FIVE FILMS FROM...1997
(Directed by Peter Hyams)
Filmmaker Hyams is probably best known for his earlier stone-cold classic sci-fi thrillers, Capricorn One and Outland, along with the best Jean-Claude Van Damme films (Timecop & Sudden Death). But in 1997, he made this fun monster flick that has become a staple late-nighter for many movie channels and held in fond regard by most horror fans. It has a slightly odd pedigree, having loosely sprung from a 1995 bestseller by American authors Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child called just "Relic". That book introduced the popular literary character and FBI Special Agent, Aloysius Pendergast. He has starred in 19 novels so far. Eat your heart out, Mr Harry Potter Esq! The film doesn't even feature Pendergast and certainly didn't spawn a franchise. However, it features some sterling work by SFX legend Stan Winston and a cracking creature called the Kothoga. Starring Tom Sizemore (and not Harrison Ford, who Hyams originally wanted for the lead role) and Penelope Anne Miller, it had an unusually large budget and some great production values. It also has bucket-loads of gore, imagination, and preposterousness. And it's bloody fantastic.
After a seemingly unconnected prologue in South America, it soon shifts to Chicago and, more specifically, the "Field Museum of Natural History". Incidentally, it should have been staged at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, but the authorities didn't want kids scared away and didn't like how some staff were portrayed! Chicago put its hand up pretty quickly as a replacement. Anyway, a cargo ship (originating from South America, natch) has drifted into Lake Michigan, carrying an unintentional bounty of rotting corpses and severed heads! Gruff Chicago PD detective Lieutenant Vincent D'Agosta (Sizemore) investigates incredulously, and a serial killer is suspected. However, autopsies reveal strange details… like certain parts of the brain have been taken (the hypothalamus, to be precise). Meanwhile, Dr Margo Green (Miller) works in the Museum, contributing to an exhibition on the supernatural and schmoozing for a grant. When a Museum security guard also has his brain mulched for yummy nutrients, the police start to search around the building, but it's too late to stop a unique creature that has decided to crash the exhibition's opening night and use Chicago's elite as a smorgasbord of cranial cuisine…
… and that creature is the brilliant realised Kothoga… which is actually the name of the South American native tribe in the book, but the film takes many liberties and swerves from that. Without giving too much away (there's a nice twist, even if it is easily guessed), the monster is a mutation of several creatures all lumped together but basically looks like a large reptilian lion with a "Predator" face. Kind of. The best thing about the film is its mish-mash of horror concepts and situations (the sewer sequences are pure Alien), a generous budget, and unexpected gore. The Kothoga has to ingest brain hormones to survive, and this gives an excellent excuse for many decapitations, nicely realised with a good mix of early CGI and Winston's practical animatronics. The most gratuitous and striking sequences occur during a massacre in the Museum's hall and a SWAT assault. One stunning sequence sees a victim run down by the creature and having their head seamlessly removed in full view of the camera and with no cutaway. Another sees the monster bisect an unfortunate cop as he abseils into the hall. Nice.
Add some neat touches by Hyams (the vicious police dog cowering in the shadow of the Kothoga, the suspenseful tunnel scenes, and the fiery climax), and you've got what feels like an "old-fashioned" creature feature bolstered with some good performances by Miller and Linda Hunt. Most filming took place in 1996, but the extensive SFX meant it wasn't complete until 1997, and it's nice to watch a big-budget studio film that isn't afraid to show blood and kill off main characters. The FX are pretty damned good (apart from some shonky flames at the end), and it's all highly enjoyable, holding up to repeat viewings even now. Of course, mainstream critics tore it apart at the time, but most genre fans loved it, and it won some industry awards. Miller makes an appealing and intelligent female lead and continues to speak highly of the movie. It didn't do great at the box office but still performed better than some were expecting. Like the recent Underwater, it probably wasn't helped at the time with promotional work that seemed to ignore the fact it was a monster movie. It remains a personal fave for many and deserves to be seen if you've not already done so.
(Directed by Robert Kurtzman)
"Make… yoour… threeee…. wuuissshhheeessss…huurrrr!!” How much less cool would this film be without the vocal and acting stylings of Andrew Divoff? And the correct answer is… a lot. The idea of "wishes going bad" has long been a cliché in genre stories. From The Monkey's Paw right up to Wish Upon, we've all seen the harm that selfish and badly thought wishes can have on horror film characters. But Wishmaster brought the concept to the big-screen masses in a fun and exploitative way. And of course, with Divoff's growly voice and charisma. The original (but not the sequels) was executively produced by Wes Craven. Written by Peter Atkins (who scripted the "Hellraiser" sequels) and directed by Kurtzman (multi-talented SFX guru and filmmaker), it was a horror film for horror film fans (for reasons we'll elaborate on shortly). Because of the target audience, it was (of course) flayed alive (much like one character) by mainstream critics but embraced by a genre-savvy audience, making its budget back in the opening weekend!
The plot opens with an unseen presence gorily massacring the court of a Persian emperor in the 10th Century. This is due to the actions of a Djinn (Divoff), a "genie" to you and me, who was born of fire at the dawn of creation (*shrugs shoulders*). Finally imprisoned in a fire opal by opposing sorcery, the magical nutter remains dormant until the 20th Century. Safely hidden in a statue, a series of unfortunate circumstances sees the Djinn being released and beholden to Alexandra "Alex" Amberson (Tammy Lauren). She has to make three wishes to enable the Djinn to be able to accrue the power to release his demonic kinfolk onto the earthly plane. In the meantime, he makes use of his downtime murderising everyone he comes across by twisting their "wishes" into deadly shenanigans. Yep, it's that sort of bonkers set-up and is certainly not "high-art". However, it does contain an absolute wealth of genre nods and cameos.
Cameos that include; Angus "The Tall Man" Scrimm (narrator), Kane "Jason Vorhees" Hodder (Security Guard), Tony "Candyman" Todd, (Johnny Valentine), Joseph "Day of the Dead" (Mickey Torelli), and Robert "Freddy Krueger" Englund. Not to mention appearances by Kurtzman and Atkins and a whole bunch of popular support and BTS personalities. Even the characters are named after horror writers (Finney, Derleth, etc.), and a statue of Pazuzu (The Exorcist) makes an appearance. This would all be eye-rolling and pretentious if it weren't for the fact that the proceedings are pure horror exploitation and cheerfully "b-movie" in tone. As already mentioned, Divoff's intentionally-just-over-the-edge performance and theatrical dialogue ("That which is eternal cannot die. But if it's any consolation sweet Alex, THAT HURT LIKE HELL!") is quite atypical for a villain and gives him an extra layer (both in mortal and Djinn form) of "charm". And whilst nobody was ever going to win an Oscar for their acting, it's fun seeing genre faves and redshirt characters being dispatched in magical ways.
The screenplay takes huge advantages of the "bad wish" motif, and the logic is questionable, to say the least, with the Djinn able to make desires gory and fatal in ludicrous ways. For example, the statement "You'll only get in here by going through me" leads to a character turning into a glass pane that is shattered when someone walks through it. Is that a "wish", tho'? Never mind, it's all great tongue-in-cheek fun that no one should take seriously. Just enjoy the limbs being ripped off and people being killed by piano wire and other gratuitously daft ways to die, along with a Divoff's devilish glare and cackle. Great late-night fare that pretends to do nothing else than entertain horror fans. Ignore the 25% score on RT, which totally misses the point. It led to 3 sequels (Evil Never Dies (1999), Beyond the Gates of Hell (2001) and The Prophecy Fulfilled (2002)), which all bypassed the cinema and are nothing to scream about. But the original still provides plenty of jolly genie japes and is worth a revisit.
(Directed by Paul W.S Anderson)
There was a recent kerfuffle on social media when somebody posted a controversial view. Genuine headline = "This Viral Tweet on Horror Films Set in Space Sets the Internet Ablaze". Long story short, someone said, "Horror cannot be set in space". This is, of course, nonsense. And two films were instantly used as examples of space horror movies. One was obviously "Alien", and the other was this underrated gem from Anderson. Basically, it is another exploitation movie concept made better with good production values and a killer cast. It was handed to the director after the surprising financial success of "Mortal Kombat" (1995) but was hampered significantly by studio interference by Paramount. Due to background shuffling and politics (involving shenanigans around "Titanic" of all films!), some footage was lost, and editing was rushed. As a result, it bombed big time when it hit the silver screen and was undeservedly lambasted by critics. Like so many films in these blogs, it gained a cult following from home video and is now regarded as a classic by many in the community. The impressive cast includes the likes of; Laurence Fishburne, Sam Neill, Jason Isaacs, Sean Pertwee, and Joely Richardson.
The plot is set in deep space, around Neptune in the year 2047. The experimental spaceship named "Event Horizon" (roll credits) has mysteriously reappeared in the vicinity after being missing for seven years. Captain Miller (Fishburne) and his crew intercept the craft to try and find out what happened to it. He is joined by Billy Wier (a wonderfully nutzoid turn by the great Neill), who designed the revolutionary gravity drive that was being tested on the ship. The drive was to enable interstellar travel by creating artificial black holes and zapping through wormholes. We've all seen enough sci-fi to know this is not necessarily a good idea, and it's been used and referenced in other films before and since. Indeed, the ship went somewhere it shouldn't, lost its crew, and might even have become sentient. It's likeable pulp technobabble horror, and it's given extra weight by the cast, some decent effects, and Anderson's decision to make it a mature, bloody experience.
The descent into Hell (or a Hellish dimension) allows for the screenplay to include disturbing imagery, "blood orgies", diabolic symbolism, and bodily mutilations. One character gouges their own eyes out, and there's plenty of gruesome wounds and corpses seen in hallucinations and visions. However, the original cut was around 130 minutes (the theatrical cut is only 96) and so graphic that it was nearly saddled with an NC-17 rating in the US. Drastic cuts were demanded by the panicked executives, and at least 30 minutes went on the editing room floor. Ironically, when it later achieved cult status on home media by 2012, Anderson attempted an early version of a "Snyder Cut", but it was thwarted by deteriorated original stock. Although choppy in some areas, what remains is still a worthwhile exercise and another reminder that studios and test screenings get it wrong a lot of the time.
If a director's cut had been allowed, we would have got more details about the "Hell" dimension and lots more gore instead of the quick, almost subliminal shots in the final version. Most of the cast act their guts out (literally in some scenes), especially Neill, Fishburne, and Richardson. There's a pleasingly disturbing element seeping through in many scenes; this is a "haunted house" flick that just happens to be in outer space. There are also adult tones that link to sci-fi movies like "Solaris" ("Interstellar" and "Galaxy Quest" even blatantly stole sequences from it in later years). Look for some beautifully horrid images that mirror those produced by artists like Hieronymus Bosch, and the similarities to the original classic videogame "Doom" can't go unnoticed. Well worth watching, and it's a "bloody" shame that we'll never see the definitive cut. If you're still unsure of its continued popularity, the fact that Amazon, Paramount, and Adam Wingard are now collaborating on a TV series based on it, should speak volumes.