FIVE FILMS FROM...1998
(Directed by Steve Miner)
Most genre fans agree that the 2018 Halloween reboot by David Gordon Green was pretty damned good. So much so, we've been chewing our nails to the elbows waiting for the Covid-delayed Halloween Kills and Halloween Ends (*shakes fist at microbes*). But this has had the effect of fans (and the franchise timeline) forgetting all about this decent attempt to reinvigorate the Myers saga that took place 20 years earlier. Usually pronounced "Halloween Aitch-Two-Oh", although Michael hasn't become a merman or gained "Aquaman" powers, this was a totally reasonable effort by landmark horror director Miner to make the franchise grounded and scary again. By the time Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers had crept out, "The Shape" had gone from being an enigmatic "boogeyman" to becoming a cursed being with immortal powers and guarded by a druidic cult who wants to "clone" him for… reasons. Yeah, right. The end of the "Thorn Trilogy" story arc had a *ahem* "mixed" reception from fans and an underwhelming ambiguous climax. Much like the 2018 film, this new entry completely ignores the events of the fourth, fifth, and sixth entries. Instead, it carries on from the 20 whole years from "the night he came home" and brings us the welcome return of Jamie Leigh Curtis as Laurie Strode.
It's been 20 years since the nightmarish events that took place on a single Halloween night in Haddonfield. Laurie Strode (JLC, obvs) has assumed the moniker of "Keri Tate" and become the headmistress of a prestigious boarding school in California to escape her past. Now with a son (Josh Hartnett playing John), she feels uneasy about the potential return of her missing brother Michael Myers (presumed dead in the hospital explosion from "Halloween II"). His nephew is now the same age as she was during the "babysitter murders", and the trick-or-treat date is imminent again. Understandably over-protective of him because of this, John acts out and organises a party on the deserted school grounds over Halloween night. Unbeknownst to any of them, "someone" (guess who?) has raided the archives of the deceased Dr Loomis regarding the faked death of Laurie… and killed a few teenagers along the way. It leads to an expected showdown as the feisty Mrs Strode protects her son and opens up a can of whup-ass on her errant brother, ending in a fantastic final scene…
… that was sadly ruined by the monumental screw-up of the next movie, Halloween: Resurrection, which actually tarnished the impact of H20 and indirectly led to Rob Zombie's remake in 2007. However, taking H20 as an entity in its own right and seeing it as a culmination to a three-film trilogy that centres on Laurie Strode (with her as Michael's sister), it's actually a very enjoyable entry in the franchise. There's a lot to like here. Miner (Friday the 13th Part II & III, House, Warlock) is a solid genre director and takes things back to slasher basics here. Whilst the idea of Laurie being a sibling of Michael is nixed in the 2018 reboot, it is very much a fact here. Beyond that though, all the baggage of the "Thorn" mythology and Jamie Lloyd's existence (Laurie's daughter) has been scrubbed from this timeline. And it works. As soon as you hear the remixed version of John Carpenter's classic soundtrack over the opening credits, your horror "Spidey-sense" starts to kick in and the hairs on the back of your neck rise. This is primarily due to the pre-credit sequence that plays with the slasher rules in a Scream -type way (the screenplay was based on a sequel story by Kevin Williamson) and homages the original films. News images of Michael's rampage are shown, whilst sound-bites from Dr Loomis play over the music (sadly not Donald Pleasance but a soundalike). From this approach, you know that you're going to get something a little classier that respects Carpenter's original and won't be a quick slasher rip-off.
And for the most part, H20 sticks to that profile. Curtis, little knowing she would be doing a "crazy cat lady" version of the character in another 20 years, is predictably good here. Her sense of wariness and paranoia suits Laurie fine, and the addition of her son is a neat twist. She also kicks major ass and has a triumphant moment at the climax that would have made a fine full-stop for the franchise if it had been the "final chapter". There are some great cast members to be spotted from LL Cool J as a security guard, Michelle Williams as John's girlfriend, Joseph Gordon Levitt as a red-shirt, and Janet Leigh (Jamie's real-life mother) as "Norma" (arf!) Watson. While it isn't madly gory, there are some decent kills and stuntman Chris Durand strikes an imposing figure as Michael. There are some "old school" moments of tension that really rock: Laurie dropping her jaw as she catches her first glimpse of Michael for 20 years as he looks through a porthole window at a locked door, a mother and daughter being menaced by "The Shape" at a rest stop (very reminiscent of the "teeth" scene in the 2018 film), and classic character Marion Chambers doing everything right and STILL biting the dust in the opening scene. It's good stuff and generally considered the best "sequel" in the franchise until the 2018 reboot came along. Even if you're a fan of the original or 2018 version, this is still worth catching to see how another timeline might have occurred or found a good place to stop. Just keep well clear of "Resurrection". Eew.
Fun Fact: During the early days of production, H20 went under the working title of Halloween 7: The Revenge of Laurie Strode.
(Directed by Alex Proyas)
A regular guy in a bustling city finds out that he has extraordinary powers and a destiny to release humanity from a forced purgatorial state. Unfortunately, an evil force is keen to keep humankind subjugated and sends dark-suited entities to stop this hero from achieving his objective. The Matrix, right? Nope. This is Dark City, an oddly neglected blend of detective noir, horror, and sci-fi. Two more films share this title, but this one should have a higher cult status than it currently seems to. This is the movie that filmmaker Proyas made after The Crow and before I, Robot… and well ahead of the time when it all went wrong with Gods of Egypt. It originated from some ideas that the director dreamt up when the city sets of The Crow were changed and dismantled. The style owes a lot to German expressionism, with grim tower blocks, eternal nights, and architectural oddities. It has a great and diverse cast, including Rufus Sewell, Jennifer Connelly, Kiefer Sutherland, William Hurt, and Ian Richardson. Like so many other movies, it fared poorly at the hands of the studio after misguided test screenings and as good as the theatrical cut is, the eventual director's cut is better and improves on some elements, such as sound and narration.
It starts in classic detective noir fashion with a guy called John Murdoch (Sewell) awaking in a bathtub with no memory of how he got there and a dead body nearby. Alerted to his predicament by a phone call from the mysterious Dr Schreber (Sutherland hamming it up), he goes on the lam and is pursued by some mysterious men in black (trench coats and hats). These are the creepy "strangers" (which includes "Rocky Horror" impresario Richard O'Brien as "Mr Hand"), who make a startling impression as they float through the air. Murdoch is also being chased by the "normal" police in this vast city, namely Inspector Frank Bumstead (Hurt), for the crime of murder of which he has no memory. As Murdoch explores the city, he becomes confused by the perpetual night (which no one else seems to notice) and then disturbed by the fact that everyone (except himself) passes out at the stroke of midnight. During the midnight hour, the strangers change the very fabric of the city; buildings twist and change, people assume new identities, and others seem to have weirder fates. Murdoch eventually discovers he has a "wife" (Connelly at her most adorable and playing a nightclub singer) and that he has the same "telekinetic" powers as the Strangers. Secrets are revealed, and it all culminates in a battle of wills between Murdoch and the dastardly Mr Book (Richardson) before the nature of the dark city is unveiled.
This is a superb and original tale that still hasn't been recognised for its innovation, style, and sheer bravado. Ever wanted to see a respected elder actor float high above a metropolis and engage in a tense telekinetic knife fight with another cast member? Well, you get all that and more. At the risk of spoiling the storyline, it has as much in common with The Signal (William Eubank - 2014) as it does other films. It's intensively clever stuff, broken up with enough disturbing imagery and sheer bonkers twists to make it atypical for its time. The city's location is revealed in a breath-taking visual flourish (resulting in the untimely death of a main character) that juxtaposes with the ghoulish shenanigans of the Strangers and the urban grittiness of the detective elements. It's hard to go into more details without spoiling things, but like The Crow, the genre elements are balanced with a substantial emotional core, leading to a final scene that provides romance in its purest form.
The fact that testing audiences weren't sure what to make of it isn't that surprising really, but the studio's promotional choices and editorial demands certainly didn't help things. Connelly's (perfectly fine) nightclub singing was strangely dubbed by backing vocalist Anita Kelsey. New Line Cinema told Proyas to record narration by Sutherland in the opening scenes… which gives away the central twist an hour before it is visually realised in the story!! Luckily the 2008 Director's cut eliminates all that nonsense for posterity. Its inherent strangeness and non-conformity was way ahead of its time. Film critic Roger Ebert absolutely loved it, but it barely broke even at the box office. However, it has since been rediscovered and evaluated by many genre fans. Many people believe that it influenced the following year's (yep, that film again…) The Matrix and several other genre offerings in later years. The is one city that just got slicker as time went on.
Fun fact: … and on top of all that, The Matrix actually reused pieces of the Dark City set for Trinity's rooftop chase at the beginning of that film.
(Directed by Stephen Sommers)
Before the surprisingly fun The Mummy, Sommers directed this guilty pleasure gem that many genre fans have a soft spot for and has become something of a cult. It was very nearly quite a different film, as it was to have starred Harrison Ford and Claire Forlani as the two leads and be titled Tentacle. Over the course of pre-production Ford never accepted the role, Forlani had a "disagreement" with Sommers and the studio, the name was changed, and the budget dropped. Treat Williams (Dead Heat) came on board, along with Famke Janssen (enticed by the chance of a non-glam and kick-ass role). They were joined by Anthony Heald, Wes Studi, and Jason Flemyng. Despite what Rotten Tomatoes thinks, what eventually followed was a brilliant pastiche of dumb action movie stereotypes and gross monster flicks. With some impressive (for that time) CGI work from ILM and Rob Bottin, audiences watched slack-jawed as the gory high-sea shenanigans kicked off.
In the middle of a storm, the luxury cruise ship "Argonautica" is attacked by "something" or "some things" that have arisen from the depths (Roll credits!) and seemingly decimated the entirety of the crew and passengers. In the aftermath of this mysterious occurrence, the still floating ship is boarded by a gang of mercenaries who intend to perform a high-sea heist on the massive vessel. Transported there by Captain-for-hire John Finnegan (an eternally droll Williams), they find themselves trapped onboard by countless numbers of razor-toothed, slimy serpent-like sea creatures that have set up home in the deserted drifting structure. Joined by Trillian (a very game Janssen), a surviving passenger, they fight against an onslaught of these beasties that can literally swallow a person whole and coat them in acidic slime!
You only have to check out the alternative title to realise that the "serpents" are actually part of something much bigger and eventually introduces us to the mammoth "Octalus", a Kraken-type creature that fancied a taste of the high life. So the plot actually becomes a canny mix of Tremors (with metal bulkheads and pipes replacing sand and dirt) and Under Siege (the Steven Seagal Die Hard on a boat knock-off). It's the sort of film where the heroes don't just leap towards the camera to avoid an explosion, they jet-ski towards the camera out of an escape hatch to avoid a MASSIVE explosion. Happily, it's also a film with a ton of slime and blood. The fact that the monster engulfs people with mouth-ended tentacles is bad enough, but as they get sucked towards the main body, digestive juices start to dissolve them alive. This is evidenced when a bad guy is released from the innards of a tentacle "mid-transit" and shown to be in extreme pain as his entire left side is melted away. Noice. There's also a hallway (literally) caked in human remains, and a passenger gets bloodily pulled into a toilet.
It's not meant to be high-art, but it is tremendously entertaining in a direct and knuckle-headed way. Williams takes great delight in delivering "dad-joke" levels of sardonic punchlines with aplomb during the freaky proceedings. Examples include "Well, that's a year off my life!" and "What are you looking at?" (face-to-face with the Octalus) and "Now what?!". That last one might seem crap, but it's Finnegan's catchphrase and becomes increasingly amusing as the weirdness escalates. The only slight disappointment (depending on your perspective) is the final appearance of the creature, which has a face like a grumpy toothy walrus rather than a deep-sea monstrosity or Cthulhu. Otherwise, this is splendidly tacky and knowingly dumb but ticks all the right boxes for a genre fans version of light entertainment. Unfortunately, whilst pretty much thought of as an exploitation classic now, it died at the box office. Mainly due to sniffy reviews from the mainstream critics and the fact that it went up against Titanic! It's a shame because we could have had a new franchise of monster-busting with Finnegan and Trillian, because…
Fun Fact: The island that the heroes wash up on at the very end is supposed to be Skull Island, and Sommers was linked to a project to reboot King Kong for a while, although it is unknown whether it would feature Williams or Janssen. Instead, the project eventually went to Peter Jackson for his 2005 version.
(Directed by Robert Rodriguez)
The idea of aliens coming down to Earth with sinister intentions is a fear that has been lurking since the end of the Second World War. Of course, some of it was allegorical, as some of these anxieties were really about being invaded by a foreign nation, not little green men in space suits. Nevertheless, when we look up into the night sky and our brains try to fathom what else is out there (or isn't)...well, there's no denying that it can be more than a little unsettling. As with a lot of societal fears, movies have reflected this common anxiety and it's no surprise that heyday of alien horror was undoubtedly the 1950s if we're talking sheer numbers. But it's really the late 1970s and 1980s where the big ideas were fully realised in terrifying ways; think of The Thing or Invasion of the Body Snatchers. By the late 90s, the slasher movie was king however and you'd be hard pressed to find much sci-fi alien horror (although The X-Files is something of an exception). There were admittedly a couple of big budget blockbusters like Independence Day (1996), Mars Attacks (1996) and Men in Black (1997) but these were more sci-fi action/comedy movies than genre per se. However Robert Rodgriguez's The Faculty is a film that took inspiration and concepts from the old school films we all love and married them up with the sensibilities of a glossy 90s slasher and the result is an enormous amount of fun.
The film opens with a school Principal (played by Bebe Neuwirth) finishing up a meeting with several teachers after hours. As they all leave off, she realises she has left her keys inside her office and she goes back inside to retrieve them. However once inside, she is attacked by the school's football coach. She manages to escape his grasp and get outside but is then stabbed to death by the drama teacher. What on earth is going on?! We're then introduced to a bunch of super cool and attractive young adults (a classic case of a bunch of 22 year olds playing 17 year olds). There's the nerdy photographer Casey, the ambitious cheerleader type Delilah, her jock boyfriend Stan, the dreamy rebellious loner Zeke, naïve newbie Marybeth and goth outcast Stokely. It's a smorgasbord of teen angst! After Casey finds a weird creature on the football field, he takes it to his science teacher who believes it to be some sort of parasite. Pretty soon, some of the teachers and students start acting a bit 'off' and after Casey and Delilah witness a couple of teachers trying to implant one of the parasitic creatures into the ear of the school nurse, they become convinced that the school is being taken over by aliens. Initially, the rest of the gang are having none of it but it doesn't take too long for them to come around to the idea...
Critics of The Faculty (and there are more than a few) will claim that the movie isn't much more than a rip-off of well established science fiction horror like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Hidden. Whilst there is some merit to that point, it's a bit of a reductive criticism because once you've removed the core concept of people being replaced by alien replicants, they really are two quite different movies. Meta was made fashionable by writer Kevin Williamson two years previously when Scream was unleashed on unsuspecting audiences and whilst The Faculty isn't quite as incisive or witty, it is self aware enough to escape most criticisms of plagiarism. There are so many references and nods to other films, it has no real designs on breaking new ground. They're also subtle enough for viewers to feel satisfied when they spot them too.
It's one of those films that feels like a bit of a perfect storm. Williamson's sharp, playful script is paired up with Robert Rodriguez's provocative film-making style. It's always fizzing along at a deliberate pace and although it's no Bodysnatchers, it manages to drum up some serious paranoia in the second half as we second guess whether literally every character is human or not every time they enter the frame. And the cast...holy hell. There is some real established talent on show here; from Bebe Neuwirth and Robert Patrick to Salma Hayek and Famke Janssen. Jon Stewart is even in it! But The Faculty is a film that's aimed squarely at the younger generation and it's the younger members of the cast that steal the show. Josh Hartnett, Jordana Brewster, Elijah Wood, Clea Duvall, Laura Harris. At the time none of them were huge names (and truth be told, not all of them have gone on to make it big) but the chemistry between them on screen in terrific. Although they play stereotypes of sorts, the script attempts to subvert most of these character tropes, which is pretty cool too. Who doesn't love a well thought out character arc eh?
The Faculty may not match up to the classics of the 50s or their 80s updates but it's still an ultra cool, smart sci-fi horror that delivers laughs and scares in equal measure. It's guaranteed to jack you up!
Fun fact: The Drug test scene is a direct homage to the blood test scene in The Thing.
(Directed by Hideo Nakata)
To say that Japanese horror wasn't any good before Hideo Nakata's Ringu was released, would be to display an overwhelming level of ignorance. Movies like Cure, Tetsuo, Onibaba, Kaidan, Horrors of Malformed Men are all highlights of a respectful horror legacy spanning back to the 1950s.
However, it's fair to say that until the late 90s, Japanese genre cinema never really travelled particularly well. The culture and language were two barriers that a lot of viewers in the West were reluctant to contend with. However, fear is an almost universal concept and Ringu managed to strike fear into worldwide audiences in a way that no other Asian horror movie ever had before. Fittingly, for a film that was about a cursed video tape, it found its success not in the theatres and cinemas but on home video. Which only added another layer to the terror!
Based on the 1991 novel of the same name (written by Koji Suzuki), Ringu begins with two high school students, Masami and Tomoko talking about a cursed video tape that kills the viewer within a week of watching it. Tomoko reveals that a week ago, she and some of her friends watched a weird tape and received a phone straight after. She soon confesses that she's kidding but the atmosphere in the house changes very quickly and when creepy shit starts to go down, Tomoko confirms that she did actually watch the tape and was then told by the voice on the phone that she would be dead in 7 days. Suffice to say, she's not wrong. A few days later we meet Reiko, Tomoko's aunt who is investigating the cursed tape story. She talks with some friends of her niece and they tell her that two other friends died on the same evening Tomoko met her end. Reiko begins to realise that this story might not just be an urban legend...
The influence of Ringu on the genre was significant and not only did it herald the beginning of a Western fascination with Asian genre movies, it affected the style of its western counterparts too in terms of subject matter and aesthetic. Before the brutal torture porn of the early noughties, we had a few years of simmering supernatural horror and this was at the forefront of that trend. And although this era of horror ended nearly two decades ago, its influence on the genre can still be felt today. Otherworldly, long-haired, crawling ghosts are still commonplace – as is the cold, grey/green colour palette.
Although the film is perhaps best known for a couple of nightmarish sequences (one in particular which involves a television), the most affecting thing is a pervasive sense of dread that is there from almost the first frame to the last. There is a feeling that everything is just ever so slightly off and much in the same way as films such as It Follows, that concept of inescapable death and foreboding almost feels suffocating at times. And whilst the Gore Verbisnki remake is a perfectly good film, one of the things that Nakata's has than its American counterpart doesn't, is a nightmarish sense of ambiguity. It doesn't try and explain every detail and is happy for your brain to tie itself in knots trying to logic what you are seeing. The contents of the cursed videotape itself are a perfect example of this. A series of confounding, disturbing – and seemingly disconnected – images spliced together to create probably the most unsettling short film ever made. These images aren't all explained away by the time the end and that only makes the whole thing that bit more difficult to sit with. The treatment of the plot and the Sadako character is much more subtly done here too. There isn't such a clear delineation between 'good' and 'bad' – something the remake kind of fails at. Although Ringu is an extremely creepy film, it's a million miles away from the Blumhouse ghost-train features that fill cinema schedules in 2021. It's a restrained and carefully paced film that is quietly oppressive, but every now and then, knows how to put the shits up you.
Along with the American remake, there was a Japanese sequel in 1999 and prequel in 2000 – as well as a TV series called Ring: The Final Chapter. They're all worth a watch but none of them manage to capture the downright eeriness of the original.
Fun fact: Koji Suzuki got his inspiration for the Ringu novel from his favourite horror movie, Poltergeist (1982)