Cult Classic: Army Of Darkness

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary: A strangely exciting epic and a fitting end to the ‘Evil Dead’ series.

Review:  The ‘Evil Dead’ trilogy’s progression is certainly peculiar.  1981’s ‘Evil Dead’ was a low-budget horror film set in a cabin-in-the-woods; ‘Evil Dead II’ in 1987 was an outrageous action-horror-comedy in the same scenario.  And then came ‘Army of Darkness’ AKA ‘Evil Dead III: The Medieval Dead’ in 1993, a horror action comedy epic with slapstick elements set in medieval England.  How we got from point A to point B is still a mystery to me.

Well, not really I guess.  After all, at the end of ‘Evil Dead II’, Ash (Bruce Campbell) does get transported back to the middle ages, so I guess it makes sense.  I guess… Anyways, he sets out to return to his own time, along the way defending a castle and its people.  They’re terrorized by the same evil he has combated in the first two films, the dark forces of the Book of the Dead.

The highlight is an epic battle at the end against the Army of Darkness (a vicious horde of the living dead) that, believe it or not, is somewhat reminiscent of the Battle of Helm’s Deep from J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’.  It makes good use of stop-motion effects in the vein of Ray Harryhausen, the man behind the effects in ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ and the original ‘Mighty Joe Young’.  Though these effects feel dated, they none-the-less have a certain charm.  This movie is overall much more action oriented than its predecessors, and yes, Ash’s chainsaw and shotgun are back for more fun as well, though this time around it’s not nearly as gory.

I really love the way that Ash handles himself in this film.  He cracks so many one-liners, whether it’s to the “primitive screwheads” he’s protecting or the armies of the dead, he just can’t seem to resist a dry witticism.  It’s made the film wonderfully quotable.  The comedy in general is upped from ‘Evil Dead II’, and it’s certainly entertaining, with nods to the Three Stooges and funny illusions to other films.  Unfortunately it’s had its effect on the films ‘horror’ aspect, and so it really doesn’t feel scary at all.  Like ‘Evil Dead II’, though, it’s so fun that you really don’t worry too much.
‘Army of Darkness’ is one of those once-in-a-lifetime movies. Its blend of genres may seem unorthodox, but it certainly feels fresh.  To use a time-worn cliché, it’s a rollercoaster ride of a film that goes up and down and in crazy directions that leaves you strangely satisfied at the end.  Like its prequel, there’s only one word that can sum this film up: Groovy.

Classic Review: Poltergeist

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A distinctly Spielbergian piece of childlike terror and awe.

Review:  I’ve always been a paranormal enthusiast.  My instincts tell me that the world around us, especially popular media’s edited view of the world, is not all there is.  There are still unfathomable mysteries.  Not everything’s explained by bouncing particles together and making educated guesses.  It proves my geekhood, but when I consider how I approach the world, I immediately think of the Vulcans from ‘Star Trek’ and their philosophy IDIC, that is, Infinite Diversity (in) Infinite Combinations.  There are too many possible answers for every question.

Which brings me to a recent cinematic experience I had, Steven Spielberg’s story ‘Poltergeist’, a movie that’s equal parts wonder and horror.  The filmmakers wisely spent most of their time showing the unfolding supernatural events from a child’s point-of-view.  Children, of course, believe in IDIC.  They’re natural poets.  A rainstorm is more than part of a cycle, unfolding since the Earth’s beginning; it’s a harbinger of doom.  A tree isn’t a passive factory of useful materials; it’s a pensive, devious, patient monster.  A clown doll sitting at the foot of the bed isn’t a fun toy; at night, it transforms into a demon, waiting for you to fall asleep.  It’s the imagination’s dark side in full force.

What ‘Poltergeist’ does is it takes childhood fears — that your home is the devil’s playground — and brings them into the adult world.  Unlike most cinematic families, the family in ‘Poltergeist’ is unified, loving, and three-dimensional.  It’s the family every kid wants and deserves.  When the kids’ fears prove real — and ghosts kidnap the little girl — the parents don’t react with skepticism.  To combat a supernatural enemy, they need the same imagination and faith their children have.  This is what Jesus is talking about when He says, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Not an impossible demand or a threat; a plea for open minds.

‘Poltergeist’ is indeed scary, but because it originated in Spielberg’s mind, it has the same sense of adventure and awe as ‘Jaws’ and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’.  If you’ve got a stomach for horror, ‘Poltergeist’ is incredibly fun, and even inspiring.  Watching the father, played by Craig T. Nelson, interact with the kids, well, it made me want to be a Dad.  It’s increasingly rare that we get to see a purely positive role model.

I’ve referred to this as a Spielberg film, and it’s not because I have any illusions about who directed it.  That was Tobe Hooper.  The auteur is not always the director; its how we ought to pinpoint the chief creative force behind any project, no matter their role.  Here, it was certainly the co-writer and producer, Steven Spielberg, as the narrative is certainly his and every shot screams out his influence.

‘Poltergeist’ is my favorite horror film of all time.  It’s an experience akin to ‘Jaws’, ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ and the ‘Indiana Jones’ pictures.  I’ll be returning to that haunted house again.

Classic Review: Aliens

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★1/2

Summary:  ‘Alien’ is a popular film that I have issues with, ‘Aliens’ is a popular film that I have no issues with.

Review:  I disliked ‘Alien’ because, despite great design and an interesting story, it was ultimately underwhelming.  It was a box office hit, though, and in 1986 20th Century Fox released a sequel, directed by then-newcomer James Cameron.  Cameron had already proven his worth on the 1984 hit ‘The Terminator’, a surprisingly powerful film that paired heart and depth with adrenaline fueled action.   Cameron would use this same approach to ‘Aliens’, and so it fixes everything wrong with the original ‘Alien’, salvaging and improving the sense of atmosphere, isolation, and terror that people enjoyed from it.  The result is one of the best action, science fiction, and horror movies ever made.

Though this is a three-genre movie, Cameron thankfully avoided the clichés and the tropes of each.   Unlike most space pictures, the future presented here isn’t particularly happy or hopeful.   It has neither the mysticism of ‘Star Wars’ nor the optimism of ‘Star Trek’.   Rather, it goes for that gritty ‘Blade Runner’ feel.  The world is still corporate and capitalist, we still have soldiers and fight wars, and space seems cold and ugly.  It’s a fresher, albeit darker, take on our view of outer space.

Unlike many action films (and, in my opinion, the first ‘Alien’), the characters in ‘Aliens’ are not two-dimensional or stock.  Ellen Ripley, the central character, is one of the best and most complex heroines of recent years.  She is strong, formidable, brave, fierce, and mother-like at the same time.  Most importantly, she seems human and, therefore, relatable.  The intimacy of her character is what draws us into the story and makes it compelling.  The other characters in the film are just as fleshed out, and so it is becomes easier to care about them and feel fear for them.

This does wonders for the sense of horror and terror in the film, as does its pacing and design.  Where as ‘Alien’ was very slow and, at times, even boring, ‘Aliens’ makes effective use of suspense.  People wander into rooms where we know great monsters are hiding, but Cameron allows for time to pass, and thus, for tension to build up before an attack or chase is on.  He doesn’t go for low blow shock-value, such as sudden kills from creatures out-of-nowhere, but rather for legitimate, well-timed terror.

Cameron and co also out-did themselves when it came to design on this picture.  They take the atmosphere from the original film and greatly expound upon it.  The aliens’ look is wonderfully frightening, especially the Alien Queen; the sets are intricate; and the models used are so detailed that it’s impossible to recognize them as such.  Despite being nearly 25 years old, modern CGI would not improve the look or believability of the effects, it’s that good.  James Horner also delivers an electrifying score that has proven so popular that it is still used in movie-trailers to this day.

The filmmakers really pulled out all the stops on ‘Aliens’.  It is an intelligent, suspenseful, and very enjoyable film.  It is the best of the ‘Alien’ franchise as well as a high point in Cameron’s career.  For a well-made and involving picture, check this one out.

Signs

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary: A terrifying but hopeful film that suffers from a cultural divide but benefits from an incredible musical score.

Review:  There are some movies that stick with you.   Little bits of soundtrack, snippets of dialog, memorable images that excited or traumatized you.  Since before I can remember, I’ve had a bit of a problem with aliens; well, the pop culture conception of them as home-invading demons with psychosexual tendencies.  When I first saw Shyamalan’s ‘Signs’, it scared the hell out of me.  It was the sum of all my nightmares.   It didn’t end when the credits rolled; I kept seeing the monsters in my living room and in blank television screens, I heard their voices over my shoulder while that awful, brilliant music heralded their arrival.  ‘Signs’ was nightmare fuel unleaded.

It wasn’t until recently that I began to realize that, even though it has some peculiar flaws, ‘Signs’ is one of my favorite films.   It’s because of the way that M. Night skillfully turns a horror story into an uplifting parable of the divine hand.  It’s my greatest fear and my greatest hope combined.   It still chills me at the right moments, but my newfound affection for it has dimmed the alien monsters in my peripheral vision.

‘Signs’ has a major flaw, a storytelling hiccup that defines the latter half of Shyamalan’s career thus far.   That is, he doesn’t speak the same language as most filmgoers.   He has a distinctly Eastern worldview, one that remembers the power of folklore and allows, in a childlike fashion, for leaps of logic.  A filmmaker risks it all on an audience’s capacity to understand the story he or she tells.   Shyamalan tells stories from another time and place, and doesn’t bother to explain the philosophy; probably because he can’t.  It’s a communication breakdown.  I grew up in the Eastern Orthodox Church, where I breathed in Eastern philosophy along with the incense.   Shyamalan’s storytelling resonates with me.   He speaks a language I’m lucky enough to understand.   Most critics of his work, it seems to me, come from a Western, rationalist background, which values logic and clarity above all else.   The problem with ‘Signs’ is that it’s a Western movie with an Eastern soul, and that disconnect prevents the story from reaching everyone that it could.

The film’s cinematography is superb.   It feels like a Hitchcock film with a more dynamic camera.  The frame bleeds suspense.   But, of course, sound is half the picture; much like Bernard Herrmann’s score for ‘Psycho’ and John Williams’ score for ‘Jaws’, James Newton Howard’s jaw-dropping music is insanely good and exceeds the film’s own quality.  It is equally wonderful and twisted.   The mark of a good score, such as this one, is that it fires the imagination on all cylinders, even without the film.

M. Night Shyamalan has fallen out of vogue, but I’ll always think fondly of his distinct style, and I’ll continue to revisit this film again and again.

Classic Review: The Silence Of The Lambs

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  The only horror film to win Best Picture, ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ is terrifying because it’s truthful.

Review:  There’s “theme park” scary movies and then there’s true horror. ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’, the only horror film to ever win Best Picture, defines the latter class. It originates from the same real-life story as Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’. Instead of establishing distance from the psychopath, however, ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ takes us up close and personal with not one, but two dangerous and terrifyingly realistic villains.

The most famous is Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter, a brilliant and seductive psychopathic psychologist played by Anthony Hopkins. He’s the most vile and convincing villain I have ever seen on film. FBI Agent Clarice Starling, excellently played by Jodie Foster, has to consult with the incarcerated monster to see if she can discover how to find a serial killer known as Buffalo Bill. Their interactions are not only the highlight of the movie, but some of the few perfect moments in cinematic history.

This is a brutal experience.  It is a descent into the darkest dungeons in the human spirit, into Tartarus.  It is a challenging picture that requires viewers of strong constitutions.  By not flinching, the filmmakers are putting us in absolute sympathy with Clarice; she’s vulnerable, naïve, and though she has an idea of where her journey will take her, it’s a horrifying ride that leaves her shaken.  Director Jonathan Demme takes the Hitchcockian ideal to its absolute limit, lets us chew through our nails and grind our teeth until the last logical moment, which results in a fantastic catharsis.  This isn’t a film for the faint of heart, and the weight of the thing goes beyond simple thrills.  Psychologically and philosophically, it sticks with you.  Every major religion has a theme of the descent into darkness and pain.  Consider the challenge of Christianity, as made by St. Paul, for believers to “crucify their flesh” — to endure the greatest suffering for the greatest reward.  ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ is a filmic exploration of that challenge, both as a narrative (Clarice’s pursuit of Buffalo Bill) and as an experience.  Provided that viewers know what they’re after, ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ is a uniquely rewarding film.

The philosophical theme of ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ is that yes, indeed, monsters do exist, and to our horror, they’re people like us.  There’s something convenient about supernatural horror that separates the man from the monster, allows us the comfort given a victim, that when all’s said and done, history takes pity on the innocent.  Here, there’s no such comfort.  Instead, Clarice Starling discovers the bitter truth of how similar Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill really are to “normal” people.  Being human is a dangerous idea.  Within each of us, there’s a devilish potential that we only think we’ve successfully sublimated.  Inside our private hells, we keep monsters locked away, but what about the ones that seem so attractive that they can lure us in to their homes for some fava beans and a bottle of nice Chianti?

In an interesting contrast, let’s compare Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ with Jonathan Demme’s ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’.  ‘2001’ is a film about, literally, heaven, space, evolution and the divine potential of humankind.  It’s a hopeful journey through time with a strangely (for Kubrick) optimistic point-of-view.   ‘Silence’, however, is about Earth and things underneath it, like basements and pits and darkened rooms.  It’s about devolution, complex, civilized man’s disintegration into a cannibalistic hunter, the diabolical potential of humankind.  Perhaps this Halloween, for a unique double feature, you ought to watch both.

Cult Classic: Evil Dead II

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary: An awesome, fun dark comedy.

Review:  Around the time in ‘Evil Dead II’ that Ash strapped a chainsaw to his arm and, in the most awesome close-up of all time, uttered “groovy”, I realized that I wasn’t really watching a horror film.  But, being honest, I didn’t really mind; I was having too much fun.

All kinds of dark ridiculousness go on in this remake/sequel to 1981’s ‘Evil Dead’.  Ash (Bruce Campbell) must again face the evil forces of the Book of the Dead in an over-the-top display of special effects, shotguns, the aforementioned chainsaws, carnage, one-liners, and all the campy goodness you could ask for.  That’s what I like about this movie: It’s so delightfully silly, and that’s what makes it work.  If director Sam Raimi had tried to make a film more like the first ‘Evil Dead’, I think it would have seemed trite and much less entertaining by comparison.

I’d also like to mention that Bruce Campbell puts on one of the best performances of his career in this film.  Campbell is essentially the Marlon Brando of modern cult film-making, and, unfortunately, he may also be the most under-appreciated actor of his generation.  Anyways though, he does an absolutely terrific job in this picture.  He subtly makes his character go from dead serious to terrified to borderline-insane in a matter of moments as he encounters truly crazy supernatural phenomena, and he manages to do it all without making it frightening; on the contrary, it’s simply entertaining.  It’s the highlight of the film.

‘Evil Dead II’ is a well-done, funny, and very enjoyable film, as far as dark comedies go that is. For anyone into cult films, this is a must-see. As Bruce Campbell would say, this picture is simply “groovy”.

Classic Review: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919)

Stars: ★★★★

Summary: Arguably the first horror film, ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ is an indelible part of film history and a cohesive idea that simply works.

Review:  When you’re studying to become a filmmaker, you run into all kinds of rules, stated or implied.  Filmmakers develop most of these to guide their own works, but soon enough they’re foisted on everybody else, and by necessity it becomes a creative act to reject good advice.  The first psychological thriller, and arguably the first horror film, ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’, is evidence that our postmodern rules of visual storytelling often obscure the power of simplicity.

‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ is the stylistic antithesis of the excessively busy, painfully impatient, and overproduced postmodern film.  The filmmakers used the limitations of silence, locked-down camera angles, and (by our standards) long takes to its advantage.  ‘Caligari’, of course, pre-dates the demands of postmodern filmmaking, which puts an emphasis on extreme camera movement and rapid cutting between different angles.  What ‘Caligari’ testifies is that the image’s union with the story is the most important thing.  Because of the exquisite compositions and a pacing that’s rooted in the performances, the film is hypnotic.  The set design is oft-cited for a very good reason, with crazed lines and distorted spaces reflecting the madness central to the film’s story.  The performances are purposefully exaggerated and always crystal clear.  I think most films would be better off taking a page from the silent era and letting the actors communicate as much as possible without dialog.

The film is an indispensable experience for cinephiles and budding filmmakers.  Its influence continues in almost every horror film produced today, as well as in filmmakers such as Tim Burton, Henry Selick, Alex Proyas, and God knows who else.