Thursday, December 25, 2008

Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)

Every type of mass media has stirred some form of controversy. Books, television, music, video games, radio broadcasts... all of them have caused people to just lose their minds and indignantly go on the warpath. And motion pictures are no exception. Even something most people wouldn't give a second thought to can raise an incredibly huge uproar, as evidenced by the amount of people who complained about Tropic Thunder's use of the word "retarded."

There have been so many movies that have stirred the pot like that, but no discussion of controversial movies would be complete without mentioning the 1984 cult classic Silent Night, Deadly Night. Though the movie has fallen into relative obscurity nowadays, screenings of it were regularly picketed by PTA members upon its release twenty-five years ago. It was publicly condemned by such notable critics as Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert, and Leonard Maltin. Why such vitriol for the movie? Read on.

Our tale of yuletide horror begins — appropriately enough — on Christmas Eve, circa 1971. Five-year-old Billy Chapman (Jonathan Best) and his family are on the road, heading for a visit with Billy's grandfather (Will Hare). The catch? Grandpa Chapman is currently a resident of the Utah state mental hospital. Thus, the old coot isn't exactly the best of company. He just kinda sits there staring off into space, not even acknowledging that anybody is even in the room with him.

Eventually, Billy's parents step out of the room to discuss business with the hospital's proprietor, leaving Billy all alone with Grandpa. And wouldn't you know it, that's when he decides to snap out of his catatonia. And he doesn't just have a friendly conversation with Billy, no. Instead, he proceeds to frighten the everloving crap out of the poor child with tales of Santa Claus. According to Grandpa, ol' Saint Nick doesn't just reward the good kids with presents. No, he also punishes the naughty kids. He punishes them with lumps of coal in their stockings, not violence and death, right? But just as soon as Grandpa manages to warn Billy of Santa's punishing ways, Billy's parents return and Grandpa falls back into catatonia.

That night, the Chapman family starts making their way back home. But who do they cross paths with on their journey? Why, Santa Claus, of course! Turns out this particular Santa (Charles Dierkop) is having car trouble. And little do the Chapmans know that that Santa's also really, really crazy. When Billy's father (Jeff Hansen) pulls over to help, Santa shoots him dead, then drags his mother (Tara Buckman) out of the car and rapes her before slitting her throat. Though Billy watches the entire thing, he and his infant brother manage to survive. But don't worry, it's not like this will be anything to scar little Billy for life, right?

Billy and his brother are sent to Saint Mary's Orphanage, where three years pass. And in those three years, the eight-year-old Billy (Danny Wagner) has become a little bit of a freak. When asked to draw a Christmas picture, Billy cranks out an illustration of a decapitated reindeer and a Santa stuck full of knives. While the sympathetic Sister Margaret (Gilmer McCormick) rightly assumes that Billy could use psychological treatment to deal with the trauma of watching his parents die, the headmistress, Mother Superior (Lilyan Chapman), just thinks he's being weird for weird's sake.

Billy is sent to his room as punishment, but when Sister Margaret allows Billy to leave to go play, he stumbles upon a couple having sex. Mother Superior stumbles across the whole thing and whips the couple with a belt, then whips Billy for having left his room, permission or not. She even ties Billy to his bed when he starts having nightmares about the murders.

One morning shortly thereafter, Billy awakens to find all the kids opening their Christmas presents. All goes well for a while, but then Mother Superior announces that Santa Claus will be visiting the orphanage. And come Hell or high water, she's going to make Billy cut through all the bullcrap and sit on Santa's lap. That Mother Superior is a progressive thinker, believing that if a child is haunted by the murder of his parents, then the only natural way to relieve him of those problems is to force the child into a confrontation with a man dressed exactly like the killer. That would totally make sense if it weren't for the fact that it's an incredibly bad idea.

But it's that sort of logic that leads to one of the most glorious moments in the history of the horror genre. When Mother Superior forcefully deposits Billy onto Santa's lap, he struggles for a moment before popping Santa right in the face with the wildest haymaker I've ever seen. I thought seeing a character hide in a refrigerator in Madman was the craziest thing I'd ever seen in a slasher movie, but this comes close to topping it. But seriously, Mother Superior might have been onto something. Being beaten and forced to relive horrifying memories isn't anything that will scar Billy for life, right?

Let's fast forward another ten years, where the 18-year-old Billy (Robert Brian Wilson) has — with a little help from Sister Margaret — acquired a job at a local toy store. And for a few months, things go swimmingly. Billy enjoys his job, and he even finds a love interest in a coworker named Pamela (Toni Nero). But then the Christmas season rolls around and causes things to get weird. And as you've probably figured by now, Billy isn't exactly comfortable during the holidays. Just the thought of Santa Claus is enough to cause him to have nightmares and panic attacks. These are just the least of his worries, though. Why? His boss has drafted him to play the store's Santa. Uh-oh. If you watch Billy's face during the scene where he tries on the costume, you can actually pinpoint the exact moment that he starts down that slippery slope to Crazy Town.

But it's during the store's Christmas Eve festivities that things really start going nuts. Towards the end of the party, Billy ends up in the stockroom, where he discovers a coworker trying to rape Pamela. Reminded of that terrible night all those years ago, Billy goes completely off the deep end and strangles the would-be rapist with a string of Christmas lights. But instead of being grateful, Pamela just calls Billy crazy and smacks him. And that sort of naughtiness just won't do. He guts Pamela with a box cutter, and then makes short work of the rest of the store's employees after they discover what he's done. Armed with a fire axe and a renewed sense of purpose, Billy prowls the town's streets to punish all those he deems naughty.

As I said in the introduction, Silent Night, Deadly Night has been pretty much forgotten by mainstream audiences over the years. But for horror fans such as me, its notoriety remains. Even when I was an 11-year-old kid living in a world yet to witness the full-blown proliferation of the Internet, I had managed to hear about Silent Night, Deadly Night, and was both intrigued and frightened by the idea of it. I would see the old, beaten-up VHS box on my almost weekly visits to the local mom-and-pop video store, and I just knew that something horrifying was lying within it. Simply the picture of an axe-wielding Santa Claus climbing down a chimney was enough to send my mind racing with thoughts of what the movie could possibly be like.

But I could never bring myself to rent it. For years it remained a movie I would hear about, yet never actually see. But now, two and a half decades since its controversial and short-lived theatrical run, I finally saw the holiday horror movie that I first encountered offhandedly so many years ago. And it turns out that the movie wasn't as bad as I expected it to be.

In the director's chair is Charles E. Sellier, Jr., whose has spent the majority of his career producing documentaries and made-for-TV movies. Judging by his IMDB profile, he doesn't exactly have a very prolific résumé when it comes to being a director. But in watching Silent Night, Deadly Night, it's a bummer. Sellier could have made a few more slasher movies if he'd wanted to, and I wouldn't have complained. His work makes the movie a little bit sleazier, a little dirtier, and a little more provocative. Teaming with cinematographer Henning Schellerup, Sellier allows things to linger. It's all about drawing things out. Either scenes are drawn out before the payoff to amplify the tension, or we stay with the payoff, allowing it to sink in and really get a reaction out of the viewer. And with Schellerup's camerawork, it's successful.

The only bad thing about the whole production is the music. Perry Botkin's score is inconsistent, alternating between moments of efficiency and moments where it sounds really generic. Really, it's like Botkins cribbed the music from every other independently-made slasher movie made between 1982 and 1986. And seriously, what's with the horrible Christmas songs composed specifically for the movie? Was there no money in the budget to license real Christmas music? Go watch the "Billy's getting his life together" montage, set to some cheesy song called "The Warm Side of the Door." It's like the theme song to some awful sitcom from the '70s. I would rather get stuck under the mistletoe with the wood chipper from Fargo than hear that song again.

Next is the screenplay, penned my Michael Hickey. Critiquing a slasher movie's writing often proves futile, because most of the time, the script isn't really all that important. They're basically, "Blah blah blah, a character dies. Blah blah blah, another character dies. Blah blah blah, sex scene, one more character dies. Repeat ad nauseam for eighty minutes. The killer is defeated, the end." And that works for pretty much every slasher movie. Even the bad ones can at least get the formula at least a little bit right. But Hickey does something different with Silent Night, Deadly Night. He actually takes the time to make us understand just why Billy is homicidal.

Roughly half of the movie is dedicated to this, as we're privy to all of the torture and abuse — both physical and psychological — that Billy is forced to endure. He's almost the complete antithesis of Batman; both watched the murder of their parents, but while Bruce Wayne used that pain to become a hero, Billy's childhood trauma inadvertently molded him into the thing he had feared the most. This sort of look into the killer's psychology really sets Silent Night, Deadly Night apart from other slasher movies, creating a murderer that is (dare I say it?) sympathetic. He isn't the typical "I didn't get invited to the school dance, so you've all gotta die" type of killer, because it's actually somewhat realistic.

Last on my list is the movie's cast. I know you're probably thinking that a critique of the acting in a slasher movie could be a blanket statement like, "All the actors sucked. It's no wonder they're still nobodies." But doing that would be a great disservice to the good performances that some of Silent Night, Deadly Night's actors put forth. Granted, the majority of the cast is disposable, as is the case with most movies within this genre. But the major players, the actors who really count, are worth watching.

Perhaps the best performance comes from Lilyan Chauvin. She has over 120 credits on her IMDB profile, but I'm willing to bet that none of them are quite like Silent Night, Deadly Night. Chauvin's performance is a believable one. She is so mean, so scary, so domineering, that it's almost enough to make me afraid of nuns as a whole. Chauvin plays the role as such an evil bitch that you can't refrain from absolutely hating her guts. You almost want Billy to skip all of the other victims dictated by the script and go straight for her. Her performance is that effective.

Another effective performance comes from Will Hare. Sure, his total screen time is limited to one three-minute scene at the beginning of the movie. But his character is an important one, and his work here as the crazy old codger that serves as the first catalyst for Billy's fear of Santa Claus is entertaining. It's a wacky three minutes, no doubt about it. I also liked Gilmer McCormick as Sister Margaret, the one nun from the orphanage who sees all the warning signs ahead of time. Any ‘80s slasher movie worth their salt featured some variation of a prophet of doom, and in that role, McCormick shines. She is quite likable in the role, and you almost feel bad that nobody listens to her until it's too late. Then again, if anyone had listened to her, we wouldn't have had much of a movie.

The final actors I will mention here are the three who play the movie's main character in the various stages of his life. Jonathan Best is okay as the five-year-old Billy, but not a whole lot is asked of him, other than to stand around and look precocious. Next is Danny Wagner, the eight-year-old Billy. The kid looks absolutely nothing like Best, instead looking more like the kid that played Oliver in the Problem Child movies. But once you get over it, it's not that much of a problem. Besides, Wagner is sporting a rockin' mullet, which is endearing all on its own. He is convincing, I'll give him that.

Lastly is the version of Billy we're all here to see, Robert Brian Wilson. Wilson does a very good job in the role, making you sympathetic for him at first. He maintains that sympathy to a lesser degree once he turns homicidal, because after a while, you're too busy being afraid of him to feel sorry for him. Seriously, that scene where he's stalking a victim and starts reciting "The Night Before Christmas" in this totally-detached-from-reality kind of voice? That was some creepy stuff, man.

Most keyed-in horror fans know that Silent Night, Deadly Night is not the first horror movie to use Christmas as its backdrop. It wasn't even the first one to feature a villain dressed like Santa Claus, thanks to movies like Tales from the Crypt in 1972 and Christmas Evil in 1980. But with the notable exception of Bob Clark's Black Christmas, it's probably the most famous Christmas-themed horror movie. It's also probably the most tasteless and mean-spirited horror movie this side of Eli Roth's Hostel movies. There's guys in Santa costumes killing people, two attempted rapes that end in murder, and a kid being beaten by a nun for no other reason than because the nun's a stone cold bitch. Yeah, I can kinda understand why the PTA might have been a wee bit upset.

But as a horror movie, Silent Night, Deadly Night works. I'm not going to sit here and say that the movie is actually good. But I will tell you that if you're not easily offended, it just might be right up your alley. So in my honest opinion, I'm going to give it three stars and tell the horror fans reading this to go check it out. Leonard Maltin wrote in his review of Silent Night, Deadly Night: "What next, the Easter Bunny as a child molester?" He says that like it would be a bad thing.

Final Rating: ***

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Spawn (1997)

When thinking of comic books, your mind may immediately wander to DC or Marvel. And that's perfectly natural. DC and Marvel are the biggest names in the game. But as with every other type of media, there are comic book publishers other than the most recognizable ones. Dark Horse Comics may be the most prevalent one, but also competing for the attention of readers is Image Comics. Formed in 1992 by seven disillusioned Marvel illustrators, Image was created to provide a forum for writers and artists to maintain freedom and control over their own creations without bureaucratic interference.

Perhaps the most famous of Image's founders was Todd McFarlane, whose run at Marvel helped establish the character Venom as one of Spider-Man's most popular villains. When McFarlane left Marvel to co-found Image, the first character he created there would become one of the company's most enduring: Spawn. The demonically-powered antihero proved to be incredibly popular upon his debut, with the first issue of the Spawn comic selling almost two million copies alone after its publication in early 1992.

Though his mainstream popularity has dramatically cooled since then, Spawn's resonance with comic readers in the mid-'90s led to video games, a popular animated series that ran for eighteen episodes on HBO, and a line of toys designed by McFarlane himself. But perhaps the apex of Spawn's glory days was the live-action cinematic adaptation released by New Line Cinema in the summer of 1997. The movie was only a modest financial success, and generally isn't considered one of the more memorable comic book movies ever. So let's see if we can figure out just why that is.

Our story follows Al Simmons (Michael Jai White), a deadly mercenary under the current employ of a covert government agency directed by Jason Wynn (Martin Sheen). Unhappy with the amount of unnecessary casualties caused by his most recent mission, Simmons has chosen to retire. Wynn is willing to allow this, but only after Simmons completes one final job, the destruction of a North Korean factory secretly producing chemical weapons.

It turns out, though, that Wynn has lured him right into a trap. Wynn turns on Simmons and lights him ablaze, leaving him to perish in an explosion. Because of his great many sins, his soul is sent to burn in Hell for eternity. Desperate to see his beloved wife Wanda (Theresa Randle) again, he strikes a deal with the demon Malebogia (the voice of Frank Welker). If he is allowed to return to Earth, he will lead the army of Hell in its final war with Heaven.

Of course, every Faustian deal comes with some kind of catch. A horrifically burn-scarred Simmons is returned to Earth five years after he initially died, where he is disappointed to discover that Wanda has moved on. She is happily married to his best friend Terry (D.B. Sweeney), and the couple have a daughter named Cyan (Sydni Beaudoin). However, he also discovers that his deal with Malebogia has imbued him with vast supernatural powers. These powers have transformed him into Spawn, the embodiment of all of Hell's soldiers. Pestering him is Clown (John Leguizamo), an obnoxious little monster who pressures Spawn into accepting his position as the leader of Hell's agents of the apocalypse.

But opposing Clown's efforts is Coligostro (Nicol Williamson), a medieval knight who himself fell in with Malebogia's army centuries earlier before seeing the error of his ways. He assumes the role of Spawn's mentor, teaching him how to use his powers while pleading with him to utilize them for good instead of the evil they were intended for. But while Heaven and Hell battle for his soul, Spawn chooses to get revenge on Wynn for putting him in this position to begin with.

I said in the opening paragraph that Spawn has never really been considered a memorable comic book movie. And in my experiences, I've rarely ever seen it get mentioned at all. To that, I will posit that it's because Spawn isn't all that great. It's not that it sucks outright, but it's just a really mediocre movie that doesn't do a whole lot to make you remember it. There are a lot of tools here that could be used to craft a really great movie, but it simply doesn't do anything with them. And that's the most disappointing thing about the movie, too. The character of Spawn and the world he inhabits would make for an awesome action flick. I won't argue that. But unfortunately, we get a movie with half-assed acting, bad writing, and some of the most hideous CGI effects I've ever seen.

Let's begin with the directorial work from Mark A.Z. Dippé. Dippé did a lot of work for ILM in the first half of the '90s, working as a special effects supervisor on such movies as Ghost, Terminator 2, Back to the Future 2, and Jurassic Park. He moves into the director's chair for the first time with Spawn, and his inexperience shows. Just because he worked on movies directed by Steven Spielberg and James Cameron doesn't mean any of their talent rubbed off on him.

But maybe I'm being too hard on Dippé. This is his first movie, after all, so maybe I should cut him some slack. That's wouldn't be too much of a hassle, would it? I will say that, with help from cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, he manages to craft scenes with a certain dark grittiness to them. Dippé does seem to have a handle on what he's doing, but as I said, his inexperience does hinder him somewhat. There's also an acceptably-done score composed by Graeme Revell, but I could have done withoyt the lame techno music that was selected to comprise the soundtrack.

It also doesn't help that the CGI effects are tremendously awful. The CGI is prevalent to the point of overuse, and it does far more to ruin the movie than anything else could. The CGI looks like bad leftovers from Who Framed Roger Rabbit, where the human cast is stuck interacting with cartoons that aren't really there. The only bad part is that Spawn's CGI is definitely less effective than Roger Rabbit's animation. There's one cool moment where Clown's monstrous alternate form, dubbed "the Violator," emerges from a wall during the climax. Other than that, the CGI ranges from unconvincing to downright hideous. How could a guy who worked for ILM for so long allow his movie to have special effects that look like the animators got halfway through before quitting?

Next on the list is the screenplay, credited to Dippé and Alan McElroy. I don't want to stir the pot or anything, but I'm not exactly sure that McElroy writing the movie was a good thing. A quick look at his IMDB listing reveals that he's written such cinematic masterpieces as Left Behind: The Movie, The Marine, and Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever. Granted, Spawn came out years before those movies, but it still isn't a very good omen in retrospect.

But as far as his work on Spawn, the script could have been a lot better. To take a franchise full of potential and use it to craft a script full of cheesy dialogue and bad one-dimensional character constructs is a shame. And was there really a need for all the lame expository narration to explain plot points that could have been handled in a far more natural way? I know that it makes the movie more like a comic book, but not every comic book element can really survive a translation from print to film.

The last portion of the movie left to critique is the acting. First on the list is the star, Michael Jai White. Truth be told, there really isn't a whole lot that White needs to do. All that's necessary is for him to act really pissed off, and throw in some brooding and general grumpiness on occasion. And what he doesn't do, that cheap CGI can do for him. The character as written only needs someone who can convincingly be an angry killing machine from Hell, and in that regard, White does an acceptable job.

Next is John Leguizamo as the utterly repellent Clown. I think it's funny that Spawn and The Pest were released in the same year, because both of them feature Leguizamo playing some of the most irritating characters is movie history. But while his character from The Pest was annoying because it was such a bad movie, Clown is purposely nerve-grating. He's sleazy, rude, uncouth, vile, and generally disgusting, and Leguizamo plays him with such energy and commitment that you can't help but hate the character's guts. So if that's what Leguizamo wanted to accomplish, he was successful.

The rest of the cast, however, is hit or miss (mostly miss). Nicol Williamson, playing the Obi-Wan Kenobi to White's Luke Skywalker, puts forth a credible performance despite being stuck delivering so much pretentious narration. Meanwhile, Martin Sheen is stuck playing a character whose master plan makes him look like a Bond villain wannabe. And unfortunately, Sheen's work is inconsistent. He's effective at times, but at others, you end up wishing they'd move along to the next scene and follow other characters for a change.

D.B. Sweeney is okay in his small and thankless role, as is Miko Hughes, who plays a homeless boy that befriends Spawn shortly after his return from Hell. Bringing up the rear, I was less than impressed with Theresa Randle, and I'm bummed that Melinda Clarke was so wasted in her role. Her work in Return of the Living Dead 3 is one of my favorite horror movie performances, and the fact that she's playing a character who ends up having such little bearing on the movie makes me sad.

The middle half of the '90s sucked if you were a fan of comic book movies. You had Tank Girl, Judge Dredd, Barb Wire, Batman & Robin, Steel, and Spawn seeing release all between 1995 and 1997. The Spawn comics were a huge success amongst Gen-X readers during the decade, but I'm sure even the most ardent fans would have to admit that the movie could have been a lot better. In all honesty, Roger Ebert is the only person I've ever seen who was actually willing to give the movie a glowing review. The biggest drawback is that Spawn just doesn't know what kind of movie it wants to be. Is it a horror movie? Is it an action movie? Does all the adolescent humor from the Clown character make it a comedy? I don't know, and neither does the movie. And if the movie isn't going to care, then neither will I. As a result, I can't give Spawn anything higher than two stars. I'd rather go watch the Hellboy movies or Ghost Rider instead.

Final Rating: **

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Dark Knight (2008)

Ask me who my favorite superhero is, and my answer would most likely be Batman. Created in 1939 by Bob Kane and a perpetually uncredited Bill Finger, Batman captured my imagination far more than Superman, Spider-Man, or any other hero when I was a kid. He might not have had any superpowers, but he had the best enemies and the coolest gadgets, and that was enough for him to earn my appreciation. I'm not the only one that thought that way, as Batman's logo and visage has been seen in every place you could possibly think of.

But for the last twenty years, perhaps the most high-profile depictions of the character have been the series of live-action motion pictures featuring the Caped Crusader. Beginning with Tim Burton's awesome 1989 movie and continuing with Batman Returns three years afterwards, the movies presented a Batman that the public at large hadn't really seen before. Burton's Batman was a brooding figure who used his nocturnal persona to cope with his traumatic childhood, an image far removed from the ultra-goofy yet thoroughly entertaining version of Batman that Adam West had made famous through the classic 1960s television show in which he starred.

But for all the work that Tim Burton did, Warner Brothers had to go and screw it up by hiring Joel Schumacher. Schumacher has made a few good movies, sure, but Batman Forever and Batman & Robin were not two of them. (But I'll admit that Batman Forever is a guilty pleasure of mine, so maybe I shouldn't be too harsh on it.) Schumacher's movies sent Batman back to the colorful, silly camp from the '60s, something fans and critics didn't really want to see in these new movies. So bad was the reception to Batman Forever and Batman & Robin that it was nearly a decade before Warner Brothers would try their hand at another movie featuring the savior of Gotham City.

And with it, they tried to make it up to the disgruntled fanboys by completely restarting the franchise in 2005 with Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins. It was a wonderful movie, one which proved to be so popular among both critics and regular moviegoers that Warner Brothers was quick to approve a sequel. (After all, the only thing movie studios like more than making a boatload of money is making an even bigger boatload of money.) The Dark Knight is one of the rare sequels that is not only damn good, but exceeds the quality of its predecessor by leaps and bounds.

The last time we saw Gotham City, it was steadily being eaten alive by crime. Now, however, it has been given a glimmer of sunshine by its guardian of the night, Batman (Christian Bale). Though only a few months have passed since the events of the previous movie, the costumed crimefighter's efforts have had a major impact on the city. The different organized crime syndicates are slowly being forced to loosen their chokehold on Gotham City, and small time thieves and drug dealers are afraid to go out at night. Even a small group of concerned citizens copycatting Batman has surfaced, though their methods are more brutal.

And though he has the support of police lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), Batman can't do it all by himself. Through Gordon's efforts, he quickly finds another ally in the city's new district attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). Dent's fearlessly vocal stance against the mobsters that continue to operate within Gotham City impresses Batman, who views Dent as the hero that he himself cannot be.

However, an issue more pressing than simple mobsters soon presents itself. Desperate to reclaim their dwindling positions of power, Gotham's various mob families pool their efforts together and hire a new enforcer, a anarchic psychopath known only as "The Joker" (Heath Ledger). His demands are simple: Batman must turn himself over to the police and reveal his secret identity, or a killing spree like none other will commence. And when Bruce Wayne refuses to reveal it is he under the cowl, Joker starts making good on his threats. Thus begins a full-fledged war, with the Dark Knight on one side, the Clown Prince of Crime on the other, and Gotham City caught in the middle.

It's been said so many times in so many ways that it's beginning to become clichéd, but it bears repeating: The Dark Knight is a fantastic movie. It's mind-boggling that a movie taken from the pages of a superhero comic book could be this astounding. There have been quite a few movies of this type that have been really good in the past, but The Dark Knight exists on such a higher plateau than everything else that it almost completely defies comparison to any of its brethren. It evidences that a movie that could be easily dismissed as another simple "genre movie" can transcend labels and preconceptions to stand as something that benefits motion pictures as a whole.

As of this writing, The Dark Knight is ranked in the top ten on the IMDB's list of the greatest movies of all time. Granted, the Internet Movie Database isn't the most reliable website on the Internet, but to be in the company of movies like The Shawshank Redemption, Schindler's List, and the first two Godfather movies shows just how good The Dark Knight really is.

First up to the plate is the direction. Christopher Nolan returns to the superhero franchise that he breathed new life into, and he knocks The Dark Knight absolutely out of the park. Nolan's films have consistently focused more upon characters, what drives them, and how their deeds affect one another. But while The Dark Knight has its share of the fight scenes, action sequences, and car chases that you'd expect from a superhero movie, Nolan's style gives us a character-driven movie atypical of the genre.

That doesn't mean Nolan doesn't get a little flashy, however. Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister craft a visually stunning movie, with fantastic camerawork that works to capture the viewer's imagination. The high, swooping camera angles showing characters swinging between buildings are vertigo-inducing, and the use of oversized IMAX cameras in certain sequences makes the movie look bigger and more epic.

I must also applaud Nolan and Pfister for their work on the action sequences. All too common do filmmakers create fights and moments where the camera is bouncing around recklessly, edited so quickly that a hummingbird couldn't make heads or tails of it. But the action is filmed in such a way that is beneficial to it, making us feel while we're part of the action while still letting us see what's actually happening. I like that, and I wish more filmmakers would do things that way.

If the direction and cinematography create a visually epic film, then it requires a similar soundtrack in order to seal the deal. And that is exactly what we get from composers Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. I've said in a number of my reviews that a good movie soundtrack should first and foremost enhance the visual aspect of the movie by helping build tension, create the proper atmosphere, and invoke some kind of emotional response from the viewer. Zimmer and Howard's score is exactly what The Dark Knight needs, fitting right into those three categories I mentioned.

Take, for example, scenes involving the Joker feature two notes being played on a cello, played in such a way that creates a prolonged tone that sounds almost like an air raid siren warning of impending danger. It's in the vein of John Williams's classic theme song from Jaws; if you hear it, all friggin' hell is about to break loose. Their music is thrilling, intense, haunting, melancholy, and borderline perfect.

Next up is the screenplay, penned by Nolan and his brother Jonathan (with a story credit going to genre veteran David Goyer). As I said before, The Dark Knight is very much a character-driven movie, and much of that is due to the writing. The script weaves a complex story where things are not always as cut and dry as we would like them to be. It's a very psychological movie, one that renders Batman as more than just an emotionally troubled vigilante wearing the world's coolest Halloween costume, and one that renders his rogues gallery as more than merely violent psychotics with corny gimmicks.

Thanks to the Nolans, The Dark Knight becomes more than your typical superhero movie. They have created a bleak, ultimately lonely world in which the actions or inactions of its inhabitants have consequences that ebb and ripple out like a stone thrown into a pond. This world also raises questions of both a moral and philosophical nature. What truly defines a hero? How far does that definition separate heroes from the villains they are sworn to oppose? What sacrifices must be made in order to prevent those villains from accomplishing their grand scheme?

Last, but most certainly not least, are the actors who truly bring the characters of The Dark Knight to life. Let's start with the lead actor, Christian Bale. The four actors who have gained recognition for their live-action portrayals of Batman prior to Bale had very different levels of success in playing the role, but the one thing they had in common were that they each of them were better at one facet of the Batman/Bruce Wayne dichotomy, but couldn't really pull off the other half. Michael Keaton got close, but I think Bale is the first one to truly get it right.

He manages to balance the dual personality of Batman and Bruce Wayne with gusto, showing the emotional and psychological troubles that Bruce must deal with as a result of living both as a decadent playboy and as the Caped Crusader. The gruff, growling voice he takes on while donning the Batman costume has also improved over the similar voice he utilized in Batman Begins; it sounds more natural, more realistic than it did in the previous movie. It's nice to see that Bale is the kind of actor that would try to improve upon the flaws of a prior performance when it comes time to do a sequel. But Bale does a great job in the role, making us really believe that despite all of his flaws, Batman is truly a hero.

Next is Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent. The various incarnations of Dent in the multitude of Batman media have often been depicted as a heroic ally of Batman before undergoing a tragic transformation into one of his most famous enemies. With this knowledge in mind, we can do nothing but feel dread for the character as he comes ever so close to being the hero Gotham City needs. We want to see him succeed, but we know that Harvey Dent will be taken away and replaced with the coin-flipping burn victim who answers to the name "Two-Face."

Eckhart portrays Dent's pious earnestness excellently, to such a degree that we actually start to believe that things may just work out for him after all. But we know that there will be no happy ending for Dent, and there is none here to be found for him. Eckhart seems to understand that, shaping his performance around it in such a way that it's all the more tragic when he finally becomes Two-Face.

The supporting cast also does a fine job. Though Gary Oldman has built a career on playing villains, weirdos, and other assorted crazies, casting him as Jim Gordon proved to be such a smart move. Oldman brings a certain sense of urgency to the character, as well as a level of strength and intelligence that Gordon needs. His version of Jim Gordon is so completely unlike the complete afterthought that Pat Hingle played in the Burton/Schumacher movies or the utterly useless buffoon played by Neil Hamilton on the old television show. Here, Oldman gets to play a dedicated policeman, a depiction that is really nice to see for a change.

I also enjoyed the performances of Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman. Caine once again shows why Nolan was wise to cast him as Batman's faithful butler Alfred. He brings a sense of wisdom to the role, making Alfred truly feel like a confidante and father figure to Batman. Freeman also does a fun job as Lucius Fox, builder of Batman's wonderful toys. He plays Fox almost as a slyer version of the late Desmond Llewelyn's turns as the gadget-constructing Q in so many James Bond movies. Though now that I think about it, has there ever been a movie where Freeman didn't turn in a good performance?

And let's not forget Maggie Gyllenhaal, who replaces Katie Holmes in the role of Rachel Dawes. The last I heard, the official story is that Holmes dropped out of The Dark Knight to co-star in Mad Money, a decision that in retrospect makes her look like one of the stupidest people on the planet. I'm not one to go spreading any conspiracy theories, but maybe they didn't ask her to come back due to all the negativity she received for her performance in Batman Begins. Every review I read said that her performance was the worst part of the movie. She even got nominated for a Razzie, for crying out loud.

But in any event, Holmes is gone, and Gyllenhaal has taken her place. That change is for the best too, because Gyllenhaal is a far more talented actress than her predecessor. And although the character isn't exactly the best-written one in the movie, Gyllenhaal plays the role with a particular liveliness and an emotional depth that really hooks the viewer. She's spunky, likeable, and really makes you wish that she had been cast in Batman Begins as well.

But perhaps the best performance of the movie comes from the actor who has brought more attention to The Dark Knight than anything else, the late Heath Ledger. His tragic death six months prior to the movie's release created more buzz than any advertising campaign ever could. And as his final completed performance, Ledger couldn't have left with a better goodbye. His turn as Batman's greatest opponent is incredibly unique, so much unlike any other prior depiction of the Joker. Joker describes himself as a dog chasing cars; he has no goal or intended destination, he just enjoys being the lunatic that he comes across as. Joker is the living embodiment of anarchy and disorder, and Ledger plays the role with a frenzied, unsettling enthusiasm that makes the character seem as if he were a psychotic child set loose in a toy store full of chaos.

Though the character is most assuredly not the felonious jokester as seen in past depictions, we the audience do find ourselves chuckling somewhat as Ledger's awkward, twitchy mannerisms and delivery. However, it's an uncomfortable laughter, making us uncertain whether or not there was any actual humor there to begin with. But all hyperbole aside, Ledger put forth the performance of a lifetime with this movie, one that would have had people talking even if he were still alive.

Ever since it was released in 1978, Richard Donner's Superman has been considered by many to be the benchmark for the genre. It was the superhero movie that every other superhero movie was eventually held up to, whether it was justified or not. But now, three decades later, I think Superman has finally been surpassed. The Dark Knight is, at the risk of reiterating hyperbole, the top of the mountain. It is a tale of heroes, of villains, and of how their differences are also their similarities.

Calling this movie simply "good" would be an incredible disservice. I applaud all of those involved with the production of The Dark Knight, because they have crafted something that has practically redefined an entire genre. As a fan of Batman, I can't help but heap praise unto this movie. I'd let it have my firstborn child if I knew it would get me anywhere. So on my Five-Star Sutton Scale, I'm giving it four and a half stars and a very proud seal of recommendation. If you haven't seen it yet, what are you waiting for?

Final Rating: ****½

The Return of Swamp Thing (1989)

In a few of my other reviews and on my blog, I may have implied that while Marvel Comics have been cranking out dozens of movies based on their characters over the years, DC Comics stuck by their old standbys of Superman and Batman. But that's not entirely the case. DC has also done movies based on comics from their Vertigo imprint, as well as Catwoman, Steel, and Swamp Thing.

But while Catwoman and Steel were unbelievably awful movies that have been largely forgotten, Swamp Thing developed enough of a cult following that it spawned a sequel seven years later. That sequel, The Return of Swamp Thing, ended up being just a poor, poor decision from start to finish. Want to know why?

Abigail Arcane (Heather Locklear) has been struggling with the mysterious death of her mother. To help achieve a sense of closure, she heads down to the swamps to reconnect with her estranged stepfather, mad scientist Anton Arcane (Louis Jourdan). You may be wondering how the heck he can show up in the sequel after turning into a monster and getting stabbed and left for dead at the end of the first movie. The answer is simple: he's an evil scientist, so evil science saved him. The equally crazy Dr. Lana Zurrell (Sarah Douglas) used some wacky experiment to resurrect him and return him to human form, but that serum is now wearing off and causing Dr. Arcane to age at a rapid pace.

Seeking a way to slow Dr. Arcane's aging to a crawl and grant him immortality, his team of scientists have been merging human DNA with a assortment of creatures. There hasn't been any success in finding what he's looking for, but it does result in a small army of hideous mutant freaks. But with Abigail's recent arrival to his compound, Dr. Arcane thinks he may have had a breakthrough. The DNA of Abigail's mother served as the catalyst for the original formula that brought him back to life, and because she and her daughter share a similar genetic code, Dr. Arcane believes that Abigail is the key to unlocking the recipe for eternal life.

But once Abigail catches wind of what her stepfather has in store for her, she flees into the swamp. She is quickly discovered and befriended by Swamp Thing (Dick Durock), the walking, talking pile of vegetation himself. The two bond over their common enemy, and a really awkward romance blossoms between them. Yeah, I know she's a human and he's more plant than man, but Abigail's a vegetarian, so it's okay. (That's the movie's logic, not mine.) But, like any comic book movie worth its salt, good and evil will come to blows, and Swamp Thing and Dr. Arcane have an explosive final confrontation in Arcane's laboratory.

The Return of Swamp Thing is, without a doubt, one of the silliest movies I've ever seen. I honestly cannot believe that someone produced this movie and thought it was good enough to release theatrically. What's more baffling is that there's absolutely nothing about this movie that shows that anyone involved took the source material seriously. During the period between the first and second movies, the character of Swamp Thing had been predominantly handled by Alan Moore, who redefined the character and established the series as a gothic, supernatural horror saga. But I guess the powers that be chose not to follow in the comic's footsteps with The Return of Swamp Thing, creating a sci-fi comedy that is basically one big joke.

So let's begin the critiquing with the direction by Jim Wynorski, a filmmaker who's made developed a rather extensive résumé via his work on dozens of lame B-grade horror movies and glorified softcore pornography. I don't believe anyone would accuse Wynorski of being a good director who makes genuinely good movies, and I doubt that The Return of Swamp Thing is one that would change your mind on the matter. Wynorski's work here is consistent enough, though, but it's underwhelming and ultimately unimpressive. He just doesn't really do anything to make the movie stand out.

The same can be said for cinematographer Zoran Hochstatter, whose camerawork is pedestrian at best. Wynorski does, though, manage to get an acceptable musical score from composer Chuck Cirino. Cirino's music sounds similar to the work of Enrico Morricone at times, so if you're going to imitate someone's music, it might as well be someone good.

The best aspect of the production is the monster makeup effects. Swamp Thing's costume is a drastic improvement over what we saw in the previous movie, looking like Dick Durock just spent a month doing nothing but crawling around in the muck and mire of the swamp. And we can't forget the fantastic-looking half-man/half-creature mutants, either. We've got appearances from a cockroach man, an elephant man, an alligator man, and most prominently, a leech man. The creatures are wonderfully disgusting, though it's disappointing that they weren't used in a movie of better quality.

And then there's the script, penned by Grant Morris and Neil Cuthbert. And after watching the movie a few times, I'm beginning to think that the person or persons who approved this script for production had to be on the most massive drug trip of all time. I say that because it has to be one of the stupidest, most completely inane things ever written. The dialogue is atrocious, the characters are just plain dreadful, and nothing in it makes sense. There's the useless subplot where two annoying kids try to take a picture of Swamp Thing so they can sell it to a tabloid, along with the utterly idiotic scene where Arcane's chief security guards compare scars, similar to the famous scene from Jaws. Other than to pad out the running time, is there any reason at all for this crap to have been written, not to mention actually filmed and left in the final cut of the movie?

And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention one of the stupidest parts of the movie, the most bizarre love scene I've ever seen. I mean, I thought the sex scenes from Showgirls and BloodRayne were bad. But The Return of Swamp Thing's just might blow them out of the water. So here's the scene: Swamp Thing has saved Abigail from her stepfather's goons, and they're really falling for one another. Abigail starts putting the moves on him, and Swamp Thing is all, "You weirdo, I'm a giant plant." Her response: "It's okay, I'm a vegetarian." No, really, her response was actual dialogue taken verbatim from the movie. Oh, but the madness doesn't stop there. Swamp Thing decides to indulge her, giving her some kind of root from his body to eat. Abigail eats it, and proceeds to hallucinate that she's having a romantic liaison with a regular human man. It's not steamy or exploitative or anything like that, it's just really weird. Not only does the scene make no sense at all, but it's a scene that really makes you sit back and wonder just what you're watching and why you're watching it.

Bringing up the rear is the cast, none of whom are really worth talking at length about. But I guess I'll have to talk about them anyway, because this paragraph would only be two sentences long if I didn't. Louis Jourdan returns as the villainous Dr. Anton Arcane, and he once again receives top billing. And why is that? In both movies, Jourdan is given the full star treatment, when you'd think that it would make more sense for Dick Durock — the actor actually playing Swamp Thing — would be the headliner. It's like how Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman outranked Christopher Reeve in the Superman movies, or how Jack Nicholson and Arnold Schwarzenegger were given top billing over Michael Keaton and George Clooney in their respective Batman movies. But I guess there's no sense in complaining about something as trivial as that.

Anyway, Jourdan hands in practically the exact same performance from the first Swamp Thing movie, only hammier and even more over the top. It's like he decided to become a combination of Cobra Commander, Dr. Claw from Inspector Gadget, and Dr. Evil. He is entertaining at times, like during the scenes where he's arguing with his character's pet parrot. But other than that, you get the feeling that he knows just how bad this movie is, and that he'd rather be anywhere on the face of the planet than on the set. And I can't say that I really blame him, either.

Next on the list is Heather Locklear, who had recently made a name for herself with her roles on T.J. Hooker and Dynasty. And if those shows were two steps forward, The Return of Swamp Thing is ten steps back. The movie didn't exactly help her career, and her performance didn't exactly help the movie either. Locklear plays the role like she barely has a brain in her head, while delivering her lines almost as if she was supposed to be playing a Valley girl. She is charming, don't get me wrong, but I couldn't help but wonder just what she was thinking when she went into the role.

The rest of the supporting cast is more of the same. Sarah Douglas is okay, I guess, as Dr. Arcane's assistant. But the thing is, you can tell by the look in her eyes during the movie that Douglas came to the realization that her career had hit rock bottom. She was great in Superman II, but it seems like she just went into a tailspin afterwards. It's a shame, really.

Meanwhile, Ace Mask and Joey Sagal are humorous in their minor roles. (And for the record, "Ace Mask" is one of the coolest names ever. It sounds like a badass Mexican wrestler.) And then there's Monique Gabrielle, who could probably be out-acted by a mannequin. Her performance is so wooden that she was probably fighting off a swarm of termites during the filming of her scenes.

I would also be remiss if I didn't mention RonReaco Lee and Daniel Taylor as the aforementioned kids who want to sell a picture of Swamp Thing to a tabloid. I thought the "Jude" character from the first movie was awful and useless, but Lee and Taylor's characters duplicate that while the actors add "annoying" to the mix. Lee isn't too bad, but he's the lesser of two evils. Like I said before, the characters are useless and their subplot is unnecessary. Were Morris and Cuthbert so hard-up for material to get the script to feature-length that they had to keep this crap in? I will say though, that for all their annoyances, Lee and Taylor do provide the movie's funnier moments. But that one compliment is like finding a tiny diamond in a giant mountain of turds.

Last but not least is Dick Durock, who returns to the title role of Swamp Thing. If anything, Durock contributes the least bad performance of the movie. I didn't particularly care for his work in the first movie, but Durock steps it up for the sequel by being entertaining in a silly way. The character as presented in these movies has very little depth, if any at all, but Durock does as good a job as he can. And he must have impressed somebody, because they brought him back to reprise the role on the live-action television show from the early '90s.

Perhaps the weirdest thing about The Return of Swamp Thing is that it was not only released in the same year as Tim Burton's modern classic Batman, but that both were produced by Benjamin Melniker and Michael Uslan. The mere notion that the same two guys produced both one of DC's goofiest movies and one of their best in the same year just boggles my mind. But that said, The Return of Swamp Thing is one of those flicks where the label "so bad, it's good" most certainly applies.

I implied earlier that the movie's failure to take the source material seriously was a bad thing. It certainly made for a bad movie, but the movie doesn't even take itself seriously, which makes it somewhat endearing. The movie's opening credit sequence — a montage of various art from the Swamp Thing comics, set to Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Born on the Bayou" — is worth the price of admission all by itself. And I wouldn't be surprised if the licensing fees for that song ate up ninety percent of the movie's budget. But in any event, The Return of Swamp Thing is a movie that I can't really recommend to the general public, but would give to anybody who holds an appreciation for campy B-movies with no sense of shame. Thus, I'm going to give the movie two stars. I've most assuredly seen better, but I've seen a whole lot worse.

Final Rating: **