Since the Video Vortex rental outfit at Alamo Drafthouse Raleigh opened back up recently (and I started working at the theater), I’ve been sifting a bit through their collection. It has given me the chance to catch up on some films that wouldn’t be terribly budget-friendly to get on streaming or digital rentals, and who doesn’t love the nostalgic joy of flipping through countless VHS and DVD cases? One of the first things I knew I wanted to dig up was Eating Raoul, a cult classic dark comedy from Paul Bartel that got a Criterion release a while back.
Eating Raoul is, on paper, a movie I expected to like. I first heard about it when I watched and wrote about the fantastic Chopping Mall many years ago, which features the lead characters from this film in what could probably be called inflated cameos. It popped back onto my radar more recently for a couple of reasons. First, I have been watching through Star Trek: Voyager, and Eating Raoul was the major debut of main cast member Robert Beltran. Second, I recently watched Fresh, a controversial recent feature that treads on some similar conceptual ground.
Eating Raoul is a dark comedy – a genre I usually appreciate – about eccentric characters who snowball into executing an increasingly absurd string of murders to pay their rent. There is definitely a class-conflict, “eat the rich” theme to the screenplay, which is usually fun to see. At first glance, it sounds like it has some common DNA with one of my favorite old-school b-movies, ABucket of Blood: Roger Corman’s skewering of art criticism and culture.
All of that said, to my surprise, I did not particularly enjoy Eating Raoul. The tone of the film is exaggerated and cartoonish, which could theoretically work if it were employed with a conscious purpose, but it doesn’t seem to have one. I expected the movie to have something to say: there is certainly plenty that it could say if it wanted to cut any deeper than than the surface level. It invokes themes like classism and misogyny (its strongest moments are inarguably Woronov’s), but the movie doesn’t dedicate the time to making a particularly coherent statement about these themes through the characterizations or plot. Because none of the characters are grounded in reality, it makes social criticism difficult to weave into them: these people are looney tunes, so what could their actions and experiences say about our tangible world? While it isn’t impossible to use highly exaggerated characters for meaningful critique, it takes some finesse.
Going through extant criticism of the film, I agree with some of Roger Ebert’s musings about it, particularly in respect to its tone and pacing:
“Eating Raoul” is one of the more deadpan black comedies I’ve seen: It tries to position itself somewhere between the bizarre and the banal, and most of the time, it succeeds…Problem is, it’s so laid-back it eventually gets monotonous.”
Honestly, there were more than a few moments where I felt like it leaned a little too hard into the banal to the detriment of the bizarre, which had the runtime flowing like cold molasses. I will say that I liked the performances from Woronov and Bartel, but nothing around them really worked for me. The love triangle that develops isn’t terribly compelling, and the action is all pretty predictable and repetitive. The whole work came off as simultaneously mean spirited and without a directionality for its barbs. It is a sea urchin of a movie, indiscriminately pricking anything that comes into range.
More than anything, I think I was disappointed with the execution of an interesting story concept. Particularly today, when the value of human life is so trivialized, selfishness aggrandized, and economic stratification so pronounced, a film about preying on people to pay the rent seems like it could resonate. I was hoping that this would be more of a prescient gem on a reassessment, but I don’t think time has actually done it any favors.
I’d like to think that I know when I’m being pandered to, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t a bit flattering regardless. The target audience of the Scream franchise has always been horror hounds and general film dorks, with its reveling in story tropes, genre clichés, and the dramatic irony that comes with audience foreknowledge. The more time you’ve spent rewinding horror franchise VHSs, the more likely that Scream is going to be up your alley. Of course I loved the original Scream – there isn’t much more predictable than that. However, the sequels have been a different story.
Scream relied on audience familiarity with a genre that dominated the preceding decade to its release, and weaponized the expectations that movie-goers had developed based on everything they had seen from the well-worn body of slasher films since the late 1970s. The sequels, however, relied on the same source materials: they never quite kept pace with the zeitgeist. The Scream franchise never moved on from the VHS era, and audiences clearly did. Films like Cabin in the Woods capitalized on audience meta-knowledge in new ways, and Scream became a relic of 1980s and 1990s culture, just like a dusty VCR in an attic.
The landscape of horror today, however, has shifted dramatically. We’re in a curiously (but pretty solidly) bifurcated era for the genre, defined simultaneously by arthouse “prestige” horror – think anything branded by Jordan Peele or A24 – and a mixed bag of “re-quels” – quasi-reboots of long-dormant franchises, like David Gordon Green’s Halloween, Nia DaCosta’s recent Candyman, or the Spiral entry into the Saw franchise. There hasn’t been a more opportune time to dust off and retool the Scream franchise – there’s a whole new book of rules and audience expectations to tinker and toy with.
I went into 2021’s Scream with admittedly low expectations. The only trailer I saw gave the impression of a mildly updated remix of the well-worn path: sure, the advances in technology have opened new doors (literally) for Ghostface, but all signs pointed to a re-heat of an old formula with some new gimmicks. Instead, the film itself is in every way a product of our current horror genre zeitgeist, and revels in teasing horror-knowledgeable audiences in exactly the way the original Scream did. Unlike Green’s Halloween, which fully tosses out its endless sprawl of sequel lore, today’s Scream somewhat hand-waves the sequels, but doesn’t omit them entirely as truth within the world. There is no ret-conning to be had here, which is impressive writing gymnastics for a screenplay looking to establish new ground.
Our new Scream introduces a new slate of vibrant characters, who are debatably more charming and relatable when compared to their 1996 predecessors (who I have found more grating on re-watches in recent years). Jack Quaid, Jasmin Savoy Brown, and Dylan Minnette are particular standouts in the ensemble of newcomers, who more than fill the shoes of the previous accessory performers like Matthew Lillard, Liev Schreiber, and Jamie Kennedy. They are joined by a handful of familiar (if much-aged) faces, including David Arquette, Neve Campbell, and Courteney Cox. If you ask me, the new blood was far more compelling than the old, but the stalwarts fill in their roles well.
The new Scream is brutal and visceral in a way that it hasn’t felt like since the inception of the franchise, which plays beautifully in concert with a cast of lovable and relatable knife-fodder. As one character notes in the final act, “our story has stakes,” which makes it stand out in contrast with its fellow Scream sequels. I was genuinely shocked at how well this film succeeded in accomplishing its goals: there’s not an obvious weak link to point out. Even the language of its cinematography bobs and weaves around and through expectations, dangling the audience on a string with well-crafted mise-en-scene and camera movement. One sequence in particular was an absolute joy to watch with an audience, as it artfully elicited gasps and laughs at the creative *absence* of payoffs.
Scream (2022) is an unexpected early highlight for me from the burgeoning cinema landscape of 2022. It is possible that I’m just the perfect audience for this particular form of pandering, but I’m happy to accept that. This was one hell of a good ride, and in my opinion the best sequel Scream could ask for.
Today I’m going to flip through the pages of 2017’s The Book of Henry, directed by Colin Trevorrow.
The plot of The Book of Henry is summarized on IMDb as follows:
With instructions from her genius son’s carefully crafted notebook, a single mother sets out to rescue a young girl from the hands of her abusive stepfather.
The Book of Henry was directed by Colin Trevorrow, whose other directorial credits include Jurassic World, Safety Not Guaranteed, and the upcoming Jurassic World 3. The film’s screenplay was written by Gregg Hurwitz, whose only other prominent credit is writing for the television series V.
The cast of the film includes Naomi Watts (King Kong, Mulholland Drive, Birdman, Tank Girl), Jaeden Lieberher (St. Vincent, IT, Midnight Special), Jacob Tremblay (Room, The Predator), Sarah Silverman (School of Rock, The Sarah Silverman Program), Dean Norris (Breaking Bad, Total Recall, Under the Dome), and Lee Pace (Guardians of the Galaxy, Halt and Catch Fire, The Fall).
The cinematographer for the film was John Schwartzman, who has shot such movies as Pearl Harbor, Seabiscuit, Armageddon, The Amazing Spider-Man, and The Rock.
The editing for The Book of Henry was done by Kevin Stitt, who has cut quite a few major features over the years, including Paycheck, Cloverfield, X-Men, Elektra, Lethal Weapon 4, and Jurassic World.
The music for The Book of Henry was composed by Michael Giacchino, who also provided scores for Inside Out, Coco, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Jupiter Ascending, among others.
Apparently, the screenplay for The Book of Henry was originally written as a black comedy in the late 1990s, but Colin Trevorrow had it altered significantly to make it less comedic and more dramatic to fit with his vision for the story.
The initial poor word of mouth surrounding the release of The Book of Henry has been considered as one of the primary reasons Colin Trevorrow was released as director of Star Wars IX, as many had already questioned his competency to handle the task prior to the flop of Henry.
Currently, The Book of Henry holds a 6.6/10 IMDb user rating, alongside, Rotten Tomatoes scores of 20% from critics and 63% from audiences, making for a fairly mixed reception. Financially, however, the film was an unambiguous failure, taking in a lifetime theatrical gross of $4.5 million on a production budget of $10 million.
a…sort of Rube Goldberg machine: one that seeks to draw out simple human emotions through precisely engineered (but still ridiculous) mechanics…However hard the talented cast may try, those aren’t people up on the screen; they’re candles, balloons, and marbles.
This is one of the most adept criticisms of the film I have come across – the characters really don’t feel tangible, as if they are just cogs and mechanisms engineered to fill a specific role. Outside of a few brief moments where Naomi Watts gets room to genuinely play the role of a grieving mother, the performances all seem rigidly trapped in defined molds, as to perform their function and nothing more. I don’t think it is at all fair to level this criticism at the actors – they clearly are doing what they can – but the writing and directing that they are beholden to makes their work effectively impossible.
Another film critic, C. L. Reed, noted in his review of the film that “there is nothing wrong with The Book of Henry that a good script could not fix.” I would go a step further than that – the problem here wasn’t just the script, but Trevorrow’s adherence to it as the director. His vision took precedence over the original screenplay – which he twisted and contorted it to fit within the boundaries he desired. Once it suited him, it clearly became fixed in his mind – since he tinkered with the script to his personal specifications, the odds that he would take input from others on it is very slim, ever if their criticisms were valid. I would wager that issues with his version of the screenplay were brought to his attention from multiple sources, but that he couldn’t and wouldn’t address them.
In his review for Paste, Andy Crump referred to The Book of Henry as having an “exact imbalance of bonkers incongruity” and called it an “inexplicable hodgepodge.” I think this gets at one of the core issues of the film – its tone. This is the other consequence of Trevorrow’s manipulation of the screenplay, and subsequent direction of the film. He took a film of one genre, and forced it to become another. What results is a screenplay that is still rife with vestigial fragments of the dark comedy it once was, but with a hard dramatic veneer. It is coarse where it should be smooth, and jagged where it should be round – it is just obviously the wrong damn shape from what it was and should be. Unlike a hybrid, genre-bending movie like Hot Fuzz or The Cabin In The Woods, the multiple genres aren’t synthesized or merged in an effective manner – they are ad-hoc pieced together by twine, Elmer’s glue, and wishful thinking. It is a bad look stylistically, like having your sleek, modern dining room decorated with a rusty, dilapidated Volkswagen.
All of that said, there is definitely some weird potential in The Book of Henry, and I would have been interested to see the off-kilter dark comedy it was written to be. The cast really do their best, and Watts gets some good emotional moments here and there. It is a shame that the movie doesn’t stylistically lean in to the bizarre hyper-reality created by the characters as they are written. Instead, this is a flat, unremarkable vision and execution layered on top of something that is, at its core, fundamentally twisted and perverse.
I’m not sure if The Book of Henry is a recommendable movie or not – it sounds more interesting and intriguing on paper and in summary than it actually is. If you only watched Dan Olsen’s reviews of the film, you would both get the gist of the film, and not have to deal with the arduously dull and faux-cutesy process of having to actually watch the damn thing. However, this is one of the more bizarre flops of recent years, and is probably worth checking out for bad movie aficionados for that fact alone.
Today, I’m going to take a look at the Whiney Houston / Kevin Costner romantic thriller, The Bodyguard.
The plot of The Bodyguard is summarized on IMDb as follows:
A former Secret Service agent takes on the job of bodyguard to a pop singer, whose lifestyle is most unlike a President’s.
The cast of The Bodyguard includes Kevin Costner (Dances With Wolves, Waterworld, Mr. Brooks, Man of Steel, The Untouchables), Whitney Houston (Sparkle, The Preacher’s Wife, Waiting to Exhale), Bill Cobbs (Demolition Man, The Hudsucker Proxy, The People Under The Stairs), Ralph Waite (Days of our Lives, Cliffhanger, The Waltons), Tomas Arana (Frankenfish, The Bourne Supremacy, Gladiator, Tombstone), Michele Lamar Richards (Top Dog), Mike Starr (Dumb & Dumber, Uncle Buck, Ed Wood, Miller’s Crossing), Gerry Bamman (Home Alone, Runaway Jury), and Richard Schiff (The West Wing, The Lost World: Jurassic Park).
The Bodyguard was written and co-produced by Lawrence Kasdan, whose illustrious list of credits includes Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Silverado, The Big Chill, Wyatt Earp, Dreamcatcher, and The Force Awakens.
The director on The Bodyguard was Mick Jackson, who also helmed such productions as Volcano, L.A. Story, and Clean Slate.
Two editors are credited with work on The Bodyguard: Donn Cambern (The Glimmer Man, Little Giants, Twins, Ghostbusters II, Major League II, Cannonball Run, The Last Picture Show, Easy Rider, Excalibur, Time After Time, Harry and The Hendersons) and Richard A. Harris (The Bad News Bear, Fletch, The Golden Child, Terminator 2, Last Action Hero, True Lies, Titanic, The Toy).
The cinematographer for the film was Andrew Dunn, who also shot Hot Rod, Hitch, Sweet Home Alabama, Monkeybone, Addicted To Love, Gosford Park, Practical Magic, and Precious.
The movie’s musical score was composed by Alan Silvestri, a prolific movie scorer with credits including The Polar Express, The Avengers, Ready Player One, Flight, Van Helsing, Cast Away, Judge Dredd, Reindeer Games, Volcano, Super Mario Bros, Cop And A Half, Forrest Gump, Mac And Me, Predator, and Predator 2, among many others.
One of the greatest claims to fame for The Bodyguard is that it boasts the best-selling film soundtrack of all time, courtesy of the work and popularity of co-star Whitney Houston.
According to IMDb, a number of musical talents were at some point considered for Whitney Houston’s role: Dolly Parton, Madonna, Joan Jett, Janet Jackson, Pat Benatar, and Olivia Newton-John among them.
Prior to the 1990s, the screenplay for The Bodyguard had been on the shelf since the mid-1970s, when it was written initially for Steve McQueen and Diana Ross. However, it failed to get made at the time because it was apparently deemed “too controversial” to be successful.
When the film was initially screened for test audiences, consistent feedback indicated that most viewers hated Whitney Houston’s performance, which led to some re-cutting to attempt to make her character more likable.
The Bodyguard received seven Golden Raspberry Award (Razzie) nominations, including one for Worst Picture (which it lost to Shining Through). It also notably received two Academy Award nominations, both for Best Original Song. Given it received so many Razzie nominations, you can accurately conclude that critics were generally not fond of the movie. However, audiences were quite a bit more receptive to it: The Bodyguard currently has a 6.2/10 IMDb user rating, alongside Rotten Tomatoes scores of 35% from critics and 64% from audiences.
Financially, however, The Bodyguard was a smash hit. On a reported production budget of $25 million, the film was able to take in over $411 million in its worldwide, lifetime theatrical run.
Glossy yet slack; it’s like Flashdance without the hyperkinetic musical numbers and with the romance padded out to a disastrously languid 2 hours and 10 minutes…To say that Houston and Costner fail to strike sparks would be putting it mildly. The two barely seem to be in the same room — the movie is like a discordant duet between their superstar auras.
I can’t argue with Gleiberman about his central point here: there is little to no chemistry between the Houston and Costner, and I don’t think that it is explained simply by Houston’s acting inexperience. After all, Houston wasn’t really an actress, so I think it is hard to blame her for the lack of chemistry: she was supposed to be guided and carried by the other performers. And, to her credit, I think she put in one scene’s worth of a decent performance (in the country music bar).
In my opinion, I think the bigger problem for the movie is actually Kevin Costner. The more time I have spent rewatching movies from the early 90s for this blog, the more I feel like the entire world was weirdly hypnotized by Costner during the era, and everyone (for some reason) collectively agreed to the delusion that he was a great actor. Kevin Costner, for a time, was The Emperor’s New Clothes of actors. Looking back now, the truth as I see it is that Costner is and has always been a terrible, one-note actor. He is almost always portraying some form of stoic in his films, which is convenient for a guy who seems to struggle with emoting most of the time. Worse yet, I find him to be completely unbelievable as a bad-ass lead: his entire vibe and appearance screams “step-father trying to look cool,” which doesn’t really work for what was intended to be an analog for a Kurosawa samurai. In the hands of another actor – ideally someone with capabilities for both gravitas and intimidation – I think The Bodyguard might have been a pretty decent movie. As it stands, though, it is a rightfully forgotten popcorn flick that was clearly built around a soundtrack. If not for latent nostalgia and a culture-wide fondness for the music pf the soundtrack, I don’t think anyone could make much of an argument in favor of the film in retrospect.
If you have fond memories of this movie, I don’t recommend going back to it: it is bound to disappoint you. For everyone else, I think listening to the soundtrack without the context of the film is probably preferable to actually watching it – this is an overly long movie with some pretty bad performances, highlighted only by some awkwardly-placed interludes and music videos. Just cut the chaff, and check out the music on its own if you want to experience the cultural impact of The Bodyguard.
Today, I’m going to take a look at 2005’s A Sound of Thunder: an ill-fated adaptation of a classic science-fiction tale.
The plot of A Sound of Thunder is summarized on IMDb as follows:
When a scientist sent back to the prehistoric era strays off the path he causes a chain of events that alters history in disastrous ways.
The cast of A Sound of Thunder includes Edward Burns (Saving Private Ryan, Alex Cross), Ben Kingsley (Gandhi, Sexy Beast, Schindler’s List, Iron Man 3, Lucky Number Slevin, Suspect Zero), Catherine McCormack (Braveheart, Spy Game), Corey Johnson (Captain Phillips, Jackie), and David Oyelowo (Selma, The Cloverfield Paradox, The Last King of Scotland, Nina).
A Sound of Thunder is based on a short story of the same name written by science-fiction legend Ray Bradbury, which was originally published in 1952. While this is the only film adaptation of the story, it has been translated to the small screen twice: once on The Ray Bradbury Theater, and another time in parody form on The Simpsons.
The screenwriters for this wayward adaptation of the Bradbury story were Thomas Dean Donnelly (Sahara, Conan The Barbarian), Joshua Oppenheimer (Dylan Dog: Dead of Night), and Gregory Poirier (National Treasure: Book of Secrets).
A Sound of Thunder was directed and shot by Peter Hyams, whose other films include Timecop, Sudden Death, Stay Tuned, Capricorn One, End of Days, and The Presidio, among others.
The editor for the film was Sylvie Landra, who also cut The Fifth Element, Leon: The Professional, and Catwoman, among other films.
The music for A Sound of Thunder was composed Nick Glennie-Smith, whose other works include Heaven Is For Real, We Were Soldiers, The Man In The Iron Mask, The Rock, and Home Alone 3.
Renny Harlin was the original director for the project, and even had Pierce Brosnan on board as the star. However, he was fired by the producers after he apparently made a creative decision that displeased Ray Bradbury, paving the way for Hyams to take over.
During filming of the movie in 2002, heavy floods damaged the sets, causing significant delays. Also, the production company wound up going bankrupt during the post-production process, meaning there was little-to-no money to finish the film. The combination of these factors led to the film’s release date being delayed by a total of two years.
A Sound of Thunder brought in just under $11.7 million in its lifetime theatrical run. However, given this take was on an estimated production budget of $80 million, the film was a huge financial failure. Critically, it didn’t fare any better: currently, it holds an IMDb user rating of 4.2/10, alongside Rotten Tomatoes scores of 6% from critics and 18% from audiences.
In his review for SPLICEDwire, Rob Blackwelder described A Sound of Thunder as “a catastrophe of bad acting, ludicrous science and conspicuously cheap special effects.” Personally, I can’t imagine a more succinct summary of the film. While I don’t feel nearly as strongly about the acting (it wasn’t notable enough to be notably bad), the science writing and special effects are mind-boggling: there are misunderstandings about basic evolutionary concepts, and the creatures all look like they walked out of an MS-DOS computer game. Interestingly, I think both of these notable weaknesses of the film trace back to issues with the production: the bad effects are a direct result of the bankruptcy of the production company before the film’s completion, and the writing issues relate to the screenplay attempting to be both an adaptation and expansion on the Bradbury source material.
Lawrence Toppman of The Charlotte Observer made an observation in his review of the film that I definitely agree with:
Some of this might have passed muster in a Twilight Zone episode, which would have been an ideal home for such a tale.
This material is basically tailor-made for a short-form adaptation: had this movie been made for the small screen (and with a shorter run time), the screenplay would have side-stepped having to speculate the sequence of events after the source story concluded. The voice of the screenplay would have sounded more consistent, and the more scientifically illiterate later acts of the film wouldn’t have been necessary in the first place. The more I think about it, the more this seems like an ideal story for a 1 hour television movie: something that might have been more realistic for a production plagued by financial issues from the start.
All in all, A Sound of Thunder is a shockingly terrible exemplar of what happens when the money for a film runs out before the visual effects are truly complete, and should serve as a cautionary tale to those who seek to dramatically modify and expand on source materials in their screenplays. I can recommend giving it a watch up until the “butterfly effect” moment, in which the time stream is initially distorted: the ending point of the Bradbury short story. While the film still isn’t good up until that point, the initial dinosaur effects are awe-inducingly terrible, and worth the 20-30 minutes for the first act. After that point, though, I’d say it is more than worth bailing out: there is nothing of worth beyond it.
Today, I’m going to take a look at a 1976 creature feature: Grizzly.
The plot of Grizzly is summarized on IMDb as follows:
An eighteen-foot-tall grizzly bear terrorizes a state park, leaving it up to a Park Ranger to save the day.
Grizzly was directed by William Girdler, who tragically died in a helicopter accident at the young age of 30. However, he made nine films in his six years as an active director, including Grizzly, Day of the Animals, and Asylum of Satan.
The central cast of Grizzly was made up of Christopher George (The Rat Patrol, The Exterminator, City of the Living Dead, Pieces, Day of the Animals), Andrew Prine (Gettysburg, The Miracle Worker), and Richard Jaeckel (The Dirty Dozen, Starman, 3:10 to Yuma, The Green Slime, Walking Tall Part 2).
The cinematographer for the film was William L. Asman, who is an experienced camera operator who has worked on shows like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, 7th Heaven, and Melrose Place, as well as on movies like The Octagon, Brainstorm, Loverboy, Gremlins 2, Matinee, Speed, and The Rocketeer.
The editor for Grizzly was Bub Asman (cinematographer William Asman’s brother), who also cut Day of the Animals, and is a veteran sound effects editor with credits such as Sicario, American Sniper, Million Dollar Baby, 1941, Red Dawn, First Blood, Conan: The Barbarian, Speed 2, Demolition Man, and Prisoners.
The music for the movie was composed by Robert O. Ragland, whose other credits include 10 to Midnight, Q: The Winged Serpent, The Fear, The Touch of Satan, and The Thing With Two Heads.
The special effects work for Grizzly was provided by the duo of Phil Cory (Misery, The Aviator, Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, Cobra, Mannequin, The Wraith, The Monster Quad, Weekend at Bernie’s) and Bob Dawson (Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Christine, Prophecy, The Day After).
In 1983, a sequel to Grizzly (called Grizzly 2: The Predator or Grizzly 2: The Concert) was partially completed but never released, and has become somewhat of an icon among lost films. In 2014, The New York Post wrote an article on the film, which was set to star the likes of Charlie Sheen, George Clooney, and Laura Dern. From the article:
the tale [of the movie’s failed creation] involves — among other mishaps — stolen money, malfunctioning special effects and a script that was rewritten by none other than its Hungarian caterer.
In addition to the uncompleted sequel, there is also a fake sequel that is occasionally marketed as Grizzly II. 1977’s Claws, which is also about a killer grizzly bear, was re-released in the United States in 1978 in an attempt to capitalize on the success of Grizzly.
Grizzly was one in a large wave of Jaws knockoffs featuring any number of predatory animals that spanned throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. Others films in this sub-genre included Piranha, Alligator, The Last Shark, Tentacles, and Orca.
The live bear used in filming was named “Teddy”: he was an 11 foot tall grizzly bear who was, at the time, the largest bear in captivity. The cast and crew were kept separated from the bear by an electric barrier for their safety, as the bear was trained by not tamed. For the attack sequences, a robotic bear was used in his place.
Grizzly was made on a low production budget of $750,000, on which it took in $39 million at the box office. This made it the most financially successful independent film of 1976, and for a time, the most profitable independent film of all time (a title that would be taken by Halloween two years later).
Despite the financial success of the movie, it isn’t a film remembered very fondly. Currently, it holds a 29% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, alongside a 5.3/10 user rating on IMDb.
The first thing that is impossible not to notice about Grizzly is its similarity to Jaws. This movie is utterly unashamed about how much of a blatant knock-off it is. Instead of a shark, there’s a bear. Instead of a boat, there’s a helicopter. There are still three dudes making up the central team that faces off with the monster: a frustrated enforcement official, a salt of the earth quasi-sage, and a scientific naturalist. There are the same tensions with authority, as the Amity Island mayor is replaced by the head of the national park. Even the debate over species is the same: the authorities won’t acknowledge the presence of a grizzly bear in the same way that authorities didn’t acknowledge the unlikely presence of a great white. Swimmers are exchanged for hikers, rabid shark fisherman for game hunters, etc, etc, etc. One of the few points of departure is that the mauled kid gets to live, but the audience is shown some severed child-limbs for good measure.
That said, the Jaws formula, when done well, works. Grizzly is by no means Jaws quality, but the interactions between the three central characters are pretty interesting, and they seem pretty tangible and believable. The gore effects are kind of fantastic, and, shockingly, the attack sequences themselves are pretty decent. Unlike with Jaws, there is actually a fair bit of exposure of the big bad bear here, though the supposed scale isn’t well conveyed (a judicious use of miniatures would have won serious bonus points from me). I was actually surprised that this movie didn’t rely on stock footage for the bear, as most cheap knock-offs tend to do for wildlife. The actual attack scenes of course feature disembodied bear claws and fake bear replacements, which are also used to pretty good effect in their own right.
For such a cheap movie, there are some seriously entertaining set pieces in Grizzly. The first one of note is when the bear takes down a forestry service guard tower, which is pretty fantastic and harrowing to watch, despite how obviously cheap it was. On top of that, there is a pretty cool finale sequence where the bear takes out a helicopter, which is exactly the kind of thing anyone would want from a giant bear movie.
Overall, I was surprised how much fun Grizzly was. It is definitely not a strong recommend, mostly due to the pacing getting pretty slow and the action getting repetitive after a while, but it is still one of the better cheap Jaws knockoffs I’ve found. For movie buffs, it might be fun to devise some sort of Jaws bingo to play along with Grizzly. Bad movie fans, and folks who relish the bygone era of late 1970s creature features will find plenty to like here.
Today, I’m going to take a look at the 2004 horror western Dead Birds.
The plot of Dead Birds is summarized on IMDb as follows:
A group of Confederate soldiers hole up in an abandoned plantation after robbing a bank and find themselves at the mercy of supernatural forces.
The screenwriter for Dead Birds was Simon Barrett, who also served as a producer on the film. He has gone on to write noted horror and thriller films like The Guest, You’re Next, Frankenfish, and Blair Witch.
The director for the film was Alex Turner, who has been behind a handful of other films, including 2009’s Red Sands and the upcoming film The Voyager.
The cast of Dead Birds includes Henry Thomas (E.T., Legends of the Fall, Gangs of New York, Suicide Kings), Patrick Fugit (Saved, Wristcutters: A Love Story, Gone Girl, Almost Famous, White Oleander), Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals, Pottersville, The Shape of Water, Revolutionary Road, Midnight Special, Kangaroo Jack), Mark Boone Junior (Memento, Batman Begins, 30 Days of Night, Sons of Anarchy, Vampires, The Quick & The Dead), Nicki Aycox (Perfect Stranger, Joy Ride 2, Jeepers Creepers 2), and Isaiah Washington (Exit Wounds, Hollywood Homicide, Grey’s Anatomy).
The cinematography for the film was provided by Steve Yedlin, who has been a go-to director of photography for Rian Johnson, shooting Looper, Brick, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and The Brothers Bloom, as well as other movies like San Andreas and the remake of Carrie.
The editor for Dead Birds was Brian Anton, who cut television series like Cold Justice and Sid the Science Kid, as well as a handful of independent films.
Dead Birds was filmed in and around Mobile, AL, which is also the approximate setting for the film’s story. In the handful of scenes that take place in the town of Fairhope, AL early in the film, the Dead Birds production utilized the still-standing sets from Tim Burton’s Big Fish for the backdrop, which was filmed in the area the previous year.
In February of 2010, after years of word-of-mouth circulation about the film, Dead Birds got a special theatrical screening in Los Angeles at the NuArt Theater, to the pleasure of many of the fans it gained along the way.
Currently, Dead Birds holds a 5.7/10 IMDb user rating, alongside Rotten Tomatoes scores of 50% critics and 40% audiences, which are far from ideal numbers. That said, the movie certainly has some fans.
First off, Dead Birds has an interesting premise. A cursed farm that tortures those who wander across it is an interesting enough start, but making it a Civil War period piece gives it an intriguing flair. The Western aesthetics and character types are interesting to see in a horror setting, and the entertaining cast of character actors add a lot of color to the scenario.
Unfortunately, Dead Birds has some serious issues. First off, the effects are a bit uneven: some shots are pretty cool, while others are jarring and rough around the edges (particularly the demonic facial contortions). Likewise, the story isn’t conveyed very well: outside of a choppy flashback vision sequence, there isn’t much in the way of exposition to walk the audience through the gang’s spooky predicament. Characters are also dispatched a bit too easily, and without either fanfare or gore, which should be most of the fun for a Lovecraft-inspired horror flick.
Last but not least, Dead Birds suffers from an inexplicably terrible title. I have gone back and forth in my head trying to figure out why they settled on that name, and I haven’t the slightest clue. I’m not sure how they thought that title would convey the sort of movie they had made, or how it would appeal to an audience looking for a horror-western, but it definitely doesn’t work. Honestly, with a better title, I suspect this movie would be a bigger underground success.
Overall, Dead Birds is a flawed, yet interestingly-conceived film. Even though it doesn’t much deliver on the promise of its premise, it is hard not to give it some credit for the effort. In a lot of ways, 2015’s Bone Tomahawk does what Dead Birds wanted to do: throw a colorful cast of Western characters into a horror movie scenario, and see what happens.
As far as a recommendation goes, horror fans might enjoy this as a deep cut. There are also plenty of recognizable character actors in the cast that film buffs might get a kick out of, even though none of them get much time or opportunity to do much. For most people, I think this flick would be a bit too dull. For this most part, this is a skippable movie. However, if you haven’t seen it already, Bone Tomahawk is everything this movie could have been and more.
Today, I’m going to take a look at a bizarre body horror film from 1991: Body Parts.
The plot of Body Parts is summarized on IMDb as follows:
After losing his arm in a car accident, a criminal psychologist has it replaced with a limb that belonged to a serial killer.
The story for Body Parts is based on a French crime fiction novel from 1965 called Et mon tout est un homme, written by the duo of Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud. The pair published numerous works between the 1950s and 1990s, and have had a handful of film adaptations made from their stories. The most famous of these is certainly Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, based on D’entre les morts.
Body Parts was directed and co-written by Eric Red, whose previous writing credits included Near Dark and The Hitcher. His co-writers for the film were Norman Snider (Casino Jack, Partners), producer Patricia Herskovic, and Joyce Taylor, who has no other recorded writing credits.
The central cast of Body Parts includes Jeff Fahey (The Lawnmower Man, Planet Terror, Machete), Lindsay Duncan (Birdman, Gifted), Kim Delaney (Army Wives, NYPD Blue, Mission to Mars), Zakes Mokae (Waterworld, Vampire in Brooklyn), and Brad Dourif (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Dune).
The editor for the film was Anthony Redman, whose other cutting credits include Street Fighter, Highlander II: The Quickening, King of New York, Red Heat, and Bad Lieutenant, among others.
The cinematographer for Body Parts was Theo Van de Sande, who has also shot a handful of high-profile films, such as Blade, Volcano, Bad Santa 2, and Grown Ups.
The score for the film was written by composer Loek Dikker, a classical and jazz pianist from the Netherlands. It is one of only a handful of films scores he’s done over his career, and one that ultimately won him a Saturn Award for best music.
The special effects and makeup effects crew for Body Parts included common elements with films such as The Shape of Water, Resurrection, Jason X, Mimic, Near Dark, Jacob’s Ladder, Total Recall, Judge Dredd, Daredevil, Congo, and Cube.
In 1967, there was an attempt to adapt the source material for Body Parts (the novel Et mon tout est un homme) to the screen by Arthur P. Jacobs (Planet of the Apes) and James Bridges, but it never came to fruition.
Body Parts was nominated for four Fangoria Chainsaw Awards: Brad Dourif for Best Supporting Actor, Lindsay Duncan for Best Supporting Actress, Loek Dikker for Best Soundtrack, and Gordon J. Smith for Best Makeup FX. Of the nomnations, only Dourif took home the prize.
According to a Los Angeles Times article from 1991, television advertisements for the movie were pulled in Wisconsin due to the discovery of Jeffrey Dahmer’s collection of numerous dismembered bodies. A Paramount spokesman is recorded as saying:
We pulled our TV ads out of sensitivity to the tragedy in Milwaukee, even though the storyline is not related at all to what happened.
Body Parts was made on a budget of $10 million, on which it managed to only bring in a total of $9.2 million. On top of that lackluster financial performances, critics and audiences were hardly enthusiastic for it. Body Parts currently holds an IMDb user rating of 5.5/10, alongside Rotten Tomatoes scores of 40% from critics and 34% from audiences.
An unapologetically ludicrous horror effort that often skirts the very edges of camp without going entirely over.
Personally, I find that to be a pretty apt description of Body Parts. The movie is centered around a weird original concept that could easily cross over into being goofy, but the film keeps its bearings. and is a lot of fun as a result. Jeff Fahey and Brad Dourif are pretty much perfect in their roles, as they are both sort of eerie character actors capable of chewing scenery. Without their presence, Body Parts could easily have been a real mess.
Appropriately, Body Parts is filled with fun (mostly eponymous) practical effects. However, what really steals the show is a car chase sequence, in which the driver of one car is handcuffed to the passenger in another. To say the lease, the sequence is an absolute blast, and was probably as fun to film as it is to watch.
Overall, Body Parts is a fun, mostly-forgotten horror movie with one of the more outlandish, bizarre plots I’ve come across. If you happen to stumble upon it, I’d recommend just about anyone give it a shot. Additionally, I would be remiss not to recommend the We Hate Movies podcast episode on the film, which is what initially brought my attention to it.
Today, I’m going to take a look at The Darkness, an already forgotten 2016 horror movie starring Kevin Bacon.
The plot of The Darkness is summarized on IMDb as follows:
A family unknowingly awakens an ancient supernatural entity on a Grand Canyon vacation, and must fight for survival when it follows them home.
The central cast of The Darkness includes Kevin Bacon (Tremors, Apollo 13, Cop Car, R.I.P.D., Super, Hollow Man), Paul Reiser (Stranger Things, Whiplash, Aliens), Radha Mitchell (Man On Fire, Silent Hill, Pitch Black, Phone Booth), David Mazouz (Gotham), Matt Walsh (Veep, Dog Bites Man), and Jennifer Morrison (House, Warrior, Once Upon A Time).
The Darkness was directed, co-written, and produced by Greg McLean, who also directed 2016’s The Belko Experiment, 2017’s Jungle, and the Wolf Creek film series. His co-writers for the film were Shayne Armstrong (Bait, Johnny Bravo Goes To Bollywood) and Shane Krause (Bait, Monster Beach).
The cinematographer for the film was Toby Oliver, whose credits since The Darkness have included the financially successful horror films Get Out and Happy Death Day.
The Darkness employed the work of two credited editors: Sean Lahiff, who was an assistant editor on The Babadook, as well as a visual effects editor on The Hunger Games and Green Lantern, and Timothy Alverson, who cut Sinister 2, Orphan, and The Astronaut’s Wife, and also did assistant editing duties on movies like Con Air, Theodore Rex, Prince of Darkness, and Equilibrium.
The musical score for The Darkness was composed by Johnny Klimek, whose credits have included the cult favorite television show Sense8, Cloud Atlas, Kill Me Three Times, Deadwood, Perfume: Story of a Murderer, Run Lola Run, and One Hour Photo.
The Darkness shares a name with a flamboyant English rock band, who experienced a brief run of success in the early 2000s. Regrettably, neither the band, nor its iconic single “I Believe In A Thing Called Love,” appear in the film.
Financially, The Darkness turned a not-insignificant profit: on a production budget of $4 million, it took in a grand total of just shy of $11 million in its lifetime theatrical run.
However, The Darkness had a dismal critical reception, including a 3% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes, alongside a user score of 4.4/10 on IMDb and a 20% Rotten Tomatoes audience rating. On top of many critics pointing out its use of numerous overplayed genre conventions, as well as more than a few specifically notable similarities to Poltergeist, Peter Sobczynski of RogerEbert.com wrote the following:
There are times when it feels as if the producers challenged themselves to see how little it needed and still meet the legal definition of a movie.
Personally, I agree passionately with Sobczynski’s point there: everything about The Darkness feels low effort, and the result is a dispassionate product that pushes the maximum limits of boredom. While a lack of action is certainly part of that problem, the bigger issue is that all of the actions that do occur feel scripted out: with even an basic familiarity with horror films, you could predict all of the actions well before they happen. The result is a zero stakes, dull experience.
Another notable aspect of The Darkness was a clear attempt to portray an already-troubled family life at the story’s center. While most horror movies like to present a peaceful home inflicted with an external, supernatural force, this protagonist family is a train wreck from the time they are presented to the audience. Through a combination of bafflingly-portrayed conditions like semi-magical autism, eating disorders, and alcoholism, there is a definite sense that the writers wanted this to feel like a real family with tangible problems. However, each of these normally humanizing issues wind up making all of the characters less likable and identifiable, due to how they react to their other family members’ issues. By the end of the movie, I was pulling for the dark sky gods: they seemed to take better care of the autistic child than his family.
Speaking of the band of animalistic, possibly-alien sky gods, I did appreciate that there was a nugget of an original concept here. As much as everyone is familiar with the idea of “disturbing native american burial grounds” in horror movies, the resultant haunts never usually present as particularly native, but rather as generically demonic. Unfortunately, as much as that concept is different in the details, the big picture is all too familiar. The mechanisms and story beats are all well-worn and clearly copied and pasted from the latest generic horror movie, which is a shame for a screenplay that appeared to have had interesting ambitions at one time.
On the whole, there isn’t much of anything to recommend about The Darkness: it is a forgettable movie experience, plain and simple. That said, there were some elements that got me scratching my head, mostly in regards to the portrayal of the family and their myriad crises. One reviewer even said that it “is more interesting for its family drama than for its scares.” While I do think that is true in a relative sense, the word ‘interesting’ is a bit strong in this context. This is a movie to skip.
Today, I’m going to explore the dark and ill-received 1997 superhero film, Spawn.
The plot of Spawn is summarized succinctly on IMDb as follows:
An elite mercenary is killed, but comes back from Hell as a reluctant soldier of the Devil.
The character of Spawn was originally created by comic icon and entrepreneur Todd McFarlane, and first appeared in Spawn #1 in May of 1992. Spawn was (and is) the face of Image comics, an independent comic book company that is creator-owned, and prides itself on treating artists fairly: most distinctly by allowing them to retain creative copyrights. The original founders (including McFarlane) primarily defected from Marvel comics, where they felt that they didn’t get the credit or pay they deserved. The character of Spawn includes a handful of elements that trace back to McFarlane’s time working on (and creating) Marvel properties, most notably the Spider-Man antagonist/antihero, Venom.
This film adaptation of Spawn was directed by Mark A.Z. Dippé, an experienced visual effects artist who previously worked on The Abyss, Ghost, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Back To The Future Part II, and Jurassic Park. However, he did not (and still doesn’t) have much directing experience, outside of a handful of television movies and shorts that came years later.
The screenplay for the film was penned by Alan McElroy, who also wrote Halloween 4, Wrong Turn, The Marine, and Kirk Cameron’s Left Behind: The Movie, and was also involved with Todd McFarlane in the creation of the subsequent Spawn animated series.
The cast of Spawn in primarily made up of Martin Sheen (Apocalypse Now, The Departed, The West Wing, Firestarter, The Dead Zone, Wall Street, Gettysburg), John Leguizamo (Super Mario Bros., The Happening, John Wick, The Pest, Carlito’s Way), Michael Jai White (Black Dynamite, The Dark Knight), Theresa Randale (Space Jam, Bad Boys), Nicol Williamson (Excalibur, The Exorcist III), Melinda Clarke (The O.C., Nikita), and Miko Hughes (Pet Sematary, New Nightmare, Apollo 13).
The cinematographer for Spawn was Guillermo Navarro, who has also shot such films as Pan’s Labyrinth, Pacific Rim, Jackie Brown, Hellboy, Hellboy II, Spy Kids, From Dusk Till Dawn, Desperado, and Night At The Museum.
The film required the work of two primary editors: Michael Knue (House, Night of the Creeps, A Nightmare On Elm Street 4, Rocky V, The Ring 2) and Todd Busch, an assistant and visual effects editor who has worked on movies like Spider-Man: Homecoming, Lake Placid, X-Men, Beowulf, and Terminator 3.
The music for Spawn was composed by Graeme Revell, whose credits include Sin City, Pitch Black, Daredevil, Red Planet, Tank Girl, Street Fighter, From Dusk Till Dawn, Hard Target, and the remakes of Assault on Precinct 13, Walking Tall, and The Fog.
Spawn was notably the first superhero movie with a black lead, as it predated the better-received Blade by a year. However, another property was even closer on its heels: Shaq’s infamous Steel, which released in theaters just two weeks after Spawn, and to even less acclaim.
It reportedly took an entire 8 months of work, from storyboard to completion, to nail down the Clown to Violator transformation sequence. Like much of the effects work in the film, it was a hybrid of practical work and CGI imagery, though it leaned quite heavily on the CGI.
In a show of dedication to his craft, John Leguizamo actually ate the “maggots” during the sequence where Clown eats a pizza from the trash. However, this is only half-true: the on-screen maggots were, in fact, mealworms.
Spawn reportedly went through a lengthy battle in order to get its PG-13 rating from the MPAA, which required countless changes to dialogue and violent sequences to appease the notoriously fickle and conservative ratings board. However, in retrospect, the decision to pursue a PG-13 is now widely criticized, and often blamed for the film’s poor reception by fans and casual audiences alike.
Spawn’s cape, one of the character’s most distinguishing features, is shown only sparingly throughout the film. However, when it does, it is an entire digital creation, with no mixed practical elements involved. This is in contrast to the previously mentioned Clown to Violator sequence, which hybridized practical effects with digital enhancements.
While Spawn hardly met with any critical praise, it did help launch a well-regarded animated series on HBO in the years after the film’s release, which ultimately won two Emmys over its run.
In the past couple of years, much talk has been made of bringing the character of Spawn back to the big screen. Todd McFarlane in particular has taken on the task of reviving his creation, and is currently attached as both a writer and director on the project. In 2017, it was announced that he was working with Blumhouse Productions to produce a “low-budget” vision for the character on the big screen, but time will tell what exactly that will look like.
As mentioned previously, Spawn was anything but a critical success. The movie currently holds on IMDb user rating of 5.2/10, alongside Rotten Tomatoes scores of 18% from critics and 37% from audiences. Financially, it looks like the production took in an underwhelming profit, taking in $87 million in a lifetime international theatrical release on a $40 million production budget.
Perhaps the most divisive aspect of Spawn is the performance of John Leguizamo’s Clown. While the character and portrayal is unarguably obnoxious, there is something to be said for the fact that he is certainly memorable. As much as I didn’t find much entertainment value in the character, he lit up the screen more than anything else in the movie, and is more or less the only takeaway of the film I’ve held on to since my first viewing. On top of that, I have been led to understand that it is accurate to the source material. While that shouldn’t automatically be considered a positive, I think it goes a long way to explaining why the character is played the way he is. It is also worth noting that Leguizamo was clearly 100% dedicated to the part, and is nearly unrecognizable in the role. All in all, his performance is almost as impressive as it is inexplicable: why would someone put so much effort into a role so bad? In any case, he is the highlight of the movie by a longshot, and is enough to make it or break it, depending on the person watching.
On the other end of the performance spectrum, however, is Martin Sheen. While Leguizamo chews scenery throughout the film and consistently goes above and beyond the needs for the role, Sheen appears to sleepwalk his way to a paycheck with his performance. I’m sure this was a case of a distinguished actor on tough times dealing with material he felt was beneath him, but there is something markedly dispassionate about it all the same. That is particularly a shame, because I’d be willing to bet that there are a ton of character actors who would have eaten up the chance to be a crooked, evil politician in league with the legions of Hell. Alas, an underperforming Sheen is what the world received.
Beyond the performances, the element of the film that most stuck with me were the effects. Unfortunatly, it was for all the wrong reasons. To put it succinctly: the effects just look bad. While I can certainly appreciate the attempt to blend practical work with digital work (in the vein of Jurassic Park), something clearly went wrong here. Whether it is Spawn’s cape, his motorcycle, or the transformation sequence for Clown, every major sequence that required digital work looks and feels flubbed. Perhaps this is partly a product of how much time has passed, but I feel like there are plenty of contemporaneous films with similar effects that look far better. In any case, they make the movie hard to look back on positively.
One of the problems with characters like Spawn is that they require a lot of backstory. Unlike a character like Captain America or Spider-Man, who inhabit a world more-or-less like our own, Spawn has a complicated mythos woven into his backstory that is inherent to his character. Establishing that kind of mythos for an audience via a screenplay can be a daunting task: a bit too much exposition, and audiences will feel bored; not enough, and they will feel lost. In the case of Spawn, there was an attempt to cram as much information as possible into the opening narration, I’m sure in the hopes that it could be gotten out of the way for the rest of the film. However, that narration winds up feeling rushed, bloated, and overwhelming, to the point that the information doesn’t get digested by the audience. Hopefully, in a future attempt at adapting the story, the screenplay will reveal information a bit more organically, and use Spawn as the audience’s surrogate for revelations to unravel.
Overall, I think Spawn is hardly the worst movie ever produced, but it certainly belongs in a lower tier of superhero films. A combination of strategic production mistakes, some mediocre effects work, an unpolished screenplay, and a wide array of off-putting performances damned it in the public consciousness. While the movie has some defenders, I think its bad reputation is mostly deserved. I do think it is worth watching as a case study of method acting gone haywire with Leguizamo’s clown, though. That said, it isn’t enough for me to recommend it to people who don’t already have it secured in a place of nostalgia.
Reviews/Trivia of B-Movies, Bad Movies, and Cult Movies.