Archive for category horror
The Hollywood Projects is teaming with FilmDispenser.com and IGN to host the Atlanta Premiere of SINISTER, the new horror film that killed at the SXSW film festival and has collected a huge batch of wild rave reviews.
Summit Entertainment is offering Hollywood Projects readers a chance to purchase tickets to the premiere of SINISTER in Atlanta on September 26, over a week in advance of its nationwide release. And, yes, this picture is a big, big deal.
SINISTER stars Ethan Hawke and Vincent D’Onofrio in a story by C. Robert Cargill (Massawyrm from Ain’t it Cool News). The film is directed by the guy who made the very solid THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE and produced by the guy behind INSIDIOUS and the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY films. This movie is no slouch.
Visit this link to purchase tickets and confirm the event.
Happy (early) Halloween!
Psssst. Here’s the link again: http://www.tugg.com/events/1440#.UDgNsdZlRX8
It’s 1888 and someone is murdering prostitutes in the London district of Whitechapel, someone whose prolific and gratuitous knifework earns him the nickname Jack the Ripper. The eccentric Detective Abberline (Johnny Depp) heads the investigation and slowly uncovers a startling conspiracy that links the murders to shadowy Masonic rituals, cultic sacrifice, and the fate of the English crown. Meanwhile, Abberline befriends one of the Ripper’s intended victims (Heather Graham), but as the case drags on, comes to realize that it may take more than solving the case to save her life.
There are so many Jack the Ripper stories out there, you guys. Like that one video game where he fights Sherlock Holmes? Or that time he turns up in Babylon 5 as an alien space inquisitor? He gets around! But few attempts at the story have been quite as audacious and far-reaching as Alan Moore’s From Hell, an exhaustive 600-page monolith of a graphic novel that uses a widely-discredited conspiracy theory as a diving board into a pool of heady ideas on spirituality and culture, among many, many other things. Basically, From Hell is about everything there is in the world.
“I, uh… I flipped through it.”
This obviously presented a challenge for producer Don Murphy (Apt Pupil) who optioned the novel alongside fellow future squandered-opportunity League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Seeking to trim the narrative down to something movie-sized, Murphy found willing partners in Albert & Allen Hughes, whose own interest in the Ripper legends began as children watching a scary documentary on TV. With the Hughes Brothers came Johnny Depp, then still a few years from his international superstardom. Depp, thanks to his longtime collaboration with Tim Burton, seemed a natural fit for such a dark, gothic story, and the actor expressed interest in the project directly to the Brothers while meeting about another. It was a slam dunk to cast him as Abberline.
Less of a slam dunk was budget-friendly Prague where the production had committed to shoot. Unable to find locations that matched the Whitechapel district, the production had to build several complete city blocks on a soundstage, but while that construction wore on, the script was in a state of demolition. Two writers—Terry Hayes (Dead Calm) and Rafael Yglesias (Fearless)—each took a pass at paring Moore’s novel down, carving away with their pens and plucking out various unsavory tidbits like so many misplaced kidneys, entrails, and other Ripper metaphors, eventually draining Moore’s ocean of ideas down to a straightforward murder mystery (a major change, since the identity of the killer is known very early in the novel, and much of the story is told from his perspective.)
Alongside these cuts were two big additions. The first was Abberline’s psychic abilities—added, the Hughes Brothers claimed, to help make Abberline a more interesting lead. The second was a happy ending that leaves one of the Ripper’s real-life victims alive and well at the end of the story.
Absinthe: The fresher, cleaner, hallucinogenic way to wash up after a murder.
Released just a month after 9/11, From Hell failed domestically, not quite recouping its $35 million budget, likely due to a combination of a national distaste for violence in the wake of that tragedy and rumors that the film narrowly avoided a rare NC-17 for gore. The film fared better overseas and, now distanced from that unfortunate release date, found a healthy life on home video.
What Works Like Crazy
I’ll say this, the Hughes Brothers were certainly an inspired choice to get From Hell up on the screen. “The Menace II Society guys are doing a British true-crime horror story?” you might ask as so many did, but From Hell fit quite comfortably into the Hughes’s early target zone. Like Menace and Dead Presidents, From Hell is a story about class and violence in an oppressive urban environment. London in 1888 wasn’t South Central Los Angeles but it was deeply divided, hacked in two and shared by the wealthy upper class and a poor workforce simply fighting to exist. Forget paying bills; many Whitechapel residents wondered whether they could find a scrap to eat or a place to sleep not infested with crap, a reality largely created, encouraged, and maintained by the ruling class. That one of the wealthy elite might have descended into Whitechapel to literally hunt and carve up its residents for sport caught the public’s imagination partly because it appeared to be a cruel, even inevitable, result of that system. Life is cheap, but how cheap, exactly?
Recognizing the territory, the Hughes Brothers got the details right. The film is thick with moments and scenes that give Whitechapel—although clearly a soundstage—a real sense of living and breathing and struggling. Murder scenes are recreated exactly as they were found during the Ripper case and the shots are littered with little observations that speak to the difficulty of life in the Victorian era.
Freed from location shooting and the need for realism found in their earlier projects, the Brothers splattered the production with the kind of dreamy, gothic touches that had threatened to burst through in their earlier films. From Hell is all stark angles and filthy cobblestones and explosions of bright red color across gray-black stone. The style creates a nightmare London two stops over from Tim Burton’s Gotham City.
Unfortunately for Johnny Depp, this ain’t a Tim Burton film. Depp’s collaborations with Burton usually sprang from very smart, serviceable scripts, but From Hell leaves Depp to fend for himself in the face of some really baffling choices.
The Hughes Brothers were staring down the barrel of a massive source novel, and they responded by gutting it. Look, I get that. I support radical adaptations—I have to if I want to enjoy, say, Jaws—but the changes in From Hell altered the material dramatically, and created a slew of new problems that were then immediately mishandled.
To change the story from a sprawling exploration of the case to a whodunit procedural, the brothers had to shove the novel’s most interesting character—the killer—behind the curtain. OK, fair enough, but unfortunately that leaves the less-interesting Abberline to hog the stage, and instead of layering him with the complexity or detail he deserves as an actual living person who witnessed these events, they changed him into an opium-smoking psychic. They actually grafted superpowers onto a historical person. This is the cinema equivalent of taping Skeletor’s sword to your GI Joe—it’s all surface and it doesn’t fit anyway. (And incidentally, Cobra will just escalate and recruit Battle Cat.)
That surface approach to storytelling reappears throughout the movie. Abberline’s Scotland Yard sidekick Godley (Robbie Coltrane) quotes Shakespeare as his clumsy, artificial “quirk.” The would-be victims are basically one-word adjectives; there’s the grouchy one, the saintly one, the lesbian, and so on. If the movie can’t give the story the depth it deserves, then by God, nobody gets any!
All of this would be forgiven if the procedural paid off, but it totally doesn’t. In reality, the Ripper case was a fascinating study of the crossroads where modern forensic techniques clashed with archaic human prejudice, but that isn’t present in the film. Depp’s Detective Abberline more or less abandons real forensics and goes with his instincts. He could be the star of a show called Victorian Dream Cop. Abberline follows his gut and his visions to reveal the killer whose identity the audience guessed an hour earlier simply by playing “spot the movie star.” Spoiler Alert: If a major name is playing a bit part, there’s probably a payoff in the third act.
I disliked From Hell the first time I saw it, and the intervening years haven’t change my mind. When people use the old insult “all style, no substance,” this is the kind of film they’re talking about. The natural intrigue and real-life drama that accompanied the Ripper investigation is dumped out the back window to cram in more style and gore and mood. What’s worse, the film is riddled with bits borrowed from the novel or left over from previous script drafts that make no sense on their own. (Example: when the killer is revealed near the end, his eyes turn solid black, like a shark’s. A nod to the supernatural stuff jettisoned in the adaptation process? Who knows!)
Still, From Hell represents a remarkable step forward in the Hughes Brothers transformation from indie auteurs to genre stylists. It’s a very attractive film, if you find eviscerations and buckets of gore to be your kind of thing. The Whitechapel sets created for the film are moody and grim and make up for some of the story’s shortcomings. Some.
With From Hell, the Hughes Brothers altered their style of filmmaking, but it felt more like a natural evolution than an abrupt change–a step forward rather than a step sideways. Johnny Depp was reportedly impressed enough with the brothers that he offered them two of his most recent mega-budget projects, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End and The Lone Ranger, although they were forced to decline. Even to this day, and even in spite of the film’s box office and critical disappointment, From Hell remains a calling card for the Hughes Brothers, but for me the film amounts to little more than a stab and a scream in the dark.
The Hughes Brothers Project
4. From Hell
One of these days, I’m going to have to write a John Carpenter Project.
As a movie nerd, I’m in love with Carpenter’s work by definition. Halloween would be enough, but the man also made a movie about a bottle of green slime that can animate the dead and possess Alice Cooper through advanced mathematics.
And he nailed it.
But if you’re reading this, you know that it’ll take me a while to get to the eventual John Carpenter Project because my schedule is booked with all of the cocaine parties and supermodel orgies that come with being an unpaid movie blogger with over 30 Twitter followers.
So, instead, I’m going to talk about The Ward now.
I’ve only now gotten around to seeing Carpenter’s first feature since 2001’s Ghosts of Mars, partly because it didn’t come through theaters in my area and I wanted to make sure I’d see it in the right conditions to really examine it. I wasn’t going to screen the film on my phone or some other bullshit because, if nothing else, Carpenter has earned my undivided attention.
I also probably waited longer than I should to see the film because, frankly, everybody whose opinion I respect agreed that it sucked. And the only thing that could possibly kill the buzz of a new John Carpenter horror film is finding out that the old John Carpenter is gone.
So I was nervous when I cued it up and I got the Jagermeister ready in case it turned out to be a poop fest, but then I discovered something kinda infuriating:
The Ward is a proper John Carpenter movie.
OK, it’s definitely not the best John Carpenter movie. It’s got a really thin, derivative script built around a plot that’s already been scooped by two other films, one from 2003 and the other from 2010 (I’ll leave those of you who’ve seen The Ward to guess which movies I’m referencing.)
So, yeah, it’s not good, but it’s nowhere near Carpenter’s worst film, either. In fact, I’d say that it’s probably his best feature film since 1994’s In the Mouth of Madness.
(I’m specifically talking about features here, because his Masters of Horror entry “Cigarette Burns” is pretty damn great.)
The filmmaking in The Ward is good-to-great. Carpenter uses light, fog, and shadow like the old master that he is, dragging out a legitimate, earned sense of terror that distracted me from that growing sense in the back of my mind that I knew where this movie was going, and that the destination was dumb.
But what really set me to typing here is that The Ward is a return to a classic type of horror filmmaking that’s long since vanished from studio-funded pictures. The film has all of its fanboy hot buttons covered:
- The movie relies on genuine atmosphere and actual tension rather than a string of false jump scares. (There are jump scares, to be sure, but the movie doesn’t lean on them and it’s never revealed to be somebody’s fucking cat or something. When you jump, it’s usually because the monster just showed up and made you jump.)
- The movie rates a near-zero on computer graphics. Nothing kills horror like digital blood or CGI ghost effects, and Carpenter knows that. The Ward relies almost entirely on practical makeup and gore.
- In particular, the antagonist monster is very nicely realized, completely in-camera, and with makeup that calls back to Carpenter’s best work. The critter would have fit right in to the final act of Prince of Darkness.
- The actors mostly deliver legitimate, strong performances, especially Jared Harris, Amber Heard, and Dan Anderson. No easy task considering the flimsy state of the material.
- There’s no choppy editing or music video style-farts. It’s just a simple horror story told with clean, classic filmmaking. It’s not too flat. It’s not overdone.
- The script may be ridiculously derivative and predictable, but it’s still an original story, not a remake.
The Ward is not a great horror movie, but it’s exactly the type of horror movie that we’ve begged to see and which the studios never make because they believe “old-school” horror can’t find support.
And we proved them right.
If Carpenter has a history of taking C-material and turning it into a B+, well then The Ward is D material and he turned it into a C+. We owed him a nice round of applause for returning to form and for still being the John Carpenter we recognized.
(And just in case someone wants to make the case that we would have been there for the film had it been better, let me remind you that The Wolfman and A Nightmare on Elm Street both hit theaters in 2010 and both received way, way more people despite being exactly the same kind of hyper-stylized remake crap we’re supposed to hate. Which one did you pay to see in theaters that year, Nightmare or The Ward? I’m not proud of my answer.)
But instead we (and again, I’m including myself) didn’t support The Ward and it died a quiet death, secretly turning the screw one more twist toward the death of classical horror filmmaking. Once again, we begged for a certain type of movie, and then pushed our plate away when it was served to us.
If The Ward is our last John Carpenter feature film, it’ll be a damn shame. And it’ll be our fault.
Recent absence notwithstanding, I really love working on this site. Besides allowing me to write about catalog films—which I way, way prefer to writing new movie reviews—the site also lets me spackle holes in my movie lore. If I hadn’t written about Arthur Penn, would I have seen Mickey One? Without the Stanley Kubrick Project, I could have missed Killer’s Kiss.
Lately, though, I’ve been feeling like I’m missing a part of my mission. The way I see it, I’ve got two major problems.
1.) The only directors I’ve written about are all obvious, expected guys–directors very easy to love.
2.) My list is just a bunch of old and/or dead white dudes.
That ends today. I think there’s room on this site for directors I’m just not that into, directors who may have the potential for greatness, but who are still struggling to get all of their gears turning in the same direction. How about directors who, although mired in B-movie budgets, refuse to settle for the paychecks of quantity and instead choose projects that speak to their passions? Yeah, I think there’s something to be said for that.
The Hughes Brothers fit that description. I was too young to see it, but I recall the excitement surrounding Menace II Society and the explosion of crime films and young, black directors that appeared in the early 90s after Spike Lee kicked open the door. Directors like the Hughes Brothers and John Singleton became synonymous with a new culture of filmmaking, deeply in touch with an underrepresented group of people, electric anger flying off the screens. I remember the murmur of surprise when they signed on to helm the adaptation of Alan Moore’s Victorian horror tale, From Hell, because it wasn’t the kind of film a “black director” would normally accept. I also remember the limp disappointment when that film failed to stick the landing, as if somehow the idiots had been proven right.
As the ghetto crime genre dissipated in a piff of cliché, the Hughes Brothers followed the career path of contemporaries like Singleton and even Lee by positioning themselves as purveyors of interesting genre films. Their movies generate conversation, but rarely widespread critical acclaim. The brothers are stylists, but as filmmakers, they’re still chasing the success of their debut film. They’ve rarely gotten further than “almost.”
Much of the Hughes identity is twined with their unique background. Sibling teams are not uncommon, but twins? Even better, black twins? You can almost hear Hollywood stumbling over itself to glomp such diversity, and that’s without the Hughes’ Armenian and Iranian heritage, which informs their work as clearly as their black roots and connections to L.A. culture. They defy simple definitions. There’s nothing Hollywood about the films they make; there’s nothing Hollywood about them. In a predominantly white business, the Hughes Brothers are the outsiders, and their resulting work feels unique, loud, and chunky, filled with conflicting influences, conflicting ideas, and, yes, even sibling rivalry and love.
Perhaps it’s this narrative that first attracted me to the Brothers. Even though I’ve never loved any of their films, I’ve liked a few and I’m happy to root for them. I’m a Hughes Brothers cheerleader. Albert Hughes was attached early to the threatened whitewashing of Akira, and his involvement gave me some reason for optimism. I believed that, no matter the quality of the result, it would at least be interesting. Once he left, news of the project became progressively dire until the film recently, mercifully, collapsed completely (for now, at least). In recent years, the brothers have worked more often apart than together and it’s at least possible that the days of the Hughes Brothers as a directing team are at an end.
So, before Hollywood realities sever the team forever, I’m making a commitment to the Hughes Brothers. As their career develops, I’ll add their new films to this project. But first, let’s review the story so far.
Albert Hughes & Allen Hughes
April 1, 1972 in Detroit, Michigan (Albert is older by 9 minutes)
Aida Hughes (mother)
The Hughes spent their early years in Detroit in the care of their Armenian-American mother, Aida, who divorced their father (a man Albert describes as a “street hustler”, and whose name I couldn’t find in my research) when the brothers were only toddlers. Aida moved her family to Pomona, California by 1981 to seek new opportunities, but the rough culture in Pomona threatened to draw the twins into drugs and gang activity. To give her boys a distraction, Aida acquired a home video camera and gave it to them to explore. The gift changed the course of their lives. Soon, the boys were shooting short films together, recreating moments from favorite movies and television shows. They caught the bug.
Aida moved the twins to the white, upscale LA suburb of Claremont to attend high school, and it’s here that the boys began to chafe with the reality of being the wrong color. Frustrated with the Claremont culture and the increased scrutiny of law officers and authority figures, the boys channeled their frustration into their films, producing a class project called How to be a Burglar and a homemade documentary about a real-life crack dealer.
Albert eventually attended film classes at Los Angeles City College and used this experience—as well as their short film The Drive-By—to land the brothers a job producing music videos at Hollywood Records. Their talent and unique perspective earned them jobs with a number of high profile West Coast rap artists, most notably Tupac Shakur.Their friendship with Tupac helped open doors for the brothers, and their debut feature, the violent Menace II Society, premiered in 1993 to critical acclaim and notoriety. Unfortunately, behind-the-scenes conflicts derailed their relationship with Tupac. The brothers had originally promised Tupac a significant role in the film, but attempted to recast the rap star in a smaller role. Tupac responded by sending a group of Crips gangsters to assault the brothers. Tupac was arrested and served jail time for the incident.
After the success of Menace II Society, the Hughes Brothers remained in the crime genre for their followup, Dead Presidents, and the documentary American Pimp, before moving into horror with the adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel From Hell. The twins took a long hiatus before their next project, The Book of Eli, a move Albert attributed to sibling fatigue.
First off, when you live the life of a two-headed mutant monster, you both must agree on one thing before you can do it. That said, these mutants really needed a break from each other and, figuratively speaking, we went to the doctor and were surgically removed from one another. We’ve both led different and separate lives since that point, working apart for a bit and, in general, finding ourselves without the confusion of people lumping our personalities together. This sometimes is the most difficult thing about being a twin.
- As a directing duo, the twins split duties. Albert handles the camera and the technical production issues, while Allen works with the actors
- Drawn to stories about urban culture, crime, and poverty
- Heavily stylized visual design with deep, saturated colors and exaggerated cameras.
- Influenced by 1970s western/kung fu/action cinema
Number of Eligible Films:
Although the Hughes Brothers have made their name as a co-directors, they’re branching further and further into solo territory. While I may eventually include solo Hughes films—such as Allen’s Broken City, due sometime next year—solo TV movies and TV shows are, as usual, out.
Therefore, the joint Hughes TV show Touching Evil or Allen’s Knights of South Bronx won’t be a part of the project. Future films will be considered on a case-by-case basis, but for now I’m inclined to include anything directed by the pair or by either brother alone, as long as it’s theatrically released.
Connection to the Previous Project?:
Want to stare at the internet until your eyes bleed? Try to find an simple connection between Arthur Penn and the Hughes Brothers. After hours of looking and scrolling through IMDB, this is all I could find:
- Penn was in California in 1965 for photography on The Chase, and he got caught in the Watts Riots. Years later, the Hughes Brothers used the Watts Riots as historical context for their film set in Watts, Menace II Society.
- Arthur Penn’s favorite editor, Dede Allen, also worked on Denzel Washington’s John Q. Washington later starred in The Book of Eli! So Penn and the Hughes’ are at least two degrees of separation away!
This is a short project, based entirely on my belief that the Hughes Brothers have great films in them, regardless of their relative successes and failures thus far. In each of my write-ups, I’ll devote space to what works like crazy in the film and what falls flat. Later on, I’m thinking about doing something a little different, taking time out of the countdown at some point to post a long essay about one overlooked aspect of their work that I find really fascinating, but that requires its own full post to get at.
(Note: The Hughes Brothers Projects is complete. Please enjoy the links below!)
The Hughes Brothers Project
1. American Pimp (1999)
2. Menace II Society (1993)
3. The Book of Eli (2010)
4. From Hell (2001)
5. Dead Presidents (1995)
Kubrick only made one horror movie, but I think one was enough.
The Film: Aspiring writer Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) takes a job as the winter caretaker for the remote Overlook Hotel, thinking that he’ll finally have time to finish his novel. Jack’s son Danny (Danny Lloyd) hates the hotel instinctively and with good reason; the Overlook has a bloody history and seems to be infested with spirits attracted to Danny’s latent psychic powers (his “shining.”) The isolation and the hotel’s will slowly drives Jack mad. The hotel convinces Jack that Danny must die and, during a harsh snowstorm, Jack takes up an axe and goes on the hunt. Jack’s wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) narrowly escapes her husband, but it’s Danny who leads Jack out into the snow and loses him in the hotel’s hedge maze. Jack dies of exposure and his family escapes.
Note: The Shining not to be confused with Shining.
The Production: After the financial failure of Barry Lyndon, Stanley Kubrick needed a hit and he wasn’t in the mood to make friends. Hoping to tackle something more commercial, Kubrick agreed to adapt new horror rock star Stephen King’s novel The Shining into a film. It seemed like the perfect choice. The book had been a runaway best seller and the project felt like a great fit for Kubrick’s visual eye. To everyone except King, that is.
To Kubrick, King was just another writer he had to work around. The author watched as Kubrick stripped away all but the bare story from the novel and remade it in the director’s own image, choosing to focus on the family over the scares. Kubrick even inserted his own horror scenes, many of which (the twins, the bloody elevator) would became as famous as any scene from the novel. King disapproved of casting Nicholson, changing the hotel location, and pretty much every major deviation from his work. To this day, King has never fully endorsed the film.
The interiors for The Shining were shot at Elstree Studios in England under difficult conditions. In addition to the usual stories of long days and endless takes, Kubrick also clashed with his lead actress, Shelley Duvall. Kubrick criticized Duvall’s acting and methods, cut most of her dialogue, and forced her into extremely long shoots, even by his standards. There’s some evidence that Kubrick did this deliberately to influence her performance, although Duvall has said that while she wouldn’t trade the experience, she’d never want to do it again. Another big event at the shoot was the debut of the Steadicam, an invention that took Kubrick’s trademark tracking shots off the rails. The Shining was the first major film to utilize the Steadicam, and the shots Kubrick used it for, such as the hedge maze chase, remain among some of its very best applications.
Best Moment: There’s your “Here’s Johnny!” and your “All work and no play”, but for my money there is no better moment in the film than Halloran’s (Scatman Crothers) return to the Overlook.
Halloran’s death scene is a major break from the novel, which depicts the cook as the family’s savior in the final chapters. The change is Kubrick’s little twist to his audience, who was familiar with the novel and expecting Halloran to save the day. In its way, this bit is equally as subversive as Janet Leigh’s death in Psycho, playing off expectations to shock and terrorize. With the expected hero dead on the floor, there’s no one left to help Wendy and Danny. They’re on their own against Jack.
Lasting Impact: Easily the most on the list so far. Is there anyone in the world that doesn’t recognize Jack’s face bursting through the bathroom door, or doesn’t know text of his “novel?” What’s really insane is that the film has been chewed up and commandeered by pop culture over the years, turned into everything from Simpsons episodes to 30 Seconds to Mars songs, and yet it’s lost exactly zero of its impact on the viewer. After 30 years, the movie still gets under the skin.
Overall: The Shining is a ghost story that may not have ghosts. The ghosts certainly exist in Stephen King’s novel and the actors in the film definitely react as if they’re at Grand Spook Station, but Stanley Kubrick didn’t believe in the supernatural and the movie that he made leaves a lot of room for doubt. Jack might be having drunken delusions. Danny might be seeing flashes of the past through his “shining” instead of vengeful spirits. Wendy barely sees anything at all, but when she does it could simply be panicked hallucinations or, as some have suggested, Danny projecting his own mind into hers.
All we know for certain is that Jack is a ticking bomb before he even gets to the Overlook. King’s story was more about an everyman looking for a second chance and corrupted by dark forces, but Nicholson seems so tightly wound that you half-expect him to go axe-happy on the car ride up the mountain. The tension in the movie doesn’t come from questions of what might happen, but from when. This is primarily why King opposed Nicholson’s casting, but I think Jack’s performance exactly fits the movie that Kubrick wanted to make.
The Shining doesn’t just scare, it unsettles. There is power in every frame. The film is one of the last prestige horror films, made back when scripts like these drew A+ talent. Within a few years, campfire slashers and babysitters in danger would convince studios that they didn’t need to spend a lot on horror to make a hell of a lot back. Even today, three decades later, most horror movies feature teenage victims and favor “gotcha” moments over atmosphere. Thrills instead of chills. Sure, teens can make good victims, but they bring so little to the table. No teen characters, and very few teen actors, can hope to bring the kind of baggage that the Torrance family takes to the Overlook, baggage that’s critical to making the movie work. Unpacked and strewn around, the house (sentient or not) twists the proper screws and forces this family to eat itself. They seem like real people, and we relate. How would our parents have held up in the Overlook? How would we?
The Shining retains its power because of a rare alignment of artists at the peak of their talents. Kubrick was at his best during this late period, routinely cranking out masterpieces. King was still in ascension when The Shining hit theatres, quickly becoming a national phenomenon. He’s released reams of material in the years since, but even his detractors usually admit that his earliest work (Carrie, The Shining, The Stand) was his best. And then there’s Nicholson, coming down off a decade of exploding superstardom that began with Easy Rider (1969) and ran through Five Easy Pieces (1970), The Last Detail (1973), Chinatown (1974), and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) just for starters. By the time he agreed to play Torrance, he was just about the most famous and effective movie star in the world.
I tried to think of a recent film that combined so many peaking stars to such amazing effect. The first to come to mind was Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, with its combination of Nolan’s arrival (Nolan is fielding a lot of Kubrick comparisons these days) and Heath Ledger’s mythic performance as The Joker, but maybe the better Nolan example would be the recent Inception, featuring Nolan, Marion Cotillard in her best English role to date, and a score by Hans Zimmer that’s so good it’s hogging a large part of the discussion.
I’m sure there are better examples and time will tell if Nolan’s films hold up half as well as Kubrick’s little horror movie, but that speaks to the power Kubrick captured. Like the Overlook itself, the movie seems capable of soaking up whatever the viewer wants to bring inside. Ghosts or no ghosts, The Shining haunts the horror genre, proving that scares and art can work together and that, in capable hands, even a story about a man and his novel can keep us up at night.
The Stanley Kubrick Project
3. The Shining
9. Barry Lyndon
11. The Killing
12. Killer’s Kiss
13. Fear and Desire
Counting down the James Cameron Project, starting exactly where he started:
Intro: Before he could create new worlds, pioneer technologies, and collect his golden statues, Cameron first had to pay his dues on this Italian fish-sploitation number with random nudity, buckets of blood, and no clear reason to exist. (minus the nudity and the blood….)
Cameron originally came aboard the project as a special effects guru, fresh from his work with Roger Corman. After the original director bailed on the production (details are fuzzy as to why), Italian mega-producer Ovidio G. Assonitis called Cameron in from the bullpen to finish the job. The down side: Not even a budding master could save this clunker. The up side: Thanks to this film and a bout of virulent fever, Cameron went on to slightly better things.
And now… The Spawning!
The Movie: Welcome to Club Elysium, home of surf, sand, and the best dynamite fishing in the Caribbean. Oh, and a freshly sunken navy vessel filled with experimental biological weapons. Anne (Tricia O’Neal) is the club’s resident diving instructor with baffling guidelines to let her students swim around, but not inside, the wreck. Good call, because lost in the ship’s cargo is a batch of experimental mutant piranha eggs. Navy scientists crossbred the little buggers with grunion and flying fish to create the perfect fishy predator. Why? Why the hell not?
You may ask why the military hasn’t sent someone to retrieve this dangerous and presumably expensive cargo. After all, if a team of novice diving students can get to it, why can’t the professionals? Why is Anne allowed to swim her students anywhere near this fresh wreckage in the first place? The answers must have been saved for Piranha III: The Apology.
Back at Elysium, Anne prepares for the summer tourist season under the watchful eye of her estranged husband, and local boat cop, Steve (Lance Henricksen.) It isn’t clear why Anne and Steve split up, but the lack of a father figure has clearly done a number on their teen son Chris. Check out this still from his first scene in the movie.
That’s just a healthy American male, right? Except that’s not a sexy Italian strumpet he’s slapping with a live fish – that’s Mom. Poor, confused Oedipus Chris spends the rest of the movie romancing a teen sexpot with a bra allergy, but his heart seems committed to Mom’s apple pie.
After we’ve mingled with a few of the club’s oversexed and underhot clientele, the fish start doing their thing and it doesn’t take long for the little guys to rack up some impressive kills. Anne and Steve plead for the beaches to close, but they get the stock Jaws runaround about causing a needless panic. Of course, the situation builds to the annual Fish Fry, where tourists race to the beach to catch mating grunion, tragically forgetting the club’s brochure slogan – “Club Elysium: Where the Fish Eat You!”
Enter Tyler (Steve Marachuk), a government biochemist hiding out as a tourist to investigate the piranha problem he started. Want to bet he’s an asshole? Allow me to present the following – Tyler’s reaction when Steve catches him in bed with Anne.
Folks, Tyler is a super asshole. Thankfully he has the decency to become piranha chow down in the wreck after he and Anne rig it to explode. Anne swims away, the boat (And the fish? I guess?) goes boom, and her dysfunctional family reunites.
The Scene: No scene quite sums up the experience of Piranha II: The Spawning like Anne and Tyler’s late night dinner date at the morgue. One of Anne’s students became piranha kibble so she breaks into the hospital, intending to prove the culprit was not a barracuda or an eel. A nurse shoos her out, but just a few moments later we get…
That’s right! A piranha has been nesting inside the corpse — for hours, in cold storage – and has chosen this dramatically appropriate moment to kill again. After ripping out the nurse’s throat, the fish MAKES ITS ESCAPE by busting out the window. People, I can’t make this up. Piranha II: The Spawning. It’s a real movie.
The Line: I can’t remember any dialogue worth repeating, so instead I will quote the man himself. James Cameron, tongue firmly in cheek, from the Terminator 2 commentary: “I believe The Spawning was the finest flying killer fish horror-comedy ever made.”
Horror-comedy? Mr. Cameron, just because we’re laughing, please don’t pretend you knew there were jokes.
The Production: There’s a lot of myth and legend over the production of The Spawning, due largely to the power play between the young Cameron and the producer Assonitis. Unbelievably, there was a major struggle for creative control of this turkey. Rumors persist that Assonitis, a noted control freak, smothered Cameron’s creativity and challenged or changed every major decision the director made. It’s unclear who wrote the screenplay, credited to the pen name ‘H.A. Milton’, but it was Assonitis that insisted on the large cast of wacky supporting characters and their useless miniature dramas. The first twenty minutes of movie is spent introducing potential piranha victims such as the nerdy dentist and his gold-digging love interest, or the horny widow and the doofus pool boy, but when the fish finally swoop out of the water to cull the herd, they attack all-new, nameless characters. We never even see the other folks again. Decisions like this must have driven Cameron, a screenwriter and a perfectionist, out of his young mind.
My favorite rumor about the film’s production has Cameron breaking into the editing room one dark and stormy night to cut his own version of the film, while Assonitis was away at a film festival. Unfortunately, Assonitis cut it back as soon as the changes were discovered. Sometimes I mourn for the brilliant James Cameron Piranha II: The Spawning cut we’ve been denied.
…A James Cameron Film: Many Cameron trademarks make their first appearance in The Spawning. Of most interest are the lingering shots of the wrecked navy boat on the ocean floor, foreshadowing — or perhaps launching — Cameron’s obsession with underwater scenery and exploration. The film also features a strong female lead in Anne, technology run amok (bioengineered flying killer fish is something I would call very amok), and Lance Henricksen in the first of several collaborations with the director.
Lasting Impact: For trivia buffs, this is the film equivalent of Michael Jordan getting cut from his high school basketball squad, making it a lasting, easy punchline.
More importantly, while Cameron was filming this movie off the Grand Cayman islands, he reportedly caught a nasty virus. While sleeping off the resulting fever, he had a dream about a vicious robot emerging from fire to kill him. He woke up, started writing, and soon left all this behind with The Terminator.
Reason for Ranking: Flying piranha.
The James Cameron Project:
9. Piranha II: The Spawning