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.

Hellraiser (1987)

Thirty years on and this film still delivers the goods…

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This is one of the best horrors of the 80’s. I watched it at a too-young age, and what struck me about it was how dark, adult and grim it was. Oh, and gory. Bleurgh. It’s also pretty funny in places though, especially towards the end, but in an era when horror had become sequel-fatigued and very self-aware, Hellraiser gave us horror straight-up, extreme, nightmarish, yet also original, clever and imaginative. What might surprise newcomers to the series is that ‘Pinhead’, despite being the main focus when the film was originally marketed, is not the chief villain here, not in the same way Freddy or Jason was. He’s not even called ‘Pinhead’ – that was something that caught on with the fans, and apparently Clive Barker is not a fan of the name. Still, he was happy to call one of the others (in the credits) ‘Butterball’, so it’s not like he’s not got a sense of humour.

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No, the main bad guy here is a pretty despicable piece of shit named Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman) who makes the mistake of purchasing a puzzle box that, when solved, opens up a gateway to Hell or somewhere equally horrific, where extreme pleasure is matched with extreme pain by the deeply freaky Cenobites. We don’t get to see much of the pleasure element in this film – most of what we see is torn-apart faces, upside down torture and hooks through skin. Sometime later, Frank’s brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) and his wife Julia (Clare Higgins) move into Frank’s former digs, and a bloody accident results in Frank being able to return to Earth, albeit in extremely primitive, barely-there form. His ‘resurrection’ is one of the best scenes in the film, and not one to watch whilst eating – it’s bloody minging. Yet it’s also given some kind of grand beauty by Christopher Young’s amazing, epic score – honestly, ‘Resurrection’ is one of the best pieces of music I have heard in a film, ever. When Julia and what’s barely-there of Frank are reunited, a particularly fucked-up plot to bring him fully back to life begins to form…

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This was Clive Barker’s first film, and given that he was adapting his own work, there’s very little in the way of compromise – of course, handling your own work is no guarantee of success, but he proves himself to be a near-perfect director of horror. The sense of dread, foreboding and nastiness has rarely been matched. This made a lot of horror back then seem awfully adolescent in comparison. When I first watched it I was repulsed, fascinated and scared. Even something that could be could considered a major flaw – the decision during making the film (enforced by the studio) to change the location from England to the US, kind of works in its favour, the film occupies a strange Nowherestown mood where, for instance, the accents are American but the British Rail symbol is still present in the background in one scene! The special effects are variable – hooks go into some clearly rubber skin at one point, yet later on they look horribly effective when they’re stretching a particular character’s face apart. Additionally, the light-show effects at the end have never looked great but the resurrection scene is one of the best uses of stop-motion and practical effects in cinema history, and is utterly bloody repulsive too.

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As for the Cenobites, they’re sparingly used, but extremely effective whenever they are on screen. Doug Bradley made for an instantly iconic ‘Lead Cenobite’ – the scene when he and the other three threaten to take Kirsty to Hell is incredible, and that ‘we’ll tear your soul apaaaarrrrt!!’ line is just one of many brilliant slices of dialogue. Other performances? A few of the supporting ones are a little iffy (the fact that they were dubbed to go with the new US setting doesn’t help), but Clare Higgins makes for a deliciously complex villain, Ashley Laurence as Larry’s resourceful daughter makes for a great, gutsy heroine and Andrew Robinson gets to do a hell of a lot in the role of Larry, especially in the final act.

Top marks for this classic – it’s still got the goods, even almost thirty years on.

PS: Here’s that British Rail logo! It’s from a speeding train, so forgive the blurry image.

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PSS: That is not Alan Moore playing the role of the ‘derelict’.

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Grizzly (1976)

Jaws with Paws? Jaws with Claws? Nope, it’s Jaws with Flaws.

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Look, you can throw whatever insults you like at Grizzly – it can take it, it’s only an EIGHTEEN FOOT TALL BEAR, after all! Or is it? The (brilliant) poster makes that dubious claim, but the film itself has one character suggest that it’s merely FIFTEEN FEET TALL! Yet when we do see the grizzly in all its terror, it’s REGULAR BEAR-SIZE at ELEVEN FEET TALL! Hmm, now that’s proper false advertising, that. Grizzly is a shameless quickie rip-off of Spielberg’s immortal shark thriller, only this time the horrors take place in the bucolic locale of a National Park rather than the mystery of the ocean and the attractions of the beach.

Quick similarities of note include a trio of intrepid heroes, one of which is a Roy Scheider-style enforcer of the law who struggles to fight the bear admist selfish bureaucracy represented by a callous mayor-type (natch), and another is an Robert Shaw-like obsessed bear-fanatic who wants to confront Grizzles mano-a-bear-o. The third doesn’t quite resemble Richard Dreyfuss, but he does have a USS Indianapolis-style anecdote to give us like Shaw so wonderfully did. I thought the actor who played him was the same one who portrayed the reclusive Howard Hughes-esque fall guy from Diamonds are Forever, but it’s not. Even the fate of the bear is just as explosive as that of the shark, though unlike Jaws, where said outrageous demise was cleverly set-up throughout the course of the final act, here we simply get a rocket launcher produced from somewhere in the back of a helicopter. BOOM!

Just like Jaws, the villain in this has no real back story or reason to show up, it’s just there. Oddly enough, its first victim is played by Susan Backlinie, who also played the famous h’ors douvres in Spielberg’s iconic opening sequence. Her death here becomes a quick afterthought though, as we move onto a second victim within mere seconds. We’re also spared a full shot of the bear for the first part – just a few teases of swiping claws and the use of point-of-view shots, which in retrospect make the bear’s stalking resemble that of Jason or Michael Myers. When we do see the monster in all its glory, its true size is thoroughly disappointing given we were expecting this behemoth of a bear.

The film attempts to outdo the already bloody violence of Jaws with a bigger kill count and plenty of gore. We get a severed arm ten minutes in, and a nasty slashed face soon after. Later on we get torrents of blood spilled through the rapids, a shocking attack on a mother and son and various bloody maulings. Luckily a rabbit is spared. A horse is not so lucky. This film has recently been doing the rounds on the UK’s Horror Channel, but only during afternoons, where its surprisingly grisly (grisszzly?) violence gets mauled by the censors in a manner in which our eleven-feet tall killer would almost be proud. Yeah, Grizzly has no qualms about who it eats, and this is one of those films that got a PG in America – before the PG-13 arrived in 1984, PG films in America were far more extreme in content than they are now, and in recent reviews of mine I was surprised to discover that films like Race with the Devil and the 70’s version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers were rated PG. Audiences were made of sterner stuff back then, I suppose. In the case of Grizzly, I hear some of the truly nasty bits were nevertheless trimmed on theatrical release.

Either way, there’s a grim tone throughout – humour is mostly absent (most of the laughs come unintentionally – I love the line ‘that’s all we need – a killer bear on the loose’, delivered like it’s a mild inconvenience), no one is automatically safe from the film’s body count and the ending is more sober than happy. The script and performances are servicable, although it’s nice to see the dependable Christopher George in the lead – he’s probably best known for his definitive death throes in B-movie spectacular Enter the Ninja and being the pick-axe happy co-lead in Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead. He’s got a pretty one-dimensional character to work with, but he brings warmth, seriousness and lead presence to the role. All of the other actors, stuck with what they’ve got, just get on with it, and some of them even survive to the end. The forest locations are well used and best experienced in widescreen, while the music resembles the more heroic themes from….yes, Jaws. Actually, if this was a Jaws film, it would rank quality-wise somewhere between Jaws 2 and 3. So not bad at all. But not very good.

P.S: Note that the above poster actually refers to the bear as ‘Grizzly’ as though that was its name. That’s definitely a step-up from Jaws, which chickened out from actually having its characters refer to the shark as ‘Jaws’, though that didn’t stop Bart Simpson from saying ‘this is where Jaws eats the boat’ when watching it on TV. He did go a bit far when excitedly claiming such things as ‘this is when Die Hard jumps through the window’ and ‘this is where Wall Street gets arrested’.

Ghostbusters (2016)

Don’t believe the bad hype. It’s alright!

Ghostbusters

When future generations look back on this time – our time – and they think of Ghostbusters, we all want them to think of the wonders of the original 1984 film, the underrated wonders of the second and the animated wonders of the cartoon (at least before it was ruined by meddling execs), don’t we? A fine legacy, right? But nooooooooooo, Hollywood had to spoil everything by re-BOOTing the damn thing, so now when future generations look back on Ghostbusters, they may very well think of this new version before the old one, the old one which we took to our hearts and still love decades later. Sacriliege! Well, it would be sacriliege if the film was crap.

Which it isn’t.

I’ll admit, the news of a Ghostbusters reboot filled with me fear. Reboots, remakes and remodels have a very patchy success rate in this day and age. Legacys spoiled and whatnot. The fourth Indiana Jones film is probably the most saddening example of this, all the more baffling because it was the original director responsible for such dirty soilage. I’m a child of the 1980s – I may have been too young to experience the fruits of the ‘Second Golden Age of Hollywood’ (as Homer Simpson puts it) at the cinema, but home video and TV viewing meant I devoured a lot the classics anyway, and yes, these films turned out to be very special for a lot of us. When news of a remake arrives, it’s usually accompanied with a groan. Remember when Poltergeist got remade a year or so ago? Somehow we all knew it wasn’t going to be that great, and apparently it wasn’t. I never watched it, but I never heard a good word about it, and as such, didn’t bother. By that time I had been fed up of giving remakes/reboots a chance when they usually turned out to be either rubbish (The Omen, The Wicker Man) or just meh (Robocop, The Thing), so the likes of Evil Dead, Elm Street, Total Recall, Point Break and whatnot were simply ignored by this good reviewer. Not from sheer ignorant obstinance, but because I do take film critics seriously – when they were saying the film in question wasn’t much cop, I took their word for it, and for the most part, they were right. Sometimes I’d catch up with a particular remake and realise that I should have given it a chance, but those are the risks you take, I suppose. At the same time I remain soberly cynical about future remakes in the pipeline (Big Trouble in Little China, for example) because I’ve been burned before and I don’t want to get my hopes up too much. I won’t be picketing the studios or trolling on Twitter though, because that’s just mean.

Why? Because in the end, none of these remakes or reboots ruined my childhood. They just ruined my evening, that’s all. The originals were still there, and yes, it was painful at the time to see these inferior versions claim the limelight over the original for that brief moment when it was released and were publicised, but mostly they faded into obscurity. Why? Because they weren’t any good. If they did latch on to the public consciousness, it was probably because they did have something to offer, and I’m all for that. If a remake or a reboot is great, then what are we complaining about? The first two Bale/Nolan Batman films, the Planet of the Apes films are two examples of reboots that have worked spectacularly well. And you know what? The older films are still there to be enjoyed and savoured. Living together in perfect harmony and whatnot.

The news of a Ghostbusters remake however, turned out to be the Last Straw in the eyes of those who feel all originals should be left alone. I’ll admit, my first reaction was that of jaded pessimism – the director Paul Feig, had made Bridesmaids, a funny-but-not-that-funny comedy that seemed to get a freer than usual pass because of the all too rare occurrence of a high-profile comedy with a predominantly female cast. I felt it suffered from the same Judd Apatow problem of a comedy that was too long, too baggy and in sore need of an editor. Oh well though, we’ll see what happens, I suppose. For some though, the news of a Ghostbusters reboot was just too much – I hadn’t really been paying attention to much of the backlash because I can’t be arsed to be drawn into the hype of upcoming films years before they actually come out, I just want to concentrate on the films that are out now instead. I was aware that some (but certainly not all) of the backlash was focused on the fact that the new film would feature four women as the Ghostbusters – on one level I couldn’t give two hoots who were in the roles as long as they were good, but then I realised that given women get such a crap deal in blockbusters, the decision to make it female-led felt necessary. I wanted to like the film almost instantly for having the… er, balls (okay, let’s go with ovaries) to go ahead with a decision.

Now, the notion of re-doing Ghostbusters didn’t seem quite as up there with so-far unpromised notions of Jaws and Back to the Future, but still it seemed wrong to me. Even talk of a third Ghostbusters film that would have been a sequel to the first two was in the skies for a long time, and that got my alarms ringing too. Just leave it alone, I thought. Yet when I could be bothered to give it some thought, I realised the idea wasn’t bad at all. Ghostbusters had always been more of a thing than a cast-in-stone classic, potentially very adaptable and ripe for expansion.

Then the trailer came along.

It was crap, wasn’t it? I mean, its eventual distinction of being the most unpopular film trailer ever on Youtube was most likely part of the conspiracy by disgruntled fans to purposefully get it there because they were so pissed off by the sheer notion of a Ghostbusters reboot. I believe that some of the impetus of that conspiracy was fuelled by misognyny, but I stress, I don’t believe that it was purely fuelled by that – there are lot of fans out there who simply have had their fill of mediocre-to-crap reboots. However, let’s not forget that it wasn’t a good trailer, was it? It wasn’t funny, the ghosts looked dodgy, the reworking of the theme tune sounded rubbish and some of the dialogue sounded cringey. Then there was the fact that the film had resorted to having a black character as the one non-professional all over again. The treatment of Ernie Hudson’s Winston character, acceptable-ish in the first one given that it was an expository film, not so much at all in the established sequel, was a sad example of sidelining the black character in mainstream Hollywood. It seemed like the new film was repeating the mistake, and even compounding it by emphasising the whole ‘shouty-sassy’ stereotype. And regardless of who was saying it, that whole ‘THE POWER OF PATTY COMPELS YOU!’ gag was just awful – this was one of the big jokes? Riffing off a film that came out before the original Ghostbusters came out?

Another, slightly better received trailer came along, and the best I could say about it was that it was alright. It honestly should have been the first trailer, even if it would have still lambasted simply for being a new Ghostbusters promo. Right up until last week, I was ambivalent – probably unlikely to see it unless the reviews were great. And you know what? They were! That was enough for me. Pretty much across the spectrum – great. Not even any two-star reviews! Threes and fours everywhere! Sold. I was still prepared not to be blown away – the other Feig film I had seen since Bridesmaids – 2015’s Spy – suffered from the same problems as that earlier film. Too bloody long, and too baggy, though with plenty of belly laughs, so good enough.

My opinion? It’s good!

It’s not great, but it is good.

I don’t love it as much as the original. Okay, okay, what a ridiculous thing for me to say. I’ve lived with the original since I saw it on its Christmas TV premiere back in 1987. I’ve only lived with the new film for 24 or so hours. How can it stand up to that? I also don’t love it as much as the wildly underrated Ghostbusters II, but again, that one’s been in my life since I saw it at the cinema as an eight year old back in 1989. Those two films are a special part of my life, and they always will be. Maybe this new one will be a special part of lots of other lives, and that’s a good thing. I’ve had my childhood classics – let the kids have theirs. Anyway, I’m going to avoid comparisons with the old films as best as I can, even though the film is having plenty of fun doing that itself.

The four Ghostbusters are the hoping-to-be-tenured university teacher Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig – playing it sweet and straight) who wants to bury her past as a co-author of a ‘ghosts are real’ tome lest it ruin her reputation, her former creative partner but still true-believer Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy – endearingly enthusiastic) who wants the book to reach an audience so she can pay the bills, her eccentric current partner in science Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon – live-wire), and subway worker Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones – warm and engaging) who encounters a ghost at work and wants in on the action.

The plot to the new one is similar enough in that we have four ghostbusters busting ghosts in New York, culminating in a big showdown, but how it gets there is refreshing enough to deliver some surprises. For instance, we actually have a human antagonist named Rowan who is deliberately unleashing the supernatural in the city, an underused but effective turn by Neil Casey as a social misfit who’s tired of being the underdog. The presence of ghosts is established and seemingly popularised instantly, but is thwarted by the Mayor (Andy F****n’ Garcia!) who wants to keep all of this hush-hush so as not to panic the city. However, Rowan’s plan to bring about spectral chaos becomes too immense to contain, leading to an all-out explosion of ghostly shenanigans, and to quote the second film, when shit happens, who you gonna call?

Okay, the good stuff – the new Ghostbusters are fine. There’s an easy-going, natural chemistry between them and they all get a chance to shine. It’s early days, and new characters take getting used to, so it’s too soon for me to say how well this new team works, but early signs are promising I really do hope this film gets a sequel to enhance all of this. Wiig and McCarthy are effortlessly funny and have a good, believable friendship going on between them. The obvious stand out turn is from McKinnon, with her (animated version) Egon-style haircut and infectiously gleeful performance providing much of the film’s energy. Jones, despite being responsible for the trailer’s worst bit, is also funny. These are funny people. I like them. They work well together. Enough said. The thing is, these characters are literally female of course, but their femaleness is not the be all and end all – they’re regular people, regular characters, certainly not sexualised or solely defined by their gender. We’re not talking about four Lara Crofts or male fantasy stereotypes here. For that the film and all involved should be congratulated. It’s so depressing that in this day and age, there are no female-led adventure/action films. It’s just a given that the women are sidelined or their ‘strength’ is boiled down to their ability to be able to give as good as the guys when it comes to a punch-up. This needs to be rectified. Ghostbusters is a start.

What else? Well, despite fearing that it all looked a bit too much like Luigi’s Mansion for the Nintendo Gamecube in the trailers, the vividly colourful look of the ghosts is actually quite cool in the film itself. Some of the ghosts look great, especially a short-lived but properly creepy mannequin ghost half-way through. Supporting performances are excellent, especially Chris Hemsworth as the ladies’ secretary, who may very well be the stupidest on-screen character since Brick in Anchorman. It’s wonderful to see Garcia back on the big screen, and his reaction to being called the worst thing a Mayor could ever be called is priceless. Charles Dance also has a cool, brief appearance near the start. Unlike Feig’s earlier works, the film is not too long. It’s just right. That will probably change when the extended cut arrives on home video, but hopefully the new stuff will add rather than subtract from the film’s impact.

Okay, the not so good stuff. It’s not scary. Oh, how I wish it could have been scary. It’s a film about ghosts! Bring on the fear! I’m not talking hardcore horror – it’s a family film (crack jokes not withstanding) after all, but aside from the occasional very mild spooky bit, I don’t see this one giving children nightmares. What? Giving children nightmares? How horrible! That’s right! Scary kids films are the best! The lack of fear means the big ending, as fun as it is, lacks any kind of real dramatic weight. Okay, I’m going to bring up the original here – the first one had the kind of serious scares that were thrilling to a younger viewer – entry-points to more adult horror, for sure. Stuff like the demon in the fridge, any of the terror dog bits, and yes, the librarian at the start. They counter-balanced the humour beautifully and both elements enhanced each other. There was a real sense of escalating tension in the first one, but here it all just kind of cruises in medium-gear.

Now to some of the humour. Now this film is funny (though not as witty as the originals), but the film seems to be too aware that it’s being funny, if you know what I mean? I understand it must be difficult to rein in your enthusiasm when you’re making a film like this, but there was a bit too much of an ‘awesome!’ vibe that sometimes left me cold, and ‘awesome!’ is an exclamation I could happily do without hearing in any film, ever, from now on. It’s been said that the enjoyment of a film is in inverse proportion to the enjoyment the actors had making it, and while that’s a severe test, it’s true that sometimes watching actors get off on their own jokes can get a bit annoying. Having Hemsworth dance through the end credits is an example of such overkill, I thought. However, such self-indulgent stuff really worked in Ghostbusters II because the actors had pretty much earned the right to have a laugh, riff and enjoy themselves because we’d all been through the first film together and it was like a wonderful reunion of some sorts. The guys had already proved their worth in the first one, and they could afford to be a lot more easy-going, self-reflexive and naturally hilarious as a result. I think we could have saved the indulgences of this new Ghostbusters film for its sequel, which, I repeat, I hope we do get. We have a good thing going here. It could be a great thing.

Also, the cameos. The best one is the homage to Harold Ramis, seen near the start. I thought that was wonderful. The others range from slightly awkward (Bill Murrary), cute (Annie Potts, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson) to just baffling (Sigourney Weaver). Oh yeah, Slimer is back too, with a girlfriend. How does that work? In fact, I don’t want to know. I think the film could have done without these appearance to be honest. They just distract. And yes, the new takes on the theme are not great. That was always going to be a tough one, to be fair.

So speaking as someone who rates Ghostbusters as one of his favourite films, who adores the first two seasons of the cartoon version and who thinks that Ghostbusters II is probably the most underrated sequel ever, this new one is a welcome addition to the canon. Compared to what has preceeded it, it falls short, but on its own terms it is most enjoyable. Go for it.

PS: I can never be bothered with star ratings and whatnot, but to counteract the suspiciously low rating on the Internet Movie Database, I assigned it the mark I felt it deserved. 6/10.