I love horror movies set on the road, it’s such a great breeding ground for paranoia, vehicular mayhem and fear of the great unknown. Setting out on a road trip is always an amazing feeling of freedom, but the vast interlacing network of desolate highways that lie just outside the structured, familiar peripheries of any big city ways have an innate, sleeping menace to them; anyone, or anything could be out there. Some of the best films in horror overall come from this idea, including Joyride, The Hitcher, Steven Spielberg’s Duel, Tarantino’s Death Proof, Roadgames and so many more. I finally got a chance to check out Robert Harmon’s Highwaymen and I can’t believe I didn’t sooner because it’s an absolute banger, and one that has always gotten terrible reviews and buzz, which to me is inexplicable. This has the hazy, moody early 2000’s thriller feel, an atmospheric yarn about a terrifying serial killer (Colm Feore) who murders woman with his souped up, rampaging Cadillac El Dorado and the lone man (Jim Caviesel) whose wife once fell under his tires, has now made it his quest to bring the monster down. He spends his days attentively scanning CB radio stations and trawling the vast nebula of backroads looking for any sign of this guy resurfacing, and when he does rear his hood ornament once again, the chase is on. An innocent woman (Rhona Mitra) and her ill fated friend (Andrea Roth) find themselves in the crosshairs of his malicious intent and Caviesel takes full advantage of the situation to try and stop him, with the help of an intrepid rogue traffic authority officer (Frankie R. Faison). Feore is intense as ever as the truly vile killer but what makes the character so fascinating is that without his car he is useless; So many years of disastrous collisions have left him a mangled multiple amputee who is wheelchair bound and uses fearsome homemade steel appendages to operate steering wheel, pedals and gearshift, giving him the appearance of some demented crippled cyborg, it’s quite the character choice for a villain. Director Harmon also did the original 1986 Hitcher film which is a classic and while there are shades of his original vision at work here, this is a different beast altogether. It’s moody, shot in deep saturated colours to illustrate the dusty days and inky black nights that hover over the rural roadmap, has a dark, portentous score by Mark Isham (also composed for Hitcher’86), tons of atmospheric unrest and profoundly brutal, stunningly reckless car chases that constantly threaten to spin wildly out of control into outright carnage and keep the viewer on edge splendidly. Powerful horror film.
I’ve always loved the absolute hell out of Antoine Fuqua’s Shooter, a mean, violent, very broad and totally enjoyable action flick with a western flavour woven in and some jaw dropping set pieces along the way. The story is like, beyond over the top, Mark Wahlberg is a near invincible force of nature, the villains are so intense they feel like they’ve walked out of a Walter Hill flick and the overall tone is just this side of tongue in cheek territory while still feeling like a legitimate thriller. Marky Mark plays an ex marine sniping guru who lives alone in the Canadian wilderness with his doggo until he’s lured back to Vancouver by his conniving former boss (Danny Glover) for a high profile political assassination. Basically blackmailed into it, he finds himself set up by his own people to take the fall for the job, betrayed, left for dead, the works. Also, as we observed in John Wick, don’t kill the dog of someone who can take out literal armies of goons and will come gunning for you and everyone in your employ. On the run he’s assisted by a rookie cop (Michael Pena) who intuits his innocence and the girlfriend (a smokin hot Kate Mara) of a former army buddy who he seeks shelter with. The villains here are truly spectacular and I must spend a portion of my review on them: Glover is so arch and evil he literally gets to say “I win, you lose” *twice* and he somehow pulls off a ridiculous line like that just because he’s Danny Glover and he’s smirking like he knows damn well what kind of script he’s waded into. His top lieutenant is a despicable, sadistic piece of work played by the great Elias Koteas in high style, all leering stubble, violent urges towards Mara and creepy charisma in spades. They all work for the the most evil US Senator in the country, a tubby, southern fried, amoral, genocidal maniac Colonel Sanders wannabe played by Ned Beatty, who doesn’t just chew the scenery, but strangles it with his bare hands while he’s at it. The cast is off the hook and also includes Tate Donovan, Mackenzie Grey, Rhona Mitra, Lane Garrison, Rade Serbedzija and a cameo from The Band’s Levon Helm. They just don’t make actioners like this anymore and even for 2007 this felt like a dying breed. Classic, melodramatic, hyper violent, neo-western revenge stuff that was huge in the 80’s and 90’s and I miss greatly. There’s a brilliant exchange of dialogue where Beatty and Glover marvel in desperation at Wahlberg’s refusal to back down or stop hunting them. “I don’t think you understand,” he growls at them: “You killed my dog.” It’s a great line sold 100% by Wahlberg and the film is full of spot on moments like that as well as visually breathtaking action sequences (that mountaintop standoff tho), a playful yet deadly tone and villains that would be at home in the Looney Toons. Great film.
I feel like the Underworld films don’t get proper credit for just how visually magnificent and stylistically sumptuous they are. I mean sure the stories are often a muddle of faux Shakespearean shifting alliances and paranormal melodrama that are impossible to decipher but if you just approach them overall as the story of an ongoing war between vampires and werewolves with lots of preening politics, an abundance of beautifully gory, darkly balletic action sequences and the occasional splash of forbidden romance then you’re good, and don’t need to engage the brain much further. Take Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans, for example, which best I could figure is some kind of prequel to the first film where we see what went down between the two species hundreds of years before. Bill Nighy gives the word overacting new meaning here but is a lot of fun as Viktor, king of the vampire nation who has effectively enslaved all the werewolves for his own work/war effort and forces them to hunt down their own kind who rebel. His daughter Sonja (Rhona Mitra) does some rebelling of her own by constantly defying daddy’s orders and carrying out a secret romance with Lycan leader Lucian (Michael Sheen). This overall unrest leads to the werewolf uprising and eventual incursion that will start a centuries long war. That’s all you need for story, trust me. What works best about this film is the resplendently beautiful production design and what makes it stand out in the initial trilogy is that it’s set far in the past so the uproarious gunfights become ruthless swordplay, the nocturnal urban atmosphere becomes a moonlit medieval castle aesthetic and never before has the franchise felt this gothic. Mitra is a beauty and then some, and while she’s not quite as lithe or physically distinctive as Beckinsale and her leather trench coat, she suits the ancient warrior aesthetic and does the Underworld name proud. Nighy is so far over the top I wanted him to calm down a bit before he had a stroke or something, he’s about as arch and theatrical as it gets but it suits the role and tone of the film nicely. Much of the film is sound, fury, blood and metal under inky black moonlight and some may have trouble deciphering the specifics of choreography under such a dim cloak of a visual palette but trust me it’s all there and it’s all *very* well done. This franchise has some of the most gorgeous, anatomically and aesthetically satisfying werewolves I’ve personally seen in horror, just great big bastards that look like they could rip a cow in half and are deadly in their speed, physicality and agility despite their hefty size. The Vamps have this eerie aristocracy to them and always seem calmly observant and deviously in charge, with help from the iridescent, creepy contact lenses the actors get to wear. The fight scenes are brutal and relentless, packed with gore and stylish weaponry and staged against spatially striking castle, river, forest and mountain vistas. There’s a shamelessly lurid sex scene between Sonja and Lucian where they’re literally writhing in slow motion on the edge of an impossibly baroque cliffside that is quite possibly one of the most arousing, breathtaking sex scenes I’ve ever seen on film. Say what you want about these movies man, and maybe I’m just a whore for visually stimulating horror films and am too generous on the ones that rely on the style over substance play, which is quite possibly the case, and I own that. However, I’m sitting there watching all of this play out and I’m in raptures about it, totally and completely entertained and pleased in my experience, and if that be the case, well I’m more than okay with all style and little substance, provided the style is as bounteous and well crafted as is the case here. *Great* looking film, if not a great one overall.
Joel Schumacher’s The Number 23 is one of the silliest films I’ve seen in a long time, so much so that I couldn’t even really get mad at it, I just sat there in disbelief looking at this adorable kindergarten level film noir huff and puff and try to be edgy and dangerous. Maybe it’s the fact that Jim Carrey is in a serious role, or the script is just so hilariously scattered and overcooked or that Carrey plays a freaking dog catcher (do those even exist anymore?) but for whatever reason I just couldn’t take this thing remotely seriously. So the plot, best as I could jigsaw it together from the hack job of a script: Jim is a mild mannered animal wrangler who finds an ancient Nordic mask that when worn, turns the wearer into- gotcha, didn’t I? Okay for real this time: he *is* an animal wrangler but instead he finds a little self published memoir written by a disturbed big city cop named Fingerling (also Jim with spray on tribal tattoos). In this book the detective is plagued by the number 23, which seems to show up everywhere including, you guessed it, in the real world where it haunts animal wrangler Jim as well. His wife (Virginia Madsen) and kid (Logan Lerman) do their best to both play along and look on in concern as he lets a numeric equation take over his life. There’s a grab bag of subplots including a mysterious psychiatrist (an uncredited Bud Cort), Danny Huston as a colleague who does his best to help, a death row inmate (Mark Pellegrino), a secretive dead girl (Rhona Mitra) and, uh.. a mysterious dog that leads people to gravestones of importance. It all seems hastily thrown together, none of it works or makes any kind of sense let alone lands with any emotional impact or narrative synergy and the ending left me chuckling in bemusement, my lack of conviction in this film equaled only by that it has in itself, which apparently is none. The wannabe noir cutaways to the book about Fingerling are laughably try-hard (Carrey literally wistfully plays a saxophone and stares out an apartment bay-window) and wincingly faux kinky, the psychological character aspects involving the twist ending are so far flung I threw my arms up in surrender and honestly it all felt like several better films tossed into a magic bullet and puréed into an indistinguishable pulp. The only scene with any kind of real power is in a graveyard with this fog, who fascinated me; a priest (Ed Lauter, RIP) informs frenzied animal wrangler Jim that this is a spirit dog who watched over the souls of the dead by standing at their graves. This scene *actually* has conviction, atmosphere and emotional substance, and it gave me chills… but it’s untethered from the film as a whole and has no bearing on the context or overall plot! It’s just… a scene! out of the ether! The same goes for the film as a whole.. what does the dog have to do with the dead girl have to do with the shrink have to do with Jim’s knockoff tribal tattoos have to do with the number 23? Not much of anything, and what little does fit together or add up… just feels stupid.
It’s crazy times we’re living in because of this Coronavirus, and I hope everyone out there is staying safe, taking necessary precautions and keeping a level head about the pandemic. I also hope you all are finding time amidst the chaos to take care of yourselves, have a beer, cuddle your pets, chill with loved ones and do things that make you happy. I myself am continuing the blogging train to stay sane and this week it’s time to take a look at my top ten favourite films about viruses, yay! Not to be deliberately morbid but it does seem appropriate given our situation and there are some really excellent films out there that deal with outbreaks, from procedural dramas to schlocky horror to fascinating science fiction. Enjoy my picks!
10. Robert Kurtzman’s The Rage
I had to include at least one low budget gore fest on this list because it’s an incredibly formative arena in the genre for me. Legendary FX guru Kurtzman makes hilariously scrappy work in telling of a batshit insane evil Russian scientist (the great Andrew Divoff having a blast) who releases a horrific rage virus into human tests subjects. When they get loose and vultures feed on them the vultures go ape shit and become nasty mutants that go after everyone and it’s all a deliriously violent bit of B horror mayhem. Can’t go wrong with mutant vulture puppets done with knowingly crude effects and a whole lot of choppy editing commotion.
9. Breck Eisner’s The Crazies
This one is interesting because the deadly virus isn’t your typical flesh eating zombie kind but rather infects the population of a small county with mental instability and eventual madness. There’s something so unnerving about the afflicted’s behaviour here and the incredibly suspenseful efforts of one sheriff (Timothy Olyphant) to keep the insanity under control.
8. Neil Marshall’s Doomsday
It’s unfair to call this film simply a virus themed horror flick, as there’s just so much going on. It’s part Escape From New York, part Tomb Raider, part Mad Max like several films collided into each other at top speed and yes, there’s a nasty killer virus here too that wiped out most of Britain’s population. Malcolm McDowell’s scientist turned medieval despot puts it best when he observes: “A virus doesn’t choose a time or place. It doesn’t hate or even care. It just happens.” Astute analysis of such an event.
7. Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever
The gross-out factor is to the extreme and the dark humour dial turned up to the max in this ooey gooey tale about a group of vacationing friends who encounter a horrendous flesh eating virus at their rural getaway. Man there are some wince-out-loud moments here, just watch what it does to a girl shaving her legs, as well as the shocked reaction of one dude who goes to finger bang his girl and comes up with a handful of… well, her I guess. Also that running joke regarding the redneck convenience store owner and the rifle above his counter? Fucking top tier comedy gold right there. Avoid the remake, Roth’s original vision is the real deal.
6. Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s 28 Weeks Later
I’m trying not to make this list too zombie-centric because it somehow feels like cheating but one slot gets designated and it has to be these two superb films. There’s a ferocity, an overwhelming intensity to those infected by this virus that makes both films feel thrillingly alive, dangerously immediate and gives them a cutthroat edge. Oh and I guess I cheated already anyways by putting two films in one spot but I’m one of the rare people who finds Weeks just as amazing as Days so they get to share the pedestal. Robert Carlyle going full Jack Torrence on bath salts man, can’t beat that aesthetic.
5. The Farrelly Brothers’ Osmosis Jones
This is such an underrated flick and if I ever do a top ten list on films that combine live action with animation it’ll make that cut too. Bill Murray is a slobbish zookeeper who contracts a wicked nasty virus played by… Laurence Fishburne lol. Half the film takes place inside his body where a rogue cop white blood cell (Chris Rock) races to stop the fiendish strain before it gets to all the major organs and it’s game over. The animation is slick, uniquely styled and the film just hums along with cool ideas, colourful imagery and terrific voiceover work.
4. Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil
This film has quite the virus, it doesn’t just stop short of turning people into zombies but mutates than into all kinds of giant horrific monsters for Milla Jovovich’s Alice to fight. I think these films are great, particularly this super stylish, sexy first entry that’s got enough blood, psychotic Dobermans, gunfire and security system gadgetry to bring the house down.
3. Wolfgang Petersen’s Outbreak
While this one does take the big budget Hollywood approach to the virus motif, it’s still a smart, scary and incredibly suspenseful piece, and holy damn the virus here is one monster. “It’s the scariest son of a bitch I’ve ever seen” says Dustin Hoffman’s virologist guru, and he’s not fucking kidding. It has a kill timetable of 24 hours, which are almost insurmountable odds but these people try their best and provide one hell of an engaging film.
2. Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion
This one, while still a Hollywood release, takes the clinical and detached route. Despite being heavily casted with big time A list talent the real star of the show here is the virus itself and it’s ruthless journey from Hong Kong to the states and beyond. Soderbergh employs crisp, precise editing and a sonic jolt of a score from Cliff Martinez to keep this thing moving along at the same scary pace as the pandemic it chronicles.
1. Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys
This one made the top spot on my time travel movie list too and does the same here, it’s just an all timer for me. We don’t even really see the virus here that wiped out most of humanity or it’s effects, most of the film takes place either just before or long after it’s released. But we get a sense of it, in the desolate snowy streets Bruce Willis walks through in a Mr. Freeze looking quarantine suit, filled with spectral roaming animals turned loose from a zoo. We feel the maniacal nature of the insane doomsday prophet (David Morse) who released it too.
As far as the remaking of cult classics, Stephen Kay’s Get Carter is a piss poor effort, so much so that not even a positively stacked cast could do much of anything about it. The original saw fearsome bulldog Michael Caine getting shotgun fuelled revenge and has since become iconic, while this one switches up rainy Britain for rainy Seattle and a sedated Sylvester Stallone in a shiny suit takes over as Carter, a mob enforcer who hails from Vegas but has travelled north both to escape scandal and look into a shady family matter. There he finds all sorts of characters played by a troupe of big names, character actors and even Caine himself in an extended cameo as a bar owner, but it all feels lazy, listless and flung about like a ball of yarn full of loose plot threads and scenes that fizzle. It’s obvious that there were major editing problems here as the pacing is in conniptions and an entire subplot involving a love interest back in Vegas (Gretchen Mol) has been slashed to ribbons. So sloppy was the final product that my college acting teacher, who landed the role of Carter’s gangster boss back in Vegas, although mentioned brazenly in the opening credits, can only be seen briefly from the neck down and heard on the phone, except for whatever reason they decided to dub his voice over with an uncredited Tom Sizemore, which is just so bizarre. Anywho, Stallone sleepwalks his way through a local conspiracy involving his dead brother, the widow (Rachel Leigh Cook), a mysterious femme fatale (Rhona Mitra), a weaselly computer tycoon (Alan Cumming) a sleazy pimp/porn baron (Mickey Rourke) and more. It’s just all so terminally boring though, and none of the clues or twists spring to life or feel organic at all. Rourke provides some of the only life the film has to offer as the villain, a guttural scumbag who has two painful looking nightclub boxing beatdowns with Stallone which are fun. John C. McGinley raises the pulse somewhat as a lively Vegas thug dispatched by Sizemore’s voice to bring Stallone back to face the music. Others show up including Miranda Richardson, Mark Boone Jr., John Cassini, Johnny Strong, Frank Stallone, Tyler Labine and more. None of it amounts to much though and by the time the anticlimactic plot resolutions arrive and Carter jumps a red eye back to Vegas before the credits roll, you wonder what the point of it all was and want your hour and forty minutes back. A thorough bummer.
There are three main films concerning the myth of Beowulf. The best, a wickedly good Robert Zemeckis motion capture version starring Ray Winstone, a lower budget one with Gerard Butler that hovers right around the average mark, and a third one starring Christopher ‘Highlander’ Lambert, and let me tell you this one defies any classification. It’s set in a time that seems like a blend between both past and future, a sword and sorcery realm that’s speckled with steam punk technology and very weird production design that looks post modern, yet not. Beowulf, played by the reliably daffy Lambert (an actor of little talent who has grown on me over the years by his craggy reserve alone), is a lone warrior with a bleach blond hair dye job and some neato gadgetry in his weapon arsenal. I know, it sounds like I’m making this up. Haven’t even gotten to the best part yet, which is the upbeat German techno score that ramps up the Euro feel of the whole thing to soaring heights of absurdity. Despite all that silliness, the film somehow works, and not just as a schlocky write off either. It’s resolve lies dutifully in the firmament of its creative aesthetic, and doesn’t skip a single odd duck of a beat the whole way. The monster Grendel which Beowulf must face off against resembles something of a cross between the Predator and Killer Croc, a scaly, spiky behemoth that rips through the little villages in the region like a tornado of teeth and claws. It’s mother is even weirder: appearing to men in the form of actress Layla Roberts, (who looks suspiciously like a porn star) before morphing into a massive elaborate demon thingy that looks like a final boss from Starfox. Lambert is joined in his fight by sexy warrior Kyra (Rhona Mitra), and led on by King Hrothgar (Oliver Cotton). It’s Beowulf like you’ve never seen before, a Krull esque, beyond the Stars sci-fi rendition that you’ll either be in tune with or won’t, either love, hate or just be super confused by. It’s bonkers, and I love it.