FIVE FILMS FROM...1996


THE FRIGHTENERS

(Directed by Peter Jackson)

Most film fans appreciate Jackson’s work from the massively-budgeted Middle Earth trilogies (The Lord of the Rings & The Hobbit) or his recent extraordinary documentary work. Of course, he is held in high esteem by horror fans for his early Bad Taste trio of films, namely: Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles, and Braindead". In between those early cult genre offerings and before splashing the cash in SFX epics like the 2005 King Kong remake. He had a transitional period where he made this unfairly forgotten little spook fest that deserves to be re-evaluated. Although the synopsis sort of makes it sound like a goofy reverse Ghostbusters, there's a lot more imagination and a LOT more darkness than you might suppose. It was co-written (as most of his productions are) by the team of himself and his wife, Fran Walsh. They apparently come up with the core concept during the production of Heavenly Creatures. Encouraged by producer Robert Zemeckis, the project almost became a Tales from the Crypt film before finding a home at Universal Studios and a substantial budget. It was also one of the first big productions using Jackson's Weta Digital FX company, with a (for then) unprecedented number of effects needing to be accomplished. Michael J. Fox came aboard as the lead after seeing the critically acclaimed Heavenly Creatures. It became one of his last leading physical film roles before being diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease.


The story sees Fox playing Frank Bannister, an architect devastated by the loss of his wife in a car accident. As a result of nearly dying in the same accident, he has gained the ability to see and communicate with ghosts and even made friends with some unlikely spectral oddballs (gunslinger, gangster, etc.). With their help, he fabricates hauntings and then "exorcises" the property for a fee, making ends meet financially. However, during these (initially) lightweight shenanigans, he encounters a terrifying phantasmagorical figure that takes on the guise of the Grim Reaper himself! And not only does he frighten people to death, but he can also "kill" ghosts stuck in the purgatorial realm of Earth. This puts Bannister and his glowing chums in "mortal" danger. It sounds like "Frighteners" could be a fun knockabout PG-13-rated comedy/horror from that general concept. And that was the original idea; however, the MPAA took another view, and despite the lack of bloodletting, decided that the overall intensity of the film warranted an R rating. Somewhat infuriated by their attitude, Jackson edited a certain scene to make it much gorier!


This is the main bone of contention that some people have with "Frighteners". Going by the trailers, most people were expecting a Beetlejuice romp (Danny Elfman even does the soundtrack), and yes… there is an element of that running through the film. Frank's ghostly chums run about, bicker hilariously, get stuck in doors, and there are various sight-gags about their eyeballs floating away and suchlike. In stark contrast to this, the whole sub-plot about the "Grim Reaper" is genuinely quite intense. There's a hint of this with the frantic opening scene that sees a terrified Patricia Bradley (genre fave Dee Wallace) being haunted by a ghoulish figure that literally comes out of the walls and carpeting, in some impressive effects by Weta. This is compounded as the plot progresses. The originally goofy antics of Frank's interaction with luminescent gunslingers and disco-obsessed spooks start to give way to a much grimmer tone (despite Elfman's usual "La-La-La" music). At the root of all this is a twisted storyline regarding a character obsessed with (real-life) serial killers and a nasty couple of extra plot twists. However, it is also interwoven with some redemption and some sweet after-life scenes with Frank and company.


This dark & light comedy horror is well above the benchmark of most similar films, with a edge that appeals to many horror fans who discovered it on home media. It didn't do well at the box-office; the R rating and release date (Jackson wanted Halloween, the studio insisted on a summer "blockbuster" release in July) went against it, as well as some confused reviews. However, the visuals are great (the flappy-cloaked Grim Reaper is a particular delight), and the story is ambitious and well-played. There is a good lead performance from Fox and some brilliantly deranged scenery-chewing ones from Wallace, Jake Busey, Jeffrey Combs, and even R. Lee Ermey (basically repeating his character from Full Metal Jacket). As long as you can accept "Beetlejuice"-level whimsy, with details about a mass-shooting and a relentless killer-spook, you'll get a kick out of this. Jackson shows his growing eye for story-telling and excellent cinematography with some great sequences like the aforementioned opening and a hospital scene where flashbacks merge seamlessly with current events. And you even get a character's head blown off with a shotgun, only to be instantly replaced by a spectral version. Very cool. And in that "spirit", why not give it a "shot"?

TREMORS II: AFTERSHOCKS

(Directed by S.S Wilson)

We've long derided the "fact" that all horror sequels suck. Like any film, they are equally as prone to lousy filmmaking or poor receptions. The highly entertaining Tremors led to an (almost) ceaseless franchise that branched off into TV (almost) twice and a film series that focused on survivalist Burt Gummer (Michael Gross). Before all that, though, there was this almost-as-good-as-the-first-but-not-quite sequel that sowed the seeds for all the future directions of the "Graboid" saga. This sequel had a pretty troubled production history, especially as the first film had relatively poor box-office and became a "delayed" hit due to the burgeoning home video market. It was initially written as a big-screen sequel, set in Australia and will Kevin Bacon returning as Val McKee. When Bacon committed to Apollo 13 and studio confidence in the project subsided, it was almost cancelled. Instead, after much of the crew and publicity-shy director took a pay cut, the production was geared towards a straight-to-video release; it eventually shot in California (standing in for Mexico). Fred Ward returns as Earl Bassett along with Gross and is joined by new characters as the Graboids start to evolve…


The story sees Earl smarting over the absence of his buddy Val, who has married Rhonda from the first film and moved away. (Sad fact: The aftermath of Val's marriage would have formed the groundwork for Bacon's planned Tremors TV series that was cancelled after the filmed pilot recently). The existence of Graboids is now familiar to the world, and there have been isolated outbreaks, one of which is affecting the operations in a Mexican oil-field. Earl is hired to "clear-up" the infestation, and he starts to successfully do this with the aid of new crony Grady Hoover (Chris Gartin) and Burt. However, the Graboids appear to react to their decimation with a change in appearance, size, and tactics. Wilson wrote, produced, and acted as a 2nd unit Director on the first film, so he's comfortable with this playful franchise's story and tone, and it definitely shows here. Out of all the franchise extensions of Tremors, this is easily the best entry and was the best received in terms of reviews and audience reaction… even if it was limited to home video and TV showings.


With no disrespect to the Burt Gummer "cycle" of films, this one feels the closest to the original in terms of thrills and comedy (not to mention Graboid blood n' guts). There are several reasons for this. Firstly, Ward is the main focus, and his prickly playing of Earl is continued seamlessly from the first film. Whilst his partnership with Bacon is missed, it is made up for with his good-natured riffing with Grady and a charming relationship with geologist Kate Reilly (the always watchable Helen Shaver). Their playful squabbling/flirting is refreshingly mature and non-exploitative; check out the brilliant scene where Ward furtively admires her figure, immediately followed by a scene where she secretly ogles his butt. Best of all is that the goofy humour and snappy dialogue are still there in droves. Examples would include the entirely predictable fate of a coyote and Burt's overpowered "sniper" rifle.


It also does what good sequels should do; it advances the story and extends the first film's mythology. When the Graboids are "too easily" vanquished, they "evolve" into something different. These are pesky smaller "Shriekers" that track by "heat" (and not sound vibrations) and dash on land. This changes things and makes it more interesting as new strategies have to be invented by Earl and his gang, as they wing it from one precarious situation to another. The practical effects (like the first film) actually look pretty cool, and the sturdy puppetry and animatronics gives a Gremlins-like aesthetics to the sequences, as characters creep between or run away from hordes of the "little buggers". Some CGI is used, but this looks a "little unconvincing" compared to the practical versions. Still, it was in its early days, and the exploded creatures still sploosh their innards all over the set. Excellent fun and worth seeing, even if you don't like the recent Tremors films. You'll also learn how to cheat at "Rock, Paper, Scissors": "Rock rips through paper".

THE BEAST

(TV mini series by Jeff Bleckner)

Jaws rip-offs were still common in the 90s, some 20 years after the original aqua-horror. Hell, they're still popular well into the 21st Century! And why not? What's more terrifying than a shark or fish chowing down on your extremities as you have a deep-sea dip? Well, maybe a frickin' giant squid grabbing hold of you and drawing you towards its shark beak might be a contender for brown-scuba-pants-time! And who better to tell you all the ghoulish marine biological details than author Peter Benchley, who wrote the novel that Jaws was based on? Exactly. Benchley's book (simply called Beast) was published in 1991. It isn't one of Benchley's best efforts and has a suitably ridiculous climax, as well as tons of slightly dubious environmental finger-wagging. Benchley acted as the executive producer for this two-part NBC production. A pre-CSI and post-Manhunter William Peterson takes the lead role in the miniseries, which was shot in (a perpetually overcast and cloudy) Patonga, situated in New South Wales, Australia. It was one of those "event" miniseries that the local TV channels in Australia, UK, and the USA heavily advertised for the first showing but has been largely forgotten since then.


The script actually differs from the book in several significant ways and changes its climax (a good thing, trust us). It actually becomes much more of a Jaws rip-off, and if Benchley wasn't involved, you do wonder if he might have had a quick chat with his lawyers otherwise. The show mainly focuses on Whip Dalton (Peterson giving a better performance than he needed to), an expert fisherman working out of the Pacific Northwest resort community, Graves' Point. He discovers an empty lifeboat with strange claws embedded into it. It doesn't take long for marine biologist Dr Herbert Talley (Ronald Guttman) to realise that it comes from a Giant Squid, which explains a yachting couple's disappearance. And so, the scene is set for the local fishing and scientific community to try and snare the tentacular terror before it chows down on any other visitors. And if that sounds almost like a carbon copy of the Jaws plot, then, yeah, it pretty much is. There's small-town politics, public greed, ineptitude, the usual kill-it or take-it-alive argument, and doomed sea-going voyages. Expect salty stereotypical characters as well.


There's also the addition of (*potential spoiler*) of a plot twist that is totally stolen from Gorgo (the 1961 monster film). You can probably guess the twist that makes for a half-time dumb cliff-hanger to end the first episode, if you know the film. The rest of the running time is entirely predictable; POV underwater shots of potential victims, sinking boats, grappled mini-subs, red-shirt characters, and some painful dialogue. For example, Couple adrift at sea: "What's that smell?", "Ammonia?", "Did you spill something?" etc. Apart from Peterson's earnest character, don't expect much in the way of quality or good acting. The soundtrack is full of over-dramatic orchestral swirls as well. We can't really argue that it's "good", but you're here for the squid, aren't you? And that actually mostly delivers…


It's not actually a massive leap from the likes of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) or Reap the Wild Wind (1942) in terms of SFX. Apart from occasional shots, it's achieved mainly by the usually rubbery animatronics that you would expect, but to be honest, that's much more welcome than the CGI monstrosities that you might see in more recent films like Eye of the Beast (2007). Don't expect gory eviscerations or blood (apart from slimy squid guts), but this creature feature actually manages to scratch the itches that matter for fans of aqua monsters. As long as you can put up with the "Jaws" comparisons, alongside a squid that can breach like a whale and hisses/shrieks like a velociraptor on heat… this is a cool guilty pleasure. People are snatched soundlessly off lifeboats, pulled down to the depths, subs are crushed claustrophobically, and so on. Most disturbing of all, a leading character is drawn inextricably towards a snapping beak (complete with a tongue!) and devoured (offscreen naturally). You don't see gruesome details… but boy, you can sure imagine them. Recommended with reservations, but we wonder what a well-scripted big-screen version would be like…

SCREAM

(Directed by Wes Craven)

Ok come on, let's be frank. There's no way we could compile a list of horror films to recommend from 1996 and not include Scream. Not only is Wes Craven's iconic slasher movie the best horror movie of the year (or perhaps even the decade) but it almost single-handedly kick-started the genre after several years where it felt as if it was in the wilderness. Now we're not saying that the glut of movies that followed (or imitated) Scream were all decent but what's clear is that it made the genre cool again and changed the way it was perceived by general audiences. It's also something of a personal favourite of mine. Back in 96' I was only 12 years old but I was one of those lucky kids whose parents owned a video rental store. My older brother managed to sneak a copy home and that opening ten minutes or so changed me I think. I was terrified - but fascinated - and it started a love for horror movies which has never wavered since. I even bought the ghost face costume and would hide in wardrobes and behind doors and jump out and scare the shit out of my little sister. Ah those were the days.

It seems a bit moot to explain the plot of Scream as I can't comprehend that anyone interested in the genre hasn't seen it but I'll do it any way. After a couple of high school students are brutally murdered (one of whom is found hanging from a tree) a media swarm descends on the affluent town of Woodsboro, California. When Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) – a student who is struggling with the upcoming one year anniversary of her mother's death - receives a threatening phone call and is attacked in her own home, it becomes clear that the authorities may have a possible serial killer on their hands. Sidney suspects it may be her dreamy boyfriend Billy (Skeet Ulrich), but after he is cleared, suspicion and paranoia sweeps over the town as Sidney and her small group of friends try to stay alive as the murder spree continues...

A couple of things shock me when I reflect on Scream. Firstly, it's 25 years old. I still cant quite process that. It makes me feel old. The other, is that it only has a 79% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It's true that the review aggregator is not always truly reflective of a film's quality but it's still surprising that one in five critics thought it was a flop. Because the bottom line is, it's one of the most important horror movies of the last 25 years.


Originally titled Scary Movie, Scream began life as an 18 page treatment by Kevin Williamson about a woman who is phoned and then terrorised by a masked killer. Born out of Williamson's love of Halloween, he developed it into a feature screenplay over the course of a long weekend and it was soon the subject of a bidding war between a number of production companies, with Dimension Films eventually winning the race. Wes Craven was initially uninterested in the project but after his involvement in the remake of The Haunting came to an end and Drew Barrymore signed up, he changed his mind.


It's a good thing he did because although Scream may well have been a decent movie anyway, Craven's handling of it all was nothing short of inspired. Bringing the same fusion of gore and black comedy that worked so well in New Nightmare a couple of years before, he used Williamson's smart script and made a film that was not only tense and terrifying but also cool and exhilarating and very meta. And he delivered a killer twist at the end too. He was helped by a talented cast of young hotties that included Neve Campbell, Skeet Ulrich, Matthew Lillard and Rose McGowan. This was supplemented by more established stars such as Drew Barrymore, Courteney Cox and Henry Winkler. It also introduced one of the scariest looking bad buys in recent memory, Ghostface. But as we found out in the sequels, Ghostface wasn't a person. It was a costume and an identity that could be reborn again and again and again.

Despite problems with censorship and a risky late December release date, Scream went on to gross over $100m at the US Box Office and has so far generated three sequels with a fourth currently in production. There have also been a couple of TV series too. So here we are, a quarter of a century on and it looks as though the demand for more Ghostface is still there. And whilst the new film (released next year) may be a blast, we're unsure as to whether anything will top the original, a true horror classic.


Fun fact: When Henry Winkler opens the closet in his office, his black leather Fonzie jacket from Happy Days is hanging in it.

THESIS

(Directed by Alejandro Amenebar)

Ok, seeming as the last entry was quite an obvious (yet deserved) choice, we thought we'd throw up a film that you are probably a lot less likely to be aware of. From Dusk Til Dawn could have indeed filled the fifth slot and although I would have obviously enjoyed writing about vampires and tequila and Salma Hayek, I am instead coming at you with Alejandro Amenebar's directorial debut.

Amenabar has not been the most prolific of film-makers over the last 25 years or so, however he's undoubtedly made several excellent films. First up, he made Open Your Eyes, which would later be adapted into the less impressive Vanilla Sky. He also directed The Sea Inside, a quite exceptional film. For genre fans however, he's best known as the man who gave us The Others, possibly one of the scariest 12 rated movies ever made. More recently he directed Regression, a good looking but rather underwhelming effort that failed to win over general audiences. Thesis, Amenebar's feature debut awas also steeped in horror and he made it at the age of 24. Which is quite remarkable.

Thesis tells the story of Angela, a student in Madrid who is planning on writing a thesis on on-screen violence and the family. She asks her Professor to help her source the most violent videos from the University's library and also enlists the help of a fellow student called Chema, who is renowned for his rather extensive collection of adult movies. Whilst Angela and Chema check out some of his videos, her professor discovers a hidden tape in the Uni's archives. The next day, Angela finds her professor dead in the screening room, having apparently suffered from a fatal asthma attack. She spots the video he was watching and retreives it before the authorities are on the scene. Back at Chema's house, Angela and Chema watch the video and are shocked to find that it is a snuff film – and it shows the brutal torture, murder (and disembowelling) of a young woman. But that's not all – Chema recognises the girl in the video as a student who went missing from their university two years previously. Together, Angela and Chema begin to try and work out who filmed it...


Although we are thankfully a lot more exposed to foreign language horror movies nowadays, we are still a little bit at the mercy of distributors and streaming networks. Whilst we've been given the chance to see the majority of the best ones (The Ring, REC, High Tension, Pan's Labyrinth etc), there are still some that are harder to track down and then there are some like Thesis, that are incredibly difficult to source. Which is a shame, because it's bloody excellent.


Although the film sounds like it's some sort of Sinister prequel, it's admittedly more of a thriller than a horror movie but there is more than enough tension and violence for it to be considered a bit of a hybrid. It relies heavily on its mystery elements but that's no bad thing when it's done this well. It's murky and dark and there are there is some really eerie imagery to enjoy (or shudder at). Like Scream, it is a film that is quite meta. It's a film that explores the human fascination with violence and death, which is quite an ironic experience for the viewer who possibly on some level, is fascinated with both of these things too. The ending is anything but subtle but Thesis has something to say on this subject and it delivers its message with uncompromising bluntness in the final stages.


It's also got a great young cast too, who whilst a little raw, really buy into the whole thing which makes it that much more grounded and unsettling. Ana Torrent in particular is very, very good. But perhaps the brightest young talent on display is the Director, whose assured direction and clever script marked him out as a film-maker with real promise.

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