Tag Archives: Thriller

Stephen King’s Dolores Claiborne

Stephen King’s Dolores Claiborne is one of those ones I held off on watching for years, for whatever reason. It’s an absolute corker though, a well written horror story of the most human kind, finding the darkest corners of the psyche and blowing them up full scale for a morbid effect that’s altogether far more unsettling than any ghosts or supernatural stuff. Ominous grey clouds roll in over picturesque Maine (actually Nova Scotia, the sneaky bastards), as former housewife and in-home nurse Dolores (Kathy Bates in one show stopper) is accused of a heinous crime: murdering her sick and elderly employee, a rich old goat (Judy Parfitt) who’s put her through decades of hard labour. Dolores’s daughter Selena (Jennifer Jason Leigh) returns home from a high profile journalist gig in the big Apple just in time for old wounds to be seared open. As a highly biased Detective (devilish Christopher Plummer) grills her on every aspect of the case, the narrative arcs back to Selena’s childhood years with Dolores and her monster of a father (David Strathairn, well out of his comfort zone and loving it), a tyrannical alcoholic whose ‘accidental’ death casts a heavy shadow on Bates, a pattern to be deciphered deliciously by both Leigh and the viewer. Things are not only not what they seem, but just about as far away from what we’re presented as possible, and when the final curtain lifts, it’s a wicked series of revelations to look back upon. King is undeniably the master of all things horror under the sun, but what he really excels at is how the lines blur between external demonization, the forces that exist out there in the night and the simple fact that humans are capable of despicable acts, whether by design or influence. It’s not a pretty tale, especially during the lurid, violent third act, but what a masterfully told tale it is, with expert director Taylor Hackford pulling at the reins, Danny Elfman undoing his mischievous aesthetic for a score that’s deep and dark, cinematographer Gabriel Beristain probing the inlets and harbours of eastern Canada with a surefire lens that creates atmosphere to spare, and every actor firing on all cylinders, including nice sideline work from Eric Bogosian, Ellen Muth, Bob Gunton, Wayne Robson and John C. Reilly. It’s interesting to observe the contrasts in visual style as well: For the most part, this is a moody, misty locale played dead straight, with no touches of the surreal or ‘out there’. Then in the third act there’s this crazy sequence during an eclipse (which bares uncanny similarities to this year’s gem of King adaptation, Gerald’s Game, I might add) that goes full on horror mode, dials down the realism and reminds us that this is after all a Stephen King story, and at some point things are liable to get weird. This one aims to please and prickle the senses of even the most stoic fan of deranged thrillers, and is a terrific funhouse to get lost in.

-Nate Hill

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Phillip Noyce’s Dead Calm

Fear of isolation has been a staple element in film since the beginning. A quiet, shrouded forest. A damp, derelict back alley. The endless waters of earth’s oceans, which is where Philip Noyce’s nightmarish psychosexual shocker Dead Calm takes place. The key is not in projecting fear of being isolated, which is bad enough, but instilling the unnerving notion that you’re not actually alone after all, and be it human, supernatural or the forces of nature, something is out there with you. This is what vacationing couple Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman discover, only in this case it’s no creature or ghost, but Billy Zane instead. I know what you’re thinking, that perennial goofball Zane is the farthest thing from fearsome you could find, but he’s actually one of the most memorable and shit-scary movie villains out there. Neill and Kidman are a couple with enough issues to begin with, sailing their schooner somewhere way out there trying to forget past tragedy, until Zane brings new trouble onto their horizon. After they rescue him half dead floating on the waves, he tells them of a capsized ocean liner, and claims to be it’s only survivor. Neill isn’t quite bought and sold on his story and ventured off to see for himself, unwisely leaving his wife behind with this strange dude, which is loose thriller plotting 101, but oh well, inciting incidents have to come from somewhere, don’t they. Zane turns out to be an unstable maniac of the highest order, and steers the schooner off on his own course with Kidman in tow, and Neill left in the wake, trying to find them out there and save her. The scary thing about this villain is that he has no plan, no goals, no endgame or reason for doin this, he’s simply certifiably out of his fucking head, and there’s an unpredictability to that which I found immensely freaky. The scenes aboard the boat with him and Nicole on their own are charged with a tangible danger and crazed frenzy, a canary in a cage circled by a thoroughly crazy cat. The acting sells it there, with Kidman’s raw terror and Zane’s oddball sociopathy walking a narrow, rigid tightrope that could snap any second, and does. When the action comes it’s fierce, R rated mayhem as Neill vengefully charges back into the picture, and although not as intimately scary as the horror bits, still holds our gaze. Zane also gets one of the coolest villain deaths ever seen, shot in full gory detail as well. A chamber piece at sea, a glowing example of effective filmmaking in the thriller genre, and scary in spades.

-Nate Hill

Gregory Hoblit’s Primal Fear

Gregory Hoblit’s Primal Fear does a fine job of using opaque marketing to conceal it’s delicious, devilish secrets, a tactic that many films recklessly abandon and ruin far too much in trailers or posters. This is a careful exercise in serpentine plotting. Is it courtroom drama? Supernatural shocker? Psychological thriller? Pot-boiling procedural intrigue? Check it out and be as floored as audiences were for the first time back then. Richard Gere holds his end well as a legendary hotshot defence attorney in Chicago, one with a tarnished reputation and a penchant for defending unscrupulous clients. A weird case comes his way in the form of mentally challenged alter boy Edward Norton, accused of murdering someone high up in the clergy and causing a political hailstorm throughout the city. This is one of those thrillers that does genuinely keep you guessing, until literally the final frame, using human interaction and intimate performances to instigate reactions, rather than a barrage of special effects or manufactured narrative gimmicks. I’m being deliberately vague because this is the one film you don’t want spoiled for you ahead of time, it’s that cool. This was, I believe, the role that put Norton on the map, and he’s a gale force of electric energy, giving everyone else onscreen a huge run for their money. It’s fun watching Gere, an assured and confident pillar of law and order, slowly unravel and find himself at the mercy of malicious curveballs he doesn’t even see coming until they’ve hit. The cast is dynamite, with rockin’ turns from fiery John Mahoney as the worst mayor in Chicago’s history, Laura Linney as Gere’s hot tempered rival, Terry O’ Quinn, Alfre Woodward, Andre Braugher, Jon Seda, Frances McDormand, Maura Tierney, Joe Spano, Tony Plana and a slick Steven Bauer as a mob don with ties to Gere. This has all the trappings of a big, overblown thriller drawn from broad strokes, but Hoblit wisely brings it in in places, giving us a nuthouse claustrophobic shivers to go along with the big league intrigue. One of the best thrillers of the 90’s, and one that should get mentioned more often. I’ll also say it has to have one of the coolest DVD special edition covers ever, it’s always nice to see extra effort put into that arena.

-Nate Hill

Jonathan Mostow’s Breakdown

Jonathan Mostow’s Breakdown is one hellcat of a thriller, a nitrous injected highway nightmare scenario that doesn’t quit until the tanks empty, quite a few people are dead and Kurt Russell has burned off umpteen carbs running about the southwest searching for his missing wife (Kathleen Quinlan). In the tradition of great road pictures like Steven Spielberg’s Duel and Robert Harmon’s The Hitcher, this one know ms to keep the speedometer revved for maximum effect, the best method for these types of films. Russell and Quinlan are your average American couple, driving from A to B along some forgotten stretch of freeway out there. After a brief stop, she vanished, he panics and so begins his breathless crusade for the truth. The local cops are useless, no one seems to have witnessed her vanish, and he’s pretty much on his own, not to mention hunted by some nefarious truck drivers who probably know more than they should. J.T. Walsh, king of businesslike scumbag roles, gives what may be his nastiest here as Red Barr, a long-haul semi driver who knows exactly where Russell’s wife has gone, and ain’t telling, no sir no how. Similarly, big old M.C. Gainey, another Hollywood thug, is in high evil gear as just one more backroad asshole Russell has to deal with, and the two have a crackling showcase of a high speed standoff, one in the driver’s and one in the passenger seat, playing close quarters mortal kombat to see who comes out on top, and who comes out dead. The Fast and The Furious has nothing on these types of films, for it’s less about bombarding an audience with a stunt a second, and more about rhythmic pacing, then knowing when to open up and let the ripcord fly. Taut, precise, unrelenting little flick.

-Nate Hill

Jonathan Mostow’s Breakdown

Jonathan Mostow’s Breakdown is one hellcat of a thriller, a nitrous injected highway nightmare scenario that doesn’t quit until the tanks empty, quite a few people are dead and Kurt Russell has burned off umpteen carbs running about the southwest searching for his missing wife (Kathleen Quinlan). In the tradition of great road pictures like Steven Spielberg’s Duel and Robert Harmon’s The Hitcher, this one know ms to keep the speedometer revved for maximum effect, the best method for these types of films. Russell and Quinlan are your average American couple, driving from A to B along some forgotten stretch of freeway out there. After a brief stop, she vanished, he panics and so begins his breathless crusade for the truth. The local cops are useless, no one seems to have witnessed her vanish, and he’s pretty much on his own, not to mention hunted by some nefarious truck drivers who probably know more than they should. J.T. Walsh, king of businesslike scumbag roles, gives what may be his nastiest here as Red Barr, a long-haul semi driver who knows exactly where Russell’s wife has gone, and ain’t telling, no sir no how. Similarly, big old M.C. Gainey, another Hollywood thug, is in high evil gear as just one more backroad asshole Russell has to deal with, and the two have a crackling showcase of a high speed standoff, one in the driver’s and one in the passenger seat, playing close quarters mortal kombat to see who comes out on top, and who comes out dead. The Fast and The Furious has nothing on these types of films, for it’s less about bombarding an audience with a stunt a second, and more about rhythmic pacing, then knowing when to open up and let the ripcord fly. Taut, precise, unrelenting little flick.

-Nate Hill

Greg Harrison’s November 


Greg Harrison’s November is one of those frustratingly opaque, reality bending sketchy thrillers where a metaphysical shudder is sent through someone’s fabric of existence, in this case that of photography professor Courtney Cox. Driving home late one night, her husband (James LeGros) runs in to a Kwik-E-Mart to grab her a snack right at the same moment a burglar (Matthew Carey) brandishes a gun, and then open fires. After he’s killed, you feel like the film is in for a run of the mill grieving process as she visits a therapist (Nora Dunn). Events take a detour down Twilight Zone alley though when a spooky photograph shows up amongst one of her student’s portfolios, a snapshot of that very night at the store, apparently zoomed in on her husband. Who took it? Is the man actually dead? Will the film provide the concrete answers that some viewers so fervently salivate for in these types of films? Not really, as a heads up. As soon as things begin to get weird, they pretty much stay that way for the duration of the exceedingly short runtime (it clocks in under eighty minutes!). Cox’s character revisits that fateful night from many different angles and impressions, either reliving it, recreating it or simply stuck in some sort of alternate time loop chain. There’s a policeman played by Nick Offerman who offers little in the way of help, and she’s left more or less on her own through this fractured looking glass of garbled mystic confusion. The tone and aesthetic of it are quite something though, a jerky, stark Polaroid style mood-board that evokes ones like The Jacket and Memento, with an art house industrial touch to the deliberately closeup, disoriented visuals. It’s a bit maddening from the perspective of someone only looking for answers, and if that’s why you came, you’ll be left wringing your hands and losing sleep. If you enjoy the secrets left unravelled, and are a viewer who revels in unlocked mysteries left that way, recognizing the potent energies distilled from unexplained ambiguity, give it a go.

-Nate Hill

Indie Gems: Prisoner


Prisoner is a rough, disturbing little psychological thriller about a potential prison film, or rather the lonely location scouting sessions of controversial, much disliked Hollywood auteur director Derek Plato (Julian McMahon). He’s an arrogant prick of a dude whose newest film has him scouring abandoned penitentiaries for that perfect location. He’s alone, curiously, until all of a sudden… he’s not. Out of nowhere appears the mysterious Jailor (Elias Koteas), a frightening man who forcefully imprisons Plato, mentally berates him and forces the man to look back upon his long and quite unpleasant past in both the film industry and his disaster of a personal life, prodding him with intimate questions and accusations. This is essentially a chamber piece with the two actors being the only ones who appear in the present timeline, which is punctuated by hazy flashbacks to his life before. McMahon carries himself nicely, handling a well worn arc with charisma and giving off an authentically unlikeable vibe early on. Koteas is a beast of an actor and could scare the pants off of real life convicts, as such he steals the show with a brutal, galvanizing performance. Now, these types of films usually head towards conclusions we’ve seen before, and I won’t spoil anything except to say that although I was satisfied with the way the ending did rise up to meet the rest of the film, some won’t be and may find it cliched, but hey, that’s life. Nevertheless, it’s a taut little mind game by way of a character study, clocking in well under ninety minutes, a sleek little piece that leaves the viewer no time to lag or lolly-gag as it trundles along through it’s intense story beats. Cool stuff. 

-Nate Hill