Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

You’ll never close your eyes again.

When chemist Elizabeth Driscoll confides in her colleague Matthew that her boyfriend seems to have changed, he advises her to visit one of his friends, a psychologist named David Kibner. Kibner believes that Elizabeth doesn’t realise that her relationship is falling apart due to modern society’s stresses. But as more people they know start to become cold and distant towards each other, they discover that something more sinister is at work. Spores from outer space have landed on Earth and are perfectly replicating humans without anyone realising.

 

The original 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a landmark classic in its own right, served to portray a contemporary society which feared the breakdown of the cosy small-town American way of life and its traditional conservative values into something more alien (and Russian, as the case was during the early days of the Cold War and fears of Communist usurpation in the West). Twenty-two years later, those fears have now been realised in this remake. America had massively urbanised, had lost the cosy sense of safety that everybody knew everybody else, and society had become distant and cold to each other as a result of individual self-drive and ambition. It wasn’t about what you could do for your country anymore, but what you could do for yourself. People had become so self-absorbed that they failed to notice things from the past that had been the very fabric and essence of early twentieth century life. These changing times are reflected perfectly in this updated version of the story, a rare instance where a remake not only builds upon the themes of the original but surpasses them. Back then, people could recognise change and do something about it – here, society is changing under their very noses, but their new way of life doesn’t allow them to see it until it’s too late.

It’s this sense of being slowly consumed by an unseen enemy and being powerless to stop it that Invasion of the Body Snatchers masterfully conveys. The film isn’t in your face. It isn’t loud. Nor is it really that exciting. It’s grim. It’s bleak. Its unrelenting. The film lures you in, not even with a false sense of security, but an overwhelming claustrophobia and ominous foreboding. There’s an element of resignation from the characters as they’re facing a losing battle and the net begins to tighten around them. You’ll question your own sanity, your own identity and your own mortality many times before this one is over. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an experience like no other film I’ve watched. It’s deeply troubling and unsettling, but at the same time you know full-well you’re in the hands of some amazing craftsmen who are manipulating your every thought. Direction. Script. Cinematography. The score. The cast. It’s almost an impenetrable assault on your subliminal senses from all angles, right from the opening scene up until the infamous final shot.

Cinematographer Michael Chapman deserves so much praise for the way he lights the film or doesn’t light it. There’s lots of shadows, darkness and silhouettes, creating an unsettling film noir intensity which constantly hides or reveals minor details in the background. Director Philip Kaufman made the decision to shoot a lot of the film from weird angles too, making sure his audience is never settled, always making sure they’re on-the-edge, always looking out for something. Characters are lit in dim blue lights, are seen through the fisheye lens of a door peephole or reflected in warped mirrors. It’s eerie beyond belief to catch glimpses of random people standing on the street staring at the characters from the corner of the frame. In one superb shot, we watch as an emotionless neighbour sweeps up some grey dust and deposits it in a garbage truck. It’s only later on that we realise the dust was actually the remains of his human self. It’s a chilling moment – one of many subtle nuances Invasion of the Body Snatchers puts in front of the audience to build up the big picture. This invasion is widespread and it’s unstoppable and the mastery behind the camera ensures that this is as disconcerting for the audience as it is for the characters.

Despite the strong cast, at no point do you sit and see the actors themselves but rather the characters they’re playing. Donald Sutherland, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright, Brooke Adams and Leonard Nimoy all manage to create natural, multi-layered characters which is so important for later in the film when people begin succumbing to the pods – these aliens can’t replicate emotions . Sutherland owns the screen whenever he’s around, whilst Goldblum shows early signs of the hyperactive nervous delivery that he became known for. Nimoy, in particular, is a curious choice for the character he plays. Most famous the world over as the stoic and honourable Spock from Star Trek, Nimoy’s turn as the high-profile celebrity psychiatrist gives us a glimpse of a sinister edge he rarely showed on the big screen. The casting choice of one of the most popular and recognisable faces of the 60s gives the film the smart opportunity to really play upon audience expectations: if Spock is powerless to stop the pods, what hope does humanity have? In an amusing cameo, star of the original Kevin McCarthy pops up and shouts his infamous line.

This being the late 70s, special effects have come a long way since the 50s and so the actual sequences of being replicated are a lot more vivid and nightmarish to really draw out audience fears of being silently killed. Two sequences stand out – Goldblum’s encounter inside a spa where a nearly-finished duplicate lies on a slab next to him and the scene where the four humans are sleeping outside, only to realise they’re all slowly being replicated by hidden pods around them, spine-chilling fetuses writhing around on the floor coming to life. A combination of fantastic prosthetics, lots of goo and slime, and some stomach-wrenching sound effects really convey this sort of duplication process like few other films have managed to. As I’ve already mentioned, the resulting pile of dust left behind that was the real person is an utterly terrifying prospect.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers release at the end of the 70s kick-started a wave of 50s films being remade over the next decade: The Thing, The Fly, The Blob and Invaders From Mars all found new life in the 1980s with modernising, some more so than others. I’d argue that all of them were better than their originals by a country mile. Something that can’t be said much nowadays about remakes.

 

A cutting-edge sci-fi masterpiece of fear and paranoia, Invasion of the Body Snatchers slowly draws you in to its web of suspicion, begins to suffocate you once you’re in too far and will linger long in the mind after viewing. There are few films that are constantly this grim and downbeat and leave such a lasting impression – it’s virtually flawless. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is as essential a film I’m ever going to recommend on this site.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★ 

 

 

Edge of the Axe (1988)

Edge of the Axe (1988)

An axe murderer terrorizes a small Northern California mountain community, murdering women who share a link of having worked at the same mental institution. while two young computer-obsessed adults attempt to solve the killings.

 

This little-known Spanish slasher is exactly the sort of copycat Euro-horror that was all the go in the 80s – whatever big fad the US was going through, it was down to (mainly) the Italians and in this instance, the Spanish, to regurgitate the same formula with a foreign twist. From killer animals in the wake of Jaws to a slew of zombie films in the wake of Dawn of the Dead, it was only time for Europeans to jump on the coattails of the slasher genre, so big during the early 80s. However, Edge of the Axe arrives very late in the cycle and by 1988, the sub-genre was virtually dead in the US. Whatever feeble efforts were being released by this point were spent forces, devoid of any new ideas and fresh material. It’s a bit of a surprise to see the Spanish finally jump on the bandwagon towards the end of this decade.

Shot in a mix of locations between California and Spain, Edge of the Axe is a weirdly blurred mix between full-on giallo and local backwoods homemade horror. The slasher moments have an Argento-like style, whilst the laid-back footage of the characters driving around dinky little towns rings true of someone’s first home movie. It can be quite jarring and there’s no guesses which out of the two work better. Edge of the Axe has one good thing going for it – it’s violence – and that’s pretty much it. The narrative is well-worn and the film doesn’t even do a decent job of stringing together a decent story to pad out the moments in between kills. There’s a lot of filler here, with so many characters driving and seemingly going about their everyday lives, not really that concerned there is a serial killer on the loose. And there are a lot of characters here, most of whom serve no real purpose or have any real depth. You’d assume they were there to pad out the body count but the killer seems to kill people we haven’t seen before on-screen and have no connection to. I have no real comment to make on the actors either – most of the main cast had no real career either before or after this film and it shows.

The script is to blame here. I get the sense that the filmmakers wanted to make a slasher but had no real idea of what to do outside of the murder sequences. There’s the romantic conquests of one of the characters, given plenty of screen time, to keep the running time high. The Macguffin of the computer being able to do a lot of detective work is a cop-out too. In typical 1980s fashion, the film computer does more than a computer in real life could do back then. My old Commodore 64 would struggle to load in Pong and take forever doing it, let alone do some of the complicated algorithms and loading of software that this one does. I suppose it’s an easy trope for the film to throw in to allow the characters the chance to piece together the clues quicker but it’s just more evidence of the lazy writing. To add the cherry on the top, along comes the twist revelation at the end which not only comes straight out of left-field but makes no sense in the context of the rest of the film, making a lot of the murders appear improbable.

And back to the violence, which is the film’s strongest selling point. Opening with a great kill inside a car wash, the film has nowhere to really go with upping the stakes and so just keeps everything as violent as possible. Too much of the film is shot in the daylight, which is a pity as the night scenes manage to create a bit of atmosphere and suspense. Despite the killer targeting random characters and despite there being little blood, the kills are decent enough. The weapon of choice, the axe, gives the killer the opportunity to really go to town on their victims. It’s one of the few slasher films I can recall where you can see the prop axe really driving down hard into the actors and actresses and the force behind the swings manage to convey the anger behind the blows. The white face mask for the killer is also a nice touch, although the characters has no personality whatsoever – just blunt force and determination.

 

Edge of the Axe is a typical late 80s slasher. The novelty of it being European made washes off pretty quickly and what you’re left with is a rather dull, plodding slasher with sporadic moments of violence which will entertain only the sub-genre die-hards. And, as I included myself in that category, it’s even a tough slog for us.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965)

Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965)

Now on the Big Screen in COLOUR!

Eccentric inventor Doctor Who shows his granddaughter and her boyfriend his latest invention – a time machine – but an accident whisks them away to the planet Skaro. They find that the planet has been devastated by a nuclear war and this conflict is still ongoing between the Daleks and the Thals. Whilst the Thals eek out an existence in the ravaged soils around a seemingly abandoned city, the Daleks live inside and have each encased themselves in a weaponised metallic shell, their true forms mutated beyond recognition thanks to the radiation. The Thals are happy for the war to end but the Daleks have devised a final plan to wipe their enemies out once and for all and it is up to the Doctor and his companions to stop them.

 

The first of two feature-length films based upon the BBC science fiction television series of the same name, Dr. Who and the Daleks was based upon one of the serials of the show. This is not canon in the franchise, as the title character here is presented as a mild-mannered eccentric human, not as an intergalactic time lord as he was in the TV series. Doctor Who started in 1963 and has since gone on to become the world’s longest running science fiction show. It was the second serial in the first series of the television show, The Daleks, which propelled Doctor Who into the public consciousness. The titular scary mechanical pepper pot lookalike creations absolutely petrified audiences back in 1963, frightening a generation of impressionable children so much they had to hide behind their sofas. As a result, Dalek-Mania swept the UK and people couldn’t get enough of them. It was during the height of this mania that Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg, the duo behind Amicus Film Productions (a rival studio which had sought to rival legendary horror production company Hammer), bought the rights to make two big budget Doctor Who films in order to quickly capitalise. Make no mistake about it, this isn’t a vehicle for Doctor Who – this is a vehicle for the Daleks and to make a lot of cash!

Dr. Who and the Daleks was the first Doctor Who to be filmed in colour and so the visuals are all nicely colourful and imaginative – very pop arty and certainly a reflection of the swinging 60s it was made in. The Thals look like space hippies. Even the music is trippy. This is definitely a product of it’s time and has dated a fair bit. The vibrant, groovy approach to the material lowers the tone and makes it appear very childish and rather juvenile. That’s not a bad thing as you know the film will be harmless fun but there’s something a little odd about seeing everything as in-your-face as this when the black-and-white TV show had been relatively subdued and somewhat dark and sinister. The TV show was intended to be an educational program for kids, with the Doctor visiting certain time periods in history and show audiences what it was like to live there. However, this all changed with the arrival of the Daleks and despite it still being marketed as kid’s show, the adult audience grew and grew. With Dr. Who and the Daleks pitching itself for the younger demographics, it’s really missing a trick with the older age groups.

With the bigger budget came better special effects, really bringing the Daleks to life like they’d never been before. Perhaps they lost a bit of their fear factor when audiences could see how garishly red or blue that they had been painted, rather than the sinister black-and-white monsters from television. But Dr. Who and the Daleks at least provides some huge scope to the Daleks for a change as, rather than there being simply two or three of them on-screen at once (such as the television show’s budget would allow), there are scenes involving six, seven and eight of them all moving around at once. They do talk a lot too, which is purely for exposition purposes and to keep reminding the viewer about what they’re planning to do (no doubt to ensure the younger audience were keeping tabs with the story). It’s not full of action and most of it is confined to the final third when the Thals decide to fight back against the Daleks. Thankfully the next film, Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 AD, would more than make up for the lack of action here.

Followers of my web site will know I’m a massive Peter Cushing fan – he’s arguably my favourite actor – yet he’s oddly miscast in this role, though I’m guessing that’s the fault of the script. Cushing adds a mild-mannered, doddery eccentricity to the character which isn’t really what the original TV series character was about – he was cranky, sometimes rude and very unpredictable. The confused old man approach doesn’t suit the material, as it makes Doctor Who look like some really out-of-sorts grandad getting down with his hippy kids. Considering he’s the main character, the Doctor becomes something of a sideshow for a lot of the narrative too, with the action-orientated material being handled by the character of Ian, played by Roy Castle. Castle was a jazz musician and singer who had broken into acting in Amicus’ Dr Terror’s House of Horrors but his segment in said film was a horrendous side-track into ‘comedy’ in a narrative which didn’t warrant it. Much is the same state of affairs here, as Castle’s character is one of the biggest bumbling idiots to grace the big screen – even Mr Bean wouldn’t be as oafish as this character!

 

Dr. Who and the Daleks is geared towards a younger audience and I’m sure children will have a blast with it. Long-time die-hard fans of the series may grumble at some of the noticeable changes. But for casual fans of the series like me, it’s a decent enough watch if you take it for what it set out to do. It’s light-hearted entertainment which will provide plenty of Saturday morning escapist fun, if nothing else.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Psycho III (1986)

Psycho III (1986)

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the shower!

Norman Bates is still running the Bates Motel and business is picking up when a suicidal nun arrives looking for somewhere to hide out for a bit. Norman is stricken with her resemblance to his first victim Marion Crane and, after saving her life, the two begin a romantic relationship. But things take a turn for the worse with the arrival of nosey reporter Tracy who enlists the help of the motel’s assistant manager to prove that Norman’s insanity plea was all a work. The spectre of Mother threatens to rear her head again.

 

After twenty-three years since the original, Universal took a big risk with Psycho II, a belated follow up to one of the most influential films of all time. After all, the 80s was now over-saturated with knife-wielding maniacs like Michael Myers so what better time to bring back Norman Bates and show the rest how it was done? The question was how could anyone do a follow-up to Hitchcock’s classic and how would modern audiences react to seeing an aging Norman return to the big screen? Well it was a surprise box office success in 1983 and that is in no big part down to the assured direction from one-time Hitchcock student Richard Franklin and clever script from Tom Holland (who would go on to become a competent director in his own right with genre favourites such as Fright Night and Child’s Play). The sequel wasn’t necessary but was far better than it had any right to be. In my review, I said it may be the ‘most underrated sequel of all time’ and definitely deserved the acclaim it received.

However, like many things, too much of a good thing becomes a bad thing and that is clearly the case with Psycho III. Taking place one cinematic month after the events of Psycho II, Psycho III is a marked decline in quality from the first sequel, but it isn’t without merit. If anyone was to know what made a good Psycho film, it was surely main star himself Anthony Perkins, and he stepped up to direct here. Sadly, Perkins’ direction lacks any of the consistent finer eye for detail that made Hitchcock and Franklin’s films so good. He does have his moments, such as a sequence where the sheriff is talking to Norman after deciding he didn’t murder a guest and dips his hands into the ice box, without realising that is where her body is stashed. It’s very Poe-esque The Tell-Tale Heart as the sheriff sucks on a bloody ice cube as the camera cuts back and forth to Norman’s panicked face. The film needed more of this sophistication and less of the 80s slasher elements – it’s clear that the script was written to cater towards what everyone thought younger audiences would want to see. The slasher film was on the decline in 1986 though, the market having been oversaturated with dozens of sub-standard efforts, and so the decision to play to this demographic rather than keep with what had made the previous two films successful was a daft one.

If there is one thing that Psycho III is good at, it’s ensuring continuity with the previous films but it’s also one of the film’s biggest weaknesses – its insistence on being so self-referential i.e. you need to have seen the first two films to acknowledge a lot of the lines, circumstances and shots that are copied and spun around. Sometimes they pan out the same way, sometimes they don’t. There are only so many quotes and references to the previous films you can stomach before they start to become tiresome, simply because they keep reminding you that this film isn’t anywhere near as well-made. It’s almost all they’ve got to go on to keep the narrative fresh and they overplay this too much, too soon.

There’s also no real suspense to the proceedings – Psycho II at least had the novel idea of not knowing whether Norman was crazy or not but he’s full-blown wacko here and there’s no hiding it. The story just isn’t as interesting as a result, with Norman becoming just another knife-wielding maniac, only without the Michael Myers mask. There’s no whodunnit, like there was in the previous films, and no real mystery to solve thanks to the ending of Psycho II (which this film continues on with, rather than jettisoning it as the throwaway joke scene it was clearly meant to be). There’s just the narrative of Norman descending further and further into madness, with little to piece together the scenes between slashes.

Anthony Perkins had managed to hold the films together as Norman, a well-meaning and polite character who always had that degree of vulnerability and weakness so that he was sympathetic, despite his homicidal tendencies. Here, Perkins starts to overplay Norman a little too much, as the character does go into his full-blown psycho persona, but he still has some moments of tenderness and humanity. His little twitches and constant nervous stutters make Norman Bates a character we like and want to help, rather than wish to see hang for his crimes. That’s a difficult accomplishment and Perkins, through the previous films as well, has managed to craft the character in such a way that even now he has gone insane, he’s still able to resonate with the audience. The same can’t be said for the rest of the cast, who have such poorly written and sketched out characters that are not interesting in the slightest. Diane Scarwid’s nun, Maureen, starts off with an interesting character arc but gets side-lined too much once the narrative has gone into slasher territory. Even worse is Jeff Fahey’s slimy Duke, who is a complete douche bag and acts like a jerk towards everyone, getting his just rewards.

 

Psycho III was a flop and became the lowest grossing film in the franchise to that date, which is why the final film ended up going straight-to-TV. A sad end for a series started off and continued in such style by Hitchcock and Franklin. Psycho III isn’t a total disaster and if you’ve got to this point in the series already, you’ll be too engaged with the character of Norman to really bother about the smaller details.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Trench 11 (2017)

Trench 11 (2017)

Violence Is Contagious

Towards the end of the First World War, a group of Allied soldiers are sent to investigate reports of a secret German bunker where an officer called Reiner is alleged to experimenting with various chemicals and diseases in an attempt to find a weapon to turn the war in Germany’s favour. However, none of them are prepared for what they find deep below the surface in Trench 11.

 

Swapping the traditional Second World War/Nazi approach that most war period horrors take to the lesser-utilised First World War, Trench 11 is a psychological horror film that promised a lot more than it actually delivered. World War One is a time period we don’t see too often in films, particularly horror films, and so Trench 11 was able to come at the genre material with a slightly new spin. I can only think of Deathwatch which has taken the Great War for its backdrop – everything else features the Nazis conducting experiments during the Second World War. This should mean the story feels fresh and exciting, right?

Trench 11 has lashing of atmosphere and an ominous setting but literally does nothing worthwhile with it. For a start, the period setting is completely believable. Uniforms look top notch. Facial hair and dialogue are very much stiff-upper Brit worthy (check out some of the old school moustaches on show). The sets are decorated with glorious antiquated details so clearly a lot of time has been spent in recreating the era. The tunnels look great: really dark, claustrophobic and unnerving. So why on Earth does the film do so little with them? Trench 11 plays like a traditional war film for too long, without any real shift to the more supernatural and horrific elements, but even these elements seem only for show, as if the filmmakers wanted to say “Look we are different, this isn’t a World War 2 horror flick.” Take out the obvious period elements and the film could have been set within any other period, era or even location with the same results. It doesn’t help that there is far too much exposition to begin with, the plot virtually told to the audience in the first ten minutes, and then once the action and horror starts to kick in, there’s virtually no plot. The balance is all wrong.

You see, the Germans have left behind a parasite which completely takes over its victim, turning them into something resembling a zombie. There are shades of The Thing here, with the confined paranoia of the survivors threatening to erupt more than any non-human menace does. But that’s all it does – threaten to erupt rather than fully exploding. When the parasites are seen during a certain autopsy sequence, let’s just say you won’t want to be eating noodles or spaghetti any time soon. Like everything else in the film, this particular element to the plot isn’t really developed to its full potential and is simply an excuse for a horde of German zombies to start trashing the place during the film’s more action-orientated sections. We never really get to the bottom of just what these experiments were and how they work but the film isn’t bothered about that once the German soldiers are wrecking stuff up. The special effects and make-up department do a commendable job in making the creature-based stuff so creepy and effective; you just wish the film would have done a bit more with it as there’s no way the stuff on offer, particularly the blood and guts, will satisfy any serious gore hounds.

This is a recurring theme throughout Trench 11 – potential but failure to capitalise on it. It goes so far and then seems to stop. Trench 11 never really pays back the audience’s faith and time investment with any worthwhile resolutions. Characters are killed off suddenly after the audience had spent time getting to them and with their arcs still yet to be concluded. Ideas like the virus and the worm-like parasites are given centre-stage as the film’s main threat, only for it to be over-shadowed by the human villain in the film’s finale. With the shift in focus, Trench 11 loses a lot of its suspense and atmosphere and becomes more of a standard issue Allies versus Germans showdown.

Rossif Sutherland, son of Donald and half-brother of Kiefer, stars in the lead role and does a decent job but this is a very much a whole cast of characters affair. Scene-stealers involve Ted Atherton as Captain Jennings, the embodiment of the ‘I know better than you’ attitude of so many entitled officers back in the war, and Charlie Carrick as the doctor. It’s unusual to see so many decent characters being constructed in a low budget film like this but credit to the script for giving them time to flesh out before they get put through the ringer. Even slimy Robert Stadlober, as the German scientist Reiner, is able to do more than just ham it up as the token German bad guy.

 

Trench 11 mixes a lot of stuff together and the final product is decent, if not completely satisfying. It’s not a full-on horror film, nor is it a pure war film and the result is something which doesn’t quite sit well in either genre. It delivers a few nasty scenes and a few memorable moments but nothing which will linger in the mind.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Child’s Play (2019)

Child's Play (2019)

Prepare to Meet Your New Best Friend.

In an attempt to cheer up her son, Andy, and make up for the unease cause by their relocation and her new boyfriend Shane, Karen buys him the gift that every child wants – Buddi, a revolutionary line of high-tech dolls designed to be life-long companions to their owners which learn from their surroundings. However, the Buddi doll Andy is given has had its safety protocols disabled by a disgruntled worker in the factory in Vietnam. Adopting the name Chucky, the doll begins to display violent tendencies towards anyone and anything that gets in the way of his friend for life – Andy.

 

It’s virtually impossible to reinvent a character that has become such a recognisable pop-culture icon since its debut in 1988 – Chucky, the little red-haired killer doll even made an appearance in Spielberg’s Ready Player One, such is its infamy. It’s even more difficult to understand quite why anyone gave this remake the greenlight, especially considering that Child’s Play’s original creator, Don Mancini, is making a completely separate TV series featuring the original Chucky with the original voice, Brad Dourif, to carry on the legacy. It appears that somewhere down the line, someone wanted to tear away the Child’s Play series from Mancini’s hands. Fans of the series can’t complain that they haven’t had enough of the killer doll over the years – the original Child’s Play timeline now extends to seven films – but die-hard fans may struggle to accept this lookalike imposter muscling in on hallowed turf. It may be an upgraded model, but it’s definitely not an upgraded film.

Let me say one thing off the bat – the creative minds behind this remake do an excellent job of updating the killer toy idea for the 21st century. The original Chucky was a nod to the excitement surrounding the likes of the Care Bears and Teddy Ruxpin that used to grip the 80s whenever a new fad toy was released. Now, no longer just a toy running on batteries, these Buddi dolls can walk and talk on their own, have downloadable apps that you can plug your smart phones into, Alexa-like voice controls and learn to adapt to their surroundings. It’s contemporary enough to play upon our fears of modern technology intruding into our lives too much, though once again it’ll probably be obsolete in another ten years or so when something else more realistic comes along for kids to get into.

Child’s Play also puts a different spin on the doll’s origins (so much so, you wonder why they even bothered calling him Chucky) but it almost seems like it’s an obligation for Chucky to turn into the murderous killer doll he’s infamous for being – the reasons here are sketchy at best (disgruntled worker reprogramming the doll) and plagiaristic at worst (he does what all killer robots do in these films and that’s malfunction). There was potential to focus on the all-conquering conglomerate knowingly releasing this type of product upon the world but the script fails to build upon that – once Chucky ‘breaks’ and starts murdering people, the purpose of any exposition as to the reasons why is fairly insignificant. Gone is the voodoo and mysticism of the original timeline too, replaced by a more standard issue malfunctioning toy. The notion that the original doll contained the spirit of serial killer Charles Lee Ray always gave Chucky that added sadistic edge, like he wanted to do more and go further with his plans but was restricted by his diminutive frame and the fact he was just a plastic toy. However, the idea that he’s now just a toy kind of takes away the human qualities he had, with all of the positive and negative connotations that meant. He could get angry and let his hatred force him to make rash decisions in the heat of the moment, whilst he could show compassion for his family too. Now he’s just a killer robot.

Mark Hammill is no Brad Dourif but he’s a great voice actor as he’s consistently demonstrated as the Joker in the Batman animated TV series, bringing a different kind of menace to Chucky. He’s not as prone to shouting, screaming and swearing as Dourif’s doll but Hammill’s voice is creepier and more innocent. This Chucky sees nothing wrong with what he’s doing and does things not out of malicious spite but because of a programmed desire to want to be friends and feeling threatened when he’s not. There’s also an amusing nod to Hammill’s most famous role as, during the scene when Chucky is being named, the kid gives him the name Han Solo. The main problem with this Chucky is that he looks and acts creepy as hell even before he starts to snap. I’m not sure why any kid would want of these sinister-looking robots following them around in the house all day. It’d be enough to give anyone nightmares, let alone the smaller children they’re marketed at in the film.

Child’s Play does feature some creative kills, though not as many as you’d hope for. What we do get is decent enough carnage, leaving you wanting just that little bit more, but filled with enough blood and gore to keep the rating high. Black humour does filter through into the film too, with a few of the kills being poetic justice for some of the victims on the receiving end. One particular sequence involving a set of Christmas lights is destined be feature on classic slasher kill lists in the future. As the film ramps up the kills, it looks to set it’s stall out for an orgy of violence inside the department store as Chucky hijacks the new stock of dolls and gets ready to wipe out a whole store full of shoppers. Sadly, the finale is so anti-climactic with not only this sequence failing to deliver the goods but the much-anticipated Chucky versus Andy confrontation failing to live up to usual genre expectations of antagonist and protagonist colliding.

 

This finale kind of sums the film up its entirety. Child’s Play is a film which feels rushed and edited a bit too much for its own good, shedding anything that detracted from it’s initial potential as a slasher flick and side-lining a lot of the fresh and novel ideas it brought to the material. The good news is that, unlike reboots such as the horrendous A Nightmare on Elm Street remake, Child’s Play does a decent job on its own two feet. Its not the Chucky we know and love, but it’s a decent substitute.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

28 Days Later (2002)

28 Days Later (2002)

Day 1: Exposure – Day 3: Infection – Day 8: Epidemic – Day 15: Evacuation – Day 20: Devastation

When animal rights activists break into a medical research laboratory to release the captive chimpanzees inside, they inadvertently unleash a highly contagious rage-inducing virus which spreads via blood and saliva and quickly infects living beings. 28 days later and Jim awakens in hospital after being in coma to find London completely deserted. Meeting up with a pair of survivors, Jim discovers that the virus spread quickly among the populace, resulting in complete societal collapse, and the group attempt to find sanctuary to escape from the hordes of infected roaming the streets.

 

Between 1985 and the early 00s, mainstream zombie films were few and far between as they had fallen out of favour. Much like the slasher film fell by the wayside at the same time, the humble zombie film had become oversaturated and on the decline. But then in 2002, a low budget critically-acclaimed horror from Trainspotting director Danny Boyle was snapped up by an American distributor and the rest is history. Largely credited with totally reinvigorating the zombie genre and bringing it back to the mainstream, 28 Days Later was the first zombie film in years to receive a widespread cinematic release and became a big hit across the world, scoring over ten times its budget back in ticket sales.

28 Days Later is still fundamentally just another zombie film that we’ve seen before, only with some nice reinventions on the sub-genre tropes (don’t call them zombies for a start!). The story still has to weave through the same conundrums for the characters to conquer: searching for food, water and a safe place; suddenly learning how to survive after being brought up in a modern society; trust issues with strangers they encounter; realising there is more of the infected than there are survivors; and dealing with loved ones once they’ve become infected. 28 Days Later addresses all of these issues with a sense of stark realism – there isn’t going to be a happy ending for many people in the film.

Shot on digital video to give it a grimy, bleak appearance, 28 Days Later introduces a fantastic post-apocalyptic vision within it’s opening five minutes – the empty streets of London (a nice early 4am shoot to get the desired effect) looking eerily like they’ve never looked before. This isn’t some burnt-out, buildings collapsing wasteland but just the same old London without people. It’s an uncanny effect. The main character, fresh from hospital treatment and unsure of what has happened (potentially in a nod to The Day of the Triffids in which the main character follows a similar post-operation trauma without realising the Earth has been overrun with killer plants) staggers around the place, looking bewildered and disorientated. It’s this disorientation which helps to channel the narrative because there’s little exposition to fill in the gaps. Not knowing just what has happened and how quickly adds to the panic and fear.

It’s the realism and down-to-Earth nature of the film which helps 28 Days Later keep a strong bond with the audience. There isn’t a reliance on gore or even standard issue ‘boo’ moments to throw out a few cheap thrills and spills. 28 Days Later has a generally calm atmosphere with a strong underlying sense of dread where you know that something bad could happen at any moment but the characters have accepted that and tried to put it to the back of their minds. The film punctures this false illusion of security every so often with some shocks and Boyle wants you to remember the sudden shocking outbursts of violence, making them more effective in the process as you’re kept on the edge of your seat. Although there are relatively few action sequences in the film, the ones that are here are memorable enough to make you think you’ve seen more. An opening chase from a church and a thrilling sequence inside a tunnel are memorable purely for the speed and frenetic energy they’re presented in, rather than their length.

Whist not quite zombies by the usual definition, the infected certainly fall into the same category given there’s no real alternative nametag. Boyle’s rage-infected humans charge forward in a hyperactive, frenzied state, able to sprint, leap and do things that the usual slow-moving shuffling walking dead can’t do. It gives them a unique presence, something that Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake was quick to capitalise on a few years later. The scenes with the infected work far better than they should, given Boyle’s preference to shoot a lot of the film with an eerie peace and tranquillity. After all, why would there be a lot of background noise in the world when pretty much everyone is dead? The snarls and roars of the infected are made twice as scary when they pierce through the silence – you might not see them, but you can hear them coming. They also don’t need to eat brains either, which just turns them into savage killers with no rhyme or reason for doing what they do.

Cillian Murphy went on to do a lot better after this, starring in films such as Batman Begins, Inception and Dunkirk, and probably most famously now as the lead role in BBC TV show Peaky Blinders. He’s great in the lead role here, pretty much stumbling around in confusion and not having much of a clue as to what is going on. Strong support comes from Naomie Harris and Brendan Gleeson. Christopher Eccleston, who would go on to star in the revamped version of Doctor Who, appears just over half-way through as the leader of a bunch of soldiers holed up in a country mansion for protection.

It’s at this point where 28 Days Later is let down by its final third, as the story heads off in a slightly different direction to everything that came before it. I guess Boyle thought he needed to up the action ante in the film’s climax as the narrative becomes the generic men with guns vs ‘zombies’ shoot-out and all mayhem comes to the fore as the walls of the mansion are breached. Given this is what happens in a large majority of zombie films towards the end, 28 Days Later is hardly in unfamiliar territory, especially with the whole ‘humans are worse than zombies’ undercurrent. But we do care about the main characters by this point and, some plot armour moments aside, you will be rooting for their survival.

 

28 Days Later has become something of a modern-day standard bearer by which recent zombie films have been measured against and there’s a good reason for that – it’s one of the best to come out of the genre for a long time. Though far from perfect, Boyle’s horror film is full of moments of peace and tranquil beauty, juxtaposed with kinetic energy and raw savagery, keeping tension and suspense high and audiences on tender hooks. Bleak, pessimistic and a whole lot of perverse fun for genre fans.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★☆ 

 

 

Monster Man (2003)

Monster Man (2003)

On this highway, the roadkill is HUMAN!

Friends Adam and Harley head off on a cross-country drive so they can both confess their love to the girl of their dreams before she gets married. But an encounter on the road with a monster truck-driving maniac sends their trip spiralling into a nightmare.

 

Duel and Jeepers Creepers have more than a little influence on Monster Man, a horror-comedy which charts familiar territory for anyone who has seen either of the former, as well as a host of backwoods horror films like The Hills Have Eyes and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. A small, modestly budgeted production made by people who clearly have some understanding and love for the genre, it is low brow pandering to the specific demographic of its male audience but has plenty of heart to go along with the trash.

Monster Man opens with a brutal head-in-a-vice moment which threatens to set the stall of the narrative out seriously, but it quickly switches into its more relaxed buddy movie set-up. You will have to sit through a fair bit of character development to begin with before the film begins to move into gear so sit with it. The characters aren’t that great but they’re not ‘switch off the TV’ material. What follows is a succession of familiar set pieces in familiar locations – the rest stop outhouse, the redneck diner, the sleazy motel and the backwoods town all appear at some point. There’s no real originality here so the success of the film all depends on the manner in which the material presented. Thankfully, Monster Man delivers it with plenty of zest and energy, moving things along at a fast pace and delivering plenty of entertainment in its running time without any major down time.

Monster Man cranks up the comedy purely by upping the gore and gross-out content. The script itself isn’t particularly funny, nor is the frat boy shenanigans of the main characters – it does have its moments – and runs more like America Pie at times, with plenty of predictable jokes about poo and sex. Putting them into a horror setting keeps them from becoming too stale because the audience knows that for all of the pratting around by Jack Black-wannabe Justin Urich, the situation the characters are in is deadly serious. The real comedy value in Monster Man comes in a Re-Animator or Bad Taste sort of way. Here, the laughs are from the situations the characters find themselves in and how they manage to deal with blood and guts on a regular basis. Particular bad taste highlights include one of the characters having an erotic dream without realising they’re actually tonguing a piece of bloody roadkill and another where the same character tries desperately to avoid touching a mangled corpse in the back seat of a speeding car as it twists and turns along the road. It’s hard not to laugh, even if you know you’ve lowered your standards for a bit!

Sadly, Monster Man never quite fully manages to read the horror and comedy line, falling down into the comedy side more often than not. When the film does try to play up on the terror, particularly during the final third, you’re half-expecting a gag or quip to come out and lower the tension just when it needed to stay serious. Though the film borrows a little heavily from genre conventions for the monster truck and its disfigured driver, they are still both intimidating presences which warranted a little more fear factor. The ‘monster man’ of the title wears a nice patchwork mask and has a bit of a limp walk, which adds to his otherworldliness, but his scariness is limited due to the antics of the characters he’s trying to kill. He looks like a threat and it’s a pity the script didn’t treat him a bit better in that respect. Once the horror kicks in and the comedy dies down, the film really has no gas left to run on and we’re left with a disappointing conclusion which didn’t make a whole lot of sense and gets a bit silly for it’s own good.

The cast do a decent job with the recycled material. As previously stated, Justin Ulrich will either endear himself to you early on or will grind on your nerves repeatedly throughout with his Jack Black-lite persona. His schtick gets tiresome quickly as you wonder why anyone would want to be this character’s friend so it’s a bit of karma when most of the nasty gore-related humour comes at his expense. Eric Jungmann is the dorky straight man, with his assortment of Velcro bum-bags (or fanny packs as Americans call them) providing for the odd moment of ‘Batman utility-belt’ inspired comedy. It’s the virginal character we’ve seen a million times before, so you know exactly how his character arc is going to develop. Star of the show is the delectable Aimee Brooks as the sexy hitchhiker the two friends pick up on their travels and then start to fall in love with. It’s easy to see why: Brooks is drop-dead gorgeous in her cowboy boots and tiny outfit.

 

Monster Man is a great timewaster, with humour and gore to satisfy its target audience quite satisfactorily, though I’m guessing non-genre fans would have a harder time in seeing the positives. It’s definitely a ‘beer and pizza with the guys night’ type of film and will not disappoint those seeking some low brow cheesy horror-comedy fun.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Prophecy (1979)

Prophecy (1979)

Out there is a mindless, merciless creature of destruction. She will find you.

An EPA investigator and his girlfriend discover that a Native American reserve in Maine has been poisoned over the years by an unscrupulous paper mill owner allowing mercury to escape into the river system. As the mercury has filtered up through the food chain, it has created a mutant grizzly bear that kills everything in its path.

 

Another late 70s film to tap into the killer animal sub-genre with a serious ecological message at its heart, Prophecy comes from the writer of The Omen and the director of The Manchurian Candidate but there’s not a hint of any of the greatness involved here. Maybe it’s because big time directors such as John Frankenheimer just don’t ‘get’ horror films. Maybe they feel that they’re below them once they’ve achieved success. Maybe they feel because they’ve got a good resume under their belts, they’d work well in the genre. Or maybe, just maybe, a film about a mutated killer grizzly bear isn’t the sort of film for an acclaimed director such as Frankenheimer to consider helming. Besides, the killer bear flick had already been back in 1976 with Grizzly. Surely there wasn’t a demand for more killer bear horror films?

Prophecy is the kind of film that would find a home on Sy Fy nowadays. But thankfully, it was made back in 1979 and so it’s gritty low budget trappings are all on display. There are no CGI shortcuts, no teen leading roles and no sugar-coated schmaltzy ending. In fact, the film is anything but sugar-coated. Prophecy is heavy-handed when it comes to sending its main messages – not only are environmental disasters top of the bill but the film ticks off things such as Native American land rights issues, unwanted pregnancies and more. I’m sure they’ll be a protest message in there somewhere which suits an agenda close to your own heart! In the midst of all of this banner-waving righteousness, there is a monster movie somewhere and it’s something the first half of the film tends to forget, which would have alienated the majority of its potential horror audience. Every so often there’ll be a random death or some mention of an incident but you’d be hard-pressed to connect everything together if you hadn’t already read the synopsis and realised that it was a giant mutated killer bear on the loose. Foreshadowing what is to come isn’t the same as building up some tension and throw in a few thrills along the way.

Prophecy takes it’s time to get going (and I mean takes its time!) but once the bear finally starts tearing people apart, the film goes into awesome cheesy B-movie territory. This is where the film plays to its limited strengths and starts to deliver on its original premise. The pace picks up significantly as a group of the characters all converge in the woods through various means and the bear starts hunting them down and killing them off. It’s not very gory (it only received a PG rating in America upon its initial release) but I read that a lot of the blood was cut before release, which is a shame. Playing to genre tropes in a film like this is a necessity, not a luxury.

I’ve read a lot of criticism about the mutant bear and yes, the effects for it are atrocious. But you know what? I actually didn’t mind it in this instance. I’m guessing there is a giant prop bear in there somewhere and also a guy-in-a-suit for whenever the situation dictates a certain special effect. The bear looks like someone left a wax costume in front of a radiator for a few hours – a gloopy mess of melted distortion which has been turned inside out by mercury poisoning. The bear looks stupid but frightening in equal measure, more so due to its height. It’s also in a constant bad mood, roaring and crying out loud as it looks for fresh meat. And fresh meat it does find. Thankfully, the talky first half sets up plenty of potential snacks for the bear as it makes more frequent appearances on screen – even kids aren’t spared, in the film’s most memorable death scene involving a sleeping bag.

Talia Shire, riding a crest of a wave with appearances in both Rocky and The Godfather, stars and is ok at doing what she does best – generate sympathy for her character. In fact, she spends the majority of the running time crying or looking like she’s about to cry. Robert Foxworth is also decent enough as the male lead though the two together are hardly riveting screen presences. It’s up to the supporting players to add some more dynamism to the film. Richard Dysart provides the requisite evil corporate type in charge of the paper mill whilst Armand Assante, miscast as a Native American, still manages to generate some life into the script. In the end though, human characters in this type are film are monster chow and so the ability to bring a character to life in limited dialogue is a tough ask. The cast do more than an adequate job in this regard, albeit they did have plenty of time in the talky first half. Arguably the film’s most intense scene involves an early square-off between the Native landowners and the lumberjacks with the killer bear nowhere in sight.

 

Prophecy is a goofy 70s killer monster movie which has its fun moments, but you’ll have to slog through plenty of dross in order to get to them. The results are cheesy and probably not as good as you’d hope they would be. Still, the sight of a giant mutated killer bear charging through the woods has never been more realistic.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995)

Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1999)

A hibernating species of giant carnivorous birds is awakened on a Japanese island shortly after the military encounters an unidentified floating atoll moving beneath the water offshore. It is soon discovered the atoll is in fact a giant turtle named Gamera, created by ancient civilisation as a protector of Earth. Now that the Earth is in grave danger, Gamera has appeared.

 

Daiei’s Gamera series was the poor relation to Toho’s Godzilla series back in the 50s and 60s. With far less of a budget to design amazing monster costumes and build convincing miniature cities to destroy, and without quality filmmakers like director Ishirō Honda and composer Akira Ifukube behind the scenes adding quality to the film (Ifukube’s Godzilla soundtracks are exceptional), the Gamera films were initially produced to rival the success of the Godzilla films. However, the Gamera films soon descended into campy parodies of themselves, solely aimed at children (Gamera always teamed up with a little kid to defeat the evil monster) and with cartoonish monsters and awful special effects. The films weren’t as popular as the Godzilla films and with diminishing quality and returns as the sequels were churned out, Gamera died a death when Daiei went bankrupt in 1971. That was until 1995.

Godzilla had seen a successful revival in the late 80s and early 90s with modern special effects breathing new life into the tired old man-in-a-suit monster formula – a reboot of Gamera was inevitable, especially when Toho announced that they had secured the rights to distribute it. What surprised everyone, including me, was that Gamera, Guardian of the Universe became so successful and is such a good kaiju film, that it completely blew apart its closest Godzilla rivals and set the benchmark for all future kaiju films. That was some mean feat for a monster who had been the butt of many jokes over the years, courtesy of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Gamera, Guardian of the Universe is a fantastic kaiju film for the then-modern era of the 90s. Gone were the dusty, cardboard sets of the 60s, zipper-monsters and dorky soundtracks and in came modern CGI, superb mixes of detailed miniatures and composted live-action shots, a riveting soundtrack to rival the great Godzilla scores. Rebooting the series as if the originals never existed, the film is a lot darker and serious than the goofy child-friendly escapades of the past. However, the silly plot is simply the usual nonsense that inhabit these kaiju films – lots of mystic mumbo-jumbo, characters with a telepathic connection to the monster and the humans failing desperately to stop the monsters with whatever puny toy tanks they can find. There’s a better pacing than most kaiju films, as usually they keep the best of the monster action until the finale, but there’s enough going on here throughout to keep audiences happy. The best thing is that the monster encounters get bigger and better as the film progresses, giving us tantalising glimpses of the main event. It’s an effective way of building up tension that few other kaiju films have done successfully.

Gamera looked pathetic in his original series of films. I mean Godzilla looked pretty tough, even if the suits became shabby and worn as the 70s rolled on, but Gamera always looked ridiculous. Not anymore. This new version of Gamera is a beefed-up bad ass, hitting the gym and toning up for the big fights. The costume looks fantastic – this is a giant turtle with a jetpack-like ability to fly we’re talking about here – and has lots of movement and durability. The aforementioned flying sequences are handled well and best of all, he has a new fireball weapon that he launches from his mouth. It’s a devastating attack and one which is brought to life with some fantastic CGI. The amazing thing about the giant monster sequences is that, on the whole, they look real and the interactions between humans and monsters is excellent.

Gamera never really had one standout opponent like Godzilla did with King Ghidorah or Mothra, so the filmmakers opted to revive Gamera’s least cheesy opponent, Gyaos. Looking like a giant flying bat, Gyaos’ revamped look makes him look terrifying, particularly in his final form, and he’s been given a cutting beam type of weapon. The two monsters have a couple of scraps across the film’s running time and they’re all well-shot and edited. The finale inside Tokyo is particularly breath taking – director Shûsuke Kaneko even throws in a superb shot of a perched Gyaos silhouetted against the setting sun to remind us that this isn’t just about monsters fighting but about adding artistic touches and crafting a picture that looks good too. Who said a giant monster movie didn’t need to worry about cinematography? It’s the little touches like this that brought the kaiju genre kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

 

Gamera, Guardian of the Universe confidently blasted away the cobwebs and dust of Gamera’s appalling past to breathe some much-needed new life into the kaiju genre. Think of the job Christopher Nolan did in rebooting Batman with Batman Begins and you get some sense of the sheer improvement in tone and quality here! This was a reboot done almost perfectly, with a sleek modern look which set the benchmark for all future kaiju films. Even Godzilla would be proud.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★☆ 

 

 

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