Friday, May 11, 2018

Worth Mentioning - No More Mr. Nice Guy

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.


Wes Craven packs a series into one film, office workers go nuts, Ryan Phillippe keeps shooting, and 1984 is the future.


SHOCKER (1989)

Wes Craven's Shocker was being promoted in the earliest issues of Fangoria that I ever got my hands on, and it was clear in the articles written about it that Craven and Universal Pictures were putting this film together with the hope that it was going to be the next big horror franchise, that serial killer Horace Pinker, as played by Mitch Pileggi, was going to be a new horror icon, joining the ranks of Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, Leatherface, and the Craven-created Freddy Krueger.

Craven and New Line Cinema had gotten very lucky with A Nightmare on Elm Street, and with Shocker it seemed like the writer/director was trying to make up for the fact that he hadn't had any creative control over the Elm Street sequels (aside from co-writing the initial script for A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors). He didn't seem too pleased that Freddy had become an MTV star in his absence from the series. With Pinker, Craven would handle the franchise his way.

Well, now we know that there wasn't going to be a Shocker franchise after all, and watching the movie it's easy to see why - although Pinker is memorable villain, the film is scattered all over the place. But who needs a franchise when Craven managed to cram multiple movies into this one's overly long 109 minutes? It's basically a trilogy in itself, following the course of your average franchise out of control - it starts off dark and creepy, then gets sillier and more outlandish as it goes along.


The first section is when the movie is most effective. That's where we meet college football player Jonathan Parker (Peter Berg) and his girlfriend Alison Clemens (Camille Cooper), a couple who have yet to have sex even though they've been dating for a year. Jonathan likes to keep his head in the clouds and ignore the negativity in the world, while the loving and supportive Alison tends to speak in a whisper because she's oh-so-ethereal. Their pleasant existence is shaken up when Jonathan starts to have nightmares about the serial killer terrorizing their town - which Wikipedia would have you believe is a Los Angeles suburb, but the cars have Ohio license plates in a nod to Craven's home state.

As it turns out, these aren't just nightmares. Jonathan has some kind of psychic connection to killer Horace Pinker and is getting glimpses of real events he's not present for. The first murders he sees are those of his foster family. Seeking revenge and justice, Jonathan works with his adoptive father, police Lieutenant Don Parker (Michael Murphy) to use his psychic ability to capture Pinker. Although Pinker murders Alison along the way, Jonathan does end up helping get Pinker arrested and given a death sentence.


That's the first movie contained within this movie, and it takes up around 35 minutes. It has an unnerving tone and is packed with troubling events, and when Pileggi is on screen as Pinker he's sleazy and intense. Shocker starts to go off the deep end soon after, when Pinker - a TV repairman who practiced black magic in the back room of his shop - is found in his prison cell making some kind of supernatural deal with electric TV gods that involves jumper cables in addition to the usual black magic materials. Pinker demands that power be given to him and a pair of lips emerge from a TV screen to tell him, "You got it baby."

As he sits in the electric chair, Pinker informs the witnessing Jonathan that he is Jonathan's real father. Then the switch is flipped and Pinker is shocked to death... but before the movie gets to him living up to the Shocker title, we enter a stretch in which Pinker's spirit jumps from body to body while he pursues Jonathan. In a sequence that has its charms but could have been left out completely, Pinker inhabits several people, including an angelic-looking little girl who gets to drop some amusing swears during her brief time as a miniature serial killer.


"Shocker" isn't really a shocker until the film takes on its third identity and Pinker starts travelling through electrical outlets and television sets over an hour in. Given that this level up in power comes with ridiculous one-liners like "Take a ride in my Volts-wagen", you might be wishing Shocker hadn't become Shocker at all.


These powers are worth it, though, because they do allow for an unforgettable climactic sequence in which Shocker-Pinker and Jonathan battle each other through TV sets and the channels showing on them, moving through stock footage, appearing in an episode of Leave It to Beaver, trashing news and televangelist sets, and even jumping into the living rooms of strangers. How is Jonathan able to do this? You can thank the power of love gifted to him by Alison, who continues to protect and guide him as a glowing spirit. Yes, she's so damn ethereal that she even keeps hanging around after death.

Shocker is a messy, absurd film, and it's tough to believe that Craven and Universal thought that this would lead anywhere. It has earned a deserved cult following, though. It's chock-full of problems and poorly structured, but even when Craven's choices don't fully work I still have to admire his audacity and willingness to make something that's so damn weird. Pileggi turns in a hell of a performance, and this film had enough of an impact on my childhood that it will always be lingering in my mind. This is one that I feel the need to revisit every once in a while, and while my viewings of it are never entirely satisfying, I'm glad Shocker is out there.



MAYHEM (2017)

When you hear that director Joe Lynch has made a movie called Mayhem about a (former) office drone fighting his way through a building full of people who have been infected with a virus that strips victims of their inhibitions, boosts stress levels, and makes them brutally violent, you might think you have a pretty good idea of what to expect from it. But while Mayhem does occasionally reach the levels of bloody insanity I thought it would deliver, I was surprised by how much of it was bogged down in set-up and exposition.

The events of the film kick off eighteen months into an outbreak of the ID7 virus, also called the "red eye virus" because it always gives the infected one red eye. The Walking Dead alum Steven Yeun plays the lead character, Towers & Smythe Consulting employee Derek Cho, and is saddled with an overused narration that begins with Yeun having to spend a few minutes letting us know all about this virus - and the fact that the infected can't be prosecuted for the crimes they commit while the virus is coursing through their systems, since they're not able to control their emotions during that time.

That sets up the violence to come, but before we can get there we have to follow the overworked, underappreciated Derek through a disastrous workday that builds up to him getting fired. Front-loading the film with legal speak and shady dealings at a firm that is already corrupt, sleazy, and dangerous even before inhibitions are shed wasn't the most engaging way to get things started, as far as I'm concerned. A dedication to character and story is admirable and the dialogue and narration tried valiantly to get me interested in all the details, but I just could not connect with anything that was going on in the first 30 minutes of this film.

Despite the presence of inherently likeable leads Yeun and Samara Weaving, who plays Melanie Cross, someone who has personal issues with Towers & Smythe, I was aching for Mayhem to get on with it by the time the outbreak finally started causing trouble around the office and the CDC shows up to put the building in an eight hour quarantine.

Since the infected aren't liable for their actions, these eight hours are basically a contained, truncated Purge night, and Derek and Melanie seek to use this to their advantage, fighting their way up the building by any means necessary so they can confront the cocaine-fuelled CEO (Steven Brand) and make sure he and his lackeys are held accountable for the terrible things they've done in the name of profit.


I would have little interest in sitting through the beginning of this film again, but it becomes much more entertaining and fun in the second half. Basically, once Derek strapped on a tool belt loaded with weapons and Melanie got her hands on a nail gun, my enjoyment of the  movie increased exponentially. It's at that point when I could finally get in tune with what was playing out on the screen. I could finally sit back and enjoy the mayhem that's promised in the title. I also greatly appreciated seeing badass visuals paired with the cool score composed by Steve Moore.

Mayhem is much like its lead character; dull and average until the virus shows up and allows it to shed its inhibitions. Through it all, Yeun delivers an excellent performance that proves fans have nothing to worry about now that he has moved on from The Walking Dead. That show was just his breakthrough into what is sure to be a solid career from here on out. Weaving also shows promise - if you enjoyed her performance in the recently released Netflix film The Babysitter, you might find that she's even better here.

I had been looking forward to Mayhem ever since it was first announced, and while I found the finished film to be somewhat disappointing, I do think it's worth watching for Yeun, Weaving, the events of the second half, and Lynch's stylistic touches. If you can get through that initial stretch of set-up, and maybe you'll have a higher tolerance for the business talk and expository narration than I did, the movie does reward you with some gleeful bloodshed and amusing scenarios.

The Mayhem review originally appeared on ArrowintheHead.com



SHOOTER: SEASON TWO (2017)

I enjoyed watching the first season of USA Network's television series Shooter, even though it was based on the same Stephen Hunter novel the 2007 film Shooter was based on, so it was a ten episode telling of a story I had seen play out before. For the second season, the makers of the show did something I hoped they would be - rather than build an all-new story around the character of retired sniper Bob Lee Swagger (played here by Ryan Phillippe), they drew inspiration from a different Swagger novel written by Hunter. Point of Impact, the basis of the '07 film and the show's first season, was put back on the shelf, and season two was based - as far as I can tell, quite loosely - on a novel titled Time to Hunt.

Sticking to the books was a good move, but in the end I didn't find the second season of Shooter to be nearly as interesting or satisfying as the first. Of course, it's tough for a season to be completely satisfying when it ends earlier than expected. Season two was supposed to be ten episodes long, but was cut short when Phillippe injured a leg in a freak UTV accident during some time with his family, right around the time the season started airing on USA. Eight episodes had been completed, but with Phillippe needing time to heal the decision was made to drop the last two episodes and just end the season on a cliffhanger.

The story of the season involves Swagger having to team up with season one antagonist Isaac Johnson (Omar Epps), who he served with in his military days, when an assassin strikes against them and others they served with. As they did last season, Swagger's wife Julie (Shantel VanSanten) and FBI agent Nadine Memphis (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) also get pulled into the action along the way.


The way this season told its story of the characters trying to figure out who is killing Swagger's friends and why just didn't work for me the way the first season did. It's not bad, it just suffers from "lesser sequel" syndrome. One of my favorite things about it was the presence of Todd Lowe, an actor I know from Gilmore Girls, as one of Swagger's fellow Marines, and Lowe was taken out of the series way too soon for my liking. It's almost like the season started going downhill for me as soon as Lowe was removed from it.

This is despite the fact that Josh Stewart turns in a hell of a performance, often a chilling one, as the sniper / master of disguise villain Solotov.

Maybe the main issue is that nothing gets resolved, thanks to Phillippe's injury. When Shooter returns for a third season and wraps this story up, maybe I'll feel better about this second season. But even before I reached that abrupt ending, I was feeling less enthusiastic about this batch of episodes than the first ten.

Even with the enjoyment level having dipped down a bit, Shooter remained a decent show to watch.



CLASS OF 1984 (1982)

I've been a fan of the sci-fi thrillers Class of 1999 and Class of 1999: The Substitute, movies about homicidal cyborg teachers in crime-ridden schools, since childhood, but I could never get into the precursor to those films - director Mark L. Lester's 1982 film Class of 1984, which took a two year trip into the future to imagine how bad crime in schools might get... and how a beleaguered teacher might handle himself when bad kids push him too far.


One off-putting thing for me is the fact that the movie stars Perry King as that teacher, Andrew Norris. King's screen presence as Norris just doesn't work for me, and as soon as he appears on the screen I get the feeling that it's going to be a bummer to watch him. Not even the song playing over his introduction, Alice Cooper's "I Am the Future", is enough to get me to go along with this guy.

Norris is a new hire at Lincoln High, a place so overrun by juvenile delinquents that his fellow teacher Terry Corrigan (Roddy McDowall) packs a gun in his briefcase. Norris quickly realizes just how bad it is in this school - so bad that the "teechers sucks" graffiti on his car is the least of his worries. He finds himself on the wrong side of a teen named Peter Stegman (Timothy Van Patten), a drug-dealing pimp and leader of a group who spends their days doing shakedowns, having gang fights, and partying to punk rock. Seeing how Stegman terrorizes the other students, Norris makes it his mission to bring the teenage kingpin down... and Stegman doesn't appreciate his efforts.


Honestly, one of my biggest problems with Class of 1984 when I was a kid was probably the fact that it doesn't have any homicidal cyborgs in it. Giving it another try now, as an adult, I found it to be a much more interesting film than I had previously thought. I still don't find King to be a particularly captivating lead, but the story worked a lot better for me now.

Written by Lester, John Saxton, an uncredited Barry Schneider, and Tom Holland (Child's Play, Fright Night), it's actually a cool grindhouse-era thriller with all the things you'd hope to find in an exploitation movie like this: crazy characters, wild behavior, gratuitous nudity, and explosions of violence. There's even an actual explosion.


This isn't the sort of movie where the teacher finds a way to get through to the troubled kids under his care. This is the sort of movie where the delinquents are so far gone that the teacher has to fight them and protect society by removing them from the world. And we're assured that he's not going to get in trouble for killing these underage lunatics.

The kids at Lincoln aren't all bad. Norris finds that some of them are actually open learning, and the most notable of these good students is a young Michael J. Fox, who hadn't yet added the "J." to his professional name.

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