Horror

The Purge: Anarchy

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2014

Universal Pictures

Written and Directed by James DeMonaco

Produced by Jason Blum, Andrew Form, Bradley Fuller, Sebastien Lemercier and Michael Bay

In the interest of full disclosure I should be upfront and say that I had no interest at all in seeing THE PURGE: ANARCHY. I had seen “The Purge” at home about two months ago and thought it one of the most brain dead movies I’d seen in quite a while. Don’t look for a review of it here as I quite honestly wasn’t in the mood that day to rack up wordage on a movie I disliked. But if you do want to read an excellent review of it then I highly recommend you check out Mark Bousquet’s review of “The Purge”

So why did I go see the sequel of a movie that I didn’t like? The theater is why. Patricia and I used to go to a theater on Linden Boulevard here in Brooklyn. But we’ve switched to the Broadway Multiplex Cinema in Hicksville, out in Long Island. Why go all the way out there to go to the movies you ask?

Two-person wide motorized La-Z-Boy leather recliners. That’s why.

We have so fallen in love with the seats in this theater we ended up going to see THE PURGE: ANARCHY even though neither one of us were exactly eager about seeing it. And yeah, I found it just as brain dead as the first one. But I was comfortable as hell while seeing it.

For those of you who didn’t see the first movie (give praise for that) here’s the background. The United States is now administrated by The New Founding Fathers of America who have established The Purge, a 12 hour period taking place annually on March 21/22 from 7PM to 7AM. During this period all crime is legal. Citizens can rob, rape and kill with no fear of legal reprisal whatsoever. The New Founding Fathers insist that The Purge is necessary to give citizens a chance to release their negative and destructive urges. But it’s actually a form of population control as the poor and homeless are usually the victims of The Purge. The rich are rich enough to wait out The Purge in safety in homes that are more like fortified bunkers.

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Diner waitress Eva Sanchez (Carmen Ejogo) hurries home to barricade herself in her apartment along with her daughter Cali (Zoe Soul) and terminally ill father (John Beasley) Married couple Shane (Zach Gilford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez) stop at a market to get some groceries before heading to the house of Shane’s sister to spend the night. Police Sergeant Leo Barnes quietly assembles an arsenal of guns and assault rifles before strapping on his body armor and climbing into his armor plated car. He plans on a very special Purge.

Through a complicated series of horrifying events these five people find themselves thrown together, trying to survive the night. They lose the car and are forced to take to the streets, avoiding hordes of bloodthirsty Purgers. During the course of the night they learn that The Founding Fathers have been sending out their own death squads to increase the body count by killing off the lower classes. And if that weren’t enough, the Big Rich have been hiring their own squads to kidnap people and bring them to secure locations where the Big Rich play The Most Dangerous Game. They hunt people, Purging in complete safety as they have weapons and their prey doesn’t.

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When it got to this part in the movie where our five heroes are on the run on foot I realized that the writer/director wanted so bad for this to be a John Carpenter movie as the situation was one that sort of reminded me of Carpenter’s classic “Assault On Precinct 13” turned on its head. But THE PURGE: ANARCHY is so determined to be So Serious and Say Something Profound About America it’s really not that much fun or that interesting to watch. The movie could use a whole heap of social satire ala the original “Death Race 2000” or “The Running Man”

It also doesn’t help that the characters are so thin that I really couldn’t get interested in what happened to them. There’s an attempt to generate some sympathy for the married couple who have agreed to separate but since I don’t know these people, why should I care if they separate or not? And I really can’t get with a movie that wastes the extraordinary talent of Michael K. Williams. He plays Carmelo, leader of an army of resistance fighters determined to bring down The New Founding Fathers and end The Purge. But for most of the movie we see him ranting and raving on a TV screen and he doesn’t show up in the flesh until near the end of the movie when it’s far too late for him to save it.

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And maybe it’s just me but I simply can’t buy that on a night where any and all crime is allowed, everybody turns into a homicidal maniac bent only on slaughtering everybody in sight. Me, I’m either robbing a bank or looting a Costco, a Wal-Mart or a Target. None of this is shown, except for the super of Eva’s building who has rape on the brain. Apparently everybody in America waits for this one night just so they can go blood simple.

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So should you see THE PURGE: ANARCHY? If you liked the first movie then you most likely have already seen this one. But if you haven’t, stay away from it and wait for it to show up on Netflix. It’s not even worth matinee prices.

Unless of course, your theater has two-person wide motorized La-Z-Boy leather recliners.

103 minutes

Rated R

Danger Word

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2013

Dark Dream Productions/Little Light Productions

Directed by Luchina Fisher

Produced by Zainab Ali

Co-Produced by Allo Greer and Alma Greerr

Executive Producers: Steven Barnes, Tananarive Due and Luchina Fisher

Written by Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due based on their short story “Danger Word”

It kind of tickles me to no end that back in the 1950’s, 1960’s and even well into the 1970’s we pretty much took it as a granted that the world was going to end in a nuclear catastrophe of one kind or another. Either by accident or a deliberate act of war. Now, in the year 2014 that doesn’t bother us any longer. Now we’re all fairly certain we’re going to have a Zombie Apocalypse and that’s going to be our end. And thanks to movies such as the George Romero “Dead” series, “28 Days Later” “28 Weeks Later” “Shaun of The Dead” “Zombieland” “Pontypool” “World War Z” and the hugely successful TV show “The Walking Dead” we’re all properly prepared for it. You’ve got a frightening number of folks who are even hoping it comes as they’ve turned their basements into survival bunkers. But as DANGER WORD teaches us, survival in the Zombie Apocalypse comes down to something as simple as being prepared to do what you have to do. And even that may not be enough.

Grandpa Joe (Frankie Faison) and his 13 year old granddaughter Kendra (Saoirse Scott) are living in a cabin in upstate New York. Grandpa Joe is teaching Kendra the skills and more importantly, the mindset she is going to need in this new world. Some of the lessons are heartbreaking. But necessary. And Kendra is forced to put those lessons to the test when a routine visit to the nearest trading post to get her a birthday present goes horrifyingly wrong.

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You wouldn’t think that a movie could build atmosphere, characterization and plot and a rising sense of horror in just 20 minutes but DANGER WORD pulls it off. And a large part of that is due to Frankie Faison and Saoirse Scott. They effectively and wonderfully create a loving bond between their characters that we understand and take into our hearts almost immediately. And they do with without forcing it on us or overstating the obvious.

Funded by donations from friends, family and strangers, DANGER WORD is an encouraging example to black filmmakers to show them that they don’t have to look to Hollywood to bring their stories to life, especially ones that feature People of Color in major roles. Although “The Waking Dead” deserves a round of applause for its black characters who are pivotal players in the drama, the history of black characters in zombie movies (or most horror movies for that matter) has been a woeful one. Which has always puzzled me to no end because I don’t know too many black people who aren’t fans of horror movies. You’d think that Hollywood would have long tapped into that the same way they did back in The Blaxploitation Era. In most horror movies the black characters are usually the first to die and even if they manage to last past the first 30 minutes of the movie, that’s because they’re the comic relief. Two notable exceptions are: “The People Under The Stairs” and “Anaconda” which to me is doubly remarkable because not only is the token brother (Ice Cube) still alive at the end of the movie but so is the token Latina (Jennifer Lopez)

But the underrepresentation of blacks in any genre of film is nothing new. We all know that. But films like DANGER WORD is yet another step in the right direction and everybody involved in the production of the film has produced an emotionally strong and satisfying short horror film that they can be proud of.

DANGER WORD can be seen online HERE

Tananarive Due

Dar Kush: The Home of Steven Barnes

 

Suddenly, Last Summer

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1959

Columbia Pictures

Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Produced by Sam Spiegel

Screenplay by Gore Vidal and Tennessee Williams

Based on the play “Suddenly, Last Summer” by Tennessee Williams

Elizabeth Taylor is an actress who I’m just now finding who new levels of respect for. Oh, sure, I’ve seen “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” “Cleopatra” “Butterfield 8” and “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof” but it wasn’t until this past summer when I watched “Reflections In A Golden Eye” and SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER back-to-back that I realized that this chick really could act her well-shaped moneymaker off. You’ve probably read my review of “Reflections In A Golden Eye” so you know how twisted that movie is. Well, believe it or not, SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER is even more twisted.  In fact, for my money, this movie qualifies as a full-blown, all out deep fried Southern Gothic Horror Movie that should be watched every Halloween.  Don’t believe me? Then what else would you call a movie whose major themes are insanity, lobotomies, implied incest, pedophilia, cannibalism and ritual murder/sacrifice? A movie that takes place mostly in an asylum?

Dr. John Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift) is fed up with the poor working conditions at the state hospital and he’s ready to quit. But then a lucrative offer is dangled in front of him by the hospital’s alcoholic, sleazy administrator (Albert Dekker) This offer involves Dr. Cukrowicz meeting with the obscenely wealthy and eccentric Violet Venable (Katherine Hepburn). Violet Venable will finance a brand spanking new wing of the hospital with state of the art equipment if Dr. Cukrowicz will do a favor for her.  Seeing as how he’s a brilliant surgeon who is considered the leading pioneer in the field of lobotomy, Violet will come across with the filthy lucre if Dr. Cukrowicz will lobotomize her niece Catherine Holly (Elizabeth Taylor)

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Quite naturally, Dr. Cukrowicz wants to know why such a radical procedure has to be done. Especially after he meets the extraordinarily beautiful Catherine.  It’s his opinion that she has suffered from a severe emotional shock but she’s not lobotomy material.  But it cannot be denied that Catherine’s cousin Sebastian died under highly mysterious circumstances while he and Catherine were on vacation in Europe last summer. Circumstances so frightening that Catherine suffered a nervous breakdown and has blocked the memory of what really happened.

In fact, after having some really bizarre conversations with Violet, Catherine’s mother, Grace (Mercedes McCambridge) and Catherine’s brother George (Gary Raymond) Cukrowicz discovers that they all have reasons to want Catherine to be lobotomized so that the truth about Sebastian’s death can never be known.

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Why did Sebastian suddenly leave his mother behind last summer and take Catherine along with him on that fateful vacation?  During her talks with Cukrowicz, Catherine hints of a possible incestuous relationship between Violet and Sebastian and that Sebastian used his mother on previous vacations to procure underage boys for him to satisfy his pedophiliac lust.  A job that Catherine suggests Violet was a more than willing participant in. A job that Sebastian hoped Catherine would be willing to take over.

Dr. Cukrowicz finally decides to use a combination of truth serum and hypnosis to unlock Catherine’s suppressed memories of what happened the day Sebastian died.  Cukrowicz assembles the family members in an almost Agatha Christie-like gathering where he puts together the clues he’s gotten from all of them and along with the frightening story that Catherine at last remembers and tells he is able to solve the mystery of what happened to Sebastian.

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SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER to me qualifies as a Horror Movie because of not only the subject matter but halfway through the movie I wasn’t sure that I even wanted to know what had happened to Sebastian Venable. And trust me, when I finally did find out what happened to Sebastian, I wish I hadn’t.  His horrific fate is revealed in a tour de force scene described by Catherine that Shirley Jackson herself would be proud of.

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The acting in SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER is absolutely first rate. After all, we’re talking about Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift and Katherine Hepburn here. The only one that let me down in this movie is Mercedes McCambridge.  But that’s only because I’ve seen her play kick-ass women in movies such as “Giant” “Johnny Guitar” and “All The King’s Men” and I really don’t like seeing her play such a wimpy character. But otherwise, you couldn’t wish for better.  Especially Elizabeth Taylor who demonstrates fully the range of her acting ability and more than holds her own in her scenes with Katherine Hepburn.

Take my advice and put SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER on your list of movies to watch. For the first twenty minutes it may not seem like a horror movie but keep watching and by the time you get to the last twenty minutes, I think you’ll agree with me that it is.

114 Minutes

Jenny Ringo and The Cabaret From Hell

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2013

A Chris Regan Production

Directed by Chris Regan

Produced by Andrea Regan

Screenplay by Geraint D’Arcy

When we last left our heroine at the conclusion of “Jenny Ringo and The Monkey’s Paw” she was trapped in her own existential personal Hell, her reward/punishment for sacrificing herself to save her friend and flatmate Gavin (Lukas Habberton) from the curse of The Monkey’s Paw. When JENNY RINGO AND THE CABARET FROM HELL begins we see that Jenny Ringo (Rosie Duncan) is back in London, once again sharing a flat with her slacker/stoner BFF and none the worst for her harrowing experience. Which means of course that now I will have to unmercifully pester Chris Regan until he comes across with the story of how Jenny escaped from Hell as I’m sure it’ll be a doozy.

If you haven’t seen “Jenny Ringo and The Monkey’s Paw” yet, I strongly urge you to do so as it gives the background about Jenny’s magical powers (she’s a Wiccan) which she uses in this short film to switch bodies with Gavin. Not that she planned to, you see. But in order to get the money they need to pay their rent, Gavin (in Jenny’s body) has to get a job as a singer in a local cabaret. Naturally it turns out that the cabaret and it’s sinister MC (Andromeda Godfrey) are not what they seem and it’s up to Jenny and Gavin to sort things out.

Like the first Jenny Ringo adventure, this one is a goofy mix of horror and comedy with a pair of delightful leads. Rosie Duncan is again wonderful as Jenny. She’s not as sarcastic or as snarky in this one. Maybe’s Jenny’s sojourn in Hell has made her kinder and gentler. She’s still no less the take charge, no nonsense Jenny I fell in love with in the first film.

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Lukas Habberton is a bit off his game in the first half of the story when it seems to me that he’s trying too hard to “act” but he redeems himself in the second half when Gavin and Jenny have switched bodies. The both of them do some really fine work with their respective body languages that convinced me more than anything else that the characters had actually switched bodies. Andromeda Godfrey makes the most of the screen time she has to create a creepy and credible antagonist for our heroes.

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As in the first one, there’s a musical sequence and I liked this one better than the one in the previous film since it’s performed by Lukas Habberton and Rosie Duncan and it’s a musical sequence that isn’t dropped in just for the sake of having one but it’s tied into the story’s resolution. This film doesn’t look as polished as the production looks to have been done on a smaller budget than the first one but it’s just as much fun. The ending gives a hint of further adventures for Jenny and Gavin and I hope so. JENNY RINGO AND THE CABARET FROM HELL is a well-paced, fun and entertaining 30 minutes and while watching it I felt like I was catching up with a couple of friends. It’s well worth your time. Enjoy.

JENNY RINGO AND THE CABARET FROM HELL is available for viewing online at Vimeo for those who bounce on over to www.jennyringo.com and sign up on the mailing list.

Dark City: The Director’s Cut

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1998

New Line Cinema

Directed by Alex Proyas

Produced by Alex Proyas and Andrew Mason

Screenplay by Alex Proyas, David S. Goyer and Lem Dobbs

Based on a story by Alex Proyas

A man (Rufus Sewell) wakes up in a tub full of cold water. He’s a resident in a hotel but has no memory of checking in there, let alone living there for the past three weeks as the desk clerk insists. He gets a phone call from a man claiming to be his doctor (Kiefer Sutherland) who tells him he must leave the hotel as there are people looking for him. ‘People’ is somewhat of of an understatement. The Strangers look like walking corpses dressed all in black and have extraordinary psychokinetic powers. The man leaves and begins a search for his identity, pursued not only by The Strangers but by Police Inspector Bumstead (William Hurt) who suspects that the man is the maniac responsible for a string of horrifying murders.

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The man eventually discovers his name is John Murdoch and that he has powers of his own that enable him to evade The Strangers. Armed with these powers he sets out to discover the truth of his origins. Did he really murder six prostitutes? Is the sultry torch singer Emma Murdoch (Jennifer Connelly) truly his wife? Why is he tortured with memories of his youth living in the coastal town of Shell Beach and why is it nobody can remember how to get there? Why does everybody in this city of eternal night, this DARK CITY fall asleep at midnight? Why do The Strangers use their power to rearrange the very city itself and swap identities of the sleeping inhabitants?

If you’ve never seen DARK CITY I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the fun of you discovering the answers to those questions and many others. Because DARK CITY is just as much a neo-noir detective story as it is so many other genres. It’s also a horror movie. A live action graphic novel. A science fiction movie. A suspense thriller. In a way, it’s even a superhero hero. It’s so many different genres blended together and amazingly, they all work thanks to the utter brilliant screenplay and direction. I know people who go on and on and on about how great “The Crow” is but they can keep that movie. Just give me DARK CITY which for me is the best thing Proyas has directed so far.

The visual look and texture of this movie is just as unique as the story. The architecture of the Dark City itself looks European mixed with Art Deco and German Expressionism. It’s a look like no other city in a movie has ever has. It’s even more impressive when you find out that it was all constructed on a set. The production design alone is worth seeing the movie.

This is the first movie I ever saw Rufus Sewell in and right from there I said to myself I would have to keep an eye on this guy. He’s one of those actors who I just can’t take my eyes off when he’s on screen. He’s always doing something interesting with his eyes, his body or his hands. And he’s one of the few actors who I can actually see thinking. He’s flat out terrific in this movie. Kiefer Sutherland is equally terrific. People who only know him as Jack Bauer really need to watch DARK CITY to see just how good an actor he really is. William Hurt has a lot of good scenes as Inspector Bumstead. I liked his relationship with a uniformed policeman who admires Bumstead and who acts as his unofficial sidekick in police work. Bumstead has long had his own suspicions about the origins of the city as he reveals when he asks Emma Murdoch questions about her own memories. And as usual, I can’t say a bad word against Jennifer Connelly. Not only is she gorgeous as hell she’s an amazing actress as well.

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What else can I say? Not much else. Chances are most of you reading this have already seen DARK CITY and so you know what I’m talking about. As for those of you who haven’t. Please do yourself a favor and this weekend get yourself a Blu-Ray of DARK CITY. I’m advising you to get the Blu-Ray because not only does DARK CITY look astounding in Blu-Ray, it also has a commentary by Roger Ebert who was a major champion of this movie from Day One. ‘Visionary’ is a word thrown around far too often when describing movies but in the case of DARK CITY it’s more than well deserved. It’s one of the most imaginative and fascinating movies I’ve ever seen. It tells a great story and does it in a memorably thrilling and original way. Enjoy.

Rated R

100 Minutes

The Serpent And The Rainbow

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Universal Pictures

Directed by Wes Craven

Produced by Doug Claybourne and David Ladd

Written by Richard Maxwell and Adam Rodman

Based on “The Serpent and The Rainbow” by Wade Davis

People who know me and know what I look for in horror movies say that I’m way too critical and demanding of them. Maybe so. But I’ve never been one of those who excuse the downright stupidity of the majority of horror movies simply because my friends say I’m supposed to turn off my brain and stop thinking while watching. The best horror movies and the ones I enjoy the most are the ones that do engage my brain and encourage me to not only feel but think about what’s happening up there on the screen.

The horror movies of Wes Craven are among some of my favorites. Although he has made some hideously bad movies such as “Shocker” “Vampire In Brooklyn” and “Cursed” he has also made some spectacularly good ones as well. The original “Nightmare On Elm Street” “The People Under The Stairs” the “Scream” series and what is probably my favorite Wes Craven horror movie and one people just don’t mention a lot and that’s a damn shame they don’t; THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW.

Anthropologist/Ethobotanist Dr. Dennis Alan makes a good living going into remote jungles and coming back with rare herbs and ritual drugs from native tribes that he then sells to American pharmaceutical companies. He’s extremely good at his job which is why he’s asked to go to Haiti to investigate the voodoo society and see if there’s any truth to the myth of there being some sort of secret powder that creates zombie. Alan’s mentor Dr. Schoonbacher (Michael Gough) thinks that this could lead to the secret of where the soul is located. Andrew Cassedy (Paul Guilfoyle) the head of Boston Biocorp thinks it could be the ultimate anesthetic. Cassedy claims to have proof of a man in Haiti who was poisoned with this powder, buried alive, dug up and revived as a zombie.

With the assistance of the gorgeous and brilliant Dr. Marielle Duchamp (Cathy Tyson) and voodoo priest Lucien Celine (Paul Winfield) Dr. Alan attempts to find out if this powder does exist and if zombies are actually real. His quest brings him into conflict with Dargent Peytraud (Zakes Mokae) the head of the feared Tonton Macoute who is also a voodoo practitioner of frightening power. As Dr. Allan goes deeper and deeper into the truth behind the zombie legend he has to navigate between the political unrest and civil turmoil of a Haiti ruled by ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier and the horrendous hallucinations tearing his mind apart placed there by the power of Peytraud. Hallucinations so overwhelming that he can no longer distinguish what is real and what isn’t.

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There are a whole lot of reason why I love THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW and why I always recommend it.  Along with “The People Under The Stairs” it’s one of the few horror movies with a predominantly African-American cast that is believable and treats the characters as human beings and not plot devices to be killed off to make the Caucasian heroes look good. Cathy Tyson is a wonderfully beautiful actress who isn’t in the movie just to fall in love with the hero. She has an interesting backstory of her own as well. There’s a really nice scene where Mareille talks about how she does not divide her faith and her science but makes them work together.

I also like the political subtext in the movie. Set during the reign of ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier there’s always the threat of the secret police in the background, always reminding us that not all of Dr. Alan’s enemies are supernatural. Ah, but are they? I think it’s masterful how Wes Craven plays not only with Dr. Alan’s head but ours as well, challenging us to figure out what is real and what isn’t. Is Dr. Alan hallucinating or is what is happening to him actually happening? Is Peytroud a black magician or just really good at messing with Dr. Alan’s head?

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THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW is also excellent at showing voodoo as a legitimate religion and way of life for the people of Haiti. There are a lot of scenes that are almost documentary in nature, such as the wonderful scene of a pilgrimage where a huge image of The Virgin Mary is taken to a holy grotto. Now, don’t get me wrong…I’m no expert of voodoo but I can’t think of another horror movie where voodoo is treated with the respect of it being a religion/way of life as it is here.

And the hallucination/dream images in THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW are just as good as anything Wes Craven did in his “Nightmare On Elm Street” movies. And the scene where’s he’s buried alive is without a doubt one of the most frightening in horror movie history.

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The acting is top notch. Bill Pullman, Cathy Tyson and Paul Winfield are all nothing less than believable. Zakes Mokae is an appropriately formidable bad guy while Theresa Merritt as a voodoo priestess and Brent Jennings as a con man who may or may not know how to make the zombie powder do solid work as supporting characters.

So should you see THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW? Absolutely. It’s that rarest of creatures I always look for and treasure so much when I find it: a believable horror movie. The motivations of the characters make sense and they don’t act like idiots who are plainly being manipulated by a brain dead scriptwriter more concerned with his plots twists than telling a story. THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW makes a great double feature with “Angel Heart” in that for me, they are both horror movies in which the main character seeks the solution to a mystery that ultimately turns out to be more horrifying than the mystery itself.

98 minutes

Rated R

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

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2012

20th Century Fox

Directed by Timur Bekmambetov

Produced by Timur Bekmambetov, Tim Burton and Jim Lemley

Screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith based on his novel “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”

Two things before I jump into this review:

1) I’ve read on the Internet and heard from friends of mine about how historically inaccurate the movie is. Folks, if you’re expecting historical accuracy from a movie titled ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER then you most certainly are watching the wrong movie. You need to be watching 1940’s “Abe Lincoln In Illinois” starring Raymond Massey as Abe Lincoln. Seriously. It’s an excellent movie that I’ve seen about two or three times now on Turner Classic Movies. It’s well worth your time.

2) People complaining that the movie wasn’t like the book. Sigh. Folks, haven’t we grown past that by now? True, I haven’t read the book but now, having seen the movie I plan to. But from what I know of the book the only way it could have been done justice was as a six hour miniseries on HBO and Showtime. Would that have been better than the 1hr. 45 minute movie we do have? I dunno. But I do think it worth pointing out that the same guy who wrote the book wrote the screenplay. I like to think he’s an intelligent enough writer to have realized that novels and theatrical movies are two different mediums and what works for one may not necessarily work for the other. Bottom line is all I know is that I enjoyed and respected ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER the movie for what I got out of it: It’s a superhero movie in historical/vampire/horror movie drag.

We’re introduced to Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) as a boy living and working with his parents on a southern plantation owned by Jack Barts (Marton Csokas) Barts is a vampire who kills Lincoln’s mother and the grief stricken youth sets out on afailed attempt to get revenge ten years later. He’s rescued by the professional fearless vampire killer Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper) who takes on the young man as an apprentice. Lincoln is no good with conventional weapons like guns or knives but he’s a regular Jet Li with an axe. Henry develops an unconventional fighting style for Lincoln using the axe and then sends him out into the world to kill vampires. Well, Abe does that in spectacular style and he also finds time to enter politics and romance Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead)

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Now here’s when things get more than a little wacky: turns out there’s this vast secret vampire empire led by The First Vampire, Adam (Rufus Sewell) that controls the southern United States. Slaves are used not only as labor for the humans but as food for the vampires. The movie gives us the outrageous notion that Lincoln became President and fought The Civil War not just to end slavery but to break the back of this secret vampire empire. The tide of The Civil War is turning against The North but President Abraham Lincoln has one desperate ploy left: a trainload of silver that is deadly to vampires that he has to get to the Union Army at Gettysburg. Armed with his trusty axe as well as his faithful sidekicks (Anthony Mackie and Jimmi Simpson) can Honest Abe defeat Adam and his vampire hoard and still get to Gettysburg in time to deliver his address?

I think the thing I admire most about ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER is that no matter how silly and how ridiculous things got, the actors kept a straight face and played the material with respect for what they were doing. And yes, it is an outrageously silly movie. It’s the kind of movie where even though this takes place in 19th Century America, everybody and I do mean EVERYBODY knows Kung Fu. Abraham Lincoln takes hits to the chest that throws him a good fifty feet but he gets up as if nothing happened and proceeds to kick vampire ass with relish.

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You won’t get a bad word out of me about the acting. Benjamin Walker looks and acts so much like Liam Neeson in some scenes it’s scary. And he gives the role all he has. In fact, he gives it more than he really has to but to me that only showed how committed he was to selling us on his incarnation of Honest Abe Lincoln as Vampire Hunting Superhero. Anthony Mackie, Dominic Cooper, Jimmi Simpson and Mary Elizabeth Winstead all turn in solid performances. If there is a complaint I have it’s that Rufus Sewell isn’t given enough to do. But then again, I never think Rufus Sewell is given enough to do.

The action sequences are absolutely jaw-dropping if totally impossible and again, that’s what lends to the superhero aspect of the movie. There’s a fight Honest Abe has with a vampire in the middle of a stampede of hundreds of wild stallions that has to be seen to be believed and the entire train sequence near the movie’s end has already become legendary.

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So should you see ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER? I say yes. It’s a really bizarre mixture of outrageously mashed-up historical/fantasy material married up to serious acting and flavored with incredible action/fight sequences that you would expect to see in a Hong Kong Kung Fu flick. You might not like it but I can guarantee you one thing: you will not be bored. It’s got an amazingly strong visual style and more than any movie I can think of in recent memory it plays like a live action graphic novel. I had a good time watching it and I think that if you approach it in the right mood, you will too. Enjoy.

Rated R

105 Minutes

Duel

1971

Universal Studios

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Produced by George Eckstein

Written by Richard Matheson

Before we get into the actual review a brief history lesson: The Made-For-TV Movie is a phrase you don’t hear much these days but it was used all the time back in the 1960’s and especially during the 1970’s when ABC, CBS and NBC who at that time were The Big Three of programming got into the business of producing their own movies specifically made for a television audience and tailored for 90 minute prime time broadcast television viewing slots. Which meant that no longer did they have to rely on movies they purchased from Hollywood movie studios. Now all three networks had their own special movie night but the one that most people remember is the “ABC Movie Of The Week” which aired from 1969 to 1976 on Tuesday nights. ABC had other movies nights such as their Sunday Night Movie but those were generally theatrical features. And of course there was the long-running and classic “The 4:30 Movie” which had an opening credit that was so popular it eventually was adopted as the opening for all of ABC’s late night movies:

And then of course there’s the opening for The Tuesday Night Movies itself:

Now, yes, most of ABC’s Tuesday Movie Of The Week’s movies were forgettable, disposal entertainment.  Many TV series such as “The Six Million Dollar Man” “Alias Smith and Jones” “The Immortal” and “Starsky and Hutch” made their debut as 90 minute pilot films here. And then you had a whole truckload of movies that are still remembered and indeed have become legendary in pop entertainment culture. “The Love War” “Brian’s Song” which is still hailed today as one of the best football movies ever made and a movie that guys unashamedly admit they cry when they watch it. “A Cold Night’s Death” which is a movie that screams to be remade. “The Legend of Lizzie Borden” starring Elizabeth Montgomery. “Get Christie Love!” “Bad Ronald” “Haunts Of The Very Rich” And then there’s the movie we’re going to talk about now: DUEL, which along with “Trilogy of Terror” and “The Night Stalker” comprises The Holy Trinity of Made-For-TV horror movies.

DUEL is a Made-For-TV Movie with the most interesting history of any Made-For-TV Movie. It’s directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Richard Matheson, based on his short story originally published in Playboy. The movie was only Steven Spielberg’s second feature-length directing job and the movie proved to be such a critical success and ratings hit that Universal asked Spielberg to spend a couple of days filming additional scenes and it was then released to theaters overseas where it played to sold-out audiences. Then, amazingly, Universal released DUEL theatrically in some venues here in the United States. This was an unheard of event back in those days and Universal was rewarded with DUEL going on to make a very respectable profit in its limited U.S. theatrical run.

But it’s no surprise to me why the movie has gone on to earn the reputation it has. Next to “Trilogy of Terror” and “The Night Stalker” DUEL is probably the best known Made-For-TV Movie of all time and rightly so. It’s a white-knuckle thriller that taps into the deepest fear of any motorist on the highway. I know that for me, DUEL is a movie that represents one of my worst nightmares. A movie like “Saw” doesn’t scare me at all because there is zero chance of me being forced to play some bizarre game by a hyper-intelligent serial killer. But there’s every chance I can innocently piss off some maniac behind the wheel of a truck and without meaning to find myself engaged in a life or death battle on a highway.

David Mann (Dennis Weaver) starts out his day peacefully enough. He’s a salesman, driving on his way to an important business meeting. In a wonderful bit of characterization, during a phone conversation with his wife (Jacqueline Scott) we learn that David actively works at avoiding confrontation, a personality trait that greatly factors into what happens to him during the course of his horrifying day.

During his drive he encounters a tanker truck driving slower than the posted speed limit. David passes the truck and thinks no more of it. But after a stop at a gas station he is passed by the same truck which gets in front of him and again slows down. David again passes the truck and the truck’s driver (who we never see) appears to take umbrage with this as he first tries to trick David into a collision with another vehicle. The truck’s driver continually ups the ante of this deadly game, chasing David down the highway, trying to push his vehicle into the path of a passing freight train. As this long day goes on, David cannot escape the fact that the driver of the truck is trying to kill him and if David wants to survive he is going to have to stop running and confront his unseen enemy.

And eventually it does come down to just David and the truck driver. David cannot convince anybody he meets along the road that this man is trying to kill him. Taken from a psychological point of view, the truck represents David’s fear of confrontation that is relentlessly pursuing him, forcing him to make a stand and fight for what his important to him. In this case: his life.

But you can throw that psychological stuff out the window. Taken purely as a horror movie, DUEL delivers on every level. Dennis Weaver gives an Academy Award level performance. He’s on screen for the entire running time of the movie and he is just flat out terrific. He is never less than totally convincing as this perfectly regular guy caught up in a situation way over his head, caught up in a deadly road game with a serial killer and no idea of how he’s going to survive.

So should you see DUEL? Absolutely YES. DUEL is an absolute masterpiece of suspense on all levels. You can see echoes of Spielberg’s later work on “Jaws” in this movie and the story by Richard Matheson is so tight it hurts. I’ve provided a link below where you can watch the complete movie on YouTube. If you’ve never seen DUEL before, do yourself a favor and watch it right now. Enjoy.

Night Of The Living Dead (1968)

1968

Image Ten

Directed by George A. Romero

Produced by Karl Hardman and Russell Streiner

Written by George A. Romero and John A. Russo

It’s not given to many men or women in the entertainment field to say that they created a genre and even George A. Romero himself would resist being labeled as such. He freely admits in interviews that he “ripped-off” Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend in his creation of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Me, I think he’s way too hard on himself. Sure, he may have used Mr. Matheson’s brilliant horror/science fiction concept as the springboard for his own now classic horror masterpiece.  But I believe that Mr. Romero brought enough of his own ideas to this interpretation of Mr. Matheson’s book that NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD does indeed qualify as a brilliant work of cinematic art in its own right. And besides all that, it’s simply a damn good movie whose main desire is to keep us on the edge of our seats, biting our nails for 96 minutes and it succeeds.

And besides, considering the hordes of zombie movies that came after NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, many of them true rip-offs, remakes, imitators, reworkings, parodies and the like, if Romero feels any guilt about ripping-off Matheson, then being ripped-off in return must soothe his conscience. Even video games such as  House of The Dead and Dead Rising owe their creation to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.

It’s the day when Daylight Savings Time goes into effect when we meet sister and brother Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and Johnny (Russell Streiner) who are visiting their father’s grave in a rural region of Pennsylvania. It’s in the graveyard that we get the now famous “They’re coming to get you, Barbra” scene as Johnny teases her in that truly annoying way brothers tease their sisters. Having two sisters myself I am quite familiar with this technique. Barbra is creeped out by a strangely behaving man coming towards them and doesn’t think that Johnny’s “They’re coming to get you, Barbra” is very funny and pretty soon Johnny doesn’t think it’s funny either as the man attacks them both.

Barbra gets away and with the zombie in pursuit manages to find refuge in a farmhouse. Also taking refuge in the farmhouse is Ben (Duane Jones) who has to take charge of the situation as the shock of her experience is catching up to Barbra. They soon find they’re not alone. Hiding in the basement is the married couple Harry and Helen Cooper (Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman) who barely escaped from a gang of zombies that overturned their car. Their daughter Karen (Kyra Schon) has been unconscious ever since she was bitten by a zombie. Teenage sweethearts Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley)likewise sought safety in the farmhouse after hearing an emergency broadcast.

Harry and Ben immediately start doing the alpha male dance, each insisting their plan for survival is best. Harry wants to stay down in the basement and keep quiet. Ben’s plan is to turn on every light in the house, make as much noise as he can boarding up the windows and doors and playing the radio as loudly as possible. Remember this because I’ll come back to it soon.

While the radio reports that all over the United States the dead are coming back to life and eating the living, the small group attempts to survive the night against the growing number of zombies attacking the lonely farmhouse. That’s if they don’t kill each other due to their constant bickering and inability to work together.

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD always gets praised for having as its hero a black man. And as Ben, Duane Jones is certainly heroic looking and heroic sounding. He takes charge. He’s resourceful and courageous. He offers hope to the others that they will survive the night. He makes plans. Unfortunately those plans also get everybody killed. Next time you watch the movie, watch it a little more carefully. Each and every thing that Ben does ends up getting somebody killed. Ironically, Ben survives the attack of the zombies by doing what Harry said right from the start: go in the basement and be quiet. Ben’s turning on all the lights and making all that noise is what draws all the zombies to the farmhouse in the first place. Makes me wonder if the statement the movie is making about having a black man as the hero isn’t the one that everybody praises it for.

But that’s a conversation for another time. Taken as pure entertainment, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD still holds up for me. It’s filmed in a documentary-like manner that should be studied by those filmmakers who are so in love with shaky-cam. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is a perfect example of how to make your audience feel like they’re in the middle of the action without giving them motion sickness. Supposedly the cast improvised much of their dialog and I believe it. There’s a real heat in the scenes between Harry and Ben as they’re struggling for control of the farmhouse’s resources and the group. For me, a lot of what makes this movie still effective is that nobody looks or acts like a movie star. For better or for worse they act like regular people caught up in a really terrifying predicament.

So should you see NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD? Without a doubt. It’s one of the greatest and most influential horror movies ever made. You’ve probably seen one of the two remakes (1990 and 2006) or the six sequels that were made. If not, it’s a sure bet you’ve seen one of the many zombie movies influenced by the original. Somewhere in your personal movie watching history you’ve seen a zombie movie, I’m sure. So why not take a look at the classic that started it all?

96 minutes

The Shining

1980

Warner Bros.

Directed and Produced by Stanley Kubrick

Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson

Based on the novel “The Shining” by Stephen King

Hard as it to believe nowadays when THE SHINING is considered to be a horror masterpiece and one of Stanley Kubrick’s finest films that it really wasn’t all that well received when it had its original theatrical run. Don’t get me wrong, it made its money back and in fact did quite well at the box office. But Stephen King said that Stanley Kubrick had taken all the bite out of his story, deliberately downplaying the supernatural elements of the book and the theme of family disintegration caused by alcoholism that were so important and central to the book King wrote. Some critics said the movie’s pace was too slow. Others said that Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall were too eccentric and quirky as actors for the roles of Jack and Wendy Torrance. And African-Americans groups called for a boycott of the movie seeing as how the only character to be killed onscreen is Dick Hallorann, played wonderfully by Scatman Crothers.

But over the years THE SHINING has been re-watched, discussed, debated and has emerged a winner.  I don’t think it’s far off the mark for me to say that it’s become to Halloween what “It’s A Wonderful Life” is to Christmas. And whenever lists of The Scariest Movies Of All Time are made, THE SHINING definitely is in the top ten and quite often in the top five.

Mind you, we’re talking about a movie that has no CGI monsters, no gore and no graphically gratuitous violence. But it’s a movie that has been consistently described as downright terrifying. It’s also sparked an immense amount of speculation as to what it’s really about. Don’t believe me? Just for one example check out Rob Ager’s insanely in-depth analysis of THE SHINING. Just make sure you eat something and go to bathroom before you do so. You’ll be awhile reading that sucker, trust me.

Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is an aspiring writer who takes a job as winter caretaker of The Overlook Hotel, an isolated mountain resort located in Colorado. Jack hopes that the isolation of being stuck in the hotel for the winter will help him reconnect with his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) his five year old son Danny (Danny Lloyd) and help him battle his alcoholism which has led to physical abuse of his son and emotional abuse of his wife.

Danny possesses psychic abilities and is able to see visions of the past and future. It is through these terrifying visions that Danny knows that The Overlook Hotel is haunted. This is confirmed when during a tour of the hotel,  Danny meets Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) who has powerful psychic powers of his own. Dick calls it “The Shining” and informs Danny that he’s going to see things in the hotel but that they can’t hurt him. Boy, did he call that one wrong.

In the novel version it’s made clear by Stephen King that The Overlook Hotel has achieved some kind of malevolent sentience and lusts after Danny’s power to enhance its own. The Overlook uses Jack to get to his son but in the movie version, it’s clearly Jack that the hotel wants. Danny’s just an afterthought. This gives the movie a whole new slant since it’s not long after the Torrance family arrives at The Overlook that Jack promptly goes crazy.

And it’s here where I can understand the grumbles over Jack Nicholson playing Jack Torrance since the guy looks kinda wacky even before The Overlook starts playing mindgames with him. Even though he’s supposed to be the caretaker we never see him doing any of the maintenance work he’s supposed to be doing. It’s Wendy who does all of that while Jack is having conversations with a ghostly bartender (Joe Turkel) and long talks in the men’s room with the ghost of the hotel’s previous caretaker, Delbert Grady (Philip Stone) who chopped up his wife and two daughters with a fire ax then stuck a shotgun in his mouth and blew his head to pieces.

But let’s face it, you want to get somebody to play crazy in your movie, especially back in the 70’s and 80’s you get Jack Nicholson. Nobody could play crazy so convincingly and yet be so entertaining. There are moments in THE SHINING that are horrifying yet hilarious and Jack Nicholson is firmly at the center of those scenes. Shelley Duvall really doesn’t have much to do but be terrified by her husband for most of the movie and then by The Overlook itself at the conclusion but she gets to have what is without a doubt for me the most blood-freezing moment of the movie when she discovers what her husband has been writing all day long, every day for weeks.

Scatman Crothers has a really nice scene with Danny Lloyd where they talk about their shared ability but let’s be real, in this movie Dick Hallorann’s only purpose is to provide an escape vehicle for Wendy and Danny at the movie’s end.

But outside of Jack Nicholson’s performance, nobody ever really talks about the acting in THE SHINING, good as it is. No, people talk about images that now have become iconic horror classics: the elevator doors that slowly open to release a tidal wave of blood into a hotel corridor. Danny riding his Big Wheel through the hotel. The half-open door of Room 237. Jack sticking his face in the hole he’s just chopped in a locked door and squealing with manic delight, “Here’s Johnny!” Danny running through the hedge maze in the middle of a snowstorm trying to escape his deranged father who is chasing him with a bloody axe. The man in the bear costume. Danny with a huge knife in his hand, writing ‘Redrum’ on a door. The Grady twins who invite Danny to come play with them. The photograph of the 1921 July 4th Overlook Ball.

I love haunted house stories and I consider both the book and movie versions of THE SHINING to be right up there with the best of haunted house stories. It couldn’t have a better pedigree than to be directed by Stanley Kubrick who is the last person I would have picked to direct THE SHINING but damn if he didn’t do an excellent job. No, it’s not the book. There’s a tremendous amount of material that Kubrick and his co-screenplay writer stripped away but I didn’t mind. THE SHINING is one of those odd movie adaptations where even though most of the subplots and character exposition is gone, the core of what makes the story work is still there.

So should you see THE SHINING? Chances are you’ve seen it already. I don’t think I know anybody who hasn’t seen it at least once. But if by some chance you haven’t then you’ve picked the best time of the year to catch up. Trust me on this, THE SHINING is a movie that truly deserves its reputation as a horror masterpiece.

142 minutes

Rated R