Bengal’s Top Ten for 2022 numbers 5-1

Let’s just roll, as it’s getting close to my next marathon session for Asian cinema in honor of the Chinese New Year with a theme I think you’ll like.

Number 5: Werewolf by Night

Image from Decider (Horror is universal, not just Universal’s.)

There’s some divide over whether you could call Marvel’s fourth Phase actually experimental. For all of the out-there ideas like Wandavision’s TV sitcom through the decades aesthetic wrapped in a mystery to Moon Knight tackling subject matter grimmer and more psychological than what is expected from something under Disney’s banner, it’s also accused of staying too close to one thread, one tone, for too long at times.

I mean by that how 2022 Marvel seemed to be too “jokey” at the expense of narrative weight. The latest Thor movie is often viewed as the maypole for that accusation and well it’s hard to argue against when you bring that example up. No one is saying that humor in and of itself is wrong for the MCU, in some ways it’s one of the glues that helps less knowledgeable audience members gel with a particular property, like Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man. It’s even welcome and expected in some respects. But, can we get back to something darker, more serious, more story-minded?

This year’s Black Panther suggested, yes, more serious Marvel can and will happen, not that Wakanda Forever is bereft of comedy but it feels more balanced compared to the Waititi antics that was viewed as distracting from what meat on the bone Thor: Love and Thunder did have to offer. Next year’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania of all movies appears to be promising to weary audiences to fear not for the plot again thickens as even Scott Lang’s next adventure is wrought with an ominous tone for things to come beyond his own film.

However, one way that Marvel shows it can experiment and do something essentially different is with its first “special presentation”, a 40 minute introduction to a character that does not necessarily need to appear in a later portion of the MCU but it wouldn’t hurt if he did. A way of expressing tonally new more than with regards to an ever-expanding lore for just the Earth side of this universe.

It also suggests through it’s albeit black and white gore and carnage that the MCU is ready for something dare I say it not appropriate for all ages quite like before. Considering Deadpool’s long awaited third outing will be officially in the MCU and still R-rated, maybe Marvel is preparing to explore an adults only angle to their universe which is fine by me. Also when you consider the age of this multimedia project having started in 2008, some youthful fans have grown up and may be eager for something over PG-13. Why not, seeing as how Marvel Comics has long since done the same.

Werewolf by Night is Halloween special, character introductions, comic book fan service and love letter to both 30s/40s horror cinema and 60s/70s grindhouse horror but without the sex and language. Michael Giacchino distinguishes himself as more than a exceptional composer but as a director who had a surprising passion for tackling out of all of Marvel’s catalogue this obscure piece of material that’s most significant contribution was introducing Moon Knight on top of Jack Russell the Werewolf by Night.

Gael Garcia Bernal’s soft spoken take on the underrepresented character shines especially in luring you into a false sense of expectations over how the special will play out. You keep thinking, this meeting among monster hunters seeking to decide on a new leader for their guild, is set at night and well, when’s the were-wolfing gonna happen, especially since we have less time to spare than usual?

The course of events and their unorthodox approach to resolution isn’t just offering those who have grown familiar and thus contemptuous of Marvel’s formula something new to chew on, but it also leads to of course some kind of action based finale but with an emphasis more on dread and fear of how messy the result could become, not something you normally expect from Marvel faire.

Whether it’s set-up for yet more crossovers or it really is a self-contained look at one in the grand scheme of things unimportant side to the MCU remains to be seen. The answer may lie in whether I the viewer want more of Bernal’s Werewolf and his best buddy the Man-Thing. Since the answer is yes seeing as how this is listed halfway through “Best of 2022” then Marvel may do so, but it would be just as cool if it were just left as is, emphasizing a world so big that not everyone needs to meet each other.

Werewolf by Night represents Marvel branching out in the best way possible and that not every risk will be doomed to either failure or a polarizing response. All the more reason to keep doing so as the phases keep on coming.

Number 4: Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

Glass Onion': Another fun, and scathing, Knives Out mystery - The  Washington Post

Image from The Washington Post (Someone’s Time to Die.)

Where was this tightly crafted, dryly amusing Rian Johnson when he was handed the reins that one time to Star Wars? It seems like his best work involves tightly crafted narratives with some kind of mystery or dilemma to solve and SW is not something that should be devoid of that possibility.

Maybe the issue arose from Johnson trying to attempt his style from a storyline he didn’t start but for which J.J. Abrams did. The Knives Out movies are from Johnson whole-cloth so the rules, characters and set-ups are his first and foremost. Johnson not only had to continue and work with a framework from a prior movie in The Force Awakens he had no involvement in, he also had to work without a vision for what the Sequel trilogy would be from beginning to end. So no, The Last Jedi’s problems are not Rian Johnson’s fault alone and to be marginally fair, even the Star Wars fanboys quickly came to realize that. Glass Onion’s multi-layered qualities re-affirm this.

When it comes to a follow-up of his own material, Glass Onion is an exceptional outing. While I was not the biggest fan of two of his pre-SW works that I’d seen, Brick and Looper, I certainly respected what he was trying to do and did. Knives Out was the first Johnson movie I was thoroughly impressed by and the second mystery adventure of its Benoit Blanc protagonist may be even better.

Seeing Daniel Craig in a role where you can tell he had enthusiasm for unlike 007 is something else, more so considering Blanc is sort of an anti-James Bond. He goes on adventures that now span the globe as here we go to Greece, but he’s not in it to kill the bad guy but expose them for their crime. He’s not there to woo the girl but protect and befriend her, though this entry in the Knives Out series all but states that Blanc isn’t in to the fairer sex like Bond. He’s warm and approachable though shy on occasion, nothing like Craig’s most famous role. His southern fried, Foghorn Leghorn voice could almost be no more further from the coldly soft interpretation of Ian Fleming’s secret agent.

It’s this knowing contrast that helps along the proceedings of both movies on top of Johnson’s vision for “who-dun-its” being loving deconstructions yet evolution of Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle’s genre of work. That he manages to input some obvious but no less cutting (pun intended) social commentary shows that Rian Johnson is indeed a man of true talent and in the right environment a comically sound one too.

Benoit Blanc receives a wooden box full of intricate puzzles to solve and so do the four friends of a wealthy and eccentric tech bro played perfectly by Edward Norton. Turns out, he wasn’t supposed to get the puzzle box and upon solving it an invitation to an unforgettable weekend on billionaire Miles Bron’s insane Greek island, replete with a literal glass onion for its central building in the complex and a clock that every hour gongs to the voice of Joseph Gordon Levitt.

Bron, who has his own seemingly harmless “murder” mystery to engage in with his fellow influencer friends is first confused as to Blanc’s presence and then later aggravated that his sleuthy wit upends the whole game he had planned. But that course of events leads to ever more layers, being peeled off so to speak to the point where I couldn’t believe how deep the onion really got, even though the film is advertised as promising as much.

It’s a difficult film to talk about in specifics in spite of having to tell you why it’s high on this “best of year” list, because like any given mystery story, murder involved or not, it does no one any favors to give away too much. Like the first Knives Out, there is a flashback sequence that recontextualizes the entire story and it happens fairly early. This similarity is loose in that the circumstances of the context twist are quite different than before. That I didn’t see it coming could either say much about a literary illiteracy on my part or it speaks a lot about what Johnson had to do to put some wool over my eyes.

It’s a gorgeous looking movie, one of the most pleasant looking films of the year, which if nothing else helps lead one like myself into something approximating a false sense of security, even though at the same time I wait with bated breath for the other shoe to drop. And how it does. The colorful and in some cases intentionally cartoonish depiction of what makes up the suspects in Benoit’s latest case helps add to a surrealism that is mirrored well with it being a black comedy, maybe even blacker than before.

There are so many props and chekov’s guns laid around in Bron’s island mansion that it almost becomes an adventure game you can’t interact with, but that’s no complaint. The style of the place reminded me of games like Myst except a whole lot more populated. It creates a sense of fun no matter how serious things can get. It’s all wrapped up in a glorious send up of real life figures you and I are quite familiar with that I yet can’t say who because that would ruin the fun.

Glass Onion is intellectual yet fun which I suppose is one of the unspoken objectives of a mystery story. It’s colorful, crass and always makes you second guess yourself without getting upset that it made you that way. Like the first, it’s a movie that begs you one day to revisit it. so you can see the clues that were laid out in the open and yet somehow not truly visible.

This itself may be seen as a spoiler but I would prefer to call it an enticing clue: Rian Johnson has given us a new spin on Occam’s Razor, and even that may not mean what you think it means. Again, with all the layers and what not.

Number Three: God of War: Ragnarok

Image from NPR (Not pictured here with Kratos: Jesus. But he would turn the other cheek like Jesus.)

For brevity’s sake, both because this part of “Best of 2022” is running into mid-January now and because I already reviewed this title, let me just sum up why this made number three. It manages to be more of the same from the 2018 God of War soft reboot without being lazy about it.

That prior game is viewed as one of the finest games that ever graced the PlayStation 4 and for good reason. It reinvented tragic Greek God and God-slayer Kratos for both a new realm of mythology while still keeping enough of its identity from the old games intact,not unlike the brilliant yet reverent rebirth for the Doom series. By the time I was nearing 100% completion for GOW2018, I was curious how much more Sony Santa Monica Studios could push this new take on Kratos and son’s adventuring and combat dynamic. Turns out, a whole, whole lot more than I realized and I’m grateful.

The gameplay expansions in Kratos and Atreus’ set of moves and abilities, replete with new weapons that also serve a puzzle-solving utility alongside deep-diving ever further into Norse lore helps make up for admittedly quite a few slow sections, narratively necessary as they may be. In fact, the game often surprises with how much more is left for you to uncover across the Nine Realms even as they hurl towards seeming apocalypse through the titular Ragnarok. Some secrets or content completely flew under my radar until I saw on a YouTube playthrough someone had figured it out.

For those who want strong narrative let alone as a follow-up, God of War: Ragnarok is there for you. If you want, ultimately, a content rich piece of work that doesn’t forgo quality as is often the issue these days, Kratos and friends got you. If you want proof that, no, Sony exclusive titles have not lost the ability to impress, let alone in their first party use of Sony hardware, well, you need only check out the most epic adventure to be had on a console last year. It wasn’t the strongest year for games in my experience and the same was true for 2021. But don’t let that keep you in the way of the Ghost of Sparta’s latest odyssey.

Number Two: The Boys: Season 3

Image from Entertainment Weekly (The whole “He who fights monsters” dilemma rears its diabolical head.)

Few pieces of media from 2022, hell, from the last few years manages to cram as much relevant social commentary as the Boys does, all while being a skewering yet thoughtful examination on the superhero concept and how we as a society approach it. By its third season, The Boys has long past been just a take-down, both figurative and literal, of the superhero and its over-exposure nowadays.

It is it’s intelligent handling of essentially all its topics of discussion which lands it on the high place on this list, all while still having its highly crass cake. There are sights in this show which I didn’t think was possible even in an TV-MA setting with perhaps the sheer outlandishness and impossibility making it acceptable. It being tied to a show with heart to beat back its probable fall into sheer mean-spirited helps too.

Time and again does it manage to be more than the “at face value” superhero send-up the Garth Ennis comic it’s based on. The only thing it really shares at this point with its source material is it’s brazen audacity. In doing so, it ironically taps into possibilities for the genre its attacking that other superhero media cannot. Well, except maybe for Deadpool or the animated Harley Quinn but the Boys is keen on exceeding even them.

The non-powered mercenaries in charge of keeping the Supes in line begin to fracture as they come little closer to toppling their hold on society and by extension, their symbiotic connection to a toxic status quo. So, their leader Butcher (Karl Urban), gets his hands on a drug that can temporarily give him a super-powered edge. He also finds and tries to recruit a superhero trapped in time who may be even worse than their most feared opponent, the anti-Superman Homelander. Even he is now more sad than frightening though the fear of the guy is hardly gone.

A wide web of characters, powered or non-powered, good, bad or most often in-between litter it. Where trauma from the past becomes motivation for both the evil and the nominally good. Rarely has an irreverent, darkly comic piece of work had such a mind behind it and more importantly does the Boys rarely try to tell you how to feel. Its bluntness in action often lets you make up your own mind.

it’s sick and twisted, yet sweet and beautiful. It’s ugly and pessimistic, yet holds out hope that some good can win out from the people with power and not just with “super” next to it.

At its heart, the third season of the Boys is really a timely reaffirmation of the old adage to be wary of power, no matter what form it takes. As disheartening as it may be to some to see this series give such a brusque perception of what it would be like if superpowers were real you then realize especially if you’re perceptive of the real world that the Boys is actually being quite reasonable with its prediction.

Humans are really not cut out to handle power. That alone makes this show for all its excesses disturbingly real. One of the greatest myths superhero media knowingly or not perpetuates is not that there would be people willing to use their superpowers to fight crime or defend people, but that it would be the majority rather than the minority.

Perhaps it is the fatigue of the genre we’re experiencing at the moment that makes this really obvious truth digestible more so than ever. Perhaps it really does come down to being the right thing at the right time. As I said last year in my review of the season I say again now: The Boys is the parable of our time: That makes it the most enjoyable horror show too.

Number One: Top Gun: Maverick

Image by Los Angeles Times (L. Ron’s chosen one outdoes himself. And everyone else.)

Not unlike The Batman, I really should be at odds on moral grounds over any amount of support for Top Gun: Maverick. In manners implicit and explicit, it endorses a worldview that has proven time and time again to be deleterious to the United States and every nation it engages in.

While the film does make a not incorrect assertion that the end of the human manned air force in favor of an unmanned arsenal is concerning, it still implicitly acts as promotion for a military institution that is complicit in America’s imperialistic ambitions, cloaked in an aura of seeking protection or plain ol’ good intention. This same arm of the American arm that is connected to a war crime involving “fun size terrorists”, albeit not from a fighter pilot but the same unmanned technology that is bemoaned here nontheless.

It is important and thanks to Cruise’s charm not that difficult to view Maverick in a particular vacuum. A vacuum of an aging man with a passion not so much for furthering the advances of his nation’s interests, but of pushing himself and the human ability to literally soar. That similar to the men of the Space Race era, is willing to risk his life to push us beyond what we have done in exploration.

Maverick is a man who is going through a refreshingly different dilemma than at first glance while also dealing with one that is expected. Despite (presumably based on Cruise’s age) nearing the age of 60, he has not sought higher military rank nor office as he has been content for decades to stay at the rank that lets him play with the military’s aerial toys. Like an aging James T. Kirk, he would eschew Admiral status gladly to be a Captain again, his true calling and talent. Maverick belongs in a plane, any plane, not in an office.

However, for matters not of his, well, titular behavior, he will be forced to give up the fighter jet life because the world is moving on from his kind. This eerily mirrors the real world perspective that Tom Cruise is himself a dying breed, of a Hollywood actor or actor in general who can by his mere presence in a production attract moviegoers. Despite his best efforts and his efforts have been of much avail, maybe he knows he is postponing the inevitable.

Maverick, unlike Cruise, knows his time is running out and like we all should strive for, wants to make the most of the time left, as an instructor for a squadron tasked with a pants-sh***ing assignment. This ties into his other more familiar dilemma, of his departed best friend and copilot’s now grown up son, joining not just Top Gun but his squadron to train.

Maverick has really only one regret in his life and that is the now well known accidental death of Goose, so renowned that I knew he died well before I saw the original Top Gun. Maverick doesn’t want the twilight of his career to end with repeating history. It’s a film that is about exploring the stress of air combat and the stark decisions that must be made as much as about stressing yet thrilling its audience.

So adept it is that it practically copies one of the most recognized third act climaxes in cinematic history while not having you actually care. I mean, it doesn’t completely copy the Death Star assault and it eventually becomes both its own thing and yet a deliberate but earned piece of fanservice so audacious you’re more impressed than annoyed. That the film has tethered you through its astonishing use of camerawork in conjunction with actual fighter jet footage that it leaves you gnawing at the bit for the expected outcome to occur rather than be resigned to it.

It’s this laser focused and crafty use of the familiar from the original Top Gun that makes it both an obvious follow-up and stealth remake. A lot of the beats from the original return but welded into something more tight, organic and thought through, to the point that Maverick becomes essentially an unlikely 34 year later improvement on the original’s framework. Legacy sequels rarely fly as high as this one and the last time it really did was, depending on who you asked, a return to Mad Max’s wasteland or Rick Deckard’s cyberpunk nightmare. I think of both highly but if little else Top Gun is the most crowd-pleasing of these unlikely quality-decades-later resurrections.

There is so much to what makes Top Gun: Maverick the best thing of 2022. It is a technically excellent, even risky piece of blockbuster work that flies in the face of most of what Hollywood offers. It is a surprisingly heartfelt Part II to a Part I that most of us don’t necessarilly hold emotional attachment towards. It is popcorn entertainment without a shred of cynicism where its authenticity is intoxicating.

It’s a piece of military propaganda that everyone should see once and if nothing else in the coming decades could prove academically useful like examples before it. That is on top of being definitive proof as much as the new Avatar that the theater experience is not obsolete. We won’t or should not need films that promote provably dangerous worldviews like Top Gun Maverick. But we should need films that make us feel like it did. The fear is that maybe one day we won’t get them anymore, ever.

Bengal’s Top Ten for 2022 Numbers 10-6 with honorable mentions and exclusions (spoilers)

I regret to confirm to those who follow this blog that, yes, I did miss or decided not to review nearly as much of this year’s pop culture I consumed as I would’ve liked. Call it my work schedule getting in the way of my free time or unprofessional procrastination. On a similar vein, chalk it up to me not being in the mood at the moment or being distracted by so much sources of contemporary anxiety. That’s why I always thank myself for going along with the obligatory Year in Review entry. It lets me quickly cover stuff that I didn’t earlier while also telling you, the discerning reader, what of this year you should finally catch up on or maybe re-watch as we enter into 2023.

I’m not gonna lie: it was an exhausting year when it came to what I caught and the sheer number of things that I had on my itinerary contributed to the above excuses as to why a lot was not covered this year, a similar excuse from 2021. When you factor in my ongoing 1980s movie retrospective and my Halloween Horrorthon where I’m time-locked to a certain theme, that might better explain my output. It’s to the point where I am grateful for any dry spell of content to arrive next year and the years to come, so I can enjoy something older, let alone for my endless retrospective saga.

Before I get to the many, many honorable mentions, there are two big ones that you might find curiously absent. Those would be the latest and best regarded of the modern Star Trek shows, Strange New Worlds, and the most acclaimed video game of the year, one that will likely be a pick for among the best games of the decade by many voices: Elden Ring. allow me to explain….

I keep getting distracted by other things I want to check out on any given evening via TV or iPad and Star Trek: Strange New Worlds is victim of this. Despite boldly returning to the kind of optimistic and curious outlook that made the original Star Trek shows so beloved, Strange New Worlds just hasn’t gotten the love from me that almost everyone, including the venomously angry ST fans who despise Discovery and Picard, have given. I do want to finish its initial season, hopefully before the first of many subsequent seasons arrive on Paramount +.

I have also been remiss on finishing Young Justice’s fourth season, Phantoms, though admittedly that is due in part to it being the most polarizing season in execution of its themes and narratives though it most certainly has its strong points, points that remind you of its glory from the first three. As for Elden Ring

Elden Ring, at it’s heart, is still the same kind of brutally difficult challenge as earlier From Software titles, arguably starting in 2009’s Demon’s Souls and then becoming an memetic legend through its spiritual successor Dark Souls in 2011. For over a decade, the Japanese developer has utterly changed the conversation on how we approach challenge in modern video games, even how it’s possible for the player to derive satisfaction from a seemingly unpleasurable experience.

As evidenced from one of my favorite video essayists on YouTube, Noah Caldwell Gervais, the trick to From Software’s success is that most of their games in the “Soulsborne” genre they helped create is that those games are rarely as restrictive and stringent as they appear in how you approach their challenges. How you build your avatar for exploring these dark yet beautiful worlds full of terrors and danger and how you take advantage of hinted at tricks and shortcuts pass imposing challenges has helped make their style of games into borderline sacred cows for the most part.

Even when they do create a game that demands you do basically exactly what they want you to do, like 2019’s Sekiro: Shadows die Twice, you might’ve already built up a passion and endurance for their earlier challenges in Demon’s Souls, the Dark Souls trilogy and Bloodborne so you now welcome something more rigid yet purposeful in design.

This year’s Elden Ring is the most open-ended in design of anything From has given, all through taking the Soulsborne formula and plopping it in an open world setting similar to either Grand Theft Auto or The Elder Scrolls. Confronting a steep fight against a boss who you know will wreck you? Fear not, as you can go in many other directions and face something less demanding, defeating it and netting rewards that can make that earlier enemy less cruel. It is this, among many other factors, like the further refining of a decade plus formula that has made Elden Ring nearly uncontested for the best and most significant game of 2022. I haven’t played it, but I have certainly read up enough on it, how it ticks similarly or differently from earlier From entries to understand the consistent acclaim it’s received.

So, with all that being said, why haven’t I played it? Because I still am fearful of paying $60 or around that price tag for an experience that could still leave me feeling cold. In a time where I had a surplus of things to see and do, getting Elden Ring and then putting it off because I reached this frustrating point still hinders me. I did say that Elden Ring’s design was all but tailor made to address that long-standing concern from new players, but still I remain reserved just in case. Of all the From games, Elden Ring does appear destined to be the one I will most likely check out going forward. It could well be the gateway entry it was lauded as to get me to experiencing the rest of the From Software catalogue and even crazier, completing them.

It could be, doesn’t mean it will.

But now, on to all of the honorable mentions I did experience and finish, summed up like last year in image caption.

-Stray

Image from PCGamesN (This poor kitty and his dystopian cyberpunk adventure just couldn’t claw it’s way high enough for the Ten spots.)

-Horizon II: Forbidden West

Image from Wired (Like another Sony exclusive franchise entry this year, heroine Aloy’s second adventure is more of the same but better and in some areas, much better. Just not enough to make the cut. Still, if you want an open-world check-lister at this point, Horizon II is one of the better ones. Shame that it released alongside Elden Ring…)

-Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II

Image from MobileSyrup (Say whatever you want about the ethics of a game promoting intentionally or not, the geopolitics of modern conflict, but it’s yet better to do it just here than in the real world.)

-The Batman

The Batman: Robert Pattinson and Matt Reeves Confirm Exclusive New Details  About the Film | Den of Geek

Image from Den of Geek (Disconcerting and unneeded political takeaways, let alone in this day and age, hinder what is one of the caped crusaders most visually and atmospherically distinct outings. A must-see experience at conflict with itself. Kindof like Batman actually.)

-Turning Red

Image from New York Times (At least Pixar can rest well knowing Lightyear wasn’t all they had to offer. Like its subject matter and a to be discussed Rian Johnson film, Turning Red is a multi-layered tale that addresses subject matter that should be discussed or at least not ignored, no matter what “moral” grand-standings are made nowadays.)

Prey

Image from SyFy (Fine, you get more than one good Predator movie. I mean, it only took 35 years….)

-Weird: the Al Yankovic Story

Image from the New York Times (He saved the Wizarding World. Now, he here’s to save the parody genre.)

-Peacemaker

Image from NPR (From the man who (might) save DC movies from themselves comes a much viewed spin-off of a movie you (sadly) didn’t watch in 2021.)

Star Wars: Andor

Image from NPR (The unlikely savior of Disney Star Wars, all while being a surprisingly effective love letter to another George Lucas production and 70s sci-fi in general.)

10: Avatar: The Way of Water

Image from Brick Fanatics (But everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked…)

Based on the discourse, you might get the impression that the 13 year wait for James Cameron’s next movie and follow-up to mostly forgotten mega-blockbuster Avatar is one of two things: it’s better than the first or it’s worse. It’s one of those movies.

Has it moved past the still uncomfortable white-savior aesthetic or can it ever be escaped? Does it herald the return of 3D films and are they actually here to stay? Can it actually make enough money in time to give James Cameron his dream to finish up his legendary film career just making more of these, up to five or six? Can a film’s visuals and aesthetic really be the end all-be all for what matters in a “good” movie? For me, one of the takeaways that should be talked about more is if Cameron hasn’t essentially made a new type of movie: so advanced that the lines between live-action and animation disappear altogether? I don’t know about you, but that last one should be exciting no matter how you feel about the jerkass Canadian director’s vision.

More so than the 2009 original, I felt utterly taken in by what Avatar 2 had to offer. It could’ve been my mindset was much more open now, seeing as how I’ve come to really appreciate the technical craft of Cameron and his work, whether practical or CG. James Cameron has succeeded where George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and especially Robert Zemeckis have failed: making CGI worlds with such loving, considerate care that they really can convince you they’re a progression of a visual art-form rather than a lazy excuse to cut corners.

It almost certainly stems from Cameron beginning his career at Roger Corman’s school of filmmaking, where he was an art and technical director first before being the overall director. The films under Corman’s wing might’ve been cheap throwaway trash, but man even then did he commit to making the most out of everything he had. His “use the whole animal” approach to the film’s direction not only acts as amusing foreshadowing to the Avatar films like this one, it also shows that when he has a project, he will not stop until he has it just the way he wants it.

Despite the limitations faced with the original Terminator and Aliens, he yet bore out special effects masterpieces that helped shake up Hollywood time and again. Terminator 2 and Titanic would further affirm that if there is a technological push being attempted in filmmaking, it will almost certainly have James Cameron’s involvement.

Even in an essentially completely CGI world, Cameron has both the talent and the technology hand in hand where his ever present attention to detail wins out. No longer am I noticing annoyingly what is and is not CG in a movie with him, I now wonder how he got it to look even half as convincing as it is.

With a runtime of 3 hours, which yeah probably is too long, he still gives us no shortage of examples of how his world, fantastical as it is, oddly clicks with the mind’s ability to suspend disbelief. Set-pieces which are totally impossible with the practical Cameron takes to realizing as if on some level they are possible and practical even. With the use of 3D technology that is leagues beyond everyone else, Cameron gives us every opportunity to see and almost feel the difference and for the better.

Just the sheer believability of the alien Na’vi, more real than ever, belies how much I was willing to enjoy what is still in most regards a simple story, to some frustratingly simple. I wasn’t so caught up in the effects that I didn’t ignore the comparative simplicity in plot and characters, but I was still able to notice that it was yet a deeper, more potentially three-dimensional narrative than the first movie. That at least three follow-ups are on the horizon means that James Cameron has the chance though not certainty to follow up on seeds he does plant here for something, dare I say it, thought-provoking.

So thought-provoking that I utterly ignored considerable retcons performed like on the villainous character of Col. Quaritch, establishing well after the fact the excuse for an unlikely resurrection and having a son this whole time. But what they do with Stephen Lang’s returning antagonist is so full of potential, let alone in relation to his Na’vi loving son that I welcome what they do next. Yes, some of that bias may lie in that Lang’s character, one dimensional as he was, was the only evil human character that I had fun with and it had to do with Lang’s gleeful performance. Here, he’s not necessarily the same as he was before, and that alone could make him into an unlikely hero or an even more diabolical foe.

Cameron’s environmental and cultural expression through a production that is among the most expensive in history, if not the most expensive, might reek of a hypocrisy over his political stances. So much money on a sci-fi fantasy movie when that money could’ve gone to an actionable cause. I can’t necessarily disagree with that sentiment though the conversation now about The Way of Water is Cameron’s lack of narrative imagination, which many say was last seen with Terminator 2 or True Lies. Some would dare argue even Titanic was deeper than at first glance.

It is the lack of deepness for Avatar that is often given for why a film that made over 2 billion in its original run was largely forgotten save for the knowledge that it happened and was seen at all. Will Avatar 2 suffer the same fate? Is Cameron making numerous movies as part of one big story so it’s much harder overall to forget the story of human turned Na’vi Jake Sully and his big blue family?

Sure, he’s doing it first and foremost due to his, in my experience, infectious enthusiasm for the technology. But that can’t be the only reason or at least I hope so. Getting back to the potential hypocrisy of his ecological message being at odds with the means and finances required, it reminds of the story of Jiro from Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises. His love for human flight and the machines that allow it blinds him to the purposes of the creation he designs, that of war and imperial conquest. Only too late does Jiro recognize that his benevolent dream for the Zero plane became a nightmare for countless people in the Second World War.

Is Cameron blinded by the beauty of his Avatar films? More than likely, but if you came away like I did with the sights of his latest masterwork, then you and I may be complicit with him in that near-nearsightedness. Nevertheless, Avatar: The Way of Water is a work of passion from a visual maestro and a work of art is ever that in the end. Here, it’s more literal than usual.

Image from Deadline

9: Cyberpunk: Edgerunners

7 best anime like Cyberpunk: Edgerunners for fans to watch next - Polygon

Image from Polygon

Replaying The Witcher 3 again, now on a PS5 console version that makes it bearable for long stretches at long last got me thinking about the story that came out of developer CD Projekt Red and their work on 2020’s Cyberpunk 2077, for which this entry is a spin-off of.

It went from being the most anticipated game of its time to being one of it’s most crushing disappointments. That it wasn’t a totally bad game actually made it worse, more frustrating a result for most, eventually myself. It wasn’t just that the PS4 and Xbox One ports were essentially unplayable garbage, it was that the best version of the game, on the PC, was itself not without annoying bugs and other such imperfections which reeked of a title being unfinished and unpolished despite its announcement 8 years prior.

Comparing Witcher 3, the game that really made the Polish company into an international darling to Cyberpunk 2077 is in truth unfair as the former game was a culmination of adapting a Polish book series’ lore into a three game narrative, each game building on the earlier. The third game took all the elements that had gelled well with critics and players, its dark, medieval fantasy world with a refreshing Polish/Slavic flavor with a host of stories and characters to explore and placed it into a well-designed, massive open world.

Despite its M-rated darkness and mature themes, the world of Witcher 3 was and continues to be acclaimed as one of the best visually and mechanically crafted open worlds ever made, particularly for its specific role of placing you as a world-weary monster hunter in Geralt of Rivia. Of a genetically altered person who tries his best to fence-ride on the grim politics he finds himself embroiled in, all while searching for his adoptive daughter and maybe maybe not finding a real, lasting love in one of two gorgeous looking sorceresses. It’s many optional quests that take you off the beaten path, whether it’s accepting a contract to find, prepare and slay a fearsome creature to a dispute between flawed human and nonhuman characters where the right answer perhaps isn’t apparent or even present has made the depth inside its large world possibly unparalleled so far in terms of consistency.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt alone was responsible for Cyberpunk 2077 receiving high expectations, and even then it became unreasonably steep. Even when tempered, Cyberpunk 2077 still felt like a game that was a quarter of the consistent quality in writing for narrative and characters from earlier titles of CD Projekt Red. It’s inconsistency in quality, even when working as intended became its legacy, a legacy that the company is striving to overcome with future titles set in both Cyberpunk and the Witcher’s worlds.

In the meantime, they collaborated with Japanese animation company Studio Trigger to create a standalone Netflix series set before the events of 2077. This series itself left two legacies of note: it gave gamers an excuse to check out Cyberpunk 2077 again, especially since numerous patches have now made it finally if nothing else a technically consistent title and to see if it was really as much a letdown as it felt two years ago. The other legacy is that in spite of the many unfortunate implications a cyberpunk story might inherently have, there is narrative gold in the genre to be mined and that is yet true of a cyberpunk world that felt more imitation than iteration of the genre.

As a series, Edgerunners manages to be both a zany, hyper-violent, hyper-Japanese anime experience while having surprising fealty to the vision of both Mike Pondsmith’s role-playing board-game and CD Projekt Red’s interpretation. It’s a series that takes the level design of 2077’s locale of Night City and makes it a convincing series of sets for the characters. The sights, the sounds, the feel of the game are reinterpreted well, as if seeing a virtual world in a different person’s eyes.

Teenager David is put in for a world of hurt when he and his mother find themselves in the midst of a high-speed shootout between mercenaries and a corporate convoy on the highway, all while on a commute to his high school. He loses his mother in the chaos that ensues but comes across high-tech gear that upon being installed into his body gives him a key to rising up the city’s underworld ladder. While his mother had hoped to help him get up in life in a way that was safe and legal, David knows that a place like Night City preys on those with such assumptions.

His accidental gift of the exoskeleton tech becomes as much a curse, as befits the genre. He gets in with a mercenary crew led by the Duke Nukem-looking leader Maine and finds overtime love with one of its members, Lucy, who not only dreams of leaving Night City, but making it as far as the moon. As the game also surmises, one of the best outcomes to a life in Night City is to escape it, so long as you’re not drawn in by its siren-like promises of power, wealth and prestige.

The team are called the titular “edge-runners” as most if not all of them engage in installation of cyber-hardware that pushes the limits of the human body beyond what is possible and maintaining that type of post-human lifestyle will in time lead to a breaking point. Once a person goes off the deep-end from all the tech in their body and head, they become cyber psychotic and there is no going back one way or another.

The style of animation which relies often on the exaggerated and extreme which has become over the decades a specialty practically unique to Japan both helps further create novelty to a story yet set in a world that is in terms of visual, personal expression, realistic. It manages to come across as an ersatz interpretation of a yet canonical story that precedes the story of 2077’s controllable protagonist V. It shouldn’t work for me and yet won me over.

What also wins me over is that it takes funnily enough a page from Hunter S Thompson and that it is a coherent story that is propelled by the excess of an insane drug trip. The philosophy that if you have a penchant for drug use, you should take it as far as you can. It stays cogent yet it is visual madness. It’s a paradox tailor made for both a certain type of anime and for more than a few types of cyberpunk faire. Maybe it’s not so paradoxical here since genuine mental collapse becomes a threat as great as the corporate monsters that run the city and threaten David and Lucy from any kind of happy resolution.

In terms of animated spin-off off a video game property, it is of course dwarfed by 2021’s Arcane but that too is unfair as Arcane was not only my number one thing I experienced that year, it might be ahead of the pack in most experiences for me in recent memory. Being on this list makes it clearly a recommendation, but one that might be predicated on your taste for anime, uberviolence and other such taboo subject matter for which the cyberpunk genre broadly embraces.

Number 8: Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

Image from Youtube (Now comes the days of the Queen?)

Black Panther’s sophomore solo outing is like Marvel’s Phase 4, conflicted by matters both it and yet not it’s fault, though it does shape up on a note that can have you leaning more optimistic than pessimistic about the course it’s going down. Of the MCU films for 2022, it’s easily the best and threads the needle of its intentions well.

It is a movie that is very conscious of its real world circumstances and almost appears to apologize to its audience for the situation it finds itself in, not that it needed to. It also wisely doesn’t steal the thunder of it’s memoriam honoring Chadwick Boseman’s passing and the legacy he left both in universe and out of it. There was a chance of a mid or post credits scene doing just that, all to set up for something on the horizon or to confirm a suspicion going in, but this time the MCU says no.

It’s also unafraid to explore even deeper, this time literally, into a universe that just can’t stop revealing ever more of itself from what was once hidden. The introduction of Marvel’s cinematic Atlantis in the form of another mythological lost civilization in Tulocan allows it to introduce an old yet important member of Marvel’s comic roster while also exploring for the first time an often underexplored side to Central American culture, writ large via Hollywood blockbuster budget.

It’s great to see Marvel’s experimental side clicking well here more than other places in Phase 4, let alone as a further exploration of the titular African superpower we know. Seeing how the players that keep Wakanda safe deal with the loss of their key player and how to move forward is strangely engaging in spite of how it seemed doomed to fall into being a rudderless narrative.

Some would say of critique for the second Black Panther that it is almost the polar opposite of rudderless. Too much is happening, let alone to establish for the MCU’s push onto Phase 5. Riri Williams’ introduction as the girl who will be Ironheart feels a little too forced even when directly implemented in the main conflict between Wakanda and Namor’s Tulocan. Dominique Thorne is not bad at the job though she feels overshadowed by the other prominent characters, let alone female in Letitia Wright’s Shuri and Danai Guirra’s Okoye. She doesn’t quite hit the feel of “I want to see more of her/him/them” that I felt with Xochitl Gomez’s America Chavez in this year’s second Doctor Strange.

In spite of quality of life improvements, ranging from better CGI to superior action choreography, that the second Black Panther didn’t receive the glowing opinions of the first somewhat puzzles me. Is it because of how Riri Williams was utilized, let alone in her introduction? Was it the longer runtime? Was it just the mass of content the second movie needed to get through, all while carefully parsing through a fallen actor/ character’s impact on the whole scheme? I don’t know, but what I can say is that for all of it’s potential faults, Wakanda Forever was yet a bolder, more beautiful, more endearing piece of Marvel entertainment than before. Just it’s novel approach to an underwater city and its people, let alone in addressing the visibility of an underwater place should give it much to commend.

I liked Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness more than most. I tend to agree with what people have to say negatively over Thor: Love and Thunder though that film is not without its highlights. I placed Black Panther: Wakanda Forever here for its confidence in moving forward, not just from a tragedy but in terms of actually building ever further a world that many of us have come to view with contempt and not just due to familiarity.

The second Black Panther is both familiar and yet it is not at the same time. That’s a better note to end an overstuffed era of filmmaking on than you might think.

Number 7: Harley Quinn: Season 3

Image from Entertainment Weekly (This love is not as mad as you think.)

Persistence of vision, or a lack thereof, is one of several symptoms given as to why Warner Bros.’ DC Extended Universe failed and is now controversially having its plug pulled, all by a guy who positively contributed to it and appears humorously in this show. One can say that the vision that was there was bad. Fair enough but messing around with what you did have did not help.

This animated self-satire and deconstruction of not really so much the titular character but the logic and tenets of an entire comic universe never loses focus and that is why for all of its adult humor and seemingly sacrilegious talking points is one of the highest regarded DC properties, well, ever.

For those with the temperament, Harley Quinn’s three season strong cartoon show is ridiculous, adorable, crude, heart-warming, violent, thought-provoking and self-critical. Disparate elements that when being viewed from a character who may well be a little off her rocker than most, seem cogent. This Harley Quinn has entered into a relationship with the most affable interpretation of Poison Ivy yet, where if it weren’t for her eco-terrorist ambitions, would come across as either a neutral or even heroic super-powered individual. Lake Bell’s laid back take on her, which completely drops the sultry seductress aesthetic, really helps make her the needed straight man to Harley’s antics, which grow increasingly less villainous and more anti-hero every episode, to the point where she has all but abandoned being a villain. Forget Lobo, DC’s ironclad Deadpool is and should be Harleen Quinzel.

Hell, even the Joker voiced by Alan Tudyk is abandoning the anarchic destruction and general dickassery of his own past, going from being an abusive boyfriend to Harley to being a surprisingly loving boyfriend to a Hispanic-American nurse and her family. Of course, you can’t totally tame a person like the crown prince of crime and amusingly, he becomes a (mostly) non-lethal agent of chaos this go around, where he wishes to disrupt an even more wretched evil than he was: the status quo that led to the rise of superheroes fighting supervillains.

One such superhero ,Batman, while still heroic, becomes victim not so much of being a knowing or unknowing keeper of the status quo that perpetuates his never-ending battle against crime, but of the own psychological baggage that made him take the lifepath he has. While Harley, Ivy and the rest of their criminal best friends have, to varying degrees, deep-dives into their psyches, it’s Bruce Wayne, voiced perfectly by Diedrich Bader, who gets the biggest psychoanalysis.

You’re meant to both laugh at and yet feel sorry for this take on Batman, a figure that over the course of this season, has his relationship with the bat-family, including his son, deteriorate and a relationship with Selina Kyle fall apart. It’s all very funny and oh so very sad. For all of Batman’s skill, bravado and determination, he is yet a rich kid who lost his parents much too early. More than other takes on the Dark Knight, Harley Quinn ferociously examines what happens when a rich and smart person can’t fully deal with extreme loss at a vulnerable age. For all it’s delightful goofiness, Harley Quinn’s takeaways are straight-faced.

If there was a theme connecting Bruce’s woes with Harley and Ivy’s, which still appropriately take center stage, it’s the nature of maintaining meaningful relationships despite internal struggles with who you are in the midst of an ever crazier world. You know, timely.

Harley Quinn’s third season is its best so far, not the only adult superhero send-up with an exemplary “3” to it’s name and more on that later. It’s one of the funniest experiences of 2022 and justifies more so than Young Justice’s fourth season to not be axed in the name of James Gunn wiping the slate clean. Who knows, maybe the comical yet favorable depiction of Gunn in this season was an attempt to butter up the Troma turned Marvel veteran.

Number Six: All Quiet on the Western Front (2022)

Image from The New York Times

The timing of this third cinematic adaptation of what is for many the WW1 retelling of the Western Theater is curious, and it may or may not b by accident. As Netflix released the film into their service last Fall, the ongoing war between Ukraine and Russia has trudged on, with no real end in sight then as it is now, save for the fact that for one side it has largely been a disaster.

Some casualty estimates for both sides number over 100,000, which is numbers a European conflict hasn’t seen since the last World War. More to the point, one of the greatest ongoing fears of the Russo-Ukrainian war is that it risks going nuclear, finally bringing on WW3 in the form we most expect it to take. No matter your stance on the fight occurring in Eastern Europe, no matter your thoughts on the nature of aid being given by other Western powers and for what reason, at least it should be acknowledged that there is a certain level of brutality and coldness wars cause in the human spirit, no matter which side is justified whether in the moment or after.

We have known for over a century at this point what takeaways or recognitions of the nature of what the First World War was like. There are some voices out there who have given defense for the conflict occurring, at least from the Allies’ side. Most would say that the consistently galling execution of the war from both sides where countless lives were wasted for nothing in return makes such defense poor excuse.

One of the major things going against WW1 being excusable to say nothing of justification is that it created the conditions for an even bloodier world war roughly 20 years later. All Quiet on the Western Front once more shows off the misery of being on either side, whether it came during battle or before it.

The score of AQOTWF 22′ from Volker Bertelsmann emphasizes an old but still evergreen association with WW1: that of mechanical slaughter. The opening sequence shows what we are led to at first be is an in-media-res moment of our lead youthful German soldiers going over the line and into an almost certain massacre. Instead, the lead group of German boys fronted by Paul are at their university being congratulated by the Dean for forgoing their academic ventures in favor of taking up arms for the Fatherland.

Keep in mind that unlike earlier versions of the story, based on the novel by Erich Remarque this take doesn’t begin in 1914 at the start of the war, but in 1917, when those same boys probably should’ve seen the signs that among other things, maybe it’s not the best time or place to answer the call of duty. That is, of course, if they even had a choice in the matter ultimately. These boys like in all other takes including the book are bright eyed and enthusiastic to go off to the front to fight for Germany. Being in a college town and with a faculty that is fully willing to indoctrinate their students in spite of the increasingly grim status of the war, perhaps that is why they don’t see the signs and run.

It’s all very familiar and yet somehow all very engaging. Getting back to the fakeout in media res, through a German soldier we follow up until it cuts to black, we then witness the process of how German military uniforms are made at this point. After the cadavers of the dead Germans we were following are disposed of, the uniforms they carried are cleaned, reknitted and repurposed for the new meat of which Paul and friends are part of. All while the sinister mechanical music plays. Here is where blatantness is used well. But then again, does a WW1 story necessitate something other than that?

The sequence of Paul and his fellow soldiers entering the war and their number slowly yet surely being picked off one by one plays with a straightforward matter of factness, which only makes it worse. Rarely is there melodramatic musical cues, the scenes themselves and the vulgarity of the fight being the cue. At around the end of the second act approaching the third, as the war enters its final months in Fall 1918, does the stark horror of WW1 come into full focus. None of the soldiers on either side know the war is close to over, many assume it will be without end. And yet, we see from the perspective of the Germans, a wave of British-French tanks approaching. From the side of the war my country took part in comes pitiless destruction, in the form of shrapnel, flame and the crushing tank-treads.

Despite it being a German adaptation of a German novel, this movie in no way demonizes the Allied powers in favor of the Central Powers that Germany is part of. No side’s leadership is excluded from spite. The callousness of military leadership is present in generals British, French and German. The German general that Paul’s regiment is commanded by is a cruel, emotionally void man who begins to believe and pronounce conspiracies over Germany’s failure to win that will one day be used by the Nazis. The French general during a peace talks meeting is completely disinterested in any concessions from the Germans no matter how fair and even beneficial they could be for both sides long-term, echoing the short-sidedness that would help ensure tens of millions more would die in the future.

Daniel Bruhl, who was the only recognizable face in the movie, plays a German ambassador who is desperate for any way to end a war that Germany simply can’t win. He’s lost his son and even if the war was somehow salvageable would still sue for peace. By extension, he is the only person of authority not on the direct lines of combat that is given any sympathy for he is the only named character who wants an end to the nightmare we get to experience vicariously with Paul. That he has to accept terms that are not good enough in the end represents the endless frustration of the people who seek an end to pain in the face of those who can’t understand suffering.

In a grim year like 2022, it might seem like it’s the absolute worst idea to watch a movie about a time, however far back, that’s about among other things man’s inhumanity to man. We get that sentiment plenty from watching the news or checking Twitter. And yet, this new beautifully yet terribly produced depiction of a well-known conflict feels appropriate. Not only can it make one think about the inherent perniciousness of warfare but about the nature of wars occurring now and in the future.

Some of you have a defense for the war in Ukraine. Some of you have a retort towards it being an ongoing affair. Some of you may have not made up your minds or have no thoughts about it. While the nature of WW1 and the War in Ukraine is not the same in action, it can be the same in the potential if not reality of those in power and wealth to send many to an early end. To recognize that even in the best circumstances, these conflicts have everyday people forced and/or persuaded into unspeakable acts of violence and destruction. That even an act of defense can lead to in the heat of the moment the chance for something indefensible.

As we navigate the very uncertain nature of the 21st century, made ever quietly frightening by the actions and inactions of our species, tell yourself how long we have left to finally keep the lessons of a story based on history like All Quiet on the Western Front. The deadline, for all we know, could be in weeks or days.

Next time, parts 5-1.

Gods, Monsters and Modern Warfare: Reviews for Modern Warfare II and God of War: Ragnarok (Spoilers throughout)

Image from Call of Duty.com (If you’re gonna do war crimes, at least be affable while you’re at it!)

Call of Duty Modern Warfare II (Infinity Ward) (USA)

Call of Duty 19 (no, really) is upon us and it’s pretty good. A spiritual successor in some respects to the original COD title to have “Modern Warfare” attached to “2” from all the way back in 2009, while also being an expansion for a refreshing take on the aging formula that was started in 2007.

I say as much when it comes to Modern Warfare II mechanically. As a FPS military shooter, there is nothing about this year’s entry that screams “OMG”, that’s so different!” nor was anyone expecting that to be the case. People just wanted a refined version of Modern Warfare 2019, and we got it. For a franchise that most everyone just wants to go away (if for awhile), there was actual demand for this year’s selection.

You get more of that patented Call of Duty multiplayer now with the mounting around cover mechanics and general feel which has made the series feel more realistic. “More” realistic, mind. Warfare as portrayed in COD multiplayer is still ever the equivalent of arming lemmings.

You have more Spec Ops which… I haven’t played any of, as I was warded away from even trying it due to the awful nature of the mode from MW 2019. I’ve heard it’s not as bad, but it doesn’t yet recapture the same sense of arcade fun that the original MW2 and MW3 featured.

You have, after the late October launch, a new version of Warzone, a giant military sandbox open world, independent of and yet maintaining features of MW2 2022 and free to play separately. And of course, you have the campaign, giving single-player enthusiasts a narrative adventure full of shooting, sniping, grenading, stabbing, sneaking and geopoliticking.

Coming into the campaign knowing full well that the majority of this game’s politics I would pretty much oppose was almost freeing. Rather than cross my fingers for something hopefully not being the expected pro-imperialist, borderline reactionary power fantasy, I just wanted to embrace what it had, see if I agreed with any sentiment expressed by the writers and well, if nothing else, enjoy what I heard was one of the best COD campaigns in recent years on a strictly gameplay level. That is exactly what I got.

I won’t bother giving a recap to MW 2019’s story as while connected in MW22, it almost feels oddly disconnected at many points. Our story begins with a reinterpretation of fan favorite character Simon “Ghost” Riley going on a scouting mission in a fictional Middle Eastern country. There, he spots an Iranian General making an arms deal with Al-Qatala, a fictional terrorist group that based on what subtext is allowed is more interested in Western powers, up to and including both America and Russia, simply going away. No real suggestion of Islamic Holy War at all.

But, Al-Qatala is working with big, bad Iran and take a wild guess what the name of the General sounds like. No, seriously, take a guess. It couldn’t sound like perhaps the only Iranian General you would be aware of, could it?

Well, yes, I do think General Ghobrani does sound like General Suleimani and to developer Infinity Ward’s credit, they did own up to the inspiration. Yes, Suleimani, the Iranian General who was actually doing us a solid by fighting terrorist factions up to and including ISIS. And yet, we performed an extrajudicial drone strike on his ass and if it wasn’t for the fact that Iran is indeed quite weaker than us and has no nuclear arsenal, could’ve been grounds for a declaration of war. Please ask yourself if you earnestly disagree with that sentiment if Iran somehow launched a successful drone strike on us in an attempt to assassinate one of our generals. I don’t think we would stop at holding a funeral for the fella like Iran did.

Of course, another one of the factors that prevented this act from causing World War Three was a once in a century global pandemic so I guess we could give Covid-19 some credit, maybe?

So, what does Ghost do when he confirms Ghobrani is there and making a deal with Al-Qatala? He requests a missile strike that you the player get to pilot! Using the very best in modern graphics, we blow the guy up and good. Then, cut to ominous opening credits. At first, I thought the new MW2 was trying to establish through the tone of said opening credits that we had actually made a big mistake. Gasp, could it be?

On some level, the answer is a quasi-yes. The assassination of Ghobrani does lead to another ner-do-well Iranian fella called Hassan (no relation to the Twitch/political guy) declaring a private little war against the West for their actions. Even worse, when the “heroes” of our story, Task Force I41 led by the ever mutton-chopped Captain Price, begin their hunt to kill or capture Hassan, they discover two startling revelations: Hassan has gotten access to American-made missiles and somehow a Mexican cartel is also involved. Dun Dun DUN.

After all this startling, I should take the time to give MW2’s campaign the first of several honest props. Despite it’s namesake and performing tribute to several visuals, set pieces and characters from the original MW2, it does not become as bombastic and nuts. There is no snowmobile chase that involves jumping over a canyon, no wild one-man push through the dense, gang filled hills of Rio’s favelas. There is no expertly realized yet still ludicrous invasion of America’s Eastern seaboard by the Russian military. Considering the embarrassing failure of Russia’s army to neutralize Ukraine this year, the original MW trilogy is indeed an alternate reality world stage on that facet alone.

There is only one set-piece that honestly would’ve been at home in the original MW2. During a desperate chase on a convoy that feels like a cross between certain sequences from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Mad Max: Fury Road, one of the playable soldiers, Gaz, is dropped out of a helicopter by an explosion. He thankfully still had his safety harness on and is now swinging upside down from the helicopter, dodging cars along with bullets. It’s pretty nutty but it also provides a novel challenge to Gaz and the player, one that I’m surprised hadn’t been done before in a franchise that will celebrate it’s 20th anniversary next year.

Aside from that, MW2 22′ is impressive in both raising the bar from the scale and scope from MW2019 while not going straight to the moon. In some odd ways, it feels even more restrained in parts, with quiet, smaller set pieces that yet feel impactful. It manages to stay true to being a depiction of well, modern warfare, where the majority of the scenarios would feel plausible to occur in real life.

Now, back to the plot, after learning that our main-ish bad guy has American-made weapons (none nuclear) and that a powerful cartel from down south is involved, it’s up to Price’s Task Force 141 to get rolling. In their ranks is the aforementioned Price with his flexible rules of engagement, Gaz with his once bright eyed but now colder outlook through a desire to just get the bloody job done.

There is also Ghost, who echoes the Mandalorian in never wanting to take his skull-mask off and due to his extreme efficiency out in the field, is granted this kind-of childish request. I mean, he does take his mask off at one point, but we the player never get to see his mug. There’s finally John “Soap” Mactavish, the original Modern Warfare protagonist at long last returned, with his Mohawk and Scottish accent thicker than ever. Appropriately, he gets the most missions to be played as.

There is no one protagonist in MW22 and there rarely is in a COD game. Echoing the series’ founding sentiments that “No one fights alone”, Task Force 141 and it’s various members and allies encompass the role of “protagonist” more than anything and structurally it works well. Upon reaching Mexico to follow up on the cartel lead they got from a super sneaky mission in Amsterdam, they meet what might be the genuinely nicest characters in the whole game and represent best Infinity Ward’s attempts to avoid accusations of taking a reactionary, xenophobic attitude towards contemporary Mexico and its people.

Alejandro Vargas, who looks like a Hispanic cross between Walton Goggins and Steven Ogg, the guy best known for playing Trevor in GTA V, and his partner Rudolfo are part of the Mexican Special Forces, operating in the fictional Mexican state of Las Almas. Contrary to many ugly American sentiments about the status of Mexico, its government and military, Alejandro and Rudolfo are steadfast in their commitment to a safer, better Mexico and would sooner die than cow tow to the wealth and power the cartels could offer them. It’s an uphill battle for them, but they are more than happy to assist the mostly British ranks of the 141 in their hunt for Hassan amidst the cartel.

One of the tricks that helps along MWII’s campaign as being genuinely enjoyable in spite of the, at best, questionable politics it still has is the successful interplay and camaraderie between the Task Force and Mexican Special Forces. Most of the team have character traits and banter that are pretty great at getting you to like them, in spite of what they do and what they on a macro level represent. Ghost has an especially dry and black British sense of humor that you know more than anything is meant to diffuse any potential anxiety his teammates may be going through. Soap has a “can-do” enthusiasm for getting the job done well and with his squad-mates alive that likely echoes his football (soccer) fandom.

Alejandro is basically a military version of one of the Three Caballeros, you know, Donald Duck and his two Hispanic bird friends from Disney. He comes to recognize rather early, that in spite of Task Force 141 being an off-the-books military unit, it’s members are on the level. The atmosphere of compadre-ship that make up their relationship is infectious and if viewed in a vacuum, is a genuinely welcome outlook for this day and age.

But, as my politically conscious mind was want to do, I kept focus enough on the many sus aspects to MWII’s worldview as a piece of media. Much like the discussion around this year’s Batman movie, it’s not only what Modern Warfare II says, it’s what it does not say that matters.

Why, again, not enough emphasis is placed on how the inciting incident that leads to a manhunt for an extremist Iranian is predicated on the mistakes of how we approach geopolitical conflict. MW2 does throw some attention to that idea while trying to obfuscate from the bigger, grimmer picture of Western culpability in the threats we face. Time for some big-boy spoilers.

The American general who oversees Task Force 141 is General Shepherd, who was in the same role for the original MW2. The original had Lance Henriksen voicing the general. Now it’s Glenn Morshower, who had voiced another unrelated character. In the original, Shepherd is revealed to be the actual big bad of the game, having assisted the other antagonist, Russian terrorist Makarov, in orchestrating a massacre on Russian soil that acts as reason for that grand ol’ invasion of the U.S.

Shepherd allowed this massive break in American defense all so he can fight a war for his country’s survival and in turn give his country a renewed sense of patriotism and himself the glory of leading its defense. He uses the original Task Force 141 to unknowingly take care of his dirty work in retrieving information that would incriminate him in what is, to put it quite lightly, one of the greatest acts of treason imaginable. In what remains for me one of the most genuinely shocking and saddest acts of backstabbing in a video game ever, he coldly murders the original Ghost and Roach, the playable character you’ve been with for most of the game, when they least suspected it, all while Han Zimmer’s glorious music somberly yet melodramatically plays over the scene.

To once again echo the original, the new MW2 has a betrayal scene involving Shepherd and his PMC group called Shadow Company. The PMC, led by a guy called Graves (Gee, maybe there’s some red flags here…), were established, like the Mexican Armed Forces, to be pretty amiable, getting along well with both Alejandro’s men and Price’s. The game attempts to fool a player who might’ve played the original that this Shadow Company won’t be so bad. When Graves takes to the field himself to assist the Task Force in the mission, during a callback to both the Tanker mission from the first Modern Warfare and the oil rigs in the second, he fights and coordinates with them beautifully.

He makes no real indication that he should be suspected of wrongdoing and seems to even be forming a comradeship with the Task Force like they did with Alejandro and Rudolfo. I was starting to fall for it, and I have every reason to be distrustful of especially a PMC. And for the record, the Call of Duty series has a consistent displeasure for the Private Military Company, as evidenced by them being the main baddies of 2014’s Advanced Warfare, led by the ever trustworthy Kevin Spacey.

This betrayal scene involves none of the task force members, let alone Ghost, getting surprise bullets to the face. It starts with Graves, who has been given permission by Shepherd to just straight up take over Alejandro and Rudolfo’s army base. Like that. Barring the fact that the Mexican government would lose all the shit over an American PMC doing this with the blessing of an American general, what really sets off the betrayal is that Graves offers Ghost and Soap, the Task Force members present, to just walk away and let it happen. Even though that means their new best buddies Alejandro and Rudolfo get imprisoned for their refusal. Of course they don’t accept and thus the betrayal that almost gets them killed leads to one of the darkest and moodiest campaign levels in Call of Duty’s history. Soap, with a bullet wound in his arm, is separated from Ghost and finds himself avoiding Graves’ men as they go through a Mexican city and begin, for seemingly no reason other than being irredeemable pieces of shit, both massacring and arresting Mexican civilians.

There is the flimsy excuse that many of the townspeople might be in league with the cartel but otherwise it’s just to show the evil PMC being evil and to give Soap and the player a novel stealth mission to get through, which basically becomes a survival horror level, not unlike Resident Evil, where the finding and managing of resources on the field is key. I get it, PMCs are bad, really bad, and Call of Duty is very correct to treat them as villainous. Just what the real life Blackwater PMC did stands as testament to that.

It’s just that for all the great writing that goes into the heroes and their interplay, that same level of writing does not reflect on the overall narrative, where villains like Shepherd and Graves have asinine reasons to reveal their true colors. They also do a disservice to Shepherd as a villainous character. In a stance which seems to support the misguided notion of our military being on some level still above board in its behavior (when it certainly is not), Shepherd is revealed to be behind the reason for the missing American missiles. Even without the knowledge of Shepherd being the antagonist of an earlier COD game, it wouldn’t take much for the average gamer to point to Shepherd and say, “He did it.”

Unlike the unsympathetic, sociopathic motivations of the original Shepherd, this Shepherd made a mistake that, ahem, came from a good place. He had Shadow Company escorting missiles through a Middle Eastern location, when suddenly a Russian PMC lays a successful ambush and steals the missiles, which in turn they give to Hassan and his cause. What Shepherd was doing was and is framed as illegal, but he still claims earnestly was for the protection of his country.

You could view this as Shepherd trying to excuse his actions and it can even be a statement that maybe, just maybe, America should stop using PMCs and doing covert missile deals without official backing of a larger governing body, but yeah I got a mixed message from this and chances are not poor you will too. For that and trying to cover it up as well as let Shadow Company try to up and murder Task Force 141, Shepherd goes to ground at the end of the game.

For the great execution and pacing of levels and things to do in MWII’s story mode, it’s built on shakier narrative ground than even the contrivances of the original 2009 game. Other actions taken by both sides of the story can upon some examination be seen as borderline ridiculous and stupid. I even think that some of these dumb narrative decisions was all to show the characters doing something that was for them out of character in following international law. For instance, mid-game the team captures Hassan and then right after are forced to let him go because it would be illegal.

Um, how much of what the Task Force has done is legal again? Why would this situational dumb action be done other than for Infinity Ward to say to a more politically awake audience “Hey, look, the good guys are doing something internationally approved!” Even when it breaks the narrative that is established and only causes further needless complications that prolongs the plot and ultimately leads to a desperate race against time where Hassan plans to missile strike Chicago.

In truth, I can’t fully complain as the quality of most of the levels in MW22 is of a high, even inspired tier. The dumb plot with not nearly as dumb characters leads to a series of great moments like having to swim down a Mexican river, using the rocks to hide behind cover while being shot at. A new intense variation on the “death from above” mission where you pilot the guns on an AC-130 plane and provide cover from the sky for the team on the ground, all in color this time.

A new take on MW1’s beloved “All Ghillied Up” level, where you must sneak through a Spanish Wind Turbine farm occupied by Hassan’s men and everything from adjusting to wind and distance, placement of yourself while hiding in the grass and many different ways to clear out the buildings are offered. A prison breakout that goes from using security cameras to guide Ghost to a breakneck fight for survival and escape. There’s even an penultimate mission involving a multi-layered assault on Alejandro’s base occupied by Graves that involves an unlikely salute to one of the least-favored entries in the Call of Duty series. Even more unlikely is that the salute actually works.

There’s the aforementioned stealth level with a wounded, winded Soap with only Ghost’s advice on the radio to assist him. There’s an earlier mission where Soap infiltrates the cartel’s headquarters, pretending to be a turncoat all so he can find the cartel leader and get him detained. Well, I should say her, as in a pretty well done subversion, the cartel leader is revealed to be a former member of Alejandro’s Special Forces team, Valeria. Despite her relative lack of screentime, she’s rocketed up to being one of my favorite Call of Duty villains due to her utter lack of giving a s**t over whatever anyone, especially Alejandro, has to say about her.

She betrayed her team, effectively her country, all so she could take power in a cartel, become a drug-lord. She shows no remorse nor does she fall for any attempt at being shamed. She’s good at her job, ruthlessly good, and she is proud of it. If ever there was proof that a strong female antagonist could work, it’s here and honestly, I hope there’s more of her in the future since she does survive the game.

The original Modern Warfare’s campaign was a series of initially unconnected levels that was, relatively late in development, given a connective thread. It mostly works though you can tell here and there that it was not planned out ahead of time based on certain plot contrivances. I can’t speak for the development process of this particular Modern Warfare’s campaign, but it does feel as if Infinity Ward was bursting at the seams with great ideas for what to do mechanically for this entry that they had a hard time reconciling their level design with the narrative context. Perhaps they hoped that you enjoying your time with the characters, going through it with their well-honed charisma would be enough and I suppose they were right.

When it comes to the plot contrivances or even holes of Modern Warfare II, at first I’m upset at the sloppiness and then I remember again all the things the ideology of this game says or does not say and then I feel a little less bothered. It’s not like Marvel’s Falcon and Winter Soldier show where it seems to be striving for the best worldview but of cowardice or obligation to the people who fund a project like that show, like the American military, it backpedals or suddenly states “but actually” because it may speak a truth that’s to the detriment of those that sponsor it.

Call of Duty, when in it’s Modern Warfare setting, almost seems doomed to not go as far in being truthful about the realities of what fuels the modern conflicts, the far less heroic reasons. It can’t be totally honest because then it would be very hard to accept Captain Price and friends for their roles. It can and does place unambiguous ire on pernicious things like the Private Military Industry but maybe as a way to take focus away from the perniciousness of what the straight up Military Industrial Complex does: waste our money, our men and women’s lives on wars and conflicts not approved by our congress on trying to maintain a global hegemony that in the coming decades may no longer matter in any respect due to the civilization-eroding effects of climate change, exacerbated by other unattended to problems like our population and the wasting of needed resources.

Not unlike an enjoyable Cop drama or buddy cop comedy like the Lethal Weapon series I’m watching fully for the first time, it’s best to view Modern Warfare II either in fragmented parts or as a genuine fantasy that has little bearing on not so much the methods of modern warfare as they are quite accurate here but the motivations and conceits of it. You can have fun in Modern Warfare II as I did, you can admire the art here from these artists. I can admire the art of one Mel Gibson and one Kanye West (though the latter has become increasingly difficult even irresponsible for me) and yet recognize the cruel truth of who they are as people in the real world. So long as you can divert your focus between the reality of actual modern warfare and the enjoyable illusion of this game, then for the record, I recommend.

Oh, right, the multiplayer is quite good if ever familiar but based on experience I’m quite poor at actually reviewing video games that involve more than one player in a non-narrative setting, so I will just echo the immortal words of the original Simon “Ghost” Riley from the original classic: Mission Accomplished, Good Work.

God of War Ragnarok (Santa Monica Studios) (USA)

Image from VG247 (They come from the land of the Ice and Snow, from the Midnight sun where the hot springs glow…)

Warning: Recap of first game included

Intro

The further adventures of both the last Spartan and surviving Greek God (that we know of) and his half God/half Jotnar (Frost Giant) son in this year’s second most beloved video game (behind Elden Ring) is my Game of the Year choice with nothing else remaining in 2022 that can challenge it.

I have not the courage nor the free time to see if the aforementioned Elden Ring could be at last the gateway I was looking for to get into not so much the “Soulsborne” genre but the genre with its attached difficulty. I have tasted of the genre’s style of interconnected level design through 2019’s Jedi: Fallen Order, and it was quite scrumptious, but I yet stayed away from the biggest game this year all the same, all on the premise that I didn’t want to put down $60 only on the possibility, not certainty, that this would be the one.

God of War Ragnarok strangely enough acts as the alternative to a “Soulsborne game” through its exacting focus on melee combat, specially crafted use of interconnectivity in the exploration of its world and by delivering optional enemy encounters that give the masses hungry for From Software’s style of challenge a place to bite into. All that, while allowing the less courageous like myself a still challenging but quite manageable adventure across the nine realms of Norse Mythology where its strong narrative, as strong if not more so than the 2018 predecessor, acts as being as important as the combat and exploration.

God of War: Ragnarok joins the likes of 1994’s Doom II and 2010’S Fallout: New Vegas in being a sequel that on the surface and especially at first seems identical to the prior game. It’s not merely a case of Ragnarok going for the “If it ain’t broke…” mentality, it slowly but surely reveals itself to be an ambitious expansion of what has come before, giving you more of what was but better and with further complexity. For some, Doom II’s near identical nature to the original Doom was saved from ridicule not merely from featuring new enemies and levels, but the introduction of one of the most iconic video game weapons ever, the glorious super shotgun, a double barrelled weapon where it indeed doubled the fun.

Does God of War Ragnarok give ever grimacing anti-hero Kratos a new weapon, to accompany his Blades of Chaos from the original titles and the Leviathan Axe brought in from the last game? Well, this is a partial spoiler review, so yes, it does do that. The new weapon, not that I will name it or give details, is not the sole thing that makes Ragnarok a superior game from God of War 2018, like perhaps the super shotgun was for Doom II. It’s one of many separate elements that add up to it being a superior title and at the same time, a companion piece of a sequel, like how Godfather part II fit that bill and in the realm of video games, Red Dead Redemption II and Last of Us part II do the same. Welcome to the club.

More importantly, it expands the number of tools or utility to what Kratos and his son Atreus can do either in combat or simply exploring and finding ways to traverse. Part of this is a consequence of all nine realms being accessible and with it, new possibilities arrive in what can be done within this Norse era for the God of War series. It might even act as something of a loose crash course on the Norse mythology, it’s ideas and iconography like how Kratos’ original six adventures scoured Greek mythology for ideas, even if it was often relegated for something new and exotic to fight.

Recap time

Three or so years have passed since the end of the first game where Kratos and Atreus, while on a journey to spread the ashes of Faye, the former’s wife and latter’s mother, accidentally begin the countdown to Ragnarok, the Norse end of the world. Their journey gets them in conflict with Baldur, who himself is both obsessed with killing the father and son because it can get him back in his father Odin’s good graces and because they have made friends with his mother Freya, who in this interpretation is also Odin’s wife Frigg. Or ex-wife at least.

Freya placed a spell on Baldur, all to protect him from any possible harm due to receiving a prophecy proclaiming an untimely death. Baldur views it as a curse as the spell not only made him invulnerable but robbed him of the ability to feel anything. He despises his mother for it and her being in association with Kratos and Atreus only makes him enjoy his mission from Odin more. However, in a freak moment fighting the father and son, all while Freya tries to stop the fight, up to and including reanimating a dead giant, Baldur makes contact with some mistletoe on Atreus, neither being aware it was the only thing that could break the spell, rendering Freya’s son vulnerable but with once more the ability to feel.

Baldur is joyous and Freya is horrified that her prophesied to die son is in danger after centuries. Baldur makes her way to Freya, ready to strangle her to death for the countless years she forced him to live a miserable existence, all to protect him. Kratos, aware of the dangers of vengeance being exacted, the cycles it causes, namely because he was part of one cycle which destroyed the Greek pantheon and his homeland, takes Baldur from Freya and snaps his neck.

Freya is livid with rage at the prophecy coming true, let alone from someone like Kratos who had become her friend, and swears revenge on him. Not only does the end of God of War 2018 set up the theme of whether cycles that define us, actions we took before can ever be forgiven or made up for, but it also helps establish the greatest theme of God of War: Ragnarok, the predeterministic fear of prophecy and if fate can be challenged, let alone for the better. Baldur’s death which fulfills the prophecy Freya spent so much of her life trying to prevent, bleeds in to another, Ragnarok itself. As Baldur lays dead, Freya cradling him, Kratos and Atreus finish their journey to spread the ashes.

The first snows of Fimbulwinter begin to fall, the prelude to Ragnarok. At the end of the journey, the two arrive at the tallest peak in all the realms per Faye’s wishes, on Jotunheim. There in the realm of the giants do father and son learn a good number of things: all of the giants that had fled home from Odin’s genocidal wrath and closed the gateway to it have somehow died. A massive mural they find shows that the giants had predicted accurately the course of Kratos and Atreus’ story. That Faye was in fact, Laufey and that Atreus was all along this take on Norse mythology’s Loki.

Kratos also sees and hides from his son events yet to be, that of his own death and his son mourning his fall. Despite being a new, triumphant beginning for one of the PlayStation’s most successful franchises, it seemed to signal that it’s mascot Kratos was bound for a permanent end. I say permanent as back in the Greek era, Kratos died a couple of times but still crawled his way out of Hades.

Base Review

There’s lot to unpack as God of War Ragnarok opens with fimbulwinter having fully engulfed Midgard, also known as Earth’s Scandinavia. It’s a miracle of the deft writing that it has so much to deal with, let alone as a follow-up for an earlier title, that it somehow stays in focus. That it also still manages to do justice to Kratos’ own storyline dating all the way back from the 2005 original game is an act of, well, godly proportions.

Despite the worlds-shattering, potentially apocalyptic conflict that Kratos and Atreus find themself in, it is even more an allegory than last time for the tribulations that a real life father and son will go through. Namely, when said son reaches the teenage years. So many moments, in spite of the mythic context, can play well as arguments and discussions between father and son. The son, having reached adolescence, starts to wonder what to do with his life, what his path will be and how will it connect with his father. Is his course of action right or his source of authority, dear ol’ dad, still right?

This is made further difficult by how Kratos was keeping more than a few secrets from his son out of fear over how he would view him last time around. Understandable if still the wrong move, due to the destructive actions of his old life, up to and including killing his own father, who happened to be Zeus.

Circumstances, much spoiler laden, force Loki to start keeping secrets of his own, much to Kratos’ frustration. Dad wants to hole up to avoid Ragnarok despite it being prophesied, while the son would prefer to take action, in the hopes of stopping it for one. This schism and interplay between the two that carries from the first is one of the defining strengths on both an emotional and intellectual level. It gives you something to chew on when you’re not considering which weapon to use and how in the coming fights.

Despite being a review with some spoilers, I still feel the desire to refrain from major plot beats unless there is something specific that I need to bring up. It’s a journey where father and son reunite with old friends like the Dwarven brothers and blacksmiths Brok and Sindri, make new allies in the likes of the Norse god of war Tyr, though both in action and appearance, he would much prefer the Jesus route along a considerable number of others and of course make new enemies such as the rest of the Aesir, the highest level of God in the Norse pantheon, led by Odin.

Can’t forget Mimir, the Norse God of Wisdom who returns from the last game still a decapitated yet living head who acts as the biggest expert on basically anything Kratos and Atreus need to know about the realms they visit. He is both one of the most important and for me, annoying side characters. His heavily Scottish accent can be grating to me at times though it became notably unbearable during the tough as nails optional boss encounters, where Mimir’s recycled advice and dialogue during combat became essentially an unintended weapon of the boss against Kratos and me the player. For the PC port I imagine is on the way, I hope someone makes a mod where Mimir goes quiet during combat.

Speaking of the Aesir, let’s talk about them. God of War’s depiction of Gods has always been from a cynical, “power corrupts” attitude. They’re often the bad guys or at least morally poor enough that epically fighting them as Kratos can be on some layer satisfying, even if the games also second guess Kratos’ self destructive actions.

First is Odin, who is an Orwellian control freak and more unpleasant and downright evil than Zeus, despite appearing on the surface far weaker and in behavior more affable. While Zeus only once used deception against Kratos, Odin is all about lying and tricking his ass off on anyone who gets in his way or can be of use to him.

It is ironic, intentionally, that in spite of Atreus being Loki, the God of mischief and deception, he only deceives and causes mischief reluctantly and out of desperation to protect his father and friends. Sometimes he doesn’t even realize the mischief part. Odin, all for the pursuit of knowledge at any cost and to protect his own ass from dying at Ragnarok, lies as much as Littlefinger would and does so with an even more convincing “I’m on your side or not your enemy” shtick that even I was almost falling for it. What almost did so in truth is that Atreus’ exposure to Odin gets him in contact with the rest of the Aesir on Asgard through a reckless though ultimately meaningful action on his part. He sees that not all the Asgardians are remorseless monsters, evidenced best by Thor’s wife Sif and his daughter Thrud. Speaking of the God of Thunder…

The God of War depiction of Thor not only ekes closer to the mythological Thor than Marvel’s well known version, both on and off the big screen, but as many have stated especially in light of the divisively received fourth movie, many prefer this Thor to Hemsworth’s. He’s super fat, even more so than the obese one from Avengers Endgame, though that does nothing to stop him from being a fierce opponent when confronting him in battle. He’s a recovering alcoholic, trying to get over the death of his two sons (which Kratos and Atreus were forced to fight and kill last time) and the fact that in spite of his gleeful bloodlust, feels that his loyalty to his father Odin has compromised his family situation, especially with his daughter who is indeed way too good for him.

With much evidence given in the prior game, this Thor has done many terrible things. He was most responsible for driving the Jotnar (Giants) to near extinction on his father’s orders and shows no remorse for it, in spite of he himself like Atreus being half-giant. How much of who this Thor is being his father’s influence acts as a dark counter-example to the same question given between Atreus and Kratos.

Finally, there’s Heimdall, the man who guards the great wall protecting Asgard from attack and his death in particular is when Ragnarok will be truly nigh. He is in some ways a spiritual successor to GOW’s version of Hermes from the Greek era, showcased in 2010’s God of War III. Of all the Olympian Gods, Hermes is the one meant to get on the player (and Kratos’) nerves the most. He is constantly talking, constantly belittling and demeaning Kratos, in spite of many of his barbs being ultimately true. Nevertheless, for the player’s own relief from his nagging presence when he appears, he gets one of the most drawn out and ruthless deaths in the series, for that particular reason.

Heimdall isn’t so much an annoying jester like Hermes as he is an insufferably pompous narcissist, who might be just as evil and callous as Odin, though the latter often pretends or obfuscates that reality. Heimdall is loyal only to Odin and without that, he would have no redeeming qualities if you can call loyalty in a vacuum a quality truly.

What makes Heimdall’s personality click so well is that he has the power of foresight where he can magically read both the intentions of anyone he meets as well as know when to counter every attack. From that comes his overconfident smugness. This Taskmaster-like ability makes him an unforgettable opponent when confronted in-game. His bout against Kratos will go down as one of my favorite boss encounters in the God of War series, for a franchise that is especially honored for that very thing.

More than the first, God of War: Ragnarok gives many avenues to explore the considerable suite of combat options that are unlockable over the long haul. New types of enemies appear that have defenses which negate one weapon and forces Kratos to use the other. Over time, especially when you get the new third weapon, you find that the properties of your weapons have abilities or effects, some manually set by you, that can create a great sense of discovery in how you overcome and damage your opponents. It was there last time, this element, but it is far more present now. The many challenges that awards you experience for beating enemies further emphasizes a desire to experiment in how you use Kratos’ three weapons of war.

Most of the fun doesn’t come simply from the rhythm of encounters but in how your exploration can help tailor a different feel to the experience. In several, not all, of the realms, there is a sense of continuous discovery, learning how this inaccessible place can be made so, what you discover along the way can help temper you for what could be around the corner. For every section, where you must follow the game’s direction, there are many more times ultimately where the game all but breaks the fourth wall and says to you that you can take a break and just go somewhere else, somewhere optional.

Find some treasure that can improve your abilities, allow you to upgrade your armor. Find more enemies off the beaten path that can give you the needed time to improve and iterate on certain skills. Go back to a place you’ve already been and discover new parts if it with new loot, new souvenirs and maybe even a surprising boss encounter. Or, it can be as simple as learning more about the realm you’re exploring, its history and maybe even solve a mystery here or there.

It is the sheer amount of content that God of War: Ragnarok ultimately offers you, maybe even more than the first, that helps make up for the one time where the fun slackens and you’re given something narratively nourishing, by all means quite important, but not so much when it comes to gameplay or the potential open-ended sense of exploration.

Thematically and mechanically speaking, it makes sense that Atreus is given controllable sections for the first time, away from Kratos. It makes narrative sense too. What I recognized early on was that making Atreus for some segments the player character was to represent that Atreus is growing up, that Kratos’ survival and combat training is paying off. It again reflects how whenever someone reaches teen-hood, they are more likely, with or without their parent’s permission, to go out by themselves for any given reason. It’s Independence, learning to start living part so you’re ready when your father isn’t there anymore.

While a good amount of depth is given to Atreus with his bow and arrow skills, it can never match the satisfaction of fighting with Kratos’ complement of weapons. The lack of unique animations for when Atreus finishes off an opponent also adds to his sections, few and far between as they are, feeling more dull. It doesn’t help that all of the Atreus sections are highly scripted with very little deviation from the chosen path, no matter how narratively consequential they may be. Turning control over to Atreus also signals that any ability or choice to go off the story path and on to something optional is being left with Kratos at the same time.

There are great, even impactful story moments here and that does help somewhat, but no matter how hard Santa Monica tried and you can tell they did, some part of you will likely feel as I did the impatience to get back to being Kratos. It’s a necessary evil and maybe the feedback from those sections will color in what Santa Monica Studios will do for whatever comes next, but it’s an experiment that doesn’t always work. That’s why the overall amount of content for 100% completion feels more relieving than exhausting for once as not only does it act, such as on a second playthrough and onward as a comforting reminder, but it makes you recognize that God of War: Ragnarok will be more of the game you want it to be than not.

I could look at a checklist of all the things that can ultimately be done throughout the game but many of those activities even in a spoilery review for a game that has become one of Sony’s fastest selling titles ever feels like a disservice to give away. Entire sections containing content are meant as big, pleasant surprises for those inquisitive enough.

God of War: Ragnarok, despite is grim title, is an uplifting experience. Not only does it involve more of what you love from God of War 2018, it does it better, with more layers added while narrowly avoiding the danger of running into feature creep and become like natural extensions, a bunch of branches like on the great World Tree that holds the nine realms you traverse. I kinda wondered whenever I near or reached total completion of the last God of War how much more of the gameplay loop for the series could be utilized.

Well, I got my answer and the result was much more pleasant than even I was expecting.. It is both a narrative and gameplay masterstroke, let alone for acting as continuation. It leaves you feeling like you have experienced a more complete story, like the prior game cannot exist with this one in truth and yet, against all odds, it leaves you once again eager to see what adventures Kratos, Atreus and the rest have in store for us, almost certainly in distant lands full of new pantheons to explore and go up against.

So long as there are other places with their own tales of beings greater than us in power, so shall there be the chance for another God of War odyssey. Let us hope they are half as good as what the Viking world offered us.

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