FIVE FILMS FROM...1995
SEVEN (or "Se7en"… if you want to be an arse about it)
(Directed by David Fincher)
Has there been a more influential film in the overlapping world of horrors/thrillers? Possibly The Silence of the Lambs and a few others. But the grimy nastiness and sheer take-no-prisoners nihilism still invoke a brilliant uneasiness all these years later. Even the scratched-on-film and rusty opening credits surely influenced the aesthetics of later genre films like Saw, Hostel, and many others. And, although the goriness and shocks are mostly encountered in aftermath scenes, there's even an argument that it could be a candidate for the first "torture porn" (we still HATE that term) movie. Born from the frustrations that screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker experienced whilst working in New York City, the film went through a lengthy casting and production process, with many tweaks and studio squabbles. The actors Robert Duvall, Gene Hackman, Sylvester Stallone, Denzel Washington, and William Hurt were all considered for the lead roles before Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman came on board. Director Fincher was hurting after the reactions and tribulations from Alien 3 but found himself drawn to the deeper meanings of the narrative after he was (allegedly) sent the wrong draft of the script. It was the perfect unorthodox thriller for an unorthodox filmmaker.
Detective Lieutenant William Somerset ( a note-perfect Freeman) is an ordered, and educated cop working in the chaos and grime of an (unnamed) city who's just had enough and is ready to retire. He is partnered up with the brash, foul-mouthed, and ambitious Detective David Mills (Pitt being uncharacteristically un-charming), who has moved to the city with his melancholic wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow, Pitt's real-life partner at the time). The mismatched duo becomes involved in a grotesque investigation where victims have been murdered in tableaus representing one of the seven deadly sins. An overweight man is force-fed until he literally bursts (Greed), another is tied to a bed and starved (Sloth), etc. The twists and turns confront the pair with hideous scenes until the climax reveals a sick masterplan. It is a brilliantly orchestrated tale, marked by its refusal to play by mainstream Hollywood rules. This was partly due to Finch and Pitt steadfastly sticking to their guns and demanding the darker aspects remain. "Whaaaaat's in the buhhhhx!?!"
By all accounts, Seven could have been just another cop-thriller, but the grim genre-tinged elements take it far beyond that. The two leads are skewed versions of cop stereotypes. Somerset is a black cop nearing retirement who DOESN'T die ironically at the end. He is also a brilliant academic who uses education to solve the riddles, usually too late to save anyone. Mills is a bit-of-a-douche; sweary, tone-deaf to Tracy's depression, impetuous, and a glory-hound. The ending (*spoiler alerts*) is far from happy, the killer is caught only because before he turns himself in, and the villain's plan is taken to its tragic "successful" conclusion. And yet it is so well made and enthralling, unlike other dark-edged films, it stands up to many successive viewings. The cast, includes some subtly underplayed roles taken by R. Lee Ermey and Richard Roundtree, and everyone plays their part perfectly. This includes the role of "John Doe", which is nicely played by an actor whose name is currently spelt with an "M", a "U", and a "D".
From a genre perspective, there are some superb shocks and set-pieces, and it is all perfectly balanced by Fincher's style of filming. The backstories of the film are actually legion; Pitt badly hurt his arm during the filming, and it was written into the story, the "Greed" actor become "glued" to the floor with the fake blood, an unfilmed sequence shows Somerset buy a country retreat, a subliminal shot of Paltrow's face is apparently cut into the end sequence, Pitt bought his own (intentionally) crappy ties for the character, etc, and indeed, etc. There are also a collection of brilliant sequences; "Sloth" being not quite dead (one of the finest ever cinematic jump-scares), the chase across the cars in the pelting rain, each grim murder tableau (and their gross little details), and the wonderfully orchestrated final scene when it all comes together. It wasn't an instant hit at the box-office; it was critically acclaimed and went on to become a "slow" success and a cult classic, often compared to the likes of The Shawshank Redemption and Blade Runner in terms of delayed appreciation. A fantastically mounted thriller for anyone with dark tastes.
(Directed by Roger Donaldson)
Imagine if you took the imagery of Aliens, mashed it up with the cheapest exploitation movie you could think of, secured a good cast of actors, and added a smidgen of Earth Girls are Easy. You probably get something like Species, a particularly bizarre sci-fi/horror hybrid that rivals only Lifeforce for guilty pleasure status. The concept comes from a genuinely fascinating concept that had previously weaved in and out of the studio's awareness (often as a treatment called "The Message"). Instead of "little green men", "greys", or Martian war machines invading earth, the narrative has Earthlings create their own doom from communications originating from deep space. This eventually transmogrified into an ever-adapting screenplay from Dennis Feldman. The project secured the talents of such names as Ben Kingsley, Forest Whitaker, Alfred Molina, Marg Helgenberger, and Michael Madsen (before his "Syfy Channel Movie Original" days). More significantly, it also managed to involve Swiss Artist H.R. Giger in the design of the movie's creature, with SFX impresario Steve Johnson recreating the visuals onscreen. It all looked very stylish and promising.
In response to signals sent to outer space, Earth's scientists have received an alien transmission that tells them how to splice human and alien DNA. They attempt this, as you do, and it results in the creation of SIL, which disappointingly just stands for a batch id of "S1L" rather than "Super Intelligent Lifeform" or something imaginative. SIL, of course, escapes her confines and goes on the run. Originally a young girl (played by future award-winning actress Michelle Williams in one of her first big-screen roles), she eventually morphs into Natasha Henstridge in her first film role. Unfortunately, she starts to feel immediately broody and looks to mate with a suitable human as soon as possible. So, lead scientist Xavier Fitch (*snort*) sends an "expert" (*double-snort*) group of trackers to kill her quickly before she produces killer-babies. S'true. Given that the scene that introduces "mature" SIL to the viewer consists of an unclothed Henstridge, slipping out of a cocoon in a train carriage, covered in KY jelly to give the impression of alien slime… you can probably guess the artistic level of the film.
It did remarkably well at the global box office (which led to some ill-advised sequels), but… by God, it's a trashy piece of whimsy. Despite the presence of actors like Kingsley, Whittaker, and Molina… and Henstridge actually doing some decent emoting at some points, it is pure exploitation, and most coverage dwelt on the nudity rather than some of the intriguing sci-fi concept. It also has some terrible dialogue that sounds like it came from the 1950s; "We decided to make it female, so it would be more docile and controllable." “More docile and controllable, eh? You guys don't get out much.", and one character inexplicably acting as an empath who just wanders around, stating the bleedin' obvious.
However, if you view it as a trashy movie with a bigger budget than normal, there's a lot of fun to be had with it. SIL is an effective creation (even if Giger and others felt it got a little to close to the Xenomorph in looks), there are some fun kills (worst French kiss ever, spine removal, etc.), and it's a pacy little number that doesn't outstay its welcome. It's a fun popcorn horror and a decent time-waster. Needless to say, the three following sequels are all unnecessary, and it's a real shame that no-one picked up on the possibilities of the dumb twist ending in the original. Attack of the Mutant Alien Rats, anybody?
TALES FROM THE CRYPT: DEMON KNIGHT
(Directed by Ernest R. Dickerson)
The HBO horror anthology series Tales from the Crypt, based on the infamous 1950s EC comics, hit the heights of its popularity in the early 90s. So, like any hit TV series, a film seemed to be a no-brainer. However, rather than make an anthology film, or turn to the 1970s Amicus film for inspiration, the decision was made to make a standalone story. The project chosen was based on a script that was nearly filmed by Tom Holland as a follow-up to Child's Play, and by Mary Lambert as her next film after Pet Sematary. Instead, it was viewed as an ideal narrative for the Tales brand. Although it didn't emphasise any comedic events, it had intriguingly unique mythology, some appealing characters, and a strong potential for practical gore effects and demonic creatures. Directed by Dickerson (who went on to film episodes of Dexter and The Walking Dead), it secured a great cast, including Billy Zane, William Sadler, Jada Pinkett, and the legendary Dick Miller.
The film opens with our old chum, the Crypt Keeper (John Kassir), doing his usual punny schtick as an intro before sliding into the story. Frank Brayker (Sadler) is a drifter on the run in New Mexico, fleeing a character only ever identified as The Collector (Zane, an absolute hoot and having the time of his life!). He seeks refuge in an ex-church that has been converted into a boarding house, also housing a motley crew of characters. Brayker eventually reveals himself as the keeper of a "key" that holds holy blood and is desired by denizens of Hell to reclaim lost power. It then turns into an entertaining (and gory) horror "siege" movie, as The Collector attempts to storm the building with the help of a horde of demonic minions (summoned by his glowing green blood, 'natch). It some respects, it feels like "NOTLD" or "From Dusk till Dawn" in the way that the "good guys" are barricaded up and fight an onslaught of paranormal nasties. It is also surprisingly free from overt tongue-in-cheek humour and punny gags, with the gags mostly coming directly from Zane and the OTT gore. Speaking of Zane…
If you ask the average film fan about Zane, they'll probably talk about his caddish role in Titanic. Talk to a genre film fan, and they're likely to grin broadly and mention this film. Because Zane has an absolute ball in the role as the Hell-sent Collector. Chewing around lines like "Humans! You're not worth the flesh you're printed on!" and slagging off Cowboy culture, he's a genuine delight to watch and a key part of the fun. Otherwise, Pinkett makes for a great atypical "hero", a black heroine who's also a convict and ends up (*spoiler*) as the saviour of humankind, along with nice turns from Sadler and others. The SFX are of a higher standard than the series (although the budget was an issue), and there are great moments where heads are punched through (and used as a "boxing glove"), arms are pulled off, and loads of green-eyed ghouls are despatched in various ways. It has the fun manic feel of an Evil Dead movie and even resembles Lamberto Bava's Demons with the imagery and ambitious mythos. It's superb fun, and it's a shame that the follow-up (Bordello of Blood) was nowhere near as good. If you need any further encouragement, the wonderfully eccentric Zane states that it is probably his favourite personal role/film. Yeah! Screw you Titanic!
(Directed by Dan O'Bannon)
Dan O'Bannon will forever be remembered as 'the guy that wrote Alien'. However, although it is obviously one of the best films ever made, it's a little bit of a disservice to think that he didn't do anything else with his career. Five years before Alien, he co-wrote Dark Star with John Carpenter and he was also responsible for penning the script for Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall in 1990. As well as writing movies, he also directed a couple too – including Return of the Living Dead (1985), which is a complete blast. On the writing front, he went out with a bit of a whimper – with the rather terrible Hemoglobin (1997) being his last real writing gig. However a couple of years before this he wrote a movie that although not particularly well received at the time, has gone on to get more of the recognition it deserves. That film was Screamers.
Set in the year 2078 on the planet Sirius B a war is raging between a mining company (called NEB) and the Alliance – who are basically a group of former miners and scientists. Why are they fighting, you ask? Well after a group of miners discovered that they were releasing toxic gasses into the atmosphere, they went on strike. In response, NEB hired a bunch of mercenaries to act as strike breakers. Flashforward a few years later and the miners (the Alliance) have built some rather terrifying machines whose sole purpose is to hunt down and kill NEB soldiers. These machines are called Screamers because of the high pitched sounds they emit when they attack. When an NEB solider is killed outside an Alliance compound, he is found to be carrying a message; an offer of safe passage to discuss a truce between the two warring armies. Despite some concerns of the legitimacy of the offer, an Alliance commander (played by Peter Weller) decides it's worth the risk and sets off across the wasted landscape in search of possible peace. However he and his team soon discover that these Screamers have evolved. You can't tell them apart from human beings and they've gained sentience...
Screamers is based on a short story called Second Variety by Phillip K. Dick and like so much of Dick's work, includes themes of fantasy, the interplanetary and simulacra. It's also a film that was stuck in development hell for a number of years. O'Bannon finished the script in 1981 and it was optioned two years later. In fact, O'Bannon's screenplay was rewritten (by Miguel Tejada-Flores) before it was released in 95' and O'Bannon didn't even know the film was being made until it was actually released!
It's a shame because not only did the film take over a decade to get made, as mentioned earlier, it wasn't well received at the time by critics or general audiences. It was also a financial flop too, failing to recoup its £20m budget at the box office. But sometimes films don't connect with viewers straight away. Hell, The Thing was pretty much panned when it was released in 82'. And although it's not in the same league as Carpenter's masterpiece, Screamers is a film that is worth lauding.
Firstly, we've got Peter Weller playing the lead and let's face it, having Robocop in any film instantly makes it better. He's as good as he is always is here, playing the conflicted commander with that moody coolness that makes him such a presence. The plot is pretty run-of-the-mill at this point (had it been released 10 years earlier it may have felt a bit more visionary) but there's lots of action (although there is a fair bit of talking too) and those Screamers are really quite scary as well. Sure, there are some questions thrown up that are never really answered but this is science-fiction, people – use your imagination! It may feel a bit like a B-Movie version of films like Blade Runner and Alien but Screamers more than manages to create its own sense of style and atmosphere. The effects aren't shabby either. So next time you're after some extra-terrestrial thrills, give this one a look!
(Directed by Tyler Hackford)
Silver Bullet and IT have been the only features based on Stephen King novels/novellas that have appeared in this blog series recently, so let's add another one onto the pile with the superb Dolores Claiborne. Ah but is it horror, I hear you say? Well it's kind of a combination of psychological thriller, mystery and crime and it's written by King, so that's a good start. Also, this stands head and shoulders above some of the other possible options, like Halloween 4 or The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (shudders). Roger Ebert classifies it as a horror movie too, so that's enough for us. King wrote Dolores Claiborne in 1992, so it really didn't take long for it to leap from the written page to the big screen. Although at this point, movie producers knew that he was a bit of a gold mine so were keen to adapt pretty much anything he wrote.
Dolores Claiborne (Kathy Bates) works as a maid for a paralysed (but wealthy) old woman called Vera Donovan in her grand old mansion on an island in Maine (where else?). One day Vera falls down the staircase but when the Mailman sees Dolores standing over her with a rolling pin, it looks like anything but an accident. Vera passes away from her injuries and the police begin a murder investigation. Dolores' daughter, Selene (Jennifer Jason Leigh) – a journalist living in New York, arrives to support her mother after not seeing her for years. However, Selene is battling her own personal demons and doubts her mum's innocence. She still suspects her mother killed her father, who disappeared several decades ago. But even though the local Sheriff, most of the townspeople and even Selena herself think Dolores is guilty, a series of revelations and repressed memories throw everything into doubt...
Dolores Claiborne is a film that just oozes class. From the source material by King, to the nuanced script from Tony Gilroy (Nightcrawler, The Bourne Identity) to the fantastic central performances from Kathy Bates and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Bates has said that this was her favourite movie role of her entire career and it's certainly one of the best. The supporting cast are also not too shabby either, with Christopher Plummer, John C. Reilly and David Strathairn also making appearances. Unlike Screamers (and many films that have featured in this blog series), Dolores Claiborne received almost universal praise and turned in a healthy profit at the box office too.
There's something almost Hitchcockian about the film in the way it eeks out tension. There's lots of mood building and atmosphere and every now and then we are walloped with a visual shock or jolt. Although there's nothing terrifying as such, the fusion of bitter family relationships, horrible secrets, the strains between poverty and affluence and the real-life horrors of the daily routine are more than enough to make things feel suitably genre. The way the narrative keeps descending into flashbacks (or hallucinations) also adds a sense of the illusory too. Director Taylor Hackford is restrained in the way he peels back the layers of the mystery as well and although he creates a rather sombre aesthetic, he manages to make the 2 hours plus running time feel brisk but brooding. The Nova Scotia backdrop makes for a wonderfully foreboding backdrop too.
The ending may not be quite as impactful as what has come before it deserves but it's perfectly ok. Bates' performance on its own is enough to make up for any flaws. She's sensational. She may have won an Oscar for her role in Misery (another King adaptation) but in our humble opinion, she's just as good here.