So here’s a fun idea (I hope)… I have hundreds of unwatched, obscure VHS tapes ive collected over the years and I’ve recently organized them, fired up the VCR and begun to explore the darkest corners of Z-Grade 70’s, 80’s and 90’s analog nirvana, so I’ll do a series of intermittent reviews based on these random, unheard of treasures with a snapshot of the tape itself, just for fun. First up is one called Frame By Frame, which I guess is officially called Conundrum on IMDb. It stars Michael Biehn and Marg Helgenberger as two inner city cops who begin to have a fiery affair amidst the aftermath of gangland killings stirred up by a Chinese crime syndicate. His family is murdered to set an example, this event brings them closer as she comforts him but before you know it other nasty secrets are unleashed and the classic obligatory ‘web of deceit, betrayal, twists and kinky obsession’ of the essential 80’s B movie potboiler is set into motion. Biehn and Helgenberger are perfect for each other, and on top of being two of the absolute sexiest cult icons of their day, they actually turn this run of the mill script into something fun thanks to their vivid characterizations. He’s as wild eyed and frantic as he was in Terminator and even gets one sly ‘big emotion’ scene that takes on new meaning once all the twists unfold, and she does this tough girl tomboy thing with her accent and mannerisms that’s fun too. The story kind of goes wildly all over the place and I didn’t quite follow every hairpin turn or believe in this brand of convolution but hey, it’s an ancient DTV flick and half the fun is watching these two stars rip snort their way through the hard boiled narrative anyways. I’m fairly sure I may be the only person to have ever seen this film because the tape I have is one of those promotional screeners that aren’t for resale (but they always are anyways), there are positively zero user reviews on IMDb or even critics reviews out there elsewhere on the interwebs and one can barely find traces of its existence at all beyond the tape I have. Good times though, especially if you love Biehn and Marg as much as this viewer.
Fire Down Below might just be the most laidback Steven Seagal movie I’ve seen, and I mean that as a compliment. Many of his seemingly endless outings are obnoxious inner city bang ups, special forces hootenannies or high concept martial arts pageants, but here is a simple, down to earth, rural Kentucky set tale of one tough Fed helping out a small town of disadvantaged folks battle corporate corruption and deeds most foul. An unscrupulous company has been dumping toxic waste into a town’s water supply, lighting the canyons on fire and being a general nuisance in the region, but they really step out of line when they kill Seagal’s research partner and he’s dispatched to investigate by his agency handler (Richard Masur in the quickest cameo I’ve seen in a while). He spends the rest of the film meandering around a backwater county, making friends, getting cozy with a troubled local beekeeper (Marg Helgenberger, ditching the swanky CSI leather for a country girl’s dress) and eventually beating the shit out of underlines who work for powerful industrialist CEO Kris Kristofferson, who spends most of the film elsewhere in the big city ogling dancers at some casino. The one who does make the most trouble for Steven is Helgenberger’s pervy, volatile, very mentally unstable brother played with a high strung psychopathic flourish by Stephen Lang. Others include The Band’s Levon Helm as the local priest, Brad Hunt, Mark Collie, John Diehl, Randy Travis, country singers Alex Harvey & Marty Stuart and the great Harry Dean Stanton, giving the film’s only truly good performance as a simple local guy who gets caught up in the whole mess. This is a low key thing, the action comes in quick jolts and there’s a kickass canyon car chase with giant trucks but a lot of it is just hazy small town hangin’ our, which is fine too. There’s some great music too sung by the numerous professional musicians in the cast and briefly by Stanton himself. The main thing the film has going for it is a hilarious script by Jeb Stuart, who wrote classics like Die Hard and The Fugitive. He pens some precious one-liners here and I have to give a few quick examples because they are priceless: Kristofferson’s son asks pops if he wants him to ‘take Seagal out,’ and Kris dryly retorts: “You couldn’t take out a cheeseburger from a drive-thru window.” Another instance sees some poor fool try and threaten Steven with: “I’m gonna slap you like a red-headed step child!” Amazing stuff.
Roger Donaldson’s Species is a trash infused Sci Fi horror yarn that’s clearly inspired by stuff like Alien and Body Snatchers right down to the scaly, jagged title font, but oh man did they ever take the silly, run of the mill route here. Scientists including Alfred Molina and Ben Kingsley have successfully moulded human and extraterrestrial DNA sequences to create a hybrid creature called Sil, but as in any film like this it soon becomes apparent how ill advised such an experiment will come to be. Sil, played by an excellent Michelle Williams at preteen level and later by eye catching supermodel Natasha Henstridge, is an endlessly fascinating character with so much potential, but this being nothing more than a Schlocky B flick elevated oh so slightly by the presence of an ensemble cast with considerable pedigree, she is sadly relegated to pedestrian movie monster archetype, and the premise falls short of fruition as a result. Using the seductive powers of her human form (Henstridge is a babe) she evades recapture and seeks an earthling mate to perpetuate her species and probably cause a full scale invasion via systemic procreation, while the doctors and a team of experts including zoological guru Forest Whitaker and big game hunters Michael Madsen and Marg Helgenberger pursue her all over a metropolitan area while she looks for Mr. Perfect to make slimy babies with. Sex is treated in a very lurid, shallow and unpleasant way here, like with the budget and firepower behind a film this big you’d expect a modicum of maturity and respect for the female form, but they’ve thoroughly exploited the concept to sickening levels that probably looked fun on paper, but don’t translate very nicely on screen. Worth it for Sil, for both Williams’ and Henstridge’s take on the character and to think about what might have been had they written her character with more class, care and depth, but other than that this is just cheeseball slime without a brain or heartbeat. Followed by two sequels that pretty much go the same route of disappointment.
There are a few films Kevin Costner has done in which he has really been allowed and been willing to test the boundaries of what is usually expected from him in a role. 3,000 Miles To Graceland and Eastwood’s A Perfect World are fine examples. Perhaps the finest though is Mr. Brooks, a dark tale that showcases the actor in a terrifying turn and the last type of role you would picture for him on paper. Opposites are paramount in acting and cinema as a whole, and it’s that type of contrarian casting choice that can lead to a performer’s finest hours. In this case it’s certainly one of Kevin’s best outings, and casts him in a frightening new light, or should I say dark. Here he is Earl Brooks, husband, father, businessman and all round stand up guy. Except fpr the fact that he moonlights as a methodical and psychopathic serial killer. He sees it as an affliction, and is almost ashamed of it, whether by a tiny flicker of a soul he may have, or simply by the standards impressed onto society. He’s efficient, cold and hopelessly addicted to the act of murder. His alter ego, or ‘dark passenger’ as the scholars say, is a cynical persona called Marshall, brought to life by a scary William Hurt. “Why do you fight it, Earl?” he drawls in that committed, laconic snarl that only Hurt can do. There’s shades of his character from Cronenberg’s A History Of Violence here, affirming my belief that Hurt is a pure acting prodigy and masterful of both the light and the dark within his craft. Earl has a daughter too (Danielle Panabaker) who he has worrisome thoughts about, and a picture perfect wife (Marg Helgenberger). One can’t keep the turbulent nightlife of the serial killer a secret for one’s entire life though, and pretty soon people start to catch on. A nosy Nelly (Dane Cook) catches a whiff of Earl’s crimes and lives to wish he hadn’t, and a keen Detective (Demi Moore) begins to piece the puzzle together as well. Earl is as clever as he is murderous though, covering his work and tying off loose ends with gut churning gusto. Costner carries the film terrifically, a man who is at once both uncomfortable in his own skin yet fits it like a glove when the camera dutifully bears witness to his killings. He’s like a tiger who really can’t change his stripes but wants to shield them from the judgment of others, and of course his own persecution. The scenes of murder are skin crawling in their frank, fly-on-the-wall nature, no slasher cinematics or gimmicky set ups here, just the icy horror of a predator extinguishing human life to sate the beast, and the nightmarish inevitability of death. Those scenes paint Earl in a horrific light, but the film doesn’t try to convince us he’s a monster using any usual methods, it just presents to us this man, his acts and his life surrounding them, without discernable condoning or condemning. It’s cold, it’s clinical and it’s one of the best serial killer flicks out there.