and overwhelming sense of cosmic doom are very much intact.

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Speaking of cosmic doom, in 2009 a film called Pandorum was released. The film stars Dennis Quaid and Ben Foster and is so stylistically similar to Event Horizon that it’s fun to think of the two films as taking place in the same universe. As far as I know there is no big fan theory connecting these movies, but it isn’t difficult to imagine. As a side note, it’s worth mentioning that Paul W.S. Anderson was one of the producers of Pandorum.

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Pandorum is set hundreds of years in the future, when Earth’s population has grown out of control. In order to save themselves, mankind builds a massive spaceship called Elysium and fills it with 60,000 people, then sends it into space on a 123-year mission to an Earth-like planet called Tanis. The setup is not dissimilar to Christopher Nolan’s space epic Interstellar, but Pandorum is less focused on family dynamics and more focused on white-knuckle terror.

At some point in the Elysium’s mission, crewmembers named Corporal Bower (Ben Foster) and Lieutenant Payton (Dennis Quaid) awaken from an extended period of hypersleep. Due to being improperly awakened from their hibernation, they are both suffering from amnesia and don’t know what the status is of the ship or the mission. Bower ventures out into the bowels of the ship while Payton stays behind to monitor the situation. Bower eventually finds a few survivors, as well as terrifying monsters.

There are some great plot twists in this movie. More spoilers lie ahead. It is assumed at the beginning of the film that the ship is adrift in deep space, but it turns out that the ship actually landed in the ocean of Tanis after 123 years as planned, and that the ship is in year 923 of its mission, having spent the last 800 years underwater. Trippy! There’s also a Fight Club-esque “Brad Pitt and Edward Norton are the same person” twist, as well as a very cool twist involving the film’s monsters.

The monsters in this movie scare the shit out of me. They frighten me so badly I don’t want to even look at the damn things. Pure nightmare fuel. Bower and his compatriots assume that the creatures are passengers of the ship who have mutated, but this is only partly true. They turn out to be the descendants of some of the ship’s passengers who were awakened hundreds of years ago, and have since evolved to adapt to the dark environs of the ship, becoming cannibalistic and tribal in the process. Badass!

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Pandorum and Event Horizon are smart, trippy, gory sci-fi. The spaceships in both movies look grungy and worn instead of sleek and shiny, and the movies conjure some memorably horrific imagery. Both contain brutal gore, solid acting and trippy plot twists. They make for a great Halloween double feature, although you might want a shower afterwards.

Happy Halloween!

Bruce Campbell Vs. The Army of Darkness

I have a new Halloween tradition, and that tradition’s name is ARMY OF DARKNESS. It has been a long time since I enjoyed a movie as much as I enjoyed Army of Darkness, which is the third film in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy.

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The film picks up right where its predecessor EVIL DEAD II left off, with hero Ash Williams, played by Bruce Campbell, stranded in the middle ages after being sucked through a time portal.

In case you’re not familiar with the franchise, in the very first Evil Dead film, released in 1981, a group of friends goes to a cabin in the woods for a getaway. There they find the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis, the Book of the Dead. They play a recording of a researcher reading sections of the book, which unleashes unspeakable horrors.

The first Evil Dead movie is notoriously gruesome, it was originally given an X rating solely for violence and gore, which almost never happens. The X rating is now known as NC-17, and most NC-17 ratings are given to films with graphic sexual content, being rated NC-17 for violence alone is rare. And the movie earns the rating. It is incredibly gory, even by today’s standards. Director Sam Raimi and producer Rob Tapert didn’t care about censorship when they were making the movie, and therefore made it as gruesome as possible, and it shows.

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The 1987 sequel, Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn, takes a more slapstick approach to the story. It is not clear if the sequel is a remake of the original or just a straight sequel, since it summarizes the events of the previous movie but excludes some of the characters. This is because when he got around to making the sequel, Raimi did not have the rights to the original film, since the sequel was produced by a different company, so Raimi was forced to summarize.

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Evil Dead II is an excellent sequel, delivering just the right mix of horror and comedy. Those are two genres that are difficult to mesh, but Raimi makes it look easy. At the end of the second movie, hero Ash manages to send the evil force back to where it came from, but in the process gets sucked through a portal and deposited in the Middle Ages, which leads to Army of Darkness.

Released in 1992, Army of Darkness is an absolutely glorious movie. I watched it a few days ago from start to finish for the very first time and adored every single moment of it. It’s the least gory and the least frightening of Raimi’s Evil Dead films, and as such may be looked down upon by hardcore horror fans. And to be honest, the film isn’t particularly scary, but it is a hell of a lot of fun and is much more accessible to casual viewers who don’t necessarily want to drown in a sea of gore.

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Let me just say right now that I love Bruce Campbell. The guy is an incredibly gifted physical actor, and he’s an extremely likable protagonist. Before becoming an Evil Dead fan, I mostly knew Campbell for his role on the TV show Burn Notice and his cameos in all three of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies, but The Evil Dead is where Campbell got his start. He seems like a really great guy in every interview I’ve seen with him, and I consider myself a big Bruce Campbell fan.

The guy will probably never win any Academy Awards, but when he’s as entertaining and endlessly watchable as he is in movies like Army of Darkness, who the hell cares? He has several iconic lines in these movies (“This… is my BOOMSTICK!!”) that he delivers with aplomb (“Good, bad, I’m the guy with the gun.”). I just freaking love him, seriously, and it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing the shotgun-wielding, chainsaw-handed Ash in these movies.

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Army of Darkness is as campy as it is enjoyable. Ash is promptly imprisoned by the men of Lord Arthur, who suspect him of being an associate of Duke Henry. Lord Arthur and Duke Henry are at war, and no one likes Ash when they arrive at Lord Arthur’s stronghold. Ash convinces them otherwise by destroying a deadite, one of the series’ signature baddies, and afterwards goes on a quest to find the Necronomicon, defeat the evil, and find a way back to his own time.

But Ash being Ash, he completely bungles it and ends up unleashing an Army of the Dead, led by his own evil clone. Whoops!

The special effects in this movie are absolutely fantastic. I can’t say for sure but I highly doubt that there is any CGI in the movie, which means that most if not all of the effects were done practically. The army of skeleton warriors looks great, and some of them have different clothes, weapons and voices, which gives them a lot of personality. I also love the squeaky skeleton voices, some of which were done by Sam Raimi himself.

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The effects were done by Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger, who are movie veterans perhaps best known these days for creating the zombies on The Walking Dead, and they did incredible work creating the skeleton warriors in Amy of Darkness.

Army of Darkness isn’t particularly scary, it’s too campy and full of slapstick to be very frightening. But it is tremendously entertaining and a perfect Halloween movie. The special effects are kick-ass, the story is fun, and Bruce Campbell is perfect in the lead role.

Evil Dead fans are probably feeling pretty spoiled these days, since in 2013 there was a successful remake of the original Evil Dead that took the franchise back to its gore-soaked roots. I’ve only seen bits and pieces of the remake and, well, let’s just say the words “bits and pieces” were chosen intentionally. There are scenes of violence in the remake that are so stomach-churning I won’t even describe them here, but if you’re a glutton for punishment a lot of the gory highlights are included in the film’s red-band trailer. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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Mind you, I’m not saying the remake is bad necessarily, in terms of modern remakes of classic horror movies, most of which are a dime a dozen, the 2013 Evil Dead remake is viewed as being one of the better ones. All I’m saying is that the squeamish need not apply.

And in 2015, Starz debuted Ash Vs. Evil Dead, a TV series continuing the exploits of Ash, everyone’s favorite goofball monster hunter. I watched the first season and enjoyed it immensely. Bruce Campbell is as great as Ash as he ever was and the show finds that crucial balance between slapstick humor and brutal horror, and even manages to tell a story that keeps you guessing and delivers surprisingly solid character development. If you’re a fan of the Evil Dead franchise but haven’t watched the show yet, check it out ASAP.

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So that’s my little overview of the Evil Dead series, with special emphasis on Army of Darkness. I’m a relatively new fan of the franchise, and it’s not for everyone, but if you can stomach it the series knows just how to deliver the gory goods.

Blades and Fangs

Anton Yelchin’s last film to be released before his death was a movie called Green Room, a vicious little low-budget indie thriller whose central conflict can be boiled down to three words: Punks vs. Nazis. If this sounds intriguing to you and you have the stomach for graphic violence, Green Room is a movie you need to see.

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Yelchin plays Pat, a member of a punk band called The Ain’t Rights. Pat and his bandmates Sam, Reece and Tiger, hard-up for cash, take a gig at an out-of-the-way club somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Things go reasonably well until it’s time for them to leave, when Pat goes back into the green room (which is like the waiting room for the band) to retrieve Sam’s phone. What he finds is a few of the club regulars standing over the body of a girl with a knife in her head.

Turns out the club is run by Neo-Nazi skinheads who have no intention of letting The Ain’t Rights just walk away. An unbelievably tense game of cat-and-mouse ensues.

Green Room was written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier, who previously directed a critically-acclaimed thriller called Blue Ruin in 2013. Saulnier is a talented director who knows how to ratchet up the tension to nearly unbearable levels. The violence in Green Room is vicious and the squeamish need not apply.

But Saulnier’s direction is top-notch. Every scene is expertly calculated to deliver maximum suspense. The casting is also terrific, with Yelchin’s understated performance showing just how talented of a young actor he was. The movie’s biggest casting coup, however, is the role of Darcy Banker, the ruthless owner of the club and leader of the skinheads, who is played by none other than Patrick Stewart. That’s right, Professor X himself is the merciless villain.

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Needless to say, Stewart is fantastic. He plays a man who has no remorse whatsoever about his actions, and it’s clear to the viewer that he has no intention of letting The Ain’t Rights escape his club alive. “It’ll all be over soon, gentlemen,” he tells them chillingly.

The bulk of the film’s action is a standoff between the band members, trapped in the green room, and the skinheads outside. Some parts of the film are a bit hard to follow. I wasn’t always entirely sure what Darcy’s plan was. I mean, clearly he has some nefarious intentions for Pat and his friends, but some of his actions are a bit confusing.

This is probably intentional though, since it keeps the viewer at a distance. The person watching the film has something of an idea about what Darcy and his henchmen are up to, and therefore we know more than the film’s hapless protagonists do. But the fact that it’s not always clear what Darcy’s designs for Pat and his friends are ensures that we don’t know too much more than the characters, which keeps the tension high.

Take a scene in which Pat attempts to negotiate with Darcy. Pat and his friends are stuck in the green room and a locked door separates them from Darcy, who is standing in the hall outside. The entire scene is filmed from Pat’s perspective inside the room as he talks to Darcy, with Darcy’s voice muffled by the door. Saulnier could have cut back and forth between inside and outside the room to show us both halves of the conversation, but he doesn’t. Again, he keeps the viewer at a distance and ensures that we don’t know what Darcy has lying in wait for the luckless protagonists on the other side of the door.

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This technique also increases the horror of the moment when Pat reaches out the door and his arm is violently grabbed. We know from Pat’s reaction that something that something very bad is happening, but we don’t know the full extent of it until Pat wrenches his arm back inside and we see the horrific slashes all over his arm, with his wrist sliced so severely his hand is nearly severed and dangles obscenely from his forearm.

This is a gruesome movie. Darcy instructs his men not to shoot the band members, since the cops would be able to run ballistics. “Blades and fangs for the visitors,” he tells his skinhead gang. This provides an at least semi-plausible explanation as to why Darcy wouldn’t just send in his troops guns blazing.

It also means that the inevitable deaths of some of the band members will be much more up-close and personal. There are a couple of absolutely vicious Pitbull throat-maulings (the Pitbull being the one doing the mauling, not the one being mauled, just in case it wasn’t clear who was mauling who). A box cutter is put to grisly use for cutting things other than boxes, and when people do get shot the results are bloody.

Saulnier doesn’t shy away from gory details, and the makeup effects (which are most likely all practical, I feel like this is a movie without a shred of CGI) are realistic and grotesque. The movie’s violence was hard even for me to handle at times, and I have a high tolerance level for cinematic bloodshed. Still, as brutal and unforgiving as the movie is, the violence still feels appropriate for the story the movie tells. Well, maybe “appropriate” isn’t quite the right word, but you get the idea.

Pat and his friends are likable individuals. They don’t get much backstory but they don’t really need it, the film shows us enough of their lives (penniless musicians living from gig to gig) that we get a sense of them as people. They’re maybe not the brightest bunch and some of their decision-making is questionable at best. At one point, one of the characters even says the immortal, Scooby-Doo-esque words, “we should split up,” which is a face-palming moment. Still, the ineptitude of the protagonists doesn’t bother me too much, since it’s not hard to believe that anyone placed in such an extreme situation might not be thinking clearly.

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Saulnier is aware of the haplessness of his characters, however. During an interview he referred to Green Room as being part of his “inept protagonist trilogy” where the main characters have to survive being thrust into extreme situations using skills they don’t have.The film’s Oregon setting is particularly vivid for me, since I live in the Pacific Northwest and the forest the Neo-Nazi bar lies in could be in my backyard. Saulnier’s writing may not be perfect but it’s still solid, and his direction is spot-on throughout the film. Expect very good things from him in the future.

Movies like Green Room are proof that money isn’t everything. With the right director and the right cast, you can get a movie more tense and suspenseful than a $200 million blockbuster (looking at you, Independence Day: Resurgence). It’s not for everyone and it’s not perfect, but Green Room delivers what it sets out to do and serves as a potent reminder of the talent we lost in Anton Yelchin.