John Charet’s Take On: The Thing (1982)

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Warning: My review contains potential spoilers. If you have not seen the film than I advise you to not go ahead and read this blog entry.

Not too long after gaining cult status in 1974 with Dark Star and again in 1976 with Assault on Precinct 13, director John Carpenter would go on to achieve box-office success with Halloween in 1978, The Fog in 1980, and Escape from New York in 1981. Each and every one of them were backed by independent distributors. Unlike those last five titles, this one would receive backing from a major Hollywood studio. Distributed by Universal Pictures on a budget of $15 million dollars, The Thing would be Carpenter’s first official commercial effort and at the time, his most expensive film to date. Furthermore, it was also the second of Carpenter’s four collaborative efforts with star Kurt Russell, who began his partnership with him on New York. Anyway, the resulting film was a loose remake of The Thing from Another World, a 1951 science-fiction classic directed by Christian Nyby and (with unofficial confirmation) the legendary Howard Hawks. Both of them are based on John W. Campbell Jr.’s 1938 short story Who Goes There?, but unlike the 51 film, this one is in actuality, a more faithful adaptation of the source material. Either way, Carpenter’s version still ranks as my personal favorite of the two great versions. Though dismissed as both a critical and financial failure when it was theatrically released in 1982, The Thing has since gone on to be reevaluated and is now often considered (and deservedly so) to be one of (If not) the best sci-fi-horror films and remakes ever made. In addition to all of that, I am going to go one step further by summing it up as Carpenter’s crowning achievement as a filmmaker.

Winter has arrived for a group of twelve male researchers at Outpost 31, an American research base located in Antarctica. The unit primarily consists of R.J. Macready (Kurt Russell), a helicopter pilot, Blair (Wilford Brimley), a biologist, Cooper (Richard Dysart), a doctor and Garry (Donald Moffat), a station commander. The others are Nauls (T.K. Carter), Palmer (David Clennon), Childs (Keith David), Norris (Charles Hallahan), Bennings (Peter Maloney), Clark (Richard Masur), Fuchs (Joel Polis) and Windows (Thomas Waites). After encountering a Norwegian man trying to shoot an Alaskan Malamute, the team intervenes and rescues the animal and right after accidentally shooting Bennings in the leg, that same guy is shot by Garry as an act of self-defense. At first, the sled dog comes off as harmless, but later on, it turns out that the mutt was not really human. In other words, it is revealed to be some kind of monstrous creature-like thing that had wiped out everyone at the Norwegian station. Even after one of the crew members burns it to death with a flamethrower, the thing still manages to survive.

The next day, all of the crew watch a videotape that was found amid the carnage and wreckage at the Norwegian base from the other day. The video shows that same group of Norwegian researchers thawing out a UFO that had been sitting in the ice and snow for over 100,000 years. The Norwegians ended up sealing their doom by unleashing the alien which led to the events from earlier. As to be expected, the thing starts hiding within the bodies of the individual Americans inevitably resulting in a deadly game of survival.

Director John Carpenter does for The Thing what William Friedkin did for Sorcerer five years earlier. Working with the biggest budget he had ever been given at the time, Carpenter treated his version of The Thing similarly to how Friedkin envisioned his even bigger budgeted ($22 million dollars) previously mentioned remake of The Wages of Fear, a 1953 French adventure thriller directed by the extraordinary Henri Georges Clouzot. In other words, he saw it as a labor of love. Based on what I have read from other sources, Carpenter and Friedkin were both heartbroken when their dream projects failed to win the hearts and minds of critics and audiences on their initial theatrical runs. Fortunately enough, The Thing and Sorcerer have since been reexamined by the two aforementioned groups to the point where they are now recognized as masterpieces of their own respective genres. Similar to how Friedkin used The French Connection and The Exorcist while making Sorcerer, Carpenter looked at his previous hits (the last three in particular) and carefully studied their strengths so he could expand upon them in exciting ways. In the case of The Thing, Carpenter takes the suspense of Halloween, the atmosphere of The Fog and the cynicism of Escape from New York and blends them all together into a whole. As Friedkin had proven with Sorcerer, Carpenter managed to equal and surpass not only his previous work with The Thing, but also his subsequent ones as well.

From start to finish, The Thing can be viewed as the cinematic equivalent of a genuinely scary haunted attraction that (fittingly) leaves one with a strong sense of claustrophobia. As the opening credits roll out, we are presented with master composer Ennio Morricone’s understated yet eerie background music that sets the tone for the entire film. Morricone’s brooding score coincides perfectly with the (appropriately) bleak and chilly atmosphere of Antarctica (the story’s setting), which is depicted here as a very secluded place. At the same time, director John Carpenter keeps us glued to the edges of our seats before knocking us all out of the ballpark with his thrilling jump scares. The build up to some of them can give off a feeling of mystery like the (impliedly) suspicious face of the dog in two scenes long before it is revealed that he/she is neither human nor animal, Norris refusing to stand guard and Blair calmly pleading to Macready (Kurt Russell) to let him to out of the shed. In that last one, we are all wondering why a noose is visually displayed in the background to the right side of him? Other times, Carpenter catches us by surprise in scenes relating to the attempted reviving of Norris and one during a blood sample sequence. Not to spoil anything, but the payoff to each and every one of these scenes (and many more) proves to be one of immense satisfaction.

As with An American Werewolf in London and The Howling from a year earlier, The Thing is often celebrated for its groundbreaking special make-up effects courtesy of Rob Bottin, who was responsible for the werewolf transformation sequences on that latter 1981 entry. In this one, Bottin satisfies and terrifies us to the fullest with all sorts of spectacularly gory effects that pop up frequently in between the first and last shot of the film. The standouts here include a dog mutating into an alien and killing two other dogs in the process, the arms of Cooper being bitten off by the chest of Norris, whose body now belonged to the thing and that is just for starters. Once Cooper meets his grisly demise, the head of Norris stretches off and begins to develop a pair of spider-like legs. Shortly after moving with them, the parasite gets obliterated to death by a flame thrower. Equally noteworthy is the previously mentioned blood sample scene where Palmer unexpectedly mutates into an alien and kills Windows by stuffing him halfway into its mouth and after spinning him around for a while, the creature spits out his mutilated body. Bottin puts his heart and soul into bringing these horrifying creations to vivid life and while he may have won a special Academy Award for the visual effects on Total Recall (another film that I adore) in 1991, his amazing work on The Thing still towers above all of his other accomplishments (at least for me) as the greatest one within his filmography.

Preceding Prince of Darkness by five years and In the Mouth of Madness by seven, The Thing served as the first in director John Carpenter’s self-titled “Apocalypse Trilogy” and in retrospect, it comes off as the most polished of the three classics. Like the two aforementioned succeeding entries, this one is reportedly influenced by the style and traits of horror author H.P. Lovecraft. If I were to pick just one literary trademark (read here) of his that debatably gets examined here, it would be that of “civilization under threat.” No doubt, the plot does center around a group of researchers battling an unidentified creature from outer space, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. As the story progresses, the alien proves to be capable of controlling a human by hiding within its body so it can shortly mutate and wreck havoc. Inevitably, each of the crew members end up accusing the other of not being what they seem. The late Bill Lancaster (son of deceased acting legend Burt Lancaster) wrote the screenplay (adapted from John W. Campbell Jr.’s original source) and Carpenter uses it to openly (or subtly) explore the element of paranoia, which (metaphorically speaking) serves as the film’s primary theme. Two separate pieces of dialogue (from Macready) sum this up perfectly: “Nobody… nobody trusts anybody now, and we’re all very tired” and “Trust is a tough thing to come by these days. Tell you what-why don’t you just trust in the Lord?” Some of the characters express feelings of insanity (i.e. Macready and Blair), resentment (i.e. Childs), annoyance (i.e. Garry) and hopelessness (i.e. Fuchs) among other emotions. Even an attempted act of betrayal is not out of the question (i.e. Clark). All of these sentiments were most certainly timeless 30 years ago and they are slightly ever more so now in 2017 in relation to our current socio/political climate. Regardless of where an individual gets their information (the internet, television, newspapers etc.), everybody (right, left or otherwise) seems to either hate or distrust another with a passion these days. Unlike Darkness and Madness, The Thing’s apocalyptic scenario really hits close to home in more ways than one and it may be the only one of the three that comes the closest to serving as something of a companion piece to They Live (another one that I love) from six years later (also directed by Carpenter). Unlike the explicitness of that 1988 sci-fi-horror entry though, The Thing displays its politically charged social commentary in a more subdued, but no less expressive manner.

Out of the three film adaptations of John W. Campbell Jr.’s 1938 short story Who Goes There?, this 1982 update stands out as the most definitive of the bunch. When it comes to pure cinematic horror, no monster movie has been as extremely terrifying on every single level imaginable as The Thing. Director John Carpenter has made plenty of excellent movies in his career, but out of all of them, I single out The Thing as the only one that can actually be defined as a bona fide all-around masterpiece. Along with Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, The Thing can now, with hindsight, join Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra Terrestrial as one of the three finest science-fiction films of both 1982 and all-time. Similar to William Friedkin’s Sorcerer from 1977 and Philip Kaufman’s 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing is a superior remake of an already undisputed classic that can arguably be seen as one of the many truly great films of its decade, which in this case, would be the 1980’s.

-Star Rating-
* * * * (Out of * * * *)

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John Charet’s Take On: From Beyond (1986)

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How does director Stuart Gordon decide to quickly but effectively follow up his rollicking 1985 debut Re-Animator? He follows it up with another H.P. Lovecraft adaptation using most (It not all) of that previous film’s cast and crew. Instead of trying to exceed his expectations though, Gordon has wisely chosen to limit (or lower) them considerably by focusing more on making the most of his capabilities as a filmmaker. Luckily enough for Gordon, From Beyond has turned out to be another delightfully gruesome rollercoaster ride of a horror movie.

Mad scientist Dr. Edward Pretorius (Ted Sorel) and his lab assistant Dr. Crawford Tillinghast (Jeffrey Combs) create a radical invention called The Resonator, a machine that stimulate’s the pineal gland of anybody who comes into close contact with it. While testing out The Resonator, Pretorius becomes dangerously obsessed with it leading to his mysterious decapitation. When his body is discovered by the police, Tillinghast is arrested for murder and (soon enough) is committed to a psychiatric ward.

Unlike the rest of the staff at the hospital, female psychiatrist Dr. Katherine McMichaels (Barbara Crampton) sincerely believes that Tillinghast is innocent especially after he undergoes a brain scan revealing a grown pineal gland. The doctors release Tillinghast (albeit reluctantly) into McMichaels custody so he can show her and accompanying detective Bubba Brownlee (Ken Foree) how the machine works.

Not long after coming back to the house, a hesitant Tillinghast reactivates The Resonator so McMichaels and Brownlee can see what it is all about. During the process however, a now grotesque looking Prestorius physically appears and reveals that his stimulated pineal gland allowed him to experience a parallel universe (one involving monsters in this case) beyond the normal one the three of them are currently living in. Before he can viciously prey upon them, Tillinghast angrily shuts off the power and advises McMichaels and Brownlee to keep it that way. Sooner or later though, things get so out of control that the option of destroying the rapidly mutating Pretorius and his machine becomes inevitable.

Since most (If not all) of the action is confined to that of Dr. Pretorius creepy house/laboratory, it is only fitting that director Stuart Gordon would cleverly treat From Beyond as If it were the cinematic equivalent of a funhouse. As he did with Re-Animator, Gordon puts on a wonderfully gory show full of all sorts of tricks and treats. The highlights here include a man getting completely devoured by flying insect-like things, the eating of a human brain, a pineal gland bursting from a man’s forehead and the rapidly mutating body of an already deformed Dr. Pretorius. In addition to all of that, we get some pretty awesome special effects in the form of a giant worm monster and the previously mentioned nasty flying creatures that feast upon human flesh. To top it all off, Gordon throws in a considerable amount of S&M (i.e. sadomasochism) as a much-needed bonus.

Last, but not least, part of what makes From Beyond such a satisfying experience comes from its two lead actors, who complement each other here. In this case, we have Jeffrey Combs eccentric Dr. Crawford Tillinghast serving as the perfect anti-hero to Dr. Katherine McMichaels damsel in distress/anti-heroine, who is played with relish here by the great Barbara Crampton. Her McMichaels character is not only beautiful and intelligent, but likable as well. At the same time though, she comes off as ambitious and tragic. Unlike Tillinghast, she feels that The Resonator has the potential to do a lot of good like curing schizophrenia. Speaking of which, she reveals in one heartbreaking scene that her father was committed to a psychiatric ward due to suffering from that and lived there until he died. This background story of hers not only makes us sympathize with her as a human being and a doctor, but it also makes us root for her every step of the way as well. Similar to Tillinghast, McMichaels becomes emotionally damaged and occasionally turned on by the machine and one of the examples of the latter involves a brief flirtation with S&M. In the case of the former, I can only say that by the last scene before the end credits roll, it becomes abundantly clear just how traumatized she has become after all of these events. Aside from looking sexy in a leather and bondage outfit, Crampton also looks cute in a lab coat, a hospital gown, a long-sleeved nightgown and all in all, anything in general. As much as I adored her acting work in Re-Animator, Castle Freak and We Are Still Here, her characterization here of Dr. Katherine McMichaels still ranks as my personal favorite of her performances within the horror genre. As I said in my review of Re-Animator (read here), this gorgeous blonde ranks as my number one favorite scream queen of all-time. Ken Foree lends welcome support as Detective Bubba Brownlee and unlike Tillinghast and McMichaels, he is quite possibly the only one who does not break the rules. Ted Sorell is convincing as the villainous Dr. Edward Pretorius and yes, he is every bit as perverted as David Gale’s Dr. Carl Hill from Re-Animator. Interesting bit of trivia, the film’s tagline of “humans are such easy prey” is also said by him in the film.

When all is said and done, From Beyond ultimately works as a worthy companion piece to Re-Animator thanks in large part to director Stuart Gordon’s avoidance of trying to surpass it and as a result, ends up equaling it instead. At its heart though, From Beyond is really just a deeply satisfying horror film that’s also a lot of fun.

-(Star Rating)-
* * * * (Out of * * * *)

John Charet’s Take On: Re-Animator (1985)

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Organic Theater Company co-founder Stuart Gordon officially began his filmmaking career in 1985 with successful results in the form of Re-Animator, a deliciously gory and wildly funny treat of a horror movie worthy of its reputation as a cult classic. Re-Animator was also the first of Gordon’s unofficial cycle of five films that were adapted (loosely or not) from stories (short or otherwise) written by literary horror author H.P. Lovecraft. As much as I adore From Beyond, Castle Freak and Dreams in the Witch-House (that last one is a Masters of Horror episode), Re-Animator stands out for me as the quintessential film adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft property. Dagon was very good, but it can’t help but slightly pale both in comparison to the four other ones I mentioned and by itself.

During his time as a student studying medicine at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) initially succeeds at bringing Dr. Hans Gruber (his dead professor) back to life, but because he injected him with such a high dosage of his own special solution, Gruber dies again and this time, it literally results in a bloody mess. Forced to find opportunities elsewhere for his medical research, West travels to America and finds one in the form of Miskatonic University, a prestigious college located in the town of Arkham in Essex County, Massachusetts. In searching for the perfect place to stay and continue his studies in his spare time, he rents a room from a medical student named Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), who quickly becomes a loyal assistant to him.

In the first in a series of many attempts, West reanimates (i.e. brings back to life) Cain’s dead cat Rufus by injecting him with a glowing green reagent that gives life to the still dismembered feline. Though a little freaked out at first, Cain becomes impressed by West’s ability to revive the dead. On the other hand, Cain’s fiancee Megan Halsey (Barbara Crampton) is horrified by West’s experimentation on the deceased animal and does not want any involvement in his radical activities. Subsequently, West and Cain are kicked out of the University for trying to convince the dean (and Megan’s father) Dr. Alan Halsey (Robert Sampson) that the aforementioned incident took place, which he finds preposterous. Nevertheless, this does not stop the two of them from visiting a morgue and using the glowing green formula to reanimate other corpses. One of them is brought back to life (unintentionally) as a zombie and ends up killing Dr. Alan Halsey and though West reanimates him, he inevitably returns as a zombie. West’s nemesis Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale) ends up discovering that Dr. Alan Halsey is now a reanimated corpse, which gives him the opportunity to find West and murder him so he can steal his work and claim it as his own. Not to spoil anything, but West gains the upper hand and kills Hill by decapitating him with a shovel and (later on) out of curiosity, he reanimates him and Hill’s head orders his own body to knock West unconscious leading to all sorts of chaos from here on out.

Stuart Gordon does for H.P. Lovecraft what legendary B-filmmaking extraordinaire Roger Corman did for Edgar Allan Poe. To put it in other words, no other directors besides those two, have adapted their material (faithfully or not) with such a high level of enthusiasm. I consider myself not only an aficionado of the horror genre as a whole (within the realm of cinema, cable/television, literature etc.), but like Gordon and Corman, I am also a huge fan of the works of both Lovecraft (like the former) and Poe (like the latter). Nevertheless, I will admit that with the exception of The Black Cat (his second Masters of Horror episode), Gordon has always been better at adapting Lovecraft than he is at adapting Poe. While his 1991 version of Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum was admirable, Roger Corman’s 1961 version is still the best. Likewise, Corman’s The Haunted Palace may have gotten its title from the Poe poem of the same name, but the source originated from a Lovecraft property entitled The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Similar to that other example, I admired Corman’s 1963 effort, but it can’t hold a candle to Gordon’s cycle of Lovecraft films. Out of Gordon’s five Lovecraft adaptations, four of them are classics (Re-Animator, From Beyond, Castle Freak and Dreams in the Witch-House) and the other is a near-classic (Dagon). As much as I love the succeeding three films within that first group, neither of them can surpass the preceding Re-Animator’s unique blend of madcap comedy and gruesome horror, which is what makes this one special.

Though it might not look like it on the surface, Re-Animator is not so much a homage/spoof in the mold of Young Frankenstein as it is a genuine Lovecraftian horror film with a witty sense of humor. Aside from referencing Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo with the Saul Bass-like title sequence, director Stuart Gordon also references Bernard Herrrmann’s iconic music score for Psycho (another Hitchcock film), which plays in the background during the aforementioned opening credits. Composer Richard Band intentionally rips it off by cleverly making the overall tone of the score sound tongue-in-cheek as opposed to suspenseful and taking into account the film’s dark comedic mayhem, this mood comes off as a rather fitting one.

Since it has been cited from a few sources on one website that Stuart Gordon’s experimentation with shock value began as far back as the late 1960’s at the University of Wisconsin (read here), it only made perfect sense that Gordon would tackle the horror genre for his directorial debut. One of the many things I love about these kinds of horror movies lies in their emphasis on blood and gore and Re-Animator happily fulfills that requirement. Regardless of who commits the killing (the living humans or the reanimated corpses), each of them gets murdered with spectacularly gory results. All of it plays out in such a wonderfully over-the-top way, that viewers can’t help but laugh along at the same time.

While Stuart Gordon and his co-writers William J. Norris and Dennis Paoli most certainly deserve acknowledgement for writing Re-Animator’s humorous dialogue, I honestly feel that a significant portion of it belongs to its cast (most particularly Jeffrey Combs). Speaking of which, Combs Herbert West gets some of the best lines. Here are a few memorable samples:  “who’s going to believe a talking head? Get a job in a slideshow” and “I must say, Dr. Hill, I’m very disappointed in you. You steal the secret of life and death, and here you are trysting with a bubble-headed coed. You’re not even a second-rate scientist!” Other times, they come in his interactions with other characters like “I was busy pushing bodies around as you well know and what would a note say, Dan? “Cat dead, details later?” or when asked by Dan about what kind of medicine he specializes in, West’s response is “death.” Some of his other quoted gems come when he is accused of killing his professor near the beginning and West’s response is “No, I did not. I gave him life” and while reanimating Dan’s dead cat, West makes a comment along the lines of “don’t expect it to tango; it has a broken back.” Every single line Combs delivers is just impeccably timed. In the role of Dan Cain (West’s lab assistant and only friend), Bruce Abbott convincingly portrays him as an everyman that we root for every step of the way.  Although she would go on to give an even better performance a year later in Gordon’s From Beyond (another Lovecraft adaptation), Barbara Crampton is still perfect in the meaty supporting role of Cain’s love interest Megan Halsey. Attractive on the outside and sweet on the inside, she perfectly defines every quality that personifies the typical girl next door type. This beautiful blonde ranks as my number one favorite scream queen of all-time. Last, but not least, the late David Gale is believable as Dr. Carl Hill, the perverted villain of the piece. I will not go into deep detail about this, but shortly after his character gets decapitated in the film, he goes on to do something sexually deviant with his own severed head.

Along with Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead and his sequel Evil Dead II, Re-Animator is one of the three wildly original horror films of the 1980’s, which like any other decade, produced a lot of great ones within that genre. I know I have said it countless times before in this review, but as satisfying as From Beyond, Castle Freak, Dreams in the Witch-House and (to an extent) Dagon are, Re-Animator is director Stuart Gordon’s only H.P. Lovecraft adaptation that not only satisfies, but leaves you energized as well.

-Star Rating-
* * * * (Out of * * * *)

John Charet’s Take On: An American Werewolf in London (1981)

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Aside from frequently tackling the horror genre and directing episodes of Showtime’s anthology series Masters of Horror from a decade ago, what do directors Larry Cohen, Joe Dante and John Landis all have in common? The answer (at least for me) lies in the fact that all of them had directed three of the absolute greatest werewolf movies of 1981. Cohen directed Full Moon High, Dante directed The Howling and Landis directed An American Werewolf in London. Even Michael Wadleigh’s The Wolfen (released that same year) was pretty good. The first three also offered plenty of dark humor and social commentary on the side. Since I love the first three titles equally, I feel that it would be wise for me to focus on what makes An American Werewolf in London a classic of its sub-genre.

While backpacking in Yorkshire (a county of England), two visiting American college students from the East Coast (I think New York) named David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) get attacked by a vicious werewolf after walking from the road onto the moors. Though Jack gets mauled to death, David survives, but not before being bitten by the wolf, who gets shot with silver bullets by pubgoers of “The Slaughtered Lamb”, which was the name of the bar he and his (then alive) friend entered earlier in the film.

During his stay at a hospital recovering from his wounds, David starts having weird nightmares. One of them involves a now reanimated Jack (in the first of three appearances) telling him that he must commit suicide before the next full moon occurs, which is when David will turn into a werewolf. Jack warns David, that once he is a wolf, he will go on a killing rampage. After ignoring Jack’s warnings twice (he even insults his presence), the night of the full moon eventually and inevitably comes resulting in David’s transformation into a vicious werewolf. Waking up the next day, David learns the awful truth from a front page newspaper that an animal (which was him) killed quite a few people and that Jack was not crazy after all. Now, David must stop himself before the next full moon.

With the exception of The Howling (which was released four months prior to this film), no other werewolf transformation sequence in cinema had been as truly amazing as the one in An American Werewolf in London. Once the full moon appears, David slowly and painfully begins his transformation into a werewolf. After that, all of these tiny pieces of hair start growing out of every single area of his body with his arms, hands, legs and feet stretching out completely. To put the icing on the cake, his head and face begin morphing into something monstrous looking with demon-like eyes. Makeup artist Rick Baker was responsible for these impressive effects and deservedly won an Oscar for Best Makeup (the first year, the category became available too). Personally, I feel that Rob Bottin should have taken one home for The Howling as well, which would have resulted in a tied win, but that is a whole different story for a whole different blog post. Also worth mentioning (though frequently ignored) is the particularly effective buildup to this scene which comes off as terrifyingly funny in retrospect. Before David goes into the house he is staying at, a dog (belonging to two giggling little girls) viciously barks at him and a cat hisses at him in an equally vicious way. In a bit of comic relief, David looks in the mirror and roars once or twice. As David starts anxiously pacing around, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising” starts playing in the background subsequently leading up to David turning into a werewolf with Sam Cooke’s rendition of “Blue Moon” taking over.

Along with The Blues Brothers from a year earlier, An American Werewolf in London ranks as one of director John Landis two most fully realized films. Whereas the former was a commercial comedy distributed by Universal and made for $30 million dollars, the latter is a darkly humorous independent horror movie distributed by that same studio and made for $10 million dollars. Regardless of cost, both of them finish up as the purest expressions of Landis wonderfully over the top style of filmmaking. Coincidentally, I read somewhere that Landis considered this one to be his most personal film.

Interestingly enough, director John Landis has reportedly stated that his screenplay for An American Werewolf in London had originated from an experience he had back in 1969, while working as a production assistant in Yugoslavia on the set of the war comedy Kelly’s Heroes (1970). During his time there, he had witnessed a ritual being performed on a dead man at a Gypsy funeral, who was buried in a way that would supposedly make it impossible for him to come alive ever again. If anything else, this actual incident may have uniquely shaped the film as a whole.

Even though it starts off, continues and finishes as a darkly humorous horror film, An American Werewolf in London is sprinkled with a touch of surrealism during its second and third act. The first example involves David having a series of nightmares while recovering in the hospital. In this Bunuel-ish dream within a dream sequence, David dreams that he is running completely naked in the woods and in the next frame, he is graphically eating a (still fresh in this case) deer. Soon after, he sees his hospital bed there and his nurse (and later girlfriend) Alex Price (Jenny Agutter) is standing on the left side. Suddenly, David wakes up and mischievously smiles with yellow demon-like eyes and teeth. Next up is a nightmarish dream that involves a group of grotesque mutant Nazis coming into his house mowing down his parents and two younger siblings with machine guns while another one slits David’s throat. Initially, it seems as If the nightmare is over when nurse Price comes in, but after opening the drapes, a mutant Nazi suddenly appears and stabs her to death. Afterwards, David wakes up and this time, the nightmare is actually over with nurse Price keeping her eye on him. Equally surrealistic is the three times David’s dead friend Jack appears. During his first appearance, Jack is all bloodied up, in the next one, his skin is now green and begins to rot and in the final one, he looks all skeletal. The overall result is bizarre, scary and hilarious all at once.

On the outside, An American Werewolf in London comes off as a wildly entertaining monster movie/homage, but on the inside, it also openly and subtly touches upon (briefly or frequently) various themes relating to America’s relationship with Britain (historically, pop culturally or otherwise), religion, genocide, sex and ultimately, life and death. With the exception of the third one, all of these themes are tackled in a wickedly funny manner. For example, when David and Jack are in the tavern during the first act, David asks the patrons If they “Remember the Alamo”, but all of them think he is referring to the 1960 John Wayne film The Alamo as opposed to the historical event. Shortly afterwards, Jack adds “Right. With Lawrence Harvey Everyone dies in it. Very bloody.” David and Jack’s bafflement with England sparks amusement as well. The response they have to the howl of a werewolf hilariously results in them making references to The Hound of the Baskervilles, Pecos Bill (certainly not a wolf) and finally Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights (who “didn’t howl!”). This trait also occurs in other trivial matters such as when David discusses to Alex (the nurse) that he feels like Lon Chaney Jr. in 1941’s The Wolf Man and she mistakenly believes that he is referring to 1961’s The Curse of the Werewolf with Oliver Reed. The former was distributed by Universal Pictures in California (The U.S.) and the latter was distributed by Hammer Film Productions in London, England (The UK). Both studios are iconic for their classic horror films. Ironically enough, Alex’s London flat is decorated with American pop culture. Aside from owning two figurines of Walt Disney cartoon characters (Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck), she also has film posters of Gone With the Wind (1939) and Casablanca (1942) which are two celebrated American films. Maybe she just prefers Hammer’s catalogue of horror. I also love how after turning back into his human form the morning after the night he turned into a werewolf, David is running around London nude trying to find clothes and bribes a little boy with two pounds (British currency) to buy his balloons to cover himself. This results in the little boy’s priceless reply of “a naked American man stole my balloons.” What makes it amusing is that the little boy says it in such a casual way as If he did not really care. Equally amusing is when David steals a lady’s red coat without any trouble and shortly after putting it on, he comments about something random with a guy, who like the kid and many around him, do not seem bothered by his appearance. Sheer hilarity is also on display when David tries to get himself arrested for the werewolf murders mouthing obscenities or stuff that would be offensive to British sensibilities. “Shakespeare’s French” comes off as the funniest of his backfired insults. Interestingly enough, the end credits features a word of congratulations to The Prince of Wales (Charles) and Lady Diana Spencer for their wedding that occurred on July 29th 1981. Sadly, their marriage proved to be a highly publicized disaster eventually and inevitably leading to them divorcing each other in 1996. A year later, Princess Diana would die in a fatal car crash.

Upon the many times I have watched An American Werewolf in London, I have become more and more fascinated by how it insightfully explores both the darker and lighter side of human sexuality (as dubious as it might initially sound). During the aforementioned dream within a dream sequence where David awakes with that scary face I just described earlier, we are sure that as a werewolf, he would maul Alex to death, but what about as a human being? Since being bitten by a werewolf, does David lust for sex in his human form the way a vampire lusts for blood? For the most part though, David’s ideal vision of romantic love can be defined as one of warmth. One perfect example is when David and Alex are making out in the shower and fittingly enough, Van Morrison’s Moondance is playing during part of the scene. Contrary to the explicit way David and Jack talk about a woman’s body near the beginning, Alex’s revelry in it comes off as more subtle. This comes when another female nurse playfully tells Alex that David is Jewish because she “had a look.” This is obviously a reference to male circumcision via Brit Milah.

Semi-autobiographically or not, with An American Werewolf in London, director John Landis may have also tapped deeply into what amuses, perplexes and scares him as an individual. Since Landis was born and raised in a Jewish family (though he identifies himself as an atheist), it only makes sense that Nazis (in this case, mutant ones) would terrify him (and lots of other viewers) the most. The stranger aspects of David’s nightmares (i.e. running naked in the woods and eating an animal) is something that any person can identify with since we have all had different yet equally weird dreams in our lifetimes. The scenes involving David’s dead friend Jack talking to him can be strangely funny: “can I have a piece of toast” or “have you tried talking to a corpse? It’s boring! I’m lonely!” Another one is when David is in a porn theater and is trying to figure out ways to commit suicide before the next full moon appears. In it, David’s six victims (along with Jack) join in to give him advice and David facetiously says “thank you, you’re all so thoughtful.” Guilt is also explored in the scene where after dismissing Jack’s words twice, David finally admits that (when turning into a werewolf) he didn’t mean to call Jack a meatloaf. Similar to some of Landis other films (most notably The Blues Brothers, Into the Night and Innocent Blood), this one climaxes with a showstopper within its actual filming location (in this case, it would be Piccadilly Circus).

Rumor has it that the roles of David Kessler and Jack Goodman were originally for Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, but in the end, I am glad that director John Landis went with David Naughton and Griffin Dunne. Since both of them were low-profile at the time, it was easier for them to act naturally in portraying their characters. On the surface, Kessler (Naughton) and Goodman (Dunne) may be little more than stereotypical frat house types, which only gives more ammunition to the opinion summed up by American Embassy representative Mr. Collins (Frank Oz of The Muppets fame). In this case, it was “These dumb ass kids. They never appreciate what you do for them.” Nevertheless, as the film progresses, we learn that Kessler and Goodman are fairly grateful, likable and normal at heart. In Goodman’s first appearance as a talking corpse, he says these following words to Kessler: “life mocks me even in death.” To a small or considerable extent, we all wish that Goodman could have lived a life free of cynicism. We also learn to love Kessler more and more that we hope that he survives this werewolf curse brought upon him. Long before playing Sister Julienne on BBC’s (PBS here in the States) Call the Midwife, British actress Jenny Agutter began her career playing one of the title characters in The Railway Children in 1970 before graduating to more daring roles with Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971), Michael Anderson’s Logan’s Run (1976), Sidney Lumen’s Equus (1977), and Monte Hellman’s China 9, Liberty 37 (1978). Jenny Agutter may be playing the “typical” girlfriend role, but at the same time, she manages to make it interesting. As the regular working class woman who lets Kessler stay with her, Agutter is able to make Alex Price attractive on the outside (especially in a nurse’s uniform) and tender on the inside. Her love of old-fashioned Americana, which I briefly touched upon earlier, coincides perfectly with her persona.

No doubt, their has probably been a good number of werewolf films released since 1981, but neither of them (at least in my opinion) can top the triple punch delivered during that aforementioned year by The Howling, Full Moon High and this one, which is An American Werwolf in London. With the possible exceptions of Into the Night and Innocent Blood, An American Werewolf in London was the second (the first being The Blues Brothers) and last time that Landis would allow his imagination to run delightfully and uncompromisingly hog wild. Be that as it may, at least it happened on a film that is often considered by dyed in the wood horror fans like myself to be one of (If not) the finest werewolf movie of all time.

I would love to end this review with a quote for my dear readers. The quote comes from the truck driver, whose advice to David and Jack should apply here as well:

“keep off the moors, stick to the roads. The best to ya…”

-Star Rating-
* * * * (Out of * * * *)

John Charet’s Take On: Into the Night (1985)

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During its initial February 1985 theatrical release, audiences and some critics had unfairly implied that this film marked the beginning of director John Landis descent into mediocrity. Personally, I believe that it began the following year with the western comedy Three Amigos and to my readers who love that film, I offer my sincerest of apologies to all of you. As for when he hit rock bottom, that started with Beverly Hills Cop III, but let me get back to my main point. Along with Innocent Blood and his portions of Amazon Women on the MoonInto the Night is actually one of Landis few director-for-hire assignments (post-The Twilight Zone tragedy) in which he is able to find a personal connection with the material while having fun with it as well.

The plot is straightforward enough yet complicated at the same time. Los Angeles yuppie Ed Okin (Jeff Goldblum) leads a drab life with a boring job, has an unfaithful wife and is prone to insomnia. Based on advice given to him by his best friend at work (Dan Aykroyd), Ed drives to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to see If he can pick up a pretty girl and hang out with her. Why an airport, I do not know or care as long as it entertains, which it does.

While Ed is waiting in the downstairs garage parking lot, a lovely girl named Diana (Michelle Pfeiffer) is being chased by Iranian gangsters and while running, she jumps on top of Ed’s car and frantically asks him for a ride. After saving her life and driving her around, Diana reveals that she is a smuggler (or as she says “one of the bad guys”), who stole prestigious diamonds that belonged to the Shah of Iran and this is why she is being endlessly pursued by this criminal Iranian enterprise and a few others. One memorable example of the latter is a creepy hitman played fantastically here by iconic British singer David Bowie.

If I can single out at least one notable aspect of Into the Night, it would undoubtedly be the large number of cameo appearances made here by various directors within and out of the Hollywood industry (American or otherwise) that pop up throughout the film. According to several different sources regarding Landis idea to overstuff it with as many cameos as possible, this arguably may have been an attempt by him to prove that he still had tons of both high-and-low profile support in the wake of the controversy surrounding his involvement in the accidental deaths of actor Vic Morrow and two children during the 1982 filming of his segment for Twilight Zone: The Movie released the following year. Into the Night was the first of his theatrical releases to be shot while being ordered to stand trial (along with four others) for involuntary manslaughter in a court case that eventually ended in a not guilty verdict for all of them in the May of 1987.

Regardless of quality, I have always enjoyed director John Landis penchant for populating his later films with cameo appearances made by numerous directors or other industry people even when it can’t save his absolute worst movies (Beverly Hills Cop III, The Stupids and Blues Brothers 2000). Nevertheless, with Into the Night, Landis may have (intentionally or not) elevated this trait into something expressive. Though born in Chicago, Illinois, Landis actually spent most of his childhood and personal/professional career living in L.A. (California). I read somewhere that because he had the advantage of living there, he got to meet a lot of big name filmmakers as well. Taking into account how this coincides perfectly with the huge number of director cameos on display here and the location shooting, the result (openly and subtly) works as a visual homage to the city of Los Angeles (and some other parts of California) and (to an extent) a genre hybrid that surprisingly offers more than meets the eye.

As a genre piece, Into the Night partly comes off as a darkly comedic romantic crime thriller that pays tribute to the various films of legendary filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. While it is true that director John Landis indulges here in the kind of dark humor and tension that characterized “The Master of Suspense”, the results are purely his own and unlike his other exercises in self-proclaimed cinematic homage (Spies Like Us and Oscar), he genuinely seems to be having fun here. After damaging tons of cars in Chicago throughout The Blues Brothers and in Piccadilly Circus during the climax of An American Werewolf in London, Landis seems to be reveling here in the way he graphically bumps off his characters regardless of whether they are good or bad. Speaking of the latter, Landis actually casts himself here as one of the Iranian henchmen and later on (spoiler alert), he gets murdered (shot at) resulting in a pretty gruesome death. One wonders If Landis idea to cast himself in that role and having his character suffer such a fate came off as his way of coping with The Twilight Zone accident. On the one hand, it serves as the cinematic equivalent of confessing one’s own sins or suffering for them or it may be Landis way of reflecting upon the opinions of some industry people, who had now thought of him (implicitly or otherwise) as a “murderer” in the wake of the aforementioned tragedy.

Even If the large number of director cameos had only existed to show off, Into the Night would still be a highly entertaining entry within John Landis filmography as a director. Unexpectedly, Landis is able to use this to his advantage this time around. Working from a screenplay by Ron Kuslow, Landis directly (or indirectly) manages to touch upon  themes (superficially though interestingly) relating to Hollywood, the crack epidemic, American/European relations and xenophobia within a 1980’s setting. One example is a scene that captures a typical day of Hollywood filmmaking where a director (Daniel Petrie) is filming a hostage scene for his film and the actor (Colin Higgins) wonders If he could do a few more takes. In fact, the hotel scene where Ed finds an empty room and the TV set is showing Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein could be Landis clever way of telling viewers that the whole film should not be taken too seriously. Another one is when a wealthy drug dealer (Paul Mazursky) is being questioned by authorities. Crack cocaine use was reportedly high in popularity during the Reagan era. As far as the view Europeans have of Americans can best be summed up in a scene involving a French criminal (Roger Vadim) and a Federal agent I believe. After being outsmarted by one of the two main characters, the latter asks the former “If he is enjoying the United States so far” (I believe that is what he says) and the look on the Frenchman’s face looks like a mixture of confusion and annoyance. On the surface, the film’s portrayal of Iranians as murderous yet somewhat buffoonish criminals is initially problematic, but considering that the leader of the henchmen is portrayed by a Greek actress (Irene Papas) and the mute gunman is played by Landis himself (a Caucasian-American), it is possible to see it as a subtle jab at Hollywood’s (at the time) constant demonization of foreigners, which has now become rare (If not obsolete) when watching commercial films from the 21st century. Even a car commercial that Ed (Goldblum) watches (sung to the tune of “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands”) can be viewed as either a riff on the blatant consumerism that dominated the 1980’s as a whole or as the answer to remedy Ed’s boredom. In this case, he made his yuppie lifestyle less boring by going out with somebody, who gets him involved with more danger and intrigue than he had bargained for.

Similar to the level of enthusiasm he displayed when filming on location in Chicago with The Blues Brothers, director John Landis expresses adoration in capturing as much of Los Angeles on film as he possibly can with Into the Night. Starting with the film’s very first scene, Landis bedazzles us with the beautiful atmosphere of Los Angeles, which coincides perfectly here with blues singing legend B.B. King’s equally atmospheric title song (composed by Ira Newborn) that plays in certain spots throughout the film.

Last, but not least, Into the Night’s biggest strength comes primarily from our film’s two lead stars, which in this case would be Jeff Goldblum and Michelle Pfeiffer. As Ed Okin, Goldblum believably conveys all of the emotions required to play a bored out of his mind insomniac starved for adventure. Once he gets a taste of that, his character gets more interesting. He can do some physical comedy (he trips and falls in one scene for comedic effect) and can be humorous in his interactions with other characters. Even in that climactic hostage situation, he outwits a baddie with shockingly unexpected results. In the role of Diana, the femme fatale with a heart and soul, Pfeiffer turns what could have been a stereotypical character into one that comes off as a (refreshingly) real person. Beautiful on the outside and kind hearted on the inside, Pfeiffer’s Diana is the kind of woman you not only want to give a hug and a kiss to, but also one to root for at the same time. Aside from her criminal actions, we learn (implicitly) from her Elvis impersonator brother (a hilarious Bruce McGill) that she can’t keep a steady job, but she does seem to genuinely care about her flaws. While her connection to a dying man (Richard Farnsworth) is never made entirely clear, her exchange with him is nevertheless touching. When Ed tells Diana at a restaurant that his wife cheated on him, she (subtly yet sincerely) expresses sympathy for him. Diana is even polite enough to offer Ed cash for driving her all over the place, but he politely declines.

Released close to six months prior to Martin Scorsese’s After Hours and a year before Jonathan Demme’s Something WildInto the Night was the first and most stylish of these black comedies to center around the misadventures of a yuppie. Compared to the other two though, it comes off as the messiest of the three. Whereas the former openly embraced its weirdness, it is difficult to determine If director John Landis totally pulls that off since their is so much going on within the plot. Unlike the latter’s effortless crossing from one genre to the other, this one is never really sure how it wants to play out. Nevertheless, Into the Night hits more than it misses.

John Landis has directed two great films (The Blues Brothers and An American Werewolf in London) and four very good ones (The Kentucky Fried Movie, National Lampoon’s Animal House, this one and Innocent Blood). Into the Night may not rank as the one that I adore the most (that honor goes to The Blues Brothers), but it does stand out as the one that I admire the most.

-Star Rating-
* * * 1/2 (Out of * * * *)

-Notable Cameos-
Jack Arnold
Rick Baker
Paul Bartel
David Cronenberg
Jonathan Demme
Richard Franklin
Carl Gottlieb
Amy Heckerling
Jim Henson
Colin Higgins
Lawrence Kasdan
Jonathan Lynn
Paul Mazursky
Carl Perkins
Daniel Petrie
Dedee Pfeiffer
Waldo Salt
Don Siegel
Roger Vadim

John Charet’s Take On: Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)

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Creator/writer Rod Serling’s iconic 1960’s science-fiction anthology series The Twilight Zone easily ranks as one of the best TV shows of all-time, but what made it so timeless lied in its ability to give us stories that could freak us out, scare us or make us think philosophically and politically all in equal measures. On the contrary, Twilight Zone: The Movie comes off as a hit and miss affair that is typical of at least half the number of anthology films out there. The finished result consists of four different segments (one original story and three adaptations of already existing episodes) by four different directors which in this case were John Landis, Steven Spielberg (both of whom served as co-producers), Joe Dante and George Miller. As others have noted elsewhere, the high and low points actually do come from where you least expect them to in terms of quality. Unfortunately, the film’s reputation has been partly tainted due to an infamous offscreen tragedy that occurred during filming on one of the segments and because of this, it is hard to talk about the movie without bringing up aspects of it on occasions.

The film opens with an entertaining prologue and it stars Dan Aykroyd as a hitchhiker and Albert Brooks as the driver. During the drive on the highway, the two begin a conversation regarding their favorite Twilight Zone episodes and climaxes with Aykroyd playfully telling Brooks “you wanna see something really scary” and the result is terrifying in a rather darkly humorous way. This tongue-in-cheek approach to the four segments we are about to see is a refreshing way to start the movie. Filling in for the late Rod Serling to perform voice-over duties for the title introduction and the subsequent four episodes is the late Oscar-nominated actor Burgess Meredith (Rocky), who had also guest starred on a few episodes of The Twilight Zone as well.

As with the opening prologue, segment number one entitled “Time Out” was directed and written by John Landis. Unlike the succeeding three segments of the film, this one is an original story. This morality tale is basically about a repulsive bigot forced to experience what it is like to be a victim of racial hatred. During the course of it all, he is mistaken as a Jewish citizen by the Nazis during the Holocaust circa the 1940’s in Nazi-occupied France or Germany, an African-American by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in the Rural South during the 1950’s and a Vietnamese person by US soldiers during the 1960’s conflict between the United States and Vietnam. This segment is perhaps the most notorious due to the highly publicized freak helicopter accident that killed the segment’s lead actor Vic Morrow and two Vietnamese-American children during the filming of what was supposed to be a massive special effects sequence involving a ton of explosions. Either way, the result still comes off to me as a heavy-handed and largely uninspired episode that can’t help but feel tasteless and unpleasant in the wake of the aforementioned tragedy.

Director Steven Spielberg’s remake of “Kick the Can” concerns a gentle elderly magical stranger (Scatman Crothers) offering a group of retirement home residents the chance to feel like little kids again (both physically and emotionally). Not much can be said about this surprisingly dull entry other than being appallingly sappy and lazily directed. In terms of direction, it looks as If Spielberg sleepwalked his way through it and yelled action at the beginning of a scene and yelled cut when the scene was over remaining uninterested in getting a satisfactory result. In addition, the overall tone suffers from an inability to connect to the moods of the other three segments. In other words, it feels as If their is no good reason for this segment to exist at all here. Aside from being the worst episode of the film, it also goes down as the ultimate low-point in Spielberg’s career as a filmmaker.

Beginning with Director Joe Dante’s remake of “It’s a Good Life”, Twilight Zone: The Movie starts to pick up a considerable amount of steam. Dante is not so much interested in remaking it as he is in re-inventing it here as a wildly imaginative live-action cartoon. As in the original episode, an unintentionally evil little boy named Anthony (played this time by Jeremy Licht) uses his telekinetic powers to enslave his family into a constant state of happiness (phoned in or not) and If you try standing up to him, he will banish you away. One of the two big differences in this version is that Anthony is depicted here as a child obsessed with cartoons and his love of them is clearly evident in how the house is designed and decorated (for example, every room has a TV set with a cartoon showing 24/7). Also unlike the other one, we are introduced to an out-of-town school teacher named Helen Foley (Kathleen Quinlan), who Anthony decides to treat (or trap) as a guest (or surrogate mother) in his home. I really enjoyed this segment’s clever in-joke references to cartoons (Warner Bros. or otherwise) as well as the delightfully demented sense of dark humor that is on display throughout via the cartoon-like special effects. The tacked on happy ending (which was more downbeat in the 1961 version) serves as the only drawback to an otherwise satisfying tale.

I do not know If every anthology film believes in this rule, but Twilight Zone: The Movie has wisely decided to save the best episode for last. Director George Miller’s remake of the classic episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” not only stands out as the absolute greatest segment of the whole film, but it also happens to be the only one of the four entries that truly measures up in quality to its source while improving upon it at the same time. As with William Shatner’s performance in the original TV episode, John Lithgow is perfectly casted here as an easily frightened airline passenger, who sees a gremlin outside his window, but is unable to convince everyone else on board of it’s existence. Unlike the 1963 version, this one is made even scarier not only due to the gremlin’s truly menacing appearance, but also because this creature actually intends to wreck havoc whereas any harm caused by the monster in the original could debatably be seen as unintentional. Similar to how George Miller directed his (as of today) four Mad Max movies (all of which I absolutely adore), the result moves at such an exhilarating pace, that If you blink, you might miss something that is awesomely bizarre. A prime example here is when the eyes of our protagonist bulges for a split second after seeing the gremlin (for the very first time) leaning on his glass window from the outside. If anything else, this entry arguably serves as the perfect reason to watch Twilight Zone: The Movie as a whole.

If I were to be asked what are the greatest horror anthology movies ever made, my answer would be Ealing Studios Dead of Night (1945), Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath (1963), George A. Romero’s Creepshow (1982), Romero and Dario Argento’s Two Evil Eyes (1990) and John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper’s Body Bags (1993). As a whole, Twilight Zone: The Movie is uneven and in terms of overall quality, it has more in common with 1968’s Spirits of the Dead than those first five titles I mentioned. Similar to Roger Vadim’s “Metzengerstein” and Federico Fellini’s “Toby Dammit” from that previously mentioned adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe tales, Joe Dante’s remake of “It’s a Good Life” and George Miller’s remake of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” both serve as the strongest of the film’s four segments. As to where the segments of John Landis and Steven Spielberg fit in, let me just say that those episodes do here what Louis Malle’s adaptation of “William Wilson” did for Spirits of the Dead. To put it in other words, Landis original tale “Time Out” and Spielberg’s remake of “Kick the Can” come off as the two weakest entries within the film’s four episode format. Nevertheless, as with 1989’s New York Stories (a non-horror anthology piece), only one segment can be singled out as the absolute best (i.e. debatably Martin Scorsese’s “Life Lessons”) and worst (Francis Ford Coppola’s “Life Without Zoe”). Fellini’s “Toby Dammit” and Miller’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” deserve to be placed in the former category whereas Malle’s “William Wilson” and Spielberg’s “Kick the Can” arguably belong in the latter group.

Echoing the popular opinion shaped by many (It not all) viewers of this film, the most surprising thing about Twilight Zone: The Movie is that the most satisfying episodes come from two fairly low-profile directors of the day (Joe Dante and George Miller) while the biggest disappointments were delivered by the more well-known ones of the time, which in this case were John Landis and Steven Spielberg. The comedic horror aspects (visual or otherwise) of director Joe Dante’s three previous low-budget films (1976’s Hollywood Boulevard, 1978’s Piranha and 1981’s The Howling) is on display here in his remake of “It’s a Good Life”, which serves as Dante’s first assignment for a major Hollywood studio. One of the many fun things to watch here is the appearances of actors Kevin McCarthy, a pre-Simpsons Nancy Cartwright and cameos by Billy Mumy (who played Anthony in the original) and Dante and Roger Corman regular Dick Miller. A year later, Dante would score box-office gold for the same studio with the horror comedy Gremlins (1984). Australian filmmaker George Miller’s Mad Max films easily ranks for me as four of the countless numbers of masterpieces within the action genre and I similarly view his remake of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” as one of the many finest examples of short cinematic horror within an anthology format. If anything else, Dante and Miller seemed to have more enthusiasm for the project compared to Landis and Spielberg. Speaking of Landis, the prologue he directed and wrote is superior to his actual segment.

As I implied earlier, “Time Out” (The segment John Landis directed and wrote exclusively for the film) would have still came off as shockingly uninteresting with or without the offscreen freak accident that killed its lead actor Vic Morrow and two Vietnamese-American children. Nevertheless, the controversy surrounding it still bothers me and for me, this is what lowers the overall quality of Twilight Zone: The Movie as a whole to that of a mixed bag as opposed to something good If not great. In the wake of this tragic incident, director Steven Spielberg ended his friendship with Landis as a result. Rumor has it that prior to the tragedy, Spielberg was going to remake “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” but because it was a dark tale involving paranoia and children out late at night with potentially dangerous special effects, Spielberg axed that idea. I can’t confirm with 100 percent certainty that it is true, but If it was, their is no denying that it would have been infinitely better than his remake of “Kick the Can.” Spielberg is usually a master at generating sentiment, but here it just comes off as an insulting parody. Nevertheless, it has been reported that when he directed this segment, Spielberg’s enthusiasm for the project had dimmed to zero due to what had happened on the Landis segment.

One fascinating aspect of Twilight Zone: The Movie is that the late Richard Matheson (who had wrote some episodes of The Twilight Zone) serves as the screenwriter for the three adapted segments. He was famous for writing stories that dabbled in the fantasy, horror and science-fiction genre. Spielberg’s version of “Kick the Can” was written by Matheson with fellow sci-fi writer George Clayton Johnson (who wrote the 1962 story) and Melissa Mathison (both recently departed). In fact, Mathison is credited here as “Josh Rogan.” Matheson adapted “It’s a Good Life” and “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” by himself. The former was based on Jerome Bixby’s 1961 Twilight Zone story and the only flaw of the 1983 version is the out-of-place happy ending that prevents it from remaining equal in quality to its original. As far as the latter is concerned, he not only adapted one of his own episodes, but he also expanded upon his 1963 Twilight Zone story in interesting ways.

All in all, the question that arises lies into whether or not Twilight Zone: The Movie equals, uniquely interprets or surpasses Rod Serling’s 1960’s television series of the same name in terms of quality? As far as the individual segments are concerned, the answer is yes and no. Joe Dante’s episode succeeded only in the first two areas, but mostly the second thing. George Miller was able to accomplish all three of those tasks with his segment. On the other hand, John Landis and Steven Spielberg failed miserably to do any of those things with their entries. Taken as a whole however, Twilight Zone: The Movie (unsurprisingly) can not hold a candle to the original TV show.  No doubt, the tragic accident that occurred during the filming of the Landis segment did play a role, but for me, that was a disappointment to start out with. Shocking considering that “Time Out” was the only story of the four that was not adapted from an existing episode. With the exception of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet’, the two other adapted segments is either a hugely entertaining re-imagination that come close to measuring up (“It’s a Good Life”) or a half-hearted remake that remains inferior to its earlier source (“Kick the Can”). Nevertheless, the good does help outweigh the bad (If only slightly) thanks to the prologue I mentioned earlier. In summing up Twilight Zone: The Movie altogether, I would say that it satisfies and disappoints in equal measures.

-Star Ratings for the Individual Segments-

Prologue (Director: John Landis)-
(Cast: Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks)
* * * 1/2 (Out of * * * *)
-Segment #1: Time Out (Director: John Landis)-
(Cast: Vic Morrow)
* 1/2 (Out of * * * *)
-Segment #2: Kick the Can (Director: Steven Spielberg)-
(Cast: Scatman Crothers)
* (Out of * * * *)
-Segment #3: It’s a Good Life (Director: Joe Dante)-
(Cast: Kathleen Quinlan)
* * * 1/2 (Out of * * * *)
-Segment #4: Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (Director: George Miller)-
(Cast: John Lithgow)
* * * * (Out of * * * *)

-Star Rating for Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) as a Whole-
* * 1/2 (Out of * * * *)

My Favorite Sidney Lumet Films (New)

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* * * * (Out of * * * *) 

1.   Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962)

2.   Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

3.   The Fugitive Kind (1960)

* * * 1/2 (Out of * * * *)

1.   12 Angry Men (1957)

2.   Last of the Mobile Hot Shots (1970)

3.   The Verdict (1982)

My Favorite Clint Eastwood Films (New)

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* * * * (Out of * * * *)

1.   Sully (2016)

2.   Bird (1988)

3.   American Sniper (2014)

4.   Unforgiven (1992)

* * * 1/2 (Out of * * * *)

1.   A Perfect World (1993)

2.   White Hunter Black Heart (1990)

3.   The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)

4.   High Plains Drifter (1973)

My Favorite Kathryn Bigelow Films (New)

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* * * * (Out of * * * *)

1.   Point Break (1991)
(Not the 2015 remake)

2.   Near Dark (1987)

3.   The Weight of Water (2000)

4.   K-19: The Widowmaker (2002)

* * * 1/2 (Out of * * * *)

1.   Blue Steel (1990)

My Favorite Rainer Werner Fassbinder Films (Revised and Updated)

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* * * * (Out of * * * *)

1.   Querelle (1982)

2.   Fox and His Friends (1975)

3.   Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)

4.   In a Year of 13 Moons (1978)

5.   Veronika Voss (1982)

6.   The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971)

7.   Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)
(Mini-Series)

8.   Beware of a Holy Whore (1971)

9.   I Only Want You to Love Me (1976)
(TV Film)

10. Whity (1971)

11. Love Is Colder Than Death (1969)

12. The American Soldier (1970)

13. Gods of the Plague (1970)

14. World on a Wire (1973)
(TV Film)

15. Katzelmacher (1969)

* * * 1/2 (Out of * * * *)

1.   The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972)

2.   The Third Generation (1979)

3.   Lola (1981)