Aaron Sorkin gets a lot of props for his writing and the guy has done some good stuff but I can’t let him off the hook for Malice, a backwards ass psychosexual melodrama that’s so bad it isn’t even good, it’s just hot fucking mess, twice baked roadkill in summer bad. I wanted to love this because I’m a huge fan of melodramatic 90’s potboilers and also it stars Alec Baldwin, Bill Pullman and Nicole Kidman, three wicked sharp and always reliable stars. But man, this thing is just a fucking mess.
The plot, if you could call it that, revolves around three central characters: a college dean (Pullman), his wife (Nicole Kidman) and a hotshot surgeon (Baldwin) with a severely self proclaimed god complex and generally corrosive, unpleasant personality. After he’s sued big time for malpractice when he wrongfully removes her ovaries in an emergency procedure the plot just completely derails and descends into sleazy lifetime thriller territory. The twists contain zero logic, the characters are nondescript cardboard inserts save Baldwin who does his best to save it but eventually gets cornered by the silly narrative just like everyone else. Oh yeah and there’s a subplot about a serial rapist/killer on campus that’s thrown in there seemingly for the fuck of it as an afterthought, but you’ll guess who it is the moment he shows up just because he’s such a recognizably creepy dude. There’s supporting efforts from Josef Sommer, Bebe Neurith, Peter Gallagher, Tobin Bell, Anne Bancroft, an early Gwyneth Paltrow appearance and George C. Scott himself as a cantankerous old veteran doctor with a Santa beard. Wicked cast, right? Too bad they’re all mostly wasted.
I love a good deception/betrayal/psycho doctor potboiler but the gears all have to click together and come up with something that’s believable or you just end up in Eric Roberts two dollar bin material (sorry Eric but it’s true). This thing is ridiculously plotted right out the ass and what’s worse is we didn’t even care one ounce about these characters from the start so we don’t even get the masochistic rush of seeing people we’ve invested in get flushed down the drain of a bad script. This thing just flatlines, and even the scenes that provide some vague thrill seem episodic and detached from the story overall. The only halfway saving grace is Baldwin who really relishes the grade A asshole role enthusiastically, for the first half anyways until things really begin to disintegrate. I will say he gets one of the best lines of his whole career here though. When second guessed by one of his underlings in the OR, he later growls at them in in the locker room: “If you ever question me again in there I’ll take out your lungs with a fucking ice cream scoop” “I’m not gonna like you much, am I?” His colleague bemoans, to which he affably replies “What are you talkin’ about? Everybody likes me.” It’s a terrific moment and the only sign of life in an otherwise awful film.
I love a good old fashioned creaky haunted house story, and HBO’s The Changeling is one of the best, and most under appreciated spooky tales out there. Like I say time and time again (no doubt sounding like a broken record at this point), real effective horror lies in atmosphere and the buildup of tension, chilling our spines instead of bombarding us with tasteless dismemberment. The Changeling takes its time in establishing cozy atmosphere and engulfs us in a gigantic New England mansion (actually Shaughnessy for anyone who can tell), inhabited by the lonely, desperate ghost of a young boy who met a tragic fate there many decades earlier. George C. Scott is the musical composer who moves in all by himself, seeking solitude as he nurses the grief of losing both his wife and daughter in a car accident. He’s barely there one night when strange things begin to happen; rhythmic banging from some far off room, eerie crying noises, doors opening and closing of their own accord and a mysterious toy bouncing ball that ominously follows him around. Saddled with an already troubled mind, he sets out to learn the origins of the ghost and resolve the situation, putting it to rest. The story is smart and succinct, involving ancestral deception and an elderly US Congressman (Melvyn Douglas, stealing every scene) with ties to the past. It’s never too complicated or busy, always keeping it’s cool and reigning in the frightening moments in a minimal fashion that pays off greatly. The lush, overgrown Vancouver locale makes a great setting, almost Stephen King like, and the house itself is a towering cluster of dusty hallways and wide open ceilings that shield ancient secrets and watch over anyone who sets foot inside with an unseen eye. I never thought a bouncy ball and a small children’s wheelchair could raise such goosebumps, but when used as well as they are here, in scenes which set up the creep factor wonderfully, they’ll get to you big time. Scott is weary and wary, but has a strong sense of compassion for the restless spirit that shows in his baleful, ice blue eyes and gives him the charisma a horror protagonist needs. HBO original films are almost always hidden gems of humble craftsmanship and breezy, effortless skill, whatever the genre. Here they’ve tried their hand at the ghostly fright flick, and wrought one of the best I’ve ever seen.
Film versions of Stephen King novels can be a tricky thing. Often they’re half assed, clunky miniseries (ever tried to sit down and watch The Langoliers??), and when they’re given the lofty cinema treatment, he has famously turned his nose in the face of Kubrick’s might. I feel like Firestarter escaped unscathed, and still holds to this day, if a bit achingly retro now. It’s a thriller perceived in a childlike manner by its young protagonist, Charlie Mcgee (Drew Barrymore). Charlie can start fires with her mind, and certain shadowy agencies just can’t wait to get their hands on her. Her father (David Keith) once participated in some scary drug testing related to telekinesis back in the day, and some of whatever altered his DNA has been passed on to her. He will do anything to protect her, as the two frantically race across the country to safety, pursued by forces working for Hollister (Martin Sheen), a spook with too much power and nasty ideas about what to do with it. Also on their trail is pseudo spiritual whacko John Rainbird, who wants to absorb Charlie’s abilities, man what a freak. Rainbird is a native American in King’s novel, so white haired yankee boy Scott is an odd choice, but he does a fine job all the same. Two things are what makes this one really stand out in a special way. Tangerine Dream provides yet another ultrasonic, elemental synth score that has since become legendary. It accents the story in an almost fairy tale like way, gilding the danger with a fable style sound, but never stamping out the real menace. Barrymore is the other leg of the table, giving one hell of a fierce and vulnerable performance for such a young girl, her childlike honesty a prism for the audience to see the evil around her through innocent eyes. It’s great stuff, and one of the most solid King adaptations out there. Now there is a sequel (not sure if the man wrote a second book?) called Firestarter 2: Rekindled, which pales in comparison and runs about 45 minutes too long (!), but it’s worth a look for the casting of Marguerite Moreau as a grown up Charlie, Malcolm McDowell taking over from Scott as Rainbird, and Dennis Hopper as well.
William Peter Blatty’s The Excorcist III is my favourite in the series, and if that leaves some people aghast with disbelief, I’ll still hold my stance. Don’t get me wrong, the first film is a classic of atmospheric dread, the sequel is a psychedelic oddity that’s also very underrated, but there’s something about this one that just sat better with me than any of the others, including the two prequels with Stellen Skarsgard. This one deviates from the pattern as well as lifts the focus from Linda Blair’s character, paving a cool new story for itself and breaking new ground. It’s also got one of the single most terrifying moments I’ve ever seen on film, orchestrated perfectly enough to give a good dose of goosebumps to the strongest of spines. The immortal and always excellent George C. Scott plays Kinderman, a police lieutenant who is on the trail of a bloodthirsty serial murderer nicknamed The Gemini Killer. The killer himself has actually been long deceased, but uncanny similarities in the current crimes have freaked the police right out, and so he follows the clues to a foreboding psychiatric facility. It soon becomes clear that there’s something very mysterious going on, and something very wrong with the patients. Skittish Dr. Temple (Scott Wilson) seems to know what’s going on, but also seems not to, or to be too scared to divulge anything. A terrifying patient named James Venuman (Brad Dourif is so scary you’ll want to hide behind the couch) seems to contain something malevolent inside him, his ravings making eerie sense to the detective. There’s a few surprise cameos from veterans of the franchise, as well as work from Ed Flanders, Nicol Williamson and, believe it or not, an appearance from Fabio, of all people. The atmosphere is so thick you could choke on it, the dread hanging in the air like clammy mist, helped in part by the disturbing choice of location, Dourif’s sheer ghoul act and cinematographer Gerry Fisher’s camera, which lurks along walls and corridors and turns the facility into a haunted house, and our nerves into a jittering mess. Underrated as both a standalone fright flick and as an entry in the Excorcist series. Top notch creepfest.