Category: horror movies

Take two! Movie remakes we love — and hate: The Thing

Yes, the prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 movie “The Thing” is coming out this week. Carpenter’s movie itself was a remake of a 1951 film, Howard Hawks’ “The Thing From Another World.” And for my money, it’s the best remake out there, of any film, ever.

Carpenter’s classic follows a group of scientists at an isolated polar base who stumble across an alien frozen in the ice — and when they wake it up, it’s not exactly friendly. “Thing From Another World” is a fine film on its own merits, still thrilling and creepy half a century later. But 1950s special-effects couldn’t possibly do justice to the novella’s villain, a frighteningly unstoppable shape-changing monster. Carpenter, along with obsessive effects wizard Rob Bottin, had the tools and the imagination to get it right. Kurt Russell makes a perfect grizzled, distrusting hero for a story about not knowing who to trust. Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack is wonderfully icy and subtle. And unlike a lot of horror movies, “The Thing” never falls prey to making the characters behave stupidly just to get a cheap shock — it’s remarkably well-crafted, delivering big as a gut-level scarefest and a psychological thriller.

Part of a group-written roundup originally published Oct. 11, 2011 on Read the complete article.

Interview: Joel Hodgson and Trace Beaulieu of Cinematic Titanic

Joel Hodgson and Trace Beaulieu may not have invented wisecracking about mediocre B-movies like Doomsday Machine and Danger On Tiki Island but, as two of the stars of cult-favorite TV series Mystery Science Theater 3000, they raised it to an art form. Though MST3K was canceled in 1999, it found new life on DVD, and in 2007 Hodgson and Beaulieu got the band back together, along with fellow founding movie-riffers Frank Conniff, J. Elvis Weinstein, and Mary Jo Pehl for the spin-off project Cinematic Titanic, which has released about a dozen new DVDs carrying on the movie-mocking tradition. The Titanic crew kicks off an extensive fall U.S. tour with three shows at Minneapolis’ Parkway Theater Sept. 15-17, tackling Doomsday Machine, War Of The Insects, and Rattlers, the latter two of which will be filmed for future live DVDs. (For more, click here.) The A.V. Club talked with Hodgson and Beaulieu about raising the Titanic, staying frosty, and the secret of Torgo’s huge thighs.

Originally published Sept. 13, 2011 on Read the complete article.

Lesson one: The aliens never, ever come in peace

‘Battle: Los Angeles’ is sure to round up some of our favorite alien-invasion cliches

Global warming and the occasional hurricane aside, the Earth is a pretty nice place to live. No wonder aliens are constantly trying to conquer it. The latest assault by hostile visitors from outer space comes in “Battle: Los Angeles,” debuting in theaters March 11.

If it seems a little familiar, well, it is — the basic template of alien-invasion stories has been in place for more than 100 years, ever since novelist H.G. Wells created the definitive model in 1898′s “War of the Worlds.” Here’s a look at the time-honored traditions — or, when done badly, the hoary cliches — you’ll find in nearly every alien-invasion movie.

Originally published Feb. 24, 2011 on Read the complete article.

Interview: The Rifftrax crew on movies that ruin Christmas

As integral cast members of Mystery Science Theater 3000, Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett made mocking Z-grade movies into a fine art. Their latest project, Rifftrax, widens the scope to major-market films like Twilight and Star Wars, with the trio’s acerbic commentary available as audio. After debuting Rifftrax in movie theaters in August with a simulcast screening of Plan 9 From Outer Space,  they’re back with a holiday-themed edition playing in 500 theaters across the country Dec. 16 and 17, gathering a mostly-unseen collection of short films, which will likely run the gamut from the goofball to the disturbingly strange. They’ll be joined by another connoisseur of the so-bad-it’s-good genre, “Weird” Al Yankovic. The A.V. Club gathered the trio to riff on the Christmas movies they love to hate.

Originally published on Dec. 15, 2009. Read the complete article.

Inventory book excerpt: No, seriously, you’re next! 15 movies where the crazies are right

13. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Although the first Terminator movie ended on a hopeful note, with Linda Hamilton destroying the robot sent back in time to kill her and the unborn son destined to protect humanity from a future machine revolt, it didn’t solve the biggest problem—there was still going to be a nuclear war, and billions of deaths. Director James Cameron brilliantly picked up that loose plot thread for the sequel, in which Hamilton discovers that knowing the future is a curse if nobody believes you. Obsessively driven to survive the coming apocalypse, she winds up locked in an asylum, where her shrink treats her outlandish stories of time-traveling murderous skeleton robots with the seriousness they seem to deserve.

14. God Told Me To (1976)
B-movie auteur Larry Cohen begins his creepiest film with a sniper on a New York City water tower firing randomly and with deadly accuracy at the crowd below. When city cop Tony Lo Bianco corners him, the gunman smiles beatifically and explains, “God told me to.” He seems like a lone psycho—until similar murders break out across the city, with no apparent connection beyond “God” causing ordinary citizens to develop a homicidal religious mania and send their loved ones to heaven the hard way. (In God Told Me To’s most infamous sequence, a beat cop played by Andy Kaufman begins shooting wildly during the St. Patrick’s Day parade—a scene filmed guerilla-style during the real parade.) Lo Bianco is horrified to discover that the prime mover is a sinister Jesus-meets-Jim-Jones cult leader whose brainwashing powers come from the UFO that kidnapped and forcibly impregnated his virgin mother. The God story sounds sane by comparison.

Originally published on Nov. 16, 2009 as part of a group-written Inventory feature; I wrote the sections on Terminator 2: Judgment Day and God Told Me To. Read the complete article.

Inventory: The Old Cult Canon: 16 cult films that paved the way for the new cult canon

5. Aguirre, The Wrath Of God (1972)

A line of Spanish conquistadors and their Indian porters wind their way down the mountainous slopes of Amazonian Peru, nearly swallowed up by the jungle like a puny stream of ants. This long, unhurried, and gorgeous tracking shot opens Aguirre, The Wrath Of God, the breakthrough movie for Werner Herzog, one of the leading lights of the New German Cinema movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. Aguirre was also the first of five movies teaming Herzog with Polish-born actor Klaus Kinski. Herzog’s bleak view of human nature was enlivened by, and gave shape to, Kinski’s uncontrolled ferocity. Their relationship was stormy, to say the least; they loved each other like brothers, hated each other like enemies, and together made the best work of either man’s career.

Kinski stars in Aguirre as a mutinous, scheming soldier in Pizarro’s army. Sent into the rainforest to find the illusory golden city of El Dorado, he seizes the opportunity to rebel and claim South America for himself. Inspired in part by Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness, it’s far from an action film—it’s moody and slow, with long stretches of inactivity. But it builds to a suspenseful, dreamlike state of dread—the cruel, seemingly infinite jungle makes a mockery of Aguirre‘s dreams of conquest, as his expedition descends into chaos before they see a single native to oppress.

Does it work at noon as well as it does at midnight? Sure. Existential dread doesn’t follow a clock.

Films that couldn’t exist without it: Apocalypse Now, Picnic At Hanging Rock, The Mission, The Blair Witch Project, Herzog’s blistering documentary My Best Fiend

13. Suspiria (1977)
The Italian film genre known as giallo enthusiastically embraces the most lurid, trashy side of the scary movie, thanks in part to the abiding influence of the particularly sex-and-violence-crazed Italian pulp fiction that was its immediate predecessor. Dario Argento crowned himself king of the giallo film with his 1977 masterpiece Suspiria, the first in a loose-knit trilogy based on three female spirits of darkness mentioned in Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions Of An English Opium Eater. Jessica Harper stars as an innocent young woman who discovers that her new ballet school is also the home of a murderous coven of witches, and works to uncover its secret while the body count rises and supernatural menaces loom ever larger. Suspiria‘s plot is often thin, and the acting is haphazard at best (all the dialogue was dubbed in postproduction), but logic has never been Argento’s goal. He thinks on a grander scale to create a nightmare world that feels like a monstrous version of a fairy tale. He achieves this through a bold, inventive mix of bright colors (using a palette based on Disney’s Snow White), whip-crack editing, and an aggressive, creepy score by Goblin, the rock band that also worked on George Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead.

Does it work at noon as well as it does at midnight? Not really. Almost all horror is more effective in the dark, and this is no exception.

Films that couldn’t exist without it: Halloween, Nightmare On Elm Street, the slasher-film craze of the 1980s

15. Plan Nine From Outer Space (1959)
Ed Wood’s sci-fi crapterpiece has often been called the worst movie ever made, which isn’t quite true. There are movies with worse scripts, flimsier set design, clunkier acting, and more boneheaded directorial choices—several from Wood himself—but Plan Nine From Outer Space is entertaining nonetheless, because the sheer volume of incompetence makes the film more loveable. Wood’s catalog of blunders and heroically misjudged attempts to overcome disastrous setbacks are seemingly innumerable, starting with the basic storyline, a nonsensical plot about aliens whose previous eight attempts to conquer Earth have failed, and who have decided to try reanimating the dead this time. The script is full of clumsy lines and howlers, such as the narrator’s solemn pronouncement “Future events such as these will affect you in the future.” The flying saucers are clearly on strings, and the cardboard gravestones in the cemetery set tend to wobble when the actors lurch past them. The tiny budget left room for only a single take of most shots, resulting in reams of flubbed lines, visible boom mics, and other mistakes. Most egregiously, Wood’s plan to have Plan Nine star his friend Bela Lugosi, the iconic star of Dracula who had since fallen into Z-grade obscurity, were scotched by the actor’s death. Instead, Wood used a few minutes of previously shot Lugosi footage and filled the rest out by recasting the role with his chiropractor, who was a foot taller than Lugosi and “disguised” his lack of resemblance by keeping his cape over his face at all times. It wasn’t meant as a comedy, but Plan Nine is best viewed as an unintentional one: Call it a secret success.

Does it work at noon as well as it does at midnight? This movie doesn’t work no matter what time it is. But this is really a midnight flick: Plan Nine is best enjoyed with a crowd of fans who will laugh when Tor Johnson trips over the gravestone.

Films that couldn’t exist without it: Without Plan Nine to cap his career, Wood’s legend might not have lasted long enough for Tim Burton to memorialize him with the biopic Ed Wood. The movie’s more lasting influence is probably subtler: Who knows how many budding filmmakers were emboldened by Plan Nine? After all, if Ed Wood could make movies, anyone can.

Originally published on Sept. 11, 2008 as part of a group-written Inventory feature; I wrote the sections on Aguirre, The Wrath Of God, Plan 9 From Outer Space, and Suspiria. Read the complete article.

When monsters attack! The movies’ best beasts before “Cloverfield”

CloverfieldSomething very big and very angry stalks the streets of New York City in Cloverfield, being released in theaters this week. The brainchild of producer J.J. Abrams (of the TV hit Lost and the upcoming Star Trek remake), Cloverfield aims to revitalize the giant-monster genre with a Blair Witch Project-style filming approach; the big beast’s victims film their flight from New York’s destruction with handheld video cameras.

But Cloverfield, of course, has some pretty big shoes to fill if it wants to be King of the Monsters: Giant monsters have been a cinema staple since at least 1925, when audiences thrilled to dinosaurs battling to the death in The Lost World.

If you want to get caught up on the genre, it’s not hard—400-foot fire-breathing monsters leave a trail that’s easy to follow. Here’s a few of our favorites.

Originally published on Jan. 14, 2008. Read the complete article.

Inventory: “I’m Afraid I Can’t Do That”: 17 Dangerous Cinematic Computers

2. Colossus, Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)
Film in the 1970s had an oddly awestruck notion of the power that computers might hold over our daily lives, with much hand-wringing and nightmares over the potential loss of our free will to cold, unfeeling machines. That played into the era’s Cold War fears as well, of course, since computer control was increasingly part of the strategy of both superpowers’ nuclear arsenals. Human error might send a nuke to kill millions by accident or insane design, but could computers really be trusted not to make their own mistakes? The 1970 thriller Colossus: The Forbin Project imagines the horrifying consequences of abrogating human responsibility over our own fate, as the all-too-foolproof computer system Colossus develops its own sinister agenda almost immediately after the U.S. missile system is placed in its control. Developing an alliance with the Soviets’ computer, Colossus decides that humans cannot be trusted to manage their own affairs, and takes over the world by threatening nuclear annihilation if its demands aren’t met. Though the movie is frustratingly slow, like a Twilight Zone episode padded to 90 minutes, Colossus’ malevolent pronouncements are truly chilling, proclaiming its new world order in a way worthy of a Bond villain: “I bring you peace. It may be the peace of plenty and content, or the peace of unburied death. The choice is yours. Obey me and live. Disobey and die.”

Originally published on Aug. 20, 2007 as part of a group-written Inventory feature; I wrote the section on Colossus: The Forbin Project. Read the complete article.

Inventory: 13 sidekicks who are cooler than their heroes

1. Tonto, the Lone Ranger movies
The Lone Ranger’s faithful Indian companion debuted in the 1930s, an age not known for its enlightened attitudes toward minorities. And writers like Sherman Alexie have pointed out Tonto’s more problematic aspects, like his stereotypical broken English. But from the beginning, Tonto was depicted as a heroic figure in his own right, and not so much the Lone Ranger’s assistant as his friend. Tonto was saddled with pidgin dialogue, but he wasn’t dumb, and could track bandits and right wrongs with a skill equal to the masked man’s. Also worth noting: The similar character dynamic in the Lone Ranger spin-off The Green Hornet, between the Hornet and his Asian sidekick Kato, led to Bruce Lee’s American breakthrough role on the short-lived 1966 TV series. And few people, sidekicks or not, are cooler than Bruce Lee.

9. Dr. Pretorius, Bride Of Frankenstein
It’s so hard to find good help these days, as Dr. Henry Frankenstein found out. In the original movie, his lab assistant steals the wrong brain. In the sequel, Bride Of Frankenstein, his old teacher shows up and nearly steals the entire film. Though Henry is nominally the lead scientist in their partnership, Dr. Septimus Pretorius wins hands down in the “mad scientist” department, swanning through the movie with such gleefully macabre abandon that he makes the wet-blanket Henry instantly forgettable. Where Frankenstein is plagued by his wishy-washy conscience, Pretorius revels in his blackmails and grave robberies, and even goes tomb-looting with a sense of style, sticking around after the corpse is dragged away, and having a light supper and a smoke inside a mausoleum.

11. Marvin, The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy
Douglas Adams’ science-fiction satire contains no shortage of characters who’d be fun to get drunk with. And even terminally bewildered protagonist Arthur Dent seems like a nice enough guy. But no character captured the hearts of Adams’ fans as much as the gloomy Marvin, the Paranoid Android. Though Marvin’s constant melancholy was a source of irritation to his shipmates on the Heart Of Gold, it was easy to sympathize with the slump-shouldered robot. Marvin may have exaggerated and obsessed over his many burdens—pain in all the diodes on his left side, or being forced to park cars for millions of years while his friends went to a fancy restaurant. But in Douglas Adams’ mixed-up and often terrifyingly random universe, Marvin’s weary resignation was one of the only sane responses to life. Besides, Marvin was more than a piece of miserable machinery, he was also the series’ stoic hero figure—often the only character smart enough to know what was actually going on, he repeatedly saved the lives of his (usually ungrateful) friends at great peril to himself. Whether it meant facing down an intelligent battle tank unarmed or staying behind on a doomed starship while the others teleported to safety, Marvin was always willing (though never eager) to put himself in harm’s way. Perhaps Marvin’s popularity also owed something to Adams’ own identification with the character—though it was inspired by a fellow writer named Andrew Marshall, Marvin’s disconsolate pessimism also came from Adams’ own bouts with depression.

Originally published on Feb. 26, 2007 as part of a group-written Inventory feature; I wrote the sections on Tonto (and Kato), R2D2, Nobody, Inigo Montoya, Dr. Pretorius, Marvin, and Mouse. Read the complete article.

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