Just Before Dawn

You know in slasher flicks where the vacationing teens arrive in some godforsaken bumpkin-ville headed inevitably to slaughter and jokingly refer to the rural folk as ‘inbred’? Well most of the time they’re just mocking them but in the case of Just Before Dawn the pair of demented killers are legitimately inbred drooling simpletons, big lumbering… I’ll get in trouble if I use the ‘R word’ lol but… yeah. This is a creaky old horror flick from way back when that is surprisingly effective in creating atmosphere, suspense and some well placed gore. The story couldn’t be simpler: a bunch of teens on summer break drive their Winnebago a bit too far into a dense, remote Oregon mountain range mostly cut off from civilization and run afoul of two twin killers who hunt them down, with hilariously stealthy and tactical methods I might add, given their rotund stature and, uh, sunny dispositions. George Kennedy is fun as a salty old park ranger with a few quirks (he keeps bonsai trees) who saddles up his horse and goes looking for the teens once they don’t come back. The always awesome Gregg Henry gives a good early career turn as the ringleader of the group, so the cast has some pedigree to it. The film is shot on location in Silver Falls State Park, Oregon, so the lush, gorgeous, sprawling and overgrown PNW scenery is the strongest quality. Mighty rivers, thundering waterfalls, shadowy forests, deep ravines and treacherous mountain crests are the environment both the teens and the killers tread through here and it’s a terrifically rugged, high stakes setting for a slasher to take place in. I joke about the inbred thing because it’s funny, but I do feel like the film could have had another angle than just that, there’s not much imagination in the concept, but other than that this is a solid effort. Some thick, dreamy wildernesses atmosphere complete with eerie sound design that samples odd warps, warbles and spooky bird calls adds a lot too, with considerable suspense thanks to the elemental nature of the setting. Streaming now on Shudder.

-Nate Hill

Clint Eastwood’s The Eiger Sanction

Clint Eastwood tries to do both Indiana Jones and 007 in The Eiger Sanction, a gorgeous production with incredible photography and stunt work that unfortunately is about half an hour two long, and would have greatly benefited from being a sleek ninety minute thing instead of being drawn out over a full two hours to the point where we wonder if some of the extended scenes of dialogue will end and if we’ll ever get to actually see the Eiger. Eastwood is Hemlock, a soft spoken liberal arts professor who just happens to also be a retired assassin super spy in hiding. His old organization, spearheaded by a creepy albino pseudo-bond villain (Thayer David), tracks him down and blackmails him into getting back to work, in particular climbing the infamous mountain in Switzerland to kill a target that ran up there… or something. This involves a long interlude in Monument Valley where an old buddy (George Kennedy, a study in gregarious exuberance) trains him up and an old enemy (Jack Cassidy, a study in the kind of characterization that would get a film boycotted these days lol) stirs up trouble. Then it’s off to Switzerland for an extended climbing sequence and an eventual showdown high atop snowy peaks. If this all sounds terrifically exciting… it isn’t. Eastwood shows a sure hand in directing elsewhere in his career but here the fight scenes are clumsy, cartoonish affairs, the dialogue is oddly conceived (Cassidy’s character has a dog whose name I won’t repeat here because I’m sure some lame brain would report my post) and the editing is loose and unrestrained, creating pacing that has you looking around the room for more interesting things to focus on. Still, the stunts (all done by Eastwood for real) are breathtaking, especially an ascent of one of those huge rock pillars that stand so formidably in the desert. The cinematography once the action switches to Switzerland is unbelievable but the place is so beautiful anyone could point a camera around and get gold. The climbing is all incredibly staged stuff and often suspenseful, but in terms of plot, character and cohesion it just falls apart though, sadly. I’ll always love it because my dad did, he was in the same Swiss town during filming and always talked about meeting the cast and crew. But yeah, from an objective critical standpoint, not the best Eastwood flick out there.

-Nate Hill

Joe Dante’s Small Soldiers

Joe Dante’s Small Soldiers. Fuck yeah. What a blast. I often refer to Dante as ‘The Toymaker’, as each and every one of his films (save for one political satire that only I saw anyways) has fantastical animatronic effects, plenty of creatures and no shortage of whimsy. The guy lives to make genre bliss, and you can always count on monsters, whacked out sci-fi or Tim Burton esque horror elements in his work. Here, it’s a bunch of action figures implanted with AI chips that make them fast, sentient, highly trained and very dangerous. The main story arc is something we’ve seen a zillion times: nerdy kid (Gregory Smith) looks for a way to win over girl of his dreams (Kirsten Dunst) and climb out of the beta pit. His cranky father (Kevin “lemme see that chainsaw for a second” Dunn, priceless here) owns a toy store, when he’s not terrorizing his insufferable neighbour (the late Phil Hartman) with power tools. Simultaneously, two super geeks (Jay Mohr and David Cross) over at a giant toy conglomerate ‘accidentally’ put military grade computer chips into two separate toy prototype lines which are, naturally, sent on over to small town suburbia, specifically Dunn’s store. This is all while the company’s arrogant CEO (Denis Leary) is too busy strutting around in a huff to watch his guys more closely. It’s a familiar series of events, until the toys come to life and start wreaking havoc, which is where the innovation really kicks in. The main threat is a deranged, pint sized band of commandos led by Chip Hazard (I can picture Tommy Lee Jones in the recording studio barking out lines in his pyjamas), who literally just want to blow shit up and cause widespread chaos. The voice talent they’ve amassed here is staggering, with the talents of old school tough guys Jim Brown, Bruce Dern, Clint Walker, Ernest Borgnine and George Kennedy as Hazard’s gonzo unit. A much more sane band of mythical creatures also shows up, led by dog/elf thing Archer (Frank Langhella) as well as an eyeball on a stick (Jim Cummings) and a dopey Frankenstein hybrid (Michael McKean). They’re more peaceful, but immediately become the main target of Chip and Co., which causes enough of a skirmish to level city blocks. The real mad genius shows up when a group of pseudo Barbie dolls (the ‘Cindy Doll’) are reanimated by Chip’s team and start causing homicidal shenanigans, bald giggling lunatic chicks given the unsettling valley girl vocal talents of Christina Ricci and Sarah Michelle Gellar, both providing auditory nightmare fuel with their work. Roger Ebert thought this was too mean and violent to be a family film, and fair enough, but I really view it as a noisy, nihilistic black comedy that just happens to hide in the structure of a kids film. It’s no walk in the park, Chip’s boys see to it that it gets as shocking and messed up as one can without pushing that PG-13 rating, and that’s where the fun comes from. The special effects are really where it shines though, as they should in any film about a multitude of toys that come alive. The only thing missing is a cameo from The Indian In The Cupboard to lodge a Tomahawk in Tommy’s head and even the odds for Archer’s team. Perhaps in the sequel.

-Nate Hill