There’s nothing quite like the sight of Will Smith armed with a high powered rifle, dog at his side, left completely and utterly alone in a deserted metropolis to scavenge, wander and roar down an empty main drag in abandoned super cars. This is an applicable film right now because that’s kind of how I’ve felt being downtown at work these days, minus the dog and super cars. Smith is Robert Neville, the last man alive on Manhattan Island, or so he thinks. By day he wanders around, searches for food and keeps himself occupied, by night he barricades himself inside a modest fortress while the rest of NYC comes crawling out, now turned into savage marauding zombies by a mysterious virus. Robert tried his best to contact anyone who might be out there by radio and tirelessly works in his lab searching for a cure. This is a strange rhythm that continues for the first half of the film or so until the inevitable progression of a Hollywood narrative interrupts it. I kind of have a love hate relationship with this film, in the sense that I love it for some aspects but not so much others. The first portion of the film is one of the most effective uses of immersive atmosphere and drawing the viewer in I’ve ever seen. Seeing this in iMax back in the day I really felt like I was there with Robert, felt that isolation, despair, restlessness end even blessed solitude at certain moments. It’s a sensational way to open your story, but then as soon as other human characters are added later on, the vacuum like aura is yanked away and it becomes kind of… I dunno, routine. You’ve gotta be a pretty special post apocalyptic film to trick your audience into not only believing the premise but imagining themselves in it, and at the outset they more than succeed. It’s just later on the illusion foibles and loses us a bit. That and the dodgy CGI used on the zombies who are scary no doubt but still a bit rough in the FX department, but hey this was 2007 and Weta was busy working on King Kong so what can you do. I nitpick here and that shouldn’t suggest I don’t love this film, because I do. I just believe a piece that leaps out of the gate so effectively, so convincingly should keep up that lightning in a bottle magic for the whole duration, but that’s just me. It does have one of the single most heartbreaking scenes cinema has to offer, acted flawlessly enough by Smith to leave any badass viewer bawling. Anyone reading this who’s seen the film will know. Oh, and there’s also a weird Batman Vs. Superman poster in Times Square, I’m not sure what the deal is with that but it seems odd for 2007 considering that film wasn’t even made until 2015, no? Maybe there’s some cool time travel trivia to the making of this one.
Man, if it ain’t sharks in a tornado it’s alligators in a hurricane. Alexander Aja’s Crawl is a million times better monster movie than Sharknado though, the buzz surrounding it peaked with Quentin Tarantino claiming it as his favourite film of 2019 and it definitely lived up to the hype. It’s a no frills creature feature in the sense that it arrives to get down to business, gets down to that business with ruthless efficiency and the slack pulled razor taut and then exits as soon as it showed up, kind of like the hurricane it’s set in. The storm descends upon Florida just as professional swimmer Haley (Kaya Scodelario) is searching for her dad (Barry Pepper, always awesome) in a neighbourhood that’s about to get hit bad. He’s been attacked by vicious hungry gators while patching up the crawl space and now they’re both trapped down there, with the winds outside, the water rising dangerously all around them and the beasts chomping at their every move. Oh yeah and they’re both severely injured too. It’s a wicked awesome setup and Aja makes good use of it, the gators look pretty damn photorealistic for CGI, the suspense lays on thick as fuck, the surrounding storm makes wonderfully cacophonous atmospheric textures and the gore is just this side of realistic enough to be uncomfortable and just bloody enough to ding the horror genre barometer. I also really appreciated both the acting and writing in our central father daughter relationship, I believed these two were family, cared for them and actually legit tensed up a few times when they almost get eaten alive. This, ladies and gentlemen, is how you make a great horror movie.
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.
Speaking of being stuck at home with nothing to do, I didn’t expect to enjoy D.J. Caruso’s Disturbia as much as I did, but man was this film ever a blast. I always felt like this would be a run of the mill teens in peril type thriller that didn’t take the genre that seriously or provide decent scares. Not only was I wrong in that regard but the film also beautifully captures both the odd, consistently quirky ensemble symphony of suburban life as well as the very personally nostalgic experience of summer vacation in the mid 2000’s from Green Day blasting over speakers to Halo on Xbox live. Shia Leboeuf had a wicked teenage career run and is quite engaging here as Kale, who has lost his dad (Matt Craven) in a tragic recent car accident and is just trying to continue life with his stressed out mom (Carrie Ann Moss). When his dipshit Spanish teacher makes a very out of line remark Kale one punches him and finds himself on three months house arrest over the summer, confined to his home and bored to tears. That’s when the fun begins as he finds romance with the new girl next door (Sarah Roemer) and stumbles upon danger when he suspects his charming neighbour (David Morse) of being a gnarly serial killer. No one believes him of course and the guy keeps finding ways of covering up his would be crimes which allows for a delightfully suspenseful series of stakeouts, covert missions and eventually full on chases. Morse is appropriately evil without going too far into the guy’s psyche, he’s just the casual bachelor next door who happens to murder women in his spare time and really doesn’t appreciate being spied on. The film’s biggest influence is obviously Hitchcock’s Rear Window but I also got a flavour inspired by Joe Dante’s The Burbs, another comedic sendup of life behind picket fences and both films capture the atmosphere nicely. A super solid thriller that doesn’t take itself too seriously and one that made me feel wistful for those mid 2000’s summers with nothing to do but binge video games, hit on local beauties and spy on the neighbours. Good times.
I love stories that question the parameters of humanity’s collective ancestral belief, faith and reason, tales that dredge up ancient horrors and turn them loose on a modernized, very ill prepared and unsuspecting world. We’ve all turned the lights out to go to sleep at night and shuddered at the thought of something supernatural in the bedroom with us, pondered the presence of beings beyond trees and wildlife watching us when in the woods at night and entertained the ideas of the irrational, esoteric and unexplainable. HBO’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel The Outsider has concluded its first season and my god what a stunner, a darkly gorgeous, oppressively uneasy and wholly human treatise on everything I opened this paragraph with and more.
This story starts routinely enough: in a small US community a young boy is found savagely murdered and sodomized in a rural area. All signs seemingly point towards local math teacher, little league coach and family man Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman displaying a startling level of gravitas I didn’t think him capable of), with multiple witnesses and various security cameras all over town implicating him pretty cut and dry. Lead detective on the case Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelssohn, fantastic as ever) makes his arrest, the DA viciously prosecutes and everything seems to be wrapping up pretty neatly… until it doesn’t. Bit by bit evidence starts to not add up, unease creeps into the procedural and something increasingly otherworldly hovers on the fringes of everyone’s awareness, some quick to believe and others skeptics until the last second. That’s about all I’ll say in regards to plot because every viewer deserves to have this tantalizing, shocking mystery furl out unspoiled for them.
This show is so effective because of how counterintuitive it feels compared to many other King adaptations. Because he’s predominantly a horror writer there’s a lot of gory effects, heavily dramatic performances and special effects employed when bringing his work to life in film and television, but not so much here. Yes, there is a supernatural element and yes there are gruesome aspects to it but there’s a lack of obvious FX and subtlety infused into each one of the human performances, all of which I genuinely cared about and felt each arc hit hard. Mendelssohn and Bateman are brilliant, the latter not getting as much screen time but using it for maximum impact in a soulful performance that goes against the grain of his largely comedic career. Others are wonderful including Paddy Considine, Bill Camp, Max Beesley, Julianne Nicholson, Mare Winningham, Marc Menchaca, Yul Vasquez, Derek Cecil, Jeremy Bob, Hetienne Park, Michael Esper and more. My favourite performance and character is Cynthia Erivo as Holly Gibney, a slightly clairvoyant private investigator who sees the world just a bit differently and is the perfect person to have as head needle on the compass of this hunt for a heinous killer. Erivo got an Oscar nom this year, has been steadily producing brilliant work and I look forward to whatever she’s going to do next with great interest, her Holly is a sharply intuitive, subtly emotional, determined woman who is always just ahead of the curve and blends fierce pragmatism with empathy buried just below. Overall this season is a spellbinder, a dark story with touches of folk horror, well drawn characters, eerie music, haunting visuals and a real sense of place as is the case with King’s work. They have hinted at a second season and I’d be pumped if such is indeed the case but as it is this first instalment speaks for itself as a well crafted piece. Terrific stuff.
It takes a lot to make a truly effective horror film these days. Between fan desensitization, cynicism, employment of rampant jump scares and gore the genre often has a tendency to go off track. And then there are efforts like Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, which is not only an unbearably suspenseful, well drawn shocker with a stunning lead performance from Elizabeth Moss but a beautifully crafted, simplistic yet hard hitting piece of filmmaking. Moss is Cecilia, who makes a daring, hair raising escape from her evil, abusive husband Adrian (Oliver Jackson Cohen) in an atmospheric opening sequence that sets the tone nicely. Adrian later kills himself… or does he? Considering just how nuts this guy is and how far he was willing to go to control his wife, it isn’t a stretch to believe that he’d fake his death and start stalking her like the repulsive creep he is. It doesn’t help that he’s also a millionaire optics innovator with the skills and money to build a suit that renders him invisible. It’s a lean, mean concept that has endless potential for tense, highly uneasy scenes and that’s exactly what we get. Cecilia is in a tricky spot because everyone thinks he’s dead and only she knows him well enough to believe he’d go to those lengths to keep making life miserable for her. We feel her hopelessness as each scenario plays out and when she’s finally had enough and decides to fight back… boy do we ever feel that too. Moss is utterly fantastic, never playing up drama or going into scream queen territory but rather making Cecilia a resilient, believable tough cookie that we feel for and root for. The first half of the film is the most effective, when Adrian is subtly haunting her and playing cruel tricks from beyond her field of vision, despite being right there in the room with her. The original score from Benjamin Wallfisch is a terrifying, dread filled piece that mimics the sound of blood rushing in one’s ears when confronted with danger, anxiety or trauma bubbling up. Like I said it takes a lot in a horror film to truly get to me these days, but this one pulled it off. As I left the theatre and headed home I felt like someone or something unseen was watching me, and no film has had that effect of following me out of the cinema since… well since It Follows. One of the best horror films of the past decade or so.
So they chose a dark haired, American Keanu Reeves to play John Constantine instead of some sassy blonde British Sting doppelgänger, big whoop. I mean if that really cheeses you off as a fan of the comics to the point where you can’t enjoy this wonderful film then fair enough. This iteration of Constantine makes its decided departure from source material and opts to give us a gorgeous dark LA Noir fantasy full of striking imagery, genuinely frightening set pieces, intense character work from a host of cool actors and a slick, oily visual feel that accentuates the supernatural tone beautifully. Keanu is basically an icon of cool, between The Matrix and recently introducing John Wick to the world this guy is kind of a cultural talisman of epic genre films and for me this stands with the best. Constantine is an exorcist, detective, damned soul, chain smoker, extreme ghostbuster and all around cynical badass, here solving a mystery with biblical implications relating to an LAPD officer (Rachel Weisz), her ill fated clairvoyant twin sister (also Weisz) and a fearsome series of events that could spell the end of the world. John has allies in snarky cab driver Chaz (Shia Leboeuf in his ‘back in the day’ phase), mysterious club magnate and sorcerer Papa Midnite (Djimon Hounsou), eccentric entomologist Beeman (Max Baker), hard drinking clergyman Father Hennessy (Pruitt Taylor Vince) and demonic concubine Ellie (Michelle Monaghan). He’s up against some gnarly foes of this world and others including nasty hellhound Balthazar (Gavin Rossdale channelling Harvey Dent), a possessed Mexican immigrant (Jesse Ramirez), the treacherous Angel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton in mercurial androgynous mode) and big baddie Lucifer himself played by a kooky, darkly dapper Peter Stormare in what has to be one of the coolest and most captivating portrayals of the devil cinema has to offer. Director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, The Hunger Games) has big budget, flashy effects sensibilities and while there is a fair amount of visual sizzle and large scale spectacle here the tone is often one of suffocating darkness, unseen dread creeping down narrow hallways stifling both light and space, eerie close quarters settings and a claustrophobic aesthetic that refracts the hellish elements of this story into the forefront brilliantly. John’s trip to hell with assistance from a cat is one stunner of a sequence, as is his explosively violent, gory n’ gooey showdown with Balthazar and an opening exorcism that launches a full length mirror, demon trapped inside, onto an LA street in broad daylight. His flippant confrontation with Stormare’s Satan has to be my favourite scene though, it’s such a classy, stylish, well acted and creepy-funny bit that caps off this story not with a huge bombastic action sequence but rather a clipped, ironic and altogether biting exchange of dialogue between these two great actors, who would go on to have another priceless little Easter egg scene together in John Wick 2. So say what you will about this film and I hear ya with legitimate grievances regarding fealty to the comics but that don’t bother me, I love this dark, unique, creepy, baroque jewel of a film too much. Great stuff.