Friday, August 11, 2017

Worth Mentioning - The Beast Returns

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.


Deception, childhood nostalgia, and another Howling sequel.


HARD CANDY (2005)

Ellen Page has been acting for twenty years now, but the first time I ever saw the actress was in director David Slade's feature debut Hard Candy, in which she plays Hayley Stark, a 14-year-old girl who makes the ill-advised decision to meet up with a 32-year-old photographer (Patrick Wilson as Jeff Kohlver) she met online. Without a chaperone.

Hayley and Jeff meet up in a sweets shop and a lot of inappropriate moments and comments pass between the two. Many of them initiated by Hayley rather than Jeff - while this is a creepy scenario, Jeff is riding the line of propriety. It's Hayley who does stuff like flashing him a look at her stomach and suggesting they go back to his place so they can listen to some music. And maybe he can shoot her with his camera.


Hayley knows what she's doing. You don't need to fear for her. You need to fear for Jeff. Hayley has set up this meeting with an agenda that you wouldn't expect. The pitch for this film was "a 14-year-old girl meets a 32-year-old guy on the internet, and she's the predator."

You see, she assumes, like many would, that Jeff is a pedophile, and she's out to punish him for the perverted crimes she suspects him of. How would she punish him? The way many suggest sexual predators should be punished. With castration. She drugs his drink, knocks him out, straps him down to a steel table, and fumbles through an operation she read about in a book. As Hayley mutilates his genitals, Jeff is able to watch the procedure through a camera feed on the nearby TV.

Or so it seems. Appearances may or may not be deceiving in Hard Candy.


This is a film set almost entirely in one location, Jeff's home, and carried on the shoulders of Page and Wilson. Playwright Brian Nelson crafted a great script around the concept he was pitched by producer Paul G. Allen, and Slade brought it to the screen in a very unnerving way. Hard Candy got some excellent word of mouth when it first showed up on the festival scene, with critics describing the castration sequence with just the right level of horror and squeamishness. A dialogue-heavy film that was going to have me squirming in my seat? I had to see this for myself, even though the movie didn't reach theatres near me. Seeing it required a 90 minute drive, one direction.

But this is how cool my mom was. I frequently wanted to see movies that required lengthy road trips to get to, and she never let me down. She made sure I got to those movies. We took the 90 minute trip and didn't just watch Hard Candy that day, we made it a triple feature of films that were in limited release at the time: Hard Candy, Brick, and The Notorious Bettie Page. We enjoyed three films, then took the 90 minute drive back home. I will always cherish and appreciate memories of things like that.

I wasn't quite as blown away by Hard Candy as many of its reviewers were, as I didn't really like the way things played out after the castration sequence ended. Watching it now, eleven years later, I still feel like the story gets clunky toward the end - but the castration is such a high point, you can't really follow it up with anything. No matter what you do, it's going to be a comedown from that.

Regardless of how I felt about the final act, I still walked away from Hard Candy (and into the Brick screening room) with the feeling that Page, Wilson, and Slade were all talents that were going to be worth keeping an eye on in the future. Things have gone pretty well for them since.



Joe Bob Briggs / Monstervision - THE STEPFATHER (1987)

I always appreciate it when the host of a film show will offer their opinions on the movies they're presenting and will chime in from time to time with comments on what has been going on with the story, characters, etc. I also like when they offer some insight into either the making of the movie or the people who were involved with the making of it, whether in front of or behind the camera.

One of the best hosts of that sort is Joe Bob Briggs, who imparts knowledge while retaining a lighthearted tone. The set design on his show Monstervision, which ran on TNT from 1996 to 2000, gives the impression that you're hanging out with him on movie night at the trailer park, having a friendly film discussion over beer and snacks.

On April 8, 2000, Joe Bob hosted a showing of the 1987 thriller The Stepfather, which is about a man seeks out single mothers so he can marry into a pre-made family, then when his new wife and children don't live up to his '50s sitcom idea of perfection he kills them and moves on. Or as Joe Bob describes it, "Terry O'Quinn tracks down widows, marries 'em, and if they don't frost that cake just right - see ya! Knife through the aorta."

Over the course of his intro and several segments that were shown before the commercial breaks, Joe Bob offers not just a critique of the movie (which he likes, even though it could have served as a prototype for the average Lifetime movie), but also discusses the tragic true crime case that inspired it, the careers of director Joseph Ruben and stars O'Quinn and Shelley Hack (which leads to mention of Mark Harmon, Ted Bundy, the then-upcoming Charlie's Angels movie, and the possibility of Ruben's The Pom-Pom Girls being Bruce Springsteen's favorite film), and disagrees that there is a lack of commitment in modern society; he says there's too much commitment, as evident when people cling to their significant others even if they turn out to be glue-sniffing mass murderers. Rusty the Mail Girl also stops by so Joe Bob can read a letter sent from a prisoner and make some stepkid jokes.

As you can always expect from Joe Bob, the host segments in this episode are great. I enjoy The Stepfather itself as well - Priscilla and I did a lengthy write-up on the film and its remake that you can read at this link.



THE SANDLOT (1993)

In director David Mickey Evans' film The Sandlot, which Evans also co-wrote with Robert Gunter, a narrator reminisces about a specific time during his childhood, which is now decades past. It's like a baseball-centric A Christmas Story, or a more family friendly Stand by Me (there is no dead body here, but there is a sequence featuring copious amounts of vomit).

For this film, the setting is the summer of 1962, when a boy named Scotty Smalls moved into the San Fernando Valley and, despite having no knowledge of baseball at first, manages to be welcomed into a group of kids who spend their days playing ball at the local sandlot. This is a simple, heartwarming "summer in the life" tale, a loving look back at the early '60s, and a fun kids' movie that doesn't get overly dopey like they so often do. Things do get slightly unrealistic in the last 40 minutes or so, which detail the kids' efforts to retrieve a baseball signed by Babe Ruth from a fenced yard guarded by a monstrous dog nicknamed The Beast, but even that's entertaining and grounded enough that it never feels too silly.

The Sandlot is a movie that had an impact on my childhood, because its characters are experiencing the summer between fifth and sixth grade, and when I first saw it in 1993 I would have just been starting fourth grade. These kids were basically the same age as me, so I could relate to them. And I was always a kid that wanted to live in earlier decades rather than the ones I was actually going through, so this movie's '62 setting seemed quite ideal to me.

Watching the movie, I could see aspects of myself in a few of the characters, while of course the dream was to be more like Benny "The Jet" Rodriguez, the leader-of-sorts of the sandlot group. Effortlessly athletic and put together, with a heart as great as his ability. Benny was everything I wanted to be but wasn't. In reality, I wouldn't have even been out on the sandlot. I would have been at home, shut away in my room, reading a book or something.


I watched The Sandlot a lot when it first came out on video and started airing on cable, and when I was 9 or 10 years old I simply enjoyed it as a fun piece of fiction. Rewatching it now at 33, for only the second time in the last twenty years or so, the film has a whole other level of emotion to it, because now it reminds me of my childhood. Not just because certain things about this movie have stuck with me forever - the scene in which "Squints" pulls a trick at the public pool to get a kiss from older lifeguard Wendy Peffercorn, the lines "You're killin' me, Smalls" and "For-Eh-VER", the sight of Benny being chased through the streets by The Beast - but also because there are things in there that I have experienced myself. Messing up at sports in front of a group of my peers and breaking down in tears. The tree house hang-outs (a stilt house in my case). Trying chewing tobacco and getting green in the gills. Although it's represented through special effects that exaggerate its size through most of the movie, The Beast turns out to be a mastiff, and I have coincidentally had three mastiffs in the years since I first saw The Sandlot.

Watching the movie also stirred up a lot of random flashbacks from my own childhood. School days and classmates I haven't thought about in years. My mind had gone more than twenty years back in time... nearly as far back as the film's narrator is looking back... and it was quite bittersweet.

The Sandlot may not be a movie I'll revisit frequently, but it's one that will always have a place in my mind, and it's good to know that it's there whenever I want to be mentally transported back to a simpler time.



HOWLING V: THE REBIRTH (1989)

Howling V: The Rebirth is the second film in the Howling film franchise to have no real ties back to the literary source material by Gary Brandner. The Howling and Howling IV: The Original Nightmare were both adaptations of Brandner's first Howling novel and Brandner himself co-wrote Howling II: ...Your Sister's a Werewolf, but The Marsupials: The Howling III came entirely from the mind of Philippe Mora, and Howling V is an original werewolf tale concocted by The Original Nightmare screenwriters Clive Turner and Freddie Rowe.

Well, it's sort of original, but it's basically just a werewolf version of the Agatha Christie story And Then There Were None, and the movie The Beast Must Die had already been a werewolf version of that story back in 1974. Regardless, Turner and Rowe were telling their own story this time around.

The film begins in the year 1489, when we see that there are dead bodies strewn all over inside an isolated castle in Budapest, three generations of a family and their servants all dead as the result of some kind of murder/suicide pact. As the last two people die, we hear a baby start crying in another room - the plan to eradicate every living being inside this castle has failed.

Jump ahead to 1989 and the castle doors are being opened for the first time in 500 years to welcome in a group of people, most them high profile and/or well off (there's a wannabe Count, a photographer, a songwriter, a tennis pro, actresses, etc.), who have been specifically invited there for the grand re-opening. It isn't long before some of the guests begin to realize that there is something wrong here - the bus that brought them to the castle and was supposed to drive them back to their lodgings abandons them, the host lies and says that the blizzard that blows in wasn't in the forecast, a servant destroys any pictures that were taken.

It is said that packs of savage wolves under the control of Satan terrorized the area where the castle stands one thousand years before, and it will eventually be revealed that those wolves weren't the last beastly problem Budapest had. A member of that dead family in 1489 was a werewolf, and they killed themselves in hopes of ending the werewolf curse. However, that baby survived, its bloodline has survived, and now there's another werewolf in Budapest.

That's why all of these guests have been invited to the castle. Each of them has the same birthmark, they are all descendants of the werewolf. That doesn't mean all of them will turn - there is only one werewolf in their midst, and it can only be destroyed by someone from its own bloodline, someone else with that birthmark. An ancient religious order has gathered these people together to draw out the werewolf and get the others to kill it.

The effort to draw out the werewolf is quite successful, as is soon clear when a monstrous creature begins knocking off the guests one-by-one.


The exposition is a bit convoluted and some points might leave you scratching your head, but it works well enough as a set-up for a budget-friendly story about people getting killed in one location. The snowbound castle is good setting, large enough to allow people to split off in different directions, making them more vulnerable to werewolf attacks. There is a little too much screen time devoted to characters roaming the castle's maze-like halls, though. That makes the film feel like it's dragging at times, it seems longer than its 96 minutes.

It doesn't help matters that the characters aren't people I really have any interest in spending time with. The best of the bunch is an amusing fellow named Ray, who happens to be played by Clive Turner. Turner had a small cameo as a tow truck driver in Howling IV (on which he was also co-producer), and as co-writer and producer of Howling V he saved the best role for himself. Unfortunately, he also wrote himself out too early.

Despite having pacing issues and bland characters, Howling V still manages to be one of the better entries in the Howling franchise. It's certainly more accessible than II and III, and I find it to be an improvement over IV. You don't hear about director Neal Sundstrom very often, but he deserves kudos for making a decent Howling sequel. This isn't one where I have to say "Sure, it's pretty bad, but I'll watch it anyway." This is a fine werewolf film... just don't go into it expecting to see much on-screen werewolf mayhem, because we barely see any of the creature at all. Howling V shows that you don't even have to spend money on werewolf effects to make a werewolf movie.


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