FIVE FILMS FROM...2000
(Directed by James Wong)
'In death there are no accidents, no coincidences, no mishaps, and no escapes.'
Although we haven't covered the "Omen" franchise in any great detail (we'll have to do something about that one of these days), the original trilogy was classic genre fare. Accomplished actors dealt with satanic shenanigans as they were guided towards unavoidable and grisly fates. To all intents and purposes, the "FD" franchise was the "millennial" child of that concept, and it worked to great effect! It famously started as a test script for The X-Files TV series by Jeffrey Reddick, whose screenwriting is now synonymous with the franchise. New Line Cinema (aka: "The Studio that Freddy Kreuger Built") suggested a film, which Wong went on to helm. This built a very sturdy foundation for future work. It starred several hot-kids-on-the-block, such as Devon Sawa (recently seen in the pretty cool Chucky TV series), Ali Larter, Seann William Scott, and the Candyman himself… Tony Todd.
The plot is relatively simple. Death gets pissed when it's cheated! Yes, apparently "Death", or karma, or fate, or the balance-of-the-universe, or whatever… is self-aware and has a purpose and plan. Case in point - A group of high-school students board a Boeing 747 in JFK airport for a flight to Paris. However, Alex Browning (Sawa) has a psychic premonition that the plane will explode after take-off and understandably freaks out. This causes most of his group and some accompanying characters to be ejected from the plane… only to see it blow up when they reach the safety of the terminal, just as Alex foresaw. Lucky escape, right? Wrong! The group starts to die in mysterious ways (accidental hanging, outrageous series of kitchen mishaps, speeding bus, freak decapitation, etc.), seemingly following the order of their intended demises on the aeroplane in terms of seating. Mortician William Bludworth (Todd) pops up to give some sage advice for the kids on how to potentially avoid the clutches of Death itself…
In addition to the Omen reference, Final Destination is basically a slasher film without a physical boogeyman. Victims are stalked by an unseen and malevolent entity that subtly picks its moments to act and objects to manipulate. The camera POV shows that the "accidents" are orchestrated and not just a series of unfortunate events. As such, the (winning) formula of the franchise is quickly established here. Characters avoid being killed in a deadly accident due to a timely future-flash (the origins of which are never explained… in the films, at least). Then they try various methods to beat Death's plan, which usually involves a complicated string of mishaps leading to gory splats. While none of the films (including this one) has been critically acclaimed, they have built a loyal genre audience that loves the mythology established in this initial film.
Although the cast acquits themselves well, the main draw is down to Death's sneaky shenanigans, and although this was the first FD film, it still has some cracking kills. Let's not forget that this was the origin of the OMG-shock-death-by-vehicle-impact trope that was re-used and satirised by so many other horror movies. Poor old Terry (Amanda Detmer) berates her feuding chums just before a speeding bus comes from nowhere and smacks her to mush! Totally unexpected for the time and totally timed to brilliance. Billy's (Scott) gory mid-face head-slice also deserves a mention for ingenuity. Val Lewton (Kristen Cloke .. and yes, there are a lot of horror homages in the film) gets the most ridiculous over-egged fatality, being burnt, stabbed, cut, and exploded by several means in about 2 minutes. It's worth mentioning that the other wonderfully complicated plots and theories that drive all of the subsequent films are usually excellent, owing a huge debt to this initial effort. Not high-art but great studio genre work. Fans of Final Destination 5 will know what links that movie with this one (such a good twist). The cool news for FD fanatics is that Final Destination 6 is in production and should be released in 2022, although the release format depends on the Covid status and studio decisions.
"Fun" Fact: The Chinese title for "Final Destination" translates as "The Death God Comes!"
(Directed by David Twohy)
'We're gonna lose everybody out here. We should've stayed at the ship.'
Okay, let's address the elephant in the room here. Vin Diesel. We're not looking at this film as the first chapter of the "Riddick" franchise. Especially given the sci-fi goofiness of The Chronicles of Riddick in 2003, or the shameless repetition of Riddick in 2013 (which is basically Pitch Black with water instead of darkness), or the upcoming Furya. Nope, we're looking at this as it was originally presented - a decent sci-fi horror with cool creatures and an original concept for its time. Directed by Twohy as a follow-up to his cult alien conspiracy flick (The Arrival), it has a great cast of well-known genre faces such as Keith David, Radha Mitchell, Claudia Black, and is considered the breakout role for Diesel (this was before Dominic-won't-frickin'-shut-up-about-family-Torreto).
It opens in the future with a crippled spaceship crashing on an unexplored alien planet, a big dust-ball surrounded by three suns. The survivors include pilot Carolyn Fry (a really good, layered performance by Mitchell) and bounty hunter William Johns (Cole Hauser). Johns is escorting Richard B. Riddick (Diesel) to prison to collect his reward. Riddick is a notorious criminal who has had his eyes altered to see in the darkness but has to wear goggles in the sunlight to protect them. Taking advantage of the crash, Riddick escapes, but the crew discovers the presence of deadly underground predators. These are sensitive to light and unable to hunt on the surface, which is good. However, a month-long total eclipse of the Sun(s) is drawing near, which is very bad…
Again, this works better as a standalone experience rather than a franchise starter, and its reputation has been skewed because of that to some extent. Whatever your opinion of Diesel's acting prowess, it actually fits here. Riddick has a definite character arc that goes from shitty villain to reluctant hero, and the actor's taciturn rumble actually suits the part and circumstance here. But what makes Pitch Black a decent genre film are the other elements, especially the interplay with Mitchell's character. A morally flexible character at the start (she nearly dumps the passengers in space at one point!), she becomes obsessed with redeeming herself by saving the survivors in the aftermath of the crash. Her story is as much a part of the narrative as Riddick's. It also makes the ending that more effective and the conclusion a little more heart-breaking, marking the beginning of a character's evolution into a "better" person.
Moral conundrums aside, one of the best elements of the films are the "Bioraptors". These "Alien"-like critters have batwings, cruciform heads, and beaky mouths. Apparently, they eat each other underground until they go for colonist smorgasbords during eclipses. Nicely creepy when hidden in caves and bloody terrifying in darkness-shrouded swarms, they provide a really nasty threat for Riddick and Co. to avoid. Of course, due to Deus ex machina, Riddick is the only one to stand a chance against them with his night-vision and killer's instinct. There are some great atmospheric moments when he can see the creatures when others are literally in the dark and dodges their "sight" whilst we share his enhanced vision. It's all good sturdy stuff with some neat touches, such as Johns injecting drugs into his eyeball and the presence of the Muslim faith in the far-flung future. Pity it was renamed The Chronicles of Riddick: Pitch Black on home releases as it gives the wrong impression. See it and pretend the rest of the franchise is about his twin brother… or something.
Fun fact: The original pitch for the film had it titled "Nightfall" and centred on an Amazonian outlaw called Tara Krieg, who was descended from an interplanetary tribe of barbarians. Hands up, who still want to see that character on the big screen?
(Directed by Paul Verhoeven)
'It's amazing what you can do... when you don't have to look at yourself in the mirror any more.'
What if the classic H.G. Wells story The Invisible Man was reimagined as a trashy-but-fun-exploitation film with a great cast. That's pretty much what happened here. This was the sixth and (so far) final American film from rebellious Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven, being his follow-up to the misunderstood Starship Troopers. Like most of Verhoeven's films, it was critically mauled but became a financial success and later considered a cult movie, leading to a forgotten direct-to-video sequel starring Christian Slater. This original had a great leading cast that headlined Kevin Bacon (usually a good sign for offbeat genre offerings), Elizabeth Shue, and Josh Brolin.
Typically of Verhoeven, the plot revolves around one mans' descent into bad behaviour once he attains the "power" of invisibility. Bacon nicely plays Sebastian Cane, an egotistical scientist who is exploring the potential of the process with (of course) the US Military. Having managed to successfully vanish a gorilla test subject, he experiments on himself and does what most scumbag blokes would do if transparent: spy on people and molest colleagues. However, he has scored an own goal as he cannot be made visible again without endangering his life. His scumminess escalates as he sneaks out of the lab, sexually assaults a neighbour, murders members of his team and commits to being a menace to society. He even scares kids at a set of traffic lights, the bastard! So ex-girlfriend and fellow scientist Linda McKay (Shue) must find a way to stop what they cannot see.
If you can ignore the superlative update that Leigh Whannel managed in 2020 with The Invisible Man (this writer's favourite film from that year, in all honesty), this reimagining of that classic tale is a bad-taste treat. Given the expectations that you might have of a Verhoeven film, the elements of sex and violence are somewhat elevated, but not quite to the levels of some of his previous films. Still, the invisible assault on Sebastian's's neighbour (Rhona Mitra) is uncomfortable to a level where it was mostly cut from the finished edit. Otherwise, this is a nifty visual exercise in exploring the "power corrupts" trope, as Cane sneaks around in the nude (a detail that is not forgotten by the characters). They explore ways to make him less of a threat, from thermal imaging to flamethrowers! It benefits from the presence of Bacon and Shue. In fact, Shue's character turns out to be something of a MacGyver and a strong "final girl" as she outsmarts the arrogant Cane in several different ways.
A major point of enjoyment doesn't come from the slightly basic script or plot but from the performances and the exceptionally good (for the time) SFX. Rather than have things on wires or POV being used to simulate transparent trickery, we have some good early CGI work that shows a human (and gorilla) becoming invisible (and visible) as the treatment "dematerialises" their flesh, muscles, and bones. It's a neat way of circumventing the normal tropes, and the effects nearly won the film an Oscar, although Gladiator eventually snaffled the prize with its CGI vistas and digitised tigers. Apparently, the working computer model of Kevin Bacon was donated to scientific researchers for further use due to the detail on the capillaries and suchlike. So whilst it takes time getting to that stage, it's pretty cool "seeing" the title character go on a rampage accompanied by Bacon's foul-mouthed rantings, with his form highlighted by electricity or water. The image on the poster reflects the bizarre sight of the leading man in a latex mask, which is a nice twist on bandages and glasses, and also helps to scare those pesky kids! Good fun and would make an ideal double bill with Whannell's tense and creepy thriller.
Fun Fact: So that they could use the title of "Hollow Man", the producers bought the exclusive rights to Dan Simmons' novel "The Hollow Man". The book has bugger all to do with invisibility and is about a university lecturer who can read people's minds.
(Directed by Mary Harron)
'I'm into, uh, well, murders and executions, mostly.' Bret Easton Ellis is no doubt a talented author and perhaps one of the best known American writers of the 1980s. But his world of narcissism, excess, sex and drugs has rarely translated well onto the big screen. The Rules of Attraction, Less than Zero and most notably, The Informers – have all been rather underwhelming. However there is one exception and that is Mary Harron's brilliant American Psycho.
For those who have somehow missed it, here's the lowdown on the plot and we'll keep it short because like much of Easton Ellis' work, there's not too much substance to it. It's the late 1980s and Patrick Bateman is a 27 years old who seemingly living the dream. He's handsome, charming, has a beautiful girlfriend and works on wall street. However, he's also a serial killer who lurches from one murder to another, seemingly unable to control his murderous urges and gradually questioning his grip on reality in the process. It sounds brutal and violent. And it is. But it's also so much more.
What makes American Psycho even more valuable is the fact that it nearly never got made. News of the film adaptation didn't go down too well in some quarters mainly because the book contained so much violence towards women. Stuart Gordon, David Cronenberg (imagine that version!) and Oliver Stone were all attached to direct before Mary Harron was passed the torch. Leo DiCaprio was also nailed on to play Bateman but probably fearing what playing a sociopath would do to his fanbase of teenage girls, opted to star in The Beach instead. And no disrespect to Leo but...thank god the chance opened up for Christian Bale, who had been waiting for months to seize his chance. His version of Bateman is true to the source material (which he studied extensively) and it's difficult to imagine someone more perfect to play the part. Handsome, erudite but with an undercurrent of intense insanity, it's this central performance that makes American Psycho as good as it is. Bale was told that taking the job would be career suicide but in fact it propelled him to greater stardom. Hilariously, in when he was asked how he decided to portray Bateman, Bale said that he was inspired after seeing Tom Cruise being interviewed by David Letterman. Bale said he spotted a 'very intense friendliness with nothing behind the eyes.'
Aside from Bale's formidable turn, there are plenty of other things to admire about American Psycho. The script does a fantastic job in combining the horror and comedic elements of the novel and tonally it's spot on. At its heart, the film is a jet black satire that's making some pretty obvious statements about materialism and narcissism and misogyny. It's about the horrors of capitalism. Interpreting it as a film that glamourises violence against women is to miss what American Psycho is really about. A supporting cast that includes the likes of Willem Dafoe, Jared Leto, Reese Witherspoon and Chloe Sevigny helps maintain the films quality throughout.
We did get a sequel (that starred Mila Kunis!) but the less said about that train wreck the better.
Stick with the original.
Fun fact: The film had issues with various designer labels who wanted nothing to do with the film. Cerutti allowed Bale to wear their stuff but not in scenes where he killed anyone and Comme des Garcons refused to allow one of their overnight bags to be used to carry a corpse.
(Directed by John Fawcett)
'I get this ache and I thought it was for sex...but it's to tear everything to fucking pieces.'
Although we were treated to (if that's the right phrase) Mike Nicholl's wildly odd Wolf in 1994, the nineties was a bit of a graveyard when it comes to lycanthrope movies. It looks especially barren when compared to the decade before, which produced the best werewolf movies ever made with An American Werewolf in London (81), The Howling (also 81), In the Company of Wolves (84) and Silver Bullet (85) offering some top notch canine thrills. Perhaps audiences were a bit jaded. You can only have so much of a good thing after all - see today's waning interest in zombie flicks. However at the turn of the century a Canadian film came along that reminded audiences that the sub-genre was very much alive and kicking (and biting). That film was John Fawcett's Ginger Snaps.
Brigitte (Emily Perkins) and Ginger (Katherine Isabelle) are late developing teenage sisters who share the same morbid fantasies and have a fascination with death. In the small town of Bailey Downs they are the only goths and are treated as outcasts by their peers. One day, whilst they are on their way to kidnap a dog owned by one of the school bullies who has been giving them a hard time (relax, they aren't intending to hurt the dog!) something happens that changes both of their lives. Ginger gets her first period. The blood attracts the attentions of a creature which attacks the girls, resulting in Ginger receiving a nasty bite. As they flee for their lives, the creature is run over and killed. Although they managed to escape, the incident has repercussions. Ginger begins a series of transformations that startle her sister. Aggressive behaviour and excess hair growth may not be that weird for teenage girls but when you start sprouting a tail and your wounds begin to heal in lightning quick time, you know something is up. Whilst Ginger explores her newfound abilities, Brigitte begins to realise that her sister may in fact be turning into one of the creatures herself...
Co-writer Karen Walton was initially reluctant to work on the script as she believed that horror wasn't necessarily the best medium for discussing anything particularly new or progressive (come on Karen!). Fortunately she changed her mind and the result is a movie that regenders the traditionally masculine world of werewolf movies and instead uses it as an analogy for female sexual development. Menstruation and the lunar phase are all monthly occurrences so it works pretty nicely.
It's also a film that combines body horror, satire and creature feature elements to great effect. There are shades of Carrie to some of it, but Ginger Snaps very much has its own quirky and offbeat personality to ever feel derivative. It's gory and violent and very much a werewolf flick but the true horror of the movie is about the process of becoming an adult. The dialogue is frank and cutting, thanks to a sharp script by Fawcett and Walton and although the ending doesn't quite match what comes before, it still wraps the story up nicely. Katherine Isabelle and Emily Perkins make for captivating leads and have a great chemistry on screen. Isabelle has since gone on to make a bit of a name for herself (Hannibal, The Order, American Mary) but it's a shame that Perkins' career never took off in the same way. She is in the sequel and prequel to Ginger Snaps though. Neither are as good as the original but are worth checking out.
Talk of a TV series has been on and off for over a year now but until that materialises, we'll still have this to revel in.
Fun fact: Was banned from certain cinemas in the UK as it was seen as promoting violence among teenagers (eye roll)