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

A year after he made his rollicking directorial debut with Re-Animator, independent filmmaker Stuart Gordon decided to quickly, but effectively follow it up with another H.P. Lovecraft adaptation using most (If 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)

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 and DagonRe-Animator stands out for me as the quintessential film adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft property.

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.

Director 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). In my opinion, Gordon has also proven to be every bit as successful in adapting Poe (the Masters of Horror episode The Black Cat and the 1991 version of The Pit and the Pendulum) as he has with Lovecraft. On the contrary, Corman’s The Haunted Palace (titled after a Poe poem, but based on a Lovecraft entry entitled The Case of Charles Dexter Ward) was admirable, but it can’s hold a candle to Gordon’s cycle of Lovecraft films. Out of Gordon’s five Lovecraft adaptations, all five of them are classics (Re-Animator, From Beyond, Castle Freak, Dagon and Dreams in the Witch-House). As much as I love the succeeding four 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 sharp 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 sideshow” 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, Dagon and Dreams in the Witch-House are, Re-Animator is director Stuart Gordon’s only H.P. Lovecraft adaptation that not only leaves you satisfied, but energized as well.

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

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

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)

32 years ago in 1985 during its initial theatrical run, audiences and critics alike seemed to be under the wrongheaded notion that Into the Night marked the beginning of the end for its director John Landis. Truth be told, that would happen 9 years later with the lousy Beverly Hills Cop III in 1994. As for Into the Night; this one (along with Innocent Blood 7 years later in 1992) 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 yet complicated at the same time. A 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 pick up an attractive woman so he can take her for a ride. 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 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 enjoying himself 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 decides to make a chase movie with a debatably ample body count. Speaking of which, Landis actually casts himself here as one of the Iranian henchmen and (spoiler alert), gets murdered later on (i.e. shot repeatedly). One wonders If Landis came up with the idea to cast himself in that role as penance for his involvement in The Twilight Zone accident or as a way of summing up how some members of the press now viewed 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 Hollywood 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 his 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 the 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 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. Diana’s exchange with a dying man (Richard Farnsworth) that she knows is especially 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 by far, the glossiest of three films centering around the misadventures of a yuppie with darkly comedic results. Nevertheless, I absolutely adore this one every bit as the other two.

Out of all the films John Landis had directed in his career during and after the Twilight Zone scandal, I single out Into the Night and Innocent Blood as the only two that come off as immensely satisfying. For me, Into the Night and Innocent Blood (like The Kentucky Fried Movie and National Lampoon’s Animal House) can be described as very good.

-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