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Looking ahead to 2017…

We’ve got 12 months of movies ahead of us. Now that we’ve looked back at 2016, let’s see what’s coming out this year that’s got me excited…

  • The LEGO Batman Movie (Feb. 10). The first LEGO Movie was one of the most unexpected gems of the last few years. The trailers for this first spinoff look to be unfettered fun.
  • John Wick Chapter 2 (Feb. 10). Another unexpected hit was the first John Wick movie. I can’t wait for the sequel.
  • Logan (March 3). Hugh Jackman’s final turn as Wolverine looks like it’s going to be a much darker, more intense take on the character than we’ve seen before.
  • Kong: Skull Island (March 10). With Legendary planning an MCU-style connection between this and their Godzilla franchise, I’m really looking forward to the new take on King Kong.
  • Beauty and the Beast (March 17). Disney’s rash of live-action remakes of their classic animated films has been hit or miss for me, but Emma Watson as Belle is perfect casting. I’ve got high hopes for this one.
  • Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (May 5). After a thrilling, joyful first film, I’m hoping director James Gunn can do the same with this one.
  • Wonder Woman (June 2). It’s almost a crime that it’s taken this long for there to be a live-action Wonder Woman movie. Gal Gadot stole every scene of Batman V Superman, and I can’t wait to see this one.
  • The Mummy (June 9). Universal is hoping to revive its classic monster franchise with (again) an MCU-style shared universe. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it works.
  • Spider-Man: Homecoming (July 7). Marvel and Sony coming to an agreement for Spider-Man is the best thing that could have happened for the character. Tom Holland rocked in Captain America: Civil War, and I’m hoping for more of that in this film.
  • War For the Planet of the Apes (July 14). The first two films in the new Apes franchise were phenomenal — deep, thoughtful films with mesmerizing performances. I feel very good about this next one.
  • Dunkirk (July 21). Christopher Nolan doing a World War I epic. How can you not be excited?
  • The Dark Tower (July 28). Stephen King’s self-proclaimed “Magnum Opus” is a work that has a need personal meaning for me. I want this movie to be great. The casting is spot-on, although the information that’s come out so far leaves me wondering exactly what angle they’re intending to take on the material.
  • It (Sept. 8). Another Stephen King adaptation. Although not as personal to me, it’s still a great book that had an okay TV adaptation. Can any film truly capture the novel?
  • Thor: Ragnarok (Nov. 3). Although the Thor movies gave the MCU its most charismatic villain, they aren’t quite as memorable as the rest of the franchise. This time out, having Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk and Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange along for the ride may finally give us a great Thor movie.
  • Justice League (Nov. 17). I’ve been waiting for this movie since I was a kid, and the promotional materials have looked fantastic. I can’t wait.
  • Star Wars Episode VIII (Dec. 15). Little independent movie. You probably haven’t heard of it.

What I’ve Watched In… November 2016

doctor-strange-poster

Favorite of the Month: Doctor Strange (2016)

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written or talked about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. I also choose my favorite of the month among those movies I saw for the first time, marked in red. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

  1. Hardcore Henry (2015), B-
  2. Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made (2016), A
  3. The Neon Demon (2015), C
  4. Doctor Strange (1978), C
  5. Time of the Apes (1987), D; MST3K Riff, B+
  6. Thinner (1996), C
  7. A Grand Night In: The Story of Aardman (2015), A
  8. Doctor Strange (2016), A
  9. Mascots (2016), B
  10. Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991), B+
  11. Star Trek Beyond (2016), A
  12. Spectre (2015), B-
  13. Hell Comes to Frogtown (1988), F
  14. Elvira, Mistress of the Dark (1988), B
  15. Teenage Caveman (1958), D; MST3K Riff, B
  16. My Fair Lady (1964), A
  17. Gunslinger (1956), D; MST3K Riff, B
  18. Fun in Balloon Land (1965), F; RiffTrax Riff, B+
  19. The Dwarvenaut (2016), C+
  20. The Addams Family (1991), B+
  21. Addams Family Values (1993), A-
  22. I Accuse My Parents (1944), D; MST3K Riff, A
  23. The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961), D-; MST3K Riff, B
  24. Young and Beautiful (2013), C
  25. Mouse on the Mayflower (1968), C+
  26. Garfield’s Thanksgiving (1989), B+
  27. BC: The First Thanksgiving (1979), C
  28. Intergalactic Thanksgiving (1979) B-
  29. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016), A-
  30. A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (1974), B+
  31. Planes Trains, and Automobiles (1987), A
  32. Mickey’s Magical Christmas: Snowed In at the House of Mouse (2001), B
  33. Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas (1999), B+
  34. Mickey’s Twice Upon a Christmas (2004), B-
  35. Magic Christmas Tree (1964), F; RiffTrax Riff, A
  36. Gaslight (1944), B+
  37. Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny (1972), F; RiffTrax Live Riff, B+

What I Watched In… September 2016

rope

Favorite of the Month: Rope (1948)

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written or talked about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. I also choose my favorite of the month among those movies I saw for the first time, marked in red. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

  1. Pit and the Pendulum (1961), C+
  2. Superman (1978), A+
  3. Superman II (1980), B+
  4. Superman III (1983), C
  5. Superman IV: The Quest For Peace (1987), D
  6. Arachnia (2003), D; RiffTrax Riff, B
  7. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), A
  8. Blazing Saddles (1974), A
  9. Maggie (2015), B+
  10. Sex in the Comix (2012), B
  11. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), A
  12. Contracted (2013), B-
  13. Contracted: Phase II (2015), C
  14. Coherence (2013), B+
  15. Sabotage (1936), B
  16. Trumbo (2015), B
  17. Deathgasm (2015), D
  18. The Phantom Carriage (1921), B+
  19. Black Swan (2010), A-
  20. Burying the Ex (2014), B
  21. Ex Machina (2015), A
  22. Lilo and Stitch (2002), B
  23. Psycho (1960), A+
  24. Psycho II (1983), D; RiffTrax Riff, B+
  25. DC Super Hero Girls: Hero of the Year (2016), B
  26. Hitchcock (2012), B+
  27. Horror of Dracula (1958), B
  28. Riding the Bullet (2004), C
  29. Ruby (1977), D; RiffTrax Riff, B
  30. Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (2015), B+
  31. The Fly (1986), B+
  32. Ghostheads (2016), B
  33. Holidays (2016), B-
  34. Monster House (2006), B
  35. Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film (2006), B+
  36. Wayne’s World (1992), A-
  37. Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966), F; RiffTrax Live Riff, B+
  38. The Last Lovecraft: Relic of Cthulhu (2009), C
  39. Murder Party (2007), B
  40. Rope (1948), A
  41. Dreamcatcher (2003), C
  42. Trollhunter (2010), B

What I Watched In… September 2015

Favorite of the month: Black Mass (2015)

Favorite of the month: Black Mass (2015)

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written or talked about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. I also choose my favorite of the month among those movies I saw for the first time, marked in red. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

1. Swamp Thing (1982), D+
2. The Maze Runner (2014), B-
3. Clue (1985), A
4. LEGO DC Comics Super Heroes: Justice League-Attack of the Legion of Doom (2015), B
5. Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue (2009), B+
6. The Goonies (1985), A+
7. Mad Max Fury Road (2015), A
8. Incredible Hulk (2008), B
9. Julie and Jack (2003), F; RiffTrax Riff, A
10. White Zombie (1932), B-
11. Phantoms (1998), C
12. Children of the Corn (1984), B-
13. Breeders (1997), D
14. Rollergator (1996), F; RiffTraxRiff, B
15. Can’t Hardly Wait (1998), B+
16. The Babadook (2014), B+
17. Zombeavers (2014), D
18. Horns (2013), B+
19. Black Mass (2015), A-
20. Titanic (1997), B+
21. American Experience: Walt Disney (2015), B+
22. The Iron Giant (1999), A+

What I Watched in… February 2015

Favorite of the Month: Chef (2014)

Favorite of the Month: Chef (2014)

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written or talked about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. I also choose my favorite of the month among those movies I saw for the first time, marked in red. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

(For some reason, Februaries always seem to be a low-viewing month for me. I don’t know why.)

1. Headhunters (2011), A-
2. Chef (2014), A
3. A Good Marriage (2014), C+
4. Thor (2011), B+
5. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (2014), B-
6. LEGO DC Comics Super Heroes: Justice League Vs. Bizarro League (2015), B
7. Sherlock, Jr. (1924), B+
8. Jim Gaffigan: Beyond the Pale (2006), B

What I watched in… May 2014

Favorite of the month:  X-Men: Days of Future Past

Favorite of the month:
X-Men: Days of Future Past

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

1. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), A+
2. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014), C
3. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977), A
4. Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010), B+
5. The Grapes of Wrath (1940), A
6. The Great Gatsby (1974), A
7. Time Piece (1965), A-
8. The Rescuers (1977), B
9. Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles (2011), B
10. Son of Batman (2014), B
11. +1 (2013), C+
12. Class of Nuke ‘Em High (1986), C-
13. Zeta One (1969), D
14. The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), D; MST3K Riff, B
15. A Trip to the Moon (1902), B; RiffTrax Riff, B+
16. Godzilla Vs. the Sea Monster (1966), C; MST3K Riff, B
17. Godzilla Vs. King Ghidorah (1991), C+
18. Maximum Overdrive (1986), D
19. The Frankenstein Theory (2013), B-
20. Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989), B
21. Godzilla (2014), B+
22. Dragon Wars: D-War (2007), D; RiffTrax Riff, B
23. Phineas and Ferb: Across the Second Dimension (2011), A
24. Dear Mr. Watterson (2014), B+
25. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), B
26. Super Mario Bros. (1993), D; RiffTrax Riff, B+
27. The Way, Way Back (2013), A
28. Don Jon (2013), B-
29. The Croods (2013), B+
30. X-Men: First Class (2011), A
31. Sisters of Death (1977), F; RiffTrax Riff, A-
32. X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), A+
33. The Bermuda Triangle (1978), D; RiffTrax Riff, B+
34. Goon (2011), D
35. Stalled (2013), C
36. Godzilla Raids Again (1955), B-
37. Escape From Tomorrow (2013), C
38. Gabriel Iglesias: I’m Not Fat… I’m Fluffy (2009), B-

What I Watched In… June 2013

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

(June being the first month of Summer vacation and me being a teacher, I had a bit more time than in previous months to watch a lot of movies. I usually do. Expect July’s tally to also be extensive.)

  1. Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), B
  2. Warriors of the Wasteland (1983), F; RiffTrax Riff, B
  3. Creepshow (1982), B+
  4. Cat’s Eye (1985), B-
  5. Sherlock Holmes (2010 Asylum “Mockbuster”), D
  6. Brainiac (1962), F; RiffTrax Riff, B+
  7. Dark and Stormy Night (2009), A-
  8. Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow (2008), B-
  9. Superman: The Last Son of Krypton (1996), B+
  10. Batman/Superman Movie: World’s Finest (1997), A-
  11. Superman: Brainiac Attacks (2006), C-
  12. Superman/Doomsday (2007), B
  13. Superman (1948 Serial), B+
  14. Superman and the Mole-Men (1951), B+
  15. Superman Unbound (2013), B
  16. Superman (1978), A+
  17. Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut (2006), A
  18. Superman III (1983), C-
  19. Supergirl (1984), C
  20. Superman IV: The Quest For Peace (1987), D-
  21. Superman Returns (2006), B-
  22. Man of Steel (2013), A
  23. Bill Cosby, Himself (1983), A
  24. Carnival of Souls (1962), D; RiffTrax Riff, B
  25. The ABCs of Death (2012), B
  26. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990), C
  27. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze (1991), C-
  28. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: Turtles in Time (1993), C-
  29. TMNT (2007), B+
  30. The Shawshank Redemption (1994), A+
  31. The Green Mile (1999), A
  32. Upstream Color (2013), B+
  33. The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz (2005), C+
  34. The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988), B-
  35. Adventures in Babysitting (1987), B
  36. Clue (1985), B+
  37. The Aristocrats (2005), B
  38. The Princess and the Frog (2009), A
  39. Starship Troopers (1997), B
  40. The Mummy (1999), B+
  41. The Mummy Returns (2001), B
  42. The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008), C+
  43. The Purge (2013), C
  44. Unforgiven (1992), A
  45. Futurama: Bender’s Big Score (2007), B
  46. Run Lola Run (1998), A-
  47. Futurama: The Beast With a Billion Backs (2008), B-
  48. Unbreakable (2000), A-
  49. Futurama: Bender’s Game (2008), B-
  50. Wonder Boys (2000), B+
  51. Futurama: Into the Wild Green Yonder (2009), A-
  52. Shrek 2 (2004), B-

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 31: Misery (1990)

miseryDirector: Rob Reiner

Writer: William Goldman, based on the novel by Stephen King

Cast: James Caan, Kathy Bates, Richard Farnsworth, Francis Sternhagen, Lauren Bacall

Plot: Paul Sheldon (James Caan) is a novelist feeling weighed down by the success of a series of bodice-rippers featuring the character Misery Chastain. Celebrating a new work, unrelated to Misery, Paul is driving down a remote mountain road in a snowstorm and winds up crashing his car. A woman named Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) finds and rescues him, telling him the phone lines are down and she’s been unable to go for help. She also happens to be a big fan of Misery Chastain. Paul’s legs are severely damaged and he’s unable to walk, but Annie – a nurse – is slowly nursing him back to health. Annie asks if she can read the new book he had in the car with him, to which he graciously agrees. After beginning the book, Annie finds herself uncomfortable with the swearing, and almost spills scalding soup on Paul.

Paul’s agent (Lauren Bacall) has called the local authorities about his disappearance, and the Sheriff (Richard Farnsworth) and his wife (Francis Sternhagen) begin a search. Annie comes in from town with Sheldon’s newly-released Misery’s Child and tells him she spoke to a doctor and his agent, and that an ambulance will be sent for him as soon as the road to the hospital is dug out of the snow. When Annie realizes that Misery dies at the end of the new book, she goes berserk and nearly bashes Paul’s head with a table. Instead, she smashes it against the wall and reveals she lied about calling for help – nobody knows where Paul Sheldon is. She later forces him to burn the only copy of his new novel as a sort of sick penance, then returns with paper and a typewriter, insisting Paul write his “masterpiece”: Misery’s Return. When he requests a different kind of paper – a ruse to make her leave the house – she smashes the box of paper down on his injured legs, but leaves. Alone, Paul explores the house in his wheelchair, finding an unnerving shrine to his work and Annie’s stash of medication. He steals some pills to go along with pills he’s been hiding in his mattress, but is almost caught sneaking around when she returns.

The Sheriff finds Paul’s smashed car, which has been buried under the now-melting snow, and the state police assume he has died, but the Sheriff realizes from the dents on the car door that someone pried him out of the wreck. Back at Annie’s, she forces Paul to start over Misery’s Return, claiming the way he brings her back is a cheat (something she feels particularly angry about, going on a wild tangent about how an old movie serial once cheated her in a similar way). He goes back to work, turning out page after page of Misery’s Return… and getting his hands on a knife. The night before he plans to strike, Annie drugs him and straps him to the bed, revealing she knows he’s been wandering the house and has found his knife. As punishment, she hobbles him, breaking his legs with a sledgehammer. A chance encounter with Annie leads the Sheriff to suspect her, and he comes out to her house; she drugs Paul and dumps him in the cellar. He wakes up and calls for help, and Annie kills the Sheriff. Strangely unaffected, she tells Paul she plans to kill him, then herself, but he manages to delay her by tempting her with the end of Misery’s Return. At the final moment, just before she can read the end of the book, he sets the manuscript on fire and attacks her with the heavy typewriter. The two grapple and, in a bloody standoff, Paul manages to kill her. Eighteen months later, we see him back in New York, with a new novel about to hit. His agent suggests he try a book about his ordeal with Annie, and Paul tries to shrug it off… but he’ll never be rid of her entirely.

Thoughts: This is one of my favorite Stephen King novels and, in fact, is also one of my favorite film adaptations of his work. (To this day I’m not sure if I love the movie because I love the novel or in spite of the fact.) Admittedly, the story hits home for me as a writer. The scene where Annie makes Paul burn his new book (to his way of thinking, the best thing he’s ever written) is more terrifying to me than any legion of slashers, zombies, madmen or monsters you can create. I did find myself screaming at the screen on occasion – “It’s the 1980s, Paul! To hell with superstition! You have the technology to make a copy!”

This is, again, one of those rare instances where the Academy Awards really got it right. Kathy Bates got an Oscar for this movie – to date the only major Oscar a Stephen King adaptation has won, although they’ve been nominated for a few more – and you can tell why from the earliest scenes. She goes from creepy to dangerous slowly, gradually, eventually becoming terrifying in the process. By the time she’s casually sloshing lighter fluid around the bed and insisting Paul burns his book, you’re really starting to fear her. The transformation is remarkable and subtle and really the work of a master thespian, and it’s made even more effective by keeping the core of the character consistent. Even at the very beginning, where she’s gently taking care of him, something about the character just seems off. As that odd “off” feeling slowly takes over her persona, the sort of naïve quality she has at the beginning is never entirely eliminated – no matter how furious she gets, she still speaks in an almost childlike manner, refusing to use profanity and sticking to homespun colloquialisms that you’d expect coming from somebody’s grandmother.

James Caan, meanwhile, plays off Bates perfectly. He comes across as someone who’s a little self-involved, a little narcissistic, and to a degree he can even see his time with Annie as a sort of punishment for that. Even before Annie truly starts to scare him, there’s a level of discomfort he displays that really goes far beyond that of a humble writer who doesn’t know how to deal with a gushing fan. As Annie grows more dangerous, the relationship between the two of them transforms from that of a nurse and patient to a pair of adversaries in a truly lethal chess game. Annie grows to see Paul as hers, as something that belongs to her, and he has to find unexpected wells of ingenuity to get out alive. Perhaps the bravest move Stephen King made in crafting the story, though, is that he never particularly tries to make Paul into a hero. Even by the end, there’s no real undercurrent of nobility to him. Sure, he’s the victim and you sympathize with him (it would be impossible not to sympathize after you see the incredible, impossible angle his foot goes in when she smacks it with that sledgehammer), and you even root for him in those last blood-soaked moments of revenge, but he’s still kind of a jerk.

To a large degree, this is a two-person show (and in fact, in the live action stage version that was produced, only Paul and Annie’s characters are ever seen on-stage). The subplot about the Sheriff’s search for Paul, while included in the book as well as the novel, isn’t really that essential – in fact, the way the Sheriff dies without really affecting the plot reminds me very much of Dick Halloran in The Shining – and it would have been fairly easy to lift the whole thing right out had the screenwriter so desired. But William Goldman is a better writer than that. (If you recognize his name, he’s also responsible for the classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and, one of my personal favorites, The Princess Bride.) Goldman knew just how to balance the two to prevent Annie from ever going so far that the audience couldn’t take it. In fact, in the original novel, Annie chops Paul’s legs off instead of just breaking them. In his 1995 book Four Screenplays, Goldman explains that he changed that scene because it would have been too much for the audience to take, that they would never be able to forgive Kathy Bates the Actress as opposed to Annie Wilkes the Character. And y’know, I do believe he was right.

The relationship between Paul and Annie echoes Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in a few key ways. Although Paul isn’t related to Annie and has no allegiance to her, he’s stuck in a wheelchair and cut off from the outside world, leaving himself totally dependent on her for his survival for as long as she remains sane enough to not slice him open like a fish and leave his guts in a steaming pile on the floor. King even picks up a little 1,001 Arabian Nights, with Paul playing Scheherazade, using the finale of Misery’s story to extend his own life.

Annie is a great villain, perhaps the best, most fully-realized one Stephen King has created. Although it strikes me that, for all her lunacy, I don’t know that I think Annie was completely crazy. Those old movie serials did cheat an awful lot.

Tomorrow we move forward in the 90s, as the man who changed horror twice before changes it again. It’s 1996, and Wes Craven brings us Scream.

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 24: The Shining (1980)

shining-posterDirector: Stanley Kubrick

Writer: Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson, based on the novel by Stephen King

Cast: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers, Joe Turkel

Plot: Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), a desperate writer, takes a job as the winter caretaker to a mountain resort hotel. Jack and his family – wife Wendy (Shelly Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd) — move to the hotel for the long, isolated winter months, during which there will be little or no contact with the outside world. Even before arriving at the hotel, Danny (via his imaginary friend, “Tony”) has visions of a pair of horrifying twin girls and a river of blood gushing from an elevator. The family makes the long drive to the hotel and meets the outgoing staff, including the chef, Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers). Halloran senses Danny has a psychic gift, and reveals to the boy that he shares the same power, something Halloran’s grandmother called “Shining.” Halloran tells Danny that the hotel has its own “shine,” including some bad memories, and warns him to stay away from room 237.

After a month in the hotel, Jack is struggling with his writing and thirsting for alcohol (he’s been fighting his alcohol addiction since it previously cost him a teaching job and nearly his marriage, when he hurt Danny in a drunken stupor). Fortunately, while the hotel is well-stocked with food for the winter, there’s no booze left in the Overlook. A storm rolls in and knocks out the phone lines to the hotel, and Danny’s visions grow more horrific, while Jack’s behavior grows more surly, abusive, and erratic. When Wendy finds bruises on Danny’s neck she blames Jack, driving him to the hotel’s ballroom, where a friendly bartender ghost (Joe Turkel) pours him his first drink in months. Wendy suddenly bursts in, saying that Danny told her his wound was really the act of a crazy woman in Room 237. Jack investigates the room, seeing a dead woman rising from the bathtub even as Danny – and far away in Miami, Dick Halloran – has horrible visions of the same. Jack lies to Wendy, reporting that the room was empty and that Danny must have bruised himself.

Jack returns to the ballroom, now full of ghosts in a full-on 1920s soiree, and goes for another drink, only to encounter the ghost of a previous caretaker, who advises Jack to “correct” Wendy and Danny. Halloran decides to return to the Overlook, flying in to Denver and renting a Snowcat to get there. Wendy discovers the “work” Jack has been doing – page after page of nothing but the phrase “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” She knocks him out and locks him in the pantry, but learns he damaged their own Snowcat, making escape impossible. As Jack returns, Danny escapes, but Wendy is unable to follow him. He hides in the kitchen as Halloran arrives. Jack kills the old man, and Danny’s scream as he “feels” the death alerts him to the boy’s location. Danny flees into the hotel’s hedge maze and Jack follows him, but Danny manages to trick his father by backtracking over his own footprints. When Wendy arrives, fleeing the ghosts of the hotel, she and Danny take Halloran’s Snowcat and run for safety, leaving Jack to freeze to death in the maze. As the film ends, we see an old photograph of Jack, smiling… in a hotel party from 1921.

Thoughts: The statement I’m about to make will firmly divide everybody reading this, so let’s just get it out of the way quickly: I don’t like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. And the thing is, it’s not because I don’t think it’s a good movie – it is, for many reasons I’ll discuss in the next few paragraphs. The reason I don’t like it is because I think it’s a poor adaptation of Stephen King’s novel. I understand that it’s necessary to change some elements of any book when you make it into a movie – some things that work on the printed page just flat-out don’t work on the screen. I get it. But as the sort of person who always comes down on the side of the original storyteller, I think it should be the job of the filmmaker to at least capture the spirit of the original as much as possible. Kubrick took the skeleton of King’s novel and twisted it around, the ending in particular, to make something far more bleak and pessimistic. The amazing thing about King is (with a few exceptions, most of them written under his pseudonym of Richard Bachman) he’s actually a pretty optimistic writer. Good usually wins in his stories, although evil is rarely fully defeated, and the hero usually has to pay a pretty devastating cost. But he ends things with a grain of hope. In the novel, the story ends with Jack Torrance managing to overcome the demons that have him in their grip long enough to blow the Overlook Hotel’s massive boiler unit, destroying the hotel and sacrificing his own life to save his family. The way Kubrick ends the story, with Torrance freezing to death as he tries to kill the son he’d professed such love for earlier, strips the story and the character of Jack Torrance of any element of good he had. If he had done that with his own characters, that’d be fine. Doing that with someone else’s character, to me, is practically a crime.

Okay, enough of that. Let’s talk about why this film is considered to be a classic by many people. Kubrick was a very effective visual storyteller. Even though he downplayed the supernatural elements in favor of having the sense of danger emanating from Jack (were it not for the telepathic moments with Danny and Halloran and Wendy’s brief encounters with the ghosts at the very end, you could almost dismiss everything as the product of Jack’s insanity), he did managed to craft a very expressive Haunted House story, along with all the necessary tropes. The characters are completely removed from outside help – in their case by geography and, once winter comes, weather. Even when Halloran attempts to come in to help out, he has to get a snowmobile and winds up getting killed for the effort. The supernatural elements are introduced fairly early, then used as part of the story’s very slow build-up, with some characters ignoring their existence and others showing a particular sensitivity to the ghosts of the hotel.

The story does lose a point for going with the rather clichéd “Indian Burial Ground” excuse for the hotel’s nasty disposition, but there’s at least a theory that Kubrick tried to use that to make a statement on the plight of the Native American. It’s kind of a strained metaphor, but if you squint really hard and tilt your head a little bit to the left, you can sort of make it out. The other cliché is much more on-the-nose, though. When Jack makes his way to the ballroom, he actually offers his soul for a beer, verbally, out loud, in case the Faustian elements could possibly be lost on the audience. Then again, when Lloyd the Ghost Bartender pours him a drink, he gets bourbon instead. Perhaps this was a subtle cue that the contract wasn’t entirely fulfilled? That Jack – at this point in the story – was still in rudimentary control of his own destiny? Perhaps I think about this a bit too much?

The hotel itself is nearly perfect – a gorgeous, classic-looking setting that changes very easily to a place of sheer terror. The film has a very slow build – we’re over a half-hour into the 144-minute running time before the Torrance family is finally left alone in the hotel, and with the danger implicit therein. Even once we’re alone, Kubrick uses slow techniques to build the tension, such as the long steadicam shots following Danny as he roams the hallways on his Big Wheel bike or the images of Wendy and Danny wandering the hotel’s hedge maze, juxtaposed with the terminally blocked Jack as he wanders the hotel itself.

King reportedly was against the casting of Jack Nicholson, on the grounds that audiences familiar with his role in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest would anticipate him going crazy too early. That may be the case, but he still plays the descent into madness well, if a bit too abruptly. Once he starts going loco about 45 minutes into the movie or so, he’s on a pretty straightforward plunge. Again – and I apologize for harping on this – this is a problem for me. We rarely get the sense that Jack is fighting his descent, or that he’s trying to cling to the love of his family. The scene where he tells Danny how much he loves him could have been played as a man who wants terribly to fight back the darkness, and is losing. It’d be a tragic scene in that case. But instead, you get the feeling right away that at this point he’s already completely Looney Toons and he’s going through the motions, even as the madness creeps through his eyes. To Kubrick’s credit, the next scene does show him waking up from a dream, horrified at the vision of himself murdering Wendy and Danny. It’s a rare moment where Jack is legitimately the victim of horror instead of the source. Later, in the ballroom, Jack bemoans Wendy’s lack of trust, claiming he’d never harm Danny and confessing to the one time Danny was injured by him – a “momentary loss of muscle control” when he yanked the boy up too hard by the arm. Again, this is an attempt to humanize Jack a bit, make him less of an out-of-control outlet for evil, and it’s appreciated. It would just be appreciated more if we saw some of that when he was actually with Danny.

Shelly Duvall – who was by many accounts brutalized by Kubrick on-set to get the performance he wanted – works as a woman who is clinging to a dying hope, then sees it shatter. Danny Lloyd is okay – not particularly memorable amongst the pantheon of child actors but not particularly offensive either. And Scatman Crothers? Hell, there isn’t anything in the world that couldn’t have been made 83 percent cooler by the addition of Scatman Crothers. In truth, I’ve always felt the Halloran character was somewhat wasted in this story – after a fairly epic run where it seems like he’s going to play the cavalry, he instead dies moments after entering the hotel, serving no purpose other than to reveal to Jack where Danny is hiding and to provide a second Snowcat – which, once Jack is dead, is kind of unnecessary. He’s a great character, and gets thrown away pretty much for nothing.

The pop culture footprint of this film is enormous, of course, and I don’t just mean that one SimpsonsHalloween episode that parodies it. Danny’s refrain of “Redrum” and the steady typing that gives us “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” have both become milestones, shortcuts to demonstrate horror in parody. Images like the blood flowing from the elevator and the frozen Jack in the hedge maze, too, are iconic at this point. Although perhaps the most recognizable moment of the film – Jack bursting through the door with a fire axe and exclaiming “Here’s Johnny!” was an ad lib by Nicholson on the set. It’s funny how things like that can happen – a moment of playfulness by Jack Nicolson makes it into the nightmare highlight reels for the next 30 years.

Moving on, it’s time to get to some of the real boogeymen of the 80s, the characters that kept my generation up at night (either scared or laughing, I’ll leave you to be the judge). Tomorrow we look at the first Friday the 13th.

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 20: Carrie (1976)

carrieDirector: Brian DePalma

Writer: Lawrence D. Cohen, based on the novel by Stephen King

Cast: Sissy Spacek, Amy Irving, William Katt, Nancy Allen, John Travolta, Betty Buckley, P.J. Soles, Piper Laurie

Plot: Slow-to-develop Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is a high school senior, the frequent scapegoat of her classmates due to her sheltered life and the oppressive nature of her mother (Piper Laurie). Carrie’s troubles are compounded on the day she gets her first menstrual cycle, without any idea what it means. The other girls torment her mercilessly, and Carrie is sent home. But along with the changes to her body, something is happening to Carrie’s mind as well. In moments of stress or anger, she finds herself moving objects without touching them. When her mother learns about the incident, she tells Carrie the “curse of blood” is punishment for sin and locks her in the closet to pray. The girls who mocked Carrie are given a harsh detention with the gym teacher, Miss Collins (Betty Buckley). One of the girls, Sue Snell (Amy Irving) feels guilty about tormenting the girl, and convinces her boyfriend Tommy (William Katt) to ask her to the prom. The ringleader, Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen), wants to get back at Carrie for her trouble, and convinces her high school dropout boyfriend Billy Nolan (John Travolta) to help her get a brutal revenge. Carrie agrees to go with Tommy, but her mother forbids it. Carrie lashes out wither powers, declaring that she’s going to go and sending her mother into fits of prayer. Billy and Chris, meanwhile, set up a bucket of pig’s blood above the stage of the gym, waiting for Carrie’s big moment. At the prom, Carrie unexpectedly finds a measure of acceptance from her classmates, who treat her as just any other girl – something Carrie has wanted all her life. Her joy is shattered when Chris springs her trap: she’s rigged the prom election so Carrie will win, and just as she comes up to the stage, the pig’s blood spills on her. Tommy is knocked unconscious when the bucket itself falls and strikes him in the head, and the audience erupts in laughter.

If you’ve ever watched a horror movie, you probably recognize this as the point where the students made a particularly stupid mistake.

The already-fragile Carrie snaps, locking the doors to the gym and setting it on fire, trapping everybody inside. When she leaves the burning gym, Billy and Chris try to run her over, but Carrie simply flips the car and causes it to explode. Returning home, Carrie cries to her mother, who now believes her daughter to be the product of the devil. Margaret White stabs Carrie, and Carrie uses her powers to hurl dozens of blades at her mother, killing her. Finally, Carrie destroys her mother’s house and kills herself in the process. The film ends with an image of Carrie crawling from her own grave, but it’s only a bad dream for survivor Sue Snell, whom one suspects will never have a good dream again.

Thoughts: I became a fan of Stephen King in high school, probably when I was about the age of Carrie White in the film, but I didn’t get around to reading his early works until many years later. In fact, by the time I actually read Carrie or saw the movie, I was already a high school teacher myself, so I think I have something of an odd perspective on the story. King was ahead of the curve when it came to depicting the victims of high school bullying becoming monsters in their own right (he explored a similar theme, sans the supernatural element, in his novel Rage), and these days when I see a kid in the sort of dire straits Carrie finds herself in, I feel particularly strong about trying to help them before it goes bad. Sometimes, though, you just can’t do anything.

It’s hard to see Carrie White as a monster, though. She lashes out, and she causes an incredible amount of death and destruction, but it’s hard to say that anyone else wouldn’t have reacted the same way in her situation. Her overbearing mother is a chilling creature, and would drive anyone mad.

Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie make the film, Laurie being cruel and sadistic, Spacek being a broken, shattered creature even when we first meet her, which makes those moments when Chris snatches away her brief moment of happiness all the more tragic. In fact, if Carrie’s rampage had ended with the deaths of her tormenters instead of spreading out to the rest of the school, the audience likely would sympathize with her entirely. The deaths would be understandable, if not entirely justified. But at that point, she can’t control herself. She gets her tormentors, but she also gets Tommy and Miss Collins, the two people who have never been unkind to her at all (even Sue, the lone survivor of the massacre, joined in on the initial mocking of Carrie at the beginning of the film). Sometimes you’ll see that the one person who treats the “monster” well is spared its wrath. Not so, in the case of Carrie White. By then, Spacek’s face grows hard and her eyes empty, as if she’s no longer even in control, just an uncontrollable force of nature being used to guide the chaos all around her to its horrific end.

Even then, though, she’s never as horrible as Piper Laurie in her final moments, walking towards her daughter with a bloody knife in the air, smiling with the confidence that she’s doing God’s work. The last moment of horror comes when Carrie slays her, pinning her up in a sort of grotesque crucifix that mirrors the unsettling one her mother forced her to pray under in the closet.

The story itself is actually very simple – I’m pretty sure this is the shortest plot synopsis I’ve written in weeks – but that doesn’t make it any less effective. Sometimes it’s those simple beats that hit close to home. We see the archetypes here – Carrie as the victim-turned-killer, her mother as the iron fist that squeezes until her child pops, Chris as the cruel one, Sue as the guilty party that tries to make good. We recognize all of the characters, and that helps us get into the story easily. There isn’t much of a backstory behind Carrie’s powers, but again, one isn’t really needed. She’s telekinetic, and at this particular time in the 70s that was something that was making the rounds of speculative fiction.

The film draws from interesting sources to create its mood. The musical sting we hear whenever Carrie uses her powers is inarguably reminiscent of the legendary shower scene from Psycho, for example. It’s Carrie lashing out, but the music brings Norman Bates to mind. Otherwise, the music is fairly unremarkable – perhaps even a little too soft and lyrical most of the time. It’s there to disarm you, of course, to prevent you from being prepared for the incoming horror, but it doesn’t really succeed.

The odd moments in the movie are when Brian DePalma works in a few moments of comedy, particularly as Tommy and his friends try on tuxedoes. For some reason that still doesn’t make any sense to me, he goes into fast-forward just for a few seconds, speeding up the conversation so the boys sound like the Chipmunks. It’s a bizarre moment that doesn’t fit at all with the atmosphere of the rest of the film. DePalma also works really hard to artificially draw out the tension. From the time Carrie steps on stage until the blood falls on her head we’ve got a long, protracted scene of Sue discovering the prank and trying to warn Miss Collins, all stretched out due to slow-motion and made a little more horrible by the lack of audio. He goes into split-screen at this point, alternately showing Carrie herself or various points in the gym as she begins to trap her victims. Strangely, the split screen works very well, allowing you to see more of the terror and give it a sort of real-time element. I’m reminded of the TV show 24 whenever it breaks this way, although whether the producers of that show were specifically influenced by Carrie, who can say?

The measure of any movie is really the way it’s remembered, of course. Carrie is still considered a landmark horror film, with echoes in every story of high school terror that came afterwards, everything from A Nightmare on Elm Street right down to The Faculty. Horribly, you can see the reactions in the real world as well, any time some high school outcast snaps under the pressure and turns on his classmates. How many times have you seen a story like that on television or in the newspaper that compares a real-world killer to Carrie White? Carrie should have been a simple little horror story. Instead, it became part warning, part social commentary, part prophecy. I liked it better when it was just a horror story.

We’ve spent most of our time on this project in America, mainly because I don’t really know the history of foreign horror enough to speculate on it. But there are a few foreign films with a large enough footprint to make it on to my radar. Tomorrow, we go to Italy, for Susperia.