‘Django Unchained’ – Tarantino’s Down and Dirty Western

Django Unchained movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was originally written in 2012.

Every time Quentin Tarantino releases a new movie, a celebration should be in order. The man loves movies like many filmmakers do, but he always succeeds in manipulating genre conventions to where he can freely make them his own, and this makes his works all the more thrilling. There’s also no beating his dialogue which exhilarates us in the same way a play by David Mamet can, and words in a Tarantino movie usually prove to be every bit as exciting as the action scenes. His latest movie “Django Unchained” is no exception, but it does suffer from some of his excesses which have taken away (if only slightly) from the films he has given us in the past. But if you can get past its flaws, you are still in for a very entertaining time.

Jamie Foxx stars as the Django of the movie’s title, and it takes place in the year 1858 which was just two years before the start of the Civil War. Django is being led through the freezing cold wilderness along with other slaves when he is freed by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a dentist who has since become a bounty hunter. King needs Django’s help in finding the Brittle brothers, ruthless killers who have a sizable price on their heads. In return for Django’s help, King promises him he will help rescue his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from slavery. She is currently in the hands of the charismatic but viciously brutal plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), and you know this will lead to a conclusion which will be anything but peaceful.

Tarantino always loves to mix genres, and he does this brilliantly with “Django Unchained.” On the surface it is clearly a western, but the “Pulp Fiction” auteur also combines it with the Blaxploitation genre which we all know is one of his favorites. Heck, we even get to meet the ancestors of John Shaft, the black private detective made famous by Richard Roundtree in the movie “Shaft.” Just as he did with “Inglourious Basterds,” Tarantino gleefully throws caution to the wind as he subverts both genres to create an exhilarating motion picture experience few other people can give us. He’s not out to make a historically accurate movie, but we’re having too much fun to really care.

Now many people including Spike Lee have complained about Tarantino’s overuse of the n- word in this movie as they have of other films he’s made in the past. In their eyes it’s like they’re saying Tarantino revels in the racist behavior of his characters, but I don’t think that’s even remotely true. All the insanely racist characters in “Django Unchained” end up getting their asses handed to them in the most painful way possible, and while Tarantino’s love of black culture might differ a little from others, the love is there all the same.

And again, Tarantino gives us a terrific soundtrack filled with many songs which are not from the time period this movie takes place in. I love how he complements scenes of Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz riding on their horses with songs by James Brown, John Legend and Brother Dege (AKA Dege Legg) among others. He also includes pieces of film scores by Ennio Morricone and Jerry Goldsmith for good measure, and there are even original songs to be found here as well, something exceedingly rare for a Tarantino movie.

Having said all this, the length of “Django Unchained” did drive me up the wall a bit. At a time where filmmakers push the limit and have their movies run longer than two hours, Tarantino proves to be one of 2012’s biggest sinners as this one clocks in at almost three hours and threatens to have as many endings as “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.” Suffice to say, this movie could have been shorter. Perhaps it’s the absence of his longtime editor, the late Sally Menke, who was always good at reigning Tarantino in. Fred Raskin, who has edited the last three “Fast & Furious” movies, was the editor on this one.

Still, there is a lot to appreciate and enjoy about “Django Unchained,” especially the acting. Jamie Foxx has proven to be a terrific actor ever since he held his own opposite Al Pacino in Oliver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday,” and his talent doesn’t waiver in the slightest here. As Django, he gives us a western hero who has earned the right to seek vengeance for what has been done to him, and he is thrilling to watch as he makes this character a shockingly bad ass bounty hunter by the movie’s conclusion.

Christoph Waltz brings a wonderful mirth and a unique liveliness to the exceedingly violent characters he plays, and his role as dentist turned bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz is further proof. It’s fun to see him be so charming to others only to watch him blow them away when the occasion calls for him to do so. Waltz more than earned the Oscar he received for his brilliant performance in “Inglourious Basterds,” and his work in “Django Unchained” proves he is a gifted actor who is here to stay.

Leonardo DiCaprio clearly relishes the opportunity to shed his heartthrob persona to play the charming yet undeniably evil plantation owner Calvin Candie. In a year which has had a large number of unforgettable villains, Calvin is one of the most vicious as his power and wealth has turned him into a raving sociopath who has little hope of finding redemption in his lifetime. DiCaprio is enthralling to watch as he taunts everyone around him with a twisted glee, and he looks to be having loads of fun in playing a character few others would have chosen him to play.

One standout performance which really needs to be acknowledged, however, comes from Samuel L. Jackson, an actor who has played parts both big and small in Tarantino’s movies. Jackson plays Calvin’s head slave Stephen who is the Uncle Tom of “Django Unchained,” and he makes you want to hate his racist, backstabbing character with a passion. Jackson gives a spirited performance as a man who freely betrays the principles he should be standing up for in order to benefit his own desires and keep himself safe in a time where he is anything but.

Kudos also goes to Kerry Washington who plays Django’s kidnapped wife, Broomhilda. Her character suffers many indignities, and Washington makes her pain and fear so vivid to where she leaves you on edge every time she appears onscreen. The moments where she has no dialogue are among her most powerful as her eyes threaten to give away the secrets she is desperate to keep hidden.

Seriously, this movie is filled with actors we know very well, and they keep popping up here when you least expect them to. You have Don Johnson playing plantation owner Spencer ‘Big Daddy’ Bennett, you have Jonah Hill as Randy, a bone-headed KKK member who can’t seem to fix his hood properly, you have Walton Goggins playing an unapologetically vicious cowboy who enjoys the torture he inflicts upon others, and you have Dennis Christopher as the flamboyant Leonide Moguy. If you watch real closely you can also see Zoë Bell, Robert Carradine, Franco Nero, M. C. Gainey, Bruce Dern, Tom Savini, Michael Parks and John Jarratt pop up in roles which would seem small if they were played by anybody else. It’s all proof of how there are no small roles in a Tarantino movie, and all these people are clearly thrilled to be in his company.

Tarantino also has a small role as a mining company employee. While I have no problem defending him as an actor in some movies, his Australian accent could use a bit of work, and that’s being generous.

I’m not sure where I would rate “Django Unchained” in comparison to Tarantino’s other films, but I have to say I enjoyed “Inglourious Basterds” more. This movie’s nearly three-hour length took away from my overall experience, but I can only complain about it so much. When it comes to movies, Tarantino still provides audiences with the kind of enthralling entertainment which never plays it safe.

While it’s far from perfect, “Django Unchained” is a thrillingly alive movie filled with great acting, terrific dialogue and incredibly bloody gunfights Sam Peckinpah would have gotten a kick out of. If you can withstand its excesses and know what you are in for when it comes to a Tarantino movie, you are still bound to have a great time watching it.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

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‘Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning’ Remains the Franchise’s Worst Sequel

Friday the 13th Part V A New Beginning poster

The “Friday the 13th” movies have always divided critics and moviegoers. The utter hatred of from critics like Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert ended up giving people more of a reason to see them. But that’s the great thing about “Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning” because it’s the first movie in this endless franchise which succeeded in bringing critics and fans together as everyone agrees this one is flat out terrible. After all these years, it remains the worst “Friday the 13th” movie ever, and it proved to be an utterly pathetic attempt to keep the series going. It was not unlike when Blake Edwards tried to continue “The Pink Panther” series after Peter Sellers passed away, and we all know how that turned out.

This sequel is the second in the Tommy Jarvis trilogy which started with “The Final Chapter” and concluded with “Jason Lives.” Corey Feldman returns briefly as Tommy, and we see him visiting Jason’s grave and hiding behind trees when two guys show up with shovels. They are the first of many stupid characters introduced here as they dig up Jason’s grave, and he immediately rises again and slashes them with a minimum of vicious effort. Following this, Jason then spots Tommy and goes over to get his revenge, and then Tommy wakes up. From there he is played by John Shepherd, and we see Tommy is still dealing with the psychological aftermath of killing Jason years later. Feldman’s presence in the film is a mere cameo as he was busy making a much better one called “The Goonies.”

We learn Tommy has gone from one mental hospital to another with increasing regularity, and “A New Beginning” starts with him arriving at the Pinehurst halfway house. Poor Tommy has been prescribed just about every antidepressant and anti-psychotic drug on the market, but this hasn’t stopped him from working out in the gym as he looks more buff than the average mental patient. It’s enough to help him beat the crap out of others, and we should at least admire Tommy for managing to survive puberty as killing Jason changed him for the worst.

Here’s what separates “A New Beginning” from all the other “Friday the 13th” movies with the exception of the original; Jason Voorhees is not the killer. This sequel is actually a whodunit, and you won’t know who the real killer is until the end. Or maybe you will if you look at the suspects very closely, especially their eyes. The Scooby Doo ending is unbelievably ridiculous as we learn the killer’s motive and how thy dressed up like Jason to keep from getting caught. This just adds to the unintentional humor this sequel elicits from scene to scene.

The characters in the “Friday the 13th” movies have never been more than one-dimensional human beings who are out to party and get laid, and this one doesn’t change that dynamic. What is different though is how infinitely annoying they are. Two teens named Pete and Vinnie bitch and moan at each other while they’re fixing their car (talk about a friendship which never should have been). Just check out their dialogue:

“Aww, what’s the matter, Vinnie? You scared of the dark? You all creeped out by that murder at the nuthouse?”

“Oh yeah, sure. Look, as far as I’m concerned, all those loonies should be killed off one by one. Can you try it now?”

“Geez, man, can’t you do anything? Stop screwing’ around! Get this thing done by the time I get back. I gotta take a crap.”

“Crap my ass!”

“Just do it, man! I mean it.”

Then there’s Billy, an employee at the halfway house, who gets all coked up to where he believes he is god’s gift to women. There’s at least one of these schmucks in every sequel:

“That’s it. That’s the whole frackin’ thing right there. There it is, you just stay right there, doll. That’s just what the doctor ordered. Nothing’ like a little prevented medicine. And, the forecast is; Cloudy in the mountains, sunny in the valleys, and snow flurries, up your nose!”

For some utterly bizarre reason, a local waitress named Lana can’t wait to screw Billy. Seriously, nobody can be that desperate:

“LANA! HEY, LANA!”

“Sorry buster, we’re closed.”

“It’s alright; I just want a take-out order.”

“You do, huh? Well, what would you like?”

“I would like Lana to go with nothing on her.”

“Oh, and who wants her?”

“The pride of the Unger Institute of Mental Health who has just dumped his last bedpan and would like very much to party.”

A developmentally challenged boy named Joey walks around with a chocolate bar in his hand offering help to anyone who needs it, but he inadvertently stains clothes that have just been washed. His gift of a candy bar is also melting in his hand, and this does not make it particularly appetizing. Not to give anything away, but he is the first to be killed off.

But these characters are nothing compared to Ethel and her man child of a son Junior whom she treats like crap. You’ll never find a more repellent set of characters in any “Friday the 13th” movie, and this includes “Jason Takes Manhattan.” Just imagine if Lenny from “Of Mice and Men” had a mother:

“That is one fucking ugly man that goes there.”

“That’s one fucking ugly man, Mama.”

“Would you shut your trap? You ain’t so pretty yourself, you know.”

“I ain’t so pretty myself, I know.”

In terms of the kills in “A New Beginning,” they are unimaginative and puny compared to what we saw in the previous films. The gag with the flare in a guy’s mouth was put to much better use in “Dead Calm.” Same thing goes with those gardening shears plucking out a character’s eyes as there have many knock offs which used this because Jason already had dibs on the machete.

But what this sequel is missing most is Tom Savini who gave us deaths and copious amounts of blood and gore combined with a vicious sense of reality. Savini stuck to his word that “The Final Chapter” would be his last “Friday the 13th” since it allowed him to kill off Jason for good, but those who took over from him cannot equal what he accomplished.

Also, time has not been kind to this sequel. There is a young boy named Reggie (Shavar Ross) who gets to meet up with his older brother, Demon (Miguel A. Núñez Jr.), who lives in a van outside of town. Demon looks like he came straight out of one of those 1980’s breakdancing, and seeing this style today makes an unintentionally hilarious sequel even more hilarious than it was ever intended to be.

Jason is played by Tom Morga, a stuntman who has worked on “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” and “Spider-Man 3” among other movies. His work as Jason is not bad, but it’s hardly memorable compared to what other actors like Kane Hodder brought to this character. Then again, this is not a role which requires method acting. Of course, if someone were to try method acting in this role, they would end up in solitary confinement or death row.

As Tommy, Shepherd gives us the most intense and screwed up version of this character as he manages to convey Tommy’s extreme mental anguish without having to say too much. In fact, Shepherd has only 24 words of dialogue throughout the whole movie, and this does not include all the laughing and yelling he does.

The director of this fiasco is the late Danny Steinmann whose other credits include “Savage Streets” and “The Unseen,” and “A New Beginning” ended up being his last film. Learning of this makes me feel sorry for him because no one wants their movie career to be cut short, and it sucks to be remembered for directing such a horrible movie.

You could say “Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning” is one of those movies which is so bad it’s good. Watching the bad acting, terrible dialogue and weak direction is an entertainment unto itself. But even though it has long since gained a cult following, nothing changes the fact this is the worst sequel in this franchise. After this one, it didn’t matter if bringing Jason back from the dead defied all logic. Anything was better than seeing the series take the course of Tommy Jarvis becoming the new Jason.

½* out of * * * *

‘Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter’ – Yeah, Whatever

Friday the 13th Part IV The Final Chapter movie poster

I was in the second grade when this movie came out in 1984. It was also one of the few movies in this endless series to actually open on Friday the 13th. Looking back, it was interesting to see 8 and 9-year-old kids get excited about a movie they had no business watching at that age. Whether adults liked it or not, these movies played a big part in our lives, and they were to my generation as the “Saw” and “Paranormal Activity” movies are to today’s. The sight of bloody violence on the big screen, as opposed to real life, is still exciting to watch, and this has been the case for much longer than we realize.

Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter” was the first film in what became known as the Tommy Jarvis trilogy, the other two being “Part V: A New Beginning” and “Part VI: Jason Lives.” Tommy is played here by Corey Feldman in a gleeful performance as he delights in making scary masks he can hide behind, but this glee eventually becomes undone by Jason’s bloody rampage. This film marked the beginning of Tommy’s descent into madness which was eventually cut short by a much-needed franchise retcon after “Part V.”

When Jason got an ax to the head in “Part 3-D,” it was the first time in the franchise in which he actually got killed off. Jason didn’t appear in “Friday the 13th” until the very end when he gave us one of the biggest jump scares in movie history, and he wasn’t even killed off in “Part II.” Sure, he got his ass kicked, but it was not a fatal blow for he was slowly grabbing his machete as the virginal heroes walked away. When “Part III” came along, it was assumed Jason finally met his maker. That is, until Paramount Pictures realized they made $36 million off a movie with a $2.5 million budget.

When “The Final Chapter” starts, the police have arrived at Crystal Lake and Jason, wearing the hockey mask first introduced in “Part III,” is being shipped off to the morgue. When he arrives at the hospital, he is left in the care of the biggest slob of a doctor/coroner ever, Axel (Bruce Mahler). Seeing him slobber all over his burrito while watching women in skin tight spandex clothing doing aerobics makes one wonder how he got hired in the first place. For some bizarre reason Axel ends up making out with Nurse Morgan (Lisa Freeman) even though she is utterly repulsed by him. Then again, if common sense was used by any of the characters, this movie would not exist. These two get murdered (big surprise), and Jason somehow makes it pass security with his hockey mask on and heads back to Crystal Lake.

Actually, he ends up going next door to Crystal Lake and drops in on a mother and her two kids who have rented a house next to another where a bunch of teens are looking to have a good time which includes drinking beer, smoking pot, watching vintage porno movies, having as much premarital sex as possible and indulging in some mandatory skinny dipping. You know, the normal weekend one has in Las Vegas. You know what happens next; Jason proceeds to do his Benihana act on everybody like a drunk with power landlord who never hesitates to evict tenants who haven’t paid their rent in months.

The “Friday the 13th” movies usually feature actors you never hear from again, but aside from Feldman there is another actor who still works a lot: Crispin Glover. He plays Jimmy, a man who has had no real luck with women. Throughout the movie, he keeps getting woman advice from Ted (Lawrence Monoson) who seems to know everything about them. Guess who gets laid first. No, it’s not who you think…or maybe it is.

It’s a kick to watch Glover here, as “The Final Chapter” came out before he hit it big as George McFly in “Back to the Future.” You also gotta dig his great spastic dance moves which more or less predated the break dancing era. No one dances like he does, and no one else dies like he does in this movie. Could he be as strange as the characters he plays? Maybe so, but these days he seems to be using his strangeness to good effect.

Of course, we always look forward to Jason laying waste to these unsuspecting teenagers, and he definitely gets a number of seriously nasty cuts in which were probably even nastier until the MPAA came in and said “no I don’t think so.”

One classic moment features a guy getting it right in the groin. Oh to be in a theater when this scene was displayed on the silver screen. It’s one of the few times where you can see a whole audience of men grab their crotches, thankful it was not them who suddenly got turned into falsetto singers. There is also a nice shower scene as well which ends with Jason doing a Norman Bates routine. It’s not as suspenseful as “Psycho,” but it sure is a lot bloodier!

Much has been said over the years of how sexist the “Friday the 13th” movies are towards women. Granted, some female characters are treated like sex objects with magnificent bodies who are out to seduce whatever men end up getting locked in their crosshairs. But at the same time, these movies feature women as being the bravest and most heroic of the bunch. They’re the ones who find the to defeat Jason after everyone else has failed because they were busy making out or doing drugs. Why do critics keep forgetting it’s typically a lone woman who is left alive after all this bloody carnage has reached its inevitable conclusion?

This “Friday the 13th” sequel is also notable for being the last one Tom Savini did the makeup effects for. Having worked on many horror films like “Dawn of the Dead” and “Maniac,” his work has a realism to it as uncomfortable as it is brutally effective. This is even more so when you look at the rest of the sequels where the kills began to look fake and were played for laughs. Apparently, Savini based a lot of his work on what he saw as a combat photographer and soldier in Vietnam, so there is a real authenticity to his work we cannot ignore.

The director for “The Final Chapter” was Joseph Zito, and his credits include “Missing in Action,” “Invasion U.S.A.” and “Red Scorpion.” Zito is one of those workmen-like directors who gets the job done and simply gives the audience what they want. Other than that, his style of directing doesn’t have any distinguishing characteristics.

Playing the immortal Jason Voorhees in “The Final Chapter” is Ted White, but you wouldn’t know it since he had his name taken off the credits. White was selected for the role because he is a big guy (6′ 4″ tall), and he said he only did it for the money. But White, for what it’s worth, gave this film a brutal and seriously terrifying Jason which ranks among the series’ best. He may not have been happy while working on this one, but White has no business thinking this “Friday the 13th” sequel was a waste of his time. After all, he could have been in “Jason X.”

While this sequel is certainly dated stylistically, it holds up better than many of the others. It was also the last “Friday the 13th” movie which was truly scary, and the series more or less went downhill from there. Even if it got a lot of the predictable hatred from film critics, it is nowhere as bad as some of the later entries, let alone the even cheaper knock offs it inspired.

“Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter” is a movie most people like more than they would ever openly admit. Call it a guilty pleasure if you will, but it is an entertaining one even if it rots your brain like others accuse it of doing. Any guy who tells you they hate these movies has got to be lying to a certain extent, especially when they are just going out the door to see the latest horror movie sequel. They’ll say it’s different, but c’mon! Who are they trying to fool?

* * * out of * * * *

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 * * * *

‘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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