Sunday, February 17, 2013

Re-Animator (1985)

I'm not exactly sure when or how it happened, but it seems like zombies have become one of the hottest things in pop culture in recent years. Zombie-themed flash mobs pop up all the time, AMC's The Walking Dead is one of the biggest shows on television, and zombies are all over movies, video games, and comic books. But some people forget that zombies have been around seemingly forever. George Romero created zombies as we know them today in 1968 with his classic Night of the Living Dead, and ever since they've been around in some form or fashion.

And as good as current pop culture has been to zombies, the year 1985 was especially kind. I say that because three of the greatest zombie movies ever made were released that year. The first was Romero's Day of the Dead, followed not long thereafter by The Return of the Living Dead (which introduced the ideas of eating just brains into zombie folklore). The third is the movie we're here to discuss right now, Re-Animator. Focused more on a mad scientist playing God than a zombie apocalypse, Re-Animator has most certainly earned the devoted cult following it's amassed since its release.

Meet Daniel Cain (Bruce Abbott), a promising med student at the prestigious Miskatonic University. He lives a happy life, the only complication being that his girlfriend Meg (Barbara Crampton) is the daughter of Miskatonic's dean (Robert Sampson). But Daniel's world is about to get much, much weirder. Shortly after posting a notice about renting out a room in his apartment, he's approached by Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs), who recently transferred to Miskatonic University. Herbert seems just odd at first, but Daniel soon discovers his new roommate experimenting on a cat in their basement. In these experiments, Herbert uses a glowing green fluid to resurrect the dead.

Daniel finds himself assisting Herbert in perfecting this serum, sneaking into the medical school's morgue for human specimens. Things end up going haywire, however, when their human subjects all turn violent. It's even further compounded after greedy professor Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale) discovers evidence of Herbert's research and wants to claim it for his own.

Re-Animator is a movie I'd seen horror fans extol the virtues of for years. But like many a classic horror movie, it was a long time before I had the opportunity to see it. But like many a classic horror movie, it was a long time before I had the opportunity to see it. I finally broke down and blindly purchased the Blu-ray of the movie, and after watching it, I can legitimately say I didn't know what I was missing. Re-Animator is an amazingly entertaining movie, delicately balancing horror and comedy in such a way that both the scares and the laughs easily compliment one another without being jarring. It's a movie well worth seeing, that's for sure.

Helming Re-Animator is first-time filmmaker Stuart Gordon, who would later go on to make Honey, I Shrunk The Kids too. You wouldn't think that the same guy would make both of those movies, but weirder things have happened, I guess. For all the bizarre and surreal things that happen in this movie, Gordon approaches it with a certain level of seriousness that makes everything feel even weirder. The last of the movie features a decapitated zombie carrying his head around in a pan, barking orders to other zombies he's lobotomized, and it's treated seriously instead of the potentially wacky situation it sounds like it could be. And you know what? It works. It absolutely works.

The fact that Gordon films the movie this way when a lot of other filmmakers would have done it as a comedy actually helps put Re-Animator a step above other, similar movies. If somebody like Eli Roth had directed the movie, it would have just turned out silly. But Gordon allows the humor to be darker and, in my opinion, more fascinating than a movie like Roth's Cabin Fever.

And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the incredibly impressive gore effects. Re-Animator only had a budget of $900,000, and I'm sure that only a small portion of it went to the makeup effects. But the makeup crew, led by designers John Naulin and Anthony Doublin, do an amazing job. The gore is a big part of how Re-Animator built its reputation over the years, and it's absolutely dripping with red. It's really saying something when practical effects from a movie made in 1985 can absolutely blow away CGI effects from movies made in 2013, but Re-Animator does just that.

Another thing that draws horror fans to the movie is its connection to horror author H.P. Lovecraft. Re-Animator was initially conceived as a PBS miniseries based on Lovecraft's short story "Herbert West: Reanimator," but one thing led to another and it eventually evolved into the movie genre aficionados know and love today. I've never actually read Lovecraft's story (or any of his work, really), so Ihonestly cannot say how faithful to it the movie is. But I can and will say the script works well. This is one of those horror movies that is fueled more by the visuals and acting that the story, but that's not to say that the script ― credited to Gordon, William Norris, and Dennis Paoli ― is weak. Much like Gordon's direction, the script has a sardonic sense of humor that makes even the silliest things oddly serious.

Lovecraft himself once described his short story as a parody of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and Gordon, Norris, and Paoli have followed suit in their own weird way. The Frankenstein influence is obvious, as after all, the movie is about a mad scientist resurrecting the dead. It's just that the whole thing is completely turned on its ear. There's a million different versions of the Frankenstein story, but Re-Animator is such a unique, original, and downright fun movie that it completely blows most Frankenstein movies completely out of the water even if it doesn't involve building a person out of spare parts.

And it helps that the movie boasts a strong cast as well. I felt Bruce Abbott's performance was believable and realistic. He plays the character as an "everyman" stuck in a series of increasingly bizarre situations, doing so with a great amount of charm. David Gale also does a great job in his particular role, coming off as creepy and off-putting with a weird "wannabe Christopher Lee" vibe that really gave the character a boost.

But no discussion of Re-Animator is complete without mentioning Jeffrey Combs's awesome performance as Herbert West. Combs is fascinating to watch, his charisma and acerbic wit making it impossible not to enjoy his performance. He plays West with a convincing obsession that alternates between both funny and crazy. Not many actors would be able to make a fistfight with a zombie cat both comedic and serious, but Combs pulls it off successfully. Even if you don't like the movie, I'm sure you'll come away from it thinking he's great.

I'm ashamed that it took me this long to finally get around to watching Re-Animator. This is a movie I should have seen years ago, back when I was watching shows like MonsterVision and developing my affection for strange cult classics like this. The fifteen-year-old me would have loved Re-Animator. And you know what? The thirty-year-old me loves it too. If you're like I was and have yet to see Re-Animator, drop everything and find a way to see it right now. Any self-respecting horror movie fan should make it essential viewing.

Final Rating: ****

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Bullet to the Head (2013)

I made a big deal out of Arnold Schwarzenegger returning to the world of action movies in The Last Stand, but unfortunately, his comeback has been overshadowed by the resurrection of Sylvester Stallone's career. Much like Schwarzenegger, Stallone's theatrical success went downhill quick with flops like Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot and Judge Dredd outweighing successful movies like Demolition Man and Cliffhanger. But things started looking up again when the revivals of his beloved characters Rocky Balboa and John Rambo were met with open arms by both critics and moviegoers, and The Expendables and its sequel rode a wave of nostalgia to the top of the box office. This brings us to Stallone's latest movie, Bullet to the Head. Based on the French comic book Du Plomb Dans La Tête by writer Alexis "Matz" Nolent and artist Colin Wilson, Bullet to the Head is a fine action flick that's definitely worth the time and effort to check out.

Welcome to New Orleans, where professional hitmen Jimmy "Bobo" Bonomo (Sylvester Stallone) and Louis Blanchard (Jon Ceda) successfully kill a corrupt cop on behalf of greedy real estate developer Robert Morel (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). But things end up going sour shortly thereafter when Louis is stabbed to death by Keegan (Jason Momoa), a ruthless mercenary sent by Morel to tie up loose ends. Bobo manages to escape, swearing to avenge his partner's death.

As this is going on, Washington DC detective Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang) arrives in town following up on a case. The corrupt cop was his former partner, and despite the unwillingness of the New Orleans police to cooperate, Kwon deduces what happened and tracks down Bobo. He offers an uneasy alliance with Bobo so that they can track down those behind the deaths of their partners. And while Bobo is hesitant to have anything to do with a cop, he's forced to accept Kwon's offer if he's to have his revenge.

Much like Schwarzenegger's The Last Stand a few weeks ago, Bullet to the Head was met with lukewarm reviews and disappointing box office numbers. And both movies are further similar in that they're both flawed yet ultimately entertaining movies that I did enjoy quite a bit. Bullet to the Head is not a perfect movie, nor will anybody ever accuse it of being one. But like I said earlier, I enjoyed it enough to feel that it was well worth my time.

The movie was directed by Walter Hill, the filmmaker behind flicks like 48 Hrs. and The Warriors. Hill's guilty of a few instances of that "shaky-cam" style of filmmaking that I hate so much, but I'm thankful he used it in such a way that you can still actually follow what's happening on the screen. Maybe it's me, but a lot of modern movies leave me stuck doing mental gymnastics trying to figure out what I'm looking at during more intense scenes, so I'm grateful that Hill shot the movie in a way that made the action actually watchable.

And the movie is fun enough, but I came away with the feeling that had it not been for the involvement of Warner Bros. and Sylvester Stallone, Bullet to the Head probably would have gone direct-to-video. I'm sure it's no fault of Hill's, but the movie looks and feels like one of those low-budget B-movies you'd find in those multi-movie DVD packs in the $5 bin at Walmart. I'd almost expected it to star Dolph Lundgren and Eric Roberts instead of Stallone. And I won't say that's a bad thing or that it detracts from the movie, but I'm just saying it didn't feel quite like a movie a major Hollywood studio would have given a theatrical release.

What does hinder the movie, though, is its screenplay. I've never read the comic book the movie was based on (nor had I even heard of it before last week), but I'm sure it's nowhere near as bad as the movie's script. Written by Alessandro Camon, the script is really lacking in a number of key areas. The dialogue is trite, a lot of the characters are flat and dull, the story is a threadbare excuse to set up its action sequences, and some plot threads get unnecessarily convoluted without a satisfactory payoff. And the best Camon could come up with for the villain is a guy who wanted to tear down some slums and build upscale condos? Lex Luthor tried pulling a real estate swindle in Superman too, but at least his plan involved shooting a missile at California. The villain from Bullet to the Head doesn't even have that.

But at least some of the cast is decent enough. Some of the actors ― particularly Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje and Sarah Shahi ― are forgettable or don't contribute a lot to the movie. However, I thought a couple of actors were noteworthy. Christian Slater was really good in his small role as Morel's lawyer, to the point that I wish he'd been the main villain instead. I also thought Jason Momoa was okay, even though there wasn't much acting required from him. He's just playing the clichéd '80s action movie bad guy that you'd see in a movie like Cobra or Commando. Momoa isn't bad, he's just not doing anything that hasn't been done before.

And then there's Sung Kang, who I thought was fun and likable. It's unfortunate, though, that there wasn't a whole lot to his character. It's more a fault of the writing that Kang's acting, but it's hard for him to do much when the only thing he's given is occasionally calling somebody to get information about who he's looking for. The character could have been completely eliminated from the movie and it wouldn't have changed it much. Kang is still good, though, so I'll give him that.

Last but not least is our star, Sylvester Stallone. His performance is really good, as he plays the role of "stone cold hitman" effectively and believably. Granted, he's done a ton of action movies where he's played similar characters, so I'm sure it's second nature to Stallone by now. The only negative of the whole thing is that as good as Stallone and Kang are individually, they really don't have much chemistry together. For a movie that's pretty much a weird play off the "buddy cop" movie, you'd think that the two leads would have been able to play off one another in a way that would make the movie more entertaining. But we're not dealing with Riggs and Murtaugh here, and outside of one or two scenes, Stallone and Kang don't really gel together.

And that really sums up the whole movie. As good as some parts of it are, it never really gels together into a cohesive whole. Bullet to the Head isn't a bad movie, but I guess I was just expecting more from it. If we're going to keep getting these throwbacks to '80s action movies, maybe we should just get more Expendables and Rambo movies. But as far as Bullet to the Head goes, give it a rental when it hits DVD in a few months. It's at least worth a watch, maybe as a double feature with The Last Stand. It's a fun flick that I'm sure action fans will enjoy, even if it does take a few missteps here and there.

Final Rating: **½