I don’t think I’ve seen so many new horrors as I have this year. AND IT’S ONLY MARCH!!! I’m not going to list off all of them, as at this time in the morning hours with only one cup of coffee to keep my brain functioning, cannot recall. Though some honorable mentions are due. XX, a 4 film horror anthology directed by Jovanka Vuckovic, Annie Clark, Roxanne Benjamin, and Karyn Kusama, was a stellar performance, despite some notes falling flat. Another one that was actually listed as a 2016 movie, but I saw in January, so it counts on my list for this year, and that flick was Split…which split critics while still bringing in rather respectable ratings from audiences, not just because it released (late Dec?) in January (the month movies go to die), but also because it was a return of sorts for M. Night Shyamalan. This last movie brings up a point that I’d like to address. Maybe I haven’t really been paying close enough attention, but when did Blumhouse start producing good horror movies? And back to back, mind you. As per our double feature review here of Get Out and The Belko Experiment (more on those to follow), add in Split, and that’s two out of three money making horror movies for the apparently expanding horror flick producer. No complaints here. Blumhouse’s wheelhouse has added a sort of balance for me and my comic book movie obsession. So…lets get into this and take a look at two horror flicks, both of which I had the pleasure of screening on back to back weekends.
Let’s kick things off with The Belko Experiment.
Produced by, you guessed it, Blumhouse, directed by Greg McLean. From IMDb, “In a twisted social experiment, 80 Americans are locked in their high-rise corporate office in Bogotá, Colombia and ordered by an unknown voice coming from the company’s intercom system to participate in a deadly game of kill or be killed.” I think it’s important to note that the screenplay was written by Guardian of the Galaxy director James Gunn who was originally asked to direct this movie but decided to step back for personal reasons. This was the most recent horror flick I’d gone to theaters to see, mostly out of having some free time come up and why not, right. I had a good feeling the theater would be empty and it pretty much was. Not for lack of trying for the producers. I’d seen a share number of advertisements both on the radio and on TV. And judging by said previews, the plot wasn’t hard to decipher. This wasn’t one of those kinds of movies. Here, there was no twist ending, and if the ending was supposed to be one, well…sorry buddy, I believe Joss Whedon already pulled it off in Cabin in the Woods. Not to get spoilerly here, as this is still showing in theaters. But you’ll get it when you see it, a very Cabin in the Woods kinda vibe. And that’s also not to say that Th Belko Experiment was bad. I actually enjoyed it. I didn’t have to think too much. It was a dark humorous action thriller with plenty of gore to please most horror fans. There were a few aahhs and ohhs from the audience when someone’s face got split in two with an ax, or when someone who’d been doing all the right things in a horror movie suddenly without much warning gets killed.
That can kinda sum up The Belko Experiment. A boiling pot of other movies and mixtures such as Office Space meets Battle Royal meeting Cabin in the Woods. People who came looking for a mystery to solve probably left feeling disappointed, as it seems many other movie critics and audiences had, given the poor showing on Rotten Tomatoes or how it was pretty much cast into the back of the theater on opening day. Hell, the theater I normally go had stopped showing it, forcing me to drive an extra five miles to the next theater. Bastards! For me, I knew before the movie started what it was going to be. I knew there’d be one or no survivors. I came for the nihilistic violence and nihilistic violence is what I got. The Belko Experiment wasn’t perfect, not by a long shot. The story seemed to falter against the easy to predict concept of the film. Too much attention was given to certain officer works battling internally over the dilemma of their humanity. I think if producers and director had turned the volume up on the violence, making it a sort of hyper-violent nihilistic movie, it would have been a shade better.
My rating: 3.5 of 5
Now…how about we Get Out.
It’s been two weeks since I saw Get Out. And while the movie had been out for at least a week if not more before I journeyed to the theater, if there were any doubts as to its popularity, let me say…my theater was not empty. Not at all. I’m rather certain it was plum full. The same happened to me when I saw Split. Packed theater. And for a horror movie no less, whether you liked the movie or not, should make you a little optimistic about the future of the genre, if you’re a genre fan, that is. Get Out was directed and written by comedian Jordan Peele (from Key & Peele and Wanderlust fame). And this was Peeles first go at directing, or directing a horror flick at the least. I can say without question that I wish upon a star that he returns to the director’s chair for another romp. For those who do not know, Get Out is about “a young African-American man who visits his Caucasian girlfriend’s mysterious family estate.” And that’s pretty much all you need to know. The plot is rather simple, actually. But the twist…oh my, it is almost too good.
Don’t worry. No spoilers here. I’d wouldn’t do that to you. But let me say for those who were told or believe that Get Out is an anti-white movie, you are DEAD WRONG. They (or you) couldn’t be furthest from the truth. In fact, I’d say this movie pokes more fun at white liberals than staunch racists. Racism is there, you can’t avoid it, just as you cannot avoid it in everyday life. But the real gem of this movie is the natural way it highlights the awkwardness between African Americans and Caucasian Americans. The scenes dealing with this phenomena are quite brilliant. And there are layers are weirdness that can only be described as such. And there are scenes that make little sense and/or do not add to the quality of the movie, nor do they take anything away. They’re kinda just….well…there. I’m assuming Peele’s way of appealing to traditional horror flick fans.
Also, don’t be fooled by those espresso hipsters, those fascist wannabes who think they know everything. Get Out is a horror movie in every definition. Just as there are multiple ways of horrifying audiences, when Get Out pulled out its heart-stopping end, I was truly terrified. When I allow myself to be put in his shoes and those who came before him, well…it kinda reminded me of some terrifyingly strange classic sci-fi flicks from the late 50s and 60s, with perhaps a touch of H.P. Lovecraft. Not to show my hand or anything, I’m trying not to spoil as the movie is still showing in theaters. You really do need to see this for yourself. Trust me. I had the assumption of what was going on and when I found out I was wrong, I was very surprisingly pleased. And it’s one of those surprise endings that make you think back over the course of the movie, and when you do, you’ll nod your head and say, “Oh, that’s why…” etc. etc. Get Out is by far my favorite horror movie of the year, thus far.
My rating: 5 of 5
Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of character-driven stories of dark fiction. He resides in Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter. His debut novel, Reinheit, is published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein, Apocalypse Meow, Lanmò, and his newest release, The Hobbsburg Horror. His military/paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, including Dwelling, Emerging, Conceiving, and Converging (coming soon), are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston Clear Lake with a Bachelors in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he reviews movies and books on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can keep up with Thomas and all his strange events by joining his author newsletter, at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.
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Watch the skies! Keep your family close. A new terror is invading our world. They are…KRITES…no wait, sorry, CRITTERS…yeah, definitely that! If you’re a nerd, such as myself, then you are probably aware of such a movie called “Critters,” and the three other sequels that followed. Critters is not the first horror-comedy to grace this Creature Features series, but at the same time, it is something quite unique. When you think “monster movies” you kinda assume something like gigantic lizards that breath fire, or mutant genetically altered insects, or maybe even meteor shit that turns out to be some sort of alien slug that turns people into a mess of zombified conglomerated flesh. But when we get catch phrases like, “They bite,” and “When you got Critters, you need all the help you can get,” we sort of don’t know what to think. Is this movie serious? Or is it pure spoof comedy? Is it even horror? On one spectrum, you’ve got Roger Ebert giving this flick a thumbs up back in 1986 while on the other hand sporting a meager 43% audience approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Some critics have called Critters “Gremlins on acid,” (MovieHole) while others have said that “Critters [is] a franchise [that] has nothing on the Nightmare on Elm Street films, but it’s proven popular enough with Gen X-ers who forward ‘You know you’re a child of the ’80s if…’ emails to all their office mates” (Slate Magazine.) So what is it about Critters that appeals to some while turns away others?
Let’s take this one step at a time.
To get us started, here is a wonderful synopsis by our friends over at IMDb:
“A race of small, furry aliens make lunch out of the locals in a farming town.”
BRAVO!!!! Okay, well, my work here is done, folks. Furry aliens make lunch…oh, you can’t get any better than that people, that is pure gold. Well, as pure usual, they aren’t wrong. Here’s what I got while watching the movie for the…jeez…I don’t know, maybe twentieth time maybe? Somewhere around there. As our heroes over at IMDb pointed out, yes, furry aliens do make lunch, but as the New Line Cinema bold red screen appears, one Nightmare on Elm Street fans should recognize with a sense of glee, the screen opens on a giant space rock that so happens to also be a prison. We don’t really get to see much here, just a bunch of dialogue going on off screen. Supposedly, a violent criminal species known as Krites are being transported to the facility. Right away we’re told they “eat everything.” Just as my Magic 8-Ball predicted, the Krites escape the facility by stealing a space vessel and take off toward planet Earth. Here we get little (get it?) glimpses of the Krites, their claws and hear their language which has been thankfully translated for us via closed captioning.
The warden on this highly secured prison, who looks like the Caterpiller from Alice in Wonderland, hires “the bounty hunters” to track down these fiendish hungry villains and dispatch them. And it’s around here when the screen opens on a quaint small farm in a quiet small town. Nothing much to hate about this place. We’ve got our A typical American breed family. Pa and Ma and big sister and little mischevious bro Brown. A stark difference to the science fiction space opera going on in the beginning. Here we’ve got one of the most overused and iconic of horror and sci-fi backdrops, the American farming town. But given the opening, there’s already a feeling of helter skelter. What are we watching? Horror or sci-fi? Is this ET or “Gremlins on acid?” I have no idea, but I do know one thing, we’ve got Dee Wallace, ET’s Henry Thomas’s mother in nearly the same dubious role as the harried Ma Brown of young Brad Brown (played by Scott Grimes who I believed was actually a younger Judd Nelson), our plucky kid hero who goes to battle against these Krites; Critter invaders.
Several scenes play out as we patiently wait for what we really came here to see. Aliens eating people and GORE. Spoiler: the latter you’re not going to get much of, sorry. My biggest concern watching this film was regarding young Brad. Now, yes, we all adore the stereotypical young boy who loves fireworks and plays with M-80s, whistlin’ bungholes, spleen splitters, whisker biscuits, honkey lighters, hoosker doos, hoosker don’ts, cherry bombs, nipsy daisers, scooter stick, and whistlin’ kitty chasers. But good God man, this kid is packing more than your typical firecracker. This thing is a bomb. His father reprimands him, also looking a bit weary about his son’s interest in explosives. Later, we see Brad sent to his room where he has a workbench of destruction and assembles what looks a lot like a stick of dynamite. Seriously, where are this kid’s parents?
Two highlights soon follow. Billy Zane and Bill Zane’s death. More on that to follow. Zane must have been just starting out acting when Critters came along. He looks quite young and only has a few lines. I did like that they made the big sister and girlfriend of Zane’s (played by Canada’s sweetheart Nadine Van der Velde) as the promiscuous one. She’d practically dragging young Zane up into the loft where she has prepared a sort of love nest, complete with 80s jams. Earlier, when Pa learns of his daughter’s new New York city boyfriend, he quickly asks his wife if they’ve had the talk on “how things are.” Jeez, I can only imagine what that talk as about consider sister Brown’s later behavior. But hey, who am I to judge the phenomenal romance of teenage love?
As far as horror movies go. I do not think this is such. This wasn’t horrifying. Even the going into the basement scary scene wasn’t really scary. It’s hard to be scared with Gremlin sized furballs cracking jokes in some strange intergalactic language. That’s not to say Critters wasn’t good. Critters is actually a fun movie to watch. The characters are not deep or complex, but their motivations are easy to understand and thus we do not have to invest a lot of brain power with them. Just as with the plot, though seemingly complex with the beforementioned space opera, it’s actually an oversimplification of several movies that came out in the space of 1986. Critters is without a doubt “Gremlins on acid,” it’s also got a touch of The Terminator with the machine-like bounty hunters and the garb they wear. And director Stephen Herek (director of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure) is not shy poking fun at ET. There’s a great scene with one of the Krites talking with a stuffed ET doll, yelling “Who are you!” And then ripping the doll’s head off. Looking back at Herek’s resume, it’s easy to see that he is mostly a fan of light hearted-humored movies. He wants to have fun and that mood is clearly carried throughout the film.
One of my favorite scenes involves Dee Wallace versus one the Critters that attack the family while they are retreating back into their house from the porch. The family gets back inside, and out on the porch one Critter turns to the other and warns that they “have weapons.” His Critter buddy replies, “So what?” Dee Wallace sticks out the barrel of her shotgun through the door and blows the “so what” Critter into goo. his buddy turns to his dispatched friend and screams “Fuck!” in his own intergalactic language, shown to use again by that marvelous closed captioning. It’s little moments like this sprinkled throughout the movie that makes Critters fun and funny to watch.
Oh, I also forgot. This town, as the sheriff (played by the fantastic M. Emmet Walsh) was quick to say, is a circus, and just like any good or decent circus, it comes complete with its very own town drunk/alien conspiracy nut/minor-leaguye baseball washout by the name of Charlie (played by Don Keith Opper). Charlie is quick to predict the arrival of the aliens, either by the feelings in his fillings or by dumb luck, the latter more like, and fumbles his way throughout the entire movie, stepping up at the very end by lofting a molotov cocktail into the alien spacecraft, destroying it and the creatures inside, thus saving the day. What I liked more about the end was the utter “fuck you” given by the Krites as they attempt to flee, firing a laser on the American Dream, portrayed in this movie with the Brown’s farm house, blowing brick and wood and shingles to smithereens. It’s usually in moments like this when I begin to formulate any possible meanings or questions the movie and or director are trying to convey. Seeing the destruction of the “American Dream” begs the question of what’s most important to us, was the “Dream” a lie all along? Was keeping the family together the most important part and that even when you’ve done everything right you will not necessarily get to ride off into the sunset?
Well…as I was pondering these questions I had believed the movie was asking, the preverbal reset button was pushed and the house rebuilt itself via a device given to Brad as a “thank you” from the aliens. In seconds, the house is restored to its original glory. Watching this and then seeing the credits roll I was left somewhat dumb stuck. Did the director just punk me, as I image he punked countless over movie reviewers before me? Maybe.
Regardless, Critters is certainly a classic film, one that kids of the 80’s without a doubt share in email and threads on social media as one of those flicks that defined an era. The mood was lighthearted, and despite certain scenes with F-bombs being dropped, I’d say Critters is family friendly. Could they have upped the gore and blood and violence and made this sucker even more of a satire than what it turned out to be? I think I would have loved it even more! But the lack of blood and guts doesn’t deter me from enjoying some 1980s nostalgia.
My rating: 4/5
Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of several stories of dark fiction. He resides in Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter. His debut novel, Reinheit, is published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein, Apocalypse Meow, Lanmo, and his latest release, THE HOBBSBURG HORROR. His military/paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, including Dwelling, Emerging, Conceiving, and Converging (coming soon) are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston Clear Lake with a Bachelor’s in History. He blogs here at machinemean[dot]org, where he does author interviews and reviews on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can keep up with Thomas and all his strange books by joining his author newsletter, at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.
The Hobbsburg Horror NOW AVAILABLE !!!
Again I find myself mesmerized by the complexity of the creature features subgenre. And as a first, thus far in our little series, we find ourselves in the midst of a horror-comedy within the creature feature mythology. The gory ridiculous atmosphere of Slither (2006) is no doubt the responsibility of its creator, directed no less than by Guardian of the Galaxy symphonist James Gunn. Now, as most already probably know but I’ll mention it here again, Gunn has an interesting repertoire of cinematic exploits. He was the director who took on the remake to Dawn of the Dead (1978), keeping certain elements whilst still maintaining itself as a stand alone movie ALL THE WHILE pleasing not just audiences, but fans of George A. Romero’s beloved classic. But Gunn is not without question…he did have a hand in those live-action Scooby-Doo movies and the not so cult-classic Tales from the Crapper. This weekend, apparently The Belko Experiment, in which Gunn wrote the screenplay, will finally be released to theaters, having started playing trailers off and on as far back as November of 2016, has already come under fire from critics. So where does that leave Slither? Well…I think I’ll leave that explanation on the shoulders of our esteemed guest contributor, Jonny Numb.
By: Jonny Numb
Universal’s decision to let James Gunn direct Slither was an act of faith that spoke to the studio’s appreciation of how his Dawn of the Dead screenplay – coupled with Zack Snyder’s direction – led that film to box-office success.
The result – a 1950s-styled creature feature that combined practical FX with CGI – was a pastiche with a disparate cast (including cult favorites Nathan Fillion and Michael Rooker, and rising star Elizabeth Banks) that had a mercilessly short theatrical run.
I get it because I wasn’t a fan of Slither when I first saw it on DVD. I can’t remember why it didn’t click for me – maybe because it leaned on “backwoods redneck” character types too much (and that specific type of humor); maybe because my taste in sci-fi is maddeningly specific; and maybe – just maybe – it was because I had yet to be exposed to the wonders of Captain Mal on Firefly.
In any event, I revisited the film last year (for the first time in a decade) and was surprised that my feelings toward it had improved. While problematic in places (mostly in the wobbly, tone-setting early going), Slither grows into a bizarre and sneakily subversive take on the sci-fi it’s paying loving homage to:
The Blob (either version). The Thing (Carpenter version). Invasion of the Body Snatchers (mostly the ‘50s version).
There are also subtle-to-obvious references to the works of David Cronenberg and Roman Polanski, as well as Gunn’s former tenure as a screenwriter for Troma (including a Lloyd Kaufman cameo); and keep an eye on the Main Street storefronts during the opening credits for more sly Easter Eggs.
Grant Grant (Rooker) is a macho sleazeball in cheesy glasses who’s married to trophy wife (and elementary-school teacher) Starla (Banks). Spurned by his wife’s refusal to fulfill her duty as willing sex object one night, Grant meets up with local bar girl Brenda (Brenda James). In a bit of cosmic irony, they find themselves in the woods, and Grant has feelings of remorse before he can consummate any carnal desires. More ironic still, this leads Grant to the discovery of a translucent egg-sac with a symbolically vaginal opening, one from which something shoots out, infecting him with an extraterrestrial parasite. After the transformed, meat-craving Grant impregnates Brenda, she becomes the “mother” to the alien invasion.
Once the parasites explode (literally), Slither really kicks into gear. Gleefully grotesque practical effects – and some CGI that hasn’t aged as well – ensue.
To make a hard right turn: does anyone really talk about Kylie (Tania Saulnier), and how she’s probably the smartest, most resourceful character in the movie?
Only on my most recent viewing did it occur to me that we see her not once (in the high-school classroom), but twice (in the crowd at the town’s “Deer Cheer” event) before being properly introduced around the family dinner table (where she makes reference to the “Japanese” design of her painted fingernails (tentacles much?). Her character is at the center of a great setpiece midway through, during which she’s taking a bath with her earbuds in, and winds up fending off a parasite with a curling iron. Even more so than the scene’s well-taken stylistic nods to A Nightmare on Elm Street and Shivers, notice how Gunn allows Kylie to react as rationally as the situation will allow, without turning it into an excuse for T&A or a gory money shot. When the tub parasite nearly shoots down her throat, Kylie briefly taps into the aliens’ shared consciousness – and the glimpses of havoc on an unnamed planet far, far away certainly foreshadows Gunn’s eventual segue into the world of high-budget comic-book blockbusters.
Rather ingeniously, the DVD cover for Slither – that of Kylie in the tub, being descended upon by thousands of squirming parasites – represents the film more accurately than most video-art concepts (which tend toward hyperbole). It’s unsubtle without really giving anything away, and Gunn subverts expectations for the scene itself by guiding it to a surprising conclusion. The sequence of events that follows the tub encounter is brilliantly rendered, and reminded me of Barbara’s full-moon escape from the farmhouse in Night of the Living Dead (yes, the 1990 remake).
There are other things, as well:
The comic relief of Mayor Jack MacReady (played by Brian De Palma regular Gregg Henry), who – in look and demeanor – bears an eerie resemblance to a certain boorish ex-reality-TV star. He’s paranoid, perpetually angry, casually misogynistic, and at one point asks if the town’s being “invaded by the Russkies.” Gunn’s smart handling ensures that we’re always laughing at this clown, and Henry is definitely in on the joke.
Meanwhile, Starla transitions from Grant’s doormat to a model of marriage to, eventually, a woman who wakes up to the fact that her husband’s internal ugliness has manifested on the outside in a way that’s rather poetic. Their final confrontation is a fine demonstration of Beauty no longer tolerating the Beast’s shit.
So maybe, finally, the film resembles Bride of the Monster (but in title only. Thank God).
One nagging question, though: even with the padlock on the basement door, how did the stench of all those dead pets not make its way through the vents in the Grant household?
Jonny Numb’s Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Jon Weidler, aka Jonny Numb, is no stranger here on Machine Mean. He has contributed for us Abbott and Costello Meet The Mummy (1955) AND Clean, Shaven for our Fright Fest month back in October. Mr. Weidler works for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania by day but is a podcast superhero by night. He co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast under the moniker “Jonny Numb,” and is a regular contributor to the Crash Palace Productions and Loud Green Bird websites. His archived movie reviews can be found at numbviews.livejournal.com, and his social media handle is @JonnyNumb (Twitter & Letterboxd). You can read his review of A&C Meet Mummyhere.
Tune into The Last Knock for the best of HORROR movie reviews!
Among the horror community, there are certain names that can go unnoticed. New directors and cult indies that simply do not get enough limelight. And there are others in which one ought to know regularly. If there was a quiz, you should know the names of Wes Craven, David Cronenberg, George A. Romero, Alfred Hitchcock, James Whale, Guillermo del Toro, Sam Raimi, and Tobe Hooper as the most easily recognizable of horror directors. Wes Craven gave us (among so much more) Freddy Krueger. Cronenberg gave us Videodrome (among his other visceral work). Romero created an entirely new monster subgenre, zombies. Hitchcock paved the way for most of everyone on this list, starting, I think, with Shadow of a Doubt (1943), but most people probably know him best for Psycho. James Whale, another original pavemaker, gave us Frankenstein. del Toro brought horror into the depths of imagination. Sam Raimi locked us away in the cabin in The Evil Dead. And Tobe Hooper chased us into the sunset with a chainsaw. All these names of known for certain achievements. And in all transparency, even while you’re reading this article, there are probably differing movies you remember or associate with each director best. One director, obviously unnamed in my little list here, if we dug deeper in the cesspool of horror fandom, we’d probably wallow in some pretty nasty disagreement on which of his movies he is best known for. Personally, as a fan of his work, our still yet unnamed director (can you guess?), I’d be amiss not to do a “favorites list” on this the day of his birth. To keep things not too lengthy, this will be limited to my top five favorites (which will NOT be easy) ending on THE movie I think he is best known by. So, hold on to your butts, from least to best, the following are my five favorite movies by none other than John Carpenter.
5. The Fog (1980)
If we’re talking personal favorites, The Fog would certainly go to the top of the pile. But if we’re talking which of Carpenter’s movies he is best known for, well…I have my doubts, even within the horror community, of those who associate Carpenter with The Fog. For starters, The Fog isn’t as over-the-top as some of his later projects. It is simple. Banal. And contained. Yet, in that simplicity, there is a wonderfully fantastic film built on classic gothic themes. A weather-beaten old fisherman tells an ancient tale of betrayal and death to fascinated children as they huddle together by their campfire. An eerie fog envelops Antonio Bay, and from the mist emerge dripping demonic phantoms of a century old shipwreck…seeking revenge.
4. Escape From New York (1981)
Now we’re getting into the nitty-gritty. However, much like The Fog, I’m unconvinced how well known Escape from New York is a John Carpenter flick. I think most would be able to tell you Kurt Russell is in it, but other than that…? Regardless, Escape From New York is definitely on my top five list for Carpenter pictures. Here, Carpenter introduces us to some rather complex characters without having to spend too much time on them. Instead, Carpenter focuses on the action as he bravely takes us into the future, a not so far fetched future where crime is out of control and New York City is converted into a maximum security prison. When the President’s plane crashes in old Gotham, the powers that be recruit tough as nails Snake Plissken, a one-eyed former war hero now turned outlaw, into bringing the President, and his cargo (nuke codes), out of this land of confusion.
3. Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
Without a doubt, not only do moviegoers in the horror community know and can easily associate Big Trouble in Little China with John Carpenter, but so can those who do not frequent horror movies, and that’s mostly because Big Trouble in Little China is not technically a horror movie. I think it could be labeled mostly as sci-fi fantasy and comedy action. And as ole Jack Burton says, this flick is one of the most quotable of all of Carpenter’s work. The film is an unexpected classic following a tough-talking, wisecracking truck driver named Jack Burton whose life on the road takes a sudden supernatural tailspin when his friend’s fiancee is kidnapped. Speeding to the rescue, Jack finds himself deep beneath San Francisco’s Chinatown, in a murky, creature-filled world ruled by Lo Pan, a 2000-year-old magician who mercilessly presides over an empire of spirits. Dodging demons and facing baffling terrors, Jack battles his way through Lo Pan’s dark domain in a full-throttle, action-riddled ride to rescue the girl.
2. Halloween (1978)
His one movie that sparked a franchise, I’d be really shocked to discover anyone who didn’t know this flick was one of John Carpenter’s. And I swear to all that is holy, if I ever asked someone, “Hey, have you seen Halloween?” And they told me, “Oh, you mean that Rob Zombie movie?” I’d slap them silly. Halloween is a classic to be sure. The score alone is probably more recognizable than the directorial name. And a movie that typically makes it onto everyone’s Halloween holiday movie lineups, a movie that started on a cold Halloween night in 1963 when six year old Michael Myers brutally murdered his 17-year-old sister, Judith. He was sentenced and locked away for 15 years. But on October 30, 1978, during the night before being transferred for a court hearing, a now 21-year-old Michael Myers steals a car and escapes Smith’s Grove. He returns home to his quiet hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois, where he searches for his sister.
1. The Thing (1982)
Was there really any surprise The Thing is my number one pick here? Yes, there could be some debate on whether The Thing is an easily associated film of Carpenter’s. And there are two sides to this coin. While I do admit, I have some serious doubts people outside of horror fandom would even recognize the movie title let alone the director, but within the horror fandom world, The Thing has become an inescapable cult classic of behemoth proportions. I do not think I’ve seen another movie that has gardened such a fanbase as The Thing. And for good reason, too. The Thing, besides The Fog, has one of the most simple sets imaginable, the kicker really being how isolated the characters are and how audiences can feel that itch of madness, being cooped up too long, stir crazy, etc. etc. The paranoia drips from the screen. And much like Escape from New York, we’re given rich complex characters without the need of some unnecessary backstory for any of them, even Kurt Russel’s characters MacReady is really only known by his actions. Nearly 35 years later, the practical effects in this movie are still considered high quality. If that doesn’t say something, I don’t know what will. The story is grounded and easy to follow. After the destruction of a Norwegian chopper that buzzes their base, the members of the US team fly to the Norwegian base hoping to find survivors, only to discover them all dead or missing. What they do find among the carnage are the remains of a strange creature burned and haphazardly buried in the ice. The Americans take their find back to their base and deduce that it is not human, not entirely, but an alien life form. Soon, it becomes apparent that the alien lifeform is not dead, and to make matters worse, it can take over and assimilate other life forms, including humans, spreading much like a virus does. Anyone at the base could be inhabited by the Thing, tensions soon escalate.
0. They Live (1988)
I’d be amiss not to include at least one honorable mention. Originally, I really wanted to include Carpenter’s They Live, starring late great Roddy Piper, on this list of top films. Call me lazy, but I didn’t want to spend all morning writing about which of Carpenter’s movies are the best or most recognizable as being his, I’d be here all day if I did that. I gave myself a five movie limit and stuck with it. That said, I think They Live, at least within the horror community, is a really recognizable Carpenter flick, and probably one of his most (sadly) relevant films to date. The action is def. cheesy, and the concept is bizarre, but the message is a real punch to the gut, one that I’m sure many a film student as spent dissecting and discussing.
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Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of several character driven stories of dark fiction. He resides in Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter. He is published with The Sinister Horror Company’s horror anthology The Black Room Manuscripts. His debut novel, Reinheit, is published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein and Apocalypse Meow. His military/paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, both Dwelling and Emerging and Conceiving (coming soon), are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston Clear Lake with a BA in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he does author interviews and reviews on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can keep up with Thomas and all his strange books by joining his author newsletter, at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.
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As we enter into the sophomore era of the Information Age, which began its infantilism back in the 1970s and slowly grew, finally exploding in the early 2000’s, ushering humanity into a new echelon, what is commonly referred to as the New Media Age, it has become incredibly easy to get lost in the heartbreak and horror the world has to offer. Be it a mass shooting at a nightclub. The murder of children. A flood destroying an entire town. And probably the worst, the constant flow of personal opinion and prejudiced. Its easy to get lost in all the chatter. In all the turmoil. These were my thoughts while I was screening Universal’s last of the slap-stick dynamite comedic duo, Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy. My own fears of where our country is going politically, why it seems no one is willing to meet on solid ground, and contemplating when the death moderates and compromise happened. To tell you the truth, I’m not a huuuge fan of the A&C act. Sure, I love the historic quality of vaudeville. I used to watch The Three Stooges religiously. And Charlie Chaplin…well, a legend, to be sure. But my mood wasn’t willing. It took some struggle to throw in the DVD instead of watching something else a little more nihilistic. I believed it would be boring. I’m glad to have been wrong. As soon was the film started, with that over-the-top circus performance, and Bud and Lou came on screen wearing those ridiculous safari hats, looking more like Dark Helmet, my disposition softened. My fears abated, at least for the time being. Sure, the movie played out way longer than needed. The plot, if there was one, could have been finished within 45 mins, and that’s being generous. Regardless, it was fun and lighthearted and perhaps that’s something we all need more of in our lives. Not to forget or ignore the tragedy, but to cope, to put things back in perspective. Anyhow, I shall delay no longer. We have a very special guest with us today, co-host of The Last Knock, Jon Weidler.
Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955)
By: Jon Weidler
[80 minutes. Unrated. Director: Charles Lamont]
Tom Servo: “Joel, what are ‘boobs’?”
Joel Robinson: “You know, like Jethro Bodine.”
- Mystery Science Theater 3000 (“Pod People”)
My experience with the comedic oeuvre of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello is very limited; in fact, the closest I had ever gotten to experiencing their routines were the impersonations done by the comedians of the UK incarnation of “Whose Line is it Anyway?” and descendants of the duo riffing on the “who’s on first” routine. I watched “The Three Stooges” as a child, and found humor in their brand of easily-accessible, over-the-top slapstick – Abbott and Costello simply eluded my radar. Even in the VHS era, when Universal was reissuing all of their classic monsters in fancy new packaging, Abbott & Costello seemed to have a lower profile than the more straightforward horror efforts (for what it’s worth, though, Amazon is still selling new VHS tapes of A & C’s various cinematic adventures).
In any case: my crash course in their brand of black-and-white comedy-horror begins with Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy.
The second-to-last collaboration of the duo, the film comes late in the Universal Monsters cycle, and it shows (for a bit of perspective, Hammer would debut their own stylish, serious-minded, and colorized incarnation of The Mummy 4 years later): the production values have a stripped-down quality that conveys studio disinterest, the screenplay alternates between our bumbling buffoons and stilted scenes of dull exposition, and the synthesis of the comedic and horrific elements is lackluster at best.
I have conflicted feelings toward the ensembles of successful film series (comedy or otherwise). For a recent example, consider the first sequel to Todd Phillips’ The Hangover, wherein the guys who laid waste (and wasted) to Vegas brought their culture-wrecking shenanigans to Bangkok. As with so many sequels, the result was an uninspired, watered-down retread of a far more endearing original, its formula poised to rake in easy box office dollars and line the pockets of its stars. Where I sympathize is in the expectations that the reprisal of such roles (and character types) instills in the actors, becoming typecast as smug douchebags (Bradley Cooper), mentally deficient man-children (Zach Galifianakis), or passive punching bags (Ed Helms). The complicity of the actors in these Xeroxed efforts is a point I sympathize far less with, especially when they know they could be doing so much more with their talents.
The same can be said for Abbott and Costello: perhaps the most successful of the comedic duos/trios of the early twentieth century, they bested their peers (The Three Stooges; Laurel and Hardy) with a presence in both television and high-profile films (indeed, they were the only comedians given access to the financially lucrative Universal Monsters vault). Their shtick subsisted on a mix of physical humor and bouts of wordplay that ostensibly appealed to a broader audience, but by the 1950s, had run its course as cinema in general moved toward Cold War-inspired horrors. Traditional monsters with a more romantic, literary sensibility gave way to everything that could be doused in radiation – for the most part, bigger didn’t equal better, but provided an evolution of the “spectacle” that filmgoers were seeking at the time.
And perhaps that is why the musty aroma of antiquity seems to permeate each frame of Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy. I went into the film with an open mind – even a slight optimism – as the Mummy is one of my favorite monsters of all time (Christopher Lee’s rendition, especially, supplied considerable nightmare fuel for my childhood).
The film overall feels like one of those direct-to-DVD ventures wherein a top-billed “name” actor shows up for a few minutes before disappearing altogether. Despite a more pronounced presence, Abbott and Costello seem shoehorned into the plot. Our duo is wrongfully implicated in the death of Dr. Gustav Zoomer (Kurt Katch), who had recently excavated the Mummy of Klaris (Edwin Parker), who is subsequently stolen by a sect of followers to be resurrected and walk once more as their ruler…or something (extended scenes of ritual dance are involved). In the meantime, there are hijinks involving a priceless medallion belonging to Klaris, as Madame Rontru (Marie Windsor) looks to pay our bumbling pair for said medallion, and Lou crashing into closets, through walls, and stumbling into secret passageways. Some of the gags elicit polite laughter, but none are genuinely hilarious because the setup is so labored.
For example, there is a routine where Bud and Lou, upon having learned of the “death curse” of Klaris’s medallion, spend a couple minutes sneaking it to each other in a restaurant; while this sequence shines as an example of old-school comic timing, it culminates in a protracted punchline wherein Lou is left to chew on the medallion for a couple minutes, well past the point of it being funny. And while it’s interesting to see the origin of certain bits that have wormed themselves into more recent films – including a scene that precludes Macaulay Culkin’s use of a tough-talking gangster movie to intimidate the burglars in Home Alone – earlier doesn’t necessarily mean better in this case. The voice-over narration that begins the film uses a lame pun to get things rolling (“a boy’s best friend is his mummy”), and the late-occurring “pick and shovel” debate comes off as an uninspired gloss on “who’s on first?” Though, when Bud explains to Lou that “some mummies are men, some are women” to his partner’s exasperation and surprise, one can admire screenwriters Lee Loeb and John Grant for bringing LGBT awareness to light (though I’m guessing that was unintentional).
Much like our less-than-dynamic duo’s routine, the main plot also feels tired. Populated by a stiff supporting cast whose lines are uttered as though at gunpoint, the exposition-heavy dialog scenes are dull at best, and painful at worst. The main problem with the film is that it’s never creative enough to be truly interesting, and its pantsuit-wearing depiction of the Mummy as a growling, twitching – and sometimes running – beast is a far cry from the subtleties that Boris Karloff originally brought to the role.
4 out of 10 stars
Jon Weidler works for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania by day, but is a podcast superhero by night. He co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast under the moniker “Jonny Numb,” and is a regular contributor to the Crash Palace Productions and Loud Green Bird websites. His archived movie reviews can be found at numbviews.livejournal.com, and his social media handle is @JonnyNumb (Twitter & Letterboxd).