One of the biggest challenges I face as a guy who writes these kind of things is coming up with something new to say about movies that have been dissected for ages by smarter and wiser folks than I. I get excited when I have the chance to share my love for an obscure and/or less-respected film, because it's easier for me to develop a personal connection with that movie and I feel like I'm accomplishing something when I start to talk about that movie. But, when I start talking about a movie I love that everyone else loves I can sometimes get intimidated. Some movies are so widely loved that it really does feel like there's nothing left to discuss about them.
One such movie is The Shining, which I've wanted to add to the Midnight Movie of the Week pile for ages yet have always been afraid to write about. And when I sat down with the newly released documentary Room 237 this week, I became completely aware of something I'd always assumed to be true - The Shining has been devoured by more intellectuals than any other horror movie ever made.
The good thing is that Room 237 gave me something of a cheat sheet for thinking about The Shining, though the effect it had on me is not the effect that was intended by many of the contributors to that film. For those who are not familiar with the documentary, Room 237 is explained in subtitle as "Being an inquiry into THE SHINING in 9 parts" and is in actuality filmmaker Rodney Ascher's mash-up of theories about Stanley Kubrick's horror film. That sounds like a boring idea for a movie - until you realize just how entertaining some of the crazy theories about The Shining that are floating around out there are.
Ascher took a very simple approach to making his film - he went out and found a few well-spoken, intelligent people who had spent too much time analyzing The Shining, and then he let them share their opinions and theories. The results are as wildly entertaining as Kubrick's film itself, because these commentators turn The Shining into everything from a metaphor for the destruction of native American races (which seems slightly plausible) to an admission that Kubrick helped fake the moon landing (which seems bat-stuff crazy). The ideas expressed within Room 237 can seem very ridiculous, which is exactly why the film becomes so engrossing, even when it seems that the "proof" behind most of the theories is "Kubrick was really smart and there's no way he didn't mean something with every detail." (I don't buy in to that mindset, but I like that people have it.)
While the ideas of the people in Room 237 seem like poppycock, the fact that people actually spent the time thinking about them and have convinced themselves to believe in them is terrifically exciting. As a film nerd I've always believed there's a great value in being able to come up with your own ideas about the movie you're watching, and that any movie that will inspire you to reconsider its reality is a movie worth talking about. And that matters, even if you're wrong about the movie. As a writer, I admit to often pitching my own perceptions of a movie and making assumptions about a film's meaning - that's essentially what film commentary is - and I love the idea that these people are out there obsessing this strongly over a film like The Shining.
Room 237 does not explain The Shining. I want that to be clear and - judging by the disclaimer at the beginning of the film and twice on the DVD packaging - Ascher wants that to be clear too. But Room 237 does perfectly explain why The Shining is such a memorable film. Kubrick turned Stephen King's novel into a nightmare, and the result is the kind of lucid dream that someone might have after they read the novel. It isn't true to the page and it doesn't always make sense and - just like a great nightmare - it leaves itself open to interpretation.
I've seen The Shining dozens of times, and I'm still not sure what my interpretation of the film is. Maybe Jack Torrance was just a crazy guy and the final shot was Kubrick's way of messing with the audience. Maybe it was just a parable about being stuck in purgatory and how parents drag their children to Hell with them. Maybe it's just an excuse to axe Scatman Crothers in the gut. I don't know. But, like the people in Room 237, I love thinking about it. I love talking about it. And now, thanks to Room 237, I'm excited to watch it one more time and to re-live that impossible nightmare known as The Shining.
(2013, Dir. by Simon Barrett, Jason Eisener, Gareth Huw Evans & Timo Tjahjanto, Gregg Hale & Eduardo Sanchez, Adam Wingard.)
Few things are more exciting to me than when I see young horror filmmakers advancing their craft, which is a big part of why I had a lot of fun with V/H/S 2. It is unfair to compare this film directly with its predecessor (V/H/S, which arrived on home video last year and offered a raw (and slightly immature) new twist on the anthology horror formula) because the filmmakers are different this time around, but it seems blatant to me that the returning producers and directors worked hard to clean up some of the more maligned aspects of the first film.
Critics of that film - which I enjoyed, despite some uneven moments - will probably be pleased with the extra layer of polish that seems to have been applied to this sequel. It's still definitely an independent and experimental picture - especially in the first and fourth segments of the film - and it still feels like the found footage it is supposed to be in most scenes. At the same time, the film seems to feel a little more mature and cinematic than its predecessor, striking a nice balance between the raw horror of the original and some more artistic horror films of the era.
The film's increase in quality over the original is most notable in the third segment of the film, which is entitled "Safe Haven" and is directed by Gareth Huw Evans & Timo Tjahjanto. Evans uses a mostly Indonesian cast, as he did in his action masterpiece The Raid: Redemption, to take us inside a "Jonestown" inspired cult where things are much more devious than they seem. I don't even want to go in to what occurs in this segment, but I will say that it has more pure shocks and disgusting surprises than 99% of feature length horror films out there. It's a truly nightmarish little epic - it feels like it's longer than the other three main segments of the film combined - that is good enough to make the whole film worth seeing.
That said, the rest of the film works pretty well too. I might even say that the lowest moments of this film (the wrap-around directed by You're Next and A Horrible Way To Die scribe Simon Barrett and the zombie segment directed by Gregg Hale and The Blair Witch Project co-director Eduardo Sanchez) are better than the least impressive parts of the first V/H/S film. Barrett's wrap-around seems fresher and less hectic than the sequence he and You're Next director Adam Wingard put together for the first film (plus it has a better payoff at the end) while Sanchez and Hale's first person zombie tale feels like a neat little short that could be expounded upon in a different film.
The two segments that bookend the proceedings both stand out by being manic in their attempts to surprise the viewer. The first, directed by Wingard and written by Barrett, stars Wingard as a man who is fitted with an experimental camera eye that just happens to see ghosts all around him. The tone of this film is probably closest to that of V/H/S (plus Barrett and Wingard both bring back the "random topless women" factor of the first film) and it manages to bridge the gap between the films while providing a few good scares. The film's last segment, by Hobo With A Shotgun director Jason Eisener, is even more hectic and bizarre and the title - "Slumber Party Alien Abduction" - tells you almost everything you need to know about it. This sequence has one of the film's most annoying tricks, when Eisener mounts the camera on top of an in film dog for several scenes, but it's also the most ridiculously fun and carefree piece of cinema in the film.
As a total film, I really respect the manic energy of V/H/S 2. Each section of the film has a different tone and a different pace, but the flow of the presentation is never interrupted. I thought the first film worked similarly, but had a few bumps in the road that derailed it from being the kind of movie that is perfect for a crowded Halloween party. I think this sequel avoids the same pitfalls and earns a place at that party; it's a crowd pleasing horror anthology that's here just in time for the holiday season.
Any list of the coolest movies ever made is invalid if it does not mention The Warriors. There are few times when I will say that a movie is unquestionably worthy of praise, that the movie's brilliance is an actual fact, but The Warriors is simply cool. There can be no question, from the pulsating montage that opens the film to the final shot that hangs out behind the end credits, that Walter Hill and company made a gangland epic that is without equal.
The trick to understanding just how cool The Warriors, however, is realizing that it's more than just a gang movie. A short sighted viewer with strict morals might look at the film as an excuse to show gang violence and a glorification of the lifestyle. It's hard to argue against that to an extent - the fact is that everyone in the movie is a member of a criminal organization (unless they're a cop) - but it's more important to look at the film's reality instead of our reality. In the film's world, where the late night hours in New York City seem to belong only to the gangs, the only thing that matters is survival. And in that reality, it's easy to start seeing that The Warriors has its heart in a much less sinister place.
If you're unfamiliar with The Warriors - and I'm incredibly sorry if you are - the basic set-up is very simple. All of the "major league" gangs in New York City have agreed to send nine delegates to a meeting in the city where Cyrus, president of the top gang in the city, has something to say. It's supposed to be a peaceful discussion, with Cyrus giving one of the all-time most iconic speeches on film, except that one ornery gang decides they don't like it and shoots Cyrus dead. The ensuing scuffles sees the title gang, a rather vanilla outfit in red leather vests from Coney Island, accused of the murder and having their "warlord" slain, leaving the eight remaining members to try and get home while every gang in the city is ordered to hunt them down by Cyrus' disciples.
If this idea was pitched today, it's hard to see it being made as a film and not a video game. The set up is almost perfect for that medium; starting with a short intro and a crisis that puts the heroes in peril and then allowing waves of opponents of varying skill and difficulty to challenge them on their way to their goal. It makes perfect sense that The Warriors was adapted for consoles by video game giant Rockstar Games in 2005 (it's actually one of the better film-to-video-game adaptations out there), and looking at the film after seeing that game makes it almost impossible for me to not look at the film as a video game movie that was made in advance.
With such a simple premise, it's everything else in the film that Hill manages to make so cool. That really begins with Cyrus, the idealistic Jesus figure whose "Can you dig it?" exclamation has become a pop culture mainstay. The actor who plays Cyrus, Roger Hill, is just one of the relatively unknown actors in the film (there are a few recognizable faces, but the biggest star of the film is probably Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? hostess Lynne Thigpen as the mostly unseen disc-jokey who advances the plot a few times), but his one-scene performance perfectly makes us accept the film's conflict. Other performances vary in quality - lead Michael Beck seems to spend most of his time standing very still and looking concerned-but-chill, while seedy David Patrick Kelly is perfectly unhinged as the unhinged little gangster who is responsible for The Warriors' plight - but everyone seems to be adequate for their part in the film.
By traditional standards The Warriors probably doesn't measure up to most filmmaking standards, and it's easy to see why critics in its time primarily wrote it off as a failure. But the intangibles that make The Warriors such a memorable and enjoyable film have maintained for nearly 35 years, and now we're at the point where the film is certainly one of the most loved cult films out there. Forget the plot, forget the gang affiliation, forget that the lead is there because of his abs - just sit back and experience The Warriors. You'll be glad you did.
Nearly thirty years later, Re-Animator still feels like one of the most surprising horror movies anyone's ever seen. Almost every horror movie from the '80s was repackaged and retooled into dozens of successful knockoffs, but Re-Animator still manages to stand alone as one-of-a-kind, even if it did lead to two sequels. It's a rare feat that a movie from this time period can actively make you want to not compare it to any of its contemporaries, and that's just one of the great things about Re-Animator.
A modern adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's Frankensteinian tale Herbert West-Reanimator, Re-Animator is first and foremost a chance for the great Jeffrey Combs to make his mark as one of the most talented actors in horror cinema. There was a hole to be filled after Vincent Price, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing faded away from leading man status, and Re-Animator certainly works as a jumping off point for its star. As West, Combs evokes memories of Colin Clive and Frankenstein while seamlessly fitting in to a post-Ghostbusters world of horror cinema. Though many point out the changes in horror through the '70s and '80s - first the gritty and decidedly un-gothic tales of the '70s and then the slice-and-dice slashers of the '80s - Combs' turn as Herbert West is one of the best examples of how "classic" horror could still live in the changing climate of the horror scene.
The story doesn't work with just the mad doctor - though it's arguable whether West really ever goes all the way to "mad", I might say that at his worst he's just delusional - which allows for the film's other stars to fit in to the script. Bruce Abbot gets top billing as the straight-laced medical student who gets caught up helping with West's experiments, much to the dismay of his girlfriend Megan - who also happens to be the dean of his college's daughter. Megan is played by the great Barbara Crampton, who is probably the best actress ever when it comes to just being shocked by all the disgusting things happening around her. The things she is asked to do in this film had to a bit uncomfortable for the actress - particularly when the film gets to its infamous climax - but she takes it all like a champ. Abbott and Crampton seem like they have the easier roles in the film - though it can't be easy to scream as loud and as often as she does - but it's imperative that they make simple characters feel unique as they play off of Combs' West and David Gale's creepy Dr. Hill, who becomes the film's biggest menace as it goes on.
It's important to note that none of these characters are portrayed as secondary to the film's gory sequences, but it's just as important to point out how well director Stuart Gordon uses gore throughout his film. The film is deceptively gory these days, because it spends so much time building up West's ideas and the way it effects the characters around him that my memory of the film always starts with images like the sequence where the two doctors re-animate their pet cat - a comical but gross sequence punctuated by Combs' sly "Don't expect her to tango" quip - and makes me forget the chaotic and bloody (and mostly naked) final sequence. I'm not sure if Gordon's intent was to make us think Frankenstein and then surprise us with something out of Fulci, but if it was he did a darn good job of it.
Re-Animator's plot spirals out of control so quickly in the final act that it's hard to keep up. I've seen the film many times, and as I found myself looking at it again tonight I still lost track of where it was going next. There's something perfectly manic about the last 10 to 15 minutes of Gordon's film, and the pace at which things escalate only makes the film that much more fun to revisit. Everything builds to a final sequence that is perfectly morbid in the way it mixes chaos with human drama, which is probably the biggest lasting impression the film has on me. Gordon and company managed to turn Lovecraft's tale of terror into a gory masterpiece that makes us forget that it's gory, and few horror films out there engage the viewer as well as this one does.
There are a lot of genre films out there that succeed because they take a ridiculous idea far too seriously. Movies about time travel, killer animals, invaders from space, vats of liquid Satan (Prince of Darkness, represent!), and plenty of other wacky things can be great cinema when the right filmmakers and cast members are willing to believe in an unrealistic premise. Nobody, save the extremely nerdy and critical, blinks twice when an '80s kid travels to 1955 in a Delorean or when a scientist turns a preserved mosquito into an island full of dinosaurs, because the filmmakers behind these movies distract us elsewhere and don't give us time to think too much about how crazy the whole darn movie is.
The Brain That Wouldn't Die is not one of those movies. If anything, it's the exact opposite. It spends too much time making us think about what's going on - thanks to some poor pacing and a tendency to just let the characters talk about the plot instead of having them do anything - which makes it an easy target for skeptics, such as the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew that once mocked it thoroughly on television. (In the film's defense, it's hard to have a character who is only a severed head "do anything." We'll talk more about that later though.)
If you don't know The Brain That Wouldn't Die, a drive-in stalwart that was released in 1962, it's the story of a power hungry doctor who specializes in Frankensteiny experimental medicine and the woman he loves - a woman who is beheaded in an automobile accident while he is driving erratically due to his lust to get to his science. Fortunately - or unfortunately, depending on who you listen to - that same science allows our narcissistic doctor to keep that head alive, living in a few clamps and a tray of serum (or, as the MST3K guys called it, "neck juice"), while he searches for a body that he can use for a transplant. Oh, and there's a "thing" living and groaning in the closet too. You gotta wonder if that's gonna come in to play later on.
Now, most will scoff at that premise - a severed head suspended in a pan while an evil doctor hunts for a victim - but I can see a good movie inside of it. And one of the things I love most about The Brain That Wouldn't Die is that it's clear that writer/director Joseph Green believed there was a good movie in there too. The film's script has plenty of dialogue that misses the mark or is delivered awkwardly - like the disfigured character who keeps repeating how she carries memory of her past around with her or the lab assistant who shouts things like 'You're nothing but a freak of life! And, a freak of death!" - but there are also moments in the film where the script stumbles upon slightly profound comments on science and the doctor's meddling nature.
Virginia Leith - who stars as both the full bodied girlfriend, Jan, and as "Jan in the Pan" - is given most of the opportunities to monologue about right and wrong, and she's clearly not excited to be preserved as a captive cranium. As she rants about her captivity she eventually stumbles into one of the film's more interesting arguments, discussing her "power" with the lab assistant and the creature in the closet. The empowered version of Jan, like most of the characters in the movie, spends more time talking than she does achieving, but she still seems a lot more interesting than the rest of the characters in the film. Maybe it's Leith's smoky delivery of her lines, or maybe it's just the fact that she's a severed head in a pan with fantastic eyelashes, but when she rasps "like all quantities, horror has its ultimate...and I am that" I definitely can see that Green had some good ideas up his sleeve when he made this movie.
Then again, most of the flaws - like the awkward catfight and the doctor's doomed search for a body - are the things that make The Brain That Wouldn't Die a must see piece of flawed drive-in history, and by the time that closet opens up late in the film I think most fans of pure cheese will find themselves having at least a little bit of unironic fun with this film. Those hints of something smarter in the dialogue - even throwaway lines like "The corpse is yours, do what you want to do" seem like they would get a laugh in a less serious film - and Leith's presentation of tabletop anger that keep me thinking about how perfectly imperfect the tone of The Brain That Wouldn't Die is, and that tone is what makes this film so memorable to me.
Well, it's that tone that makes it memorable....and it's also the talking severed head that's floating in neck juice that's memorable. You never really forget seeing that.