This Week in Geek (10-16/10/21)


In theaters: No James Bond has ever had the opportunity to go out on a movie scripted to be the actor/era's goodbye, so No Time to Die stands out for that alone. And since Daniel Craig is a rather sad Bond, it's clear that his version of the character must head for a tragedy, it's just a matter of what kind of tragedy it will be, and who won't make it out unscathed, or even alive. Craig is also the only Bond to have suffered through a multi-movie arc, which is both the era's strength and weakness. On the one hand, I feel more invested in the wider cast; on the other, having to pay all that off while also telling its own MacGuffin story across various exotic locales means plot wins over spectacle in this case. Not to say No Time to Die doesn't have great action - stunts, fighting, vehicular - but it doesn't really have a singular set piece I can point to and say "oh, it's the one with _______". Well, almost. No Time to Die is the one with Ana de Armas who makes such a great showing, you really resent the rest of the film for not showcasing her. As far as I'm concerned, as soon as she shows up, she shouldn't ever leave the screen. Alas. Agent Paloma needs her own franchise. In the final analysis, the Craig era got a little too convoluted, but between Casino Royale and Skyfall, hit such high notes that its iterations of the cast, Bond included, have become my favorites. This last picture comes in a respectable third, which isn't bad at all. And that's about as spoiler-free as I can make it.

At home: The wicked stepmother trope is an old one, but Beat Girl is about a wicked stepDAUGHTER! Though the other beatnik kids are treated with some sympathy, Jennifer (Gillian Hills) is a dreadful girl, rebelling without a cause you might say, and hungry to tell her new stepmother's dark secrets to dear old dad. Thing is, stepmom (Noƫlle Adam) is really trying her best and doesn't deserve this treatment. Jennifer condemns her for things she wouldn't deny herself - enter Christopher Lee as a sleazy club owner. Let's just say the film's opinion of "today's kids" is a low one and that Jennifer is heading for a reckoning. Along the way, we'll get a bit of gratuitous T&A and a bunch of musical numbers, with actual British teen idol Adam Faith shaking a guitar so it magically plays (really, this movie has the most ridiculous non-synchronization of music to onscreen musical instruments), though I can't fault the cool bopping sounds of John Barry - probably the best thing about the movie. 60s trash, but fun and a lot better than the American side's silly Beach movie rip-offs (and some Beach movies too).

Albert Brooks paints his character as the world's worst boyfriend in Modern Romance, a study of jealousy as neurosis, but what's more interesting to me is that the character is a film editor. That really informs that neurosis, doesn't it? The relationship, like film, can and should be tweaked consistently until one finds the perfect paradigm, but what are you going to leave on the cutting room floor? The obsessive back and forth replay of film finds itself in Brooks' on-again, off-again relationship, but also in his personality. The quick patter is all about continually contradicting himself for the audience's pleasure. I say pleasure, because it's funny - everything surrounding the terrible movie he's working on is especially amusing - but it's really what you might call cringe comedy. If it were a puppet show, you'd be yelling "nooo" at the main puppet all the way through. Like, it's not love, it's fear of failure and obsessive but pointless tinkering. Brooks also got his brother Bob Einstein to come in and steal a scene, so bonus.

The fourth season of Dear White People has maybe one gimmick too many. The frame tale that takes place in the Future is a little bit Black Mirror (and that mirror is of the pandemic era), and I do like that. Using it to tell the story of the cast's fourth year in college, and the postmodern vibe it sends out as a result, I equally enjoy. The at-first slice-of-life, but then sinister credits sequences, likewise. But having Future Sam imagine the story as a 90s jukebox musical? While there are a couple of great numbers around the middle, I usually cringed as I was taken out of the narrative for interludes of variable quality. I fully admit the R&B pop stuff wasn't even on my radar back then - so unfamiliarity is part of my reaction - but it felt silly and I don't believe it was needed. After all, we still had strong drama (I particularly liked Sam getting called out repeatedly by New Activist on Campus) and the show's usual comedy elements (here going all out on the fake TV show concept and putting Coco in a Big Brother parody - if this is how these shows work, it's eye-opening as well!). I may question some of the decisions made this season, but in the end, this is a goodbye to a great cast of characters, and of course actors who I hope to see in other things worthy of their talents soon, and frequently.

50 Years of Horror/1979: Between the Slumber Party Massacre films and, obliquely, De Palma's Body Double, this last year's viewing has made me a Driller Killer completist. I was intrigued to find out the original film was directed by, and stars, Bad Lieutenant's Abel Ferrara. His first feature is made with very little means - the sound isn't very good and the acting is mostly amateurish (only Carolyn Marz feels natural, though her main trait is looking amazingly like a young Catherine Zeta-Jones in this) - but the film's raw energy often compensates for its technical weakness. The story is the making of a serial killer (a driller rather than a slasher), a frustrated artist (so make of that what you will) radicalized by poverty, noisy neighbors, the crime-ridden New York of the 70s (at least osmotically), and power tool commercials. The act of killing - vibrating gore off the screen in a satisfying manner - is cathartic for the artist, and not a means to an end. I was frankly surprised at how the drill was mostly turned on strangers rather than the people making the killer's life difficult. But then, we often deflect our anger to the wrong targets. A piece of guerilla film-making with more to say than it first appears.
Also from that year: Alien, The Brood

1980: While young Kevin Bacon was starring in the first Friday the 13th, Jamie Lee Curtis, already established as a horror heroine, was heading north to be in Canada's own effort from that year - Prom Night - in which Leslie Nielsen plays her dad. There's an intriguing set-up, with an 11-year-old dying as a result of dangerous games and her four friends pledging never to tell what happened. 6 years later, at prom, some kind of revenge will be doled out (by who is part of the movie's Scream-like mystery and I won't rob you of one of its few pleasures). Because yeah... Prom Night has problems. For one thing, though the actors are in their early 20s, the way they're styled makes them look way older and I don't buy them as high schoolers (this is common but very distracting in this case). The killer makes us wait a long time for the carnage to begin, and then it's all in darkness and hard to follow. Horror fans who want a real money shot basically have to wait for the last 5 minutes. There's even a lack of cohesion as the original murder weapon - bathed in poetic justice - is abandoned for a bog-standard axe. But the biggest problem is the lack of immediacy created by Curtis having been cast not as one of the kids marked for death, but as the victim's sister. Death isn't coming for her. The sequence where the killer calls the targets is one of the better ones, but there's no sustained sense of dread, because they all think it's a prank phone call and don't know what's waiting for them. I don't mind an attempt at a PG slasher movie, but this is just disappointing. Not unlike my own prom. (Actually, my prom made me a lot more uncomfortable.)
Actual best from that year: The Shining, The Fog

1981: I've had a long history with David Cronenberg's Scanners, but this was my first time watching it. By long history, I mean I first saw shots of Michael Ironside popping veins at 10 or 11 years old in a magazine about the Unexplained. Obviously, I wanted to see this, but where and how? There may have been a Mad Magazine parody too, but still no way to see it. And whenever I thought about Scanners over the years (usually after watching another Cronenberg), I couldn't make it happen. Well, we live in a different world now. My first surprise is that I thought there'd be a lot more head-exploding action, and how early that iconic shot comes. Unless we count the computer as a brain, I guess. One of the weirdest hacking scenes in movie history, and I'm counting all of Hackers! So not the incredible classic I had imagined it to be, but I like this world of secret telepaths and how the story never goes where you think it will.
Also from that year: The Evil Dead, An American Werewolf in London

1982: There's just enough Hitchcock in The House of Sorority Row to keep it interesting as a slasher film, the real frisson coming from the unlawful death of the sorority's house mother casting a dark cloud over the girls' graduation party, as they must rush out every so often to keep their secret. I like the cast, which includes several recognizable 80s faces who broke into soaps around this time and had many television appearances (Harley Jane Kozak did better than most and was one of the Buckmans in Parenthood). I raised my eyebrow (at times, it could be perceived as a nervous tic) at some of the oddly bloodless kills (in a not-at-all bloodless movie) and at how there's a raging party downstairs, but elsewhere in and around the house, you can hear crickets and not a sound from the live rock band, but you gotta take some of this stuff in your stride. More watchable than most, though rather predictable too, Sorority Row is a bite of horror movie comfort food.
Actual best from that year: The Thing, Basket Case, Poltergeist, The Slumber Party Massacre

1983: I've seen John Carpenter's work-for-hire Stephen King adaptation, Christine, many times, and that's because it's not so gory or creepy that it couldn't easily be run on television. Coming off The Thing, Carpenter's early fans were probably disappointed at how PG it is (just you wait, 1980s fans, he made the sci-fi romance Starman next). But I wasn't going to get to see The Thing, or Halloween, etc. as a tween, so Christine becomes a fun, and still tense, introductory horror flick (so long as they looped out the word "shitters", a massive undertaking you'll agree). Yes, it's ridiculous that a car would be alive AND evil (where's my Herbie vs. Christine movie?), but I kind of love that there's no explanation given. It just IS. Christine becomes a metaphor not just for American car culture (it makes the nerdy kid a macho bully as he finds his virility in driving what is for him a sex object), but for the distorting power of nostalgia. Not only does Christine only play 50s hits on her radio ("Bad to the Bone" is actually non-diagetic even if I can't hear it without thinking of the terror car), but - and this is more subtle - she progressively turns Arnie into a 50s greaser (the former owner, thus the adoption of the strange insult "shitters", see?). And in addition to all that, the car is well shot, there's a great "deranged driver at night" quality to her kills, and the effects hold up. Yes, she heals through reverse photography, but that doesn't explain everything we see! An under-appreciated Carpenter!
Also from that year: The Hunger, Videodrome, The Dead Zone

1984: Hey, that little girl from E.T. everyone likes? Let's put her in a Stephen King horror movie! Well, Firestarter is one of the adaptations that shows how easy it is to miss the terror mark on the writer's material. When he's writing about people with super-powers, it might depend on the director. De Palma certainly succeeded with Carrie, Kubrick with The Shining (but with many changes). Firestarter, in different hands, might have used the notion that children can be creepy, but Drew Barrymore never is this. She's cute and sympathetic and it's only a horror movie for nameless government agents who kidnap little girls, so it's hard to empathize with them. Very cool fire effects, certainly, but it works more as a sci-fi story than a horror tale. It comes closest with George C. Scott's intentions for the girl, but not quite. With its psionics on the run, it could happen in the Scannerverse, but since the book predates Cronenberg's take on the concept, it's probably more true that this is the Dr. Sleepverse and that firebug Drew might one day rub elbows with Danny from the Shining.
Actual best from that year: A Nightmare on Elm Street, Gremlins, Razorback

1985: A great bit of fun, the original Fright Night takes a swipe at the 80s slasher genre, but is really a part of it, the old vampire tropes in the context of randy high schoolers. If this movie wasn't a big inspiration on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I'll eat my crucifix. One of the slasher tropes I can't stand is the over the top jerky boy (for example, Matthew Lillard in Scream), and "Evil" Ed in Fright Night is one of the worst examples. It's like he was cast as a demented vampire first, and then brought all of that to his human(ish) performance too. I don't even know why Charlie goes to him for vampire advice since he seems to be a horror fan himself. But then Charlie isn't very good at anything, whether it's explaining things to the police, keeping his girlfriend satisfied, or trigonometry. But that's all beside the point. Chris Sarandon is fun as the vampire next door. Roddy McDowall is fun as a has-been stand-in for Peter Cushing/Vincent Price. And the third act prosthetics - in particular the vampire deaths - are Fangorially spectacular. But what's with the disco sequences in 80s horror flicks? Is it undead music?
Also from that year: Re-Animator, Lifeforce, Mr. Vampire

1986: Very, very loosely based on the story of the world's most prolific serial killer Henry Lee Lucas , Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer's poster takes a potshot at slasher films in general ("...he's REAL!"), but doesn't need to. Michael Rooker's film debut is an original piece of work that begins with gory tableaux, in still life, that have you wondering how they're connected. You can't even be sure they're the work of this Henry fellow. The title killer has moved in with an old prison buddy, the not-all-there Ottis, and there's pretty constant tension from the fact Ottis' sister Becky has come to life with them after she hits hard times. Is she the one person Henry won't kill, or is gristle for the mill? You're always on the edge of your seat wondering what the next dissolve will bring. And though it's 35 years old at this point, it still packs a punch, disturbing just by its remorseless nihilism.
Also from that year: The Fly, Little Shop of Horrors, Chopping Mall, The Hitcher, Night of the Creeps

1987: Prom Night II (Hello Mary Lou) is as if someone watched the beginning of the first film and saw what should have followed but didn't, then decided to make it. What's more interesting, a murdered prom queen who comes back from the grave to take revenge, or someone else taking revenge for a dead child who would have gone to that prom? Exactly. There are a lot of bizarre gags in this haunting/revenant story, made memorable by its gonzo effects and sense of fun - the watery blackboard, the locker room killing, Mary Lou's last scare, and that crazy ending, to name a few. This "Hamilton High School" looks cooler too. Beware sending someone to hell, they might return with insane powers. I'm not saying Prom Night II outperforms Carrie - it's not the same vibe - but it's a strong runner-up for worst prom experience. And hugely entertaining!
Also from that year: Hellraiser, The Slumber Party Massacre II, The Witches of Eastwick