I still know some movies that’ll get ya

from email 19 March 2008

I wanted to add some commentary about some movies to follow up on my edgy/gripping/scary films email originally sent 2/03/08 [Previous Post].  Remember that unless I make a statement to the contrary, I am not writing about so-so films in any of these emails.  All the films I am writing about are recommended, of course bearing in mind that you must have an appetite for any such a film as I describe.

In the mid-’90s, two series of “scary” films starring the ultimate young stars of the time were introduced with great success to American filmgoers.  Perhaps you could call these teeny-bopper movies based on the initial target audience, however, they stand on their own merit and have wider appeal.

The first was Scream, 1996, starring Neve Campbell.  This was a really fun movie, campy and comic.  But good camp.  Its characters take an approach to the town happenings (the killings) that cites horror movies.  For example: in one scene, a character is watching some traditional gratuitous horror movie like “Halloween” on TV.  On the TV movie, the killer lurks behind the naive soon-to-be victim.  He is yelling at the TV, “Look behind you, look behind you.”  While he is watching, the real killer has arrived behind him; if he simply turned away from the TV, he would see the masked killer and possibly avert his end.

For added comedy, it also stars the delightful Courteney Cox as a nosy news reporter, paired with (the beginning of their real life pairing?) the young, green and dumb deputy, David Arquette.  But this film does get genuinely scary here and there, though never on the level of The Ring, etc. – there is just too much parody to become that serious.

If you have an unlimited rental agreement, rent Scream and watch at the least the beginning sequence with Drew Barrymore.  It is unforgettable, a masterful scene — cinematic history made with some popcorn on the stove.  And Scream also enters film lore with the famous “Hello, Sidney” line.

This film had a couple sequels which would be recommended if you really like the original, but make sure to watch the original first.  There have been a whole spate of parodies as well, e.g. the Scary Movie enterprise, but it’s a little superfluous since Scream is already a parody of the horror genre while an original twist on it.

* * *

Comedy is absent in the darker-toned I Know What You Did Last Summer, 1997, which I always couple with Scream, even though it’s got a very different tone — though to me, a similar “vibe”.  Its plot has a core of the traditional stalker-killer without a cause of Halloween, Friday the 13th, etc.  Except that the killer does have cause.  It stars Jennifer Love Hewitt and Sarah Michelle Geller, the top starlets of the time.  I really took a liking to this film and recommend it.  It has got a disturbing, dark atmosphere to it, and is genuinely scary.  This is a good one if you want something scary but not too scary; it you don’t want to handle something as heavy as The Butterfly Effect or The Ring.  Also stars Ryan Phillippe and features Anne Heche in a short but very nice couple scenes.  Worth watching for Heche and her fish alone.  Please do not confuse with the sequel, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, which I do not recommend.

Fear, 1996: Reese Witherspoon becomes enamored with Mark Whalberg, both in early roles for them.  I group this one with those above – probably because of the youth of the actors, even though I did not become aware of Fear until just last year, and even though it presents a completely different type of ‘fear’ – this is not a horror movie.  Wahlberg’s perfomance simmers just beneath the surface and creates great underlying tension.  Great film right along the lines of the even greater The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, which I had the good fortune of watching just a couple weeks ago.  Mark Whalberg is one of the best actors of his generation, and is compelling in everything I’ve seen him in.  Fear is shot in Seattle and has some good location shots around the waterways as an added bonus.  Plot is straightforward but effective, a sort of simplified combination that might arise from The Hand… and Cape Fear.

Speaking of those two, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, 1992, was, as I remember, something of sensation at the time, so many of you may have seen it.  But if you have not, it is a clinic in how to make a movie with a great developing plotline and first-rate performances: by the mother, Annabella Sciorra, and the (at first) subtly sinister Rebecca De Mornay.  A slightly flawed masterpiece – a couple plot elements toward the end don’t work 100% for me, but I am being nit-picky here.  Very much in the canon of the genre and a must-see if you have not.

Also essential, Cape Fear (1991; a remake of the 1962 version with Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum) is widely known – there was even a “Simpsons” take on it.  I hope I don’t have to say any more.  But if you haven’t seen it since its release, it is an unflawed masterpiece and worth a fresh look.  With first-rate plot development by Martin Scorsese and top performances by Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange and Juliette Lewis.

* * *

The other night I watched an edge-of-your seat creepfest called Vacancy, which was released in theaters last year.  I saw the preview for this a couple times, so I can give the basic plot.  OK, I lied.  I really don’t want to give any of it away.  Just see it if you want another of those films that will keep that suspenseful tension in you from very close to the start of the movie to the end.  I’ll give just this much: it’s a grungy, realistic twist on the Psycho tale.  And look at the “making of” feature as well – the “generic building” (again, don’t want to give too much away) in which it is shot was built in its entirety as a set twice – both on the soundstage where The Wizard of Oz was shot, and again outside (on location).  A very fast moving film, over before you know it.  Starring Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale, and a just-creepy enough Frank Whaley, our Robby Krieger from The Doors, which I’ll write about some other time.

Vacancy is quite deftly made, in spite of the fact that the Director’s name is Nimrod Antal.  The performances are also very good; somehow Luke Wilson seems more mature than I usually think of him.

* * *

Lastly tonight, and on a very different yet oddly related (to Vacancy) note, I wanted to plug The Mist, which I saw in the theater in Riverside when it was released last year.  I want to give absolutely nothing away about the plot, other than the line “There is something in the mist.”  It’s one of the best uses of CG (computer-generated graphics) I can think of – George Lucas could learn a lesson here regarding the appropriate use of CG.

It is a wonderfully compelling entertainment.  Again, I don’t want to say anything that will give away plot details, but there is a delicious development of the story into a classic parable of human behavior, and it concludes not in one of the many wishy-washy or predictable ways which we’ve come to expect from so many Hollywood productions, but in a way that makes this film continue to reverberate with me.  Highly recommended for when you’re in the mood to see a story where “there’s something out there, and we don’t know what it is, but it’s coming to get us and we don’t like it.”  If you don’t become completely absorbed by this one, I’ll give you a refund.  Based on the Stephen King story, which I guess is terrible if you’ve read the story, unless the movie changed it up enough – but I doubt that.

It’s hard not to write what I really want to about The Mist, especially, and some of the others I’ve mentioned, but I must refrain to prevent giving anything away.  I actually think Vacancy almost gives too much away in the DVD menu screen.

Well, these are movies that have been on my mind and that I’ve put off writing about for too long.  Like I’ve said before, I don’t expect you to run out and watch all these.  This is for your reference, and hopefully your reading pleasure and edification.

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