Friday, April 9, 2021

Worth Mentioning - Torn Apart by Teeth or Bullets

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. 

Cody watches some creepy entertainment while getting ready for Burt Gummer Day.


I will eventually write a more in-depth article on Tremors: Shrieker Island, like I have done for the other films in the Tremors franchise, but with "Burt Gummer Day" coming up on April 14th this is the perfect time to post my initial reaction to the film.

After Tremors 5: Bloodlines and Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell, I can't say I was enthusiastic to hear that the director of those films, Don Michael Paul, was returning to take the helm of the latest film. But I have to say, when it comes to directing Tremors movies, the third time was the charm for Paul.

I have been a devoted follower of the Tremors franchise ever since watching the first movie repeatedly on VHS when I was a little kid. I was hyped for Tremors II: Aftershocks from the moment I read it was happening in the pages of Fangoria magazine, and when I rented it the first day it came out I found it to be one of the best sequels ever made. Tremors 3: Back to Perfection was a step down, but still highly entertaining, and I thought the unexpected prequel Tremors 4: The Legend Begins was a fun companion piece to the original film. I was also a fan of the short-lived TV series that aired back in 2003, and wish that it had gone on for a lot longer than just thirteen episodes. The franchise changed when there was an eleven year wait between the fourth and fifth films; when it returned, there was a different creative team in charge, the tone and style were different, the monsters had been re-designed. I was glad Tremors 5: Bloodlines finally happened, but it wasn't quite the same Tremors I knew and loved before. Then Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell was the first time my initial reaction to a Tremors movie was primarily negative, as it took the franchise even further from the good old days.

Now Shrieker Island has come along to redeem this "modern trilogy" of Tremors sequels. The tone is still a bit darker than the earlier films, the creatures are still overblown CGI monstrosities, and I still prefer the original Graboids over these ones that leap out of the ground and corkscrew through the air... but the issues I have with this sequel are ones I can more easily push aside than the ones I had with Bloodlines and A Cold Day in Hell. The alterations made to the monsters are less bothersome and more explainable, there's no questionable fascination with urine (people were constantly getting pissed on in Bloodlines), and franchise hero Burt Gummer (played, as he has been since the beginning, by Michael Gross) has finally calmed down a bit. In Paul's previous Tremors movies, Burt was portrayed as an angrier, more unpleasant person than he had ever been before. This time Paul and Gross took away the rage and got Burt's personality closer to the way it used to be. Plus the film earns points for bringing back the Shriekers after the last two movies did their best to ignore the two-legged stage of the Graboid life cycle, despite being packed with Ass-Blasters, the flying stage of the life cycle. Ass-Blasters are not present in this film.

Scripted by Paul (who made his screenwriting debut with the action classic Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man) and franchise newcomer Brian Brightly (Inside Man: Most Wanted), Shrieker Island has the same basic set-up as Aftershocks, Bloodlines, and A Cold Day in Hell: Graboids have shown up in a new location and Burt Gummer has to handle the problem. In this case, Paul and Brightly drew inspiration from The Most Dangerous Game to imagine a scenario in which the billionaire owner of biotech company Avex-Bio has bred genetically enhanced Graboids so he can host a big game hunt on his private island. Avex-Bio employees set up at a wildlife preservation outpost on a neighboring island fear their boss is putting their lives in danger by setting these Graboids loose so close to them, so they bring in Burt Gummer hoping he'll be able to keep this situation from getting out of control. But it is out of control as soon as they figure out what's happening, because one of the Graboids has already reached the Shrieker stage of its life.

Richard Brake, who has recently become quite popular with genre fans through his collaborations with Rob Zombie, plays biotech company head Bill, too wealthy for his own good, only able to get thrills from hunting dangerous animals. Brake turns in a captivating performance here, elevating the material and occasionally chewing the scenery as Bill proves to be in way over his head and quickly loses his sanity.

Pulled out of a half-year off-the-grid retirement, during which time he started looking like a tropical Santa Claus, Burt tries to talk sense into Bill, and when he sees that's not going to work he has to handle the Graboid hunting himself. An endeavor that's complicated by the fact that the usually heavily armed character doesn't have any of his weaponry on hand, and the wildlife preservation folks can't provide him with much. 

The original plan was that Burt was going to have the same sidekick in this film that he had in the previous two films, Jamie Kennedy as Travis B. Welker, the son Burt never knew about until the guy was 40. For whatever reason, Kennedy chose not to return for this film, so Burt gets a new assistant in the form of conservationist Jimmy - played by Napoleon Dynamite himself, Jon Heder. As expected, Jimmy is a humorous character, but he also has a surprising emotional depth to him at times, and he's less grating than Travis was. Also in the mix are Jimmy's fellow Avex-Bio workers Jas (Caroline Langrishe) and Freddie (Jackie Cruz), as well as Bill's right hand woman Anna (Cassie Clare), who realizes her boss has made a terrible mistake. I won't say how here, but even with Travis being absent the film does still tie back to the Bloodlines reveal that Burt had a son, truly making these three recent sequels feel like a cohesive trilogy. It's doubtful that viewers are going to feel a strong attachment to any of these characters (other than Burt, of course), but they're likeable enough to follow on this adventure.

Much like the supporting characters, the monster attack sequences are serviceable. Due to the genetic manipulation, the Graboids in this film are meant to be bigger and badder than the average, but that doesn't really translate to the screen other than in a couple moments of people marveling at the size of the things. One of the Graboids is referred to as a Queen simply because of her massive size, and it's also implied that she's somehow aware of who the strongest and weakest members of the human cast are - which means she seems to specifically target Burt as the story goes on. The "this time it's personal" aspect is one thing about the movie that I really could have done without.

But what of the titular monsters? Like the Graboids and Ass-Blasters of the Paul movies, the Shriekers have gotten a re-design and been given different abilities. They're at the center of a standout sequence that involves Burt, Jimmy, machetes, and a chainsaw, and as far as I'm concerned that sequence in itself was enough to make the movie's 102 minutes worth sitting through.

Even taking that sequence into account, Tremors: Shrieker Island doesn't have anything amazing to show the viewer. If you've already checked out of the franchise, there isn't much in this sequel that's likely to win you back. While it's an improvement over the last two - better written, more enjoyable - it's not anywhere close to the quality of the earlier films from the original creative team. But if you're looking for some B-movie creature action and want to see some good performances from the likes of Michael Gross and Richard Brake, this is a fun watch with a surprisingly touching ending.

The Tremors: Shrieker Island review originally appeared on

DARK CITY (1998)

For The Crow, director Alex Proyas brought his own, stunning vision of Detroit to the screen through the use of sets and miniatures. He followed The Crow with a film that features an even more impressive vision of a city that was created from the ground up. The city in Proyas's Dark City does not exist, and production took place almost entirely on sets that were built by the film's crew. It was important that the city in Dark City was manufactured for the movie, because it's not meant to represent any specific place on Earth. This place is its own little world, shrouded in unending darkness and changing on a regular basis; new buildings grow up out of the ground, existing buildings change shape, all while the city's residents sleep. Every one of them. Everybody passes out at midnight every night, and remain asleep until the changes have been made. And it's not just the city that changes. The beings in control of all this, a group called the Strangers, are also manipulating the people, swapping memories, altering lives.

In the story crafted by Proyas, Lem Dobbs, and David S. Goyer - and inspired by a nightmare Proyas had eight years before the film's release - one resident of the city starts to realize what's going on around him. That's John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), who wakes up in a hotel room bathtub with no memory and the slashed-up corpse of a prostitute nearby. Murdoch gets a phone call from an odd fellow named Daniel Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland), a doctor who assists the Strangers with their memory experiments, and Schreber tells him there was an experiment that went wrong, causing Murdoch's memory to be erased. Now the Strangers are after him... but Murdoch has a chance against them, because he somehow has the same reality-altering ability they have, called Tuning.

A fascinating blend of film noir and sci-fi, Dark City follows Murdoch as he tries to figure out exactly who he is, whether or not he's a killer, who the Strangers are, what they're doing. All the while, a police detective played by William Hurt is on his trail, aiming to bring him to justice for the murder of that prostitute, and of five others. Also caught up in the mystery are Murdoch's wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly), another detective (played by Colin Friels), who was removed from the case of the prostitute murders after he seemingly went insane. But his strange behavior is due to the fact that he has also figured out that this city isn't what it appears to be.

Dark City was Roger Ebert's pick for the best film of 1998, and twenty-three years later it still holds up as a great movie - especially if you watch the director's cut, which allows you to experience the mystery with Murdoch. The theatrical cut begins with a narrator that gives away all the secrets right away.

There's so much great vision on display in The Crow and Dark City, it really makes me hope we'll see Proyas make something along the lines of those two films again someday.


One of the great things about zombie apocalypse stories is that they can feature "wish fulfillment" scenarios where the survivors hole up in locations the viewer can only dream of turning into a home. The greatest wish fulfillment zombie movie of all time is George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead, where the characters take over an entire shopping mall. The characters on The Walking Dead took over a major location in the show's third season, but this one isn't nearly on the same level as the Dawn of the Dead shopping mall: in season 3 of The Walking Dead, our heroes seek refuge in a prison.

The season picks up several months after the season 2 finale and finds that the group of survivors led by former lawman Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) have spent the Georgia winter going in circles through the countryside, drinking boiled creek water, scavenging for food and having to resort to eating things like owls and canned dog food. With Rick's wife Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) about to give birth, they need to find somewhere they can stay a while. And that's when they find the prison, which is inhabited only by zombies and five convicts (including the great Lew Temple). While the core group is dealing with clearing the zombies out of the prison, a process that nearly kills wise and wizened farmer Hershel Greene (Scott Wilson), and figuring out whether or not they can trust the convicts, the show also checks in with former group member Andrea (Laurie Holden), who got separated from the others during the mayhem at the end of season 2 and has been taken under the wing of a samurai sword-wielding badass named Michonne (Danai Gurira). Michonne is able to lead Andrea through zombie-littered areas because she's accompanied by two "pet" zombies she keeps on leashes. These "pets" are people Michonne knew before the zombie outbreak hit, and once they turned she made them useful and harmless. She removed their arms and jaws.

Andrea and Michonne end up at a place called Woodbury, and if the prison doesn't seem like a pleasant place to live, maybe Woodbury will qualify as a "wish fulfillment" location. Under the leadership of a guy called The Governor (David Morrissey), a group of more than seventy survivors have managed to take over an entire small town, with the entrances blocked and armed guards on patrol to keep zombies out. Continuing to be incredibly dumb and irritating, as she was throughout season 2, Andrea falls head over heels for The Governor and his nice guy act almost immediately. Michonne doesn't trust him at all, and she's right to feel that he's shady. Not only does he have his zombified daughter hidden away in his home, and not only does he have a collection of zombie heads that he keeps in fish tanks, but he's also a murderer. In his introductory episode, we see him and his lackeys massacre National Guard soldiers to steal their equipment.

If Michonne didn't become one of your favorite characters as soon as she appeared with her sword and pets, the fact that she's so quickly able to deduce that there's something very wrong hidden under the surface at Woodbury is likely to win you over within a couple episodes.

Among The Governor's henchmen is a scientist named Milton (Dallas Roberts), who spends his time experimenting on zombies and wondering if there's any trace of the people they were still inside them. Milton is kind of reminiscent of the scientist characters from Romero's Day of the Dead - and that was clearly the point, since we even see a scene where he's keeping a still-active zombie head in his lab, with wires plugged into the thing. An effect straight out of Day of the Dead. Fittingly, the show had two people associated with Day of the Dead directing episodes at this time, Day's cinematographer Ernest Dickerson and special effects artist / cast member Greg Nicotero. Dickerson directed eleven episodes of The Walking Dead over the first five seasons, including the premiere and finale episodes for both seasons 2 and 3. Nicotero is still heavily involved with the series to this day, heading up the FX department, serving as executive producer, and directing episodes. Nicotero has directed over thirty episodes by now, and is often given the premiere and finale episodes that Dickerson handled back in the day.

Also present in Woodbury is Merle Dixon (Michael Rooker), who was forced to cut his own hand off when Rick handcuffed him in a season 1 episode. Merle handles The Governor's dirty work, and participates in public zombie fights along the lines of those seen in Romero's Land of the Dead. Merle is the brother of Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus), part of Rick's group, and viewers are made to wait several episodes before Merle and Daryl are reunited. Which isn't to say that season 3 is poorly paced, although there absolutely are some filler episodes in its sixteen episode run. The filler comes later; I would say season 3 has the most intense first batch of episodes of any season of the show. 

The first four episodes of this season are amazing. There's a lot of action as the characters try to clear out the prison, there are confrontations with the convicts, there are strong dramatic scenes built on love and loss, we get to see what Woodbury and The Governor are all about, Merle makes his return, and then things get tragic in episode 4. The Walking Dead would eventually become predictable by only having major events happen in season premieres, midseason finales and premieres, and season finales. Season 3 drops the deaths of two prominent characters right into episode 4, and one of these deaths - one that definitely would have been saved for a later episode if it happened in a different season - is among the most heartbreaking ever seen on the show. This character goes out in a stunning dramatic moment. When The Walking Dead is finished and we look back on it, this character's last words will be one of the things that sticks with me the most from the overall series. Rick and Lori's son Carl (Chandler Riggs) is frequently a deeply annoying character, but he plays a major part in this very touching moment.

Taking the good with the bad, the aftermath of that death - where Rick loses his mind, starts imagining he's receiving calls on a busted phone, and sees apparitions of people he's lost - is up there with some of my least favorite things that have been on this show. This season also happens to have one of my least favorite episodes of the show, or at least one of my least favorites from these early years when I was totally loving most of what The Walking Dead was showing me. That episode is called Arrow on the Doorpost, and it mostly consists of a sit-down chat between Rick and The Governor, discussing the fact that their two groups are on the verge of war. When it comes to the characters and the acting, there's some great stuff in Arrow on the Doorpost, but I can't tell you how disappointed I was when I sat down to watch that episode in 2013 and found that it was basically 43 minutes of chit-chat. The way the season starts spinning its wheels in the build-up to the finale, it starts to make me wonder if season 3 should have been thirteen episodes like season 2 was.

The war between the prison and Woodbury is brewing by mid-season, and it's inadvertently instigated by Merle, thanks to him being a douche. Or, as people kindly describe him on a couple different occasions, "erratic". Looking to catch up with his brother, Merle has a bad encounter with Hershel's daughter Maggie (Lauren Cohan) and her boyfriend Glenn (Steven Yeun) - a couple who quickly became the most important people on the show as far as I was concerned. That leads to Rick and some cohorts raiding Woodbury to rescue Maggie and Glenn. And that leads to disaster, with The Governor out for revenge.

Our heroes have gone up against a lot of human enemies over the years, but the conflict with The Governor remains the best example of the "community vs. community" scenario for me. The conflicts that followed have had their interesting points, but at their core they always feel like a retread of "prison vs. Woodbury" to me.

In the midst of all the tension, it's fun to see Merle and Daryl interact, even though Merle is not really healthy for Daryl to be around. We see Daryl's bestie Carol (Melissa McBride) becoming a stronger character and learning how to shoot, starting down the path that will lead to her becoming a total badass. A group including new additions Tyreese (Chad Coleman) and his sister Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green) get caught between the warring communities. Michonne finds her way into the prison group. And we get a long-awaited update on Morgan Jones (Lennie James), a guy Rick met in the first episode of the first season, someone he intended to keep in contact with. For viewers, two and a half years and twenty-nine episodes went by between Morgan's first and third season appearances, so it was great to see him again... even though we find out that things have not been going well for him.

Despite some "dead air", The Walking Dead's third season really is a great one, and possibly my favorite of the bunch. The idea of taking over a prison is intriguing, The Governor is a fascinating villain, the tense situation between the prison and Woodbury is engrossing (except in the moments when it seems like it's dragging on a bit long), and there is some terrific character work. Plus this is the most we'll ever see of Michael Rooker as Merle on this show, and as problematic as Merle is, he's also a very entertaining character to watch and Rooker brings a great energy to every one of his scenes.

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