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Intruder Alert: Nate’s Top Ten Home Invasion Thrillers

Lock the doors, bolt the windows and load that shotgun, because someone’s out there and they want in. There’s something primal and terrifying about a good home invasion thriller, a certain violation felt in the act of unwanted visitors breaching the sacred perimeter of one’s homestead. Be it burglars, psychopaths, serial killers or Jehovah’s Witnesses, no one likes the sanctity of their dwelling encroached upon and the premise alone has made for some really fun, often scary and always exciting films, my top ten of which are as follows:

10. Joel Schumacher’s Trespass

These days there’s a new Nicolas Cage flick for every day of the week, and you have to tread carefully through the proverbial minefield of shit nuggets. This is a sleek, solid thriller in the tradition of 90’s Hollywood programmers and provides serviceable excitement. Cage and Nicole Kidman are an upper class couple whose lavish mansion is invaded by a trio of nasty, violent criminals played by Dash Mihok (always awesome), Cam Gigandet (I know he sucks so bad but he’s the only weak link here) and Ben Mendelsohn who rocks the house as always. Who are these guys? What do they want? The fun is in finding out and watching Cage and his family evade these dangerous loonies while trying to stay alive.

9. Joseph Ruben’s Penthouse North

Another 90’s genre throwback, this one sees blind artist Michelle Monaghan facing off against psychopathic jewel thief Michael Keaton, who hid a diamond in her spacious Manhattan loft apartment years ago and wants it back. Monaghan is always terrific and overlooked as an actress, whenever she scores a lead role I’m first in line for tickets. Keaton tends to nail the diabolical villain part because his upfront affability is so disarming that one feels true shock when he abruptly shifts to volatile nastiness. This was tied with Mike Flanagan’s Hush for a spot on the list and while that one is terrific too, I felt that due to the extreme obscurity and overlooked status of Penthouse North that it needed some love.

8. Michael Dunstan’s The Collector

A very unique horror film in which an ex con decides to rob the country estate of his wealthy employer, with a small crew. But someone else has also targeted the house on the same night, basically the last dude you want to be stuck alone with in a closed off environment. It’s a stylish, spooky mashup of Saw, Home Alone and Mouse Trap with a dark palette, some spectacularly gory sequences and a villain you won’t soon forget.

7. James DeMonaco’s The Purge

While the overall concept of the purge is better explored and elaborated on more in the sequels, this first one still works as a horror thriller and dishes out some great suspense, not to mention believable performances from Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey. It’s also fun watching Hawke’s reportedly foolproof home security system get slowly breached by the preppy psycho brats that have decided to target them.

6. Jonathan Kaplan’s Unlawful Entry

This whacked out funhouse of a flick starts with one home invasion that’s a brash, routine burglary and evolves into another that is subtle, psychological and terrifying. Kurt Russell and Madeleine Stowe are the couple who receives help from Ray Liotta’s friendly cop following the burglary, but then he gets a bit *too* friendly. Taking a keen, perverse interest in Stowe, he latches himself onto their lives and eventually becomes violent and unstable in this harrowing tale of one officer of the law who forgot about protecting and serving.

5. Mike Figgis’s Cold Creek Manor

It’s kind of an unconventional choice for a home invasion flick, but the vibe is technically there and I’ve always really liked it and found it to be unfairly bashed. Dennis Quaid and Sharon Stone move their kids (Kristen Stewart and Ryan Wilson) to a creaky old mansion in the countryside for some rest and readjusting. Scary local redneck Stephen Dorff grew up there though, and he isn’t quite ready to move on, let alone watch another family set up camp and start renovating. So begins a relentless series of stalker moves, creep out moments and serious violations of privacy that start to turn violent. It’s essentially a pretty predictable Hollywood thriller but the spooky rural atmosphere is something I’ve always liked and you get a cool Christopher Plummer cameo too.

4. Michael Cimino’s Desperate Hours

One of Cimino’s less celebrated films is a remake of an oldie with Humphrey Bogart about three murderous burglars who take a suburban family hostage. Here the lead criminal is Mickey Rourke, the family patriarch Anthony Hopkins and the tone is very broad and melodramatic, but still a lot of fun. Any middle of the road film will get points for having a top notch cast and the players here are all terrific including Elias Koteas, David Morse, Lindsay Crouse, Dean Norris, Shawnee Smith, James Rebhorn, Mimi Rogers and Kelly Lynch.

3, Brian Bertino’s The Strangers

This sensational horror/shocker taps into everyone’s primal fear of being stalked by killers in their own home, and leaves a brutally nihilistic lasting impression. With an auburn, earthy visual tone, nods to 70’s horror films of the same style and a believable central performance from Liv Tyler, this one hits all the right notes and cultivates a terrifically hopeless sense of dread.

2. Florent Siri’s Hostage

This isn’t your garden variety Bruce Willis action picture. Buried cleverly in and around the tale of a hostage negotiator (Willis) trying to rescue an innocent family from three dangerous juvenile criminals is something almost noirish, expressionist in nature and akin to a horror movie in places. The house that these guys break into is a specifically designed labyrinth of shadows, walls and security traps that prove hard to navigate for all parties involved and makes an evocative setting while Willis gives one of his best, most haunted performances on record and Ben Foster makes chilling work of the lead antagonist who is a devilish psychopath.

1. David Fincher’s Panic Room

The bar is set here in terms of home invasion thrillers, and pretty damn high too. Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart (for the second time on this list!) retreat to the titular stronghold within their NYC home and fight for their lives against three evil professional thieves (Forest Whitaker, Dwight Yoakam and Jared Leto). The suspense here is just unreal, this should be in textbooks on how to craft an effective, aesthetically pleasing thriller that keeps you on edge the whole time.

Thanks for reading!

-Nate Hill

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David Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

If you think about it, the source material for a story like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is the perfect kind of thing for director David Fincher to have a whack at. It’s dark, kinky, and riddled with detailed clues, any of which could spell survival or a scary end for the two protagonists, and there’s an overall misanthropic edge as well. Not to say that Fincher deliberately picks dark, fucked up projects in his work, but there’s a definite gravitation towards the macabre, he has an eye for it. I love this film a lot, it’s among my favourites in his stable and I think he improved on not only the book by Stieg Larsson, but also made a better film version than the first adaptation. The original was serviceable but in a mystery like this I feel like atmosphere is key, and Fincher provides enough to get lost in. This is a story spanning decades, outlining years of dark deeds and unearthing secrets buried within secrets and as such it should feel eerie, ambient, be lit in ways that evoke the passage of time and have a soundscape that not only freaks you out but guides your focus and has you searching for clues right alongside the heroes. I feel like he definitely has those boxes solidly checked off.

Rooney Mara makes a more detached, colder Lisbeth Salander than Noomi Rapace’s hot blooded take and you could argue all night who was better in the role, but I don’t think that’s really the point. What matters is Mara is a fantastic Lisbeth, emotionally complex, seemingly shut off yet injecting pockets of warmth in where you least expect it and losing none of the caged animal or ruthless survival instinct that is so important to the character. Daniel Craig has the perfect jaded half smirk to play a guy that enters the story disgraced and surrounded by scandal, I think he rocks his role too and the chemistry between both is as tangible as the spooky Swedish ambience that Fincher turns them loose in. There’s a killer out there, one who has been operating with relative impunity for many years and right under the nose of the spectacularly dysfunctional Vanger family, whose industrialist patriarch (Christopher Plummer, excellent) enlists Craig’s help in finding the truth. His daughter went missing from their secluded island home some thirty years before as we see in dreamy flashbacks where Julian Sands steps in for Plummer. Craig’s Mikael and Mara’s Lisbeth are a pair of introverted workaholics who both come from rocky pasts and understand the kind of risk involved with this type of work, but neither are prepared for the brand of sick horrors that revolve around this mystery. Fincher carefully casts the film with impressive talent including Joely Richardson, Steven Berkoff, Robin Wright, Yorick van Wageningen, Goran Visnjic, Donald Sumpter, Embeth Davidzt, Alan Dale, Geraldine James and scene stealer Stellan Skarsgard as another key member of the Vanger family.

One of the most effective aspects of the film is the original score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, a subtle atmospheric composition that brings on feelings of dread, unseen danger and anticipatory anxiety wonderfully. As Craig’s car snakes along the long driveway of Plummer’s extravagant yet isolated mansion, a strange warble of tubular bell style music fills the snowy air, giving off incredibly creepy vibes and in turn giving me chills every time. Fincher cranks up the dial on violence and sex about as far as one could in a Hollywood film and as such you get some deeply disturbing scenes to sit through, especially involving Lisbeth’s deranged legal guardian, who really made me question the foster system in Sweden. None of it is glorified though and all serves to tell this dark story in the most affecting way. There’s a shadowy blanket over the film, everything seems frosty and frigid thanks to the cinematography from Jeff Cronenworth, as if there’s some spell of dark magic laying over the land and protecting those hiding within it as Lisbeth and Mikael race to find them. This is a perfect tale to get transported away by, a nightmarish yet strangely picturesque mystery to get lost in like a snowy night, until you arrive at the wrong doorstep alongside our heroes and then the real thrills begin. Great film.

-Nate Hill

Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys

There are films that sink in almost immediately after the credits roll, others that take some days or months to absorb, and then there are ones like Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys, which in my case has taken the years since I was a kid and first saw it to digest the whole experience. Not to say it’s an especially complex or dense story, I mean it’s twisty enough but can more or less be understood with one viewing if you’re keen. There’s just a certain emotional quality to everything, coupled with the hazy unreliability that Gilliam lays over his lead character’s state of mind, an atmosphere like that of a dream you had last night and are trying to remember right as it slips away, an idea which also literally figures into the plot.

Bruce Willis plays against his tough guy image as James Cole, a shellshocked time traveller sent from a dystopian future back to the 90’s to do some cosmic R&D and figure out how a mysterious super virus wiped out almost all of humanity, forcing the rest into subterranean catacombs. Time travel doesn’t seem to be an exact science for these folks though, as they repeatedly send him to the wrong era after which he’s dumped in a mental hospital where, naturally, no one believes who he really is. Or is he even who he thinks he is? Madeleine Stowe is Kathryn Reilly, the psychiatric anthropologist assigned to his case, and Brad Pitt in one demon of a performance plays terminal odd duck Jeffrey Goines, a man whose lunatic ramblings start to sound eerily on point. The mystery of the virus sort of takes a backseat to Willis’s journey through the past, present, future and all times in between, Gilliam loves taking pause to see how he interacts with the world around him and hold scenes for a while until we get a real sense of world building. The moment James hears music for the first time is a showstopper, and the way Willis handles it is not only one of his finest moments as an actor but also a showcase of the craft in itself. Stowe always radiates fierce beauty and compassion in her work, she’s a grounding force of reason and empathy here, while Pitt takes a hyped up Joker approach to his role that takes you off guard while constantly keeping you in the dark about who he really is, the guy says nothing while blurting out everything. Others dart in and out of their story, with appearances from Christopher Plummer, Frank Gorshin, Joseph McKenna, Jon Seda, Harry O’ Toole, LisaGay Hamilton, Christopher Meloni, Bart the Bear and a super creepy David Morse.

I love this film to bits, I think it’s Gilliam’s best work and is definitely my favourite, there is just so much going on both front n’ centre and in the background. It’s a thrilling adventure story, narratives about time travel are always my bag, but it also looks at Willis’s character from a careful psychological perspective. What would time travel do to someone’s state of mind, and how would they react in the long run. Themes of reality versus dreams and imagination are present, and a gnawing sense that it could all be made up. “Maybe you are just a carpet cleaning company and this is all in my head”, James laments through a payphone that transcends space time barriers. Gilliam certainly likes to play with notions of uncertainty and self doubt when it comes to the Sci-Fi aspects, and he isn’t afraid to boldly place in a hauntingly elliptical ending that doesn’t satisfy or resolve, and if anything lingers in our thoughts for a long while, like that elusive dream I mentioned above. Gilliam almost couldn’t get this film made, there were issues with everything from script to special effects to reported studio interference, but I thank the stars that it all worked out in the end, for it is his masterpiece.

-Nate Hill

Mike Figgis’s Cold Creek Manor

Mike Figgis’s Cold Creek Manor is one of those lurid thrillers that got absolutely shit on by critics, but I’ve always enjoyed its steely, mean spirited edge and nasty central antagonist performance from Stephen Dorff. There’s also the atmospheric locales of rural Ontario that add to the vibe, as well as the high pedigree class of actors you wouldn’t normally see in something this knowingly low brow. Dennis Quaid plays Cooper Tillson, a family man forced to move to the sticks for work. He buys up an ancient house in the woods with a lot of history behind it and some psychological baggage that’s not forgotten so easily. Dorff is Dale Massie, previous inhabitant and local roughneck who hates the idea of big city boy Quaid and his clan taking up roost in his former digs, probably because it stirs up past trauma for him and induces the scary, pissed off state he spends most of the film in. Quaid’s wife (Sharon Stone) and kids including a very young Kristen Stewart, start to get routinely creeped out when Dorff shows up more and more, insinuating his way into their collective idyllic country lives, until he gets downright violent and Quaid is forced to unlock the secrets of the manor to protect his family. Christopher Plummer has a barely coherent appearance as Dorff’s bedridden, dementia addled father, a deeply unnerving cameo if I’ve ever seen one. Spunky Juliette Lewis plays the local hoe-bag who openly mocks Quaid & Clan too. Ultimately this is glossy trash and they marketed it with trailers that made it seem like a straight up horror or supernatural thing, when in reality it’s much more of a stalker thriller, which is alright too, if you have a villain as intense as glowering, seething Dorff. It certainly doesn’t warrant the shit storm of bad reviews it’s amassed though, there’s fun to be had if you approach it with a popcorn movie mindset, and with that cast alone at least you get to watch them do their thing. Hey, at least it’s light years better than that fucking Dream House thing with Daniel Craig.

-Nate Hill

Stephen King’s Dolores Claiborne

Stephen King’s Dolores Claiborne is one of those ones I held off on watching for years, for whatever reason. It’s an absolute corker though, a well written horror story of the most human kind, finding the darkest corners of the psyche and blowing them up full scale for a morbid effect that’s altogether far more unsettling than any ghosts or supernatural stuff. Ominous grey clouds roll in over picturesque Maine (actually Nova Scotia, the sneaky bastards), as former housewife and in-home nurse Dolores (Kathy Bates in one show stopper) is accused of a heinous crime: murdering her sick and elderly employee, a rich old goat (Judy Parfitt) who’s put her through decades of hard labour. Dolores’s daughter Selena (Jennifer Jason Leigh) returns home from a high profile journalist gig in the big Apple just in time for old wounds to be seared open. As a highly biased Detective (devilish Christopher Plummer) grills her on every aspect of the case, the narrative arcs back to Selena’s childhood years with Dolores and her monster of a father (David Strathairn, well out of his comfort zone and loving it), a tyrannical alcoholic whose ‘accidental’ death casts a heavy shadow on Bates, a pattern to be deciphered deliciously by both Leigh and the viewer. Things are not only not what they seem, but just about as far away from what we’re presented as possible, and when the final curtain lifts, it’s a wicked series of revelations to look back upon. King is undeniably the master of all things horror under the sun, but what he really excels at is how the lines blur between external demonization, the forces that exist out there in the night and the simple fact that humans are capable of despicable acts, whether by design or influence. It’s not a pretty tale, especially during the lurid, violent third act, but what a masterfully told tale it is, with expert director Taylor Hackford pulling at the reins, Danny Elfman undoing his mischievous aesthetic for a score that’s deep and dark, cinematographer Gabriel Beristain probing the inlets and harbours of eastern Canada with a surefire lens that creates atmosphere to spare, and every actor firing on all cylinders, including nice sideline work from Eric Bogosian, Ellen Muth, Bob Gunton, Wayne Robson and John C. Reilly. It’s interesting to observe the contrasts in visual style as well: For the most part, this is a moody, misty locale played dead straight, with no touches of the surreal or ‘out there’. Then in the third act there’s this crazy sequence during an eclipse (which bares uncanny similarities to this year’s gem of King adaptation, Gerald’s Game, I might add) that goes full on horror mode, dials down the realism and reminds us that this is after all a Stephen King story, and at some point things are liable to get weird. This one aims to please and prickle the senses of even the most stoic fan of deranged thrillers, and is a terrific funhouse to get lost in.

-Nate Hill

Mike Nichol’s Wolf


Mike Nichol’s Wolf cleverly combines comedic character study, spoofs the high profile business scene and whips it together with a far more literal lycanthropic horror story than I’d ever imagined before I watched it. It’s neat that dry metaphor went full on genuinely real monster flick, while losing none of it’s smarts along the way. Jack Nicholson, that old devil, plays an aging publisher whose livelihood is threatened by the arrival of a roguish young upstart (James Spader laying down that smarm) with designs on his job. It doesn’t help that he’s worn out, weary and not as sharp as he once was. Cue a werewolf mauling, which fixes those things right quick and turns him into a new man, in more ways than one. He’s fiercely competitive, virile and on the ball, but he also has to keep his hairy secret, well, a secret. Christopher Plummer is great as his fiery tempered boss, whose daughter (slinky Michelle Pfeiffer) begins to have eyes for the old dog, and the supporting cast has well coloured turns from Kate Nelligan, Ron Rifkin, Om Puri, David Hyde Pierce, Eileen Atkins, David Schwimmer and Richard Jenkins as a wily detective who begins to sniff the rat. The Wolf effects by Rick Baker and team are refreshingly old school, practical prosthetics and nice and gooey too. It’s also a tongue in cheek examination of male potency and territorial behaviour, so what better avenues of exploration than instinctual canine interaction and the politics of the workplace? Cool stuff, neat genre blending, a wicked cast and cool horror elements. 

-Nate Hill

The Man in the Director’s Chair: An Interview with Michael Schroeder by Kent Hill

It was owning a fast car that booked a young Michael Schroeder his first trip onto a film set. With Chief Dan George (The Outlaw Josey Wales) in the seat next to him, Michael was instructed to drive as fast as he could toward camera. He took this request literally.

While no one was injured, and though this early encounter did not go exactly according to plan, the crew assembled in cowboy hats and shorts seemed to be having a lot more fun than the group of aging lawyers with whom Schroeder had spent this previous evening. So he quit trying to be become a lawyer and ran of to join the movie business.

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He began his professional career as an assistant director working on such films as Revenge of the Ninja, Lambada, Highlander 2 and Guests of the Emperor. In 1988 he would take the director’s chair on Mortuary Academy. Fourteen features would follow, among them Dead On: Relentless 2, Angelina Jolie’s debut Cyborg 2: Glass Shadow, Cyborg 3 (apparently Schroeder’s most lamentable experience) and his career high and passion project, the wonderful Man in the Chair.

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He is a talented director who came to movies late – but he has since established himself as a consummate artiste of the motion picture. He was a font of great stories, optimism, on top of being an eloquent gentleman.

It is my privilege to present to you this interview.

Ladies and Gentlemen . . . Michael Schroeder.

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