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Shadows and Fog (1991)

In Shadows and Fog, Woody Allen pays homage to the German Expressionist movement of the 1920s with a Kafka-esque story and a Lang-esque style. The blend of Allen’s absurd comedic style, his frequent obsessions (mortality, infidelity, guilt), and German Expressionism is put to better effect in some of his New Yorker short stories, notably “The Condemned.” However, Shadows and Fog benefits greatly in light of Allen’s work in the intervening 20 years. Its original release—between a string of great films like Crimes and Misdemeanors and Bullets Over Broadway—made it seem like a lesser work. Since then, Allen has made a lot of flat-out bad films. Shadows and Fog holds up better in comparison to his later work, though it’s nowhere near the caliber of his incredible hot streak during the ’70s and ’80s.

The strange story ostensibly focuses on the pursuit of a serial killer known as “the Strangler.” Kleinman (Allen) becomes an unwilling participant in the search when a vigilante mob rouses him from his sleep and suggests that if he doesn’t help, then he must be the killer. Meanwhile, at a circus on the outskirts of New York, sword-swallower Irmy (Mia Farrow) argues with her husband, clown Paul (John Malkovich), about having a baby. Angry, Irmy runs away and winds up taking shelter in a whorehouse where student Jack (John Cusack) mistakes her for an employee.

From there, things get even more bizarre as the enormous cast of characters (including a madam played by Lily Tomlin, prostitutes played by Jodie Foster and Kathy Bates, a tightrope walker played by Madonna, a doctor played by Donald Pleasence, and a magician played by Kenneth Mars) interact in absurd, surprising ways. I don’t want to spoil the developments, so I’ll just say this: imagine Love and Death, You Only Live Once, and Kafka’s The Trial had a freaky three-way. Shadows and Fog would be their lovechild.

Allen is not a director known for creating a creepy atmosphere in his films. Even his most depressing (Interiors) and surreal (Stardust Memories) films, while evocative in their own ways, don’t have the same eerie, oppressive feel of Shadows and Fog. It’s a combination of the heavy fog and Allen’s decision to shoot entirely on soundstages instead of on location, which lends itself perfectly to the surreal, dreamlike nature of the film. This is one of a handful of films to point to in order to convince doubters of Allen’s versatility and directorial daring.

The problem that prevents Shadows and Fog from joining the ranks of Allen’s alarming number of masterpieces is its central conceit: it toes the line between spoofing and paying homage to German Expressionism, and as a result it’s a little too precious and self-consciously odd. Generally a master of absurdity, Allen strains here to combine weirdness with weighty themes, starting with the too-obvious circus motif. Consequently, Allen’s work here pales in comparison to the Kafka material he emulates. That doesn’t make it a bad film. Uneven, maybe. It’s anchored by great performances, and Allen loads his script with enough comedy and thoughtful ideas to make up for the occasionally overwrought symbolism and thematic elements. If nothing else, it’s a lot more watchable and ambitious than Allen’s other magic-themed films (The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Scoop).

Overall, Shadows and Fog seems designed mainly for people who know and appreciate German Expressionism. If you’ve never read anything by Kafka or seen anything by Lang or Murnau, this probably won’t do much for you. It’s a good film if you have those reference points, but it doesn’t hold up on its own merits.

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The Turning Point (1977)

Although The Turning Point is largely remembered for its ballet sequences, the heart of this incredibly depressing story has little to do with dance. It focuses on two generations of dancers. The older set lives with chronic anguish over pivotal decisions in their past. The younger dancers have not yet made those mistakes, but we’re left with the impression that they will soon face the same decisions as their parents and likely suffer the same long-term, deep-seated regrets. It’s not a happy story, but it packs a hard emotional punch that anyone who understands regret can relate to.

The story focuses on the Rodgers family of Oklahoma City. Deedee (Shirley MacLaine) and Wayne (Tom Skerritt) were once highly regarded dancers for the American Ballet Company. They gave up the life when Deedee got pregnant, and they settled down to start a family. They’ve raised their children with a love of dance, and eldest daughter Emilia (Leslie Browne) wants to go pro. When the company tours Oklahoma City, Emilia auditions and makes it—with a little help from her godmother, Emma (Anne Bancroft). Emma lives the life Deedee could have had and secretly wants, and it’s caused a rift in their friendship. Their scenes together are fraught with unspoken tension as they pay each other compliments—not the sort of obnoxious, backhanded compliments one might expect from a lesser film. They both mean what they say, and what they say sounds nice, but neither one seems terribly happy about having to see each other long enough to pay compliments.

Of course, they end up seeing a lot more of each other. Deedee accompanies Emilia to New York to train for the company. She has the twin pain of watching her daughter repeat many of her own past mistakes and developing the talent Deedee let atrophy. Adding salt to these wounds is Emilia’s increasingly close bond with Emma, who clearly wants to make up for pursuing the solitary life of a dancer instead of settling down and having a daughter of her own. As Emilia starts to lose her wide-eyed, rosy-cheeked innocence in the bitter world of New York ballet, Deedee’s isolation grows, and she starts to make more regrettable mistakes. Watching these relationships deepen and change is the film’s most rewarding aspect.

Another major strength of The Turning Point is its emphasis on the hard work and struggle involved in artistic success. Recent fare like the remake of Fame and the hit TV series Glee suggest that people blessed with natural talent don’t need to put forth any effort. This film recognizes the reality that those with natural talent need to work their asses off to avoid stagnating. Rehearsals are a grueling, frustrating slog, and not even the performances are rewarding. These dancers have an internal drive that prevents them from doing anything other than dance. The film subtly suggests that Deedee and Wayne settled down because they lacked this drive.

Director Herbert Ross made a career out of adapting successful stage plays with impressive cinematic flair. A former ballet dancer himself, Ross lingers lovingly on the dance sequences, almost to the detriment of the film. Well, that’s hard to say—personally, I’m not a big ballet fan, so the lengthy recital sequence felt interminable to me. I’d imagine a ballet fan would appreciate it more. In the sense that it reminds Deedee of what she gave up (as well as showing the dancers’ hard work paying off), I understand its necessity to the film. However, many of the dances feature men and women who don’t serve as major (or even minor) characters. Sliding in snippets of dialogue from earlier in the film to suggest the way these numbers fit with the theme, in addition to being fairly on-the-nose, doesn’t do much to make them work dramatically.

Nevertheless, the quality of the film surrounding the climactic recital makes it more than worth the effort, even for non-fans like myself. It’s not an upbeat film, but the elegiac tone and complexity of the characters make watching it a worthwhile experience.

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The Culpepper Cattle Company (1972)

The Culpepper Cattle Company is a cinematic curiosity that I’m not sure has occurred before or since: a coming-of-age revisionist western. It seems like an odd combination of genres, but it’s not so surprising, especially considering the time of its making. As directors like Sam Peckinpah and Arthur Penn started to demythologize the genre, the audience’s veil lifted just as Ben Mockridge’s (Gary Grimes) does.

Let me explain: Ben is a young farm boy who yearns to be a cowboy. He gets his chance when Frank Culpepper (Billy “Green” Bush) and his men pass through his family farm on a cattle drive from California to Colorado. Ben’s wide-eyed enthusiasm amuses Culpepper, so he gets hired as the crew’s “Little Mary,” the cook’s assistant. Through an episodic storyline, the romance and heroism of cowboy life is stripped away, for both Ben and the audience.

This is a movie full of dust, blood, sweat, and anger—a perfect breeding ground for a boy to become a man. That’s the crux of Ben’s journey, and I think it’s why the film is (unjustly) remembered mainly as a footnote in Jerry Bruckheimer’s career (he served as “associate producer,” his first on-screen credit) instead of an impressive but depressing work. The narrative simply isn’t very strong, focusing as it does on its main character’s emotional growth into reluctant adulthood rather than having a tight plot that leads to the inevitable shootout on Main Street.

Unlike the mildly similar Little Big Man, Ben’s story covers a shorter period of time and lacks epic grandeur and humor. However, this seems to be by design. It has a few well-timed laughs, but director Dick Richards wants this to serve as an intensely focused, dramatic study of one man. It doesn’t use Ben as a metaphor for the entire Wild West experience, nor does it want to portray the time and place as anything but bleak. It portrays a few vital experiences in Ben’s life in a way that’s a bit more realistic than the westerns popular throughout the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s.

Some might complain about the use of brief vignettes (many of which mine the clichés of the genre, in order to turn them on their ear) to tell the story, but oddly, it worked for me. The lack of a strong central narrative to counterpoint Ben’s transformation makes the story less and less predictable as the minutes pass. With only five minutes left, I couldn’t imagine how it would end, but the conclusion is stark, emotional and explains why Gary Grimes was cast in the role. He plays the bright-eyed rube so effectively, he seems like an actor who’s mediocre at best. However, he plays Ben’s slowly altering emotional state so well in the last half hour that I couldn’t imagine anyone else in the role.

Bush does a decent job as Culpepper, a hardworking but mostly bland character whose most well defined trait is his bushy, black beard. It’s Geoffrey Lewis who adds another dimension of unpredictability to the film as Russ, an experienced cattleman Culpepper hires early in the film. Along with cronies Dixie (Bo Hopkins) and Luke (Luke Askew), Russ brings an offbeat menace and a sense of dread to the drive. They’re clearly insane, possibly psychopathic, and whenever they enter a saloon, it’s anyone’s guess who will make it out alive. This trio, always instigated by Russ, leads the Culpepper Cattle Company into the dangerous situations that test Ben and force him into maturity.

The Culpepper Cattle Company is a good but not outstanding film that should be more firmly entrenched in the public consciousness than it is. A lot of infinitely worse westerns are more well-known (The Oklahoma Kid, anybody?). Despite the excessive violence (its PG rating reflects the time before the 1985 invention of PG-13, so it’s loaded with early-’70s red tempera paint blood), it’s the sort of film I could imagine watching and enjoying as a family, assuming you have “tween” kids who have open enough minds not to scoff at anything not branded with the Hannah Montana logo.

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Loose Cannons (1990)

What the hell happened? I’ve never seen a movie so full of fresh comedic ideas so poorly rendered. A buddy-cop comedy written by legendary writer Richard Matheson and his not-so-legendary son, with Bob Clark (a criminally underrated director) at the helm? Pairing up Gene Hackman, one of the best actors of his generation, and Dan Aykroyd, one of the most gifted comic minds of his generation? Taking the idea of the “straitlaced cop/crazy cop” pairing to its illogical comedic extreme? Centering the mystery around a porno film featuring Adolf Hitler? Why does this movie lay like a shameful post-Taco Bell turd, a thick pile of disappointment and wasted potential?

Here’s the answer: Ellis Fielding (Aykroyd) suffers from multiple personality disorder. That’s right—the movie’s hook is also its central liability. It didn’t have to be, but Clark and the Mathesons choose to do nothing even close to interesting with a potentially hilarious conceit. They use the multiple personalities as a cheap gimmick that allows Aykroyd to show off his gift for impersonations and not much else. Ellis doesn’t have distinct personalities so much as an encyclopedic knowledge of TV, cartoon, and movie characters. He slips into a cavalcade of wacky voices and cartoon mannerisms whenever the script decides it’s necessary; otherwise, Ellis reverts to his “normal” personality, a deeply fearful but clearly brilliant detective. Aykroyd shines in this mode and doesn’t do anything offensively wrong in the “wacky” mode—it’s just that the screenplay lets him down by not giving Ellis a more creative way to manifest different personalities.

The plot is almost indescribably insane, which is a plus in a comedy mystery. It opens with German militants chasing a group of sexual fetishists, led by Harry Gutterman (Dom DeLuise), dressed like characters from Alice in Wonderland. No, really. When one of the fetishists gets killed, brash detective Macarthur Stern (Hackman) is put on the case and gets saddled with Ellis, who has just returned to the force after a lengthy stay at a mental hospital. The crime scene quickly leads them to Gutterman, who reveals he saw a porno film involving Hitler and other high-ranking Nazi officials. The Germans are willing to kill anyone who sees the film. Stern and Ellis find themselves teaming up with Gutterman and Riva (Nancy Travis), an undercover Mossad agent, to recover the film and foil the Germans.

Unfortunately, the movie never bothers to make the villains threatening or interesting. They simply appear with machine guns whenever the screenplay decides it’s time for another wacky action sequence. It obviously uses Lethal Weapon as the basis for its formula, but it forgets that Lethal Weapon had colorful bad guys in addition to the central conflict between Murtaugh and Riggs. It’s yet another comedy that fails to reach its potential because everyone involved shrugs and says, “Eh, it’s a comedy. It doesn’t have to have a satisfying story or compelling characters. It just has to be funny.”

Except it’s also not very funny. Clark tries to give the film a manic energy to create the illusion it’s much more entertaining and inventive than it really is. Neither him nor Aykroyd have the power to overcome the script’s inherent shortcomings. Most of the best comedic material goes to Hackman, a straight man with a short fuse and enough dyspeptic one-liners to remain engaging despite the film’s numerous problems.

I can’t stress my disappointment enough. Everyone involved—all people I admire for their various gifts—failed spectacularly. It’s a real shame, because two great comedic ideas (a cop with multiple personalities and a Nazi porno) go to waste.

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Strange Invaders (1983)

Strange Invaders tries to serve up something resembling an homage to the cheesy, low-budget sci-fi films playing at 1950s drive-ins. On that level, it’s hard to judge if it was a conscious choice on director Michael Laughlin’s part to make nearly every scene much longer than it needs to be and give it the lugubrious pace of a Bert I. Gordon film. Whether conscious or unconscious, the film doesn’t work as a result. It lacks the wit and absurdity of a Zucker brothers spoof, it lacks the satirical edge of something like Night of the Creeps or Gremlins, so what’s left is a straight-up homage to ’50s B-movies that’s equally as bad as its predecessors.

Paul Le Mat is game as Charles Bigelow, a Columbia University entomology professor whose ex-wife (Diana Scarwid) disappeared while on a routine trip to her hometown. So Charles travels to rural Centerville, Illinois, a seemingly idyllic community with a dark secret: aliens invaded in 1958. Other than making the town feel like a Rod Serling creation, it’s unclear what impact the aliens had on the town. However, Charles soon realizes its creepy citizens don’t want him to leave, either. He narrowly escapes, and while on his way out of town, he sees one of the aliens.

Terrified, Charles returns to New York. He teams up with Betty Walker (Nancy Allen), a cynical reporter for a National Enquirer-like tabloid. She nearly laughs him out of the room when he approaches her about the aliens, but a series of strange happenings change her mind. It seems the aliens have followed Charles back to New York and want him dead—and now Betty, too, because she Knows Too Much. While on the run, they dig up information about what may have happened in Centerville, and they find themselves with no choice but to return and face the alien menace.

That probably sounds like a compelling story. It should be—it has all the elements of good/goofy sci-fi. Really, the only thing that kills this move is its glacial pace. Clearly shot on a low budget, Laughlin had to make some choices. It’s obviously not going to be as action-packed or effects-heavy as, say, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (which is parodied briefly in the opening scene), because the money’s not there. He wastes Le Mat and Allen, though. Both seem to be having fun, but this movie lacks the fast-paced, ratatat dialogue usually employed by producers like Roger Corman and Samuel Z. Arkoff to give a sense that something interesting is happening. Instead, it seems like everyone took a few Quaaludes before cameras started rolling. They speak very slowly, and long stretches of silence fill gaps between conversations. Le Mat and Allen try, in vain, to bring some energy to their scenes together, but they’re inhibited by a combination of poor editing and the dullness surrounding them.

This movie’s low budget and bizarre story sensibilities reminded me of filmmakers like John Carpenter and Larry Cohen. However, those directors did a much better job of working with actors and had a much clearer vision of what they wanted to accomplish cinematically. Laughlin’s adrift here, and Strange Invaders suffers as he tries to figure out not only what he wants his film to say, but how he should say it. This script and these actors would have been better served by someone more competent at the helm. Then again, Laughlin produced Two-Lane Blacktop, so maybe stilted conversations punctuated by long stretches of silence is his artistic vision. That’s fine for a bleak, existential road movie, but it doesn’t work here.

Don’t waste your time seeking out Strange Invaders. Other filmmakers have covered the same ground with much better results. It’s disappointing that the film wastes so much talent and potential.

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Full Grown Men (2006)

Another weekend, another indie road movie about emotionally stunted characters going on a quirky adventure populated by a cavalcade of weirdos who teach life lessons. Full Grown Men gets bonus points for being funnier and less uneven than other examples of its ilk, but it still suffers from many of the frustrating clichés that have plagued the independent film scene for years.

Matt McGrath stars as Alby Cutrera, a moderately obnoxious wannabe comic-book artist whose stunted emotional growth is symbolized through a collection of vintage action figures. An argument with his wife over the collection results in him angrily leaving. He returns to his hometown, staying briefly with his dementia-suffering mother before reconnecting with Elias Guber (Judah Friedlander). Now a special education teacher, Guber has matured into a bitter, easily annoyed man whose antagonistic childhood friendship with Alby has shaped his adult personality.

Still, Alby’s forceful exuberance and their shared history allows him to manipulate Guber into driving him to Diggity Land, a theme park obviously modeled after Disney World (their journey is across Florida, after all). Along the way, they meet a wild assortment of characters who provide easy metaphors for Alby and Guber’s problems. There’s a hitchhiker (Alan Cumming) who once worked at Diggity Land and expresses a desire to go back and shoot everyone; an old Mafioso (Jerry Grayson) who buys vintage toys to resell with the same enthusiasm and markup of drugs and prostitutes; a cute barmaid (Amy Sedaris) currently attending a clown college run by her bar’s dwarf owners; and a former Diggity Land mermaid (Deborah Harry) whose life was destroyed by her inability to grow up.

Along the way, the issues between Alby and Guber naturally boil over, and if director and co-writer David Munro had focused more energy on the dynamics of this relationship and less on the wacky people and situations they encounter on the journey, the whole movie would have worked a lot better. McGrath and Friedlander share an easy rapport and do a great job trading sarcastic barbs, and the movie is at its best when it’s just the two of them in a station wagon, arguing about anything and everything. The movie splits them up too soon, brings them back together too late, and wastes far too much time on comedic vignettes that miss more than they hit. Professional oddballs like Cumming and Sedaris are always a welcome presence, but they’re given so little to work with, I couldn’t help feeling impatient when the film focused on them instead of its central relationship.

Road movies have existed as long as the medium. They’ve become a staple of independent films like Little Miss Sunshine, Away We Go, and The Go-Getter, which use the trip as a frequently bland, lazy metaphor for the path from childhood to adulthood. The thing this new crop of indies misunderstand that superior road movies (It Happened One Night, Midnight Run, Planes, Trains and Automobiles) embrace is that it’s less about the weirdos met along the way than the relationship that develops between the mismatched pair stuck on the road together.

At any rate, the weird people and situations should serve as a catalyst to explore new dimensions of the budding central relationship, not simply for amusement. That’s why this film’s toy merchant sequence works. It’s not about the goofy conceit that this man will sell whatever he can that people will pay ridiculous sums of money for—it’s about the way he changes Alby and Guber’s dynamic and causes one to betray the other in order to make some easy money. The other vignettes—particularly the clown bar sequence—lack this extra dimension.

Full Grown Men simply doesn’t hang together well enough to recommend. It’s a shame, because what works in the film is quite enjoyable. However, what doesn’t is quite bad.

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The Frighteners (1996)

When The Frighteners debuted in 1996, American moviegoers responded with thunderous indifference. Admittedly, it’s a tough sell: a big studio film with a tone that toes the uneasy line between goofy and suspenseful, a baffling R rating, and Michael J. Fox, the king of likability, cast as a grieving, emotionally distant psychic. However, it developed an instant cult following thanks to director Peter Jackson’s already legendary career as a director of goofy-suspenseful horror films like Dead Alive, Meet the Feebles, and Bad Taste. It’s one of those movies that studios greenlight because they don’t exactly know what they’ve signed up for, and personally, I always admire people who can trick studios into financing films like this.

The Frighteners boasts an insane plot that moves at a frantic clip. Fox stars as Frank Bannister, who developed the ability to see ghosts after a car accident in which his wife died. Once an architect, Bannister now sells his services as a psychic/sham-exorcist because he can’t function in any other realm. Although the script doesn’t dwell on the possibility, Fox plays Bannister like a grieving alcoholic. He drives like a maniac, makes belligerent scenes at funerals, and generally has no regard for humanity. Of course, from his point of view, the world is busy with spirit activity nobody else can see. This would drive anyone to isolation, but Bannister’s is a prison of his own making: The incomplete “dream home” he designed and started building for his wife, which he shares with ghosts Cyrus (Chi McBride), Stuart (Jim Fyfe), and The Judge (John Astin).

The death of Ray Lynskey (Peter Dobson) forces Bannister to connect. Ray—not a believer in ghosts during his life—insists that Bannister track down his wife, Lucy (Trini Alvarado), to provide some closure. Through circumstances so convoluted they must be seen to be believed, Bannister’s experience with Lucy results in accusations of murder from a sinister FBI agent with a Hitler haircut: Milton Dammers (Jeffrey Combs). Dammers thinks Bannister is a serial killer who must be stopped. Despite evidence to the contrary, Bannister himself starts to fear Dammers is right. Lucy, however, starts to unravel a conspiracy involving a long-dead thrill killer (Jake Busey) and his seemingly insane former paramour (Dee Wallace-Stone).

Because of Jackson’s weird, unreal directing style, the dated special effects manage to lend a kooky charm that fits the film’s tone. Like Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion miniatures, the film’s style makes the effects timeless despite the fact that digital effects have improved exponentially since its release. In the same way, substituting a rain-swept coastal New Zealand town for small-town California lends a similarly fantastical quality to the film. Everything feels a little bit off, a quality that greatly benefits the film whether Jackson intended it or not.

Fox played two comedic characters so ingrained in American culture, it’s easy to forget he’s proved himself to be quite a good actor in films like Casualties of War and Bright Lights, Big City. Jackson puts his skills to good use. Although The Frighteners is mostly comedic, it goes pretty dark when Bannister starts to question his sanity and the probability that he is, indeed, a serial killer. I hate to pigeonhole, but I wouldn’t think of Alex P. Keaton and/or Marty McFly as the sort of person who could run such an emotional gamut, but Fox does terrific work here.

Also terrific: Trini Alvarado, an actress who might have gone on to bigger and better things had anyone actually seen The Frighteners. After a string of great performances in films that ranged from underseen (The Perez Family) to shouldn’t-have-been-seen (The Babe), Alvarado pretty much disappeared after The Frighteners. Whether it was her choice or Hollywood’s, Alvarado’s absence from cinema is a huge disappointment. Hollywood’s not exactly overstocked with attractive women who exude intelligence and are legitimately hilarious. Alvarado’s performance matches Fox’s in the underrated department.

The supporting players are perfectly cast, from Busey, who has never been creepier, not even as the eerie religious zealot in Contact, to Combs, whose hamminess has to be seen to be believed. In a sense, Jackson is making a live-action comic book (the film was originally intended as a Tales from the Crypt spinoff), which all the supporting players (mostly ghosts) understand. Fox and Alvarado, meanwhile, keep the film grounded in a believable emotional reality. It’s a mix that shouldn’t work, but it does in spades.

Fans of horror-comedies with crazy plots and cartoony characters will love The Frighteners. Really, it’ll please anyone who wants to laugh while being scared this Halloween. That’s assuming you find the humor in serial killers, which is sort of a prerequisite. You know who you are.

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Darkness Falls (2003)

It’s obvious something went horribly wrong with Darkness Falls based on its opening sequence. Most horror movies try to build a bit of a mystery about what’s really going on, but Darkness Falls doesn’t want you to ask any questions. It offers up several possible explanations—chief among them, that one of the main characters is a serial killer—and then quashes any possibility of those explanations with one of the longest, most tedious sequences of backstory I’ve seen in a film that doesn’t also offer a life insurance policy in case audience members die of fright. It’s not the worst horror movie ever made, but it’s decidedly sanitized for our protection, and somewhat insulting to the members of the audience who like to ask questions or be surprised.

The first of two prologues goes like this: An unknown narrator offers up all the backstory we’ll ever need, and then some. In the New England town of Darkness Falls, a child-loving widow (known as “the Tooth Fairy” because of the gifts she would give when local children lost their teeth) got horribly disfigured in a fire, which left her hypersensitive to light. As a result, she wore a porcelain mask over her face and only went out at night. Not long after, two boys went missing. The townspeople blamed the Tooth Fairy, hanged her, and ripped off her mask, exposing her face to the light. As she died, the Tooth Fairy vowed revenge. For generations, the story of the Tooth Fairy was passed around by frightened children, but none of them realized the numerous child deaths in Darkness Falls were a direct result of the Tooth Fairy’s revenge.

After this lengthy dissemination of information, the movie opens with a second prologue, this one a flashback to Caitlin’s (played as an adult by Emma Caulfield) childhood. She shared a friendship/attraction with Kyle (played as an adult by Chaney Kley), who has just lost his last baby tooth. In the night, he’s visited by the Tooth Fairy. Knowing the legend, he shines a flashlight on her and runs. Kyle’s mother insists there’s nothing there and is killed for her hubris. The police blame Kyle, and he spends the remainder of his teenage years in a mental hospital.

Twelve years later, the movie proper starts. Caitlin’s parents are dead, so she has to take care of her little brother, Michael (Lee Cormie), whose fear of the dark causes him to stop sleeping altogether. She takes Michael to a variety of doctors, but they don’t have satisfactory explanations. Remembering Kyle’s weird fear of the dark, Caitlin tracks him down. Over the phone, she can’t tell Kyle still lives with his obsessive fear of darkness, and she asks him to help Michael get over his fear and grow out of it.

Naturally, when night falls, the Tooth Fairy arrives, and the remainder of the movie combines shadowy scare tactics with goofy attempts to kill the Tooth Fairy once and for all. If you think the ultimate solution may involve that porcelain mask, congratulations! You’ve seen bad horror movies before!

So what went wrong here? A capable cast, led by Emma Caulfield of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, doesn’t have much to work with. Generic scares, bad exposition, improbable narrative turns, and not much else. Director Jonathan Liebesman manages to find more style in the shadowy hospitals of Darkness Falls than he gave to Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning.

No, the real problem comes from a screenplay that’s barely feature length, and is padded with unnecessary prologues and extra-long credits. It’s not that the film lacks ideas—it just removes any potentially interesting character traits or plot development to provide the most watered-down, easily digestible horror film imaginable. Why is Caitlin’s brother 20 years younger than she is? Why are her parents dead? Because heroines in generic movies can’t be single mothers. Why—other than padding its runtime—does the movie make it explicitly clear that the Tooth Fairy is real, when one of its major story points revolves around Kyle getting arrested for the Tooth Fairy’s crime? Because heroes aren’t serial killers, and the filmmakers obviously felt the audience would have a hard time thinking, even for a second, that Our Hero might be a killer instead of an innocent victim.

It’s all just lazy and disappointing. The Tooth Fairy could work as the subject of a horror story, considering the subtle depravity of the fantasy: A fairy sneaks into children’s bedrooms while they sleep to trade baby teeth for money? That’s pretty demented. Darkness Falls robs the concept and characters of anything interesting, delivering painful mediocrity to an unsuspecting audience.

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It’s Alive (1974)

Prior to seeing It’s Alive, my only experience with a Larry Cohen production was watching Full Moon High on The Movie Channel. That movie has drifted into unfortunate obscurity, but let me say this: It’s one of the funniest horror-comedies I’ve ever seen. So it probably won’t surprise you that I expected It’s Alive to have a similar comedic tone—after all, it’s about a killer baby, of all things. In a million years, I could not have imagined it would have contained such suspense and such a thoughtful metaphor about parents giving birth to monsters.

To quote McBain: It’s not a comedy. It contains Cohen’s wit and penchant for the absurd, but he plays It’s Alive as a straight horror film. Centered on Frank Davis (John Ryan), a mild-mannered publicist whose wife, Lenore (Sharon Farrell), is expecting her second child. In a gut-wrenching sequence, the birth goes horribly awry. The baby is born hideously deformed, with monstrous claws and fangs. One of the doctors attempts a mercy killing, which prompts the baby to not-so-mercifully kill everyone in the delivery room—except Lenore.

As the baby wanders around, killing people, Frank and Lenore return home to deal with the emotional ramifications of what they’ve brought into the world: A murderous monster that police will undoubtedly kill on sight if they can catch it. Neither of them expect that the infant is traveling across town to get home. Lenore discovers the baby and, as any parent would, puts aside its flaws and hides it in the basement. She doesn’t even tell Frank, because he wouldn’t understand—and it’s true, he doesn’t. He wants it dead, just like the police do. But soon enough, Frank will see his child and have the same reaction Lenore does.

That reaction is what makes It’s Alive more than a campy horror flick. Cohen roots the story firmly in the most primitive instincts of any parent, unconditional love of a child and the desire to do anything possible to protect it. That foundation allows for his metaphoric exploration of persecution and protection, and the moral gray area of a parent protecting a beast they know is a killer. The Davis’s struggle remains emotionally resonant throughout.

Much of this has to do with John Ryan’s terrific performance. Although he worked steadily, Ryan never had the career he deserved. Let’s face it: Anyone who took supporting roles in more than one Cannon film deserves better, but it’s especially disappointing to see an actor give such a committed, heartbreaking performance in one early role, knowing he never got the chance to top it.

It’s Alive is a great horror film, much less campy or silly than the DVD box art would have you believe. It also introduced Cohen’s offbeat sensibility to moviegoers. Obscured in his ’60s television work and early ’70s blaxploitation films (though it’s present in spades in 1972’s Bone), Cohen has the sort of unique cinematic voice many filmmakers could only dream of having. It’s Alive remains a great introduction to his work, as it’s arguably his most accessible film. It’s a must-see for any horror fan.

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Ghoulies II (1988)

I’m man enough to admit that, as a kid, Ghoulies II traumatized me. There’s nothing like a seven-year-old boy watching monsters peer out of a toilet just as a man sits on it to make him never want to use a toilet again. It’s effective as an instrument of torture for small children, but I thought now was a good time to revisit it as an adult. And guess what? It’s a terrible film, naturally, but it’s not terrible in the fun way one might expect it to be based on the iconic posters for the first two films.

The plot revolves around a California carnival, but the film was shot in Italy. Director/producer Albert Band spared every possible expense in trying to make Rome look like California. The fact that everything in the movie looks distinctly Italian—from road signage to automobiles to extras—lends a bizarre charm to the film, but that’s really the only charming thing about it.

Larry (Damon Martin) is apprenticing at his Uncle Ned’s (Royal Dano) attraction, Satan’s Den. Have you ever been to Wisconsin Dells? On every street, you find chintzy haunted houses put together by exploitative citizens banking on tourists wandering around and saying, “Ooh, a haunted house.” As a tourist who has uttered those words on no fewer than 800 occasions, let me tell you from experience: they’re not scary. At all. And that’s pretty much Satan’s Den, a scare-free haunted house that doesn’t even have the good sense to be a house.

Not surprisingly, the ghoulies (think Gremlins, only with worse puppetry and no amusement value) stow away on Uncle Ned’s truck and start attacking people who visit Satan’s Den. For some reason, these murderous trolls draw a huge crowd to Satan’s Den, making it one of the dying carnival’s few profitable attractions. The carnival’s sniveling new owner, Hardin (J. Downing), wants to capitalize on this by exploiting the ghoulies. Larry protests, but Hardin insists the ghoulies aren’t the ones killing people. Until he sees them kill people.

Eventually, the ghoulies break free of Satan’s Den and attempt to wreak wacky havoc on the entire carnival. Again, think Gremlins, only without the brisk pacing and satirical component that made their havoc so much more entertaining.

Obviously, Ghoulies II is a crass, awful cash-in that should have been a lot more fun than it is. After all, it’s a movie where the dorky hero is dating a burlesque dancer (Kerry Remsen), and a diminutive stage actor (Phil Fondacaro) laments that he’s not performing King Lear while going in and out of a British accent, depending on the scene. This is the sort of material that’s too bizarre not to entertain, yet the movie lays there like a ghoulie in a toilet.

This pathological inability to amuse or delight must be blamed on Band, a veteran in the schlock horror industry (producer/director of Dracula’s Dog and producer of Troll). His bland, workmanlike direction and Bert I. Gordon-esque pacing force innumerable goofy ideas to fall flat. Even the film’s money shot—Hardin’s death by toilet attack—doesn’t quite satisfy the way I would have liked. In better hands, Ghoulies II could have had the depraved whimsy of a Joe Dante film; in worse hands, it could have had the inept charm of Monster Dog. Band’s relentless mediocrity does the film no favors.

In short, the movie is no fun. Even reliving the weird childhood trauma of catching the exact wrong moment of this movie on TV isn’t enough to make it watchable. It’s schlock without heart, and what’s the point of that?

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