Killers, creatures, and Van Damme vs. Dolph.
UNIVERSAL SOLDIER (1992)
I was eight years old when my parents took me to see Universal Soldier during its initial theatrical release, but I had already been a fan of Jean-Claude Van Damme for a few years by that point. On VHS, I had seen Bloodsport, Kickboxer, Lionheart, Death Warrant, Double Impact... I was up-to-date on this guy's career, and this was my first time seeing one of his movies on the big screen.
Van Damme plays the hero, of course, and he's pitted against another actor I was very familiar with, Dolph Lungren, who was known to me from his heroic roles in I Come in Peace and Showdown in Little Tokyo, as the title character in The Punisher and as He-Man from Masters of the Universe, as well as his villainous role in Rocky IV.
Van Damme, Belgian, and Lundgren, Swedish, both play Americans in the film, and as it begins their characters Luc Deveraux and Andrew Scott are seen serving in the Army, deployed in Vietnam in 1969. This opening sequence plays very much like something out of a horror movie - it's a dark and stormy night, and Sergeant Scott has gone insane, massacring an entire village of innocent civilians and butchering his own men, accusing them of being traitors. He adds the ears of his victims to his dogtag necklace as trophies.
When Deveraux confronts Scott, the two end up shooting each other to death. Then things go from horrific to strange. These soldiers killed in action are reported as being missing in action and their bodies are packed in ice.
Jump ahead to the early '90s and Deveraux and Scott are both alive, not having aged a day since 1969, serving in a counter-terroism unit called Universal Soldiers. The UniSol are highly capable, with enhanced strength, a high tolerance for pain, and seemingly unstoppable - pump one full of bullets and they'll need to rest on ice for a while, but they will heal and be able to return to the field.
As you can quickly deduce, UniSols are brainwashed zombies, meant to be under complete control of Colonel Perry (Ed O'Ross). They are kept in a freezing cold room during their downtime, and during missions they are equipped with head gear that broadcasts a video signal back to Perry and a team of technicians who tell them what to do through an earpiece.
But while they're on their third mission, there are signs of trouble. UniSols are supposed to be emotionless, but GR13, the soldier formerly known as Andrew Scott, shows a disturbing pleasure in executing the bad guys. The UniSols are supposed to have no memories, a serum is regularly injected at the base of their skull that is supposed to work as a memory clearance, but seeing GR13 in action stirs up flashes of memories in the mind of GR44, Luc Deveraux. Memories of that night in Vietnam.
Seeking redemption for being fired from her job as a television news reporter, a young woman named Veronica Roberts (Ally Walker) tries to blow the lid off the UniSol program, but she and her cameraman get caught sneaking around the UniSol mobile base. That's when things really fall apart. GR13 takes it upon himself to execute the cameraman, just like Deveraux saw Scott do to civilians in Vietnam. Memories flooding back into his head, GR44/Deveraux saves Veronica and goes on the run with her.
As Deveraux and Veronica traverse the deserts of the western states, they're pursued by Deveraux's fellow UniSols as well as the police, since Veronica is framed for the murder of the cameraman. Many bullets are fired and all sorts of things explode during this chase, and it gets even more dangerous when GR13 remembers that he is Andrew Scott, kills Colonel Perry, and takes total control of the UniSols.
I have a special place in my heart for all of those early Van Damme films listed above, but Universal Soldier may be the best of the bunch. I loved this movie when I saw it in the theatre when I was eight, and still get a lot of enjoyment out of watching it. Universal Soldier really has it all - large action pieces, good fights, some dark and disturbing horror-esque moments, an interesting story, and a sense of humor.
Van Damme delivers a charming and endearing performance as Deveraux, who brings some laughs as we watch him try to re-adjust to normal life and catch up on what he has missed being "dead" for decades. Walker makes for a great heroine, and Veronica's interactions with Deveraux also become a bit of a love story. Meanwhile, Lundgren is captivating as the bugnuts Scott.
The movie also has heart, as evident when Deveraux is trying to come to terms with the time he has lost, and when he goes home to visit his parents. Explanation for Van Damme's accent incoming: he was raised in Louisiana by a French mother played by Lilyan Chauvin, who delivers most of her lines in French. His mother clearly had a lot more influence on him than his father, who is a simple farmer played by Oklahoma native Rance Howard.
Universal Soldier has some strong competition in the battle to be my favorite Van Damme film, but I'm less conflicted when I say that this is absolutely my favorite movie from director Roland Emmerich, who went on to make such films as Independence Day and the 1998 Godzilla. I say Emmerich should stop destroying the world all the time and do some more Van Dammage.
Dario Argento's giallo Opera contains an image that I found very striking in the early years of my horror fandom. I didn't see it for the first time in the movie itself, I saw it in the pages of Fangoria magazine, I think in 1989. At that time I was already a fan of the big franchises of the day - Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street - and branching out from there, watching nearly everything the horror sections of my local video stores had to offer and using Fangoria to guide me toward the must-sees. A lot of films mentioned in the pages of Fango were unavailable to me at the time, I had to wait for them to cross my path, and it would be ten years or so after seeing the image from Opera before I would actually be able to see the movie.
Opera's story follows a young opera singer named Betty, who lands the lead in a production of Giuseppe Verdi's opera adaptation of William Shakespeare's play Macbeth after the previous singer is injured in an accident. A mysterious figure who lurks around in the opera house and speaks in a hoarse whisper is obsessed with Betty, and when he's not spying on her he's murdering people involved with the show.
He doesn't leave Betty out of his murders, either. The image from Opera that stuck with me and compelled me to watch it at the first opportunity is an image that began as a joke for Argento - bothered that people watching his films would close their eyes during scenes of violence, he said he should tape needles to their eyes so they wouldn't be able to close them, they'd be forced to watch the mayhem on screen. That's what the killer does to Betty - incapacitates her and tapes needles under her eyes so they'll tear into her eyelids if she blinks or tries to close her eyes, then murders her friends and acquaintances in front of her. There was an picture of Betty with the needles taped below her eyes, blood running from her eyelids, in an issue of Fangoria that I had.
I've now seen Opera a few times, and most of Argento's filmography. Of his work, it's one of my favorites. I'm not into giallos in general and Opera doesn't exactly keep me captivated, but it is a wonderfully shot film with some very cool music (even if I don't think that having '80s metal playing throughout the kills was the best decision), and moments of violence that appeal to my love of slasher movies. And it will always have a place in my mind because of those shots of Betty with needles under her eyes, blood running down her face.
When the trailer for director Jordan Rubin's Zombeavers first hit the internet, I thought it was one of the greatest things I had ever seen. The story Rubin crafted with Al and Jon Kaplan was so absurd - a chemical spill turning beavers into highly aggressive, zombified creatures that could turn people into human/beaver-zombie hybrids with a scratch. And of course the prey they would be pursuing in the film would be a bunch college kids partying at a remote cabin and never seeming to wear much clothing. It was genius.
At just 77 minutes, the full film is only roughly 49 times longer than that 95 second trailer was, but it still manages to wear out its welcome for me well before those 77 minutes are up. It's not because it doesn't deliver the things the trailer promises, it most certainly does, but the sense of humor around those zombie beavers wasn't as much to my taste as I expected and the storytelling wasn't very interesting to me. I thought I would find it to be a lot more goofy fun than I actually did.
Yes, I am the type of movie watcher who could get incredibly hyped over a movie called Zombeavers, and I was a victim of that hype when the feature didn't live up to the potential I imagined for it. When I saw that it was one of the Final Girl blog's SHOCKtober picks last year, I wasn't enthusiastic about revisiting it, and ended up having pretty much the same reaction the second time around as I had the first time.
But that wasn't the reaction a lot of people who loved the trailer had to the movie. For many viewers, it was just as much fun as they'd hoped it would be. So if the concept of Zombeavers sounds like it would be right up your alley, give it a viewing. It just might be.
The Irish horror/comedy creature feature Grabbers surprised me in every way. I wanted to check it out because I had heard it being compared to Tremors, but while it does indeed have monsters that grab victims with tentacles that shoot out of them like the Tremors Graboids' tongues, these alien things really didn't remind me of Graboids at all. They just happen to have tentacles, like many things do, and happen to be referred to by a name similar to Graboid.
What Grabbers reminded me of more than anything was Jaws and Jaws 2. It centers on police officers working on an island, we get shots of their vehicles driving along the coast that were very reminiscent of shots in the early Jaws films. The Grabbers start attacking things at sea, and the things they kill start washing up on the beach - specifically whales wash up on a beach, much like the whale carcass that washes up in Jaws 2.
Then the Grabbers start attacking on land, and the film becomes its own, highly amusing beast. As the characters come to realize, alcohol is poisonous to the bloodsucking Grabbers, so in order to stay safe while waiting for help to arrive they decide to spend a night locked in the local bar, boozing it up so heavily that their blood alcohol levels will keep the Grabbers at bay.
And so, for the last half of the film we're treated to the spectacle of a bunch of drunken people battling tentacled aliens.
I was expecting a dopey low budget comedy, but the production value on this film is actually quite high. It looks fantastic. In an age when the majority of Syfy premieres have me going into monster movies with lowered expectations and standards, director Jon Wright and screenwriter Kevin Lehane delivered a film that is legitimately great - well made, well written, and clever. It shows restraint, it builds up its creatures, it doesn't have them thrashing all over the place from the beginning as modern monster movies often do, and then it pays off the wait with exciting climactic action.
The film also features some wonderful performances from its lead actors, particularly Richard Coyle as alcoholic cop Ciarán O'Shea and Ruth Bradley as Lisa Nolan, a city cop who has picked a bad time to make a brief visit to the island. Lisa has never been drunk in her life, and to take on the Grabbers she has to get completely sauced, which is a good source of laughs in the latter half.
If you like a good creature feature and haven't seen Grabbers yet, I highly recommend checking it out.