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Basketball porcupines from outer space: Nate takes a look at the Critters franchise

This one kind of demands to be observed and reviewed as a quadrilogy instead of four separate films because they flow into one another and so do many horror franchises that spawned a ton of sequels, but each of the Critters films are under ninety minutes and therefore easy to binge. Add to that the fact that there’s a handy DVD four pack floating around out there for extra convenience and you’ve got one cool little package. It would be easy to dismiss these films as a giant ripoff of Gremlins and indeed there are discernible parallels but there is both enough anatomical and characteristically different features to these creatures as well as narrative originality in the films themselves to make them a franchise worthy of distinction. Plus, ya know, Leonardo DiCaprio in his first movie, like, ever.

So what are Critters? They’re an extremely troublesome, destructive race of outlaw aliens that kind of resemble a hybrid between porcupines, gorillas and… basketballs. They arrive on earth and quite literally roll around like basketballs with no real plan other than to evade a couple shape shifting cosmic bounty hunters dispatched to exterminate them as well as bite, chew, maim and terrify every human being they come across. The first film would kind of have an Amblin/Spielberg vibe if the critters weren’t so savage and R rated in nature, which is a perfect example of why this isn’t simply a Gremlins rehash. The evolved Mogwai were nasty little shits, no doubt, but these things are positively murderous and inflict the kind of gore that Romero would be proud of. The first two films take place in wistful Grover’s Bend, one of those sleepy little American towns where nothing bad ever happens until it does and then the town is never known for anything else *except* that incident. An apple pie rural family headed up by the great Dee Wallace must confront them and defend their farmhouse from critter advances in super gory, chaotic fashion. Oh and Billy Zane shows up with a painfully 80’s ponytail too, before being quickly dispatched in a barn. The second film is more of the same although they thought they could sneakily recast the great M. Emmett Walsh with decidedly less iconic Barry Corbin as the town Sheriff, nice try. The third film is the most effective and not just for Leo Dicaprio but also because the setting change from rural county to dilapidated big city tenement building is way more spookily atmospheric, and allows for some hilarious hijinks with a laundry chute. The fourth film should be great because it’s that obligatory horror entry that’s set in space (like Jason X or Leprechaun In Space or.. wasn’t there even a Hellraiser in space?) but it kind of plods along in humdrum territory, the critters don’t even show up until like over halfway through and the only really memorable work comes from the ever awesome Brad Dourif and the luminous Angela Bassett.

The one character besides the Critters that holds these four flicks together is a town drunk turned intergalactic warrior played by Don Keith Opper, who is kind of a weird, aloof dude but provides each new film with eccentric gusto while new supporting players surround him. DiCaprio shows signs of his career to come and carries the highlight third entry nicely, while the first two feel very much akin to one another in a sort of Halloween and Halloween 2 kind of way. Low budget slapdash cheese like this is my bread and butter, I’m very fond of 80’s trash horror franchises like this and was beyond stoked to see the DVD at Walmart last second before going through the til and be able to binge all four films in one night. They’re great fare of this shit is your cup of tea, and they have this maniacal, almost Evil Dead style comedic sensibility to them that I greatly appreciated. My favourite scene of the whole thing: Dee Wallace brandishes a giant double barrel shotgun out her front door to ward off two Critters incoming up the driveway. Suddenly they speak to each other in some Furby gibberish with subtitles, one observing “They have weapons!” “So?”, his buddy retorts. Dee fires off a round that obliterates one of the two beasts into a puddle of fur and blood. The other one looks over and exclaims “Fuck!” in their weird little outer space creole dialect. I love that warped sense of humour gifted unto these scrappy little flicks, they’re a ton of fun.

-Nate Hill

Fritz Böhm’s Wildling

It’s always neat when a filmmaker gets to direct a feature for the first time and gain traction with their debut, one can sometimes get a sense of a fascinating career to come from an artist’s initial output. German director Fritz Böhm scores huge points in this arena with his debut feature Wildling, a wonderful concoction of folk horror sensibilities, a coming of age tale, lycanthropic creature effects, moody ethereal atmospheres and odes to Grimm Fairytale lore. It’s a lot to take on but never feels like too much for him or his accomplished cast of actors who all give beautiful performances.

Ana (Bel Powley) is a young girl who is raised alone in a remote cabin by a man she knows only as Daddy (Brad Dourif). He tells her her she cannot go outside for fear of the Wildling, a monster who eats children and hunts for her as she is the last of her kind. When she becomes a teenager things get complicated and through circumstance she finds herself in the outside world, a small town whose Sheriff (Liv Tyler) takes her in. She’s changing though and as the encroaching Northwest wilderness surrounds the town like an elemental spirit, so too does her emerging true nature haunt these people and cause fear and hatred, especially in a few folks who have hunted her race in the nearby mountains for generations while a mysterious, silent woodsman (cult actor James LeGros is right at home in this type of thing) hover around the woods around them.

This is an absolutely gorgeous film and hits hard for a number of reasons. Powell is a great find and turns confused naïveté into fearsome, raw primal power in a very physical performance. Brad Dourif is legendary and pretty much incapable of work that is not astonishing, and here too he provides a tragic, violent, conflicted and very intense portrayal of a man whose actions and decisions follow him like a storm. The film is beautifully shot, fluidly edited, the story is rich, deep yet never over complicated or stuffed with any stale exposition. Paul Haslinger, formerly of Tangerine Dream, composers an earthy, ambient and altogether classic original score full of nature’s essence, the danger of forests at night and the visceral thrill of discovering ones very own identity for the first time. It’s drama, horror, folklore and more in one seamless package and I love it.

-Nate Hill

B Movie Glory: Tim Curry is GingerClown

It’s the great Tim Curry’s birthday so let’s look at a horror movie where he plays an evil clown… and no it’s not that one you’re all thinking of. Gingerclown is an awful, trashy, cheesy piece of crap and I loved every excruciating minute of it, despite probably losing a year or so of my life sitting through the entire 80 minutes of it (it somehow feels way longer). The ‘plot’ is barely there: an asshole jock makes the nerdy kid go into an abandoned amusement park in exchange for a kiss with his ditzy girlfriend. This carnival happens to be haunted by sadistic Gingerclown (Curry) and his merry band of prosthetic monsters who are somehow voiced by an all star genre cast that the budget feels like it suspiciously went only to. The acting of all the teens will make your eyes and ears bleed, the dialogue is so far beyond cliche it could be the fucking textbook on cliches. It feels like a terribly failed Tim Burton pastiche mixed with a low rent version of like Critters of Ghoulies with the fluid drenched, jerky animatronic effects and the whole thing feels sloppy, cheap and incredibly shitty. But you know me, I lap this cheap shit up like pigs at a trough, genre garbage is my formative bread and butter and this one is a fucking laugh. The actors are all having a ball including Lance Henriksen as a hung-ho ‘BrainEater’, Brad Dourif as a morbidly obese ‘Worm Creature’ and Sean Young as ‘Nelly The Spiderwoman’, the only one who approaches anything remotely resembling scary. Curry himself has a ball as titular Gingerclown, a cackling maniac who makes the most out of lines like “ Quack quack quacker… time to die, motherfucker!!” as he clumsily ambles down a hallway brandishing a rubber ducky. Like, wow. This guy is like Pennywise’s retarded twin brother who never made the big time. The sets are ambient enough, colourful and interesting but the lighting is super dark and muddy so it’s tough to tell what’s going on but that’s probably just to hide the hilariously primitive effects. This was written and directed by a Hungarian dude and often when someone from a different country tries to do a genre throwback to an era of American movies it ends up horribly tome deaf via the culture gap which is kinda the vibe here, the dialogue feels like it was fed through a short circuited algorithm. But hey if you’re in the mood for some ultimate trash of the trashiest, SHITTIEST variety then get drunk and give Gingerclown a go.

-Nate Hill

Gaming with Nate: Gun for PlayStation 2

This one is an all timer for me and not just as a video game but as a gorgeous, cinematic piece of western storytelling. Gun is a terrific game, well ahead of its time for the PS2 era, but it’s also a brutal frontier exploitation tale, a larger than life, hugely badass yarn that benefits from one of the coolest voice casts ever assembled, fluid graphics, vast arenas to roam through and music that sets the tumbleweeds rolling, accompanies paddle wheeler boats down rivers and sweeps across the terrain like any great western score should. You play as Colton White (Thomas Jane in the kind of rough hewn gunslinger role he was born to play), who wanders the American frontier of late 1800’s with his mentor/father figure Ned (Kris Kristofferson, perfectly rugged) learning the ways of the gun and living off the land until lawlessness and trouble inevitably interrupt their peace. After a riverboat gunfight and a nasty killing spree perpetrated by psychotic preacher Reverend Reed (Brad Dourif, oozing his trademark brand of evil), Colton sets out beyond the horizon after him and finds intrigue, murder, conspiracy, a whole gallery of villains and even the secrets of his own birthright in a jaw dropping series of action set pieces, tense standoffs, train raids and firefights everywhere from Dodge City to the lands beyond. He goes up against vile, corrupt Mayor Hoodoo Brown (a scenery chewing Ron Perlman), joins forces with notorious outlaw Clay Allison (Tom Skeritt), does battle with fearsome native warrior Many Wounds (Eric Schweig) and eventually comes to the big bad wolf at the end of the chain of antagonists, a civil war general turned maniac named Thomas MacGruder, voiced by a booming Lance Henriksen in one incredibly thunderous portrait of bad to the bone. Other memorable work is provided by Wade Williams, Frank Collison, Kathy Soucie, John Getz, Nolan North, Robin Downes, Phil Proctor and more. The mechanics of the game are phenomenal, and like I said feel quite ahead of their time, or at least they did to me and always immersed me in that world. The gunfights are hectic and ruthless but ever too chaotic and there’s a few super satisfying slow motion features like ‘QuickDraw mode’ that allow you to pick off enemies with otherworldly precision. The horse riding is tactile, smooth and the animals feel real right down to how they jump, get fatigued when you ride them too hard and the way your controller vibrates specifically for hoof beats on whatever path you’re charging down. This is a broad, brutal game that doesn’t glance over the uglier aspects of the west and feels dangerous, lived-in and grandiose both in terms of the natural environment and humanity’s encroaching industries like the railroad, wagon trains and dusty townships. Gotta give a special shoutout to the score composed by Christopher Lennertz, it’s a magisterial, often quite mournfully emotional piece of orchestral work that rivals and even tops many Hollywood compositions. There’s also quite a few references to Hollywood westerns including The Outlaw Josey Wales and many characters are named after real life old west figures to cement the feel. Quite simply one of my favourite games ever made.

-Nate Hill

Gaming with Nate: Run Like Hell for PlayStation 2

Today’s video game is RLH: Run Like Hell, a spectacular SciFi horror survival story whose main influence is most noticeably the Alien franchise, right down to the involvement of some of the same actors. So basically there’s a station somewhere way out there in deep space, where a bunch of individuals both human and alien must survive against a terrifying extraterrestrial menace who basically decimate anything they come across and are constantly mutating, learning from the trial and error ways of their prey and always, always hunting up and down those classic dimly lit, eerie space station corridors. You play as seasoned badass marine Nick Connor (the great Lance Henriksen, Bishop from Aliens), who thinks he’s seen it all until he’s up against this marauding race of monsters. He forms a shaky alliance with alien mercenary Dag’Rek (Clancy Brown, always awesome) and there’s other work from Michael Ironside as a hard bitten commander, Star Trek’s Kate Mulgrew and Brad Dourif as a kooky little Doctor which is basically the same role he had in Alien Resurrection. This is a very cinematic game not just for the inclusion of genre seasoned actors or oh so subtle film references but because the cutscenes evoke a true feeling of cosmic isolation and dread, and the gameplay demands a lot of both your reflexes and adrenal glands. There’s countless close quarters battles, chases, near misses and quick escapes that take full advantage of very narrow hallways littered with dangerous obstacles for these creatures to use against you and hunt you down if you’re literally a second too late hitting those buttons. There’s gorgeous galactic visuals in the numerous sweeping cutscenes, detailed creature design, gruesome gore and a real sense of style too. It feels like the Alien films but swaps out the green and black palette for a grey/purple mashup of hard, cold surfaces splattered with blood and organic swirling nebulas of starry colour outside the space station windows to marvel at in between blasting monsters and running like hell for your fucking life. Terrific game.

-Nate Hill

Rob Zombie’s Halloween 2

Rob Zombie was always going to make the jump from musician to filmmaker, you could just feel it in the air and it also felt apparent that he’d be a successful one too, unlike a few of his compadres (poor Dee Snider). The term shock rock has been applied to his work and that can be said of his films too; he’s always been about brash, crass stylistic choices and as such it shocks *me* when people are appalled at his films and their off putting nature, I mean this is Rob Zombie the heavy metal guy we’re talking about here, not someone innocuous like Barry Levinson. What consistently surprises me about his work in film is that along with all the appropriately trashy, nasty imagery and visual grotesquerie there is a strong drive to explore themes, cultivate mature, realistic characters and build worlds that feel like our our own to tell his scary stories in. This is all apparent in his Halloween 2 which I feel is an overlooked, misunderstood piece of horror madness and brilliance.

Being a huge fan of his original Halloween reboot I was surprised and curious at his decision to follow it up, because the first stands on its own and wraps up very nicely in the final moments, in its own way and as a calling card to Carpenter’s original. But he and the Myers name made Dimension Films a big pile of money and this film went ahead, which I’m grateful for. His vision of H2 is a spectacularly terrifying, relentlessly bleak and disarmingly psychological one, worlds away from his first outing and while it still bears the profane, yokel brand of his dialogue writing in spots, this is some of the most down to earth filmmaking he’s done. Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor Compton) is a mess following events past, and understandably so. She lives with her friend Annie Brackett (Danielle Harris, a perennial totem of the franchise) and Sheriff Leigh Brackett (Brad Dourif), barely coping with constant nightmares, waking dreams and hallucinations from her trauma and sees a psychiatrist (the great Margot Kidder) who doesn’t prove to be all that effective. Malcolm McDowell’s once helpful and compassionate Dr. Loomis has fought his own trauma by drinking hard and becoming a cynical, nasty media whore who cruelly makes it public that Laurie is in fact Michael’s baby sister, which doesn’t help her mental climate much. Add to this the fact that Michael did indeed survive that fateful Halloween night and is slowly making his way back to Haddonfield for round two and you have all the ingredients for a perfect storm.

This film is horror to its core but I also love how Zombie dutifully explores Post traumatic stress disorder in brutally realistic fashion, something that none of the other films in the series bothered to look at, seriously anyways. Compton is fantastic in a picture of hell as Laurie here, disheveled and dissociated to dangerous levels and damaged by Michael’s evil beyond repair. Michael (Tyler Mane) is different too, spending much of the film without his mask and followed by ethereal visions of his long dead mother (Sheri Moon Zombie) and otherworldly, surreal demonic figures who spur him on in haunting dream sequences. Dourif is emotionally devastating as Brackett and people sometimes forget just what kind of dramatic heavy lifting this guy is capable of. He plays a nice, kind man who only ever tried to protect his daughter and Laurie both and when they collectively pass through the event horizon of being able to heal from the horror, the anguish and heartbreak in his performance shakes you to the bone. Zombie populated his supporting ranks with a trademark bunch of forgotten genre faces like Daniel Roebuck, Dayton Callie, Richard Brake, Richard Rhiele, Howard Hesseman, Mark Boone Jr, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Duane Whitaker and Sean Whalen and new talent like Brea Grant, Nancy Birdsong, Octavia Spencer, Angela Trimbur and, uh… Weird Al Yankovic too. Michael spends much of the film on his journey back to Haddonfield here after escaping a percussive ambulance crash (perhaps of his own elemental making) and as such many of the shots we get are him on the moors, farmlands and eerie fields of the neighbouring counties, haunting the land like some restless spirit until it comes time to kill once again. The atmosphere is one of dread and abstract mental unrest as we see each character, including Michael himself, begin to lose it. It all culminates in a horrifying, darkly poetic confrontation complete with a hectic police chopper and all the careening madness we can expect from Zombie’s vision of this world. Then he decides to give this legacy a disquieting send off that works sadly and beautifully by bringing back the song Love Hurts, this time crooned softly by Nan Vernon instead of a raucous strip bar sound system. Whether you’re attuned to Zombie’s aesthetic or not, there’s just no denying his artistic style, commitment to world building and brave openness in reinvention and experimentation within an established mythos. Great film.

-Nate Hill

Blood on the Frontier: Nate’s Top Ten Horror Western films

I love a good horror western. There’s something about the American West that lends itself to to mystery, menace and an ever felt presence of supernatural evil. Be it ghosts in the mountains, giant cryptozoological behemoths from beneath the earth, terrifying cannibalistic psychos, cursed burial grounds or haunted ghost towns dotting the vast plains, there’s an unspeakably harried energy to be found in this setting and the combination of dust, horses, blood and terror is a delicious mixture akin to movies and popcorn for me. There’s a lot of them out there ranging from low budget B grade junk to beautifully crafted genre efforts, but whether gooey schlock or eerie art house, the genre mashup has no shortage of creative efforts. Here are my ten favourites.. Oh one more thing! I’ve tried to stick to films set in the Old West as that to me is what a western is, while more contemporary stuff set closer to present day feels like cheating. I did make an exception with one entry though because despite being set somewhere in the 80’s, it totally falls squarely into Western territory and deserves inclusion. Enjoy!!

10. J.T. Petty’s The Burrowers

There’s something nasty dwelling beneath the acrid soil, something that was once content to feed on bison until the population was driven scant by millions of hunters. Now it’s forced to breach the earth and feed on humans, while a gaggle of gnarled character actors like Clancy Brown, Doug Hutchison and William Mapother form a posse to try and face them. This is a genuinely frightening creature feature with graphic, sickening violence and a sly commentary on capitalist colonial tendencies that swept across the land during that era.

9. Grim Prairie Tales

This is a creaky old anthology flick from the 80’s that sees James Earl Jones cast against type as a gregarious, grizzled bounty hunter and the great Brad Dourif as a timid businessman trading spooky stories around the campfire. Their tales involve murder, haunted canyons, betrayal and more and although are hit and miss occasionally provide chills. The real fun though is the interaction between these two brilliant actors and honestly I would have preferred the filmmakers not cutting away to every story and just having James and Brad tell the whole thing, leaving the rest to our imaginations.

8. Sam Shepard’s Silent Tongue

River Phoenix sits out in the desert looking haggard and grieving over the corpse of his Native American wife before she comes alive to haunt him. This is a bizarre, disjointed film full of terrific ideas and striking imagery, and although I can’t quite wholeheartedly recommend it because overall it doesn’t work, it’s worth to see vivid performances from Phoenix, Alan Bates, Richard Harris and particularly Sheila Tousey as the vengeful ghost.

7. Dead Birds

Several confederate outlaws and their hostages hide out on one severely haunted farmland after robbing a bank in this low budget but well made chiller. There’s nicely gooey creature effects, a pseudo twist ending and cool work from varied folks like Mark Boone Jr, Patrick Fugit, Henry Thomas, Muse Watson, Nicki Aycox and Michael Shannon.

6. From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman’s Daughter

The best of the Dawn sequels (better than that lame duck TV show too) is a prequel set in the past outlining how the vamp bar the Titty Twister acquired it’s business license of sorts and how evil princess Santanico Pandemonium (Ara Celi) came to power. The real treat here is seeing legendary Michael Parks playing real life poet Ambrose Bierce, who really did go missing near the end of his life. This film plays ‘what ifs’ with that notion really nicely and just has a wickedly imaginative story that builds upon the Mexi Vampire mythos in a cool way.

5. Avery Crounse’s Eyes Of Fire

This one is almost damn near impossible to find, but my god is it worth it. A weirdo minister (Dennis Lipscomb) is booted from a pilgrim colony for being a creepy polygamist and sent along with his followers out into the wilds of Missouri. They accidentally wander through the burial ground of a Native Tribe though, and the ghosts are none too happy. This is a surreal, pagan style trip through eye catching folk horror elements, witchcraft lore and strange earth magic. Trees come alive, spectral figures loom out from thickets and the sheer creativity behind production design is commendable. Their low budget goes a long way in crafting something beautiful and striking. Good luck finding it though, it never made the jump to DVD and VHS’s seem to be lost to time. There was a YouTube version so that’s probably your best bet. Like I said though, this one is something special, and well worth the hunt.

4. S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk

Kurt Russell and his entourage hunt down deadly troglodyte (such a great word) cannibals in this paced, aggressive, atmospheric and arresting piece. What makes Zahler’s aesthetic so special is he takes time getting to know his characters, their eccentricities and relationships to one another in meticulous fashion before throwing them to the wind, and whatever comes howling along with it. In this case it’s a tribe of terrifying cave dwelling inbred psychos who provide a formidable enemy for Russell’s grizzled Sheriff and Co.

3. Ron Howard’s The Missing

This film is tied with Backdraft as my favourite Howard film and I’ve never understood why it’s so low rated. Cate Blanchett plays a plucky frontierswoman whose young daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) is snatched by an evil witchdoctor (Eric Schweig) who is also a part time human trafficker. Together with her estranged and dysfunctional halfbreed father (Tommy Lee Jones), she hunts them down across plains and mountains to an eventual showdown. This is a frightening, atmospheric genre film that I’ve always loved and provides the actors with excellent roles to have fun with. Plus it’s got a Val Kilmer cameo that he only took to spend time around Blanchett, but can you blame him?

2. Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark

Not a traditional western but bite me. Bigelow’s lyrical, dreamy take on the vampire mythos is an enduring masterpiece with colourful character work from Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton and others. It’s a nice touch that the word vampire is never mentioned but the energy and ambience around those legends couldn’t be thicker. That gorgeous Tangerine Dream score is one for the books too.

1. Antonia Bird’s Ravenous

Probably the quirkiest film on this list, it’s a spectacularly gory, pitch black horror comedy that sees ex soldiers Guy Pearce and Robert Carlyle facing off against the breathtaking backdrop of the Sierra Nevada Mountains sometime after the Mexican American war. This is a curious film that approaches the taboo of cannibalism with a cheerful, nonchalant attitude and wholeheartedly plunges down a narrative with no end in sight but blood, guts and mayhem. A literal acquired taste, it has offbeat energy, a kooky but beautiful score and spooky, campfire story energy that has always spoken to me.

Thanks for reading!! What are your favourite horror westerns?

-Nate Hill

Peter Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers

The middle chapter in any trilogy has the unfortunate luck of being an oasis interlude that by definition can’t have an opening or a conclusion, because a hunk of story came before it and, naturally, there’s more to come after. However in the case of Peter Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers, it adapts and adjusts that malady by finding it’s own groove with a surging forward momentum that is removed from the episodic nature of both Fellowship and Return Of The King. It’s not my personal favourite of the three (Fellowship holds that trophy on sheer potent nostalgia alone) but to me it’s the most unique in the sense that *because* it has no bookend on either side of its narrative, it ironically feels like the most independent chapter.

There’s a restless surge of movement from every side of the action here; Frodo and Sam are uneasily led by Gollum through a haunted, labyrinthine marsh ever closer to the acrid peaks of Mordor. Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli furiously race to save the entire population of Rohan from devastation at the hands of Saruman, the good wizard who went about as bad as you can go, and his manipulative lackey Wormtongue. Merry and Pippin are whisked away on the shoulders of Ent elder Treebeard on an endless hike through Fangorn Forest, and eventually Isengard itself. Even Gandalf doesn’t get a sit-down or a smoke break, propelled on a dizzying battle with the Balrog and thrown right back into the struggle for Middle Earth with Tim for nought but a wardrobe update and hair dye. It’s that movement, the ever forward rhythm that sets this one apart and emphasizes what a truly massive journey this whole story is. Fellowship had dreamy interludes in Rivendell, whimsical leisure time spent in The Shire and near constant time to reflect and sit down for these characters, and Return had… six different endings that broke the pace. Two Towers begins with fiery chaos in Moria, holds that note throughout and finishes literal moments after the thunderclap battle of Helms Deep, which is still just an incredible piece of large scale filmmaking.

This one also introduced two of my absolute favourite characters in the whole trilogy, Theoden king of Rohan and his warrior niece Eowyn. Played by Bernard Hill and Miranda Otto, these two performances just sing through the whole film, drawing sympathies not just for Rohan but the entire human race, it’s struggle and earning every cheer out loud moment. The whole conflict with Rohan, despite again not being the inciting event in the war for Middle Earth or even the final battle, feels very immediate and important thanks to Hill, Otto, everyone involved and the monumental special effects involved in bringing the terrifying Uruk Hai army to life. There’s a tactile use of CGI that’s almost subtle enough to blend in with the real world elements, and despite being made like almost two decades ago, they still hold up and eclipse other similar efforts in more recent years, especially with the battle, Treebeard and poor Gollum who still looks fantastic. The stuff with Frodo is less compelling, or at least to me, I’ve always found in the latter two films that his trajectory gets increasingly dark, horrific and suffocating and find myself counting down the seconds until we rejoin the others. I suppose that’s the point as he is carrying that terrible Ring, but nevertheless, always tough to make palatable.

The climactic battle that goes on for nearly fifteen minutes, the incredibly cathartic siege of the trees on Isengard, the hair raising Warg attack, Gandalf’s final boss battle with the Balrog, Eomer (Karl Urban, a study in badassery) and his company massacring the Uruk war party, all are standout moments and fantastic pieces of cinema. But there are a few moments that are always present and important in my mind when watching this film: As a small village in Rohan is plundered by marauding orcs, a desperate mother sends her two (Robyn Malcolm) sends her two children ahead of her on horseback, and nothing is more heartbreaking or immediate than this parting. Later on, Theoden stands by the grace of his son and weeps against a twilit sky while Gandalf looks on in sorrow and utters words of comfort. Elsewhere, Frodo, despite being under the malicious influence of the Ring, takes pity on Gollum and treats him with compassion even though the creature has a track record of nasty behaviour. It’s the little moments like these that ground the story in emotion, create a stirring palette for the characters to interact in and make the battle scenes count for something.

-Nate Hill

David Lynch’s Dune

David Lynch’s Dune is a great film despite what critics, moviegoers, the general consensus and Lynch himself would have you believe. It’s obvious that heavy editing turned it into something of a pacing quagmire, scenes are truncated, oddly conceived voiceovers are added, and yadda yadda. Doesn’t matter. This is still an exquisitely crafted, beautifully atmospheric space opera that takes full advantage of production design, casting, special effects and music, I loved every damn minute of it. I’ve recently been reading Lynch’s semi autobiography and it seems clear that that money shark producer Dino De Laurentiis had final cut and just couldn’t reconcile letting the runtime go past two and a quarter hours. Shame, as there was no doubt way more that we could have seen, but what’s left is still magnificent. I haven’t read the books so I can’t speak for any lapses as far as that goes, but what we have here is a sweeping science fiction fantasy saga about warring royal families, shifting alliances and metaphysical forces all revolving around the desert planet Arrakis, where an invaluable spice is mined and fought over by all. Duke Leto Atreides (Jurgen Prochnow), his wife Lady Jessica (Francesca Annis) and their son Paul (Kyle Maclachlan) travel far across the universe from their home world of Caladan to oversee Spice harvesting and production. Buoyant, herpes afflicted fatso Baron Harkonnen (the inimitable Kenneth McMillan takes scenery chewing to a whole new level) seeks to usurp and steal the operation for his house. So begins a series of wars, betrayals and no end of staggeringly staged set pieces and baroque, abstractly conceived production design that Lynch & Co. slaved over for years to bring us. The sand worms are a visual marvel, as are the gold and silver spaceships, the interiors of which feel both lushly industrial and gleamingly regal. Maclachlan and Lynch had their first team up here, the first of many, and the young actor is a magnetic lead, handling the arc well from a naive prince to a desert outlaw who wins over the leader (Everett McGill) of the indigenous tribe of Arrakis and falls in love with their princess (Sean Young, somehow *even* sexier here than she was in Blade Runner). Lynch has amassed an unbelievable cast here, an epic laundry list of names including Patrick Stewart, Max Von Sydow, Jose Ferrer, Linda Hunt, Virginia Madsen, Alicia Witt, Dean Stockwell, Brad Dourif, Freddie Jones, Jack Nance and more, all excellent. Sting is in it too and I have to say that his is the only performance that’s campy in a bad way instead of good, you should see him leering at the camera like he’s in a second grade play. One of the film’s greatest strengths is the original score by Toto, who dial back their trademark rock vibe and produce something atmospheric and elemental in the vein of Vangelis or Tangerine Dream. Their main theme is distinct and oddly melancholic and the rest is synthesis style, beautiful work. I don’t know what to tell you about the whole editing debacle, I mean I guess if De Laurentiis hadn’t have had to swing his dick around Lynch may have had his three plus hour cut, but would that really have been better, or would there have then been a complete lack of pacing and progression ? Who knows, but the way it is now, admittedly there’s a lack of complete coherency and one can tell certain scenes are missing while others languish and take up too much running time, but the issues are nowhere close to as disastrous as the swirling reputation around this film suggest. I’m just so stoked on it now because I avoided it for years thinking it was some giant cinematic mistake a lá Battlefield Earth. Not a chance, and I think many people are just being a bit dramatic, because this is a showstopper of a fantasy epic and I loved it to bits. Just bought the Blu Ray off Amazon a minute ago, excited for many revisits.

-Nate Hill

Irvin Kershner’s Eyes Of Laura Mars

Irvin Kershner’s Eyes Of Laura Mars is one bizarre film. Overall it really does not work, like it stands obstinately in WTF territory with its arms crossed, refusing to let either it’s a talented cast, lavish production design or unusual premise spur it on to greatness, despite the fact that parts of it work in fits and starts. From a screenplay by none other than John Carpenter, Faye Dunaway stars as Laura Mars, a controversial fashion photographer whose work has attracted the attention of a serial killer that starts staging their crimes after the photos she takes. Stranger still, every time our murderer goes for a move, she is suddenly tuned in to what he’s doing via his eyes, as if a clairvoyant. What a concept, right? Well I bet Carpenter had a few things to say about how they butchered his idea, they should have just given him creative control over the thing. Dunaway is a fantastic actress, she has a stately Sigourney Weaver vibe and her eyes are soulful fissures that do lend themselves to a story this intense, but she can’t do much with her role, as Laura’s ultimate culminated worth is a glorified scream queen. Anywho, the murders get the attention of police detective Tommy Lee Jones, and let me tell you I didn’t think he was ever this young. I’m aware that this was 1978, but to me Jones is one of those sagely actors like Morgan Freeman or Sam Elliott who seems to have always been old and just sprung out of the ground already wise, weathered n’ weary. The horror elements clash with a ridiculously hokey romance subplot between him and Dunaway that barrels in from farthest left field, feels artificially paced and undeveloped, an insult to both the intelligence of the audience and the integrity of Dunaway’s character, but I spied notoriously loopy producer Jon Peter’s name in the credits so maybe he had something to do with that. They would have been better off spending more time developing the pleasant camaraderie between Laura and her lovable entourage, which is one aspect that really works. The supporting cast/list of suspects also includes an awkward Raul Julia as Laura’s ex husband, her flamboyant agent (Rene Auberjonois) and a fantastic, scene stealing Brad Dourif in an early career role as her scrappy limo driver assistant. It sucks because the film has beautiful production design; Laura’s photography has an elaborate, provocative edge, the New York fashion scene and street-side elements are captured neatly and her ornate bedroom looks like a spaceship that Kubrick designed, but all that verdant personality is wasted on a story that’s so silly it hurts. Nothing is satisfactorily wrapped up, and the final twist is so lame that I couldn’t figure out if it was because that outcome hadn’t really been done before 1978 all that much and I’m just too young or simply because it was laaaaaame in itself. There’s a jittery score by Artie Kane that works and echoes stuff like Bernard Hermann, so there’s that I guess, plus game performances by Dunaway, Auberjonois and Dourif, but their effort really deserved better. This goes nowhere, and what’s worse, takes its sweet time getting there.

-Nate Hill