Film Review: Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

Also known as: Burned to Light (working title)
Release Date: May 15th, 2000 (Cannes)
Directed by: E. Elias Merhige
Written by: Steven Katz
Music by: Dan Jones
Cast: John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Cary Elwes, John Aden Gillet, Eddie Izzard, Udo Kier, Catherine McCormack, Ronan Vibert

Saturn Films, Long Shot Pictures, BBC Films, 92 Minutes

Review:

“Death of centuries! Moonchaser! Blasphemer! Monkey! Vase of prehistory. Finally to Earth, and finally born.” – F. W. Murnau

I don’t know what it is about Nosferatu but every film within its grasp is great, whether that’s the original 1922 silent film, the 1979 remake or this, a movie that appears to be a biopic about F. W. Murnau and the production of the original Nosferatu but is actually a fictional reimagining that makes Murnau a vicious tyrant behind the camera and his star a real vampire.

Obviously, this isn’t the true story of the making of Nosferatu but it is one hell of a fun ride through an alternate dimension. It’s also well written, stupendously acted and features incredible makeup, great set recreations, as well as several tropes and techniques from the silent era reworked with great care into this modern picture.

I love this film and from the moment I saw it in 2001 or so, it quickly became one of my all-time favorite vampire pictures. It also solidified my love and respect for the talents of John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe. In fact, Dafoe would get an Academy Award nomination for this role. The film was also nominated for makeup.

Beyond those two, the rest of the cast is also superb. I especially liked Udo Kier in this and it’s one of my favorite roles he’s played over his very long and storied career. Additionally, Eddie Izzard, Catherine McCormack, Cary Elwes and Aden Gillet all put in memorable performances, each adding so much complexity and nuance to the overall production.

The director, E. Elias Merhige, hasn’t done a whole lot over the years and the only other film of his I’ve seen is Suspect Zero. I remember enjoying it at the time but this movie is certainly his magnum opus. I’m not sure why he doesn’t make more movies but as great as this one is, his lack of motion pictures feels like a great loss for cinema.

Shadow of the Vampire is pretty close to perfect from top-to-bottom and it’s just a neat, clever story featuring one of the best monsters that has ever graced the silver screen. Dafoe actually is perfect and the brightest spot in this already bright film. Malkovich is damn good, as well, and the two have incredible chemistry. They’re both villainous and it’s just interesting watching this play out, trying to see which one is the greater villain, overall.

In real life, however, Murnau was said to be great to work for and a very sensitive artist. Also, Max Schreck wasn’t a blood sucking murderer, as he’d go on to live a married life while enjoying success in many films outside of just Nosferatu.

Despite this not being real, it makes me wish that there were more movies like this. Films that would take something really cool from history and just do something bonkers but respectable with it.

Although, I guess that’s what makes this motion picture so unique and so special. It truly feels like one of a kind and it was crafted with a genuine love of the original film it tapped into.

Rating: 9.5/10
Pairs well with: the two Nosferatu movies, as well as Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Film Review: End of Days (1999)

Release Date: November 16th, 1999 (US premiere)
Directed by: Peter Hyams
Written by: Andrew W. Marlowe
Music by: John Debney
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gabriel Byrne, Robin Tunney, Kevin Pollak, Rod Steiger, CCH Pounder, Derrick O’Connor, Miriam Margolyes, Udo Kier, Mark Margolis

Lucifilms, Beacon Pictures, 122 Minutes

Review:

“How do you expect to defeat me when you are but a man, and I am forever?” – Satan

This may be the worst Arnold Schwarzenegger movie I have ever seen. It’s truly deplorable on just about every level. Granted, it did give the world that awesome “choir boy” line.

I’m sure there are a few worse Schwarzenegger movies, as he’s made a lot and a good amount of the later ones are shit, but I tend to stick to his ’80s and early ’90s stuff. There are still a handful (or slightly more) that I’ve never seen due to a lack of interest on my part. Honestly, everything after Eraser, kind of just blends into a big blur.

That being said, this is the first time that I’ve watched this film in its entirety, as I just didn’t have much interest in it back when it came out in late 1999, at the dawn of the new millennium.

Also, at the time, these “end of days” movies were coming out in droves, as the fear of Y2K and the new millennium in general spawned a huge resurgence in religious horror. From memory, none of them were all that good, except for maybe The Devil’s Advocate but it’s been so long since I’ve seen that one.

End of Days just sort of follows the trend of the time but throws in Arnold and tries to give it an action movie twist, as opposed to just being about religious horror.

The movie was originally written to be a vehicle for Tom Cruise. I assume that he read the script and ran because he eventually said “no” and then went off to film Magnolia, which was a really wise decision. There were also three casting changes with the lead female character. It eventually went to Robin Tunney, who I like in just about everything, but the role was first given to Liv Tyler and then Kate Winslet; both dropped out.

There were production issues in locking down a director too, as it was offered to both Sam Raimi and Guillermo del Toro but they turned it down to focus on their original projects. Marcus Nispel was hired, at one point, but he dropped out due to issues with the script. The studio finally brought in Peter Hyams, who was coming off of The Relic and two Jean-Claude Van Damme flicks: Sudden Death and Timecop but was probably most famous for directing The Presidio, 2010 and Outland, a space western with Sean Connery.

However, despite all these early production issues, they really aren’t the biggest problems with this movie.

The script is just detestable. It’s really bad. It’s cookie cutter, generic, “Satan comes to Earth” schlock of the cheapest and lamest caliber. It’s not a good story, it’s derivative as hell and simply wedging action into the plot doesn’t make it cool or even salvageable. Frankly, all the twists are predictable and you can sleep through most of the movie without waking up, feeling lost.

What’s even worse than the script are the special effects. This has some of the worst CGI effects I’ve ever seen in a big budget movie, even for the time. The stealth armor effects of Predator, which predates this by twelve years, blows this out of the water in regards to its “invisible” Satan scenes.

Additionally, the big CGI Satan is laughably bad and it completely wrecks the final battle within the movie.

There’s honestly a lot I could pick apart about End of Days but to put it simply and to wrap this up, it’s just lowest common denominator horseshit and even though Schwarzenegger has made some real crap in his career, the guy deserved better than this.

Rating: 3/10
Pairs well with: all the other religious horror that was running rampant around the turn of the millennium.

Film Review: Blade (1998)

Also known as: Blade, the Vampire Slayer (working title), Blade: The Daywalker (Norway, Denmark, Finland), Blade: Cazador de vampiros (Mexico, Argentina, Brazil)
Release Date: August 19th, 1998 (premiere)
Directed by: Stephen Norrington
Written by: David S. Goyer
Based on: Blade by Marv Wolfman, Gene Colan
Music by: Mark Isham
Cast: Wesley Snipes, Kris Kristofferson, Stephen Dorff, N’Bushe Wright, Donal Logue, Udo Kier, Sanaa Lathan, Arly Jover, Traci Lords, Jeff Imada (uncredited)

Amen Ra Films, Imaginary Forces, Marvel Enterprises, New Line Cinema, 120 Minutes, 110 Minutes (cut)

Review:

“Some motherfuckers are always trying to ice skate uphill.” – Blade

Revisiting Blade has been long overdue but I’m glad that I finally did.

While I loved this movie, back in the day, I think I like it even more now. Maybe that’s because it is the least formulaic Marvel movie ever made and because it is just so balls to the wall badass that every time I watch it, I sprout another testicle.

Wesley Snipes is a man’s man and he’s got no time for some prissy ass bullshit. He just fucks shit up, does a cool pose, fucks up more shit, smiles and then fucks up whatever shit he hasn’t yet fucked up.

Also, this stars another man’s man in the legendary Kris Kristofferson. Add in Udo Kier, Donal Logue and Stephen Dorff being the best he’s ever been and you’ve got one hell of a cast. I also love the small role for Traci Lords, the coolness of Arly Jover and the loveliness of N’Bushe Wright.

Almost everything in this film feels right. The only real hiccup is some of the really dated CGI effects that didn’t look great even in 1998. But I can look past that, as this flick is one of the coolest comic book movies ever put to celluloid.

The script is great, the characters have real depth and the movie has perfect pacing.

There aren’t any dull moments and the action is aplenty, even with the story itself being pretty rich and layered.

Although, I don’t entirely understand Duncan Frost’s evil plan to turn the entire population of Earth into vampires because that would leave them without food. But hey, maybe the high tech vampires have a lab where they can clone and mass produce human blood. So my brain can just file that away as a plot point from a deleted scene I’ll never see.

One thing that really works well in this movie is the music. It hits the right notes, provides the right tone and propels the action sequences to another level. The soundtrack is mostly made up of hip-hop and techno or a hybrid of the two. In fact, I feel like this may have had an effect on the production of The Matrix, which came out a year later.

All in all, Blade is a fantastic comic book adaptation and in a lot of ways, I think it exceeds the source material, as the Blade character wasn’t all that popular before the movie and his interpretation in the film would go on to alter him in the comics themselves.

Rating: 9/10
Pairs well with: the Blade sequels, as well as other ’90s action films with Snipes.

Film Review: Grindhouse (2007)

While I have seen both Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror and Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof multiple times, I never got to see the full-length version of Grindhouse until now.

When it came out in 2007, only one theater near me carried it and it wasn’t there very long, so I missed it. Also, the films were released separately, as expanded editions, when they hit store shelves. There wasn’t a full version of Grindhouse available after its theatrical run.

When I subscribed to Starz via my Amazon Fire Stick, I saw that the full version of the movie was available and thus, I could finally rectify this cinematic injustice. I’m really glad that I did because these films actually play much better in this format, as double-billed companion pieces to one another.

Plus, I finally got to see the trailers, as a part of this overall experience, even though I have seen them on YouTube multiple times since 2007.

Robert Rodriguez’s trailer for Machete was a highlight of the film and it was so good that it became its own motion picture and then expanded into a franchise. Rob Zombie’s Werewolf Women of the SS trailer was interesting enough, as a trailer, but doesn’t seem like something that will work as a full-length feature. The same can be said for Edgar Wright’s Don’t. Now Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving should be made into a full-length slasher film in the same vein as Machete. Roth has hinted at making it and I hope he eventually does.

This film also spawned a contest for fans to make fake trailers in the grindhouse style. This lead to the full-length feature Hobo With A Shotgun, which was a hell of a lot of fun. I need to re-watch it and review it in the near future.

Moving beyond the fake trailers, we have the two big films that make up the bulk of the Grindhouse experience. So let me get into each film and discuss them on their own.

Planet Terror (2007):

Release Date: April 6th, 2007
Directed by: Robert Rodriguez
Written by: Robert Rodriguez
Music by: Robert Rodriguez
Cast: Rose McGowan, Freddy Rodriguez, Michael Biehn, Jeff Fahey, Josh Brolin, Marley Shelton, Stacy Ferguson, Bruce Willis, Naveen Andrews, Electra Avellan, Elise Avellan, Quentin Tarantino, Tom  Savini, Michael Parks

Rodriguez International Pictures, Troublemaker Studios, Dimension Films, 103 Minutes

Review:

“Now you’ve got a gal in your wrecked truck with a missing leg? A missing leg that’s now missing?” – Sheriff Hague

Planet Terror has always been my favorite of the two movies in Grindhouse. That still stands, as I love just about everything about it. It may even be my favorite Robert Rodriguez picture but it is a close race between this, From Dusk Till Dawn, Machete and Once Upon A Time In Mexico.

The film is essentially a zombie outbreak movie but it is really gross, even for that genre. People’s faces start bubbling into puss and there is a lot of blood and other strange bodily fluids oozing out of people throughout the movie. There are also lots of severed testicles and a melting penis. It’s a gross movie but it is still well done and it doesn’t overtake the picture making it a mindless gore festival.

Planet Terror has a lot of depth and character development for a movie loaded with a ton of people. Everyone has an interesting story and it is cool seeing it all play out as these people eventually come together in an effort to escape the growing threat of a zombie apocalypse.

It also really fits the old school 1970s exploitation style of horror pictures that populated grindhouse theaters in big cities. The cinematography really captures the right vibe and kudos to the extra graininess and inconsistent look of different shots in the same sequences.

The practical effects also work well in making this film fit the grindhouse mold. Sometimes there is obvious CGI and it is a reminder that this isn’t a true 70s grindhouse picture but it isn’t a distraction and it serves its purpose well enough.

The cast is also phenomenal. I remember that when I first saw this, that I hoped it would open up doors for Freddy Rodriguez. He’s still not anywhere close to being a household name but his character of El Wray should reappear in some way, in some other Rodriguez picture. He’s a guy too cool to just be confined to this one movie.

This is also my favorite thing that Rose McGowan has ever done. Plus you get a very evil Josh Brolin, an enchanting Marley Shelton, a bad ass Michael Biehn, plus Michael Parks, Tom Savini, Bruce Willis, Lost‘s Naveen Andrews and Quentin Tarantino as his most despicable character to date. Jeff Fahey, who is always stellar, really kills it in this movie as J.T. the Texas B-B-Q king. Also, Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas has never looked better.

Planet Terror is unique, even for a film in a tired genre. It takes the zombie formula and ups the ante in every way possible. Rodriguez made a fine picture that should be mentioned alongside other great zombie classics.

Rating: 8/10

Death Proof (2007):

Release Date: April 6th, 2007
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Written by: Quentin Tarantino
Music by: Rachel Levy, Jack Nitzsche, Mary Ramos
Cast: Kurt Russell, Rosario Dawson, Vanessa Ferlito, Jordan Ladd, Rose McGowan, Sydney Tamiia Poitier, Tracie Thoms, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Zoe Bell, Eli Roth, Quentin Tarantino, Michael Parks, James Parks, Marley Shelton

Troublemaker Studios, Dimension Films, 114 Minutes

Review:

“Because it was a fifty fifty shot on wheter you’d be going left or right. You see we’re both going left. You could have just as easily been going left, too. And if that was the case… It would have been a while before you started getting scared. But since you’re going the other way, I’m afraid you’re gonna have to start getting scared… immediately!” – Stuntman Mike

When I first saw Death Proof, it didn’t resonate with me. I mean, I enjoyed it enough but it just didn’t compare to the work that Quentin Tarantino did before it. I still feel this way but I have more of an appreciation for the film now. Also, seeing it in the Grindhouse format, which is more condensed, serves the film better.

The problem I initially had with the film, and some of Tarantino’s other pictures, is that it is way too talky. Sure, he writes great dialogue but sometimes it can run on for far too long. Death Proof in its longer running time falls victim to this. The condensed Grindhouse version, however, is better balanced.

Another problem with the film, is that many of the characters just aren’t likable. This is especially true for the first group of girls we meet. At least the second group felt more like friends and their conversations came across as more natural and authentic.

Kurt Russell initially knocks it out of the park as the killer driver, Stuntman Mike. However, as the film and his character evolves, he completely loses the cool bad ass shtick and becomes a giant whining weeny. His character transformation isn’t a bad thing, it is just how it is executed that makes it a problem.

The one thing that really makes this a cool picture, however, is the cars and the stunts. Tarantino selected some seriously bad ass automobiles that were homages to films that influenced him. The stunt work and action was amazing and the sequence of the first major accident was shot and executed stupendously.

The problem with the film, being that it is supposed to be a grindhouse throwback, is that it needed more balls-to-the-wall mayhem and less chit chat. The fact that this has a lot more dialogue than Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror but somehow can’t develop characters as well is pretty baffling. Tarantino would just rather focus on cool conversations on subjects that directly interest him than to have any sort of meaningful character development. You just don’t care about these people in the same way you care about those in Planet Terror.

Regardless of my criticisms, I do still like this movie. But to be honest, I still think it is the worst film in Quentin Tarantino’s oeuvre. Granted, that doesn’t mean much, as everything he’s done has been fairly great in some way.

In the end, this is still entertaining as hell and who doesn’t love muscle car chaos and kick ass chicks?

Rating: 7/10

Additional directorial credits:

Robert Rodriguez – Machete trailer
Rob Zombie – Werewolf Women of the SS trailer
Edgar Wright – Don’t trailer
Eli Roth – Thanksgiving trailer

Additional acting credits from the fake trailer segments: Danny Trejo, Nicolas Cage, Sheri Moon Zombie, Cheech Marin, Udo Kier, Tom Towles, Sybil Danning, Bill Moseley, Will Arnett, Nick Frost, Rafe Spall, Jason Issacs, Simon Pegg, Peter Serafinowicz

Film Review: Suspiria (1977)

Release Date: February 1st, 1977 (Italy)
Directed by: Dario Argento
Written by: Dario Argento, Daria Nicolodi
Based on: Suspiria de Profundis by Thomas De Quincey
Music by: Goblin, Dario Argneto
Cast: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci, Miguel Bosé, Alida Valli, Joan Bennett, Barbara Magnolfi, Udo Kier

Seda Spettacoli, Produzioni Atlas Consorziate, International Classics, 98 Minutes

suspiriaReview:

Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of Dario Argento’s fantastic picture Suspiria. While I have seen the film many times and this website’s name Cinespiria is even inspired by the film, I had to watch it again, on its anniversary. Frankly, it isn’t a film that I could ever get tired of and it lead me down the path of exploring Italian horror as well as the colorful and suspenseful giallo genre.

While not exactly a giallo picture, Suspiria has strong giallo elements, especially in its visual style and with the inclusion of what seems like a slasher-like serial killer during two key parts of the film. Directors Dario Argento, Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci were the maestros of giallo. Argento’s Suspiria just fits in so well with the classics of that genre, despite the added elements of supernatural horror and witchcraft.

Even if, for some strange reason, someone doesn’t like this movie, its gorgeous color palate and mesmerizing surreal world has to be appreciated. Suspiria plays like a sinister dream with shocking and horrifying twists and turns as it builds suspense in a way that very few films can. It is a vibrant and haunting fairy tale that somehow manages to be a perfect balance of horror and beauty.

One could argue that Suspiria is a film that values style over substance but the substance is still very good. The story plays out nicely and it is well-paced. The movie is only 98 minutes but it feels like so much happens in that time. Some sequences seem to be drawn out but ultimately, it serves the film greatly, as the suspense reaches fairly extreme levels.

Suspiria, in a nutshell, is the story of an American girl who travels to a professional dance school outside of Munich, Germany. While there, she has very weird experiences and slowly discovers that the school is a front for a coven of sinister witches.

Jessica Harper is the perfect lead for this movie. She was beautiful yet intelligent and had a real charm to her. She was an innocent girl introduced to a horrifying reality but despite her overwhelming fear, was able to come off as a strong and tough female, in a time when that was rare in film. She was the precursor to the American scream queens that would dominate horror pictures once Jamie Lee Curtis appeared a year later in Halloween.

Eva Axén, who played the first victim in the film, had a classic old world beauty to her and regardless of her short screen time, really hit it out of the park, as she was brutally murdered on the rooftop of an opulent apartment complex.

The other young girls in the film were standard fare: nothing special, nothing extraordinary.

The two actresses that really nailed their roles were Alida Valli as the domineering Miss Tanner and Joan Bennett as the dance school’s assistant director Madame Blanc. Both women did a fine job of conveying their roles as leaders of the school while slowly evolving into suspicious characters and later, sinister witches.

Suspiria benefits from some of the most amazing cinematography ever captured on film. Every frame was captured with anamorphic lenses while sets were decorated with vivid primary and secondary colors. All of this care to color and atmosphere were enhanced by the use of imbibition Technicolor prints. This old school style was used to magnify the nightmarish visual tone of the picture. In fact, Suspiria is one of the last films to be processed in Technicolor. The amazing visuals of the film also owe a lot to the meticulous set design and architecture.

To coincide with the hypnotic visual tone of the film, the score by Goblin was equally impressive and responsible for creating this dark yet colorful nightmare. While the songs that Goblin used had been produced before the film, Argento did a great job of including them in just the right places. The sound of the film is just as surreal and haunting as the sights.

Suspiria is near perfection. It is an incredibly visceral experience and in many ways, quite unsettling. It is also pristine in its presentation. My biggest regret, is that I haven’t seen this motion picture on the big screen. This is one of those bucket list movies that I must see in a theater.

Unfortunately, the film is being remade. To me, that seems like cinematic sacrilege. But maybe it will come and go, unnoticed like that awful Black Christmas remake.

Rating: 10/10