Urban Legend is pretty much like Scream, but a lot less meta and a bit more atmosphere, unfolding as you’d expect it to, with a group of college kids getting killed in bizarre circumstances that all relate to half whispered local myths. One of their professors is Freddy Krueger himself, Robert Englund, and who better to lay down the tongue in cheek groundwork than such a familiar face and expressive, dynamic presence like him. Looking back on this it’s fairly shocking how terrific of a cast it has and how it’s been mostly forgotten in the annals of slasher archives. Jared Leto, Alicia Witt, Rebecca Gayheart, Joshua Jackson, Tara Reid, Natasha Gregson Warner and Danielle Harris headline as the varied campus rats, with Harris a standout as the obnoxious bitchy goth stereotype, far from her timid Jamie Lloyd in the Halloween films. There’s a prologue cameo from horror vet Brad Dourif as well as appearances from Loretta Devine, Julian Richings, Michael Rosenbaum and a priceless John Neville, getting all the best lines as the college’s salty Dean. The kills are all done in high 90’s style, the story takes a Scream-esque twisty turn in the third act and as far as atmosphere goes, it pretty much outdoes the ol’ ghostface franchise. Spooky good time.
Stephen Norrington’s Death Machine whips up a knowing, near meta grind-house schlocker that harvests names, ideas and actors from other well know horror classics and churns out a wonderful little pastiche that’s clearly in love with every project influencing it, as well as the genre. In a giant m, imposing corporate high rise, the collective minds of future tech enterprise brainstorm the next best thing, but all of the are bested by creepy, psychotic designer Jack Dante (Brad Dourif) an antisocial lunatic who has designed an appropriately razor-adorned monster equipped with cunning AI, primed to tear the building, and everyone in it, to shreds. This includes the looney board of directors who all bear names lovingly similar to that of various creative minds in the horror/sci-Fi industry. Scott Ridley (The always maniacal Richard Brake), Sam Raimi (The Machinist’s master of everything unsettling, John Sharian) John Carpenter (William Hootkins) and even a pair of characters called Weyland and Yutani, all references are here and they’re not subtle whatsoever, part of the film’s charm. Dourif’s moniker is no doubt based on Gremlin’s pioneer Joe Dante, and speaking of Brad, he’s a flat out beastly delight as he turns loose a mechanical nightmare of a creation for all to be sloppily slaughtered by at some point. Bureaucracy is lampooned between decapitations and corn syrup gore, the film is never short of dark humour to garnish it’s violent pandemonium. The film is displayed a lot like Alien, and the creature itself looks not unlike a bionic xenomorph with the ability to change into all sorts of elaborate shapes, all the better to hunt you down through the tight crawl spaces and narrow ducts that made up most of 1989’s cinematic architecture. Director Norrington would go on to make his own horror classic in 1998’s Blade, and here he earns his stripes as both a vetted disciple of the genre and a thrifty low budget wizard. Watch out for Rachel Weiss, of all people, as a random board member who’s seen briefly. A howlin’ good time.
Werner Herzog’s My Son My Son What Have Ye Done, although not quite congruent with what you’d call my cup of tea, is an impressively bizarre little foray into… well, something. Michael Shannon plays a disturbed stage actor who, in an offscreen fit of violence, slays his mother (the great Grace Zabriskie) with a sword. Now, whether by mental illness, strange Peruvian spirits that piggy-backed on his psyche after a trip down there or reasons unknown, he slowly unravels throughout the rather short yet obstinately molasses paced film, until the final act solidifies his exodus into the realm of total bonkers lunacy. Shannon is an expert at all things in the circle of mental unrest in his work, and even when playing innocuous supporting characters or stalwart leads, there’s always a glint of menace in the whites of his eyes. It’s an impenetrable character study though, giving us not much to go on other than obtuse clues and the weird, wacky troupe of people in his life, portrayed by an appropriately zany bunch of cult actors. He has an uncle (Brad Dourif, a Herzog regular) with an ostrich farm and some, shall we say, interesting views on life. His quiet girlfriend (Chloe Sevigny) looks on in unsettlement, and his mellowed out drama instructor (Udo Kier) tries to make heads or tails of everyone else’s strange behaviour. You know you’re in the twilight zone when Udo Kier is the most well adjusted character in your film, but such is the territory. As Shannon descends into whatever internal eye of the storm privy only to him, he takes his mother and her two friends hostage, and the obligatory salty detective (Willem Dafoe) and his rookie partner (Michael Pena) show up to add to the clutter. David Lynch has an executive producer credit on this, and although the extent of his involvement is hazy to me, simply having his moniker post-title in the credits adds a whole dimension of bizarro to go along with Herzog’s already apparent eccentricities. It’s well filmed, acted and looks terrific onscreen, and I’m all for ambiguous, round the bush storytelling as a rule, but this just wasn’t a dose that sat well with me or tuned into my frequency as a viewer. Worth it in spades for that cast though, and their individual, episodic shenanigans.
What do you get if you cross Rosemary’s Baby with The X Files? 1998’s Progeny, or something like it anyway. Surprisingly thoughtful, restrained and adept for a B movie, it’s got a tightly wound little story about a human woman (Jillian McWhirter) who is impregnated by extraterrestrials that are tinkering around with our biology for who knows why. Her husband (Arnold ‘Imhotep’ Vosloo) is at a loss and doesn’t know where to turn as her condition gets progressively more… icky. Help comes in the form of two kindly doctors (Lindsay Crouse and Wilford ‘Diabeetus’ Brimley) and a UFO-ologist played by an unusually laid back Brad Dourif, but will their collective effort be enough to save her life, remove whatever being is in her womb and escape the attention of the aliens for good? Browsing the shelves this looks like a full on schlock-fest based on the cast and general vibe, but it’s something a bit more tasteful that takes itself just seriously enough to separate it from the mass of junk in this arena. Don’t get me wrong, there’s some slick scares and a few gooey wtf moments, but they’re used with a modicum of discretion and as such feel earned, always taking a backseat to the actors who give the human drama weight. Great little forgotten sci-if/horror.
Stephen King’s Graveyard Shift is curiously one of my favourite adaptations of his work. I say curiously because it’s not a very tasteful film, let alone even a good one. It’s simple schlock and awe, goo and slime for 90 minutes straight, every human character either an unsettling nutcase or cardboard stock archetype. There’s just something so Midnite Movie-esque about it though, a sense of fun to its gigantic, hollowed out mess of a textile mill in which some kind of vile denizen stalks a night crew that pretty much deserves everything they get. People wander about, squabble and are picked off in ways that get steadily more gruesome until the final reveal of the monster in some overblown puss-palooza of a finale. What more do you need in your bottom feeder helping of horror? Steven Macht is the sleazebag who runs the mill at his tyrannical whim, while David Andrews is the closest thing you’ll find to a stoic protagonist. Andrew ‘Wishmaster’ Divoff shows up as a stock character, but it’s Brad Dourif who chews scenery and ends up the only memorable person as the world’s most simultaneously intense and incompetent exterminator, a bug eyed little weirdo who freaks people out with extended monologues about Viet Nam when he should be perusing corridors to find whatever’s lurking there. The monster itself, if I remember correctly, is one big pile of grossly misshappen, poopy prosthetic puppetry, as is often the case in early 90’s King fare. Would you want it any other way? Simple, efficient and impressively gory is what you’ll find on this shift.
Dario Argento’s Trauma is simultaneously one of the most loopy and coherent efforts from the maestro. Most of his earlier work is pure sensory and atmospheric bliss, detached from things like logic and story. While this one does in fact have a discernable narrative to go along with its giallo splendor, it’s still as whacked out as anything else in his ouvre. This was the first of many times he would cast his exotic beauty of a daughter Asia in a lead role, here playing troubled Romanian teenager Aura Petrescu, on the run from dark forces that seem to plague her family. Her lunatic mother (a terrifying Piper Laurie) has her commited and examined by a freaky Doctor (Fredric Forrest in a glorious train wreck of a performance), meanwhile a mysterious serial killer called the headhunter is out there somewhere, decapitating people with a piano wire. It all gets a bit overwhelming for poor Aura, and she runs off, straight into the protective arms of an ex drug addict (Christopher Rydell) who becomes her guardian and eventual lover. Argento is terrific in the role, exuding dark beauty and burnished resilience in the face of many terrors. Brad Dourif has an intense extended cameo as a doctor with icky ties to the origin of the headhunter as well, adding a welcome bonus horror flavor. Also watch for another intense actor, James Russo, playing a police detective determined to nab the killer for good. As far as Dario’s stuff goes, this is about as complete and cohesive a narrative as you will find. Granted it’s not the garish psychedelia of classics like Suspiria, Phenomena and Inferno, but a little more subdued and clinical, a dark fairy tale that gets geniunly scary in several excellently staged scenes and provides loads of uneasy atmosphere.
Priest is one of those flashy missed opportunities, a visually stimulating comic book flick that just couldn’t amp the substance metre up enough til it’s flush with style, and ultimately feels somewhat hollow. It’s still a gorgeous Blu Ray that will give your system a workout though, with some neat vampires and a great cast. Sometime in a murky post apocalyptic future, humanity lives in a giant gloomy city on the edge of oblivion, walled in for fear of vampires who have preyed upon them in the past. An order of warrior priests protects citizens and keeps order, until one rogue from their sect (Paul Bettany) discovers that the creatures may be back when an outsider couple (Stephen Moyer and Madchen Amick) have their daughter (Lily Collins) kidnapped from their desert dwelling outside the city. They come to Bettany for help, but the leader of his priesthood (a smug Christopher Plummer) is an obstinate son of a bitch and refuses to act. Bettany goes renegade along with Priestess (Maggie Q) and ventures into the wasteland to rescue Collins and fight these baddies. It’s frustrating because the look and design of this world is brilliant, like a dark opulant jewel that clearly has some thought put into it. But then… the dialogue and story are so numbingly pedestrian, straying not a kilometer into uncharted narrative waters to give us something even a little bit exciting or unpredictable. Quality jumps with Karl Urban’s dapper villain Black Hat, a vampire cowboy outlaw who oddly resembles what I’d imagine Stephen King’s Roland Deschain would look like if the powers that be took their heads out of their ass and recasted Idris Elba. But I digress. Like I said, terrific cast; Brad Dourif has a great cameo as a snide hustler peddling trinkets to superstitious townsfolk, and watch for the great Alan Dale too. Bettany always makes for a solid action hero, he just has a bit of trouble finding the right projects (have you seen that turd Legion? Good lord) that deserve bis talents. This one falls just short. It could have really used a few rounds of defibrillation from another screenwriter, and perhaps a hard R rating to take advantage of the horror aspects. Still, the vampires are creepy enough (echoes of Blade II are always welcome), the actors keep it going and there’s no shortage of style.
Best Men is the most charming, dainty and innocuous movie about bank robbing that you’ll ever see. It’s premise revolves around a wedding party that unwittingly gets roped into a heist, but they’re all solid folks, including the perpetrator, and all just want the best for the happy couple they are celebrating for. Therein lies both the comedic and the touching moments, of which there are many, supplied by a diverse and very capable cast. A troupe of best men accompany a groom (Luke Wilson) on the way to his matrimonial bliss. One among them is a hotheaded adrenaline junkie named Billy (Sean Patrick Flanery, never more adorable). Billy has knack for robbing banks whilst reciting Shakespeare. Demands, commands, profanities. All in the Bard’s tongue. He brazenly holds up a rural branch and drags his friends in, including two others, an ex military stud (Dean Cain) and a squirrelly, pussy whipped Andy Dick. They soon find themselves trapped in the bank with law enforcement prepping a siege outside their front door and Wilson’s determined Bridezilla (a feisty Drew Barrymore) marching straight into the crime scene to furiously give her fiancé what for. Billy also has severe daddy issues, which probably led to him lashing out in such a theatrical fashion in the first place. Coincidentally, the local sheriff (Fred Ward) happens to be his Poppa, and the two face off in scenes which undermine the lighter tone and dig for pathos that’s worth pausing for. They’re threatened by a gung ho FBI agent (Raymond J. Barry) who wants to blow them to kingdom come so he can go to lunch. They also find themselves sequestered in the bank with a sketchy Viet nam vet played by a wicked funny Brad Dourif in quite the commanding little supporting turn. Amid the screwball roughhousing, him and Cain find a few aching moments of truth relating to Cain’s sexual orientation, and his shame regarding it. I love a light, harebrained comedy, but I love em even more when they take deep breaths between fits of lunacy to gift their characters with some gravity that makes you feel something besides your sides splitting. This ones sadly forgotten, and you should all give it a go, it’s a gem.
Murder In The First examines courtroom intrigue in San Francisco, concerning an Alcatraz inmate (Kevin Bacon) who has been accused of killing a fellow prisoner upon being let out of a cruelly long stint in solitary. In fact, the word cruel seems to be the running theme of his incarceration, at the hands of sinister and sadistic Warden Milton Glen (Gary Oldman). A decade prior, Bacon almost succeeded in escaping the island, which seems to have given the correctional officers the idea that they can do whatever they want to him. His plight creates ripples in the D.A.’s office, and soon a young, inexperienced attorney (Christian Slater) is assigned to his case. His boss (Stephen Tobolowsky) seems to think, and I quote, that a monkey would be more suited for the job. The D.A. (William H. Macy) has hope. And so it happens, with Bacon arriving in an obvious shellshocked state, Slater trying to exploit his maltreatment at the Warden’s hands and win not only his innocence, but his freedom. Bacon can swing his internal compass from victim to villain at the drop of a hat, taking up the bruised martyr mantle here and proving to be quite affecting. Slater is… Slater, the guy doesn’t have endless range but can carry a scene decently enough. Oldman is sly and scary, covering up the true nature of Glen’s monstrosity underneath a beauricratic sheen. The cast is wonderful, with further standouts from Brad Dourif as Slater’s veteran lawman brother, Embeth Davidz as a key witness, R. Lee Ermey as the stern judge overseeing the trial and brief appearances from Mia Kirshner, Charles Cyphers and Kyra Sedgwick. The expert cast carries it along with innate talent and applied teamwork, with Bacon and Oldman taking front and center. Now I’m not entirely sure if this is based on a true story, but it’s very fascinating nonetheless and serves to show the rotten places in the penal system which definitely do exist in real life. Solid stuff.
Brown’s Requiem is a neat little slice of Los Angeles film noir in the tradition of L.A. Confidential and Mulholland Falls. It’s based on a book of the same name that’s written by James Ellroy, who actually wrote L.A. Confidential as well, so the crime vibe here is thick, rich and geniune. Michael Rooker is flat out fantastic as Fritz Brown, a world weary, hard bitten private investigator who is hired by a rotund caddie named Fat Dog (Will Sasso) to find his kid sister (Selma Blair) a wayward girl who has apparantly run off with a her sugar daddy, and may be in danger. Brown noses around and before he knows it he’s neck deep in police corruption, violence and murder. It’s convoluted, but film noir always is, and when the plot is left to bake in the California sun, it’s going to be nicely sinewy and labyrinthine to please all the filmgoers put there who fancy themselves gumshoes and like to decipher the happenings along with the protagonist. The trail leads Brown to sinister police captain Cathcart (the late Brion James), brutal thug Richard Ralston (Jack Conley) and many other bottom dwelling nasties. This is a rare lead role for Rooker and he’s riveting, fitting this genre protagonist like a glove. His innate menace and gruff whisper of a voice are put to good use as the hangdog tough guy takes care of business in style. Watch out for Kevin Corrigan, Tobin Bell, Christopher Meloni and a brief but darkly funny cameo from Brad Dourif. Where L.A. Confidential hid it’s grit beneath a sheen of glamour, Brown’s Requiem wears it proudly on its seedy sleeve, a scrappy little cousin to Confidential, and a sturdy little noir mystery boosted by Rooker’s work.