Bullets fly, monsters prowl, and blood is shed in this week's selection of films.
A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES (2014)
Although author Lawrence Block has written seventeen novels and several short stories about crime solver Matthew Scudder over a period of thirty-five years (1976 - 2011) and one of the books was turned into the 1986 film 8 Million Ways to Die, which was directed by Hal Ashby and starred Jeff Bridges as Scudder, I had never heard of the character until it was announced in 2002 that Joe Carnahan (Smokin' Aces, The Gray) would be directing a film adaptation of the tenth Scudder novel, A Walk Among the Tombstones. Harrison Ford was going to star as Scudder, and Scott Frank had written the screenplay.
Then more than a decade passed. Ford left the project. Carnahan left. DJ Caruso signed on to direct, then he left. Finally, Frank took over the helm to bring his own script to the screen, and cast Liam Neeson to play Scudder.
When we first meet Scudder in this film, it's 1991 and he's an alcoholic detective with the NYPD. When there's a violent robbery at the bar he's currently drinking in, he pursues the robbers through the streets of New York, but the cop and robbers firing their guns at each other. Scudder stops the criminals, but the bullet exchange had terrible consequences. A little girl was killed by a stray bullet. Scudder quit drinking that day, and he quit the police force.
Apparently this is more true to the Scudder origin in the novels that the back story we were presented in 8 Million Ways to Die, where Scudder was an alcoholic LAPD police officer who quit the force and quit drinking after he shot a criminal in front of the man's family.
After that opening sequence, Tombstones jump ahead eight years to 1999, almost the time at which Frank started working on the script. Scudder is now sober, regularly attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and works as a private investigator even though he's not licensed to do so. As he puts it, he's doing favors for people. In return, they give him gifts.
One night, a recovering addict who also attends the AA meetings, Boyd Holbrook as Peter Kristo, approaches Scudder asks him to help his brother Kenny (Dan Stevens of The Guest). Kenny's wife was kidnapped, and even though he paid a $400,000 ransom, the kidnappers still murdered his wife and gave him back her dismembered corpse. Kenny can't go to the police because he's a drug trafficker, so he enlists the aid of Scudder in tracking down the kidnappers / killers. He offers Scudder $40,000 in exchange for his services.
So Scudder goes to work, along the way getting the help of a street smart kid named TJ (Brian "Astro" Bradley) who wants to become a private investigator and be called Daunte Culpepper. The producers have said that the presence of TJ and his interactions with Scudder are part of the reason why they chose to turn this particular Block novel into a film. This is similar to the reason why Lee Child's book Never Go Back was chosen to serve as the basis of the second Jack Reacher film. Filmmakers really like giving hard-boiled heroes youthful sidekicks for some reason. I can't say it's a story element that would stand out as being appealing to me when looking for something to adapt, but TJ is a good character and it is enjoyable to watch the Scudder - TJ alliance.
The investigation leads to a pair of guys who have some kind of affiliation with the DEA, which gives them access to files on people suspected to be in the drug trade. These guys are such inhuman scumbags that they kidnap, rape, torture, and murder women in their free time, and now they're making money off their hobby by kidnapping the female loved ones of drug traffickers, knowing they won't go to the police. They did it to the Kristos, and they're going to do it again.
Unless Scudder can stop them in time.
Neeson is great as Scudder, Bradley is great as TJ, Stevens and Holbrook do fine work in their roles, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson makes an impression as a man who is affiliated with the killers and would rather commit suicide than get on their bad side, but I found the highlight of this film to be David Harbour and Adam David Thompson as the killers, Ray and Albert. Harbour as Ray especially, since he's the one who does the talking. As far as I'm concerned, these guys were the reason to make the movie, because they are disturbing, disgusting monsters that give Scudder terrific villains to go up against. We want to see these guys pay for their crimes, and the fact that they're so detestable makes us root for Scudder even more.
The film had behind-the-scenes shake-ups and took much longer than expected to be made and released, but in the end Frank delivered a great murder mystery tale that is dark and captivating.
After directing Surviving the Game and Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight, Ernest Dickerson moved on to directing this action comedy, and has since said that working on this project is an experience he would like to erase, due to behind-the-scenes issues with the producers.
Bulletproof stars Adam Sandler as Archie Moses, a thief working for criminal kingpin Frank Colton (James Caan), who has a public persona as a car salesman but is making some very shady deals in private. The criminal operation goes south when Archie recruits his pal Rock Keats (Damon Wayans) into Colton's organization and Keats turns out to be an undercover LAPD cop named Jack Carter.
When it's discovered during a deal that Jack is wearing a wire, Archie is understandably upset that his friend isn't who he thought he was. Jack gets upset with him in return when Archie accidentally shoots him in the head.
Jack has recovered (with a steel plate in his head), completed his physical therapy, and fallen for his physical therapist by the time Archie ends up in police custody in Arizona and agrees to testify against Colton, who already has a hit out on him for bringing Jack into their business. However, there is one condition to Archie's deal: he wants Jack to be the one who escorts him from Arizona to Los Angeles.
And so we have screenwriters Joe Gayton and Lewis Colick's version of stories that have been told many times over - the action movie that is carried on the shoulders of two men who don't get along very well, mixed with the odd couple road trip movie. As Archie and Jack make their way back to Los Angeles, they are gradually able to put aside their differences and become friends again while being pursued by Colton's lackeys the whole way.
Bulletproof was not well received at the time of its release in 1996, but I saw it in the theatre back then and enjoyed it. Rewatching it again after twenty years, I find that the movie has not aged very well, it's not as entertaining as I remembered it being. The story's not particularly involving, the first 25 minutes are kind of rough to get through, and the comedy isn't as amusing as you'd expect from Wayans and Sandler at this time - Sandler doesn't get much respect these days, but I think he had a long stretch in his career where the majority of his movies were actually pretty good and quite funny.
Once Jack and Archie are on the road and enduring action sequences, the film does pick up a bit, and there are some good moments in there. One of the things that really stood out for me when I first saw this movie was the quality of the blood squibs. A lot of people get shot over the course of this film, and the blood and the squibs look fantastic. This was long before the days of CGI blood came along and lessened my enjoyment of these things. This is actual fake blood mixed by a special effects artist, bursting out of bodies in glorious little explosions. It still looks great today. They even set off a squib in a pair of sunglasses someone's wearing! That doesn't seem like something they would do now.
THE MAD MONSTER (1942)
With a running time of 77 minutes, The Mad Monster is noted on IMDb as being the longest B-movie to come out of Poverty Row in the 1940s - Poverty Row being an era from the 1920s to the '50s where small studios were churning out low budget B-movies with running times that hovered around the hour mark. The Mad Monster doesn't waste any time while reaching that extended length, though. In the opening scene, mad scientist Dr. Lorenzo Cameron (George Zucco) is already perfecting the experiment that creates the monster of the title... Or is Cameron himself truly the mad monster?
The doctor was ridiculed and driven out of the scientific community for theorizing that interspecies blood transfusions could create a sort of hybrid creature out of the recipient, but that is exactly what he has managed to do in his free time, making a wolf-man out of dim-witted gardener Petro (Glenn Strange, a man who had a career full of cowboys and monsters). With World War II raging, Cameron's ultimate goal is to unleash millions of werewolf soldiers on the Nazis, winning the war effort with beasts driven by "the animal lust to kill". In the short term, however, he simply wants to get revenge against the men who called his ideas crazy.
Cameron intends to use his personal werewolf to kill the professors responsible for his career disgrace, but the first time he lets the transformed Petro out of his laboratory and into the neighboring swamp the werewolf claims a total innocent as its first victim: a little girl. This is not something you'd usually see in a horror movie, regardless of the time period, and it's kind of shocking even though the audience isn't actually shown the wolf-man's attack on the girl. Only a shot of the furry beast opening the window of the room she's in.
My favorite character in the movie is the little girl's grandma, who knows there's evil in the swamp that can only be killed with a silver bullet as soon as she sees the "devil mist" creeping in over the land. The actress playing granny, Sarah Padden, looks like she was having a lot of fun delivering her lines.
As Cameron and Petro proceed to knock off the professors, a newspaper reporter is investigating the death of the little girl while romancing Cameron's daughter. The reporter's initial hunch of pretty far off - he suspects that a dinosaur survived in the swampland and killed the girl - but by the time The Mad Monster's 77 minutes are up, the younger Cameron and her beau will have made some very disturbing discoveries. A flaw in Cameron's wolf-man plans emerges as well: he didn't take into account the possibility that all the transfusions and transformations could have a terrible effect on Petro's mind and demeanor.
The Mad Monster contains some ridiculous stuff (sorry Dr. Cameron) and its standard, familiar story wasn't exceptionally well told by writer Fred Myton and director Sam Newfield, but it perfectly fits the bill as a low budget B-movie. There's nothing particularly great about it, but it's entertaining, and 75 years after it was made its 77 minutes still make for a fun viewing experience. That's a success that's probably beyond anything anyone involved with the making of it would have imagined.
The following review originally appeared on ArrowintheHead.com
VOLUMES OF BLOOD: HORROR STORIES (2016)
Horror anthology sequels will sometimes have less stories than their predecessors, but Volumes of Blood: Horror Stories, the follow-up to the festival favorite Volumes of Blood, takes the opposite route. While the first movie had five segments, this one bests it by three.
That's not the only category in which you could say that it bests the previous Volumes. There wasn't a lot of time between the two productions, but in that time the quality took a quantum leap forward, as this movie looks and sounds substantially better than the one that came before it. This was still a low budget independent production, but there are parts of Horror Stories that look absolutely incredible.
One of the best looking segments is right up front, director Nathan Thomas Milliner's "Murder Death Killer". The movie had just begun and I was already truly stunned by it - the quality of the image, the camera angles, the drone shot. We're introduced to a trio of thieves who are plotting to rob a warehouse that's said to be the stalking grounds of an undead slasher, and we spend a surprising amount of time with these characters. "Murder Death Killer" isn't so quick to get to the point and there's a lot of banter, but the screen presence of Barbie Clark as tough girl Vallie and Warren Ray as her cohort Dick made this slightly-too-long segment interesting to watch. I can't decide if Ray reminds me more of Jerry Reed or Bo Hopkins.
The dialogue packed with references and foul language eventually leads to the revelation that this is a "movie within the movie"; this stuff at the warehouse is in a Rob Zombified remake of an '80s slasher and a pair of theatre goers (Milliner himself and his regular collaborator Kevin Roach) have an amusingly over-the-top negative reaction to it in a segment called "Haters", which is directed by Volumes of Blood creator P.J. Starks. I once knew someone who stuck an ad for a movie they didn't like in a urinal so they could piss on it, and I thought that was going too far. Milliner's character goes even further than that.
When all is said and done the "Murder Death Killer" / "Haters" combo turns out to be over 20 minutes long and it's a fun stretch of the movie, but one which feels like it could have been cut down a bit.
Next up is "Trick or Treat" from director Sean Blevins, which captures a nice Halloween atmosphere while a slasher stalks the streets of a town during trick or treating hours, with the segment directly tying into the library bloodbath in the previous film. This is a story that I felt better about an hour or so later in the film, when the baffling ending got some sort of an explanation. But even when it felt unfulfilling, I was impressed by a certain shot of busted teeth mixed with candy corn.
Finally, when more than 30 minutes have passed, we actually get to the wraparound story, director James Treakle's "A Killer House". How many anthology stories can you name that don't start the wraparound storytelling until after the 30 minute mark? I'm not sure about this structure, because I was starting to feel frustrated by the time we reached the real estate agent giving a young couple a New Year's Day tour of the house where most of the film's stories are set.
Not only are the stories set in this house, but they also tend to be set around some kind of notable date: John William Holt's "Feeding Time" occurs on the day before Thanksgiving, Jon Maynard's "Blood Bath" is set on Father's Day, Justin Seaman's "The Deathday Party" happens on a resident's birthday. Over the course of these stories, we're presented with a "monster" that lives in a closet, a seemingly haunted bath tub that kills anyone who tries to use it, and a happy couple of serial killers. The success of these segments varies, as sometimes the concepts are better than the way they're executed. I would say "Blood Bath" was my least favorite of the bunch, simply because the just didn't quite work for me. "Feeding Time" had the best core idea, while "The Deathday Party" had a nicely dark sense of humor. The performances are good across the board, with Shelby Taylor Mullins in particular making a strong impression as Mallory, a character featured in two different segments.
The standout of the house-set stories for me was "Fear, For Sinners Here", which is set on Christmas Eve and is another segment directed by Milliner. Milliner again delivers interesting visuals, as the color red really pops here. But again, this is a segment that feels a bit long, especially since it largely consists of a woman named Carol (Jessica Schroeder) wordlessly going about the house. When a woman played by Julie Streble shows up, the segment gets a powerful payoff.
Once all of these tales have been told, it's time for "A Killer House" to wrap up and tie off some loose ends before ending the film in much the same way the first Volumes of Blood ended - with a gloriously bloody massacre sequence.
Volumes of Blood: Horror Stories has its ups and downs, but overall it is a very impressive achievement for all of the filmmakers involved, and Starks has to be commended for being able to put all of this together, enlisting the help of nearly one hundred indie artists to pull off this endeavor. Volumes of Blood was already impressive, and Horror Stories takes things to a whole new level while being a lot of fun to watch. The criticism I've had a few times already for some parts of the film does apply to the film as a whole as well - at 119 minutes, I find it to be a bit long, but at least that time is filled with plenty of good ideas and bloodshed.
Both Volumes of Blood films are worth checking out, and if you've seen and enjoyed the first I would definitely encourage you to seek out the second. Despite having some issues with it, I was still left feeling that Horror Stories is even better than the first Volumes of Blood.