‘Halloween Kills’ is Brutal in More Ways Than One

It’s been a long time coming, but “Halloween Kills” has finally arrived in theaters everywhere. Personally, I think it is the result of Michael Myers keeping his mask on. Heck, he has been keeping it on for the most part since 1978. In this franchise, it is said that evil never dies and you can’t kill the boogeyman. Maybe this is because he is not an anti-vaxxer and has gotten his shots (whether it was Moderna or Johnson & Johnson, I have no idea). Besides, his victims this time around aren’t wearing masks. Doesn’t this tell you something?

Okay, let’s get something out of the way here, is “Halloween Kills” as effective as David Gordon Green’s previous “Halloween” from 2018? Not quite, and it does at times seem more concerned with upping the blood and gore this time around to where no one dies an easy death. Still, this follow-up has some very suspenseful moments as we know Michael, or The Shape as he is often called, is just around the corner. The question is, which corner?

Picking up at the moment where the previous installment ended, three generations of Strode women are being driven away from the fiery inferno which has engulfed Laurie’s home, but the fire department in Haddonfield is more reliable than they could have expected as they race over to her address even as she yells out, “let it burn!” And as the trailer shows us, Michael is quite handy with tools and hardware as he easily lays waste to trained professionals.

With 2018’s “Halloween,” Green retconned the franchise to excellent effect. In “Halloween Kills,” Green and screenwriters Scott Teems and Danny McBride retcon it even further as we see Michael getting captured by the police, and we learn of Deputy Frank Hawkins’ first run in with Michael when he was a fresh newbie on the police force. More importantly, it allows Will Patton to appear in yet another “Halloween” film as his seriously wounded character manages to survive. We also get to understand why Frank now has a renewed interest in killing Michael.

One of the things I really enjoyed about “Halloween Kills” is its attention to the characters. This is not your average slasher film filled with people you cannot wait to see get bludgeoned to death, and you never hear the audience breaking into a chant of “kill the bitch” as I witnessed at a screening of “Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood” years ago. They are all flesh and blood, some simply minding their own business while others still vividly remember what happened to their beloved hometown 40 years ago. Heck, even Lonnie Elam (Robert Longstreet) and Tommy Doyle (Anthony Michael Hall) get along here as Lonnie’s days of bullying Tommy have long since been put behind them. Deaths here are not ones to be celebrated, but are instead meant to be tragic.

Another fascinating thing is how this sequel touches on current events without ever exploiting them. When word gets out that Michael is back in Haddonfield doing his slicing and dicing act, Tommy is quick to get everyone he can together so they can form a mob to take down the Shape once and for all. The police encourage him and others not to go down this path, but considering how well they did the last time Michael came to town, and they refused to be swayed.

Granted, this franchise has dealt with angry mobs before, particularly in “Halloween 4,” but the mob in that one was incredibly tiny compared to one presented in “Halloween Kills.” Just about everyone in Haddonfield is seen shouting out “evil dies tonight” endlessly to where even its former sheriff, Leigh Brackett (Charles Cyphers, back for the first time since 1981’s “Halloween II”), wants to see justice done for his slain daughter. Of course, we all know angry mobs can lead to needless violence and death, and this makes the events which unfold here all the more tragic.

Of course, it is the Strode women who take center stage in this latest confrontation with the Shape. Surprisingly, Laurie Strode is largely left on the sidelines this time around as she recovers from a knife wound to the stomach. Still, this gives Jamie Lee Curtis a chance to shine in scenes opposite Patton as both talk about what could have been. Judy Greer proves to be more badass than ever as Karen, Laurie’s daughter who struggles to move past the death of her husband to keep her daughter safe. But as “Halloween Kills” reaches its bloody conclusion, even she realizes how evil must die.

Andi Matichak also returns as Laurie’s granddaughter, Allyson, who has since come to see that the boogeyman is real. Matichak makes Allyson into a tough character, but the actress is never hesitant to show the fear on her face as she gets closer and closer to Michael. As Allyson enters his childhood home armed with a shotgun, even Matichak knows it would be foolish for this character not to be the least bit scared.

There are some actors who are new to the franchise here, and they are very welcome additions. I figured Robert Longstreet would make Lonnie into an adult who still loves to bully kids like Tommy, but he instead makes this character into a wounded adult who looks out for his son and will never forget “the night he came home.” It is also great to see Anthony Michael Hall, long since removed from his Brat Pack days, here as Tommy Doyle. With Tommy’s introductory monologue, Hall puts the audience under a spell as he reminds us of Haddonfield’s tragedy while paying respect to the lives lost and how we should “never forget.” Hall is really good here. I also got a kick out of Scott MacArthur and Michael McDonald who play an eclectic couple that own the old Myers’ house. Furthermore, they know what happened there and have no buyer’s remorse (or will they?).

And yes, John Carpenter, along with son Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davies, have provided “Halloween Kills” with a terrific film score. The themes are familiar ones, but they are given a mournful sound as we are reminded of ghosts which have yet to be laid to rest. There are also some nice propulsive themes as well to keep the adrenaline going. Those who are a fan of Carpenter’s music will not be disappointed.

In some ways, “Halloween Kills” is at a disadvantage as it is the middle chapter in a trilogy, and we still have “Halloween Ends” to look forward to. Whether or not evil can die, I think it’s safe to say it can take one hell of a beating and keep on ticking. I mean, it has to knowing a third chapter is one the way. Regardless, this sequel gave me much to admire about it as it deals with how the bullied often become the bully, how the past can haunt us to no end, that small suburban towns are more often know for tragedies than anything else, and that some people have no business holding a gun.

Just keep in mind one thing: While this looks like a John Carpenter “Halloween” movie, it is a David Gordon Green “Halloween” movie. It is important to note this as many horror fans may be expecting a certain kind of film here, and you really should remember who is behind the camera on this one as it may not be the one you think.

It will be interesting to see Laurie Strode have one last showdown with Michael Myers, and I believe David Gordon Green has long since been prepared to save the best for last. Michael is not just pure evil; he is like the Energizer bunny, except with a bloody knife instead of a drum. He just keeps stabbing and stabbing and stabbing…

* * * out of * * * *

Final Trailer For ‘Halloween Kills’ Promises a Big Reunion

While the previous trailer for “Halloween Kills” showed how brutal the latest installment of this long running horror franchise is going to be, the final trailer proves it will be one hell of a reunion as well as several familiar faces return in an effort to lay waste to Michael Myers. Evil never dies, but it never stops the residents of Haddonfield from trying to kill it.

Kyle Richards returns as Lindsey Wallace, one of the kids Laurie Strode babysat in the original, and seeing her yell at a couple of young trick-or-treaters to rush home shows she has not fully recovered from the events of 40 years ago. We also see Nancy Stephens back in her fourth go-around as Marion Chambers, former assistant to the late Dr. Sam Loomis, and she is smart enough to bring a gun to a knife fight. But like Loomis in “Halloween II,” Marion appears to lack that extra bullet, and it looks as though she will have as much luck in this “Halloween” timeline as she did in the other.

Tommy Doyle, the other young lad Laurie saved in “Halloween,” is back as well, this time played by Anthony Michael Hall. Tommy as a youngster was convinced of how no one can kill the boogeyman, but seeing Hall wielding a metal baseball bat indicates he will give it his best shot.

Heck, even the kid who bullied Tommy as a kid, Lonnie Elam, makes a return to the franchise, and he is played as an adult by Robert Longstreet. This trailer also hints at Lonnie’s own encounter with Michael Myers, which he somehow survived, and even he is determined to take out “The Shape” anyway he can, even if it means going to Michael’s childhood home.

So, what is opening up in October looks to be a horror film where everyone is still deeply traumatized from the horrible events which took place four decades ago, and now history has repeated itself to where no one in Haddonfield will allow this murderous rampage to continue. While Laurie looked to be the only one traumatized amongst the characters in the previous “Halloween,” this follow-up is filled with dozens of people whose lives have been forever shattered. Of course, there is another sequel coming after this one (“Halloween Ends”), so it will be interesting to see how this one will conclude as Michael’s reign of terror is still far from over.

Seeing all the characters in town chant “evil dies tonight” makes “Halloween Kills” especially chilling as an angry mob, even with the best of intentions, can make some seriously awful mistakes. We have seen this in previous sequels like “Halloween IV,” but on a much smaller scale. This installment has a budget which allows for the appearance of far more characters than its predecessors could ever hope to have.

Watching this final trailer several times over makes me wonder about a few things. Is Will Patton actually returning as Deputy Frank Hawkins even after what happened to him in the last film? Will we see how Michael Myers was captured by the Haddonfield police all those years ago? If you look really closely, Sam Loomis does make an appearance, but will he look and sound like Donald Pleasance?

But another thing I wondered about more than anything else was this: will Laurie Strode (played by the great Jamie Lee Curtis) die in “Halloween Kills?” While Laurie is featured throughout much of this trailer, the climax appears to be dominated by her granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) and her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) as they attempt to not only kill Michael, but unmask him for all the world to see. We don’t see Laurie in any of those scenes, so I am worried this film maybe it for her. If she is to be killed off, let’s hope she gets a better fate than the one she received in “Halloween Resurrection.”

And of course, we have been promised an unmasked Michael Myers before. We got a glimpse of his face in John Carpenter’s original film, and we were promised an up close and personal look of him in “Halloween 5,” but the latter turned out to be a cruel tease. Besides, with one more “Halloween” coming in 2022, is this really the time to see Michael unmasked? Well, anything is possible.

“Halloween Kills” will finally arrive in theaters everywhere on October 15th, and will also debut on the Peacock streaming service on the same day. If I were you, however, I would see it on the silver screen with an audience, be it a big or a small one. And if you do see it in a theater, wear a mask. Hey, it works for Michael.

‘The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It’ Movie and Blu-ray Review

The following review was written by Ultimate Rabbit correspondent, Tony Farinella.

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do” It is yet another intense, smart, funny and well-acted journey in this universe created over a number of films.  It really starts and ends with the love between Ed and Lorraine Warren, played perfectly by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. The chemistry between the two actors is off the charts. It is so good you would almost believe they are together in real-life. That is top-notch acting. They have also appeared together in “The Nun” and “Annabelle Comes Home.”  The formula works, and I’d be happy with even more “Conjuring” or “Annabelle” films featuring the two of them in the future.

When you have had so many films and various spin-offs, one would imagine they would have run their course by now.  However, this is still a solid flick, even though it is probably the weakest of the three films.  That is not a criticism, as they are all entertaining and enjoyable in their own way.  In “The Conjuring 3” (let’s stick with that title), Ed and Lorraine Warren are overseeing an exorcism of an innocent eight-year-old young boy named David. At this exorcism, his family is there, along with Arne (his sister’s boyfriend) and Father Gordon.  Once this demon starts to really do a number on David, Arne (Ruairi O’Connor) tells the demon to take over his body instead of David, despite Ed telling him it is not a good idea.

Ed suffers a heart attack, which sets him back for a while.  When he finally starts to feel better, he realizes the demon is inside of Arne, and it has to be stopped before more damage is done to other unsuspecting individuals.  He can see bad things around the corner for anyone who is near Arne.  Arne is in danger as well.  Together, as only they can, Ed and Lorraine Warren decide to take this demon down and remove it from the body of Arne and restore some sense of normalcy to all of their lives. Even though they encounter their share of doubters and second-guessers, they know what is really going on and will stick to their beliefs.

Without giving too much away, there is a courtroom element to the film that truly enhances it in a unique way.  It talks about how demonic possession can cause someone to do things they normally wouldn’t do if they weren’t possessed by a demon.  It is almost like the insanity plea a lot of people deal with in the courtroom.  This was a nice touch to the film.  Another thing which is consistent throughout “The Conjuring” films is how they really give you a sense of place and time. This film takes place in 1981, and from the clothes, the music and scenery, you really feel like you are in the early 80’s.  The devil (no pun intended) is in the details with these movies.

The issue with “The Conjuring 3” is the fact it is almost two-hours long.  There are times where the film can feel a little long in the tooth and drag.  It did not need to be this long.  I found myself clock-watching during certain scenes.  Even though I mentioned the devil is in the details, there are some details which can be left out, as not everything needs to be explained to such an extreme degree here.  I’m more interested in the necessary details and the background.  It feels like they are over-explaining things at times to the audience.

Many people ask me after watching one of these films, “Was it scary?” Truth be told, I don’t get scared by movies, really. That is not a knock against the film or any of the people involved in its making.  For me, what makes “The Conjuring 3” an enjoyable watch is the two main actors, their charm and chemistry, the background on these cases (based on true stories) and the way the films are directed and put together. Even though it is the weakest of the three films, it is still an enjoyable ride to take because they take it seriously and put effort into making sure they are producing quality films and not just a sequel for the sake of a sequel.

* * * out of * * * *

Blu-Ray Info: “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do” It is released on a single-disc Blu-Ray from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment. The film is rated R for terror, violence and some disturbing images. It has a running time of 112 minutes.

Video/Audio Info: The film is presented in 1080p High Definition with audio formats of Dolby Atmos-TrueHD: English, Dolby Digital: English Descriptive Audio, English, Spanish and French. Subtitles are included in English, French and Spanish.

Special Features:

By Reason of Demonic Possession-An in-depth look at the true story that inspired the movie

The Occultist-Meet the terrifying new addition to the Conjuring Universe

Exorcism of Fear-Delve into the making of the movie and the chilling exorcism scene that opens the film

DC Horror Presents: The Conjuring: The Lover #1-A Video Comic that goes deeper into the Conjuring Universe.

Should You Buy It?

If you own the “Annabelle” films and the previous two “Conjuring” films like I do, you are going to want to add “The Conjuring 3: The Devil Made Me Do It” to your collection.  There are some really cool special features here that really add a unique backstory to what you have seen in the film.  Also, the opening scene might be one of the best I’ve seen in a horror film in quite some time. Once again, I cannot praise the work of Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga enough. They are the heart and soul of the film.  Without them, the story and the intensity simply do not work. They are a couple to root for and a couple that is interested in helping people.  While the running time can stop the film’s momentum occasionally, this is still worth owning and checking out. As long as Wilson and Farmiga keep coming back for these movies and the filmmakers keep finding case files from the Warrens, I’ll keep coming back to watch them.

**Disclaimer** I received a Blu-ray copy of this film from Warner Brothers to review for free.  The opinions and statements in the review are mine and mine alone.

‘The Night House’ Explores Grief While Thrilling You to No End

The isolated home by the seaside or out in the wilderness always seems like the perfect location for your average horror film or psychological thriller. It’s a place where many of us go to get away from our daily troubles as well as the hustle and bustle of city life as it can become too overbearing after a time. But once characters arrive at such a peaceful destination and have fallen in love with the beautiful vistas and ambient noises, all hell breaks loose. While they want to get away from everything, a brutal form of everything is coming after them. Whether it’s “The Evil Dead,” “Gerald’s Game,” “Honeymoon,” “Silent House” or other movies which are not coming to my mind right now, I have to wonder if getting away from everything is all its cracked up to be.

These thoughts went through my mind when as I watched “The Night House,” a psychological horror film which looks to have Rebecca Hall trapped in a beautiful seaside house which is haunted. But what unfolded before my eyes proved to be much more absorbing and thrilling than I expected as it deals with the things that go bump in the night, but it also deals with universal themes such as grief and coping with such an unexpected loss. While this movie is not exactly groundbreaking, it kept me within its grasp throughout and made me jump out of my seat a few times.

Hall plays Beth, a small-town schoolteacher who is now a widow. During a rather prickly parent-teacher meeting in which a mother is a bit miffed at Beth for giving her son a C in Speech, Beth tells her that her husband had died by suicide the other week. Suffice to say, this is not your typical parent-teacher meeting, but the parent did get their offspring a higher grade as a result. Of course, the parent walked out of it all embarrassed just like she should have.

Despite all the pain and anguish she is enduring, Beth continues to reside in the house her husband Owen (Evan Jonigkeit) built for them during the early years of their marriage. Watching Beth’s home video footage of this house being built helps bring this story down to a more relatable level for me as friends of mine in Northern California shared videos of their own houses being constructed which had them all super excited. It is always more fun for some to create something than it is to destroy anything.

But when night falls, strange things begin happening around the house. The stereo system turns on by itself to play one of Beth and Owen’s favorite songs at an ear-splitting volume. Beth hears knocking on the walls but cannot find who is doing it, and with her getting drunk on a regular basis, it is getting harder to tell what is real and what is fantasy.

I sat in the darkened theater very much enthralled by “The Night House” as director David Bruckner, who previously the 2017 British horror film “The Ritual,” keeps us guessing as to what is really going on with Beth as she struggles to get past her husband’s sudden death even as she discovers things about him she was unaware of. To say he gives the proceedings a Hitchcockian vibe feels justified as the story holds onto its secret without ruining them long before the screen goes to black.

Bruckner also does a terrific job in making this house a terrifying place as he shows us how silence can be golden. As Beth moves around in her isolated home, there is little in the way of ambient sound, and it’s moments like these where I keep waiting with unbated anxiety for something loud to come out of nowhere. Yes, there are jump scares, but the ones Bruckner pulls off are highly effective as I cannot remember the last time I leaped out of my seat like this. Seriously, there may be cracks in the ceiling.

And then there’s Rebecca Hall who reminded me once again what an undervalued actress she is. Whether it’s “Iron Man 3,” “The Town” or the little seen “Christine,” she always proves to be a memorable presence as she fully invests herself in each character she plays. As Beth, she does some of her best work yet as runs the gamut of emotions while portraying a character going through the many stages of grief. Beth is sarcastic, biting and not always the nicest person to her friends, but Hall makes you empathize with her as this is her dealing with such a devastating and unforeseen death.

Hall also has nice support from her fellow actors here. Sarah Goldberg is a heartwarming presence as Beth’s best friend, Claire. While Beth may be pushing away, Claire still attempts to help her anyway she can even as she constantly apologizes for the things she said but didn’t mean to. Goldberg makes Claire feel painfully real as the character embodies the way many of us act towards a friend who has lost someone.

Vondie Curtis-Hall shows up as Mel, a local caretaker who also wants to help Beth in her time of need. The actor manages to find a subtle balance between being helpful and also vulnerable as Mel appears to be more knowledgeable about Owen than Beth initially realizes. Not all actors are successful in pulling this off, so it is noteworthy.

Stacy Martin, best known for her work in Lars Von Trier “Nymphomaniac,” has some choice scenes as Madelyne, a woman who may know more about Owen than Beth is comfortable with. It’s interesting to watch Madelyne as she struggles to befriend Beth even when Beth looks like she wants to jump across the table and strangle her. Martin does a great job in handling the awkwardness of her situation even as she looks to be risking physical and emotional harm.

I was surprised to see how deeply I was taken into “The Night House” as it looked, on the outside anyway, to be an average horror or thriller which may be fun but not leave much of an aftertaste. This film, however, really got under my skin though thanks to the performances and Bruckner’s direction which is even further enhanced by the beautiful cinematography by   Elisha Christian and the ominous film score composed by Ben Lovett. But at the center of it all is Rebecca Hall who fully involves us in her character’s frightening path which looks to have no happy end. From start to finish, she is a marvel.

Seriously, I came out “The Night House” shaking. I watched it in sheer terror as I feared for the secrets Beth would end up discovering, and I also was terrified this movie would have some shaggy dog ending which would just pull the rug right out from under us in a terrible way. Remember the wannabe “Sixth Sense” ending that Nicholas Sparks adaptation “Safe Haven” had? Oh lord! Well, this one does not have that kind of an ending even though part of me was a bit perplexed by it.

In the end, “The Night House” is really meant to be an exploration of grief and how one person can go through its brutal stages  It’s great to see a horror thriller pull this off in an emotional and thoughtful way, and it was all accomplished with little, if any, blood and gore. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but anyway.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Halloween Kills’ Trailer Promises a Brutal Follow-Up

Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, this is one of the many films we had to wait an extra year for. But with the pandemic reaching its tail end (or so we have been told), we can look forward to “Halloween Kills,” the sequel to David Gordon Green’s highly successful “Halloween” reboot, arriving in theaters this October of 2021. John Carpenter, who returns as Executive, has told us the following about it:

“It’s brilliant. It’s the ultimate slasher. I mean, there’s nothing more than this one. Wow! Man.”

After watching the first trailer for “Halloween Kills” which was unleashed this past week, I believe Carpenter is a man of his word as what unfolds here is truly brutal. As I watched this preview, I wondered if this was a red band trailer or one which was approved for all audiences by the infamous MPAA.

When we last left this franchise, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) had left Michael Myers to burn to death in her house. But as she escaped alongside her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) in the back of a truck, they watched in horror as fire trucks rushed their way over to Laurie’s residence which had since turned into a burning inferno. But as one firefighter reaches out to another who has fallen through the floor, we know the hand he takes in his is indeed Michael’s.

Watching as Michael stepped out of the house while it was still engulfed in flames, and holding a rather sharp firefighter tool in his hands, I was quickly reminded of what Steve Rogers said to a bunch of mercenaries while stuck in an elevator with them in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier:”

“Before we get started, does anyone want to get out?”

Seeing Michael lay waste to these firefighters with their own tools, one of them a power saw, it is clear this will be an exceptionally bloody follow-up as we see the “essence of evil,” as Laurie describes him, lay waste to helpless victims with an assortment of tools, one of them a broken fluorescent light tube.

 “Halloween Kills” looks to start mere seconds after the previous film ended, and it looks like the mob is out in full force as the town of Haddonfield is out for vengeance in the wake of so many murders. It feels like blood will be flowing endlessly this time around as we watch Anthony Michael Hall as Tommy Doyle, the young boy who took way too long to open the door for Laurie in the original “Halloween,” walking around town with a baseball bat. Not just any bat mind you, but one made out of metal. That’s right folks, Tommy is out to hit some balls!

There are several unforgettable images to be found here. Among them is the visual of three kids wearing those Silver Shamrock masks from “Halloween III: Season of the Witch” whose bodies lay lifeless and bloodied in a playground. Of course, part of me wonders if they got lucky. I mean, Michael got to them before they had any opportunity to “watch the magic pumpkin” on television. If they just missed Michael, their heads would have crumbled and turned to mush, releasing all sorts of pesky bugs and poisonous snakes. Haddonfield may have a solid police department, but how are they with animal control?

Also, Michael is once again unmasked in the franchise, this time by Karen who dares him to get his altered William Shatner “Star Trek” mask back. But we have been down this road before as Michael, as an adult, has had some opportunities to show us the face behind the mask, and it resulted in being nothing more than a tease (particularly in “Halloween 5”). Will the filmmakers here tease us yet again?

And yes, Jamie Lee Curtis is back in action, looking every bit as lethal as Michael does. Even after getting stabbed in the belly, you believe her fully when she tells her daughter that evil will die tonight. Regardless of how this film turns out, you can always count on Curtis giving a top-notch performance as she never disappoints.

“Halloween Kills” arrives at a theater near you on October 15, 2021. I look forward as I do to its soundtrack which will again be composed by John Carpenter, Cody Carpenter, and Daniel Davies. I am so excited to where I am reminding myself to keep my expectations in check. It is too easy to be disappointed in a film and for all the wrong reasons, and I want this one to live up to the hype.

Check out the trailer below:

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘When a Stranger Calls’ (1979)

The original “When a Stranger Calls” from 1979 is a horror movie I am tempted to say I have seen many times already. This is because the scenes with Carol Kane playing a babysitter who is menaced by an anonymous caller who taunts her endlessly as he constantly asks if she has checked on the kids are scenes I have watched from time to time. It’s those scenes which keep getting presented on shows which celebrate the scariest horror movie moments, and it was featured in the documentary “Terror in the Aisles.” Even Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson paid homage to it in the “Scream” movies, and they did to such a powerful effect. Those scenes were enough to frighten me to my very core as being alone in the house was always deeply frightening to me when I was young, and the sound of silence can make things seem even more unnerving as it can get punctured at any given second.

Truth is, I never watched “When a Stranger Calls” until now. I finally took the time to watch it when I found it was available to stream on Amazon Prime. Like many movies I watch on this particular streaming service, I figured I would just watch it for a few minutes and then turn it off, perhaps hoping to watch the rest of it later. But in the end, I found myself watching it to its brutal conclusion, and this proved to be for better and, especially, for worse.

“When a Stranger Calls” starts off with Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) arriving at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Mandrakis (Carmen Argenziano and Rutanya Alda) to babysit their children while they are at a party. Everything starts off fine with Jill relaxing at the residence and speaking with her friend about the latest gossip at school. But while working on school assignments, she starts receiving phone calls from a man who keeps asking her if she has checked on the children. As the calls keep coming at her with the volume of each ring getting increasingly louder, Jill hears the man saying he wants her blood all over his body. To her credit, she does the smart thing by calling the police who attempt to trace these calls to their source. Of course, then they discover that the caller is actually inside the house…

The opening 12 minutes of “When a Stranger Calls” have long since become iconic as it does provide audiences with one of the most terrifying scenes in a horror film, and it does so without any blood or gore. Director Fred Walton does a brilliant job of setting up this babysitter in a normal home environment which is no different from the ones we have lived in, and the silence of them when the stereo isn’t on and playing the top 40 hits proves to be quite deafening. With scenes like these, we are reminded of how what we don’t see proves to be more infinitely terrifying than what we do.

But therein lies the problem with this film, it peaks too soon. Once Jill’s horrifying predicament comes to an end as she runs straight into private investigator John Clifford (Charles Durning), the story then moves to a number of years later when John is obsessively pursuing the man on the other end of the phone line, Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley) who has just escaped the insane asylum he was committed to. What results from there is frustratingly dull as “When a Stranger Calls” wastes fine actors in a movie which looked to promise so much more than it ends up giving.

It really sucks to say this as this film features a very talented cast who do give the material their all despite it being so lackluster. Durning gives us a fully realized character who is ever so obsessed about capturing the man who laid waste to a family in the worst way possible. Beckley, who died six months after the film’s premiere, does a strong job of inhabiting such an insane and unstable character in Curt to where I never caught him overacting. We also have Colleen Dewhurst on board as Tracy Fuller, a person who comes into contact with Curt in a rather ambivalent fashion, but once she does, things become far too predictable.

“When a Stranger Calls” does eventually return to Jill’s life years later when she is married and has children of her own, and this does result in a much-needed increase in suspense and tension as we are reminded of the hell she went through. We even get one highly effective jump scare, but it all leads to a conclusion which proved to be deeply unsatisfying.

When it comes to Kane, she is the best thing this movie has to offer. She has long since proven to be a tremendous comedic talent in movies like “Annie Hall” and “The Princess Bride, the TV shows “Taxi” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” and she was fearless in her portrayal of one of John Munch’s ex-wives on “Homicide: Life on the Street.” Here, she goes from playing a young student and babysitter to a woman still dealing with the trauma and guilt over a horrific event. Kane looks like an ordinary person here which helps to make her terrifying ordeal feel even more real, and she inhabits Jill with an unshakeable fear as the phone rings louder and louder and the calls get more and more threatening. Her performance is tremendous as she made me feel Jill’s fear and desperation throughout.

Now as much as I try to view a movie for what it’s trying to be instead of what I want it to be, I cannot help but think of how much better it could have been. Frankly, I think it should have focused more on Jill and how she deals with all she has been through. It could have been something along the lines of David Gordon Green’s “Halloween” reboot which catches up with Laurie Strode 40 years after her near-death encounter with Michael Myers. This would have been more enthralling as Kane is so good here, and watching her trying to process all she has been through is far more interesting than following a cop obsessed with catching a killer.

It also would have helped if Curt had been kept in the shadows, like the alien in “Alien,” the thought of him proves to be more haunting than his appearance. Some people want to see the monster right away, but like the anonymous truck driver in “Joy Ride,” a strange voice can be far more unnerving. The fact the filmmakers give Curt a face within the first half hour just killed much of the suspense and terror they thought this movie would have.

Having finally watched the original “When a Stranger Calls,” I can see why it still resonates strongly with horror fans, as those first 12 minutes are truly terrifying. While the rest of it doesn’t hold up, the opening has long since enshrined the movie as a classic scary flick in the eyes of many. It even got a sequel, albeit a made for cable one, in 1993 with “When a Stranger Calls Back,” and both Kane and Durning returned to reprise their roles. And yes, there was an inevitable remake of it back in 2006, but judging from its trailers, the thing looks like a Noxzema commercial disguised as a horror flick.  

But seriously folks, 12 great minutes does not a good movie make, and this one had the potential to much better than it was. The more I think about “When a Stranger Calls,” the more a certain question comes to mind; Is this film a cinematic example of premature ejaculation? Seriously, I’m asking for a friend.

* * out of * * * *  

‘Stepfather III’ – A Truly Pathetic Horror Sequel

It is only with a surprising amount of free time that I found myself watching “Stepfather III.” Its reputation is so bad that it did not even merit a theatrical release. Yes, it was made for television, but it looks too cheap even for Cinemax. Even Terry O’Quinn, who was so terrifying as Jerry Blake in the previous “Stepfather” movies, bailed on this one. Still, curiosity overtook me as I sat down to see how Jerry’s quest for the perfect family could continue even after being stabbed more times than any mortal being can possibly endure. Plus, it was free to watch on IMDB.

When “Stepfather III” begins, Jerry (played here by Robert Wightman) has already escaped the psychiatric institution in Puget Sound, Washington. This is the same place he was imprisoned in and escaped at the start of “Stepfather II,” and it makes me wonder why anyone would bother sending him back there after he stabbed a psychiatrist who thought he was making progress with him. Why not just send him to prison? Well, in horror movies like this, everyone gets a second chance, and then a third, and then a fourth. Just like Sideshow Bob from “The Simpsons,” there are idiots out there willing to give him a free pass.

Whatever the case, the filmmakers decided to skip over the escape part and cut straight to the chase. Jerry meets up with a back-alley plastic surgeon (played every so shamelessly by Mario Roccuzzo) who proceeds to alter his face while smoking an endless number of cigarettes. Yes, this is how sterile he keeps his workplace. This leads to one of the few interesting moments as director Guy Magar ended up filming an actual plastic surgery procedure which is more unnerving than what any makeup effects professional could have come up with. And again, this sequel has a ridiculously small budget, so filming the real thing must have saved Magar a few pennies.

With his new face, Jerry does what some would do to keep from going bankrupt due to high medical costs; he kills the doctor. Hey, medical insurance in America doesn’t cover everything. Besides, some companies would say being psychotic is a pre-existing condition.

Yes, yes, I know, this is a back-alley doctor who doesn’t deal in paperwork, but let me have some fun here.

Anyway, Jerry makes his way to Deer View, California where he lives under the alias of Keith Grant and works at a plant nursery. This makes sense as he has previously shown just how good he is with gardening tools and other sharp instruments. It’s also no surprise to see how good he is with a shovel.

While at a church dance where he dresses up as the Easter bunny, Keith ends up meeting Christine Davis (Priscilla Barnes), a divorced school principal with a son who is psychosomatically paralyzed. Surprise, surprise, the two quickly fall in love and get married because, you know, why wait in a movie like this? As you can imagine, there is a jealous ex-boyfriend who is quite possessive of Christine, and Christine’s son is busy doing detective work because kids are smarter than we think and are always cutting through their parents’ bullshit.

If there is an interesting angle in this dreaded “Stepfather” sequel, it’s that the story has a bit of a twist. Keith ends up meeting the widow Jennifer Ashley (Season Hubley) who has just moved into town with her son, and he begins courting her. So instead of one potential bride to start a family with, there is another for him to consider. From there, this sequel could have turned into a far more suspenseful motion picture as you wonder which lady will live and die. It’s like a demonic season of “The Bachelor” where a contestant gets a knife in the heart instead of a rose, or perhaps this more resembles one of the many twisted reality shows which aired on Fox back in the 1990’s.

Whatever the case, “Stepfather III” is a horrible waste of time for everyone involved and people like me who made the mistake of watching it. Moreover, this movie drags its way to a pitiful conclusion which utilizes a wood chipper in a way nowhere as memorable as what the Coen brothers did with one in “Fargo.” At least, the filmmakers here gave Jerry/Keith a more permanent conclusion. While he may have survived a dozen knife wounds, I imagine he has as much luck of being put back together as Humpty Dumpty ever did.

Speaking of dragging, this sequel has a running time of almost two hours. Whereas the original “Stepfather” ran a mere 89 minutes and “Stepfather II” is only 93 minutes long, someone decided they could get away with adding another 20 to 30 minutes of footage. On top of “Stepfather III” being boring and terribly made, it feels like it lasts forever. Towards the end, I couldn’t care less about who lived or died. I just wanted this awfulness to be over and done with.

In regards to Robert Wightman, I don’t know whether to pity him or feel sorry for him. Stepping into a role which O’Quinn handled ever so brilliantly was never going to be an easy feat, and Dylan Walsh didn’t have it any better when he starred in the inevitable “Stepfather” remake. O’Quinn brought both a real pathos and a humanity to Jerry Blake, and this made the character all the more frightening. While Wightman does get Jerry’s old-fashioned mannerisms down well, and lord knows this man is far too old-fashioned and polite on the outside, he is unable to make the character the least bit terrifying. In fact, he comes off looking quite harmless even after impaling a man with a rusty shovel.

What else? The music score sounds like it was done on one of those Casio pianos from the 1980’s (understandably, this movie could not afford any orchestra), the acting is terrible, the story is mostly predictable as we have been down this road before, the cinematography particularly at the beginning is bizarre, and the bloody effects look even worse than what Bob and Harvey Weinstein forced Jeff Burr to add to “Stepfather II,” and those efforts looked ridiculously fake.

While I’m at it, what are Priscilla Barnes and Season Hubley doing in this trash? Barnes played a Bond woman in “Licence to Kill,” Rob Zombie made great use of her in “The Devil’s Rejects,” and she was on “Three’s Company” for crying out loud! As for Hubley, she had an unforgettable scene opposite her then-husband Kurt Russell in “Escape From New York,” and she held her own opposite George C. Scott in Paul Schrader’s “Hardcore.” Surely their agents could have gotten them something better than this dreck.

Look, I did not expect much of anything from “Stepfather III” as any movie in this series lacking Terry O’Quinn is just asking for a severe round of bitch slapping. But still, I have seen many horror movies with worse acting and writing, and they proved to be far more entertaining and scarier than this one. Was anyone involved in this sequel’s making the least bit interested in making something the least bit thrilling, or were they more interested in making a quick buck? All we get here is a pathetic excuse of a motion picture which still has not gotten a DVD or Blu-ray release in America. I bet even Shout Factory doesn’t want to touch this one.

Okay, I have wasted enough time on this one.

½* out of * * * *

Luca Guadagnino’s ‘Suspiria’ is a Truly Baffling Remake

I have to admire the hutzpah of any filmmaker who dares remake Dario Argento’s “Suspiria.” The 1977 horror classic remains one of my favorite movies ever as well as one of the most beautiful films, let alone horror films, I have ever seen. Having just purchased and watched it on 4K Ultra HD, I love it even more as the lavish and exaggerated colors Argento utilized now feel more orgasmic than ever. Who would dare step into the shoes of Jessica Harper who portrayed Suzy Bannion? Is there an artist or a band that can create a music score as original and haunting as what Goblin gave us? Is there a cinematographer, other than Roger Deakins, who can match the incredible lighting design of Luciano Tovoli? And, most importantly, is there a filmmaker who take this material and make it their own?

David Gordon Green, who hit horror gold with his reboot of “Halloween,” was originally set to helm this version of “Suspiria,” but it ended up falling into the hands of “Call Me by Your Name” director Luca Guadagnino who was determined to make something which was more of an homage than a remake. It certainly has its own look, a terrific cast, an original and haunting score from Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, and Tilda Swinton among other things. But long before the end credits came up, this “Suspiria” became one of the most perplexing motion pictures I have sat through in a long time. And as this two hour and 32-minute horror film lurched its way to a rather baffling conclusion, I found myself impatiently waiting for Jessica Harper’s cameo to come up as I had given up trying to make sense of everything going on in the story.

This “Suspiria” takes us to 1977 Berlin which was at the height of German Autumn, and here we find Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) auditioning for the Markos Dance Academy. Unlike Harper’s Suzy from the original, this Susie proves to be far more confident in her dancing abilities as she wows the teachers almost immediately, especially Madame Blanc (Swinton). Meanwhile, another student, Patricia Hingle (an unrecognizable Chloe Grace Moretz) confesses to her psychotherapist, Dr. Josef Klemperer (I’ll let you figure out who plays him), that the academy is run by a coven of witches who worship the Three Mothers – a trio of witches who once roamed the Earth (Mother Tenebrarum, Mother Lachrymarum, and Mother Suspiriorum), and we all know this cannot be good. Once the main players have been established, we wait for hell to boil over and students to die the most painful of deaths because a story like this cannot have a happy ending. Or can it?

The first thing I should note about Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” is its visual style as he, along with cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, has gone out of his way to go in the polar opposite direction of the visual palate Argento gave us. Perhaps this is because it was the only real way for Guadagnino to make this film his own without it seeming like a copy. He uses little in the way of primary colors and instead opts for a winter-ish approach to highlight the bleakness of the setting and time period the story is situated in. But as unrelentingly bleak as this approach is, both Guadagnino and Mukdeeprom do give us some striking images as they delve deeper into the lives of the characters and the academy’s strange history. Still, I wonder if the cinematography was much bleaker than it ever needed to be.

The screenplay by David Kajganich delves into themes involving motherhood, the nature of evil and matriarchies, but neither he or the director ever seem clear about what they want to say precisely about them. A friend of mine attended a Q&A with Guadagnino, and he described the director as looking like a deer caught in the headlights when he asked questions about the themes. In retrospect, I wonder if everyone involved with this remake succeeded in making it so abstract to where even they could not describe what they intended.

There is also the inclusion of real-life events such as hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181, bombings, and numerous kidnappings perpetrated by the Red Army Faction, and they feel like unneeded distractions as they are brought up. The terror of real life doesn’t quite mesh with the terror at the dance academy, and it would have been better for the filmmakers to focus on the academy instead of adding historical elements which deserve their own movie.

It’s all a real shame because the cast of this remake makes many scenes worth watching. Dakota Johnson, completely unrecognizable from her role in those god-awful “Fifty Shades of Grey” movies, who gives everything she has physically and emotionally to her performance as Susie Bannion. I read she spent two years training in ballet in preparation for her role, and it shows from start to finish. Watching her enter the academy with such elegant confidence as she goes through a violent period of self-discovery is something I could never take my eyes off of.

The other cast members include Moretz, Mia Goth, Angela Winkler, Ingrid Caven, and Fabrizia Sacchi who succeed in throwing themselves completely into their characters with complete abandon. And then there is Tilda Swinton, one of the few actresses my dad would pay to read names from the phone book to him. She remains a stunning presence in each project she appears in, and this film is no exception.

And yes, the dancing, which played only a small part in the original, is brilliant in the way it is staged. Like I said, these actresses didn’t just inhabit these characters, they threw themselves into them both physically and emotionally. For what its worth, this remake does boast quite the ensemble.

Still, I have to be honest and say, despite its positives, this “Suspiria” proved to be a great disappointment. I did not go into it with a mission of comparing to Argento’s original as Guadagnino as made something which stands on its own, but none of it ever struck me as being the least bit scary. Sure, there are some shocking moments like when a young dancer finds her body forcibly contorted into excruciatingly painful positions Ronny Cox would never have been able to pull off in “Deliverance,” but one or two scenes does not a horror film make. Instead, this remake proves to be a meandering mess which never quite knows how to deal with its numerous themes in a satisfying or truly fulfilling way.

There is no doubt in my mind that Guadagnino and everyone else here will bounce right back from this misguided film, and I look forward to what he has in store for us next.

Oh, and just one more thing: I just love how these movies involving dancers always have teachers who smoke an endless number of cigarettes. Here they are mentoring these passionate students to keep their bodies at their peak and make sure they remain healthy throughout their training, and yet they do nothing to hide their intense nicotine addiction. I have seen this in so many movies to where I wonder if being a dancer or a dance instructor is as stressful as it looks. The drinking I get, but the smoking? Hopefully someone will be able to explain this to me someday.

* * out of * * * *

The Initial Reaction Audiences Had to ‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’

John McNaughton’s “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” was made back in 1986, but it did not get a theatrical release until 1990. All these years later, it remains a very disturbing look at a murderer lacking a conscience who essentially kills at random. For those who’ve seen “Henry,” you know how unnerving it gets, and the fact it got released at all is amazing.

Michael Rooker, who plays the Henry of the movie’s title, appeared at the Egyptian Theatre back in 2011 to talk about audience’s initial reaction to it. Neither he nor anyone else involved in its making believed it would ever get any response whatsoever. They filmed what they thought people wanted to see, a scary movie, but this was no average horror flick like “Halloween” or “Friday the 13th.” “Henry” involves real life horror, the kind we often do not go to the movies to see. And in the end, what’s scarier than real life violence?

Chuck Parello, who would later direct “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Part II,” managed to get the film screened at the 1989 Chicago Film Festival, and this later led to it being shown at the Telluride Festival. Rooker recollected about the first time he saw “Henry” in a theater, and he said there was around forty people in the audience. There were not a lot of sounds coming from them, and no laughter. This led Rooker to say that, after you’ve watched “Henry” twenty times, you begin to see the humor in it. For the record, I completely agree with him on this.

“Henry’s” most disturbing and controversial scene comes when Henry and Otis (Tom Towles) do a home invasion and murder an entire family. We watch these two as they view the video they shot of them killing each member, and Otis finds watching it once is not enough. After this scene ended, Rooker said more than 60% of the audience left after this scene, and they all left at the same time. Many of them were vocal about what they had witnessed:

“Fuck this shit!”

“This is bullshit!”

“This is what cinema’s coming to?”

Rooker was sitting with the producers when this happened, and he freely admitted how they all loved the response “Henry” was getting.

People came out of the film stunned and silent, and Rooker remembered seeing one guy walking out of the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles with his hands shaking. The actor also said a friend of his yelled at him because the film made him think “those thoughts.” There were no car chases, no gratuitous violence, and the violence shown in “Henry” is mostly minimal. Many of the murders Henry commits are never shown but heard as the camera circles around the bodies of his victims as we hear them take their last breath over the speakers. It ends up leaving a lot of room for imagination as you can’t help but think about what you didn’t see. Sometimes it is what you don’t see which is the most frightening thing of all.

But the most memorable incident for Rooker happened when he arrived late to one screening. As he headed into the theater, a woman, who was not walking but running out of the movie, ran right smack dab into him. When she realized who he was, she screamed and raced to the women’s bathroom. The ushers and producers had to come out and calm her down, saying to her over and over, “He’s really an actor. “

“Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” is seriously disturbing, but for good reason. Unlike other horror movies which revel in blood, gore and vicious fantasies, this was one which dealt with horror of real-life viciousness. Every once in a while, you need a film like this one to remind people of the ugliness of violence, and to make us realize we are not as desensitized to it as we may think. If “Henry” didn’t cause a good portion of moviegoers to walk out, then the filmmakers would not have succeeded in making this point clear.

Michael Rooker on ‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article is about a screening which took place in 2011.

Actor Michael Rooker appeared at the Egyptian Theatre for the 25th anniversary screening of the film in which he made his acting debut, “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.” Even with the passing of time, it remains as infinitely disturbing as it did when it was first released. Rooker discussed how he got cast and of what went on during its making. He also told the audience this was the first time he had seen the film since it first was released back in 1986.

Rooker said he started out as a theatre actor in Chicago after graduating from the Goodman School of Drama. At the time casting began for “Henry,” he was in a play called “Sea Marks,” and the director was doing the prosthetics for it. Rooker said he didn’t care if the screenplay was good or bad because he just wanted to do a movie. Doing “Henry” was a test for Rooker to see how working while shooting out of sequence would work for him.

For research, Rooker said he read several books about serial killers which were written by doctors, but he found them to be “mostly crap.” He ended up getting more from the Texas Rangers who interviewed the man this film was more or less based on, Henry Lee Lucas. Also, the director, John McNaughton, asked him and the other actors to write character sketches. Rooker said he did not want to do that though because he did this endlessly in college and was now “sick of writing stuff down.” Instead, he recorded an audio tape of himself speaking in character.

During shooting, Rooker said he tried staying in character all day long. This led to a lot of strange times on set as actors and the crew were not sure if they were talking to him or Henry. McNaughton also got him a room for him to hide out from the actors and crew, and it was filled with mirrors which Rooker later covered up with trash bags. He stayed in the room all day until he was called to set.

The budget for “Henry” was a mere $120,000 according to Rooker, and the guy selling him cigarettes towards the film’s end was the one who financed it. Being an independent film, the filmmakers had no permits and had to hide whenever the cops were in the area. Once they were gone, the crew went right back to filming. They did, however, get busted during a pivotal scene in which Henry is shown throwing a body into the river. While shooting, four police cars came out of nowhere, and one policeman got out and asked, “Are you throwing bodies into the river?”

Once they looked in the bag Rooker was about to hurl over the side, they started laughing uncontrollably and ended up leaving the crew alone.

“Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” opened up a lot of doors for Michael Rooker, and it even scored him a role in John Sayles’ “Eight Men Out.” His terrifying performance is still embedded in the minds of so many who dared to view it either on the silver screen or on their own television sets, and they still cannot get it out of their heads. Since then, he has had a great career which has allowed him to play both good and bad guys with relative ease. Michael still has many great performances left to give, but don’t count on him doing a “Henry” sequel unless he can be convinced it can be turned into a musical.