Thursday, April 11, 2013

Strangers on a Train (1951)

Director:  Alfred Hitchcock
Studios:  Warner Bros.
Starring:  Farley Granger, Robert Walker, Ruth Roman
Tagline:  It's Off the Beaten Track!
MPAA Rating:  PG
Genre:  thriller, psychological thriller, suspense, crime, mystery, black and white
Scare score:  C+
Rating:  A-

Plot overview:  While heading to visit and discuss divorce with his unfaithful wife Miriam (Laura Elliott), amateur tennis star Guy Haines (Granger) crosses paths with eccentric and good-for-nothing socialite Bruno Anthony (Walker) on a train.  Bruno wastes no time in prying into Guy's "private" life - which the tabloids are currently exploiting - and although Guy remains shy, Bruno goes so far as to explain his idea of how to pull off the perfect murder.  But when Bruno takes this exchange too far and begins acting on his plan, all signs point to Guy as the guilty party.  Will Guy be able to clear his name and save himself from Bruno's antics?

Ever since I saw a CSI episode when I was 10 where this movie title was dropped (leading to a brutal murder via screwdriver to the back of the head), I have wanted to see it - not sure why I waited so long!  Obviously this film has been very famous for over 60 years now and for a good reason.  This movie was very enjoyable, not only because it's Hitch and I love him, but because on one hand we have a lovely black and white classic, and on the other we have an entertaining thriller.  From the beginning I was never quite sure where the plot was headed, and I found myself doubting various characters.  They proved me wrong a few times, and even the ending managed to surprise me.

The plot itself is interesting although I didn't find it to be the most plausible thing ever thrown at us (not that the events of The Birds are much more likely...)  Let's be honest.  Bruno's mother should realize her son is psychotic.  If I were her, I would get him help and then separate myself from him.  If I were Guy, and an obsessive weirdo approached me on a train, I would never let him discuss details of my intimate life solely because the tabloids have exploited them.  I would ask him to please stop talking to me.  The minute he brought up murder plots, I would become extremely concerned.  And furthermore, if that same man ever actually killed, thinking he was doing me a favor, I would go straight to the police.  No, they wouldn't pin it on me simply because a "stranger" did it.  Law enforcement doesn't work that way.  So what if they saw me fighting with the victim shortly beforehand?  Silly Guy.

Miriam is so perfectly evil.  I mean, we practically have to hate her as soon as she starts toying with Guy in her first scene.  I guess Bruno does some good after all...  Speaking of that crazy Bruno, Robert Walker does a really good job of creating this creepy, annoying, eccentric character.  Bruno is so irksome, so irritating- so crazy.  Kudos to him.

I was a huge fan of Ruth Roman in the role of Anne Morton, the strong and beautiful daughter of the Senator.  She was a perfect, dedicated love interest for Guy, staying true to him even after learning about the situation in which he has become entangled.  I feel like all these old Hollywood movies have some beautiful starlet tucked into the cast.

Lastly, I was Team Guy from the first scene on the train.  Granger plays him expertly as a likable, honest character.  There was something very innocent, very human about this performance.  It seemed effortless, like Guy was a real, well, guy that you or I might know.  Obviously Horror Buff spends his free time swinging with a young tennis crowd in Southampton.  Back to Farley/ Guy, it's easy to sympathize with him, and that being said, I am pretty happy with how things work out.

My one problem, however, is that, based solely on how he reacts to the whole situation, Guy is clearly guilty in this movie.  The minutes he becomes aware that Bruno has committed a murder, and the second he decides not to go to the police, he becomes a criminal in my book.


So like, sure, maybe everything ends all fine and dandy for him- but he's a criminal.  There's no other way around it.  Sure I'm no law student, but I don't think he should be off the hook at the end of the movie.  And these are the characters we have going into politics...

My favorite scene was probably the one on the carousel towards the end of the movie.  I think they did a nice job of building up the tension here, and I liked the effects.  Also, I appreciated that the whole thing sort of crashed, sending innocent people off in various directions.  It's nice when actual things happen harming random characters, making the film more realistic than if they had spared them in some stupid way.  The train scenes were also enjoyable and interesting.

Final critique:  You should see this movie.  It shouldn't scare you (it gets a C+ for effort), but, as always, Hitch does a nice job of making us sweat.  Again, the plot isn't too realistic, but the story is presented in an attractive manner that we can really get hooked on.  It's the type of movie that reminds me why I love Hitchcock and why I love old movies.  There is some honest, human acting here that gets the job done without being over the top.  Plus, there's a lot more to the film than meets the eyes, or so I felt, regarding various subtexts of society and inward/outward appearances.  If anything, it might make you think again before striking up a conversation with a stranger on a train or subway.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Wait Until Dark (1967)

Director:  Terence Young
Studios:  Warner Bros.
Starring:  Audrey Hepburn, Alan Arkin, Richard Crenna, Jack Weston
Tagline:  A blind woman plays a deadly game of survival.
MPAA Rating:  Unrated
Genre:  thriller, suspense, thieves
Scare score:  D+
Rating:  B+

Plot overview:  Hoping to recover an old doll filled with pouches of heroin, conmen Mike (Crenna) and Carlino (Weston) are hired by bad guy Harry Roat (Arkin) to retrieve the item by whatever means necessary.  They have tracked down the doll to the apartment of photographer Sam Hendrix (Efram Zimbalist, Jr.) and his blind wife Susy (Hepburn).  Taking advantage of Susy's disability when she is home alone one night, the three men weave an intricate web of lies, fake stories, and false characters to gain Susy's trust and ultimately find the doll.  But will their treachery be enough to outsmart Susy in her own home?

I'm doing something a little different here, as I wouldn't consider this a "horror" movie, yet I am writing about it in my Horror Blog.  After two nights in a row watching slashers from the late '90s, I felt the need for a change and went further back to a much more well thought out, much better acted movie, that being Wait Until Dark.  I had heard tons about this great film, but I had never seen it.  As I watched it, I kept debating back and forth whether or not I would blog about it.  Well here we are.

I wish I had sat down at night in a dark room with a bowl of popcorn for this one.  Instead I started part of it, then watched the second part on my laptop in the afternoon while doing other things around the house.  That certainly distracted me a bit from the film, but I still really enjoyed it.

This is a smart movie.  It has that old feeling (and that older look), and aside from a few loud scenes on the street we can really allow ourselves to be comfortable even as the suspense of the plot grows stronger and the tension between characters seems unbearable.  I think it is a very bold move to have a main character be blind, which Hepburn acted superbly and affectionately, which shouldn't come as a surprise in the least.  I was impressed with her eyes as well, as she didn't wear glasses but maintained her gazed straight head at all times.

The three conmen might deserve more credit.  They are tough, mean, and intelligent, which usually isn't a factor for typical movie bandits.  Crenna isn't only a heartthrob, but when he shows actual feelings throughout (perhaps sympathy for Susy) he becomes a dynamic character.  I especially liked Arkin, although I was constantly confused by his strange, Godfather-esque accent and John Lennon glasses.  Together, they add a lot of drama to the film and give it almost a live theater feelings due to their strong acting and the small set of the apartment interior.

As far as my scare rating goes, this falls into the old category of movies that just can't scare us anymore since we're used to today's over the top terror.  I would only credit this movie with one scene that actually scared me, that being the first time Mike goes looking in the bedroom closet.  Didn't see that one coming.  The famous blackout scene was really excellent, making me wish I had been watching in the dark.  Unfortunately, it wasn't quite as scary as I was expecting it to be.

Final critique:  This is a great choice if you're looking for a pretty drama and action packed film on any night of the week.  The thrills are few but the suspense is high, and this movie doesn't lose sight of its integrity in order to deliver unnecessary scares.  Some parts are a little slow, and I think a remake would have a good chance of doing well, but in the meantime, see this original gem.

I Still Know What You Did Last Summer (1998)

Director:  Danny Cannon
Studios:  Mandalay Entertainment
Starring:  Jennifer Love Hewitt, Freddie Prinze Jr., Brandy, Mekhi Phifer, Matthew Settle; ft. Bill Cobbs, Jack Black
Tagline:  Someone is dying for a second chance.
MPAA Rating:  R
Genre:  horror, thriller, sequel, mystery, slasher, stalker, serial killer, teen
Scare score:  C-
Rating:  C

 Plot overview:  One year after the events of the first movie, Julie (Love Hewitt) is readjusting to a normal life at college, in part due to her roommate Karla (Brandy), Karla's boyfriend Tyrell (Phifer), and a possible new love interest, Will (Settle).  After Karla wins an all-expenses-paid getaway to the Bahamas, things seem like they might finally be going right.  Unfortunately for them, killer Ben Willis (Muse Watson) is back, and with hurricane season in full force, the new group of four is trapped on the island with Ben swiftly killing off anyone who gets in his way.  Will Ray (Prinze) get there in time to save Julie yet again, and in the meantime can the four friends stay safe, even from each other?

This sequel isn't as good as the first film (few sequels ever are).  We are taken away from little old South Port and placed in the "Bahamas," where most of the film's terror takes place within a winding hotel resort.  I don't have tons to say, so I am going to keep this one quick.

The script is much better this time around.  The characters feel much more real and comfortable when they talk, and you totally get into that sassy, college vibe and slang (thanks, Brandy).  While the lines themselves might have been better, however, that doesn't mean that delivery really changed.  I guess in the horror genre we have generally accepted that the acting is never going to be great, especially in dumb teen horrors, but it was still a disappointment.

Casting in this movie is almost about as mythical as in the last one.  Love Hewitt is back, and brooding and negative as ever, so I am more than thankful for Brandy's upbeat, lively, lighthearted performance.  I mean, what college girl who is still suffering from the trauma of seeing her best friends murdered and potentially having murdered someone doesn't need a perky best friend and roommate, you know?  Unfortunately, this sequel's attempt to make the cast not-so-white results in two over-the-top caricatures in our core four, obviously with Mekhi Phifer being the biggest example.  I am a big fan of Bill Cobbs in a few of his roles, and while he spends most of his time in this movie as a mysterious, mumbling red herring, I still appreciated his presence.  Lastly, I mean, Jack Black.  Nuff said.

A few issues with the plot and action itself.  First of all, everyone reacts way too calmly to the many deaths of this movie.  We are dealing with ignorant college students, they should not see bloody dead bodies and be like "Jinkies!  Let's get out of here."  No.  They should be terrified and sick because of it.  The constant mindset of finding another corpse, then running away back into the hotel until they surely find another one gets real old real fast.

My biggest problems are about our dear old friend Ben.  The killer has completely changed his MO in this movie.  Yes, he wants Julie (and Ray) dead, and yes, he kills anyone who gets in his way.  Still, he kills far more frequently and even randomly in this movie.  From the beginning of the film, workers on the island begin dropping like flies simply for the sake of being around.  Left and right we have someone getting slashed, and it remains clear that it is for audience enjoyment rather than for the sake of integrity to the horror movie itself.  Furthermore, he is much less human this time around.  Whereas in the first film he was this scary and seemingly unstoppable, but very human, figure, in this movie he seems almost like Michael Meyers by his slow way of walking and ceaseless stalking.  Also, his voice is just so weird and forced in this installment, I can't handle it.  Do less, Ben.

Final critique:  I mean, no, this isn't a great movie.  But that doesn't mean it's not a decent, fun movie to watch when you're in the mood for some light horror.  The first one is certainly better, but this is not a bad choice for a lazy night at home when you're looking to get just a little creeped out by a group of dumb teens trapped on a stormy island as a stalker with a meat hook begins slashing everybody's throats.  Plus, with an awesome Titanic reference pretty early on, who could turn this awkward, forced sequel down?

Thursday, April 4, 2013

I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)

Director:  Jim Gillespie
Studios:  Mandalay Entertainment
Starring:  Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Freddie Prinze Jr., Ryan Phillippe; ft. Bridgette Wilson, Anne Heche
Tagline:  If you're going to bury the truth, make sure it stays buried.
MPAA Rating:  R
Genre:  horror, thriller, mystery, slasher, stalker, serial killer, teen
Scare score:  C+
Rating:  B+

Plot overview:  Exactly one year after hitting a mysterious man on the road and dumping his body in the ocean to hide the evidence, now distanced friends Julie (Love Hewitt), Helen (Gellar), Ray (Prinze), and Barry (Phillippe) are reunited under uncomfortable circumstances in their hometown of South Port.  Having been tortured by her guilty conscience for a year, Julie is horrified to find a note left in her house saying "I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER!"  As the group of estranged friends comes together again to get to the bottom of the mystery, a killing spree starts in the small town as a large figure in a fisherman's slicker suit carrying a lethal meat hook begins tracking down his four intended victims.  Who is the mystery killer and how does he know what happened last summer?  The four friends must fight for their lives to stop the murders and rest their guilty consciences.

I am probably the biggest fan of '90s-2000s teen horror movies.  There is something so wonderful about  the overdramatic plots, the awful scriptwriting, and the creative, often slightly provocative deaths.  I prefer this era of horror to teen slashers from the '80s (mainly due to effects, costumes, plots, and the fact that I was alive), and even today I don't find that horrors directed at young audiences or groups of friends deliver as much as they did in these days when they hit their prime.  It really brings back some good memories.

I Know What You Did Last Summer centers around a group of four (superstar) friends, so I mean with four of the hottest celebrities of the moment headlining, nothing could go wrong, right?  Wrong.  Again, I'm a big fan of this film (more for personal measures than practical ones), but Jennifer Love Hewitt bugs the heck out of me - I mean, how annoying is Julie? - which is never a plus when that's your main protagonist.  Still, she is the most empathetic one of the group, and automatically I think it's safe to assume that she will be our final girl.

Otherwise, I'm a huge fan of Sarah Michelle Gellar, Freddie Prinze, and Ryan Phillippe.  That's not to say their acting is great.... Let's talk about the script first.  It's pretty darn bad.  I found it awkward in many parts, mainly because we're dealing with a group of teenagers who are speaking like somebody put a script in front of them instead of allowing them to talk as they actually would.  On top of this unrealistic dialogue, the, er, acting doesn't really take the characters to high places.  Furthermore, this film relies pretty heavily on the assumption that the characters make some of the stupidest decisions possible given their situations.  Would I rather watch Summer Catch and Cruel Intentions?  I mean, maybe, but luckily for this little gem, the horror aspect brings me back every time.

We have a compelling mystery here, I'll give the film that.  There are great questions thrown at us (who knows?  who is the killer?) which leads us to question not only the host of supporting members of the cast (shout out to the creepy Anne Heche and the beautiful but horrendously rude Veronica Vaughn- I mean Bridget Wilson- but also our core four, as we think they are the only ones who truly know what happened that night.  I truly enjoy this type of mystery in horror films, that keep us guessing and guessing again until the puzzle pieces are put together just near the end, in a somewhat far-stretched but otherwise understandable way.

I think this film does a good job with the killer (Muse Watson).  The covered-head-to-toe look is creepy, and it prevents us from guessing who he might be - or even if "he's" male or female.  The best innovation here is the meat hook, hereafter made iconic to this film trilogy.  Some deaths are more exciting than others and we range from simple slashes with the hook to dramatically murdered characters carried away by this murderer's seemingly superhuman strength.  As far as this killer goes, he pulls off some pretty tricky stuff for a human which had me questioning the reality of his plotting more than once.

Better than the death scenes, perhaps, we have the suspenseful scenes which are a plenty.  Whether we are in a locker room, some sort of fish factory, the sticks of whatever state this is supposed to take place in (maybe one of the Carolinas?  Even though the cliffs are so obviously California), or especially a bedroom, this movie is filled with moments that make us want to curl up and cover our eyes before the dark figure swings out his hook yet again.

As far as cinematography goes, I didn't play very close attention to the actual filming of this movie, but it's one of those horror flicks that relies on typically dark, cluttered rooms, fog, nighttime, and various angles that show us the doors left open or the shadows crossing the hallway.  I wasn't crazy about the last 10 or so minutes of the movie, which I thought were pretty random, but otherwise I enjoyed the setting of South Port.

Final critique:  My biggest complaint with this film is the unrealistic dialogue and the anything-but-practical actions and reactions of this group of teens.  Still, I Know What You Did Last Summer is a sort of young classic: a horror film that might not have a lot of intrinsic merit, but that if you mention, most people will know the name.  My recommendation?  Watch it.  Have a sleepover, make some popcorn, have a pillow fight, and watch this movie to get all scared before bed.  The blood is minimal, the deaths are quick, the suspense is high, and our protagonists are just so charming.  If nothing else, you won't be wasting your time by watching this stupid, suspenseful film.