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.

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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!

MONSTER MASH: WEREWOLF EDITION

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

The Howling (April 1981)

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

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

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

MGM

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

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

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

Wolfen (July 1981)

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

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

Warner Bros.

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

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

An American Werewolf in London (August 1981)

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

Universal

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

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

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

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

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

Universal

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

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

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

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

Fucking great movie.

Silver Bullet (1985)

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

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

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

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

Paramount

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

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

Bad Moon (1996)

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

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

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

Warner Bros.

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

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

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

Dog Soldiers (2002)

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


Kismet Entertainment Group

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…BEWARE THE FULL MOON!!!

MONSTER MOVIE BINGE!! (AKA SUMMER MONSTER MASH)

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

Deep Rising (1998)

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

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

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


Image: Buena Vista Pictures

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

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

The Relic (1997)

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

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

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

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

Image: Paramount Pictures

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

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

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

Leviathan (1989)

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

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

Image: Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer

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

Mimic (1997)

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

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

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

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

Image: Miramax Films

ICK ICK ICK NO NO NO.

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

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

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

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.