Bengal’s Halloween Horrorthon Part VI of VI: POST HALLOWEEN EDITION

Three more selections of chilling terror to inspire your choices for next October or whenever you feel the call to horror. Afterwards, either I talk about something contemporary finally or more 80s retrospective entries.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Image from Youtube (Welcome to the Family, girl.)

Why am I talking about a 70s horror movie rather than the expected 80s one again? Because one of my selections for 80s horror is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and I had yet to see the highly influential and still highly effective original. It’s a movie that is able to shock and repulse, as it has been said, through not every element of what Leatherface and his family does is explicitly explained or shown off.

Much of what this movie does show you makes you think about what else goes into the process of this particular family’s lifestyle in some remote part of our second largest state, even if due to atlases we often see it and think of it as the biggest.

That Texas is this big, unwieldy state in the American Union adds to the tension of the concept of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Not just that you could be effectively alone in this wide open place with any potential help far away, but that somewhere, maybe closer than you think, is a group of people more mad and macabre than you can fathom.

Another element is that while the narrative of the movie is indeed fictional despite the claims of the opening crawl, it was inspired by a real serial killer who is just about the most screwed up in the analogues of American history: Ed Gein. His influence is great, seeing as how he already inspired Hitchcock with Psycho and would later inspire Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, among others.

Tobe Hooper’s 1974 masterwork is the most viscerally influenced as if there was doubt, but again it doesn’t go as far as you would think and it’s just as uncomfortable in spite of its restraint. While there is blood, especially near the end, there is basically no gore and only one person gets chainsawed, and it’s shot late at night and far enough away from view that the details are not graphic if still undeniably clear.

More than artistry, Hooper actually didn’t go further because he was originally aiming for a PG RATING. Now, of course, the PG rating back then was more broad in what could be covered, an issue that led to the PG-13 rating a decade later. I’ve seen PG rated movies with full on nudity and sex so there.

The raters at the time not only laughed at Hooper’s gall at trying for a PG rating, they initially slapped him with an X rating. Just the subject matter couldn’t allow for that low rating, hell, it would be very hard to pull off any story with cannibalism with even a PG-13. X was the original NC-17 and a lot of movies that once had that rating would be considered R or even lower by today.

1969’s Midnight Cowboy was given an X almost entirely because it had male prostitutes. Nowadays, it would be a light R or even PG-13 and even then the severe rating didn’t stop it from receiving Oscar Gold, at a time when that Gold meant something. Another film that could be given a less harsh rating or has done so is The Wild Bunch and TTCM 74 now has a fair R classification.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre is often viewed alongside Black Christmas of the same year of being the first real slasher movies. Psycho is considered a precursor than an actual example and the slasher genre in many people’s eyes truly began with John Carpenter’s 1978 Halloween.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre 1974 tells what is now an overly familiar tale of a group of young men and women going on a road-trip through a desolate place, all in their Volkswagen which sadly does not have A/C and the Texas heat is certainly sweltering. I thought Texas gets hot in the Summer now but I suppose it was little better in the 70s.

The crew consists of five, three males and two females, one of which is called Sally, who will become possibly the first of many, many “final girls”, the often feminine sole survivor of a slasher’s rampage. She has her brother Franklin, overweight, stuck in a wheelchair and the most overly Texan sounding of the group. Despite the circumstances of his condition, Franklin will be the last of the group to die, perhaps done to subvert the obvious expectation he’d be among the first.

After a seriously unsettling encounter with a hitchhiker called Nubbins, who acts as a clear forewarning for the film’s events, they come across an old abandoned house that used to belong to Sally and Franklin’s family. In fact, that near plantation-like house is due to them being part of a family which runs a slaughterhouse business, which makes the coming events all the more ironic.

I first thought that this was Leatherface and Co’s lair, but no, it’s nearby which contains most suspiciously before you reach the house a large tent containing a bunch of cars, with their fuel being drained to help power the lights. Hmmm, that’s odd. If I was remotely genre savvy, that would’ve been a titanic red flag to run back, collect your friends and keep on trucking along. That this is a movie at essentially the beginning of the slasher era actually helps as these youngsters have no cultural reason to be wary, though I suppose some deductive reasoning could’ve worked just as well.

The first teen to reach the house, who is the leader of the five, is also the first victim. I would not be surprised if the choice to off the leader early on would inspire the brilliant narrative move for Alien at the end of the decade.I should note now how ingenious this first encounter with Leatherface really is. You would expect a scare chord upon seeing Leatherface encounter our ill-fated teen.

Instead the admittingly disturbing music, which was meant to resemble sounds an animal would hear in a very particular place (do I need to spell it out?) is playing before, during and after the guy’s encounter with the big, apron-wearing fella. There is no sudden rise or drop in the music in the scene. There’s no need when what you’re seeing is the scare.

Despite the creepy music, it doesn’t fully prepare you for the moment and might leave you off-kilter with what you had just seen. It happens so fast. The dude walks into the house, asking if there’s any gas they can borrow for their van, which is running low, and decides to up and enter the house. I mean, I get that this is set nearly 50 years ago, but c’mon my man!

What further intrigues the guy to enter the house is not only that it’s an open screen door but that he hears a strange, off sound like a pig squealing, the source we never get to learn for certain. He comes across a red-colored hallway at the foyer, full of displayed animal skulls when suddenly Leatherface is there and he looks and acts just as surprised to see the teen as he is to see him. He immediately whacks the guy on the head and carries him further into the house, but not before shutting the hallway with a metal door. All of this occurs in around 20 seconds or less.

In spite of how genuinely scary Leatherface is, he’s also paradoxically the least evil of the family. For one, Hooper has stated that Leatherface’s behavior in at least the first movie is not predicated on rage, blood-lust or sadism, but on pure fear. He has been taught by his brothers that make up the appropriately titled “Sawyer” family that he must be wary of anyone that comes from outside the family grounds, most likely due to their activities being exposed and stopped. He is also overly subservient and pathetic around the Old Man (Jim Siedow), who may be one of three things: his father, his uncle or even his brother.

Right after he has caught and killed the third teen, while he was looking for his girlfriend the second victim, Leatherface rushes over to the window, looking out and around with terror in his eyes. That’s right, one of the most legendary, frightening and violent slasher villains of all time is, in at least one interpretation, as scared of you as you are of him.

A lot of the details of what the teens go through and see are pretty well known by now and not just because this film is currently 48 years old. It’s such a defining, influential and starkly memorable piece of American horror that a lot of moments have entered into generally broad knowledge, so I risk repeating a lot of what may be known or spoiling something that should be left for one to finally discover, such as the immediacy of Leatherface’s debut.

What I can also say is that Hooper’s filming of the movie is genius, as it doesn’t always feel like I’m watching a movie in the conventional sense. The minimalist approach to the soundtrack and how the camera is framed with a scratchy ,DIY feel to the camerawork almost feels like a found footage movie if it wasn’t for how many of the shots are staged. It’s unconventional, near Indie take on filmmaking reinforces a sense that what you’re watching is either really happening or that you are watching an utterly earnest recreation. It was this direction which led many to believe that the marketing had told the truth of this being a real event.

The third act , by which Sally is the last one standing has a near breathless pace, where neither her nor the audience have any time to decompress. A sense that any minute now, especially during the infamous dinner scene I have up there as header image, Sally will die. Despite being only an observer on a fictional series of events, I felt just about as helpless as Sally, hoping that the nightmare would end, that she would just wake up.

It even got to a point where it almost became too much. In spite of the lack of all the things a movie like Texas Chainsaw Massacre has you expect to feature, the endless screaming of Marilyn Burns’ Sally, the utter lack of sympathy or awareness that what the Sawyer family is doing is horribly messed up to say the least and wondering just how the first final girl will ultimately escape put me for in an exhausted yet exhilarated final stretch.

The famous conclusion, of Sally being chased by Leatherface onto a road and then finally finding safety on the back of a pickup truck, left me feeling not so much triumphant as weary, but in a good way. As the famous final shot of Leatherface twirling his chainsaw around in the air in frustration for failing to stop Sally which leads to an utterly sudden but correct cut to black, Sally is seen slowly laughing to the point of hysteria. She physically survived her stay at the Sawyer place, but as for her mind…

The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre is often seen as not only the sole good movie period in the franchise it spawned, but as a must see for those with the stomachs to get through it. What I saw and what I experienced has me gladly join that bandwagon. If you but the courage and the will for just one of these kinds of movies, make sure it’s this one. It’s a literal grind-house film with a brain on top of its guts.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)

Image from The Austin Chronicle (Here, have a non-disturbing image to help lighten the mood after the last section.)

Rather than go for a straight follow-up to his 1974 classic, Tobe Hooper, who had (maybe) directed 1982’s Poltergeist and 1985’s Lifeforce (which I covered for this year’s Horrorthon), wanted a different approach than outright trying to top the original. It could be that the first couldn’t be topped, it was just so well done the way it was. But on the other hand, he still wanted to return to the grisly world that started his career.

He opted for a black comedy approach that, more than anything, reminds one less of the original movie in tone and more like the cult classic 1980 cannibalism horror comedy, Motel Hell. Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 does actually carry a lot of the same plot beats of the original, including another dinner scene and the final girl that you see above you laughing mad by the end of it all. Despite being a narrative followup set thirteen years later, it’s almost a darkly comic remake or re-imagining of the first, much like Sam Raimi’s approach to the second Evil Dead.

The Sawyer family is still out there, still preying on people who happen to walk into their part of the figurative woods. Police officer “Lefty” Enright, portrayed with enthusiasm by Dennis Hopper, knows it and has spent the past near decade and a half looking for any clues that will lead him to Leatherface and company. Everyone thinks he’s mad, and they’re right. But, he’s also quite right about the Sawyers being out there.

“Stretch” Brock (Caroline Williams), a radio DJ living near Wichita Falls in Northeastern Texas, manages to catch evidence of Leatherface’s latest predation as some late-night callers, known to harass Stretch and her radio station with prank calls, happen to record the fatal attack they’re victims of. Hearing that is enough for Lefty to realize that he has to get literally revved up to face the family and end the massacre once and for all. In one of the best scenes, Lefty goes to a Chainsaw store, browses the many selections and decides on three that will do just nicely on gaining both justice and revenge on the cannibal family, seeing as how he has an out of nowhere connection to one of the victims of the first movie.

However, the Sawyer family also learn of the recording Stretch made of their activities. They send to the radio station the replacement for Stubbins the hitchhiker (seeing as how he’s the only family member that died in the original), Chop-Top, and as the consensus as proven, he is the best new addition for the movie. Even people who aren’t really hot about Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 admit that Bill Moseley’s performance as the music obsessed Vietnam veteran-hippie from hell is the true highlight of the movie.

The scene where he confronts Stretch alone in the radio station and rambles on and on to the point that Stretch gets increasingly worried (as she should) about what his actual intentions are is possibly the other standout moment aside from Lefty’s chainsaw shopping. He has a metal coat-hanger that he keeps scratching his head with, all the more concerning considering that he heats up the tip with a lighter though we soon learn why and how it relates to his Vietnam history. It also sheds light that more than a few of the Sawyer family may not be related by blood necessarily though supposedly Chop-Top wasn’t there for the first movie as he was busy serving in Nam’. The original movie was released in 74 but set in 1973, the last year of American involvement.

The encounter between Stretch and Chop-Top cascades into another fantastic jump scare reveal of Leatherface. While Leatherface was already revealed during the scene where the callers are killed on the road, his introduction regarding the lead characters is even better. How he appears actually made me jump in my sofa seat. It’s followed by a different take for the hulking slasher that keeps the mentally challenged grunting and mannerisms from before but frames it as much more comedic. In almost every scene involving Leatherface and his now much longer chainsaw, he moves his feet up back and forth and motions his chainsaw up in the air in a funny motion that’s purposefully silly. While he is still a killer and a threat, this Leatherface is even more sympathetic than before, due to him being treated even worse than last time from his family.

Leatherface is also shown for the first time to have the quality of mercy, if only due to becoming infatuated with Stretch. It’s both creepy and sad in how Leatherface goes about with Stretch and how she has to go through a hell of a lot to allow him not to, you know, do some chainsaw massacring on her. By the time the film crescendos with Leatherface engaging in an honest to God chainsaw duel with Lefty, I actually felt sorry for the big guy, likely because had he been in a much less depraved nurturing environment, he could’ve been a less dangerous and even friendly mentally challenged Goliath of a man.

The guy that nurtured Leatherface to be the horrifying yet tragic monster that he is the returning Old Man played by Jim Siedow. To tell you the truth, I often got Siedow confused with Gilbert Gottfried due to how both their face and manner of speaking are close if not exact. It was as if I was watching an evil relative of Gottfried onscreen and had a ball with his interplay antics with both Leatherface and Chop-Top.

The film concludes at an abandoned Texas History amusement park, which is the new Sawyer family hideout. What the family is up to now echoes the intent of what the couple from Motel Hell were about: taking their “practices” and making a profit out of it. The Old Man is the proud winner of a Texas vs Oklahoma chili contest and that he wins at all is you better believe a statement about how actually closer than not we may be to a much more savage, worse aspect of ourselves from the neanderthal age.

Despite the praise I’ve given to TTCM2, it’s not as good a movie as the first. It’s pacing especially at the end can feel overstretched (pun not intended) and that it copies, as a joke or not, a lot of the same moments from the first time around can make the proceedings feel repetitive. The last moment, which is more of a spiritual reflection of the last scene than a copy does work and honestly, were I or any to survive the events of this movie, would I not lose just a little bit of my sanity?

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is not as strong a recommendation for me as the first, but once you understand what Tobe Hooper is getting at with his ersatz return to this flavor of slasher horror and you can also stand it, you should have a satisfyingly memorable time. If you can’t bring yourself to see the whole thing through, I still recommend finding and viewing online clips of the scenes with Lefty at the chainsaw store, Chop-Top’s introduction and maybe Lefty and Leatherface’s duel, a moment that like with Motel Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if it inspired a boss fight from Resident Evil 7, replete with chainsaw vs chainsaw.

After all, RE7 also clear took inspiration from Texas Chainsaw Massacre with its own first person dinner scene, a moment that counts among the most comically dark and disturbing in Resident Evil’s entire history, especially since all the player can do up to a point is move their head around in desperation, like Sally and Stretch before.

If you got the guts and the time, jump right in and see what you think.

Hellraiser (1987)

Image from Upcoming on Screen (The least disturbing yet still disturbing image I could find.)

Upon it’s impending American release, Stephen King himself declared that the future of horror, the guy that would carry the torch after him, was Clive Barker, the author/director behind the movie you see before you. He didn’t quite become the title he was heralded for, but he for certain became a facet of the horror landscape. He’s one of two figures identified with body horror, the other being our boy David Cronenberg.

There have been 11 movies in the Hellraiser series, the most recent being a reboot attempt under Hulu with a now female Pinhead. When it comes to films from the series to recommend, that has been difficult to ascertain, as only the first movie has garnered acclaim from both audiences and critics, albeit overtime. If I had to guess, it would be based on whats fans of the series say and on how closely or not Barker was involved in the project.

The first movie, as many allegorical horror movies are want to be, are about asking uncomfortable questions about ourselves and not being OK with the answers we might discover. Despite its title, Hellraiser is not about the horror of discovering that, yes, Hell and demons or something akin to that is real, but about how actually different the experience of pain is to pleasure. While the general attitude is that there is of course a difference as we always desire pleasure and fear pain, the truth is much more complicated.

What arouses or feels good to a human being is a canvas that gets bigger and bigger the more we study it. For a long time we have been aware of those who can find pleasure in pain being put upon them. Whether you call it BDSM or not, whether you find it morally abhorrent or not, it doesn’t change that it’s there and that plenty of everyday people, people you wouldn’t call suspect or concerning engage in it. They engage in it consensually, with rules and the understanding that it’s always OK to stay stop when the need arises.

Culturally, this side of sexual identity or expression, with it not always necessarily having a sexual aspect has been vilified, feared or at least questioned by those who either have or are instilled in them conventional attitudes or tastes in sexuality. I myself don’t quite get BDSM based on what I find pleasurable or not. When I feel pain, I simply feel pain and don’t want more of that. And yet, somehow, I do get the sense that someone could find a way to derive pleasure from it. For instance, after pain of many different sorts subside, you can feel pretty good even great afterwards. Have no idea if that’s a connection but there.

Hellraiser is not strictly about the “painful” pleasures as conventional pleasure is also explored. It’s core idea is what happens if you reach a point where all the options to experience pleasure are used up, explored and you still can’t get no satisfaction. That is the lead motivation behind Frank, a man who gets his hands on a puzzle box called the “Cube of Configuration”. Upon using it, the Cenobites arrive, led by Pinhead (Doug Bradley with his wonderfully sonorous voice) and give onto him a supernatural experience that to some is a true nightmare but to him is the true peak of what he craves. The only cost is his soul under the Cenobites.

However, Frank’s brother Larry (who I just learned writing this is played by Andrew Robinson who portrayed one of the best characters on Deep Space Nine, Garak) arrives at Frank’s home with his British wife Julia. Because Frank seemingly abandoned the place, they get to buy it in his absence. Julia, who we learn in flashback was in an adulterous affair with Frank, learns to her initial horror what has become of Frank. In a freak accident where Larry bleeds on the floor where Frank was taken by the Cenobites, that begins Frank’s slow, gruesome yet amazingly filmed resurrection.

Just as Larry’s daughter Kirsty comes to visit the family, does Julia encounter a returned Frank, who is little better than a zombie in appearance. In order to get his full body back, he needs more blood and the best way to expedite the process is through whole ass people being brought over to the house when Larry and Kirsty aren’t around and killing them. At first Julia is horrified at what it will take to get her lover back, but eventually upon remembering her promise to Frank in the throes of passion that she would do anything for him and plain old lust, she slowly lets go of her reservations and starts to gladly help out.

As film academics have made note of, all while likely smoking a pipe thoughtfully, Julia and Kirsty are meant to be contrasted as the two female leads. Kirsty, in spite of being a young, sexually open woman is a kind, decent person who never falls victim to the same temptations as Frank her Uncle. Julia however, shows how simply unsuitable a partner she would be to Larry or basically anyone with ethics as she lets more and more terrible things slide, all to get someone that was really great in bed, if indeed the best, back. The things we do for lust.

Sexual arousal and the compulsions around it are near-universal, unless you are asexual or have a weak or non-existent sex drive. While most of us would be aghast at Julia’s actions, you never really know where those sexual desires could take you if you let them. Even worse, the drive could be so strong that a question of whether there was any choice in the matter arises. Our instincts define our choices more than we would like and rarely for the better.

Kirsty does get involved with the Cenobites’ cube, out of sheer curiosity, having no idea what it does save that it relates to what it’s doing to her family. It’s the cube’s capabilities, among others being a portal to a dark other-world. That alone can best explain why there is so much meat on the bone of Hellraiser as a franchise, so many possibilities. The meat proved to be not of the best quality, but still.

It’s when the Cenobites get directly involved with Kirsty’s use of the cube is where the film really picks up and becomes more of what I was expecting. I had no idea that a good chunk would deal with an unfaithful wife’s attempts to help restore a lover to life. The Cenobites are intriguing on top of how they look due to being evil beings who have a surprisingly ambiguous side. It could factor into Barker’s atheism, but they’re not strictly the hosts of hell the name implies and may not even be from Hell.

Often in fiction the devils or demons seek out human targets for their unholy games and agendas. The Cenobites are demons that wait on you to come to them. They are secure in the knowledge that the appetites of humanity will always be so that eventually someone will learn of their cube and their power and seek them out. In spite of the consequence that your soul and being will be forever in their hands, it is very much a deal with a devil that puts the impetus on you to see it through.

To save time and my carpal-tunnel hands from further undesired pain, the film concludes in a practical effects spectacle that once again shows the nigh unique things that practical 80s horror can bring to the table that is all but gone from today. In spite of its dark, brutal and oh so bloody imagery, there is a strange savage sense of satisfaction in watching the ultimate fates of Frank and Julia. No matter how horrible their ends by the cenobites are, they are very much deserving of what comes to them. You may cringe, but you still won’t call it inappropriate.

Like the first Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it is enough that you cautiously check the first Hellraiser. It’s a still novel vision of horror and the supernatural that taps into various insecurities just about all of us have. I felt uncomfortable and yet I was glad I did as it reminded me of my humanity. If you didn’t feel anything from watching Hellraiser, I would be very sorry for you indeed. Unlikely I know, as this British classic HAS SUCH SIGHTS TO SHOW YOU.

On a final note, I must give props to composer Christopher Young, who does a classical sounding yet oddly fitting score that, of all things, reminded me of the music from my favorite Wallace and Gromit feature, The Wrong Trousers. Sounds random, but it’s a hearty endorsement all the same just to listen to Hellraiser on top of watching it.

Bengal’s Halloween Horrorthon Part V of VI

It’s Halloween day as I begin writing this part and I shall complete it five days afterwards. It’s really so that I can’t help but do part VI well after as well. So again, take these belated Halloween entries on this blog for next year’s enjoyment or whenever you want, if I recommend it or it leave you curious.

Here, we cover Goonies-but Universal Horror Monsters, Stan Winston’s remarkable directorial debut and an anime movie classic coming from a time when Japan was showing us up in mature animation and then some.

The Monster Squad (1987)

Image from Bloody Disgusting (Ladies and Gentlemen, the Dark Universe if it happened in the 80s. And worked.)

The Monster Squad is special in that it recalls the last time I can think of when young kids or teens really seemed to care about the original block of horror monsters, or at least that’s the impression this movie is supposed to leave you with.

It could just as easily be director Fred Dekker and screenwriter Shane Black (script doctor for Predator and future director of Iron Man 3) making a love letter to what they grew up with as kids, seeing cinematic takes on Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolf Man, Mummy and the Creature from the black lagoon or in this movie’s case Gill Man on black and white television.

When it comes to the visual representations of this classic creatures, they are just about the best at being both quasi-contemporary while faithful enough to their original appearances.

The Monster Squad as a film of the 80s let alone a kids movie, is the type of experience that technically can’t be done anymore. I say technically because we actually kinda did have an experience that among other things apes with love The Goonies, Stand by Me and this film: Stranger Things.

Netflix’s blockbuster phenomenon continues to go strong based on the fourth season’s commercial success if nothing else and whatever good or bad you have to say about it, you can give partial credit to The Monster Squad. It’s a very appealing fantasy even as a grown adult. Imagine you’re put in a dangerous situation like confronting these literary and cinematic boogeymen and actually having the knowledge to confront and survive them. All of that and you are around 12 years old.

The Monster Squad is led by Sean who proudly wears a “Stephen King rocks!” shirt which considering a lot of what I’ve recently watched feels like a nice capoff. The squad consists of four other boys, one who seems young enough to be in Kindergarten and has interesting varied tastes beyond horror as I’ll mention later on.

The oldest member is a teen who is clearly trying to pull off a tough, bad boy image to get girls and yet despite his age wants to hang out with kids younger than him. A little weird honestly, though it could have something to do with the squad’s treehouse having a good view of one of the girl’s next door getting dressed or undressed (It’s an 80s movie).

One of the most notable members also plays on a convention that was very much of its time like pervy teens watching girls getting dressed: the chubby kid. Stand by Me has one ,The Goonies has Chunk and his love of Baby Ruths and this movie has what is up until his dramatic name reveal as straight up Fat-Kid. In what really does show the film’s age when it comes to demeaning people heavier than you who may or may not have an eating problem, Fat-Kid is called as such by both bullies and by his friends. The treatment is so similar that I actually mistook some bullies for being Fat-Kid’s friends. It’s that bad.

There’s also sadly then true to life casual slinging of the F-word when it comes to someone gay and one very dated scene where the girl that was being perved on earlier is being asked by the squad to help them with stopping Dracula and the monsters. They believe the teen girl called Lisa is a virgin so in order to get her to help in spite of her incredulousness, they up and blackmail her with pictures in a state of undress. Jesus.

I mean, this kinda stuff can distract and even detract from all the positives like the pretty great presentation and use of the monsters. Dracula as portrayed by Duncan Regehr is pretty fantastic as the vampire of vampires. This is the case for a lot of people but what really gets this Dracula high up there isn’t just genuinely trying to kill a bunch of meddling kids nor his cruel enslaved treatment for both Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolf Man, but that he calls a little girl, Sean’s sister, a bitch right to her face.

In spite of Stranger Things existing, Monster Squad recalls a bygone time when films for all ages had both adults and kids swearing though rarely to the highest level and a level of violence that’s kinda daring. Dracula’s brides, the gill-man and the Wolf-Man get it the worst violence-wise and are the clearest reason behind the PG-13 rating, more so than The Goonies‘ PG, which was given after the creation of the former rating.

Of course the Wolf-Man often is the stand-out monster not only being central to the best known line, “Wolfman’s got Nards!”, but in an attempt to kill him when no silver bullet is around, he explodes from dynamite and because that isn’t a weakness, the guy comes back together like the Iron Giant would.

What exactly is Dracula and those monsters doing in the Squad’s home town? Well, it’s almost the hundredth anniversary of the last time that Dracula was truly vulnerable, when an amulet would make him so. Van Helsing a century ago tried to do so by sucking Dracula and his minions into literally Limbo but instead he got himself sucked up.

His followers took the amulet across the Atlantic over to America hoping that would deter Dracula. Well, it didn’t and Dracula summons and awakens the other Universal horror monsters to assist him in finding and destroying the amulet, making him invincible. It’s not explained why any other method of killing a vampire like a stake to the heart wouldn’t kill him though it certainly hurts as the film shows.

I guess being THE vampire means that his power level is so high it weakens the weaknesses. Also, there has to be an excuse for an epic finale, which is not unlike the ending of Evil Dead II, what with a spell from a book being read that summons a portal to suck stuff in. Same year in fact as Ash’s groovy sophomore appearance.

So the Monster Squad assembles, with their numbers growing to include Sean’s aforementioned little sister Phoebe, Frankenstein’s Monster who gives up his loyalty to Dracula very easily due to Phoebe’s friendly influence and a Holocaust survivor who knows German that is called at first apprehensively then affectionately by the Squad Scary German Guy. The poor guy is never asked what his real name is not that he seems to mind. Then again, him helping the kids fight literal monsters over the figurative ones from his tragic past takes precedence I suppose.

Aside from Scary German Guy, where’s all the adults? Well, of course they don’t believe the kids until it’s much too late and the lone black dude, Sean and Phoebe’s Dad’s cop partner, will pay the price for their disbelief. It is very established in stories where a kid or group of kids are the lead heroes facing a dangerous conflict will have adults, parents or otherwise, who are at best bemused by what their kids are up to. On the one hand, is that not how parents or anyone over the age of 13 would likely react? This realistic response has become overtime a turgid cliche.

So far, I have given off a positive response to this movie, barring that outdated stuff I brought up. Well, let me take the time to make it clear in how Monster Squad stacks up in comparison to the other “Kids go on perilous adventure” genre as seen through Stand by Me and especially The Goonies. This is the weakest of the three and that has to do with the weak characterization of most if not all the Monster Squad members.

The Goonies, from the four boys including Mikey (Sean Astin), Chunk, Mouth (Corey Feldman), Data (Jonathan Ke Huy Quan) to the teenage newcomers who join in due to place and circumstance such as Mikey’s brother Brand (future Thanos Josh Brolin), Andrea and Stef all feel well defined and recognizable on their own merits. It’s the well-defined nature of the seven Goonies that helps along what is one of the most enjoyable family pictures the 80s had ever produced. Their character aspects help better inform their underground adventure to find pirate treasure as being as memorable and fun as it was.

The Monster Squad characters, while some have a few traits, like Sean and Fat-Kid, feel flat and are just meant to serve what the plot needs them to do without any way of how their own characterizations inform what they go through. It doesn’t even bother me that some if not all of the Goonies fall into some convention or stereotype. How they’re told by Goonies screenwriter Chris Columbus and executed by the actors makes them feel more real and noteworthy than any one Monster Squad member.

The film is also really short, under an hour and 30 minutes, which means it doesn’t drag, but it also feels as if they’re rushing past any character buildup beyond the most obvious. Sure, it means it gets us involved with the monster stuff in good time, but there’s a cost.

If you haven’t already checked out The Monster Squad and people of a certain, nostalgic age likely already have, please do so but I would encourage you to also see Goonies and Stand by Me in conjunction if you have the time. You will likely feel the difference as I did. But there’s nothing from what I said that implies you won’t have something of a good time. It’s own conceit, that of youngsters enjoying old horror movies, is also a refreshing touch from where I stand.

Oh, and this film will likely have you google ”Robotech” and discover out of the blue an influential American dub and mashing of three separate anime shows. Love it or hate it, you will get something out of it, no lie.

Pumpkinhead (1988)

Image from Entertainment Weekly (In West Virginia, no one can hear you scream.)

Stan Winston is a legend in the practical effects industry and is responsible for some of yesteryear cinema’s most impressive V/FX. The Alien Queen in Aliens. The dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, the Terminators in….The Terminator, John Carpenter’s Thing, The Predator among other accomplishments.

His sole feature length movie director job has him doing his unique take on both the creature feature and the slasher genre. Set in some podunk part of America, almost certainly part of the Appalachians, Lance Henriksen plays a simple road store owner named Ed Harley. He has a bespectacled son, Billy, and a dog.

Some city folk teens are looking to stay in a cabin deep in the woods and are bringing their motorbikes along. At a stop at Ed’s place, some of the more adrenaline fueled kids can’t wait to play with their bikes. In doing so, they run over little Billy. The teens save for one stay with the boy until Ed arrives and angrily takes his son away. Sadly, little Billy dies upon returning to their home.

Being already a widower and having no other family save his dog, Ed is left with nothing except vengeance. At the apprehension of his fellow hill-dwellers, he heads to an old crone who lives at a swamp near a mountain. That crone, who sounds as if she has smoked a trillion Marlboros in her life has indeed the power to get Ed Harley his vengeance. There is a steep price. Ed accepts as hasn’t he already lost basically everything that matters? Everything but his own moral compass that is.

As a young boy, he once stayed cooped up in his house with his ma and pa and saw for his own eyes the eventual tool of his revenge, the Pumpkinhead, as it slowly yet surely hunts down and kills some poor sucker who had wronged another man. Since childhood, he has known what his weapon would look like, and once it starts cruelly hunting down those city teens, he begins to regret it, as the crone had warned. But, there is no going back once the Pumpkinhead is summoned through a ritual in blood.

What separates Pumpkinhead from other slashers of its time and in general is that only one of the crew of teens meant to die or be victimized by our slasher is the teen biker who struck Billy accidentally. Due to pre-existing trouble with the police, he runs from what he did and soon puts the rest of his innocent friends including his girlfriend in grave danger. To be fair, not one of them could have known that a terror from hillbilly folktale was coming for them.

For that reason, you’re not meant to really be cheering on the slasher or at least looking forward to how he or it will do in its targets one by one. It’s more of a genuine horror experience for that reason. Playing on the idea that the wronged person for which it’s committing this violence would want to have the perpetrator suffer, Pumpkinhead takes his time when other slashers like Jason and Michael have the courtesy to often make it quick..

Now, based on the header image, you’re wondering how that monster got the name “pumpkinhead”. Well, it’s because the body that will be the creature is exhumed from a creepy graveyard full of pumpkins. When it comes to what the fella looks like, well, it actually changes overtime. At first I thought I had overlooked something watching or there was a continuity issue, but it soon becomes clear that it’s deliberate.

In this instance, as the film nears the end, it starts to resemble..Ed Harley himself and that leads into a ingenuous plot element I will leave for you to watch and see for yourself though I think some of you can piece it together already. As expected from Stan Winston, Pumpkinhead as an effects monster is brilliantly executed. It comes closer than most of its kind to actually looking like a real creature, alien yet so familiar to our eyes. Now, as my image blurb points out, it can resemble a familiar cinema monster from beyond the stars, one that Winston has already been involved in.

It’s Pumpkinhead’s behavior, his sheer presence that makes him into what is affectionately called by fans the “hillbilly xenomorph”. Where the similarity is forgivable due to how well he works conceptually and in practice.

This is a definite recommend, especially for those looking for an expedient horror thrill as it clocks at just 86 minutes. Unlike the issues that came with Monster’s Squad’s swiftness, not a second feels wasted nor does it last any longer than it needs to make it’s country-ass diabolical points.

Vampire Hunter D (Japan) (1985)

Image from IMDB (A whole different kind of “pale” rider.)

Rarely is the European aesthetic as cool or awe inspiring in my eyes when seen through the lens of Japanese interpretation.

While I have yet to summon the courage and the patience to see Dark Souls, Demon’s Souls, Bloodborne or Elden Ring through, these hard but beloved games from Japanese developer From Software showcase in one respect what the Land of the Rising Sun have done in visualizing Medieval and Victorian Europe in a way that seems outwardly respectful, even fascinated.

Other examples are many of Studio Ghibli’s work, especially under Miyazaki. In spite of his many criticisms of the West’s geopolitical actions, he does wonders in bringing European cultural and architectural expression to life in a way that might be more beautiful than the real thing. All while still keeping his critique of Western imperialism intact, best seen in Castle in the Sky (my first and favorite) and Howl’s Moving Castle.

Some of Japan’s appreciation for European aesthetic can become uncomfortable, however. This is especially true when it tackles Germanic style, especially when regarding those in positions of power, like nobility and the military. Manga and anime series alike have received both praise and harsh criticism of utilizing European imagery that can get a little too…Nazi-like.

Mobile Suit Gundam’s Principality of Zeon was clearly inspired by the visual and political aspect of Nazi Germany, though in fairness they are the baddies of the story. But like Star Wars’ also Fascist Galactic Empire, they look so cool being evil. Zeon’s Mobile Suits (Piloted giant robots) called Zakus look menacing yet awesome.

MSG shows sympathetic if still villainous members of Zeon and also establishes that the original vision of the outer space breakaway state from Earth’s Federation wasn’t necessarily always Fascist, rather with supposedly noble intent that humanity must embrace being a species among the stars and not under Earth’s jurisdiction. Why I am spending so much time on how the Japanese use of European and recent European style and history can have unfortunate implications instead of just getting to Vampire Hunter D?

Well, I just wanted something of a crash course in how Japan, for all its at times too-reverent love of its own complicated and bloody history, like anyone else’s, can also show an honestly humbling enthusiasm for exploring other cultures and infusing a bit of themselves in it.

Vampire Hunter D is set ten thousand years in the future, presumably from when it was released like in 1985. It’s a post-apocalyptic future with a mix of high-flung cyber-tech like robot horses with stuff that is definitely more agrarian, old by today’s standards.

Whatever the event that sent humanity into this long, dark future with a mix of old and very, very new, it is certainly not a world that a viewer of 1985 or 2022 would recognize. The abundance of Gothic monsters preying on humanity’s remaining settlements attest to that.

Vampire Hunter D plays with how in this far future, humanity is still or maybe for the first time, openly dealing with fantasy horrors of a very distant past. What is one monster of the night that can naturally bridge the vast gulf of ten thousand years and even then? Vampires!

Count Lee (who I at first thought was called “Countly”), an obvious reference to the second most famous person to portray Dracula cinematically, wants a new bride. He doesn’t need one as his vampire aristocracy rules-minded daughter keeps reminding him of, but he wants one because why not? Why the hell not?

As he later reminds his vampire daughter that their kind can be around for a very, very long time. How you start to view time and keep yourself occupied when being immortal becomes as important as basic vampire stuff like drinking blood and caring for your fangs.

Doris Lang, a blonde-haired farm-girl, who lives only with her young brother Dan, are accosted by Count Lee and she is soon vampirized. It takes awhile for the process to become a full vampire on Doris, longer than most depictions, so there’s enough time,she hopes, for a very long-haired, hatted stranger on horseback to help with dealing with Count Lee and his court of vampires and other creepy-crawlies. Here comes the Toshiro Mifune/ Clint Eastwood-like D.

Yes, his name is straight-up D. Why? Well, as the final confrontation D has with the Count strongly insinuates, he is a descendant of THE vampire, Dracula. This also plays into the mid-movie reveal which I honestly saw coming that D is a Dhampir, someone who is the offspring of a vampire and human coupling. It doesn’t matter whom is whom, so long as they have sex and one doesn’t turn the partner before and during the process so to speak.

D is part of the small but significant group of heroes/anti-heroes that are half-vampires that include Marvel’s Blade and Castlevania’s Alucard. It is generally easier for a Dhampir to resist the desire to consume blood, but it is never gone. Because they can resist, they are thus far more likely to be on the side of good and also have the added benefit of walking in sunlight without consequence.

They are also made hunters of vampires for those same reasons, whether it comes from a thirst for justice or self-loathing or both. D falls more into the latter category than Blade or Alucard in wishing to hunt vampires because he despises that he is half of one and has that potential temptation at all. Even if his mission is impossible in ridding the world of vampirism, being long lived or immortal gives him basically all the time in the world to find out.

A key distinction from other hero dhampirs is that he has on his left hand a living entity with a mouth and eyes. It speaks to D and often tempts him to go about being more…vampy. He also tries to goad D to be more human as D also abstains from most forms of physical contact, up to and including sex. After all, D fears that in the heat of the moment, he could bite his lover/partner and spread the curse further, defeating his life purpose.

The Hand yet argues that he has to live a little eventually, he won’t necessarily get someone vampirized if he goes all the way with someone and without that kind of emotional or physical connection, all he’s got is his mission. A mission, while well intended, that by itself can make you lonely and miserable. Considering his dhampir lifespan, a far longer ordeal than any one of us will endure.

D accepts the offer to help Doris and Dan with their vampire problem even when he realizes it will involve fighting Count Lee, who he recognizes as a potentially unsurpassable foe, even for him. Eventually, circumstances force D to journey alone into the Count’s castle, full of beautifully animated yet ugly creatures for him to face.

It’s at this moment that I might address Vampire Hunter D’s mature if possibly reckless attitude towards sexual expression, namely showing off female nudity. Keep in mind that anime and manga have long surpassed other regional forms of animation like my own when it comes to mainstream mature content being presented. Japan, despite having many reservations about public displays of affection or sexual content, including for the most part not featuring sexual intercourse even, they are more OK with just showing off cartoon ladies with less covering them.

This very complicated nature Japan has with expression or showcasing of sexual activity can both leave one with a headache parsing what is and is not acceptable for what has been a socially conservative nation while it can also seem as if the ready featuring of female nudity can show a cultural double standard. Is it sexist? In some areas or examples definitely, but it can also be a case of Japan culturally trying to get past it’s own censorship and dare I very much say it, hangups. The notorious “tentacle” porn is actually an alternative to what has been allowed in other parts of pornographic or sexual expression.

Vampire Hunter D is only ever graphic in showing female breasts, and some of them come from three siren sisters who transform into super long necked serpent monsters and do the best job of anyone other than Count Lee and his hatchet man Rei of wrecking D’s shit. There is a scene where for a short moment Doris has a wardrobe malfunction, but it occurs during a dramatic scene, not played for carnal laughs.

While the serpent sirens showing off their breasts makes sense as they’re sirens and initially try to seduce D which of course doesn’t work for our stoic anime protagonist, it comes across as frivolous in Doris’ example. It’s just because the animators could or to further show off maybe maybe not to a non-Japanese consumer that this is what anime can get away with that American animation cannot, unless you’re Ralph Bakshi.

It reminded me of an intentionally disturbing moment from Akira released three years later which involves almost-rapists ripping off the shirt of a teenage girl and that moment doesn’t come as frivolous rather as a stark example of how dystopian and not okay Neo-Tokyo’s world is meant to be. Within the confines of how “justifiable” a scene like that can be, Akira is more skillful than Vampire Hunter D, but then again Akira is masterful in almost every sense save for compressing to feature-length a long manga narrative that hadn’t even been finished at the time.

Now, like I have done in a case of last resort before, I watched Vampire Hunter D in its entirety for free as a YouTube video. Don’t ask me why that hasn’t been taken down. For that reason and that I might have been watching a VHS copy of the movie, I didn’t see the film in a crisp manner. Being animated and not live action, it was easier to catch the details but it was not the optimum way to view a distinctive as hell take on the Vampire mythos. For the modern age viewer’s vocabulary, Vampire Hunter D is a mid-80s Anime classic that is dripping with style.

Yes, because the limitations of budget and time, it can be more stilted in character’s movement and expression than say Akira. But Akira’s animation quality is so ludicrously high that it still looks better and more animated than most animations made today, whether it’s hand-drawn, CG or anime. So, yes, a beastly unfair comparison to make.

Anime movies, as it would be the case with Western animation, typically have better animation or quality than a TV series, so if you wanted to get the real good s**t of Japanese animation of the time and even now, you better hope it’s feature length. Vampire Hunter D isn’t the apex of its era but it is a beautiful if morbidly presented example of how varied and ambitious animation could be across the Pacific from us. In the 80s, we were basically flailing for the most part in the U.S. when it came to animation, though we would end the decade on a refreshing high note with the beginning of the Disney Renaissance through Little Mermaid as brought up earlier with Return to Oz on this horrorthon.

Vampire Hunter D is a must-see whether you like anime or not and if you know that, yes, the blood shall flow, among other things in this animated picture.

Next time: Halloween Horrorthon concludes well after Halloween has.

Bengal’s Halloween Horrorthon part IV of VI: Fight Night between Fright Nights

Vampires and werewolves, Werewolves and vampires. Somehow they keep on coming back to haunt me and my reader-base this Halloween season. The MCU’s Werewolf by Night only added to the coincidence as I didn’t even realize some of my selections for this year’s Horrorthon would feature these two Gothic monsters.

While’s it’s neat I have a consistent theme to what I’m covering for the most part, it can at times feel like overload having Vampires and Lycans constantly re-emerging in my work. Well, for this showdown of two vampire titles of the same name, there is at least the vampire and in the original movie’s case, a vampire who has a very werewolf transformation.

Fright Night (1985)

Image from YouTube (No wuv, true wuv here….)

Part of what made the original Fright Night so effective in a way that may not hold up as well to an audience of my generation is that it plays itself up as a celebration of an older generation’s consumption of horror media. The movie’s name comes from a TV show that showcases old horror movies. It’s host is Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall) and I don’t think I have to tell you who Vincent Price was as that is something you a younger reader could have a vague recollection of. Know who the narrator is in Michael Jackson’s Thriller? Well then you know of Vincent Price.

There was also Elvira and Vampirella as hosts to TV-approved versions of old horror or relatively recent horror flicks. The most contemporary example would be Joe Bob Briggs and it’s worth it to check out his host segments for MonsterVision’s Friday the 13th marathon back in the 90s. Because of how viciously edited Jason’s movies were for public consumption, Brigg’s commentary during the breaks are all that’s worthwhile.

In spite of Briggs keeping the tradition alive with The Last Drive-In on Shudder, the kind of TV program Fright Night is known for is basically gone, unless you count TCM doing a horror marathon. The remake would address this by totally changing what Fright Night is.

Fright Night is also a 80s teen comedy that seeks to give an update to the vampire movie formula. Taking the trends of how vampires worked and were fought and killed in earlier movies and placing it in an 80s environment. I for one, am all for that concept on the face of it. Nevertheless, not every promising 80s teen comedy with a twist works as well as even I thought it would for me.

Teen Wolf with Michael J. Fox is a perfect example. Save for one perfect scene, where Fox’s character transforms into a werewolf in his bathroom then opens the door to see his also transformed father, that’s just great, let alone a subversion of how you were expecting that scene to play out. But it begins and ends as what you don’t want the film to be, a sports movie. And even then, all the other moments with or without Teen Wolfing involved are either boring or not nearly reaching the highs of that one scene.

Fright Night thankfully is much better than Teen Wolf, both at executing its own premise, being a comedy involving teens and even being a horror film, not that Teen Wolf was ever trying to be scary. It also reminded me of another 1985 film released the same year as Teen Wolf and also starring Michael J. Fox. Do I even have to say what it is?

Image from IMDB (The original, not toxic Rick and Morty.)

I mean, Fright Night is a movie starring a teen who in this case makes acquaintances with what is at best a middle-aged man getting involved in something bigger than either one of them can solve alone. Only Back to the Future would became a monstrous box office success its year with a generation crossing recognition and acclaim. Like a vampire, Fright Night kept to the shadows.

William Ragsdale plays Charley Brewster, a teen who just wants his relationship with Amy (Amanda Bearse) to go all the way as an 80s teen was especially want to do at least in popular culture. But discovering that his new neighbor is a creature of the night just ruins the mood. Chris Sarandon plays the original Jerry Dandridge, the charismatic as hell vampire in secret and at first I thought he looked like a fusion of Hugh Grant and Billy Zane. I had to be prodded by a family member to remember that I had seen Sarandon before, as Prince Humperdinck from The Princess Bride. How could I forget him from a kissing movie no one would dare forget?

He’s also the voice of Jack Skellington from Nightmare before Christmas so his acumen is clearly something I should’ve picked up fast. He has his non-vampire yet not entirely human companion Billy who is meant to remind you of Renfield, the man Dracula enslaves and makes into a whimpering, desperate for affection fool. However, the relationship between Jerry and Billy seems to be mutually friendly without one dominating the other, the latter even pointing out how not miserable his setup is as a vampire servant.

Now, this came as a surprise to Sarandon and Jonathan Stark who plays Billy but there was intentional gay undertones to the nature of Jerry and Billy’s partnership. There’s one moment where anyone can see what the filmmakers are playing at with those two and you will know it when you see it.

Considering this is a film made and set in the mid-80s amidst the horrific AIDS crisis, it’s not as mean or outwardly homophobic as it could’ve been. Sure, Jerry is a remorseless vampire and Billy is his helper but if it wasn’t for that predilection of theirs, they would otherwise come across pretty well.

Hell, when Jerry and Billy are first seen publicly as living together, no one seems to make a fuss out of it, even though based on what was happening in America and much of the world at the time, you think someone would at least speak up in a way.

In fact, this movie seems to have a tragic yet sympathetic attitude towards homosexuals. Charley’s jerkass friend “Evil Ed” (Stephen Geoffreys), who is known for among other things saying one of the movie’s best known lines, “You’re so COOL, Brewster!”, is a guy who has been interpreted for being in the closest and the text of the film eventually gives way to making it not even ambiguous.

For starters, he’s shown to be annoyed and abrasive whenever Amy gets in the way of an activity that he clearly wanted to do just with Charley. Eventually, after getting shunned from his perspective by Charley and Amy, he encounters Jerry in an alleyway. He tells him to no longer be afraid for being different from his friends and to just embrace what he’s offering, which is, what else, vampirism.

Now, it’s also possible to take Fright Night’s attitude about homosexuality in a manner that is less accommodating and for that reason, less surprising considering the time it was made. Again, the scene of Ed being bitten by Jerry is occurring between a teen boy and a grown man. You know, that could be reinforcing one of the ugliest assumptions about someone being gay, especially for gay men. On the other hand, Ed not being “accepted” has him being drawn in and ensnared by a predatory person, one who uses him for his own ends.

Of course, the gay metaphor might become blurry to some considering that Jerry definitely preys on women as a vampire. But if Fright Night feels just a little bit allegorical for some stuff here and there, it was meant to be that way and it’s takeaways could’ve been much more disheartening.

So, basically, the premise is that Charley comes to learn that without a bat-shadow of a doubt that he has a vampire in his midst and sooner rather than later, he will come for his mother, his girlfriend and hell, maybe even him at some point. He soon realizes he can’t do it alone, especially since Amy and Ed are initially disbelieving and even then, not expert vampire hunters. The closest option is Fright Night’s Peter Vincent and he is a washed up, failing actor who can only be convinced to go along with Charley’s plans at first because money is on the table.

Roddy McDowall is the most recognizable actor and does a great job as the veteran actor getting on in years to help connect old cinema-goers with the new ones. Even though I implied he’s like Doc Brown earlier, he’s really more like if an actor who once portrayed Doctor Who was called upon by a fan to help him fight one of the Doctor’s enemies like Daleks or Cybermen. This may or may not be preparing you for David Tennant to be Vincent in the next movie.

As a horror experience, it can be effective yet the tone is always on mixing with comedy and other emotions. Some of the scarier moments of this movie can often be followed with something actually sad. Namely, when vampirized Evil Ed is preying upon McDowall’s Vincent during the third act, it at first baffles you by him transforming into a wolf (which I think is an actual ability for a vampire, one of many that are often underused in fiction).

Vincent accidentally gets Ed as a wolf staked with a broken table leg which leads to his slow, drawn out transformation back into human form. Yep, werewolf transformations were so much the rage in the 80s, even non-werewolf movies had them. That being said, there’s no humor, no real horror, just sympathy from an old man for a young man’s outcome.

There is an appropriate mixing of tones to Fright Night, neither zany silliness or fearful terrors all the time. If there’s one thing the original Fright Night struggles with, it’s the pacing of it’s climax which while there’s not necessarily an unneeded scene, it can go on too long. That header image showing Jerry realizing dawn has come, that’s a moment where you expect him to be exposed to sunlight and die there and then. Nope, and sure what happens after is certainly good, even great. But it can feel a bit too extensive. That being said, the final fates of both Jerry and Billy are near gold-standard examples of practical effects horror.

So yeah, Fright Night is an 80s cult horror comedy classic that does manage to hold up well enough though it doesn’t reach the heights of other similar movies of its era. But, it’s hard to be too down on a movie that shows up Teen Wolf and good.

Fright Night (2011)

Image from Plugged In (Offscreen: Colin Farrell’s Jerry circumventing a vampire rule in the coolest yet most alarming way possible.)

‘Oh look, it’s a 2010s remake of a horror movie or just a movie from the 1980s. Yawn, I’m not falling for that cash grab, see ya later.

I am guessing that is the abridged reason why audiences more or less skipped the 2011 Fright Night movie, having it even adjusted for inflation making less money then the original. All the more funny considering some consider it to be better than the original film. That’s not a universal opinion, and I go back and forth on which is better, but that this mental process is even happening is kind of shocking.

It’s still a story of a teen boy and his teen girlfriend getting wrapped up in the perils of having a vampire living next door, albeit without the “Renfield” character of Billy. There is still an actor of sorts in Peter Vincent, now a Las Vegas stage performer, with an understanding of vampires and their weaknesses. There is still the wayward friend, Ed, who will become a vampire himself all over a breakdown of friendship with our hero teen. It even ends with Charley and Peter Vincent bravely going into Jerry Dandridge’s home to find and kill him, ending the curse. It can be familiar, like a remake must risk being, but it never felt as distractedly similar as say the American Ring could.

It feels like an honest to God update on the original movie, not just placing it in a time much closer to our own, but also with building on the concept, even using the new Las Vegas setting to actually better justify the concept. You might think a vampire living in Nevada is a terrible idea, but the conceit that Jerry’s potential prey are often in transit, rarely ever staying in Vegas is actually kind of genius.

Anton Yelchin, who tragically passed away shortly before the release of the third and most recent “Kelvin” Star Trek film from an auto accident, is the new Charley Brewster. He comes across as a slightly more mature and less fast-talking Tom Holland in both appearance and personality, which really works in this movie’s favor. Amusingly as I make this sentiment, the director of the original movie was named Tom Holland.

The boyish nature in comparison to Ragsdale’s take actually makes him seem more vulnerable a protagonist to Jerry and anything he might throw his way. His girlfriend, still called Amy, is played by Imogen Poots, and of course she is a bombshell-looking girlfriend though having been through College I can tell you they’re normal people in real life that do come close to approaching that level of look, so to speak, so it’s not purely Hollywood idealism.

Toni Collette plays Charley’s mother and like the original she is an open-minded, liberal-leaning woman who really has no problem with her son’s relationship with Amy going all the way. Collette is just the right person for that kind of mother character and she thankfully has a larger role to play than the original mom played by Dorothy Fielding. This won’t be the last time Toni Collette gets involved in a horror story, though due to Fright Night having a foot in comedy, it makes her role in 2018’s Hereditary far more stark in comparison.

Christopher Mintz-Plasse is the new Evil Ed and is for one less grating than the original, thus making his outcome even more pitiable. Because of Mintz-Plasse having already made a name for himself in pop culture unlike Stephan Geoffreys through Superbad and Kickass, it was a bit harder to just see him as Evil Ed where I know Geoffreys from just Fright Night at this point in my viewing experience.

On the other hand, the characterization is possibly the most different between versions of the whole cast. For one, he believes Jerry is a vampire before Charley and actually has to goad him into following along in breaking into a friend’s house which has curiously gone quiet. He still does the “You’re so cool, Brewster!” line but it feels even more sarcastic here than before, but that could just be Mintz-Plasse’s way of saying it.

This Evil Ed is the sole character for whom any gay undertones or subtext exist in this version. Jerry not having Billy here makes him come across as less of a potentially uncomfortable allegory, fitting more into just the sociopathic scumbag predator that was the first layer of takeaway to be had originally. They don’t even try to hide Ed’s closeted nature in this movie, as one moment between vampire Ed and Charley makes abundantly clear.

Now let’s talk about the two actors responsible for giving the new Fright Night the praise it did: Colin Farrell’s Jerry and David Tennant’s Peter Vincent.

Farrell’s take on Jerry is different than Sarandon due to him having less a suave sex appeal in favor of a rugged, bad-boy aesthetic which he of course uses to great effect on potential targets like Amy and Charley’s mom. That he lives by himself actually sells this better because me and likely you have known neighbors like this. But as we often are ones to wonder, rightly or not, about what our neighbors are hiding, so Farrell gives off a tone that might be dangerous but probably isn’t, assuming you don’t know the truth.

Once Charley infiltrates Jerry’s house, which on the outside looks like a conventional suburban home unlike the totally standout haunted-looking house from before, this is where the new take plays some of its more diabolical tricks to great effect. Charley’s search through the house reveals a hidden hallway meant explicitly for his still-living targets, all female. Unlike the original, where Jerry’s targets for feasting were killed then and there, this Jerry doesn’t immediately kill his food. Even worse, when Charley attempts to rescue one of Jerry’s food sources, he in turn plays a horrifically cruel trick on Charley.

Initially the scene is like hiding from the aliens from Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. It seems as if Charley and the woman are mere moments away from being spotted by an unaware Jerry. Considering Charley has no skills in stealth and he has a quietly whimpering lady beside him, it appears inevitable they will be caught. But no, Charley manages to get out of the house with the woman. That’s when the other shoe drops and it leads to a shocking, inspired moment that helps sell this take as building on the original rather than merely copying it.

You might be wondering if any of the original cast appears in the 2011 version and you’d be right. Chris Sarandon appears in a wonderfully black comic encounter with Farrell’s Jerry in a moment that can act as visual metaphor for those who think this film supplants the original.

The last notable actor is David Tennant as Peter Vincent, coming right after his time as the Tenth Doctor. Well, his full time. Tennant’s incarnation has reappeared in special appearances down the road, very recently in fact as he helped with Jodie Whittaker’s bowing out as the Thirteenth Doctor to make way for the Fourteenth.

This Peter Vincent is very different from McDowall’s, save for being British and initially appearing as an actor with no actual belief or ability regarding facing off with vampires. For one, he’s meant to be like a Criss Angel/ David Blaine like stage performer, but with a supernatural twist. Seeing as how I was recently in Vegas for the first time, this version of Fright Night seems plausible. Performing and living in the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, Tennant’s Vincent makes no attempt to hide the actor’s unique Scottish accent to the point where it sounded and eventually looked as if the Tenth Doctor is actually in this movie facing off against vampires.

This is all the more funny considering that the next Doctor, Matt Smith’s 11th, would get to actually fight vampires in a place that Las Vegas has recreated: Venice. This Vincent is also a little bit better for me than McDowall’s due to giving him an actual connection with vampires in his past. I won’t reveal how, but unlike the original Peter Vincent who was just as shocked to learn vampires are real as Charley and everyone else, this one is hiding his history in plain sight, making up for his painful life with alcoholism, a frivolous stage life and being a really unsocial recluse.

All of these elements described add up to a new take that mostly follows the trajectory of the original, without feeling hollow. It doesn’t hurt that the third act occurring in Jerry’s basement is not as long as the original while losing none of the desperation or horror. Hell, it might be an even more desperate final struggle for Charley and Vincent as Jerry, unlike what I said earlier, isn’t actually as alone as I said before and there is a good number of times where it appears that all hope is lost.

It obviously isn’t, as Fright Night doesn’t lose sight of being both a horror and a comedy. It remains surprisingly reverent of even some assumptions or traits of an 80s teen comedy, feeling like a movie that both works as a product of modern day and as a love letter to a bygone era that doesn’t go for the easy bait of nostalgia and fan service.

That could be that Fright Night is not held as deeply nostalgic as other 80s properties of its time. Despite the clear references to the original movie, like the quote Evil Ed says and Jerry does indeed once again state “It’s Fright Night. For Real.”, it feels more like a project that had actual passion and interest from its creators than just studio obligation to resurrect an old property. That it was a box office failure helps secure it as becoming like it’s forebear, a cult classic.

It has become itself a creature of the night that is very much worth being brought into the light for your perusal.

Bengal’s Halloween Horrorthon Part III of VI

Almost half way there, how much more horror can my large group of readers take? Well, let me start you off easy with something crazy, something titillating and something kind of fascinating from cult horror icon Tobe Hooper.

Lifeforce (1985) (U.K.)

Image by IMDB (Please insert the obvious TNG joke for those in the know.)

I must say, I struggled to find a header image that, one, I liked, and two, didn’t show off one of the more…noteworthy aspects to this Tobe Hooper cult classic. I was first made aware of Lifeforce while watching on Netflix the highly entertaining documentary on the infamous Cannon Group, Electric Boogaloo.

Cannon has already received much deserved attention from this blog through its masterfully silly Ninja trilogy as well as Michael Dudikoff’s American Ninja and Avenging Force. Now, we take a look at one of the stingiest film companies’ most expensive and impressive works. From the man who directed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and its comedy sequel as well as (maybe) Poltergeist, co-written by the man who wrote Alien and with a bombastic, epic score by the Pink Panther man himself, Henry Mancini.

It’s cast list includes the lead played by Steve Railsback who I last saw in 1980’s The Stunt Man, Patrick Stewart who you clearly see above you, Peter Firth as a quite British SAS agent and secondary, Frank Finlay as an inquisitive scientist who of course gets too close to comfort to the mystery and Mathilda May as the seductive and almost always nude space woman. It should provide some comfort that May had no reservations nor regrets about the requirements to portray the role and to be honest once you get past the bare obvious thing about her role, she can be kind of frightening.

Based on a short story by Colin Wilson whose title completely gives away the mystery of whom the mysterious aliens are in this movie, it is set in an extremely different, not so distant future as viewed from the mid-80s. A joint space expedition between the U.S. and U.K. is trying to actually land on the returning Halley’s comet but something else next to it catches the crew’s attention.

A massive obelisk that can grow in size into the appearance of an organic umbrella is riding on its tail and the shuttle’s crew just has to investigate no matter how clearly ominous it appears. To be fair, Halley’s doesn’t come around all that often so the opportunity is there and they’ve got to take it.

It’s at this point that I have to compliment the production design and scope of a movie that is one, crazy, and also from a company that was known to and had to penny-pinch to stay afloat. By the production standards of a mid-80s movie, Lifeforce can be pretty impressive, especially in the moments set in space, inside the obelisk, inside the space shuttle and then during the climatic, apocalyptic sequence in London.

What the crew find are three humans in giant crystals, all nude and very visually appealing if you get where I’m coming from. It’s almost as if they are… meant to look most alluring. They are surrounded by the drifting, dead carcasses of what seem to be bat-like creatures. Again, that could be a mighty big tell for the uninformed about this movie. One of the reasons given and the most understandable one to bring back these three humanoids is why they’re humans not of Earth here in this obelisk in the first place.

However, shortly after getting them aboard the shuttle and beginning the long trip home, contact is lost with the shuttle. It’s found drifting erratically above Earth. Another shuttle goes up to investigate and the entire ship is scorched from the inside, the whole crew skeletonized. The three in the crystals are curiously unaffected and the only unaccounted for member, Col. Tom Carlsen (Railsback) who captained the vessel, is found landing in an escape pod later with little to no memory of what had transpired on the journey home. He does begin to suffer horrible nightmares relating to the shuttle, its crew and one of the three humanoids, obviously in this case being the female.

The European Space Research Centre based in London, where the crew’s mission control was established, is where Carlsen tries to recover and give answers about what happened. It’s also where the three beautiful humanoids are brought in to see what they are and what relation they have to the ill-fated shuttle. Once May’s lead female alien awakens, you already know things are going to go cork-screwed from here on out.

In spite of the Cannon Group association and that yes, a lot of screentime is spent with a very titillating woman walking around naked and causing havoc, there is a genuinely entertaining even spooky at times mystery for Lifeforce to delve into. The dawning realization of what the lead scientist played by Finlay discovers about the humanoids, what they are and more importantly what they can do and intend to do is quite fun. Firth’s Col. Caine being the straight man to an increasingly unhinged Col. Carlsen as they both try to find out what happened on the shuttle and contain the danger of what those three are leads to a race against time that is as extravagantly out there as it is curiously, bizarrely, even paradoxically grounded. To the point that I can believe there could be aliens out there who would prey on us, namely through one of our more… intimate bodily functions.

It got to the point where I wondered if association with Cannon and a hot, full-frontal lady walking around were the reason for Lifeforce’s negative critical reception and reputation, only ever served from being forgotten due to a cult status. It’s honestly, as the British would say, a cracking good experience.

If there are problems, serious problems which gives it low critical marks and an IMDB rating that hovers above 6.0, I didn’t see it. I mean, perhaps the concept once it’s fully recognized by movie’s end and how the film plays on a strangely ambiguous note is part of it’s reputation not being higher.

You can call it sleazy, you can call it stupid, you can call it exploitative to an actress which based on her remarks didn’t feel exploited at all. You can even call it too strange to be good which I didn’t realize was a qualification for a bad or lesser film. What I call it is a movie that deserves less said here about the full picture to fully appreciate with a production that is economic enough to appear both expensive yet cheap in a way that is remarkable, much like a Hammer movie.

I also call it a movie you should definitively check out unless you really are put off by female nudity and yes, I did notice that the film was hesitant to show full male nudity, implying an unsurprising double standard from the filmmakers. There’s this long standing hang-up at least in America where an R-rated movie can’t show at least clearly, a fully nude man but is more accommodating to a fully nude woman.

For many reasons, Lifeforce is an ostensibly dumb movie with plenty of food for thought.

Silver Bullet (1985) (Spoilers here)

Image from Werewolf News (Here, have a mid-tier werewolf transformation.)

If the section for Lifeforce seemed slight, it’s because it’s a movie where a good portion of it I want you the reader to see for yourself. Due to it’s cult status, it does not guarantee having a wide viewership, so if there is anything cool or interesting left unspoiled out in the ether, I’d like to keep it that way.

Silver Bullet, also considered a cult classic, is not that film for me. For that reason, I don’t mind giving away the narrative too much, including the identity of the man whose a werewolf. Now, if you’re interested in watching Silver Bullet one day, then please skip this section to Cat’s Eye.

Another reason I want to spill the beans is due to the actor and appearance of the man who is a werewolf, Everett McGill. You might know him from portraying Stilgar in the original Dune movie by David Lynch and for playing a Bond henchman in License to Kill, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Silver Bullet is an OK Stephen King adaptation. I’m not a good judge of that seeing as how I haven’t read any Stephen King story, let alone the novella that this flick is an adaptation of, Cycle of the Werewolf. Instead, I should say it was an OK King movie. Many might think I give my thumbs up for consideration for a lot of movies I review in my retrospectives. Well, here’s one that I don’t necessarily recommend but I also wouldn’t say skip.

If you like or want to watch as many werewolf movies as possible, are a big fan of Gary Busey or just need to see any given movie based on King, then sure, it’s worth your time. Anyone else can use their own discretion.

Set in a place where 80% of King’s stories are set, his native Maine, not that you would necessarily know by watching, Silver Bullet is the story of a seemingly old woman recounting the year that her hometown of Tarker’s Mills was preyed upon by a werewolf and how her and her handicapped brother Marty end up learning who it is and being witness to its end.

The movie is set in 1976 and was made into a movie in 85′ and yet rather than having the woman recalling the story by what was the then present of the mid-80s, it sounds like she’s recalling it when she is elderly, just like Rose in Titanic. Considering that Jane the sister is either a pre-adolescent or a young teen in 1976, that would mean she’s retelling the tale far in the future, meaning after 2022 when I’m watching and reviewing it. She would be middle-aged, approaching 60 today. That thought kinda scattered my mind a bit while viewing.

Tragic child actor Corey Haim plays Marty, who is confined to a wheelchair. Now, because this is a werewolf movie, you naturally assume that the title of Silver Bullet is about just that, a werewolf’s weakness. You’re correct, eventually.

It starts off as the name of Marty’s wheelchair which eventually becomes a motorcycle that his Uncle Red (Busey, huge surprise) builds for him. So, a story about a werewolf has a central character whose wheelchair turned motorcycle is called “Silver Bullet”. King has been accused of a lack of subtlety from time to time.

On the note of Gary Busey, I did check afterwards about the accident he suffered that caused him brain damage and wondered, if based on his style of playing an oft drunk yet affectionate Uncle if that was just his style or an offshoot of the accident. Couldn’t be, as it occurred in 1988 three years later. It so happened it was a motorcycle accident he went through and his Uncle Red here gives Marty a stern warning about being careful on the machine he builds for him. Oof.

Other notable faces include an early appearance by John Loc….Terry O’Quinn as the town sheriff who of course remains skeptical of the claims that something more than human is preying on the town in increasingly frightening numbers. So much so, that vigilante search parties begin going against the Sheriff’s commands and he in return becomes helpless to stop it once one of the victim’s relatives, an aggrieved father, tells him what right he has to stop them from committing “personal justice”. I kept waiting for someone to say “vigilantism” or “vigilante” but it never happens. Just an observation about how the most expected description isn’t used here.

It soon becomes honestly an R-rated yet never excessive GooseBumps or supernatural Hardy Boys tale, considering it amounts to a brother and sister with their eventually convinced Uncle to solve a mystery. R-rated because ,what else, werewolf-inflicted violence and some of it can hit quite hard, especially when only seeing the aftermath.

One reason I decided to up and reveal the identity of the man whose a werewolf is because of how McGill appears in the movie. After a midnight rendezvous where Marty stupidly decides to try out the Silver Bullet at night in spite of the night-based terror on the loose, he of course confronts the werewolf at what appears to be a swamp walkway. It was that location that threw me off from thinking it was set in Maine when that looks like a location from down south like South Carolina’s Congaree. Gary Busey and his signature accent also helped with that confusion.

Marty uses some leftover Fourth of July fireworks to blind the werewolf and break one of it’s eyes, saving his life. What helps seal the deal on finding out the mystery for Marty is that the town’s Man of God, Reverend Lowe, has an eye-patch all of a sudden and in the place Marty struck. More importantly, Lowe’s human appearance kept reminding me of a certain figure from the comics.

Image from Horror Obsessive

Image from Comic Art Fans

I have no idea if Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon saw Silver Bullet and thought that having an eye-patch for a badass, Texan reverend literally searching for God in order to kick his ass in Preacher would be a swell idea or if this is sheer coincidence. All I know is that no one else including TV Tropes, which loves to point these things out, have brought it up and yet I couldn’t help but keep thinking of the best graphic novel series that one might hate solely for it’s severe (to put it lightly) stance on religion and everything that comes with it.

As for whether Silver Bullet is a story where Stephen King is airing out some thoughts on religion himself by making the Christian pastor the main antagonist, I doubt it. It appears that Reverend Lowe may have been bitten by a werewolf once in the past and like most werewolf characters has no real control over the horrors that his state puts upon him. However, and this is suggested to be the case based on the cycle of the moon, how close to or full it is to be precise, he can be a malevolent monster when he is human and much to poor Terry O’Quinn’s chagrin, can transform at will.

There is an ambiguity to Lowe’s responsibility as a serial slayer of innocent people based on how much is him and how much was the werewolf, which is of course intentional. Like it will be when I cover The Monster Squad, often the silver bullet is not so much just a weapon of self-defense or a hunter’s tool, but an act of mercy.

Silver Bullet works, but not to the point of enthusiastic appraisal. Maybe that’s why it’s one of the more “quiet” cult classics, let alone for horror. Other cult hits before and after this selection have more notoriety and popular recognition, coming dangerously close to leaving the distinction of “cult” behind.

One of my favorite movies, Big Trouble in Little China, I’ve now come to wonder if it’s gone past that status to becoming just a classic of action-horror-adventure 80s’ cinema, let alone one of the most accessible John Carpenter pictures. That there’s a remake on the way with Dwayne Johnson involved should make you wonder.

Don’t worry, we can put that idea to the test in the next part of the horrorthon but for now, take or leave Silver Bullet for your perusal. Not seriously pushing you one way or the other.

Cat’s Eye (1985)

Image from Bloody Disgusting (A future Charlie’s Angel and the world’s best tabby.)

I would like to take this time to remind you that even now, well into into the 21st century, people out there still harm and attempt to kill black cats, especially around Halloween. Considering how sweet-natured and affectionate my departed black cat Prowl was and that there is no basically no difference between a black cat and any other cat because obviously, I wonder how much is adhering to superstitious fear and how many use that superstition to air out their sadism with some manner of excuse.

Stephen’s King’s Cat’s Eye, an anthology picture with two stories adapted from his short story collection Night Shift and one created just for this movie, also plays up another superstitious myth meant to put down our brother and sister cats. The idea that at night, a cat can go up to where you sleep and steal your breath away. Literally.

I know of many myths involving felines, mostly stemming around the black ones of course, but I hadn’t heard of this myth existing until after watching Cat’s Eye. I thought the urban legend of cats stealing your breath was made up then and there by the movie. Nope, my mother told me that that legend existed well before 1985.

Like most superstitions, it was likely a consequence of time and fate. For instance, a person with pre-existing breathing or lung issues ups and croaks in bed. And a cat just happened to be there at the wrong place at the wrong time. Don’t have any facts to back that up, but then again I don’t need to when cats nor any animal on this planet has the ability to suck air out of someone’s lungs. We can’t do that to ourselves.

In a move of genius, King and film director Lewis Teague (returning from Cujo) make an adorable tabby cat the framing device for three stories, eventually becoming the rightful protagonist for the third and final story. That story involves trading one myth for another, one for the cat to gallantly fight against.

The first story involves the stray cat wandering around Manhattan getting picked up by a stranger, right after witnessing a vision of a mysterious girl in a window, pleading for the cat’s help. The stranger takes the cat to Quitter’s Inc, a most extreme organization dedicated to helping anyone interested in kicking nicotine for good. They pride themselves on an especially low failure rate, only 2%. What they do with that 2% or most of their methods would certainly get them shut down or thrown in prison. It’s implied they have big money behind them and allows them to get away with it all.

James Woods is possibly the best overall actor in the film, big surprise, as his acting talent is one of the few redeeming features of the guy as far as I know. He might be the best thing about Disney’s Hercules and fans were oh so happy to see him reprise Hades for both Kingdom Hearts II and even Kingdom Hearts III.

Woods portrays Dick Morrison, a family man who is desperate to kick the habit for his wife and daughter, especially his daughter. He soon realizes how…much is included in the package deal of how they will get him permanently off smoking and the poor kitty is used to demonstrate a “shock” room. Non-lethally of course as the kitty has to get to the next two stories. It’s meant to forewarn Dick about what his wife will go through if he doesn’t stop after two strikes. The third strike, well, goes even harder.

It’s obviously an allegory for the kind of pressure one trying to kick the habit would go through, exaggerated with external forces promising physical harm on top of simple nicotine withdrawal. Some, like Leonard Maltin did, might find it mean-spirited but then again horror stories are not often known for being nice.

For anyone who has had some form of addiction they know they can’t manage and should stop, like me and food intake, it can feel real watching this segment. Sure, I’m pretty confident I’ll never get into nicotine as this rate in my life and not just because I was raised knowing it was horrible for you in the long run.

It’s a fun and dark in a different way from other King tales, as we often associate him with supernatural horror. Of course, books/movies like Misery are all about dispelling that pigeonholing of King’s range, on top of being one of the most visible meditations on parasocial relationships going off the rails.

My favorite of the three is the middle called “The Ledge“, starring Kenneth McMillan and Robert Hays, you know, from Airplane! The cat escapes Quitter’s Inc and manages to make it all the way to Atlantic City, where after escaping a death-defying lane of traffic, is picked up by an utterly scummy businessman played by McMillan. He has his mooks pick up Johnny Norris, a gambling man whose history with McMillan’s Cressner finally catches up to him.

With his girlfriend probably dead and him being framed for drug possession, Johnny is seemingly given one chance to escape with both money and his life by Cressner. Just crawl along the edge of a high-rise building all the way to the other side. Johnny being the gambler takes it though the other choice is to accept being framed and going to prison.

The tabby watches the events from the safety of the balcony as Cressner and his minions put extra obstacles in Johnny’s way on top of the wind, narrow ledge and some really obstinate pigeons. Does Hays’ Johnny survive and get back at Cressner? How does Hays keep arriving at dangerous situations involving great heights? I leave that for you to find out though I can tell you our tabby friend clearly makes it through and arrives in Wilmington, North Carolina for the final story where he’s the star of the show.

The cat arrives in suburban Wilmington and finds a young girl named Amanda played by Drew Barrymore, three years after E.T. It happens that this is the same mysterious girl the cat has been seeing in his visions. So, the cat goes ahead and warms himself up to young Amanda who immediately wants to adopt him. Candy Clark plays her mother who immediately does not want the cat part of the family, mostly because her daughter already has a pet bird.

James Naughton plays the father who is at best indifferent about the whole deal, because for some reason dads often are at least in fiction. However, the cat has good reason to become part of Amanda’s family as a mysterious, small gremlin-like creature, called the “troll” also makes his way to the household. Suddenly seeing a supernatural element enter a story which has thus far included outlandish if still natural elements can be jarring. Then again, maybe the filmmakers wanted to ease you into that element through the cat’s magical visions of a girl beckoning the cat to find and protect her.

The design of the troll resembles a cross between the front of a tortoise’s face and…something else I can’t quite place but it does strike the right balance between too dark and too whimsical. The effects for when the troll is going thorough Amanda’s room at night and climbing up stuff are pretty impressive though some of the green screen like when the troll is at the foot of the bed and you see Amanda’s superimposed feet look really bad.

Eventually, the troll frames the cat, whom Amanda names “General” for murdering and eating Polly the bird, all so there is no cat that can get in the way of him stealing the girl’s breath. That and the mom’s prejudice over the cat is enough to convince her to take General away over to a pound where it will be slotted to be euthanized. However, this cat, like it has before, takes advantage of split second opportunity to escape the pound and race back to the house in spite of a rainstorm to save Amanda from the troll. Now that’s some pawsitive reinforcement of human and cat relations there.

12 cats were used to portray General and in order to convince the cats to all do the very specific things they wanted, as felines are notoriously difficult to train unlike dogs, they goaded them into certain actions through offering them food, often tuna. I don’t know how the offer of food convinced them to do all the things the film needed of them. Scenarios such as getting an angry, hissing face and swatting something seems to be a contrary response to an offering of delicious tuna.

I’ve thought much of any scene where a cat is visibly angry like when Jonesy the cat starts hissing in closeup when Ripley has a chestburster nightmare at the beginning of Aliens. I mean, what did directors like Lewis Teague and James Cameron do to piss off cats in just the right way and at the right time?

Either way, Cat’s Eye ends on a note that reaffirms humanity’s relationship with not so much our “best friend” but our “best associate”. It also toys with the conceit that cats will try to steal one’s breath in a deliberate fakeout ending that I saw coming.

I suppose if Cat’s Eye has any consistent theme, it’s with the exploration of both phobia and obsession. The first story, Quitter’s Inc., juxtaposes the compulsion to smoke with the fear of being being watched upon by strangers and the expectations to meet commitments and failing. The on-the-nose yet perfect use of The Police’s Every Breath you Take accentuates this in one memorable hallucination sequence on Dick Morrison’s part. The song is later used more comically in the final battle between General and the Troll, with a different context.

The second story, The Ledge, combines the compulsion to gamble, with the fear with what will or could happen if you didn’t heed Kenny Rogers’ advice on whether to hold or fold em’. That fear then bleeds into a fear of heights and someone trying to actively kill you.

The third doesn’t seem to have any addiction or compulsion unless you have a compulsion to adopt cute animals which in this case is a good thing as it protects you from miniature fantasy monsters. There is the fear of what may bump in the night, like the troll and perhaps the danger of misunderstanding what one should be wary of. Again, humanity had an irrational fear of one of the most adorable creatures yet discovered in this universe. This is a story of a once feared animal becoming the hero they were always meant to be.

Next time, a look at an 80s vampire classic and its 2010s remake that if conceivable could be better than the original.

Bengal’s Halloween Horrorthon part II of VI

Let’s get into it, as there is four more entries afterward.

Return to Oz (1985)

Image from D23, as you can see.) (‘Mickey chuckle’ “Time to scare those little bastards!”)

Return to Oz is a reminder that Disney wasn’t always this frightening, property devouring, near-monopoly we know now. In the 1980s, they were going through a rough period which eventually led to the Disney Renaissance I was born into. Back in that decade, the House of Mouse experimented, in animation and in live-action. Right before the decade ended with their return to power with The Little Mermaid, their biggest successes could really be in cultivating a whole bunch of cult classics or mediocre works which no one really remembers anymore.

For a time, Return to Oz was seen in the latter category. “What’s this, Disney trying to do their own sequel to one of the most recognizable movies of all time? I’ll pass, but I might let my kids watch it on TV or video later maybe.”

Like a lot of stuff from the 80s’, such as much of what you will see me covering in this year’s Horrorthon, being given the ‘cult’ distinction would be Return to Oz’s salvation. It has been applauded by fans of L. Frank Baum’s series of Oz books for being more faithful to the look and tone of his works, especially in one quite important category. Obviously, the impact of those young who saw it can’t be understated. Kids loved it and perhaps many of them hated it at the same time.

The header image might give you some idea of what I’m talking about. The designs of Dorothy’s friends old and new, while inspired, all have a slightly off look to them, though again that could be the point. The only ones that don’t really have anything that kinda freaks me out is the Cowardly Lion unsurprisingly and Billina the talking chicken.

Then again, more than a few might have been freaked out over the years by the appearences of some of the characters in the original 1939 movie, and I mean more than just the Wicked Witch. In atmosphere, sound and aesthetic, Return to Oz screams a type of family classic that could only have been made in its time and that makes it somewhat special.

Visuals alone aren’t what make Return to Oz into a potentially or provably frightening movie for younger audiences. I was kinda apprehensive myself watching it as a person approaching 30. Some of the implications and context for what Dorothy goes through can be pretty messed.

Before Dorothy returns to what I and many others adamantly believe is a real place in her universe, not just a dream dammit, she is sent to a …sanitarium. Just a heads up, I am aware that this movie is partially adapted from two different Oz books, but when it comes to the opening occurring at again, a sanitarium, got no idea if Baum ever touched on the idea that people might think Dorothy was delusional and attempt to “cure” her.

In this movie, that’s how it starts. Dorothy, portrayed by Fairuza Balk, is presented as a more accurate pre-adolescent girl unlike late teens Judy Garland. This is how she was in all or most of the books. Her lovable Aunt and Uncle want to help her let go of all of these stories of Oz and her whimsical friends so at the sanitarium, the doctor played by Nicol Williamson, plans to use turn of the century scientific advancement to rid her of these supposed delusions. If you guessed it, then congratulations, Dorothy is in for some shock therapy, replete with her tied down to a rolling hospital bed.

Now before you contemporary parents reading this blog panic, don’t worry, Dorothy doesn’t actually go through the “therapy”. Could this film have gotten it’s family-friendly rating if it had? Instead, a fortuitous power outage occurs and Dorothy is able to escape during the outage caused by a thunderstorm by a mysterious blonde girl who resembles, though not exactly, Dorothy herself. Eventually, the head nurse, Wilson (Jean Marsh), who did a terrible job falsely reassuring Dorothy that the procedure would be painless, starts chasing down Dorothy and the blonde girl during the storm.

They reach the river and soon, like the twister from before, the river raging during the storm is the catalyst allowing Dorothy to, ahem, return to Oz. The blonde girl is separated from Dorothy in the deluge and who she actually is revealed by the end.

I would like to take this time to tell you about a video game released in the year 2000, created by a man called American McGee, who was a key designer on the original, pioneering first person shooters of the 90s: Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Doom II and Quake. Eventually, McGee left Id Software who developed those classics and made his own studio. He wanted to express his dark imagination in a manner different from the stories of muscle-bound, one-man armies who slew Nazis, demons and strange monsters.

He wanted to use the technology that built his designs on a third person adventure through a dark, quite Victorian nightmare version of Wonderland, with an Alice tormented by guilt that she couldn’t save her family in a freak fire. The Wonderland you see in American McGee’s Alice is beautiful yet twisted, accompanied by a fantastically grim score by Chris Vrenna, one of the members of Nine Inch Nails.

The now aged graphics actually keep this Wonderland’s distorted take fresh and moody. It’s replete with many references to the trauma Alice is going through both from her survivor’s guilt and from the doubtlessly miserable treatment from an insane asylum in the 19th century bleeding in and informing the denizens, enemy and nominally friendly, and architecture of this brilliantly realized take on a century-plus old story.

I won’t show any footage of this game, in case you have motion sickness issues and this is also an M-rated game which uses its mature license intelligently, but I sure will give you a listen to one of Vrenna’s amazingly moody tracks. It should be noted that he used both Victorian musical instruments and sounds from children’s toys to make the soundtrack unique, up to this very day.

From Youtube (The second most disturbing rabbit hole to fall into, behind Qanon’s.)

Now, I’m not saying that Return to Oz goes as hard as this game, because it doesn’t, but man does it go as hard as a PG rating could, if only in the “unsettling imagery” department. I don’t actually want to spoil any of the potential spooks Dorothy’s return trip has in store, but it does elicit such a response that I was reminded of American McGee at all.

One thing that stays true no matter how darker this take got was Dorothy’s refreshingly fresh-faced, kind personality, which no matter what situation she got into, never lost her cool. There is plenty in this movie that would make any girl her age scream her lungs out, but I don’t recall her doing so. Then again, this is not her first rodeo.

The question of whether this is a sequel to the 1939 movie is a difficult one. While Dorothy has made friends with the old pack, including Lion, Tin Man and Scarecrow and defeated the Wicked Witch, there are references to things that Dorothy saw and did that didn’t happen in the original movie. It feels more like a cinematic continuation of the original book from 1900 than the movie, which might have been partially responsible for the film’s dismal box office: confused marketing.

No matter how creepy and off-putting Dorothy’s new friends appeared such as Jack Pumpkinhead, the automaton Tik-Tok and the Gump, essentially a re-animated green moose-head that talks, Dorothy never shows any fear once she knows they aren’t a danger. It’s Dorothy’s straightforward appreciation for her new friends’ help in spite of their appearence that creates this strange feeling during the proceedings and does almost as much as the effects and score by David Shire in nailing this “only of its time” takeaway.

Speaking of the effects, the stop-motion used for the Nomes, the magical stone race which has conquered Oz in Dorothy’s absence are incredible. It’s an effect that CGI could never replicate and honestly does better than anything else in selling the feeling Dorothy is in a supernatural world. While the Nome spy often stands out in my head, it’s the Nome King played by Nicol Williamson (curious…) that is the star attraction. It’s like if the rock guy from Neverending Story was entirely stop motion and villainous.

Likely to save money, when Dorothy confronts the King in his mountain lair, he gradually transforms into a human-looking guy with makeup. At first, I thought it was a bizarre slip-up from the effects team, but it’s so deliberate it can’t be.

It also shows how as his conversation and eventual challenge to Dorothy progresses, he grows more and more confident he will win out in the end over Dorothy and Co., in spite of being in the presence of the girl who brought down the Wicked Witch. The other main antagonist is the witch Mombi played by Jean Marsh (And you were there!), once a servant of the ruler of Oz, which is the Scarecrow. Deciding that the Nome King would be a better fit considering her nefarious habits, she almost single-handedly conquers the Emerald City, freezing to marble almost the entire population like Medusa. That’s the fate that befalls Tin Man and Cowardly Lion.

Scarecrow is instead captured and taken to the Nome King as prisoner and play-thing. Tik-Tok is the only one left in the city that can help Dorothy and even that’s a problem as she’s got to remember to literally wind up his processes to keep him going. Tik-Tok might be my favorite new companion due to his unfailing humility and awareness that he is not nor ever will be alive. Unlike Scarecrow and Tin Man who desired to be more real, Tik-Tok knows he was created to serve the people of Oz, nothing more, nothing less. Dorothy doubts he’s truly unalive, as wouldn’t you know it begins to cry green oil near film’s end. Fun fact is that Tik-Tok is one of the earliest instances of a robot in fiction. He debuted before the word “robot” was even invented.

In spite of his colorful and seasonally appropriate look, I didn’t like Jack Pumpkinhead as much as I would’ve liked. That he never moves his mouth while speaking might’ve been part of it. That he asks Dorothy permission to call her “Mom” and she agrees is also kind of creepy. Billina the chicken was honestly annoying and the Gump came at times too close to being “too weird” though in this more book-accurate Oz movie, is there really a limit? I suppose not, so long as it doesn’t become anachronistic.

In spite of the praise I’ve given this movie, it doesn’t feel as much of an adventure as the original movie. The places Dorothy journeys to are fewer even if it does keep the pace going at good speed. I will say this much, this is a trip that does not overstay its welcome and it might accommodate those who may have less tolerance for the visuals of this movie.

For those like myself, It’s a fun movie just to look at and Shire’s music perfectly fits with the kind of tone it’s going for, of being set at turn of the century America and by that I mean 1899-1900, and how 80s’ cinema could visualize that period is exceptionally its own. The film ending as a sepiatone photograph with Shire’s music swelling is honestly too perfect. It conjured up memories of movies I’ve seen from this period of film-making when I was young like The Adventures of Milo and Otis (Still can’t believe that film is Japanese-made.)

I say this about a lot of cult classics and I will come across to some as a broken record but you should seriously check out this movie if you haven’t. Bring the kids if you have em’ but keep them with you when watching.

Trust me.

The Company of Wolves (1984) (U.K.)

Image from Bloody Disgusting (Werewolf by Whenever.)

That header image joke aside, it is rather amusing that as Marvel releases their first “Special Presentation”, Werewolf by Night, which in turn is one of Phase 4’s best offerings, I had in my catalogue of movies for the Horrorthon quite a few involving werewolves or adjacents. I didn’t plan on it, as I scheduled the series before I knew Werewolf by Night was releasing at that time. It’s not the first time a Horrorthon has covered werewolf movies, as I did back to back earlier with Wolfen, The Howling and my favorite of the bunch, An American Werewolf in London.

Now, we have Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves, based off the novel by Angela Carter, who cowrote it. If Jordan sounds familiar, it’s because he made The Crying Game. Jordan seems to have an interest in making movies about toying with human sexuality.

A young British girl named Rosaleen is stuck in her room by a family that can’t seem to stand her. Her father is played by David Warner and mother by Tusse Silberg. Her sister is most vocal about her displeasure. This girl begins a really long dream set in 18th century England. A dream so crazy deep, that it soon involves characters in her dream retelling old events or tales on top of themselves dreaming. I would make a joke relating to Christopher Nolan, but that joke was played out 11 years ago.

All the characters in her dream including herself share their names and appearences and live in a time when beasts from the woods were the primary concern. Dream-Rosaleen has a grandmother only called “grandmother” because of course. She is played by Angela Lansbury, the lead from Murder, She Wrote and more significantly for people my age and younger, the original voice for Mrs. Potts from Beauty and the Beast.

It is quite a thing that she would be in two different projects involving a growing into adulthood woman protagonist who becomes drawn to a man, who is well, beastly. Her role outside of its importance to this movie drew even more attention for me when writing this due to her recent passing at the far too young age of 96. To be honest, I assumed Lansbury based on her (maybe) made up appearence here had already died. Shows what I know.

Lansbury’s grandmother is the stern kind of grandmother, which is unsurprising considering how rougher life is in this world than ours. She keeps telling Dream Rosaleen to beware any man who has a unibrow as that is a telltale sign he’s a werewolf.

It should be noted that keeping track of what’s happening in this movie was for me a real doozy of a challenge. Again, this is all a dream and based on mine and likely your experience, chronology in a dream can be hard to process. Of course, compared to dreams real people have there is a logic and straightforwardness in individual sequences here. Might be that Rosaleen’s dreaming is more than that.

What helps keep Company of Wolves from sinking into an entirely confusing experience is that there are core themes and ideas that kept me from drifting off myself. The idea at the heart is that this is a deconstructionist gothic fairy tale, where it’s all about dispelling old notions of sexual morality.

Red Riding Hood is given essentially a send-up, what with Rosaleen donning a red hood and meeting a man who turns into a wolf, as the Huntsman and the big bad wolf are fused together. The grandmother is killed and Rosaleen as Red is surprisingly not that bothered by it. That could be because granny is honestly pretty unlikable and she is proven time and again that her superstition and morals if not incorrect, inaccurate and misplaced.

There’s also the animal magnetism of the werewolf huntsman and how he explains to Rosaleen that monsters like the werewolf or the wolves themselves are not inherently evil. The huntsman wouldn’t have hurt granny had she not responded with fear and violence on him. Had she just been chill, so would the werewolf.

Of course, the big theme, that of a woman not just accepting her own burgeoning sexuality as she grows but that of a man’s, is the big takeaway. Yes, a man can abuse his sexual nature and act like an animal, but not necessarily will. Rosaleen comes to accept this primal person in spite of the beastly aspects, much like how a woman should not live in paranoid fear of men in general in spite of what they are potentially capable of. Women are also capable of committing sexual trauma and misuse, not as often but it is an uncomfortable reality that men have been raped by women.

In the end, right before the “real” Rosaleen awakes from her dream, the townsfolk searching for her see two wolves break out the window of granny’s home. She has embraced the carnal aspects of who she is, and sees no shame in what is inherently hers.

The films’ full-blown conclusion, of what happens when the real Rosaleen wakes up, can come across as a headscratcher as it did for me. Thematically, I got what the ending meant, but it did leave some basic questions unanswered. Jordan and Carter did so deliberately, as they want you to ponder how the obvious implications and insinuations of the movie apply to all the stuff that isn’t blatantly laid out.

The wintery look of the dreamworld, of a really old British forest with beasts of many shapes and sizes creates this really interesting atmosphere that like Return to Oz, tapped on old feelings and emotions I’ve had. It’s not unlike how Luke in Empire Strikes Back remarks about how the swamp planet Dagobah reminds him of something from his past. Even though the lore never really shores up Luke’s comments but whatever.

As for the effects, namely for the werewolves, they’re mostly great though they can come across too often like obvious effects where the seams are showing. The idea behind the werewolf transformations are quite great as even though these were-people can transform back and forth, it’s as if one form is totally destroyed to make way for the other. You have to see it to really get it and it’s possibly the most painful looking process for transforming I’ve seen other than American Werewolf in London.

I can’t guarantee you will quite like this movie. Part of me has mixed feelings on the aspects of how this movie goes about proceeding with some segments involving tales being told seemingly unrelated to what is going on overall. I get that it being an elaborate “dreamscape” is the point and the intimate themes at play does give it a certain power that does allow me something to think about, namely how far removed are our sexual instincts we now have from the sexual instincts we had when we were just animals a long, long, long time ago.

The Company of Wolves is many things and its takeaways are certainly not going to be equally embraced, especially based on one’s own sexual code or perhaps insecurities. One thing I think can be universally agreed upon that no matter where you come from, man, woman or non-binary, one must confront their sexuality and on some level, come to terms with it. Not doing so will only make matters worse.

On one last lighter note, some of the wolves shown in the movie are clearly not wolves but dogs. It’s the “unwolflike” look of those dogs that can take you the most out of what is otherwise a haunting but not wholly scary experience.

Next time, a bewildering if remarkable cult classic work from the Cannon Group and two mid-decade flicks based on the works of our “Maine” man Stephen King.

Bengal’s Halloween Horrorthon Part I of VI (Some spoilers inbound)

It’s that time of year again, the time for the actual best holiday season. Where mankind embraces fear rather than rejects it, celebrates our relationship with it.

It’s time for more horror cinema to be covered, with most coming from the 80s. Two entries are not from that decade but rather a highly influential 90s Japanese film that inspired an American remake that didn’t suck if you can believe it. But first, a return to a collaboration between Stephen King and George Romero.

Creepshow 2 (1987)

Image from iHorror (A typical swim in Flint, Michigan.)

I held back from Creepshow 2 due to it having not as strong a reputation as the original classic anthology feature. Despite still having King and Romero’s involvement, it just hasn’t gotten the same positive rap as the first. It wasn’t so much bad as not needed. I took that perspective and had it off my horror watch-list from the 1980s for a long time.

And yet, I was pulled back in by hearing individual anecdotes from those who have seen it and liked it. My godfather once saw the film while on tour in the Navy and others I follow online have expressed support for this movie, often bundling it alongside their viewing of the first.

I was also very curious to see where if any Creepshow 2 failed to be as good as the original and so made it part of my 2022 Halloween watchlist at the last moment. It’s….fine. Just fine.

It’s not as fun, it’s not as spooky, it’s not as pulpy as the first movie, but it’s not a waste of your time. It has impressive practical effects, especially with the first story’s leading figure and a couple of moments did actually make me jump in my sofa seat.

The first Creepshow had five stories to tell, all framed from a young boy reading his comic of the same name on Halloween night. This Creepshow goes down to three stories, framed again with a young boy receiving a copy by the ghoulish host of the comic, portrayed physically by practical effects legend Tom Savini and voiced to gravelly perfection by Joe Silver in one of his last roles. After getting the comic, he is harassed by bullies until eventually they’re eaten by a bunch of giant Venus flytraps the boy had ordered from the comic. Stephen King and bullies, man.

The first story is the best and most memorable, featuring a general store’s wooden Indian Chief coming to life to avenge both the store’s murdered owners and reclaim some Native jewelry that was loaned to the owners before the robbery. George Kennedy plays the ill-fated store owner and Dorothy Lamour his wife.

Kennedy as the store owner is a kind, elderly man who always tries his best to maintain both his business and Old Chief Wood’nhead, the mascot on display outside the store. The Arizona town they live in is basically dead, no future in it. Three young men who also know that town’s future is sealed decide to express their aimlessness in the best way possible: hold up the store for any valuables and use what they steal to afford living in L.A.

The leader of the three is the son of the nearby Native chief, not caring whatsoever for his tribe’s tradition or honor. He kills the couple and takes the necklace that was graciously given by his Father to the couple. Can you guess where this going, seeing as how this is a Creepshow movie?

You’re also probably aware of the Native American curse that is awakened when anyone disrespects the Tribe’s people customs or land. Oh, if those curses were remotely real, the nature of the United States would be vastly different. The best variant of the curse is building anything, knowingly or unknowingly, under an “ancient Indian burial ground”, as best seen in Poltergeist and The Simpsons.

The curse or ancient power, is that the Wooden Chief comes to life and the effects are incredible in mixing a real life actor while convincingly making his motion relate to being, well, wooden. It’s an effect that has to be seen to be believed and holds up tremendously. It lends an (intentionally) predictable story an effective creepiness that befits the film it’s part of. Almost certain that Chief Wood’nhead’s effects would be CG done today.

The Chief basically becomes a slasher in hunting down the three delinquents though unlike Jason or Michael, his goal is tangible and even relatable, even with the supernatural slaying and whatnot.

The next two stories while having some decent elements aren’t as rewarding as either the first or most of the stories from Creepshow 1. It’s the “ehness” that comes with 2/3rds of the movie that makes this entry feel like a lesser result. The Raft is about 4 teens going on a day-trip to a lake to engage in typical 80s’ teen frivolities, but on a titular wooden raft in the middle of the lake. Once they get there, they spot this mysterious black substance on the water.

Turns out, this black stuff is unsurprisingly dangerous and one of the teens gets in contact with it and well the header image shows the result, not unlike the fate of anyone who gets caught by the 80s’ Blob except that take went much further with the details. Eventually, only two remain, one male and one female and a combination of fatigue, heat from the sun and lust becomes their undoing.

While this concept certainly screams the short story concept it is, I think it could’ve benefited from a slightly longer length as the result is over too soon, even if again you can see or sense the result as soon as they reach the lake of doom. The weakest of the three stories.

The third involves a woman played by Lois Chiles, who you might know as the lead Bond girl from Moonraker, which is if nothing else the most entertaining Roger Moore film. After leaving the home of a man she’s having an affair with, on the drive back she hits a guy hitchhiking. In what seems like a precursor to I know what you did last Summer, she panics, realizes she killed a guy then drives off trying to put her mind off her manslaughter.

Being Creepshow, it turns out to be “I know what you did 20 minutes ago”, as the hitchhiker in an undead form keeps appearing as the woman tries to get home, constantly saying “Thanks for the ride, Lady!” This obviously freaks out the woman as the consistent return of the hitchhiker obviously drives home her guilt. Eventually guilt and horror turns to frustration and rage as she tries over and over again to kill the hitchhiker revenant for good. The face of the hitchhiker getting more and more mangled from the damage but never changing its tone of voice.

Again, I won’t spoil how it ends though I had inferred from the first two stories that you could figure out already its conclusion. This one is possibly the least predictable, with your only compass guiding you is that something macabre is going to be involved by the end.

Unlike the original, I don’t recommend watching Creepshow 2 in its entirety.

If you can find it for free or find scenes on YouTube, sate your curiosity that way. The effects, namely for the Wooden Chief and the Hitchhiker are highlights no doubt, there’s a cute cameo by Stephen King in the third story and I forgot to mention that the framing device segments with the boy and bullies are all animated and very well at that.

It’s not as fun maybe because there’s not as much of it, like there being two stories more in the original. Many of my complaints actually echo many of the critic complaints so I dunno. If there is any real takeaway more I can give you other than what I’ve already said, it’s don’t watch Creepshow 3, which was a decades later cash-grab that from all accounts is hollow and horrible. There’s a new anthology show on Shudder that continues the Creepshow legacy and I guess some episodes of Black Mirror would fit the bill for those hungry for more anthology horror fun.

Ringu (1998) (Japan)

Image from Reddit (Ohhhh, here she comes….)

One of the defining examples of not just J-horror but horror from the last 30 years is from a 1998 Japanese horror movie adapted from a 1991 Japanese novel. You already should know the gist of what Ringu or “Ring” is about. It’s one of those pieces of media where not having experienced it doesn’t mean you don’t know it. You know about the Japanese girl with white dress and inky black hair. You know it is not what so ever good for one’s health.

This image of the long haired, white dressed girl or woman is so ubiquitous that other horror media has taken from it including other J-Horror like the just as well known Grudge. I’ve played video games where this archetype appears as a threat or the main threat like Alma of the F.E.A.R. series, Laura from the first Evil Within (now with multiple appendages and long-ass fingernails) or Eveline from Resident Evil 7.

It even shows up as a joke in Nintendo’s Luigi’s Mansion 3. The ubiquity of this girl and her often supernatural ways can keep from the recognition of how horrifyingly fresh and startling this girl was upon Japanese and eventually international audiences. It wasn’t just a 20th century update on a Japanese ghost tale, that of the onryo, a vengeful often female spirit who will get a wrong righted after death, it was a commentary on our anxieties over technology’s unending spread as the 21st century neared. How old fears can manifest in the new.

I saw both this and the American remake released 4 years later and will cover it right after. Let me get this out of the way: surprise, the original is better. Gasp! However, that is not to say that Gore Verbinski’s take is bad, it’s possibly the only good remake Hollywood has yet made of this side of horror.

Ringu does a supreme job of stringing you along with a genuine mystery, one that you want to know the answer to, even if in truth, it would be entirely better even necessary for this mystery to go unanswered.

One of the key factors in the original movie’s success is the score by Kenji Kawai and it does almost better than the visuals and the implications of putting you in a constantly unsettled place while watching. The standout track is a repeated one, that plays whenever a new day is shown through onscreen titling. I couldn’t find a soundbite or track from YouTube but it instills a sense of dread better than almost anything I can think of.

Of course, knowing what the ghostly girl named Sadako does is well known. I had an inkling like you probably do of how it ends. Of course, the timetable of how it proceeds and when the scene occurs was not known to me. It actually spoiled to me what is revealed to be a fake resolution where our leads think the nightmare is over or has been prevented for them. Instead of feeling cheated, it left me with a big “OH S**T” feeling because the scene hadn’t happened.

What makes Ringu rewarding is that so many of the details, the why, the what and the how are not as well known. That other details no less discomforting were still fresh for me to discover for the first time.

Now, you could be wondering why I’m covering a 90s followed by an oughts movie instead of the expected, promised 80s fare. Well, I saw a video about Ringu from Accented Cinema, one of my subscribed YT channels and without giving away the conclusion, his video essay hooked me on wanting to accelerate my viewing of Ringu and The Ring. He titled it “How Ringu eases you into the horror”. Much like the characters of the movie, you want to know the truth. But this truth will not set you free.

The film also gives an understandable reason for why someone would watch a cursed videotape, other than incredulity that supernatural curses exist, of course. The lead character, Reiko, is a journalist investigating a case which hits home for her when her niece Tomoko is among the latest victims. What makes it all the more enticing a mystery is that three other people, all Tomoko’s friends who also watched the tape, all died as well, on the same day, at the same time.

Again, like Reiko and as posited buy Accented Cinema, it’s not really figuring out a series of deaths, it’s knowing just what is even happening. Humanity as a species has a compulsion to know stuff, to uncover the unknown, instinctively perhaps so we no longer fear it. Ringu twists that instinct on its head deliciously.

Reiko heads to the holiday cabin in the woods where Tomoko and friends watched the tape. Along the way, she receives in her investigation a photo of the four and here was a detail I didn’t know about the curse’s power: everyone who is marked for death by Sadako has their face distort in images. The American version would expand this to most forms of capturing people’s faces such as a security camera at a convenience store.

She then of course selects the unmarked tape from the visitor’s center for the campground and watches it. Both versions of the video from the East and West versions have a genuine creepiness, though again the original edges out. There is no dialogue, just strange vaguely melodic sounds and noises that would be welcome in any given Silent Hill game. The imagery at first seems random, without meaning. It’s a puzzle that Reiko and her divorced husband Ryuji have to solve.

Ryuji is played by an actor that Westerners might be familiar with, Hiroyuki Sanada. You might remember him as the Yakuza boss that Clint Barton as Ronin slays in Avengers: Endgame. He most recently played Scorpion in the latest live action Mortal Kombat movie. The interplay between Reiko and Ryuji as mostly amicable divorcees plays on a contemporary theme for Japan: the nature of the modern Japanese family. It’s takeaways might leave a mixed taste in some mouths.

They had a son, Yoichi, and after their separation, Yoichi lives as a latchkey kid. Reiko is often too busy at work, whether it’s at the office or out investigating. Ryuji no longer lives with his family. It’s pretty clear what the message here is supposed to be and to Ringu’s credit, there is no one way you’re meant to feel, save that Yoichi should have more attention from a parental figure at least. Rest assured, the predicament Reiko places herself in reaffirms she loves her son.

I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if Ringu, among it’s many visual inspirations overtime, actually inspired of all things, one noteworthy episode of Doctor Who. The episode which introduced the Doctor’s most terrifying enemy the Weeping Angels. Their debut episode in 2007 is itself a mystery with a young female journalist investigating the mystery of both an abandoned house deep in the English woods and a DVD featuring David Tennant’s 10th Doctor.

Unlike the cursed video tape having a net negative (to put it the lightest) effect on the viewer, the journalist Sally Sparrow watching the doctor’s DVD is the only reason she survives encountering the Angels. He gives direct instructions to Sally on how to stop the Angels from killing her. Solving the mystery here saves her and quite a few others. There’s a sense of time running out for Sally to both solve the mystery to survive, not unlike Reiko and Ryuji having exactly 7 days from them first watching the video to find a way around Sadako’s doom.

That’s all the more ironic considering that the Doctor put Sally through what is ultimately a stable time loop, much like how the Terminator going back in time to kill Sarah Connor in the first movie guaranteed that the father of the Resistance leader that fights the genocidal machines comes into contact with Sarah, impregnates her, thus assuring humanity’s survival by the T-800’s travel back in time.

Much like that stable time loop twist in the episode “Blink” of Doctor Who, Ringu reveals its more nefarious side by giving no easy answer to overcoming Sadako. In that in truth, there really isn’t one. To help better sell the idea that Sadako will win no matter what, we of course get to learn her background as a psychic girl who got scorned by the people of her time not just for her powers, but in protecting the honor of her also psychic mother.

When her mother is accused of fraud when successfully reading out cards while blindfolded, the critic is then suddenly killed in the manner that you the viewer have become accustomed to: Their face stricken in a face of utter horror, as if you have been frightened to death. Sadako, possibly not even ten years old does not recognize the dire scope of her powers despite her loving mother.

This otherwise innocent girl is then killed by the doctor who was going to use the mother and child for profit and she is dropped down a well after getting whacked on the head. She doesn’t die. She spends, you guessed it, seven miserable days trying to escape the well, losing her fingernails in the process. She never escapes. Well, not in the way you and I could.

Sadako’s ESP powers tap into a concept unique to Japan: the concept of thoughtograpy, where an individual with such power can burn her essence into an object, leaving off a mark of sorts. It’s never fully explained in either version how Sadako decided that a videotape would be the channel for her indiscriminate vengeance but it’s ultimately not important that we find out that.

Now, for the crime of being murdered, leaving her mother in utter despair so much that she threw herself into a volcano, and for being stuck in the dark for the last 7 days of her life, anyone no matter how good or bad they may be will suffer. Those who recognize they have been cursed like Reiko and Ryuji must spend 7 days realizing they are about to die, like how Sadako came to realize her own fate down in the well.

Her punishment is indiscriminate because she was already given reason as an impressionable young girl to hate all humanity. For her freakish powers, she was shunned, feared, taken advantage of in experiments. The only person she didn’t hate was of course her Mom. Even the horror element of never seeing her face through her deep, long hair represents how she didn’t want anyone to even see her, due to her treatment.

Now, on the seventh day, when she takes out the person who sated their curiosity and watched her video, she gets not just revenge but a really sorrowful sense of wish fulfillment she never got when alive. The iconic scene of her crawling out of a well and approaching the camera isn’t just because it’s freaky to look at, it represents her desperate unfulfilled desire to escape the well that was her tomb. It’s both horrifying and sad. No matter how cruel it seems for Sadako to prey on total strangers, she wasn’t given any reason to be empathetic to anyone, it’s a poor young girl endlessly lashing out at a world which deserves nothing but punishment.

It ties into a familiar strain of thought in horror that many of the terrors we make in the real world are the consequence of our past mistakes. Had we shown kindness, the better angels of our nature, a benevolent curiosity to Sadako and her mother’s powers, maybe things would be different. Maybe Sadako wouldn’t have become the monster society automatically deemed her if they weren’t dismissing her.

What really seals the deal on Ringu and the story itself regardless of the adaptation being a modern classic is that the secret of how you “defeat” Sadako is delightfully twisted and plays into the movie’s anxious viewpoint on technological spread, not unlike a virus. I won’t spoil what the twist is, because that curiosity I hope will be enough for you to check Ringu out if you haven’t already.

The Ring (2002)

Image from IMDB ( In the end, there will be only one channel…)

Gore Verbinski and future Transformers sequel writer Ehren Kruger do a remarkable even commendable job translating this Japanese-at-heart tale of nigh inescapable horror and giving it an American expression. There are some cute references to the Japanese roots, with even an implication that part of this ghostly girl’s origins, that of her father, might actually be from the land of the rising sun. Otherwise, the transplant other to Washington State, USA is complete and total.

Naomi Watts’ Rachel replaces Reiko, Martin Henderson’s Noah replaces Ryuji, David Dorfman replaces Yoichi and the Ring Girl goes from Sadako to Samara. The biggest change is the atmosphere.

Befitting perhaps the new setting of the tale of the Ring, in and around Seattle, there is an absolutely oppressive feel to the world we see on film. The look of the movie has this bluish-greenish sheen that feels washed out and gloomy, with the rain that Seattle’s known for making Rachel, Noah and Aidan’s world feel like it’s off its meds. And that’s before any of our leads have watched the tape.

Instead of being depressing, it helps set up the tone in a fresh way from the original, which once the tape is viewed and Rachel and Noah know what they’re in for, it makes the impending seven days more stressful, as they and the audience can see let alone feel a sense of doom in the air. The sound that plays when a new date is presented is gone which I really miss. Sometimes, the film’s intense faith to the original can rob that sense of curiosity mixed with apprehension. You push instead to how much more different this experience could ultimately be, barring the obvious change of country.

Once it gets to exploring Samara’s background over Sadako’s, that’s where the changes feel most apparent. Rather than her mother sharing some of her daughter’s ESP power, it is just Samara’s. Instead of the dark side of her powers manifesting in suddenly killing someone, her powers cause the horses on the farm she lives on to go wild and die. The mother has more of a part to play in her daughter’s descent into misanthropic fury.

Are these changes better? Not necessarily though they don’t detract. If nothing else, it makes Samara’s desire for vengeance even more understandable as she had no one in the end that cared for her this go around.

Rachel’s kid Aidan has more involvement in the events of the movie and even in some scenes actually converses with both her mother and father on the nature of the curse more than Yoichi. Another interesting change, perhaps to denote this as an American story over an Japanese one is that Rachel and Noah never married and had their son out of wedlock. Noah has barely even seen Aidan in his life. Because marriage and having kids through wedlock is a more expected and I imagine carried through on thing in Japan, having the parents be divorced was the Japanese way of expressing trouble with relationships. Having kids out of wedlock must’ve been the American distinction Kruger and Verbinski decided on.

Watching Ehren Kruger write a distinctive yet reverent take on a Japanese classic changes my perspective on his writing of three horrible Transformers movies. In that he had even less of an excuse to be as lazy, juvenile and mindless with his handling of the concept of the Transformers and their war as he was. Now, obviously, Michael’s Bay anarchic even mean-spirited cinematic lens affected the writing process. That same “Bay” feel is present in every film in the series save Bumblebee, the movie he only was a producer of. So, it was not Kruger entirely, but seeing the respect he gave towards a Japanese property proves he has talent that he decided three times to squander. Don’t worry, he would in time do a disservice to an influential Japanese title when adapting Ghost in the Shell later on.

Again, I can’t say I enjoyed or found as unsettling the American Ring as I did the original though some re-imaginings of some scenes did work well. Katie, Rachel’s niece like Tomoko for Reiko, has a more startling discovery of her body after her 7 days were up. The discovery of Tomoko hiding dead in her closet was scary enough, with the closeup of her contorted face forever open-mouthed in terror was scary. But the scare chord composed by Hans Zimmer along with showing Katie’s body in her closet has a more jolting feel. What’s great about both scenes is that the jump-scare occurs after a soft fakeout.

In the lead up to that moment, we have Reiko/Rachel looking through Tomoko/ Katie’s room following their funeral. They both turn towards the camera and you in turn expect something scary or creepy to be shown after. Instead, it’s just the departed girl’s grieving mother. They then start talking about Tomoko and Katie’s fate, and both turn toward the closet. THEN, the jump cut to discovering the body with the accompanying chord.

The scare serves a purpose which both frightens the viewer while also invoking sympathy to what befell Tomoko and Katie. It also serves to demonstrate what will happen to everyone who watches the tape. Another moment unique to the original also serves to potentially fool the audience for a jumpscare. Tomoko in the original shortly before the TV turns on is using a refrigerator and the camera is aimed at the fridge door from the side. You expect once she closes the door for something spooky like Sadako to be there. Nope, nothing. Because there’s no reason yet for there to be something spooky.

In spite of the scare chord I mentioned earlier, Hans Zimmer’s scoring is actually understated going for a more melancholic feel. While Kawai’s score was meant to keep you permanently on edge, Zimmer goes for a piano-like morose feel which represents the gloom that complements the either inevitable or potential doom coming down the road. It reminds me of some of the music, namely in the end credits for The Babadook released 12 years later though that film certainly has many unnerving, scary compositions included.

Perhaps it’s Zimmer deciding to emphasize the mystery and the tragedy of Samara more than the horror as the horror can largely speak for itself. It might even accommodate those who have already seen the original and want something different enough a second time.

Either way, I do recommend seeing these movies back to back and deciding for yourself what were changes meant to help along an American audience and be rather pleased at all the things that weren’t changed. As mentioned before, it actually builds in parts on what Samara’s curse does leading up to the seven days being completed. While on a ferry heading towards the island Samara lived on, there’s a horse in a trailer. Rachel going up to the horse causes it to panic eventually breaking out of its trailer, rampaging throughout the boat until eventually it falls over the side to its doom. Just like the horses Samara knowingly or unknowingly drove crazy.

That’s a nice expansion which shows the effect a cursed person can possibly have on the world for their seven allotted days. Again, not necessary really, but shows that this take can strive to be more than a carbon copy.

Give it a watch, maybe even marathon the both of them. Try to keep mental notes whenever you can as both movies really want you to think through the details, realize how the dots connect the disturbing picture. It’s also a horror story that thrives on the implications that Sadako/Samara’s power contains. Later movies, such as the recent American sequel Rings has tried to expand the concept and on paper the conceits of that movie are sound. I am aware of one scenario where Samara’s tape in played on seat TVs on an airplane.

In spite of it building on the idea, Rings is quite bad from what I’ve heard. To be fair, even the Japanese sequels have struggled to make their own continuations of the story. They did their own Godzilla vs. Kong with pitting Sadako versus the boy from the Grudge.

It’s yet a miracle that two different sides of the world could do justice for a story all about a girl meting out her own pitiless “justice” on everyone else.

In part two, I tackle two movies, one that is a dark journey back to a world you wouldn’t generally consider scary at least on celluloid and the first of many flicks involving to some extent werewolves.

Bengal’s Vegas Deep Dive part 2 of 2

Before I delve into the scariest time of year over the course of a six part series for Halloween, let’s give a fond farewell to Sin City, pitting two movies about the history of Las Vegas. One’s take is very spurious and the other is surprisingly faithful to the truth.

Bugsy (1991)

Image from Letterboxd (The romance between the actors was real. The figures they portray on the other hand…

Directed by Barry Levinson and produced by Warren Beatty, the man playing the titular Jewish gangster, Bugsy is a film not unlike the portrayal of the central figure. An experience that can win you over with sheer swagger, confidence and unflappable personality. Behind closed doors, it becomes a rougher time, where it’s harder to tell what is actually good in a takeaway that comes across poorly.

Bugsy Siegel is an up and coming star in the Jewish Mob, something that I at first didn’t believe existed. I assumed figures like Siegel, Meyer Lansky (Ben Kingsley) and Mickey Cohen (Harvey Keitel) were part of the Italian-American mafia everyone knows. Despite their names clearly not being Italian.

I also thought, due to historic persecution of those Semitic that Jews in America would do everything in their power to put their best foot forward. Sort of like how Irish-Americans took on police work, to better ingratiate themselves among the rest of the Americans, namely those dastardly Anglo-Saxons. Well, then again, persecuted minorities do get involved in crime when other opportunities are either limited or outright kept from them.

Despite being a criminal figure more than willing to lay a few slugs into anyone that gets in his way, he’s also a loving family man who clearly loves his two daughters. That itself doesn’t stop him from getting some ladies on the side. Won’t stop him from falling in love with a scarlet-clothed dame from Los Angeles.

Upon getting to LA and schmoozing his way into the good graces and eventual partnerships of enemies like Mickey Cohen, he soon realizes upon a business trip to Las Vegas that, wouldn’t you know it, a piece of desert land near Vegas would make for a swell place for a drink, a smoke and some gaming tables, among other accommodations.

It’s here that we witness, of all things, a compelling underdog story for a historic mobster play out. The rest of the Jewish mob including his mentor figure Lansky express doubts over a potential boondoggle being made near a dust-strewn gambling town with their money. His infidelity with Hill starts to make it harder for his wife and children. And there’s the constant friction between “Nice” Bugsy and “Rough” Bugsy troubling a relationship he earnestly pursues with Virginia.

Knowing the actual history of Bugsy Siegel (Warren Beatty) after the fact makes me wish this was something akin to Tarantino’s Once upon a Time in Hollywood. A historical piece with staggering attention to getting the little details of the period right while eventually revealing itself as a piece of knowing fiction. Yes, it is true that Bugsy Siegel is one of the key architects of the Vegas that we’ve come to know today. Yes, he was indeed whacked by the ‘ahem’ “Kosher Nostra” for failing to live up to the expensive investment that is the Flamingo Hotel and Casino.

Yes, he certainly had an extramarital affair with Virginia Hill (Annette Benning) when Siegel went from New York to LA to expand the business of the Jewish side of organized crime. But as far as I can tell, that’s where the film stops caring about the truth.

Just how Bugsy screws up the timeline of events is where that sinking feeling you’ve watched a historically careless piece of Hollywood comes in. It reminds me of Gibson’s Braveheart though the timeline liberties that film take makes Bugsy appear reserved. The date of the Flamingo’s opening was not the day of Siegel’s assassination. It was the second opening the following year.

Midway through the movie, Bugsy has to kill one of his mooks, Harry Greenberg (Elliott Gould, last covered in Ocean’s 11), for failing just one too many times. The film portrays it as an awkward car ride with Bugsy, Greenberg and Virginia. Virginia does not realize Harry’s being driven to a whacking by her gentleman love. At a trainyard, Bugsy and Harry go for a walk with the former demanding Virginia stay at the car.

Virginia obliges and then an expected crack (by the audience) is heard. Bugsy returns to the car by himself with Virginia wondering where Harry is. For the purposes of the film, it’s to show Virginia how cold her criminal boyfriend can get.

This whacking of Harry Greenberg is depicted as occurring in 1945. Siegel, alongside two other goons did the deed in 1939. Bugsy hadn’t even met Virginia yet. There’s also the evidence that suggests that one of the factors that led to Bugsy’s own whacking was from Hill herself. What is ultimately portrayed as an earnest love story with sweeping romantic gestures is hiding that perhaps those two didn’t really love the other as much as Levinson and Beatty would have you believe. Virginia Hill’s own date of death as brought up in the film’s closing crawl is wrong by a good several decades.

It makes other details of the story that I didn’t research or find out about themselves more suspicious. Did Bugsy die like he does? Was he even killed for the reasons espoused by the movie? Did he and Mickey Cohen really become friends? Were they even partnered?

Aside from how often Hollywood can notoriously get it wrong, on purpose or by carelessness/ apathy, why would an accomplished director like Levinson and Beatty, a man who starred and directed in a fairly accurate dramatization of American Communists Jack Reed and Louise Bryant, do this?

Well, it might be because Bugsy can be read more as a story about Warren Beatty than Bugsy Siegel. What cinches it is that Beatty and Benning would be married the following year, in a marriage that endures to this day. It’s a story that could be read as representing Beatty’s own struggles to overcome the Hollywood system to do the stuff he wanted to do with his career, like the aforementioned Reds. That there’s an intentional interplay between the Mob in LA and Hollywood adds to this.

This isn’t the first time a work of art supposedly about a real life figure or set of figures was in turn a stealth self-commentary about the artist. Hayao Miyazaki’s last film (for the time being) is less about the real history of a man called Jiro Hirikoshi. It’s more about Miyazaki himself and how his artistic ambitions the world came to love may have come into conflict with the personal aspects of his life. It can also be an allegory for Japan’s own fraught history in the modern period.

The Wind Rises places the real life of Hirikoshi third in priority but to Studio Ghibli’s credit, they made no effort to hide that it was a fictionalized account. Considering that animation company’s prevalence for fantasy, it is fitting.

As a film in which you willfully ignore all considerations to historical fidelity, it is a well crafted work, perfectly in line with the quality you expect from the man behind pictures like Diner. Beatty, despite being several years older than Siegel was when he took the big sleep is a genuinely entertaining figure. He sweeps you up in just the energy of his idealized depiction of a fella that was all by means not as good as this film infers. Basically, he seduces you like he seduces Virginia.

So, in that framing, Bugsy can be called an acceptable piece of historical fan fiction.

Casino (1995)

Image from Cinevue (Two goodfellas who find actual history entertaining.)

Call it a case of covering ass if you want, but Scorsese’s take on the Vegas life of Frank Rosenthal and the gambling “skimming” scheme he helped cover for sets off on a foot that is meant to reassure historians watching they aren’t in for another “loose retelling” of the past. 1995 was a notorious year for films that did so with Braveheart and Disney’s Pocahontas being the worst offenders and I do mean offensive. Not surprising then that both movies starred Mel Gibson, a man who loves to direct or be part of movies that don’t care that much for the truth as The Patriot and Apocalypto will attest.

Casino is in the same vein, almost to a fault, of other Scorsese historical flicks about combining real events with crime. His magnum opus for this type of film and in general, is Goodfellas. Sure, they were inaccuracies there if only because the truth was even more graphic that even Scorsese got nervous. Later on, The Wolf of Wall Street. This trilogy of movies involve a criminal protagonist, in this case Sam “Ace” Rothstein (Robert DeNiro), narrating to the audience their life story or at least the parts that involve an ill gotten gains lifestyle and eventually culminating in downfall.

Goodfellas’ Henry Hill, Casino’s Ace and Wall Street’s Jordan Belfort are destined for that downfall in the movie. It happened more or less in real life. Scorsese had decided to essentially remake Goodfellas twice where aside from the sheer craft of his style and that in spite of all three of these movies being lengthy, having yet a paradoxically bracing, quick pace, what makes this repeat performance work is that there is a unique true to life set of details to the latter two movies.

Goodfellas was about a man who famously always wanted to be a gangster living out a gangster life. Wolf of Wall Street is about a stock broker running a company off of lies and corruption with the biggest s**t-eating grin ever on his face while doing so. Casino is both about a man who was genuinely good at running a casino fair and square and could’ve have kept doing it if one, he didn’t let his lust for a chip hustler bleed in with his unwise friendship with a mafia man running his own string of crimes in LV, and two, there wasn’t that whole skimming the winnings thing happening for the Chicago Outfit of the Mob.

Remember about that best foot forward I brought up at the start? The film opens saying that it is “inspired by true story” rather than “based”. In spite of what turns out to be a pretty faithful retelling of the rise and fall of Frank Rosenthal, Scorsese renames all the characters such as going from Frank to Sam and even adds in historic events that happen after the story of Rosenthal/ Rothstein had concluded but more on that later.

You get both a pretty good retelling of the past and yet ultimately still a knowing piece of fiction so you know in return that this is not 100% up to the truth. The best example of Casino actually taking stark liberty is with the characterization of Sam Rothstein and his eventual wife Ginger Mckenna (Geri McGee) played by Sharon Stone.

The film portrays Rothstein as indeed a mob scumbag but an intelligent one and not without a few redeeming qualities. Ginger is portrayed as an ultimately vain, riches-hungry woman who ultimately becomes possibly more unlikable than the character you’re meant to hate and/or fear, the guy played by Joe Pesci. She does terrible things during the course of the movie, such as tying up her and Sam’s daughter and a bed and acts more or less as the real catalyst that begins the downfall of the operation Rothstein is protecting at the Tangiers Hotel and Casino (based on the Stardust). Of course, Ginger’s behavior is hardly the only thing that brings down the operation and Ace and Pesci’s Nicky Santoro ( Anthony Spilotro) are also guilty of contributing to it.

The unfortunate truth and this might be one of the bigger reasons Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi (based off of his own book like with Goodfellas) changed names and made the disclaimer at the start is that the personalities of the real life figures DeNiro and Stone play are almost reversed.

Frank Rosenthal, as far as history can tell us really had no redeeming qualities. He was an abusive, vain, possessive piece of shit who tormented Geri. Geri, by comparison, while obviously still a woman caught up in the hedonism of the Vegas and mob life, was considered by those who knew her a compassionate, friendly and entertaining person. She was a person many would say did not deserve the miserable drug-addled end she faced and well, even Stone’s liberal take known as Ginger probably didn’t deserve it that bad too.

So, yeah, making the male mobster more tame and the relatively innocent female lover he had worse than she was can make one tighten their collar. One scenario that happens early on, during the Scorsese patented montage where Ace demonstrates how he operates the Tangiers is based on a historical event that was by Casino’s release recent history.

A Japanese businessman does incredibly well and all but but clears the house with his success. Not letting a guy like that make off with that amount of winnings, he has his plane back to Japan (which is owned by Ace) pretend to have a malfunction so that the guy is now stuck in Vegas. He then is returned to the Tangiers and Ace graciously welcomes him back and offers a rematch, all so he can get the businessman’s massive earnings back. What a cad.

If you were alive and old enough in the early to mid 90s, unlike me, that may sound familiar. Well, this little skit in the film is taken from Donald Trump trying to get back the winnings that all but bankrupted his struggling hotel/casino, the Taj Mahal. Instead of sabotaging the ride home for Akio Kashiwagi, he called him on the way back and convinced him to return with no extra expense back to the casino for a rematch. Don’t remember if our future fascist President succeeded in getting his winnings back, but that was a recent story that found itself added in to a story that occurs earlier. Why did Scorsese do that? As one way to show how expertly Rothstein went about running the Tangiers.

So, yeah in spite of the questionable characterization of two of the central figures and transplanting a 90s gambling story into one set only in the 70s and 80s, Casino will serve you well more or less as a real retelling of the last time the mob had a confirmed presence in the day to day operations of anywhere in Sin City. While Bugsy told a fallacious beginning to Vegas and the Mafia’s ties, Casino will tell you it’s end, and decides to showcase the crazy things that happen along the way, some of which may surprise you as not being the invention of Hollywood screenwriters but genuine fact.

I recommend watching this after you read this blog entry to the end, but here is the Casino episode from the Youtube channel series History Buffs, who will do a far more through job of explaining where Casino does right by you the filmgoer and the few where it doesn’t.

Anyhoo, it’s time to now talk about Casino as a film-watching experience. Some consider Casino to be a lesser version of Goodfellas yet anything but a bad one. Some see it as being just as good and certainly as entertaining. I fall more into the latter category as one, I was genuinely captivated by Scorsese’s proven style of direction and was honestly glad to have well, Goodfellas again, but different.

It doesn’t hurt that his direction of the actors is ever fantastic and helped dispel a rather unpleasant notion I had about Sharon Stone. This could be a consequence of having not seen, well, any film of hers but she was known for extremely good reason as one of the sex symbols of the 1990s. Basic Instinct all by itself can be proof of that. But there was plenty of other films where her sex appeal was used as major factor for the movie or at least she was in a film that involved her getting busy. Sliver, Year of the Gun, The Quick and the Dead among others involve Ms. Stone in… intimate moments of celluloid.

There’s indeed a sex scene here, but it’s 4 seconds long, shows no nudity and involves Joe Pesci so it is not remotely titillating. Here, Scorsese gives Sharon Stone a chance to act and despite playing an inaccurate representation of a real person gives I would dare argue the best performance in the film. I thought to myself, “She deserves an Oscar for this” and she was indeed nominated for Best Actress.

To be fair, part of what made her role as Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct unforgettable wasn’t just what she physically showed audiences and she showed more than what was common in 1992. How she acted as Catherine as a bona fide femme fatale made her. She had to be a good actress to make Basic Instinct work in the way it ultimately did, whether you like that or not.

Of course, while DeNiro’s performance is essentially flawless, as the guy has made playing an Italian-American mobster down to a science, Joe Pesci and his always profane voice helps too in making Casino a film I honestly find as good at least in entertainment as Goodfellas. Goodfellas still has the edge because for the kind of gangster film it was, it was new, it was fresh. It essentially helped form the modern way we tell Mob stories, the successor to The Godfather movies in that respect. I doubt there would’ve have been the Sopranos if not for both Goodfellas and Casino.

Casino could edge out Goodfellas for brutal violence. The two scenes best known for such content are also two of the best remembered scenes in the film. Wonder why? There’s the horrifying torture scene involving a guy who gets his head in a vise by Pesci’s Nicky. This is after one of his…vital parts got ice picked. He then gets one of his eyes loosely popped out. This is the scene that Scorsese claimed he was willing to sacrifice to avoid an NC-17 rating, or at least he would trim it down because important plot details are involved there. To his surprise, the MPAA let the whole scene go uncut.

The other violent scene is the part where Joe Pesci plays a role he is familiar with, whether it’s in a Scorsese film or in a Christmas themed kids movie: getting the living hell beat out of him. Unlike the traps of Kevin McCallister, which indeed would’ve been lethal for the Wet Bandits especially in the second film, Nicky Santoro’s mostly true to life miserable method of death involve lots and lots of baseball bats. The inaccuracy comes in that the real life death was again, even more terrible.

On one last note and this is something History Buffs informed me of, unlike Joe Pesci’s casting as Tommy DeVito which really didn’t look close to the real person he’s based on, Pesci looks disturbingly close to Tony Spilotro. I can’t speak for how Spilotro sounded in life but wow, Scorsese didn’t just bring back Pesci because he needed someone to play the violent, unhinged wiseguy, he found a part he was physically born to play.

Of the films I watched for my Vegas deep dive, I will indeed place Casino as being the best overall movie. It doesn’t hurt that it actually gave a history lesson about a place I visited, all to see for the first Gorillaz on the stage. If you have three hours, you won’t need to have your head put in a vise to see it as a no-brainer.

Next time: PART 1 of 2022 HORRORTHON

Bengal’s Vegas Cinema Deep Dive part 1 of 2

Thanks to the glory of the Gorillaz, I visited Vegas last weekend. Seeing them live for the first and maybe only time was quite something. I got a new white t-shirt of them over there to both commemorate the event and because a white shirt in the Vegas heat is better than a black one. Also, the black shirt I’ve got was wearing down and getting too tight.

I couldn’t help but take a break from 80s cinema for my retrospective series to focus on some recent Hollywood offerings about the city of “second” chances. All of them are from the 90s to today and in doing so removes some titles that were already waiting on my watchlist far in the future after I conquer everything in my 80s’ itinerary.

The second part will be two movies based or inspired by historical fact, seeing which is better at telling a history lesson and which is just the better film. These three explore the cool, the profane and the sad of what is known in English as The Meadows.

Ocean’s 11 (2001)

Image from IMDB (Release the Safe-Crackers.)

Steven Soderbergh is a man who, comfortably it seems, lives in two worlds. Ever since his breakthrough debut in 1989’s Sex, Lies and Videotape (which of course dear viewer I will one day tackle), the bald maestro has done many, many films. Some have been mainstream work that even attained critical and commercial success like the film here and others are movies which made so little money you’ve likely never heard of them.

My first time seeing a Soderbergh picture was 2017’s Logan Lucky and how fortuitous for me that that was my first film of his. It’s a heist film involving some West Virginia brothers breaking a southern-fried Daniel Craig out of prison so they can perform a break-in of the Charlotte Speedway during a Nascar race. It’s a Robin Hood tale with it’s players consisting of the proudly podunk, yet smart enough to know that the system has screwed them. They’re just about smart enough to perform a Danny Ocean play but on a smaller scale.

It’s an endearing little movie and proved prophetic for Daniel Craig’s future career choices of playing Dixie-accented figures like in Rian Johnson’s Knives Out. I don’t know if any film of his before Ocean’s 11 could be construed as heist picture, but as the general public is concerned, 2001 was the beginning of a more playful Soderbergh experience.

The early 2000’s was a good time to be that man. In 2000, he somehow found the time to make two blockbusters, Traffic and Erin Brockovich. He would follow up the next year with his interpretation of a Rat Pack flick from 1960. Frank Sinatra and his thick as thieves performer friends got involved in a heist picture that on paper sounds like it should be a classic of the era.

Imagine it, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin alongside eight others on a daring Vegas heist plan: Rob five casinos in one night. Sounds awesome, right? Well, apparently not, as the original Ocean’s 11 is not a film to write home about from basically all accounts. Aside from the Rat Pack presence, inspiring the concept of the first modern feature and there being a crew numbering 11, nothing about it is exceptional.

It seems evident to me that Soderbergh took a film maybe he liked as a kid, thought could be better and did just that. The remake stands a better chance of being remembered, respected even in the long course of time. It’s rare that a remake utterly eclipses the original but here we are.

Danny Ocean is played by an actor, who almost by design, was meant to portray a heist crew ringleader, George Clooney. It takes a lot to make the guy not charming or charismatic. It is sadly possible, as evidenced by Batman and Robin.

After leaving prison, with the board narrowly deciding that he won’t go back to his robbery wiles, Danny immediately starts canvassing to get a crew together for a job that’s more personal than just business.

He gets his number two from L.A. back, Rusty (Brad Pitt), and tells him that despite his recently concluded prison time and that he’s supposed to stay in New Jersey as part of his parole, he wants to rob three Vegas casinos in a single night. Fortunately, there is an underground vault where money that comes from those three casinos is stored. The establishments are all run by Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), a mildly criminal business magnate whose as far as I can tell is actually on the level. His only vice really is that if someone screws him in any way, his retribution is quite disproportionate.

In order to make us not despise even like the heist crew, to want them to outright win, the victim of this supposedly victimless crime has to be on some level, unsympathetic or villainous. Only Terry is affected by his money being stolen so you don’t feel uncomfortable at the ultimately still criminal thing the Eleven pull off. This is more so for caper films where the crew gets away scot free, a more recent trend in the genre.

It used to be the case that the crooks would start to get what’s coming to them after the heist is successfully pulled off, their own greed and/or carelessness being their undoing. It lets the more morally minded audiences of yesteryear have it both ways: they get to enjoy a risky, even stressful break-in occur and then after it is gloriously accomplished, they still get the hammer of the law smacked on them, so the audience is reminded that as cool as that caper was, please don’t commit any crimes.

Outside of wanting to show how awesome a caper-man he is and I guess money in and of itself, why is Danny going forward with this super dangerous, seemingly impossible job? Well, his ex-wife Tess (Julia Roberts) is dating Terry and he still holds a candle for her. It’s not so much showing up Terry as ultimately he must not know for certain he pulled the caper, it’s just to impress his old flame, show her that he most certainly still has it, even after having served time.

Danny and Rusty assemble the 11 in a humorous, expectedly montage manner. Strangely enough, it can also come across like Seven Samurai or any film like Magnificent Seven that apes Kurosawa’s masterpiece: looking around for people to join a team on what could be a suicide mission.

One of the eleven is someone they already know: Frank Catton (Bernie Mac), a con man and actor whose good at drawing attention away from something more important, a must for someone who won’t just do it the forceful way, which in Vegas is essentially either a prison or death sentence.

The guy who gets them the financing and equipment is Reuben, an old friend of Danny who’s the only other member who has a personal stake: he lost his casino to Terry and wants some bloodless revenge. Won’t be the last time that Elliot Gould appears in my Vegas series.

Scott Caan, the late James Caan’s son, and Casey Affleck play Virgil and Turk, two mechanic brothers who play the getaway drivers. Eddie Jemison is Dell, the appropriately named tech guy. Don Cheadle is the cockney accented demolitions man and Shaobo Qin is a short, Chinese acrobat who goes from circus attraction to both genuinely impressive athlete and comic relief, often through his very flexible body.

Rounding out the eleven is Carl Reiner as the old con artist Saul who decides an almost certain to fail heist in Vegas is better than dogtrack betting. At least it will be entertaining for him no matter the outcome. Due to his advanced age compared to everyone else, he’s the one who appears the most vulnerable and even likely to die just for that reason.

The real life Reiner was in his late 70s in 2001 and still had the moxy for two more capers down the road. He managed to have a one line cameo in 2019’s Toy Story 4 before he finally cashed out the following year in 2020 at 98. This tangent is here because I was genuinely impressed by Reiner’s longevity after Ocean’s 11 made it look like this was a swan song role. For him, he was never too old for one last score, bless him.

Finally, MATT DAMON. Sorry, I momentarily envisioned his unflattering voice and appearence from Team America, which oddly enough the real man actually likes. Damon is the young rookie Linus picked up in Chicago by Danny Ocean. Despite his inexperience, his skill’s undeniable as he did manage to pick-pocket a guy like Ocean.

Due to Julia Roberts being prominently featured in the marketing and because usually there is a token female, I assumed Tess or someone else would take the place of one of the eleven. I actually thought Reiner’s Saul was going to die before the job began. Referencing Seven Samurai again, one of the seven dies before the big battle that closes out the movie. I thought Damon was supposed to debut later as no. 12 in the next movie. This uncertainty and getting everything mixed up sure helped with the drama of a job that you already know is going to succeed.

The inevitability that the heist will, 90% of the time, be pulled off doesn’t ruin the magic. You want to see how it’s pulled off, what tricks or on the spot actions are taken to make it work. More importantly, can the audience place themselves in the shoes of someone like Terry Benedict and believe that they got duped?

Despite being over 20 years old now, it really is great that I was entirely unspoiled to how this movie plays out. Let’s just say for your sake that the movie plays a con on you not unlike how in Redford and Newman’s The Sting, the finale fools both the main antagonist and the audience with one big sleight of hand. There’s a sleight of hand that Ocean and Co. pull off that I should have seen coming but was successfully prevented from predicting. The bastards got me good and I loved it.

How Soderbergh goes about with Ocean and his eleven eventually thirteen continuing to cleverly dupe both antagonist and audience remains a divisive topic. Ocean’s 12 released three years later is seen as the weakest of the now four contemporary Ocean pictures. Soderbergh on the other hand thinks the opposite and considers 12 to be the best of the three movies he made. I’m not curious enough to see if that’s true.

I’m not even curious enough to check out 2007’s 13 which was seen as better but the details of how Danny Ocean pulls it off that time has been taken to task as too ridiculous. Can’t honestly speak for the recent Ocean’s 8, where Sandra Bullock plays Danny’s sister, on any account other than I hear it’s just OK and that Soderbergh didn’t direct.

What I can tell you is that the first time is considered the charm and does as good a job as you can imagine making you understand why Clooney and Pitt aren’t just considered sexy Hollywood royalty but charming royalty. To preface way down my thoughts on the early works of Jim Jarmusch, this movie will put a spell on you.

The Hangover (2009)

Image from IMDB (Two of the three man Wolf Pack, encountering a very annoying problem.)

Just recently, I rewatched the Simpsons episode having Homer and Ned Flanders going on a trip to Las Vegas, all because the latter is worried he’s wasted his life being a totally square, unhip Christian man. On the one hand, he looks barely 40 at the age of 60 due to his pious lifestyle. On the other hand, he wonders concerningly what he’s been missing. Homer, despite normally despising stupid, lousy Flanders is actually happy to help him with his unusual life crisis.

Eventually, both Homer and Ned got so wasted that they forget a wild night that involves them both getting married to some strippers and their escapades eventually involve a tiger, a Mike Tyson parody and it all takes place in a joke version of Caesar’s Palace.

The Hangover is a story of two brothers and their two best friends going on a bachelor party trip to Las Vegas. As the title makes inevitable, a wild night is stripped from memory as three of the four wake up to find one’s missing. The hotel they groggily awake in is Caesar’s Palace and the following proceedings will include a tiger, one of them marrying having married a stripper (played by Heather Graham), and Mike Tyson.

My friends, what we have here is a case of what South Park famously called “SIMPSONS DID IT!” Or, The Simpsons already did it. Sure, there are more details to what should have been an unforgettable night for the four but man they just had to drink what is revealed to be roofies at the start of the night. A lot of those details would’ve been almost impossible to allow on the Simpsons.

Todd Phillips most critically successful movie was a sleeper hit in the summer of 2009. Only an abysmal Transformers sequel and Pixar’s masterpiece Up made more money that season. Before the Hangover came out, the idea of a drunken, crazy night with a destructive aftermath was already a concept. Again, the Simpsons. So, what made this take on the idea into such a cultural phenomenon, leading to two lackluster sequels and essentially launching the careers of Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis and Ed Helms?

It was probably that this take leaned in on at being a comical mystery, seeing how far down the rabbit hole the three friends fell and for rewatch value, seeing how the pieces fit together before the credits show a chronological photo montage of the wild night.

It’s also the interplay of the three friends searching for the fourth. Bradley Cooper’s Phil is nominally the most mature and is revealed to be a dad by the film’s end. He is the most concerned with dealing with the problem as orderly as possible and when things refuse to go their way, grows the most aggressive. Ed Helms’ Stu is the put upon guy, with an overly controlling girlfriend and a real passive streak that comes with a lack of spine. The wild night reveals that he is a more decisive person when under the influence.

Maybe the most memorable of the Wolf Pack is Galifianakis’ Alan, a man-child who despite growing up with a loving brother can’t seem to mature fully into an emotionally adult person. For me, this is ironic considering that due to the beard Alan looks the oldest of the three or at least in appearence the least child-like. He’s the innocuous type of man-child, as he can’t even bring himself to swear like his friends.

What works about the humorous task of seeing the Wolf Pack learn about the night and figure out how to unscrew themselves is the balance between being not absurd enough or too absurd. Nothing about The Hangover is completely off the wall bonkers. It seems crazy enough to actually happen and that this is set in Vegas, a place notorious for wild, seemingly unrealistic events helps shore up plausibility.

It could be my bias in favor of the striped, orange animal, but seeing how the trio deals with the tiger in their bathroom is the most enjoyable obstacle they have to solve. It’s also the scenario that seems least likely for them to resolve because it’s a tiger in a Caesar’s Palace hotel room. How the tiger got up there is never explained and it is honestly better that is never revealed. We certainly know how the friends came across it and it ties into another famous obstacle: Mike Tyson.

One of the greatest boxers of all time is notorious for his behavior off the ring with an incident involving punching someone down some stairs being for many the standout moment. Now, while playing himself in an acting role, part of the humor is not only that the Wolf Pack got involved in a bad way with Tyson, but their fear that Tyson will physically hurt them, due to reputation. I ain’t spoiling if he does though considering this film’s blockbuster status, you likely already know.

The Hangover presents conventions of a stay in Vegas going wrong to comedic effect as intended but it also sometimes subverts what you think might happen. The reveal that Stu drunkenly married a stripper comes to a conclusion that some may seem coming and others won’t. I didn’t, for what’s it worth and it sometimes feels that The Hangover is almost satirizing the cliches of Vegas more than simply comically upping the ante about them.

Let’s get to the obstacle that I’m sure split people more than not on how funny or unfunny it was. Ken Jeong’s Mr. Chow works for the intended reason of being an eccentric Chinese mobster that the Wolf Pack got in trouble with. In terms of how actually funny he is, that is subjective even by the standards of comedy. Clearly, Phillips thought people liked Jeong as Chow since he’s around for the whole trilogy.

I didn’t like him though I could at least tolerate him. He is meant to be annoying for the Wolf Pack, further emphasizing how deep the problems they have go. My first real exposure to Ken Jeong was in the third Transformers movie playing a horribly grating and quite racist figure who calls himself Deep Wang. A person who has traded information with the Decepticons in secret, he gets up close and personal with Shia LeBeouf’s Sam in an infuriating comedy sequence that does at least end with him getting killed by a Decepticon.

I was actually cheering when he finally did die, albeit from an dumb interpretation of a fan-favorite Transformers villain. It was moments like Jeong’s contribution to Transformers where it felt less like another immature comedy skit and more like Michael Bay and writer Ehren Kruger were demonstrating spite on those hoping to have a decent film involving transforming, warring robots.

Jeong is never near as horrible in at least the first Hangover as he is in Transformers 3. He serves his purpose, acts as a genuine threat to our marginal heroes and once his role is done, it is done.

The Hangover’s success can also be best recognized for its interpretation that comedy should be about failure. We laugh at fictional characters making mistakes and suffering defeats over and over again. While this film is about the Wolf Pack stumbling their way out of a totally ruinous mess and actually triumphing, be honest with yourselves: your amusement also comes from seeing them in these messed situations and wondering how worse it will get before it does get better.

The Wolf Pack are not the most likable group of characters and thankfully them not always being sympathetic actually adds to the comedy at times. They’re just likable enough and that they ultimately make it out of Vegas with some dignity intact is a testament to one of the lessons that can be given out like a PSA message: Teamwork matters. One of the funniest moments is when the Pack have to win back some money so they can pay Chow in exchange for what they think is their missing friend.

Alan gets cleaned up, dressed up and uses a guidebook about gambling to help beat the system and win the money. Though it predates it, Alan’s mental process at the game table is just like Sherlock piecing together the mystery’s clues.

It’s not the best comedy I’ve seen, it’s not the best film about Vegas I’ve seen. But it is a film that can be understood for why it was the surprise hit of 2009. Those with the right attitude will enjoy, maybe even savor this comedy with quite an attitude all its own.

Leaving Las Vegas (1995)

Image from Business Insider (The Unbearable Weight of Massive Hangovers)

Based on a novel from a young author who shot himself after learning his book would be made into a novel, Leaving Las Vegas is often considered one of Nicolas Cage’s best movies, proof that he is more than just his eccentricities or voice. The Academy thought so, they gave him Best Actor.

It’s a film that shows perhaps the best the utterly sad, unenviable side of Las Vegas. Or at least, for those who have and could live there. Cage’s Ben Sanderson is a drunk. A hopelessly, I mean hopelessly drunk man. He can’t write scripts for Hollywood anymore and his addiction, compulsion to drink has cost him his wife, kids and circle of friends. After getting a “golden parachute” pension from the workplace who shows uncommon pity on him, he decides to buy as much booze as possible, burns all of his personal belongings and drives to Vegas.

Why Vegas? Oh, it’s not to gamble, he has no reason to. Other than gambling, what is one thing that place has in great quantity? Booze. Based on my recent trip, I can confirm that in 2022, that is still very true. It might’ve been the first time I’ve personally encountered drunk people. I’m so sheltered.

There, he meets Sera, played by Elisabeth Shue. I know her as the girlfriend for Daniel-San in the original Karate Kid, the replacement for Jennifer, Marty McFly’s girlfriend in the Back to the Future sequels and recently in a very uncomfortable to watch role in the first season of The Boys. Here, she’s a prostitute who is able to get much free time to spend with Ben after her Latvian pimp Yuri (Julian Sands) gets whacked due to his poor turnout of profit.

Ben goes from being customer who really isn’t interested in her “services” to simply having someone to talk to in his last days. He intends to drink so much that it kills him. Overtime, the two start to become romantically involved in spite of one having a terminal connection to liquor and the other being a lady of the night.

As you could infer, they come together due to both being outcasts of society: one a failed screenwriter turned drunkard and the other a hooker. This and a little more causes their romance to blossom, but Ben says rather bluntly that she can’t expect him to be kept from his “drink to death” mission. No matter what, it will happen, no matter how much it hurts.

Nicolas Cage’s voice adds well to the sense of a person being hammered and then some. Even when sober, his voice has a certain lilt which suggests something is off. Anyone who has heard Nic Cage speak knows what I’m talking about. He’s perfect for the role as Ben is never sober, not once in the film. He’s clear-headed enough at times to socialize with Sera, to know how to push back verbally when he thinks he has to.

His performance did make me wonder about how often Cage actually drank, because makeup aside he does look and act like a drunk. It gets increasingly discomforting to watch because I started to wonder if Cage actually caused himself harm playing this role. Now, obviously there are certain parts where you can tell he wasn’t actually hurt. The end result of drinking to death can’t be replicated because you know you’re endangering an actor at that point. It’s like actors including extras who play Holocaust victims.

How much should be done to show the starved, weakened results of that genocide? You got to make sure the actors are healthy enough at the end of the day or really put in the movie magic to create the visual illusion of a person brought physically low by the holocaust.

Directed by Mike Figgis, there is an appropriately dreamy look to the film, helped along by Anthony Marinelli and Figgis’ own composition of the score. A jazz score that always underscores that this film will not head to a happy ending, even though the convention is that the drunk will be saved and sober up, helped along by the hooker with the heart of gold. Nope, real life is not often enough like that Hollywood ending and the real life plight of John O’Brien, the story’s writer, cements that.

This Vegas movie is not about Vegas, it is merely the backdrop to a man’s fall and a woman’s potential rise above her current lifestyle. The 90s’ filmgrain, which is quite thick, lends to this environment of forlornness, where every bright spot in Ben and Sera’s short time together is followed up by a reminder that none of this is going to last.

This sure sounds like a depressing watch and the film all but begins with the warning that don’t expect it to lighten up. I found it more sad than depressing. Maybe it was me knowing ahead of time that Ben was indeed doomed to the fate he had decided for himself, perhaps knowing eased that. Or I don’t know, maybe something more depressing in my own life actually made this an escape. A coolly filmed picture which better than any other movie in this series of mine makes you feel like you’re in Vegas, no matter the circumstances.

It’s not the best film about Vegas I’ve seen, but it’s the best set in Vegas I’ve seen.

Part Two: Coming this Weekend

Bengal’s 80s Retrospective Part XIV

Following this entry, I will be taking a break from this category to focus on films centered on Vegas, due to next month being my first trip to Sin City. For that reason, the naming joke inspired by Final Fantasy XIII will be scrubbed. That I felt I had to explain already ruined it anyway.

The impetus: seeing Gorillaz live for the first time. Well, you know, as live as the world’s most successful virtual band can be. If the background image for this website wasn’t any indication, Gorillaz is my favorite band and they will be part of the annual Life is Beautiful Festival in Las Vegas. Other artists that I might check out for the one day of the festival I booked include Lorde and Pussy Riot. That latter act is quite something in terms of background but to keep focused, I would recommend looking them up on your own time.

Las Vegas is one of the few places in the world I can think up that can qualified as both the best and worst place to visit simultaneously. I don’t know if this registered with any of my readers over the years but I am not a fan of gambling. I don’t plan to do any kind of betting or game of chance in the one place other than maybe Monaco everybody knows it has in spades. There’s plenty of non-gambling hedonism to partake in, enough so that it will only mildly erode my soul. I’m there for two full days half a month from now so we will see how much more pathetic a human being I will be when I return home.

So, after this entry, I will be doing a series of films set in and around Vegas. They don’t necessarily involve gambling, but they do paint a picture of how our culture has come to understand or reckon with the artificial oasis. You can expect me to cover in the coming weeks the first of Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean films, Scorsese’s Casino, Levinson’s Bugsy, The first Hangover and a return to the beautifully sad mind of one Hunter S. Thompson, both through his immortal portrayal by Johnny Depp in the Fear and Loathing movie and a documentary about the man simply titled Gonzo.

But now, onto the 80’s cinema. This go-around, we’ll be coming some box office hits from early in the decade I hadn’t seen before and of course, another offering from Bollywood.

Scarface (1983)

Image from Taste of Cinema (Pacino may not be Cuban, but he does have that Cuban energy.)

Brian De Palma’s initially controversial remake of the early 30s’ gangster classic is now considered many things, all of them good. It’s considered one of the best remakes of all time, some would say one of the few that surpasses the original. It’s one of the best and most influential crime films. It’s one of Al Pacino’s best known roles with only his time as The Godfather’s Michael Corleone fighting for the spotlight.

Love or hate the movie, Pacino’s kinda goofy, kinda charming Cuban accent is unmistakably his. Everybody knows the voice, even the kids. The best known line of course is “SAY HELLO TO MY LITTLE FRIEND!”, which begins Tony Montana’s unforgettably violent last stand against the cartel he turned against, ironically for a moral reason.

It’s a line, taken out of context, that has made it’s presence known across all of popular culture, even extending to all-ages media. I certainly heard the line before I turned 13. Scarface is hardly a movie kids should watch. It’s less appropriate than even the most excessive stuff in any Godfather movie. There are moments where De Palma does leave some things up to the imagination and yet it makes it no less uncomfortable.

Scarface, no matter how you feel about it’s R-rated roughness, is a film that can’t be ignored, even after nearly 40 years. It’s influence as mentioned earlier continued to seep into later crime dramas. Alongside Miami Vice released the same year, it helped make Miami into one hell of a two-faced metropolis, beautiful and ugly, garish and artistic, tropical but very, very shady.

Regardless of the actual history of Miami as a 1980s’ nexus for drug smuggling and distribution, specifically cocaine, Scarface and Miami Vice did wonders in promoting this exotic Florida city with a bad side. Having visited Miami myself, first in 2006 back when I lived in the land of the Florida Man, despite its history and some really rundown aspects, I have perhaps a naive appreciation for the place.

Miami is one of the few things I missed about FL after leaving for greener(‘ricochet’) pastures in Colorado. It’s not just the cityscape and the public transit I loved, it was its immigrant flair through the great selection of foods from beyond our shores, predominantly Cuban.

Well, Scarface is the story of one Cuban immigrant trying to make it big in the land of opportunity. Following a real life exodus that Castro signed off on that sent many Cubans to America, Tony Montana goes from immigration holding camp, to street vendor to something just a little bit off the official channels of business offer.

At the time, one of the controversies surrounding Scarface was its accusation of anti-Cuban sentiment. Many of the Cubans that Castro was sending our way were considered “undesirables” by his government. Many had records that could or should be considered criminal or at least concerning. While we never get to know the full background of who Tony Montana was before he made it to Miami, it was certainly nothing that either the Cuban or American authorities would call “above board.”

The protagonist was viewed as an ugly avatar of all the potential bad that can come through allowing immigration. It’s a discomforting, bigoted notion that is more noteworthy now in the Trump era than it was back in the Carter/Reagan period. However, De Palma is never as simple as that.

Keep in mind that many of the “opportunities” that Tony embraces to eventually become a drug baron came from the circumstances that can be called a result of America’s (ongoing) failure to allow the newcomer to often have a chance, or at least a legal chance, at the big time. Sure, Tony had pre-existing skills from his life in Cuba to make him a violent enforcer for organized crime, but the people that hired him had been American for awhile or all their life. He gets his start going up the ladder from American criminals. In turn, he undergoes a journey into the dark underbelly of the American Dream.

Eventually, to expand his business, he gets involved with the Bolivian drug operation, but can it not be said, in a dark fashion, that Tony Montana is ultimately an American Made Man.

A lot of what Scarface has to offer can come across as pretty familiar, but that is the fault of this film’s impact. You have his elderly mother, herself an immigrant who does not approve of him becoming a cold-blooded criminal boss, all while he casually blows off his Madre’s concerns. He has his sister, Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), who he slowly but surely gets her caught up in the hedonism that comes from his ill-gotten gains, all while acting overly protective, eventually to a tragic extreme.

He ignores the clear warnings from his higher-ups in the drug trafficking empire that no matter what, don’t screw with their plans. He gets a trophy wife, played by an early Michelle Pfeiffer, who he often ignores for all of the other riches he has. For those who have taken Scarface as an uncritical look at attaining power and wealth through criminal action, one should look at how increasingly lonely Tony gets as the film goes on, how it, as everyone is vaguely knowledgeable of, ends him with getting blown off a balcony in the back by a shotgun into a indoor fountain.

As a modern viewer, I was aware of Tony’s fate for much of my life. It’s not so much that the familiarity of the experience is a downer, it’s an appreciation for what Scarface captured in the zeitgeist. If what Scarface did didn’t work, would it have been repeated, referenced like it was?

What keeps Scarface fresh enough is enjoying Al Pacino’s performance. Yes, the accent is thick and can be distracting from the weight of a lot of scenes. But then again, it isn’t Scarface without that voice. Seeing Tony go from calm and collected yet cocky to a vicious, frightening beast of a man is maybe what redeems Pacino’s choice of approach best. Also, no matter what you have to say about Tony Montana as a person, in how he may perpetuate a bad influence on male masculinity, make no mistake. They’re worse gangsters than Tony Montana. Hell, he’s killed by those that are worse.

When it comes down to it, the biggest kick I got out of finally seeing the 83′ Scarface was its impact on the Grand Theft Auto series. 2002’s Vice City is essentially a massive love letter to Scarface among other things. You have a small time but talented mook, Italian-American not Cuban this time, who rises to the top of Vice City’s (Miami’s) criminal food chain.

He even gets a mansion almost exactly like the one Tony has. The final mission is an extended riff on the final moments of the movie. Except, Vice City’s “hero” Tommy Vercetti survives. The game goes out of its way to show the playable Tommy avoiding all the mistakes that sunk Tony. He doesn’t imbibe in his own product, cocaine, and is thus clear-headed to defeat the criminals storming his estate. You get to witness an alternate scenario where Tony wins in the end through Vercetti. And that’s before an actual Scarface game in the vein of GTA would do just that itself.

Scarface also has the Giorgio Moroder produced song “Push it to the Limit”, that was included along with some other pop songs from the movie in the car radio for Grand Theft Auto III, released a year before Vice City. That game made GTA into an undeniable force on both gaming and popular culture. You’ve heard much about Scarface’s impact on gangster cinema. Well, never forget that much of Grand Theft Auto’s early success can be partially credited to both Brian De Palma and Tony Montana.

Say goodnight to the bad guy, indeed.

An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)

Image from Youtube (You know this scene cause Simpsons.)

An Officer and a Gentleman would’ve been the biggest film of 1982 if it wasn’t for a cross-dressing Dustin Hoffman and an alien dialing his buddies for a ride home. If nothing else, this film is all about showcasing how more often an R-rated movie could make crazy big box office gold.

As the header image shows, and really, could I show anything else, it’s how the film ends that is best remembered. With early 80s’ pop blaring, Zack Mayo (yes, that’s his name), having become at last the film’s title, marches over to garment worker Paula, shows her he’s gone the distance and delivers her to a world less depressing than being forever stuck as a factory seamstress. She, too, has made it. Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes then serenade us all with their hit single, “Up where we Belong”.

You likely know the ending, but do you know how it came to happen? That’s less known unless you were there yourself in 82′. Mayo, played with distinction by a young Richard Gere, is the son of a very disgraced Boatswain, played in a role tailor-made for Robert Loggia. He gets sick of living with his always drunk, always lecherous father in the Philippines. He wants to make something of himself, be better than a father who has long since given up on even caring.

He heads over to AOCS, the Aviation Officer Candidate School, in Washington State. Upon arriving, he is greeted by the expectedly nasty drill sergeant Emil Foley, played by Louis Gossett Jr. in an Oscar winning role. And boy oh boy, does he have some things to say to the cadets. OK, I know it’s the 1980s and that a drill sergeant is supposed to say demeaning things to you, but goddamn if it actually made it harder for me to like this guy, especially since over the course of the movie Foley becomes more of a father figure to Zack than his actual dad ever did.

If the crude, cruel imagination of Foley’s style seems familiar upon viewing this flick, there’s a reason. The guy who was the advisor on being a drill instructor is….

Image from The Guardian

Gossett Jr.’s Foley is also present for the other scene you might be familiar with even if you hadn’t seen AOAAG. I didn’t know about the scene beforehand, but it involves our boy Zack at the lowest point of his time at the Academy, making up for breaking the rules at his dormitory. Forced to perform manual labor outside in the scorching heat, all while Foley glowers and constantly belittles him. He keeps on egging him into asking why his ass is till hanging on to a place undeserving of him in which Zack replies “I HAVE NOWHERE ELSE TO GO!” He then proceeds to sob and even Foley is left with pause.

If it wasn’t clear from me summarizing one of the few moments you might remember from this flick, Zack struggles to make candidate for the Air Force. While he handles the physical stuff quite well, from an obstacle course, from an underwater cockpit ditching exercise to a pressure chamber, it’s the more “civil” training and following all of the absolute guidelines that he gets hung up on. Of course his father’s influence, by nurture and by nature, can be inferred. The same can’t be said for his cadet buddy Sid (David Keith).

A number of factors, internal and external, just break the guy overtime, leading to a pretty hard sequence to just look at. While he does pretty swell on the obstacle course, it’s the other two physical challenges that he blows pretty bad. On top of that, he like Zack, begins a relationship with a “townie”, young attractive ladies who try to make it big with potential candidates.

According to the film’s logic, and I have no way of ascertaining how valid this was and still is now, if the townie’s cadet lover doesn’t make it through the school, then they will be stuck forever at the nearby garment factory. Apparently it is impossible for Paula (Debra Winger) or Lynette (Lisa Blount) to achieve any other aspirations or success if their cadet boyfriends wash out. I don’t buy it, as an outsider looking in.

If his poor performance in the school wasn’t enough, Sid is further weighed down by thinking that his townie girlfriend Lynette is pregnant with his child. Thinking that does give Sid a second wind of determination. He eventually concludes he isn’t cut for AOCS, but still does the gallant thing and offers to support Lynette. What a Chad.

I’m inferring to 40 year old spoilers here, but that is not exactly how it plays out. After all, Sid’s failure must further emphasis Zack’s eventual success by contrast. Zack shacks up with Paula, portrayed by an early Debra Winger, who first came to attention two years earlier in Travolta’s Urban Cowboy. An Officer and a Gentleman remains one of her best known roles, even if the actress looks back on it rather apathetically, as little more than a paycheck role. We’re not done with Winger, as she will be the main character of the next movie to tackle.

Paula, compared to Lynette, certainly has more scruples as it will turn out. While she remains resigned to the idea that Zack won’t make it, she of course comes to also care for him anyway. I honestly view her not unlike of all things a Disney Princess, stuck in a mundane or banal position in life, waiting for someone or something to sweep her off her feet to a better future, a whole new world. An interesting comparison I just made, considering the frank love scene that occurs between Gere and Winger.

There’s an undeniable, of-its-time melodrama that hangs over Officer and Gentleman. It doesn’t feature the kind of 80s’ score I look forward to but to be fair, this is still the early 80s. But hey, despite my deep reservations about a piece of media, no matter how old, that uncritically espouses the virtues of being part of the American military machine, this is still an engaging story about a man, physically grown up, who gets to emotionally grow up and find a gal.

Before I close out this part, I cannot ignore Lisa Eilbacher’s performance as Cadet Casey Seeger, one of the few female cadets. It should be noted that this was actually an unlikely scenario to happen in real life at the time, a female cadet for the Aviation Office. There were roles then that could be available, like being part of a radar plane crew but not piloting a fighter jet. That option wouldn’t be around until the late 90s’.

Casey excels in the academic stuff but struggles with the physical, mostly relating to the obstacle course. Of course, near film’s end, Zack helps motivate her to cross over that last obstacle and beat the course, making her into a gentlewoman. You know, with Casey in mind, it would be kind of interesting to see a gender inverted version of this story with the officer female and the townie male.

The irony behind the scenes was that Eilbacher was actually a female bodybuilder. In truth, she stood a better chance of getting through the obstacle course faster than any of her male actors, including Gere and Keith. She had to pretend to be the least physically strong of the cadets, but isn’t all pretend anyway?

So, yeah, check it out, if you haven’t already. This declaration of mine seems less necessary when I cover movies that were blockbusters but then again, a lot of this movie hasn’t stayed common knowledge so maybe if need be, check it out again.

Terms of Endearment (1983)

Image from IMDB (A mother, her boyfriend and a worn-down daughter in what I imagine is the blistering Houston sun.)

Quick, off the top of your head, what do you think was the second biggest film of 1983? Ignore this part if you’re entirely unknowledgeable of such matters. A hint is that the last original Star Wars movie was number one.

Second only to Return of the Jedi is this R-rated family drama starring a returning Debra Winger as a daughter becoming a mother under the shadow of her overly neurotic mother, played by Shirley MacLaine. As Winger’s Emma marries Jeff Daniel’s Flap( roll with it) and moves from Houston all the way to Des Moines for his College teaching job, MacLaine’s mommy Aurora deals with being without her daughter and finds companionship with the neighbor Garrett (Jack Nicholson), an alcoholic astronaut.

As for what the film is about, it’s one of those movies where it’s not readily apparent while watching it. Directed by James L. Brooks, one of the three men responsible for giving us The Simpsons, I think it’s about how one person’s real life quirks and traumas (the mother) help mold the kind of person the child becomes (the daughter). How many of the actions: good, bad or inbetween Emma makes in her life going forward were the result, in nature and nurture, of her mother?

There’s also the dynamic of strained connection between parent and child. Despite being either in her late 20s or 30s by the time she marries and leaves her mom, Aurora clearly goes through some kind of empty nest syndrome and finding a potential new partner (from a guy who claims he’s not about that life) is to help alleviate that as well as the earlier issues she’s been dealing with even before her daughter’s birth.

Emma and Flap’s relationship starts off quite well, neither glorious or horrid. But, the growing strains of them being parents to ultimately three kids begins to chill the love. Both of them start to engage in extramarital affairs. We see Emma’s more closely with Sam (John Lithgow), an older, middle-aged guy who turns out to be pretty sweet-natured. Both ends of the coupling prove how hypocritical their disdain at the other’s cheating is, though because we see this almost entirely from Emma’s perspective, and we see the kind of guy she’s (maybe) sleeping with, I at least tended to be more forgiving of her infidelity compared to Flap’s.

Am I engaging in a double standard being more OK with her over his affair? Possibly, but then again, the framing of perspective might’ve convinced me to think against my own general stances on marital infidelity.

But all of the plot threads come to a head and connect through the unifying thread of Emma getting CANCER. DUN DUN DUN. A cancer development occurring in a narrative can seem like an overly obvious even cheap way to escalate the drama, but the handling of Emma’s slow decline helps reshape how you viewed her relationship with her family, especially her husband and mother.

Why is the film called Terms of Endearment anyway? Could be that once the cancer hits, mother and daughter are forced to come to honest reckoning with how they feel about one another, since the end, as it’s made clear, is near. Considering her mother’s psychological influence, can Emma look at her mother and really love her? She might’ve inadvertently helped along the deterioration in her marriage with Flap. A butterfly effect if you will, but without time travel. The conclusion they come to before it’s too late is up for you to see for yourself.

Danny DeVito’s also in it and has quite high billing. He acts as one of Shirley’s suitors following her daughter’s move up north. I’m honestly puzzled by DeVito’s billing as he really feels tangential to the story, especially when Nicholson arrives with his apparently, irresistibly snarky voice. He doesn’t have many lines or scenes and I honestly forgot at one point he was in it. I don’t know when DeVito started getting big to warrant such attention in the marketing, but here we are.

Why was this decent film the second biggest movie behind Star Wars? In all honesty, ROTJ had a massive lead in box office over TOE. Episode VI made $309 million in 83′ money while Terms of Endearment made $108 million. But silver place is still silver place. It could have been the cast, with MacLaine and Nicholson’s involvement. Winger is also a factor due to appearing in Officer and a Gentleman the prior year. It had positive word of mouth from the critics on top of that so it all combined to make it the hit film it was.

I seriously have no idea if a movie like Terms of Endearment could be a blockbuster in this day and age. If nothing else, that consideration helps further cement it as a noteworthy film of its time and a just saccharine enough yet grounded experience to have while looking back at the past.

Saaheb (1985) (India)

Image from Dailymotion (Anil Kapoor is back to suffer for your Bolly Entertainment!)

Anil Kapoor is one of the most recurring faces in my ongoing, nearly completed selection of 80s Bollywood cinema. He might well be the leading man of the time as other major figures like Dilip Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan have appeared less from my recollection.

He plays the titular figure of Saaheb, a young man living the dream as a football (Soccer) star on the rise. And yet, the responsibilities of his extended family which all live together keep him tethered from moving out in the world.

Eventually, one of his sister’s is about to marry, and the expense of the marriage is so high that they will have to sell their ancestral home. Eventually, Saaheb learns of a risky alternative to that drastic measure: selling one of his kidneys. A wealthy business owner has a dying son and Saaheb is a valid donor. However, and this could speak more to the risks of the Indian health industry at the time than anything else but there is a risk that poor Saaheb could die on the operating table.

My mom is a nurse so maybe she could tell me what the current day risks, if any, for an American kidney removal operation. On top of that, the kidney removal, even if a complete success, would make it impossible for Saaheb to continue his Football career. I don’t remember what the film says happens to the body to make having only one kidney something to poo-poo an athletic career, but basically, for the love of his family, he’s putting more than his life on the line.

Why this self-sacrificial path he’s going through? It’s not simply that it’s the only way to afford the wedding without losing a house. Well, leading up to his dramatic decision, he is seen as the underachiever or the “black sheep” of the family. In spite of what I imagine would be considerable wealth attained from a successful football career (It’s commonly stated or assumed that one of the few ways a kid from a Brazilian favela can escape said favela is through becoming a Soccer player), his earnings aren’t really helping at all his family situation.

So, to prove to his family, especially his sisters and father, that he really does love them, in secret he gets an advance payout for the operation so the family may proceed with the wedding and on the wedding day does he grimly head over to the hospital.

The sequence showing the interplay of the happy family and friends at the wedding with Saaheb’s kidney operation is played for great effect. The million dollar question is if the operation works, does Saaheb survive? You should know by now that I rarely give away the result, unless for the sake of a point I want to make. Or, like in Scarface and Officer and Gentleman’s case, the conclusion is well-known or unavoidable.

To be honest and this wouldn’t be the first time, I have forgotten a lot of Saaheb since I saw it weeks prior. It runs around 150 minutes and the third act really is the part meant to linger in memory. I do wonder if the film being in Hindi, a language I do not know, does affect my memory. Often, when I think about many Japanese films I’ve watched, like from Kurosawa’s, I struggle to remember any lines of dialogue.

While looking at English subtitles, the delivery in Japanese or in Saaheb’s case Hindi does take away from recalling what was said. I remember the context and the outcomes of scenes based mostly on body language and the actions of the players, but I do regret it can’t be better than that for me.

I should recall more from a 150 minute movie, but maybe the other Bollywood films and just the great number of films I digest nowadays does a number on the memory banks. It’s a shame, I’ve been told my memory is great.

So, yeah, like with most films I’ve covered, give Saaheb a chance. Just it’s melodramatic but heartfelt climax is enough to recommend. I remember that, if nothing else.

Next time: VEGAS part I

Bengal’s 80s’ Retrospective Part XIII: CANNON’S REVENGE

Author’s note: the next three entries’ titling, including this one is an extended riff on the Final Fantasy game series. An inevitable joke since I chose Roman numerals to number this series. If you don’t get the joke, look it up if you care enough to find out. If you do get the joke, well then you do.

It’s time to return to the glory of 80s’ action cheese, where the adrenaline is matched only by its commitment to stupidity of varying degree. There were many sources for the especially tasty 1980s flavor of this cheese and one of the best purveyors was the American-Israeli film company Cannon-Globus or The Cannon Group. Last featured in my covering of the glorious NINJA trilogy, this often maligned side of filmmaking for the time would actually create some works that won respect or even acclaim, begrudging or otherwise. One of the films to be featured down this long pipeline will be Runaway Train. Basically Unstoppable, that OK Chris Pine/ Denzel Washington vehicle, but with a lot more balls.

Say what you will about Jon Voight now, but back when he appeared in this essentially “Mad Max but Train” flick, you couldn’t help but respect his integrity in seeing that kind of production through. As the excellent documentary “Electric Boogaloo” would delve into, Cannon were THE creators of fun, often not great B-movies of the era. Some were just plain bad, no cult following to really mitigate matters, others approached so bad, it’s good or reached an alternative plain of existence where they were good in an entirely different way.

Before we delve into two of these movies, starring one of the Cannon mainstays Michael DUDIKOFF, let’s tap into a non-Cannon B-film that had actually died in production in 1984 but was resurrected last year for all the world to see. Presenting: John Liu’s once thought lost NEW YORK NINJA.

New York Ninja (1984/2021)

Image by IMDB (No one will see this white-clad master of stealth…UNTIL IT’S TOO LATE.)

As far as I can tell, the biggest modern additions to allow New York NINJA to be released in an acceptable state is a massive redubbing of all the dialogue. This is especially true for the original director, writer and starring actor John Liu. I seriously doubt that Liu’s voice then and now sounds remotely like the dubbed voice, now voiced by kickboxing legend Don “THE DRAGON” Wilson.

We will probably never now how bad or (maybe ?) good the original performances were, but when you get into the bad acting of this 2021 cut, you know in your heart that the intention was to go for an overblown, decidedly not good take. Knowing it was intended to be bad, to capture the likely result of what this film would’ve been like had it actually made release in 84′ certainly gives it something of an edge in defense from any real criticism. It has a surprisingly great critical reception with the understanding that they know it’s supposed to be bad and that in doing so, it’s fulfilling its creative vision.

More than Cannon’s NINJA trilogy or the to be discussed next AMERICAN NINJA, New York NINJA shares a possibly unintentional identity with one of the cult greats of bad 80s action, martial arts based or otherwise: a film I love so much I got a poster of it: The Miami Connection.

Image from Enzian Theater (Bask in its splendor.)

Like NYN, Miami Connection was produced in 1987 by a South Korean-American man called Y.K. Kim. As that film will showcase well, his grasp on speaking English was not the best and it only makes the movie better. This guy was heavily involved in the whole thing, not unlike John Liu or for that matter, Tommy Wiseau.

Miami Connection and New York NINJA’S biggest connective tissue is not the similarity between creative heads, it’s use of martial arts and sharp weaponry to bring justice to ner’do’wells or that the acting is bad. It’s that both have plots and villain motivations that are hard to follow as all hell. Miami Connection eases you better overall through the confusing if even existent plot structure through its charming elements, one of which being its completely unironic, uncynical devotion to friendship and family above all else. The signature song, “Friends”, is a banger of a song to listen to, whether in an ironic or unironic mindset.

New York NINJA does not have those same strengths in carrying me through its muddled plotting. For that reason, whether the “bad” here was on purpose or not, I consider Miami Connection the superior movie. Some things about the synopsis are quite simple, certainly enough to hook the inclined like myself if they heard it.

Crime sweeps over the great city of New York. The Police are powerless to stop the roving gangs of eccentric thugs harassing, haranguing or worse the good people of the city. Women are especially prone to these street-level monsters and one Asian-American man, Liu, and Nita, his hot Caucasian wife, learn this ugly reality.

The poor woman is found by a gang and killed. Liu, upon learning of his wife’s fate, screams in the most hilarious manner fathomable up into the air, “WHHHHYYYYYYYYYYY???!!!!!!!!!!!” Trust me, it’s funny. Now, having lost the one he loves most to the worms of the Big Apple, he takes up his Ninjutsu Code and becomes: THE NEW YORK NINJA.

Mostly in broad daylight, he dons his all white uniform and confronts the many gangs of the city and shows them justice as only a NINJA can provide. One sequence involving roller-skates is quite amusing, to say the least. He becomes a bonafide vigilante, and he is embraced essentially as a superhero. Despite committing lethal vigilante acts against the criminals of the city, the people love him. Merchandise, especially for the kids, is created and distributed across town.

Liu finds it both amusing and hopeful, thinking it can inspire New York’s people to rise up and defend themselves, inspired by the NINJA’s example. It would be one thing if this was a non-lethal vigilante like Batman, Spider-Man or Daredevil. Instead, he is like the Punisher, but far less grimacing and more, well, NINJA than not.

While the public authorities have their qualms and apparently little more than that with an American citizen taking the law into their own hands, the rest of the non-criminal public can’t get enough of him. He is stopping what the NYPD seems completely incapable of even starting to do. I was going to make a joke about the Uvalde PD and I think it would still be allowable since I’m explicitly mocking them, not anyone else, but any connection to a group of dead kids makes me uncomfortable. It’s like a 9/11 joke where the punchline is aimed squarely at the terrorists and no one else.

However, dark forces within the rotten underbelly of NYC conspire to stop the New York NINJA from his plans to clean the streets with his katana, tanto, shruikens and what else. The lead bad guy is known only as The Plutonium Killer and he is something else. This guy apparently gets off on finding women taken off the street and exposing them to lethal levels of radiation.

He also points that radiation right at his face for pleasure. How this never kills him, never explained. The worst is that his face gets messier but otherwise he’s A-OK to keep being the most expensive serial killer ever. Why didn’t Doc Brown get his plutonium from him and his handlers? Ethics? Can’t be, he did go to Libyan terrorists in the end. But this guy’s not an ocean away, come on Doc!

Why does the Plutonium Killer and his handlers/ assistants, one who looks like Agent Smith crossed with a College age Yuppie, want to kill the New York NINJA? I guess it’s preemptive, as if the NINJA keeps on cleaning the city, eventually he will run into their bizarre and counterproductive form of human trafficking eventually. Turns out to be a wise assumption, as Liu does eventually start to target the trafficking ring, as it connects to his wife’s fate.

I will admit, good chunks of my memory for this film are shoddy. I did see it awhile ago, recorded on TCM. The dubbing might’ve done a number on sometimes understanding all the dialogue and I wish I could’ve had subtitles. It does end on quite a note I can tell you. I was first made aware of New York NINJA by the Double Toasted people, as part of their Bad Movie Roast segments, possibly the best reason to be subscribed to their YouTube channel. Their dunking of NEW YORK NINJA showed off a lot of the highlights of the film, so they weren’t as fresh or surprising when I saw the film in its entirety.

The funniest moment of both the movie and their roast was at the end, with the hilariously bad way the NINJA does in the bad guys. It is almost literally a cartoon. I won’t spoil it, so check the film out or watch Double Toasted’s deep dive on it.

Of course I recommend checking out New York NINJA. If you have already seen Cannon’s trilogy, it is a must. For the kind of “quality” I expect and desire from these movies, it’s not as good as the NINJA trilogy or the aforementioned Miami Connection. It’s not as good as the film coming up, but it is still good enough to see. If nothing else, seeing a film resurrected out of the blue thirty-seven years later is still an accomplishment in some way and viewing it honors it as such.

American Ninja (1985)

Image from Kung Fu Kingdom (The Gaijin with Honor.)

Michael Dudikoff, who is totally a dude, stated on the Electric Boogaloo documentary that he put his all into being Joe Armstrong, the titular Ninjutsu Yank. This was his first starring role and he wanted to show to the rest of the world that he was committed, he was hungry, he was a man who could get the job DONE.

Well, thanks to the works of Cannon, he is at least remembered. He created a legacy through his time with this beautiful schlock. I won’t lie, based on the two movies here to feature him, Dudikoff is actually a pretty good actor. Ironically, it was likely the stigma of being in numerous Cannon productions like the first, second and fourth American Ninjas that sunk his chances of reaching more prestigious work. This was not the Roger Corman School of Acting. Still, his undeniably confident presence with both American Ninja here and Avenging Force next does make him into what I think is a convincing and in some ways actually understated action hero. Perhaps in truth, too understated.

Joe Armstrong is an Army Private at an American military installation somewhere in the Philippines. The U.S. Colonel’s daughter is kidnapped by, what else, NINJAS during a convoy. Thankfully Armstrong is there to strongarm those dastardly NINJAS and actually manages to rescue and bring back the daughter back to the installation before the 30 minute mark! That obviously means, by the logic of cinema, that this won’t be her last hostage situation.

The skills he uses to dispatch the NINJAS and get the colonel’s attractive daughter back causes suspicion amongst the troops back at base. Those skills weren’t in any of their training. One of the most suspicious, Corporal Curtis Jackson, soon becomes Armstrong’s best friend and ally after a one on one bout where he gets to see his Karate skills used on him and good.

There is a very heartwarming connection here as Jackson is played by Steve James, a real life martial artist and was Dudikoff’s best friend in life. Dudikoff was the one to convince Cannon to not only feature him here but in later American Ninjas and Avenging Force. The real life friendship angle is much more strongly felt in Avenging Force. Tragically, James died at only 41 from pancreatic cancer a month after I was born in 1993. Had he lived, he could’ve endured as an black 80s action legend alongside Carl Weathers, Bill Duke , Mr. T and Keith David.

Together, the two of them unravel a conspiracy where the nefarious Black Star NINJAS are under the employ of the black market kingpin Victor Ortega and based on the guy’s name, would it surprise you terribly that much of what he smuggles are drugs? More significantly, he smuggles weapons and one of those weapon’s clients is the Colonel himself. DUN DUN DUN. The Colonel’s name, William Hickock, and lifestyle screams Texan and he wants to arm dissidents and terrorists so there’s an excuse for ‘Murica to swing it’s Florida-sized tallywacker around and show the world what’s what. Why this guy would need to create an excuse while Reagan was in office is a question meant for greater minds.

Eventually, the Colonel’s beautiful daughter, who of course by 80s’ cinema law starts a romantic relationship with our hunky hero, gets wind of the conspiracy and that is what gets her kidnapped again, against the Colonel’s wishes this time. Only Joe Armstrong and Curtis Jackson can save the day. But wait, you ask. When is this American going to NINJA?

Well, the answer lies with Ortega’s kindly gardener for his opulent estate. In truth, he is a Japanese holdout soldier, a veteran of WW2 who refused to believe or accept Japan’s surrender for years after. How did this particular soldier holdout? What else, with ninjutsu. Eventually, he accepts the hard truth but refuses to return home. He makes a new life for himself in the Philippines. One day roughly a decade ago, he comes across a lone white boy out in the jungle, with no parents in sight.

This orphaned boy is brought up by the soldier and learns not just karate but the ninja way. Eventually the boy grows up into Michael Dudikoff and seeks a new path in life with the skills he was taught. He decides serving the stars and stripes is the honorable path, in spite of his master/ father figure’s….strained relationship with the U.S. Now, the hour is nigh and to truly stop Ortega, save his dear Patricia and be a mostly All-American hero, he must don the armor of the NINJA and take on Ortega and his NINJA forces alone.

At first, at least. Even with the awe inspiring power of the NINJA, it is still too much for Joe. Not too surprising, seeing as how he faces other NINJA. However, the Colonel attempts to redeem himself and launches an all out military assault on the estate. Curtis Jackson is of course along for the ride, packing heat riding on a jeep with a light machine gun blazing.

The third act of American Ninja is essentially the best GI JOE movie yet made. You have a bare-chested African-American soldier packing serious heat, like in the toyline/cartoon. You have NINJA enemies on both sides like the Joe’s Snake Eyes and Cobra’s Storm Shadow. And there is plenty of explosions, soldiers running in guns firing, and a general compulsion to salute the flag. There really should be a cut of the film where this clip’s tune is interlaced with the climax:

(F*** YEAH.)

The film ends in just about the most appropriately expected way not just a NINJA film but a GI JOE-like film should end. It’s predictable, but wonderfully executed. All the slower, NINJA-less moments fall away to how perfectly this conclusion fulfills Cannon’s action movie mission statement. Again, for the ultimate NINJA action, you have their trilogy, but for featuring various microcosms of the Cannon touch, you could do much worse than the first American Ninja.

But what about the other ones, four in total? I’ve heard the second one, subtitled The Confrontation, is worth watching as it has also attained cult status. Based on the trailer I saw, I would want to watch it as we have the dream duo of Dudikoff and James kicking ass once more. Sadly, on no platform or service I had could I find a way to rent and watch American Ninja 2, not even YouTube. I guess this movie will have to remain sheathed for the time being.

The other three are not considered worth watching, even by defenders of the kinds of movies these are. Dudikoff was replaced as the lead for 3 and 4 by David Bradley (No, not that David Bradley). Dudikoff costarred for the fourth movie so there’s that. The fifth movie, despite involving NINJAS and David Bradley is barely considered to be part of the series, due to originally being a whole other movie not connected to the first four and he plays a different character than before.

So, watch the first two movies, if you can, is the recommendation. It is a key component of a NINJA to not overstay your welcome after all.

Avenging Force (1986)

Image from Kung Fu Kingdom (Don’t hassle the Dudikoff.)

Dudikoff’s next film after American Ninja is actually meant to be the sequel to one of Chuck Norris’ most recognizable movies, with or without Cannon’s involvement: Invasion U.S.A.

Image from The Action Elite (About as close to quintessential 80s’ fused with Chuck Norris as is humanly possible.)

In that movie, our boy Chuck plays Matt Hunter, a retired U.S. super soldier living a peaceful life in the last place a normal person like me would want to be in: Everglades Florida. However, vile Communist forces destroy his stilt-home and kill his war buddy, almost taking him down with it. Almost. Those dirty Commies, get this, launch an invasion of America, attacking the Deep South, the place most likely for the average American to be packing.

They waste precious resources on this already suicidal attack by firing rocket launchers into Norman Rockwell neighborhoods during Christmas time. Strategic targets, schmegic largets. Norris’ Matt Hunter begins a one man mission to stop the Communist invasion and kill their ringleader, who has a deathly fear of him, and for good reason.

At the admittedly pretty epic final battle where the Communist invasion force is cornered and defeated in downtown Atlanta, the ringleader Rostov is taken out by Hunter with an unfoldable rocket launcher and blown the hell up. Cannon was really in to this idea in 1985 as the same year Charles Bronson would dispose the lead bad guy of Death Wish 3 in the same way.

But that’s the background of Invasion U.S.A. How does it connect to Avenging Force? The main character is called Matt Hunter. That’s basically it. No mention is made of how, I’m guessing a year ago, there was a stupid but no less real ground invasion of the United States. Hunter played by Dudikoff looks entirely different from Norris, talks differently and his mannerism is distinct enough from Norris. Aside from being calm under pressure, badass killing machines with a hankering for justice, there is no connection to the Hunter of Invasion U.S.A. Fans of both movies basically separate the films as not being in connection with one another easily.

Instead of living in the worst place for a human to live in Florida (arguably), Matt Hunter now lives in a different American swamp, Louisiana boys and girls. Within driving distance of New Orleans, he and his teenage sister co-own a ranch with James’ Larry Richards and his family. Larry’s running for U.S. Senate and that makes him the target of some very, very unpleasant fellows.

During a Mardi Gras celebration, assassins start lighting up the parade with the intention of killing Larry and his family. Dudikoff’s Hunter dispatches of them in a battle that goes from the street to the rooftops. They soon learn that an extremely right wing cult called the Pentangle is responsible for the attack and want to bring down Richards and anyone else in their way for their horrid plan for America.

What is the Pentagle’s platform? Anti-immigration, extreme gun rights and you guessed it, anti-minority. The Pentangle is deadly clear that if you ain’t white, you ain’t right. It’s not explicitly stated, but they consider Matt Hunter to be little more than a race traitor. In fact, the politics of Avenging Force are distressingly relevant despite dating back from 1986. We now live in an era where the extreme Far Right have been ascendant in this country.

Whether it started under Trump with MAGA or there were earlier seeds, we now live in a frightening time when it comes to the positions of those in power. Look at the likes, with both their words and their actions of Marjorie Taylor Greene, Tom Cotton and Ron DeSantis and you will see something familiar in the words and actions of those who make up the Pentangle.

Yes, I am saying that a dumb 80s’ action movie has a shockingly strong and prescient political message. To be honest, despite being placed under the category of “dumb 80s’ action”, Avenging Force is honestly not that bad or dumb. Maybe I’m missing something or I’m too enamored in the Cannon style of action/ drama cinema, but this is generally speaking a solid action thriller.

One component which adds to it being a “thriller” is that the Pentangle like to play a special game with enemies they capture. To their victims, including Matt Hunter and his sister, they sadly happen to be a fan of Richard Connell. Namely, his most famous work, The most Dangerous Game.

Donning a variety of creepy masks and grabbing their weapon of choice, the Pentangle members corral their “game” into the Louisiana bayou. Then, they get on a jet boat, enter the bayou and begin the hunt through the swamp individually.

It’s bad enough their targets have to navigate and survive in, you know, the Louisiana Bayou, now they have to deal with a bunch of predatory Conservatives. Hunter is a badass, no lie. But unlike the Norris Hunter, this one seems more vulnerable, more prone to making little mistakes that could cost him. The third act involving the Hunters vs Hunter involves desperate survival in the bog that leads to a no less desperate duel in the lead Pentangle’s mansion involving antique weapons. I thought it was quite thrilling stuff.

The film ends on a surprisingly intelligent, not na├»ve note about the kind of enemy Hunter is facing. He learns that the Pentangle’s reach goes further into the American government then at first thought. The metaphor at play here is not exactly subtle but it’s no less stirringly on the mark for it. In a more typical 80s/90s’ action flick move, Hunter coldly tells the Pentangle member hiding in plain sight that he’s coming for the whole organization and then walks towards the camera as the credits start rolling. Accompanied by some sweet 80s’ synth music that keeps you in that determined mood, like Hunter.

Avenging Force is possibly neck in neck with the NINJA trilogy for the best I’ve seen of the Cannon Group catalogue. It’s B-movie action is well executed, it’s themes and messages is more than you would expect. Even its handling of certain cliches endemic to both the genre and the time period don’t quite happen the way you think they would

. You’re probably guessing that Steve James’ Larry Richards, an African-American politician, is going to die. Well, I’m not saying you’re wrong. But the film actually surprises you when it happens and in terms of how it’s framed. You are likely expecting him to be bite the bullet earlier than it occurs. It’s not free of 80s’ convention but it’s also not beholden either. I give the heartiest recommendation so far for the not-sequel to Invasion U.S.A.

Now, let’s cap it off in the expected fashion, with a Bollywood film.

Meri Jung (1985)

Image from IMDB (This Bolly brother and sister go through a lot this go around.)

As I watch more and more of Bollywood’s extensive number of worthwhile films from the 1980s’, I keep thinking of declaring a single movie to recommend if you only have time to see one to get an idea of the Indian film industry’s tenets and trends at the time. Considering the often daunting runtimes, that’s not an unreasonable consideration.

To be featured in a later part is Karma, which while I wouldn’t call it the quintessential 80s Bollywood film, it is possibly the most patriotic film of them all. Hell, it might be one of the most patriotic films I’ve ever seen, regardless of what flag it salutes. There is also Shakti, which as a filmmaking effort, might be the best overall movie, no matter how it relates to ticking off the boxes of being Bollywood.

For a film that showcases the conventions of the older Bollywood experience, in that it has the musical numbers, the dance numbers, contemporary moralizing, dastardly villains you can’t wait (and you will wait) to see get comeuppance and this not having exactly the best staged but no less engaging action, Meri Jung has you.

This is also the time to talk about one of the most prolific figures of 80s’ Bollywood. Every other Bollywood film I’ve talked about and more has had Anil Kapoor, as you can see from the header above. This guy is just awesome. His youthful face and well-kept almost Tom Selleck mustache helps make him a distinguished leading man as he is here. No, his name is not Meri Jung. That’s Hindi for “My Battle“. What a battle it is.

Arun is a man who has lost so much. His father, innocent of a crime he didn’t commit, is nontheless tried in a court and sentenced to death by hanging. The prosecutor who convinced the jury to condemn the father to death is actually someone you might recognize if you’re not from India. G.D. Thakral, the utterly scummy and proud of it attorney that torments Arun and his family is played by Amrish Puri. Still don’t know, how about this?

Image from YouTube (A man after your own heart.)

That’s right, the villain of the Indy film you either love or hate is here. And that’s hardly the only villainous turn from him in his career. Puri was actually a go-to guy to play bad guys in Bollywood. I don’t know if Spielberg or Lucas saw a Bollywood film featuring him before beginning production of Temple of Doom, simply heard that this particular guy would be good for the role or what, but it’s a strangely comforting thought Mr. Puri has been a big screen menace for both the Indian and American moviegoer.

Now you can say plenty about Temple of Doom’s handling of Indian culture, let alone Hinduism (Not the best), but man does Mola Ram leave an impression. Puri’s signature, controversial scene of pulling a poor guy’s heart out not only helped inspire the PG-13 rating’s creation but it inspired one of the earliest and most iconic “fatality” finishing moves in Mortal Kombat, which in turn helped lead to the creation of the ESRB rating system for video games. So in a Kevin Bacon way, Amrish Puri helped push the envelope.

What makes Arun’s and his family’s hatred for Thakral even more stark is that Arun actually found evidence that would be enough to clear his father’s name. He races back to the court room to prevent the hanging. He’s too late. In turn, Arun studies to become an attorney at law so he can judiciously get not revenge but justice on Thakral, not just for what he’s done to his family, including his mother who suffers a psychological breakdown, but for everyone screwed over by the indifferent criminal lawyer.

Arun begins to make waves as a justice-driven, law-abiding attorney who fights not for the most money he can get on a case (you know, like the stereotypical lawyer), but for the fairest outcome of the case. Alongside the supremely melodramatic subplot involving her mother’s condition, the seemingly Bollywood desire to be entirely, gloriously unsubtle flares up when Anil Kapoor’s Arun is on the court room floor, orating heartily his stance about justice, about what he’s fighting for. It’s here where the film’s opinion about how the Indian justice system should be better is most apparent.

But slowly yet surely, Thakral makes plans to ruin Arun’s life all over, not knowing he had already done so. A new case opens up over the supposed malpractice of a female doctor, who, shocker, becomes Arun’s love interest. Well after I had seen Meri Jung, very recently in fact, I watched Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict, starring Paul Newman as an alcoholic lawyer fighting a seemingly impossible medical malpractice case, with him pitted against the slimy defendant lawyer played by James Mason in one of his last roles.

I won’t talk about The Verdict much as I watched it to be featured later on the 80’s Retrospective. But having just seen it, that Meri Jung has a plot element involving a doctor accused of malpractice involving a villainous lawyer versus heroic lawyer seemed quite peculiar. The Verdict released in 1982, Meri Jung in 1985. The details between movies are not exact and the malpractice case is the bulk of the Verdict, the one in Meri Jung is only in the second act, to help establish Arun and Thakral as being opposing forces and to start up the former’s relationship with the doctor.

Because the movie is 167 minutes and it’s been a good number of weeks since I’ve seen it, forgive me if I don’t recall every plot element or moment in general. You might have to get used to me making that apology as the series pushes forward. I actually want to spare you details on how the film reaches its third act here due to me positioning Meri Jung as being the sole Bollywood film for the curious but time-conscious reader to watch.

What else I can say is that the music, as is expected, is quite good. I was so compelled I checked iTunes to see if the soundtrack for this 1985 Bollywood movie was available and to my surprise it was, along with a good number of other soundtracks. The song that plays in the accompaniment of Arun showing off one of his other talents, with the piano, is the standout track. It’s a somber yet dramatic song about his family’s struggles, struggles for not just justice but just trying to live as happy a life as is possible in 80s’ India.

Meri Jung winning the “gateway” selection from me is also important due to Anil Kapoor’s appearence. Many consider Meri Jung to have one of his finest performances of his career and the presence of a more likely familiar face in Puri also helps ease it into being chosen here. If only it could’ve had other Bollywood heavyweights like Dilip Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan and then it would be overqualified.

Come for the Indian Judicial drama, stay for the sudden but welcome dancing and singing.

Next time: Dunno.