Archive for January, 2008

Cloverfield (2008)


Directed by: Matt Reeves
Written by: Drew Goddard
Starring: Michael Stahl-David, Mike Vogel, Odette Yustman, Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas, T.J. Miller

“You know what’s wrong with the Matthew Broderick Godzilla, Mike?”

This is a question a friend of mine asks whenever the topic of the 1998 American film raises its ugly head, and each and every time, before I can offer my own opinion, he always tells me what he thinks.

“The makers of Godzilla don’t realize that we want to see a monster movie. ‘Who cares about the giant creature that’s out there stomping the city to rubble? No, what the people really want to see is a film about two people discovering their love for one another and that giant lizard just gets in the way of their romance.’”

The same could be said for the plot of the new blockbuster Cloverfield, but in this case, the filmmakers know we’re here for the scares, and better yet, they know how to deliver them.


Like The Blair Witch Project before it, Cloverfield is presented as “found footage” from a recovered video camera.

As the “tape” begins, we are introduced to Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David), a young executive who has just taken a job offer in Japan, and Beth McIntyre (Odette Yustman). The two have been friends for years, but their relationship has now become physical. After spending the night together, Rob offers to take Beth to Coney Island for a day of fun.

The tape then cuts abruptly to a month later. Rob’s camera is now in the hands of his brother, Jason (Mike Vogel). It seems that Jason’s girlfriend, Lily (Jessica Lucas), has planned a surprise farewell party for Rob, and she’s asked Jason to walk through the crowd to record well wishes from all of their friends. Jason is less than thrilled with this duty, however, and he talks mutual friend Hud (T.J. Miller) into taking the job from him.

As Hud rolls tape, distant explosions rock the building, bringing the party to an end. Something has come out of New York harbor, a huge, monstrous creature. It is now rampaging its way through the streets of the city and no one knows where it came from or how to stop it. Rob, his brother, and their friends try to escape, but a frantic cell phone call from Beth sends the group on a rescue mission right into the heart of the action instead.


Ask any kaiju (giant monster) fan about human characters and they will probably roll their eyes and tell you that this has traditionally been the weakest aspect of these films. We don’t care if the scientist gets the girl! We want to see monsters beating each other to a pulp!

Thankfully, the 21st centruy monster movies are an entirely different animal.

Like Bong Joon-ho’s The HostCloverfield focuses on rich, believable characters whom we care deeply about. Writer Drew Goddard (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, LOST) has experience taking outlandish situations and making them seem plausible. By feeding off our 9/11 fears, even going so far as to re-create some of the events of that horrible day, he has made his giant monster a very real threat to our heroes and heroines. He also knows a thing or two about pacing. The film is a lean, mean 85 minutes, and just when you think a scene is running out of steam, he delivers some new shock to get our adrenaline pumping again.

Be warned! Just as in Goddard’s television work, people are going to die, and it will be who you least expect and when you least expect it. This serves to create unbelievable tension in each and every scene. At one point, during a leap from a collapsing rooftop, I was literally gripping the arm of my theater chair.

I cannot remember the last time that happened.


Director Matt Reeves has created a horror film for the YouTube generation. In this age when we are unsure if what we are seeing online is real or staged, Reeves orchestrates scenes that feel incredible authentic and carry with them great emotional impact. Looters stop in their tracks to watch the horror unfolding on plasma televisions. A mother calls to check on the safety of her children, only to be told that one of them is dead. Movies shot on film stock tend to be one step removed from reality. By using video, Reeves has made everything in Cloverfield seem hyper-real, and ultimately, far more terrifying than a traditional horror film.

Much credit also goes to the technicians the video camera never captures, from editor Kevin Stitt to the technicians at the Tippett Studio who brought the horrible beasties to life. By using quick cuts and fast movements (but surprisingly little shaky-cam), the creatures remain frightening no matter how many times we encounter them.


Cloverfield is everything the 1998 Godzilla film should have been and wasn’t: a frightening thrill ride with characters we care about and a monster that is more terrifying than a simple over-grown iguana. If you remember loving the Japanese monster films of old, or you just want to see a fresh spin on traditional horrors, you need to run to the nearest theater and strap yourselves in, because like the Coney Island-going main characters, you’re in for a wonderful time!

Fan boy note: You must stay for the end credits! No, nothing is going to jump out at you in the final frame, but “Roar! (Cloverfield overture),” composed by Michael Giacchino and performed by the Bratislava Orchestra, is a throwback to the wonderful classic Godzilla themes that will have you smiling for days.

4.5 out of 5 stars.

“God Like Me” Voted One of the Year’s Best!

Michael West’s short story “God Like Me,” from the anthology Raw Meat, has been voted one of the Top 10 Horror Short Stories of 2007 in the P&E Readers Poll! Thanks to everyone who voted!

Sweeney Todd (2007)


Starring: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, and Sacha Baron Cohen
Written by: Stephen Sondheim (Musical)
John Logan (Screenplay)
Directed by: Tim Burton

September 1982. I sat spellbound in front of my television as HBO broadcast a performance of Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway hit Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Starring George Hearn and Angela Lansbury, the story was twisted, with humor dark as an unlit cave, and at its core lurked a deeply pessimistic view of the world and of humanity. Needless to say, I thought it was utterly amazing!

Now, 25 years later, director Tim Burton has brought the horror musical to a much larger screen, and in the process, he has created a modern masterpiece.


Johnny Depp stars as Benjamin Barker, a poor but happy barber with a loving wife and infant daughter.

“There was a barber and his wife,
And she was beautiful.
A foolish barber and his wife.
She was his reason and his life,
And she was beautiful,
And she was virtuous,
And he was… naive.”

All is right with the world until a lascivious judge (Alan Rickman) sets his eyes on the beautiful Mrs. Barker. Mad with lust and power, the judge arranges to have Benjamin arrested, wrongly convicted, and imprisoned. With the barber of Fleet Street out of the picture, the judge is free to make his advances.

Fifteen years have now passed, and Barker has escaped. Bitter and hollow, he returns to London under the name Sweeney Todd.

“There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit
and the vermin of the world inhabit it
and its morals aren’t worth what a pig could spit
and it goes by the name of London.”

There, he meets shopkeeper Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), who informs him that his wife committed suicide, and that his daughter is now a prisoner in the judge’s home. Filled with rage, Sweeney retrieves his beloved razors and begins hacking and slashing the throats of those responsible for all his misery.


(Sung in unison…)

”You there, my friend,
Come, let me hold you.
Now, with a sigh,
You grow warm
In my hand…
My friend,
My clever friend…”

“I’m your friend too, Mr. Todd
If you only knew, Mr. Todd.
Ooh, Mr. Todd,
You’re warm
In my hand…
You’ve come home…
Always had a fondness for you,
I did.”

As with Joss Whedon’s brilliant Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical, the producer’s were wise to give those with limited singing ability less to sing. Purists may complain that several numbers from the Broadway production have been cut, but keep in mind that Depp, Bonham Carter, and Rickman are not trained singers. They’re actors. What they lack in voice, however, they more than make up for with rich performances, using their eyes and body language to convey emotions like bubbling rage, secret longing, and menace, bringing Sondheim’s lyrics to vivid life on the screen.

And the talent behind the camera shows just as much enthusiasm for the material. While true to his source, John Logan’s screenplay has made the production less “stagy,” setting the action throughout London. And Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography and Dante Ferretti’s production design work in congress to paint this vast tapestry of turn-of-the-century horrors, creating haunting images that could have sprung from one of Dickens’ worst nightmares. The final touch comes from Colleen Atwood’s costumes and Nana Fischer’s make-up design, providing a very Goth appearance to Sweeney and his friends.


“Demons’ll charm you with a smile, for a while,
But in time…
Nothing can harm you
Not while I’m around…”

Director Tim Burton is no stranger to the horror-themed musical, having guided both The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Corpse Bride through production, and he is working with familiar themes of loneliness and the outsider as hero. For the first time, however, he has released a picture with an R-rating, giving us body parts and Monty-Pythonesque gluts of blood with every throat slashing. Yes, my friends, more than ever before, his macabre sense of humor is allowed free reign, and at times, we are laughing as we grimace, and grimacing even as we laugh.

This is Burton’s masterwork, the fusion of style and substance, of art and ideas, and it is sure to please his fan base as much as it will romance more mainstream success.


“And life is for the alive, my dear
So let’s keep living it,
Just keep living it
Really living it!”

Few creative partnerships have yielded more fruit than that of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, and none have tasted so sweet as this. The duo have always done solid work independently of one another, but when they decide to collaborate on a project, it creates a very real sort of dark magic. I left Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street singing Sondheim’s tunes, but it is what Burton and Depp brought to the work that stuck with me long after the music faded from my memory.

This is one of the best pictures of 2007; a cinematic experience that, like great theater, just gets better with each subsequent viewing, and I for one cannot wait to catch this company’s next performance.

4.5 out of 5 stars.