We Want Action: Streets Of Fire (1984)

streets of fire poster

Walter Hill is a fascinating director to me. I discovered The Warriors in high school and it changed my brain. It felt like someone who loved comic books, taking some of the crazy, garish characters and putting them into the real world and still making it feel really real and believable even when tinged with healthy doses of melodrama. Even with as influential as that film was to me, though, I haven’t really actively sought out his other films. Sure, I’ve seen the 48 Hours movies and Last Man Standing, but that was before I realized he made those films. When I saw his 1984 film Streets Of Fire on Netflix Instant, I was super excited to give it a watch. When the titles started popping up and one of them said I was about to watch “A rock and roll fable” I got even more excited.

The film follows gun-for-hire Tom Cody (Michael Pare) as he gets hired by Billy Fish (Rick Moranis) to save rock singer Ellen Aim (Diane Lane) from a gang of thugs lead by Raven Shaddock (Willem Dafoe). Tom brings along new acquaintance McCoy (Amy Madigan) to help out. The structure of this film is actually very similar to that of The Warriors but in a slightly different order. The hero has a mission, he gets a girl, he and his crew do their best to get back to safety and then at the end there’s a showdown behind the good guy and bad guy while a small army of armed people stand around and watch. Hell, there’s even a scene where the subway trains aren’t working because someone set fire to them! As if all that wasn’t enough, some of the Warriors cast members pop up in this film like Deborah Van Valkenburgh (Mercy) as Tom’s sister and even Lynne Thigpen who played the DJ in the previous movie popped up as a cop (interestingly enough telling the leads about the train fire). The beginning of the two films are also really similar from an editing standpoint. Heck, McCoy even kind of looks like Swan.

The story itself is set in a weird world that seems sort of 50s, but created through the prism of the 80s. You’ll understand what I mean by watching just about any scene set in a club. It feels like you’re just as likely to see some guy doing his best Johnny Cash impression or his best Stray Cats impression up on stage and that’s pretty much what you get. Every music number also has that feel too which kind of makes me wonder if Hill wanted to get into the music video game.

Anyway, even with as silly and affected as the film might feel, there’s still some real issues going on here. McCoy has to deal with all kinds of gender nonsense and does her best, but we can see her cracks. She just wants acceptance and friends (who doesn’t?). Meanwhile, our hero Tom is a total tough guy who’s clearly in love with Ellen, but he just doesn’t know how to tell her AND he doesn’t know how to do the obvious which is get the hell out of his crappy live and just move somewhere else. So there’s some stuff going on, but you’ve got to get through some of the veneer to get there, again, much like The Warriors.

I hate to keep comparing Hill movies here, but I do want to point one more thing out. The climax of the film involves the aforementioned showdown between Tom and Raven on the streets surrounded by allies on both sides. But, instead of fighting with fists or knives, they start going at it with crazy prospecting hammers but without the super pointy end. It’s a pretty bonkers scene, but it instantly reminded me of the trailers I’ve seen from Hill’s last movie Bullet To The Head where Sylvester Stallone has a freaking axe fight with Jason Momoa. Now, I haven’t seen that movie yet, but it’s interesting that Hill went back to that well. It makes me want to watch the rest of his movies to see what other elements he uses over and over again or if I’ve seen them all at this point. Still, Streets of Fire is a unique, offbeat little movie that does a lot of the same things Warriors does in both theme and content. I’d probably have fallen in love with it had I also seen it in high school, but the adult version of me saw a lot of the affectedness going on and couldn’t fully commit.

Halloween Scene: Village Of The Damned (1995)

Almost immediately after finishing Prince of Darkness, which I didn’t focus on as much as I should have, I popped on Village of the Damned on the NetBox. I actually didn’t even realize that this was a John Carpenter movie (I’m woefully uneducated about his films, it turns out). I do however have pretty vivid of this remake movies when it came out. Besides just boasting generally creepy commercials and comic book ads, I actually knew a girl at this time who was like one step above albino and had white-ish blonde hair. Even though she didn’t REALLY look like on of the VOTD kids, the nickname came up and she was cool enough to own it and diffuse it. Even so, I still thought about her when those creepy kids showed up on screen.

If you’ve never seen the movie or the 1960 British film its based on (which I have not), an entire small town blacks out and wakes up with some of the women pregnant. They give birth to babies who have mind control powers and wind up being something out of this world (not in a good way). The adults in town include doctor Christopher Reeve in his last role before his accident, Mark Hamill as the local priest, Kirstie Alley as an out of town doctor who knows more about what’s happening than she lets on. There’s also, of course, the mothers, none of whom I actually recognized.

I’m not the biggest fan of the killer kid subgenre of horror. Before I was a dad, I used to think, “Just take those kids out, how hard can it be?” In this case, it’s pretty tough and one of the ways I thought of while watching to get rid of them was brought up by a crazy janitor. Anyway, now that I’m a dad, I certainly don’t want to see any children killed on screen, even jerky, evil ones. This movie also handles that well and in such a way that didn’t bother me too much.

What impressed me most about this movie is how complex it is without going into huge expository detail about what’s going on. This isn’t Gremlins and there aren’t rules explained for dealing with these kids or how they came about. Their origins are interesting and fun to think about. There’s also a lot that’s hinted at about how crazy this town is thanks to the introduction of these kids. A lot is the same and yet pretty much everyone has accepted the fact that this group of children was spontaneously created and later born. It’s like a longer and bigger version of that Twilight Zone episode where the family is terrified of their kid who can send them to a cornfield, but in a great way.

As a parent, I put myself in the place of someone like Reeve or the other adults in this story and really am not sure what I would have done in that situation. Like I said, everyone knows what’s going on and yet no one really does anything about it in a smart way. Whoever the invading things are, they’re smart enough to use humans’ built-in desire to protect and care for children in order to get their offspring to live. It’s also interesting to think about what it says about American society that the other places these things tried to do this took care of the problem pretty quickly and we didn’t. Like I said, there’s a lot to unpack in here.

Hey, I just had a weird thought, what if all the evil bad guy things in Carpenter’s horror movies were being sent from the same source all trying to destroy our dimension? You’ve got the kids from VOTD, Michael Myers, the thing, the green liquid from POD, those dumb pirate ghosts, a killer car, vampires, the They Live aliens and whatever the heck those things on Mars were. Show me the non-evidence.

Halloween Scene: Seed (2007)

2008-10-09
2:52:59 am

About 30 seconds into the Uwe Boll written, produced and directed Seed, I almost turned the movie. Not because of Boll’s not-so-great reputation as a director or my previous experience with two of his movies that I didn’t like (House of the Dead and BloodRayne), but because the opening involves videos of animal cruelty. And not just someone hitting a dog, but beating them to death. It’s gross and I has to fast forward past it.

Past that, I actually enjoyed Seed, much to my surprise. And that’s after a fairly confusing first half hour as we get concurrent stories of Seed in jail and also our cop hero capturing Seed. It’s a flashback, but I didn’t quite catch onto that at first. Oh, also, the story revolves around a law that flashes on the screen at the very beginning that basically says that if you try to kill someone in the electric chair three times and it doesn’t kill them, they get to walk free. Now, that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Why would you let a mostly indestructible mass murderer (one newspaper clipping we see says that he killed the laughable number of 666 people in 6 years, which averages out to about 3-4 a day!) out after your method of killing him proves ineffective? But, hey, maybe it’s a real law, I dunno.

Oh, one more quick thing that bugged me. The movie’s set in 1979, yet this hillbilly killer has access to a camcorder. I’m pretty sure that was a really, really expensive piece of equipment back then. It’s possible he stole it from one of his victims, but then later on he sets up two camcorders, connected to two VCRs and two TVs networked in his house. Maybe he’s one of those idiot savants, but it just feels a bit shakey.

Okay, enough complaining. This was a very effective horror movie. There was even one point where Boll made me jump and that takes some doing. At it’s core, Seed is about a killer getting revenge on the people who tried to kill him for killing so many other people. For the most part, the death scenes are pretty great and tend to avoid the cliche’s you’d expect (I kept waiting for Seed to be waiting for his victims behind an opened door, but no go). There’s one human torture scene that started off as uncomfortable and turned into a strange video game-like sequence.

And man oh man, what an ending. I’m not going to say anything about it because I don’t want to give anything away, but it really flipped the script on what you’d expect. Even with all my nitpicks above, it’s worth the 86 minutes or so it took to watch (especially with skipping through the animal abuse stuff). I feel like people like to pile up on Boll, it’s kind of the popular thing to do, but, in my experience only 33% of his movies were actually enjoyable.

Also enjoyable was Richard Gale’s short horror film Criticized which is about a horror director who kidnaps and tortures the critic who savaged his movie. Good, creepy stuff, definitely worth a viewing.

Oh, one last Seed related complaint. But this one has nothing to do with the movie itself, but the DVD. Like The Zombie Diaries, the DVD box has almost nothing to do with the movie. I was shocked (no electric chair pun intended) that the girl in the red dress doesn’t even appear in the movie, though the electric chair does. Why wouldn’t they show the awesome masked killer in one form or another on the box? Hey what do I know? I’ve never even heard of Vivendi before. Oh well. You can see the cool poster above and the DVD box below.

Book vs. Movie: The Virgin Suicides

2008-08-07
4:34:13 am

So, remember when I said that I didn’t read books too often? Well, after finishing Slam I looked at the growing stack of novels I have next to my bed and picked one kind of at random. It was Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides (1993). Someone had put it on the free table at work and I snatched it up, not really knowing anything about it.

So I started reading it and was hooked instantly. It only took me about three dedicated days of reading to get through it (so about a week, real time) and it was one of the most moving, ghostly reading experiences I’ve ever had. The story follows the Lisbon Family as all five of the daughters kill themselves over the span of a year, the first of which Cecilia, predates her sisters by a full year. What really grabbed me about the telling of the tale was that the narrator speaks in the “we” and comes from the point of view of one of the boys in the neighborhood who fell in a sort of love with the girls and desperately wanted to help them. After they killed themselves, the boys spend the rest of their lives (at least to the point we find them in the book), trying to figure out why these five young women took their lives.

Another element of the book that got me was the way that Eugenides packed each page with so many characters, either actually involved in the story or just mentioned by name. Almost all of them seem incidental at first, but come back into play later on. The great thing about it, though, is that I never felt lost. Maybe I didn’t take much stock in such casually mentioned characters, but they all came back in one way or another, which really makes the reader feel like a part of these boys’ (and later mens’) club of failed avenging heroes.

The sense of not being able to penetrate another person is one that I’ve often thought about. Even the girls’ own father who lived under the same roof as them had no idea what was going through their heads as they planned an elaborate suicide plan that involved a number of the neighborhood boys. No matter how hard you try to decode someone’s thoughts and actions, you just can’t get inside their heads. The best you can do is gather accounts to try and put the puzzle together.

Sophia Coppola’s adaptation (1999) is pretty faithful to the book, but not necessarily to the version in my brain. But I think a lot of that comes from the basic differences between books and movies. For instance, in the book, you don’t really get a sense of the girls as individuals until the narrator does which is well into the book. Of course, in a movie, you can obviously see the differences. Though, I do have to give props to the casting folks for making the non Kirsten Dunst sisters all look pretty similar and easily confused.

Aside from Dunst who nails the promiscuous and evocative Lux to a T, the casting didn’t quite do it for me. I didn’t get the same feel from Kathleen Turner’s mother character as I did in the book, even though she looks almost exactly like how I pictured her. The way its conveyed in the book, it’s hard to not feel like she’s majorly to blame for the girls’ suicides. Again, I’m thinking this is because we actually see her reactions to things like her first daughter’s suicide.

I was really most curious to see how Coppola and Co. handled the first person plural narrator of the book in the film (he always uses “we” and never deviates). She got Giovanni Ribisi, an actor I’ve liked since I randomly rented Suburbia at the age of 16 and developed a pretty deep man crush on. Anyway, he does a great job, but isn’t utilized enough to really set the same tone as the book. The lack of entrenchment along with the neighborhood boys leads to more focus on the girls, which almost completely removes the element of being an outsider looking in on them which is central to the novel. Heck, it’s hard to be an outsider when you’re right in their living room as they play Chinese checkers and watch wildlife shows.

One of the downsides to watching such a faithful adaptation so soon after reading the book (I finished it Saturday in between and after errands I didn’t want to run) is that you know when everything’s coming and what’s going to happen. I didn’t feel that way watching Virgin Suicides. I was mostly curious to see how Coppola translated such an artfully crafted novel onto the screen. And kudos to her for doing such a great job. The movie never lags (it’s just over an hour and a half) and, while you’re nowhere near as firmly entrenched with the neighborhood kids as you are in the book, you still develop an attachment for these girls and desperately want to help them, even though it’s a forgone conclusion from about the second line of the script that they’re not going to make it.

All in all, I enjoyed both works, though obviously I liked the book better. I can’t recommend the book enough to people. Heck, if it only took me a few days to read, you should be able to get through it quickly. But, if books aren’t your thing, I also give the movie my thumb’s up.