The Friday Night Horror Movie: John Dies At The End (2012)

john dies at the end

Don Coscarelli has had one interesting career as a director. After directing his very first feature film at the age of 18 he went on to create one of the more iconic horror mechanisms of the 1980s (Phantasm‘s flying silver ball). He followed that up with The Beastmaster a ridiculous, schlocky bit of fantasy starring Marc Singer as a bare-chested cross between Luke Skywalker and Doctor Doolittle which was a staple of late-night cable television in the early 1990s. He then made four increasingly bad Phantasm sequels which expanded the film’s mythology into incoherence. He also made Bubba Ho-Tep, a film that I haven’t seen but apparently stars Bruce Campbell as an elderly Elvis Presley who teams up with JFK to fight an ancient Egyptian mummy. His last film was this one which I just watched.

It is an absolute mess of a film, at times both brilliant and baffling. To explain the plot would be an exercise in futility. It involves a mind-altering drug, an alternate universe, bug aliens, and a lot of gross-out horror. It is a film so filled to the brim with ideas that it never pauses for a breath to let the viewer catch up, or to take stock of where it is going.

Coscarelli has a visual flair so it is generally interesting to look at (with the exception of some pretty dodgy CGI). It is well made and well acted (Paul Giamatti has a small role and he’s always great to see in anything – he also produced the film). There are lots of interesting things going on in the script, I just wished they had spent a little more time on any one idea and fleshed it out more, instead of throwing more and more and stuff at us. It has a tendency to be a little too jokey as well. In part, it wants to be this mind-bending, time-jumping sci-fi/horror film and in another part it wants to be a Judd Apatow-style bro-comedy. The two parts never really gel together in any coherent way.

It is definitely worth watching if you like Corscarelli or films that get a little crazy.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

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Every now and again the owner of Cinema Sentries will decide he wants to cover all the films in a series. When he does so he’ll ask all his writers to pick a movie in that series and review it. Apparently, back in 2013, he wanted us to cover the Star Trek movies. I say apparently because I have no memory of him asking us to cover Star Trek, nor me volunteering to review this film. I don’t even remember writing the review. Honestly, had I not just read my review of the film I wouldn’t be able to tell you anything about it.

But now you can read my review and learn something about it, too.

Alien Nation (1988)

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It is interesting to me how there are movies that exist in my memory banks that I haven’t actually seen. What I mean is that there are some films that came out when I was young that were part of our collective culture. Maybe they were big box office successes, or maybe they were endlessly discussed in the media, or maybe they were just talked about over and over with my friends. Many of these films were actually watched by me, but some of them weren’t. Yet because they were discussed in my culture and clips were viewed in various TV shows, it feels like I’ve seen them.

Alien Nation was one such film. It is possible that I actually did watch it at some point, but I don’t have any specific memory of watching it and I couldn’t remember a single plot point as I watched it yesterday. The movie did spawn a short-lived television series so it is possible that I watched some of that. What I do remember is how the aliens looked with their big, bald heads, and the basic buddy cop banter the two leads regularly engaged in.

Within this world, an alien spaceship landed on Earth sometime in the recent past. It was filled with a race of aliens that were bred by another, unseen race of aliens, as a slave class. These aliens are known as “Newcomers” by polite society and “Slags” by the less polite. The world’s governments have decided to welcome Newcomers and the United States has made them citizens. However, a great many humans are disturbed by the Newcomers. They are disgusted by the way they look, what they eat, how they get drunk on sour milk, and don’t always speak good English, etc. Often Newcomers have to take lowly jobs and they tend to be poor and often live, grouped together in run-down sections of the city.

The metaphor is not hard to understand. The film is not too subtle in this regard. The Newcomers are stand-ins for any number of minorities and immigrants that have historically been mistreated over the years.

In the film, James Caan plays Det. Matthew Sykes, is good at his job, if a bit old-school at it, and quite bigoted towards the Newcomers. But when his partner is killed by some Newcomers he agrees to take newly promoted Newcomer Sam Francisco (one of the films recurring gags is that humans got bored naming so many Newcomers when they arrived that they started giving them joke names – Har Har). He’s played by the always wonderful Mandy Patinkin.

Naturally, over the course of the investigation, Sykes learns to respect and even care for his partner and thus learns the important lesson that racism is bad.

As I said the messaging is really heavy-handed. The Newcomers have a distinctive look (which basically amounts to some prosthetic headgear) and are given a few distinguishing traits like getting drunk on sour milk and eating uncooked meat, but the film doesn’t delve very deeply into who they are.

Mostly the film is a typical 1980s buddy-cop action flick with an alien as the straight-laced foil to the wild, no-nonsense partner. It more or less works as that. I have great nostalgia for those types of films and this one landed neatly in that category. It disappoints because it could have been so much more interesting, but if you take it for what it gives, it isn’t bad.

Cold War Creatures: Four Films from Sam Katzman

cold war creatures

You know that I love horror movies and film noir, but I also have a soft spot for really low-budget science fiction flicks, especially those made in the 1950s. I love alien invasions from space and giant creatures made from atomic radiation. Way back in October of last year I reviewed a three-film boxed set from Arrow Video. It is filled with giant birds, atomic brains and crazy zombies. Check it out.

Alien (1979)

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Each film in the Alien quadrilogy has differed from the other. It helps that they each had a distinctive and imaginative director. Ridley Scott created a slow, tension-filled science fiction epic. James Cameron pumped it full of adrenaline and made an action-packed masterpiece. David Fincher cut his teeth on Alien3 by turning the action into a dark, mostly muddled mess. Jean-Pierre Jeunet tried to rescue the franchise but had no story to work with. Like the Star Wars movies what we’re left with is a couple of top-notch flicks and a few others that – while showing a few moments of visual brilliance – ultimately leave the series limp.

But my review is not of the series as a whole, but on the movie that started it all. In considering the franchise it is sometimes forgotten that Alien never started out as a quadrilogy. There was only this one movie about a group of average workers sent to capture a monster. Scott does a superb job of creating suspense. It is some 30 minutes into the picture before we actually see an Alien. And even then the action is slow to evolve. For the audience, this creates a great amount of tension.

Even for those who have never seen an Alien movie, the creature has so penetrated our popular culture that everyone knows it’s not an ET kind of alien. So, while watching it we know that the it is creeping around some corner just waiting to devour the characters. And yet we hardly see it. We not only don’t get to see any alien through a third of the film, but when it does come out and begin its slaughter, we only catch glimpses of the creature itself. It is seen in the dark creeping inside a corner, or in a flash as it jumps out of the darkness to attack.

Scott, instead, uses shots of the crew to show the fear in their eyes, before their destruction, rather than show the creature in action. There are only one or two moments where the audience sees the alien in full figure, and those last only a short time. Even then the alien does not move, never allowing us to see it kill. This stroke serves to scare the audience even more. How many times have we seen a movie’s monster in action only to laugh at its poor design?

The movie oozes with atmosphere. The cinematography is dark and shadowy. The ship’s quarters are enclosed and tight, creating claustrophobic spaces in which to encounter the monster. Then there is HR Giger’s amazing design. His designs of the alien ship and the alien are absolutely perfect. The ship seems to slither and move as if it’s alive. There are curves, ridges, and smooth edges as on the alien itself. All of which create an atmosphere, and mood that stimulates the horror to come.

All of the effects shot were done in without the use of CGI. Generally, they still hold their ground. Sure, the glimpses we get of the alien standing look like a man in a rubber suit. But overall the effects look great. This is a testament to their genius of Giger. My main complaint is with MOTHER. Like other science fiction films the crew’s ship, the Nostromo has its brains in a giant computer. Here, MOTHER is housed in an inner room of the ship and only accessible by the ship’s captain. We see her captain, Dallas (Tom Skerritt) go to visit MOTHER for a “your eyes only” type deal. Why a commercial ship needs this type of security is never mentioned. Mother turns out to be a Star Trekesque computer equipped with blinking lights and a faint whirring sound. All of this is so that Dallas can sit down to a DOS prompt and ask silly questions like “What’s the story, Mother?” They should have gone with a more 2001 approach and had the crew be able to actually speak to MOTHER.

All of the characters are very well acted and fleshed out. Each character is given their own personality and is fully realized. There is a nice scene in which the crew is searching for the recently non-sucking face sucker as it has disappeared. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) has left the door open and Ash (Ian Holm) moves to shut it so the alien won’t escape. The look Ash gives as he is doing this is incredible. Ash and Ripley have previously had a bit of a fight and you can see the anger and irritation at Ripley perfectly in Ash’s face.

Sigourney Weaver plays Ripley beautifully. This is a female action star that is sexy but doesn’t pander to her sexuality (though they did manage to get her in her underwear.) She is tough as nails and intelligent. And Weaver plays her perfectly.

Alien is arguably the best in one of the most successful series in film history. It is also one of the best science fiction films Hollywood has ever made.