No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Creepshow 2’

Creepshow 2 movie poster

Creepshow” proved to be a great deal of ghoulish fun, and it’s a film which had me begging for a sequel. There are many other short horror stories worthy of a cinematic adaptation regardless of whether or not they are written by Stephen King. Plus, at the time, it seemed to be a given George Romero would have had easier luck in securing financing for this than for a sequel to “Day of the Dead.” And with the same gothic-looking title, what could possibly go wrong? Even if it’s not one of the greatest horror movies ever, we can still enjoy this sequel for what it is, right?

Well, perhaps you can, but for me, “Creepshow 2” is a serious disappointment. Sure, the three stories contained in it are based on the works of King, and Romero did write the screenplay, but this sequel suffers right from the get go. It falters due to a budget much lower than a horror film deserves, a cast of actors who emote more than act, a weak music score, and animation which just reeks of cheapness.

The movie’s prologue has a young blonde boy named Billy (Domenick John) peddling fast on his bike as he chases a delivery truck into town to deliver the latest edition of Creepshow magazine. The back of the truck opens up to reveal The Creep played by Tom Savini, but voiced by Joe Silver. The makeup on this devilish character is less than convincing, and he is nothing compared to the ghostly apparition from the first movie. Even worse, he is made to crack jokey one-liners which will have you groaning more than laughing. Clearly, this character is “Creepshow 2’s” answer to the Crypt Keeper from “Tales from The Crypt,” or perhaps even John Carpenter’s Coroner from “Body Bags,” but it would have been to this sequel’s benefit had it not featured a wisecracking character as this kind had already started to wear out its welcome back in 1987.

One other thing, if you are going to have Savini playing a ghoulish character, do you really have to put makeup all over him? The infamous makeup artist and actor has a wonderfully devilish look about him, and the mask he wears just takes away from him.

“Creepshow 2’s” first story, “Old Chief Wood’nhead,” is its weakest by far. George Kennedy and Dorothy Lamour play Ray and Martha Spruce, an elderly couple who run a general store in Dead River, a town which, as we can tell from its first appearance, is finally living up to its name. One day they are visited by a Native American elder named Benjamin Whitemoon (Frank Salsedo) who gives the Spruces turquoise jewelry, his tribe’s sacred treasures, to look after. Unfortunately, not long after Benjamin leaves, a group of thugs arrive at the store, killing the Spruces and making off with the jewelry. Oh yeah, the Spruces also have an Indian statute standing prominently outside of their store named Old Chief Wood’nhead, and it doesn’t take long for us to see he will avenge the Spruces as you don’t mess with Indian spirits, ever.

Directing “Creepshow 2” is Michael Gornick who served as Director of Photography on its predecessor. As this first story demonstrates, he doesn’t quite have Romero’s panache or wicked sense of humor as he can’t balance out the horrific aspects with the comedic ones, and everything feels off balance as a result. Also, he shows far too much of Old Chief Wood’nhead coming to life which was a mistake. Gornick starts off by giving us glimpses of this character, played by Dan Kamin, to where we can tell the Chief is more than just another statute. But as the Chief goes on a mission of bloody justice, the character becomes cartoonish to where his bloody revenge isn’t the least bit fulfilling.

For what it’s worth, Holt McCallany, who plays Sam, the leader of the thug gang, does have beautiful hair here, and seeing him show it off as he sees it as his ticket for making it in Hollywood makes him all the more drolly hilarious. Still, MCCallany has nothing on Melissa Leo as her hair was infinitely beautiful from one episode of “Homicide: Life on the Street” to the next.

The second story, “The Raft,” is a bit of an improvement. Based on one of King’s scariest short stories from “Skeleton Crew,” it features our college kids who drive out to a predictably isolated lake, located a good 50 miles away from their school, for a swim. The lake’s only real notable feature, at first anyway, is a wooden raft in the middle of it. This raft, however, is soon upstaged by what looks like a slimy oil slick which begins to make its way over to the kids once they get in the water, and they soon find themselves stranded on the raft as the slick surrounds them.

“The Raft” has a lot of cinematic possibilities, and seeing these kids getting consumed by the oil slick provides “Creepshow 2” with some of its most horrifying moments. But in the end, it is undone as Gornick isn’t able to generate enough of a claustrophobic terror this story demands. Plus, the performances of Paul Satterfield, Jeremy Green, Daniel Beer and Page Hannah are weak as they are forced to emote more than act, and this just takes away from the situation and terror their characters are trapped in. Granted, this is not a movie which demands Oscar worthy performances, but it does need good acting to help bring you fully into such a terrifying story.

I do have to give the actors some credit though as they don’t have to do any acting when they first get in the water as it does appear to be very cold. Beer even said he almost died from hypothermia while filming “The Raft,” and keeping this in mind while watching this segment makes it even more unnerving. But despite a bravura conclusion, I came out of “The Raft” feeling like it could have been much better than it was. Perhaps this is partly due to having read King’s short story beforehand, and what he came up with couldn’t possibly be matched here.

The final story, “The Hitchhiker,” proved to be my favorite as it featured Lois Chiles, the Bond woman Dr. Holly Goodhead from “Moonraker,” in a strong performance as businesswoman Annie Lansing. The story begins with Annie leaving a hotel after having an adulterous fling with a gigolo, and she begins thinking of ways to explain to her husband why she is arriving home so late. But as she fumbles around with a lit cigarette while driving her expensive Mercedes down a lonely highway, she accidentally hits a hitchhiker played by Tom Wright. Did Annie kill him? She isn’t sure, and with oncoming headlights heading in her direction, she isn’t keen to wait around. From there, she goes from wondering how to cover up her affair to finding ways to justify leaving the scene of an accident, and then the hitchhiker reappears…

This story reminded me of the “Creepshow” segment entitled “They’re Creeping Up on You!” which starred E.G. Marshall as Upson Pratt, a ruthless businessman whose fear of bugs comes to haunt him big time. Like that segment, “The Hitchhiker” plays with your mind as you ponder if what you saw actually happened, or if it was all in the mind of the main character instead. On first glance, the story doesn’t make much sense as Annie keeps coming across this man she accidentally ran over for no real reason, but, in retrospect, perhaps the hitchhiker represents Annie’s conscience torturing her for hitting a pedestrian and failing to take responsibility for her actions.

This final segment for me reminds me of why I liked the first “Creepshow” so much; it’s a wickedly gleeful mix of horror and black comedy as Annie tries to kill off a hitchhiker who won’t stay ahead. In the process, she also lays waste to her precious Mercedes as her priorities shift from protecting her most valuable possession, a car, to defending herself from a crime which becomes something even worse. It is so over the top to where I was infinitely eager to see where the story would end up, and had the rest of “Creepshow 2” been like this, it would have been so much better. Chiles gets to show more life here than she got to in “Moonraker,” and she steals this sequel easily thanks to her unrestrained turn.

Horror movies in general tend to be made on low budgets, and this was certainly the case with “Creepshow” as Romero only had $8 million to work with. Gornick, however, had a budget half the size of that on “Creepshow 2” ($3.5 million to be exact), and he is unable to stretch it out the way Romero did. I’m always fascinated with what filmmakers are able to pull off creatively with little money, but this sequel shows that sometimes a low budget can be too low to work with. This has the appearance of a motion picture where the filmmakers were forced to cut corners at every turn due to limited funds, and it makes me feel sorry for Gornick as I’m sure he could have accomplished more if the budget allowed him to. While Warner Brothers distributed the first movie, the sequel was instead released by New World Pictures, a small independent production company which inched closer and closer to bankrupt around the time “Creepshow 2” came out.

I also didn’t care for the film score by Les Reed and Rick Wakeman as their themes came across as unbearably generic. Both are very talented musicians, but their music here just made me pine for John Harrison’s music from “Creepshow” as well as “Day of the Dead.” Back in the 1980’s, Harrison came up with some wonderfully creepy cues, but Reed and Wakeman have no such luck here.

“Creepshow 2” does have its inspired moments, but I came of it feeling like it could have been so much better. Instead of enjoying what I saw, I spent more time analyzing things which could have been easily improved. I do, however, have to applaud the filmmakers for including the following quote from Colliers Magazine in the end credits:

“Juvenile delinquency is the product of pent up frustrations, stored-up resentments and bottled-up fears. It is not the product of cartoons and captions. But the comics are a handy, obvious, uncomplicated scapegoat. If the adults who crusade against them would only get as steamed up over such basic causes of delinquency as parental ignorance, indifference, and cruelty, they might discover that comic books are no more a menace than Treasure Island or Jack the Giant Killer.”

This quote was from the year 1949, and yet all these years later many still seek scapegoats, be it comic books or Marilyn Manson, instead of dealing with things in a more rational manner. I loved that the filmmakers included this quote, but I would have loved it even more if they had opened the movie with it.

* * out of * * * *

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‘Creepshow’ Remains a Benchmark in Horror Anthologies

Creepshow movie poster

Ah, “Creepshow!” One of the best horror anthologies to come out of the 1980’s, and it is immensely enjoyable if you’re into this sort of movie. It brings us the combined talents of Stephen King and George Romero as they give homage to the E.C. comics of the 1950’s with five different stories of terror. In some ways, this can be seen as more of a comedy than a horror movie. Granted, it does have its scary moments, and a hand coming out of a grave is always good for a jolt, but it is presented in such an over the top fashion to where you have to thank both King and Romero for not taking the things too seriously.

As I write this review, filmmaker Eli Roth is having a two-week festival of his favorite movies at New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles. This film was playing on a double bill with “Mother’s Day” which I missed, unfortunately, but it was probably because I was more excited about seeing this one. I vividly remember seeing the trailer for it when I went to see, and cry again at, “E.T.” When the image of The Creep first appeared, my brother responded by saying, “Whoa!”

The trailer was amusing and funny, at least until those cockroaches came in during which I had to cover my eyes. Granted, it would years and years before I would have the stomach, let alone the time, to check this one out. Anthology movies and series like “Masters of Horrors” are always intrigued me because they were filled with so many possibilities. Going from one story to the next, you are eager to see where it takes you. The only downside with anthologies is there is usually a weak story among the whole bunch which can weigh down the whole enterprise, but “Creepshow” doesn’t have this problem and is endlessly enjoyable to sit through.

The movie opens with a prologue where a father (Tom Atkins) berates his young son (Joe King, Stephen King’s son) for reading these “crappy” horror comics. The kick of the scene comes from the son calling out his dad for the hypocrite he is when he points out it’s a lot better than the magazines he reads. I couldn’t help but think this kid’s dad has a wide variety of porno magazines hidden where his wife can’t find them. It’s funny how we see fathers not wanting their kids to read “crap,” and then they sit in a recliner with a can of beer boasting of how God made fathers. Poor schmuck.

“Creepshow” then goes straight into its first episode entitled “Father’s Day,” a story of revenge. The patriarch of a family was murdered for being an annoying prick as he furiously demanded his cake to be brought out to him, and now he’s come back from the dead to get that tasty cake he has long been denied. Of all the stories, I consider it the weakest because “Father’s Day” is very short and threatens to be pointless. It does, however, succeed in defining the look of the movie. The acting is over the top, and there is a fantastic use of colors which dominates the movie and gives it a wonderfully pulpy feel. If Dario Argento had ever created a comic book, I’m sure it would look like this.

The great about “Father’s Day” is it allows us to see Ed Harris in a role where he is loosened up. Harris is a great actor who plays mostly dramatic roles in movies, and one day he will win an Oscar. But here, we see him get his boogie on while dancing to some crappy disco music which somehow sneaked its way into a 1980’s movie. You listen to that music, and you’d figure it would have died a fiery death before the 70’s ended. No such luck.

The next story, “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill,” is both funny and sad. It features King in one of his few acting performances as the title character, a dimwit farmer who discovers a meteor which has crashed into his backyard. Jordy gets excited at the prospect of selling this meteor to the local college for a handsome profit, but when he tries to salvage it, it breaks into two and a liquid quickly seeps into the barren ground of the farm. Soon after, everything it touches starts growing green plant life which cannot be contained. It also grows on anything it touches, including Mr. Verrill himself. Seeing King turn into a bush is frightening and morbidly amusing. King may say he is a better writer than an actor, but you can also say he is a better actor than a director (“Maximum Overdrive” anyone?). In the end, he is perfectly cast as the seemingly brainless farmer, and his performance fits both the story and the film.

After that, we get “Something to Tide You Over,” and this one was my favorite of all the stories in the movie. It stars Leslie Nielsen, before his image was permanently altered by “The Naked Gun” movies, as a millionaire husband who takes his revenge on Harry (Ted Danson), the man having an affair with his wife. The way he lures Danson’s character out to the beach and gets him to bury himself in the sand up to his neck is priceless, and you can say there is a bit of “The Vanishing” here as we have a man willing to do anything to find out the fate of his loved one. Danson’s fate, being stuck in the sand as the tide rushes over him is frightening and unnerving to witness. You feel stuck in the sand with him, and it shows how fiendishly clever both King and Romero are at exploiting what we fear the most in life.

Watching this segment today may seem weird as Nielsen is forever known as Lt. Frank Drebin of “The Naked Gun” movies, and Danson is best known for playing Sam Malone on “Cheers.” Seeing them in a serious, albeit a highly exaggerated, story might be hard, but these actors have their serious chops as well as their comedic ones, and both talents serve them well here. Nielsen is a particular hoot as a man so confident of his deviant plan of revenge, yet quickly haunted by the possibility of his crimes coming back to do him in. Nothing can stay buried forever.

Next, we have “The Crate” which features Hal Holbrook as a Professor at a New England college who is saddled with an eternally inebriated wife (played by Adrienne Barbeau) who constantly embarrasses him and herself in front of anybody who happens to be watching. Holbrook’s character is a coward who doesn’t have the cojones to stand up to his wife, but then a colleague of his and a janitor discover a crate beneath the stairs which has not been opened for decades. It turns out to contain a monster who eats human beings whole. After Henry hears of this, he concocts a plan to lure his abusive wife over to the crate.

Holbrook is great at making you feel sorry for his character even while we berate him for being a wimp and not standing up to his wife. Barbeau gives a one-note performance as a humongous bitch with no real redeeming features whatsoever. In the end, this is not a big criticism because Barbeau is given a one-dimensional character to play. The characters are not meant to be complex in the way they handle themselves, and they are here to represent different types of people who meet their predestined fate.

Then comes the last story of the movie, appropriately titled “They’re Creeping Up on You.” This one I had the hardest time sitting through, and I doubt it will be easy for you either if you have an intense phobia of bugs. E.G. Marshall plays Upson Pratt, a thoughtless and hateful bigot who has no sympathy for anyone other than himself. He gleefully takes delight in the suffering of others and lives in a completely sterile apartment which makes him look like he’s a doctor. But his problem now is with the bugs in his apartment, specifically cockroaches. They keep popping up out of nowhere, and their numbers keep growing and growing…I found myself looking at my shoes a lot during this segment, and it reminded me I need to get a new pair soon.

I remember watching one of those “scariest moments in movies” episodes on the Bravo channel. They featured the cockroach segment from “Creepshow” in it, and it turned out the segment was more of a socially conscious piece than people realized. This is after all a Romero film whose “Dead” movies are loaded with social commentary, and the whole point of the “Creeping” segment was to look at bigotry how what we fear the most we end up empowering. We invite our fears to mess with us, and sometimes they eat us whole. Suffice to say, this is very much an anti-racism piece, and it’s the strongest episode in the movie. Marshall gives a brilliantly zany performance as a man who cannot control the world around him any longer, and who could never really control it in the first place.

Eli Roth had programs for his festival entitled “The Greats of Roth,” and in it he summed up this “criminally underrated” movie perfectly:

“It’s amazing to see how many comic book and graphic novel adaptations today are praised for getting the ‘look’ of the comic perfect, and nobody ever seems to mention this film. This was the first time that Romero was really surrounded with a star-studded cast, and you see Romero, King and Tom Savini all coming together to create one of the most visually spectacular and fun horror films of all time. They set out to recreate the look and feel of the old E.C. Comics and nailed it perfectly.”

“Creepshow” is indeed one of the most deliriously entertaining horror movies ever made, and it is a visually stunning achievement made on what must have been an especially low budget. There were many other movies to come out of this which tried for the same look, but none of them succeeded at it quite like this one did. This is just a fun, fun, fun movie for people who dig this sort of thing, and to see it on the big screen was a real treat. As the movie’s tagline says, it is the most fun you will ever have being scared.

* * * * out of * * * *

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was originally written in 2008.

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Daniel Radcliffe on the Young Actor who Played Him in ‘Horns’

Horns movie poster

The “Horns” press conference held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, California proved to be a lot of fun as stars Daniel Radcliffe, Juno Temple and writer Joe Hill, whose book the movie is based on, shared great memories about the making of this dark fantasy. Radcliffe plays Ig Perrish, a young man madly in love with Merrin Williams (Temple) and who will do anything for her. But as the movie opens, we discover Merrin was brutally murdered, and everyone thinks Ig was the one who killed her.

In addition to scenes where we see Ig and Merrin being intimate with one another, we also get to see a flashback where these two lovers first met. This resulted in two younger actors being hired to play these characters: Mitchell Kummen as Ig and Sabrina Carpenter as Merrin, and both look a lot like Radcliffe and Temple. While watching this sequence, I started thinking of the movie “Contact” in which Jodie Foster plays Eleanor Arroway and Jena Malone plays the same character as a young girl. In her commentary track on the “Contact,” Foster said the following:

“I always love watching actors play me, and actually it’s always the reverse; whenever you hire a child actor to play the adult actor, you just ask the adult actor to copy the kid. That’s certainly what Tom Hanks did in ‘Forest Gump,’ and that’s what I tried to do a little bit in this movie.”

That remark stayed with me long after the first time I heard it, and I wondered if Radcliffe or Temple had the same experience with the actors playing the younger versions of themselves in “Horns.” I asked Radcliffe about that, and his answer led to one of the funniest moments of the day.

Daniel Radcliffe: That’s interesting because we didn’t really see a huge amount of what the kids were doing. I was often, when they would be doing stuff, getting made up or de-made up or something would be going on so they would try and time it like that, so I didn’t really get to see a lot of what they were doing. I got to spend quite a lot of time particularly with Mitchell on the movie, and it was funny because Sabrina lives in L.A. now and she’s 13 going on 21. She’s incredibly mature and well above her years, and Mitchell is like I was when I was like 13. He’s a kid from Winnipeg, and he’s like a kid and he’s incredibly sweet. He’s awesome and I just like the fact that… Obviously, Mitch is blond naturally and he’s got much fairer hair than I do, and they dyed his hair on the first day. He went back to his hotel in Vancouver and nobody knew what he was doing, and then one of the girls just happened to say, ‘Oh you look like Harry Potter.’ That just made his day. He was so happy.

So, while Radcliffe didn’t necessarily take anything specifically from Kummen’s performance, he did illustrate how difficult it can be for casting directors to find an actor to play him as a younger person. Still, both Radcliffe and Kummen took the same character and made it their own in this movie. Thanks to their performances, we succeeded in getting the best of both worlds in “Horns.”

The First Trailer for ‘It’ Floats to the Surface

It teaser poster

I count Stephen King’s “It” as one of my all-time favorite novels, and I very much enjoyed the 1990 miniseries based on it, and that’s even though the ending was incredibly disappointing. Now, after many false starts which saw actors and directors come and go from the project, “It” is finally making its way to the silver screen courtesy of Warner Brothers and New Line Cinema, and now we the first trailer for the film.

After watching this trailer several times, my interest in this new adaptation has tripled. Pennywise the Clown, this time portrayed by one of the many actors from the Skarsgard family, Bill Skarsgard, comes across as far more lethal than the one Tim Curry gave us, and seeing Pennywise leap out at us in the trailer’s final moments has me believing anyone with a clown phobia should seriously consider not seeing this movie. We never get to see all of Pennywise here, and he is instead shown through quick flashes throughout, but it’s enough to send a chill down my spine.

The cast of actors is led by Jaeden Lieberher, who left a strong impression on audiences with his performances in “St. Vincent” and “Midnight Special,” who plays Bill Denbrough, the leader of the Loser’s Club who vows revenge against Pennywise for murdering his little brother Georgie. It’s hard not to be reminded of the Netflix series “Stranger Things” while watching these young actors as they too are on a mission to find out what evil lurks in the underbelly of their hometown of Derry, Maine. The story has also been moved up from the 1950’s to the 1980’s (the slide projector is a dead giveaway), so the filmmakers look to be playing on our collective nostalgia which should make this movie extra fun.

Cary Fukunaga was set to direct this adaptation, but although he eventually dropped out due to those “creative differences” filmmakers just love to throw out there, he is still listed in the credits as one of the screenwriters. Directing “It” is Andrés Muschietti who previously directed Jessica Chastain in the box office hit “Mama.” From this trailer, it looks like he is having lots of fun exploring the many ways Pennywise terrorizes the young children of Derry, Maine as he gets at their deepest fears and exploits them for all they are worth. My hope is he focuses on the characters of King’s classic novel as well as on the scares. One thing’s for sure, he certainly knows how to make a red balloon look especially ominous.

“It” is clearly covering the first part of King’s novel when the members of the Loser’s Club were kids. Here’s hoping this adaptation scares us silly enough to where we get follow-up which will follow them into adulthood as we all know the past stays with us in one way or another. Adaptations of King’s novels range from brilliant (“The Shining,” “Misery,” “The Shawshank Redemption”) to horrendous (“Maximum Overdrive,” “Graveyard Shift”), so let’s hope this is not just one of the better ones, but one of the best.

Check out the teaser trailer below.

 

Altered Minds

altered-minds-poster

On the surface, “Altered Minds” looks like your typical “Sixth Sense” psychological thriller as the characters struggle to get to the truth of what’s terrifying them so deeply, but this description doesn’t do it justice. What we have instead is a deeply thought out and well-constructed thriller which features a strong ensemble of actors and, like the films of Alfred Hitchcock, keeps you wondering and guessing all the way to the very end.

“Altered Minds” opens up on a family reunion which takes place in a town just as cold and frozen over as the one Ang Lee took us to in “The Ice Storm.” However, it turns out we are guests at a funeral of sorts as it is the birthday of Dr. Nathaniel Shellner (Judd Hirsch), and most likely his last as he is suffering through the merciless disease that is lung cancer. Nathaniel was once a celebrated psychiatrist who won a Nobel Prize for his work in treating refugees from war zones who have been afflicted by PTSD. He is surrounded by his loving wife Lillian (Caroline Lagerfelt), his biological son Leonard (Joseph Lyle Taylor) and his two adopted children, Harry (C.S. Lee) and Julie (Jaime Ray Newman).

altered-minds-house-with-snow

The only one late to the party is Nathaniel’s third adopted child, Tommy (Ryan O’Nan), a horror novelist who is busy looking for an urn containing the remains of the family dog. But when Tommy finally arrives, there comes to be more on his mind as he accuses his father of performing cruel psychological experiments on him and the other family members. What started out as a loving family reunion soon turns into an occasion where bitter resentments and long lost memories arise to where they can be ignored no longer.

The first thing I want to mention about “Altered Minds” is how good the acting is. We’ve known Judd Hirsch for years as an actor who has played endearing characters in “Ordinary People” and “Independence Day,” not to mention his appearances on the television series “Taxi” and “Dear John.” The role of Dr. Nathaniel Shellner is one he could easily have turned into a two-dimensional adult character, but Hirsch reminds us of what a talented actor he is by making him much more. Throughout this movie, he keeps us guessing as to what’s going on in his mind and presents a humane front as he declares he wants nothing but the best for his children. Some actors would be happy to spell everything out for the audience, but Hirsch is far more interested in giving us a well-rounded character, flaws and all, who keeps you wondering if he has a dark side. How dare anyone forget how great an actor he is.

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I was also impressed with Ryan O’Nan’s performance as Tommy as he manages to find a balance between appearing insane and being more aware of the reality of things than the others are. Like Hirsch, O’Nan keeps you on edge throughout as he makes Tommy an enigmatic character who may or may not be crazy. His performance helps add to the tension inherent in the story, and he makes everything seem just as unnerving as the movie’s potent and unsettling sound design.

Caroline Lagerfelt is a wonderful presence and plays every scene she’s in just right. C.S. Lee, best known for his work on “Dexter,” gives certain scenes a raw emotional power which is hard to look away from. Jamie Ray Newman makes Julie a wonderfully independent character the others would be smart to rely on when things don’t go their way. Joseph Lyle Taylor is at times a little stiff as Leonard, but he still does solid work in making the character appear more complex than he appears at first.

“Altered Minds” was written and directed by Michael Z. Wechsler, and he said the movie arose from obsessions he could never stop thinking about. Its story definitely has a personal vibe to it, and it does feels like his version of a Stephen King novel. Writing and directing a thriller is always tricky because audiences constantly second guess every move filmmakers make as they are eager to stay one step ahead of the action, and one wrong and foolish step could easily destroy the whole picture. Wechsler, however, keeps us hooked all the way to the end, and it’s hard not to feel as obsessed as the characters are in uncovering any secrets which have been left in the dark for far too long.

It’s also impressive to see what Wechsler was able to accomplish with such a low budget and a very short shooting schedule. A lot of independent movies these days are given ridiculously little time to be made in, and you have to be a bit forgiving if certain elements don’t fall into place because any good movie, let alone any good performance, needs time to be developed to its potential. Many filmmakers these days, however, can only work with the time they are given, and it’s not always enough. Regardless, Wechsler in the time he had managed to put together a very effective thriller which is chilling in its presentation and filled with terrific performances.

There are a lot of movies flying under the radar these days, but “’Altered Minds” is one deserving of your attention. That’s especially the case for you film buffs who like any kind of movie which is especially unnerving and deeply suspenseful. It is written and directed by a filmmaker who sidesteps the easy traps of the genre and delivers us something which keeps us on edge from start to finish. It also allows Judd Hirsch to give one of his best performances in years, and that should be more than enough of a reason to give it a look.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

Cell

Cell movie poster

I did have the opportunity to read Stephen King’s “Cell” while I was on vacation in Hawaii. It’s not one of King’s best novels, but it was an entertaining read as it delved into our increasing obsession and dependence on technology, in particular cell phones. When the novel was released in 2006, cell phones still had a bit of a ways to go to get to where they are today; devices that can do just about everything and anything in our daily lives except make coffee. But now it’s 2016 and we have long since reached that point where we can’t bear to live without our cell phones and are a slave to them.

A movie adaptation of “Cell” had been in the works for years and Eli Roth was originally going to direct it, but that didn’t work out. Now it has finally arrived in theaters and can be quickly added to the garbage heap of terrible Stephen King adaptations like “Maximum Overdrive” and “The Mangler.” While its subject matter is still timely, “Cell” quickly devolves into just another zombie movie where the clichés are rampant to where we know exactly what to expect to where any suspenseful moments it hoped to have are rendered moot. In short, it is an uninspired retread of “28 Days Later,” a movie this one can only dream of being as terrifying as.

“Cell” opens up on Clayton Riddell (John Cusack) getting off his flight which has brought him back home, and he is eager to reconnect with his wife and son, both of whom he has been estranged from for too long. But it doesn’t take all that long for all the fellow travelers around him to start losing their minds and convulse to where they start attacking everyone and everything in sight. Clayton manages to escape the airport and teams up with subway worker Tom McCourt (Samuel L. Jackson) and Alice Maxwell (Isabelle Fuhrman) to find a safe haven away from those infected with the cell phone virus that controls the actions of everyone infected by it.

The movie gives us sights and sounds we have seen endlessly in one apocalyptic movie after another. We see scenes of cities in utter ruins, cars turned over, survivors travelling through empty roads and fields, etc. All this does is remind me of other movies that are far scarier and more unnerving to where it’s tempting to turn off “Cell” and watch them instead. There’s almost nothing to separate this film from others of its genre, and it becomes a glum and languid bore of a motion picture that feels too long even at 98 minutes.

Watching John Cusack here made me feel sorry for him. After suffering through a number of bad movies these past few years, he delivered a truly great performance as the elder Brian Wilson in “Love & Mercy” which proved he still has much to give to the world of acting. But here in “Cell,” Cusack just looks bored and barely interested to be a part of this particular Stephen King adaptation. His character is just another father trying to get to his child to ensure his safety, and the actor just goes through the motions with little to show for it.

Samuel L. Jackson fares a little better here as Tom McCourt as he gives a performance that is subtle instead of bombastic. The “Pulp Fiction” actor effortlessly turns his character into an everyman who has seen far too much in this lifetime to where this apocalyptic situation is no different to him than being a soldier in a foreign land. Jackson has been in countless movies over the years, many of them flat out bad, but there is no doubt that he will survive this critical catastrophe to give us great performances in the future.

What’s especially galling is that both Cusack and Jackson starred in another Stephen King cinematic adaptation almost ten years ago, “1408,” and that proved to be a scary time at the movies. Why they couldn’t bring the same enthusiasm they clearly had on that one to “Cell” almost feels like a mystery.

But then again, we shouldn’t be blaming the two stars as much as we should be blaming the director of this uninspired mess, Tod Williams. Back in 2004 he gave us the blistering drama “The Door in the Floor” which starred Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger as a couple forever torn apart emotionally by the death of their sons. It was a breakthrough feature for Williams as he got some of the best performances out of Bridges’ and Basinger’s careers, and he dug deep into the lives of unlikable characters whose psychological wounds were too deep for us to look away from. A few years later he directed “Paranormal Activity 2,” a sequel which proved to be as terrifying as the original. And considering how terrifying the original was, that’s saying a lot.

Those two movies show Williams to be a huge talent behind the camera, so it is very hard to understand why he couldn’t make “Cell” the least bit scary or unnerving. King’s novel dealt with material that was familiar to him, but the writer made “Cell” more than just another exploration into the end of civilization as we know it. Williams doesn’t bother to do that here as he simply throws out one tired cliché after another at us, and some scenes are so badly lit to where it’s impossible to figure out what is going on. This is also not to mention the horrible CGI effects on display which illustrate how this low budget horror movie had an even lower budget than others.

This all leads to a climax which is not at all satisfying, and an ending that is unforgivably confusing. King’s conclusion to “Cell” was a bit anticlimactic and too ambiguous for many readers, but it was still a haunting conclusion that Williams doesn’t bother to include here.

Adapting Stephen King novels to the silver screen has always been tricky as filmmakers have to balance out their attention to both the gory aspects of his stories and the characters which inhabit them. Perhaps Williams tried to do both here, but he’s not able to shock us or care about the protagonists at the center of “Cell.” What we get instead is a very below average genre movie that isn’t worth anyone’s money or time. That should more than explain the studio’s decision to dump it in a handful of theaters this past weekend for a limited release. Do audiences even know “Cell” is out in theaters this weekend? Well, even if they do, I can’t blame them for not caring.

* out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016. All Rights Reserved.