THE MICHAEL MANN FILES: MANHUNTER (1986)

Once waist-deep in the world of Miami Vice, executive producer Michael Mann became obsessed with the dichotomy between both the law and lawlessness and good and evil. In that series, these themes were explored through the lens of the undercover cop who has to blend both the personal and professional into one, often creating moral quandaries and existential crises of the soul. In Thomas Harris’s novel Red Dragon, Mann found perhaps the starkest example of these themes as it blended the law enforcement official with a serial killer. Moving beyond dope peddlers and cat burglars, this was a story that would really put the protagonist through the paces.

Due to the financial drubbing felt by producer Dino De Laurentiis’s Year of the Dragon, released in 1985, Red Dragon was retitled Manhunter to avoid the same fate. It didn’t much work as Manhunter, a title that almost nobody on the planet liked, barely made a blip at the box office, grossing less than nine million dollars and having to settle on slowly finding a cult audience on HBO and home video. By the time Jonathan Demme’s adaptation of Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs was released to almost universal acclaim in 1991, Manhunter and its pioneering cinematic representation of serial killer Hannibal Lecter (spelled Lecktor in Mann’s film) had been mostly forgotten, leaving cinephiles who dared to articulate a preference for Mann’s highly stylized thriller over Demme’s film castigated and hectored as snobbish contrarians. But legion was and is the gang of folks who find Manhunter’s moody, yet cool and uncluttered visual palate and detail-oriented procedural a more sensory intoxicating cocktail than Demme’s admittedly brilliant hair-raiser.

In terms of a broad plot outline, the differences between Manhunter and Lambs are negligible; FBI Agent Jack Crawford recruits a brilliant investigator to track down a serial killer which causes the investigator to enlist the help of incarcerated serial killer Hannibal Lecter to assist in stopping him before he kills again! The major difference between Manhunter and The Silence of the Lambs is in its protagonist. I can’t imagine greenhorn cadet Clarice Starling being as compelling a figure in the world of Michael Mann as haunted FBI profiler Will Graham (William Petersen), the man who earned a Pyrrhic victory by capturing brilliant serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox) but only after absorbing a punishing amount of psychological damage in the process. With this character, Mann gets to have it both ways as Graham continually walks a fine line not just between cop and criminal but literally between saint and monster. As is the case with Clarice Starling’s monologue about the doomed livestock in Lambs, Manhunter underlines Graham’s humanity with a turtle hatchery he’s constructing at the beginning of the film with his son, Kevin (David Seaman). Will Graham is doing his best to save what he can from the awful, predatory forces of nature. Meanwhile, Jack Crawford (a terrific Dennis Farina) and Molly Graham (an even more terrific Kim Greist) sit on the balcony of the Graham’s beachfront home where she grouses to him about the dangers of bringing the retired and broken Graham into the investigation, all the while being framed against one of Mann’s painterly vistas that drive home the perpetual theme of emotional distance that affects almost all of his characters like a virus. Unlike Lambs, however, the investigative prowess of the protagonist is, in fact, part of his actual deviancy as telegraphed early in the film as Graham’s investigation of a crime scene utilizes the same point of view footage from the pre-credit sequence which chronicles the home invasion by the horrifying Francis Dollarhyde (dubbed “The Tooth Fairy”; Tom Noonan, giving the performance of his career) as he prepares to slaughter the family inside.

As the embodiment of the mythic Mann hero who is conflicted the second he breathes air outside the womb, William Petersen gives a performance that has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the first of its kind. Coming off of a highly energetic turn in William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. the previous year, Petersen commits to a performance where he makes a series of choices that have been criticized over the years as being flat or unconvincing. It’s a performance that is not exactly either one of those things but it is unconventional and has to be viewed from a very specific angle to be fully admired. Sometimes his emotive bursts are a few degrees too hot for the scenes in which they occur but there are a number of very tricky and difficult things Petersen successfully pulls off that are more important to the character as a whole than a couple of awkward line readings. There is a severe fragility eating at the center of Petersen’s Graham that occurs in scenes with his family where he chillingly employs a mid-distance stare and a lukewarm delivery that never seems like it’s coming from a real person. But, holy god, watch him in an early scene in the hotel room where he dutifully checks in with his sleeping wife on the phone only to have his eyes light up like a Christmas tree when he hangs up and moves over to the portable TV and VCR unit where he can indulge himself in watching the victims’ home movies in order to recapture the mindset of a murderer. Looking like a seventeen year old who is now watching his parents’ porn after assessing that the coast is clear, Will Graham fits in with the many Mann protagonists who treat their lovers and significant others as mothers from whom they need permission to go outside and play and only come alive when totally plugged into their work.

Unlike any other of Mann’s works, sex is treated less as a pleasurable action between two adults but as a brief respite from ongoing pain in the lives of its principal characters. Graham’s character spends his last night with wife at their home making love with her but he’s already on another track that will lead to rack and ruin; something she knows, recognizes, but is also cognizant to the fact that she is powerless to stop it. Dollarhyde, by comparison, eventually makes a genuine physical connection with a blind co-worker (a fabulous Joan Allen) but instead of bringing him any peace, their night together only brings more pathology. And in further tying the two together, the film’s structure is very purposeful as, right around the film’s halfway mark, Manhunter becomes less about Graham and more about Dollarhyde. This specific kind of duality is further driven home by visually framing Lecktor and Graham in such a way that both characters are functionally looking at themselves in a mirror, predating Detective Vincent Hannah’s coffee date with Neil McCauley in Heat by a number of years.

Manhunter was also Mann’s one theatrical film that looks MOST like a traditional Mann production of the time. Thief might be the masterpiece that subtly influenced short-subject filmmaking but Manhunter was the most modernist Mann film. Dante Spinotti’s cinematography is bold and the compositions strong with the exact same kind of anti-earth tone mission that was employed in the first couple seasons of Miami Vice. Additionally, thanks to the production design by Mel Bourne and art direction by Jack Blackman, almost nobody lives in a house that looks like it was built by a sane architect nor decorated by a legitimately bonded interior designer. Mixing the post-modern structures of Miami Vice and the geometrical furnishings and tchotchke from Crime Story, Mann creates a world that is both of its time and retrograde; where glass block is as prevalent as brick and almost every FBI office is spotless and looks like its been cleaned by someone on a coke binge.

Though current home video releases of Thief have been graced with an additional scene not seen in its theatrical release, Manhunter was Mann’s first film to go back to the editing room on multiple occasions and there are no less than three different cuts of it floating around out there and one might say that Mann has used home video as an excuse to tinker with 90% of his work. While Mann gets it right the first time on the majority of his films, a case could be made for the director’s cut of Manhunter (available on Scream Factory’s Blu ray which also includes the theatrical cut). While we lose the elevator shot in Graham’s hotel which feels like taking a knife to my mother’s throat, and the running of the opening credits over the initial Crawford/Graham conversation makes it feel like you’re about to watch a television movie, the director’s cut leans more heavily on the concern for Graham’s mental well-being and also makes the focus on the family much starker. If one thinks of the film’s happy ending as a detriment (as I do), it’s a crying shame that Mann didn’t shoot something a little more dour and closer to his heart as an alternate, even if the odds of getting it past the producers was likely going to be a no-go. For the penultimate scene in the director’s cut would work even more beautifully if, instead of an awkward reunification of the Graham family as is the case no matter what cut you go with, Will was left with nothing but his memories and an empty beach. Graham’s unnecessary and creepy presence at the home of what would have been Dollarhyde’s next victims would hint at a happy ending but, really, Graham could have only really gotten to know their identities if he were as disturbed and calculating as Francis Dollarhyde, casting the film’s finale as something that more closely resembled William Friedkin’s Cruising.

But even if it wasn’t a capitulation to the studio, Mann’s disallowance of Graham to be alone on the beach at the end, especially with the terrible Red 7 “Heartbeat” song draped over it, feels like a false note. In the true universe of Michael Mann, Graham would wander in the white sands amid a bunch of turtles he’d saved but only at the expense of losing everything and everyone else in his life, including himself. And, like Graham, Mann had found a way to get the darkest examination of his obsessions onto the big screen but with no small amount of budgetary difficulty and with little to show for it in return.

With Manhunter behind him, Mann would slink back into the world of television where he would hone and woodshop new visual and thematic ideas in episodes of Crime Story and, portentously, 1989’s made-for-TV L.A. Takedown. Despite his enormous contribution to popular culture, the first phase of Mann’s career was ending on an inauspicious note; a big filmmaker retreating back into a small medium where he was likely to get trapped for the remainder of his career. But the 1990’s were on the horizon and a sea change was forming. Michael Mann was about to get his day.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

David Gordon Green’s Snow Angels

David Gordon Green’s Snow Angels is a film that asks the viewer to accept hard truths: that any given human being is capable of maliciousness, compassion, mistakes, volatility, naïveté and the desire to do better within the same lifetime. It presents to us an ensemble of small town characters at penultimate crossroads of their lives where decisions will be made that cannot be unmade, and may shape both their futures and our perceptions of character but we must remember… they’re only human. Resisting the urge to use any sort of filmmaking gimmickry, Green forges a blunt, unforgiving yet unusually honest portrait of these people: Sam Rockwell and Kate Beckinsale give heartbreaking, career best performances as hopelessly dysfunctional divorced parents who lose their way both as a unit and as individuals following the tragic death of their infant daughter. This event spirals out around them into the community as we see murder, adultery, budding teen romance and all manner of human interaction transpire. Rockwell is a careening time bomb of emotional immaturity, a man who loves his ex wife and loved his daughter dearly but cannot reconcile his own mental health issues and his performance implodes upon itself like a dying star in a work of art that has never seen this actor more vulnerable and raw. Beckinsale ditches her glossy, restrained pretty girl image for a character that it’s easy to dismiss as unlikeable and irresponsible until you see the depth and dimension she pours into the performance, and it’s not so easy to pass judgment or condemn. Others provide vivid impressions including Griffin Dunne, Amy Sedaris, Nicky Katt, Jeannetta Arnette and Tom Noonan who bookends the film in haunting profundity as a no nonsense high school band teacher who seems almost like a godlike force or deity watching over the souls of this small northwestern town. The single uplifting plot thread is a teen romance between Olivia Thirlby and Michael Angarano, who flirt adorably, fall for each other awkwardly and discover sex, conversation and each other’s company in a realistic, down to earth and warm-hearted way, it’s a cathartic oasis of love and light amidst the dark onslaught of this overall bleak snowstorm of a narrative. What makes all of this tragedy, pain and sorrow so palatable then, you may ask? Green is a terrifically intuitive director who gets genuinely believable performances from his actors, full of naturalistic dialogue, believable idiosyncrasies and a sense that nobody in this story is simply good, simply bad or there to serve one archetype, they are all flawed human beings capable of the deepest acts of love, caring and compassion or the most callous, nightmarish violence, neglect and abuse. There’s a scene where a mother comforts her teen son who has made a traumatizing discovery and she tells him how important it is not to keep that pain bottled up, but to feel through it and it’s one of many strikingly intimate, uncommonly intelligent scenes in a film that is a meticulously edited and shot carousel of human experience. The tag line read: “Some will fly, some will fall,” and it’s applicable to our our experience as human beings overall: life is not easy for everyone, mistakes are made, love is found and lost and the cycle continues. A lot can be learned, felt, internalized and reflected upon after watching this miracle of a film.

-Nate Hill

Wolfen

Many werewolf films take place in the woods, mountains or various other rugged and elemental vistas that are inherently threatening and suit the mythos. But what about the urban jungle? How many werewolf films can you think of that place their action in a big city? Wolfen is one that does this and as such stands out in the genre for being a moody, eerie inner city horror about a gruff, unfriendly NYC police detective (Albert Finney) chasing down mysterious murderous hoodlums who he soon realizes are some kind of lycanthropic shapeshifters straight out of a Native legend. This leads him on a hushed yet bloody and quite atmospheric hunt through some of New York’s shadiest areas, made all the more spooky by the presence of these ferocious and quite stealthy cryptid hybrids. He’s helped and hindered by many in one eclectic cast that includes Diane Venora, James Tolkan, Rino Thunder, Edward James Olmos, Gregory Hines as a slick streetwise colleague, a very drunk and very brief Tom Waits and Tom Noonan as an ill fated ‘expert.’ This isn’t a very loud, snazzy or schlocky horror flick and in fact if memory serves it’s more of a mood piece type thing than any sort of thriller or shocker. Finney is sombre, muted, hard to read and even vaguely menacing, while the cast around him are sly, eccentric and always seem like they know more than they’re letting on. The werewolf attacks are hazy, dreamlike and terrifying in an otherworldly sort of way while still retaining enough gore and gristle, the special effects for the creatures themselves wonderful and the use of real wolves (or dogs, perhaps) adds to the earthen, folky aura that collides fascinatingly with this urban aesthetic. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this (a rewatch is no doubt imminent) and I can’t recall everything except that it’s one strikingly distinctive, unique and very immersive big city horror cop flick amalgamation that is well worth checking out.

-Nate Hill

Fred Dekker’s The Monster Squad

80’s Amblin nostalgia fuses together with classic Hammer horror characters in The Monster Squad, a film I never even knew existed until it was brought to my attention by twitter peeps the other day, but after one viewing I’m immediately in love. This exists in the same cherished vein of stuff like The Goonies, Flight Of The Navigator, Gremlins etc and the aesthetic is always irresistible no matter what, then throw in this classic horror flavour too and you’re pretty much guaranteed to win me over. Monsters are loose in small town Americana, and that’s pretty much all you need to known plot-wise in a review. A band of local kids who call themselves The Monster Squad because they’ve always been prepping to fight imaginary beasties finds themselves hurled into a very real fight against a very real posse of them lead by Dracula himself (Duncan Regehr). There’s also a nervous Wolfman (Jon Gries), a mummy (Michael Reid Mackay) and a surprisingly benign Frankenstein’s monster played by the great Tom Noonan. It’s all very playful, loosely structured and down to earth, the child characters emblazoned with the kind of aggressively cute, profane yet ultimately sweet personalities that only the deepest of 80’s cuts in cinema could offer. The best part of the film for me was the warm-hearted, touching friendship between one of the squad’s baby sister (Ashley Bank) and Noonan’s monster who are both unbearably adorable. Blessedly prosthetic monster effects, a campy yet very smartly written tone and vivid, memorable characters make this an absolute treasure.

-Nate Hill

David Von Ancken’s Seraphim Falls

Liam Neeson ruthlessly pursuing Pierce Brosnan across an unforgiving post civil war US landscape, from snowy peaks to vast plains to acrid deserts and all the midlands in between. David Von Ancken’s Seraphim Falls is a stunning, folklore inspired tale of revenge, burning guilt, wayward ambitions and the joyless act of the hunt, portrayed not as thrill here but more as grim duty.

Brosnan is Gideon, an ex General now on the run from Carver (Neeson), another high ranking soldier who harbours deep hatred and rage against him for reasons the film wisely keeps to its chest until the last few minutes. This allows us to form our own picture of each man that is cultivated by each passing deed, and the labels of bad and good, hero and villain need not apply, which is how stories should be told anyways. They both appear to be good men in some instances, and both hardened killers in others. The film starts off in the snowy northern mountains, moves below to hills, valleys and ranches, continues on to the river lands and finally winds up in a scorching desert where the final revelations are laid bare and each man must make a choice. Von Ancken gives this story an almost biblical tone, from the Dante-esque journey from one specific natural setting to the next to the appearance of several key characters that seem to have supernatural undercurrents including a lone First Nations man (Wes Studi) who mysteriously guards a watering hole to a strange medicine lady (Anjelica Huston) who appears in the desert as if a phantom.

Neeson and Brosnan are phenomenal here. Liam lets the sickness of revenge spill out in his behaviour, that of a man with tunnel vision and no hesitations on letting anyone in his way become collateral damage. Pierce is haunting as a man running from both his adversary and his past, scenes where he hides out in a farmhouse and interacts with a young boy are subtly heartbreaking when you finally see the big picture later on. He’s grizzled to hell too, and there’s nothing like watching him patch up a bullet wound on his own, frontier style. Von Ancken carefully chooses his cast with wonderful character actors and familiar faces like the awesome Michael Wincott as Neeson’s roughneck hired bounty hunter, Xander Berkeley, Ed Lauter, Kevin J. O’Connor, Angie Harmon, Jimmi Simpson, James Jordan and more. I’d like to think that this exists in the same western universe as Von Ancken’s AMC drama Hell On Wheels because Tom Noonan briefly shows up here as pretty much the same Minister character he went on to excellently portray in the show, which I thought was a nice touch. This is a mean, callous, relentlessly and graphically violent piece of filmmaking that throws nods to Eastwood films of the same ilk while subtly doing its own kind of mythic, folklore thing that thrums along under the main story arc for you to pick up on, if you’re tuned into it’s ever so slightly esoteric frequency. Great, underrated film.

-Nate Hill

John McTiernan’s Last Action Hero

I feel like John Mctiernan’s Last Action Hero doesn’t get enough love. I mean, people like it and it has a lasting legacy.. but there’s a weird lukewarm reception among critics, and I’ve always found it to be one of the most gloriously meta, excitingly enjoyable Arnold Schwarzenegger films out there. A young boy (Austin O Brien) spends his days glued to the seats of a creaky old movie theatre (many of us can relate) run by a mysterious projectionist (Robert Prosky), who gives him a magical ticket that brings all kinds of cinematic archetypes and characters to wild, screaming life including badass action hero Jack Slater (Arnie). It’s basically like a trip into the Hollywood version of those Where’s Waldo illustrations that are just packed to the brim with colour, life and incidence, and in this case joyously wall to wall film references, cameos, in jokes and self referential bliss. The villains are wonderfully tongue in cheek including Charles Dance’s cranky assassin Benedict, Anthony Quinn’s moronic Sicilian mobster Tony Vivaldi and Tom Noonan in a vicious, memorable turn as The Ripper, an axe wielding psycho who escapes the land of film and attacks the actual Tom Noonan in real life, also played by Tom Noonan. See how much fun this thing sounds? It’s a fucking blast for anyone who is a fan of the action genre, reality smashing fantasy, wowza production design or simply cinema itself. Arnold has so much fun with the role, bringing the best aspects of T-101, John Matrix, Harry Tasker and Dutch, throwing them into a blender of a performance that’s just silly enough and just tough enough to win us over. There are so many cameos I couldn’t even list them all here without busting a few algorithms, but my favourites have to be Catherine Trammel (Sharon Stone, very briefly), the liquid metal T-1000 (Robert Patrick) and Ian McKellen as Death, who stalks right out of an old black and white picture when the shit really hits the projection reel and the worlds of cinema blur into the edges of reality. It may not be coherent much of the time or employ rigidity in the narrative, but with a film this eclectic, I’d rather have no guardrails along the road it furiously careens down and have elements spill over, crash and tumble as McTiernan uses everything in his bag of tricks to both send up the genres and express his love for them. One of my absolute favourites, a cauldron of mischievous celluloid gold, I feel lucky for the fact that it was even made every time I revisit.

-Nate Hill

“I’m not fallin’ all over myself to talk about much anywhere, Jack.” Manhunter Revisited – by Josh Hains

“He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.”
– Friedrich Neitzsche

Will Graham doesn’t want to take the job Jack Crawford is offering, and we can hardly blame him. We are able to infer that whatever happened to him was of such a horrific nature that it caused his retirement from the FBI as a criminal profiler. We later learn in little bits and pieces (and not in an unnecessary prologue; I’m looking at you, Red Dragon) that a confrontation with the cannibalistic serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecktor left him physically scarred from presumably gruesome injuries, and mentally broken. Through his body language and the stern, almost melancholic tone of his voice, we discern his reluctance, his unpreparedness, and we can sense the deep pain broiling beneath his calm surface. His peaceful existence in Marathon, Florida with his wife Molly (Kim Griest) and son Kevin is now on the brink of being shattered, all thanks to Jack’s perseverance. All it takes for him to crawl back into darkness is one look at a photograph of the deceased Leeds family, and the knowledge that he can help track down this one last psychopath, as if catching the killer will somehow put to rest his own inner demons from his years as a profiler. Easier said than done.

I revisited Manhunter on September 4th, over two years since the last time I’d seen it in March of 2016, and have given myself these last twelve days to absorb the film all over again. I had forgotten that for all of the darkness, despair, and violence, Manhunter is a beautifully photographed film, particularly during the opening scenes that establish Will’s moral quandary, and the serene dream sequence that occurs when Will falls asleep on a plane later in the picture. Even if Manhunter was somehow a genuinely awful movie, I believe I’d still remember those jaw droppingly gorgeous images conjured up by director Michael Mann and the director of photography Dante Spinotti. It certainly helps that I was watching it in high definition.

We later see that Will Graham (William Petersen) was indeed unprepared for this final job when he comes face to face with Dr. Lecktor in his cell, and experiences some manner of anxiety attack that sends him rushing out of the colossal building he’s incarcerated in. I recognized as with previous viewings, that unlike other interpretations of Lecter (spelled “Lecktor” only here in Manhunter, and spelled “Lecter” in the books by author Thomas Harris, and the other films and television shows) that reach for grandiose heights with the kind of theatricality one might expect from a Broadway production, Dr. Lecktor as played by the great Brian Cox, is a mild mannered, relaxed, everyman take on the character. He’s undoubtedly a psychopath, but his menace doesn’t come though in how he speaks but rather in what is spoken. This approach makes him all the more chilling than later versions because we know from human history that many of the most vile beings who have ever walked this earth, walked upon it in a manner as calmly, politely, and “normally” as Lecktor presents himself to be. What’s more frightening to you, reader: the Lecter you know is crazy before he’s ever opened his mouth because he practically smells of insanity, or the Lecktor you never suspect is insane until you’ve awoken under his knife?

Of course, no serial killer thriller is complete without the law enforcement affiliated lead, here personified with a palpable depth and a grounded everyman quality by William Petersen, in a performance as subdued and internalized as Cox’s Lecktor. Petersen never once strays into any kind of territory that would evoke feeling of his performance appearing fake or forced. He’s as natural as they come, and were it not for the knowledge that he is in fact, merely behaving for the screen, one might assume from his naturalism in Manhunter, To Live And Die In L.A., and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, that maybe he’s the real deal, a cop turned actor like his co-star in Manhunter, the late Dennis Farina. Farina, who was a police officer in the Chicago Police Department’s burglary division for 18 years before Michael Mann used him as a consultant on his feature film debut, Thief (for which Farina also had a small role as an enforcer), turns in an equally as grounded, and entirely believable and authentic performance as Jack Crawford.

And then there’s the cause of Will’s return to profiling, the serial killer dubbed “The Tooth Fairy” for the bite marks he leaves on the bodies of his victims post mortem, better known to us as Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan, who also has a small role in Mann’s Heat). His height and implied strength make him an imposing figure, though he’s also a shy little boy tucked away inside this monstrous shell, afraid to show his cleft palate, and obsessed with William Blake’s painting “The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun”, later witnessed in a horrific scene with one of Dollarhyde’s victims, the sleazy reporter Freddy Lounds (the great Stephen Lang). That same painting has inspired an alternate personality borne out of his psychopathy he calls “Great Red Dragon”, which comes to life when he seemingly can’t control urges of both violent and sexual natures. Thanks in large part to Noonan’s eerie performance, and the subtle writing of Dollarhyde by Mann himself, the thin line between compassion and love, witnessed in intimate moments between Dollarhyde and blind co-worker Reba McClane (Joan Allen) with whom he starts a relationship with, and uncontrollable murderous rage, is narrower than the edge of a piece of paper, creating a figure all the more real and subtly terrifying.

It wouldn’t be a Michael Mann film without a memorable score or the use of a popular song, and Manhunter is no exception, complete with a thrilling, pulsating score from Michael Rubini, and The Reds, and the incredibly effective, memorable use of Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Godda-Da-Vida” during the climactic confrontation between Dollarhyde and law enforcement led by Graham and Crawford. The use of Red 7’s “Heartbeat” over the credits offers up a welcomed upbeat conclusion to an otherwise dark picture.

In my revisitation of Manhunter, I took note of something that I had noticed the very first time I saw Manhunter in my teens (at the very least 11 years ago), and that has stuck with me ever since: the scene when Will visits the Leeds family home to scour the crime scene for clues to their murders, which is also where I came intonthe movie all those years ago when I caught it on television. This interpretation of Will Graham doesn’t just stand in the bedroom of the deceased Mr. and Mrs. Leeds and state into a tape recorder what he thinks occurred, like later versions. He scans the room before he ever says a word, his eyes circling the room from left to right, his mind at work taking in all of this visual information and formulating his idea of what happened simultaneously. When he’s done absorbing the scene, he speaks, low and taking his time, telling us how he thinks they died, and more, in full graphic detail. While we thankfully never bear witness to the events that actually occurred, we move onto the next scene with a clear understanding of what more than likely happened, without the sensation that we just listened to an unnecessarily long exposition dump. It’s a bone chilling scene, given the terrible subject matter, but an effective one we might not soon forget.

I’ve also come to recognize as I’ve grown older, that this same scene also conveys what it is about Will’s brilliant skillset as an FBI criminal profiler that compelled Jack Crawford to ask Will to step out of retirement to help him capture this one last criminal in the first place; to knowingly pull him out of paradise only to thrust him into a personal hell that endangers his family and himself. And why Will Graham said okay.

Danny Cannon’s Phoenix

Phoenix is a half forgotten, neat little Arizona neo-noir noir that isn’t about much altogether, but contains a hell of a lot of heated drama, character study and hard boiled charisma anyways, which in the land of the crime genre, often is an acceptable substitute for a strong plot. Plus, a cast like this could hang around the water cooler for two hours and the results would still be engaging. Ray Liotta is terrific here in a mid-career lead role as an a police detective with a nasty temper, huge gambling problem and just an all round penchant for trouble. He’s joined by his three partners in both crime and crime fighting, Daniel Baldwin, Jeremy Piven and Anthony Lapaglia. There’s no central conflict, no over arching murder subplot and no orchestrated twist or payoff, it’s simply these four sleazy cops just existing out their in the desert on their best, and it’s a lot of sunbaked, emotionally turbulent fun. Liotta vies for the attentions of a weary older woman (Anjelica Huston, excellent) while he’s pursued by her slutty wayward teen daughter (Brittany Murphy) at the same time. He’s also hounded by eccentric loan shark Chicago (Tom Noonan with a ray ally funny lisp) and trying to close countless open cases in his book. Piven and hothead Lapaglia fight over Piven’s foxy wife (Kari Wuhrur) too, and so the subplots go. The supporting cast is a petting zoo of distinctive character acting talent including Glenn Moreshower, Royce D. Applegate, Giovanni Ribisi, Xander Berkeley, Al Sapienza, Giancarlo Esposito and more. I like this constant and obnoxious energy the film has though, like there’s something in that Arizona sun that just drives peoples tempers off the map and causes wanton hostility, a great setting for any flick to belt out its story. Good fun.

-Nate Hill

B Movie Glory: The Alphabet Killer


The Alphabet Killer is a silly one, a stone-serious account of some serial killer out there that tries to go the route of straightforward, down to earth fact tracking, and then deliberately messes up it’s own tone by tossing in cheap, ineffective ghostly gimmicks that seem so out of place one wonders if the editor accidentally spliced in frames from an episode of Supernatural or something. The film would have been something pretty decent without those jarring schoolyard level scare tactics tossed in, but I guess shit happens. This is very, very loosely based on an actual set of murders over in Rochester, NY, but what actual similarities to that case we see here is beyond my knowledge and, I suspect, pretty scant. What we get is Dollhouse veteran and cutie pie Eliza Dushku as a determined cop, hunting a killer of children all over upstate New York, while an impressive load of a character actors make slightly unnecessary yet well acted cameos, if only to pad the pre credit billing on the DVD cover and boost rentals. Tom Noonan, who has a running theme in his career of playing exactly the type of beast she’s tracking here, switches it up to play her stern Police Captain boss. Michael Ironside briefly plays a belligerent small town sheriff who withholds information gleefully, Bill Moseley as a reformed sex offender who’s tagged as a suspect, Timothy Hutton her wheelchair bound scholar and consultant buddy, as well as Cary Elwes and Melissa Leo. None of these actors do much but show up for a minute or two to make their presence known, and recede into the frays of supporting plot, until it’s time for one of them to resurface as the killer in the third act, the end of a whodunit guessing game we’ve seen countless times over. It wouldn’t be such a tiresome thing if they left out the spooky-dooky stuff, but there you have it. The film’s otherwise fascinating, earnest docudrama style is somewhat ruined by the occasional presence of moaning, white eyed spectres of murdered children that leer out at Eliza like minimum wage kids doing weekend shifts in the haunted house at the local county fair. Shame. 

-Nate Hill

Ti West’s House Of The Devil: A Review by Nate Hill 

Throwbacks to horror films of the 70’s and 80’s either work or they don’t. The filmmakers are either able to replicate that specific tonal aesthetic and look from back then, or they aren’t. It’s not easy to do, but writer director Ti West makes it seem like a walk in the park with his near flawless House Of The Devil, a gorgeous love note to the satanic works of yester-year that so adeptly recreates that time and place until we really believe we’re watching a film that was made then. From the nostalgic hand drawn poster that beckons with atmosphere of a bygone era, to the use of full on, lovingly lettered credits ahead of the film, it’s pure vintage bliss, like that one perfect vinyl you find in the second hand shop. It starts out like many of these horrors do, with a young teenage girl (Jocelin Donahue) innocently wandering into a situation that leads down an inevitable path of gruesome terror. In this case it’s a seemingly innocuous babysitting job posted on her college notice board, by a cheery enough landlady (horror veteran Dee Wallace). Arriving at a creepy, ornate old manor, she meets Mr. and Mrs. Ullman, two gaunt, old world looking weirdos played by soft spoken yet disconcerting Tom Noonan, and genre legend Mary Woronov. They seem kind yet just kind of…off, explaining to her that the kiddies are alseep already upstairs, assuring an easy night for her. They depart and she’s left alone in the vast empty halls, or so she thinks. She’s been chosen for a bizarre, bloody ritual and soon is plagued by nightly terrors, a ghastly witch, the Ullmans themselves and all sorts of devilish deeds. Noonan could stand there and order a large double double with a honey dip and still make you uncomfortable, the guy is just perfect for horror, and makes a purring gargoyle of a villain for our our young heroine to go up against, backed up by Woronov’s nasty Morticia vibe. Eventually it gets quite graphic and startling, but the slow, solemn lead up is the key in making the horror shock us all the more. Nothing happens for an agonizing first half, filled with silent apprehension, and when all hell finally breaks loose, our nerves are already taut strings waiting to snap, like the ones in the shrill, ragged violin score. That’s how you pace a horror film, and many artists today should take note of this one’s pace, soundscape, mood board and production design, because it’s all about as good as it gets for this type of thing. Essential horror viewing, and I’d love to see a grainy VHS edition complete with box art, if that’s something they even do these days.