Archive for September, 2005

Videodrome (1983)

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Directed by: David Cronenberg
Written by: David Cronenberg
Produced by: Claude Héroux
Starring: James Woods, Sonja Smits, Debbie Harry, Peter Dvorsky, and Leslie Carlson

“Television is reality, and reality is less than television.”

Is David Cronenberg a psychic? In 1983, when he wrote and directed Videodrome, did he see bachelors with their rose ceremonies? Could he sense there would be people racing across the globe, willingly stranded on deserted islands, or tone deaf and singing their hearts out live on camera? Were there visions of Joe Millionaire and Donald Trump dancing in his head? I don’t know. But watching Cronenberg’s weird little masterpiece now, you would think he was Nostradamus.

Max Renn (James Woods) is a television producer looking for the next big thing to keep audiences from surfing past his channel. He stumbles across the scrambled signal for a show called “Videodrome.” What he sees on the screen calls to mind photos of the Abu Grab Prison atrocities: men with hoods over their heads; women chained, beaten and raped for the cameras. Renn doesn’t know what to make of it, but he likes what he sees. No plot. No script. Just…real.

Max’s S&M-obsessed girlfriend, Nicki (Blondie singer Deborah Harry), gets hooked as well. “I wonder how you get to be a contestant on that show,” she ponders aloud. After her audition, Nicki goes missing and Renn attempts to find the source of the transmission. What he discovers is a hallucinatory world where televisions live and breathe, and men can be programmed to mutate into biological weapons.

No matter what the role, James Woods is always fun to watch. Here, he gives one of his finest performances. In the beginning, he’s a professional sleaze with his hair slicked back and a self-confident, defensive tone of voice. As his life nose-dives into nightmare, however, he becomes a sweaty, nervous wreck, and his eyes clearly convey the horror that we feel while watching these events unfold. Debbie Harry does a fine job in her first acting role. As a singer, she knows how to use her voice to convey an emotion. As a talking head on a monitor, she makes the simple phrase “come to Nicki” sexy and terrifying at the same time.

Director Cronenberg gives the film a dark, cold look that fits perfectly with the nihilistic view of the story. The script appears to have been heavily influenced by the writings of William S. Burroughs. It may not make total sense (especially the last half hour), but Cronenberg’s views on television are crystal clear: it’s a drug, a highly addictive poison that gets into your veins and grows like a cancer over the years—essentially changing who you are. These metaphors are given gory life by Rick Baker. The Oscar-winning artist creates veiny televisions with pulsating screens, a slit that opens in Wood’s chest—ready to have a throbbing videotape thrust into it, and a hand that morphs into a tumor-shooting pistol. These special effects were state of the art in 1983, and they remain impressive still today.

In fact, the issues raised by Videodrome are more relevant today than ever before. Cronenberg may not be a psychic, but any horror fan should definitely see this film in their future.

“Long live the new flesh!”

4 out of 5 stars

Stephen King’s The Shining (1997)

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Directed by: Mick Garris
Written by: Stephen King (novel and teleplay)
Produced by: Stephen King
Starring: Steven Weber, Rebecca De Mornay, Courtland Mead, and Melvin Van Peebles

When I was in 8th grade, I read my first Stephen King novel: The Shining. It scared the hell out of me. The day I finished the book, Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film version came to television and I couldn’t wait to sit down and watch it! When the movie ended, however, I remember the anger that I felt. This film had been nothing like the novel I’d fallen in love with. I mean, they changed practically everything! Gone were the spooky topiary animals that came to life, replaced by a hedge maze. We got an axe instead of the roque mallet. They even used a different room number than 217 for the woman in the tub! And Popeye’s Shelley Duvall as Wendy?!?! I wanted to kill her! It took many years for me to embrace Kubrick’s movie for what it was: the director’s story, not Stephen King’s. King himself was never able to accept it. In 1997, he bought back the rights to his tale and told his storyhis way: an epic, six-hour miniseries.

Writer Jack Torrance (Steven Weber) is a down on his luck alcoholic. Through a friend, he gets a job as the winter caretaker at the Overlook hotel. The hotel is high in the mountains and, when the snows come in October, the roads are impassible. Jack’s job will be to maintain the hotel through the long winter and keep an eye on its massive boiler. He also plans to use the time to finish a play that he has been working on. Jack’s wife Wendy (Rebecca De Mornay) is excited about the opportunity, but a little nervous about being cut off from civilization, and their son Danny (Courtland Mead) is frightened out of his mind. You see, Danny has the power to see things—the future, the past…the dead. When the family arrives at the closing Overlook, cook Dick Hallorann (Melvin Van Peebles) realizes the boy has this gift—something he calls “the shining.” He pulls Danny aside and explains that the boy may see things in the hotel, bad things, but that they can’t hurt him. They’re just like pictures in a book. As the snow cuts the family off from the rest of the world, however, it becomes painfully clear that these are more than mere images. The Overlook has a life of its own…and it wants Danny’s power.

King’s screenplay isn’t so much an adaptation as it is a translation. All of the memorable moments from the novel are now here and it is a joy to watch them play out. Director Mick Garris does a masterful job of bringing the eerie tone of the novel to life. In the beginning, we are treated to hints of the supernatural: a chair moves, a jukebox plays by itself, shadows frolic in the corner. But by the end of the film, we see the ghosts in all their rotting glory. Make-up Supervisor Bill Corso and his crew won a well-deserved Emmy for their work here. Their greatest achievement: the woman in room 217. When Danny pulls back the shower curtain, and we see her in all her putrid glory, it is a vision worthy of the darkest nightmare.

The cast is also top-notch, giving the characters the humanity Kubrick’s film lacked. Weber’s Jack isn’t a madman to be feared. As we see him struggle against his craving for a drink, and watch him deteriorate under the Overlook’s influence, it becomes quite tragic indeed. De Mornay’s Wendy is no mousy victim. She’s a strong-willed mother who will fight for her son’s life no matter what the cost. Van Peebles’ gives Hallorann an aged wisdom and makes the character’s affection for Danny clearly visible in his eyes. And despite his young age, Courtland Mead has to carry many scenes on his own. He gives an incredibly layered performance as Danny. We see his fear, but we also see that he’s a smart kid who knows what the Overlook is and wants to warn his parents of the danger.

While Kubrick’s film will forever be etched into the psyche of horror fans (and rightly so), this is The Shining I wanted to see back in 8th grade. The novel was written when Stephen King was still at the top of his game, and the filmmakers have done the master proud.

4 out of 5 stars

The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)

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Directed by: Scott Derrickson
Written by: Paul Harris Boardman & Scott Derrickson
Produced by: Clint Culpepper
Starring: Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, Campbell Scott, and Jennifer Carpenter

While waiting in a surprisingly long line at the box office, I heard something again and again: teenagers asking for tickets to “The Exorcist.” Of course, the red-vested gentleman behind the glass knew what they really wanted to see. They were there for The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Then, when I walked into the theater and took my seat, I surveyed this young crowd again and wondered if any of them had even seen the 1973 film—my favorite horror film of all time. I also wondered if the patrons who had seen the classic would be able to give Emily Rose a fair trial.

The movie is loosely based on the true story of Anneliese Michel, a German teenager who died after a failed exorcism. In real life, the girl’s parents were charged for their involvement in her death. In this fictionalized account, the girl is Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter), and it is the Roman Catholic priest, Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson), who is arrested. According to the state’s top prosecutor, Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott), Emily had a rare condition called Epileptic Psychosis which caused her eyes to turn black and her body to contort into horrid, twisted shapes. The disorder also made her see things that weren’t there—things she claimed were demons. Thomas contends that Moore urged her to stop taking medication for this illness, thereby causing her death.

Moore, on the other hand, believes that Emily was not sick at all. It is his contention that she was possessed by six demons, and that it was this demonic attack on her body that ultimately killed her.

Enter hot shot defense lawyer Erin Bruner (the always amazing Laura Linney). She takes the case to earn a full partnership in her lawfirm. She doesn’t believe in demons. She doesn’t believe in much of anything. But all of that is about to change.

Director/co-writer Scott Derrickson has stated that he wanted to make the first ever courtroom horror film, and that’s where much of the action takes place: the courtroom. He presents us with evidence on both sides of the issue. In addition to nicely orchestrated scenes of possession (Some of which call to mind The Entity), we are given alternate flashbacks to show that Emily might have hallucinated her otherworldly attackers. Jennifer Carpenter gives a star-making turn as Emily. We truly feel her pain, her fear, and her confusion as the possession takes hold. This is extremely important, because Boardman & Derrickson’s script gives us so little information about Emily Rose to begin with. In fact, it is the quality of the acting across-the-board that makes this movie so engrossing. With a simple, wordless glance, Linney can convey everything her character is thinking and feeling—creating depth on screen where none exists on paper. And Campbell Scott turns in his best performance to date. His Thomas has the conviction and moral certainty Linney’s Bruner sorely lacks.

Perhaps it’s unfair to judge this film against The Exorcist, but the comparison is unavoidable. The structure of that film was quite different—slowly building to a climactic confrontation between good and evil. When Emily Rose opens, the failed exorcism of the title is already over. Those frightening images of demons you’ve seen in the commercials and trailers? Well…that’s all of them. And the possession itself is a far cry from Linda Blair’s. This is a “realistic” portrayal of demonic control. Emily’s body does contort, but it doesn’t bend beyond its physical limitations. Those who flock to this film to see heads spinning and projectile vomit will leave quite disappointed.

Despite its flaws, it’s hard for me to pass harsh judgment on The Exorcism of Emily Rose. This is a film that asks questions on the very nature of belief—questions for which there are no easy answers. Is the movie frightening? A teenaged girl sitting next to me, one of those who asked for a ticket to The Exorcist two hours before, left the theater visibly shaken. How it will affect you depends entirely on your own beliefs.

3 out of 5 stars

Infection (2004)

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Original Japanese Title: Kansen
Directed by: Masayuki Ochiai
Written by: Ryoichi Kimizuka (story)
Masayuki Ochiai (screenplay)
Produced by: Takashige Ichise
Starring: Michiko Hada, Maya Hoshino, Yoko Maki, Kaho Minami, and Moroko Morooka

My wife is a nurse. When I write anything that involves nurses, doctors, and/or hospitals, she’s the first one I turn to for information on how to make the scene authentic. She’ll read what I have written and say, “a doctor wouldn’t say that,” or “In this situation, we would use this type of precaution,” or “This is what we would be asking at this point.” Sometimes I visit her at the hospital where she works and I see things happen first hand. I tell you all of this because this review is going to be clouded by the fact that I have a vague understanding of what goes on in a hospital—of how medical personnel act around disease. But if you’ve even watched a single episode of E.R., I think you would still be able to see just how ludicrous Infection is.

The film opens well enough. Microbes under a microscope move to form the Japanese characters for the title (I loved that!) and we are introduced to a dark, isolated hospital. It seems this place has been abandoned by the administration. Doctors have not been paid, supplies are running low, and nine nurses have quit in the last two weeks. The entire staff that remains is now tired and on edge. When a burn patient goes bad, one nurse’s mistake leads to his accidental death. To avoid disgracing the hospital—and to save their collective careers—the attending staff decides to cover-up the incident.

Big mistake.

Soon, an ambulance drops off a patient with a mysterious disease that turns blood green and liquefies the body. Is this contagion airborne? Is it carried by the blood? As the doctors try to find the cause, the entire staff begins to show signs of the pathogen. Can they find a cure before it is too late?

Masayuki Ochiai’s set-up is amazing and I thrilled to the possibilities that might await. Sadly, from this point on, the film delivers little in the way of originality or logic. If you were a doctor in a room with a contagious patient…don’t you think you would put on a mask?—perhaps even a rubber glove? Of course not! You would wrap the patient in plastic wrap like a huge burrito and carry them into a vacant room. Yeah, that’ll work just fine.

There are some genuinely unsettling moments—such as the nurse who thinks she can save money by sterilizing used needles and blood bags, and there’s the inexperienced nurse who decides to practice drawing blood on herself—but the movie as a whole is so devoid of reason that it makes many of the scenes laughable instead of frightening. I won’t give away any of the so-called twists, but the movie ends three times. If you’ve seen IdentityHide and SeekSession 9, and/or the far superior A Tale of Two Sisters, the first ending will have no shock value, the second ending will make little sense, and the third and final ending is just pointless. And if you can explain to me what the playground swings mean…in the name of all that is holy…tell me…please!

Now, there’s a word of advice any trained doctor will give you, and to prevent future pain and suffering I think you should follow it very closely: avoid Infection.

2.5 out of 5 stars