The Friday Night Horror Movie: Barbarian (2022)

barbarian movie

It is very rare that a movie surprises me. Rarer still is a horror movie that surprises. Barbarian surprised me at least twice and left me breathless on multiple occasions. We’re not talking jump scares – though there are plenty of those – or just general weirdness (though it is a deeply weird movie). Barbarian surprised me in ways that supplanted my expectations. In the best possible ways. That it doesn’t quite stick its ending, and that its Horror was a little too much for me, doesn’t change the fact that this is exactly the kind of horror movie I love to see.

It is also a movie that truly is best seen completely cold, so I will do my best to remain vague and spoiler free.

Tess (Georgina Campbell) travels to Detroit for a job interview. She books an Airbnb and arrives late at night in the pouring rain. The lockbox opens but is missing the key. The rental agency does not answer the phone. Just as she’s leaving, a man, Keith (Bill Skarsgård), opens the door. Turns out he also rented the place for the night.

Being in a strange city, in the middle of the night, during a rainstorm, finding herself stuck staying in a house with a complete stranger doesn’t exactly make Tess feel comfortable. The film has a lot of interesting things to say about the ways men and women must travel through the world in different ways to feel safe.

It also does a great job of building tension around this situation. We (and therefore Tess) are never quite sure whether or not Keith is a potential friend or a danger. In order to not spoil what comes next I’ll fast forward to a second story the movie tells.

But let’s just say this is a horror story.

AJ Gilbrade (Justin Long) is a working actor – not quite rich and famous yet, but he’s getting there. He’s introduced driving a convertible down an ocean-side highway singing along to Donovan’s “Riki Tiki Tavi.” A phone calls interrupts this happy moment and he’s informed that his costar on his upcoming television series has accused him of sexual misconduct.

Losing that job and basically becoming untouchable to everyone else, AJ realizes he needs to liquidate some things fast in order to have the money to live on while things get sorted. Queue him traveling to Detroit to sell one of his rental properties.

Guess which house is his?

The two stories intersect but again it goes in directions I was not expecting at all.

Justin Long is a likable actor and we naturally assume that his declarations of innocence over the misconduct allegations are true. The film teases out what actually happened in some really interesting ways, and makes some comparisons to…well, again I don’t want to spoil anything.

I’ll say no more about the plot. Writer/director Zach Cregger has created a most interesting story and found ways to interject something new into some pretty familiar-sounding horror tropes. As a director, he creates a good sense of space and an eerie sense of mood and creeping horror.

The jump scares mostly worked on me but they were the least interesting aspects of the film. Likewise, the actual horror parts of the film, by which I mean the more atypical scary parts of the movie (sorry, I do want to be vague and that makes it difficult to say what I mean just here) were a little too over the top for my tastes. But otherwise I completely fell for this film.

Westerns In March: Cheyenne Autumn (1964)

cheyenne autumn poster

John Ford made some of the greatest westerns ever made. From Stagecoach (1939) to My Darling Clementine (1946), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962) to The Searchers (1956) Ford proved over and over again to be a master of his craft, and of telling stories about the wild west and the men (and women) who tamed it.

Unfortunately, like so many western filmmakers at the time his films were not always kind to the Indians. All too often the Native Americans in western movies were faceless savages bent on raping and killing the white man. They were rarely made into full characters and very little attention was paid to the fact that the white man was invading the Indian’s territory and homeland.

In later years Ford seemed to have recognized his flaws in this area and at least in some ways he tried to make amends. In The Searchers John Wayne plays a pretty repugnant racist and his quest to rescue his niece, who has been captured by some Comanche Indians, allows the film to raise questions about the inherent racism of Manifest Destiny and America’s unrelenting quest to capture the entire country.

With Cheyenne Autumn, Ford’s last western and his penultimate film as a director, he depicts the historical event of the Northern Cheyenne Exodus in 1877 where a group of Indians decided to move from Oklahoma Territory back to their homeland in Wyoming. His depiction of the Indians is sympathetic and demonstrates just how awful the American government treated them.

Unfortunately, the film is overlong, rather dull, and still a bit racist. The two main Indian characters, Red Shirt and Little Wolf are played by Sal Mineo and Ricardo Montalban respectively – two very much not Indian actors (Mineo was of Italian descent and Montalban was Mexican born). The film’s focus likewise is on the white characters with the Indian characters playing second fiddle in their own story.

I could be more forgiving of most of this if the film was actually any good. Instead, it is slow, plodding, and contains one of the most unnecessary side stories I’ve ever witnessed.

The film begins with the Cheyenne on a reservation in Oklahoma. The land is arid and infertile. The people are sick and starving. Some delegates from Washington are supposed to meet them and discuss what can be done. But they don’t show and the Cheyenne decide to go home.

The trip is long and arduous. They must travel in desolate areas so as to not be seen by one of the many Army Forts along the way. Starving, some of them decide to turn themselves in at one of those forts. Though the Captain is sympathetic to their needs he has orders to turn them right around and send them home. Sickness, starvation and the brutal winter weather be damned.

There is some business about the press drumming up hysteria by printing falsehoods about the number of Cheyenne on the march and their ill intentions. Many of the soldiers on the ground (led by Richard Widmark) tend to be sympathetic to the plight of the Cheyenne but have their hands tied by forces in Washington.

Etc. and so on. Ford shot some of it in and around Monument Valley and Arches National Park and he gives the scenery his usual widescreen glory. But the story just never congeals into something interesting.

At one point, out of nowhere comes a scene with James Stewart playing Wyatt Earp and Arthur Kenney as Doc Holiday. It has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the film and is completely comic in tone (the rest of the film is utterly dramatic) and then it just ends and we never see them again.

Somewhere buried in there is a film that could have been great. The story of the Cheyenne’s exodus is a fascinating one and could make an excellent film. This is not that film and what we’re left with is the thought that Ford’s legacy left a whole lot of other films that are far greater than this one.

Westerns in March: The Magnificent Seven (2016)

magnificent seven poster

Seven Samurai (1954) is one of my all-time favorite films. It would easily make my Top 5 list. It is full of adventure and action, romance and comedy. It has some of the best camerawork of any film and its themes of loyalty and justice, honor and duty speak directly to me. Its plot – that of a poor farming village hiring a group of masterless samurai to protect them from thieving bandits – has been the template for countless other films.

Its Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa, was greatly influenced by American cinema, especially the westerns of John Ford and Howard Hawks so it makes sense that an American, John Sturges, would turn the Seven Samurai into a western.

The Magnificent Seven (1960) turns the samurai into cowboys who are hired by poor Mexican farmers to protect them from some thieving bandits. It loses some of the thematic weight of Kurosawa’s film but it has a great cast (Including Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, and Charles Bronson), a fantastic soundtrack from Elmer Bernstein and its a lot of fun to watch.

Hollywood seems to do nothing much anymore but make comic books movies and remake their own films and so naturally they remade The Magnificent Seven in 2016. If the original The Magnificent Seven is a pale imitation of Seven Samurai, then the remake is a paler imitation of the original.

It is kind of boring. No, that’s not the right word as there is a lot of action. It is forgettable. I watched it a week or so ago and I’d be hard-pressed to give you any detail about the film.

It follows the plot of the original, more or less. In this one, the bandits are robber barons, or rather robber baron (singular, played by Peter Sarsgaard) and his hired hands. The village is a frontier town and our villain isn’t raiding it for food, but has built a mine nearby and has more or less enslaved them as workers.

Denzel Washington leads the Seven. He’s good, as he is good in everything, but his character has none of the moral center that Yul Brynner’s version had. Brynner played it like a man who simply had to defend the village, but Washington’s character is in it for revenge.

Chris Pratt plays the Steve McQueen part. I’ve liked Pratt in other things but here he only proves that there will only ever be one Steve McQueen. The rest of the cast (including Ethan Hawke and Vincent D’Onofrio) are fine, but mostly not that interesting (it took me a minute to realize D’Onofrio was even in the film he looks so different than he usually does, but his character is probably my favorite.)

It isn’t that this film is bad, it is that it is so completely unnecessary. If you want to watch a great film with a similar plot go watch Seven Samurai. If you want to watch a really enjoyable version of this film then watch the original. There is no reason to waste your time on this one.

Westerns in March Stars: in My Crown (1950)

stars in my crown poster

Jacques Tourneur directed one of the great Film Noirs Out of the Past (1947), and one of the eeriest horror movies of all time, Cat People (1942). I’ve seen a few of his other films and they are all good, so I was excited to see what he could do with a western. Stars in My Crown isn’t bad, but it’s not all that great either. It is a slice-of-life film that’s a bit too sentimental and feels like it borrows a little too heavily from To Kill a Mockingbird. Though that can’t be true as it came out years before that book was written. In fact, Harper Lee has noted that she was partially inspired to write her famous novel after watching this film. But she did it much, much better.

Joel McCrea stars as Josiah Doziah Gray who shows up in the little town of Walesburg just after the Civil War, walks into a saloon, announces he’s the new preacher, and starts his first sermon. When the saloon customers laugh at him, he pulls out his pistol and makes them listen.

Soon enough he becomes well-loved in the community. The film watches him as he gets married, has a child, and enjoys inviting the local atheist to church.

The town doctor dies just as his son (James Mitchell) comes back to town, having just graduated from medical school. He has none of his father’s bedside manner and feels people ought to just do what he says because he’s got the schooling to know what he’s talking about.

When typhoid breakout the preacher inadvertently passes it on to the schoolchildren and gets yelled at by the Doctor for not taking precautions (I’ll leave you to ponder how very familiar that sounds).

Later a free slave (Juano Hernandez) is harassed by some miners who are also Klansmen. This is where the film feels like a half-baked Mockingbird but it is much more sentimental than that story.

McCrea is enjoyable, in fact, everyone is good. The story is fine and the direction alright. It’s like an episode of Little House on the Prarie or some such thing. Fine enough to watch, but nothing particularly special.

Final Destination (2000)

final destination poster

A group of American high school kids boards a plane headed for Paris for a few weeks. One of them, Alex Browning (Devon Sawa) falls asleep before the plane takes off and has a vision of the plane exploding mid-air. He awakens with a fright and freaks the heck out. One of his classmates, Carter (Kerry Smith) aggressively tells Alex to chill out and a fight ensues. In the aftermath Alex, Carter, and a few others including Clear Rivers (Ali Larter), Billy Hitchcock (Sean William Scott), and their teacher Mrs. Lewton (Kristen Cloke) are all kicked off the plane.

Sure enough, moments later the plane takes off and then explodes killing everyone on board. Since Alex told everyone the plane was going to explode before it did, the FBI thinks he must have been involved. Everyone at his high school just thinks he’s a freak. Only Clear Rivers believes him.

Soon enough some of the others who survived the explosion begin to die under mysterious circumstances. A visit to the morgue and a chat with Tony Todd reveal that when you cheat death, death comes at you. Surmising that the kids are now dying in the order they would have died on the plane (by using the seating plan and extrapolating where the explosion occurred) Alex figures out who will be next and tries to save them.

He’s not very good at it.

I knew this movie was gonna be dumb, but I had no idea what dumb depths it would dumb down to. I don’t usually nitpick movies over little details. I don’t mind small plot holes. But I was shaking my head over this one within the first few minutes.

The whole point of these movies (and there are a lot of them) is to create larger and more complex methods for the kids to be killed – call them Rube Goldbert deathtraps. I’ve not seen any of the sequels, but apparently, they get really ridiculous. Here they are pretty fun, but not particularly impressive. The last one goes over the top in a way I won’t spoil, but that I found really enjoyable to watch.

I don’t know why I’ve never seen this film until now. I was totally on board with the post Scream cycle of self-aware horror films and this came out at a time when I watched just about every movie that came to my local cineplex, but I must have missed this one. I’m glad I was able to catch up with it now, and I’ll probably eventually get to the sequels, but I can’t say I’ll be in a hurry to do so.

The Friday Night Horror Movie: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)

the texas chainsaw massacre part 2

The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of the best horror movies of the 1970s. It is gritty, dirty, and full of Texas sweat. Like a lot of films from that decade, it is documentarian in style, not realistic exactly but textile, you can feel it in your bones – the heat, the dirt, the blood.

In contrast, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is totally ’80s in every way. It is a neon, day glow, music video of a film that doesn’t take anything seriously except for its attempts to have serious fun with the material.

It stars Dennis Hopper as Lt. Boude “Lefty” Enright the uncle of two of the victims of the first film. The movie is set thirteen years after the original film and an opening scrawl informs us that the crazed chainsaw-wielding cannibals from the first film are still on the loose and on the move. We see them chase down a couple of frat boys driving recklessly on the highway and cut them up.

The boys were on the telephone with a local radio DJ, “Stretch” (Caroline Williams) when the attack occurs and she recorded the entire incident. She takes the recording to Lefty and the two of them go on the search for the killers.

Before long they are trapped inside an underground funhouse full of leftover amusement park junk, skeletons, skulls, and dismembered corpses.

Leatherface (Bill Johnson) falls in love with Stretch, while his family members chop up humans and turn the meat into chile to sell for the famous Oklahoma University vs Texas football game.

It is hard to explain just how over-the-top nutso this film really is. It is intentionally ridiculous, verging on camp. For the first twenty minutes or so I was really annoyed by it. I love the original film and this seemed like a terrible parody of it. Then I realized that was kind of the point and learned to sit back and enjoy myself.

More or less. It really is a bit too much. I can handle my gore pretty well, and I’m not opposed to using excess to create comedy. But eventually, it becomes boring. I was exhausted by the end.

At least Dennis Hopper seemed to be enjoying himself.

Westerns in March: Young Guns (1988)

young guns movie poster

I was 12 or 13 when I first watched Young Guns. I can’t remember now if that first watch was in the theater or when it came out on VHS tape. Wherever it was, I loved it. I watched it many times after that first viewing as a young teen and even into my college years. It was probably the first western I ever watched. Me and my friends endlessly quoted it.

I remember my uncle, who was a huge western fan (he used to always tell us that we liked westerns too – because Star Wars was just a western in space) did not like Young Guns. He didn’t like it because it wasn’t historically accurate and it portrayed Billy the Kid as a hero and he was really an outlaw and a vicious killer.

At some point, I stopped watching it. Never intentionally, I don’t think, just one of those things. I bought it and the sequel on DVD but let it gather dust on my shelves. Somewhere in my cinephile film snob years I did rewatch them both and decided they were bad, that they were not good movies.

But this being Westerns in March month I decided to dust it off and give it another try. On a technical level, it isn’t great, but it is still a pretty fun ride.

My uncle was wrong. It is surprisingly historically accurate. At least on a plot level. Billy the Kid was taken in by John Tunstall and his regulators. Tunstall was murdered by the Murphy gang and this did cause a war between the two factions. The regulators were deputized for a time and then became outlaws. I’m not a historian and I’m sure there are any number of embellishments, but from what I’ve read it gets the basic story right.

The movie mostly comes from Billy’s point of view which naturally makes us root for him, and Emilio Estevez is too charming an actor to make him a villain. But it doesn’t shy away from his ruthlessness. When Billy and the regulators become deputies and are supposed to arrest the men responsible for Tunstall’s murder, Billy gets his revenge in blood. At one point he shoots a man at point-blank range and the camera moves in close to Charlie Sheen’s face (he plays Billy’s compatriot) as the dead man’s blood splatters all over it. Billy often seems unhinged and takes great glee in violence (his friends periodically note that he seems quite crazy).

As a teenager, I overlooked these things and will admit to finding him heroic. But watching the movie now I recognize the film doesn’t look away from his violent tendencies.

It is avery 1980s western. Some call it the Brat Pack western as it stars the aforementioned Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen, plus Lou Diamond Phillips, Keifer Sutherland, and Dermot Mulroney. The soundtrack is filled with synthesizers and big guitars, and there are some bright filters used in the credit sequence. All of this feels quite dated and the writing doesn’t do it any favors (though it is quite quotable.)

So I guess I’ve come full circle on it. I loved it as a teenager, hated it as a younger adult and now I can recognize its flaws but also appreciate it as an enjoyable entertainment.

Westerns in March: Major Dundee (1965)

major dundee poster

Made between his more traditional western Ride the High Country (1962) and his revisionist one The Wild Bunch (1969) Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee works as a kind of bridge between the two styles.

It stars Charlton Heston as Major Dundee a Union officer who is relieved of his command and transferred to run a prisoner-of-war camp in New Mexico territory. When an Apache war chief slaughters a family of ranchers and steals their children Dundee gathers a rag-tag group of soldiers, Confederate prisoners, thieves, drunks, and a small group of black soldiers to hunt him down.

They say Peckinpah was drunk for most of the shooting causing all sorts of difficulties with the studio and with Heston (rumors have it Heston once threatened the director with a saber). His original cut was over 4 hours long, the studio took control of the film after that and knocked it down to just over two hours. Some of that has since been restored but the bulk of the “director’s cut” is now lost to history.

What’s left is a bit of a mess, but there is enough there to make it worth watching.

The film is less interested in what normally would be the main story – that of these men going after the Apache – and more interested in the rivalry between Dundee and Captain Tyreen (Richard Harris) an Englishman turned Confederate officer. The two have a history together and Dundee can’t understand why Tyreen would betray his country in this war, and Tyreen can’t fathom how Dundee would raise up arms against people he knows, his friends and family members.

Tyreen regularly tells Dundee that once they’ve captured or killed the Apache he’s gonna turn his sights onto him. Dundee says he’ll be ready for it and the two square off throughout the film while maintaining an uneasy alliance.

There is a version of this film in which Dundee is a megalomaniac in the vein of Captain Ahab, hell-bent on his mission all other considerations be damned. From what I’ve read that is exactly what Peckinpah was reaching for. But Heston is too likable an actor to make that come across. His version of Major Dundee comes across as a decent officer, trying to make the best of a difficult command.

In the end, the film never quite satisfies. Oh, it is watchable enough. Peckinpah is too good a filmmaker not to make things unwatchable, even when he is half in the bag. Heston does some of his best work here, too. But it never coheres into something truly good. One wonders what that 4 hours version would have been like. If Peckinpah’s original film was an epic masterpiece or an incoherent mess.

We’ll probably never know. What we’re left with feels like an interesting transitional film for the director. One where he’s leaving behind the influences of classic western auteurs like John Ford and Howard Hawks and creating something new and modern. But he’s not quite there yet.

The Friday Night Horror Movie: Hell of the Living Dead (1980)

hell of the living dead poster

George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) was a huge international success. It made over $1 million in Italy alone. In 1979 Lucio Fulci made an unofficial sequel, Zombi 2 (Dawn was titled Zombi in Italy). It was quite successful as well and for the next few years, the Italians began churning out one zombie film after another.

In 1980 Bruno Mattei got into the game with Hell of the Living Dead, aka Virus, aka Night of the Zombies, aka Zombie Creeping Flesh, aka half a dozen other things. It is, well it is a mess, but kind of a glorious, ridiculous, god-awful mess. It’s also a lot of fun in a late-night weekend kind of way.

The plot, such as it is, involves a research facility in Papua New Guinea that accidentally releases an experimental gas called “Operation Sweet Death” which turns the recently deceased into flesh-eating monsters.

The government sends in an elite SWAT team to take care of business. Along the way they run into two reporters and together, they make their way through the jungle, battling hordes of monsters, to the research facility to…well it’s never exactly clear what their ultimate goal is, but there sure takes a lot of gore-filled violence to get there.

Most of the plot makes very little sense. The dubbed dialogue is hilariously bad, and the acting is atrocious. There is a ton of very obvious stock footage of animals and natives thrown in to boost the run time. The score is by the very excellent band Goblin, but all of it is recycled from various other films.

The characters make ridiculous decisions after ridiculous decisions. Though early on they figure out the only way to kill the zombies is to shoot them in the head, they constantly shoot them everywhere but the brain pan. One guy liked to taunt them and dance around them for some reason. Whenever a zombie attacks the other characters literally just stand there for the longest time watching them eat their friends until finally decide to act. Etc,. etc.

I’ve seen a lot of bad horror movies. I’ve seen a lot of bad zombie movies. This is one of the worst ones I’ve ever seen. And yet, under the right circumstance, in the right mood this film kind of works.

Westerns In March: The Big Trail (1930)

the big trail poster

John Wayne started his movie career as a prop boy. He was given numerous roles as an extra, mostly by John Ford, before landing his first starring role in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail. The film was a box office flop and Wayne would fritter away for the next decade making poverty row westerns until John Ford put him in Stagecoach (1940) and made him a star.

The Big Trail is epic in every conceivable way (which makes it all the more astounding they were willing to put the unknown Wayne in as the lead). It was shot on a new 70mm film process called Grandeur. Filming took place over four months in seven different states. He hired over 700 Indians from five different tribes and used some 185 wagons, 1,800 cows, 1,400 horses, 500 buffalos, and 700 chickens, pigs, and dogs in the production.

I can’t imagine what it would have been like to have seen it on the big screen in glorious 70mm. Most people can’t because it was only shown that way in a few theaters. For proper viewing, theaters needed to upgrade their screens and most were unwilling to do so having just spent a small fortune upgrading for sound. The 70mm print was nearly lost to time, but the original negative was lovingly restored in the 1980s.

Watching it on the small screen is still a sight to behold. Walsh makes every use out of the grand scale. The plot, about a caravan of settlers crossing the Oregon Trail, allows for great use of the widescreen format. We see hundreds of settlers on horses, oxen and in wagons rolling across the land, the camera shooting from far off allowing us to see the American west in all of its glory.

There is a scene in which the settlers must cross a river. The rapids rage and horses and pushed downriver like little plastic toys. Wagons lose their footing and are rushed downstream while men desperately try to rescue the women and children on board.

Another scene has the settlers lowering themselves, their cattle, and their wagons by rope down a steep cliff. Once again the camera sits back showing us the massive scope of this endeavor.

But even in smaller scenes, Walsh makes use of this new format. The film begins on the banks of the Mississippi River. A scene will involve a few people talking in the foreground, but behind them, the camera shows a mass of humans, animals, buildings, and ships going about their business. Interior scenes leave a door or window open allowing a steady stream of traffic to mingle about just outside. There must have been a dozen people hired just to handle all the extras.

Unfortunately, the plot doesn’t quite live up to the filmmaking. The main story, that of the settlers traveling west is good. It really demonstrates just how harrowing and difficult that trip must have been.

But the b-stories are not particularly interesting. Wayne plays Breck Coleman who is hired on as a scout for the caravan. He agrees to the trip because he believes that the man hired to lead the caravan, Red Flack (Tyrone Power, Sr.), and his companion Lopez (Charles Stevens) murdered his friend and stole his wolf furs. But this story never creates any real tension. Power is enjoyable in the role, but I was never really interested in the outcome of their battle. Marguerite Churchill is the love interest, but the two fail to sizzle.

Wayne is good. And young. And surprisingly beautiful. He has the walk and some of the talk, but the swagger isn’t quite there. He’s a young man looking for fame and glory, not the older man I’m used to seeing who already has it.

Ultimately, the film is an odd mix of a sometimes rather dull plot mixed with some remarkable filmmaking and stunning visuals. The latter absolutely make the former worth sitting through.