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Monday, 22 May 2017

The Best Dracula of Them All?

I submit this piece as an early celebration of International Dracula Day “celebrated” by all those with a predilection for the creepy on May 26 – the publication date of Bram Stoker’s immortal original classic.

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I met Dracula when I was six years old.

According to Hollywood lore, before shooting began each day for Universal’s Dracula (1931), Bela Lugosi, who was playing the Count, would stand in front of a full-length mirror (for a vampire uncharacteristically casting a reflection), throw his cape over his shoulder, and bellow at the mirror: “I AM Dracula” in an effort to hypnotize himself into delivering the perfect performance as the vampire. While co-star David Manners attests to this, the story may very well be apocryphal, though mention of it is made in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. Whether it’s true or not, Lugosi’s performance as Dracula is one for the ages. Today, it’s impossible not to imagine a tall, dark, Hungarian man in evening wear when one thinks of Dracula. Or simply vampires for that matter.

And, even if Lugosi did not succeed in casting a spell over himself, then certainly on his audiences. Purportedly when the star took the stage in the late 1920s playing the Count for the first time, women swooned and fainted. Nurses were on call armed with smelling salts to attend to those audience members with nervous dispositions, and in doing so; Dracula became a fixture of Broadway in the early days of the Great Depression. A film version was inevitable. Universal Studios – who had made a profit hand-over-fist in the 1920s with their adaptations of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera – bought the rights to both Bram Stoker’s novel and the successful play with the intent of casting “The Man of a Thousand Faces” himself, Lon Chaney, as the eponymous vampire. Chaney died before production could begin and Bela Lugosi stepped in front of the film camera to extend his spell over a whole new audience…




…Myself included. At the age of six, my Mother and I went to a screening of the 1931 classic at the local library as the Halloween season swiftly came upon us. Though I cannot remember every detail of that evening, I’m told many years later that I was enraptured by the film. Dracula (1931) may not hold up today as one of the greatest horror films of all time, but its influence cannot be overestimated. Without it – it is easy to argue – the modern horror film would not exist. Dracula proved to Universal that horror films were truly profitable and soon the Count gave way to Frankenstein’s Monster (and his Bride), the Mummy, the Wolf Man, and a myriad of others.

Today, 120 years since the initial publication of Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula continues to have a hold on popular culture. In the wake of Bela Lugosi, countless other Draculas have graced the screen both big and small: Christopher Lee, Jack Palance, Louis Jourdan, Gary Oldman, and George Hamilton to name just a few. However, I believe that the finest Dracula film is the oftentimes overlooked 1979 Universal remake starring Frank Langella as Dracula. It is a film version which I believe does not receive the praise it truly deserves, as it may well be the Count’s finest hour on film. I suggest that we take a closer look.

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Like Lugosi before him, Frank Langella began the role of Dracula on the stage. The production was a revival of the play from the ‘20s which had been penned by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston. Deane’s original, which had opened in England, had enough cheese to fill a French fromagerie - complete with thunder and lightning cues and bats dangling on the ends of fishing poles - but its success was enough to make it cross the pond and, after being polished up by writer and former journalist Balderston, proved to be just as commercially successful in the states.


Langella's Dracula surrounded by Gothic sets designed by
illustrator Edward Gorey

Langella’s performance in the revival was lauded widely at the time. His performance was nominated for a Tony and writer Gregory William Mank writes on his website reflecting on the experience of seeing Langella on Broadway in 1978: “It was amazing to watch Langella’s Count, capering before the Edward Gorey sets, skillfully playing Act I for comedy (to bait the audience), Act II as a mix of comedy and drama (to keep the audience guessing), and Act III as raw, red meat melodrama (which had the audience in near-hysteria).”

The success of the Dracula revival was surely enough to spawn a remake – or, perhaps, a reimagining – of the 1931 classic. I use the word reimagining as the 1979 film has little in common with the Bela Lugosi original or the Deane/Balderston play. True, there are scenes which are lifted from both sources (the confrontation between Dracula and Laurence Olivier’s Van Helsing being the most obvious example and one of the film’s genuine highlights), but for much its run, 1979’s Dracula feels very much like its own entity. Its plot feels original and unpredictable, partially down to the reshuffling of the cast of characters. Lucy is the central figure of this drama. As most ardent Dracula fans now, it was Lucy in the novel and most adaptations who is victimized by Dracula first and turned into a vampire. However, herein it is Mina who befalls that fate. And, to top it all off, Mina is now the daughter of Professor Van Helsing which adds extra gravitas to the vampire hunter’s hunt for the vampire.

To a Dracula purist, one may balk at all these changes. Furthermore, knowing that the plot never sets foot outside of England (Dracula was originally a sweeping novel beginning and ending in continental Europe), is set nearly a decade into the twentieth century, and knowing that the film features a sub-title proclaiming it to be a love story may very well put fans of the Count off of this film. However, for all its cosmetic changes to the plot and characters of the original, Dracula remains a fascinating film to watch. The very nature of its reorganized cast of characters and storyline lends the film an air of unpredictability which even some of the other finest Dracula films cannot avoid. Hammer’s 1958 Dracula starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee may have dispensed with its source material almost from the word go, but throughout the film one never doubts the idea that good will triumph over evil and Dracula will be vanquished. Dracula ’79 casts doubt upon the very essence of the story; something which cannot be said for many adaptations of the generations-old tale.




And, to address that point about the film being a love story, it’s hardly true. Though it’s obvious that Kate Nelligan’s Lucy is slowly falling for Langella’s Dracula, it is hard to sympathize with the Count. He never becomes a pathetic, sad figure in a way which robs him of his inherent scariness and evil. Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) for all its amazing in-camera special effects, costumes, and occasional bits of inspired acting, is guilty of this for sure; Dracula is supposed to be scary and by turning him into a romantic figure, he is robbed of what makes him so terrifying. Langella’s Dracula is quietly evil and, to be frank, his performance is liable to send a shiver or two up and down your spine.
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Laurence Olivier as Prof. Van Helsing

The supporting cast helps to round out the film in no small measure and support Langella all the way through. Of special note is Laurence Olivier as Van Helsing. Though I am biased by my admiration for all things even tangentially-related to Peter Cushing, I assert it as a fact that Cushing’s Van Helsing is the finest ever committed to screen. But, Olivier puts his own fascinating spin on the character. His sensitive, sad nature is at times quite brilliant, and the scene in which he is confronted by his vampirized daughter is both heartbreaking and scary all-at-once.

To provide some comic relief is Donald Pleasance as a sweets-chewing Dr. Seward, but Pleasance – the brilliant actor that he is – never allows his comic bits of business to overwhelm his character. As mentioned above, Kate Nelligan shines as Lucy. Her close-up in the film’s final shot is chilling in its ambiguity. (Oh, and eagle-eyed Doctor Who fans will spot Seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy as the asylum attendant, Walter.)

The cast on a whole does a brilliant job of elevating the story from what – at its heart, like the original Deane play, is a rather cheesy story – to being something with some depth and intrigue. As mentioned above, the scene of the vampire Mina is genuinely frightening even today, and the film’s finale is shocking in both its bold plot decisions, but for the open-ended nature of the conclusion. I would be doing anyone who has not seen the film a disservice by speaking about it more.

And, like any film which is scored by John Williams, the film’s score is fantastic. Its central theme is surely one of Williams’ most underrated compositions.

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Even today, opinion is still divided on 1979’s Dracula. Roger Ebert spoke to the film’s elegance and how it “restores the character to the purity of its first film appearances,” but many have written the film off for some of its more dated aspects (and it is true – though it objectively looks good, there is little use in defending the “vampire wedding” scene as designed by James Bond title-sequence guru, Maurice Binder), and for Langella’s subtle Dracula.

While I think that the film on a whole is perhaps not the classical milestone of the Hammer Dracula film, or perhaps even Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it is an underrated gem to be sure. It’s a Dracula film which is interested in more than just fangs, stakes, and garlic wreaths. It’s a Dracula film with a brain and a heart.

It’s a film which proves that Dracula shall continue to be able to cast a spell over me. 

Thursday, 18 May 2017

300 Words on "The Player" (1992)


There have been many movies which have satirized the oftentimes corrupt and corporate nature of Hollywood. Yet, few have done so with the same pitch-black, bone-dry comedy as 1992’s The Player; part The Big Sleep, part Sunset Boulevard, the result is a film which is fascinating to watch. The Player, though advertised as a comedy, is not a laugh-out-loud movie experience. Its comedy is subtle and not always broadly spelled out. The film’s funniest moments come in the scenes where outrageously bad movie pitches are being sold to executives with the straightest of faces by movie writers. These vignettes are truly the heart of The Player and, curiously, I found myself more interested in the film’s depiction of the studio-system movie-making machine than I was in the movie’s central mystery.

The Player is able to pull this off by being so extremely self-aware. Its final minutes border on the meta and, throughout, it feels as though everyone involved had their tongues planted firmly in their cheeks. The movie opens, too, with one of the most beautifully-executed long-takes I have ever seen; complete with references to Rope (1948) and Orson Welles’ similar long take in Touch of Evil. The Player, at once, paints a picture of nearly everything that is great about movies, and nearly everything that is bad about movies.

Today, it seems that the message of The Player is more relevant than ever before, and the moment in which Tim Robbin’s movie exec off-handedly proposes remaking the Italian arthouse film, The Bicycle Thief, feels so incredibly real, it hurts. The Player is a cautionary tale about the nature of artistic integrity and inspiration; a movie which is not afraid to both pay homage to and poke fun at the institution of film. It’s a strange little movie, but it got me thinking, which surely separates The Player from the type of film which it fantastically parodies. 

Monday, 15 May 2017

300 Words on "Panic Room" (2002)


If there is one type of movie which I really enjoy it’s the “claustrophobic thriller.” From Hitchcock’s Rope to Wait Until Dark to Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, each film is wildly different, but are similarly marked by their small casts and confined settings. Each film sucks me into the tension and palpable suspense and make for edge-of-your-seat viewing. David Fincher’s 2002 Panic Room is a film of this distinctive sub-genre and surely ranks as one of the best.

Panic Room takes the idea of this kind of thriller and beautifully executes it in a stylish, thoroughly modern way. The cinematography is, at times, simply breathtaking; panning through the walls and floorboards of the New York City brownstone which serves as the film’s main setting. This kind of opulence makes Panic Room feel rich and different; a film which uses the technology at its disposal to only heighten the tension and suspense and, for that, the movie should be applauded.

If it were only for its ingenious use of the camera, Panic Room could be put down as a triumph of style over substance, but its cast – headed by Jodi Foster, Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto, and Kristen Stewart (showing more emotion on screen than ever)  - add to the film in no small measure. It’s the engaging performances from Foster and Stewart which help us to identify with their characters and make clear just what a truly terrifying situation they are in and help make Panic Room’s arguably over-the-top final act a bit easier to swallow.

While, to me, Wait Until Dark will forever be the finest example of this type of thriller, Panic Room comes close in achieving the same sense of claustrophobia and sheer terror which the 1967 film reached, and there were times when it felt as if Panic Room was deliberately paying homage to its predecessor. For edge-of-your-seat entertainment, Panic Room is surely a fine example. 

Friday, 12 May 2017

300 Words on "Halloween: H2O" (1998)


As I have made clear elsewhere, Halloween is, I believe, one of the finest – if not the best – horror films ever made. Its string of sequels started out as complimentary to the original, but soon found themselves muddled with plotless plot threads which did nothing but distance themselves from the original masterpiece. Twenty years after the release of the franchise’s first installment, Halloween: H2O did much to bring the series back to what made it so fundamentally good.

To call Halloween H2O a film which is on par with the original is a wild overstatement, but the movie should be lauded for the obvious care and attention which went into both paying homage to and building upon the original Halloween. Jamie Lee Curtis is back in the central role of Laurie Strode and her performance is excellent. In fact, a large percentage of the film is devoted to her alone as she copes with the trauma which she has been living with for so many years.

The callbacks to the first Halloween also help enliven the film too. To my mind, however, the film’s best self-aware bit is the cameo by Janet Leigh as Norma, Laurie’s secretary, in a scene which pays homage to Psycho as much as it does John Carpenter’s slasher. But, beyond simply putting a new spin on elements of the first movie, Halloween H2O feels more like the original; the suspense and tension are palpable and some of the set-pieces are able to conjure up the same terror which the first movie generated effortlessly.

Halloween H2O is no masterpiece of horror cinema; it is still a flawed film, to be sure, but the obvious attention to detail and love for the source material which went into making the movie should most certainly be applauded. In the legacy of Halloween films, Halloween H2O is the definitive final chapter. 

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Why I Love "The Sandlot"


The ability to rate films on IMDb is liable to showcase the most diverse interests of any filmgoer. To use myself, as an example, I think my phone is the only place that you could find titles as diverse as Amadeus next to Die Hard 2 or Taxi Driver in between Clue and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It was as I scrolled through my ratings one afternoon that I came across another curious line-up and suddenly felt compelled to put fingers to keys and hammer out a few thoughts about another film. You see, in my IMDb ratings, sandwiched in between Oliver Stone’s The Doors (a controversial and trippy biopic of the seminal psychedelic rock band starring Val Kilmer as the perfect Jim Morrison) and The House of the Long Shadows (an homage to the old-dark-house thrillers of the ‘30s made in 1984 and starring the triumvirate of Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, and Peter Cushing) there is The Sandlot. These three films have nothing in common with each other (except each one I liked enough to give a decent rating), but my eye was drawn to the poster of The Sandlot and I suddenly felt like saying something.

I’m not really a sports person and I have never really been drawn to sports movies as the result. To make a confession: I have never even seen Rocky all the way through. Yet, I make an exception for The Sandlot: the story of a group of boys who play baseball and “get into the biggest pickle any of them had ever seen.” Normally, as far as pitches go (no pun intended), that wouldn’t really sell me on the movie. The Sandlot won me over though and, to this day, the film holds a special place in my heart. Why? It is a question that I endeavor to answer today.

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I watched The Sandlot for the first time on an old VHS copy which, if memory serves, we fished out of the attic for movie night. The memories of that first viewing are not engrained in my mind as well as other first-time movie experiences, but I do remember liking it from the get-go. There was something so fun, light, and entertaining about this story that you couldn’t help but have a good time watching it. The Sandlot became a staple for me on road-trips; a portable VHS-playing TV situated in the backseat would keep me occupied for the trips’ long hours and soon, the film became a reliable standard for me. I recall when I upgraded to a DVD copy on my birthday and, ironically, it was then that the movie began to be played a little bit less often in our house. Granted, this was around the time that I really started to get into movies as a genuine art-form and, though The Sandlot is A LOT of fun, I don’t think I can possibly categorize it alongside something like Citizen Kane (just to go for the obvious/stereotypical example). But, that should not undermine the enjoyment which the film brought me and still does. There are still times that the mood will overtake me and I’ll be inclined to pop it in and enjoy.

And, one must assume, that this same amount of enjoyment has been bought to countless others. The freckled face of Hamilton “Ham” Porter can still be found on countless t-shirts as text proclaims “You’re killing me Smalls” or - the insult of all insults – “You play ball like a girl!” Both phrases have entered our lexicon; a testament to the film’s longevity and its ability to entertain a myriad of viewers.




So, if I am not the only one who has been won over by this film, then what is it doing so right?

I think the answer lies in the film’s simplicity. As I mentioned at the top of this piece, The Sandlot can be summed up concisely in one short phrase. It is not a complex movie which is trying to deconstruct the idyllic 1950’s, nor is it a story whose main plot is propelled by its baseball angle. The Sandlot truly is a coming-of-age story. If I had to pick a movie which I felt acted as The Sandlot’s ultimate complement it would be Rob Reiner’s 1986 Stand by Me, adapted from a short story by Stephen King. Yet, there is an underlying darkness to Stand by Me which is lacking in The Sandlot and, while that darkness may make Stand by Me for many the more real and resonating film, The Sandlot’s sense of fun, I think, will also make it more welcoming to people. 

Nonetheless, both films do an amazing job in building a world around its characters of young people. To put it another way, the films take a look at what really matters in the life of a 12-year-old; be that an in-depth debate about who might win in a fight between Mighty Mouse and Superman or the chance to play baseball at night on the Fourth of July, the one night of the year when the sky was lit up enough and one might feel like a genuine ballplayer.



To young people, watching a film which so accurately gets what it’s like to be them is something indeed. And, no matter when you might watch The Sandlot, its subject-matter is unaffected by the passage of time. Just because the film is set in the ‘50s doesn’t mean that its themes cannot resonate: building friendships, perceiving yourself as a bigshot, teamwork, and facing the unknown (and the seemingly terrifying things which dwell in the unknown). All of them are just as applicable today as they were in both the ‘50s and in the ‘90s when the film was released.

But, all of this is fairly deep and, I don’t think that The Sandlot was ever truly intended to be viewed as a testament to the universal struggles of the adolescent. It cannot be overlooked – as I said already – just how fun The Sandlot really is. Its set-pieces are still able to provide laughs years later. The swimming pool sequence as “Squints” Palledorous pretends to drown in order to kiss the lifeguard – the impossibly named Wendy Peffercorn – is still hilarious. (I have always found Weeks’ matter-of-fact assertion that “Squints” “looks like a dead fish” to be absurdly funny. And the narrator’s proclamation that “He’d kissed a woman. And he’d kissed her long and good” is so amusing too.) Of course, any discussion of The Sandlot is incomplete without referencing the infamous carnival scene. It’s disgusting and hilarious and makes me cringe every time

I also blame it for having The Champs’ “Tequila” stuck in my head, on loop, ever since. But, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, I suppose.



I could go on, but I see little point in simply rattling off descriptions of every one of The Sandlot’s great moments. For two reasons: 1) It’s redundant. This really is a movie which so many people have seen that reading about it becomes rather unnecessary. And, 2) The Sandlot works best as a whole. It’s manner of story-telling – linking together these great scenes – means that each one works wonderfully on their own, but they come alive into a cohesive whole when strung together. I speak so much to these great scenes because, I think, they are the heart of the film. The Sandlot may be, on the surface, a sports movie, but it manages to be so much more than that. Unlike, another genre classic of a similar variety, The Bad News Bears (1976), baseball isn’t necessarily the main point of the story. 

Now, I do have to give credit where credit is most certainly due and say that The Bad News Bears is an enduring film. I give it major credit for Walter Matthau’s stellar, deadpan performance, and its use of Bizet’s Carmen as its principle score. However, when I went back and revisited the film some years ago on Netflix, it simply didn’t hold us quite as well. Chalk it up to the inevitable shifting culture tide for one, but I think The Bad News Bears is far more about baseball and, as a result, feels more like a sports film.

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I was in the seventh grade and, with some downtime towards the end of the year when just about everyone was ready for summer, my teacher put on The Sandlot to fill some time. It was a collective moment for our “team” – the smallest one in the grade with little more than fifty people – as we all came together, opening the partition which divided our two classrooms, to watch the movie. I had by now seen The Sandlot more times than could remember and was quoting it in time to the film, but there were some who had never seen it before. Come the end credits, everyone in that room was feeling the same sense of joy which came with watching such an entertaining, fun film.

The Sandlot has a way of speaking to everyone. Its story, though centered on the all-American game of baseball, doesn’t prevent its themes from expressing bigger ideas. It’s the perfect way to spend a breezy two hours and, in doing so, has become something of a legend.

And, of course, legends never die. 


Monday, 10 April 2017

Ranking the Films of Quentin Tarantino


The road to liking a thing is not always a straightforward one. There are twists, turns, unexpected roadblocks where you question which way you should be going, a malfunctioning GPS which makes you question everything all the more and you begin to wonder if you’re genuinely missing the point of the entire road trip altogether.

This metaphor is a fairly decent retelling of the way that I first approached Quentin Tarantino, a director whose work, at first, confused me more than anything else. How, I wondered, was I supposed to feel after watching Reservoir Dogs or Django Unchained? Why, for heaven’s sake, did I feel like laughing at the all-out carnage which was unleashed in Inglourious Basterds, and what on earth did that mean about me?

And then, it was as if that road opened up before me and became one long freeway. My GPS stopped recalculating and I finally understood. I still stand by the assertion that the night some of my friends and I went to see a screening of the 70mm roadshow version of The Hateful Eight upon its initial release was some of the most fun I have ever had a movie. Come that film’s much-needed intermission, the deep breathes which the entire audience let out were almost palpable. I understood that everyone had been holding their breath just as I was. I’d gotten swept up into the story and we were all having…just…so…much…fun. I began to understand the subtle nuances and the sometimes outright brilliant technique which Tarantino used to bring his stories to life and I instantly began to appreciate his filmography so much more.

He is today one of my all-time favorite directors.

While I enjoy Quentin Tarantino’s entire body-of-work, some of it is just more appealing to me than others. So, today I have decided to rank his films from my least favorite to my favorite (just to keep you in suspense). Three minor disclaimers before we begin: 1) I am counting Kill Bill as one complete film and not as the two separate films it was released as. 2) I am only counting the films which Tarantino wrote and directed. Therefore, From Dusk ‘Til Dawn is not on this list nor is True Romance and others. I have also excluded Four Rooms. Lastly, 3) at the time of this writing, I have not seen Death Proof and therefore will not include it on this list. When I do watch it (which is, hopefully, soon) I will revise this list and add it in. Now, with all that out of the way, let us begin.

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7. Kill Bill (2003, 2004) – To some, Kill Bill is their favorite Tarantino film, and it’s understandable. It is a fun, absolutely crazy thrill-ride which, all together, lasts four hours. But, I think of all Tarantino’s films, this is just the one which does not gel with me the most. My main complaint with it is its scattered nature. I’m never entirely sure what kind of movie Kill Bill is trying to be. A thriller? An action film? A martial-arts showcase? For once, I felt that there were loose ends to tone and style which Tarantino did not tie up neatly (it’s animated sequence, for example, comes out of nowhere and feels, in the grand scheme of things to be pointless).

Kill Bill, I think, really is Tarantino at his most self-indulgent. And, I don’t have a problem in the slightest with self-indulgence as a director. While not a bad film by any means, it feels the most lacking in what make Tarantino films so good and still, I believe, stands out as quite an oddity in his filmography. 


6. Jackie Brown (1997) – Of all the films in his repertoire, I think Jackie Brown is Quentin Tarantino’s most underrated. Released on the heels of Pulp Fiction, I think audiences expected something more like its predecessor and, instead, we get a fairly slow-paced, understated film about a simple heist. But, the hallmarks of classic Tarantino are still stamped all over the film: great dialogue, an ensemble of fine actors (Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster, Michael Keaton, Robert De Niro), and some technical marvels. The heist scene itself – presented from all of the main characters’ points-of-view – is incredible work and is some of the most engrossing cinema I think I have ever watched.

So, if I feel so strongly about Jackie Brown why is it so low on this list? By necessity, really. I think it’s a testament to Tarantino that even one of his (personally) lowest-rated films has so much merit. I say that if you’ve been putting off watching Jackie Brown or haven’t watched it in some time, give it another chance. You’ll be surprised. 


5. Reservoir Dogs (1992) – Some have made the argument that Tarantino has never topped his first film. I don’t think I can say that, but as first films go, Reservoir Dogs is the gold-standard. It is a triumph of production on next-to-nothing and shows us – perhaps for the first time – that a truly good film can be driven by little more than dialogue. That is not to undermine any of the action which takes place in Reservoir Dogs, but its conversations, turns-of-phrase, and characters are at its heart. It is, for much of its runtime, an understated, simple story; its nonlinear presentation does not complicate the plot in the same way as Pulp Fiction, nor do we even see the heist which the entire film’s plot centers around.

If there is one thing which I can hold against Reservoir Dogs, however, it is that whenever I hear Stealers Wheel “Stuck in the Middle with You,” my mind instantly goes to this film and a chill or two is liable to run up and down my spine. 


4. Django Unchained (2012) – Two words: Leonardo DiCaprio. DiCaprio has delivered some excellent performances – Catch Me If You Can, The Departed, The Revenant – but, I do believe that some of his finest work on screen is as the villainous Calvin Candie in Tarantino’s spaghetti western. DiCaprio is a truly nasty piece of work (surely one of Tarantino’s finest-written villains), but his cold ruthlessness is off-set by an at-times gentlemanly demeanor and you cannot help but like this despicable guy. Now, don’t get me wrong, before DiCaprio shows up in Django Unchained, it is a good movie; but his entrance elevates the film in no small measure and propels the story in a whole new direction.

But, let’s focus on the film before Leonardo DiCaprio’s entrance. Christoph Waltz is so incredibly watchable as the bounty hunter, Dr. Schultz, and Jamie Foxx presents us with a multifaceted, likable title character who manages to subvert so many of the genre conventions of the traditional western. And, to be entirely honest, the scene featuring the horseback-riding proto-KKK is surely one of the funniest that Tarantino has committed to film.

Not unlike its villain, Django Unchained is a nasty, at-times grim piece-of-work, but its underlying sense of fun and likability is infectious. 


3. The Hateful Eight (2015) – The work of Quentin Tarantino has, effectively, been broken into two distinct periods: his early crime thrillers and his later historical films. The Hateful Eight bridges the gap between those two periods seamlessly. At once harkening back to the days of Reservoir Dogs, wonderfully paying tribute to John Carpenter’s The Thing, and presenting a no-holds-barred thriller, The Hateful Eight is Tarantino at his most skilled revisiting the work of a talented amateur. Though it received mixed reviews upon its initial release, I think audiences missed the point of this taut, claustrophobic thriller, expecting instead a film akin to Django Unchained or Inglourious Basterds in its presentation of an epic story. But, like his first film, Reservoir Dogs, The Hateful Eight cuts back on all the distractions and presents us with nearly three-hours of rich, Tarantino dialogue...

...And an unfathomable amount of blood. It’s pretty shocking, honestly.

As I noted at the top of this post, The Hateful Eight was the film which really put me on the road to appreciating Tarantino. I was drawn into its deceptively simple story and its characters all of whom are – as the title might suggest – hateful in the extreme, but watching their journey from the beginning to end of this nearly three-hour film was an experience. Not one for the faint-of-heart, I’d say, but few of Tarantino’s films are so uniquely depictive of its director as The Hateful Eight


2. Inglourious Basterds (2009) – I think that it is safe to say that Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino at his most epic. The scale of the story and its interconnected pieces really does make the whole two and a half hours feel like the product of Hollywood’s Golden Age when the epic truly was in fashion. What also sets the film apart is its sheer boldness in presenting so much of the dialogue through subtitles. Never do you feel as though reading those subtitles becomes a burden, however; just another testament to Tarantino’s skill crafting fine dialogue.

But, for all its pomp, circumstance, and sheer overt theatricality, Inglourious Basterds still manages to remain focused on its characters, brought to life by a truly distinguished ensemble and some brilliant scenes. Christoph Waltz has been rightfully praised for his performance as SS Colonel Hans Landa, but special attention ought to be given to Mèlanie Laurent who effectively steals the whole show and Diane Kruger and Michael Fassbender who are central to the film’s crowning scene. Much is made of the film’s excellent prologue, but the protracted scene at the bar (running for 25 pages in the screenplay) is a master-class in building suspense.

Oh, and then there’s Brad Pitt obviously having a ball. And, can you blame him?


1. Pulp Fiction (1994) – What is there to say beyond the fact that this truly is Tarantino’s masterpiece? Everything about it comes together so well into a beautiful, cohesive whole. The acting is fantastic; John Travolta, for one, injects his role with an extra level of dry humor which makes this movie impossible to get through without grinning. Samuel L. Jackson, who simply dominated in The Hateful Eight, is so beautifully nuanced here and I think his role as Jules is among some of his all-time best work. Uma Thurman, Bruce Willis, and Harvey Keitel round out the amazing ensemble and, truthfully, it’s hard to discuss this film’s acting because the cast is just so talented.

But, at the heart of Pulp Fiction – like all of Tarantino’s films – is its dialogue and I don’t think it has ever been matched. From its opening minutes as Tim Roth’s “Pumpkin” details why it’s easier to rob a restaurant than it is a convenience store, to its closing moments in that same dinner as Jules compliments whether “Mr. 9mm” is his only source of protection in a world “beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men,” Pulp Fiction features some of Tarantino’s finest dialogue ever. I recommend the film’s opening conversation about a royale with cheese and its subsequent use as a threat to anyone who wants to see what truly clever writing looks – or rather sounds – like.

I think it is fair to say that Pulp Fiction is one of my all-time favorite movies and holds an exalted place in my mind as a truly brilliant film.

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So, that is that, everybody. I hope, above all, that this post conveyed what appreciation I have for Quentin Tarantino as a director. His movies may be an acquired taste, for sure, but to my palette, his work can be enjoyed again and again. But, what about you? Agree with this ranking? If not, what’s your favorite Tarantino extravaganza? Feel free to leave a comment below and stop back soon for new reviews and content. 

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Is "Halloween" the Greatest Horror Film of All Time?


I’ve been fairly surface level lately and, while I love these 300-word movie reviews, I’ve been craving to dig a little deeper again and, after recently dipping back into the Halloween franchise, I decided to set my sights on crafting a piece which is more in-depth concerning one of my all-time favorite films. Hope you enjoy.

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Horror is a genre which is generally looked down upon. Horror movies are almost universally scoffed by critics, especially in this day-in-age where the critics have seemed to lose that sense of fun which goes along with the whole movie-going experience. But, this is not a new trend in the history of horror films. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule: critics in 1931 were generally quite approving of Universal’s Dracula. Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times cited the film as “the best of many mystery films” and praised the work of director Tod Browning and actress Helen Chandler. Dracula was a commercial success for the studio and Universal became the leading house of horror films throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s; their entertaining monster movies allowing audiences to forget the real-life horrors of the Depression and World War II.

But, in 1931, Dracula was a new phenomenon. Up to this point, the horror film was a rarity in English cinema. While Universal had dipped their toe into the genre pool particularly with The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, (1923 and 1925 respectively), those films had been silent and, though actor Lon Chaney had perfected make-ups which disguised his features to such a point that he was unrecognizable and almost inhuman in appearance, both their plots were firmly grounded in reality.

Dracula (1931) - The Original, Modern-Day Horror Film
Dracula was another matter entirely. For the first time, a film (with sound nonetheless) was daring to present a situation which did not have such an easily explainable answer. No rational explanation was put forth to explain away the vampire and, in the film’s original excised coda, Edward Van Sloan’s Professor Van Helsing went so far as to remind the audience that “there are such things” as creatures that go bump in the night.

In truth, all of this speaks to the groundbreaking nature of Dracula and, though the horror genre has progressed to such a point where Dracula no longer has the power to scare or thrill audiences the way it once did, its legacy is undeniable and a strong case can be made that without it, the modern horror film would not exist. But, Dracula is an outlier and, even Universal’s later work began to be panned by critics. Perhaps no more scathing assessment of a horror film (and a true genre classic) has been made than the reviews which appeared following the release of Hammer Studio’s seminal 1957 release, The Curse of Frankenstein. Reviewer Dilys Powell claimed that it was the kind of movie which made it impossible to argue against the notion that cinema “debases” and a reviewer for The Tribune opined that the film was “depressing and degrading to anyone who loves the cinema.”

Despite the decades of abuse which horror films have taken, however, they have endured. And, some have become undisputed classics of the genre and film itself. In fact, if one suspends the definition of horror to a certain degree, then ten films in the AFI Top 100 could be classified as horror films. While the market will surely almost be inundated with more bad horror films than genuine classics, a choice few have been selected as the best-of-the-best. But, I’m here to pose a question which may be impossible to answer: which horror film is the very best?

Could it be the relatively simple story of the night he came home?

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I was just getting into horror when my Mother first mentioned Halloween. We were in the car, I seated in the back seat, when I posed the question, “What’s the scariest movie you’ve ever seen?” It was a question I remember asking on more than one occasion to both my parents (I recall my Father told me that it was a toss-up between The Birds and The Exorcist – two excellent choices and, for sure, scary), but it did not take my Mother long at all to answer, “Halloween.” In that moment, the word took on a monolithic aspect which it had previously lacked. Suddenly, the holiday which I never really took to (surprisingly because I loved horror films as a kid at the ripe age at which Halloween is best enjoyed) was given another meaning altogether; a meaning which was able to frighten my very own Mother. This Halloween movie must be truly frightening indeed.


For years, I didn’t go anywhere near the movie. Honestly, I was a little scared. I remember paging through our copy of The 1001 Movies You Have To See Before You Die and coming across a full-page illustration of the film’s truly terrifying poster: a Jack-O-Lantern with, what appeared to fangs, and a veiny hand clutching a glimmering butcher knife. It was serendipity that I’d come across the film again, but its ghostly appearance there in that book only made the whole film seem even more frightening. And then, I saw the trailer. Though I would not have admitted it at the time, it scared me. Particularly, the scene of Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie being chased across the street by the knife-wielding Michael, his white mask shining in the moonlight, positively sent chills down my spine and I steered clear of the movie again.

However, after years of having never seen the movie but remaining aware of its existence, I finally decided to bite the bullet. I’d just watched Rosemary’s Baby for the first time and figured that if I was able to handle the film which harrowingly depicted a woman giving birth to the Devil’s child, Halloween would be a walk in the park.

I was wrong. Even after years and years, John Carpenter’s 1978 horror film managed to scare me. And I loved every second of it.

What cannot go overlooked by anyone who is watching Halloween is just what an influential film it was. While many have pointed out that Halloween did not truly invent the slasher film sub-genre – many point to either The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Black Christmas or even, in some instances, Psycho, as holding that honor – Halloween nevertheless made the slasher a viable sub-genre for horror. While Texas Chainsaw and Black Christmas had an exploitation-like vibe which put them somewhere nearer to the grindhouse end of the film spectrum, Halloween manages to carry off its brutality with a certain amount of decorum. It is much closer in spirit to a film like Psycho then the other proto-slashers which preceded it. And, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then Halloween is surely one of the most complimented horror films of them all as it launched a countless number of other holiday-themed horror movies well into the next decade. Nevertheless, Halloween has managed to stand a cut above all of its imitators. How did it do so?

As I mentioned above, Halloween is not looking to drench its screen in gratuitous amounts of blood. In fact, hardly a drop is spilled in the film’s entire runtime. John Carpenter uses suspense to elicit his thrills more than visual horror. The sequence in which Michael stalks his first victim, Annie, goes on for ages with almost no relief for the audience. We’re left sitting on the edge of our seats waiting for something to happen. To modern viewers, we know enough about the conventions of the modern horror film to know that Annie is doomed, but the way that the scene just continues to unfold never gives us the relief we seek and, as a result, for a modern day viewer, the scene carries just as much weight as it did back in 1978.


Even after Michael has claimed his first victim and the action shifts to the ill-fated Lynda and her boyfriend, Bob (who, again we know must be doomed – they’re breaking that cardinal rule of how to survive a horror film: don’t have sex), Carpenter manages to inject suspense into the film. The sequence’s long, drawn-out takes give the impression that someone is watching all that is happening. The screenplay also manages to cleverly off Bob and build up even more suspense by having Lynda not know that it not her boyfriend who has returned to the bedroom but rather Michael covered in a sheet. It’s all truly nail-biting stuff.

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But, for my money, what truly elevates Halloween beyond other such genre classics as Psycho, The Shining, The Exorcist, and even my favorite movie, Jaws (which is technically more of a thriller than all-out horror, but for the purposes of this post I’ll settle with calling it a horror), is its simplicity. I should mention now that I do think all of those aforementioned films are excellent examples of finely-crafted horror cinema and they all deserve praise. But, what makes Halloween work, perhaps better than those others, is its sheer straightforwardness.

There is no labyrinth-like plot, red herrings or false-starts, to true spectacle to distract, Halloween focuses entirely on its characters and situation. The film centers around only a handful of characters which the script takes its time in fleshing out completely and its central concept is so simple and so effective: a young woman gets caught up in a truly horrifying series of events. This aspect of Halloween can be chalked up to the film’s budget (or perhaps lack thereof), but Halloween is a testament to what lengths one can go on virtually nothing.

When Donald Pleasance’s Dr. Sam Loomis says that Michael Meyers truly is the boogeyman – the embodiment of all that is evil – the film brilliantly flirts with higher concepts. In the same way that The Exorcist portrays its demon as an intangible force of evil, Halloween does much the same with Michael. The implied metaphysics is astonishing and again, so deceptively simple. With little to no explanation concerning this turn of events, Halloween elevates itself from the run-of-the-mill slashers (like Friday the 13th and others which followed it), and becomes a far more intelligent horror film than it is often given credit for. 

"Death has come to your town, Sheriff"
Terror in the suburbs
In lists of the all-time greatest horror films, Halloween often crops up, but I have never seen it top the list. Though credited with ushering in a new wave of horror films, Halloween manages to surpass its imitators with its understated presentation and incredibly foreboding atmosphere. Truly, never has the dichotomy of the sleepy, peaceful suburbs and unrelenting horror ever been presented as well as it is in Halloween and watching a place we once thought of as a safe-haven being decimated by an expressionless-masked killer is shocking indeed.

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Some things never change and the critical reception which Halloween received upon its initial release was lukewarm at best. A reviewer for The New Yorker called it derivative of the films of Hitchcock, De Palma, and Val Lewton, and that the film lacked intelligence. And, while the film may harken back to the classics of Hitchcock and Lewton, it is by no means a rip-off and, as I discussed above, there is a great deal of intelligence lurking beneath the surface of the film.

But, much like Michael Meyers himself who cannot be kept at bay by knitting needles, knives, or bullet wounds, Halloween plowed ahead and went on to become one of the most profitable independent films of all time. John Carpenter was launched into stardom as one of the new masters of the horror genre and would go on to helm The Thing (1982), yet another undisputed horror classic. Jamie Lee Curtis’ career was also jump-started but the film and she went on to appear in numerous box offices successes.

The nightmare is far from over for Laurie Strode
Even if you do not believe that Halloween is the finest horror film of all time (there are plenty of contenders for that title and many, many of them are deserving), its truly groundbreaking nature cannot be underestimated in the least. It – and Michael Meyers – endure. It shall last for years, decades even to come and it shall continue to scare generation after generation with its uncompromising mood which borders on sheer terror. It will continue to fuel nightmares and make audiences – myself included – just a little fearful of that darkness at the top of the stairs.

After all, you can’t kill the boogeyman.

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Thanks everyone! I know this was a long one and I thank you for sticking with it to the end. So, this all begs the question: do you too think Halloween is the finest of all horror films? If not, which movies deserves such a title? Let me know in the comments below and stop back soon for continued movie reviews and further content.