The Blob

October 31, 2019

blobThe original 1958 version of The Blob was a typical low-budget sci-fi movie of the period: There was very little to distinguish it aside from its relatively snappy pace and the presence of an intriguing young actor, “Steven” McQueen. In most respects, it was like a hundred other wonderfully goofy monster movies in that golden era of flying saucers and giant insects.

And yet, somehow, you gotta love that blob. So simple. So direct. So gooey.

I suppose there are people who appreciate the blob, and people who don’t. The latter are probably beyond help; for the former, there’s a brand-new version of The Blob, featuring a much higher budget than the original and with state-of-the-art special effects. But still with the same basic idea.

Once again, the blob falls from outer space and attaches itself to the hand of an expendable old coot. Then it begins devouring everything in sight, starting with the coot, until an entire small town in threatened.

The only people who can stop the blob are a motorcycle boy (Kevin Dillon) and a cheerleader (Shawnee Smith), but of course they have a hard time getting anyone to believe them.

The director is Chuck Russell, who displayed an inventive visual sense in his previous film (A Nightmare on Elm Street 3). Russell has a field day concocting ways for the purplish-pink mass of blob to surprise its victims; one person is yanked down a drainpipe, another is squished in a telephone booth, and a romantic teen is unfortunately surprised during a heavy-petting session in lovers’ lane.

Russell includes an update on the original film’s most famous scene, in which the blob slimed its way into a movie theater. In this case, however, the original is not improved upon. One twist in the new version provides an explanation of the blob’s origin. It isn’t just a bit of space glub; actually, the blob is the result of a government germ-warfare test. When the officials hit town, they’re more concerned with capturing the blob than with saving the populace; “This’ll put U.S. defense years ahead of the Russians,” burbles one scientist.

This new Blob is a good little horror movie There’s some comfort in the thought that, despite its one-dimensional personality, the blob is still gooey after all these years.

First published in the Herald, August 1988

Russell went on to direct The Mask and Eraser; he wrote the screenplay with Frank Darabont, then at the beginning of his career. Certainly a movie headlined by Kevin Dillon and Shawnee Smith has some essential 80s cred, am I right? As far as I know this film’s rep is pretty solid with horror mavens—and the ’58 Blob is not exactly a fall-down masterpiece, so there’s not a great deal to resent about a sequel.


October 30, 2019

dollsIn 1985, a giddy, extravagantly gruesome horror movie called Re­Animator brought a rookie director named Stuart Gordon to the spotlight. Actually, Gordon had been a director for years, in the vanguard of experimental live theater in Chicago. His first movie displayed considerable wit, iconoclasm, and a freewheeling willingness to disgust.

His next movie, From Beyond, was another spinoff of H.P. Lovecraft, and basically another mad-doctor movie. (It never had a regular run locally, but it’s out on cassette.) It was solid enough, but not as original as Re-Animator.

Gordon’s third film is a change of pace, although he remains firmly within the horror film tradition (also within the stable of Empire Pictures, a quirky exploitation-films company). Dolls, which debuted as a midnight movie at the recent Seattle International Film Festival, is a haunted house picture, with the usual group of ill-matched people coming together on a stormy night in a mysterious old mansion.

Basic, well-worn stuff, and it still works, given that Gordon is sprightly indeed about moving the proceedings from one ghastly situation to another. It turns out that the kindly old couple who own the mansion are dollmakers of the old school, the type who labor to make every doll special in some detail. All of these dolls are “special” in the same detail: they can come alive and do mischief to people who rub them the wrong way. Usually these victims are people who don’t like dolls (they also happen to be the ones who get up in the middle of the night and go poking around in the dolls’ rooms).

The concept of dolls rising up against humans may sound goofy, but it has worked before as a horror concept. Remember the old episode of Twilight Zone in which a Chatty Cathy told Telly Savalas it was going to kill him? To many of us given to indiscriminate fears anyway, dolls can be creepy. Most kids seem to go through some phase of doll anxiety – you just can’t trust the little things completely – and Dolls plays upon these childhood fears.

Not that any of this is played straight. Gordon’s tongue is frequently in cheek, and he has fun bestowing demonic powers upon his toys, who screech, claw, and nibble at their victims. Barbie and Ken wouldn’t last a minute in such rude company.

First published in the Herald, August 1987

It seems a more innocent time, that I would have to explain that dolls can be creepy. Child’s Play was a year in the future. Some of us were intrigued by what Gordon was getting up to back then, although it surprises me to recall that From Beyond didn’t even get a proper opening in Seattle. (But it’s on cassette, folks.) Gordon has had an interesting career in theater and film; his non-horror movie work includes a scathing adaptation of David Mamet’s Edmund.

Lady in White

October 29, 2019

ladyinwhiteReally good ghost stories are hard to come by these days. Oh, there are plenty of horror films, but the ghost story is a specific genre, with definite rules and traditions. A new film, Lady In White, fulfills so many of these traditions that it’s tempting to applaud it. Too bad it isn’t a better movie.

But at least writer-director Frank Laloggia had the right instincts. Lady in White is old-fashioned and evocative, and it rightly tells its story through the eyes of a child: a 9-year-old boy (Lukas Haas, the kid from Witness), who begins to suspect that all is not well in the quiet little town of Willowpoint Falls.

He’s drawn into a mystery when two bratty pals lock him up in a school coat closet at Halloween time. It’s the very same room where, 10 years before, a little girl was murdered … yipes! This night, of all nights, a man breaks into the room, discovers Haas there, and tries to kill the boy.

This leads the kid into a mystery that involves the strange murders of a handful of children over the years, and ends up at the spooky old house at the edge of town and an encounter with the ghostly lady in white, “a mysterious, long-robed woman who roams the cliffs at night.”

The script is full of creepy incidents, although it telegraphs the identity of the child-killer fairly early on. There are no surprises, but there is a lot of affection for the expected twists and turns of the classic ghost story, along the lines of a familiar old tale told ’round a campfire.

Laloggia seems to be attempting to capture the autumnal chill of Ray Bradbury’s small-town horror stories. Unfortunately, Lady in White has a low-budget look that sometimes undercuts the director’s more expressive moments. And not all the actors are up to snuff, although Haas provides an effective hero. (Alex Rocco plays his widowed father, Len Cariou the father’s best friend, and Katherine Helmond plays the weird old woman who lives in the dilapidated shack by the cliffs.)

Lady in White has its problems, but it does get closer to raising occasional gooseflesh than the disappointing adaptation of Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes a few years back, which covered similar territory. It’s an honest, well-meaning try, and endearing even when it’s at its clumsiest.

First published in the Herald, April 1988

I’m not sure where Mr. Laloggia went, but he posts on Twitter every now and again. The film has a following, for sure. At the time it was a welcome break from the dismal run of slasher films that had dominated the earlier part of the decade.

A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge

October 28, 2019

nightmare_on_elm_street_2Last year’s Nightmare on Elm Street was a flat­ out screamfest, a niftily constructed thriller that raised gooseflesh more honestly and effectively than any horror film since The Shining. Its carefully balanced mingling of dream and reality had helpless audiences unsure where the next scare was going to come from.

The sequel is here, and it’s a dorky mess. A Nightmare on Elm Street, Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge was rushed into production, and it shows. Nothing is thought out; everything’s predictable.

It’s safe to assume that the drop-off in quality is largely due to the absence of director Wes Craven, one of the best horror maestros in the business (Last House on the Left, Swamp Thing). Someone named Jack Sholder has taken the reins, and he botches things pretty completely.

Here’s how it goes: A family moves into the house that was inhabited by the ill-fated characters from the first movie. (They are apparently not bothered by the iron bars over the windows; Dad says, “Well, how do you think we got this place for such a reasonable price?”) The teen-age son (Mark Patton) starts having weird nightmares; the film begins with his ride on a bus that drives out into the desert and falls into the San Andreas Fault. Now, right away you can see why Part 2 isn’t going to work: In the original, you never were sure what was dream and what was reality. This opening scene is clearly an outrageous nightmare, which makes it less interesting.

The kid notes that the creepy guy in his dreams is the same ugly dude described in the diary he finds in his room, left there by the previous inhabitant. Then a lovebird bursts into flame in the living room. Then the kid gels up in the middle of the night, goes to an S&M bar and finds his gym teacher there – at which point, the nightmare guy, who goes by the name of Freddy Krueger, takes over the kid’s body and kills the gym teacher.

Sounds weird, right? There’s more: The obligatory girlfriend (Kim Myers) throws a pool party at her parents’ house, and Freddy decides to attend. This girl sticks loyally by her boyfriend, even when he shows up at the party with blood all over his shirt and steel claws on his hand. And they called it puppy love.

The party is the blow-out of all time: when young Patton mutates into Freddy, all hell breaks loose. Freddy makes frankfurters explode and cans of beer blow their tops. Obviously, this man is evil incarnate. (For future reference, the pool is the worst place to be in such a situation, because Freddy makes the water boil.)

The movie is bad news. The worst news is that ol’ Freddy (played under much makeup by Robert Englund) may be receiving the Jason treatment. Jason of course, is the inexhaustibly popular killer from the Friday the 13th movies. The ads for Freddy’s Revenge all feature the bad guy, and there is every evidence we may be seeing him in our dreams for years to come.

First published in the Herald, November 1985

The next movie Jack Sholder directed was The Hidden, a very nice little horror picture, so apologies there. I haven’t revisited the film, and never will, unless there is a lot of money involved.

The Mosquito Coast

October 25, 2019

mosquito coastEarly on in The Mosquito Coast, someone refers to Allie Fox, a brilliant, intense and slightly off­-center inventor, as a Dr. Frankenstein who creates mechanical monsters. Specifically, Fox makes refrigeration devices, machines for making ice.

But, as The Mosquito Coast makes clear as it goes along, Fox will create a real Frankenstein monster in the course of the film: himself. This is the story of a man’s descent into tyranny and madness; it is a dark character study, and, in some ways, a monster movie.

It’s the latest from the Witness team of Harrison Ford (who plays Fox) and director Peter Weir. Paul Schrader, a filmmaker drawn to monomaniacal figures (Taxi Driver, Mishima) adapted the screenplay from the novel by Paul Theroux.

Theroux’s story is narrated by Fox’s son, an adolescent boy (River Phoenix, of Stand by Me), who tells of the most traumatic adventure in his family’s life. Frustrated with a lack of success among the American philistines, Allie Fox decides to cart his family to the jungle, a Central American nowhere called the Mosquito Coast.

Once there, Fox buys an entire town, which turns out to be a cluster of shacks, miles upriver from civilization, which the jungle threatens to overtake. He, his wife (Helen Mirren), and their two sons and two daughters begin to clean up, and – with the aid of natives – bring a semblance of civilization to the spot.

Fox’s greatest achievement, however, will be building a giant refrigerator – to bring ice to people who have never seen such a thing. This is his obsession.

The second half of the film brings a series of disasters, and the comic tone of Fox’s eccentricity gives way to real madness, including telling his children they cannot go back to the United States because nuclear bombs have been dropped there.

This role is obviously Harrison Ford’s chanciest performance. He looks right for it – his hair longish and pulled back, his eyes squinting behind metal-rimmed glasses. And Ford’s acting is good, but at the same time he seems fundamentally miscast. The epic rage and megalomania of the role don’t come naturally to him, and when his character really wigs out, it seems forced. (Jack Nicholson was reportedly an early choice, which sounds appropriate, and this character does resemble Nicholson’s mad family man from The Shining.)

There’s a clunky quality to the plot, which moves and lingers at unexpected locales, and the intrusion of three banditos at a crucial point smells like a contrivance.

This film has been taking a critical hammering since it opened in New York and Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago, and probably it belongs in the “ambitious failure” category. But those are the best kind of failures to have, and some of Weir’s dreamy images (photographed by John Seale, who also shot Witness) will stay with you. An isolated spit where Fox vows to make a final stand looks like a surreal end of the world, and the river journey that ends the film has some beauty.

Hanging over Weir’s work is the ghost of German director Werner Herzog, who made two films about white men who go to the South American jungles on an insane quest and go mad (Aguirre, The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo). The Mosquito Coast is uncannily reminiscent of those films at times, and one wonders whether Herzog might have made a more inspired, visionary, wacko film out of this story. But then, he already did.

First published in the Herald, December 1986

I see there’s going to be a long-form TV adaptation of the book, featuring Justin Theroux, the nephew of Paul. So its time has come, perhaps. Whatever you think of the movie, it’s interesting that it exists at all, given the subject matter; presumably, without Harrison Ford’s clout, this project would’ve ended up in the dustbin that holds all those other interesting but far too risky ideas. Andre Gregory and Martha Plimpton are in the film, and so is Jason Alexander. And Butterfly McQueen? Wow. My memory tells me that River Phoenix carries the movie; at this point it was clear that he was an unusual kid, more than capable of holding the center of a big film.

The Abyss

October 24, 2019

abyssIf you’ve never seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Cocoon, or any other of the contact-with-­friendly-aliens movies of the last decade, then The Abyss may seem like a visionary film, a fabulous mix of action, science fiction, and wonder.

It may seem that way even if you have seen those other movies. But The Abyss, an expert and often evocative piece of action filmmaking, suffers from too much familiarity with these themes of alien awe.

That cavil noted, I hasten to applaud The Abyss as the top action movie of the year thus far. It’s the third movie since January to feature a plot about deep-sea workers trapped with major problems at the bottom of the ocean. But while the memory of Deepstar Six and Leviathan recedes into Z- movie cheesiness, The Abyss comes roaring at you with all the breathless ingenuity that writer-director James Cameron can muster.

That’s quite a bit.

Cameron is the fellow who created Aliens and The Terminator, and he’s an energetic, intelligent talent. The Abyss is his most ambitious effort, in more ways than one.

Most of the movie takes place underwater, at an oil-drilling station on the sea floor. When an American nuclear sub crashes nearby, the military asks the rig to help investigate. The boss (Ed Harris) isn’t thrilled, particularly when his estranged wife (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), who designed the sea station, comes down to supervise. He’s also suspicious of the grim Navy divers (led by Michael Biehn) who seem to have their own agenda.

The journey into the wrecked submarine, an unnerving graveyard of floating refuse and snow-white corpses, is just the beginning of the fun. The film’s full of crackling suspense in an old-fashioned movie way; at almost 2 1/2  hours, the forward motion never flags.

But Cameron is up to more than just adventure. The film is about two things: the exploration of non-terrestrial life (“something not us”), and the exploration of a foundering relationship. The Abyss is like a cross between Close Encounters and Scenes From a Marriage. The marriage of Harris and Mastrantonio is shown in broad but deeply felt strokes (and is well played by those two good actors).

Cameron and his own wife, Abyss producer Gale Ann Hurd, were breaking up during the shooting of this film. That must have made for an interesting production. Their marriage was not the only thing that became strained during the grueling, already notorious filming process. Conditions were so horrible that Ed Harris vowed never to talk about the movie at all. The complicated underwater scenes were shot inside a huge abandoned nuclear reactor in South Carolina, and the logistics were a practical nightmare.

Very little of this hardship comes across on screen; the film’s a technical marvel. Technical but human – Cameron knows just how to play off the big special effects with the personal story. It makes you wonder whether the supernatural elements that creep into the film were necessary at all. Despite the nature of his films, Cameron’s touch is for people, not aliens.

First published in the Herald, August 1989

I wasn’t comparing The Abyss to Cocoon, but I do remember thinking that (in terms of subject matter) The Abyss had just missed being ahead of the curve. So that’s what that comment is about. I realize there might be some debate about my last line, since Cameron is not exactly lauded for his treatment of characters, but on the other hand, Titanic wasn’t entirely a smash because of special effects – at the very least, Cameron has a touch for archetypes. 

Cocoon: The Return

October 23, 2019

cocoon2Once the financial take reached a certain level, there was no avoiding a sequel to Cocoon.

Only problem was, most of the main characters in that film – residents of a Florida retirement home – were whisked away at the end to a planet where they wouldn’t age or sicken or die. So where would the sequel pick up?

Cocoon: The Return, answers this burning question by bringing the far-flung travelers back, quite literally, down to earth. They return looking none the worse for space travel, but with slightly better tans and wearing golfing clothes: Wilford Brimley and Maureen Stapleton, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, and Don Ameche and Gwen Verdon, all returning from the first Cocoon (Ameche won the best supporting actor Oscar last time out).

The excuse for bringing them back home is that the aliens must retrieve the cocoons they left in the ocean. So, the earthlings tag along and get a few days R&R on the beach, and make contact with some old friends, including Jack Gilford, as the crotchety widower they left behind.

The alien expedition is led by Tahnee Welch (Raquel’s daughter), who finds her old friend (Steve Guttenberg) now hawking cheap souvenirs and running a crummy tourist boat. Guttenberg, who provides some of the movie’s most amusingly laid-back moments, naturally helps the extraterrestrials get their pods off the ocean floor. But he does lay down the law; this time, he insists, “You cannot steal any old people.”

The script, by Stephen McPherson, invents a lame side-plot, wherein one of the cocoons is seized by an oceanographic institute. This is basically a ruse to stir up a little fake suspense at the end and introduce a new character, a sympathetic scientist (Courteney Cox). The other new character is a brassy motel owner (Broadway veteran Elaine Stritch, last seen in Woody Allen’s September), who meets the dour Gilford and perks him up a bit.

The sequel recycles a lot of the devices of the first film. Every opportunity is taken to display the spryness of the oldsters, from a romp in the surf to a pick-up game of basketball. There are a couple of unexpected medical twists, and the main bone of cotention seems to be the homesickness that quickly infects the visitors.

None of this is compelling or new, but, under Daniel Petrie’s sure direction, it all goes down pretty easily. Petrie even manages to loosen up the heretofore wooden Tahnee Welch, who has a funny scene in which she gets drunk on Earth food and begins flinging her dinner around. The other actors, needless to say, are pros who don’t need to be told how to deliver the goods.

That said, it’s probably time for the Cocoon movies to head for the retirement home. The sequel comes pretty close to exhausting the possibillities, a condition that is all but admitted by the inclusion of clips from the first film during the closing credits. At the end of this one, we got some people back home, we got some people back in the stars. Now let ’em stay where they are.

First published in the Herald, November 1988

Not much to say, really – has anyone thought about this film since it came out? It sounds like my fabled Guttenberg soft spot was in place here. Daniel Petrie came out of TV’s Golden Age and went back to the small screen after this film; he worked on some duds but also had an interesting moment in 1980-81 with Resurrection and Fort Apache the Bronx. He was the father of the similarly hard-working Donald Petrie and Daniel Petrie Jr.