Predator (1987)

El Demonio Que Hace Trofeos de los Hombres…
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Predator is thirty years old this year, and you know what? It’s still a remarkably entertaining, spectacularly impressive piece of work, and the first of two films from director John McTiernan that catapulted him to the very top of the action genre. Die Hard is arguably the more accomplished of the two, but Predator is no mere warm-up. What’s particularly great about it is just how stunningly well made it is – compared to Arnie’s other films of this era like Commando, Raw Deal, The Running Man and Red Heat –  Predator stands out in the way it showcases a director with an expert handling of action, suspense, atmosphere and intensity. As much as I love Commando and The Running Man, their direction is merely solid, whereas McTiernan is clearly a filmmaker of exceptional skill and confidence.
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Just like Die Hard, it has an dazzling attention to craft. Rare is the Arnie film where you can sit back and truly admire how it is mad. Its humid, oppressive South American jungle setting is utilised to remarkable effect – you really feel like there in the bush, with no escape. The camera moves in and around this world and you’re totally immersed. The cinematography, lighting and sound design is first-rate. Also, there’s a claustrophobic, intense and very memorable, all-encompassing score by Alan Silvestri that is loaded with killer hooks.
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The plot is utterly straightforward: bad-ass Major ‘Dutch’ (Schwarzenegger) and his squadron of soldiers – all-round nice guy and explosives expert ‘Poncho’ (Richard Chaves), intense, razor-happy medic Mac (Bill Duke), stoic navigator Billy (Sonny Landham), behemoth gunner and self-proclaimed ‘sexual tyrannosaurus’ Blain (Jesse Ventura) and resident joker and communications operator Hawkins (Shane Black) – are sent by untrustworthy colonel Dillon (Carl Fuckin’ Weathers) to the jungle of what (outside of the film) is revealed to be the fictional South American country of Val Verde (as also depicted in Commando and Die Hard 2) to rescue a cabinet minister being held hostage by bad (read that as non-Americans) guys. Once the (failed) rescue is over and Dillon is revealed to have set Dutch’s team up on what could have been a suicide mission, the soldiers – plus Anna, a hostage from the raid – soon find themselves the target of an alien predator who appears to picking them off one at a time for sport and who can also camouflage itself within the trees. Totally outclassed by the Predator, the team are swiftly dispatched until only Dutch remains, culminating in a battle between human and alien…
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Of course, if you’re reading this review, the odds are you already know the plot, making the previous paragraph a complete waste of time, but I loved summarising the story and I hope you enjoyed reading it. Let’s move on, shall we?
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Strangely, despite being what you could reasonably argue is the archetypal Schwarzenegger movie, Predator is a unique entry in the man’s classic era. Rare is the Arnie film where he is part of a team – admittedly, it’s a team that’s wiped out by the end, but he doesn’t stand head and shoulders ahead of everybody else. For the most part he’s one of the guys, even if he is in charge. His musclebound presence is more than matched by most of his colleagues. Also, this is the only film of his, barring Terminator 2, where his adversary poses a serious, lethal challenge. The final act of Predator is a fight to the death, and unlike the no-contest finales of Commando, Raw Deal, Total Recall, etc, you actually fear for his character’s life instead of curiously worrying about the bad guys. Also, has any Arnie film ended with him looking so beaten down and forlorn?
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Predator eschews the traditional Arnie finale, which even at this early stage was becoming recognisable. You know, tool up, kill every motherfucker in the room, that sort of thing. In fact, you could argue that the typical shoot-em-up set-piece that would normally close every other Arnie film takes place a mere twenty or so minutes into Predator. The ambush set-piece, where Dutch and the guys lay waste to some cannon fodder in guiltily spectacular fashion could plausibly be the culmination of any other Arnie film. After that we enter new, unexplored territory. The first act of Predator, discovery of skinned bodies and quick Predator POV shots aside, plays out as a straight-up action movie. After that, the science-fiction and horror elements creep in. We’re not in Kansas anymore. This is new territory. Okay, if you take the film apart, you’ll recognise elements of Alien and Aliens, not to mention the plethora of post-Vietnam action films like Missing in Action and Rambo: First Blood, Part II, but really, it’s difficult to see the joins.
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For me, Predator was one of the first films that acted as an in-road to the horror genre, which I would have been too scared to approach at my early age back in the early nineties. Yes, it’s an Arnie film, yes it has enough firepower to level a small planet and yes, the machismo is through the roof, but when the second act kicks in, it’s essentially a slasher film with bells on. The Predator heat-vision POV material is straight out of the likes of Halloween and Friday the 13th – but by playing around this gimmick, by making the Predator’s vision an essential part of his character and something that can not only be used to its advantage but also to its detriment (see the brilliant “he couldn’t see me” scene), you end up with a truly novel spin on a horror staple that by the late eighties, had become very, very old indeed. True, the whole heat-vision element wasn’t entirely original – you can spot it in embryonic form in Michael Wadleigh’s 1981 horror Wolfen – but Predator ran with it and made it truly iconic.
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The violence is also rooted in the horror genre – we’re talking gore here, people. It still packs a punch – it knows when to show stuff and when not to. Some of the worst stuff is left to our imagination, some of it isn’t. Also, the Predator’s M.O is hinted at but not really explored – later films in the canon would tell us more, but ultimately it was all unnecessary. The original Predator is still the best because it pretty much tells us all we need to know, and frankly, it makes his rituals and methods all the scarier. The special effects – cute electrical malfunctioning glitches and one ropey ‘camouflage’ shot just before Hawkins is murdered aside – are still amazing, and Stan Winston’s design for the Predator is, hands down, the best monster the cinema has ever seen. The film brilliantly teases us with quick hints as to just what exactly this creature is – a brief shot here, a camouflaged outline there, a shot of a hand, a trail of blood, and even when we’re very late into the film, it’s still wearing a mask. When that mask comes off…. wow. I mean, what can you say? I mean, you can say ‘ugly motherfucker’ if you so wish, but the design on that face is frankly extraordinary. Utterly repulsive, utterly fascinating and with a grotesquely dazzling attention to detail. I totally believe that I’m looking at an alien, and Kevin Peter Hall’s physical performance adds a hell of a lot too. He also played Harry in the same year’s Bigfoot and the Hendersons (or Harry and the Hendersons outside of the UK).
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The action is also tremendously visceral. The film has an arsenal and knows how to use it. The raid on the enemy soldiers is just kill, kill, KILL. Who were those bad guys? It doesn’t matter, they’re bad guys. Just kill them. Shamefully, this scene is utterly thrilling, and we all get off on those shots of evil bastards getting shot up or blown up or stabbed up or whatnot. There’s also the ‘stick around’ dispatching, which, thanks to Dutch’s outright glee during this moment, remains one of Arnie’s most hilarious one-liners. The bit where Mac begins what ends up being a outright destruction of a small section of jungle is outrageously executed. Scenes of preparation and booby-trap setting are gripping (if ultimately hopeless – these guys don’t stand a chance), and the Predator’s kills are still sudden, gruesome and full of impact. One extraordinary bit follows the brief moment of quiet following Billy’s death, when Poncho is suddenly killed (notable for being the only death in the film with virtually no build-up or warning), Anna goes for the nearest gun, Dutch kicks it away and lets rip with a fucking ENORMOUS onslaught of firepower, yelling as he does so, Silvestri’s score banging away and I, the viewer, gripped, pumped and breathless.
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 Ah yes, the score. Continuing to move on from the synthesised joys of his Delta Force and Flight of the Navigator soundtracks, Silvestri proves to be a master of the orchestrated score, rivalling the splendour of his Back to the Future work and delivering a pounding, militaristic, (surprisingly) sad, chilling and outright frightening array of timeless themes. One of my favourite moments of sound and vision in this film is the camouflage scene. When Dutch thinks he’s found some rest time, after having survived two death-defying drops and a brief but intense swim, the Predator suddenly lands in the river behind him… he crawls up through the mud and awaits what looks like certain doom, but thanks to the Predator’s compromised heat vision being unable to detect Dutch through all that mud, he moves on and walks away. This for me is one of the most gripping moments in the film – true, the script spells it out a bit too clearly with Dutch’s ‘he couldn’t see me!’, a line that I’m surprised the Predator didn’t hear and swiftly react to – but the direction, chilling score and that eerie slow-motion shot of the Predator walking away (don’t know why, but it used to freak me out!) makes it, more than any other moment in Schwarzenegger’s films, a scene where I genuinely feared for his character’s life. 
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As for the characters, well they’re two-dimensional for sure, but they’re vividly portrayed and acted with gusto – we all have our favourite Predator character, who’s yours? Dutch is the obvious choice, but what about the jokey, doomed Hawkins? The bad motherfucker (but ultimately doomed) Blain? The ever-so-slightly-crazy but strangely sad-eyed (and doomed) Mac? The no-nonsense, doomed Everyman Poncho? The sixth-sense blessed but ultimately crazy and ultimately doomed Billy? The cynical and bastardly but nevertheless he-was-still-Apollo Creed (and just as doomed) Dillon? Or how about the utterly non-doomed Anna? Mine was Mac. I loved Mac. I felt awful for him. His death always seemed the cruellest. He never stood a chance did he? And he never did have him some fun tonight, did he? Poor sod.
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Ultimately, Predator is one of the most purely enjoyable, thrilling genre films of the 1980s – it’s a precision-tooled, perfectly executed and still outstanding experience – its ubiquity (how many times has it been on TV now?) hasn’t dulled its edges. Watching it on a big screen for its 30th anniversary was like seeing it for the first time all over again, and given that I’ve watched it three thousand times already, that made for quite an evening of entertainment.
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PS: The end credits are a wonderful/hilarious montage of the main players, all of them smiling and/or laughing, as if almost to reassure the viewer, that they’re not really dead, that everything is okay. The one of Sonny Landham as Billy is amazing.
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PSS: A few years back, my good friend Mark and I recorded a commentary to listen to whilst watching the film. You can listen to it/download for free by clicking on the relevant link to the right!
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Deep Red/Profondo Rosso (1975)

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Dario Argento reached the artistic stratosphere with his fifth film, the stunning and breathtaking Deep Red (Profondo Rosso). His first three big-screen features, which I’ve already discussed on this blog, all have their merits and pleasures (I still haven’t seen his atypical fourth film, the comedy The Five Days of Milan, but by most accounts it’s not great). Yet, for all that’s fine and formidable about his pre-1975 work, The Golden Age of Argento truly began with Deep Red.

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What a film.

Truly, one of the most dazzling, relentlessly bravura, entertaining and sleek thrillers ever made. The quantum leap from 1971’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet to this is astounding – no more fumbling, no more steady steps – now we’re in the hands of a master, one who appears to be in total control of what he wants to do and who loves fucking around with our expectations. Deep Red on one level is a suspense thriller, a giallo and a crowd pleaser and yet on the other hand it constantly keeps one on edge with its subversion of genre tropes and off-kilter direction. With this, Argento became one of the major players – he would remain so until 1987’s Opera – a director who became the subject of intense cult adoration and admiration. His very next film, the remarkable Suspiria, may for me be his greatest achievement (and my all-time favourite horror movie), but Deep Red runs it awfully close. They were first two Argento films I ever saw and as such towered over everything else he’d made that I’d eventually watch.

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The plot, in some ways quite similar to that of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, involves a witnessing of a brutal crime (an attempted murder in the earlier film, an actual murder this time round) and the subsequent amateur investigation undertaken by the witness. The onlooker and eventual sleuth is out-of-towner jazz pianist Marc Daly (David Hemmings), who finds himself the unwelcome target of the killer when headstrong journalist Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi) rather insensitively plasters his face all over the next day’s paper. Marc’s obsessed with his belief that a painting that he saw just before he discovered the victim’s body has since disappeared, and that this fact must represent something important (or ‘importante’ in Italian – this word is used about a million times in the film and I love the pronunciation). His best friend Carlo (Gabriele Lavia) – a fellow pianist who is suffering from depression and alcoholism – warns him to back off but Marc’s too fascinated by the morbid mystery, which leads him to an abandoned ‘murder house’ that may reveal the answer to what he’s looking for.

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Despite the later controversy surrounding Argento’s supposed misogyny (not helped by that infamous comment of his regarding his preference to seeing a beautiful woman murdered on screen as opposed to an ‘ugly’ one or a man), there are some interesting toying with characters’ and possibly the viewer’s own expectations regarding gender. Viewers of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage will already have a head start in this respect, but Deep Red goes one further by making the otherwise likeable Marc an old-school chauvinist (though we pity rather than hate him for this), and then having fun taking down his conservative assumptions down a notch or two, be it his frenzy over losing at an arm wrestling match between him and Gianna, or him looking like a fool sitting on a broken seat in her car. However, both apart and together, they get closer and closer to revealing the killer’s identity, culminating in a shocking, gruesome conclusion.

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Ah yes, grue. Argento upped the violence considerably for his return to the giallo thriller – the first victim, clairvoyant Helga Ullman (Macha Meril) who unwittingly reads the thoughts of someone who has already killed in the past, is dispatched with a hatchet before being pushed through a window, where she dies having been perforated on the broken glass. We get a vicious, frankly outrageous act of violence towards a set of teeth that’s merely the build-up to a stabbing. Then there’s the death by scalding hot water, something Halloween II borrowed a few years on, and may very well be the most unpleasant moment in any of Argento’s films. Saying that, the most sadistic moment may be a wildly protracted death (the film’s penultimate) that, as shocking as it is, is something you can almost imagine Argento rubbing his hands together in malevolent glee whilst directing.

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Viewers may spot the weird foreshadowing of these deaths (mirroring Helga’s second sight): Marc is burned by hot water from a coffee machine before the scalding murder, the shot of the water seeping out of Helga’s mouth at the start eerily mirrors a shot I can’t detail (spoiler reasons) right near the end. The supernatural element that is introduced at the start of the film is quickly ignored but at the same time never disproven – genuine clairvoyance is simply a part of this film’s real world logic. Argento would fully enter the world of the fantastic with his next film, but he started all of that here, although to be fair there were elements of his earlier films that also flirted with far-out elements. I’d say they were more successfully woven into the narrative with Deep Red though.

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If you attempt to approach this film as a straight-up genre film, then the thriller element of Deep Red is engaging, satisfying and occasionally pretty damn chilling. Argento has yet to throw all of his logical caution to the wind at this early stage. However, the film’s greatest pleasure lies in the sheer verve in which Argento delivers all of this.

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As Michael McKenzie states in his great documentary that was included as part of the Deep Red’s Arrow Films Blu-Ray release, to criticise Argento for being all about style over substance misses the point. The style is the substance. I mean, we get a five-minute plus sequence of Marc investigating the interiors of the possible murder house and there’s no dialogue – just pure visual and musical splendour, and I dig every moment of it. The house is beautifully eerie and full of atmosphere, so why not take the time to check it out? The music, chiefly by eventual Argento regulars Goblin as well as original composer Giorgio Gaslini (of whom only a few pieces of his made it to the final cut), is utterly spellbinding. The more conventional Gaslini stuff is lush and chilling, but the Goblin stuff is a fantastic prog-funk concoction that brings to mind Rick Wakeman (solo and Yes) and is utterly addictive, delightfully heavy on the bass-groove and full of still-iconic melodies that elevate the film to an even higher degree. They give the murder scenes in particular a real charge that’s unforgettable.  A non-murderous musical highlight is during the house-investigation scene when the score suddenly stops when Marc accidentally steps on some broken glass, stays silent for a moment or two, and then abruptly comes in again when a set of curtains falls to the ground. Yep, it’s totally bringing attention to itself, and it’s having lots of fun doing so. I suppose the burning question is whether or not you as the viewer end up having as much fun.

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Ah, but what about the performances? Well, whatever disinterest Argento would apparently later have for actors hasn’t manifested yet – his cast here is arguably the most in-sync, engaging and on-form he would ever work with. Hemmings is a delightful lead – he has a great, expressive face and a vulnerable presence which suits the film remarkably well. He’s brilliantly matched by Nicolodi as Gianna – their back-and-forth chemistry is a delight and she is one of the director’s most fun characters. They were a couple in real life during and after this film and as their relationship became more tempestuous, the treatment of her characters got a little nastier to say the least. Here, Gianna is the strongest and resourceful of all Argento’s characters from his classic era – she rightly takes down Marc’s sexism, is brave, funny and confident, even if she does ultimately cheat at arm wrestling. The supporting performances are lively and entertaining, especially Lavia’s tragic Carlo, Clara Calamai as his eccentric mother and Glauco Mauri as the enthusiastic professor Giordani. Not once does any of the acting take you out of the film, which is sadly something that some of the more wooden turns in later Argento films have been guilty of doing. No, here they are essential parts, rich and all part of the film’s lush fabric.

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Notably, Deep Red was edited by around 22 minutes for export release, and while this tightens the narrative and surprisingly doesn’t become incoherent in the process, many of the pleasures of the full-length version are missing. The character of Gianna is severely truncated and in the process, much of the film’s gender politics are gone. Elsewhere, lots of nice character touches, humorous elements and moments that may not seem to add much but are just pure pleasure to watch are gone. Take the bit when Marc is snooping around the murder house – there’s a bit where he gets distracted by something and runs outside to investigate. It’s nothing, so he goes back in. The export cut edits this out to make Marc’s detection run a lot smoother, but I did miss this little aside in the shorter cut. Also, there’s the issue of which dub to go for – I’ve always watched the film with the Italian soundtrack because that’s the one I first watched (when it was released by Redemption Video in the 90’s – an almost entirely uncut version) so for me it’s weird watching the English dub, even if that really is David Hemming’s voice!

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Deep Red’s entertainment factor may depend on how many thrillers you’ve already experienced – it definitely shakes the genre up a bit, for those who think they might have had their fill of this sort of thing, you may have a lot of the fun seeing the form played around with. That’s not to say it’s a wink-wink parody – no way. As I said, the film is a first-rate thriller and full of suspense, shock and gore. But it’s also gleeful too. Like the investigators in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Marc and Gianna seem to having too much fun at first in their sleuthing, which they probably wouldn’t be having in real life. However, if you think of the characters as stand-in viewers of this kind of mystery, then their enthusiasm makes sense. And wisely, when the stakes become seriously dangerous, that playfulness dissipates to make way for some serious chills. The final scene, as over-the-top as it is, is nonetheless disturbing, horrific and home to one of the all-time great final shots, which I won’t reveal here.

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So there you go – on one level a classic chiller of the genre, on the other, one of the all-time great visceral experiences of cinema, a disorienting, off-kilter and wildly odd masterpiece that’ll still knock you sideways and have you coming back for more.

Freejack (1992)

Freejack

This review of Freejack contains spoilers.

Mostly forgotten now, Geoff Murphy (Young Guns II)’s 1992 SF-action turkey Freejack got some attention back on its release for starring the one and only Mick Jagger. And as a twelve year old at the time the film was getting premiered on Sky’s movie channels, I was certainly interested in it because I thought the ads looked good, plus anything futuristic was always going to fascinate me after having been bowled over by Back to the Future Part II on the big screen a few years earlier. Unfortunately (or so I thought), those movie channels were out of our price range so I forgot about Freejack until it was premiered on BBC1 a few years later.

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By then I had become more aware that the film was meant to be… how can I put it… a bit shit, so I geared myself up for a bumpy ride of some sorts. I wasn’t disappointed. I mean, it’s awful, but from the moment Jagger’s bounty hunter/’bonejacker’ Victor Vacendak lifts up the future-visor on his head and says, in that unmistakable camp London accent of his, ‘Okay… let’s do it! I knew I was going to love this film.

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I had the foresight to tape Freejack at the time and made a point of rewatching it over and over again. Well, the good bits anyway. Bits of this film are really dull. But the good bits (and by that I mean the really bad bits) were pure comedy gold.

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Based on Robert Sheckley’s novel Immortality, Inc. (more on that later), Freejack is set in a future where advancements in technology have made it possible for a mind to be transplanted into another human body. Meanwhile in present-day 1992,  hot shot racing driver Alex Furlong (Emilio Estevez) is apparently killed mid-race when his car explodes in front of his adoring fans, his adoring girlfriend Julie (Rene Russo) and his adoring agent (David Johansen from the New York Dolls!). However, he’s not really dead because he re-materialises in the year 2009, surrounded by baddies in bacofoil who are ready to lobotomise him with a freaky laser. Luckily, Furlong escapes into a dystopia where people are either living at the top in sleek, plush surroundings or at the bottom where the only things to eat are rats or soup that’s so tasty that people are willing to kill you if you spill it all over them.

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Furlong realises that he’s now a ‘freejack’, a fugitive wanted for his BODY by a mystery party. Everyone he turns to for help either betrays him or slams the door in his face, except for a gun-toting nun, aka Mother Exposition, played by Amanda Plummer a few years before she threatened to execute every motherfuckin’ person in the Big Kahuna burger joint in Pulp Fiction. It turns out there’s a thing called the Spiritual Switchboard, which is a kind of cloud where human minds can be uploaded and then downloaded into a different body. Furlong’s body appears to be hot property because it comes from a time before something called the Ten Year Depression and isn’t contaminated with all the toxins, poisons and mutations that today’s underclass have been exposed to. Ah, but why doesn’t Furlong’s mystery party just take his pick of a body from 2009’s non-toxic cultural elite?

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Nope, it’s got to be Furlong, and the one who wants him is none other than Anthony Hopkins, who I forgot to mention in this review so far because he didn’t make much impression on the plot up until now. I’m sure he made an impression on viewers at the time – this was the first film he’d made after his award-winning performance in The Silence of the Lambs. This was not the first instance of an actor starring in a total turkey immediately after their Oscar win, and it wouldn’t be the last. It turns out his character in this – the mysterious and recently deceased tycoon McCandless who owns everything in the future and therefore was always untrustworthy – has fallen in love with Julie and of course the only way to win over someone who’s already attached is to possess the body of her boyfriend!

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The ending was clearly this was meant to be the Ultimate Trip, the kind that would leave Kubrick whimpering. Forget 2001, this was 2009, baby! This is where Furlong and Julie enter the Spiritual Switchboard, past loads of pixels, squares, time lapse skies and altering environments, culminating in a confrontation with McCandless, who seems to be able to smoke cigars in this virtual world – how does that work? – and who also suspiciously appears to have regretted his rash decision to try and nab Furlong’s body, offering to give everything to him, his riches, his job as an apology … but we know it’s all lies and stalling, as Vacendak shows up and Furlong still ends up undergoing the old switcheroo in a sequence of, and let’s be generous, rather funny special effects that includes a trippy flashback nightmare that, like all bad dream/hallucination sequences, features not one but two random bits of people laughing wickedly.

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Weasely deputy villain Michelette (Jonathan Banks), who doesn’t want McCandless in any form to survive as that would prevent him from inheriting the company, destroys the transfer device and we’re all left wondering which mind is currently occupying the disoriented body of Furlong. Michelette has the right idea – if whoever this guy is can correctly identify McCandless’ personal security clearance number then he’s obviously the real deal. The thing is, he actually can! It must be McCandless, god damned McCandless! Michelette shakes his head in despair, laughs to himself and attempts to go out in a blaze of glory before being instantly gunned down by Vacendak.

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So Furlong’s dead, right? No. He was just guessing the security number and Vacendak went along with it because, let’s face it, nobody likes Michelette. Furlong’s a bit of a twat about it though, not telling Julie what’s happened until we the viewer also got to find out, which was a bit mean of him, stringing her along like that for what must have felt like a long few minutes. So, Furlong assures Julie that everything’s going to be alright and off they drive. In fact, his specific final line is ‘Come on, buckle up, let’s see what this baby can do!’ which is a line almost as cheesy as the one in this clip:

Haul Ass to Lollapalooza!

Cue anthemic metal from whistle-friendly favourites the Scorpions and roll those credits. Terrible ending. Saying that ‘Hit Between the Eyes’ is a fun song. I remember hearing the guitar squeals over that old Sky ad for the movie and I remember thinking this film was going to be ace.

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So, what we have here is a film that was probably the last attempt to make Emilio Estevez an action star, but he’s just not well served by the direction or the script. Also, he just doesn’t convey enough of the overwhelmed mind-scramble of what it would be like to be in a new time. Even though the Estevez smirk is almost as good a thing as the Bruce Willis smirk, he’s just too cocky here for us to really care too much. We also have future Breaking Bad legend Jonathan Banks in the role of Michelette, and compared to the dry, been-there-done-that persona of Mike Ehrmentraut, his character here is entertainingly obnoxious, stressed-out and seemingly despised by everybody. The scene where Jagger crushes a Faberge egg and chucks it over to him whilst calling him an asshole is one of the funniest in the film. Banks and Hopkins get the play-it-straight-but-chew-the-scenery-at-the-same-time thing beautifully, which can’t be said for Estevez and Russo. There’s little to no chemistry between the two, which makes their potentially thrilling, 16-year overdue catch-up a little flat. To be fair, the tragedy of their extended separation isn’t helped by the bit just as Furlong ‘dies’ when the camera rapidly zooms into Julie’s face – it’s hilarious. I think even Warners/Morgan Creek realised it was funny as early as 1993, because Brad Pitt’s waster character in True Romance is watching that exact same moment on the telly.

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But never mind that.

Let’s talk about Mick Jagger.

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Now I’m a huge Rolling Stones fan. I love their sixties stuff, I love their seventies stuff and I even like some of their eighties stuff. And I love Mick Jagger. What a frontman. I mean, there’s precious few like him. Yet there’s always been something kind of hilarious about him too. It’s that preening, camp, lip-smacking sense of mischief, right there even from the start. Like David Bowie, Nicolas Roeg found something intrinsically cinematic about him and both of them enjoyed their best big-screen performances under his wing. However, unlike Bowie, Jagger didn’t really have much of a film career afterwards. I’m not saying Bowie was a screen legend, but he also had The Hunger, Labyrinth and The Prestige among others under his belt, whereas Jagger had few other roles of note. There was Ned Kelly, and then there was Freejack.

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I love Jagger in this film – he can’t really act but he does his individual thing and he does it very entertainingly. As I’ve already mentioned, his very first line is a classic of camp delivery, but pretty much everything he says here has this kind of delightful amusement to it. How the hell do nothing lines like ‘power it up’ and ‘he’s good’, both uttered by him in the opening race sequence, end up being so gigglesome? It’s all in the execution. His best extended sequence outside of the Faberge bit is the chase scene involving the ugliest and reddest tank in history. Furlong has escaped in a car/champagne crate and Vacendak and crew are in hot pursuit. Using some kind of bluetooth connection to tap into Furlong’s car, he starts pestering his quarry throughout the car chase, and even though Furlong tries to hang up on him (leading Vacendak to hilariously exclaim ‘Oh no! I hate the dark!’) he just won’t go away. He laughs like a madman, delivers lines like ‘you can’t get rid of me that easily!’ ‘I want him without a scccraaatch!’ and ‘the brake pedal’s the one on the right’ and of course ‘DON’T DO IT!!!!’ with the kind of relish someone who actually gets paid a lot of money to say this stuff does.

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So what about the book that Freejack was based on? I wasn’t expecting Robert Sheckley’s 1958 Immortality, Inc. to be so entertaining, but it really is a proper tear-through ride of a novel that is crammed with ideas and twists. Okay, the female characters get short shrift, but for the most part it’s great. To be honest, to adapt it faithfully might have made for a pretty crammed feature-length film, but compromises could nevertheless have been made and we could have got a striking, spectacular SF experience.

When you come down to it, Freejack is mostly a lot of chases, fights and shoot outs, only really going into overdrive (some would say for the worse) for its finale. Immortality, Inc. has a lot more fun delving into the future world that Thomas Blaine (not Alex Furlong) has found himself in. At first his arrival into the future is exploited as a publicity gimmick for the Rex Corporation (there’s no McCandless here) who want to show him off as the world’s first person to be snatched from the past and put in a new body, but is soon forgotten by the media and even his own captors once the novelty’s worn off. Instead of being a target for capture, Blaine is more or less stranded in the future in a new body and with no way to make a living… I don’t want to spoil the rest of the novel as it’s a revelation for those only aware of Freejack, but if you do get round to reading it you’ll be dazzled by how much stuff there is here. Then you think about all that could have been accomplished in adapting this novel and you see what was actually made and released in 1992 and it beggars belief. Freejack essentially adapts a tiny portion of the story – the concept of an old mind occupying a younger body and the presence of the Spiritual Switchboard – and scraps the rest. I mean, there were suicide booths in the novel! Why would you not put something like that in the film? There’s merely a small electronic billboard for ‘suicide assistance’ that you can just about make out in a couple of shots. At least Futurama recognised a great (if fucked-up) SF idea when it saw one. It’s frankly insulting to see what they’ve done to the novel. If there are better examples of just how dumb the worst of Hollywood can be in adapting other mediums, then please let me know.

Of course, there was nothing in Immortality, Inc. that was as funny as the shot below, so both have their own individual merits, I suppose.

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PS: Amazingly, one of the co-writers is Dan Gilroy, who would end up directing the terrific Nightcrawler!

PSS: Some of the main characters have alliterative names, like Victor Vacendak and Mark Michelette. Those that don’t are nonetheless played by actors with alliterative names, like Emilio Estevez and Rene Russo. The only exception is Anthony Hopkins as Ian McCandless, but given he had just won an Oscar, I suppose he could get away with it.

PSSS: two non-Jagger highlights from the tank chase scene to mention – the music by Trevor Jones here is really enjoyable, great chase music. And secondly, yes that is a sample of James Brown screaming as a pedestrian jumps out of the way. There’s a few of these in this film, but it wasn’t the first action romp to feature a Brown sample. Raw Deal did it too, spectacularly. Hit me!

PSSSS: Here’s a shot of David Johansen, simply because there hasn’t been one yet in this review.

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The Real Ghostbusters Episode 37: You Can’t Take it With You

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Ah, now this is more like it! I have a very, very special fondness for this one as it was one of the episodes featured in my wonderful and much-cherished copy of The Real Ghostbusters sticker album that I from the late eighties. The stickers for this episode just looked so spectacular (apart from the double-one of Ray and Egon in front of the Containment Unit – that was just okay). That’s not the only reason I love this episode, because for the first time since ‘Ragnarok and Roll’ we actually get an episode with some genuine peril and excitement. You know it’s serious, because Egon’s PKE meter stops working. That’s always bad. It also looks great (foreboding purple skies are a speciality here) and has a pretty cool plot hook. The title kinda gives away the ending, but come on, we never really thought the bad guy would actually win, did we?

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To begin with, an immense ecto-surge in the city (emanating from one of the local, suspiciously evil looking skyscrapers– remember, there was another one in ‘Ragnarok’) causes the Containment Unit’s alarm bells to go ringing in the middle of the night. Peter doesn’t seem to care – no ghosts have escaped from the unit, so what’s the problem? Egon and Ray rightly know that a non-corporeal rupture of this magnitude is too big a deal to ignore, so it’s time to investigate the cause. And the cause is –

Charles Montgomery Burns.

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Okay, his name in this episode is Mr. Tummel, but he is essentially a proto-Burnsie. He’s so greedy and obsessed with his money that he has no intention of giving it up even when he dies. He’s going to literally transport his cash and gold to the ghost world when he himself pops his clogs. I’m not even sure Burns has ever tried to pull off a move like that, even in a Halloween special.

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And just like Burns, Tummel doesn’t care about the adverse effects his plan will have on the environment either, firing his assistant when he dares bring up the subject. He scoffs at morality, contracts, the law, the Easter Bunny… wow, this IS Mr. Burns, isn’t it? He doesn’t have any hounds to release though, just a couple of musclebound guards to take out the trash. Unfortunately, by opening the door to the ghost world, Tummel has let loads of swirly-whirly spectres into the physical world. Not that Tummel’s bothered. His chair comes equipped with ‘ecto-shield’ and proton beam! God only knows how he managed to get all this put together, but it looks damned good. I mean, the interiors of his skyscraper are bloomin’ enormous. He has a flippin’ pyramid inside there!

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The guys enter the building (and in one fancy move, each of them walk into a room using a different door for no other reason than it looking cool), but it’s swarming with ghosts, who for some reason in this episode, leave a cobwebby (but definitely not actual cobweb) residue after they’ve been zapped. This isn’t explained because Peter does one of his standard interruptions on Egon. And the standard reason for his interruption is – who’s paying them for this job? He had the same issue in ‘Beneath These Streets’ if you’ll remember. His preferred plan is to wait until the public call in for them, and then they can get some sweet cash. Of course, time is of the essence, especially since Egon reckons that because of the ghosts’ fragile molecular structure, they could break up into separate, new ghosts, and so on. It’ll only take 15 hours or so for the world to be governed by chaos and what not, so forget the money. Unfortunately, despite racing against the clock, the lifts are not an option, because they look like this:

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How are they going to get to the top? The stairs? Did you see how tall this skyscraper is?Ray has an idea though. Let’s use a helicopter! The one they use isn’t Ecto-2 – maybe it hasn’t been replaced yet? Bit odd that Peter is surprised that Ray can fly one of these things. Er, they used to own one! Let’s forgo how they actually suddenly acquired this helicopter, and besides, it’s not very effective as it gets caught up in a storm and almost kills them.

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Luckily, one act break later, they land on the roof and then abseil down to an easy access point. Well, I say easy – when they smash through the windows, Egon ends up putting his foot right into a TV screen! Amazingly, he wriggles loose from it without rupturing any arteries or getting so much as a scratch.

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Peter has the right idea. He just picks the lock of the roof door (with a nail file – I love that Peter owns one) and walks downstairs. Here we get to have a peek at Tummel’s taste in art, which is very old and very gold. The guys find some of Tummel’s staff, who are utterly terrified at being taken over to the ghost world and being used as slaves. As Peter says, why be rich if you haven’t got a few poor people to push around?

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Arriving at Tummel’s lab (Egon is temporarily blindsided by all the fancy gear and insists on re-negotiating the research budget when they get back home), the guys are greeted by ‘Mr. Moneybags’ with a barrage of deadly lasers (cue one of the series’ rarely used action themes) and we get a rare totally non-supernatural set-piece. Egon reckons the only way for them to win is for Tummel to overload the amount of energy going into his scheme, thereby causing it to crash. Peter has the smart idea of tricking the old man into trying to convert the whole building into the ghost world. After all, where’s he going to live once he crosses over? Clever scheme, and it works – Tummel goes crazy mad with laughter and screams about taking ‘everything… EVERYTHING!!!’ and Egon just hopes that the overload will cause a power failure and not a huge explosion. Peter looks like he’s going to throttle Egon when he realises the stupid risk they’ve just taken. Egon, for all his smarts, does take some of the most insane chances in this series. He only just did such a thing at the end of the previous episode, which I’m sure you’ve already forgotten by now because it wasn’t very good.

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In the midst of all the laser madness, Tummel’s wheelchair gets blasted and the silly fool ends up being hurtled into the gateway to the ghost world. Meanwhile there’s far too much energy going about and the systems are overloaded and can’t be turned off. Computerised death – don’t you just love progress, Peter asks? Egon agrees before running off to the gateway, opening a trap (which he hopes will jam the signal from our world to the next as well as pulling all the released ghosts back home) and then muttering something utterly incoherent that sounds something like Popeye’s own ramblings.

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Winston saves him from getting crushed by a random piece of falling architecture and everyone runs out of the room, with Ray reassuring Peter that the five bucks he owes him can be waived if this plan goes south, which it doesn’t, though Egon is so impressed with all the ghosts returning home that he forgets the building’s due to go the same way. Cue a reference to Heisenberg a long, long, long time before Breaking Bad made this sort of thing cool and a sharpish exit via helicopter. Very sharpish in fact, as Egon and Peter are forced to hang off the side of the chopper and do so without complaint or fear (odd given Peter’s clear freakout earlier over the thought of abseiling). The gateway tries to ensare the guys, but Winston throws his proton pack out of the helicopter to shut it the hell up.

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They escape, but not before seeing a maniacal Tummel fly up and out of this world, just before the building itself is spectacularly transported over to the other side. A very bumpy landing follows – miraculously Peter and Egon (they’re still hanging on to the side, remember) are not hurt.

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Just like the title of this episode insisted, all of Tummel’s time and effort was for absolute nowt, as his loot just ends up crashing back down to Earth. Peter’s the first to discover this when a bundle of notes hits him on the noggin. I can imagine that must have hurt, but at least it wasn’t one of the bars of gold that hit him. That would have definitely killed him. There seems to be a moment where Peter considers taking the cash for himself, but just like when Murtaugh throws away the drug money that could put all of his children through college in Lethal Weapon 2, he wants nothing to do with it. The thing is, what is going to happen with that money? The guys drive off before the cops show up, thereby avoiding giving a very helpful explanation as to how all that money got there, not to mention why Tummel’s HQ has just suddenly vanished. I suppose the cops might do the right thing and give it to charity. I bloody well hope so.

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So, in conclusion we have the best episode of The Real Ghostbusters for quite a while – let’s see if that quality can spill over into the next episode, shall we?

SPOILER: It will.

PS: Sorry about the ‘ghosting’ in some of the above screenshots. The quality of this episode on the DVD is a little below-par.

The Real Ghostbusters Episode 36: Hanging by a Thread

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This is not one of the more popular episodes of The Real Ghostbusters. And you know what, it isn’t very good at all. But I liked it better than ‘Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Ghost?’, mainly because it’s pretty crazy. We start off with The Three Fates – three indistinguishable blondes in togas who spend most of their day playing with threads, each of which is the life and fate of a particular individual. Rather casually, they discuss the destinies of the lives they’re dealing with, though we never get to see them say stuff like ‘this man will lead a horrible, painful life’ or ‘this one will have no real reason to exist’.

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It seems like these three have a huge responsibility between them, and the local nearby demon, who may or may not genuinely be called The Lord of the Stench, wants to steal it from them, and more specifically the golden shears and thread used to create the fates of humankind. That way he can pass it on to his boss and sort it out so that the whole world will turn to evil! Nothing specific, from the sounds of it. Just evil. The demon has his own cocky, sarcastic underling and a load of minions who charge the Fates’ lair and attempt to steal the goods.

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However, the shears end up being hurtled out into the realms of time, which winds up the demon no end. Think about it, those shears could be ANYWHERE. ANYTIME. This could be the basis of an entire spin-off series, where the demons visit different eras and different places in order to find the lucky scissors and hoping that the next leap will be the leap home, but of course the shears end up in present-day New York. You know, where the Ghostbusters live.

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We get a few failed attempts to find the shears beforehand though. One of these appears to take place at the unveiling of the Brooklyn Bridge (which would date it to 1883) – upon realising that the scissors used to cut the celebratory ribbon are just regular snippers, the demon uses them to cut the cables of the bridge, destroying it and we can only presume, killing everyone standing on it. Wow, we’ve gone back to the sadism of ‘Ghosts R Us’ with that casual act of mass murder, haven’t we? Also, how can scissors cut a bridge? Why am I even seriously bringing this up? This is clearly an ‘anything goes’ kind of episode. The second attempt appears to involve founding father of the USA Benjamin Franklin, who is flying his kite in the rain (he was responsible for demonstrating lightning’s electrical content) but the demon has no luck. Most of the others appear to have the right idea (which is – where do most cataclysmic events take place in this series?) and head off to New York, and more specifcally Manhattan’s Garment District, which if you’ll remember, was where the episode ‘Cry Uncle’ featured a scene. The shears end up outside a boring shop owned by a boring man whose bored son wants more excitement in his life. Some demons on the opposite roof should sort that out. We don’t see these two characters again, by the way.

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Back at HQ, the guys are so bored they’re playing a ‘guess the ghost’ game where Ray shows the other three some pictures of spookie-ookies and they have to guess what they are. They all have pretty insane names – I’m sure I heard a ‘screaming willy’ in there somewhere. Luckily a call gets them out of their torpor and Peter is so excited that he literally jumps on Ray’s back to get to where he needs to be. Slimer and Janine are left behind. Slimer is such a wet blanket he gets freaked out by his own image (he was the next ghost to be guessed in Ray’s card game). The guys end up at the garment district, where the demons’ method of attack range from the pathetically lightweight (pelting them with clothes) to the seriously dangerous (pelting them with clothes set on fire), but suddenly the Lord of the Stench and his crew head off.  Ray’s proton pack ends up broken but a bit of duct tape gets the job done. He then cuts off the tape with the nearby SHEARS OF FATE and for no other reason that in order to get the plot going he takes the shears with him. Okay, it’s an absent-minded act, but seriously, it takes a lot to absent-mindedly put a pair of sharp scissors in your pocket and then run with them afterwards. Didn’t he feel a pinch or something? Peter blankly prides himself on his crew’s ‘fantastic service’ to the adoring public. We’re only 36 episodes in and he’s clearly already jaded with fame and success already.

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Meanwhile, The Fates are lurking nearby, and are concerned that the shears’ volatility puts whoever is in possession of them in grave danger. They really didn’t think this plan through very well, did they?

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The guys head off home, only to discover that the Stench’s minions have plastered themselves all over the outside HQ, in what is arguably the episode’s most arresting image. Well, it would have been an even better image if the animation in this episode was up to scratch, which it isn’t. The Lord of the Stench, rather brilliantly, order his minions to ‘SMITE THEM!’. This needs to be used a lot more in a lot more situations, like when Homer Simpson said something like ‘Oh, smiteful one, show me who to smite and they will be smoten!’, which to be fair is such a good line that no one could top it. A melee of seismic ripplicious proportions follows, and in the midst of the chaos, the Lord gets the shears. He boasts that his own boss, the Lord of Evil, will get to use them for all kind of nastiness. Weirdly, the Lord of Evil never makes an appearance. This is annoying. I mean, if you introduce a gun in the first act, you’d better use it in the third, you know?

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The demons scarper with the shears and the Three Fates unhelpfully show up afterwards. They explain the situation and Ray starts with ‘You mean the scissors that I -’, conveniently stopping before he’d have to admit he STOLE them, the thieving git. The Three Fates then absolve themselves of all responsibility by claiming that since it was mortals who complicated this, it is mortals who must resolve the situation, by delving into the Underworld. This is a bit rich. I mean, listen mate, if you’d had better security measures back at home we wouldn’t have been in this badly-animated situation to begin with, ya get me? There’s some twaddle about only having one hour to get them back and that they have to return to the exact spot they arrived in, and the guys are all cool with this, except Egon initially, who can’t believe all of this is all about a pair of scissors.

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The Underworld is a pretty cool looking place, all red skies, red rocks and cavernous interiors. There is a softly-spoken ferryman who will take the guys to wherever they want to go at a price. The guys don’t have the necessary twenty gold pieces, but they do have a lucky rabbit’s foot and a cheese sandwich. The ferryman is annoyed that it’s white bread and not pastrami or rye. The ferryman seems to have a lot of knowledge of the above world – he pines for a motor for his boat, corned beef for his sandwich, the poor man. More almost-cool visuals follow – lava springs, volcanic arenas – as I said earlier, if the animation had been handled with a little more love, this would have been a pretty good looking episode. The guys retrieve the shears in a forgettable confrontation but have almost run of time in the process. Using bad-writing logic, the twelve remaining seconds are stretched out to ludicrous point and the guys return home (Egon pushing them off into oblivion in the hope that they’ll reach the pick-up point quicker) – I don’t know how doing this would actually return them to the point where they had originally arrived, but I think I’m spending more time thinking about this episode than the original writers did. Oh well, they’re back home now. They return to the shears to the Three Fates, who don’t even thank them. They just disappear with the shears. I’ve realised I actually hate the Fates. They’re rubbish.

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Peter congratulates Egon on his canny thinking – you know, that it didn’t matter if Egon’s last-ditch plan was dangerous because ultimately he knew they’d be alright – but Egon admits he really didn’t think the plan going to work and had merely crossed his fingers. Peter falls down, Ray exclaims ‘hey, he fainted!’ and the episode ends immediately. Never mind that this is a weaker imitation of the ending to ‘Night Game’, this blasé conclusion sums up ‘Hanging by a Thread’ pretty neatly. It’s totally throwaway, clumsily staged, one of the worst looking episodes ever and is only better than the last episode by being a little funnier and being occasionally bonkers.

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