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.
I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER
(Directed by Jim Gillespie)
The (unexpected) success of Wes Craven's Scream in 1996 revolutionised the horror genre. Around ten years before this, the slasher, which had ruled the early 80s, was in sharp decline. Scream resurrected it and gave it new life. And although it played and commented on the tropes and rules of its predecessors – it created the blueprint for the modern slasher movie too and spawned a number of imitators over the next few years. Audiences wanted more of the same and Scream writer Kevin Williamson was asked to get to work on another film to appease the masses. When time is of the essence, what do you do? Start writing a new script or root around in your draw for one that you've already written? Williamson opted for the latter and dug out a screenplay that he had written several years ago – I Know What You Did Last Summer. Desperate to strike while the iron was still hot, Columbia Pictures fast-tracked production and managed to squeeze a theatrical release in by the autumn of 1997.
Based on a book of the same name (which is actually quite different in terms of plot), IKWYDLS begins on the Fourth of July Weekend, where a group of teenage friends decide to drive to the beach where they share scary campfire tales and discuss their futures and drink too much and...well, you get the idea. On their journey back along a coastal road, they accidentally hit a pedestrian. They search for the guy they just ran down and when they find him, discover that he isn't breathing. Panic ensues and the group argue about what to do. Shall they call the police or just keep driving and pretend that nothing happened? In the end, they decide to dump the body into the sea and they all make a pact to never talk about what happened. We then leap forward a year in time, during which time the friends have all gone their separate ways. Some of them have gone to college, whilst others have stayed in their home town. None of them have been able to put that fateful night behind them. One of the group, Julie (Jennifer Love Hewitt) is having a particularly hard time getting her shit together. She returns home from college for the summer only to find a letter waiting for her with no return address. The note says 'I Know What You Did Last Summer'. Is one of the group playing some kind of sick prank? Or does somebody else know their dark secret?
Whilst Scream was effectively a satire on the sub-genre, IKWYDLS is more of a straight up slasher movie. There is no real commentary on movies or society to be found here. There are no knowing winks or nods, it takes itself relatively seriously (well, as seriously as these types of films ever can). It's actually a lot more restrained than Scream too. The death scenes aren't as in your face and there's actual very little blood. However, Williamson still retains a few key elements from his previous film that work really well again here. Firstly, we have the cast. Whilst their 80s counterparts were not really interested in who were cast as the protagonists (partly down to budget to be fair), 90s slashers were much more into casting hot young talent. In Scream we had Campbell, McGowan, Lillard and Ullrich. In IKWYDLS, we get an even more beautiful line up. I challenge you to find a more attractive group than Ryan Phillipe, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jennifer Love-Hewitt and Freddie Prinze Jr.
The whodunnit element is also a concept that is continued. The question of the identity of the killer was irrelevant in the big slasher franchises of the 80s. We all knew who Michael Myers, Fred Krueger and Jason Vorhees were. Here, we think we know who might be behind the letter but the film strings that question out revels in the mystery of it all. In some ways, it feels like a slightly more adult version of the Point Horror novels that young teens were devouring in the mid 90s. Is it a little trashy? Sure. Does it blaze any trails? Nope. But is it a lot of fun? Hell yes! There a little bit of sag in the middle part of the movie but for the most part it's pretty slick and hugely enjoyable. The killer is pretty neat and there's something cool about their weapon of choice too. It also includes a terrific scene involving Sarah Michelle Gellar that's up there with the best chases in slasher history. Director Jim Gillespie's use of colour (or lack thereof) also adds a real sense of heady atmosphere to it all too.
They made a couple of sequels but they aren't great. There's a remake in the works too. But it's going to have to go some way to match the original.
FUN FACT: Melissa Joan Hart turned down a lead role in the film because 'it just seemed like another Scream ripoff'. Your loss, Mel!
(Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
J-Horror was a phenomenon that dominated the genre for several years in the late nineties and early noughties. Hideo Nakata's Ringu, released in 1998, was undoubtedly the catalyst. Foreign language horror movies had rarely translated that well to Western audiences (not in any significant way at least) but Ringu's reputation was so great that it piqued the interest of many discerning horror fans, who were generally terrified when they watched it (on VHS too, imagine how ironically creepy that was!). Ringu's success sparked a bit of a rush in Japan to repeat the success of Nakata's masterwork and in the following years we got Ju-On (1998), Audition (1999), Battle Royale (2000), Pulse (2001) and Dark Water (2002) among others. For for or five years we were in the ghostly grip of these movies and American producers wasted no time in remaking most of them, to varying degrees of success. But there was one film that was released a year before Ringu that is often overlooked, even though it possibly set the wheels in motion for the J-Horror craze that ensued. That film is Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Cure.
Cure follows a troubled detective (they're always repressed in some way, right?) called Takabe who begins an investigation into a series of bizarre murders. Each victim has a large X carved into their neck and although you'd think it was the modus operandi of one psychopath, the case is complicated by the fact a different perpetrator is caught nearby after the discovery of the victim. These individuals all confess that they were the ones doing the murdering but they have no idea why the did it. There is no apparent motive. Takabe teams up with a psychologist and together they ascertain that all of the suspected killers came into contact with one man at various points in the hours or days before they went on to commit murder. This man, Mamiya, lives in an apparent constant state of confusion however and can recall nothing in his past, let alone know what day it is or where he is. Takabe interrogates him and although he comes up short on answers, his interactions with the enigmatic Mamiya seems to affect him mentally. He becomes more and more volatile and unpredictable. Takabe begins digging into Mamiya's past to try and get to the bottom of it all...
Kurosawa is a name that's synonymous with Japanese horror. He's made some really excellent stuff, from Pulse (2001) and Seance (2000) to more modern efforts like Creepy (2016). However, Cure is in our opinion, his best genre film. That washed out, drained look with lots of dingy and pale interior shots? Kurosawa was establishing this ambience before Sadako started terrorising people a year later. And like most of his work, the horror here is subtle and disquieting and the worlds he creates are desolate and empty. It's real existential horror where humanity itself is called into question. There isn't much catharsis to be found in Cure, it leaves you feeling cold and haunted. But hey, if you're reading this then you're probably into that kind of payoff!
Whilst it hasn't got the jolts that both Ringu and Ju-On offer, there is an almost constant sense of the uncanny in Cure. Of everything feeling a little off. This rumbling sense of dread makes otherwise innocuous scenes and images feel unsettling. A lot of it may feel like a detached police procedural but there's an almost mesmeric madness underneath it all that is impossible to resist. Violence is almost a social virus; the more you investigate, the more you know – the more likely you are to becoming a monster yourself. And Kurosawa directly implicates the viewer in this rather macabre concept.
It may not have be as notorious as other J-Horror entries, but there are none more dense and psychologically affecting as Cure.
FUN FACT: Cure is one of Bong Joon Ho's favourite movies of all time. That alone is reason enough to try and track it down.