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The Film Fan Perspective’s 20 Favorites

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The Film Fan Perspective’s 20 Favorite Films

In “celebration” of the fact that my blog still exists after two years, I’d like to share with the readers the movies that are closest to my heart and mind.  You may already be aware of them, but the idea was to guess as many as possible.

So, without further ado, here are my twenty favorite films, in countdown order:

 

20. High Fidelity-  “What came first, the music or the misery?”  Exactly.  With all of his odd takes on society and politics lately, it might be hard to remember when John Cusack was the stand in for all of us neurotic, fast-talking, hopeless romantic white guys.  The film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity is the high point of Cusack’s career.  The actor’s inherent neuroses fit the character of Rob Gordon, as we both loathe and love him for being so talented yet so indecisive.  His desperate need to not grow up and his need to cling to the ‘fantasy’ speaks to all the males that just haven’t figured it out yet.  Oh, and Jack Black is an absolute force of nature here as a record store employee that just keeps showing up.  Let’s not forget the graceful and gorgeous Iben Hjejle, and the outstanding soundtrack.  It gave me a new angle on music, which led to what my current tastes are.  It’s amazing how I loved the movie at first for being so crisp and funny, but now I love it for understanding it.  Every guy should meet a Charlie, but end up with a Laura.

19. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan- Those unfamiliar with ‘Star Trek’ lore may not understand the carnal hatred that exists between Captain James T. Kirk and the nefarious Khan, but it matters not for this sci-fi classic.  It works on so many levels, from the hell-bent rage of Khan to the overarching themes of birth, re-birth, and death that you don’t have to be a fan to enjoy this, the best of the ‘Trek’ films.

18. The Lion King-  As I navigated my pre-teen and early teen years, I wrote off Disney.  In my eyes, everything was princesses accompanied by radio-friendly adult contemporary tunes.  Then I took a chance and saw The Lion King while I was chasing after a girl (surprise!).  It was transformative, for not only would I never see Disney with a jaded eye again, I kept looking for that next Lion King, that next masterpiece.  It’s both a darker and more beautiful film than Disney had ever attempted, and every single scene is near brilliance.  That soundtrack- not just the well-crafted Elton John pieces, but the Hans Zimmer score as well, just brilliant.  It’s just the best thing that Disney has done before, and may ever do, save for Finding Nemo.

17. Alien- It may not be the original “original” sci-fi horror movie, but nonetheless it’s the modern standard for the genre, and the benchmark of female heroine characters.  Ridley Scott and crew created a claustrophobic, organic/metallic spaceship, and brilliantly made the choice to hire gothic artist H.R. Giger to design the xenomorph and its’ interiors.  Many have imitated, nothing has duplicated, even in its’ own saga.

16. Once- It would be impossible to limit my love of this film to a cell on a spreadsheet.  Once is full of wonderful singer/songwriter music, unspoken passions, unspoken loves, missed opportunities, and incredible “moments in time” that seem to last forever, but are limited to 2 hours.  The final scene is both touching and heartbreaking in a way that no other film has given me, and the soundtrack is pure, original magic.

15. Monty Python and the Holy Grail- Monty Python’s magnum opus of farce is still the funniest film I’ve ever seen.  From catapulted livestock to enchanters named “Tim”, how can one not find this supremely hilarious?  Admittedly, humor can be a tricky subject, and some may not find this brand of English witticism to their liking.  Me?  I think it’s the best comedy ever made.

14. Finding Nemo-  Pixar’s best film, in this guy’s opinion, is director Andrew Stanton’s masterpiece.  Funny, for sure, but sublimely touching, Nemo is also the most beautiful animated film I’ve seen.  Maybe it’s the color of the fish, the interesting way water works with animation, maybe the brilliant Thomas Newman score, I’m not sure.  Maybe it’s that I feel exactly like Marlin in the way I see my own son.  Wow, I’m getting teary-eyed just thinking of this movie.

13. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial- This film has meant different things to me at different points in my life.  At age 3, it was complete wonderment at the sight of aliens, rousing music, and funny moments.  As a teen, I was ambivalent and couldn’t find a copy to watch.  As an adult, I was bummed about the special edition changes, but rejoiced when the original edition became available, and enjoyed it with my child.  It’s a nostalgic, touching film about how children’s innocence occasionally triumphs over adult paranoia.

12. The Dark Knight- There is no doubt that this is the penultimate superhero film.  It’s hard to even consider this a superhero film- it’s more of a crime thriller with a moral center.  With perhaps the most bravura performance in recent memory, Heath Ledger cemented the Joker as one of entertainment’s best villains, and the chaotic nature of the film’s events make this just as much of an experience as a movie.

11. Shakespeare In Love- Despite the clamor to strip this film of its’ Best Picture Oscar, it really is an amazing film, stooped in romance, whimsy, and as Gwyneth Paltrow’s character calls it, a ‘stolen summer’.  It may not be an accurate account of Shakespeare’s life, but who cares.  It’s the most enjoyable romantic drama I’ve ever seen, topping even the material that it apparently inspired, “Romeo & Juliet”.

10. Contact- No film to this date has better encapsulated the hope, spirit, and arrogance of the human race as it relates to space travel and the universe than this film.  Based on Carl Sagan’s novel about first contact, Foster plays my favorite role of hers as Ellie Arroway, a stubborn yet determined astrophysicist.  I watch it every July 11th to celebrate the film’s release.

9. Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope- Although not my favorite, it’s the best film of the saga, and one could argue that modern cinema exists in the fashion that it does because of this film.  It’s constructed so well, and so delightful in every way that we forget George Lucas created it.  It may just be the most popular film of all-time as well.  There’s nothing I could say that would be revelatory.  Everyone already knows Star Wars.

8. Poltergeist- To me, this is the penultimate ‘scary’ movie.  Steven Spielberg’s brilliant mind is all over this project, even if he isn’t credited as director.  The touches of nostalgia, the subtle commentary on suburbia, post-Vietnam paranoia, and Reaganomics, and the graceful way Beatrice Straight explains the possibilities of an afterlife are the hallmarks of this classic.  I watch it every year in October now, and it seems to get better every time.

7. Field of Dreams- Don’t mistake this as being simply a ‘sports’ or ‘baseball’ movie.  While it certainly is both of those, it’s more of a father and son movie, and learning to accept and love who your parents are after you learn they’re real people, and not superheroes.  The fact that the film’s main set piece is still available to visit and play on certainly helps to play up the aura of the film.

6. Star Wars, Episode VI: Return of the Jedi- Not the best of the saga, but always my favorite.  The nostalgia oozing out of this film always brings out the best in cinema for me, despite its’ obvious flaws.  This film may be the most important to me on this list, simply for the awe factor involved with this being the first real blockbuster saga I experienced.

5. 2001: A Space Odyssey- THE quintessential science-fiction film for me.  It holds more sway when taking in the entire story, including the subsequent sequel film and novels.  Groundbreaking for its’ time, but perhaps no longer as relevant due to the lack of wide interest in the space program, it is interestingly the most spiritual story I know.

4. Aliens- Not only does this deliver on thrills and science fiction goodness, but Weaver’s Ellen Ripley is perhaps most enjoyable female role I’ve ever watched.  This is a classic as a sci-fi film, a special effects showcase, a well-honed script, and a blockbuster.

3. Raiders of the Lost Ark- A throwback film to a time when movie serials existed, Spielberg’s adventure masterpiece deftly weaves heroism with archaeology, and manages to make history exciting.  Harrison Ford has never really been better, and Karen Allen’s spitfire of a sidekick/love interest is still one of my favorites.

2. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King- No other film that I’ve watched has combined so many varying emotions into one and pulled it off with flying colors.  It’s an astonishing accomplishment that pushes all of my emotional and technical “film buttons”.  Hard to defend as one of my ultimate favorites, and I just recently unseated it- but I still love it, and the whole series.

1. Cloud Atlas- It took me over eleven years to find a new favorite film, and dare I say that I didn’t even realize it until recently.  From the film’s extra-long final trailer to the end of my first viewing, I was moved to tears by this sci-fi fable.  The tag line of ‘everything is connected’ is far too simple a phrase to explain the emotional impact this had on me.  Sometimes, we ‘put’ things onto a film based on what we want to get from it.  Sometimes, the film not only fulfills what we want, but seems to explain that the filmmakers believe it too.  The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer took a beautiful premise and gave it the respect it deserved, resulting in an honest experience that doesn’t pull punches.  It is a brave film, occasionally gory and violent, moving to abstract and odd, then tender and graceful.  This story blends everything I love about film, and the potential it has to take the fantastic to a higher level of entertainment.  It may be pretentious, but maybe I’m pretentious.  Or maybe I just fill in the gaps well.  Whatever the case is, this is my favorite film.

*honorable mention: Groundhog Day, Casablanca, Seven, L.A. Confidential, Garden State, Ghostbusters, Batman (1989), Pulp Fiction, Fargo.

 

 

Film Review- ‘Jurassic World’ (**1/2)

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Cage goes in the water, you go in the water. Shark's in the water. Mosasaurus is in the water.
Cage goes in the water, you go in the water. Shark’s in the water. Mosasaurus in the water.

Jurassic World  **1/2 (out of 5)

Starring: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Nick Robinson, Ty Simpkins, Irrfan Khan, Omar Sy, B.D. Wong, Jake Johnson, Lauren Lapkus, and Judy Greer

Written by: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Derek Connolly, and Colin Trevorrow (screenplay); Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (story); based on characters originally created by Michael Crichton

Directed by: Colin Trevorrow

**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**

Grabstalgia.  Oh, that’s just a new word I made up to describe what happens when a piece of art doesn’t have a single aim, aside from grabbing and plucking those nostalgic strings of your memory.  In 1993, Jurassic Park became an instant classic; not necessarily because of a riveting, life-altering plot, but rather because of the fresh, carefully crafted grand spectacle it provided.  Until then, we knew nothing of dinosaurs in our movies, save for poorly rendered versions showing at our local museum’s theater or stop-motion beasts from yesterday’s earnest puppeteers.  Now, we’ve seen everything.  Jurassic World knows that, and plunges forward into “bigger and badder is better” territory.  After all, the next logical step (because there is a pile of cash to collect from this franchise) was to create a grander spectacle, and constantly remind us why we loved the first film.  That’s a neat strategy for a cash grab, but let’s be clear: if you’re looking to recreate that feeling of sheer awe from the original, you likely won’t find it.  If you’re looking for a grounded film, you won’t come close to a glimpse.  If you simply want to be entertained without consequence in the presence of the theater’s industrial air conditioner, Jurassic World was made for you.

The film is aptly made, appropriately sequenced and rendered, and provides likable, if not typical leads.  The problem, it appears, is that none of Jurassic World‘s characters have seen, and thus none have learned, from the original.  For all of the wanton loss of life and destruction of property we witnessed in the film’s first three installments, John Hammond’s original vision has somehow been seen to fruition.  In fact, the park has been open for some time.  Where there are myopic billionaires like Hammond, I suppose there are giant piles of cash ready to dump on problems and pay off vast numbers of people.  Speaking of myopic billionaires, a new “Hammond” has taken ownership of the park, in the name of Simon Masrani (Khan).  He’s a cool customer, and a modern CEO at that.  He’s hired a young woman to run his park, a young, rogue-ish fellow to train his raptors, has younger techs in prominent positions, and even flies his own helicopter.  What a guy!  He’s Elon Musk without the social responsibility (I imagine the role was pitched that way).

Sure, like the other films, we hear talk of ‘cautions’ and ‘safeguards’ with the park.  We hear about backup systems, genetic inhibitors, and other devices ready to quell the monstrous reincarnations known as dinosaurs at bay.  Just typing that bothers me, though, as it should the collective of theoretical ‘Jurassic’ investors.  Trying to keep nature, especially extinct nature, from being itself just doesn’t fly.  It simply begs for a righteous smattering of Murphy’s Law, the natural sibling of Mother Nature.  By creating a new breed of dino, Masrani and his team of nearsighted nitwits have gone and taunted the both of them, and thus deserve a steaming heap of karma.  Dubbed Indominus Rex (a name even the script scoffs at), this beautiful and horrific creature has more teeth, just like the investors ordered.  It also hasn’t paid nature’s dues, the tried and true steps every living creature has gone through to earn their place on our planet.  Through no fault of its’ own, the “I. Rex” is sufficiently underdeveloped, and thus cannot behave predictably.  Can you imagine what happens next?

Amidst the ensuing chaos, the young woman named Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) who runs this massive park must figure out how to contain the already deadly I. Rex and bring her two visiting, meandering nephews (Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins) in from the park safely.  Luckily, she has Owen Grady at her disposal (Chris Pratt), and he trains velociraptors.  I’m quite serious.  His job, quite literally, is to form a bond with ancient killers in an attempt to; well, I can’t give it away, but you can easily figure it out.  So, the villains from the first film (raptors) are now our pals.  I hate to sound snarky, but let’s be real.  How many trainable reptiles can you name in today’s age?  What do you think the odds are of training one that went extinct and has a super tiny brain?  I suppose the plot needs this, or the finale wouldn’t come together, but come on.  This is only a simple step from the ‘laser raptors’ of Kung Fury.  At that point, what little science still remained from the genesis of Michael Crichton’s already far-fetched idea officially fades into the ether.

I find myself in a similar position to Clerks‘ resident gas station attendants/Star Wars skeptics.  Their perceptive concerns about innocent contractors caught in the crossfire may seem like a silly, irrelevant point to make about a sci-fi fantasy film, but it brings into focus the critical mass of characters and plot these films churn out.  If we hold comic films to a ‘death toll’ standard, chiding them for blase attitudes to human lives, shouldn’t we do the same for these Jurassic films?  Each subsequent sequel barely touches on the fallout of all previous entries.  Each film has bland characterizations of the individual in charge, as they create and spend, but never ask whether they should. A paraphrasing of Ian Malcolm’s line from the original has always been the right angle, but not a single person really listened to him, or reason.

That simple statement invites a litany of questions.  Who harbors responsibility for these animals and what comes of them?  For that matter, what became of the hundreds of dinosaurs from the first three films?  What has happened to Isla Sorna from The Lost World and Jurassic Park III?  How is the original visitor’s center from Jurassic Park still standing?  Does it serve a purpose to the plot other than to call attention to our strong nostalgic feelings for the original?  How can this park be sponsored by major companies, when they know full well the risk inherent in having their product connected to a possible catastrophe?  How can world governments not want to be involved in the safeguarding of this park?  How can a company like InGen still be in business?  Can someone blow the whistle there already and ‘Enron’ the bejesus out of them?  How unoriginal is it to have the archetypal “bad guy” be Vincent D’Onofrio?  Isn’t his presence enough to know he’s hiding something sinister?  By now, how are there not pteranodons and pterodactyls, last seen flying from Isla Sorna, not picking off swimmers on the Gulf Coast?

The unfortunate side effect of the glorious disease of nostalgia is the latitude we allow, thus the need for all of those questions of logic.  We hear John Williams’ Jurassic Park cues, and we forget that the film rushes head-long into a plot without catching us up to speed.  We see B.D. Wong reprising his role from the original, and we forgive his unabashedly broken moral compass.  We see set pieces from the original, and we forget to ask how these landmarks still stand.  We see a huge dino battle and ignore the convenient ease with which the mosasaurus picks off its prey.  Reading my words, you might imagine plenty of glorious movie visions, and there are; in fact, I’ll credit Jurassic World by proclaiming it as the most impressive of the monster movies in terms of sheer scale.  I simply find myself frustrated with a franchise that acts like its’ own antagonists, and continues to deliver the same “gather people up, run away from dinosaurs” story line.  Every person with power in these films is corrupt or blind, and by the time morality catches up to them, salvage is impossible.  Director Colin Trevorrow, for all his accomplishments with the brilliant indie Safety Not Guaranteed, spends so much time honoring the original in every way that he may have forgotten to make his own film.

Generally, I’m not a complete buffoon, devoid of appreciating escapist joy at the theater.  I can forgive honest films that simply mean to be aimless summer fun.  As a monster movie, the results of Jurassic World are most impressive.  I understand why it exists, and why most crowds are drawn to its’ promise of awe, but the reasons are disappointing and cynical to me, yet somehow acceptable to the masses.  Crowds might not have wanted a new Jurassic film, per se, but they sure want homages, repackagings, and familiar blockbusters.  They might not even notice what’s wrong with the narrative.  Like the film’s teenager Zach, our heads are probably too buried in our phones to bother noticing the transfer of our money into Universal’s coffers.  Jurassic World is not a bad film, but nor is it a good one.  It is not a loud, garish disaster, but neither is it an intelligent, thoughtful film.  It simply exists to remind us that we loved a movie 22 years ago.  That’s great and all, but we already paid for our movie ticket once in 1993 (if not two, three, and four times), bought a VHS copy, bought the DVD, bought the Blu-Ray, and paid again to see it in 3-D upon re-release in 2013.  I would never ask a Jurassic film to stop dreaming like a child it once was, but I do expect the story to grow up, and attempt to break a film barrier like its’ forefather.

Film Review- ‘Poltergeist’ (2015) (**)

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Guess who's coming to dinner?
Guess who’s coming to dinner?

 

Poltergeist (2015)  ** (out of 5)

Starring: Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jared Harris, Jane Adams, Saxon Sharbino, Kyle Catlett, and Kennedi Clements

Written by: David Lindsay-Abaire

Directed by: Gil Kenan

 

 **POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**

Remakes, reboots, re-envisionings, re-tellings.  It’s what Hollywood does today.  I’ve become comfortably numb to the idea, for it appears that if I protested them all, I wouldn’t actually see much at the theater, now would I?  I only ask that the project follow my super fair guidelines.  For starters, remake or reboot something that makes sense, or provides an improvement on a mediocre or poor original.  Then, at least update the idea to reflect the current times, if applicable.  Finally, capture something special, or at least something that distances your film from what came before.  Otherwise, isn’t the whole exercise silly?  Wouldn’t it be simply treading water?  Keeping those guidelines in mind, you might guess that I had an aversion to the updated, seemingly forever-in-utero Poltergeist.  You’d be right.  Originally announced about a decade ago, the idea of this project has long bothered me, as it violated the first of my super fair guidelines- how could one improve, or even make relevant, a new version?

Director Gil Kenan’s (Monster House, City of Ember) film is neither satisfying, nor relevant enough to even enter the ring with the original’s classic status.  It wouldn’t be prudent to critique this film solely as a companion piece to Tobe Hooper’s masterpiece, though.  On its’ own merits (or lack thereof), I can’t recommend this version.  To be fair, it isn’t near the wretched hive of scum and villainy I imagined it would be.  It simply does not fill a void, serve a need, or matter in any way, shape, or form.  This Poltergeist does not offer a sublime undercurrent of building tension or a wonderful Jerry Goldsmith score, and it doesn’t pray upon our fears as former children or current parents like it should.  Instead, it has just enough boo moments and frightening imagery to rub shoulders with the thousand other mediocre horror films of modern times. As it is just interesting enough to not be a disaster, I suppose we should deliver Kenan, Sam Raimi and crew a hearty back slap, an ‘atta boy’ for making money off our penchant for nostalgia, and a shiny blue participation ribbon.

We’re familiar with the bulk of the film’s plot, but a few things have changed.  In this version, both parents (Rockwell & DeWitt) are jobless as we meet them, and thus they need to ‘downsize’.  Well, they’ve ‘downsized’ to a nice, cozy suburban home with four bedrooms.  Now that’s the type of unemployment situation we could all get used to, right?  Their teenage daughter Kendra (Sharbino) is spoiled and upset about life in general (oh those teens!), their son (Catlett) is afraid of most everything, and the baby of the family, Madison (Clements) is just about as adorable and precocious as you can imagine.  The script provides this topical unemployment angle, which could lead to an unease that would lend a nice dollop of tension to the film, and provide a timely parallel to the original’s capitalists-be-damned angle, but Kenan doesn’t spend much time on it, and as a result, it becomes perfunctory.

For that matter, this film doesn’t have the time for such trivial elements as character development.  With a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it run time of ninety minutes, Poltergeist is bewilderingly rushed.  By the time young Madison has been snatched from the earthly plane by supernatural forces, we barely knew her, what she feared, or how close she was to the rest of her family.  Coupled with our existing knowledge of her 1982 doppelgänger Carol Anne, how can we possibly care the requisite amount when she’s gone?  How can we care about any of these characters enough to be concerned about their fates?  For whatever reason (perhaps an expectation of shorter audience attention spans), the film makes an unnecessary push for the finish line that lays waste to possible character moments, the same base elements that made the original so endearing.  Any fan of horror flicks, even relative amateurs such as myself, knows that most successful horror films tempt the audience with tension until a series of climactic scares are unleashed upon our frail psyches.  Poltergeist plays like a pair of clumsy first-time lovers, prematurely ‘matriculating’ to the climax.

Something can be said about the film’s one strong point, however.  Whereas the original relied on our blind faith in the invisible other-worldly plane, this update breaks that wall, literally and figuratively.  The visuals ‘behind’ the world of Madison’s closet are ghoulish and effective, invoking an organic/mechanic mix reminiscent of H.R. Giger, laced with electric impulses.  This version renders electricity like a tangible beast, insinuating a scientific origin for the afterlife.  I’m pleased that a horror film actually used science to perhaps detail why a dead spirit might travel from place to place.  It doesn’t explain everything, but it’s a good start.

Poor Gil Kenan had an unenviable task when he set forth to make this unnecessary film.  Even with professional actors like Rockwell and DeWitt, the task of besting a masterpiece was never something he could realistically accomplish.  That said, how seriously can I critique a film that simply lacks a valid excuse to exist?  With the exception of a newfangled view of the ‘other side’, this Poltergeist offers nothing but a way to call on our sentiment for the original.  If, like the original did, the story saw this as a family drama first, wrapped around the heart of a horror film, I sense that it might have worked.  If it had been the first to make our irrational childhood fears come to life, it might have worked.  Like most remakes, reboots, re-envisionings, and re-tellings, however, this update just cannot graduate past the starting line of, you know, needing a reason for being.

 

 

Classic Film Review: ‘Poltergeist (1982)’ (*****)

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AT&T’s ‘Reach Out and Touch Someone’ campaign takes it too far.

 

Poltergeist (1982)  ***** (out of 5)

Starring: Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Beatrice Straight, Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robins, Richard Lawson, Martin Casella, James Karen, Heather O’Rourke, and Zelda Rubenstein

Written by: Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais, and Mark Victor

Directed by: Tobe Hooper

 

**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**

As a species, we odd beings known as humans mark the passage of time in a variety of odd ways.  Some keep pictures, whereas others may travel to specific locations on an anniversary.  Me?  I watch certain films each year at particular times, for they either remind me of that time of year, were released at that time originally, or give me a general ‘feeling’ that can only come from being wrapped up in them.  The original Poltergeist belongs in that category.  It puts me in the mindset of a fall evening, when the howling, cool wind carries a bite that only a thin-skinned child can feel.  It also calls back to a time when the nuances of a house frightened me, when I assumed that things going bump in the night were after me, and when the fear of being lost was tantamount to death itself.  Directed by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre veteran Tobe Hooper, but crafted by Steven Spielberg (we can argue about that later), Poltergeist is a film that has affected me deeply in different ways at different points in my life.  It remains one of the best films of the genre, darned near a masterpiece of spiritual and familial terror.

I was near the tender age of 5 when I first saw the film, as it aired on broadcast TV for the first time.  For some unknown reason, my parents felt I was up for the experience.  After all, it was rated PG; a rating that was clearly inaccurate for the terrors and occasional gore on-screen.  However, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and the furor surrounding its’ gore was still two years away, and thus the MPAA had yet to develop the PG-13 rating.  I remember feigning my bravest face after it was over, wanting my parents to continue bestowing those special privileges upon me.  Inside, my stomach churned.  Like any child that dealt with a menacing-looking tree, static on an analog television, or a creepy stuffed animal their family thrust upon them, it was clear that Poltergeist spoke directly to me.

As I learned later in life, that may have been close to Spielberg’s intention.  Like E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, released a week later in 1982, he framed this story through the lens of a child’s experience.  Children can be easily frightened by stuffed animals, or thunderstorms, dark closets, or even a misshapen tree.  Parents generally try to assuage them, and over time they overcome those irrational fears.  Poltergeist is intimately aware of those fears, and they’re all systematically brought to life in the film.  The scary tree will eat you, clowns are evil, and the closet literally will come after you.  In this film, the cozy comforts of a friendly neighborhood and a cookie-cutter home cannot save you.  From a parent’s perspective, all the safeguards we build up around our children, all the rules about talking to strangers, the fears we allay in our kids- this film boots them to the side, praying on our “parent” brain as well.  The film begins with that innocent, sweet tone, slowly lurking in the shadows to take everything precious and stomp on it.

Spielberg and crew made a smart, timely film that tore into the very fabric of baby boomers’ suburban dreams.  Representing the now aging demographic is Steven Freeling (Nelson). He’s the consummate post-hippie salesman father, passively parenting his children, selling carbon copy real estate like an old pro, escaping in aggressive Sunday football parties and beers with the exuberance of a frat boy.  His wife Diane (Williams), still riding that wave of hippie bliss, has yet to encounter her primal, maternal self at the beginning of the film.  Perhaps it’s the pot residue, but the most trying thing she seems to encounter are misplaced clothes and the death of the family bird.  They’re living the dream, or at least the Reaganomics version of the dream.  Even their kids are cute and relatively well-behaved, if not also blissfully unaware.  The dynamic can be summed up in a scene where Carol Anne (O’Rourke) is gently chided for staring at static on the screen for it will “hurt her eyes”; Diane changes the channel, apparently fine with the war film now on the tube instead.  Oh, the irony!

Then it starts to happen.  Carol Anne is caught talking to the ‘TV people’ in the dead of the night, the house appears to quake, and household objects move themselves.  At first, Steven and Diane think it neat, like a trippy magic trick; then comes the menace of the trippy magic trick, the snatching of the ‘WASP’ dream.  Carol Anne is taken somewhere, Robbie (Robins) is nearly devoured, and Dana (Dunne) is hysterical.  Steven, against his beliefs, consults a parapsychology team at the local college.  This motley crew, led by Dr. Lesh (Straight) and the odd, diminutive Tangina (Rubenstein), quickly learn that the Freeling’s predicament far exceeds the excitement of a time-lapse video.  In the span of fifteen minutes in the film, we go from seeing this relatively normal family deal with a standard, nighttime thunderstorm to being completely strung out in immeasurable grief, pleading with pseudo-science for assistance. This paranormal spirit that envelops the Freeling house succeeds in luring the family into a false sense of security, then it viscerally “breaks on through to the other side”.  What follows is a series of unexpected, thrilling, deeply moving scenes that play with the notions of life, death, instinct, and fear.

Of course the audience knows that something wicked cometh their way, for Jerry Goldsmith’s brilliant and sinister musical composition wonderfully telegraphs it.  The innocent chants of a children’s chorus, coupled with precocious flutes, played against the backdrop of the Cuesta Verde neighborhood, slowly give way to shrill, treacherous brasses that signal the forthcoming evil.  I remember this score more than most; perhaps because, like Spielberg, Goldsmith created something that might exist in the mind of a child.  Just as the film covers a checklist of my childhood fears, the score is the soundtrack of my childhood dreams, full of light and dark.

It’s also important to focus on the film’s outstanding performances.  For all of the sadness and punch lines that surrounded this cast over time, everyone is superb here.  Both of the younger actors, especially O’Rourke, perfectly depict the innocence and real, palpable fright essential to their roles.  Nelson, as recognizable as he and his booming voice are, works well as the spaced-out dad forced into action.  Williams breathes life and guts into Diane, lending an honesty to a character that we weren’t entirely sure could handle the stress at first.  As a parent now, it tears me apart to hear her lament “she went through my soul”, syrupy words aside.   Beatrice Straight, the veteran stage actor, grounds the film in the middle of the chaos by patiently delivering a touching monologue about life and death.  It’s simple, sure, but it doesn’t pander.  Zelda Rubenstein’s most recognized role was Tangina Barrons, and for good reason; her odd, stern way of squeaking out lines drew ever so close to camp without crossing that line.

Tangent to the film itself is the much-publicized aura surrounding it, including the deaths of Dominique Dunne, Heather O’Rourke, and others involved with the original trilogy.  The idea that the films were ‘cursed’ became something of a Hollywood legend, as did the story that real skeletons were used in the original’s pool scenes.  To boot, the notion that Spielberg literally directed the film has been debated for some time.  Despite Hooper’s credit as director, this movie does walk and talk like a Spielberg film, to the point where the Director’s Guild of America actually investigated the matter, leading to an open letter decrying the rumor by Spielberg himself.  We also know that Poltergeist exists in the pop culture ether with a select group of films; be it “they’re here”, “go into the light”, or “this house is clean”, many of the film’s moments and lines have been spoofed, hinted at, or quoted; few are those who cannot point out a Poltergeist tidbit.

The critical mass when this film arrived on the scene was generally positive, but still underwhelming.  As strongly as I have praised it here, I’m left with the feeling that Poltergeist is remembered well, yet may actually be underrated as a film.  That horror films tend to suffer from an aversion to praise may be in part to blame, but it seems as though the film’s influence on pop culture may have distracted some from seeing the film’s quality.  Those that see this today for the first time may not agree with my assessment of this film.  That could be based on comparisons to today’s thrillers combined with pre-existing ideas, but that is not an indication that the film aged poorly.  It genuinely seems to be a film that many look back on fondly, without the need to lament its’ age.  In addition, I find Poltergeist to be more of a “spiritual social commentary thriller” than a horror film anyway.  It bothers to challenge our ideas on a possible ethereal plane of existence, it asks what lengths a family might go to in order to save one of their own, and it threatens the dreams of the baby boomer generation.

Every child of the 80’s can see a little bit of themselves in a film like this, which lends to the film sticking in our minds.  Robbie’s side of the bedroom looked exactly like, well, my room.  That gnarly tree looked strikingly similar to a gnarly tree in my yard, right behind my bedroom window.  His fears were my fears.  Heck, I couldn’t sleep with the door closed for years, for every time I saw light through the door frame, I was convinced a spook awaited me.  Consequently, Steven and Diane’s realized fears as parents ended up mirroring my fears as well.  It touches at the very core of our parental instincts, like the desire to protect our children at any cost, even if it means confronting the ‘Beast’, or how mad we’ll dash to them when we sense danger (and how long that journey seems, no matter the distance).  Poltergeist is a film that seems to have crawled out of my childhood dreams and onto the screen- then back into my head as a parent, solidifying my opinion of it as a timeless classic.  Is it possible that I’m putting too much on the film, and the actual result is weaker that I give it credit?  Sure.  It’s also possible that Spielberg, Hooper, and crew simply captured lightning in a bottle, making a film that exceeded even their own expectations.  Time has been kind to Poltergeist, which has grown into an eminently watchable, smart, visceral thriller that aged far better than this writer.

The Film Fan Perspective’s Top 5 Best & Worst Horror/Monster Movies

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I’ve had this blog going since June 2013, and it’s been pretty standard fare thus far- movie reviews, trailer reviews, and a bit of news discussion.  What I’d like to present are more ‘feature’ stories, like this one.  It seems appropriate to do something special for this blog to commemorate the Halloween season.  Thus, I put a list together of my top/favorite 5 best and my 5 worst/most hated horror/monster movies, in countdown form.  Keep in mind, I haven’t seen the entire library of the genre (especially foreign horror cinema), but compared to the general population, definitely more than average.  My criteria?  Scary doesn’t necessarily mean gory, and scariest doesn’t necessarily mean best.  I simply have ranked by the least to most effective at scaring me. Enjoy, and please feel free to give me your feedback- in the form of a comment here, on Facebook, or Twitter (@FFPerspective), OR feel free to visit the “I Hate Critics” podcast website (ihatecritics.net), where this blog and other movie goodness awaits.  After all, we did just complete a special podcast commemorating the holiday and scary movies in general.

 

The 5 Worst

5. The Hills Have Eyes (2006): Pardon my language, but this film is such a depraved piece of absolute shit that I barely made it through my one and only viewing.  Call it torture porn, horror, slasher, whatever floats your boat- it still is the single most unnecessary piece of garbage I’ve ever watched.  That doesn’t make it the worst, for I believe it may have done what it intended to do (make the viewer feel bad about the world), and thus it must somehow retain some level of artistic merit to someone out there.  I mean, they kill off a baby, but somehow director Alexandre Aja thinks that by holding the death off-camera that he deserves credit for withholding.  No, it’s just as awful.  And unnecessary.

4. The Entire Friday the 13th series: The first film, in which the actual ‘slasher’ turns out to be Jason’s mother anyways, is considered a ‘classic’ by some.  I don’t quite understand why, for all we get with these are cheap Halloween knockoffs- teens do stupid ‘teen’ things, and basically pass the time messing around with each other and drinking until it’s their turn to be stabbed by a lumbering guy in a hockey mask.  The sequels bring more of the same, just in a different setting- including SPACE (Jason X).  Apparently, Freddy vs. Jason is interesting, but I lost the capacity to care after Jason ‘took’ Manhattan.

3. Evil Dead 1&2: I don’t quite understand the passion for these films, despite my attempts to hear everyone’s opinion.  Is it hype that led to my disappointment?  Possibly.  Is it the fact that neither of these are scary whatsoever, and bordered on being a complete waste of my time?  Certainly.  Director Sam Raimi gets far too much credit for these films; simply making something presentable out of a minuscule budget does not automatically indicate genius, only creativity out of desperation.  Let’s not forget that “2” is basically an exact remake of the first, and that Bruce Campbell’s “Ash” character is simply a spoof.  Perhaps if I’d been introduced to these as pure comedies I may have tempered by expectations; however, all I heard was how ‘awesome’ (direct quote) these films were.  It’s either completely over my head or they are that bad.  Now, the 2013 remake?  That I enjoyed.  Because it was a horror movie.  That was horrific.

2. Event Horizon: I hate this film in general, but mostly for the ‘gut punch of trickery’ that forever amateur director Paul W.S. Anderson delivers about halfway through this travesty.  The pseudo-science and concerned faces on the likes of Sam Neill and Laurence Fishburne were acceptable enough, and the film’s space/sci-fi sheen brought about enough trust until THAT MOMENT.  If you’ve seen this, you know what I’m talking about.  Why a writer would take an audience to the ends of the universe, fold space, and then give up by calling the destination ‘Hell’ is beyond me.  My guess?  Laziness, or the lack of conviction to come up with an alternate conclusion.  It’s a waste of a solid premise, and for that alone, I hate this film.

1. The Blair Witch Project: Some call this found footage pioneer a horror classic, citing the buildup of tension and the frantic last few minutes as a blueprint for the ‘scary’ movie.  I focus on the constant arguments amongst three people who don’t know each other, the shakiness of the hand-held camera, the parlor-trick ‘scares’ in the woods, and the utter lack of a Blair Witch.  I get it, that’s supposed to open up possibilities for what actually taunts these three people, but after putting up with the sad sacks for 75 minutes, I wanted something, anything, to pay me back in scares for the time I invested.  I’m still waiting.

*Dishonorable mention to: the entire Hellraiser series, Rosemary’s Baby, The Ring (2002), The Omen (1975), The Human Centipede 1&2, Fright Night (1985), Exorcist II: The Heretic, and The Happening.

 

The 5 Best

5. Poltergeist/The Exorcist– It is impossible to leave The Exorcist off this list, but also impossible to bump my favorite ‘scary’ film in Poltergeist. We’ll call it a draw.  As for The Exorcist, I can honestly say that nothing prepared me for this movie.  I wasn’t even fully aware of what ‘demonic possession’ meant at the time.  Imagine my surprise when I saw this for the first time at 19 in a friend’s dorm room.  I wouldn’t call it scary, per se, but shocking for sure.  From the beginning of the film, with the excavation of an apparently dark relic, to the ghastly abuse the demon inflicts on Linda Blair’s Regan character, The Exorcist is not only very effective as a horror film, it succeeds on such a grand level for being so low-key and forthright in its’ presentation, as well as the undertones of losing faith and God in general.

Poltergeist is an entirely different ballgame.  It’s scary and oozes nostalgia (thanks, Spielberg).  I saw it at age 5, and everything that bothered me then is in this film.  Scary-looking tree in the backyard?  Check.  Creepy toy that you’re 100% positive will attack you?  Check.  Looking under the bed for monsters?  Check.  Lightning and thunder?  Check.  A sibling going missing?  Check.  Your child going missing?  Check.  A predator chasing your child?  Check.  House sucked into a void?  Check.  Disappearing into your closet?  Check.  Real-life tragedies surrounding the franchise?  Check.  You get the idea that Poltergeist touches on some of our most primal fears as both adults and children, and somehow comes off as even slightly believable.  I feel that’s because Spielberg (as well as brilliant composer Jerry Goldsmith) has his name all over this classic, and he knows how to create characters and give them a full life we identify with in two short hours.  It has meant different things to me at different times, evolving into one of my all-time favorites.

4. Alien– I have multiple thoughts on this movie, and it warrants a full-scale review at some point.  For the purposes of this list, I’ll just say that no film before it OR after it has captured the same visceral reaction from me.  In fact, this was my intro to the genre, at roughly 8 years old.  My parents built this movie up so much that I had a knot in my stomach, and that feeling didn’t relent until sometime after the film ended.  I literally cowered as Kane writhed about the table, and held my throbbing chest as Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley tears through the Nostromo on her way to the shuttle.  Ridley Scott’s first major movie is still perhaps his best- a moody, claustrophobic, organic, and quite frankly, awesome film that stands the test of time, which also gave rise to the modern female hero, spawning countless imitators, including several entries in the same franchise.  This made such an impact that a simple scene that takes place in the derelict ship grew in legend, spawning an entire movie 33 years later- 2012’s Prometheus and likely its’ sequel.

3. The Mist–  Despite his occasional bout with being difficult to work with (reportedly), Frank Darabont is truly a savant when it comes to bringing Stephen King’s work to screen.  The Mist is no different- simple, yet terrifying.  The contrast between simple, God-fearing townspeople and the nightmarish creatures they encounter is the hallmark of this story, which combines the supernatural with an all-too-realistic portrayal of a situation where humans get frightened and turn on each other.  The monsters are there, sure, but more frightening is how the paranoia, spearheaded by Marcia Gay Harden’s Bible-filth spewer, spreads like a disease.  The ending, lauded by some and decried by others, is simply a gut-punch to me, sucking the joy out of life.  The Mist, like few other films, creates an impending sense of dread that never relents.  For a film that primarily takes place in a supermarket, it seems larger in scope, a clear illustration of its’ brilliance.

2. The Descent– This small little flick didn’t register for me until I saw it on the shelf for rent.  The DVD artwork sold me- a woman emerging from what appeared to be a literal blood bath as if being born.  I went home, watched it unfold, and found my subconscious cowering in a dark corner along with the rest of the film’s motley crew.  If you’ve ever gone spelunking, you may understand that feeling of claustrophobia.  If you’ve ever had a dream, you may understand that feeling of monsters lurking in corners.  If you’ve ever had a fear of heights, you may understand that light-headed feeling that overcomes you like a wave of fear.  Combine all of these things, including endless chasms and cannibalism, and you have a general idea of The Descent.  I love that this film doesn’t relent, and at least bothers to take itself seriously.

1. The Thing’ (1982)– John Carpenter’s Magnum Opus is the quintessential horror film for me, even if it’s a remake.  A group of ‘manly men’ alone in Antarctica are systematically hunted by a being that can imitate them.  So they’re isolated, in harsh conditions, and inside of a sterile, hostile environment.  What could go wrong?  There are innovative (for the time) effects in this film, combined with the crankiness of Kurt Russell, Keith David, and ol’ Mr. Beetus himself, Wilford Brimley.  There are incredibly frightening ‘boo’ moments, especially involving petri dishes.  There are gross-out moments, including a man’s detached head sprouting spindly legs and walking away.  There are hard to watch moments, including the ‘moistening’ and subsequent imitation of sled dogs.  The impressive, understated score of Ennio Morricone gives the entire film a sinister nature, one which the 2011 prequel couldn’t quite match, despite its’ best efforts.  The ending is also brilliant in that it doesn’t give in to the audience with a tidy resolution.  It’s basically hopeless, which is the general, gut-churning feeling this film gives.  Carpenter might be more famous for Halloween, but his best is The Thing.

*Honorable mention to: Jaws, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Psycho (1960), The Shining, The Conjuring, Halloween (1978), Nosferatu (1922), and Scream.

So.  What’s your favorite scary movie?

Josh Adams

The Film Fan Perspective