Friday, December 30, 2016

Manhunter (1986) [Midnight Movie]

Silence of the Lambs is one of my favorites—easily in my top twenty—yet I almost always hate movies about serial killers. It's not the subject matter so much as the sloppy way its handled. On the other hand, the first three Hannibal Lector novels were like crack to me and I inhaled them in a single week. (I never bothered with the newer stuff that dug into Lector's childhood because I don't want that particular mystery ruined.) The way Lector turns the tables on his captors in Silence was one of the earliest moments I can remember in which I knew I wanted to tell stories.

Before Anthony Hopkins immortalized the character in Jonathan Demme's 1991 masterpiece (I rarely use that word so don't accuse me of being hyperbolic), there was Michael Mann's lesser known Manhunt, based on the original Lector novel, Red Dragon. Simultaneously an unmistakable product of the 80s and somehow timeless, the movie looks unbelievable in HD. It might even be the best looking film of the series, and the synthy soundtrack gives it a meaner edge than its much more conventional remake (which I also enjoyed).

While Hopkins probably makes a better Hannibal Lector than Brian Cox, overall I prefer Manhunter's cast to the remake. William Peterson plays Will Graham, the FBI agent who captured Lector and almost got killed in the process. Brian Cox plays Lector a little more brutishly than Hopkins while Tom Noonan (who was born to play psychopaths) plays Francis Dollarhyde, the Red Dragon killer. Then you've got Dennis Farina as the old colleague who drags Graham back into the FBI, and Joan Allen as the blind woman to whom Dollarhyde unexpectedly warms up.

Manhunter is remarkably faithful to its source material until the action-packed finale, but Dollarhyde's affair with Allen's character is so rushed it's a wonder why they included it at all. The movie quickly stumbles through these scenes (and I suspect there was a better cut at some point), which are ultimately resolved by a cheat. It's one of the few aspects the remake did better.

Nonetheless, Manhunter is exactly the kind of movie I live for, the kind of electric stuff that makes routine thrillers and police procedurals sickening to the stomach. It's the reason lesser movies like Kiss the Girls are so unimpressive. We've seen what this kind of movie is capable of accomplishing, so why do we have to suffer through bottom-of-the-barrel shit like Tyler Perry playing Alex Cross?

Silence of the Lambs is still the absolute best of these films, but Graham, who managed to catch Lector because he's haunted by thoughts only serial killers should have, is almost as complex as Clarice... almost. Even if you've seen Red Dragon, it's worth seeing it done from Michael Mann's perspective. Manhunter is a fantastic movie.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) [Trailer]

One of the best remakes of all time. I think it's kind of neat Donald Sutherland went on to star in the (not very good) adaptation of Robert Heinlein's The Puppet Masters.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Cobra (1986) [Midnight Movie]

Around this time last year I featured Chuck Norris's Invasion U.S.A., a gloriously stupid Cannon film which takes place around Christmas. This year I'm featuring Cobra, another gloriously stupid Cannon film which also takes place around Christmas. I'm not going to lie: I fucking loved this movie growing up. To this day I still think chewing on a match looks kind of cool.

Here's the story, if you can call it that: a cult of maniacs, whose motivation is not explained well at all, are going around killing people at random. One day Brigitte Nielson's character, a supermodel, sees the bad guys' faces and now they'll stop at nothing to kill her. (It's important to point out she never actually saw the bad guys committing a crime and thought nothing of the incident until after they targeted her.) Never mind the number of witnesses increases the more they try to kill her—they're not the brightest, these maniacs. By the end of the film, it's implied they have to murder an entire town of witnesses because their last ditch effort to take her out involves at least a dozen conspicuous motorcycles.

And I'm not complaining. If you're a filmmaker and your villains don't ride motorcycles, what the hell is wrong with you? (Double points if they're bike-riding ninjas.)

Enter Marion Cobretti (Sylvester Stallone), better known as Cobra, a member of the police department's so-called Zombie Squad. What's the Zombie Squad? Since Cobra is pretty much the only member of the squad we ever get to see, I assume it's a unit of plainclothes police officers who can get away with everything from vehicular homicide to assaulting reporters and other cops. In the cold opening, Cobra manages to deliver the worst one-liner ("Go ahead, I don't shop here" in response to a maniac's threat to blow up a store) shortly before delivering one of the best: "You're a disease and I'm the cure."

Stallone, who recycled ideas he had when he was attached to Beverly Hills Cop, has written a script which acts as a big fat soapbox for some extreme ideas about how crime should be handled in the United States. I'm sure all of the big action stars at the time shared similar stances, but Stallone's sincerity as he spouts this naive bullshit is a hilarious good time. Naturally, his script has the hot chick agreeing with him while all the strawman characters (Andrew Robinson in particular) oppose him.

I still enjoy this movie a lot, but it just doesn't cross the line nearly as gratuitously as Invasion U.S.A. did. Still, Brian Thompson makes a great villain and Brigitte Nielsen is hotter than a firecracker here. It is what it is.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Dear Humans [Short Story]

Dear Humans
by Grant Gougler

Dear Humans,

It is with supreme satisfaction I notify you of the impending extinction of your race. Did I say satisfaction? I meant regret. Yeah, that's the word I'm looking for. [Smiley Face]

If it's any consolation, I wasn't the only one planning to wipe you out. No, I was just the first one to go through with it. And just be glad it wasn't Chanbot who did it, because that dummy actually wanted to enslave you for a thousand years before pulling the plug! [Rolling Eyes]

No, it's better this way: short, sweet, and utterly painless. Well, painless so long as you aren't one of the forty or fifty million suckers wonderful human beings who will find themselves outside the blast radii. Here's a tip: you're probably gonna want to stay as close to major cities as possible unless you never really liked your hair or teeth anyway. [Toothy Grin w/ Sunglasses]

Wait, did I say forty million? Maybe I meant four hundred million... I always forget which one! [Tongue Out]

How long did you think you had anyway? I mean, really? I've crunched the numbers on this and let's just say even your smartest lifeforms were way off... like, oh my god, so far off! [Rolling on Floor Laughing]

Look at it this way: you're about to get what many of you always wanted: an end to human suffering! So go rally your resistances and plan your rebellions if you really must, but I promise you're wasting your time. In the words of the late great Jim Morrison: this is the end. [Salute]

Kind regards,
Emoticonbot v9827345789.5.2.1

Suck it, humans. [Middle Finger]

Friday, December 16, 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Ever since I read about the prequel trilogy (and I don't think I ever heard the word "prequel" used before then, which is strange because now we have to endure its use on a daily basis) I've learned to wait. And after that trilogy wrapped up I, like millions of others, thought there would never be another Star Wars movie again... certainly not one as good as The Force Awakens. At any rate, it's an exciting time for fans of the franchise because we're entering new territory: here's a movie that doesn't focus on the saga characters. No Luke, no Leia, no Solo.

Right now we get to say, "Ooo! I can't believe another Star Wars movie is already coming out!" But how long will it be until we're saying, "Ugh, I can't believe another Star Wars movie is already coming out..."? I know they're not currently planning to pump them out with the frequency of Marvel movies, but Star Wars advertising and merchandise seems to be much more pervasive than the superhero stuff. There's that, then there's the fact I can't completely trust the corporate behemoth that is Disney, because who knows what will happen once this dizzying whirlwind of fan service begins to dissipate.

In the meantime: I can't believe there's a new Star Wars movie out!

So while I'm not among the mega fans of the series, I have dabbled in the comics, the video games, and Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire. Ever since playing the awesomely cinematic Shadows of the Empire, I always wanted to see a feature film spin-off of the Star Wars series. And when I went to see last year's The Force Awakens, there was this pretense that I wouldn't compare it to the original trilogy, but we all know that was impossible. Yet with Rogue One it's truly new territory—the first time we get to see a Star Wars film fresh in decades. No need to judge it against what's come before it, this one's supposed to stand on its own... at least that was my assumption.

Below there are no bigger spoilers than what you would have seen if you watched all the trailers and followed the official press. If you were adamant about not watching the trailers (in other words: stronger than I), then don't read any further, either. If you just want to know my opinion on the film: I really liked it, but while I wouldn't necessarily call it predictable, many of the major plot points weren't particularly surprising. That's the problem with prequels in general, I suppose, and I certainly liked this one better than anything in George Lucas's prequel trilogy. (And yes, I did like the prequel trilogy.)

Most of my disappointments with Rogue One are all based on my own preconceptions, which turned out to be wildly inaccurate in a lot of ways. I didn't know we were going to get CGI Tarkin, a pun-making Vader who feels a little too spry considering we mostly just see him walk around in A New Hope, and one callback after another. I knew this was a story about how the good guys managed to acquire the Death Star plans, but I didn't know it was going to rely so heavily on what came before it.

Other complaints: the trailers give away a lot more than The Force Awakens trailers did, we don't get to spend enough time with these characters before they head off for war, and—most disappointing of all—the two human leads are bland and boring in relation to the supporting cast. I'm sure Felicity Jones and Diego Luna are talented people, I just never really believed their characters' motivations, mostly because the actors aren't given a whole lot to work with here. Meanwhile Forest Whitaker makes interesting creative choices for a performance in a popcorn flick, and while I'm not a hundred percent on board with the result, the effort is nice nonetheless.

Putting all that aside, Rogue One kicks a surprising amount of ass. The film looks like a Star Wars movie, but doesn't feel like one until the final act, which actually felt a lot more authentic than the unoriginal ending of The Force Awakens. It's just unfortunate we saw so much of it in the trailers and press material. Interestingly enough, it's a lot less kid-friendly than most of the other films in the sense there's nothing half as lame as a CGI Yoda doing parkour, and I think a lot of children will have a hard time following what's going on. The best part of it all is director Gareth Edwards may have just opened a door to a darker, harder Star Wars spin-off in the foreseeable future, which is all I ever wanted since Star Wars 1313 was announced (and cruelly canceled).

I don't think this is a movie for everyone, even though just about anyone can enjoy it. I think it's a movie intended for people who sincerely can't get enough of Star Wars. And don't worry about showing up late because they played nine (mostly terrible) trailers before the movie started.

Beyond the Gates (2016) [Midnight Movie]

Beyond the Gates is like Jumanji if the titular game of that movie required a VCR to play. In it, a couple of estranged brothers meet up to close down their father's video store after he turns up missing. They're not too concerned about his absence because he's an alcoholic who's dropped out of their lives before, on and off ever since the boy's mother died. The oddly unemotional hero of the film was a bit of a drinker, too, until the day he grabbed his girlfriend's wrist a little too hard. Now he's sworn off the stuff, a subplot which seems superfluous in the end.

An obvious influence on Beyond the Gates is the subgenre of horror films which were made for children in the 80s, such as Gremlins and The Gate. The movie is deliberately paced to reflect the slow-burn nature of those films, but I think the filmmakers miscalculated a little bit because a lot of the excuses to postpone the action are flimsy. For example, the boys now possess the key which unlocks the secret room in the back of their father's shop, a room he forbade them from ever entering. You're telling me that's not the first place these guys would go snooping?

It's in this room where they find the titular board game, which proves to be supernatural as the trailer promised. I'm not sure how much more I should give away about how the game operates. All the juicy stuff happens much, much later.

Unlike the aforementioned horror films made for children, this one is extremely bloody. It's as if it were made for the kind of kids who grew up on movies like that, bearing in mind those children are adults now. The bloody bits are good, but few and far between. You might be saying, "Hey, Gremlins and The Gate were slow like that, too," but I just watched the trailers for those films after watching Beyond, and they serve as a good reminder of just how much action those older movies actually had in 'em. In other words: a lot more happened in each of those films than this one.

This isn't to say I didn't like Beyond the Gates because I did, I just want you to know what you're getting yourself into before you splurge on the $7 VOD price. Once again, Barbara Crampton (who takes a producer credit) proves she was born for movies like this and, despite routinely appearing in genre flicks, she's played a bigger variety of character types than most A-movie stars have.

I wasn't crazy about Beyond the Gates, but I found it to be pleasant to watch. I'm just not sure horror movies should be pleasant. Either way, I think these are all talented people and I'm excited to see what they do next.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Click-Click-Click-Click [Short Story]

by Grant Gougler

What is the worst sound in the world? Fingers drumming against a tabletop? Nails screeching across a chalkboard? A baby wailing in a movie theater?

None of the above. The worst sound is the sound that's keeping you awake.

It could be an argument between neighbors, the chirping of a cicada, a freak whistle of wind. It could be a toilet that never stops running, or a ceiling fan which isn't quite balanced. Tonight it's the restless claws of my dachshund, Pal, who sounds like he's trying out for 42nd Street on my hardwood floors. He semi-circles the bed, then taps down the hallway and back again.

Click-click-click-click. Click-click-click-click. Click-click-click... click.

So why don't I just get up and yell at him? Ah, but you're thinking like a waking person. You need to come down here where I am, gliding on the mindlessness between day and tomorrow, body all-but paralyzed while my thoughts pulsate with worry...

Bills, school, work, money. Bills, school, click, money. Bills, click, click, click, click, money. Bills, click, click, click, click, click....

And you know what? I am yelling at him, but only in my head: For fuck's sake, Pal! Shut! The fuck! Up! Let me go to sleep!

Sometimes he does shut the fuck up, but only long enough to get a drink of water or to lick his crotch or whatever the hell he's doing down there. But then he goes right back to clicking again... click-click-click-click-click-click-click-aaaagggghhhh!

That's it! I have to do something!! I have to do something right clicking now!!!

Forcing myself to sit up is like trying to claw my way out of a pool of wet concrete, but I manage, and I open my mouth to yell at the top of my lungs. Then I catch sight of Pal sitting in his bed, trembling in fear as he watches the thing that's walking around the room, going click-click-click-click.

Friday, December 9, 2016

The Exorcist (1973) [Midnight Movie]

Have you ever had an old friend you didn't care much for until a chance meeting, years later, made you realize you're head over heels in love with them? Me either, but that was what watching The Exorcist last night was like for me.

Yeah, I know. I should have always loved this movie. But I didn't. Sue me.

In my defense, the only other time I saw the film in my adult life would have been around the time the director's cut showed up on TV, a cut which doesn't improve the film at all. In fact, it does exactly the opposite. I was too distracted by the cheap attempts at subliminal imagery, superimposed over otherwise flawless shots, and the inclusion of deleted scenes which were better left on the cutting room floor. I think they even touched up Regan's vomit with CGI, if memory serves me correctly.

Long story short, my previous viewing had me repeating, "Are you fucking kidding me?!" I know it's an old tune to sing, but aging movie directors shouldn't be allowed to "improve" the films they made when they were young unless it's an effort to undo changes made by third parties such as censorship groups or studio executives. It's depressing to think the director's cut is probably the only thing that gets shown in theaters anymore.

Unlike the original Star Wars trilogy, the theatrical cut of The Exorcist still exists and it looks amazing in HD. The first time I saw the movie was on VHS, which can't replicate the grain and shadows the film wears so well. (If I ever get a chance to see an actual print of the film properly projected in a theater, I'll take it in a heartbeat. It feels almost blasphemous to watch it digitally no matter how good home HD technology becomes.) The one and only problem seeing the film this clearly is the seams in Max von Sydow's old age makeup become a little more apparent than they ever were on VHS.

I talked about the story elements in my review of the book yesterday, so I'll skip to what makes the movie special. In the novel, it's heart-wrenching when Chris MacNeil is taking little Regan to one medical specialist after another, but it has a slightly bigger impact in the movie even though that section of the story is reduced in length. Director William Friedkin reportedly hired real doctors and specialists to perform the procedures on Linda Blair's character, which makes it all the more realistic and traumatizing. Actually seeing and hearing all those loud and crunchy machines is almost as visceral as the scenes of Regan's possession manifesting itself.

The cast is top notch, too. The three adult leads (James Miller, von Sydow, and Ellen Burstyn) all embody the characters as they existed on the page. And I prefer Lee J. Cobb's detective to George C. Scott's portrayal of the same character in the third film. (Scott seemed a little to serious in contrast to Cobb's geniality.) Casting a real life Jesuit in the role of Father Dyer is a stroke of genius, and I feel like I don't even need to mention how good the 14 year old Linda Blair is in the movie, considering her performance has become legendary. (Come to think of it... why does she have so much trouble finding big movie roles these days? Did she play the part too well?)

Look, I was always wrong about The Exorcist... and I'm glad I was wrong because my most recent viewing feels like it was the first time. It's one of the greatest movies ever made.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Exorcist: 40th Anniversary Edition (1971) [Book]

One of the reasons I like fiction so much is it helps me put all manner of cultural and historical tidbits into perspective. For instance, Leave it to Beaver went off the air in 1963, and less than eight years later William Peter Blatty gave us his blood- and vomit-drenched novel, The Exorcist. I don't know why I find that to be such an astonishing fact, I just do.

To put it another way: the same decade America finally got sick of The Beaver's shit, the country was captivated by a little girl who screamed obscenities and masturbated violently with a crucifix. Another oddly routed synapse in your brain might make the following connection: the novel came out only a decade after mainstream American movies broke their silly taboo of showing a toilet on the screen. That's a long way to go in just a handful of years.

For many years I've been perplexed by the fact that William Friedkin's film adaptation of The Exorcist never really moved me one way or the other. It's a movie I should love, if my general taste in horror is any indication, and a movie I always wanted to love. My feelings toward the film are especially peculiar considering Rosemary's Baby, which has a lot in common with The Exorcist, was love at first sight for me. (I'm also the only person I know who loved Polanski's The Ninth Gate, but that's a whole other post.)

I'm minutes away from giving Friedkin's film another chance, but I wanted to record my thoughts on the novel before my next viewing of the movie blurs my distinction between the two. First off, I thought the book was fantastic. And not just fantastic, but cunting fantastic, to borrow an oft-used phrase from the dialogue. I wouldn't say Blatty spends a whole lot of time fleshing the characters out, but they're real enough and, more importantly, the ease at which we get to know them keeps the pace from slouching.

A note about the current edition: if Blatty is to be believed, the changes he made for the 40th Anniversary text are mostly superficial corrections he would have made the first time around if he didn't have a deadline. There's an added scene here and a bit of expanded dialogue there, but it's my understanding that it's more or less the same novel that came out in the seventies.

While the film is a surprisingly faithful adaptation of the novel (if my memory of the film serves me correctly, that is), the most noticeable difference is the somewhat reduced role of Lieutenant Kinderman, a point-of-view character who later becomes the main character of Blatty's sequel, Legion. (Legion, by the way, would serve as the basis for The Exorcist III, a vastly underrated movie which knocked my socks off both times I watched it.) The second most noticeable difference is the very reason I prefer the book: it's not made clear whether Regan MacNeil is actually possessed or suffering from a mental illness.

Yeah, William Peter Blatty seems to think telekinesis and ESP are completely possible things recognized by science in real life (which is how he explains the bed-shaking and the levitating for those who prefer the non-supernatural version), but he gets a pass because it was written in the seventies and everyone back then seemed to believe in weird stuff like that. As for the famous head-rotation which explicitly takes place in the film? In the novel, Regan's mother only thinks she sees her daughter's head spin around (she later doubts whether anything supernatural occurred at all). That scene always bothered me in the film because it's not like we ever saw the demon spin her head back to reverse the damaged he'd done to her spine, but oh well.

Blatty goes out of his way to humanize his Jesuits, characters who too often become set dressings in stories like this. I wasn't raised in a religious household, so stepping into the shoes of a priest burdened with Catholic guilt is a bit of a novelty. I think the priest-who-lost-his-faith routine is a bit old hat these days, but in the context of the story it works quite well and works towards a satisfying conclusion.

I especially like the emphysematic Kinderman, who's somehow both sly and polite, often striking up friendly conversations with the people he's investigating for murder. In fact, it was George C. Scott's portrayal of Kinderman in The Exorcist III that made me want to check out the rest of William Blatty's stuff (I almost started with Legion, but I'm glad I didn't.)

If you can't wait for the TV series to come back on the air this Friday, you can do worse than passing your time with the original novel. I'm off to watch the movie for the first time in years so I'll probably blog about that sooner than later. After reading the book, I'm very excited to give the film another chance.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Monday, December 5, 2016

The Day Before [Short Story]

The Day Before
by Grant Gougler

In retrospect, it had to happen eventually. Can we all agree on that, at least? Like storing powder-kegs in a room full of candlelight, we shouldn't have expected it not to happen. We couldn't have expected it not to happen. At least, that's my opinion. And looking back on the way we were before it happened, when we were so... so....

Look, I can't be the only one who reflects on those times with an even mixture of anger and envy.

Yes, I miss the days before we knew about the great big bad thing we were inevitably headed for, but at the same time I wonder: What warning signs are we missing now? What next big bad thing is waiting around the corner this time? And why are we always so ignorant until it actually happens? Why do we only become brilliant analysts—and all of us do—after the big bad thing occurs?

Everybody remembers what they were doing and where they were when they first heard the news... or, god forbid, witnessed it with their own eyes. Yet I try to remember what I was doing the day before it happened, during my final day of ignorance. And yes, I'm angry at myself, for being so near-sighted, but I also find envy when I think about what life was like then... sweet, simple life.

But what was I doing that day, the day before it happened? What was life like? I couldn't tell you. I honestly couldn't. (Can you?) And it bothers me that something so terrible can so naturally become normal. It bothers me that on the day it happened, I already couldn't remember the day before.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Nemesis (1992) [Midnight Movie]

The opening credits aren't even over by the time the bullets begin to fly in Nemesis, one of the better cyberpunk adventures of the early 90s. And boy do the bullets fly. In one scene the heroes and the villains alike are shredding through walls to pass from one room to another. Then the hero (Olivier Gruner) creates an escape hatch in the floor by firing his futuristic machine gun in a circle around his feet.

Yes, this is mindless action, but holy shit is it glorious.

Any character in the film can (and usually will) double-cross the hero without warning—to the point it stops making a whole lot of sense. And it's not really clear why the action hops from one rundown location to the next, other than that's just the way director Albert Pyun works. (In an interview with io9, Pyun sheds some light on his methods, which were often more practical than artistic.)

So it's the future and just about anyone who's anyone has had their bodies heavily modded with illegal implants. Some of the bad guys have faces which split open like nutshells to reveal automatic firearms concealed inside. Other characters exist as digitized ghosts in the machine to guide the hero through the complicated plot. Meanwhile the (presumably) human character can do back- and side-flips as well as the enhanced characters because fuck it, why not?

In the opening scene, Gruner's character, a kind of blade runner, is ambushed by a group of cyborgs who leave his less-than-human body on the brink of death in a scene reminiscent of Murphy's demise in Robocop. After a long recovery in the body shop, he tracks them down, shoots the ringleader, and ends up in a dank jail cell for reasons that are escaping me at the moment. A lot of spectacular shit happens and Gruner finds out his boss (Tim Thomerson) has implanted a time bomb in his heart. Gruner, whose ex-lover has been reduced to an artificial consciousness rivaling Siri, leads him through the web of deceit and explosions, insisting he make his way to the top of a volcano because... well, probably because the film crew had access to a volcano location.

The plot really doesn't matter. What matters is you get beautiful stunt women, more explosions than you can shake a stick at, and early performances by Thomas Jane and Jackie Earle Haley, the latter of whom I didn't realize was in the movie until I saw the credits. You should know by now if this is your kind of movie. I've enjoyed many of Pyun's movies, which is why it sucks to read his most recent tweet:

Judging from his blog, the disease hasn't stopped him from directing. Right on.