Film Review: They Live (1988)

Also known as: John Carpenter’s They Live (complete title)
Release Date: November 4th, 1988
Directed by: John Carpenter
Written by: John Carpenter (as Frank Armitage)
Based on: Eight O’Clock In the Morning by Ray Nelson
Music by: John Carpenter, Alan Howarth
Cast: Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster, George “Buck” Flower, Raymond St. Jacques, Peter Jason, Sy Richardson, Susan Blanchard, Norman Alden, Jason Robards III, John Carpenter (voice – uncredited), Al Leong (uncredited)

Alive Films, Larry Franco Productions, Universal Pictures, Carolco Pictures, 94 Minutes

Review:

“I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass… and I’m all out of bubblegum.” – Nada

I remember wanting to see this in the theater so damn badly but no one would take me because I was nine years-old and my family was being really lame about it. To make up for that, I rented the hell out of this when my local video store got their copies in. In fact, I eventually dubbed a copy because that was the benefit of having two VCRs in the ’80s and ’90s. I think I still have it buried in one of my many boxes of old VHS tapes that I haven’t been able to play for fifteen years.

Anyway, They Live is a spectacular film.

While it’s not John Carpenter’s best, it’s pretty high up on the list and it is my favorite film to star wrestling legend “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. Considering that this also has Keith David in it, there’s almost too much testosterone and gravitas that I don’t know how the celluloid didn’t melt from the masculine heat.

The story is pretty simple: “Rowdy” Roddy Piper shows up in town, tries to earn some honest money and work towards the American dream but soon finds out that the world is completely fucked because it’s been taken over by aliens hiding in plain sight. How does he discover this truth? With special sunglasses. Seriously, what the fuck is there not to like about this picture?

Also, this has, hands down, the greatest one-on-one brawl in the entire history of Western cinema. A fight so epic and so perfect that its choreography was stolen for the infamous “Cripple Fight” episode of South Park.

The film also features Meg Foster and her eyes that can melt steel, Buck Flower playing not just a hobo, Carpenter regular Peter Jason, as well as blaxploitation veteran Raymond St. Jacques, the cool Sy Richardson and an uncredited bit part for the greatest motion picture henchman of all-time, Al Leong.

As is usually the case with most Carpenter films, this one benefits greatly from his score. It’s brooding, sets the perfect tone and just has the right kind of vibe to enchant your mind and pull you into this cool and crazy film.

I also like the physical atmosphere in general and how Carpenter used daytime and nighttime as a sort of narrative tool, drawing allusions to the seen world and the unseen world in this story. I also liked how the special sunglasses displayed reality in black and white while the visible world was in full color. I’m not sure if that was decided upon in the initial draft of this story or if it was a convenience in pulling off certain effects that still worked and added another layer of duality.

They Live is just solid, all around. It’s one of those movies I can watch anytime and it’s just cool as hell.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: other John Carpenter films of the ’80s.

Film Review: The Thing (1982)

Also known as: John Carpenter’s The Thing (complete title)
Release Date: June 25th, 1982
Directed by: John Carpenter
Written by: Bill Lancaster
Based on: Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell Jr.
Music by: Ennio Morricone
Cast: Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, T.K. Carter, David Clennon, Keith David, Richard Dysart, Charles Hallahan, Peter Maloney, Richard Masur, Donald Moffat, Joe Polis, Thomas G. Waites, Adrienne Barbeau (voice, uncredited), John Carpenter (cameo, uncredited)

Turman-Foster Company, Universal Pictures, 109 Minutes, 127 Minutes (extended VHS cut)

Review:

“We’re gonna draw a little bit of everybody’s blood… ’cause we’re gonna find out who’s The Thing. Watchin’ Norris in there gave me the idea that… maybe every part of him was a whole, every little piece was an individual animal with a built-in desire to protect its own life. Ya see, when a man bleeds, it’s just tissue, but blood from one of you Things won’t obey when it’s attacked. It’ll try and survive… crawl away from a hot needle, say.” – MacReady

Horror has been my thing since I was a young kid. I think a lot of that has to do with growing up in the ’80s, a great decade for horror movies because of the directors, the VHS market and the variance in horror styles from body horror, slashers and the supernatural. But I think, most importantly, credit has to be given to the style of the special effects, which were still practical and real, as CGI hadn’t taken over and turned everything into a digital world that doesn’t allow you to be as immersed in the horror on screen.

That being said, I didn’t actually see The Thing until I was a teenager in the mid-’90s when I worked at a video store. I was a John Carpenter fan but I didn’t know much about this film till later. I was inspired to watch it based off of some photos of the production and its monster in an old issue of Fangoria that I was flipping through. It looked like nothing I had seen before and I had to borrow it from the store and take it home for the night. That night ended up being a week.

What resulted from that was me becoming a die hard fan of this film and frankly, for me, it is the greatest horror movie ever made for several reasons, all of which I’ll get into.

To start, I’ve never been scared of horror. I actually find more terror in things that can harm me in a real world scenario. For instance, the Night Slasher and his cult-like gang from Sylvester Stallone’s Cobra was scarier to me than Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, which I see as a masterpiece, never scared me even though it was freaky as hell and fucked up. Well, the naked old lady with rotting skin kind of screwed me up for awhile but that’s also because I was maybe a few years older than Danny in the movie when I first saw it.

Anyway, The Thing terrified me, even as a teen. Sure, it doesn’t feel like something that is realistically plausible but it tapped into something primal, as it is about something you never fully understand that can come at you in incalculable ways without you realizing it until you’re ensnared by it. There is just something absolutely dreadful about that and John Carpenter with great help from the stupendous special effects team and the actors was able to crack through my pretty tough exterior and scare the shit out of me. And as a first time watcher of this film, it caught me by surprise and I immediately fell in love with the picture because it made me feel things that I typically don’t from movies.

This brings me to the special effects themselves, as well as the creature. This monster is one of the best, if not the best, ever created for the screen. The imagination that went into the execution of its various, altering physical forms still blows my mind all these years later. I’ve seen this movie a dozen times over and I’m still left breathless in a lot of the key monster scenes. I have also watched special effects films my entire life, especially those from this era, my favorite for this sort of thing, and I don’t know how some of the shots were achieved.

Adding to the horror of the bizarre creature is the horror of human paranoia. As the movie progresses, every character becomes an island unto themselves unable to trust the other men whom they’ve been holed up with at a science research facility in Antarctica for months. What was once a brotherly bond between these men becomes a fight for individual survival against those you considered your friends and colleagues. This is just as much a psychological horror film as it is a physical one. Maybe even more so.

Also, the setting of the film multiplies the dread, as it feels unfamiliar and isolated, which it is. But it immediately sets up a situation where you know that no one can come to help and for better or worse, these men have to figure out this problem on their own with limited resources, limited knowledge and while constantly having to look over their shoulders because anyone or anything could violently kill them at the drop of a hat.

There are so many layers to the horror in this picture that it feels overwhelming, which makes it damn effective. But it also makes for a film that is incredibly intense, especially in the final act, which starts with an insane attack by the creature and culminates in several men tied to chairs as their blood is tested in an effort to figure out who’s been replaced by this “thing”. And all of that comes to a head in a big showdown but even then, we’re left unsure as to what’s what.

The Thing ends brilliantly, as it doesn’t really give you any answers and the two that survive are left in a situation where one of them could still be the creature but it doesn’t even really matter because their time is limited regardless of what happens next.

It’s a perfect ending to a perfect movie though.

When other people talk about this film, they always go on about the monster and how visually fucked up the movie is. But I don’t think enough credit goes to the cast.

The Thing is stacked with talent from Kurt Russell, Keith David, Wilford Brimley and a half dozen other very capable actors. All of the key players have good chemistry and watching their camaraderie dissolve over the course of the movie is troubling and convincing.

Ennio Morricone’s score is also prefect here and what’s really strange about it is that it sounds like a Carpenter score, which is fitting. But it also makes me wonder why Carpenter used Morricone when he usually scores his own movies. While I absolutely love the atmospheric sounds of the score, it’s not typical of Morricone’s style and it just makes me wonder if Carpenter just wanted to collaborate with him because he’s a fucking legend.

John Carpenter’s The Thing is, in my opinion, one of the greatest motion pictures ever made. Horror doesn’t get any respect from the weirdos in Hollywood but I’d put this against most Academy Award winning films because the vast majority of them can’t get into your head like The Thing, despite what genre any of them are.

Those weirdos can keep The Shape of Water because I’d watch The Thing a hundred more times before ever going back for seconds on that pro-bestiality fish fuck movie.

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: the other parts of what Carpenter calls his Apocalypse TrilogyPrince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness, as well as other body horror movies of the era like The Fly and David Cronenberg’s early films.

Documentary Review: Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019)

Release Date: February 7th, 2019
Directed by: Xavier Burgin
Written by: Ashlee Blackwell, Danielle Burrows
Based on: Horror Noire by Robin R. Means Coleman
Music by: Timothy Day
Cast: Robin R. Means Coleman, Ashlee Blackwell, Rusty Cundieff, Keith David, Ernest R. Dickerson, Ken Foree, Richard Lawson, Kelly Jo Minter, Miguel A. Nunez Jr., Paula Jai Parker, Jordan Peele, Ken Sagoes, Tony Todd, Rachel True

Stage 3 Productions, Shudder, 83 Minutes

Review:

I’ve seen quite a few documentaries on the history of horror as well as ones on blaxploitation and grindhouse movies. What makes this a unique film is that it examines the history of black horror, specifically.

This is well organized, fabulously presented and the thing that really gives this a lot of life is all the people that they were able to bring in and chat about the subject matter.

Also, this was told from the perspective of black people. We were able to see how certain things in movie history effected them, which is refreshing when most documentaries that cover black cinema usually feature a lot of white voices trying to interpret what they assume black people were feeling.

I think that this film gave a lot of clarity to the cultural impact of certain horror tropes regarding minority characters, as well as Hollywood tropes about race in general.

Most importantly, this honors the films it features, as well as all the talent that worked behind the scenes and on the screen.

This is a Shudder exclusive but between this, the new Joe Bob Briggs show and all their great horror film selections, you should already be subscribed. Plus, it’s cheaper than all those other streaming services.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: other retrospective documentaries on horror and blaxploitation cinema.

Film Review: Reality Bites (1994)

Release Date: January, 1994 (Sundance)
Directed by: Ben Stiller
Written by: Helen Childress
Music by: Karl Wallinger
Cast: Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke, Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofalo, Steve Zahn, Swoosie Kurtz, Joe Don Baker, John Mahoney, Renee Zellweger, Andy Dick, Keith David, David Spade (uncredited), Anthony Robbins (uncredited), Jeanne Tripplehorn (uncredited)

Jersey Films, Universal Pictures, 99 Minutes

Review:

“You can’t navigate me. I may do mean things, and I may hurt you, and I may run away without your permission, and you may hate me forever, and I know that scares the living shit outta you ’cause you know I’m the only real thing you got.” – Troy Dyer

This was a coming of age movie that I loved when it came out back in 1994. Watching it nearly a quarter of a century later, I hate most of these characters and just see them as the typical “I’m such a cool counterculture ’90s slacker” type. But the reality is, I watched this film about struggling twentysomethings before I was even twenty. Now, being in my thirties and having survived my twenties, it has a very different effect on me now.

All the philosophical rantings are just nonsense. However, what I may have thought were good points when I was an angsty teenager (but I laugh at now) can’t simply be dismissed as shitty dialogue. If anything, this film is a product of ’90s Generation X culture. It certainly isn’t an inaccurate portrayal of it. These ideas, these philosophies and the living hypocrisy of those who espoused it was real. It’s what a big portion of that generation felt and how they saw the world, as they entered it as adults with a very different point-of-view than their Baby Boomer parents.

If anything, this film serves as a real time capsule to the ’90s. And really, are these young people different than those of other generations?

Everything I’m saying isn’t really criticism, it’s just my understanding of these things now. Sure, every young person thought Ethan Hawke was cool in this movie and Winona Ryder was sort of this elven looking ’90s girl next door that everyone was crushing on hard. However, seen outside of twentysomething eyes, they’re not likable characters. They’re selfish, narcissistic, egotistical and complete hypocrites. I couldn’t find myself cheering for them to make it as a couple. In my thirties, I found that I was more interested in Janeane Garofalo and Steve Zahn’s characters, as they actually had more interesting stories, seemed more grounded and were infinitely more likable. I knew that they would turn out okay.

Going back and seeing the things I wrote or put on social media when I was in my twenties is always a cringe worthy experience. So I can’t imagine what these characters would think now, looking back at the documentary Ryder’s Lelaina was creating out of their lives. I hope they all evolved well beyond where they were at this point in their lives.

Primarily, the point of this film is to show what it is like for Gen Xers to be leaving college and trying to make it in the real world. Yeah, it’s tough out there, we all get that if we’ve lived through it without uber rich parents. But that is where I can relate to the film. And also because these were people that weren’t too dissimilar from my friends at the same age. Those who I am still friends with evolved and grew into better people. Those I am no longer friends with stayed the same and still rant on about the same crap that neither makes them cool anymore and just makes them come off as poorly aged turds.

But I still like this movie. I like it because it actually is accurate… scarily accurate. Ben Stiller did a good job behind the camera, especially since he had to split his time with acting duties in this as well. But it is kind of sad to relive life through the experiences of these fictitious characters, now realizing that we were all full of shit.

We had high hopes, all this optimism, we thought we’d change the world and fix the wrongs of our parents generation. However, our parents thought the same thing and so did their parents. “Down with consumerism!” “Hey, let’s order Domino’s!” “Don’t be a fucking sellout, man!” “Hey, some major network wants to buy my show!” And in the end, the world is the same. Maybe a bit worse, actually.

This is definitely more of an analysis of this film’s philosophies and characters and less of an actual review but whatever. I can write what I want because I’m not selling my soul to some corporate sponsored publisher that murders whales and dumps crude oil on the heads of Third World infants, maaan!

Someone pointed out to me that the script was written by a 19 year-old girl. Of course it was. Granted, props to her 19 year-old self (who would be in her forties now) for accomplishing such a feat. Seriously. It’s a film that felt truly authentic. It sadly just shows you that young people mostly suck because life hasn’t made them better yet.

I kind of think Troy just stayed a total starving artist douchebag though. And despite the “happy” ending, he probably still sneaked out the next morning.

Rating: 6.5/10
Pairs well with: SinglesSubUrbiaEmpire RecordsS.F.W. and Clerks.

Film Review: Men at Work (1990)

Also known as: Clear Intent, Pop 65 (working titles)
Release Date: August 24th, 1990
Directed by: Emilio Estevez
Written by: Emilio Estevez
Music by: Stewart Copeland
Cast: Charlie Sheen, Emilio Estevez, Keith David, Leslie Hope, Darrell Larson, Dean Cameron, John Getz, Sy Richardson

Epic Productions, Triumph Releasing Corporation, 98 Minutes

Review:

“There are several sacred things in this world that you don’t ever mess with. One of them happens to be another man’s fries. Now, you remember that, and you will live a long and healthy life.” – Louis

Men at Work was both directed and written by Emilio Estevez. Originally, he had planned to call it Clear Intenet and says that he came up with the idea in the mid-’80s while filming St. Elmo’s Fire. Originally, Estevez wanted it to star himself and another Brat Pack member, Judd Nelson. He also claims that John Hughes was interested in producing it. Charlie Sheen asked to be in the film after reading his brother’s script and feeling like he needed to do a comedy after a string of more serious roles. Estevez, who was busy and filming Young Guns II while editing this picture, wanted to see this pet project through.

While the critical reception was mostly negative to mixed, at the time of the film’s release, it did please fans of Estevez and Sheen and has gone on to be a cult favorite comedy of its era.

It certainly isn’t a classic or a great film but it is charming and amusing. Both brothers have charisma, they are great when together on screen and the addition of Keith David, Dean Cameron and John Getz gave this film a lot of fun characters to play with.

The plot sees two garbage men get caught up in the drama surrounding the murder of a city councilman. There is an evil capitalist type, played by Getz, who is illegally dumping chemicals into the waterways around this coastal Los Angeles suburb. The brothers, who are just friends in the film, run into a bunch of zany characters that get strung along for the ride as well. But none of them are as entertaining as Keith David, who is, let’s be honest, stupendous in everything he does. And frankly, this is one of my favortie David roles of all-time, right alongside They Live… obviously.

Yes, this is a goofy, stupid comedy but that’s its appeal. Estevez didn’t write the funniest or most engaging script but he was able to give us something that worked, was true to the actors involved and felt pretty organic.

The ’80s and ’90s had a lot of dumb buddy comedies. Some of them had cops, some of them had slackers in over their head but it was a really fun genre for a long time. Men at Work just adds to it in a good way.

Rating: 6.5/10
Pairs well with: Young Guns, as the brothers Sheen are united there too. Also, Tango & Cash, the Stakeout movies and Dragnet.

Film Review: Marked For Death (1990)

Also known as: Screwface (working title)
Release Date: October 5th, 1990
Directed by: Dwight H. Little
Written by: Michael Grais, Mark Victor
Music by: James Newton Howard
Cast: Steven Seagal, Joanna Pacula, Keith David, Danny Trejo, Danielle Harris, Kevin Dunn, Peter Jason

Steamroller Productions, 20th Century Fox, 93 Minutes

Review:

“Look upon this madman! Him dead and him don’t even know it!” – Screwface

I’ll be honest, I was never really a Steven Seagal fan. I didn’t dislike him, however. But when I was younger, I was more into Jean-Claude Van Damme because BloodsportKickboxer and Lionheart were just better pictures than anything Seagal put out. However, I did remember liking the one where he fought evil voodoo Jamaicans. So I figured that I would revisit it, all these years later.

Marked For Death isn’t a good movie but it is a passable 1990ish action film. It’s high octane, balls to the wall and well, it features awesome evil voodoo Jamiacans. It also features one of my favorite badasses, not Seagal but Keith David, who will always have a special place in my heart for They Live and The Thing.

The film also features a young Danielle Harris, a still unknown Danny Trejo and a small part by a guy who is in a ton of movies I love, Kevin Dunn.

The story sees a DEA agent come to the realization that he has become just as bad as the criminals he tries to bring down. He quits his job and returns home to decompress. However, his town is overrun by Jamaican drug dealers. Seagal then gets caught up in it and makes it his personal mission to act as a rogue agent and take these bad guys down.

The leader of the baddies is a scary looking voodoo practitioner named Screwface. The guy is legit scary and one of the coolest action movie villains of the era.

There’s guns, explosions, voodoo and all sorts of sinister voodoo trickery. The last act of the film sees Seagal and Keith David track Screwface back to Jamaica for a final showdown. But we get two final showdowns because of some of that sinister voodoo trickery.

Marked For Death is certainly watchable and I’ll be honest, it’s kind of fun. This is the best of the early Seagal movies, as far as I remember, but I’ll probably rework my way through them, as it’s been awhile since I’ve indulged in Mr. Seagal’s flicks.

Rating: 6.25/10