‘Someone’s Watching Me!’ – The Lost John Carpenter Movie

 

Someones Watching Me Blu ray cover

Someone’s Watching Me!” is often referred to as the lost John Carpenter movie due to its unavailability on video and DVD for many years. It finally got released on DVD in 2007 (Shout Factory later released it on Blu-ray), but while there are some Carpenter movies I still need to catch up on, this may be the only one I haven’t heard of previously. I ended up buying it from a video store which was closing down as I am a huge fan of the director’s work, and I have no excuse for being this far behind on the films he has made.

The movie stars Lauren Hutton as Leigh Michaels, a television director who has just moved to Los Angeles and has set herself up in a luxurious apartment in a high-rise building. But as soon as she starts unpacking her things, a stranger begins stalking her with his telescope and calls to leave threatening messages with that deep, ominous voice stalkers usually speak in. Things continue to get worse from there until she finally decides to take matters into her hands.

Carpenter wrote “Someone’s Watching Me!” back when he was primarily making a living writing screenplays. At that point he had only directed “Dark Star” and “Assault on Precinct 13,” and this movie was completed a few days before he began work on “Halloween.” You can see a lot of “Halloween” in this one as Carpenter gets some great shots of what’s going on behind a character, and the point of view shots really increase the tension as he puts you into Hutton’s shoes to where you feel as menaced as she is. It also shows how brilliant he was in not only creating suspense and tension, but in maintaining them all the way to the end.

This script also shows one of Carpenter’s strengths as a writer as he creates strong female characters which would inhabit all his movies. Hutton is very good as Michaels and I thought she made the character very believable in a way which wasn’t showy. As her anxiety gets increasingly worse, she stands her ground and refuses to move out of her apartment. Michaels is not about to be intimidated by this peeping tom, and you root for her to turn the tables on this guy at any given opportunity.

“Someone’s Watching Me!” also stars Adrienne Barbeau who would later become Carpenter’s wife for a time (this was the first project they worked on together) and starred in “The Fog.” She plays Michaels’ co-worker, Sophie, who is tough as nails and not easily intimidated by anyone around her. Barbeau gives Hutton great support throughout, and it’s great fun watching her steal one scene after another.

The movie also stars David Birney as Paul Winkless, the man Michaels ends up flirting with and falling for. It’s almost surprising Michaels would fall for anyone as she proudly asserts herself as an independent woman right from the start. Birney matches Hutton’s strength and wit throughout, and Carpenter’s direction successfully casts doubt on him as well as everyone else surrounding Michaels throughout.

Charles Cyphers, a member of Carpenter’s repertory company of actors, appears here as police detective Gary Hunt. It threatens to be a thankless part as the character seems brought in just to express disbelief in the protagonist’s fears, but watching Cyphers here makes you see why Carpenter loves working with him. Cyphers gives us a character who might be a cliché, but he imbues him with a worldliness which makes his actions and beliefs understandable. Some actors would just consider this a paycheck role they could just walk through, but Cyphers proves to be the kind of actor who doesn’t fall into such inexcusable laziness.

Carpenter gets to pull off a lot of shots which have long since cemented him a master of horror and suspense. He utilizes different camera moves like shooting handheld or panning back and forth to reveal something just around the corner. The fact this made for TV movie holds up today says a lot about his talent.

Granted, this movie was made back in 1978 when voyeurism seemed like a rarity at best. These days everyone’s a voyeur as technology allow us to peak into those dark corners which we assumed were inaccessible. To discover someone is watching you from afar and that your privacy is a thing of the past is not a hard scenario to believe in this day and age. This ends up making a movie like “Someone’s Watching Me!” scarier than ever before. Even with the constraints of a made for television movie, Carpenter creates a thrilling tale which holds you in its tense grip and never lets you go.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Damien – Omen II’

Damien Omen II poster

Now here’s a sequel which I have avoided watching for far too long. Richard Donner’s “The Omen” was a classic horror movie that dealt with the antichrist coming back to the land of the living in the form of a young boy named Damien. When Damien stared right into the camera at “The Omen’s” conclusion, it was the perfect climax as evil was not vanquished like it is in most movies, and we were left unnerved as nothing could stop him it seemed. As a result, the thought of doing a sequel seemed pointless as there was no way you could top the last scene.

But we all know that things didn’t stop there, and in 1978 we got “Damien: Omen II” which had us catching up with Damien seven years after the events of the original. Like many sequels, it pales in comparison to the original, but it still has its moments which kept me gripped to my seat even though its conclusion was never in doubt.

Damien Thorn (played here by Jonathan Scott-Taylor) has since been adopted by his powerful uncle Richard Thorn (William Holden) and his wife Ann (Lee Grant), and he is one of the top students at a military academy. Whereas Harvey Spencer Stephens, who played Damien in the original “Omen,” portrayed the antichrist as being pretty well aware of who he was in the large scheme of things, Scott-Taylor portrays him as a pre-pubescent boy who has yet to discover the deadly powers he possesses and of what he is destined to do. Still, he does gives off great Kubrickian glares throughout which lets us know he is not one to be messed with.

In some ways “Damien: Omen II” feels like a missed opportunity as the story could have been a beautifully twisted take on the typical coming-of-age movie where we go on a journey with a young character struggling through adolescence to where he finally becomes comfortable with who he is. When Damien finds out he is indeed the Antichrist and runs out of the school in sheer panic, this seemed promising because it felt like the filmmakers were not out to make him the typical one-dimensional villain. However, it didn’t take him long to accept his newfound identity, and soon after he’s like, “Okay that’s cool, I’m an evil mofo. I can live with that.”

It would have been more interesting if Damien would have struggled with this more throughout the movie to where his transition to accepting his true identity would be all the more understandable and terrifying. It could have been like when Anakin Skywalker turned to the dark side in those “Star Wars” prequels, but with better dialogue.

Still, “Damien: Omen II” does have a lot of good things about it, and horror fans will definitely get a huge kick out of the merciless killings displayed in gory detail for their benefit. One lady gets attacked by crows and has her eyes torn out, one guy gets smashed between two train cars, one guy falls into the icy water during a hockey game and is carried away by the current, and a doctor becomes the victim of an elevator accident which outdoes David Warner’s decapitation in the first “Omen.” Watching these killings gives the viewer quite the visceral punch, and if this is what you’re looking for here, you won’t be disappointed.

William Holden is well cast as Richard Thorn, the wealthy industrialist who looks to have all the power in the world. It’s interesting to note Holden turned down the role Gregory Peck had in “The Omen” because he didn’t want to do a movie about the devil, so he must have been kicking himself silly when it came out and was a huge hit. Well, Holden makes up for the missed opportunity by playing a man who thinks he has control over everything but soon finds this couldn’t be further from the truth. He is also paired with the great Lee Grant who plays his wife Ann, someone whose overprotectiveness of Damien becomes very clear as the movie goes on.

It’s also great to see actors like Lance Henriksen, who is great in everything he appears in, as Damien’s commanding officer Sergeant Neff. Like any good leader, Neff knows how to bring out the best in his soldiers, but what he brings out of Damien is something we can’t agree is his best (not that it matters to either of them). “Damien: Omen II” also marked the film debut of the late Meshach Taylor who plays the character with the most memorable and vicious death sequence this sequel has to offer. While it might sound like I’m giving something away, trust me when I say that you will see his demise coming from a mile away. You just won’t be able to guess how he will die.

Of course, this is the kind of horror movie where most of the characters act idiotically. Those who learn that Damien is the Antichrist either get killed off quickly or come across as raving lunatics the main characters are quick to dismiss. Then again, it’s hard to present your evidence to anyone in a rational manner when you’re dealing with something so evil. It’s not like you can just go up to someone and say, “Uh dude? Your son is the devil and you may want to consider killing him. Just saying.”

“Damien: Omen II” was directed by Don Taylor as Donner was busy making “Superman.” Taylor started out in show business as an actor and gave memorable performances in “Stalag 17,” the original “Father of the Bride” and “The Naked City.” As time went on he transitioned to directing and helmed movies such as “Escape from the Planet of the Apes” and “Tom Sawyer.” He had a tough act to follow as “The Omen” was a benchmark in the horror genre, but for the most part he fares well in putting together a sequel which fares better than others of its ilk. There are some good jump scares, some wonderfully gory deaths, and he keeps us watching as Damien throttles through adolescence with a confidence you can’t help but be unsettled by.

But after all these years, it’s safe to say the biggest star of “The Omen” franchise is the late Jerry Goldsmith. He won an Oscar for his score to the first film, and his score for “Damien: Omen II” proves to be every bit as unforgettable as what came before. The chorus of voices singing “Ave Satani” keeps you on edge as his music makes you fully aware something really bad is about to happen. There are few other film scores out there which can you fill you with such dread as this one does.

It’s astonishing I waited so ridiculously long to watch “Damien: Omen II” after having been so enthralled with “The Omen” when I first saw it, but I guess I didn’t want to spoil the experience. But its first sequel proves to be better than many give it credit for, and it eventually proved to be the only good sequel in a franchise which got too big for its own good. “Omen III: The Final Conflict” proved to be anticlimactic despite it starring Sam Neill, “Omen IV: The Awakening” was inescapably awful, “The Omen” remake in 2006 reminded us why shot-for-shot remakes are largely unnecessary, and the A&E television series “Damien” did not fare well critically. At the same time, the ongoing mission to make “The Omen” relevant in this day and age reminds me of what John Carpenter once said in regards to “Halloween’s” Michael Myers, “Evil never dies.”

On top of that, the “Omen” movies remind me of the lyrics from my favorite Iron Maiden song:

“Woe to you, oh earth and sea

For the Devil sends the beast with wrath

Because he knows the time is short

Let him who hath understanding

Reckon the number of the beast

For it is a human number

Its number is six hundred and sixty-six.”

* * * out of * * * *

‘I Saw the Devil’ Serves Up Revenge at its Coldest and Most Brutal

I Saw the Devil movie poster

Many people will be quick to criticize “I Saw the Devil” as being excessively and unnecessarily violent. Indeed, it is an unrelentingly grim cinematic experience as we watch a serial killer chop up beautiful young women into little pieces and the boyfriend of one of them getting his revenge on the evil bastard. I’m guessing there will be a number of critics as well who will say Americans would never come up with such graphic depictions, but we know otherwise (“Saw” or “Hostel” anyone?).

But unlike other horror movies, “I Saw the Devil” does not exist to simply gross us out or make us uncomfortable as humanly possible. There’s a real story here amidst all the carnage about the hollowness of wanting revenge and of what it does to those who seek and get it. But Jee-woon Kim, the same man who directed “The Good, The Bad, The Weird,” has created a motion picture which finds brutally fresh new twists that keep us pinned to our seats for the entire two and a half hour running time. Yes, it is truly unrelenting.

The movie starts off with the beautiful Joo-yeon (Oh San-Ha) talking with her fiancé Soo-Hyun (Lee Byung-hun) on the phone while she is waiting in her car on a snowy road out in the middle of nowhere. Before you know it, a man by the name of Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik) viciously attacks and knocks her out. Back at his grungy workshop, Joo-yeon begs for her life and tells Kyung-chul she is pregnant, but it does no good. Kyung-chul’s face is an enigma as you are not sure what he is feeling at the moment. You want to think he has some form of empathy in his rotten soul, but to him this is a luxury he cannot afford. Either way, it doesn’t stop him from chopping away at Joo-yeon with a rusty hatchet.

Upon finding her severed head in a nearby lake, Soo-Hyun, a special agent, vows to make her attacker feel the same exact pain he made his victims feel. From there, the movie turns into a cat and mouse game, and we begin to wonder which of them is the more vicious and violent. Unlike most American revenge thrillers where we can tell the hero apart from the bad guy, the line between them is hard at times to make out.

The first thing I want to say about “I Saw the Devil” is just how beautiful the cinematography by Lee Mo-gae is. It’s kind of a cross between the vivid colors of Dario Argento’s “Suspiria” and the immensely cold and snowy landscape of “Let the Right One In.” I’m guessing Kim Jee-woon and Lee Mo-gae were inspired by the filmmakers of both movies, and even he succeeds in finding a beauty amidst all the hideous carnage which goes on. The image of the snow proves to be a metaphor for how cold the soul of the two main characters are or have since become, and things grow colder for them all the way towards the movie’s messy climax.

In terms of acting, Choi Min-sik’s performance stands above everyone else’s here. Choi is best known for his amazing and unforgettable performance in Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy.” Throughout the movie’s running time, he never tries to hide the fact his character of Kyung-chul is a pure psychopath and a manipulator of emotions he is unable to fully experience on his own. It’s a brave performance which doesn’t hold back anything, and it makes you wonder what depths the actor went to in playing such a twisted human being.

Lee Byung-hun also deserves points for bravery as the now fiancé-less Soo-Hyun. This is the character we most easily identify with here, but he soon becomes “I Saw the Devil’s” most tragic one as well. We can’t really blame him for wanting revenge and to torture this killer without a conscience, but as the movie goes on, we see how his quest for vengeance it is destroying whatever is left of his damaged soul. Lee makes us care about this man even as he becomes almost as depraved as Kyung-Chul. Even when he slices off a key part of Kyung’s body, we still follow him even if we are increasingly repelled by his actions. His conscience comes out in the form of Soo-Hyun’s family, but their sane take on the situation is not enough to pull him back from the abyss of hatred he is forever trapped in.

Make no mistake, “I Saw the Devil” is a seriously violent motion picture. It feels like forever since I’ve seen so much blood spurting out of the human body on the silver screen. I also can’t remember the last time a guillotine was used so predominantly in a movie either. All the same, like any great Argento movie, it’s rendered in the most beautiful cinematic fashion. This is not your average “Friday the 13th” sequel where things are thrown together in the cheapest way possible. The colors are vividly realized, making everything we see here all the more cinematically gruesome.

Once you get past the seemingly unending carnage, you will see how these two men pretty much deserve one another. “I Saw the Devil” is a strong character piece featuring people who, in any other movie, would be at opposite ends of the law-abiding spectrum, but who have more in common with one another than they initially realized. While a part of us wants to see this sick bastard suffer horribly, there’s another part slowly reminding us how we can suffer just as much in wanting an eye for an eye. It’s also full of twists and turns you cannot see coming, and none of them seems convoluted in the slightest. The movie is full of surprises, many of them incredibly grim. If you thought “Harry Brown” was dark, this will redefine the term for you.

Now look, I am not saying it is bad to like revenge/retribution movies. Lord knows we need them every once in a while in order to exercise the parts of our psyche which are hopefully ruled over by common sense. But sometimes we need a cinematic reminder of how wrong it can be to get what you wish for. Gaspar Noe’s “Irreversible” was one of the harshest examples of this, and “I Saw the Devil” is not far behind.

* * * * out of * * * *

John Carpenter’s ‘The Fog’ Covers the Coastal Towns Again in a Beautiful 4K Restoration

 

The Fog 4K Restoration posterThe Fog” remains one of my favorite John Carpenter movies. Every time a fog bank appears in whatever town I happen to be in, I immediately put on his score to the film and start playing its theme song. Like Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” “The Fog” is, for me, one of the most iconic Northern California horror movies ever made as it captures the beauty of coast near Bodega Bay and beyond while enthralling you with a number of terrifying images.

Rialto Pictures has now released a 4K restoration of “The Fog,” and seeing it again on the big screen proves to be a real treat. Granted, this Carpenter movie has been restored previously for the special edition MGM DVD and Shout Factory’s Blu-ray collector’s edition, and the results were truly astonishing. But just when I thought the image couldn’t be improved upon any further, along comes this restoration which looks truly pristine and clear to where the image, if you’ll excuse the expression, isn’t as foggy as it once was.

“The Fog” takes place in the coastal town of Antonio Bay which is about to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its formation, but we soon discover it was actually built on blood and theft. Father Malone (the great Hal Holbrook) discovers a diary hidden in the walls of his church written by his grandfather, and it tells of how he and five of the town’s founders deliberately plundered and sunk a clipper ship named the Elizabeth Dane. The owner of the ship was Blake, a wealthy man looking to establish a leper colony, but he and his crew ended up being murdered, and the gold found on their ship was used to build the town and its church.

Now Blake and his crew are back to get their revenge against the offspring of the town’s founders and retrieve their gold. Once you are surrounded by the fog to where Blake and his crew have you in their sights, it is too late to escape. There is a Klingon proverb which tells of how revenge is a dish best served cold, and it is served here very coldly to where we are quickly reminded of the movie’s tagline:

“It won’t hurt you. IT’LL KILL YOU.”

Watching “The Fog” for the umpteenth time, I am reminded of what a brilliant cinematographer Dean Cundey is as his lighting helps to make the movie’s central nemesis all the more mysterious and devilishly suffocating. The dark of the night is made to look especially chilling as things constantly leap out of it, and Blake and his crew are largely kept in the shadows as neither Cundey or Carpenter want to reveal too much of the monster to the audience.

This was Carpenter’s and the late Debra Hill’s first movie after “Halloween,” and I can understand why audiences felt a little let down by “The Fog” when it arrived in theaters. The anticipation for something usually ends up being more exciting than the finished product as our minds are filled with the possibilities of what we think will end up on the silver screen, but not everything comes out the way we want it to. It’s an unfair obstacle that filmmakers often have to deal with when following up such a successful motion picture, and sometimes we need to revisit certain movies like these years later to give them a much-needed reassessment.

More than 30 years have passed since Carpenter’s “The Fog” was released, and I like to think it has gotten better over time. In terms of atmospheric horror movies, I see it as one of the best. Those low-flying clouds are always a fascinating sight as well as a scary one. When the visibility is practically zero, you cannot help but feel trapped in the fog as it makes you believe the world has cut you off. Carpenter captures this feeling here as the fog proves to be thick and infinitely suffocating. There’s no escaping it or what is inside of it as those not smart enough to run away from it are almost deserving of the fate about to greet them.

Carpenter assembled a terrific cast of actors for “The Fog,” many of whom became regulars in his later movies. John Houseman gets things off to a chilling start as he recounts the story of the Elizabeth Dane in a way which feels vivid and probably helped the producers save money to where an actual recreation of the event he talks about proved completely unnecessary. Houseman was a brilliant actor who somehow managed to walk the line of doing work for either the love of the theatre or instead a nice paycheck, and I like to believe he did “The Fog” for the former. Still, I am often reminded of what the late Robin Williams said about the advice Houseman gave him while he was a student at Julliard:

“The theatre needs you. I’m going off to sell Volvos.”

Tom Atkins co-stars as town resident Nick Castle (lol) who is quick to pick up hitchhiker Elizabeth Solley (Jamie Lee Curtis) and later have sex with her before asking the question often heard in movies of the late 70’s and early 80’s, “What’s your name?” Atkins showed what a confident lady’s man he was here, and he later built on this confidence to terrific and hilarious effect in “Halloween III: Season of the Witch.”

“The Fog” also marked the film debut of Adrienne Barbeau, and the camera loves her here. As single mom and local radio disc jockey Stevie Wayne, Barbeau gives this Carpenter movie the strong female character it needs and deserves. Stevie is not a person to back down from danger and, like Laurie Strode, she is very observant of everything going on around her. When Barbeau’s voice is giving you more than enough of a reason to listen to jazz music on a regular basis, she keeps you on the edge of your seat as she fends off the bloodthirsty mariners hiding in the fog in ways her male counterparts fail to.

And, of course, I have to mention Carpenter’s score as I remain as big a fan of his music as I do of his movies. His main theme for “The Fog” is one of his most memorable as it has the same rapid pace of his “Halloween” theme. The musical stings pack a wallop in certain scenes where ghostly hands reach out of the fog to grab at unsuspecting victims who think this is the work of kids, and his other big theme in “The Fog” is “Reel 9” which brings the movie to its riveting climax in which the mariners close in on the townspeople who have no place to escape certain death.

Carpenter has described “The Fog” as being one of his least favorite movies as its initial cut proved to be very disappointing, and he had to reshoot and rescore much of it before its release. Whatever the case, it is a wonderfully atmospheric horror movie which stands among his finest works, and watching this 4K restoration of it reminds one of why certain movies play best on the silver screen.

It’s also fun to watch a movie made back in the pre-digital age when cell phones and GPS were not around to save our heroes. Instead, they had to deal with landlines, a desperate DJ and the limits of technology. After watching “The Fog” again in this day and age, I kept waiting for one of the characters to say the following:

“It’s just you, me, and my Thomas Guide.”

* * * * out of * * * *

David Gordon Green’s ‘Halloween’ is the Sequel We Have Been Waiting For

Halloween 2018 theatrical poster

Why do filmmakers constantly insist on doing a retcon of the “Halloween” franchise? Every once in a while, the continuity of the series is tossed to the wayside, usually for profit and greed, but perhaps deep down there are those out there who remain infinitely eager for a true final showdown between Laurie Strode and Michael Myers. We thought we got it in 1981’s “Halloween II,” but even Michael couldn’t stay down after being burned beyond recognition. Then there was “Halloween H2O: 20 Years Later,” but that was really a “Scream” movie disguised as a “Halloween” movie, and what resulted did not feel particularly compelling.

But just when you thought it was time to lay this long-running franchise to rest, along comes the simply titled “Halloween” which wipes the slate clean to give us the true sequel fans of the series have been waiting 40 years for. Once again, Michael Myers breaks free and heads back to Haddonfield, Illinois for a bloody homecoming. But this time, Laurie Strode is ready and waiting, and she is not about to take any prisoners. As this “Halloween” unfolds, you will see what Sylvester Stallone meant when he said, in his pursuit of Wesley Snipes in “Demotion Man:”

“Send a maniac to catch a maniac.”

In this alternate timeline, Michael did not escape at the end of John Carpenter’s “Halloween,” but was instead captured and sent back to Smith’s Grove Sanitarium and has remained there for the last 40 years. His latest psychiatrist, Dr. Ranbir Sartain (Haluk Bilginer), insists Michael can talk but chooses not to, but this doesn’t stop a pair of true-crime podcasters, Aaron Korey (Jefferson Hall) and Dana Haines (Rhian Rees), from trying to make him speak. But once Aaron pulls Michael’s old mask out of his bag, we know it won’t be long before they are reminded of what curiosity did to the cat.

This particular “Halloween” was directed by David Gordon Green and co-written by him, Jeff Fradley and actor Danny McBride, and the respect they have for Carpenter’s 1978 horror classic is on display throughout. They even bring back the serif font from the original’s credits as they are determined to make us accept this is a direct sequel to the original. I admired how the credits started off with a pumpkin which looks to have been stomped on many times and which reforms slowly but surely. It’s almost like a metaphor for this franchise as many continue to resurrect Michael, or “The Shape” as he is often referred to, to diminishing results.

Green is one of those filmmakers who goes from making independent films like “All the Real Girls” and “Joe” to more mainstream movies such as “Pineapple Express” and “Stronger” with relative ease. With his “Halloween,” he gives a slow-burn thriller which thankfully doesn’t peak too soon. Many horror movies give us their best moments far too early these days, so it’s nice to see Green not making this same mistake here as he gives us a deeply suspenseful thriller which builds up and up to its much-anticipated climax.

I also have to given Green and his collaborators credit for giving us characters we care about here. It is impossible not to relate to them in one way or another as we remember having their same needs and desires when we were their age. Many of the “Friday the 13th” sequels kept giving us characters we couldn’t wait to see killed off as we were made to hate them, but when the residents of Haddonfield are killed off, you cannot help but feel for them, and not just because some never got the chance to lose their virginity.

The real big news, however, about this “Halloween” is that Carpenter is back. It marks his return to the franchise he created for the first time since “Halloween III: Season of the Witch.” I imagine money was a big motivating factor, but I do believe Carpenter when he said how enthusiastic he was to Green and McBride’s pitch for this movie. In addition to acting as executive producer, Carpenter also scored the movie along with his son Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davies, and they give the brutal proceedings here an extra hard kick in the ass (click here to check out my review of the soundtrack).

But let’s face facts, the real star of this “Halloween” movie is not Michael Myers, but Laurie Strode. Jamie Lee Curtis returns to her iconic role with a real vengeance, and she plays Laurie to the hilt in this installment. When Curtis first played Laurie, she was a kind, shy and innocent young woman. 40 years later, Laurie is a shell of her former self as her life has been severely undone by PTSD, alcoholism and agoraphobia. She has spent the past few decades training to be a survivalist as her life is now dedicated to removing Michael from the face of the earth, and it has all come at the expense of her own family.

Curtis has always put in a great performance in each movie she appears in, be it a good or a bad one, but she really hits it out of the park here. She succeeds in turning Laurie Strode into a bad ass warrior who is never determined to suffer as she did before, and at times she threatens to be more frightening than Michael herself. Just check out the scene when Laurie breaks into her daughter Karen’s (Judy Greer) house and reminds her bluntly of how unprepared she is for the oncoming slaughter.

Moreover, Curtis really makes us sympathize with Laurie Strode throughout. We know all what she has been through, and to see the effect it has on those closest to her is heartbreaking. We learn she has been divorced twice, and her daughter Karen wants little to do with her and constantly begs her to get help. Even when Laurie absent-mindedly takes a drink from a glass of wine like as it it were was an automatic impulse, we feel for her as no one can see Michael Myers as being the embodiment of pure evil the way she can.

Watching Curtis as Laurie here quickly reminded me of a line the late Natasha Richardson said in the movie “Patty Hearst:”

“I finally realized what my crime was, I lived. Big mistake. Very messy.”

The cast overall does really good work, and they are made of very likable and dependable actors including Judy Greer and Will Patton who make their characters seem very down to earth in a way you want them to be. One real standout here is Andi Matichak who plays Allyson, Laurie’s granddaughter and the only one capable of having a meaningful relationship with her. Matichak proves to be a very appealing presence here, and she makes Allyson into a strong and defiant young woman who is not about to suffer fools at all.

As “Halloween” builds up to its inevitable climax, Green keeps increasing the tension throughout. He smartly leaves Michael in the shadows, and you can’t help but wondering when he is going to jump out. Green also leaves you wondering if we might actually see Michael’s face or even hear him speak. Does he? Wouldn’t you like to know?

This “Halloween” is not at all groundbreaking, but then again neither was Carpenter’s film. The 1978 “Halloween” owed a lot to the works of Alfred Hitchcock among others, but it also managed to give a freshness to its genre in the same way “Psycho” did years before. With any “Halloween” follow-up, we can only hope for it to be as good, if not better, than the original. There’s no way you can top what Carpenter pulled off 40 years ago as none of us saw Michael Myers coming. But with this “Halloween,” we get the true sequel the original never quite received, and it proves to be well worth the wait.

There is also something very cathartic about watching this one in the midst of the #MeToo movement. Essentially, we are watching a woman take revenge on a man who thoughtlessly ruined her life years before, and seeing her do battle with him makes this “Halloween” especially thrilling. Lord knows women have been forced to be silent for far too long, so seeing one get her revenge feels much, much overdue.

By the way, I think I’m going to start calling this one “Halloween: 40 is the New 20.” It seems appropriate, don’t you think?

* * * ½ out of * * * *

WRITER’S NOTE: A lot of people have been getting made at Jamie Lee Curtis recently. We see her wielding many different weapons and firearms in this movie as Laurie Strode, but some have been quick to call her a hypocrite for doing so as her stance on gun control and the need for it has been well-documented. Why she appearing in this movie infinitely armed and complaining about gun violence in real life? Ladies and gentlemen, what Curtis is doing in this movie is called ACTING. SHE IS PLAYING A CHARACTER. Whatever happened to make believe anyway? Not all actors are out to put their political issues into each movie they do. Do yourself and everyone else a favor and stop blurring the line between fiction and non-fiction. That is all.

Soundtrack Review: ‘Halloween’ (2018)

Halloween 2018 soundtrack cover

As I write this, I have not yet seen David Gordon Green’s “Halloween,” the movie I am looking forward to the most this fall season. I was, however, lucky enough to get a copy of its soundtrack while at the “Halloween: 40 Years of Terror” convention this past weekend in Pasadena, California. I had preordered the soundtrack on iTunes, but anyone who knows me has no doubt of what a die-hard fan I am of Carpenter’s music as well as his movies, so of course I had to purchase a physical copy even if it meant spending more money.

This 2018 “Halloween” movie marks Carpenter’s return to this undying horror franchise since “Halloween III: Season of the Witch,” and it is also the first film score he has composed since 2001’s “Ghost of Mars.” With this score, he joins forces with his son Cody Carpenter and godson Daniel Davies to not only build on the themes he made famous back in 1978, but to give us new ones as well. What results is a highly effective score which I have been listening to endlessly ever since I purchased it.

The “Halloween Theme” is a musical piece impossible for most to ever get sick of, but listening to it on this soundtrack reminds me of how no one can play it better than Carpenter. Along with Cody and Daniel, he makes this theme as potent as ever especially with its ticking sound in the background which spells out how evil will be arriving in Haddonfield before we know it.

“Laurie’s Theme” sounds much different this time around. Whereas her theme in the 1978 “Halloween” and 1981’s “Halloween II” highlighted Laurie’s innocence and lack of awareness of the horror she would be forced to endure, this version acknowledges how haunted she remains after Michael Myers almost killed her 40 years ago. As we should all know by now, Green’s “Halloween” serves as a direct sequel to Carpenter’s 1978 original, wiping the slate clean of all the other sequels and reboots. So, the Laurie Strode we see here as long since become hardened by her terrifying encounters with pure evil to where it appears she only lives for revenge.

Carpenter does bring back some of his old musical stings which are always welcome, but there are other stings which come at us more furiously than ever before. There is an unrelenting edge to tracks like “Michael Kills” or “The Shape Kills” which go far beyond the original “Halloween’s” simplistic musical design. Evil sounds even more furious than it did previously, and the driving rhythms of the music here promises us a thrilling good time at the movies.

John Carpenter once said he can play just about any keyboard but that he cannot read or write a note. Regardless, nothing has stopped his growth as a musician or a film composer. His son, Cody Carpenter, has since proven himself to be a very talented musician in his own right, and his additions to this score only heighten the tension in it. Daniel Davies sounds like he is having so much fun experimenting with guitar sounds, and they add a real edge to a score which proves to be anything but an exercise in nostalgia.

The soundtrack concludes with the track “Halloween Triumphant” which is an epic piece of film score as it combines John’s unforgettable “Halloween” theme with the musical additions of Cody and Daniel who help update his themes for a new generation. Listening to it brings a smile to my face as the three men have composed what feels like an ode to the enduring legacy this 1978 horror classic continues to have on filmgoers everywhere, and it sounds like a victory march in more ways than one.

When John Carpenter composed the original “Halloween” score in just three days, it is clear how he and his collaborators had more time to develop one more multi-layered for Michael Myers latest cinematic onslaught. This is not just a return to the musical themes John made famous years ago, but it is also an opportunity to expand on them as the filmmaker and composer is clearly not content to just give us the same old thing. Along with Cody and Daniel, he gives us a superb soundtrack which I find myself listening to endlessly as the music proves to be more complex than I expected it to be.

The 2018 “Halloween” soundtrack is a must buy, and I encourage you to buy it when it is released on October 19, 2018.

‘Pet Sematary’ Remake’s First Trailer is Unearthed For All to See

Pet Sematary 2019 Teaser Poster

The cinematic adaptations of Stephen King’s novels have been a mixed bag, but ever since the phenomenal success of “It,” Hollywood has been desperate to adapt his works more than ever before. But moreover, they are also not afraid to remake those films which have already been made from them like “Carrie,” “The Shining” and “Salem’s Lot.” It was only a matter of time, and an eventual escape from development hell, that we would get a remake of “Pet Sematary,” and now its first trailer has been unearthed for all to see.

To be honest, I never cared much for the 1989 version of “Pet Sematary” directed by Mary Lambert. Some of the performances were rather weak, and King, who wrote the screenplay, ended up cramming too much of the novel into the movie to where not all the plot threads were tied up in a satisfying way. Having read “Pet Sematary” myself, I can confirm it is one of King’s scariest works which left me unnerved, especially with its wonderfully ambiguous ending. Now that we are finally getting its latest cinematic incarnation, I cannot help but be intrigued.

From its trailer, it is clear directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer (“Starry Eyes”) are intent on making this version their own. The sight of children marching to the beat of a drum through the cemetery while wearing animal masks is a scary sight even if one of them reminded me of the rabbit mask from “Donnie Darko.” Granted, it starts off in a routine fashion with Louis and Rachel Creed (Jason Clarke and Amy Seimetz) driving their kids to their new home in Maine. As they get their first glimpse of it, a truck comes roaring by without warning as if a gale force wind suddenly swept by, leaving trees shaking endlessly. It’s a strong moment as we are reminded of the terrible tragedies which will eventually befall these characters.

This trailer doesn’t spell out the story for its audiences, and we only glimpses of other characters like Church and Victor Pascow. Interestingly enough, these proceedings are dominated by John Lithgow who plays Jud Crandall, and he speaks his dialogue in an increasingly ominous tone and without a New England accent. It’s great to see Lithgow here as his presence lends much to what we see here. He does, however, have to contend with the shadow of the late Fred Gwynne who played Jud in the original. Whatever you may have thought about the 1989 film, there’s no denying Gwynne was perfectly cast and the best thing about it.

Overall, this trailer left me intrigued at the possibilities the remake has to offer. It features Clarke who, whether he’s in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” “Knight of Cups” or “Chappaquiddick,” is one of the most dependable actors working in movies today. However, I have to say the trailer for the original was much more frightening, especially with Dale Midkiff standing in the middle of his kitchen yelling into his phone, “WHAT DID YOU DO??!!” Even more chilling was hearing Gage’s voice saying, “Now, I want to play with you.” My hope is the next trailer for “Pet Sematary” is even more chilling than this one. My other hope is that the filmmakers will get to retain the ambiguous ending of the novel in this version. Thanks to test screenings, the 1989 movie was denied this, and I am still annoyed to this day at its conclusion.

“Pet Sematary” is set to open in April 2019. Please check out the trailer below.

Wes Craven’s ‘The Last House on The Left’ Remains a Highly Disturbing Cinematic Experience Years Later

The Last House on the Left 1972 poster

“To avoid fainting keep repeating,

It’s only a movie

…Only a movie

…Only a movie

…Only a movie”

Exploitation movies, or “video nasties” as they are called in certain countries, have a power most do not have. They shock even the most jaded and seasoned of movie fanatics, and they burn into your subconscious in a way which cannot be undone. A lot has been written about Wes Craven’s “Last House on The Left” and of the impact it had on audiences upon its release. Like Gaspar Noe’s “Irreversible,” it’s a movie I was bound to see at some point. Many would prefer to stay far away from movies like this, but I don’t want to be like everyone else. I don’t want to be put off watching a movie just because it shocks more than half the world. Who am I to talk or criticize a particular movie if I haven’t seen it anyway?

“The Last House on the Left” was Craven’s directorial debut, and he made it with future “Friday the 13th” director Sean S. Cunningham on a very low budget. While many of Craven’s later movies deal with horror on a fantasy level like “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” this one deals with the horrors of real life. It deals with real people and situations any of us could fall victim to. While it was made back in 1972, it still has the power to completely unnerve anyone who sits through it to this very day. Even though I had a pretty good idea of what was in store, this movie proved to be a true endurance test more than others of its genre. And like many horror movies of the past, it just had to be remade years later.

To dismiss “The Last House on The Left” as pure exploitation is not altogether fair. There is extreme violence, naked bodies and a lot of blood and gore, but there is more going on here than what we see on the surface. Throughout Craven’s long career, he has made movies which work on an intellectual level as well as a visceral one, and this one is no exception. Craven said he made this movie in response to the Vietnam War which was going on at the time. I can certainly see that, but I think it also deals with the death of the 1960’s as well as the destruction of innocence. This film also deals with humanity at its most depraved and animalistic and of how no one can ever go back to who they once were. Everything is changed when the movie is over, and so are we for having watched it.

This movie’s story is somewhat inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s “Virgin Spring,” and it follows two teenage girls, Mari and Phyllis, as they head into the city to go to a concert. While in town, they decide to score some grass and go to a total stranger named Junior who ends up taking them back to his place. But what the ladies find instead are a couple of escaped convicts and their girlfriend who proceed to torture them to their last dying breath. You can see why the tagline fits the movie so perfectly. You have to keep reminding yourself this is only a movie as everything we are forced to witness is all too evil to process right away.

As this twisted family of psychos viciously rape and torture the two girls in the woods right near where one of them lives, it is intercut with scenes of one of the girl’s parents baking a cake and preparing a birthday party for her. There is an innocence on display in these scenes with the parents, and it serves to make all the sheer brutality even more disturbing to sit through. You don’t watch a movie like “The Last House on The Left” as much as you experience it, and movies don’t get much bleaker than this one.

Once the group has finished their dirty work, their car breaks down and they end up staying as guests of one of the girls’ parents who just welcome them into their home, completely unaware of who they actually are. They even take the time to make dinner for their guests and give them wine to drink. You would never ever see that happening today, ever. Perhaps it was the custom of people in the 1960’s to be hospitable to total strangers.

During the evening, however, the wife discovers a necklace one of their guests is wearing as being the same one she and her husband gave to their daughter before she went off with her friend. This leads to her discovering bloody clothes in one of their suitcases, and she and her husband rush off to the lake where they find their daughter dead. From there, both carry out bloody revenge against their guests, and it leads to one of the bloodiest conclusions ever in a motion picture.

To watch a movie like “The Last House on The Left” is to witness how brutal human nature can get, and it makes you wonder how someone could do something so incredibly. It’s easy to see why Craven saw this movie as a response to the Vietnam War. We went into that country and raped it without much thought of what would happen to us, and this conflict bled deeply into our country and its citizens. This war been covered in many movies like Brian De Palma’s “Casualties of War” and “Redacted” as well as Oliver Stone’s “Platoon.”

You have to give the actors a lot of credit here as they don’t play their characters as much as they inhabit them. Medals of bravery should be given to both Sandra Cassel and Lucy Grantham who play Mari and Phyllis as both are forced to suffer indignities no human being should ever endure. They are beaten, humiliated, stripped naked and violated in the worst ways imaginable.

But it’s not just the girls who die, the killers do as well, but not just in the literal sense. There is a perverse ecstasy they take in degrading their hostages, but killing them off leaves them with nothing much in the way of emotion. Seeing the looks on their faces after killing the girls proves to be one of the most fascinating moments in “The Last House on the Left” as we can see how each has lost any chance at redemption they could ever hope to get.

The late David Hess gives us one of the most despicable and vile villains in movies as Krug Stillo. There is no redeeming value to this character, and he sinks even deeper into a moral black hole when you realize he controls his son, Junior, through the use of drugs. Hess also did the music score which, to put it mildly, sounds utterly bizarre.

One other important thing to note is this is not the kind of movie where you cheer on the good guys. When the parents get their revenge, there is no joy to be taken in it and you are as emotionally drained as they are when the screen fades to black. Many people complain about the unspeakable violence in this movie, but then they go out to see the latest action extravaganza which features dozens of exploding limbs and severed body parts (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Don’t get me wrong, I like those movies as well, but it is hypocritical to get furious at one violent movie while excusing another one.

I should also add that one of idiotic cops we see in this movie is played by Martin Kove, the same actor who would go on to play Kreese in “The Karate Kid” movies. Kove seems to have been the only actor here to come out of this movie with a successful acting career.

With all the unpleasantness surrounding “The Last House on The Left,” why would I give it a positive review? Because it stands out from the average exploitation fare of the time, and there was a good deal of thought put into it. No, it is not enjoyable to sit through, but not all movies are meant to be enjoyed. Craven doesn’t hold anything back, and he gets to the ugliness humanity has to offer the innocent and the unsuspecting.

It says a lot about a movie when it can still retain its power to shock and unnerve audiences even decades after its release. “The Last House on The Left” belongs in the same company with the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” as neither have lost any of their visceral power. You don’t like unpleasant movies? Stay miles away from this one. For those willing to endure it, just remember it’s only a movie …Only a movie …Only a movie …Only a movie …With an utterly bizarre music score!

* * * ½ out of * * * *

All-Time Favorite Trailers: ‘The Last House on the Left’ (1972)

Even in this day and age, people still complain of how Hollywood doesn’t do enough to warn them of how infinitely disturbing certain movies are. Regardless of the specific descriptions the MPAA lists in an R-rated movie such as graphic violence, nudity, blood, and gore, many still insist more needs to be done to warn audiences, and that’s even though they were warned extensively beforehand. Heck, you can have the whole movie spoiled for you when you visit its Wikipedia page as it often contains a plot synopsis of everything which happens. Regardless, parents still drag their children to movies they have no business watching at such a tender age just because they won’t spend the money to hire a babysitter.

I bring this up because the trailer for the 1972 exploitation horror movie “The Last House on the Left” does what most trailers these days never bother to do; warn prospective audiences of a seriously disturbing motion picture which will arrive in a theater near them very soon. The narrator speaks ominously of how the house rests on “the very center of hell,” and the musical stings are enough to send shivers down the spines of the most jaded filmgoer. And of course, there is the line of, “To avoid fainting keep repeating, it’s only a movie, only a movie, only a movie.” These days, this refrain may seem laughable, but when it comes to this cult classic, this is a really good piece of advice to keep in mind.

It’s a relatively short trailer, but it shows how Wes Craven, who made his directorial debut with this one, shot “The Last House on the Left” in a documentary style to where it felt like we were watching something real and not staged. The only actors we see here are Sandra Cassel who played Mari Collingwood and Lucy Grantham who portrayed Phyllis Stone. These characters are put through absolute hell, but we do not see the full extent of their hell in the trailer. Instead, we get glimpses of the pain and torture they are put through, and it forces us to imagine the worst things they have been forced to experience. For myself, this trailer made me infinitely intrigued to check this movie out as it seemed like the kind most audiences would be quick to avoid. Having seen it, I can assure you this is not the easiest cinematic experience to sit through in the slightest, and you have to give credit to those who put this trailer together as even they were more than willing to make this point very clear to even the most adventurous of movie goers.

I love how “The Last House on the Left” trailer does an effective job of warning its prospective audience about how disturbing a movie this will be for them. These days, I tempted to think any studio releasing it would be much more focused on starting a cinematic universe regardless of its highly disturbing material. Just think of what could have been: “The Next to Last House on the Left,” “The Last House on the Right,” “The First House on the Left,” “The Last House to be Demolished on the Left,” etc. The possibilities may be disturbing, but they are also endless.

The Last House on the Left 1972 poster

‘Let the Right One In’ is Not Your Average Vampire Movie

Let The Right One In movie poster

This is one of those movies which made me want to be a film critic. I love to tell you what movies I really like and flat out hate, and this is even though I never expect to change your mind over what you want to see. But there are certain movies which I really want to see get the audience they deserve, preferably in a movie theater. “Let the Right One In” is a Swedish movie which absolutely deserves a loyal following as it is one of the most beautifully atmospheric movies to be released in 2008.

“Let the Right One In” follows young Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) who is an overlooked kid bullied by kids at school that have somehow managed to recite lines of dialogue from “Deliverance.” This is a kid who clearly doesn’t have a lot of friends and, like many, is a child of divorce. One night, while he is in the snowy courtyard outside his home, he is met suddenly by a girl named Eli (Lina Leandersson) who has just moved in to the same apartment complex he lives in. Eli quickly tells Oskar she cannot be his friend, but soon enough, they bond over a Rubik’s Cube. Their friendship builds throughout the film and serves to strengthen them as people to where they deal more effectively with the struggles they are forced to endure.

There is one catch though, and it is clear to the audience from the start: Eli is a vampire. An older man believed to be her father ends up blocking the windows with cardboard and other forms of paper to keep their apartment dark. We see this same man going out in the freezing dead of night to kill total strangers and drain them of their blood. Why? He’s got another mouth to feed. When he screws up and doesn’t come through, she shows just how vicious she can be in her displeasure. But despite who she is, you can see why she is cozy with Oskar. They are both outcasts in a world which does not appear to have much use for them.

What I really loved about “Let the Right One In” is how it takes the vampire genre and makes it fresh by combining it with the things we remember from our childhoods: bullies, sucking at sports, parents not understanding what we are going through, etc. We always hope for that one person who understands us and can relate to what we are going through. Some of us are lucky enough to have such a person in our lives, but others are not so fortunate. You could say Oskar becoming friends with a vampire would not be in his best interest, but these are two people who need each other at this fragile point in their lives.

We see Oskar getting whipped at school by the bullies who pick on those they feel are beneath them, and they call him piggy among other things. We later see Oskar fantasizing about getting revenge on those bullies as if he is Robert De Niro in “Taxi Driver.” With Eli, he finally gains the confidence to get back at them. In turn, Eli’s growing friendship with Oskar provides her with an escape from her eternally lonely existence. The real question between them is, can Eli trust herself enough to keep herself from making Oskar another victim? And if she reveals herself to him as who she really is, will he still accept her as his friend? Despite the bloody acts we see Eli committing, deep down we don’t want to see these two separated.

“Let the Right One In” was directed by Tomas Alfredson, and he does a brilliant job of opening the movie in silence as he slowly introduces us to the snowy suburb these characters inhabit. The frozen landscape mirrors the dreary and repressed nature of everyone who lives there, and it feels as cold as upstate New York felt in “Frozen River.” Of course, were the movie to be sunnier, it would require certain characters to die a fiery death. The vampires here perish the way vampires do in other movies, and if you are a vampire, it should go without saying how you appreciate the nighttime more than others.

But the wonderfully surprising thing about “Let the Right One In” is how tender it is. While it looks to be marketed as a horror movie, it is really a love story. While it is at times a violent and bloody movie, what really wins out is the bond these Oskar and Eli share throughout. It is a chaste relationship (they are both 12 after all) built on need and loneliness. There is a moment where they both lie together in bed which is really lovely, and it reminds one of how lonely it can be to sleep by yourself.

There is not a weak performance to be found here, but the real credit goes to the two young kids who have to carry this movie almost entirely on their shoulders. Kare Hedebrant is exceptional as the young Oskar, and there is never a moment in his performance which feels fake or forced. Hedebrant is a natural in front of the camera, and he acts from the heart. This is not your typical nerdy school outcast we see in so many movies made in America, but instead an intelligent boy who never quite fits in the way we all wanted to when we were his age.

Lina Leandersson, who plays the vampire Eli, has the toughest role in as she has to portray different emotions without actually showing them. Throughout the movie, her face is a mask of coldness and detachment, but in her eyes, she shows how much she likes being in this unexpected relationship with Oskar. Leandersson’s performance is truly remarkable as she makes you care about this person even after she commits abhorrent acts against others. This is not your typical vampire drunk on power like Lestat in “Interview with The Vampire,” but one who was born into this life without any choice. Eli does not drink the blood of others because she wants to, but because she needs to in order to survive. Lina’s drive is one of survival, not dominance.

Looking back at 2008, there were a lot of really good movies released, but not many great ones. Maybe I hold things to a higher level than I should, but “Let the Right One In” is a true masterpiece in this or any other year. It is both frightening and tender at the same time, and I don’t know of many other movies which have managed this balance ever so effortlessly.

* * * * out of * * * *