SCI-FI/FANTASY MONTH: The Blob, Cabin in the Woods, and Resident Evil ’21

THE BLOB (1988) d: Chuck Russell. c: Shawnee Smith, Kevin Dillon, Donovan Leitch, Joe Seneca, Candy Clark, Jeffrey DeMunn, Del Close. A near-perfect remake of the 1950s monster flick that not only improves upon the original’s special FX but expands the story with rich characters and spectacular set pieces. The residents of a small town become food for a gelatinous organism that grows bigger every time it eats humans, that is until a mysterious containment team is sent to handle the situation, making matters worse. Gory, exciting, and often surprising, this is what remakes should always aspire to be. Co-written by Frank Darabont, this gets major points for switching gender roles and making the spunky cheerleader (Smith) the gun-toting hero. Criminally overlooked during its initial release, this is a fantastic, inventive piece of genre filmmaking that deserves a place on the same mantel as Carpenter’s The Thing. A

THE CABIN IN THE WOODS (2012) d: Drew Goddard. c: Kristin Connolly, Fran Kranz, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, Jesse Williams, Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford. Vibrant horror-comedy-fantasy co-written by Joss Whedon about a group of college friends spending the weekend at a remote, woodsy cabin who are terrorized by a family of backwoods zombie-rednecks. Or so they think. Deliciously sending up the “teens in the woods” subgenre created by ’80s classic Evil Dead, Cabin works because the screenplay doesn’t only spoof its subject matter but highly respects and, clearly, enjoys it. The cast is likable and energetic (including Jenkins and Whitford as egocentric employees of a secret underground agency), and the pacing is terrific, building to a full-scare monster movie mash-up of epic proportions. B+

RESIDENT EVIL: WELCOME TO RACCOON CITY (2021) d: Johannes Roberts. c: Kaya Scodelario, Robbie Amell, Tom Hopper, Hannah John-Kamen, Avan Jogia, Donel Logue. Lively reboot of the groundbreaking video game series, this is set in 1998 with a young woman (Scodelario) going back to her hometown of Raccoon City, a small town built by the evil Umbrella Corp. When the locals start turning into blood-craving zombies, she and her cop brother (Amell), along with several others, must try to escape the doomed city, but not before bumping into a variety of mutated monsters. Following in the footsteps of the six-movie Resident Evil series, this offers nothing new, but is a more faithful adaptation of the original ’90s games, with iconic locations and certain sequences replicated and inserted into the action, which takes precedence over story. This is, however, very entertaining and moves at such a fast pace you won’t notice. B

Mini-Reviews: TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE ’74 and ’22

THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) d: Tobe Hooper. c: Marilyn Burns, Gunnar Hansen, Edwin Neal, Jim Siedow, Paul A. Partain, Allen Danziger. Perhaps the perfect American horror film, this baby not only took the slasher movie to terrifying new levels but gave birth to one of horror cinema’s most memorable, and horrifying, villains: Leatherface. A seemingly fun summer afternoon in backwoods Texas for a van-load of friends is turned into a nightmare when they encounter a family of sadistic cannibals. The simple premise is made the more horrific thanks to Hooper’s handling of the material. The film utilizes sound, disorienting music, and extreme close-ups to create a claustrophobic environment that makes the ordeal intense and authentically brutal. The cast is amateur but good, especially Burns whose character, Sally, became a benchmark for future Final Girls. Unrelentingly suspenseful and unforgivingly grim, Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a masterpiece in horror filmmaking. A

TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (2022) d: David Blue Garcia. c: Elsie Fisher, Sarah Yarkin, Mark Burnham, Jacob Latimore, Olwen Fouéré, Alice Krige. Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a good example of a sequel being the polar opposite of its predecessor, Tobe Hooper’s seminal 1974 masterwork, also called The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Where Hooper’s film was well-written, smart, and relied on suspense and terror, the new TCM is lazy, soulless, and relies on cartoonish gore to keep you interested. A group of investors celebrating a town renovation project in the middle of nowhere Texas are put through the bloody ringer when old Leatherface (Burnham) comes crawling out of the woodwork, putting the chainsaw to, well, anyone. Leatherface’s cannibalistic needs seems to have disappeared (the film abandons that subplot completely) but his need for wearing the face masks of his victims is still vital. The make-up FX are on the cheap side (over half of the gore seems to be computer-generated), resulting in Bubba’s face looking like it’s melting through most of the movie. The five-minute return of the original’s Final Girl, Sally (Fouéré), is so ridiculously underwritten that it comes off as pointless. The film’s saving grace is the blood-drenched bus massacre scene, which is the only part of the movie that has a pulse – I’m even speculating the scene was an early idea for which the entire movie was written around. A shit stain on an otherwise decent horror film series. D


FINAL DESTINATION (2000) d: James Wong. c: Devon Sawa, Ali Larter, Kerr Smith, Kristin Cloke, Seann William Scott, Chad Donella, Tony Todd. A first-rate thrill ride from beginning to end, this giddy, grim chiller pits a group of survivors of a devastating plane crash (which came to one of them as a premonition moments before take-off) against the invisible force of Death as it comes to claim their lives. Will they succumb to their inevitable fate, or can they figure out Death’s design and escape its grasp once again? Originally created as an idea for The X-Files, Final Destination is a clever mash-up of classic Twilight Zone and a gory slasher, coming at the right moment, when horror was becoming nothing more than an endless series of glib Scream wannabes. The story flows at a wonderful pace, balancing humor and horror perfectly. The characters are likable and their interactions together feel organic and unforced. The strongest aspect about the film is the screenplay’s understanding that it’s not about the impending doom of the survivors, but about the suspense that death will happen. A

FINAL DESTINATION 2 (2003) d: David R. Ellis. c: Ali Larter, A.J. Cook, Michael Landes, Keegan Connor Tracy, Jonathan Cherry, Terrence T.C. Carson, Tony Todd. Another premonition of disaster saves a group of strangers from death; this time it’s a massive, fiery pile-up on the freeway visualized by Kimberly (Cook), a young woman on her way to Florida. When the survivors start dying in bizarre ways, Kimberly seeks the help of Clear (Larter), the sole survivor of the first film’s plane crash. Lacking the excitement of the original, this plays down the suspense in favor of gory action. Many of the new characters are colorless nitwits who you can’t wait to see get their heads caved in. That’s not to say when it happens it’s not a lot of fun, because it is, with several of the death sequences cleverly designed to be misleading and, ultimately, spectacular. A solid sequel with a bang of a twist ending. B

FINAL DESTINATION 3 (2006) d: James Wong. c: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ryan Merriman, Kris Lemche, Texas Battle, Sam Easton, Amanda Crew, Alexz Johnson. Director Wong and co-writer Glen Morgan returned for the third outing in the series (after co-creating the original with Jeffrey Reddick). This one features a new batch of teens who are inadvertently saved from a roller coaster disaster after high school senior, Wendy (Winstead), warns them of their impending doom. Naturally, the survivors begin dying in gruesome fashion as Wendy and chum, Kevin (Merriman), try to solve Death’s latest design. Returning to the suspenseful form of first movie, FD3 heightens the tension by slowly turning the screws, especially during the opening sequence, and keeps its audience on its toes by prolonging the build-up. It also has one of the best kill sequences in the series involving tanning beds. Energetic and darkly humorous, this is almost as good as the first movie. B+

THE FINAL DESTINATION (2009) d: David R Ellis. c: Bobby Campo, Stephanie Honoré, Haley Webb, Mykelti Williamson, Nick Zano. The fourth entry in the series is dumb, cartoonish, rude, and a lot of fun! After escaping a series of deadly explosions at a haggard race track, a group of survivors are picked off one-by-one by ever-greedy Death. The juicy kills this time around include a decapitation by flying tire, and a poor schmuck who gets his guts sucked out of his butthole by a pool pump. All the characters are basically personality-free meat-bags, while the screenplay is devoid of any sense of logic. But none of that matters because director Ellis steps up the action and delivers a fast-paced frenzy of splatter and mayhem, with a character seemingly dying every five minutes or so. The movie also wisely skates around the whole “death’s design” idea, which bogged down the last few films in the series. If there’s anything I’ve learned from the FD movies is that there is never any rationale, and why should there be? B

FINAL DESTINATION 5 (2011) d: Steven Quale. c: Nicholas D’Agosto, Emma Bell, Miles Fisher, Arlen Escarpeta, Jacqueline MacInnes Wood, David Koechner, Courtney B. Vance, Tony Todd. Death stalks a new group of people, this time the employees of a company that narrowly escaped a deadly bridge collapse while on their way to a retreat. Much like FD4 the characters here aren’t going to win any personality awards and the death scenes have become almost cartoonish in their execution, with someone shouting, “Call 911!” after a woman’s fall results in her spine sticking out of her back. On a technical level, FD5 is probably the best in the series, with the bridge sequence rivaling anything seen in bigger budgeted Hollywood flicks. But by this fifth film the whole “Death’s Design” gimmick has worn thin, eliminating a lot of potential suspense and clever situations that earlier movies in the series were more successful at. That said, this one looks great, there’s no denying it’s never dull, and at times it goes down like candy. Slight but enjoyable, and with the best twist ending in the entire series. B

SCI-FI/FANTASY MONTH: Alien vs. Predator, John Dies at the End, The Omega Man, and Videodrome

ALIEN VS. PREDATOR (2004) d: Paul W. S. Anderson. c: Sanaa Lathan, Lance Henriksen, Raoul Bova, Ewen Bremner, Colin Salmon, Tommy Flanagan. This unabashedly fun merging of two of the biggest sci-fi/horror franchises of the ’80s has a group of explorers descending upon a hidden, ancient pyramid buried under the ice in Antarctica. They soon discover the site is where, millions of years ago, a war began between two extraterrestrial beings: the xenomorphs (aliens) and the alien bounty hunters (predators). Now, the humans are caught in the middle of a bloody rampage as the war rages on. Unlike the classic Alien and Aliens, AVP is best viewed as silly pulp entertainment and should never be taken seriously. The story is all over the place and most of the characters feel one-dimensional, but it’s fast-paced and the action is almost nonstop. Lathan makes for a spunky, smart heroine, although Ripley is sorely missed. Junky amusement that’s, dare I say, better than Alien 3. B

JOHN DIES AT THE END (2012) d: Don Coscarelli. c: Chase Williamson, Rob Mayers, Paul Giamatti, Clancy Brown, Glynn Turman, Doug Jones. Two slacker friends, Dave (Williamson) and John (Mayers), in the midst of discovering a mysterious street drug that opens their minds to alternate dimensions and other supernatural activities, stumble upon a secret alien invasion of their small town. I think. Kooky and visually stimulating, John Dies at the End is a strange, albeit marginally entertaining, hodgepodge of comic book ideas and gory spectacle. To attempt understanding the confusing plotline is a lesson in futility. The film is intentionally incoherent and to try making sense of it is to miss the point; the world that Dave and his gang have inadvertently entered is a discombobulated mess where logic doesn’t apply. The practical FX look great, the digital ones not so much, but the movie’s cast is first-rate (especially Giamatti as a skeptical journalist) and take the material to a higher level, as does Coscarelli’s professional direction. Yet, despite its charms the movie never gels and feels more like a series of cool ideas better suited for several episodes of Black Mirror. Ultimately, it’s the screenplay that dies in the end. C

THE OMEGA MAN (1971) d: Boris Sagal. c: Charlton Heston, Anthony Zerbe, Rosalind Cash, Paul Koslo, Eric Laneuville. Thoughtful adaptation of the Richard Matheson book, I Am Legend, about Dr. Neville (Heston), a survivor in a post-apocalyptic world. Biological warfare has killed most of humanity and left the rest as light-sensitive mutants who see Neville, and other potential survivors, as the enemy. Part gothic horror, part sci-fi adventure, Omega Man replaces Matheson’s vampires with talking, intelligent monsters and in doing so creates a world that doesn’t question why bad things happen, but why we allowed it, eventually realizing that humans are humanity’s worst enemy. Although somewhat dated in tone, this is still very enjoyable and often exciting. The film was fairly transgressive for its time in its portrayal of an interracial relationship between Heston and Cash, especially in such a high-profile studio film. Worth a look if the 2007 Will Smith version (or the 1964 Vincent Price version) is not your cup of tea. B

VIDEODROME (1983) d: David Cronenberg. c: James Woods, Debbie Harry, Sonja Smits, Jack Creley, Leslie Carlson. Pseudo-intellectual claptrap about the owner of a small TV station (Woods) specializing in obscure adult entertainment who comes across a strange broadcast signal that shows nothing but torture and violence. When he investigates the origin of the transmission, he gets caught up in a conspiracy dealing with mind-control, hallucinations, and false reality. The film is trying to say something about the effects television has on society, especially those with “soft” minds in a harsh reality, but its story is too jumbled in its absurd dream-like structure that it becomes nothing more than a cold, insensitive exercise in pretentious art. Woods and Harry are good, but the only reason to watch this is for Rick Baker’s outrageous makeup FX. C

SCI-FI/FANTASY MONTH: Altered States, Blade, Lord of Illusions, and The McPherson Tape

ALTERED STATES (1980) d: Ken Russell. c: William Hurt, Blair Brown, Bob Balaban, Charles Haid. A brilliant scientist (Hurt), obsessed with accessing the brain’s unexplored subconscious, experiments with hallucinogens and taps into a metaphysical reality, eventually physically devolving back to early man and other primordial states. If you can ignore the fundamentally silly story idea you might be able to enjoy this visually arresting adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s novel, which can read as a variant of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. There’s a bit too much uninteresting scientific jibber-jabber and most of the characters are cold and unsympathetic, but Dick Smith’s still-impressive makeup FX are first-rate and there’s no denying Russell’s direction is often exciting. A rushed happy ending slightly stains an otherwise good film. B

BLADE (1998) d: Stephen Norrington. c: Wesley Snipes, Stephen Dorff, Kris Kristofferson, N’Bushe Wright, Donal Logue, Udo Kier. Before 2000’s X-Men blew open the comic book movie floodgates, there came this solid adaptation of the supernatural Marvel character created by Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan: Blade (Snipes), a half-vampire, half-mortal man who uses his physiology to become the perfect vampire hunter. Blade must stop a rogue vampire (Dorff) and his army of followers when they try to fulfill a prophecy that will bring an end to all humans in the form of an all-powerful vampire being. Snipes is well cast as the titular anti-superhero and he and Kristofferson, as Blade’s father figure, play well off each other. The pacing could be tighter (the movie feels too long), but this is harmless popcorn fun best enjoyed with your brain turned off. B

LORD OF ILLUSIONS (1995) d: Clive Barker. c: Scott Bakula, Famke Janssen, Kevin J. O’Conner, Daniel Von Bargen, J. Trevor Edmond, Joseph Latimore. A vastly underrated supernatural noir from Barker, based on his short story about guilt-ridden P.I. D’Amour (Bakula), who gets involved in the accidental death of famous illusionist, Swann (O’Conner). D’Amour eventually discovers Swann and his wife (Janssen) are surviving victims of a murderous cult leader known as Nix (Von Bargen), who apparently held otherworldly powers and can rise from the dead. Visually impressive, this is perhaps Barker’s best work on a technical level, with some imaginative set pieces and good use of digital FX that don’t drown the story but help move it along. The characters are complex and interesting, and the acting is good, especially O’Conner as the troubled, and magically gifted, illusionist. Ignored upon its initial release, this deserves another look. B+

THE McPHERSON TAPE (1989) d: Dean Alioto. c: Tommy Giavocchini, Patrick Kelley, Shirly McCalla, Stacey Shulman, Christine Staples. Predating The Blair Witch Project by ten years, this micro-budget yarn chronicles a small family gathering interrupted by the sudden arrival of a UFO, all captured with a VHS camcorder. A clever concept and a realistic setting helps sustain interest for most of the story, but a lot of the time is spent on the family running around and screaming at each other. There’s also too much time wasted on characters questioning the relevance of the videocamera – something found footage would later wisely skate around – and a lot of the action happens in the dark, making it difficult to see what’s going on. Inventive on many levels, lackluster on others. C+

SCI-FI/FANTASY MONTH: Aliens: Zone of Silence, Coherence, The Fly ’58, and Lamb

ALIENS: ZONE OF SILENCE (2017) d: Andy Fowler. c: Sarah Hester, Peter Gesswein, Jed Maheu. A young woman (Hester) ventures into a section of Mexican desert known as the “Zone of Silence,” a UFO hotspot where her brother was last seen before mysteriously vanishing. Written and directed by Hollywood visual FX producer Fowler, Zone of Silence is essentially Blair Witch with aliens, and even though there are a couple of creep-out moments, the end result isn’t quite worth the long build-up. C

COHERENCE (2013) d: James Ward Byrkit. c: Emily Baldoni, Maury Sterling, Nicholas Brendon, Elizabeth Gracen, Lorene Scafaria, Hugo Armstrong. In the midst of a comet’s passing, a group of friends at a dinner party begin to experience strange things they can’t explain. Upon investigating the circumstances, they discover a mysterious house down the road that has a weird resemblance to the one at which they’re having the party. A clever and twisty sci-fi yarn that works best when knowing less about the plot. The cast works well together (at times they actually feel like lifelong friends) and director/writer Byrkit wisely keeps the focus on the friends and mostly inside the house as they try to navigate the creepy nature of what’s happening. The screenplay gets a bit too wrapped up in the characters’ personal lives (simply to create drama) but the strength of the story lies in the mystery that binds them together. B

THE FLY (1958) d: Kurt Neumann. c: David Hedison, Vincent Price, Patricia Owens, Herbert Marshall, Charles Herbert. Classic ’50s sci-fi/horror about an intrepid scientist (Hedison) who invents a matter transporter and, while experimenting on himself, accidentally mixes his DNA with a housefly’s, mutating into a half-man, half-insect abomination. Modern audiences more familiar with the Cronenberg remake might be put off my this film’s slower pacing, but the structure of the original works as more of a mystery and builds to several surprises that pay off wonderfully. B

LAMB (2021) d: Valdimar Jóhansson. c: Noomi Rapace, Hilmir Snær Guonason, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson. A married couple (Rapce and Guonason) living on an isolated sheep farm in Iceland come across a welcoming discovery in their barn and are soon plunged into a world of blind reality and false happiness. A moody, intriguing fairy tale in the form of a domestic drama, Lamb teases its audience with sympathetic characters, honest situations, and beautiful Icelandic locations, slowly twisting the screws and raising the tension until the surprising truth is revealed. A quiet, mesmerizing entry in the folk horror world. B+