Monday, October 31, 2016

From my Ten Year Old Godzilla: Happy Halloween 2016



So, my son Joel was Godzilla for Halloween this year, and we had an epic trick-or-treat excursion.

I hope all you boys and ghouls also had a great night too!








Halloween 2016: Phantasm II (1988)


Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm (1979) is a brilliantly-crafted horror movie, and a classic of the genre too, in no small part because it appears to operate on multiple levels of meaning and symbolism. 

For example, taken literally, the film is about a horrible ghoul (The Tall Man), and his agenda to strip-mine Earth’s dead. 

On a far more complex level, Phantasm concerns the industry of death itself, from hearses and coffins to graves and mausoleums. Death, we see, is an impersonal, industrial process -- a factory, in some sense -- and the Tall Man is its (cinematic) overseer.

Yet as I’ve written before Phantasm also serves as a sensitive examination of one boy’s reckoning with death as an inescapable fact of life.

Our protagonist, young Michael (Michael Baldwin) dreams of combating the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), because he is a boogeyman or personality who can be defeated.  Death itself -- the unstoppable, face-less force that took away his brother Jody (Bill Thornbury) -- cannot be destroyed. 

So adolescent Michael conjures a “phantasm” -- a dream -- that is palatable to him in a time of grief and mourning.

In that dream, mortality can be overcome; death can be defeated. The Tall Man can be buried forever.  The film, featuring moments of innocent, almost child-like wonder (witness the giant fly, born from the Tall Man’s blood..), can thus be explained as a boy’s childhood fantasy of beating death once and for all.  A fantasy that, in the denouement, he sees is but mere delusion.

Death always wins.

The sequel, 1988’s Phantasm II, is a very different film, and overall a far more conventional one.  By and large, the metaphor behind the first film -- which involves both man’s desire and inability to defeat death -- is left by the wayside, and the follow-up focuses instead on action, weaponry, and loads of stylish excess.

These predilections make Phantasm II a perfect horror film of the 1980s, an era when escalation was the name of the game, and action replaced, to a large extent, atmosphere.

Here, the action scenes are deliberately stylish and over-the-top, in the mode of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead franchise, and Raimi himself is name-checked in one crucial scene. Guns, grenades, flame throwers and other weapons dominate the action, and one gets a thorough sense of the Rambo-fication of the franchise. 

At least two suburban houses explode in the film, and one (impressively lensed) moment sees the Tall Man standing in the foreground while all hell breaks loose behind him. He is literally surrounded by hellish fire.




It’s not necessarily a bad tor unsatisfactory approach and Phantasm II is a wholly entertaining rollercoaster of a film, even if it resolutely lacks the intellectual and artistic heft of the 1979 original. 
Where Phantasm II proves most intriguing is not in its crazy, often gruesome action, but rather in its surprisingly effective (and prophetic?) vision of a small-town America decimated by that Bringer of Death, the Tall Man.

I’ve always liked Phantasm II second best in the franchise, judging it a solid, well-made, involving sequel.

But I do miss the absent piece of Phantasm’s creative legacy: the acknowledgment and through-line that the Tall Man, his minions, and Michael’s adventures are all some phantasm that reflects a very real fear in our kind; the fear that death -- like taxes and horror movies sequels -- is utterly inescapable.



“Remember, it was all in your imagination.”

Several years after the death of his brother Jody, and his incarceration in a psychiatric hospital, Michael (James Le Gros) is released and declared cured of his mental illness. He promptly teams up with his old friend, Reggie (Reggie Bannister).

This duo heads out on the road, in pursuit of the Tall Man, itching for a fight.  Michael can find The Tall Man because he shares a mental link with another possible victim, a young woman in Perigord, Oregon named Elizabeth (Paula Irvine).

Along the way to reach and rescue Elizabeth, however, Reggie and Michael pick up a stranger, Alchemy (Samantha Phillips), and must contend with booby traps left by the Tall Man.

Finally, the hunters reach Perigord, where Elizabeth has teamed with a priest, Father Meyers (Kenneth Tigar), to put an end to the Tall Man’s reign of terror once and for all.


“Let’s go shopping.”

While watching a sequel like Phantasm II, or for that matter, James Cameron’s Aliens (1986), I often remember some of the punchy and very smart dialogue from Wes Craven’s Scream 2 (1997). There, Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy) explains how all horror genre sequels must ratchet up the body count, feature more elaborate death sequences, and highlight what he terms “carnage candy.”

There’s indeed much carnage candy in Phantasm II.

For example, one unlucky minion of the Tall Man sees a silver sphere burrow inside of him, hollow out his innards, then make its way through his neck, to his mouth. 



Another extremely gory (and accomplished) scene finds the Tall Man’s face disintegrating after being pumped full of hydrochloric acid. 

Clearly, the disgust quotient has been upped significantly since 1979, and now the flying spheres or balls not only drain victims of their blood and gut them from within, they lop off ears, shoot lasers (like a Predator shoulder cannon) and the like.



This “bigger is better” mentality informing sequel is part and parcel of the 1980s genre cinema. Consider, again, Aliens.  The film stresses action over suspense, and pits the original hero, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) not against one acid-for-blood xenomorphic monstrosity, but a veritable planet-ful of them.

Or consider Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part II (1987), which features -- amusingly -- dueling chainsaws, and entrenched commentary about small-business owners in the Reagan Era.



Phantasm II gets its own dueling chainsaws scene (in which it is proved, for the record, that size doesn’t matter…), and gives its audience full-on battle sequences with Reggie and Michael overcoming dwarf minions by the dozen.

Reggie takes out four of them with a customized shot-gun, with one pull of the trigger.

One early scene -- also perfect for the excesses of the eighties -- also sees Reggie and Michael going “shopping,” buying items from a store and crafting their signature weapons, including a fire extinguisher and the aforementioned shot gun.  They pay for all that they take, and the focus is on making weaponry, so they can take the fight straight to the Tall Man. As Reggie actually says in the film: “Come on, let’s go kick some ass!”

Phantasm II possesses two saving graces; ones that keep the film from being a brain-dead Rambo in the Graveyard film. 

The first is the film’s sense of visual humor/style.  As I noted in my introduction, Sam Raimi is name-checked during one scene in an embalming room. A bag of ashes (Ash?) are thrown in a bag labeled with the director’s name.  This tribute is perfect, because Phantasm II, much like an Evil Dead film, never stops moving, and never remains still for along. Coscarelli’s camera plows through doors, one after the other, in a very Deadite-ish gag that nonetheless works like gangbusters. 

Similarly, Reggie’s run-in with a Graver (another Tall Man minion) is funny, tense, and grotesque.  Coscarelli demonstrates here and throughout the film that he can shift between tones with aplomb, and keep the whole enterprise moving at a crazy, gonzo clip.

More impressive, however, is the subversive idea, just under the surface in Phantasm II, that when Big Time Industry comes to a small town…the small town dies.  Much of the film involves Reggie and Michael pursuing the Tall Man from American ghost town to American ghost town.  Michael observes that “small towns are like people. Some grow old and die a natural death. Others are murdered.”

What murders these small towns is the arrival of the Death Industry, under its CEO, the Tall Man. He arrives, and strip-mines the towns for all their usable (on his terms) resources. He takes over the local mortuary, and before you know it, graveyards are being emptied at a rapid rate. His take-over (with his own employees: dwarves and gravers, namely) literally kills the small towns in short order. The denizens of the town die, and are made slaves.

Not low-wage slaves, either. Just slaves. 




For many years (ten, actually) I lived in a beautiful southern small town; one with beautiful old architecture and a downtown consisting of long-standing mom and pop shops. In the span I lived there, this town was murdered, per Phantasm II’s lingo, by the arrival on the main highway, not far away, of shopping goliaths like Wal Mart, K-Mart and Target.  The downtown shops emptied at an incredible rate until the whole area -- so picturesque and evocative of an earlier era in American history -- became a ghost town, an image like something out Phantasm II.

So perhaps Phantasm II is more than a perfect representative of its gung-ho era -- the hyper-militarized, excessive, action packed 80s.

Perhaps in some way the sequel was forecasting what the future of that world could one day look like, in the 90s and beyond.  Considering the death, in so many places, of old fashioned, small-town America, it’s hard not to view the enthusiastic line of dialogue in the film, “let’s go shopping!” as carrying an ironic, double meaning.

I also find Phantasm II’s undercutting of traditional religious belief to be startling, especially given the traditional nature of the time period from which the film hails. One of the most frightening notions ever put to the horror film is voiced by the Tall Man here.

When confronted with Father Meyers and his Christian faith, The Tall Man mocks religion as fantasy, as delusion.  “You think when you die, you go to Heaven? You come to us!” He taunts. 

It’s a chilling declaration, and promise that the afterlife is not paradise, but slavery.  It’s downright chilling.

Finally, I appreciated Coscarelli's choice to tell Mike and Reggie's story (the 1979 original) through charcoal sketches in Elizabeth's notebook.  I felt, personally, that this was an interesting and artistic way to resurrect images from the first Phantasm.



Phantasm II cannot match the brilliance and artistic depth of the original 1979 film, but in the era of Freddy Krueger and Friday the 13th sequels, it stakes out a claim for quality by balancing so well its scares and its laughs. The sequel doesn’t open itself up very well to multiple readings, and the “dream” or “rubber reality” concept is half-enunciated. 

Here, for example, Reggie doesn’t remember being attacked by the minions at Michael’s house, even though Michael remembers it. This suggests the scene was a dream.  But it is never explained how Michael parses this experience in the real world.  Was his house actually destroyed by a gas leak? 
It’s awkward and confusing to viewers that Reggie only comes on board with the plan to eliminate the Tall Man after his house also explodes, in the present. If the movie had just treated the first scene as real, it wouldn’t need to create a modern, artificial explanation for Reggie’s loyalty to the cause.

And the film’s end, of course, is a slapdash re-assertion (or regurgitation) of the original’s idea that Michael’s battle with the Tall Man is just a phantasm, not reality.  But it’s more difficult to make that case here than it was in the original film because Michael seems to be sharing a folie a deux with Elizabeth.  Their delusion of a Supernatural (or alien?) Death Merchant is mutual, thus making it unlikely to be just a young person’s fantasy about defeating mortality.

So Phantasm II is great to look at, watch, and experience…but not so great to think about deeply.  If you can accept the sequel on those terms, it remains one of the most entertaining horror sequels of the last half of the 1980s, and one featuring a few superb sequences.  The Tall Man’s denunciation of our faith is one example, and the view of small town America decimated by the Big Death Industry is another.

Movie Trailer: Phantasm II (1988)

Halloween 2016: Phantasm (1979)



In some fashion direct or indirect, all horror films grapple with the ultimate human fear, mortality.  But Don Coscarelli’s landmark 1979 horror Phantasm is a film veritably obsessed with the cessation of life, and also the terrible grief that accompanies death for those left behind on this mortal coil. 

In fact, it is not at all difficult to interpret the film’s events as one teenager’s powerful subconscious fantasy, his sublimation and re-direction of grief as he attempts to make sense of all the death happening around him, in life and in his immediate family.  The film’s almost childish tale of a Fairy Tale monster -- a witch-like “Tall Man” (Angus Scrimm) who enslaves the dead -- is actually but 
Michael’s (Michael Baldwin’s) self-constructed mythology regarding mortality. 

Simply put, it’s easier to deal with that orderly “horror” – a world of monsters and villains and happy endings – than one in which those Michael loves are lost and gone forever.

Surreal and haunting, Phantasm confidently moves and tracks like almost no other horror movie ever made.  It vacillates between scenes of outright terror and ridiculous comedy, and treads into terrains not exactly…realistic.  The universe as expressed in the film doesn’t seem to conform to order or rationality as we understand it, frankly.  But importantly, all of this disorder, chaos and pain feels as though it arises from a deep understanding and sympathy for childhood.  The film’s trademark soundtrack composition -- which repeats frequently and effectively -- adds to the overwhelming sense of a lullaby or trance, one we can’t quite awake from.

So many horror fans (rightly) love and cherish Phantasm because of the horror, because of the flying silver “ball” and the gore it creates in its monstrous wake.  Yet for me the film is actually a horror character-piece of the highest magnitude, and actually a tender, even whimsical reminder of how the world might appear to a sad and lonely adolescent. 

 “I just don't get off on funerals, man, they give me the creeps.” 

The shadow of death hovers behind Michael.
In Phantasm, a lonely kid, Michael, investigates the creepy-goings on at Morningside Funeral Home.  In particular, the Tall Man seems to be ensnaring young, able-bodied men with a sexy siren, and then leading them to their bloody doom.  But death is not the end of their journey, Michael learns.  Instead, he discovers that the Tall Man is crushing down the corpses to half-size and reviving them as slave labor for his arid, Hellish other world.

Michael attempts to convince his older brother, Jody (Bill Thornbury), of this bizarre truth, but Jody is burned out and skeptical.  Since their parents died, he’s been caring for Michael full time, and wants to leave town.  Michael knows this, and is deathly afraid of abandonment.  But soon, however, Jody is swayed by Michael’s evidence and together with a friend, Reggie (Reggie Bannister), the trio launches a frontal assault on the Tall Man…

After the Tall Man is defeated, Michael awakes from the long dream to face hard reality.  Not only are his parents dead, but Jody is gone too.  He died in a car crash.  Now Reggie promises to take care of him, but the specter of death is not yet gone from Michael’s life…

“First he took Mom and Dad, then he took Jody, now he's after me.” 

Surrounded by the trappings of death
In terms of psychology, we now understand that an adolescent’s understanding of death rivals that of an adult.  In other words, an adolescent is old enough to understand the idea of permanence, and also the idea that anyone, not just the very old, can die at any time.  Furthermore, we know that in many cases, adolescents react more intensely to death than adults do.  And lastly, that the two most difficult deaths for a teenager to cope with are those of his parents and that of a sibling. 

In some instances, however, teenagers do not react to such losses as expected, with tears and outright declarations of sadness or pain.  Instead, they may not confront their grief at all.  Rather they sublimate and deny it, even crafting complex stories and belief systems around the death of their loved ones, such as the fiction that they are somehow responsible or guilty for those deaths.

We are confronted in Phantasm, then, with a young protagonist, Michael, who has seen the death of both his parents, and also -- as we learn at film’s end -- the death of his brother, Jody.   Instead of coping outright with the grief, however, his mind has fashioned a phantasm, a dream which to attempts to “re-order” his disordered life.  In this story, Michael and Jody are still a team, defeating monsters and solving the mystery of Morningside.  In this dream, death has become embodied in a person, the Tall Man, and as something that Michael, importantly, can combat and defeat.

Michael (left, background) is left behind, while Jody heads...where?
But even in the dream, Michael can’t quite completely banish the specter of mortality, the fear of being left behind.   In one scene, we see him running in the background of a frame, attempting to keep up with Jody (on a bike). But Jody, oddly unaware, pulls further and further away.  In this evocative shot, the camera  leaves Michael in the dust.  Soon he stands alone in the frame, and it’s clear his fear is real.  He is being left behind.  Growing smaller and smaller in the frame.  “It’s Jody again,” he notes at one point, “I found out that he’s leaving.

In terms of grappling with the idea of death, the film proper actually opens with it, as a friend of Jody’s named Tommy is killed.  Michael observes the funeral from a distance, with a set of binoculars.  This particular shot stresses the importance of how Michael sees, and later scenes in the film are similarly composed to reflect the same thing: effectively highlighting Michael’s eyes (as he sees through a crack in an open coffin, for instance) as he views the world.  This visual framing is our cue that the film itself is Michael’s “phantasm,” his way of perceiving and interpreting the things he experiences. 

How Michael sees #1
And what does Michael see?  Again and again, the film depicts not just a fear of death, but the various and sundry trappings of death.  We see mortuaries, caskets, funerals, hearses, graves and other elements of what could only be termed, politely, “the death industry.” 

As adults, these things are accepted, perhaps reluctantly, as part of the landscape, and don’t necessarily have the power to frighten or disturb us.  We know such things exist, and we deal with them. But because Michael is obsessed with death, the film reflects his fetish most vividly, creating a world where the trappings of death are visible and prominent in nearly every frame, and suffused with a dark malevolence.  The funeral director is a monstrous crone (The Tall Man), the graveyard is a place of darkness, danger and entrapment.  The hearse is a vehicle for the enslaved “dead” dwarves employed by the Tall Man, and so on.  The Tall Man hovers in the background of some shots like the Angel of Death himself.  He marshals all these familiar trappings of death and renders them frightening once more.  They serve him.

How Michael sees #2
The implication here is, perhaps, that as adults we accept the “death industry” and its trappings. But for Michael, they symbolize constant, nightmarish reminders of what he has lost.  They are monoliths constantly highlighting the unacceptability and permanence of death, yet hardly noticed by adult eyes.  Michael has not yet matured to the point where he accepts the presence of death in his life.

I’ve written above that some aspects of Phantasm seem childish or childlike.  This is not an insult or a put-down.  For instance, Michael and Jody easily destroy the Tall Man, essentially trapping him in a hole in the Earth (a mine shaft).  That this simple, almost cartoon-styled plan works against a Dedicated Agent of Evil reminds us that we are dealing with a child-like intelligence as the primary mover of the action.  We are seeing Michael’s dreams made manifest before our eyes.  We can destroy the devil by burying him up on that mountain! 

How Michael sees #3
It doesn’t make a lot of rational sense unless we consider the action a child’s phantasm.  Similarly, the whole vibe of the movie is something akin to what I described in Horror Films of the 1970s as a Hardy Boy’s mystery where “something sinister” is happening at the local cemetery.   To describe this almost innocent quality of the film another way, I would say that Phantasm understands the adolescent mind, and crafts successfully and movingly a world around that perspective.

I believe this interpretation is borne out, to some degree, by the depiction of the film’s deadly siren, the Lady in Lavender.  She is a mysterious figure promising sex but delivering death.  She is very much a product of a fearful teen’s imagination and fear.  That teen does not yet understand what sex is, or the power of sex as a desire and appetite.  Instead, the “unknowns” of sex become, in the film, disturbingly intermingled with death.  The moans of love-making transform, in short order, into the groaning of a monster lurking in the nearby bushes.  Both sex and death are things that seem to take Jody away from his brother, after all.

Although all the Phantasm sequels surely preclude the possibility that this film is but the dream of a sad, grief-ridden teenager, the interpretation tracks admirably if you take Coscarelli’s original as a standalone effort and not part of a “franchise.”  As I have also written before, I believe this quality of the film (as a teen’s dream) is also made clear by Michael’s unbelievably good survival rate.  He tangles with the Tall Man and his minions no less than four times in the film, and always emerges unscathed, only to prove, finally, victorious in his campaign.  I submit that this “luck” too is a reflection of a youthful mentality: the belief that you are somehow immune to death.  Furthermore, it reflects the idea that we all place ourselves at the center of our fantasies, as the heroes in our own adventures.  Here, Michael deals with death by becoming a superhero of sorts, one who conquers long-lived monsters and solves mysteries.


Our last, wistful view of Jody, from a distance and bound for parts unknown.
I admire the film because its distinctive visuals so beautifully mirror Phantasm's themes.  In some shots, the Tall Man seems to be the shadow of death himself.  And in one haunting composition, Michael sees Jody for the last time (before waking up into a world where he is dead).  Jody stands high in the frame, atop a mountain.  Jody stands on that pinnacle, a heavenly light (like angel wings?) behind him.  It's the distant, final view of a man going to the great beyond, and Coscarelli's imagery captures it with wonder and a degree of lyricism.

Charting the disturbed mental landscape of a grieving boy, Phantasm gets to a very simple and emotional truth about human existence.  It is often easier to live in a fantasy world (even one with monsters, dwarves, giant flies, and alien worlds…) than it is to face head-on the fact that, in the final analysis, we are all going to lose our loved ones.  Because it deals so sensitively and succinctly with that tough, hard-to-accept idea, Phantasm always gets to me on some deep level.  The film makes me ask myself an important question: Why do I like and enjoy horror movies so much?  Why do I love being scared and challenged by them?

With films like Phantasm, am I actually preparing myself, in some way, for the inevitable?

Perhaps so

I know only this: I deeply fear death, and sometimes obsess on it, both in relation to the end of my own life, and deaths of those I love.  In Phantasm Michael reveals one way to grieve, or perhaps to escape grieving.  Phantasm makes me wonder about my own solution to the Phantasm equation.  Am I going to be that boy, left behind on the bike while others leave me behind? Or will the Tall Man show up for me first?

At some point, the Tall Man is going to look all of us straight in the eye, commend us for a good game -- now finished -- and remind us it is time to die.  You don’t have to be a teenager to fear that day, and in some way Phantasm helps us to explore meaningfully the ideas of grief, loss, and the inevitability of death.

Movie Trailer: Phantasm (1979)

The Cult-TV Faces of: Halloween

Identified by Hugh; Star Trek: "Catspaw."

Identified by Will Perez: Happy Days.

Identified by Chris G: Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Identified by Chris G: Felicity.


5

Identified by Hugh: True Blood.

Identified by Hugh: Vampire Diaries.

Identified by SGB: American Horror Story.

Identified by Hugh: Grimm.

Identified by Hugh: Mad Men.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Halloween Blogging: Predators (2010)


Given the nature of Hollywood product in 2016, many of my efforts in daily film criticism here involve the assessment of sequels, remakes, prequels and even re-imaginations. 

These are the three most important benchmarks, in considering the worth of a sequel film, in my estimation.

1. Is there a sufficient measure of fidelity and respect for the original material?  In other words, does the sequel appear to honor what was positive and beloved about the movie that spawned it?

Bad sequels, by contrast, tend often to undercut the very qualities that were good about the original, usually in a cynical attempt to cash in quickly and bring in a strong first-weekend haul.

2. Does the sequel add to the franchise mythos in some significant or valuable way?

Is the world established by the original film enlarged and opened-up by the efforts of the sequel, or reduced by them? 

Again, this is vitally important. If we are treading deeper into a particular fantasy world, are the discoveries there worth excavating? Or, in some fashion, do the new discoveries ruin and conflict with what we already now?  Do they sour the brand?

3. Finally -- and this may be the most important criterion -- does the sequel also function as a stand-alone work of art in some significant way? 

What concerns me here is this idea: if you were to see the sequel in question alone, with no pre-conceived notions, and with no knowledge of the original, would the film make you want to see the previous entry? 

This third criterion is vital to a judgment of the film not merely as sequel; but as an independent example of cinematic art.  Can the sequel stand  proudly on its own two feet?

If you consider a few great sequels in film history, like The Godfather Part II (1974), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), The Road Warrior (1982), and Aliens (1986), for instance, each film fulfills all three of the above-listed criteria. 



So it is a relief to report that 2010's Predators is both a good sequel and a good film in its own right, if perhaps not in the class of the four high-watermark sequels I tagged above.

Let's weigh each of these sequel benchmarks one-at-a-time, vis-a-vis Predators. 

First, has this sequel been crafted with a sense of both seriousness and fidelity to its beloved source material (the 1987 McTiernan film, Predator)?

The answer is undeniably "yes." 

Predators lands us back in the modern warfare/soldier milieu of the 1987 Predator, and also re-introduces the familiar alien hunter and his preferred territory: a steamy, overgrown jungle. 

Furthermore, the design of the titular monster is abundantly faithful to what came before; and the Predators act in a fashion audiences understand and recognize.  To wit, the film remembers how a Predator can tricks its prey with a cloak of invisibility, and also with vocal mimicry (a duck call...), for instance. 

Attentive audiences will also note a reprise of Alan Silvestri's accomplished Predator scores, and a climactic nod to Little Richard's "Long Tall Sally," which was featured in the Schwarzenegger edition from  the Reagan Era.

Much more importantly, however, in terms of seeming  faithful and honoring the Predator legacy, Predators avoids a dramatic structural mistake I have seen cropping up in more and more sequels and re-imaginations of late. 

This mistake is simply to assume that because a modern audience boasts some familiarity with the film's central monster or villain, it is permissible and  even desirable to simply cut to the chase (cue the CGI...) and forgo suspense and atmospheric build-up.  It's like the filmmakers can't be bothered or patient enough to make the old monster seem fresh -- and scary -- again.

This is an arena where Predators really thrives. Director Nimrod Antal opens with a bravura action sequence involving soldiers in atmospheric free-fall, but then lands the confused human protagonists in a jungle of mystery and ambiguity. 

Of course, we immediately understand that they are being hunted by Predators, but the characters do not know this important fact; at least not initially.  Commendably, the movie takes its time to build character recognition of the grim situation, and also develop ably the alien landscape of a Predator "game preserve." On the latter front, there's a fantastic, visually-stunning ,and truly epic reveal early in the film, when the "hunted" soldiers realize they aren't in Kansas anymore.

It's a trap with no escape, and this film makes you feel the terror of the soldiers at being outmatched, marooned on unfamiliar, unfriendly turf.

The Predators don't actually appear on-screen until approximately the half-hour point of the film, and Antal uses his first-act duration wisely.  He builds up an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty that lasts throughout the film. In this case, he is a patient director, and doesn't show us the monster in extreme close-up in the first minute of the film...the way that we saw New Freddy in the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street, by contrast.



Also, Laurence Fishburne appears in the film as a kind of hybrid version of Quint from Jaws (1975) and Kurtz from Apocalypse Now (1979).  His purpose is to function as the film's "voice of fear."  He has survived who-knows-how-many encounters with the Predators and remains abundantly terrified of them. 

This is a powerful, unsettling fact, because we associate Laurence Fishburne with the messianic, nearly invincible Morpheus from The Matrix Trilogy, a character of great heroism and presence.  Here, that same towering man is reduced to blubbering insanity. 

As I wrote in my review of Jaws, sometimes fear can be generated in considerable doses by a technique I term information overload; by storytelling.  Consider the famous U.S.S. Indianapolis story that Quint told his shipmates aboard the Orca.  It's the scariest damn thing in the movie because it's personal; because it is intimate.  Quint was there, he saw it happen...and he survived.

Fishburne's character, Nolan, serves the same function in Predators; not merely acting as the voice of fear...but as the voice of personal experience

Again, Predators is nowhere near as good or powerful a film as Jaws, obviously, but the narrative approach here is commendable. Rather than using overt flashbacks of the confrontations Nolan describes so apprehensively, Antal maintains the mystery and power of the film's alien creatures by focusing on the frightened storyteller; on his voice; on his words.  This approach allows the audience to experience this man's terror and madness. An action scene would have been spectacular, but a strong man's sense of personal fear can be even more powerful.

This is what honoring a franchise is all about. 

By contrast, a negative example might help explain this point better. In AVP: Requiem (2007), Aliens and Predators landed on modern-day Earth...and mid-west small-town folks basically defeated them and survived. Children were among the survivors. This victory in our day and age made two breeds of fearsome aliens look weak and inconsequential. 

In previous Alien films, colonial marines and androids were decimated, ship's crews were killed, and Ripley sacrificed her life to assure that an alien could not get to Mother Earth, where it would run rampant and destroy all this "bullshit"  that we think is so important. 

Requiem retroactively shat on all of Ripley's amazing accomplishments by having a 21st century town-sheriff with a shotgun outsmart and survive an encounter with not one kind of alien menace, but two. What's the big deal Ripley, huh?

That's dishonoring a franchise.

That's dishonoring two, actually.

Predators makes no similar mistakes.  It develops at a good pace and plays fair with an alien race we have seen in previous films. It maintains the dignity of a beloved screen monster. And even the creature design is better too. By AVP: Requiem, the Predators looked like squat, overweight wrestlers rather than lean, seven-foot-tall hunters from another world.



Okay, benchmark two.   Does the film add to the mythos of the franchise?  When the fantasy world of the franchise is opened up, does it add to our knowledge, or contradict it?

Again, Predators is successful. 

The film reveals that Predators train and control monstrous alien hunting dogs (with a whistle, no less), and clearly this revelation fits into the hunting milieu we associate with the previous films, so that's to the good. 

And secondly, the film's inventive setting -- a planetary game preserve -- also fits in with what we understand about the Predators; that hunting is their primary sport, and that they entertain themselves with a variety of game, in a variety of settings.

Another facet of the film I felt was successful involved the introduction of warring breeds of Predators.  Apparently, this society features some pretty serious racial divisions. In other words, we get a look at a Predator we know...and also a fearsome one that we do not know.  

The new breed of aliens does not feel overtly out-of-place (like the Newcomer in Alien Resurrection, for instance), but rather a natural extension of what we know of the Predators: that they are warlike and highly-competitive

The film also picks up on one of the few good ideas of AVP (2004):  that Predators can, on occasion, work with their prey if the situation demands it.

Finally, we get to the third benchmark: does the film stand on its own two feet?

Again, I believe it does.

The script is highly literate, finding time to quote that great hunter, Ernest Hemingway.  But more importantly, the movie strikes on a worthwhile theme: that the Predators -- the monsters of another world -- are battling the monsters of our world.  Here, the Predators test their mettle against guns-for- hire, death squad murderers, drug runners sociopaths, snipers, Yakuza and other individuals who have turned murder into a profitable art. They truly are the predators of our civilization.



This is not really an idea enunciated in any previous Predator movie, and it comments on the world we live in today, in 2015.  We've had almost fifteen years of non-stop war now.  Murder is big business on Earth at the moment and so Predators (written over a decade ago) feels not just smart, but actually relevant to current events. 

For all these reasons, this is the best Predator movie since the original in 1987.  That's not to say the film doesn't have some flaws. For one thing, you can guess right off the bat who the last three survivors of the film will be. It's easy...and a bit too predictable, even if the film attempts valiantly to throw in two inventive, climactic curve-balls.

Yet, that quibble almost doesn't matter when you get a sturdy sequel that demonstrates respect for its source material, opens up the universe of that source material, and tells a solid, standalone story at the same time.


The Predators featured in this film are involved in a process of evolution; making themselves better killersI was pleasantly surprised that the filmmakers sought an evolution of sorts too.  In sequels. 

The end result?  They made a good one. 

Halloween Blogging: Predator 2 (1990)


The opening shot of Predator 2 (1990) is a remarkable one.

Director Stephen Hopkins’ camera rockets over a dense jungle landscape, thus reminding audiences of the 1987 John McTiernan film and its Central American locale. 

Then -- as the camera continues to speed over myriad tree tops -- it pans up to reveal…modern Los Angeles, the urban jungle, on the horizon.

This composition is a great visual way to connect the two films in the franchise, and a sure sign that Hopkins boasts an active intellect and more to the point, a great eye.

It’s as if the last moments of Predator have become, literally, the first moments of Predator 2. 




Predator 2 is also appreciated by many horror movie fans because it provides the first cinematic evidence of a “shared” universe with another beloved franchise: Alien (1979). 

During the climax of this sequel cop/warrior Mike Harrigan (Danny Glover) finds his way aboard a grounded Predator spaceship and sees a trophy room that boasts a Giger-style alien skull.

At first blush this might seem like a throwaway moment, but, certainly, it paves the way for the Alien vs. Predator movies of the 2000s. Already, Dark Horse had seen success by pairing the two monsters in a comic series, but Predator 2 is the first such evidence of a shared universe on the silver screen.

Whether that’s a good thing or not, I’ll leave up to you, the reader, but Predator 2 intimates a shared history between two great movie monsters in a way that isn’t entirely obvious or craven (like, say, Freddy’s finger knives dragging Jason’s hockey mask down to Hell.)

Instead, the reveal of the alien skull in Predator 2 is an awesome moment that expands significantly both franchises.We now know that Predators have defeated the acid-dripping, silver-jawed monstrosities, and likewise that those monstrosities have been around since well before Ripley’s first encounter with them. This moment in the film thus succeeds in the manner that was intended.  It tantalizes us with possibilities, and with a history/relationship we don’t fully understand...but can imagine.

 

This sequel also shares much with another science fiction film of 1990: RoboCop 2.

For example, both Predator 2 and RoboCop 2 feature moments that suggest the tabloidization of American news, the rise of such fare as Inside Edition or A Current Affair. Both films also worry about runaway crime rates in America at the time, and obsess on the notion of our streets becoming the battleground for drug and gang wars. 

And both films -- truly -- are anarchic in visualization, graphic violence and tone, suggesting that the near future will be a time of visceral, bloody horror, sensational news and beleaguered infrastructure. 

In both films, the cops can barely hold their own.

Predator 2 never quite reaches the provocative and anarchic highs or lows of RoboCop 2 but -- to its ever-lasting credit -- the Hopkins sequel is more than willing to acknowledge the humor inherent in its central scenario.


At one point, the hulking Predator ends up in the bathroom of a cranky old woman, and at another juncture attacks a busload of commuters (including a Bernard Goetz character…) simply because they are all armed. 

This scene may represent the best argument for gun control ever put to genre film: Don’t carry a weapon on your way to work, because the Predator -- while on safari -- interprets all gun-owners as “soldiers” and wipes them out with extreme prejudice. Seriously, this film imagines Bernard Goetz-vigilantism as the norm of 1997, and it's a commentary right in line with the imaginings of the RoboCop films.

I admire many aspects of Predator 2 and consider it a worthwhile sequel overall, yet I don’t see it necessarily as an equal to its predecessor in terms of suspense and storytelling. The movie occasionally suffers a bad case of Alien-itis too: cribbing too liberally from 20th Century Fox’s other space monster franchise.

That tendency doesn’t help the film to cement its own individual identity, and works against the director's best efforts.




“Shit happens.”

In the near-future year of 1997, Los Angeles is choking under perpetual smog, and its streets are a war-zone. 

There, rival gangs -- the Jamaicans and the Colombians -- duke it out for superiority. One of the city’s best cops, Mike Harrigan (Glover) attempts to bring order to the streets, but soon finds that a third, chaotic element has been added to the summertime bloodshed.

In particular, a stealthy alien hunter or predator has arrived in L.A. and begun picking off gang members, as well as cops like Harrigan’s trusted friend, Danny (Ruben Blades).

When a federal agent, Keyes (Gary Busey) begins interfering in his investigation, Harrigan suspects a dark secret. 

He soon comes face to face with the intimidating alien hunter, and learns that Keyes and his men are planning to capture it…




“There’s a new king in the streets.”

When I think back on Predator, which I reviewed last week on the blog, the images that stay with me, in particular, come from the last third of the picture. There, Arnold’s character, Dutch went up against the Predator with no advanced technology in a primordial jungle, and won.  

The battle could have occurred in prehistoric times.

Obviously, a sequel to Predator couldn’t plumb the identical imagery or locale, or even concept, and so Predator 2 tries hard to carve an original space for itself.  The sequel notes, for example, that in the 1990s, “cops” are the warriors of civilization, fighting back criminals on the streets and protecting an endangered populace. 

This is a valid concept, and also feels very much of the epoch. If you gaze at the 1990s, and consider series such as Law and Order (1990 – 2010), or movies such as The First Power (1990), Fallen (1998), Resurrection (1999) or End of Days (1999) it’s not difficult to see how the police procedural format became incredibly popular, and dominated genre entertainment.

Predator 2 fits in with that trend, and Danny Glover makes for a very different kind of “soldier” than Arnie did. Both men are fiercely protective of their teams, but Harrigan is -- living up to his name: “harried” -- forced to accommodate multiple levels of hierarchy and bureaucracy in a fashion that Dutch simply did not.  Dutch eventually had to deal with Dillon’s duplicity (as Harrigan deals with Keyes’ secrecy and cover story), but Harrigan is more constrained from the get-go based on his job, his heavily populated “arena” of battle, and other factors of late 20th century human civilization.. 

One way to gaze at the Predator franchise is simply as a study of soldiers, an examination of the qualities that go into the making of a good one. Predator, Predator 2, and Predators (2010) have different things to tell audiences on that topic, and all the observations are intriguing. Certainly, Predator suggests that  good or advanced weapons don’t make for the best soldiers.  

Predator 2 seems to suggest that a good soldier succeeds by overcoming not his enemy, but those unofficial enemies who make his task more difficult. Harrigan must contend with the presence of innocent civilians, bureaucrats, and infrastructural impediments on his mission to stop the alien hunter. Meanwhile, Predators seems to suggest that real soldiers are a breed apart, and that breed seems to span all cultures.

The downside to Predator 2’s approach is simply that as soon as you have a rampaging alien creature in familiar, city environs, some moments there are going to read as…funny. You can’t play on the feelings of isolation that you might in the jungle setting.  

So when a Predator crashes through a bathroom wall here and nearly runs into an old woman brandishing a broom, you’re in a whole different kind of territory. The last act of the film suffers from a tonal ping-pong between action, comedy, and horror. I prefer the back-to-basics, straight-on approach of Predator’s finale in the jungle. It’s more pure, somehow; more consistent.

Predator 2, at times, seems to verge on camp. If the film featured a more pronounced, consistent social commentary (as is clearly the case in the gonzo-crazy RoboCop 2), the tone-changes in Predator 2 might have tracked better. I like Gary Busey just fine, but his presence -- and line readings -- ratchet up the tongue-in-cheek aspects of the film.


Lions, and tigers and bears. Oh my.

In the introduction, I also noted creeping Alien clichés in this film. There’s one scene here in which right-thinking Harrigan watches on a row of high-tech monitors as wrong-thinking Keyes leads an ill-fated attack against the Predator. The Predator decimates the team, and Harrigan -- tired of being on the sidelines -- steps up to save the day, or win the battle.  

This scene is an exact mirror of a scene in Cameron’s Aliens (1986).  There, Ripley watches on a row of monitors as the Colonial Marines get their asses kicked on Sub Level 3. She must take action herself, because she is right, and Lt. Gorman is so clearly wrong.  

There's even a similar deer-in-the-headlights moment in Predator 2 for  one Gorman surrogate, Garber (Adam Baldwin).



Similarly, Harrigan appropriates a Ripley-ish line from Alien, while talking to Keyes. “You admire the son of a bitch,” he realizes. 

This is also what Ripley realized vis-à-vis Ash and the xenomorph in the Ridley Scott 1979 original

It’s just baffling that a film seeking so aggressively to artistically break free from its successful predecessor would mindlessly ape another film series at the same. These moments are transparently derivative, and undo some of the creative success Hopkins achieves with this sequel.

Still, I appreciate the final revelations of Predator 2. These moments prove chilling. One of the final scenes, inside the spaceship, features not only an alien skull, but evidence that the Predators have been interacting with humans for a very, very long time indeed. They have been here, are here now, and will return soon.  




That’s a creepy thought, and I love how the old Predator leader demonstrates grudging respect for Harrigan, his prey, by gifting him a gun from the 1700s…a souvenir emblematic of their differences, and shared history.

Writing for The Washington Post, review Rita Kempley wrote persuasively of Predator 2’s “dismal irony” and “brooding fatalism” (November 21, 1990). 

I like those qualities too, and I enjoy this sequel quite a bit. I’ll take it over AVP: Requiem (2007) or Alien Resurrection (1997) any day. Predator 2 doesn’t scuttle its franchise, and in some ways it expands the cycle's reach in a wonderful, creative way.   

And yet the tonal lapses into comedy and rip-off territory prevent Predator 2 from being a truly great sequel to one of the best action-horror films of the eighties.

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