Monthly Archives: July 2011

Scary Movie Alien Countdown: The #1 Scariest Movie Alien of All Time

By Tom Kapr

We finally made it to the end of the countdown. Here, after a quick recap of the other films discussed in this series, is my “Number 1 Scariest Movie Alien of All Time.” Watch and enjoy.

#10. Battle Los Angeles (2011)

#9. The Blob (1958, 1988)

#8. Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

#7. Star Wars Episodes IV & VI (1977, 1983)

#6. Predator (1987)

#5. War of the Worlds (2005)

#4. The Thing (1982)

#3. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, 1978)

#2. The Alien series (1979, 1986, 1997)


Scary Movie Alien Countdown #2: “I can’t lie to you about your chances, but… you have my sympathies.”

By Tom Kapr

You’re investigating a shipwreck. You find a strange egg. As you’re examining the egg, it begins to hatch. Suddenly, a crablike creature jumps out and latches itself to your face. It sticks an ovipositor down your throat.

You’re in a coma. You wake up. The creature that had attached to your face has fallen off. It appears dead. Aside from a sore throat, you feel remarkably fine.

Until dinner, when you start to feel a strange feeling in your chest. It begins to hurt. It hurts a lot. The pain is unbearable. You feel like your being stabbed from the inside. Finally, your ribcage bursts and the young creature that has been lain inside you for gestation erupts.

You’re the first victim. The rest will meet their deaths at the jaws, claws, and deadly acidic blood of the full-grown beast.

It is no wonder that H.R. Giger’s xenomorph from Alien is the single most terrifying extraterrestrial being ever put on film. Nor is it a wonder that screenwriter Dan O’Bannen and director Ridley Scott’s 1979 outer-space horror flick is the single greatest haunted house movie ever, and is consistently at the top of the list when discussing alien horror.

One would be remiss not to include in the same discussion James Cameron’s action-packed 1986 sequel Aliens, which pitted sole human survivor of the first film Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and a platoon of Marines against an entire colony of the vicious xenomorphic parasites (meaning they take on certain morphological characteristics of the living creatures in which they are impregnated). It also introduced the aliens’ mommy, in one of the most effective third-act reveals ever. And of course, it ends with the iconic mano a mano battle between one very pissed-off Ripley and one very pissed-off alien queen.

Later incarnations of the Alien xenomorphs are equally terrifying, though the films they inhabit are less iconic and of lesser quality (though writer Joss Whedon and director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien: Resurrection is underrated, for its style, its story, and the direction in which it takes the concept of the xenomorphs).

So what is the #1 scariest movie alien of all time?….

The Basic Adaptation: Holes vs. The Golden Compass

By Nathanael Griffis

If a book does well enough that it becomes known by a sizeable amount of people, there starts to be talks of a movie, because fans of the book will see the movie almost without any discernment. I know I did with The Golden Compass. A book’s success peaks the curiosity of a reader. Will it make a good movie? The script is basically half written, and if you’re lucky you might have the author on hand to write it anyway. This is the basic adaptation. People like the book; why not tell the story on the screen. Things will have to be changed for sure, but who cares? It’s not like movie audiences complain.

In recent years there has been a binge of turning young adult fiction into movies, so much so that not everything even makes it to the theaters. (For example, see Rob Reiner’s Flipped, which is a decent movie based on a decent book.) Sometimes this gives us wonderful tales that translate well to the screen, surprisingly so, like Holes; and other times we’re left bitterly disappointed with The Golden Compass.

Sigourney Weaver as the Warden, Jon Voight as Mr. Sir, and Shia LeBeouf as Stanley Yelnats.


As I rewatched this movie, and reread the book, which is an easy read for anyone who has two days to kill, I was amazed that this movie was done so well. The cast is definitely part of it, but to rest the movie on the young, mostly untested shoulders of Shia LaBeouf was daring. Of course, Sigourney Weaver, Jon Voight, Patricia Arquette, and Tim Blake Nelson help out greatly. They also get top billing, and are the main cast draws of the film. Strangely enough, director Andrew Davis broke out of the action-thriller genre (he made The Fugitive and a few Steven Seagal movies) to make a mature family mystery movie. The true genius here is that they hired Loius Sachar, who stretched his writing muscles and adapted his own novel into a screenplay.

Hiring the author probably helped in numerous ways, but the greatest is probably that the adaptation could remain in the same vein and spirit as the book, but change it to best fit a visual style. There are numerous changes made, but it would be hard to notice them if, say, you hadn’t just finished reading the book a day ago. Sachar actually adds more visually humorous scenes and a few jokes are more played up. The beginning is smartly different and shows that Sachar understands film as a visual medium. In the book the first three chapters are basically exposition, but are told with such a whimsical style that they’re engaging. The movie opens on an image of a boy willing being bitten by a rattlesnake to escape Camp Green Lake. The opening three chapters do get included later on in the movie, but Sachar recognized that he had to engage his audience visually first, and a rattlesnake bite does this.

Don't dig and drive, kids.

With three interweaving narratives, numerous characters with complex back stories, and a strange mystery like few others that deals with racism, selfishness, and society’s response to crime, it’s amazing that this film is so compact and successful. No shot is wasted, no line of dialogue unnecessary. The first scene with Jon Voight’s “Mr. Sir,” (one of the best names ever, by the way) is a perfect example. Stanley (LeBeouf) learns that Mr. Sir has a frozen scowl on his face, used to drink, and considers Stanley worthless. We also learn of the Warden. We don’t see her till about the middle of the film, but her presence lingers in every scene as the threat that controls the boys. As a film, it has enough depth for parents, enough mystery and action for teenagers, enough thematic depth for the pretentious filmophile, and plenty of fart jokes for the wee little ones–a perfect example of a basic adaptation done right.

The Golden Compass

Holes is a beloved Newberry Award-winning classic. The Golden Compass is also a widely beloved classic. More dense than Holes to be certain, The Golden Compass is a lofty book to adapt, but they accomplished a similar feat with The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, so why not? What is frequently so frustrating about a bad adaptation is that while you’re watching you’re saying to yourself, why’d they change that? Why not do it this way? For the majority of this film, with the only exception being the polar bear fight near the end, I was shaking my head with those exact questions. Gone is all the mystery, the grandeur, and even the controversial themes. There was no reason to get mad about the atheistic world view of the book when this movie was released, because it’s all but whitewashed out here. Dust might as well be dust, because there’s no real examination of original sin or free will involved in the mystical concept. Dust is just pretty CGI stuff, and you can cut or something with a pretty CGI laser thingy.

This is Nicole Kidman: She can stare with menace, touch railings seductively, and has breasts.

The main problems seems to be twofold. The movie tries to cram everything in and moves at such a breakneck pace that the mystery never has time to settle and intrigue us. If you hadn’t read the book, you’d wonder every 15 minutes who this new character is and why you should care. They also take the Hollywood way out and think action means story. The action is mundane at best, too choreographed and constrained to be exciting.

The movie is well cast but poorly acted. Sam Elliot seems to be just abusing his awesome accent. Nicole Kidman is showing off her bosom. Eva Green wants to do something more, but showing off her bosom as well seems to work. Ian McKellen as a voice actor imbues little might into Iorek the fearsome polar bear warrior. It’s as if he did the entire script in a few takes. Only Daniel Craig comes out unscathed, mostly because he’s not in the film much. As for the child actors–if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

For all the controversy this film stirred up, it fell flat and incapable of delivering any substance to back it up. There is no sense of pace or transition. They took the bare bones of the story and presented it thinking that would do, but that’s not enough. You have to understand that film is very different from the page, and the two art forms require reshaping. They should have changed more, rearranged more, and focused in on character and presentation with more strength. Don’t ditch the complex theology and themes, or you’ll lose what captivated readers in the first place. And finally, when you have an astounding cliffhanger that changes your perception of everything in a book, and you choose to cut it out of the movie, your film deserves to fail. The ending of The Golden Compass was one of the most shocking things I’ve ever read. I literally had to pick up The Subtle Knife immediately and start to read it. So naturally it makes sense to ignore this and end on a boring fade into the sunset that is disgustingly pedestrian.

Next I’ll tell you why Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice is amazing, and why The Count of Monte Cristo would be good if only it weren’t based on a book, when I discuss classic period piece adaptations.

Scary Movie Alien Countdown #3: “They’re here already! You’re next!”

By Tom Kapr

The “they” referred to in Dr. Miles J. Bennell’s infamous rant are, of course, the emotionless pod people of the 1956 classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers, remade as another classic, to even greater effect, in the 1978 version. I wrote about these two films once before, for Day 17 of my 30 Days of Madness series this past October; the following is an amended version of my earlier article.

They really just want us to get our roughage.

Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers, which started as a serial in Collier’s Weekly in 1954, has been adapted to film four times: first in 1956 by screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring (who also wrote the 1947 film noir classic Out of the Past) and director Don Siegel (the man behind the iconic 1971 Clint Eastwood crime-thriller Dirty Harry as well as John Wayne’s 1976 swan song The Shootist); second, in 1978 by screenwriter W.D. Richter (who also wrote one of my favorite camp comedies, Big Trouble in Little China) and director Philip Kaufman; third, in director Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers in 1993; and most recently, in The Invasion of 2007.

The 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a brilliant exercise in McCarthy-era paranoia (Joseph, not Kevin). The 1978 version is just as brilliant a horror film but with a less optimistic outlook on the future of the human race, replacing McCarthy-era paranoia with post-Watergate paranoia and adding a healthy dose of public health-focused parallelism. It is rare for both an original film and its remake to be so high and so close in quality (though this is the second time on this list that it’s happened).

The 1978 version is more committed to its concept, however–that concept being that a life form from outer space comes to Earth and spreads in the form of pods that grow another version of you that replace you while you sleep, another being that is identical to you in every way and even retains your memories. Much like in The Thing, it is an alien life form that assimilates your human form, but the difference is that this alien is not malicious. In fact, this alien has no feelings whatsoever. The alien in The Thing would kill you and then camouflage itself as you. The Body Snatchers invade under the pretense that they are making a better you. A you with no emotions and therefore no pain, no anger, no jealousy, no war, no maliciousness; no passion, no joy, no elation, no compassion, no love. I can think of no more frightening an invasion than one that would replace us all with unfeeling replicas, and in fact, Invasion of the Body Snatchers of 1978 may be the scariest alien invasion film of all time. (Yet there are two more spots left on this list….)

1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers also has the bonus of some absolutely astounding practical visual effects that, again much like The Thing, still hold up against anything released today. It contains some of the creepiest images ever created, and possibly the single most terrifying final scene in movie history. Watch it if you dare. But don’t fall asleep….

Next on the countdown: “I can’t lie to you about your chances, but… you have my sympathies.”

Scary Movie Alien Countdown #4: “Nobody trusts anybody now… there’s nothing more I can do….”

By Tom Kapr

(Spoilers ahead….)

In the opening scenes of John Carpenter’s The Thing, two men in a helicopter are chasing a husky through the Antarctic wilderness, shooting at it with a rifle and lobbing grenades at it. When I first saw this film, my initial reaction to this introduction was one of disgust toward the men in the helicopter, and some hesitation about the film in general. I have a deep and abiding love for dogs, and something approaching a deep and abiding hatred toward anyone who would commit senseless acts of violence against dogs. In cinematic terms, I tend to hate movies that show dogs meeting gruesome or violent deaths. For example, I hate Tony Scott’s film Revenge, in part because it is a silly film, but mostly because of a graphic close-up of the “hero’s” yellow lab being blown away with a shotgun, a consequence of his affair with the wife of a mobster (the “hero’s” affair, not the dog’s). (On the other hand, I am a sucker for Independence Day and always get a thrill from that ridiculous slow-motion shot of Boomer the golden retriever jumping to safety just in the nick of time as a fireball roars past behind him.)

Doggone aliens, always trying to invade Earth and whatnot....

So, getting back to my inaugural viewing of The Thing, when the husky reached the American scientific research compound and Donald Moffat’s character blew the rifleman’s eye out with his pistol, in effect saving the life of the dog, I felt relief. The dog was safe. (A man was dead, but we can save a discussion of the moral implications of valuing the life of a dog over that of human being, however despicable, for another time.) It is not until twenty minutes later that we learn the truth, in the kennel, as the mysterious husky’s face suddenly splits open, revealing the true nature of the beast beneath, and an entire team of huskies has to suffer the consequences; the truth, that our heroes have quashed what was in fact a last-ditch, desperate attempt by the now-pitiable, eyeless-and-dead rifleman to stop a violent and cunning alien life form from further invasion of our planet.

Kurt Russell and company spend the remainder of the film wondering who is still human and who might be the alien in disguise. The Thing is unquestionably the masterpiece of John Carpenter’s science fiction filmography, a perfect blend of alien terror, body horror, and psychological suspense as the characters try not to turn on each other while knowing that no one can trust anyone, because anyone could be the monster. And this monster is one of the best in history, terrifying in both idea and execution. The creature effects, created and designed by Rob Bottin (with a crew that included the late great Stan Winston), still hold up after nearly three decades, putting to shame most current science fiction films and all their computer-generated imagery. Truly great practical, or in-camera, effects will almost always outlast CGI, which, even when done well, usually has an aura of un-reality about it.

I can sum up the horror of the monster in The Thing in one sentence: Nothing in cinema ever was or ever will be quite like a human head scurrying across the floor on spider legs.

My migraines, personified.

On a final note, the “husky” in the beginning of the film is one of the best performances by a dog in the history of movies. Played by Malamute-Wolf mix Jed (who also starred in The Journey of Natty Gann and White Fang), every movement seems deliberate, every facial expression full of thought and meaning. The human cast is fine, and Kurt Russell is one of the greatest, but performance-wise, Jed steals the show. Rest in peace, Jed (1977-1995).

Next on the countdown: “They’re here already! You’re next! You’re next, you’re next…!”

Buried Cinema: CJ7

By Nathanael Griffis

(Spoiler alert!)

If you haven’t realized by now, I love character driven films and foreign films, and if you toss in a little humor and some action that’s nice too, so when I hear Stephen Chow is making a movie, I watch. Stephen Chow is most famous in America for Kung Fu Hustle and Shoalin Soccer–ridiculous entries into the kung fu genre that leave me laughing every time; but what makes them so great is his respect for character. His latest movie (more like most recent, since it came out in 2008), CJ7, took me forever to find. Luckily a local video rental store was closing down, so I did some movie vulturing and picked it up. Why was it panned? Probably because it’s a kids’ movie in Chinese, as if it’s not hard enough already to get adults to watch a foreign film.

I guess it's kinda cute--for a space dog, that is.

CJ7 is not Chow’s best work, but it’s still very good and relies on a lot of the same conventions Chow uses in his other films. As far as plot goes, a poor construction worker, while looking for a toy for his son Dicky (played by Jiao Xu) at the dump, stumbles upon an alien and brings it home as a pet. The pet becomes the little boy’s best friend, and they have many adventures. That is until, as happens in any good kid’s movie with an animal, the pet dies.

That might seem a little glib, but the plot really feels like a side story in and of itself to the humor and the characters, which is a frequent occurrence in Stephen Chow’s films. In Kung Fu Hustle, who cares where this gang of axe thieves came from or why–I just want to watch them fight all these ridiculous kung fu masters that keep cropping up in this strange tenement. Shaolin Soccer has a random “Thriller” dance scene, Jaws homages, and a war sequence, and all in a kung fu sports film (whatever that means), but it’s amazing because the comedy is balanced perfectly with a surprising amount of heart.

Like in most  of Chow’s films, the characters are dragged down to the utmost level of shame before they find a way to pull themselves out of it. This is a pretty unique element to Chow’s films and Hong Kong cinema in general. Sometimes a warrior may have to repent for some misdeed and find inner peace, but they rarely remain in a state of penitence or poverty. Normally we see the hero rise up and regain his honor à la Jet Li’s Fearless. Chow’s willingness to put himself in absolute squalor and humiliation can be gut-wrenching at times. Still, it’s this humiliation, played for both humor and genuine feeling, that drives the film.

In an interesting subplot someone steals all the chairs in Hong Kong.

In CJ7, a father and son are struggling to survive, eating moldy food, getting their clothes from a dump, receiving handouts, and living in rubble. It’s heavy stuff for a kids’ comedy but is acted so wonderfully and with such a sense of imagination that while you might not relate to the characters, you understand their plight and feel for them. I don’t want to give anything away (except for the fact the cute little fluffy green thing dies like I said earlier), so I’ll just say this: CJ7, while a kids’ movie, has some very dark and bizarre moments, but they resonate powerfully. The movie deals with bullying, death, poverty, education, and relationships like few adult movies do, but of course you have to dance around poop jokes, kung fu fight scenes, and Mandarin to experience this.

That’s my main complaint. I think that as much as CJ7 utilizes kids’ movie conventions to its advantage, it is equally hampered by them. The fluffy E.T.-esque alien is silly, but the cartoonish treatment of the creature borders on abuse and can only be gotten away with in a kids’ movie, because it feels like a cartoon. There’s a strange dream sequence midway through the film which falls pretty flat, a bully-vs.-bully fight scene that relies too heavily on CGI, and a disturbing poop scene that goes over the top (it should be noted I laughed, but–oh okay, poop is funny forget that previous complaint).

In Chow’s previous films he showed an amazing knack for combining CGI with action choreography that while looking unrealistic had a magical feel to it. That sense of magic, at least in the action scences, is lost a little bit here. The CGI is not seemless, but nor was it in his earlier films. I think the issue is that it feels cool (nothing wrong with cool), but cool doesn’t equate good. If you want to give someone rocket boots, that’s pretty cool, but don’t do it just so you can.

Despite all this the climax is truly gripping: a blatant E.T. ripoff, but if you’re going to steal ideas that’s a good place to get them. This would be an interesting movie to watch with kids, although I doubt they’d watch a movie with subtitles, so what are you going to do. I suppose you could sit down and watch the dubbed version if you must. At the very least you’d get to see this interesting movie.

Let’s Start Again: “Night of the Comet” makes a buck

By Steven Moore

This week I watched two post-apocalyptic films, both of which include the cataclysmic event instead of being set long after. This week I’ll discuss Thom Eberhardt’s Night of the Comet as an example of how an apocalyptic film can go horribly wrong, and next week we’ll explore Don McKellar’s Last Night and the psychological impact of an apocalypse. Where one is clear exploitation and financially motivated, the other is an exploration of the human condition. These two films provide the two ends of the spectrum, and I wanted to discuss them one after another for that reason. The post-apocalyptic film can lay humanity bare or exploit the fears of the weak. Night of the Comet prefers the latter.

In Night of the Comet, an approaching comet that seems to have induced a worldwide keg party has passed too close to earth, bathing it in some sort of radiation that turns most people to a pile of reddish dust and a lucky few into zombies. Why zombies? Because there has to be some sort of monster, right? The kids these days like monsters.

Julius Caesar would be proud.

The handful of survivors have been protected by being inside any kind of steel shelter. One young girl runs away from home and spends the night in a steel shed, and emerges unscathed to find everyone gone, though she’s more interested in her music than the death of humanity, because that’s how kids are. The protagonist of the film is Regina, a video game wizard who works in a movie theater and sleeps with various male employees to make a few extra bucks (this is before the apocalypse, mind you). Regina, played by a doe-eyed Catherine Mary Stewart, just happens to spend the night in a steel-reinforced movie theater film room with one of the aforementioned employees, and thus survives.

The problems with this film are so numerous and so deep that it would be impossible to enumerate them in a single blog post. Early on in the film, Regina and her boyfriend are discussing Superman’s inability to see through lead. Regina explains that lead halts radiation, which is how Superman sees through objects. This is a bright moment of the movie that made me think, okay, this could be kind of smart. Two scenes later, the metal that saves people is not the lead that they were clearly discussing previously to set up the miraculous survival of a few, but plain steel. Why? What happened? My best guess is that they were able to get a sponsor from the steel industry, and this movie was just about the money anyway. A shopping spree scene where the two young girls are dancing around through a department store, trying on clothes to bad 80’s music, and giggling as the dust of human beings lies all around them illustrates the priority of product placement over any kind of actual craft.

To be honest, I almost didn’t even bother writing about this movie; however, it illustrates a pitfall of the post-apocalyptic genre. Night of the Comet came out just as the fever regarding Halley’s Comet was starting to ramp up. Even though there was absolutely no evidence of danger, people were scared. I recall anti-comet pills being sold on store shelves and a smattering of bomb shelters being built. While it was nowhere near the nuclear scare of the 1950’s and most people realized it was silly, this film saw an opportunity to capitalize on fear and jumped on it. How many post-apocalyptic films describe an end to the world that seems to spring right from our own irrational fears? There have been countless nuclear-, fossil fuel-, and technology-based apocalypses. Every new story about the end of the world seems to confirm exactly how we think it’s going to end based on current events: bird flu, terrorists, fast food, etc.

The post-apocalyptic genre is about revealing humanity’s dark side, including those fears we try to push aside, to hold back while we go about our daily lives. The end of humanity is inevitable, and we all know it. When or how that will happen is unknown, but the planet Earth has a shelf life. We, as a species, have known this ever since we started watching the stars. It’s embedded in our psyche, even though we don’t want to think about it. Whether it be the eventual death of the sun or some other event, our home is temporary. While some filmmakers decide to tap into the subconscious fear and use it to make a quick couple of dollars, others use it to explore the human condition beyond social constraint. Usually, it’s pretty ugly. In Night of the Comet, the revelation is that there are always people out there that will try to make a buck off other people’s irrational behavior, something shown in every other post-apocalyptic film. When the Apocalypse comes, these are the people you want to look out for.

Scary Movie Alien Countdown #5: “No one would have believed that our world was being watched….”

By Tom Kapr

“No one would have believed in the early years of the 21st century that our world was being watched by intelligences greater than our own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns, they observed and studied, the way a man with a microscope might scrutinize the creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency, men went to and fro about the globe, confident of our empire over this world. Yet across the gulf of space, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic regarded our planet with envious eyes and slowly, and surely, drew their plans against us.”

These are the words of the opening voice-over narration of Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, taken almost word for word from the opening paragraph of H.G. Wells’ classic 1898 novel. (The bit about the 21st century is, of course, the major difference.) Although it has been updated to take place more or less in the year of its release, 2005, and even though the protagonist has been changed from a nameless first-person narrator looking for his wife to a divorced man trying to hold on to his ever more distant children, Spielberg and company’s adaptation is surprisingly faithful to the book.

This version of War of the Worlds is nearly a perfect film for the first two acts. As with so many big-budget thrillers lately (and with so many Spielberg films lately), it derails in its third act: it becomes cliché, with Spielberg even stealing a bit from one of his own previous films (and not one of his good ones, either); characters start making decisions that make no sense except to set up the next mediocre scene; it ramps up the action aspect too much by having Tom Cruise’s character essentially go commando on an alien ship; and it wraps things up in the end too tidily, giving itself a happy ending it did not earn.

To be honest, the aliens themselves are not even that scary, though they are much more menacing than their description in the novel (in which they are essentially unable to move around in our gravity on their own power). But they have some amazing technology, and that technology is designed solely for the purposes of the worldwide genocide of humanity. As in Battle Los Angeles, the film that got this list going, the invasion and subsequent extermination is much more gritty and in-your-face than in most films in the alien-invasion genre. Whereas Battle Los Angeles spent most of its time at street level in L.A., the extermination process in War of the Worlds has a far more epic feel to it. It is the scenes of the unseen aliens in their tripods, obliterating every human in sight, that earns this film a spot on this list.

And as if monstrous alien machines casually exterminating human beings isn’t scary enough, leave it to Steven Spielberg to pepper his film with visual references to the Holocaust. The first scene in which the tripods attack is one of the most heart-pounding sequences ever filmed: Cruise’s character runs through the streets as people left and right are caught in the alien death ray and literally disintegrated into ash. When he makes it back home and sees himself in the mirror, sees what was recently his neighbors caked all over his face and body, we feel his revulsion as he freaks out. This and a later scene in which the clothes of disintegrated people rain from the sky, as well as a handful of other scenes including a burning train speeding by and a bunch of bodies floating down a river, are reminiscent of Spielberg’s work in Schindler’s List. The director is taking the subtle anti-war themes of Wells’ novel and expanding on them in a powerful way. These echoes of the consequences of Nazism, terrorism, and systematic violence in general, make the invasion of War of the Worlds one of the scariest in film.

They decide to settle it with a staring contest.

(Read Nate’s article on loose adaptations for a slightly less enthusiastic look at Spielberg’s War of the Worlds.)

Next on the countdown: “Nobody trusts anybody now, and we’re all very tired… there’s nothing more I can do, just wait….”

Korean Cinema: I Saw the Devil

By Nathanael Griffis

I Saw the Devil is a classic revenge thriller–the man seeking revenge normally sees reflected in himself aspects of the killer. We know the story: psychopath rapes and kills the fiancé of a secret agent who then goes on a spree of morally compromising actions, becoming more and more like the psychopath himself. The only thing is, the secret agent Kim Soo-hyeon seems to have taken a page from Edmond Dantès and toys with his psychopathic victim by catching and releasing him.

Byung-hun Lee about to do some revenge gardening.

Eventually succumbing to the thrill of the kill and drifting into psychosis himself, Soo-hyeon (played by Byung-hun Lee) is different from most revenge thriller protagonists in his complexity. He doesn’t lose his soul entirely like Edmond Dantès, become a heroic martyr whose actions are justified like John Creasy in Man on Fire, or stay morally ambiguous in the vein of Dirty Harry. His shrinking humanity and the consequences to his remaining loved ones who become victims of the psychopathic Kyung-chul (played by Min-sik Choi) keep him grounded. The final shot is of Soo-hyeon walking away crying, but with just a hint of a satisfied smile. Revenge has ultimately not left him fulfilled; it hasn’t brought back his fiancé; it’s only brought more pain and suffering to those around him, but it was necessary.

The acting is superb in this film. Min-sik Choi probably shouldn’t be allowed out in public around blunt objects, or sharp objects for that matter, or how about we just scrap the whole thing and keep him in a little actor box where we let him out to portray some skin-peelingly horrifying role. From Oldboy­ to Lady Vengeance, he’s one haunting performer with a frightening penchant for using hammers. Simply put, he’s one the best actors in South Korea, if not the world.

Min-sik Choi doing something. Sometimes it's better if you don't ask.

Byung-hun Lee stretches himself a bit here. He’s not just a pretty-boy action star like he was in G.I Joe or The Good, the Bad, the Weird. He can deliver a menacing glare well and works up some tears. It’s not a tour de force, but he’s worthy of praise for stepping out of a comfort zone and never reducing himself to his sex appeal. The rest of the cast is fine, but given little to do other than scream in pain, whimper, look confused, or do cop stuff like yell at Soo-hyeon and allow him to do what they can’t.

This movie is a mixed bag. Unlike a lot of revenge thrillers, this one is clearly in the horror genre. Director Jee-woon Kim was doing something new with The Good, the Bad, the Weird; he’s more known for grisly horror thrillers like A Tale of Two Sisters and A Bittersweet Life, but I kind of prefer his entertaining action. Perhaps it speaks to his talent as a horror director, but he’s knows just how far to push the gore envelope. Several scenes in this movie had me cringing and reaching for the remote, but just as I was ready to fast-forward, skip, or shut it down, he’d cut away. It was scary how much this got in my head. My imagination started to play with me and I no longer needed his grisly presentation. He knows what to show and what not to show. It’s more horrifying to see Min-sik Choi dragging a plastic-lined box of appendages across the screen than seeing him chop up a body.

Still, the gore felt a little too excessive. The presentation was done with a enough professional touches and skill that it horrified and sickened to the right degree without feeling exploitative, but the concurrent violent scenes did become visually deafening. Revenge thrillers, and horror films for that matter, are better when the violence and gore are focal points, staggered between moments of calm that horrify you. This is the basic reason Paranormal Activity is so affecting. The viewer comes to dread the night scenes, because they want to return to the peace of the day. There are really only three scenes of violence in A History of Violence, plenty of father-son time in Road to Perdition, and even Sweeny Todd has songs that don’t involve throat-slitting. There are not enough peaceful moments in I Saw the Devil, so it rockets forward and becomes more of a chase movie. By the end I had had enough of the gore, and it took away from the performances and the over-arching theme, which I do think is a deeper look at revenge. Kim should have taken a page from Chan-wook Park’s Vengeance Trilogy, which is extreme in its violence but has enough calm story-building to allow for an enjoyable viewing experience. There’s only so many times one can watch a skull get bashed in or someone stabbed with random hardware.

There’s also the issue of plot holes. The police seem unwilling or incapable of stopping either Kyung-chul or Soo-hyeon, even though at several occasions they have the option to do so, including a moment where Kyung-chul willing surrenders and they inexplicably wait three minutes for Soo-hyeon to show up. It felt really forced. Then there’s Soo-hyeon’s strange insistence to drive on the wrong side of the road in an attempt to cause traffic accidents. Despite popular opinion, you don’t get to the bad guy quicker by dodging oncoming SUV’s.  The characters also seem immortal until the director Kim decides they’re not. It apparently is not a big deal to have you skull cracked, Achilles tendon ripped out, several stab wounds, broken wrists, and stepping on a fish hook to boot. I mean I think I could wage war with a secret agent with those sorts of injuries, right?  These sorts of faux pas were charming and fit in The Good, the Bad, the Weird; they added to the comic aesthetic and allowed Kim to stage some amazing action scenes. Here they seem out of place and distracting. They only convolute the plot and weaken what are interesting characters.

Psst... psst... behind you....

As a horror thriller, this movie’s pretty good. It’s kind of disappointing to see Kim’s ability to get good performance from actors and frame some wonderful shots ruined by plot holes and the laws of biology and physics (stupid science ruins all the fun). In the end though it’s his own fault for focusing too much on the violence, which overruns the interesting ideas of monstrous actions demanding monstrous responses, the line between humanity and psychosis, and the universality of pain (even killers have families that a certain unhinged secret agent could harm). Unless you’re a connoisseur of foreign horror, or just horror for that matter, I would avoid this film. It’s not easy or enjoyable to watch, and the little art that shines through is not worth the images you have to bear. If horror’s your genre, there is a lot to learn from Jee-woon Kim’s execution of several scenes, but the overall package is a little light of substance.

Let’s Start Again: The post-apocalyptic utopia of “Logan’s Run”

By Steven Moore

I think it impossible, in this postmodern age of cynicism, to have a utopia that doesn’t have a dystopian underbelly. Agent Smith explains it best in The Matrix: the first matrix was created as a utopian paradise for humanity, but we couldn’t help but feel as though something was wrong. We kept searching for the seedy underbelly and rejected the good and beautiful world created around us. I imagine someone arguing that it was a false world, and I would say to that person willing to engage in such a nerdy argument, that people accepted the subsequent imperfect matrix, so why not the perfect one? Can the post-apocalyptic utopia be supported by anything other than death and decay? Can humanity really live in a utopia? Apparently not in the 1976 film Logan’s Run.

Yes, she certainly will.

Logan’s Run takes place long after the apocalypse. Humanity has recovered and now lives in a replica of Epcot Center, except that after a hard day’s work riding through plastic tubes and hanging out in the food court you can dial yourself an anonymous sex partner for the evening. Even though there’s so much anonymous sex going on, babies are created in lab tubes, and only to replace those that have died. Nobody knows their father or mother (which makes the anonymous sex thing kind of creepy). The population is kept beautiful (because anonymous sex wouldn’t be very fun if there were ugly people) by killing anyone who reaches the age of 30 in an anti-gravity disco that turns people into fireworks, as well as by a machine that can make you look like whatever you want (Jennifer Agutter will do just fine as she is, thank you).

While most people are content with the notion that this anti-gravity disco provides them with something they all refer to as “renewal,” even though no one really knows what that means, a few people question whether the anti-gravity disco is really for them. These people try to escape the city instead of being turned into a fireworks display. They are called Runners, and they are searching for a place code-named Sanctuary, even though nobody knows what that is. The Runners can only reach Sanctuary with a special key shaped like an Ankh, the Egyptian symbol for eternal life. People working to help us old folk who are at or over 30 escape to Sanctuary brazenly wear the Ankh on their person for all to see, yet the computer dictator who runs everything has no idea how to find them. (It must run on Windows; it can never find a solution to the problem.)

Our savior, ladies and gentlemen--stigmata and all.

There is a police force called the Sandmen who attempt to stop these Runners who escape from the Epcot Center of Hedonism. Unfortunately, the Sandmen have terrible aim with their zap guns, and those that eventually escape the prescribed dreamless sleep for anyone too cowardly not to conform, can look forward to a world that is pretty nearly lifeless except for lizards, cats, and one old man who keeps quoting T.S. Eliot. There is an alternative set aside, a preserve for those under 30 who don’t like free sex and food courts, and they are free to roam the halls of this preserve wearing rags and mugging at passersby, at least until the big three-oh.

In all honesty, this is a pretty good film that I enjoyed immensely despite some of the silliness. I personally had a hard time seeing the carousel-enforced utopian society as something anyone would want to escape or as a postmodern dystopia. Although everyone dies at 30, they spend those 30 years without bills, work, or any cares at all. They are free to pursue whatever interests they choose and never have to worry about disease or injury. I doubt most people get 30 years of leisure time throughout their entire life. The only rule in this utopian world is that you must show up when it’s your time to die. Other than that, just chill out and do whatever. The protagonist of the film, a Sandman name Logan, played by Michael York, eventually succeeds in destroying the utopian society, forcing the inhabitants to flee into a nearly lifeless world to fend for themselves. Hey guys, you’re all free to toil and work your fingers to the bone just to survive for the next 50-60 years. Yay! Oh yeah, we’re gonna have ugly people now too.

Logan’s Run is a different thematic interpretation of a post-apocalyptic humanity, exploring an important question: would you rather be taken care of and live a carefree life for 30 years or live the natural human lifespan struggling for survival? Is it worth it to know exactly when and where you will die? In a post-human world where the previous social structure obviously didn’t work out so well, they seemed to find something that worked, and Logan had to come by and ruin it all. Thanks for ruining the party, dude.