Halloween III: Season of the Witch (Throwback Post)

Happy Halloween, loyal readers!

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to write up a new post worthy of the occasion, thanks to both graduate school scheduling and my upcoming wedding. So, instead, check out my old Plotopsy Podcast episode on my favorite flick for the creepy season, Halloween III: Season of the Witch!

 

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Splice

Splice

This review was made by request of one of my Patreon contributors. If you would like to make a film request, please see my Patreon page.

Today, I’m going to take a look at the bizarre 2009 science-fiction horror-drama, Splice.

The plot of Splice is summarized on IMDb as follows:

Genetic engineers Clive Nicoli and Elsa Kast hope to achieve fame by successfully splicing together the DNA of different animals to create new hybrid animals for medical use.

Splice was co-written and directed by Vincenzo Natali, who is known for the films Cube, Cypher, and Nothing, as well as stints direction on shows like Hannibal, WestWorld, Luke Cage, and American Gods.

One of the other credited writers for the film was Doug Taylor, who also wrote A Christmas Horror Story and In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale.

The cast of Splice includes the likes of Adrien Brody (The Pianist, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Brothers Bloom, Predators, The Experiment), Sarah Polley (Go, Dawn of the Dead, Mr. Nobody), David Hewlett (Cube, The Shape of Water), and Brandon McGibbon (Saw V).

The cinematographer for the film was Tetsuo Nagata, whose other shooting credits include La Vie en Rose and Renegade.

The editor for Splice was Michele Conroy, who is known for work on the television shows Penny Dreadful and Vikings, as well as movies like like Pompeii, Ginger Snaps 2, and Mama.

The effects for Splice were provided in part by KNB EFX, an acclaimed special effects makeup studio that was formed by Greg Nicotero, Robert Kurtzman, and Howard Berger. The company has worked on television shows and movies like The Walking Dead, Sin City, Breaking Bad, Django: Unchained, Drag Me To Hell, The Mist, Preacher, Horns, Kill Bill, Spawn, From Dusk Til Dawn, Minority Report, Misery, Army of Darkness, Deadwood, and countless others.

Beloved director Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy, The Shape of Water)  served as an executive producer for Splice. In an interview with ComingSoon.net, Del Toro said that he produced the film because of how much director Vincenzo Natali impressed him with his previous films, and how interesting he found the subject matter:

You know, there’s a line that never gets crossed from the earliest myth of Frankenstein or the Golem. There is always a familiar relationship. They can be father and son. The neglected son and father. They always follow that dynamic at the center. With Splice, Vincenzo has made a really sick family dynamic within the characters of the piece that is Splice. If they do want to see a couple of those lines fully crossed by the filmmakers, they should go see Splice. It takes them places where, normally, movies in the genre are going to play it safe. It’s not often that a major release gets to play with moral borders that we dare not to cross.

Another notable Hollywood figure who threw his weight behind Splice as an executive producer was Joel Silver, an action movie icon who was behind films like Predator, Road House, The Nice Guys, V For Vendetta, The Matrix, Swordfish, Die Hard, and 48 Hours. When asked what drew him to Splice, Silver said:

I saw one of the stills of the movie in one of the trade papers and it intrigued me. I like the Frankenstein story and I’m a big fan of gothic horror, and I just thought it was an interesting idea and a new way to tell the story. I saw the log line, said that I would like to see the movie, they sent me the movie and I had no idea what I was going to see. I had not read the script. I just watched the movie. When that scene came along, I said, “They’re not going to show us that. They can’t possibly show that.” And then, I said, “I can’t deal with this.” I just felt it was so effective that people would want to see the movie.

Apparently, the effects team created 11 different versions of the Dren creature for the film, each representing different stages of the creature’s life cycle.

Delphine Chanéac, who portrays the adult version of Dren, had her face digitally manipulated to move her eyes further apart from each other, in order to create an unnerving effect for audiences.

Critics and audiences were relatively split over Splice: critics tended to treat the bizarre content and story more warmly, while general audiences were less than enthusiastic about the film. Currently, Splice holds Rotten Tomatoes scores of 75% from critics and 37% from audiences, alongside an IMDb user score of 5.7/10.

One such critic who was impressed by Splice was The AV Club’s Keith Phipps, who gave the film a B+ rating:

Natali’s film cleverly exploits Dren’s uncanny semi-humanity…her bald head and the tail poking out beneath her dress give her away…[a] thriving, disturbing, thoughtful mutant of a movie.

Roger Ebert also gave the film a positive review, referring to it as “well done” and “intriguing.”  It is hard to argue that the movie isn’t at least “intriguing,” as the story is basically a hybrid of a ghastly prestige family drama and a horror sci-fi schlock-fest like Species – the combination makes for strange beast.

The effects for the film range from being absolutely astounding to clearly dated and distracting, depending on the scene. The underpinning designs, however, are universally fantastic. The best element of the effects work, however, is something I already mentioned – the digital manipulation of Dren’s face, in order to deliberately create an uncanny valley effect for inciting audience disease. Frankly, that is nothing short of brilliant, and it works well for its purpose.

As far as the writing goes, the concept might be worthy of a prestige stage, but the characters are not. While this is definitely a good attempt to write interesting sci-fi based on contemporary ethical issues, the film’s characters never get much depth – they are just vessels for the message. This is somewhat bizarre for a Promethean or Oedipal story line where the characters should be key, but there is a definite lack of relatable qualities for all of the human characters. Their actions surrounding Dren all feel either unmotivated, unprompted, or irrational, whether they are acting in defense or aggression towards the being. However, none of the characters are as inconsistent or incomprehensible as Dren.

To put it frankly, Dren’s behavior is difficult to grasp – for a creature that is a hybrid of human and miscellaneous animals,  it never acts like a median between the two. Dren either behaves like an unrestrained animal, or as a human child, with no in-between. The screenplay takes this as license to never justify Dren’s actions with motivations, which makes for a confusing experience. While this was probably intentional in order to make the audience feel as confused and wary as the characters, it didn’t necessarily make for a good watching experience – Dren never feels like a character, because there are never coherent causes for actions, and emotions rise and fall without prompting. The instability of the character at times comes off as lapses of logic in the screenplay.

Overall, I enjoyed Splice for the most part. That said, it is certainly disturbing in a very niche way, playing on Oedipal themes with science-fiction violence. It is pretty far from a great film, and it definitely could have used more screenplay work on the back half of the film, as I pretty much disengaged with the third act, but the concept here was interesting and novel enough to get my buy-in. When it comes to a recommendation, however, I’d only advise science-fiction fans give this a shot if they are ok with watching a film with sexual assault in the content, as that comes up in a big way as the film goes on.

Evolution

Evolution

Today, I’m going to take a look back at the 2001 science-fiction comedy, Evolution.

The plot of Evolution is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A fire-fighting cadet, two college professors, and a geeky but sexy government scientist work against an alien organism that has been rapidly evolving since its arrival on Earth inside a meteor.

The screenplay for Evolution was written by Don Jakoby (Double Team, Vampires, Lifeforce, Death Wish 3, The Philadelphia Experiment), David Weissman (Old Dogs, The Family Man), and David Diamond (When In Rome), and was directed by Ivan Reitman – a comedy icon who is known for films like Ghostbusters, Ghostbusters II, Junior, Twins, Meatballs, and Stripes.

The cast of Evolution includes Julianne Moore (The Hours, Boogie Nights, Seventh Son, The Lost World: Jurassic Park), David Duchovny (The X-Files, Californication), Orlando Jones (American Gods, Black Dynamite, MADtv, From Dusk Till Dawn 3), Sean William Scott (Goon, Goon 2, Cop Out), Ted Levine (The Mangler, Silence of the Lambs, Wild Wild West, Jurassic World 2), Ethan Suplee (Mallrats, My Name Is Earl), Sarah Silverman (The Book of Henry, Wreck-It Ralph), and Dan Aykroyd (The Blues Brothers, Nothing But Trouble, Ghostbusters).

The cinematographer for Evolution was Michael Chapman, whose lengthy career included shooting Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Suspect Zero, The Watcher, Space Jam, Primal Fear, Hardcore, The Lost Boys, The Last Detail, Scrooged, and The Fugitive.

The credited editors for the film were Wendy Greene Bricmont (Mean Girls, Kindergarten Cop, Junior, My Girl, Annie Hall) and Sheldon Kahn (Out of Africa, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ghostbusters, Legal Eagles, Draft Day)

The musical score for Evolution was composed by John Powell, who has also provided music for Pan, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Hancock, Jumper, Be Cool, Shrek, Face/Off, Antz, and Rat Race, among other films.

The effects work for Evolution was provided in part by the team of Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger, and Robert Kurtzman, who, combined, have credits that include films and television shows like The Walking Dead, The Faculty, Vampires, Scream, In The Mouth of Madness, From Dusk Till Dawn, From Beyond, DeepStar Six, Dr. Giggles, Tusk, Night of the Creeps, Drag Me To Hell, The Mist, and hundreds of others.

The creature design for the film was done by Phil Tippett, who is known for his visionary work on Starship Troopers, RoboCop, the original Star Wars trilogy, and Howard the Duck. He also interestingly  directed the not-well-recieved Starship Troopers 2.

An animated series based on the film, titled Alienators: Evolution Continues, ran from September 2001 to June 2002 for a total of 26 episodes.

The screenplay for Evolution was originally written as a science-fiction thriller by Don Jakoby, but was rewritten by Diamond and Weissman to be a comedy. In an unusual turn of events, Jakoby was so fond of the changes that he worked on the film alongside Diamond and Weissman.

Evolution currently holds an IMDb user rating of 6.1/10, along with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 43% from critics and 48% from audiences. Financially, it was able to cover its $80 million production budget with a lifetime, worldwide gross of $98.4 million, but it almost certainly wound up in the red due to marketing and non-production costs. It also severely under-performed domestically, with almost two-thirds of its take coming from foreign markets.

In his review for The New York Times, A.O. Scott stated that “the biggest frustration in Evolution is that it squanders an interesting premise.” It is hard to argue that the premise doesn’t have promise – it is a pretty standard framework for an aliens-come-to-earth science fiction adventure, with a rag-tag team of misfits put up against a monolithic, obtuse military force. On its surface, Evolution sounds more interesting and entertaining than it actually is – ultimately, what squanders the film’s potential is the comedic writing that dwells in the movie’s minutiae, which leaves plenty to be desired. Farts, butts, misogyny, homophobia are in ample supply throughout the film, making for a comedic smorgasbord that only the dimmest of “bros” could love. The foulness of the humor sours the impact of some impressive effects work, and hamstrings perfectly talented performers like Julianne Moore, who has so little to do that she apparently improvised her only memorable quality – comedic clumsiness.

Speaking of the creature designs, Roger Ebert, in his review of the film, lauded the works of Phil Tippett as “clever and bizarre…weird manifestations.” Ultimately, the litany of cosmic oddities are the most memorable element of the film – from the dragon-esque winged reptiles to the predatory space-crocodiles, there’s no lack of vision to them. However, they are never quite as distinct or memorable as, say, the graboids from Tremors. I think this is partially due to the wide variety of creatures in Evolution – the audience doesn’t get to spend much time with any particular iteration before the beings have spawned into entirely new creatures with fresh visages. While this let Tippett get to show off his design chops, it didn’t necessarily do the movie any favors.

That said, the CGI throughout the film has held up better than I had expected for a feature from 2001, and the practicals are undeniably fantastic. I’m kind of astounded at how effectively the team pulled off such a wide variety of designs so impressively – they could have easily skimped out, and shown fewer or less tangible creatures.

While the effects have aged surprisingly well, the rest of the movie has not. Evolution, thanks primarily to its writing and soundtrack, feels like a product of its era that can’t (and shouldn’t) transcend its temporal binds. While there are certainly highlights beyond the effects work, like Ted Levine’s portrayal of a slimy military general and David Duchovny’s trademark monotone charm, the negative here generally outweigh the positives. The comedy, which should have been a strength that the rest of the film could rely on, conjures only sighs, moans, and jeers.

As far as a recommendation goes, I’m sure that some people have nostalgic feelings for this film. For those folks, I don’t recommend revisiting it – it isn’t the movie you thought it was. For everyone else – with the exception of monster design aficionados – this is definitely a feature that you shouldn’t think twice about skipping.

Dungeons And Dragons

Dungeons & Dragons

Today, I’m going to do my best to not look back on the 2000 film, Dungeons & Dragons.

Here’s the thing, folks – I have almost written this review of Dungeons & Dragons roughly five times since I started this blog.

I don’t know what it is about this movie – there isn’t anything special about it in the slightest – but I get so damn bored every time I try to write this review, that I just can’t stick it out. It isn’t the worst movie. It isn’t even without some minor merit – Jeremy Irons is a absolute delight in his limited screen time – but I’ll be damned if my body and mind have never allowed me to finish this post.

Now, I’ve re-watched this movie roughly five times in the past four years – once for each half-assed attempt to review it. So, instead of doing that again, I’m just going to see what I can remember about this film without doing any research.

First, there’s Jeremy Irons – the mustache-twirler extraordinaire, who is pretty much the only reason to watch this movie in the first place, and who clearly had an absolute blast with his cut-and-paste villain character. I think he has some kind of magic, dragon-controlling staff.

This is the fact of evil.

I also specifically recall a comic relief character – with a name something like “Snails” – played by a Wayans or Wayans-esque comedic character actor. This is one of those characters that is supposed to bring levity to a drama-heavy adventure, but isn’t even remotely funny, making everything worse through  his existence. However, I also remember his character getting killed (though impermanently), which is certainly welcome.

“Snails” is correct! Played by Marlon Wayans.

Now, I definitely remember some sort of princess, who was effectively deposed by Irons’s character. I think it might have been Kevin Spacey’s kid from American Beauty? I certainly don’t remember her name, let alone her character’s name.

Yes it was! And her name is Thora Birch.

The protagonist is a complete blank for me. White, male, 6 foot. Shaggy hair? Slightly humorous personality? Rogue-ish? I also think there was another central party member – I think it was a highly competent woman warrior, but I don’t think she was the aforementioned princess. I don’t remember her connection to the rest of the plot, though. I also remember Tom Baker popping in briefly in a supporting role, which was kind of delightful.

Yeah, there was another party member. Not the Princess. Still don’t remember what her deal was.

Plot-wise, I definitely recall some kind of maze challenge that the central party had to solve, fulfilling the loose “dungeon” quota for the movie. I also recall the final set-piece with a bunch of rough CGI dragons flying around a tower, where Irons controls them with his magic staff, and where he is eventually defeated by the hero squad (and eaten by a dragon? Maybe?). There was also definitely a secondary, blue-lipped bad guy working for Irons, who got to do most of the general bad guy stuff throughout the movie.

Irons’s magic dragon staff. He also definitely got eaten by a dragon.
Blue-lipped #2

Here’s the point, though – this movie is less interesting and memorable that 99% of D&D games that have occurred in the back room of your local comic shop. Games like Dungeons & Dragons are improvisational storytelling conduits, with an immense amount of entertainment potential. With the right improvisational comedic talent, it is a gold mine – just look at HarmonQuest or The Adventure Zone. Not only that, but there is plenty of potential for grand, dramatic fantasy adventures through the platform – though I don’t think that is the way to go to make a truly memorable D&D movie that captures the joy of the game. I could tell you more details about Gamma World campaigns I played 6 years ago than I could tell you about this movie I have seen an obscene amount of times.

What else is there to say about this movie? I think it has been rightfully cast out of our cultural memory – shunned by fans of the source, and passed over by everyone else. I definitely don’t recommend seeking it out – just Google images of Jeremy Irons in the movie, and you’ll get everything you need.

The Stepfather III

The Stepfather III

Today, I’m going to take a look at the third installment in the horror franchise, The Stepfather.

The plot of The Stepfather III is summarized on IMDb as follows:

That psycho stepfather has escaped from the insane asylum and had his face surgically altered. Now he’s married again, this time to a woman with a child in a wheelchair. He goes on a killing spree once again.

The Stepfather III was co-written, produced, and directed by Guy Magar, who is known for movies like Children of the Corn: Revelation, Retribution, and Lookin’ Italian, and for his television work on shows like Sliders, The A-Team, and La Femme Nikita.

The most notable change for The Stepfather III is the absence of Terry O’Quinn, as he turned down the opportunity to return to the character for a third time. He is replaced in the lead role by Robert Wightman of The Waltons. The rest of the cast is filled out by Priscilla Barnes (Jane The Virgin, Three’s Company, Traxx), Season Hubley (Hardcore, Escape From New York), David Tom (Stay Tuned, Pleasantville, Veronica Mars, The Young and The Restless), John Ingle (General Hospital, Heathers), Stephen Mendel (Night Heat), and Christa Miller (Scrubs, Cougar Town, The Drew Carey Show, Clone High).

The cinematographer for the film was a man named Alan Caso, a three-time Emmy Award nominee whose television credits include Six Feet Under, The Americans, Lie To Me, Big Love, and Dexter, alongside film credits like Reindeer Games, Muppets From Space, and Ed.

The credited editor for The Stepfather III was Patrick Gregston, who has served as an assistant editor on the films Leprechaun 3 and Moulin Rouge, and also was the sole editor on a handful of afterschool specials and the film Cannibal Hookers.

The music for The Stepfather III was composed by Pat Regan, who also provided music for the anthology film Tales from the Darkside, The Stepfather II, and Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III.

The Stepfather III was the last in the original continuity of The Stepfather franchise, though a remake of the original was released in 2009.

The Stepfather III was released on HBO on June 4, 1992, and never received a theatrical release. The reception to the film was far from positive: it currently holds a Rotten Tomatoes audience score of 25%, alongside an IMDb user rating of 4.6/10. The reception was so bad, in fact, that the film was never physically distributed in most of the world – save for, apparently, scarce German DVDs and VHSes.

The first and biggest issue with The Stepfather III is inarguably the lack of strong lead – frankly, I think this project should have been scrapped the minute O’Quinn turned the lead role down. He was the soul of the franchise, and his performances were absolutely a linchpin for the previous movies. While Wightman has his moments, and puts in an honest effort to put his spin on the character, his Foghorn Leghorn Kentuckian drawl doesn’t come close to filling the void left from O’Quinn’s explosive rage-fits and creepy uncle smiles.

However, the issues with this film go deeper than just the casting. Another key problem here is the writing – not only is the dialogue often clunky, but the eponymous Stepfather takes some actions that don’t make sense for the character. Namely, he tries to juggle two families at once – something that doesn’t fit with his meticulously careful plotting, nor his previously-established, bizarre, quasi-ethical standards about both sexual activity and the role of a family unit. From what is established of the character in the previous films, he has a genuine abhorrence of sex outside of marriage, but he is shown willfully engaging with the renter of his house. Likewise, while the character does move on from one family to the next in the earlier films, it was always portrayed as a sequential act – he wants a perfect family unit, but either his anger or external factors prevent it in his mind, so he starts over via murder and relocation. It doesn’t make sense for him to be juggling more than one family at the same time – it is inconsistent with everything established about the character to this point.

From the very beginning of the film, the drop off in quality from Stepfather II is palpable, especially if you watch the films consecutively. The camera work and acting are immediately noticeable, as well as a distractingly terrible blue color tint on the opening sequence. If the title card hadn’t appeared, I would have assumed this was a film from a completely different franchise. I’m sure most of this stems from what I assume was a much smaller budget from the previous installments, but the effect is jarring nonetheless.

However, there was a brief moment where I thought this film was going to be something truly special. The central conceit of the film is that the Stepfather, thanks to some plastic surgery, is now unrecognizable, and has relocated with full anonymity. When the plot kicks off, it is not explicitly confirmed which character is the Stepfather, and what ensues is a precious few minutes of mystery. Two men are shown, each obsessively fawning over the same woman, each with traditional (read: creepy) views on relationships, and each seemingly detached from reality. This, I thought, was going to set up a sort of whodunit of toxic masculinity, competitive chest-beating, and mysterious deaths, with one of the men eventually being outed as the Stepfather.

Unfortunately, it isn’t long before the real Stepfather kills his competitor – at most 10 minutes after his introduction. It is hard to describe how much of a wasted opportunity this was – there is even a major element of the plot that involves amateur sleuthing and whodunits! Such a plot would also provide a neat avenue for commentary on masculinity, creepy dating ethics, and the mentality of certain sorts of “family values” advocates. There’s more than one warped Stepfather out there in the world, after all. This is the kind of unique, new idea that should form the foundation of sequels – don’t just do the same story again from the original, but find a new way to twist the premise.

All of that said, though, Stepfather III is still mildly entertaining as a bad movie. There’s a nice helping of baffling, dated computer magic, a poorly-aged relationship between a priest and a young boy, a hammy lead, and liberal, sordid use of a wood-chipper. Bad movie fans might be caught by surprise with this one – though I still think Stepfather II is the more entertaining watch.