Fatal Attraction (1987)

FatalArt

Directed by: Adrian Lyne

Written by: James Dearden

Starring: Michael Douglas, Glenn Close, Anne Archer

“Well, what am I supposed to do? You won’t answer my calls, you change your number. I mean, I’m not gonna be ignored, Dan.” — Glenn Close as Alex

•  •  •

Growing up, one of my favorite pastimes was watching horror movies on cable, with my finger firmly on the “Previous Channel” button of the remote. I was your stereotypical hands-in-front-of-your-eyes scary movie fan. I loved watching while not watching, because I was always legitimately terrified.

Fatal Attraction popped into my October movie queue because of Bravo’s 2004 series, The 100 Scariest Movie Moments. This miniseries was perfect for me at the time, because it introduced me to classic horror films without my having to actually watch them.

Fatal Attraction landed at No. 59 on the Bravo list, and the scene Bravo chose for its scariest moment was the ending, when a presumably dead Alex (Glenn Close) springs out of the bathtub à la Friday the 13th to once more attempt to butcher Dan (Michael Douglas) and his family.

But that’s not nearly the scariest moment of this movie. In fact, I’m not sure it’s fair to pinpoint a single scene.

Fatal Attraction is great because of its sense of encroaching dread that begins right from the start, when Dan and Alex meet while bellied up to the bar at a fancy work event. It’s clear what Alex’s intentions are from that very moment, and as a viewer I was yelling, “Get out of there, man!” but my pleas of course fell on Michael Douglas’ deaf ears.

Glenn Close gives one of the best acting performances I’ve ever seen. She lets the viewer know that there’s something off about Alex the first time she appears onscreen. But Close also completely sells her seductive nature, and it makes total sense that Dan falls into her trap of late-night dancing, afternoon spaghetti dates and freight elevator blowjobs. (Close was nominated for Best Actress for this role, but lost to Cher for her role in Moonstruck, another film I have yet to see.)

There’s genuine horror when Dan attempts to leave to go home to his wife after the couple’s weekend affair, only for Alex to slit her wrists and surprise him with one of the bloodiest goodbye kisses of all time. This leads to the late-night phone calls to Dan’s home, showing up at his apartment and, eventually, kidnapping his child. Alex’s descent into madness is both terrifying and sad, as it’s clear that this is a woman that needs help. But her violent outbursts leave little room for sympathy.

Alex’s persistence drives Dan to confess his sins to his wife (the absolutely lovely Anne Archer). But even when the couple presents a united front against this relentless stalker, Alex doesn’t blink. In fact it enrages her even more, leading to the ultimate climax.

I was afraid for the entirety of this movie. I hated going along for this ride with Dan, because I knew where it was going to end up. But with Fatal Attraction you can’t get off the roller coaster. You’re stuck on it with Alex.

The Fog (1980)

Fog

Directed by: John Carpenter

Written by: John Carpenter, Debra Hill

Starring: Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis, Janet Leigh

“Knock knock.”
“Who’s there?”
“Death.”
The tagline that I just made up.

•  •  •

The Fog is the story of the most considerate seafaring ghost-lepers ever to stalk the coast of California. Sure these slimy, maggot-faced killers gruesomely stab the villagers of Antonio Bay with rusty boat hooks, but at least they have the courtesy of knocking on the door before entering to kill.

This movie is John Carpenter’s followup to the massively successful and groundbreaking Halloween in 1978. He and his writing partner, the spectacular Debra Hill, set out to create an old-fashioned ghost story that would be a left turn from their recent slasher-film success.

In that they succeeded. The Fog’s monsters are no Michael Myers, and the fear is mainly driven by the super-unrealistic sea fog. Carpenter wants you to fear the unknown by not knowing exactly what’s out there.

But the death scenes are just too much, in that they sometimes feel like they’re ripped from a made-for-TV movie that you might watch just cause you’re bored. As I said before, the lepers are overly polite, and perform a sinister knock on the door before they hack and slash. That gives us about three different times where someone opens the front door, stands in the doorway for 20 seconds asking, “Who’s there?” and then is stabbed through the back as they turn to go back inside.

Is it fun? Oh my god, yes. Is it good filmmaking? Not really.   

Despite some obvious criticisms of the film as a whole, the cast is decidedly stellar. Adrienne Barbeau makes her film debut as Stevie Wayne, the radio host who literally every resident of Antonio Bay is tuned into at all times (1980s!). Stevie Wayne is the film’s badass — a single mom working overtime while also fighting off mutant lepers in her lighthouse radio studio. And although there were other solid choices by the casting department, Stevie Wayne’s character is the only one to move the needle in terms of emotional attachment from the viewer.

Jamie Lee Curtis plays an unlucky hitchhiker who stumbles into Antonio Bay on the wrong night, and Curtis’ mother, Janet Leigh (Psycho, 1960) is the mayor, who is trying to make sure the town’s centennial celebration goes off without a hitch (she fails). It’s great seeing both of these actresses on screen, but their scenes don’t have nearly as much at stake as Barbeau’s.

This is a perfect film for the month of October, but I wouldn’t put it among the many scary movie classics out there. It’s good to catch on TV and see more of John Carpenter’s early work, but it just doesn’t stand up to his other, more popular films.

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Werewolf

Directed by: John Landis

Written by: John Landis

Starring: David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, Griffin Dunne

“The undead surround me. Have you ever talked to a corpse? It’s boring! I’m lonely! Kill yourself, David, before you kill others.” — Griffin Dunne as Jack

•  •  •

My barometer for horror films directly correlates to a scene in the movie Juno in which Ellen Page and Jason Bateman argue over who is the “ultimate master of horror.”

“We’re talking about buckets of goo. I mean, there’s red corn syrup all over the place. There’s fake brains comin’ out the yin-yang,” Bateman says about Herschell Gordon Lewis’ The Wizard of Gore.

That’s what I want from a scary movie. The more over-the-top and outrageous the blood and monsters appear, the better. And boy, do we get over-the-top in An American Werewolf in London.

The movie’s plot is simple enough: Two Americans traveling in the English countryside are attacked by a werewolf. One survives (David Naughton as David), but the other (Griffin Dunne as Jack) sticks around from the afterlife to try and get his friend to kill himself before the next full moon (which, of course, he doesn’t).

Makeup mastermind Rick Baker (Men in Black, A New Hope, The Ring) more than earned the Academy Award he received for working on this film. There are plenty of simple delights from the makeup department, such as the tiny flap of skin that dangles from the undead neck of Jack the first time he visits David from beyond the grave.

There’s also the pleasure in seeing how David continues to decompose each subsequent time he appears on screen. Baker takes real care in simultaneously making you nauseous and giggle.

But the master stroke of this movie comes when David finally transforms into the werewolf. Actor David Naughton had to sit in the makeup chair for 10 hours a day for an entire week of filming to pull the scene off. It was worth it, as Naughton releases blood-curdling screams when each part of his body extends with the skin-crawling sound of bones cracking and stretching. When you watch the scene you can actually see the labor that went into it, as this isn’t a computer-made transformation. All the work is manual, and it’s absolutely remarkable.

An American Werewolf in London is capped by a top-notch soundtrack that features only songs relating to the moon. “Bad Moon Rising” by CCR plays the scene before the transformation, and the doo-wop classic “Blue Moon” keys up as the end credits begin to roll. Each song adds just the perfect spice to the bizarre horror-comedy that unfolds before you.

It’s almost October, which means that there will be a lot of horror movies I need to watch in the next month. Stay tuned, and let me know if there are any favorites you have that should be added to my never-ending list of Films I Should Have Seen By Now.

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

BonnieClyde

Directed by: Arthur Penn

Written by: David Newman and Robert Benton

Starring: Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Michael J. Pollard

“Some day, they’ll go down together / They’ll bury them side by side / To a few, it’ll be grief / To the law, a relief / But it’s death for Bonnie and Clyde.” — Faye Dunaway as Bonnie Parker, reading her poem

•  •  •

There are plenty of ways to analyze Bonnie and Clyde. We could talk about its lasting effect on cinema, and how the true crime drama made violence and sex more prevalent in Hollywood films. I could dig deep into the final sequence, which to that point was one of the bloodiest scenes in movie history. If I was interested, I might even discuss its impact on fashion in the late 1960s.

But there’s only one thing I want to talk about, and that’s how this movie won one of the least-deserved Academy Awards of all time.

Bonnie and Clyde is full of solid — but by no means legendary — acting performances. Warren Beatty shines as the devastatingly handsome Clyde, and Faye Dunaway expresses a remarkable inner conflict in her portrayal of Bonnie. Gene Hackman is solid if not necessarily memorable, and a surprising Gene Wilder appearance (his first film!) is absolutely delightful.

But there’s one character that doesn’t fit. One character that makes the scenes she’s in particularly unbearable. One character I would do anything to travel back in time and ask David Newman and Robert Benton to rewrite: Blanche.

Blanche is played by Estelle Parsons,  who somehow walked away with an Oscar for best supporting actress for this role. Parsons is an actress who went on to have a long and successful film, TV and Broadway career following this 1967 film. And I by no means want to rag on her for the rest of this blog — it’s not her fault that she was cast as one of the worst characters I’ve ever seen in film.

Blanche screams. That’s it. That’s what she does. Really, she shrieks, in an ear-shattering tone that over the course of nearly two hours can easily cause a migraine.

Storywise, Blanche is married to Gene Hackman’s Buck Barrow, the brother of Clyde. She gets pulled into the Barrow gang against her will, and is along for the ride as they go on their violent crime spree. And that could very well be an interesting character, but it seems the writers didn’t know how to craft a dissenting gang member without making her yell at the top of her lungs every single time a gun is fired (which in this movie, is quite often).

In real life, Blanche was one of the few members of the Barrow gang to survive. And the real Blanche wasn’t too happy with her portrayal in the film, saying: “That movie made me look like a screaming horse’s ass.”

It’s true. That’s exactly what Bonnie and Clyde does.

When I found out that Parsons won the Oscar, I couldn’t believe what I was reading. It’s not necessarily that Parsons is a bad actress, but there’s just not a lot of difficult acting being done with Blanche. Scream, run and cry. Scream, run and cry. That’s all there is to it. If that’s what it took to win an Academy Award in 1967, well, I’m sure glad the standards have changed since then.

That being said, anyone interested in the transformation of cinema in the second half of the 20th century should sit down and watch Bonnie and Clyde. Just have the volume control at the ready, or shrieking Blanche will blow out your eardrums.

It (2017)

Pennywisedark

Directed by: Andy Muschietti

Written by: Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman (screenplay); Stephen King (based on the novel by)

Starring: Bill Skarsgård, Jaeden Lieberher, Finn Wolfhard

“You’ll float too.” — Jackson Robert Scott as Georgie

•  •  •

It obviously isn’t a movie that I should have seen by now, seeing as it hit theaters just a few hours ago. And even if we were talking about the 1990 TV miniseries, well that’s just not something I would label as “must-see programming.”

Seriously, it’s over-the-top garbage that I tried to watch a couple months ago. Take my advice: Don’t put yourself through that.

But I really felt the need to write about the new edition, as it was the trailer of this movie that finally got me to pick the 1,000+ page Stephen King book off my shelf and devour the horror classic.

I was all in on the hype.

And after investing so much of my time into this psychopathic clown’s lore, I’m happy to say that I did not walk away disappointed. In fact, I’m pretty damn pleased.

It excels because it’s funhouse horror. Director Andy Muschietti (2013’s Mama) isn’t trying to give you the biggest frights of your life or gross you out with Saw-like gore. Instead he enters the ring with two weapons: Humor and warmth.

Pennywise the Clown is scary, no doubt, but Bill Skarsgård gives a physically jolting performance (which is CGI-assisted at times) that has the added bonus of genuine frivolity. Every time Pennywise appears, the scene instantly becomes more memorable. But it’s usually not through sheer terror. Sure, there are the occasional jump scares, but it’s mostly fascinating to see what this monster can morph into, or how he will react to the children’s ability to fight back. Each scene with Skarsgård has some kind of surprise element, making you want the monster to come back again and again.

Pennywise goes toe-to-toe with The Losers’ Club, a group of seven kids who are just entering their teens. After they all begin encountering Pennywise while they’re on their own, they decide to fight the clown together. But the real magic from the Losers comes from Muschietti’s ability to build these on-screen friendships in a believable and funny way. While there is definitely some sloppy exposition (and probably one too many dick jokes, even for teenage boys), each of the child actors delivers a solid and endearing performance that is not easy to find in modern horror.

There’s one scene in It that I can’t stop thinking about. It occurs when the Losers are looking at projector slides on a wall in the garage. The way that Pennywise appears is absolutely terrifying, but in the best possible way. I have to see this movie again just to rewatch that scene.

I had a smile on my face as I watched this film. And it’s not because It was cheesy or overly silly. It’s because each of the scares was just downright fun. This film probably won’t give you nightmares, but it will get you talking about your favorite movie monsters of all time — and Skarsgård’s Pennywise deserves to be in the conversation.

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Pan

Directed by: Guillermo del Toro

Written by: Guillermo del Toro

Starring: Ivana Baquero, Ariadna Gil, Sergi López

“My mother told me to be wary of fauns.” — Maribel Verdú as Mercedes

•  •  •

Guillermo del Toro is a filmmaking magician, and we don’t deserve him.

Moviegoers haven’t earned a man who would give up his salary to ensure that he could make the film he wanted. Or a man who wrote the English subtitles himself, because he was disappointed with the lack of depth in the translation for his previous films. When directors and writers like del Toro put such care into their projects, we as an audience can do nothing but applaud.

And I did that in spades when I finally sat down and watched this film. I was surprised by the dark and ominous world del Toro created. Not knowing much about Pan’s Labyrinth prior to viewing it, I was under the impression that it was a children’s movie with fantastical creatures and beasts.

It’s got the creatures and beasts, but it is by no mean’s a children’s film.

In situating this dream world amid the immediate aftermath of the Spanish Civil War (a conflict I admittedly and shamefully have little knowledge of), del Toro does not shy away from the atrocities that occurred between the rebels and Francisco Franco’s army. And to place a child — the wonderful Ivana Baquero as Ofelia — not only right at the heart of that grisly reality but also in a horrifying fairy tale world, Pan’s Labyrinth delivers a fantastically frightening ambiance that any parent thinking of showing this movie to their child should be wary of.

The real magic of this movie, however, is the way the filmmakers brought characters like Fauno and the Pale Man to life. One of my main gripes with movies in the 21st century is their overuse of digital special effects. But del Toro insists on using as much real makeup and mechanical costume design as possible.

Monsters are scarier when you can see that what’s on screen could actually reach out and grab you. The visual realness gives them power over the imagination that digital ghouls just don’t have.

Every time the Fauna appeared on screen I was entranced by the way it moved, and the actor underneath the suit — Doug Jones — brings a slightly unhinged and dangerous element to the character who we are supposed to believe has the best interests of Ofelia at heart. Jones does double duty in the film, also playing the Pale Man in one of the best horror scenes I’ve seen in my life.

Pan’s Labyrinth is a film that demands repeat viewings, and I plan on sitting down with it again very soon. With a director like Guillermo del Toro, I know that there is so much more to discover within the story. 

The French Connection (1971)

French

Directed by: William Friedkin

Written by: Ernest Tidyman (screenplay); Robin Moore (based on the book by)

Starring: Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider, Fernando Rey

I absolutely love this film — and I feel a little guilty about that.

There are so many great things about this classic Best Picture winner, but it’s hard to watch this movie from 46 years ago and not see some of the culturally problematic layers.

But first, the good stuff: The most famous scene of this movie is the frenetic car chase that features Gene Hackman as Detective Popeye Doyle (one of the all-time great character names). If The French Connection doesn’t really sound like your cup of tea, you need to at least watch this scene, as Doyle speeds through the streets of New York, trying to keep pace with an elevated subway train on which a French assassin is trying to escape. The fact that this was filmed in 1971 completely blows my mind, and the trivia behind the filming itself is even crazier.

According to IMDB, the filmmakers shot the scene without getting the proper permits from the city. So although the NYPD did help them with traffic control, there were parts caught on camera where civilian drivers make their way into the path of the speeding car. According to Hackman, one of the cars that he slams into was that of a resident of the neighborhood who was just pulling out onto the street.

Aside from the car chase you have a pretty classic cop movie in which New York City takes on a role as one of the main characters. It’s one of those films that makes you want to take a trip and see the sights that you’re watching in front of you. Roy Scheider adds a needed balance as the good cop to Hackman’s bad cop, and Fernando Rey knocks it out of the park as the cunning French baddie.

So how does this movie make me uncomfortable? First there’s Popeye Doyle, who, despite having an amazing name, continually shows himself to be a racist, sexist character. Actor Peter Boyle actually turned down the role because of the character’s unsavory tendencies. Obviously racism and sexism are nothing new to films, but  because Doyle receives so little pushback from any other characters, the movie comes off as lacking some self-awareness.

There’s not a single female character worth noting in this movie. In fact, there might only be two women, and they’re both sexualized in some way. And when Doyle and his partner go looking for drugs on the street, they go to the black neighborhood bars and rough the patrons up. And while those scenes are unfortunately realistic of what police work was like in the 1970s, it’s not easy to watch nearly 50 years later while realizing we haven’t evolved past that behavior much at all.

That said, The French Connection has landed somewhere in the list of my top 100 movies of all time. I hate that I have to apologize for parts of it, but what director William Friedkin was able to put together is a thrilling police drama that films like The Departed and shows like The Wire obviously draw inspiration from. It’s a classic for a reason.

Speed (1994)

SpeedArt

Directed by: Jan de Bont

Written by: Graham Yost

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Dennis Hopper, Sandra Bullock

Spoiler Warning

Thank god for Keanu Reeves. I saw Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure when I was 9 years old, and I was convinced that it was the greatest movie ever made. But ever since I have been admittedly lax in keeping up with Mr. Reeves’ career (other than grabbing a VHS copy of The Matrix at a garage sale a few years back).

So I’m proud to say I have finally seen what may be the pinnacle of Keanu. Speed isn’t a flawless film, no. And it’s definitely not the best film in which Keanu Reeves has starred. But when a friend of yours does an impersonation of Keanu at a bar, Officer Jack Traven is the character they’re channeling. The buzzed-haired LAPD cop trapped on a bus that can’t go below 50 mph who delivers a continuous flow of eyeroll-worthy lines. Just take this exchange from the opening scene of the movie, when an elevator in a downtown L.A. skyscraper is wired to blow at any second:

Cop: Anything that will keep this elevator from falling?

Keanu: Yeah. The basement.

That’s just flawless screenwriting, Graham Yost. Bravo.

This movie made $121 million at the U.S. box office in 1994 (when the average ticket price was just $4.08). It was a summer sensation, and rightfully so. I mean, a metro bus jumps over a huge gap in the downtown freeway. That same bus eventually has an explosive collision with a 747 on the LAX runway — and there’s still 25 minutes left to go in the movie after that. Dennis Hopper gets decapitated on the top of a subway car!

It just doesn’t let up.

I watched this movie with a huge grin on my face. It was the perfect amount of cheesy action and laughable dialogue. I found myself talking at the screen multiple times, even yelling “Oh noooooo,” when the first bus driver is shot.

Don’t make the mistake I did in waiting more than 20 years to watch this Keanu Reeves tour de force. It’s seriously fun the whole way through, and I can’t recommend it enough for some summer laughs.

 

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

illustration

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Written by: Melissa Mathison

Starring: Henry Thomas, Drew Barrymore, Peter Coyote

This is one of those movies that, in a way, gave impetus to the idea for this blog. I’m not exactly sure how I got to be 25 years old without ever seeing this 1982 Steven Spielberg classic, but the fact that I did really seemed to upset people.

I talked with my parents on the phone recently, and they were adamant that we had watched this movie together as a family — but I don’t believe them. Or at least I wasn’t alive yet when the family watched it.

Anyway, seeing E.T. for the first time as an adult in 2017 admittedly does take away some of the magic. Some of — OK, a lot of — the child acting is grating, and the special effects obviously don’t cause the same jaw-dropping reactions they would have if I had watched the movie when I was younger.

If I had seen those kids on their bikes flying in front of the moon 15 years ago, my imagination would have run wild. I would have wanted to hop on my bicycle and zoom around the neighborhood as soon as the credits rolled. Watching it today, it’s hard not to just see the ridiculous use of green screen.

That said, Spielberg is a master at creating atmosphere, and the alien invading suburbia plot works so well in E.T. I especially like how the only adult showed in the first half of the movie is protagonist Elliott’s frustratingly clueless mother. All other adults — including the great villain-turned-hero “Mr. Keys” — are filmed from the waist down until the very end of the film.

So Spielberg creates this world that we experience from the child’s point of view, which is incredibly smart in making us believe this boy-alien relationship. It blocks out any encroaching “realness” of the outside world, and keeps the viewers — like the children — in a bubble.

There’s a scene in the middle of the movie that really stood out for being from an earlier time. Most people probably remember it because E.T. cracks open a few Coors and gets comically drunk while Elliott is away at school. But do you remember what Elliott was doing at school? He and his classmates are about to dissect frogs. But before they do this, they have to freaking chloroform live frogs in a jar.

Is this the way the world used to work? Did schools actually pass out live frogs and tell children, “OK, you take it from here.”

“They won’t feel anything,” the teacher tells the class as he instructs these 10-year-olds to kill a living creature. Elliot famously saves the day, and the result is a flurry of frogs hopping out of the windows.

Thirty-five years after its release, E.T. struggles to stay enjoyable in ways that other earlier Spielberg films (Jaws, Jurassic Park) don’t. I really don’t want to harp on the child actors too much, but Henry Thomas is just bad. Really bad. He can pull off amazement and wonder, but line delivery just isn’t his strong suit. I kept feeling like I wanted to escape his performance, but there was no way out. He’s in it nearly every scene — and it wore me down.