In Honor of a Departed Master: Wes Craven’s Immortal “The People Under The Stairs”

So here’s to you, Mr. Craven. You knew what scared us, but it was because you knew what scared YOU first. Good horror comes from the heart, and by all accounts you were a wonderfully sweet man with plenty of heart to go around.

[NOTE: I was waiting until October to review Mr. Craven’s classic The People Under the Stairs, one of my all-time favorite movies, for my annual horror movie round-up. However, his untimely passing required tribute, so here it is.]

Dat Box Art
Dat Box Art

Back in the day, renting a movie at the video store was a gamble. If you rented the wrong thing, you wouldn’t find out until you’d got home, possibly hours later, possibly after the store had closed. It was terrible to find that the money you mowed a lawn or babysat for had gone to a dud, full of boring characters, dumb cliches, and forgettable story. The stakes were high on Friday afternoons after school, so I often agonized in the horror aisle making up my mind, my mom rolling her eyes and yelling at me to come on.

Imagine a time with no online forums, no websites, nothing but the movie reviews in the newspaper, articles in magazines like Fangoria  or Starlog, or your friends’ recommendations

I must have walked past the box for The People Under the Stairs 50 times before I actually picked it up to rent it. Although I look back fondly on the box art now, the somewhat generic design just couldn’t compete with the likes of Pumpkinhead, Deadly Friend, or anything coming out of Full Moon Studios for my money.  I finally watched it in about 1996, and thence started a relationship that has lasted to this very day.

Two  victories here: Twelve favorites AND I successfully screencapped it!
This is from two weeks ago! Still keeping the faith! 

I STAND BY MY TWEET.

I’ve talked before about urban horror in the form of Clive Barker’s Candyman and what an interesting and clever deconstruction it was – but doesn’t even come CLOSE to The People Under the Stairs.

The film starts out brilliantly – Ruby is doing a tarot reading for her little brother Poindexter, nicknamed Fool, and we hear hushed voices as Ruby lays out the cards in flickering candlelight, and with them Fool’s destiny. We’re in. The setup is established – Fool and his family live in the projects, at the mercy of slumlords and in need of money for Fool’s mother’s operation. Fool, now the man of the house at 13, is convinced by Ruby’s boyfriend Leroy (Ving Rhames! In one of his early roles! With hair!) to help him commit a burglary that will net them enough cash to take care of his family.

The plan is to dress Fool like a cub scout and send him to the front door, so he can get in and case the house. What he finds instead is a highly paranoid, racist woman who won’t even let him into the secured house to use the bathroom, and a serious security system.

Not. Even. A Little.
Not. Even. A Little.

Once Fool, Leroy, and their friend Spencer gain entry to the house, Shit Gets Weird. So wonderfully, GLORIOUSLY weird! I almost don’t want to go into it in case you are somehow reading this article having NOT seen the film! BUT I AM! So stop reading now. Go read the Candyman article, or… or come back when you’ve seen The People Under the Stairs! The post’ll still be here! Shoo!

OKAY.

As I was saying, TPUTS is brilliant as a horror movie for a lot of reasons. Mr. Craven was inspired by a news article about the police responding to a home invasion, who discovered children locked in a closet, and the story grew from there. A philosopher and teacher first, he didn’t begin making films until he was 30, and he started out making porn. How COOL is that?

Since the main baddies of TPUTS are some crazy-ass white people slumlords who toss around The N-Word with careless abandon and cackle at all the money they have drained from the ghetto, the movie has the feel of a modern fable. For some, THESE are the boogeymen, but they are no less terrifying than knife-wielding maniacs. They take children from the ghetto to raise as their own, but being utterly batshit crazy, no child can live up to their expectations. The children who fail are put into the basement,  missing tongues, eyes, or ears, and are fed on human flesh.

GIMMEGIMMEGIMME
GIMMEGIMMEGIMME

And since the movie didn’t know the meaning of the words ‘Over the Top,’ the performances by Everett McGill and Wendy Robie as “Daddy” and “Mommy” are MAGNIFICENT.

No Caption Needed. *wipes away a tear*
No Caption Needed. *wipes away a tear*
Here's the windup... and the bitch!
Mama said there’d be days like this… 

God how I could go on. A young A.J. Langer, of “My So-Called Life” fame plays Alice, the only girl and only child who has managed to toe Mommy and Daddy’s crazy line. Brandon Adams turned out a brilliant performance as the charismatic, intelligent, and compassionate Fool – I’m surprised to see so few credits under his name on IMDB.

The gimp suit, the attack dog, the dolls, “A man ain’t dead just cause he’s laying there,” and the wonderful, wonderful shouts of ‘GONNA FIND YOUUUUU!!’ interrupted by a brick to the face. GOD how I love this movie.

So here’s to you, Mr. Craven. You knew what scared us, but it was because you knew what scared YOU first. Good horror comes from the heart, and by all accounts you were a wonderfully sweet man with plenty of heart to go around. 

Here is a link to Edgar Wright’s touching tribute to Mr. Craven, who perfectly expressed what I have been stumbling and blathering to say.

Farewell, Mr. Craven! We’ll see you in our nightmares!

May You Rest Well Knowing That We Won't!
May You Rest Well Knowing That We Won’t!

 

Gyllenhaalin’ Skincrawlin’ Entry: Nightcrawler (2014)

Nightcrawler is an absolutely brilliant film. It’s a modern noir take on a generation raised by journalism and the internet without being preachy, and I can’t recommend it highly enough for fans of dark humor and incisive social commentary. Since they are both about sociopaths, it inevitably draws comparisons with films like Taxi Driver and American Psycho, with good reason.

HEY WANNA GO FOR A RIDE?
HEY WANNA GO FOR A RIDE?

[SOME SPOILERS!]

Nightcrawler surprised me. I had read the reviews on a few sites and knew it was good, but it also looked like the kind of dark thing I’ve been trying to avoid lately. A veteran of some pretty weird and extreme cinema, I wasn’t interested in spending 90 minutes with a Jake Gyllenhaal who keeps dead babies in his freezer or something. I barely leave the house as it is.

But as I said, it surprised me. For one thing, although it explores the pathology of sociopaths, it wasn’t as violent as I thought it would be. Gyllenhaal’s character of Lou Bloom is certainly a dangerous person, incapable of empathizing and soon begins leaving a trail of bodies in his wake, but the movie is almost like an origin story for a serial killer who hasn’t quite gotten started yet. Instead, it posits something even scarier – not a killer who hunts and pursues prey, but an opportunistic predator a little lower down on the food chain. Bloom is the kind of predator who has the patience to cultivate relationships and then strike when people are at their most vulnerable. In the Wiki entry, the filmmakers said that they were trying to characterize Bloom as a jackal, and I think they really succeeded. Some opportunistic predators are the last thing prey sees before they die, just as happens in the story.

The story is thin but more than balanced by the brilliant characterizations and performances. As mentioned, Gyllenhaal plays Bloom, a sociopathic autodidact who aggregates data like an algorithm, a metaphor fitting for the internet age without being overbearing. Just like Gmail doesn’t understand the context of some of the weirder terms in my personal emails (true story: years ago in my Google ads sidebar an ad for a white supremacist website came up because I was lamenting the existence of neo-nazis- No Gmail, that was wrong) Bloom fails to understand meaning or context. A junk metal scrapper and small-time thief, he wanders across the path of some freelance videographers and scents opportunity. Soon he’s haunting the police radio band and rushing to the scenes of crimes, sometimes before the first responders themselves arrive (another horrifying point, how late the cops sometimes are to the party) and capturing all the gory details with no concern for personal boundaries or the law.

HA HA, BUSINESS LAUGH!!!
HA HA, BUSINESS LAUGH!!!

He hires an employee played by Riz Ahmed, a sort of shiftless stoner guy. I’d never heard of Ahmed before but I loved the vague, ‘wait what’ tone of his performance. I hope he goes far. The scenes where they’re tearing around L.A. in Bloom’s sweet red SRT (and somehow not being noticed by the cops) are so well-done.

Rene Russo, perfectly capturing the world-weary newscaster with decades of bad road behind her as Nina Romina, is Bloom’s connect for buying footage. Although she senses the sickness behind the smile, she needs his footage and can’t cut him off, and soon finds herself strong-armed into a “relationship” with him.

As I said, the trope’s familiar but the strength of the performances saves it. If you’re going to have a film about a sociopath, your lead has to have the right kind of eyes, and Gyllenhaal does. 

The Abyss Stares Back!
When the abyss stares back, it will have Jake Gyllenhaal’s eyes.

Bloom has studied human behavior and empathy, and on the one hand he is absolutely earnest in his desire to please Romina. He knows all of the notes of the symphony but none of the meaning, and everything he does is calculated to benefit himself, so it makes sense that he really believes he can help her, because by extension he’s helping himself. Of course that’s not the problem; the problem is that he is forcing her into a relationship with him and leaving quite a trail of bodies in his wake.

BAH. There was a scene that I can’t find a .gif of that is just hilarious and shows the weirdly playful side of the movie, and it occurs during their disastrous and deeply unsettling “date.” Ah well! I’m curious to know if other people laughed the way I did at a certain line.

Bill Paxton shows up as a competitor of Bloom’s, who is obnoxious at first but comes to recognize Bloom’s talent and suggests a partnership, which Bloom blows off.

Look again at that gif up above. Look at the beautiful eyes, the self-assuredness, the complete confidence that Bloom emanates: He is right and she is wrong, he knows what’s best, and she just needs to accept it. Sociopaths are known for their charm and charisma.

Now look at this:

*jumps and falls backward out of chair*

I hate that I made such a pat point, but it really is amazing, his performance. He was nominated for a Golden Globe, but not an Oscar. There are so many great, passionate actors in the world! I would give them all Oscars if I could! Heh, and then everyone would be special so no one would be special. 

Anyhoodle, Nightcrawler is an absolutely brilliant film. It’s a modern noir take on a generation raised by journalism and the internet without being preachy, and I can’t recommend it highly enough for fans of dark humor and incisive social commentary. Since they are both about sociopaths, it inevitably draws comparisons with films like Taxi Driver and American Psycho, with good reason.

Nightcrawler is available on Instant Watch.

What I Have Learned Post: 5 Movies to Get You Through a Breakup

[NOTE: This is not an angry, bitter post, so if you were worried about being dragged down into despair and being spattered with someone’s bile, don’t! I’ll do my best to be my usual, mildly amusing and daft self!]

Ahhhh, breakups.

The short of it is, they suck. And any helpful article you can google  will tell you that things will hurt for a while, you’ll feel all the things, time will pass, and then suddenly you’ll realize you’re all right again. Life will go on, and you will meet someone new. It’s all part of the magical journey of life!

But in that process, one of the steps is kind of huge– momentous even– when you are going through it. Time will pass. It’s an understatement kind of like ‘beer is a popular beverage’ or ‘people sometimes disagree about religious matters.’

During that passage of time, you will need to face certain temptations, such as stalking your ex on Facebook (it’s a bad idea, trust me; just LET THEM GO!), drinking, doing drugs or self-medicating to escape the pain, banging anything that moves in a misguided attempt to reassert yourself or spite your ex, or withdrawing and wallowing in complete misery. These are all parts of the process of grieving a relationship’s end, but it’s important not to lose yourself in your grieving, and to occupy yourself in as many positive ways as  you can. And what better distraction exists than watching films?

So without further ado, here is a small list of films ideal for viewing after a breakup! Hopefully they will help you as much as they helped me! NOTE: normally there is no order to my lists, but tonight these are ranked in order from least to best, with best being #1. Enjoy! 

5. Silence of the Lambs  – I know! Weird and random, right? But hear me out – it’s a classic, its central relationship is platonic, and it encourages the main character to do some deep soul searching in the dark corners of her heart – the kind that often occur after we are crushed by a breakup. It’s a powerful story whose central character, Clarice Starling, appeals to the viewer regardless of gender. At times both breathless and nailbiting, the hours will just fly off the clock!

It's good to see you again, Clarice. Let us continue our complex and somewhat platonic relationship.
It’s good to see you again, Clarice. Let us continue our complex and somewhat platonic relationship.

4. Charlie’s Angels – Either of them. It’s absolute girl-power fluff about friends and fashion and having a good time. If you’re unfamiliar, here‘s a review I wrote a few years ago. Not to be taken with any seriousness whatsoever. Really, it’s just a lot of fun noise, stunts, costumes, and makeup.

Although there is a relationship in this one, it just drives home at the end of the day that friends are more important than significant others.

I could barely tell you what the plot was, but still love this movie
I could barely tell you what the plot was, but still love this movie

3. To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar – Another unsung classic, this one is about putting others ahead of yourself and your needs, a good thing to remember when you’re sinking into a pit of despair after a breakup. Get out! Do something for someone else! Enjoy your hobbies and live life to the fullest! At the very least, the adventures of Noxxeema, Vida, and Chichi taking a cross country trip and chasing their dreams of entering a beauty pageant might encourage you to chase a dream or two of your own: take that trip you’ve always talked about! Write that novel! Start your own food truck! You’ve got time and energy now, so get out there and do something with it!

And remember... let good thoughts be your sword, and shield!
And remember… let good thoughts be your sword, and shield!

2. The Secret of NIMH – Mrs. Brisby had to deal with some serious shit. A widower, her little fieldmouse’s world was full of dangers, and yet to protect her family she risked life and limb, again and again. Sure, there’s a slight flirtation with Justin, the Captain of the Guard, and he does cheer her on at times, but ultimately she’s the one who gets things done. Note – this classic film bears only a passing resemblance to the book it is based on, so if you’re familiar with the book but not the film, be prepared for some changes. A LOT of changes. Also, there is apparently a remake in the works, and while I am usually optimistic in these cases, this doesn’t really fill me with confidence.

Nicodemus lays down some truth.
Nicodemus lays down some truth.

1. Elizabeth – Her Majesty had to learn some lessons about love – the HARD WAY. She starts out the film young, relatively innocent and trusting, and by the end has had to make some hard choices – just like us after a breakup. However, while our decisions might be things like which friends to delete from our Facebook feeds or who gets what dvd sets, her decisions were things like ‘have the conspirators who sought to undermine my authority put to death.’ It certainly put my problems into perspective. True, there is a romantic subplot, but that story is a crucial lesson that Elizabeth learns by the end: that she must put something much bigger than her own happiness at stake. At the very least, this most dramatic and heartrending film will keep you busy for a few hours. Watch it for the wigs, and for Geoffrey Rush as Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster.

Stay true to yourself!
Stay true to yourself!

So that’s it! Hopefully there’s something on this list to help you. These are some films I watched that cheered me up and helped me remember about the bigger world out there, so if you’re feeling down, hopefully a few hours with a great film will cheer you up. It always does for me, but sometimes making the choice on what to watch would get me bogged down forever.

Good luck, and hang in there!

Bruges is Totally Not a Shithole Entry: In Bruges (2008)

It’s a hard movie to pin down – it worked hard to earn its R rating, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see it, either. I’m an atheist, but I still appreciated its message of hope in the face of sorrow, of changing your ways, forgiveness, et cetera.

I can definitely recommend it as a great film, but I would say it’s probably not to everyone’s tastes. But all you can do is try!

In Bruges Poster.jpg
Atmospheric!

*THIS ENTRY WILL NOT CONTAIN SPOILERS*

I will now be absolutely 100% honest and say that it took me so long to see In Bruges because I am not a fan of Colin Ferrell. I don’t know what it is about him, but when I find out he’s in a movie my interest plummets. Which is unfair, because he’s a decent actor and I really found myself liking his character in this film.

In Bruges was nominated for a wagonload of awards after its release in 2008, including both its leads, Ferrell and Brendon Gleeson, being nominated for Golden Globes. Ferrell won, and he did earn it, I have to say.

In Bruges is a few different things:

In Bruges is about two hitmen laying low in an otherwise quiet and beautiful city at the behest of their boss after a  job goes bad. Ken, played by a calm, avuncular Gleeson, is enchanted by the history and architecture and begins sightseeing tout suite. Open-mouthed and bright-eyed, he is overjoyed by the chance to spend sometime in such an old, unpretentious city. Ray, played to the douche-hilt by Ferrell, refers to Bruges loudly and often as a “shithole” and bitches nonstop about their location.

One of the most important qualities a hunter must possess is patience, and I am going to extrapolate that Ken must be the greatest hitman in the history of murder due to the unending patience he has when dealing with Ray. My GOD, does that man know how to FUSS. It’s also a fascinating character study to consider how patiently Ken puts up with such a difficult person, considering he could just off the guy and the world would be the better for it.

A Sample of Ray’s Good Attitude

Ray really is his own worst enemy, as he can barely stay still five minutes without getting into some kind of trouble. He gets into an altercation with a nice American family by making fun of their “robust” build; he whines nonstop about their location and how bored he is; he begs Ken to let them go out and explore the city when they are supposed to wait at the hotel for their boss to call.

It’s all but impossible to avoid spoilers, but I want to say that the main theme of In Bruges is purgatory, or the place where you wait for judgment. AND THAT IS ALL I SHALL SAY. You’re smart, you can probably guess the rest!

Central to the plot is a little person, alternately referred to as a dwarf, a midget, Jimmy, and “that fuck who didn’t wave at me because he was on horse tranquilizers.” He plays a crucial role in a main character’s road to redemption.

It’s a hard movie to pin down – it worked hard to earn its R rating, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see it, either. I’m an atheist, but I still appreciated its message of hope in the face of sorrow, of changing your ways, forgiveness, et cetera.

I can definitely recommend it as a great film, but I would say it’s probably not to everyone’s tastes. But all you can do is try!

In Bruges is currently available on Netflix Instant Watch.

EDIT: God I am dumb. I did this whole entry and meant to link to my friend Stephen’s blog entry about Bruges! He’s living in Germany and visiting as much of Europe as he can, and his blog is a great read for any travel buffs. Please jump over to his entry on Bruges!

In Bruges 

Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

Old World Evil Entry Number 2: Hannibal (2001)

Lecter’s corruption extends to the audience, too. When some truly awful people (Mason Verger is a drug-addled billionaire and convicted pederast) come after him, Lecter defends himself: Pazzi tries to run some game and gets a gypsy boy and himself shanked, Verger tries to torture him to death and the result is probably the strangest thing Gary Oldman has ever had to do as an actor. And we find ourselves cheering for this predator of humans. After all, he has a moral code and he follows it, even protecting Starling when she is in danger. That is Verger’s fatal error – he thinks that Lecter is as corrupt and evil as he is, when in fact Verger is threatening one of the few people on earth Lecter cares about and respects.

Hannibal movie poster.jpg

For the record, I have never liked this poster. I get what they are doing: only part of his face is shown, the other side hidden in shadow, reminding us of his duality. One side of his personality is erudite, refined, the consummate gentleman, but we are not to be fooled – we must remember he is savage beneath the facade, as the red, demonic eye indicates. So I get that, but it just doesn’t work for me. I do like how it echoes Caravaggio’s use of light in his paintings, and he often depicted gruesome scenes in beautiful ways, so it has that going for it.

I knew who Hannibal Lecter was waaaaay before I ever saw Silence of the Lambs. He is as much an American cultural icon as Jason, John Wayne, or Tom Sawyer. I was about 12 when SOTL came out, which was a little young, so I didn’t see the film until I was 17 or so, and I was instantly fascinated.

Even though Lecter is a main character in SOTL, we spend very little time with him and never see him in his natural element. Every time he’s onscreen we’re riveted. We want more of this character. If you read Red Dragon and saw the film Manhunter, again your appetite was whetted for more.

So when the book Hannibal came out it caused quite a stir – finally, we would see Hannibal in his natural habitat! Free-roaming Lecter, at last! It promised to be the difference between seeing a tiger in the zoo and seeing one in the jungles of India: no walls, no rules.

The book definitely offered more than we had before – almost too much. The Hannibal parts were good, great even, but all the other stuff – Mason Verger and his bodybuilder sister who was omitted from the movie, the Italian crooked cop, the memory palace stuff, Krendler being a douche, and Starling’s fall from grace – there was just SO MUCH of it. It’s also entirely possible that SOTL as a book was good but not great, and the film turned it into something more memorable. I read the book about 20 years ago but can’t recall much of it- the movie has overridden it, I think.

But when we’re hanging out with Hannibal Lecter in his parts of the book, everything is awesome. 

Free-Range Hannibal
Hannibal-Lecter-in-Florence REALNESS

He hangs out in bistros sipping espresso from those little-bitty cups, demitasses. He wears amazing suits, hats, and sunglasses, and gloves all the time. The two latter are not just because he’s dressed to the nines – they allow him to hide his face from surveillance cameras and ensure he leaves no fingerprints behind. He creates individual bouquets of THE FANCIEST hand cream so he can write a letter to Starling on beautiful paper, sealed in red wax. The scent of the hand cream is intentional – it is a clue she can use in order to find him. He’s acting as the interim director of the Palazzo Vecchio, a museum/libarary in Florence, Italy under the name “Dr. Fell.” Even when he’s hanging out at home, his pajamas or whatever he’s wearing when Pazzi pays him a visit appear to be silk or maybe fine linen. During the scene he’s sipping red wine and treating the museum’s archives like a personal gift shop.

One of the movie’s many themes is corruption, and Hannibal’s corrupting effect on others. For example, an Italian cop in debt begins to suspect Hannibal. His wife has expensive tastes, and the huge reward that Mason Verger is offering for Lecter’s location and capture is too tempting for him to ignore, which leads to his demise. Starling too is corrupted, although she tries valiantly to warn the Italian authorities and Pazzi in particular about Lecter.  Verger was corrupted before he even wandered across Lecter’s path, but Verger himself acts as a corrupting influence on his own people: he has his private physician all tangled up in his evil schemes. (Ironically it’s Lecter who frees the man from the private hell he’s made for himself – given the choice between saving Verger and throwing him to the maneating pigs [long story], Lecter shouts ‘Hey Cordelle! Throw him in!  You can always say it was me!”).

Once Lecter realizes Verger is on to him, he decides he’s been away dallying in Italy too long, and heads stateside. He boosts walking shitbag Paul Krendler’s Amex and goes on a little shopping spree, and I am here to tell you that  if a ‘Hannibal Lecter’ cooking collection existed I would totally ruin my credit buying stuff from it. He purchases copper pots and pans , fancy dinnerware and flatware, flowers, and cooking tools, in addition to some Gucci shoes for Starling. Sur Le Table or Williams-Sonoma ought to get on that. Hell, even just an Amazon Wish List would be fascinating reading.

Thomas Harris and George R. R. Martin should start a catering business. Weirdest dinner party ever.

Lecter’s corruption extends to the audience, too. When some truly awful people (Mason Verger is a drug-addled billionaire and convicted pederast) come after him, Lecter defends himself:  Pazzi tries to run some game and gets a gypsy boy and himself shanked, Verger tries to torture him to death and the result is probably the strangest thing Gary Oldman has ever had to do as an actor. And we find ourselves cheering for this predator of humans. After all, he has a moral code and he follows it, even protecting Starling when she is in danger. That is Verger’s fatal error – he thinks that Lecter is as corrupt and evil as he is, when in fact Verger is threatening one of the few people on earth Lecter cares about and respects.

I am excited to watch the tv show with Mads Mikkaelson. I haven’t seen it yet, but all the fandom stuff I’ve seen has me curious to check it out. A friend said that the show has the same kind of cooking eyecandy that Hannibal the movie did, so I’m looking forward to it.

Hannibal the movie is available on Instant Watch. The show doesn’t seem to be, but I’ve heard it is available on Amazon Prime.

Bon Appetit!