Friday, June 6, 2014

Worth Mentioning - Such Easy Prey

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Cody spends time on mutants, monsters, Bronson, and a crazy truck driver.


The first installment in the X-Men film franchise, released in 2000 and directed by Bryan Singer, opened with imagery of a World War II concentration camp. Now that Singer has taken the helm of another X-Men movie for the first time since 2003's X2, it can be no coincidence that one of the first images in his return film is of people being forced into a concentration camp. But this is a different time, a different situation. It's sometime in the 2020s, in a post-apocalyptic world overrun by deadly robots called Sentinels.

The Sentinels that besiege our mutant heroes in this future time period aren't the simple, giant, energy ray-blasting robots that will come to the minds of those familiar with the machines from the comics, though. These Sentinels are more advanced, more dangerous. No matter what sort of super power is directed at them, they will quickly adapt to it and use it as their own. And when one Sentinel gains this new power, they all gain it.

The robots were originally designed in the 1970s by a scientist named Bolivar Trask, who feared that the emergence of powerful mutants could signal the end of regular people, much like the rise of the homosapien ended the days of the neanderthal. And so he created the Sentinels to identify and track down mutants, hoping that the entire human race would unite against the mutant threat. As time went on, the Sentinels began to target not just mutants but also people who aided mutants, and those with genes who had the possibility of producing mutant children or grandchildren.

With their kind on the edge of extinction, a group of the few mutants still alive and free in the world - Professor Charles Xavier, Magneto, Wolverine, Kitty Pryde, Iceman, Colossus, Storm, Blink, Warpath, Sunspot, and Bishop - gather together to find a way to repair the world and save lives.

In addition to having the ability to phase through solid objects, and to bring other people through them if she's holding on to them, Kitty is also able to send a person's present consciousness back in time to an earlier point in their lives. The idea is conceived to use this ability to send one of the older members back in time to a very important point in history. 1973. When shapeshifting mutant Mystique assassinated Bolivar Trask, inadvertently causing his Sentinel project to gain acceptance. Mystique was captured after killing Trask, and it was her DNA that was used to give the future Sentinels their adaptive power. Someone needs to go back, stop Mystique, and stop the dark future they're living in from happening.

The problem is, the average mind can only handle the consciousness being sent back a month at most, otherwise there's a risk of the traveler's mind "snapping" irreversibly. Since he's an extremely powerful telepath, there's a chance that Professor X's mind could handle the five decade trip, but he was in a very bad emotional and mental state in 1973. The only other option is Wolverine, whose incredible healing ability may be able to keep his mind intact, although he's the least likely to be able to handle the delicate process of convincing the past Xavier and Magneto, at that time bitter enemies, to work together and to get Xavier to finally pull himself back together after he was crushed by the events of X-Men: First Class eleven years earlier.

With the occasional, and occasionally action-packed, look back in on the future situation, the majority of the film's running time is set in 1973 and focuses on the struggles Wolverine and his fellow mutants endure in the past. In-fighting, prison breaks, an interlude in Vietnam, thwarted assassinations, and a large scale climax set on the White House lawn ensue.

Previous films have established how well returning actors like Hugh Jackman (Wolverine), James McAvoy and Patrick Stewart (Professor X), Michael Fassbender and Ian McKellen (Magneto), and Jennifer Lawrence (Mystique) can inhabit their roles, so it's no surprise that they are again awesome this time around. Nor is it a surprise that Peter Dinklage does fine work in the role of Bolivar Trask. The surprises come from a couple of the film's new mutant additions providing it with some of its biggest standout moments.

These cool new mutants are Fan Bingbing as Blink, whose teleporting abilities are put to jaw-droppingly impressive use in some action setpieces, and Evan Peters as Quicksilver, whose ability to move at incomprehensible speeds are put to use during a sequence when Magneto has to be sprung from imprisonment in a cell far beneath the Pentagon. Quicksilver's looks have been mocked mercilessly online during the build-up to the film's release, and goofy-looking though he may be, he totally steals the show when he's on the screen.

Not only did Singer make Days of Future Past a rollicking, emotionally-weighted adventure, he also used the time travel element to right some wrongs he felt had been done to the series in his absence... Namely, 2006's high-grossing but poorly received X-Men: The Last Stand and 2009's even more poorly received X-Men Origins: Wolverine take a beating. By the end of the film, the events of The Last Stand have been eradicated from the timeline by the changes made in 1973 (which would surely have an effect on last year's The Wolverine as well). X-Men Origins doesn't even seem to get that much consideration, as the presence of the villainous character William Stryker in Days of Future Past already seems to be conflicting with Origins' story as soon as Wolvie arrives in '73.

Regardless of how much of the franchise's less popular installments remain canon, Days of Future Past is in and of itself a fantastic entry that leaves the series in great shape for further adventures. The future is not written, but for the X-Men, it's looking bright.


In 1920, genre author H.P. Lovecraft wrote a short story entitled From Beyond, in which a man is horrified by what he sees when his friend, scientist Crawford Tillinghast, activates the machine he created in his attic laboratory, a machine that emits a violet glow and waves that stimulate the pineal gland, thus giving a person a view into other worlds of matter, energy, and life that exist all around us but cannot be perceived with our regular five senses. With the augmented sight provided by the machine, Tillinghast and his friend are able to see that monsters surround us at all times, as unable to see us as we are to see them. Until they too are stimulated by the machine.

By the end of the story's few pages, Tillinghast is dead of apoplexy, his machine is destroyed, and his friend lives in constant fear of the monsters he knows are passing all around him at all times.

After the success of his 1985 debut film Re-Animator, which had been an adaptation of a Lovecraft short story, Stuart Gordon looked through the Lovecraft archives for more stories he could turn into movies. The most interesting possibilities to him were Dagon, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, Dreams in the Witch-House, and From Beyond.

Gordon really wanted to pursue Dagon and The Shadow Over Innsmouth, but Band was not enthusiastic about the idea of a movie featuring fish people. Although Gordon would later continue developing Dagon/The Shadow Over Innsmouth for Band, the project never happened with Band attached, and Gordon wasn't able to get Dagon made and released until 2001.

With the options narrowed down to From Beyond and Witch-House, From Beyond won, with Witch-House put on hold until Gordon adapted it for the Masters of Horror Showtime series in 2005.

The hurdle Gordon and co-writers Yuzna and Dennis Paoli had to overcome in adapting From Beyond was the fact the source material was very short, depicting only one experience with the pineal-stimulating machine. They had to expand the story, and to do so they decided to make Lovecraft's work the basis of the opening sequence, and then fill out the feature running time by imagining what might happen after such an event.

In the film, Jeffrey Combs plays Crawford Tillinghast, a scientist who has been working with fellow scientist (and BDSM enthusiast) Edward Pretorius in the creation of a machine they call the Resonator, which when activated emits a violet glow and resonant vibrations that stimulate the pineal gland, which is located near the center of the brain. Pretorius believes the pineal to be a dormant sensory organ, a third eye, and that stimulating it can enhance your senses.

The Resonator experiment proves that.The stimulation of the pineal causes a strange sensation in the forehead, can even cause headaches.. and it can also allow a person to see more than anyone has before. A world of dangerous creatures that exist all around us, swimming through the air. If they sense the presence of the people who can now see them, they will attack.

Tillinghast realizes that the experiment is too dangerous to continue, but Pretorius pushes forward, wanting to experience and see more and more. Things get out of control, and by the time the title sequence starts to play, the machine has been destroyed and Pretorius's head is missing, devoured by a creature that lives in another level of existence.

Tillinghast ends up in a mental institution, deemed a paranoid schizophrenic, but the police are baffled as to what occurred in the attic laboratory of Pretorius's mansion, so they bring in "girl wonder" psychiatrist Doctor Katherine McMichaels (Combs's fellow Re-Animator alum Barbara Crampton) to examine him. Tests show that at least some of what Tillinghast says is true; his pineal gland has clearly been stimulated, as it's oversized.

McMichaels decides that the best course of action is to take Tillinghast back to the Pretorius mansion on Benevolent Street, recreate the Resonator experiment, and witness for herself what happens, while working Tillinghast through his fear and trauma.

Accompanying McMichaels and Tillinghast to the mansion is police officer Bubba Brownlee, played by Ken Foree of Dawn of the Dead, Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, and The Devil's Rejects. If your movie is going to center on three characters, you can't do much better than casting Combs, Crampton, and Foree as those characters.

The Resonator is repaired, activated, Tillinghast, McMichaels, and Brownlee all not only see into the world of monsters, they also discover that Pretorius is still alive in there and undergoing a monstrous transformation.

The machine is shut off before anything too bad can happen, and that should be it. McMichaels has proven Tillinghast isn't crazy and Brownlee can back her up, they can get out of there and the Resonator need never be activated again. Maybe just once to show the monsters to some more authority figures, but these characters can leave.

McMichaels doesn't want to leave. She has gotten a taste of this other world and she wants more. She's an instant addict to the Resonator's power, and finds an excuse to keep turning the machine on, the same driving force behind her becoming a psychiatrist: her father was institutionalized as a paranoid schizophrenic, so she is seeking to find a cure for schizophrenia. She thinks the Resonator may be the key. If it gives people visions like the visions schizophrenics have, maybe experiencing the other world will give her the answer to helping those with the condition. It seems like quite a leap to me.

Running the Resonator doesn't just give you strange sensations in your forehead and cause headaches, or put you in danger of getting eaten by hideous monsters, or cause the gland in your brain to grow... Since the pineal gland also regulates sex drive, running the Resonator can increase someone's libido to a point where they act in inappropriate ways. This happens to McMichaels, who gets into Pretorius's bondage gear, and Pretorius, who was already a perv in his normal life, is still quite a horny devil as an otherworldy creature. As in Re-Animator, Gordon has Crampton get molested by a monster.

Gordon puts all of his characters through a lot in this film, physically and mentally. They're driven mad, hideously transformed, and die in horrific ways. Several people lose their brains through their eye sockets.

Pretorius is gaining power, eventually able to turn the Resonator on and off from the world beyond our perception, and his ultimate goal is to devour the entire human race. The Resonator must be destroyed again, this time completely. Having come to her senses, McMichaels, in one of the most dumbfounding movie moments ever, pulls a time bomb out of a bag and sticks it on the machine. How did this character get her hands on a device like that? There is no explanation for it within the movie. The idea was that she stole it from a construction site, but in the finished film it's a complete mystery and a very funny visual.

Despite the third act bomb misstep, From Beyond is a great second Lovecraftian effort from Gordon. I don't hold the film up as highly as I do Re-Animator and haven't watched it nearly as many times, but it's certainly no disappointment. Combs, Crampton, and Foree deliver exactly the greatness you'd expect from them, the film is quickly paced, and it's always intriguing.

Where the film really shines is in its practical creature effects, its slime-dripping, toothy monsters having been created by the effects artists at three different companies: More Than Skin Deep, Mechanical and Makeup Imageries, and Mark Shostrom Studio. Another standout element is the cinematography by Mac Ahlberg, who had also worked with Gordon on Re-Animator. Ahlberg captured some striking images on this film's colorfully lit sets.

From Beyond goes far beyond its source material, but Lovecraft's story provided the foundation for a highly entertaining horror movie.

DEATH WISH 3 (1985)

A resident of an apartment building in a crumbling section of Brooklyn that has been overrun by a punk-style street gang, Charley is scared. He served in the military, he fought in World War II and the Korean War, he's a man who stands up for himself and won't give in to the demands of the gang, who fleeces "protection money" from the people living in their territory... But it's been thirty years since he was on a battlefield. He's an old man now, and he can't take on these young punks by himself. So he writes a letter to his old war buddy, Paul Kersey.

Kersey was a conscientious objector in Korea, but his outlook on violence has changed greatly since those days. Death Wish (1974) showed his transformation from pacifist to vigilante after the murder of his wife and assault of his daughter. Death Wish II (1982) showed him returning to his vigilante ways two years later when a gang raided his home, attacked him, assaulted and killed his daughter and his maid. Death Wish 3 is set ten years after the events of the first film, and in the years between II and 3 he has continued picking off the occasional criminal, killing four gang members in Kansas City, two muggers/rapists in Chicago, and possibly more we don't hear about.

Kersey rolls into Brooklyn to find that he's too late to help his pal Charley. Members of the gang have busted into his apartment and beaten him so badly that Charley dies in Kersey's arms as soon as he arrives. When the police show up, they arrest Kersey as a suspect. He's taken to a precinct run by a Lieutenant Shriker. Played by Ed Lauter in an awesome supporting role, Shriker doesn't do things by the book. He and his men have no concept of police brutality, showing no hesitation in trying to beat some answers out of Kersey. Shriker recognizes him, he was on the force during Kersey's original vigilante spree in New York, and at first he intends to keep him off the streets, not charging him with anything but planning to keep him locked up indefinitely. This, of course, does not sit well with lawyer Kathryn Davis, but Shriker doesn't care.

Most of the guys Kersey shares a cell with are regular criminals that he has no problem knocking around when they step up to him. But there's one guy in the cell who clearly has more to him. He observes how Kersey handles himself, he waits, then he convinces his fellow prisoners to attack Kersey together for him so he can get in some hits while he's down. This guy is named Fraker, he's the leader of the gang in Charley's neighborhood, and he's released soon after the attack on Kersey. As he leaves, he says he's going to dedicate the murder of a little old lady to Kersey.

Shriker's attitude toward Kersey changes when his men report that, despite their increased presence in the Brooklyn neighborhood Fraker calls home, crime rates continue to rise in that area. The police can't handle the situation on their own... so maybe Kersey can help. Shriker releases Kersey and tells him to go "do this thing", all he asks in return is that Kersey report back to him about the criminal activities he witnesses and let the cops get some arrests in the midst of him blowing away bad guys.

Paul Kersey is back in action, and this time his actions are police sanctioned.

Kersey uses his old tactics of finding ways to bait the criminals into situations where he can gun them down. He buys a nice car and parks it outside the apartment building. When he catches two guys trying to strip its parts, he shoots them dead and nonchalantly returns to his dinner. He walks the streets carrying a camera loosely at his side. When it gets nabbed, he blasts the thief in the back. To keep the apartment building safe, he sets up booby-traps like a bed of nails beneath a window, or a spring-activated board that will swing up and smash a person in the face. After the board has been set off and done its job, Kersey finds an unlucky punk's two front teeth embedded in it.

When he's not dealing out his personal brand of justice, Kersey befriends some of the locals, including a man named Bennett who served with Charley in World War II. There's also a young couple, Rodriguez and his wife Maria, and it's Maria who suffers this film's sexual assault, seemingly a Death Wish prerequisite at this point. Kersey even has some free time to spend on a romantic subplot when Kathryn Davis shows some interest in him. That doesn't work out very well for her at all.

The neighborhood is soon getting nicer and more relaxing to live in. Kersey has the public's support. But it isn't long before Fraker's gang retaliates, building to an all-out street war in the final act. Luckily, Charley had some military grade weapons stored away that come in handy in such a situation.

The first film's producer Dino De Laurentiis had just sat on the Death Wish rights for nearly a decade after the success of the 1974 movie. If he wasn't going to use them, Cannon Films were going to. The success of Death Wish II proved they had bought themselves a franchise, and they got Death Wish 3 to screens as soon as possible afterward.

To craft the screenplay, Cannon hired Don Jakoby, co-writer of the hi-tech 1983 thriller Blue Thunder, who they also had working for them on the Tobe Hooper films Lifeforce and the remake of Invaders from Mars. Jakoby's script broadened the scope of Death Wish wider than ever before, turning the final sequences into an action extravaganza and turning Paul Kersey into an "urban Rambo" battling an army of gang members with weapons like a 30 caliber machine gun and a rocket launcher.

Charles Bronson, although not happy with the script, returned to the role of Paul Kersey, and Michael Winner, director of both previous films, signed on to direct. However, Winner had gotten his fill of making these movies serious and grounded, if they were going to do this for a third time he decided it was time to go a little gonzo. This is evident in the much lighter tone of the movie compared to parts 1 and 2. There are still dark scenes and horrific crimes, but for the most part Death Wish 3 cruises along lightheartedly on the coolness of Bronson as Kersey. Strikes against the gang members are played for laughs (like the teeth stuck in the board) and it's all in good fun. This is pure entertainment, meant to elicit cheers from the audience and wow them with the weapons Kersey gets his hands on. Winner reworked Jakoby's script so much during production that Jakoby ultimately chose to have his name taken off the movie, replaced by the pseudonym Michael Edmonds.

Winner's new approach to things also shows through in the stylized look of the street gang. These aren't just your average hoodlums, these punks look like they just stepped out of The Warriors or even The Road Warrior, and their surroundings fit that style. Set in Brooklyn but largely filmed in London, Death Wish 3 looks like it was made on some post-apocalyptic backlot.

Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page, who composed the score for Death Wish II, again received a "music by" credit on Death Wish 3, but don't let it fool you. Page didn't record any new music for part 3, every bit of the score that is Page's was re-used tracks from part 2. Some new tracks were provided by Mike Moran and his synthesizer, and the fact the Jimmy Page's credit appears during a sequence scored by Moran's jazz lounge meets disco via electronica monstrosity of a title theme is shameful. I mean, that cheeseball music does work fine for a mid-'80s flick, but it sure isn't Jimmy Page.

Bronson may not have been happy that Paul Kersey had become a shoot 'em up action hero, but if the series was going to continue, that is exactly the direction it needed to go into. Death Wish 3 isn't a great film like the 1974 original, but it is a very fun movie to watch, and I'd much rather give 3 a view than the overly dark retread that was part 2.


Released direct-to-video seven years after its JJ Abrams co-scripted predecessor, Joy Ride 2 makes the franchise move of giving the audience some more of the returning antagonist right up front. There was some build-up in the first film before the truck driver with the CB handle Rusty Nail went homicidal, but this time around we get an opening kill sequence.

The sequel catches up with Rusty Nail as he's making a pit stop during a drive home from the successful completion of his latest long haul, buying a pack of cigarettes at a truck stop. A parking lot prostitute, a "lot lizard" in trucker parlance, follows him out to his semi. She hops in the truck with him uninvited... and her realization that she's in the cab with a total creep is quickly followed by the realization that the passenger door doesn't open from the inside. That's when she loses her head. Literally.

Two different actors portrayed Rusty Nail in the first movie. Ted Levine provided the voice that tormented the characters over their CB radio, while Matthew Kimbrough played the trucker when he appeared onscreen in the flesh. Here Rusty Nail duty falls to one actor, 6'5" Mark Gibbon. Gibbon has a whole lot more screentime than Kimbrough did, but director Louis Morneau keeps the character mysterious by always obscuring his face in some way, either hiding it in shadows or placing an object like a hanging lamp between his mug and the camera. Gibbon does a reasonable approximation of Levine's famous voice, but at times his delivery does seem hampered by the fact that he's having to do an impression of another actor while acting himself.

When the film introduces its protagonists, we find that writers James Robert Johnston (The Howling Reborn) and Bennett Yellin (whose career has primarily consisted of working on Farrelly brother comedies - Dumb & Dumber, Stuck on You, the upcoming Dumb & Dumber To) have done a bit of gender reversal - rather than the first film's dynamic of two brothers (Paul Walker and Steve Zahn) on a road trip with a female friend (Leelee Sobieski), here we have two sisters, Melissa (Nicki Aycox of Jeepers Creepers II) and Kayla (Laura Jordan) on the road with Melissa's fiance Bobby (The Final Destination's Nick Zano), riding in Kayla's '83 station wagon on the way to Melissa and Bobby's combined bachelorette/bachelor party in Las Vegas.

Soon another character is added to the mix. Kayla picks up a guy named Nik (Kyle Schmid) who she knows from the internet, and I'm quickly wishing she had just left this guy on the side of the road. A self-described "third wave emo punk", Nik boasts of the 33,628 friends he has on MySpace and spends way too much of the movie's running time being one of the most insufferable douchebags ever put on film. He is a big reason why my recent viewing of Joy Ride 2 was only the second time I've watched it since its 2008 release.

Nik convinces the group to deviate from the main highway and take a shortcut through the desert to Vegas. As usually happens in genre movies, the car breaks down in the middle of nowhere.

The foursome wanders off down the dirt road they've found themselves on, eventually coming across an isolated, cliffside farmhouse. It's a strange place. It's Rusty Nail's home, and as the group looks around the property, it becomes clear that Rusty Nail would fit right in with the Sawyer family from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Nik busts into the house, and month old mail and food that expired a year ago shows that its owner isn't around very often. Which makes it easier for the characters to come to the decision to "borrow" the beautiful 1971 Chevelle they find parked in the barn. Being our more sensible and responsible heroine, Melissa leaves a note behind at the house, informing the car's owner of their situation and assuring them that the car is in safe hands, even including her cell phone number.

When Rusty Nail gets home that night, seeing the damage done to his house and his car missing, Melissa's gesture isn't enough to stop him from tracking the group down and turning their drive to Vegas into a nightmarish struggle for survival.

Kidnapping Bobby, making the others destroy their phones, taunting "Goldilocks" Melissa and her pals over the CB the Chevelle is equipped with, Rusty Nail plays sadistic games with the unlucky travellers, forcing them to make horrific choices and perform for his own twisted amusement. He demands that Laura cut off the finger she used to flip him the bird, he has Melissa strip to her underwear in front of semi truck headlights, he has Nik attempt to buy crystal meth while dressed in drag... And eventually, he takes some of them back to his barn for a torturous game of craps.

The climactic torture sequence is where the movie really lost me upon my first viewing, because by October of 2008 I had really gotten sick of the Saw franchise and the torturous games within it, so to see something like that pasted into Joy Ride 2, I was not happy. With some distance from those days and the height of Saw's popularity, I can more easily take the craps game for the bit of terror that it is.

Rusty Nail doesn't just play games with people, however. When pushed into situation where he has to make a quick kill, he will do so, and Joy Ride 2 provides him with an accessory to help him commit such an act - a chainsaw chain that hangs from his pants like a wallet chain. This comes in handy when he has to, say, cut a good Samaritan's head in half.

Joy Ride 2 isn't nearly as good as the film it follows, the writing and direction don't quite match up to the 2001 John Dahl movie, but as far as DTV genre sequels go, Dead Ahead actually isn't all that bad. It's a passable next chapter in the messed up adventures of Rusty Nail. Its biggest fault is the character of Nik, but at least he gradually gets more and more comeuppance for the annoying hell that he puts viewers through with his jackassery.

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