TV Capsule Reviews: Chernobyl, The Haunting of Hill House, Castlevania, Watchmen

I’ve been watching some kickass TV shows lately. Let’s talk about ‘em. Beware of spoilers.

Chernobyl

HBO

HBO’s Chernobyl is five episodes of utterly gut-wrenching television. I missed it when it aired earlier this year and recently watched it on Blu-Ray, and I was blown away. A show about a devastating historical event that took place in another country doesn’t automatically sound like a surefire hit, but it ended up being yet another hit for HBO, and with good reason.

I’m not remotely qualified to talk about the series’ technical or historical accuracy, but I can say that writer Craig Mazin and director Johan Renck did an amazing job of turning an incredibly complex series of events into riveting television. Craig Mazin’s previous screenwriting credits are mostly screwball comedies such as The Hangover and its sequels, so he’s not necessarily the writer you might expect to create such a traumatizing series. The third episode shook me so badly I took a week to recover before I watched the last two.

The horrors this show presents are many. People suffering from horrific radiation burns are only the tip of the iceberg. There’s also the now-infamous sequence where a trio of soldiers are tasked with hunting down and killing every animal in Chernobyl. If you have ever had a pet, this sequence is particularly grueling. I forced myself to watch it, but when I watch this series again I’m going to skip that scene.

But on top of the more visceral images, there’s the omnipresent danger of the radiation itself, the knowledge that all of the show’s characters are being slowly poisoned by it. Throughout all of this, the acting in the show is top-notch. Jared Harris is absolutely terrific, between this and The Terror on AMC, he’s been doing amazing work recently. Stellan Skarsgard is also great as a politician who initially butts heads with Harris’ character, and the friendship that slowly develops between the two men is genuinely moving.

There are many other characters and subplots throughout the series, and it is remarkable that the five episodes don’t feel overstuffed despite everything going on. The pacing is excellent and the series is very watchable, despite the harrowing subject matter. I can see myself eventually watching it again (minus the animal-killing scenes), but not for a while. It is often very difficult to watch, but it is made with skill and incredible attention to detail, the acting is excellent and perhaps most importantly it never forgets the incredible human cost of the Chernobyl disaster. It’s a remarkable piece of filmmaking and if you can stomach the more gruesome scenes, it’s a very rewarding viewing experience.

The Haunting of Hill House

Netflix

Let’s get one thing out of the way right off the bat: writer/director Mike Flanagan’s Netflix series of The Haunting of Hill House IS NOT the same as the novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. It shares some thematic similarities and character names, but the show is very much its own beast. It’s more inspired by the book than based on it. If you’re a big Shirley Jackson fan who expects the show to be a direct adaptation of the book, you’re going to be disappointed.

In my opinion that’s a good thing, since (and I realize this is a potentially unpopular opinion) I think the book is tremendously overrated. The book is, in a word, BORING. You want to know what happens in the book? Here’s a synopsis: some people spend a few days sitting around a weird old house talking, and then one of them dies in a car crash. The end. The book is often held up as a masterpiece of horror, but I did not find it remotely frightening.

Now if you’re still reading this and don’t hate me for expressing my dislike of a well-regarded novel, let’s move on and talk about the show. The show is great. There were scenes in this series that scared the absolute hell out of me, and the fifth episode shook me so badly I took a week to recover before I watched the rest of the ten episodes (sound familiar? Man, I followed up Chernobyl with something equally as intense, albeit in different ways). And the eighth episode has the most effective jump scare I’ve ever encountered in a movie or show, it damn near gave me a heart attack.

Mike Flanagan is a well-regarded filmmaker who I’ve heard quite a few good things about, although before I watched Hill House I hadn’t seen any of his work. And the hype about the guy is legit: he is a very, very good director. The sixth episode of Hill House is composed almost entirely of very long tracking shots and is one of the best episodes of television I’ve ever watched. If you have the Blu-Ray, I highly recommend watching this episode with Flanagan’s commentary, his eloquent and passionate description of the technical challenges of filming the episode is fascinating, and his appreciation for every member of the cast and crew who worked on it is really touching.

But I’m getting ahead of myself a little bit. Let’s back up and talk about what the show is about. The show is about the Crain family: parents Hugh and Olivia, and their children Steven, Shirley, Theo, Luke, and Nell. This family, to put it mildly, has ISSUES. Many of these issues stem from the summer the family spent in a haunted house –the titular Hill House. You see, Hugh and Olivia were attempting to restore the house over the summer and the entire family ended up having various paranormal encounters, which scarred them all in different ways.

That’s a vast oversimplification, but I don’t want to give too much away because if you’re a horror fan who hasn’t seen this show yet, you should really check it out. I’m going to sound a bit like a broken record when I say that the acting in this show is tremendous across the board. Many of the actors were previously unknown to me, and I was impressed with all of them. The show is structurally similar to Stephen King’s IT, in that the show weaves back and forth in between two time periods: the past, in which we see the family’s fateful summer in Hill House, and the present, where the kids are all grown up and the family is dealing with the many scars left by that traumatic summer.

I found all of their stories very compelling, and the show gives every character time to develop so that the viewer knows and cares about each one of them, which makes the scary scenes even scarier. The scares are psychological rather than gory, and Flanagan knows exactly how to get under the skin of every character, and by extension the viewer. The show is a harrowing tale of lingering trauma, and is a family drama as much as a horror story.

But make no mistake, this is a horror story. Just ask the ghosts hiding in the backgrounds of every episode. Mike Flanagan has confirmed that there are ghosts hiding in the background of every episode except the sixth, since that episode was so technically complex that they didn’t have time for Easter eggs. I missed the hidden ghosts in the first few episodes, but once I read about them online I started to pay closer attention to the backgrounds, and noticed quite a few of the creepy bastards in the later episodes. I LOVE how Flanagan incorporates these hidden ghosts, there’s never any loud noises or sudden music cues to alert the audience that the ghosts are there. But they are. Watching. Waiting.

I always love it when filmmakers put the extra effort into adding details and then letting the audience figure it out for themselves. I don’t even know if internet sleuths have found every ghost yet. The house itself also looks amazing. Somehow Flanagan and his crew managed to design the house in a way that pays homage to the source novel while still feeling like its own original creation.

If I have one problem with the show, it’s the ending. As good as the show is, Flanagan doesn’t quite stick the landing. The last episode isn’t terrible, but it is somewhat unsatisfying given how good the buildup to it had been. The uneven final episode doesn’t tank the entire show, but it is too bad that it doesn’t go out on a higher note. Flanagan is currently in production on a sequel of sorts: The Haunting of Bly Manor, said to be loosely based on The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. I’m looking forward to seeing what Flanagan does with another famous ghost story.

Castlevania

Netflix

Castlevania is an animated Netflix series based on the classic video game series by Konami. It has everything I like: swords, skeletons, castles, vampires, winged creatures of the night, a cranky badass hero, and lots of blood and gore, all wrapped up in a thoroughly gothic atmosphere. What’s not to like?

But the amazing thing about this show is that you actually care about the characters. I was honestly surprised by how much time the series spent with each character in the second season. The first season was only four episodes and while they were four good episodes, the first season couldn’t help but feel like a bit of a tease. But it’s a tease that pays off in the eight-episode second season. Season 2 introduces several new characters, and at times the pacing can be a bit slow. But the show rewards the viewer’s patience with several action-packed episodes in the second half, which include some of the best animated fight scenes it has ever been my pleasure to witness.

The main antagonist is Dracula, the most famous bloodsucker of all time. But the show’s portrayal of him is very different from other portrayals of the famous vamp. This version of Dracula is not bent on ruling the world just for the hell of it.

This Dracula just wants his wife back.

Wait, what?

Yes, this show’s Dracula is primarily motivated by his grief over the cruel death of his wife, Lisa. In the first scene of the first episode, we meet a young woman named Lisa who wants to be a doctor. She seeks out Dracula for his scientific knowledge. He is impressed by her and agrees to teach her, and she in turn helps him regain some of his humanity. Eventually they marry.

Fast forward twenty years, and Lisa is burned at the stake by a power-crazed bishop who falsely accuses her of witchcraft.

This turns out to be a Very Bad Idea.

Dracula unleashes his hordes of nightmare monsters as punishment for his wife’s death, and the results are spectacularly gruesome. This show is animated, but you probably shouldn’t let your kids watch it. The gore is quite copious, as is the profanity. Every episode was written by Warren Ellis, a well-known comic book writer. His scripts are peppered with f-bombs, which do seem a bit unnecessary at times but the story he’s crafted is excellent so I can give him a pass. And it always amuses me when animated characters say bad words, I don’t know why.

The protagonist is Trevor Belmont, whose family has spent generations fighting Dracula and his minions. When we first meet Trevor, all he wants to do is get drunk. He gets pulled into the escalating conflict and turns out to be a badass monster-killer. He is soon joined by Sypha Belnades, a powerful magic user, and Adrian Tepes, also called Alucard, who is the son of Dracula and Lisa (hint: read “Alucard” backwards). Trevor, Sypha and Alucard are a terrific trio, they bicker and argue at first but soon become friends and grow to rely on each other. Trevor is voiced by Richard Armitage, who played Thorin Oakenshield in the Hobbit movies, and his deep baritone is perfect for Trevor, a cranky badass with a heart of gold.

But let’s talk more about Dracula, since I’m such a big fan of villains. Dracula spends most of the second season moping around his castle while his generals conspire behind his back. It’s a totally unexpected way of portraying Dracula. You actually feel sorry for him. Losing Lisa robbed him of his ability to feel any kind of emotion at all. He is ostensibly the villain of the series, but he’s ultimately a deeply sympathetic and even tragic figure. He’s like the reverse of Batman: Bruce Wayne suffered a terrible tragedy, so he fights crime to prevent anyone else from having to suffer the same kind of loss that he experienced when his parents were murdered. Castlevania’s Dracula does the opposite: He suffered a terrible loss, so everyone else is going to have to suffer too.

It’s not until Dracula’s final battle with the heroes that he is able to feel anything again. During a truly epic smackdown, Dracula and Alucard pummel each other viciously and smash each other through walls repeatedly, until Dracula inadvertently tosses Alucard into Alucard’s childhood bedroom. Upon seeing the room, Dracula stops.

“My boy…” he moans. “I’m killing my boy. Lisa…I’m killing our boy!”

He stops fighting and allows his son to stake him in the heart.

It’s a surprisingly poignant moment, a potrayal of a man unable to feel to any emotion until it is far too late, at which point he welcomes death.

Damn. I was not expecting anything like this when I started watching Castlevania. I was expecting to be entertained (and I was) but I was not expecting the characterization to be so good.

I am a big fan of this show. Despite Dracula’s demise at the end of Season 2, Netflix recently gave the green light to a third season and I’m very excited to see where the story goes.

Watchmen

HBO

This show. THIS FREAKING SHOW.

I LOVE IT.

Yet another hit for HBO, Watchmen is a direct sequel to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal graphic novel. The book was made into a movie by Zack Snyder in 2009, but the show ignores the changes the movie made to the story and is a direct sequel to the book. As such, if you’ve seen the movie but haven’t read the book, you might be confused by certain things, like why everyone is so obsessed with squids and beings from other dimensions.

I had no idea what to expect from the show, but being a fan of the book I decided to check it out and I have been consistently impressed. HBO’s Watchmen is one of the most bizarre, provocative and just plain fearless shows on TV. It’s utterly batshit insane, but in the best possible way. Through the first seven episodes, I’ve lost track of the number of times this show surprised me, shocked me, moved me, and just generally kicked my ass.

That being said, if you try to watch the show without having read the book or seen the movie, you’ll probably have no idea what the bloody hell is going on. The show is packed with references and Easter eggs, and I’ve read a bunch of discussions online where people speculate and theorize and comment on little details they noticed that other people might have missed. I love seeing this kind of reaction, it makes me so happy to see people actually having a dialogue instead of just pissing and moaning. The show seems to have really resonated, and I am absurdly excited to see what surprises the final two episodes have in store.

It’s also a reminder of just how great Moore and Gibbons’ original graphic novel is. The book was published more than thirty years ago, and its story, themes and characters are every bit as relevant today. There are actually two Watchmen sequels currently going on. The other is Doomsday Clock, a DC Comics series that combines Watchmen characters with current DC continuity (Batman, Superman, etc.). As a comics fan, it’s a real kick to see Watchmen characters like Ozymandias and Rorschach on the same page with Batman and the Joker. But just to be clear, Doomsday Clock and HBO’s Watchmen are completely different and not related at all, aside from both being sequels to the original book. It all just goes to show how the book’s influence hasn’t diminished in over three decades.

Another great thing about the show is that it captures the spirit of the book. Alan Moore has long since disowned any adaptations of his work, so who knows if he’s seen the show or not. But if he hasn’t, he should: the show genuinely feels like it’s part of the same universe. It is shockingly bizarre but always compelling. I love the new characters the show adds to the Watchmen universe and it finds fiendishly clever ways to incorporate some of the book’s classic characters. The reveal of one of these characters at the end of the most recent episode left me utterly gobsmacked, but in the best possible way.

Oh, and I have to mention Peteypedia (hbo.com/peteypedia). If you’re as nuts for this show as I am, check out Peteypedia ASAP. It’s a collection of documents assembled by Agent Dale Petey, a minor character on the show, that flesh out the world the show takes place in. New “files” are uploaded after every new episode, and they are full of all kinds of fascinating tidbits for fans of Watchmen lore. This is also a callback to the book, which featured excerpts from fictional books, magazines, newspapers, etc. that added to the backstory.

HBO’s Watchmen is far stranger and more awesome than I ever could have expected. It’s utterly unpredictable and an absolute blast to watch, although it certainly helps to have some familiarity with the story beforehand. I might revisit this series after the first season ends to talk about more specific spoilery stuff, but until then, bring on those last two episodes!! I can hardly wait.

 

Capsule Reviews: Crawl, Zombieland: Double Tap, Terminator: Dark Fate

I saw some movies. Let’s talk about ‘em. Beware of spoilers.

Crawl

Crawl is a movie with a very simple premise: A college student and her dad get stuck in a rapidly-flooding basement during a Category 5 hurricane and must rely on their wits to survive. Also, there are several hungry alligators roaming around that will be more than happy to dine on their tasty human flesh. It’s a movie with a very clear purpose, and it succeeds admirably in achieving that purpose.

Crawl is 87 minutes long, which is just right. The movie doesn’t get bogged down with superfluous exposition or flashbacks, and the brisk running time ensures that there is never a dull moment. There are some flashbacks, but they serve to effectively build the relationship between the two main characters and never go on for too long.

Paramount Pictures

The main characters are Haley Keller (played by Kaya Scodelario) and her dad, Dave (played by Barry Pepper). Haley is a member of the swimming team at the University of Florida, and her swimming skills will come in very handy during her and her father’s harrowing ordeal. A Category 5 hurricane is rapidly approaching and Haley and her sister are concerned about their father since neither of them have been able to reach him on his cell phone. Haley decides to look for him, and eventually finds him in the basement of their old house.

Wouldn’t you know it, Dave’s got a badly broken leg, the water level in the basement is rising quickly, and there are the aforementioned gators that would like nothing more than to make the Kellers their dinner. As the water rises, it gives the ravenous reptiles more room to maneuver and increases the pressure on Haley and Dave.

In addition to being wonderfully simple and effective, the film’s premise is at least somewhat plausible. Something like this could conceivably happen, which isn’t something that is often said about horror movies. Kaya Scodelario and Barry Pepper are both very good in the lead roles, they have believable chemistry and are smart and resourceful, which makes them easy to root for. This movie wouldn’t work nearly as well if the lead characters weren’t as good as they are.

The movie was directed by Alexandre Aja, a French provocateur known for ultra-violent slasher movies such as High Tension, The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha 3D. Crawl is much more restrained than many of Aja’s other films, and he does a great job ratcheting up the tension as the film progresses. This is still a horror movie, so there are some grisly moments but the gore feels more impactful than the relentless splatter of some of Aja’s other films (the outrageously gruesome beach party massacre in Piranha comes to mind).

Crawl is made with great technical skill (the gators are CGI but done so well that it’s never distracting), razor-sharp suspense, and two compelling lead performances. It’s a movie that knows exactly what kind of movie it is, and it accomplishes what it sets out to do with flying colors. It never gets bogged down with unnecessary exposition or extraneous subplots. It’s lean, mean, and packs a sharp bite, much like those toothy gators. Fans of horror and suspense movies should eat it up.

Zombieland: Double Tap

It’s amazing that three of the four lead actors in Zombieland: Double Tap look exactly the same now as they did when the original Zombieland movie came out a full decade ago. Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg and Emma Stone all look the same in this movie as they did in the original, it is seriously uncanny. The only main cast member to look significantly different in the new movie is Abigail Breslin, which makes perfect sense when you consider that she was 13 years old when the first movie was released and is now 23.

Columbia Pictures

Given the ten-year gap, it’s amazing that this movie exists at all, and even more amazing that it’s as much fun as it is. It’s definitely not as good as the original, which came out of nowhere and surprised everyone by being as good as it was, and is still one of my favorite zombie movies. It was also one of Emma Stone’s breakout roles, she used the ten-year gap in between Zombieland movies to win an Oscar for La La Land in 2016 and star in two Spider-Man movies, among many others. I could go on for a while about what the other actors have been doing in the intervening years but I’m not going to because I have a huge crush on Emma Stone and have no shame admitting it.

Anyway, despite lacking the freshness and originality of the first movie, Double Tap is still a highly entertaining romp through a zombie-filled USA that captures the original’s movie spirit of zombie action, quirky characters and irreverent humor. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel but since the first movie’s formula worked so well it’s a classic case of not fixing what ain’t broke.

I don’t have a whole lot to say about this movie other than that if you enjoyed the first one you will probably enjoy the follow-up. The returning cast members are great and there are some fun new additions, the most memorable of which is probably Zoey Deutch as Madison, a clueless blonde who has nonetheless managed to survive the zombie-infested world. As Woody Harrelson’s trigger-happy character Tallahassee puts it, “Zombies eat brains, and she ain’t got none.” When he says this he is wondering how Madison has managed to survive, but perhaps he’s also answering his own question.

Zombieland: Double Tap is nothing revolutionary, but there’s still plenty of fun to be had as long as you don’t go into it expecting too much.

Terminator: Dark Fate

Okay, this movie is brand new and I’m gonna talk about some spoilers, so hold off on reading this if you haven’t seen it yet.

Let’s just start off by saying that the timeline of the Terminator movies is (and arguably always has been) a complete mess. This is somewhat inevitable given the time travel elements of the story, but at this point you’d need some kind of a PhD to make sense of it all. This, combined with the lukewarm reception to the previous three Terminator movies, led the makers of this latest installment to ignore the previous three movies entirely and make Dark Fate a direct sequel to 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which is widely and justly regarded as one of the best action movies ever made.

These are big shoes to fill, and while Dark Fate is (again, perhaps inevitably) not as good as the first two classic Terminator films, third-best out of six ain’t too bad. Yes, I am saying that this is the best Terminator movie since Terminator 2. Dark Fate is the second film directed by Tim Miller, who made the first Deadpool movie. He fills Dark Fate to the brim with top-notch action, and because of this I found it to be a very enjoyable movie, despite some controversial plot points.

Paramount Pictures

Okay, it’s time to talk about the elephant in the room, and that elephant’s name is John Connor. Terminator: Dark Fate kills him off, early. Double shotgun blast, dead. No question. Yep, the hero of mankind’s future resistance against the machines is promptly and unequivocally dispatched. This is something that will doubtless piss off a lot of die-hard Terminator fans, but…it didn’t actually bother me very much. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I haven’t seen Terminator 2 in a long time, but my reaction to John’s death was more “Oh, wow! I didn’t see that coming!” and less “HOW DARE THEY?!?!?!” I’m a Terminator fan but for whatever reason I was pretty ambivalent about John’s swift demise.

I guess what I’m saying is that if you can get past the movie’s decision to dispatch John Connor, you’ll probably have fun with Dark Fate. I did. If you just can’t believe that the movie would kill John so quickly, you probably won’t like it much. Which would be a shame in my opinion, because there’s quite a lot to like about the movie.

The first thing to like about it is the cast. Linda Hamilton returns to the franchise after nearly thirty years, playing John’s mother Sarah, who is now a grizzled badass who is worn out after decades of fighting evil robots and is wanted in all 50 states. It’s great to see Hamilton back, she is a reminder of why people got excited about Terminator movies in the first place.

Also very good is Mackenzie Davis as Grace, an enhanced soldier sent back in time from the future to protect someone who is not John Connor. Grace is tormented by her dark past, which is also in the future…look, time travel is really confusing, but Mackenzie Davis is great. I liked her a lot, and not just because she carries on Linda Hamilton’s Terminator 2 legacy of having incredible biceps.

And of course there is the Governator himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger, playing the Terminator robot who killed John but has since come to learn the error of his ways and has even found a family, who adorably call him Carl. “I’m never gonna fuckin’ call you Carl,” Sarah growls at him, in one of the movie’s funniest lines. And Carl is surprisingly funny. The movie gets a lot of mileage out of subverting the audience’s expectations for what a killer robot from the future would spend its time doing after completing its mission, which is something I admit had never occurred to me (Carl owns a drapery business).

The overall plot is mostly a rehash of previous Terminator movies. You know the drill: evil robot gets sent back in time to kill someone, good robot gets sent back in time to protect said someone. Dark Fate is basically the same thing, with a couple of different wrinkles. The evil robot this time around is called a REV-9, and in addition to being able to mimic people like the T-1000 in Terminator 2, it can also make copies of itself, which is problematic for our heroes, to say the least. Played by Gabriel Luna, the REV-9 is a fearsome foe, and is every bit as tenacious as previous Terminator antagonists.

Look, Dark Fate is not a great movie. I called it the best Terminator movie since Terminator 2, and I stand by that statement, but that does not mean it’s a great movie. The plot is largely a rehash of previous installments and it can feel formulaic. But I liked the characters, the action sequences are terrific, it’s surprisingly funny, and overall I enjoyed myself, so I can’t complain too much.

So there you go, three fun movies I’ve seen this year. I’ve been real lazy about posting lately, and I’ve got some catching up to do. The next movies I want to cover are Spider-Man: Far From Home (which I loved) and Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, which stars not two but THREE of my favorite actors. Those were fun movies and I’m looking forward to writing about them.

IT: Chapter Two: Red Balloons Have Never Been More Sinister

I’ve only been reading Stephen King regularly since 2013 or so, and in that time I’ve read almost 50 of his books (and still have around 20 left). I think I’ve read his books in every way that it is currently possible to read a book. I’ve read them as hardbacks. I’ve read them as paperbacks. I’ve read them on two different Kindles. I’ve read them on two different iPhones. I’ve listened to audiobooks of them on CD and from Audible. Short of clay tablets or smoke signals, I think that covers everything.

And IT is still my favorite. I wrote about my love of the book and explained why It is about much more than simply an evil clown terrifying children in my review of that film in September of 2017, so I’m not going to go into that again (I also explained who the characters are). Feel free to read that previous post of mine, though (insert shameless self-promotion here). The new movie is primarily concerned with the characters as adults, and while Chapter Two is bigger and more ambitious than It’s predecessor, It is not necessarily better.

Images: Warner Bros.

That’s not to say that It’s bad, though. I liked Chapter Two quite a bit, although I will readily admit that It is clunky at times, and at nearly three hours It does seem overlong. But let’s take a second to reflect on the miracle of this movie’s existence. It: Chapter Two is the second part of an adaptation of a book that is more than 30 years old and more than 1,000 pages long. It’s an R-rated, three-hour long extravaganza of brutal and unrelenting horror. And much like Its predecessor, It’s looking like another major box-office hit. That kind of thing doesn’t happen very often.

The elephant in the room regarding this movie was the question of who would play the adult versions of the Losers, as they call themselves. And, just like the previous movie, the casting in Chapter Two is excellent. It’s almost uncanny how closely the actors who play the Losers as adults resemble their younger counterparts. The actors who play Eddie in particular bear a striking resemblance, it’s enough to make one wonder if the actors are related in real life (which they’re not, so far as I know). James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain and Bill Hader are the biggest names in the new cast, and they’re all terrific, but the rest of the grown-up Losers are great as well.

And they have to be, since the adult Losers don’t get as much characterization as their younger selves did in the first movie. The new movie mostly relies on what we know of these people from their portrayal in the previous movie. This isn’t too surprising, given how much story the new movie needs to get through, but it is a bit disappointing that Chapter Two doesn’t do much to flesh out the characters a bit more. The new movie does imply that Richie is gay, which seemed a bit odd to me since there was no hint of that in the previous movie, or in the book that I remember. It’s not bad, it just feels a bit out of place.

The storytelling in the new movie is cluttered. The Losers employ a ritual called the Ritual of Chud to help defeat It, and the specifics of this ritual and how it works are explained very quickly and somewhat confusingly. Viewers who haven’t read the book might be a bit baffled by the whole ritual thing. Heck, I love the book and still thought that aspect of the story as shown in the movie was hard to understand. There are some changes to the overall plot, such as the absence of Beverly’s husband and Bill’s wife in the climactic events and the massive earthquake that rips apart the town of Derry after It is defeated, but these omissions didn’t bother me, as they would have made an already lengthy film even longer.

There are also frequent flashbacks to the Losers as kids, played by the same terrific young actors who played them in the first movie. I am of two minds about these scenes. On the one hand, they make the movie quite a bit longer and the pacing might have been somewhat better without them. On the other hand, it’s really great to see the young actors again and be reminded of how great they were, and it helps build the camaraderie in the group.

These scenes also add a lot more scares to the movie, and let’s face it, if you see a scary movie there had better be some scares. Intertwining the flashbacks with the present-day Losers is also reminiscent of how Stephen King structured the book in a non-linear fashion, frequently jumping back and forth between past and present. So while the flashbacks do disrupt the pacing a bit, ultimately I think that the pros outweigh the cons.

There is also quite a bit of humor, some of which is pretty funny, but the attempts at humor don’t always mesh with the horror. Army of Darkness this ain’t. But is the movie scary?

You bet it is.

Pennywise the Dancing Clown is still one of Stephen King’s most terrifying creations, and Bill Skarsgard’s portrayal of the demonic bastard is every bit as bone-chilling as it was previously. Pennywise delights in tormenting his victims and is a being of pure, unadulterated malevolence. Pennywise does not possess a shred of pity and neither does returning director Andy Muschietti, who once again puts his actors through a brutal gauntlet of horror. Filming this movie must have been…intense. I can only imagine what it must have been like for Jessica Chastain to film the scene where Beverly almost drowns in a bathroom stall filling with blood.

One minor complaint is that there’s an excessive amount of swearing in this movie. I’m not a prude when it comes to profanity, but sometimes movies have so much swearing that the impact is lost. It Chapter Two does unfortunately cross that line where the swearing starts to seem a little ridiculous. This isn’t a huge issue, but it did get old after a while.

It: Chapter Two is not a perfect movie by any means. The storytelling is clunky, the pacing is uneven, and the tone fluctuates. But the actors are all very good, the production and creature designs are convincing and scary, and the movie delivers the visceral thrills. Stephen King’s IT is a story that I ultimately find very moving, and the fact that these two films are able to capture even a small amount of that magic is something to be celebrated. I like both IT films quite a bit, warts and all. The two movies are probably as good an adaptation of King’s mammoth novel as is possible to make. King’s twisted but timeless story appears poised to scare the bejesus out of readers and viewers for generations to come, which in a weird way makes me very happy.

Pet Sematary: Sometimes Dead is Better

I’m going to do something with this post that I have never done before, which is that I’m going to start with a disclaimer. Pet Sematary deals with some very intense and sensitive topics, so if you have trouble with discussion of pets and/or children dying, or if you’ve maybe lost a loved one recently, you might not want to read this. If you do decide to read this, strap in: things are going to get dark.

I’m going to be looking at the book itself and both of its film adaptations, and there will be spoilers for all three. Dark, gruesome stuff lies ahead. You have been warned.

Pet Sematary is the book that Stephen King, the Master of Horror himself, thought was too dark and disturbing to publish. He has stated that of all the books he’s written, Pet Sematary is the one that scared him the most. King put it away in a drawer after he finished it, thinking he had gone too far with the subject matter. The only reason King published it was because he switched publishers at one point, but he still owed a book to his previous publisher and Pet Sematary was the book he had.

The plot itself is straightforward. Louis Creed is a doctor from Chicago who has accepted a job at the University of Maine as the director of campus health service. His family consists of his wife Rachel, daughter Ellie, and son Gage, along with Ellie’s cat Church. Ellie is eight or nine, Gage is around two. Upon their arrival in the small town of Ludlow, Maine, they meet their new neighbor, elderly Jud Crandall. Jud warns the Creeds to be careful around the highway that runs past their house, since it is regularly used by speeding semi-trucks.

Jud shows them a pet cemetery in the woods behind their house (the sign is misspelled because it was written by children) where the town’s children bury their deceased animals, many of whom fall victim to the semi-trucks. There is a large pile of dead and broken tree trunks and limbs nearby, which Jud is reluctant to discuss. The pet cemetery leads to an argument between Louis and Rachel on the subject of how to discuss death with their children. Louis favors a practical approach, whereas Rachel doesn’t want to acknowledge the topic of death at all. This is because she is deeply traumatized by the death of her sister Zelda, who suffered from spinal meningitis that twisted and contorted her body. When Zelda died, young Rachel was alone in the house with her, so she holds herself partly responsible for her sister’s death.

Later, Louis is by himself during Thanksgiving (Rachel and the kids are spending the holiday with Rachel’s parents, who have never liked Louis) when Jud tells Louis some bad news: Ellie’s cat Church has been hit and killed by a semi-truck. Louis knows that Ellie will be heartbroken and struggles with how to break the news to her. Since Louis and Jud have become good friends, Jud offers to accompany Lewis to the pet cemetery to bury Church. But once they get there, Jud leads Louis over the deadfall behind the cemetery, and they go to an ancient Indian burial ground, where he instructs Louis to bury Church.

Louis thinks that’s the end of it…until the next day, when Church comes back. Louis tries to rationalize this, thinking that Church wasn’t actually dead, but it’s apparent that Church is not the same. He’s aggressive and mean, he hunts animals more frequently and tears them apart without eating them, his fur is matted and filthy, and he stinks so badly that Ellie doesn’t want him in her room anymore.

A few months later, every parent’s nightmare happens: 2-year-old Gage is killed by one of the speeding trucks. Torn apart by grief, and despite Jud’s dire warnings that “Sometimes dead is better” (the book and film’s most famous line), Louis does the unthinkable: he exhumes the body of his dead son and buries him in the Indian burial ground.

Inevitably, Gage returns. He is demonic and vicious, and brutally murders Jud and Rachel with one of his father’s surgical scalpels. Louis puts him down for good with an injection of chemicals. Desperately thinking that the results will be different if he doesn’t wait as long to bury her, Louis buries Rachel in the cursed burial ground.

At the end of the novel, Louis sits in his home, a broken man. As he glumly plays solitaire and waits, a cold hand drops on his shoulder and his wife’s voice rasps a single word: “Darling.”

Chilling.

Reading the book is like being in a roller coaster heading into a pit full of spikes. You know something terrible is going to happen at the end, but you are powerless to do anything about it. Perhaps more than any book I’ve ever read, Pet Sematary has this incredible sense of irresistible forward momentum. You know Louis is making a terrible mistake, and you get the sense he knows it too. The rational part of you wants to start yelling at the book to make the character stop what he’s doing because it’s all going to end tragically…

…but at the same time, the emotional part of you understands.

Of course this man wants to see his son again.

Of course he wants to heal his family.

Two years old is far too early for a person to die.

This is the unanswerable dilemma posed by Pet Sematary. Does Louis do the wrong thing for the right reasons? Does he think he’s doing the right thing? Does he deserve what happens to him and his family as a result of his decision to resurrect Gage? What would be worse: losing someone you love, or losing someone you love only for them to come back and not be the same? And perhaps the most haunting question of all, what would you do in his situation? Even knowing what you’re doing is wrong, would you be able to stop yourself?

The true horror of Pet Sematary isn’t the resurrected, murderous toddler, which doesn’t even happen until the last fifty or so pages of the book. That would be horrific enough on its own, but what’s far more disturbing about Pet Sematary is its ruminations on the subject of death, and why people are so afraid of it. Losing a loved one is terrible, but having them come back and not be the same would be even worse. Pet Sematary is more about dealing with loss and tragedy and learning how to move on with your life than it is about defending yourself from a murderous toddler. Stephen King paints a compelling and deeply harrowing portrait of a family enduring a terrible loss, only to have something even worse happen as a result.

It’s easy to hate Louis Creed, but there is no real villain in this story. Or, conversely, a compelling argument could be made that everyone is a villain. Jud shows Louis the burial ground and plants the idea of resurrecting Gage in his head. Rachel’s inability to talk about death leads to Louis burying Church in the cursed burial ground. Louis exhumes his dead son and reburies him, knowing what will probably happen. And of course Gage, brought back from the dead only to brutally murder a nice old man and his own mother.

Who’s the villain here?

Everyone, and no one.

Pet Sematary was initially brought to the screen in 1989, six years after the book was first published. The movie is very faithful to the novel, which could partly be because Stephen King himself wrote the screenplay. The movie was directed by Mary Lambert and starred Dale Midkiff as Louis, Denise Crosby as Rachel, and Fred Gwynne as Jud.

Images: Paramount Pictures

Gwynne, known as Herman Munster from The Munsters, easily gives the movie’s best performance. In his books, King is (at times overly) fond of writing dialogue in regional dialects. One of his favorite expressions is “Ayuh,” and there are “Ayuh”s aplenty both in the book and in the 1989 film. I won’t lie, King’s frequent use of dialect in his books is one of my least favorite things about him as a writer, I love his books but the parts written in dialect can be tiresome.

This actually translates well to the screen. I didn’t mind it so much because it felt more natural coming from an actual person than it did reading it on the page. Gwynne was in his 50’s when the movie was released, but he looks much older. I was surprised to discover that he was only 66 when he died in 1993. He gives a tremendously convincing performance as Jud, and his grisly death at the hands of the undead Gage is, for me, the movie’s most horrific scene.

Unfortunately, the rest of the movie’s acting isn’t as good. Dale Midkiff as Louis gives one of the flattest performances I’ve ever seen in a movie, he has no charisma at all. His portrayal of Louis is as flat as a pancake. You know it’s not a great sign when a movie’s lead actor gets out-acted by a three-year-old, as Midkiff does here. Gage was played by Miko Hughes, who was pretty much the cutest kid you’ve ever seen, making his murder spree all the more disturbing.

The problem is that, while the idea of someone’s dead child coming back to murderous life is a horrifically disturbing idea that is chilling to read in a book, its translation to the screen is…a mixed bag. Watching a man battle his murderous undead offspring is horrifying, but it’s also a bit silly. Reading it may be scary but actually seeing it is equal parts scary and ridiculous. Reading the book makes it easier to suspend your disbelief.

Which brings us to the new version of the movie. The 2019 movie stars Jason Clarke as Louis, Amy Seimetz as Rachel, and John Lithgow as Jud. The new movie follows the same general plot structure with one key difference, sadly given away by the film’s trailers: in this version, it’s not Gage but Ellie who is hit by a truck and brought back to murderous life. This is a change that angered some fans of the original, but I like it. It puts a fresh spin on the material and keeps it from feeling like the exact same story. And since Ellie is older than Gage, it gives the viewer a chance to get to know her more as a person, which gives her death and resurrection more emotional weight.

Ellie is played by a young actress named Jete Laurence, and she deserves a lot of credit for what is probably the best performance in the movie. She makes Ellie inquisitive and likable, without ever being shrill or annoying. And when she later goes full psycho and begins her murder spree, Laurence’s performance is chilling and believable. Watching a 9-year-old girl repeatedly stab her mother with a kitchen knife is one of the nastier things I’ve seen on a movie screen in quite some time. An evil 9-year-old is also more plausible onscreen than an evil 3-year-old.

The movie also gets a lot of mileage out of the body horror aspects of Rachel’s sister Zelda. The Zelda scenes in the original movie were unsettling, but the Zelda scenes in the new movie are far more horrific, and provide some of the most effective scares. Old-school fans of the original movie will probably disagree, but I think the new movie is better than the original in almost every way: the acting is (mostly) better, it’s more atmospheric, it ramps up the gore, and most importantly it’s much scarier.

Which is not to say that it doesn’t have flaws. The relationship between Jud and Louis could have used a bit more detail, and there are a few intriguing ideas that don’t go anywhere. One of the scenes that featured prominently in the movie’s trailers was of a procession of children, wearing animal masks and slowly beating a drum, pushing a dead dog in a wheelbarrow in the woods towards the pet cemetery.

It’s a creepy image that presents all sorts of intriguing possibilities: do the kids know about the burial ground that will bring things back to life? How much does the rest of the town know? Could the kids themselves have been resurrected there? Unfortunately, the image is there and then gone, and ultimately only serves to provide Ellie with a creepy animal mask she wears during her murderous rampage. It’s a spooky early scene that doesn’t end up serving the plot in a meaningful way, and feels like a missed opportunity.

One thing both movies really nail is the ending. The original movie’s ending is much closer to the book’s ending, with Louis embracing his grotesquely reanimated wife before she picks up a knife off the table and the screen cuts to black as Louis screams. The new movie ends with Ellie, Rachel and Louis all being killed and resurrected as murderous versions of their former selves, with the strong implication that cute little Gage will be next. Both versions are chilling.

Pet Sematary is one of Stephen King’s darkest stories. It’s also one of my favorites of his books that I’ve read. I don’t know if I could ever read it or watch either movie again, since the experience took me to some very dark places. Pet Sematary is a story about death. It’s a story about a very nice family who has unspeakable things happen to them. It lets the reader/viewer decide for themselves who they think the villain is. It’s a story with a lot of ambiguity, it doesn’t offer any easy answers and the ending of every version of the story offers no encouragement.

It’s a difficult and astonishingly dark piece of fiction, and it’s not hard to see why Stephen King himself is a little scared of it. Pet Sematary is a story that forces you to come to the inevitable conclusion that no matter how painful it is, sometimes dead is indeed better.

Overlord: Hell’s Bells

I was excited about Overlord as soon as I saw the first trailer. The trailer looks at first like a Dirty Dozen-style World War II movie about American parachutists on a mission behind enemy lines in the hours leading up to the D-Day invasion of Normandy. But then Hell’s Bells by AC/DC starts playing, and the trailer takes a dramatic left turn into horror-movie territory.

Images: Paramount

It turns out that Overlord is more reminiscent of Wolfenstein than Saving Private Ryan, and is the closest thing to a live-action Wolfenstein movie we’re likely to get. The Nazis committed so many horrible deeds that it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that they would have tried something along the lines of what they’re up to in Overlord.

The main character of Overlord is Private Boyce, played by an English actor named Jovan Adepo. He’s a paratrooper dropped into France on the eve of the Normandy invasion. He and his squad are tasked with destroying a German radio tower in an old church in order to allow air support for the beach landings. The movie starts out with a bang as the mission goes to hell before it even has a chance to get started and Boyce’s plane is shot down.

The plane sequence is extremely intense, and takes place almost entirely inside the plane itself, which increases the suspense because the viewer has no more idea of what’s coming than the plane’s occupants do. It ends with Boyce being thrown out of the plane and the camera follows him in a single shot as he struggles to open his parachute and lands in the water. It’s a great way to start a movie.

Fortunately, the rest of the movie lives up to that ferocious opening sequence. It would have been a huge bummer if the remainder of the movie hadn’t been able to live up to the high standard set by that thrilling opening, but it does.

Following his narrow survival, Boyce attempts to regroup with his fellow paratroopers, and is able to meet up with four survivors, one of whom is promptly killed by a landmine. Boyce and his three remaining compatriots take shelter in the village with a young Frenchwoman named Chloe, who is living with her brother Paul and their aunt, who is suffering from a mysterious and gruesome ailment after returning from the church that houses the radio tower that Boyce and his squad must destroy.

I don’t want to give too much away, but if you’ve seen the trailer you’ll know that the Nazis are up to some very bad things in the secret lab below the church. Overlord is not a movie for the faint of heart, and the horrors Boyce encounters when he infiltrates the lab are grisly and horrific, but also kind of awesome, like a severed head still attached to a spinal cord that begs Boyce in French to end its suffering. Boyce also discovers a mysterious red serum that lies at the heart of these nasty experiments, which is very important later in the movie.

The main villain is a sadistic Nazi Captain named Wafner, played by a Danish actor named Pilou Asbaek, whom you might recognize as Euron Greyjoy from Game of Thrones or last year’s adaptation of Ghost in the Shell with Scarlett Johansson. His Captain Wafner is a despicable character who is utterly unapologetic in his evil, even after being brutally beaten by one of Boyce’s squadmates and having half his face shot off, which only seems to make him worse.

That squadmate who beats up Wafner is named Corporal Ford, who is played by Wyatt Russell. If Russell seems familiar, it’s probably because he’s the son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, and there were a couple of moments where he strongly reminded me of his dad. If you, like me, are a fan of Kurt Russell classics like The Thing, Escape from New York, and Tombstone, being reminded of a young Kurt Russell is not a bad thing. I like Wyatt Russell as an actor much more than Clint Eastwood’s son Scott, who has been in several high-profile movies despite not being able to act his way out of a wet paper bag.

The middle section of Overlord is fairly sedate in terms of violence. After that visceral opening sequence, the movie slows down and takes time to establish the characters and mood, as well as set up the rest of the plot. Despite the lack of action in the film’s middle section, it’s never boring, since the suspense is always high and the characters are never safe.

But lest you think the movie might come up short in the action department, rest assured that it does not. The movie’s final half-hour is a barrage of nonstop carnage and mayhem, and is more than worth the price of admission. It’s one ferocious battle and narrow escape after another, and it is vicious. Overlord pulls no punches in terms of gore. It’s a toss-up between Overlord and Shane Black’s Predator reboot for the title of Goriest Blockbuster of 2018. This is not a movie for people with weak stomachs. There’s dismemberment, disfigurement, impalement, and gallons of blood. One character even takes a meat hook to the chest in what has to be the most squirm-inducing thing I’ve seen in a movie this year.
It’s intense, gory, horrific, and absolutely thrilling. I thoroughly enjoyed Overlord, and even if it doesn’t make a ton of money at the box office, I can easily see it becoming a cult classic. It’s an over-the-top barrage of insane violence. But despite the considerable carnage, I also found myself caring about the characters. They’re not disposable slasher-movie victims, they’re actually quite likable.

The movie was directed by Julius Avery, whose only previous film was a 2014 crime thriller called Son of a Gun starring Ewan MacGregor and Alicia Vikander. Overlord is a much larger-scale production, and he handles it with aplomb. The action in Overlord is intense and well-orchestrated, and the makeup and special effects teams do great work in bringing the film’s grisly Nazi creations to vivid life.

If you’re a fan of war movies, horror movies, action movies, or the Wolfenstein series, you should definitely give Overlord a watch. It’s batshit insane in the best possible way, an ultraviolent B-movie made with skill and attention to detail, and absolute barrels of blood.

Highly recommended.

MONSTER MASH: UTTERLY RANDOM EDITION

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

Graveyard Shift (1990)

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

Paramount Pictures

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

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

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

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

Pumpkinhead (1988)

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

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

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

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

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

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

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

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

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

Jurassic Park III (2001)

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

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

Universal Pictures

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

Deep Blue Sea 2 (2018)

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

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

Warner Bros.

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

The Pyramid (2014)

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

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

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

20th Century Fox

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

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

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

Spawn (1997)

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

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

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

New Line Cinema

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

New Line Cinema

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

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

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

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

MONSTER MASH: AQUATIC EDITION

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

The Meg (2018)

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

Warner Bros.

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

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

Humanoids From the Deep (1980)

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

New World Pictures

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

Piranha (1978)

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

New World Pictures

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

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

DeepStar Six (1989)

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

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

TriStar Pictures

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

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

Deep Blue Sea (1999)

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

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

Warner Bros.

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

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

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

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

Buena Vista Pictures

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

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

See you next time!