Friday, June 26, 2015

Worth Mentioning - Fear is the Driving Force

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 rumbles with a maniac truck driver and a maniac wrestler.

DUEL (1971)

Darkness. An engine roars to life. Images come into view as we realize we're in the P.O.V. of a car's front bumper as it backs out of a dark garage. We remain in the bumper's P.O.V. as the title sequence plays out and this car makes its way out of the suburbs, through the city, and hits the highway, driving far out into a desert landscape.

Eventually we see the driver - Dennis Weaver as David Mann, who's on a business trip. And soon, David does something that most drivers probably would have done if they were in his place. Stuck behind a slow-moving, rust-coated, exhaust-spewing tanker truck, David chooses to pass the other vehicle.

With that decision, David has caught the attention of a very dangerous person. The passing happens just 6 minutes into the movie, but from that point on the 89 minute running time deals solely with the rusted-out Peterbilt relentlessly chasing David's red Valiant through the desert.

We never see what the truck driver looks like, we never learn just why they're so determined to cause David harm, we see things only from the perspective of the terrified David as the truck tries to run him off the road or push him in front of a train. The driver is always toying with him, never finishing him off despite being capable of doing so at any moment. If David is in a phone booth, the truck is going drive right into it, but the driver honks the horn to warn David to move out of the way first. Whoever this maniac is, they enjoy the game and want it to last a while.

It's a very uncomplicated tale that originated as a short story written by famed author Richard Matheson, who also handled the adaptation. It was brought to the screen by a twenty-four-year-old director named Steven Spielberg with great energy and style, a lot of impressive camera moves and angles, and even some arbitrarily flashy ones.

Duel is a solid thriller, and a large part of why it's still remembered, and is still effective, forty-four years after it made its debut as an ABC TV movie (in a cut that ran 74 minutes, 15 minutes were added for a later theatrical release) is Spielberg's direction. He had directed some shorts before this and episodes of TV shows, but Duel is considered to be his feature debut, although he did make a feature length movie when he was just seventeen. Unfortunately, that one was partially lost when he loaned the film reels to the wrong person.

With Duel, Spielberg showed a great deal of promise. If you didn't know who he was, you may not realize while watching it that its director would go on to be one of the most highly regarded filmmakers of his generation, but it's quite clear that this guy had the potential for a great career.

If you're in the mood to watch something simple, tense, and action-packed, Duel is a great movie to put on.

SEE NO EVIL (2006)

There seems to be a huge overlap between the fan bases of the horror genre and of professional wrestling, and at one point in my life I was one of those fans of both. In the late '80s and early '90s, I was a viewer of WWF, one of the children of the time who got swept up in the Hulkamania that was running wild. Eventually, though, I drifted away from wrestling, and anytime I would catch a glimpse of a match post-1993 or so, it no longer appealed to me at all.

WWE (as they became known in 2002) obviously recognized the wrestling fan/horror fan overlap, because when they formed WWE Studios it was announced that their first feature would be a slasher movie starring their wrestler Glenn "Kane" Jacobs. Kane was after my time, but they had me as a guaranteed viewer as soon as they said "slasher".

The 6'8" Kane plays Jacob Goodnight, a serial killer first introduced when police officer Williams and his partner respond to a noise complaint at an abandoned house. The house is full of religious iconography, a Christian song is being played on repeat at an ear-splitting level... and a young woman who has had her eyes gouged out is being held prisoner by the axe-wielding Goodnight. One of the cops is killed, and Williams has his left arm hacked off before he sends Goodnight fleeing by firing a shot through his head.

Seven bodies are later unearthed on the property, all with their eyes removed. Goodnight is never located, but it's assumed that he succumbed to his head wound.

Four years later, Williams (who now has a prosthetic left arm) is supervising a group of young adults who are given a three day work release from the county detention center. These convicts are serving time for various crimes; drug possesion, assault, shoplifting, breaking and entering. One of the girls, Kira, even has history with one of the guys, Michael. She dealt drugs for him, and they got each other locked up. They were put on this work release together without anyone realizing it could be dangerous for them to be in each other's company.

The "work" part of the work release involves helping in the renovation of the Blackwell Hotel, which was abandoned after a fire gutted the top floors thirty-five years earlier. The hotel is now the property of an organization, represented by an elderly woman named Margaret, that is planning to turn it into a homeless shelter. Three days of work will get a month knocked off their sentence.

The young criminals set about cleaning up the place, which has an oddball history that some of them hope to explore as thoroughly as possible - legends of hidden rooms and passageways, two-way mirrors, and an undiscovered safe containing its original owner's riches.

Unfortunately for them, lurking within the Blackwell's secret areas is Jacob Goodnight, itching for a rematch with Williams, compelled to kill everyone in the building, and fascinated by Kira. He kept that other girl captive four years earlier because she had religious tattoos, and Kira just happens to have large tattoos of angels and a cross on her back.

Goodnight is given a solid back story, a hero character with a personal connection to him, a final girl for him to focus on, and a good location to stalk the halls of, so See No Evil has all the elements you need to make a great slasher, but it doesn't quite bring them all together in an effective way. It doesn't achieve its potential.

Part of what holds the film back for me is the look of it. Director Gregory Dark and his cinematographer made the movie look absolutely hideous. Another strike against it is how screenwriter Dan Madigan wrote his characters. None of these people are very appealing, or likeable at all.

There are some clever touches here and there, like the order of the kills. As Goodnight tears through the characters with a hook on a chain, various objects at hand, and sheer brute strength, it's hard to guess who's going to get it when. Some characters die much earlier than you'd expect, some live longer. (And there are too many survivors, in my opinion.)

In performance and appearance, Kane does a fine job bringing this new slasher to the screen. I just wish the movie around him were better.

I saw See No Evil in the theatre in 2006, and mid-way through the movie I was not enjoying it much. I was ready to completely write it off, until I realized that I had seen worse, trashier slashers before, rented on VHS or caught on a cable movie channel. It had less nudity, but it wasn't so far off from the level of some obscure slasher I might have stumbled across fifteen years earlier. I would have been easier on a subpar slasher from the '80s or early '90s, so I decided to take it easy on See No Evil as well. It's not great, it's not one I feel like rewatching often, but it gets the job done in a pinch.

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