Sunday, October 29, 2017

Jigsaw (2017)

JIGSAW is exactly what a SAW VIII released seven years after the previous film should be. It breaks no new ground, delivers what a SAW fan expects, and reboots the series slightly while staying faithful to the tone, look, style, and layered storytelling synonymous with the SAW universe.

Set ten years after the death of imaginative serial killer John Kramer aka “Jigsaw” (which happened in SAW III, believe it or not), the film directed by SAW newcomers Michael and Peter Spierig (WINCHESTER: THE HOUSE THAT GHOSTS BUILT) finds police detectives Callum Keith Rennie (FIFTY SHADES OF GREY) and Cle Bennett (HARVARD MAN) baffled by a new series of grisly murders identical to those committed by Jigsaw a decade earlier. Conducting their own investigation are coroner Matt Passmore (THE GLADES), a veteran of the war in Iraq, and his assistant Hannah Emily Anderson (LOVE OF MY LIFE), whose passionate hobby is the Jigsaw murders.

Meanwhile, five strangers awaken inside a barn in a basic reprise of SAW V’s central plot. All five have committed some type of transgression to which Jigsaw demands a confession in order to go free or “win” the game. Because it’s a SAW movie, the victims are too dumb to just come clean, and are thusly slashed, stabbed, and otherwise mutilated in various complex Jigsaw traps.

Those familiar with the SAW series’ time-jumping tendencies may be ahead of JIGSAW, particularly the mystery of how John Kramer (played again by Tobin Bell) could still be alive ten years later. Providing much needed continuity are editor Kevin Greutert, who edited SAW I-V and directed VI and VII, and composer Charlie Clouser, whose familiar theme adds a sting to the climax. While no game changer, JIGSAW is a competent mystery that delivers familiar gore effects and a repetitive story that holds up until you get to the parking lot. And for an eighth SAW movie, that’s good enough.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Happy Death Day

Bitchy sorority chick Jessica Rothe (LA LA LAND) wakes up in some boy’s dorm room after a drunken night of partying. On her Walk of Shame back to her sorority house, she encounters young lovers interrupted by lawn sprinklers, an earnest student asking for signatures on a global warming petition, exhausted frat pledges, an anxious young man wondering why she hasn’t returned his texts. She gets home, shares barbs with snooty sorority sister Rachel Matthews, is rude to roommate Ruby Modine (SHAMELESS). She meets up with older professor Charles Aitken (THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN), with whom she is trysting. She blows off the lunch her father planned for her birthday. She is not a pleasant person. On her way to a party that night, she is ambushed by someone wearing a creepy baby mask who slashes her to death. And then she wakes up, back in the boy’s dorm, to live the day all over again.

Yes, someone — director Christopher Landon (from the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies) and comic book writer Scott Lobdell, to be exact — has made a slasher movie out of GROUNDHOG DAY, the 1992 Bill Murray comedy about an unpleasant television weatherman who learns to be a better person by reliving the same day over and over again. Which is also what happens to Tree, the character played by Rothe, a self-centered college student still reeling from her mother’s death three years earlier. Once Tree understands what is happening to her, she turns Nancy Drew, marking up a list of possible suspects and investigating them to find out which one hates her badly enough to want to hack her to pieces.

That HAPPY DEATH DAY works at all is due to the sharp performance by Rothe, who looks like Heather Graham, but with demonstrably more range. Rothe is in every scene, and is required to play frightened, paranoid, sexy, sassy, romantic, confident, bitchy, intelligent, and straight-ahead action heroine badass as Tree unravels what’s happening to her and enacts her plans for survival. One clever twist is that Tree begins to feel the physical toll of the many times she has been murdered. Although her day resets every time she dies, her body doesn’t, and her X-rays show lingering traces of abuse. This “nine lives” plot point as a “clock” to build suspense is pretty much ignored, not to the film’s favor.

Israel Broussard (THE BLING RING) as the first person Tree sees every morning is one of several red herrings the film delivers, though you probably won’t struggle to solve the mystery. While the film is capably handled by director Landon (son of BONANZA star Michael Landon), who shot it as a PG-13, the denouement is a downer, as the killer’s motive for murder is a sketchy one. Wisely, Landon and Lobdell dispense with an explanation for Tree’s repeating day, as none is needed and any provided would likely be silly and distracting. Of course, the “why” isn’t important. What is important are the lessons Tree learns — the hard way, unfortunately — and the changes she makes.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out!

The original SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT trilogy concludes — not that anyone realized at the time there was one. SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT III was directed by, of all people, cult icon Monte Hellman, whose credits include TWO-LANE BLACKTOP, the Hammer crime drama SHATTER, and the two independent Jack Nicholson westerns THE SHOOTING and RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND. Remarkably, Hellman managed to get the film written, shot, edited, and playing film festivals within about four months. But what else would you expect from the director of BEAST FROM HAUNTED CAVE?

Mad doc Richard Beymer (a long way from WEST SIDE STORY) is performing experiments with blind psychic Samantha Scully (BEST OF THE BEST) in hopes she will be able to contact comatose Ricky Caldwell (TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2’s Bill Moseley). In a coma since being shot by cops at the end of the second movie, Ricky lays on a gurney with his brain exposed inside a clear dome attached to his head. Scully has occasional flashes of Ricky’s subconscious, which allows Hellman to recycle footage from the previous films (while cutting around Tara Buckman’s bare breasts).

Scully, her brother Eric DaRe (TWIN PEAKS), and DaRe’s new girlfriend Laura Harring (MULHOLLAND DRIVE), whom Scully for no reason hates on first sight, head to Piru, California to spend Christmas Eve with her grandmother Elizabeth Hoffman (SISTERS). Coincidentally, Ricky wakes up, kills a drunk Santa inexplicably roaming the hospital halls, and not only heads to Piru, but gets there first! Nobody seems to notice a barefoot man in a hospital gown and a clear plastic dome encasing a bloody brain walking on the 101. Hellman must intend this as satire or black comedy, but it just plays like he is stupid.

While THE TERROR, a public domain horror movie starring Hellman’s old buddy Nicholson, plays on television, Dr. Beymer and cop Robert Culp (THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO) follow a trail of murdered corpses to Piru in hopes of finding Ricky before Ricky finds Scully. Hellman, Rex Weiner (THE ADVENTURES OF FORD FAIRLANE), and Arthur Gorson (SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT 4) are responsible for the very thin story, which not only has just a skeleton plot, but also fails to enhance its characters. Though one can see Moseley trying to project something to engender sympathy for Ricky, the screenplay doesn’t back him up, and the actor frankly looks ludicrous in his “Spock’s Brain” helmet.

While Moseley, Beymer, and Culp (the only actor appearing to have a good time) are solid, the younger actors are horrid. Samantha Scully is attractive, but a blank slate as an actress. Because the writers made her character unlikable, despite her blindness, it takes a stronger performer than Scully to make the audience care about what happens to her. Even when Harring is being strangled by Moseley, Scully reacts as if she’s reciting her grocery list. Harring delivers the film’s requisite nudity, and DaRe is weak and unbelievable.

SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT III doesn’t even register as a slasher movie, as the kill scenes are lacking in both suspense and gore. I think the blood may be ketchup. Someone must have taken the tape home from the video store (I admit — I did), because the series continued, despite this film’s dismal quality. With the Ricky Caldwell story finally put to bed, Part 4, released one year later, took the franchise in a new direction with a plot unrelated to the first three films.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Waxwork / Waxwork II: Lost in Time

David Warner (TIME AFTER TIME) is great as the proprietor of a haunted wax museum in this mixture of THE MONSTER SQUAD and EVIL DEAD 2. Played as much for laughs as for chills, WAXWORK comes at you with a rocking score by Roger Bellon (THE UNHOLY) and a love for old horror movies sure to capture the fancy of genre fans.

Four college students — rich Zach Galligan (GREMLINS), demure Deborah Foreman (APRIL FOOL’S DAY), obnoxious Dana Ashbrook (TWIN PEAKS), and sexpot Michelle Johnson (THE JIGSAW MURDERS) — attend a secret midnight opening of a new wax museum on a residential street. The horrific exhibits show vampires, mummies, axe murders, and other monsters in bloody milieus. Lawyers prevented WAXWORK from including Jason Voorhees, so a joke about the substituted Phantom of the Opera falls flat.

The exhibits are actually alternate universes, where Ashbrook is bitten by a werewolf (John Rhys-Davies) and Johnson by a vampire (former Tarzan Miles O’Keeffe). A cop stumbles into an underground excavation and fights a mummy. Foreman, already a cult actress, is whipped by the Marquis de Sade (DEATH WARRANT heavy J. Kenneth Campbell) and loves it, which must have piqued the pants of a few ‘80s fanboys. It’s up to Galligan and Patrick Macnee (THE AVENGERS) as Roddy McDowall in FRIGHT NIGHT to prevent Warner’s murderous waxworks from releasing their evil into the world.

If you can get past the awful wigs and the tendency of the actors playing the wax figures to sway (gotta keep that camera moving, director Anthony Hickox), WAXWORKS is good-natured enough fun. The various makeup and gore effects are well done, considering the film’s $3 million budget. A black-and-white homage to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (shot in a day at Griffith Park) is perhaps the film’s most inspired vignette, and Johnson’s gore-drenched battle with vampire brides needed heavy trimming to avoid an NC-17 rating.

The incredible finale pits Macnee in his Captain Pike wheelchair and a senior citizen army, including Galligan’s butler (Lou Costello impersonator Joe Baker), in a violent free-for-all against Warner’s monsters. WAXWORK was the writing and directing debut of Hickox, whose father Douglas directed THEATER OF BLOOD. Anthony used many of WAXWORK’s cast members in his next film, SUNDOWN: THE VAMPIRE IN RETREAT (also quite good). WAXWORK was a bust in theaters, but did very well on home video, inspiring WAXWORK II: LOST IN TIME as Hickox’s third feature.

Taking up exactly where WAXWORK left off, Galligan and WARLOCK: THE ARMAGEDDON’s Monika Schnarre (an ineffective replacement for Deborah Foreman, who had broken up with writer/director Hickox) are pursued by a disembodied hand that escapes the burning wax museum and frames Schnarre for the murder of her stepfather. To clear her name, the two young lovers travel through time and stumble into homages to Hickox’s favorite horror movies, including ALIEN, FRANKENSTEIN, GODZILLA, THE EVIL DEAD, and DAWN OF THE DEAD.

None of it has anything to do with waxworks, though the sequel apes the episodic structure of WAXWORK. With a lower budget, but a more ambitious screenplay than WAXWORK, WAXWORK II: LOST IN TIME shows a few seams here and there, even if some moments play quite brilliantly. A faithful tribute to THE HAUNTING is filmed in black and white with Bruce Campbell (ARMY OF DARKNESS) turning in a sharp performance as a pipe-chomping ghost hunter.

Unfortunately, for the sequel, Hickox chose to amp up the comedy, which puts the delicate balance of humor and horror out of whack. WAXWORK II is just too silly, with the slapstick diluting the tension of scenes that should be scary. Thus, one never believes Galligan and Schnarre are in danger, and without characters to care about, the film is left with a series of violent vignettes with juvenile jokes.

One benefit for genre fans is the star cameos. In addition to Campbell, WAXWORK II offers Marina Sirtis (STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION) in fab ‘60s garb, Maxwell Caulfield (GREASE II), David Carradine (CIRCLE OF IRON), Juliet Mills (BEYOND THE DOOR), John Ireland (SPARTACUS) as the King of England (!), Alexander Godunov (DIE HARD), Patrick Macnee (THE AVENGERS), even Drew Barrymore if you look close enough. Unlike WAXWORK, which Vestron released to theaters, WAXWORK II went directly to VHS in 1992.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Blade Runner 2049

Better late than never, many BLADE RUNNER fans will tell you. I’m not so sure. The sequel to the 1982 film, which was mostly ignored upon its initial release, but has since become both a cult favorite and an influence on many science fiction filmmakers, is set thirty years later and brings back Harrison Ford, this time in a supporting role, as blade runner and replicant (?) Rick Deckard. If you like your sequels slow, dull, and longer than the origina, jump in with both feet. The screenplay by BLADE RUNNER’s Hampton Fancher and franchise newcomer Michael Green (GREEN LANTERN) starts as a typical but potentially intriguing murder mystery, then gives up on that approach to become a turgid retread of themes from the first movie.

Ryan Gosling (LA LA LAND) stars as K, who definitely is both a blade runner and a replicant. While “retiring” an older model replicant (GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY’s Dave Bautista in a cameo), K discovers what appear to be human bones buried in the yard. The 30-year-old remains are discovered to belong to a replicant that has given birth, something seemingly thought impossible. K’s boss (Robin Wright, following WONDER WOMAN with another curt authority figure) orders him to find the child (who would now be 30 years old) and kill it, as its discovery would destroy world balance (debatable, and anyway, a decision probably over Wright’s pay grade).

K’s path eventually leads to Deckard, now a grizzled old guy (which one would think would throw cold water over any “Deckard is a replicant” theories) hiding out in Las Vegas from goons hired by eccentric jillionaire Niander Wallace (terrible work by SUICIDE SQUAD’s Jared Leto), who somehow has a profitable replicant-building business and a 200-story office building despite having only two employees. One is Luv (Sylvia Hoeks as Sofia Boutella), a kung fu assassin assigned to find Deckard and bring him to Wallace’s compound (which she easily does through K’s stupidity).

A more interesting female character is Joi (Ana de Armas as Alicia Vikander), K’s sex hologram. It’s interesting that BLADE RUNNER 2049’s most human relationship is between replicant K and holographic Joi, and their scenes are the film’s best (and the only ones in which Gosling seems interested). Mostly though, this 164-minute slog by director Denis Villeneuve (ARRIVAL) is a jumble of plot holes, plot contrivances (what’s the deal with the one-eyed replicant resistance leader?), circular dialogue, and smoke and mirrors storytelling that adds up to very little.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Blade Runner

Harrison Ford stars as a “blade runner” named Rick Deckard in this influential science fiction film. Dramatically, this futuristic detective drama penned by Hampton Fancher (THE MIGHTY QUINN) and David Peoples (UNFORGIVEN) is a fizzle with simple plotting, slow pacing, and noticeable plot holes (the most notable being the number of prey assigned to Deckard to capture).

Visually, however, BLADE RUNNER inspired scores of films and television shows, thanks to the dreamy photography of cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth (PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED) and the grimy, lived-in Los Angeles of 2019 designed by Syd Mead and Oscar nominee Lawrence G. Paull (ROMANCING THE STONE). The Asian influence in Paull’s neon cityscape makes sense in a 1982 context, when we were afraid the Japanese were taking over the world, and BLADE RUNNER’s world of overpopulation and flying cars is fascinating and rich in detail (the film’s other Academy Award nomination was for its visual effects). If only it had a story and performances to match.

Ford, who made BLADE RUNNER between RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and RETURN OF THE JEDI, seems bored as Deckard, who is a detective assigned to track down and destroy renegade androids (called “replicants”) led by the nasty Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer, good in a star-making performance). Running neck-and-neck with Ford in the somnambulism department is Sean Young (NO WAY OUT) as another replicant, Rachael, who not only attracts Deckard, but also inspires him to think deeply about his job and the definition of “human.” Director Ridley Scott (ALIEN) puts together a few memorable action scenes, including a clever fight between Deckard and an acrobatic pleasure model played by Daryl Hannah (KILL BILL) and a rainy fight-filled climax carried by Hauer’s charismatic turn.

Based on Philip K. Dick’s DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP?, BLADE RUNNER’s reputation as a narrative mess is justified by the number of times it has been recut and re-released in various forms. At least five different cuts of BLADE RUNNER exist or have existed, including Scott’s “Director’s Cut” and Scott’s “Final Cut.” This review is based on the “Final Cut,” which — among other alterations — removes Ford’s droning Marlowe-style narration, which the actor reportedly hated and deliberately torpedoed during recording. It received a brief 2007 theatrical release and contains violence seen previously in overseas releases, but not in the U.S.

The 1982 theatrical release by Warner Brothers was unsuccessful with critics and the public. It opened the same weekend as THE THING and MEGAFORCE — two major bombs — and just behind E.T. in its third week atop the box office. BLADE RUNNER was out of the top ten three weeks later at a time when films sometimes stayed in theaters for months. BLADE RUNNER 2049 followed in 2017 with Ford reprising Deckard in support of Ryan Gosling (DRIVE) as a blade runner named K.

P.S. Deckard is not a replicant.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Great TV Episodes: 5

September 20 - October 18, 1963
Writer: Harry Essex
Producer and Director: William Conrad

77 SUNSET STRIP was one of television's most influential drama series of the late 1950s. Based loosely on the 1947 novel THE DOUBLE TAKE by Roy Huggins and the film GIRL ON THE RUN, written by Marion Hargrove (MAVERICK) and directed by Richard L. Bare (GREEN ACRES) from Huggins' story, 77 SUNSET STRIP was the first and likely the best of Warner Brothers' formula private eye shows for ABC.

Starring Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (later Special Agent Lew Erskine for nine seasons on THE FBI) as Stu Bailey and Roger Smith (young Lon Chaney Jr. in MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES) as Jeff Spencer, 77 SUNSET STRIP was set - duh - along Los Angeles' fabulous Sunset Boulevard. Working of a posh office at Number 77, Bailey and Spencer solved a number of way-out cases, sometimes with the aid of Kookie, the hip parking attendant working at Dean Martin's nightclub next door. Edd Byrnes, who played Kookie, quickly became the show's breakout star and eventually joined Bailey and Smith as a full-fledged private eye.

The series was a smash hit, and ABC and Warner Brothers copied it ad nauseum. HAWAIIAN EYE starred Robert Conrad and Anthony Eisley in Hawaii, BOURBON STREET BEAT starred Richard Long and Andrew Duggan in New Orleans, SURFSIDE 6 starred Troy Donahue and Van Williams in Miami. Of course, none of these shows ever left the Warners backlot. And not all of the copies were private eye shows. THE ALASKANS with Roger Moore and Jeff York was set in Alaska during the 1890 gold rush. They all were basically the same show, to the point where scripts shot for, say, 77 SUNSET STRIP were recycled for another show two or three years later. Just erase the names "Stu" and "Jeff" and type in, say, "Sandy" and "Ken", and you have a "new" SURFSIDE 6 episode.

Ratings eventually waned until 77 was the only show left. To give its sixth season a kickstart, Warners gave it a radical reboot. Everyone but Zimbalist was fired, and Bailey moved into a new office in the Bradbury Building as a solo act. New producers Jack Webb (DRAGNET) and William Conrad (KLONDIKE, which was NBC's ripoff of THE ALASKANS) made the series less glossy and more noirish. While the new approach didn't work -- the series was cancelled after 20 episodes -- it did give 77 a creative shot in the arm.

To begin the sixth season, producer Conrad hired screenwriter Harry Essex (credited with CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, and I, THE JURY) to concoct an ambitious five-part story that Conrad would also direct. The result was "5," which aired on consecutive Fridays in September and October 1963. Loaded with guest stars ranging from Richard Conte and Cesar Romero to Diane McBain and William Shatner, "5" yanks Bailey out of L.A. to New York and even all the way to Israel to solve the case.

"5" opens arrestingly enough with a man dressed as the Devil run down by a car on a wet New York street. The man's brother, an antiquities dealer played by Burgess Meredith (BATMAN's Penguin), hires Bailey to right his sibling's wrongs. With police detective Richard Conte (OCEAN'S 11) working to solve the murder, Bailey's assignment is to take the dead brother's $9000 and "buy Andy's way into heaven" by making amends to those he has wronged over the years.

Essex's dialogue is tough and terse. Zimbalist narrates in first person like Phillip Marlowe. His path takes him to several of Andy's acquaintances, including storekeeper Ed Wynn (MARY POPPINS); finicky landlord Wally Cox (MR. PEEPERS); priest Herbert Marshall (THE FLY), who died a few months later; estranged wife Patricia Rainier (THE DAREDEVIL); angry stable boy William Shatner (STAR TREK); dancer Gene Nelson (OKLAHOMA!); poet Victor Buono (BATMAN's King Tut); and gypsy Peter Lorre (THE RAVEN). Zimbalist does a nice job playing annoyance around all these eccentrics. Even though Huggins was no longer involved with 77, Zimbalist's Bailey has a bit of James Garner's Jim Rockford in him (Huggins co-created THE ROCKFORD FILES with Stephen J. Cannell).

Eventually, Bailey strikes up a friendship with the mysterious blonde who has been following him around (played by THE MINI-SKIRT MOB's Diane McBain), Rainier is found murdered, and Conte puts Bailey on the hook for it. Essex's plot becomes sprawling from here, sending Bailey to Italy, the Netherlands (where he meets with monk Telly Savalas), Paris, and finally Tel Aviv before ending his quest back where he started in the Big Apple.

Conrad goes in for a lot of tight closeups, which is likely a Webb influence. In fact, each episode opens in an arresting fashion with each of that week's guest stars introducing themselves to the audience in tight closeup. Essex hasn't quite enough story for five parts, so Conrad pads "The Conclusion" with Bailey flashing back to various plot points.

As enormously popular as 77 SUNSET STRIP was in its heyday, nothing lasts forever. Webb and Conrad's experiment was a flop with viewers, and ABC cancelled the series before it could finish its sixth season. Everyone made out okay though. Webb brought DRAGNET back to weekly television a few years later, Conrad produced and directed films and starred in CANNON for five seasons, and Zimbalist launched a nine-season run on ABC's THE FBI in 1965.