My Favorite Older Horror Experiences Of 2019

Thanks to an email from one of my editors, I realized it was New Year’s Eve! Funny how that works out. These might be coming out a bit later than the norm, but I figured I would jump in on the whole “End of the Year” list thingy. First up, I’m going to cover my favorite horror viewing experiences of films that came out several years back!

Continue reading My Favorite Older Horror Experiences Of 2019

Rebel Highway Double Feature: Jailbreakers & Runaway Daughters

jailbreakersA few weeks back I was looking around on Netflix Instant and saw the poster for a Shannen Doherty/Antonio Sabato Jr. movie called Jailbreakers from 1994 that looked very 90s Miramax. Even with all that going for it, it wasn’t the kind of movie I immediately wanted to watch until I looked at the director and saw that it was directed by William “The Exorcist” Friedkin! That was such a bonkers combination that I needed to check it out.

While reading the IMDb trivia page for this movie — something I can’t seem to go 10 minutes without doing after starting anything — I discovered that it was actually part of an anthology series on Showtime called Rebel Highway. The basic idea was to take the title of an old American International Pictures teen movie from the 50s and 60s, give it to a director and have them make a more gritty film with a cast of young up-and-comers. Each project had a $1.3 million budget and 12 days to shoot. Sounds like a pretty rad experiment to me!

So how are the results? Well, not so great in the case of Jailbreakers which suffered from two major problems for me. First off, there wasn’t a frame of this movie that looked like it was from the time period of the story. Actually, that’s not quite the case. More accurately, there isn’t a frame of this film that doesn’t scream, “I was made in the mid 90s!!!” It’s just got that dull look of TV movies from the 90s that, no matter how good your costumes or set dressing are, look like the time it was made in instead of the time it’s supposed to be. I can chalk that up to the low budget and pay cable quality of the day.

The second problem is more, well, problematic and it leads in to the part where I talk about the plot. Doherty plays a high school kid named Angel who was a good girl up until she met Antonio Sabato Jr.’s Tony, a bad boy biker. The two start getting into trouble which leads to them getting caught by the cops. Tony goes to jail while Angel moves with her parents to another town where they don’t know anything about her mistakes. Tony eventually gets out and reunites with Angel only to realize he might be more than just a little bad. Sound familiar? Yeah, it was pretty familiar to me too and hit a ton of notes that I’ve seen before. And, aside from a great performance by Adrien Brody, the tried and true elements don’t get much of a boost from this particular group of actors.

runaway daughters

I had a much better time with another Rebel Highway offering, Runaway Daughters. This one features Paul Rudd and Julie Bowen, though they’re not really the stars 0f this film directed by the always awesome Joe Dante. In this case Mary (Holly Fields) winds up getting together with two of her girlfriends Angie (Bowen) and  Laura (Jenny Lewis who was in The Wizard!) and driving to San Diego in order to grab Bob (Chris Young, PCU), Mary’s baby daddy before he can officially enlist in the army. Along the way they find themselves dealing with crooked cops, crazy preppers and a variety of other problems.

While Jailbreakers took an old story and just did it again with more cursing and violence, Runaway Daughters actually used the framework of this kind of story to get into some actual social commentary. Throughout the film, Laura talks about how ridiculous it is that society shuns young women for having sex when it’s a natural thing. We’re mostly told by TV and film that everyone in the 50s was a buttoned-up square, but that’s a myth. There were plenty of people looking at the norms and realizing some of them were silly.

Plus, while this movie looks the same as Jailbreakers, it does boast a more interesting story and a much better cast. Rudd doing his best James Dean or Marlon Brando impression is a lot of fun. Then you’ve got Bowen playing the instigator perfectly, Dick Miller as a grizzled but also somewhat socially conscious private detective and even appearances by Roger Corman and Joe Flaherty. And those are just the people I recognized. This might be the least Joe Dante movie I’ve ever seen, but it was still an enjoyable outing that adds a nice layer to his filmography. 

The Chronological Spielberg: Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)

twilight zone the movie

I have a few distinct memories of Twilight Zone: The Movie. When I was a kid, I have a very clear memory of watching the beginning of this movie with my dad, who does not like scary movies by the way, and being completely freaked out by that Dan Akyroyd bit in the beginning between him and Albert Brooks. That was well before I got into horror movies myself and I must say it stuck with me.

The other memory is that it’s not very good. My memory didn’t go much further beyond that, but I think it had something to do with the fact that, aside from the initial segment by John Landis, the movie didn’t do too much in the way of newness. But upon watching the full thing again recently in my attempt to go through all of Steven Spielberg’s major film efforts, I didn’t have that same problem.

In fact, the only segment of the film — four parts each directed by Landis, Spielberg, Joe Dante (who I recently realized I’m a huge fan of) and George Miller of Mad Max fame — that I didn’t like is the one by Spielberg which was pretty disappointing.

Called “Kick The Can,” the second part of the film finds The Shining‘s Scatman Crothers playing Mr. Bloom, a recent addition to a nursing home who riles up all the other old folks with talk of youth. That night, they all go out to play and actually become young again. I’m not nearly as familiar with this episode from the original TV series — which I absolutely love watching in marathon mode every New Year’s — but I can’t imagine that one is as schmaltzy and sappy as this one. Spielberg just goes overboard with the cutesy stuff and winds up undercutting his own fairly poignant story about not wanting to lose yourself to age. It’s too bad considering the other filmmakers created much more balanced offerings and Spielberg had just nailed well crafted, earned sentimentality with E.T. the year before.

Since I’m probably not going to circle round back to this movie for a while, I might as well review the other three segments. Landis’ piece about a bigot who winds up surviving violent encounters while looking like the various groups he hates was a really solid piece of craftsmanship unfortunately tainted by the real life tragedy that went on while filming. Still, I thought the whole film should have been more in line with this part which deftly recreated the feel of the old series while telling an all new story.

Dante did a lot with his part, “It’s A Good Life” about a little boy with intense reality warping powers who brings a traveling teacher into his incredibly strange house. He does a great job of slowly revealing what’s going on and also lacing the entire thing with cartoons to not only explain what’s going on without smashing you over the head with it, but then become much more a part of the proceedings as the segment progresses (poor Cousin Ethel). There’s something awesomely grotesque about how the toons look when they come into the real world. Since we’re inundated with cartoons, it makes all the more sense that some of the house’s hallways and rooms look like they’re straight out of Tom and Jerry or one of the Warners cartoons seen in the film. Actually, the set design of this movie reminded me quite a bit of what Dante did once the kid went in the deep, dark pit in The Hole.

This segment is also the one I want more of after it’s over. All four portions feel like complete short stories, but there’s clearly a lot more going on here that could be explored more fully in a longer form story. Plus, damn that kid and the mutant bunny are creep-city. Oh and it’s pretty crazy seeing Nancy Cartwright as Cousin Ethel because you can hear her Bart Simpson voice even back then.

Finally you’ve got Miller’s take on “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet” starring John Lithgow in the William Shatner role. Of all three recreated episodes, this is the original I’ve seen the most. This is the one where an airplane passenger is convinced that a gremlin is on the wing of the place tearing it apart. Everyone around him thinks he’s nuts, but, being the Twilight Zone, we know that’s not what’s up. The key to this one is Lithgow’s excellent performance as the flier who starts off already terrified and then skyrockets into anxiety when he starts seeing things that shouldn’t be there. Since he nails it, the whole thing comes off as a more intense journey than you might expect. Of course, it helps that the gremlin looks a lot better than a dude in a carpet suit.

Oddly, as far as anthology films go, I’d give this one a thumb’s up, something I rarely do. Overall the quality’s solid, with great storytelling, acting and direction. As a Spielberg offering, though, it leaves much to be desired. With Twilight Zone out of the way, I’m moving on to Temple Of Doom, which I love, and then a few episodes of Amazing Stories that I believe are on Netflix Instant. After that I’m getting into some pretty new territory with his more dramatic efforts of the 80s and 90s starting with The Color Purple and Empire Of The Sun. I’m hoping to stay a bit more up to date on these posts. Looking back I only did two all year, this being the second. Hopefully I can at least get up to Purple by year’s end, but it would probably be foolish to make any promises.

Joe Dante Is Awesome

the burbs poster Joe Dante is the kind of director who was wildly influential on me as a kid, though I only realized it recently. After enjoying The Hole so much I decided to look at his filmography and saw that he made a ton of movies I loved as a kid that are still awesome to this day.

Of course I knew that he did Gremlins and Gremlins 2, which were probably my first monster movies, but I didn’t know he was the brain behind a movie like Innerspace which I haven’t seen in probably two decades, but loved when I was younger. I also had no idea that he helmed five episodes of Eerie, Indiana, another show that had a huge impact on me. Long before I was into actual horror, I was sitting on my living room floor staring at this wonderfully weird show with eyes wide open.  And, man, how good was Matinee? I’ve only seen that movie, but now that I actually know who William Castle is, I need to revisit it.

With that kind of revisiting mentality, I did what was natural and opened up my unwieldy DVD binder and got flipping. First I watched another Dante classic from my childhood that introduced me to all kinds of horror, suspense and haunted house tropes while also playing with them and turning them on their heads. Of course, I’m talking about The ‘Burbs, the director’s 1989 suburban horror suspense comedy starring Tom Hanks, Carrie Fisher, Bruce Dern, Corey Feldman, Rick Ducommun and Henry Gibson.

Here’s the gist. Hanks’ Ray is on vacation and wants to just relax in his neighborhood, but his wife Carol (Fisher) wants to go to a lake. Of course, that winds up being the least of Ray’s problems as his paranoid neighbors Art (Ducommun) and Rumsfield (Dern) start convincing him that their new neighbors, the creepy Klopeks, might have killed their other neighbor. All of this leads Ray and his pals down the road of madness (though funny madness) as they become obsessed with finding out where the potential bodies were buried.

I saw this movie long before things like Rear Window or House On Haunted Hill which do get borrowed from, at least in tone if not direct plot points. Dante’s able to weave actual scary elements along with cartoonish comedic bits that make this film not only unique, but a joy to watch. There are still parts of the film that get in my head and make my skin crawl a bit and then the next moment I’m laughing. And a lot of that comes from Dante and company taking the mundane — having weird neighbors — and making it feel epic. It helps that Hanks is so good at conveying that regular guy normality as well as the pushed-to-the-limits nature of the character, something he displayed in The Money Pit too.

While watching the movie I also realized that I’ve wanted to live on a street like this my whole life, one where neighbors actually talked to each other and would join forces in this kind of insane endeavor (or watch from the sidelines like Feldman’s Ricky does).

piranha_poster From The ‘Burbs, I immediately went to Piranha, a film I saw for the first time thanks to the excellent Shout Factory offering from a few years back. My second viewing brought to mind many of the praises I had the first time around, most of which revolve around the fact that what was probably originally intended as a straight-up Jaws rip off, turned out to be a lot more than that. I don’t think I’d bust out the word masterpiece to describe this movie, but I do think Dante did a whole lot of awesome work with something that could have been just another cash grab.

One of the elements of Dante’s work that I appreciate is the variety of the material. I haven’t seen his first full-length movie Hollywood Boulevard, but he went from a drama to a fairly low budget horror flick like Piranha and then onto what I assumed was the larger budget The Howling. From there he did everything from the Gremlins flick to Masters Of Horror episodes and Looney Tunes: Back In Action to Hawaii Five-O episodes.

I’m pretty excited to check out Boulevard and the more kid-oriented Explorers, both of which are on Netflix Instant. I’d also really like to revisit The Howling ( usually I don’t like werewolf movies), Matinee and also Innerspace. I’ve even heard a few good things about Small Soldiers, so let’s add that to the must-see list too.

Anyone who can keep making quality films for 40 years deserves all the accolades in the world, especially when he or she can make a series of movies and shows with all different kinds of themes and settings. Those are the kinds of artists that inspire me and the ones I hope to be like.

Quick Movie Review: Machete Maidens Unleashed (2010)

If there’s one documentary subject I don’t think I’ll ever get sick of it’s filmmakers talking about the good old days of cheaply made schlock shown at drive-ins and grindhouse theaters. And I’m glad that people are not only making these movies, but also that the people who were involved are not only still alive, but also willing to talk about their experiences. While the excellent Not Quite Hollywood focused on these kinds of movies shot in Australia and the not as great American Grindhouse focused on its own obvious subject matter, Machete Maidens Unleashed set its sites on American films that were shot down in the Philippines in the 70s and 80s. I actually just looked and the guy who directed this movie, Mark Hartley, also directed Not Quite and is the man behind the upcoming Canon Video doc which I am really looking forward to.

I actually didn’t even know this was a thing before reading the description on Netflix Instant (I, of course, was first drawn in by the poster image and then the title), but there was actually a full-fledged movie industry in the Philippines at the team that lots of producers and directors like Roger Corman and Joe Dante took advantage of because of the low, low cost. At one point, one of the filmmakers in the doc said something along the lines of “The film was cheap and human life was even cheaper,” referencing the lengths local actors and stuntmen would go to put their lives on the line to get just the right shot. Fight scenes were filmed so that people were actually beating the crap out of each other and a lot of the explosions going off and glass being broken were real. It’s the kind of thing that, today, would create a public outcry for human safety, but at that place and that time, those apparently weren’t big concerns.

There are two aspects of this film that make it so interesting aside from the subject matter itself. First off, it seems like everyone who’s still alive agreed to be interviewed for this flick. Heck, John Landis is there and I don’t even think he shot a movie in the Philippines! That dude just loves to talk about these kinds of movies (he’s also in American Grindhouse). I already mentioned Corman and Dante, but tons of people appear in this movie: Pam Grier, Sid Haig, R. Lee Ermey, Dick Miller, Brian Trenchard-Smith, seemingly every hopeful starlet who appeared topless in those movies and several local filmmakers. Everyone is very open, honest and entertaining when it comes to relating their experiences. The second aspect of this movie that really makes it great and seems to be a trademark of Hartley’s, is the quick and efficient editing of the picture. There isn’t a wasted moment in this flick and, at the same time it doesn’t feel rushed.

If you love bad movies of years gone by, exploitation cinema or are just interested in some of the less glamorous corners of the film business, I highly recommend giving Machete Maidens Unleashed a watch.

I Watch A Lot Of Documentaries: Dalekmania, American Grindhouse, Trumbo & Mayor Of The Sunset Strip

I Watch A Lot Of Movies will most likely be a recurring feature here on the blog because it’s a plain fact. Because I work from home and I like to have something on to either watch or listen to while I do so, I go through a lot of movies, shows, podcasts and records. Sometimes I give them their own write-ups, but sometimes I don’t have as much to say. So, IWALOM will be a kind of catch-all for the things I want to say a few words on. As it happens, I’ve been on a bit of a documentary going back to when I watched and wrote about Too Tough To Die and Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop a few weeks ago.

One of the more curious documentaries I’ve seen on Netflix Instant has to be Dalekmania (1995) which I assumed would be about the history of the Doctor Who baddies. Instead, as the subtitle explains, it’s actually the story of Daleks and the Doctor on the big screen. Back in 1965 Peter Cushing starred as a tweaked version of the character in a big screen flock that remade one of the few serials I’ve actually seen: The Daleks.

Much like the 1996 Fox-produced Doctor Who movie, the movie and it’s sequel, the awesomely named Invasion Earth: 2015, neither film is in cannon, but that doesn’t mean they don’t look interesting. Seeing a documentary based on a pair of films I’ve never seen was cool because it’s not like I had heard any of these stories before. The downside? The movies aren’t on any kind of Netflix so I can’t check them out, which is a little frustrating. It seems like everyone involved (and living) was interviewed and you also get to see a cool collection of Dalek and Who memorabilia from a husband and wife collector team. Worth checking out for Who fans even if they don’t HAVE to know about these flicks.

I was kind of disappointed by American Grindhouse (2010), especially after being so impressed by essentially the Australian version of this doc called Not Quite Hollywood. While Not Quite really seemed to just jump in and celebrate their schlocky movies, Grindhouse seems to take an almost clinical approach which saps some of the fun out of the proceedings.  A big contributor to that feeling is how specifically they define “grindhouse.’ Instead of being about low budget movies sent to drive ins or cheap theaters, we’re told that an actual grindhouse was a theater that would never shut down or stop showing movies. Uh, okay. It’s the equivalent of someone telling you in great detail that what you’re blowing your nose in isn’t actually a Kleenex, but a facial tissues.

The opposite side of the specificity coin is that you actually get treated to lots of different kinds of movies than you might expect, going all the way back to the early days of film. The movie points out that, almost as soon as people figured out how to use movie cameras, they started pointing them at naked ladies. I actually learned this in either high school or college and was blown away at the time because you kind of assume that everything was super prudey back in the day, but in reality people are people and are always curious about things like that.

The film also boasts a quality group of talking heads including John Landis, Joe Dante, William Lustig and plenty of others. Everyone brings something interesting to the table, it’s just a broader table than I was expecting when I turned it on.

I probably wouldn’t have given a movie called Trumbo (2007) if not for the awesome image on this poster. A dude writing in the bathtub? I love it! The story found in the documentary is even more interesting. Dalton Trumbo was one of the infamous Hollywood Ten, a group of writers who were blacklisted for communist leanings thanks to McCarthy and the ridiculous red scare. He wrote movies like The Devil’s Playground, Roman Holiday, Spartacus, Johnny Got His Gun and plenty of others, some of which were credited to other writers who fronted for him and some of the other Hollywood Ten.

The doc has an interesting style that takes many of Trumbo’s writings and has famous actors do dramatic readings. I didn’t realize what was happening at first when people like Michael Douglas, Brian Dennehy, Paul Giamatti and others started doing these monologues in dark rooms, I was confused, but I soon caught on and enjoyed the method. Apparently, this film is based on the stage play of one of Trumbo’s  sons, which makes that all make a lot more sense.

I like that Trumbo never lost faith or face, really, kept writing and later on didn’t seem too bitter about what happened. He definitely answered some questions with a sharp wit, but he didn’t seem bitter, which is inspiring considering the mountains of bullshit heaped upon him.

Like a lot of things on Netflix,  I didn’t really know what Mayor Of The Sunset Strip (2003). For some reason I thought it was about a guy who was influential in the 80s metal scene on the Sunset Strip. It’s actually about Rodney Binginheimer, a dude who started out as a groupie in the 60s, met practically every rock star, got nicknamed in a Beach Boys song, became one of the most influential DJs in music history and is still kicking.

I found this story so fascinating because Bingenheimer is ridiculously damaged. Yes, he’s met every single important rock and roll musician since the medium was practically invented and yes he has (or at least had) a great deal of power in his business, but he is also a sad, lonely man with mom issues. The portrait painted is that of a man who prefers not to be in the spotlight, but absolutely expects to be just on the fringes now. It’s also the story of a man whose time as come and gone, though that’s not the main focus. Towards the end of the movie, the man with ridiculous hair tells the camera that he’s only got one night a week as a DJ on KROQ which clearly bums him out. The only time he expresses any real, obvious emotions happens in a scene where his radio protege finishes a show and Bingenheimer is pissed because he thinks the younger man has basically stolen his entire schtick.

For me, Mayor has two lessons to be learned. First, it shows me that anyone can become important. There was nothing truly special about Rodney Bingenheimer, nothing that would make him an obvious maven of a culture movement. But, he physically got himself where he needed to be and worked his way up to becoming ridiculously influential. That’s the American dream, right? Well, the second lesson shows what can happen if you don’t balance your life out. Even with all his power and influence, something about his personality didn’t allow him to capitalize on it too much and he has essentially faded out of prominence. The lesson is to both keep working even after reaching prominence, but also that all the importance in the world doesn’t fix your problems. You’ve got to work on that stuff on your own and it didn’t seem to me like Bingenheimer has done that.

Mini Monsters: Gremlins 2 The New Batch (1990)

I love Gremlins 2. I probably shouldn’t but I do. It’s nowhere near as good as the original movie with it’s amazing mix of comedy, humor and horror, but it holds a special place in my heart. I can’t remember if I saw it in the theaters when I was 7 and it hit theaters. I have a feeling I did, but can’t say for sure. Anyway, the sequel is much more over the top and sillier, but it’s also filled with lots of slapsticky site gags and all kinds of mutated Gremlins running around causing all kinds of havoc which makes it perfect for kids. They even had trading cards, an NES game and I would assume toys, though not a full roll out like you might expect. But I can see where that kid focus would put older viewers off. Had I watched this movie for the first time as an adult without any of the nostalgia or love, like I did with, say, Lost Boys, I’m fairly certain I would have scoffed my way through the movie instead of smiling like a damn fool the whole time like I did when I watched it the other day.

Even having said that, I’d say that there are elements to the movie that might be fun for viewers of all kinds. Like the first flick, there’s humor here, but this time around it feels more in the same vein as Naked Gun than something more understated. I also appreciate that the movie has a sense of humor about itself. Not only do you have some control room guys making fun of the three rules from the first movie, but there’s even an appearance by Leonard Maltin as a critic where he slags the movie only to get attacked by Gremlins. You also can’t discount how good the special effects are. Gizmo and the Gremlins look so rad, especially the Bat and Spider ones. Man, they’re creepy.

One of the benefits of watching the movie on DVD–which I bought a while back, but can’t remember if I’ve actually watched all the way through–was seeing the original “film break” scene in the movie complete with woman complaining about the movie being too scary for kids and Hulk Hogan threatening the Gremlins to let the movie start back up. See, on the VHS version and, I believe, the one they showed on TV, there was a “tape break” instead. I couldn’t tell you what the differences all are, but I like that they went back to the original on the DVD version (I wonder if the VHS scene is on the DVD, I should check).

Anyway, I’m not really sure what else to say about the flick. There were some pretty lame parts like the very roundabout way they took to get Gizmo wet (malfunctioning drinking fountain) and the fact that Phoebe Cates had something bad happen to her on Lincoln’s Birthday too. But with the humor, going in with affection and the ass kicking special effects, I think Gremlins 2 has a lot to offer the right kind of viewer.