I love horror movies set on the road, it’s such a great breeding ground for paranoia, vehicular mayhem and fear of the great unknown. Setting out on a road trip is always an amazing feeling of freedom, but the vast interlacing network of desolate highways that lie just outside the structured, familiar peripheries of any big city ways have an innate, sleeping menace to them; anyone, or anything could be out there. Some of the best films in horror overall come from this idea, including Joyride, The Hitcher, Steven Spielberg’s Duel, Tarantino’s Death Proof, Roadgames and so many more. I finally got a chance to check out Robert Harmon’s Highwaymen and I can’t believe I didn’t sooner because it’s an absolute banger, and one that has always gotten terrible reviews and buzz, which to me is inexplicable. This has the hazy, moody early 2000’s thriller feel, an atmospheric yarn about a terrifying serial killer (Colm Feore) who murders woman with his souped up, rampaging Cadillac El Dorado and the lone man (Jim Caviesel) whose wife once fell under his tires, has now made it his quest to bring the monster down. He spends his days attentively scanning CB radio stations and trawling the vast nebula of backroads looking for any sign of this guy resurfacing, and when he does rear his hood ornament once again, the chase is on. An innocent woman (Rhona Mitra) and her ill fated friend (Andrea Roth) find themselves in the crosshairs of his malicious intent and Caviesel takes full advantage of the situation to try and stop him, with the help of an intrepid rogue traffic authority officer (Frankie R. Faison). Feore is intense as ever as the truly vile killer but what makes the character so fascinating is that without his car he is useless; So many years of disastrous collisions have left him a mangled multiple amputee who is wheelchair bound and uses fearsome homemade steel appendages to operate steering wheel, pedals and gearshift, giving him the appearance of some demented crippled cyborg, it’s quite the character choice for a villain. Director Harmon also did the original 1986 Hitcher film which is a classic and while there are shades of his original vision at work here, this is a different beast altogether. It’s moody, shot in deep saturated colours to illustrate the dusty days and inky black nights that hover over the rural roadmap, has a dark, portentous score by Mark Isham (also composed for Hitcher’86), tons of atmospheric unrest and profoundly brutal, stunningly reckless car chases that constantly threaten to spin wildly out of control into outright carnage and keep the viewer on edge splendidly. Powerful horror film.
Any fans of deep southern gothic potboilers with shamelessly lurid trappings, hectic, labyrinthine mysteries spanning decades acted wonderfully by a massive cast of character versions both old and young should greatly appreciate Dark Places as much as I did. It’s based on a book by Gillian Flynn who also penned the source material for David Fincher’s Gone Girl but for me this was a much, much stronger and more rewarding film. Fincher approached the material with his custom clinical, cynical tunnel vision detachment and meticulously calibrated style while director Gilles Paquet-Brenn adopts a much more sprawling, scattered, rough around the edges vernacular that is more narratively oblong and hazy yet no less compelling and even throws in the faintest glimmer of humanity. Charlize Theron is excellent as ever as Libby, the lone survivor of a farmhouse massacre that left her entire family dead when she was a kid, the killer never found and her left wandering as a broken adult trying to cope. The film intersperses dense, overlapping flashbacks to her difficult childhood life, a troubled brother (Tye Sheridan and Corey Stoll in present day scenes) who was ultimately blamed for the crimes, a desperate mother (Christina Hendricks) and aggressive deadbeat father (Sean Bridgers) who all may have had some hand in the events, although nothing is made clear until you are well beyond neck deep in this tragic, increasingly bizarre small town family saga. Chloe Grace Moretz gives a terrifically creepy performance as her brother’s unstable, untrustworthy teen girlfriend and there’s lots of solid supporting work from great folks like Glenn Moreshower, Andrea Roth, Jeff Chase, Laura Cayouette and Drea de Matteo as a shady stripper with ties to Libby’s past. You know this is a film for true crime fans (even if the story itself is fictitious) when a subplot literally features a club of true crime aficionados led by a twitchy Nicholas Hoult who reach out to Libby in attempts to help her bring the case to a close. There is a *lot* going on in this film, and while not all of it gels into an ultimately cohesive tapestry, the resulting patchwork quilt is beautifully scrappy, full of jagged loose threads and is just an awesome, inky black, deliberately overcooked, chokingly sleazy pit of depravity, hidden half truths, deplorable human beings and even some very well buried pathos that sneaks up out of the slime to surprise you in the back end of the final act. Theron anchors it with her haunted, pensive aura as a fiercely guarded woman who is likely a lot more vulnerable and damaged than she’d care to admit, and the messy, bloody trajectory she must descend down to solve an infamous murder she was unwittingly at the centre of. Absolutely great film.
Direct to video horror/SciFi stuff starring Rutger Hauer is basically my bread and butter so I was very excited to see Crossworlds drop on Amazon prime after trying to score a DVD for years, to no avail. An inter dimensional travel flick with Hauer as a sort of Gandalf/Jedi/salt of the earth time machine mechanic hybrid sounds like a dream come true but unfortunately this one just never seems to be able to get it up past lukewarm, and I fear that budget is mostly the reason. It’s clear that this thing didn’t have all that many bucks thrown at it to play with and in a SciFi with this snazzy of a concept you just need to have impressive effects and better world building. Hauer’s sarcastic sage warrior is on a quest with a younger protege (Andrea Roth) to recruit a human college kid (Josh Charles) from our world and use his birthright talisman to thwart an evil organization from using it to combine all the parallel dimensions of the universe into one big ‘dimension gumbo’, thus eradicating the natural borders of the cosmos and promoting utter chaos. That sounds way cooler in writing than it does in the actual film too and unfortunately most of it is just running, chasing, clunky fight scenes and undercooked exposition without any real substance or flow. Charles as the lead is about as vanilla and lacking in charisma as they come, which hurts the film, while Hauer is wonderful as ever playing up the curmudgeonly aspects of his character and rocking a duster trench-coat like the badass he is. Roth I’ve always been fond of and she’s great too but the role is underwritten and she seems bored for most of it, while a very young and very drunk Jack Black steals a scene or three as a loud mouthed college bro. The film finds some torque when Stuart Wilson shows up as the scheming villain; Stuart is an actor who is pretty much incapable of boring or subpar work (much like Hauer) and he makes this guy someone you love to hate and turns every flatly written line into a mischievous flourish. But he nor Hauer can ultimately save this from the muddled doldrums it consistently wanders into and it’s frustrating because there’s a crackerjack premise somewhere in there that was just given half assed treatment both in the screenwriting phase and in production/execution and it shows. Perhaps one day someone with more money and a clearer vision will give this another shot.