Friday, January 19, 2018

Worth Mentioning - There's Nothing Fiercer

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.

A surprising tone, a disappointing remake, a sitcom misstep, and a good dog gone bad.


Judging by the title, you might think Creature from the Black Lagoon director Jack Arnold's film The Incredible Shrinking Man is some kind of grand adventure, but it's actually much more downbeat that the word "incredible" might lead you to believe. Scripted by Richard Matheson, based on his own novel The Shrinking Man, this is a body horror story, and while it's less grotesque than some other body horror tales out there, it's no less disturbing.

You might expect that a man who starts shrinking uncontrollably would be a scientist who conducted a wrongheaded experiment, but that's not the case here. The shrinking man of the title is Robert Scott Carey (Grant Williams), an average guy who just happens to be on a boat that passes through a radioactive mist while at sea. Months later, Scott notices that he's getting smaller. At first it's subtle. His clothes don't fit as well. He's a couple inches shorter than he used to be. His wife doesn't have to stand on her toes to kiss him. But soon it's quite obvious that he's gradually decreasing in size.

Shrinking doesn't seem like a scary concept, but what Scott goes through is terrifying. It's like a disease - his body is changing and he has no control over what's going on. There seems to be no hope. He's just going to keep getting smaller and smaller.

By the end of the film, there's a more adventurous aspect to it, as Scott struggles to survive in his house when he's so small that his cat and even a spider are monstrous beasts compared to him. But this isn't light-hearted like something along the lines of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, or even Ant-Man. Scott is struggling through a living nightmare.

I had seen The Incredible Shrinking Man before, a long time ago. Revisiting it now, I was surprised and pleased to see how seriously it takes Scott's predicament, and just how dark the movie gets. More than sixty years after its release, this film holds up as a well-told, engrossing tale, and its special effects (Grant Williams is made to look small through the use of forced perspective and oversized sets/props) still work, for the most part. This is a different movie than I would have expected when judging it by the title, and that turned out to be a very good thing.

INSIDE (2016)

The 2007 French film Inside, the breakthrough feature for the directing duo of Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, is one my favorite horror films of the last fifteen years, despite the fact that it's also one of the most depressing. It's a blood-soaked exercise in bleak nihilism with one of the most twisted and terrifying concepts imaginable: a woman invades a pregnant widow's home with the intention of tearing the baby out of her stomach. Inside was an extreme film, so it's fitting that it was released under the Dimension Extreme banner in the U.S.

The odds were against an Inside remake ever being able to live up to the original. That type of intensity can't be reproduced, and you just know the violence is going to be watered down. I held out hope for this one, though, because it was coming from an interesting creative team - it was being made by a Spanish production company rather than a Hollywood studio, the screenplay was written by [REC] co-creator Jaume Balagueró and his [REC] 2 and 4 co-writer Manu Diez, and Kidnapped director Miguel Ángel Vivas was at the helm. Kidnapped is a film that I don't even like because it has such a disappointing downer of an ending, but that's the sort of filmmaker I would want to see another version of Inside in the hands of. Someone who might not feel the need to pull back.

Unfortunately, the creative team didn't come through on this one. This remake didn't come from Hollywood, but it feels very Hollywoodized. It does everything you would expect a studio remake of Inside to do - it dilutes the violence, it has a safer tone, it expands the scope and adds in bigger action set pieces.

You know there were wrong-headed decisions being made here as soon as the film begins. Like the original, it starts with the car accident that makes the pregnant woman a widow, but while Maury and Bustillo's film just showed us shots of cars that had run into each other head-on, this one goes full spectacle by showing us an impact that sends one of the vehicles flying and flipping like Stuntman Mike's Chevy Nova in Death Proof. It screams out that this one had a bigger stunt budget, but in doing so makes itself less effective, and just left me thinking "That was unnecessary."

After that, the film spends some time letting us get to know the widow character, Rachel Nichols as Sarah Clark. The casting of Nichols is one of the movie's greatest strengths, as she's one of my favorite modern actresses and she does a fine job in the role. There's one point when Sarah is reacting to someone's death where Nichols' performance is so emotional and real that it really got to me and almost made the tears start rolling.

It's also beneficial that Balagueró and Diez would tweak characters and scenarios to keep fans of the original film on their toes. While it plays out in much the same way and has almost the same body count as the movie fans know, this isn't just a beat-by-beat remake, it doesn't involve all the same people. Balagueró and Diez toy with your expectations a bit, even giving a cheeky nod to your familiarity with its predecessor by having Sarah say she doesn't want to have a C-section because she doesn't want "to be cut open". A character who was a touchy creep with women in the original is now a gay man, so you know his scenes with the killer are going to be different. When the mysterious woman arrives at Sarah's bedside equipped with chloroform, an IV bag, and a case of tools rather than the scissors and a jar of alcohol the '07 film's woman had, you'll be wondering how Sarah can possibly get out of this situation so the rest of the story can occur.

The homicidal woman is one of the film's weaknesses. It's not the fault of actress Laura Harring, it's the writing. This version of the woman talks a lot. Too much. She goes on and on at times, spouting dialogue that is completely useless. She'd be a scarier villain if she wasn't so chatty.

Eventually, Balagueró, Diez, and Vivas really throw fans for a loop when they have Sarah and the woman exit the house for the climax... and at first I was going along with this choice, because it seemed like they were going to have the film end in a clever, book-ending way. But instead the action outside the house just continues on through another location before the film comes to an ending in a way that is absolutely gutless in comparison to what Maury and Bustillo did.

As a remake, this Inside is a letdown in exactly the ways you'd fear a remake might let you down. The murder scenes are neutered, any sense of urgency was lost. If you've seen the original Inside, you've seen the superior version of the story, so there's little reason to seek this one out. If you haven't seen the original, you should watch that instead of the remake. But if you set aside the original and want to watch a safe, run-of-the-mill thriller, you might get some enjoyment out of this one. I can't condemn it too harshly, because it's not terrible. It's just thoroughly mediocre.

If you do watch the Inside remake, I would recommend seeking out a 2007 film called P2 and watching that first. P2 also starred Rachel Nichols, and in that movie she was menaced, pursued, and captured by a parking garage security guard on Christmas Eve. Now here she is, playing a woman who is menaced, pursued, and captured by a crazy woman on Christmas Eve. As you're watching the new Inside, one way to keep yourself amused and entertained is to imagine that this isn't a disappointing remake of Inside, but rather a sequel to P2 - a lesser, Die Hard 2, "how can the same shit happen to the same person twice?" sort of sequel. Pretending this is P2 II might be the most fun way to take it in.

The Inside review originally appeared on


A few years ago, I viewed my way through the entire seven season run of the '80s sitcom Family Ties, which was a show I caught on TV frequently throughout my earliest years and has been a favorite of mine ever since. I don't own the show on DVD, but I was able to watch it in its entirety because it was streaming on Netflix at the time. There was one piece of Family Ties history missing from Netflix, though. It's apparently available in the DVD set, but Netflix did not have Family Ties Vacation, the TV movie special that aired a couple nights before the season 4 premiere.

I have now caught up on Family Ties Vacation, having watched it for the first time ever... and I was somewhat shocked. This Family Ties feature justifies its existence by taking the Keaton family - parents Steven and Elyse (Michael Gross and Meredith Baxter), kids Alex, Mallory, and Jennifer (Michael J. Fox, Justine Bateman, Tina Yothers) - away from their Columbus, Ohio home and setting them loose on an adventure in England, where Alex will be visiting Oxford University.

"Adventure" isn't normally a word you would associate with Family Ties, but for some reason they tried to mix some adventure into this movie. While they're on the flight to England, a spy sticks a hairbrush with something hidden inside it into Elyse's carry-on. From that point on, the people spies and authorities who want to get their hands on that hairbrush are in pursuit of the Keatons... and this is something that never should have been worked into a Family Ties project. This was an absurd creative decision. Spies and the Keatons do not go together.

Family Ties Vacation also features a different type of humor than the sort you'd find on the average episode of the show, which dealt with family and social issues. It's a goofier, more slapstick, cartoony humor - and again, this was something that was disappointing to see in the Family Ties world.

Thankfully, the core of Family Ties wasn't completely thrown out. There are still some good scenes involving Alex's attempt to fit in at Oxford and Mallory's budding romance with a young Lord. That's Family Ties. But then it cuts away to more bumbling spy nonsense.

The best reason to watch Family Ties Vacation, other than watching it just for the sake of completion, is to marvel at just how wrong-headed this rushed endeavor was.

CUJO (1983)

Author Stephen King isn't often delicate with his readers; he has written things that can really tear your heart to pieces. His story Cujo is one where you can tell just from the basic description that it's going to be a tough one to endure emotionally - a beloved family pet is turned into a bloodthirsty beast by the rabies virus and relentlessly torments a young child. Terrible things happening to an animal in a story that puts a child in extreme danger. King wasn't messing around with this one.

Director Lewis Teague, working from a screenplay adaptation by Don Carlos Dunaway and Lauren Currier, brought that story to the screen in an effectively troubling way with the Cujo film two years after the novel was published.

Cujo is the name of the dog, a St. Bernard who's a child-loving gentle giant when we first meet him. Unfortunately, Cujo decides to chase a rabbit into a cave that happens to be filled with bats, and one of those bats he stirs up bites him on the nose. Cujo has now caught rabies, and his health gradually deteriorates over the first half of the film.

While Cujo is in decline, the film also introduces its human characters, and you can tell this movie was based on a book because it's not likely a creative team putting together a killer dog movie would have chosen to spend time on some of the story elements in here. A lot of the film is actually about marital issues - Donna Trenton (Dee Wallace) has been cheating on her husband Vic (Daniel Hugh-Kelly) with family friend Steve Kemp (Christopher Stone). It's a mistake she feels guilty about, so she ends the affair, which is a choice that Steve doesn't react very well to. The subplot about the cereal Vic created an ad campaign for causing a health scare is another thing that you'd only expect to see in a book adaptation.

The Trentons have a very young son named Tad (Danny Pintauro), an adorable little kid who will have gone through hell by the end of the film. Before Cujo, Tad's biggest fear in life is the monster in his closet... which is presented as being the average "monster in the closet" here, but in the book there were actually supernatural shenanigans going on in Tad's closet. That wasn't necessary to include in the film.

Cujo doesn't belong to the Trentons, he's the pet of the Camber family, who reside in a remote house in the country where Camber patriarch Joe (Ed Lauter) does mechanic work in the barn. We get a glimpse into the lives of the Cambers as well - enough to know that Joe is a drunken jackass and his wife and son are going away for a while to visit family. Immediately after the other Cambers leave, Joe becomes one of Cujo's first victims. Right after that, Donna and Tad arrive at the Camber property to have Joe look at their rickety Ford Pinto. And Cujo attacks.

Just under half the movie's 90 minutes are taken up by Cujo's assault on the Pinto with Donna and Tad inside of it. A huge dog trying to get into a tiny car so it can kill a woman and her small child. Of course, the Pinto finally crapped out as soon Donna got it to the Camber property, so she can't just drive out of this situation. The Cambers are gone, Vic has left on a two-day business trip, so he's not going to be much help. Donna and Tad are stranded, alone in a time before cell phones.

As time goes by, Cujo isn't the only threat to Donna and Tad's well-being. There's also the lack of water, and the hot sun beating down on their car that doesn't run. The mother and son are trapped in that car for more than a day, and it has an obvious effect on them, Tad especially. The poor kid starts to slip into shock... This is harrowing stuff, and Wallace and Pintauro both put in great, true-to-life performances that really draw you into the situation. It helps that this is a real world scenario, there's nothing otherworldly going on here. This is something that could happen, at least to some degree.

We feel for both sides in this situation, too. Cujo is a mad killer, but it's not his fault. The virus has made a good dog turn very bad. He's infected, which adds another layer of unease to everything because if Donna and/or Tad happen to be bitten by him, they could become infected as well.

Cujo is an intense, well-made film, and it's easy to see why it has lingered in the minds of its viewers to such a degree that the name "Cujo" has found a permanent place in pop culture.

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