Creature Feature

IT (2017)

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Every 27 years people in the town of Derry, ME go missing, especially children. Sometimes pieces of them will be found here and there. Bill’s younger brother, Georgie, is among the missing. As Bill and the rest of the “losers’ club” try to find Georgie they begin to see strange and horrifying things. Each of them have seen the same clown. Pennywise is back, and he is hungry.

Almost every horror fan has seen the IT mini series that premiered on TV back in 1990. While the film overall might not be considered a masterpiece, few can deny that Tim Curry as Pennywise the clown is one of the most iconic horror villains of all time. When most people think back to the 1990 adaptation of IT, Curry is usually what people remember. The announcement of a new adaptation created a rumbling of mixed reviews from fans. Many had negative things to say about the prospect of someone other than Curry playing the infamous clown. Others were open to the idea of a new IT film or even excited to see what a new team could do with the story. While the film had some controversial moments during its making, I believe fans will ultimately be pleased with the finished product.

While it is difficult to not constantly compare the two versions of IT, I will do my best to focus on the new material. The filmmakers are very wise to have IT take place in the nineteen-eighties. This allows them to draw inspiration from kid adventure films of the eighties such as The Monster Squad, The Goonies, and Stand By Me  – and benefit from the recent success of Stranger Things. This time period is also a wise decision because it means the next installment of IT, which will focus on the protagonists as adults, will take place in our present day. It makes the story more accessible to current generations of horror fans while still allowing the film to have the same plot points and interesting characters fans know and love.

There are two particular aspects of this film that exceed my expectations. First, it is downright hilarious. We know that IT involves a healthy amount of humor, especially from the character of Ritchie. This film was much more humorous than I expected, and the humor came from multiple different characters. This is largely because the jokes are more inappropriate and adult, much like the kinds of jokes you would expect boys that age to make. The stand out comedic moments came from the characters Ritchie, Ben, and Eddie. The second successful aspect is the violence. As odd as this may sound, the simple fact that the filmmakers show extreme violence towards children makes me enjoy the film more. Not many films, horror or otherwise, have the guts to show children being attacked and mutilated. Yet, in real life, kids get hurt just as much as adults do. The filmmakers do not hold back on the violence, no matter who it is directed towards. It raises the stakes and makes it clear to the audience just how much peril these kids are in. It can be jarring to see, but it adds a bit more realism to this otherwise fantastical horror film.

The entire cast of the losers’ club, as well as Pennywise himself, are perfect in IT. Jaeden Lieberher (The Book of Henry) leads the losers’ club as Bill. Lieberher does a great job with Bill’s stutter in a way that is subtle and natural sounding. He clearly has the most heart of the group, and Lieberher conveys that very well. Jeremy Ray Taylor (42) plays the new kid, Ben. What I love about Taylor’s performance is how he portrays Ben as somewhat naive and a hopeless romantic. Sophia Lillis (37) shines as Beverly, the lone female of the group. Lillis manages to make Beverly both the strongest and most fragile character of the film. Finn Wolfhard (Stranger Things) is absolutely hilarious as Ritchie. He lands virtually every joke effortlessly and keeps the audience laughing throughout the entire film. Chosen Jacobs (Hawaii Five-0) plays the homeschooled outsider, Mike. While I wish the character of Mike had been in the film a bit more, Jacobs still makes him an interesting character to watch. Jack Dylan Grazer (Tales of Halloween) surprised me the most as germaphobic Eddie. I never thought of Eddie has a very comedic character, but Grazer has the audience laughing almost as much as Wolfhard. Wyatt Oleff (Guardians of the Galaxy) plays the most reserved character in the losers’ club, Stanley. Stanley clearly is the most frightened of the group, and Oleff excellently portrays that fear. Finally, we have Pennywise himself, played by Bill Skarsgård (Atomic Blonde). This is not only the most disturbing and frightening portrayal of Pennywise, but of any horror film clown I have ever seen. Skarsgård oozes malice with a simple look, and his movements and speech only emphasize the evil in this stunning performance.

The look for Pennywise in this adaptation of IT is fantastic. The makeup is unnerving and only adds to the evil clown we know and love. Skarsgård exaggerates the creepy makeup by having unnatural, quick, jerking movements throughout the film. When it comes to the scares, I am impressed by how few jump scares there are in the film. Typically Pennywise is shown before any kind of attack happens, so you know the scare is coming. Instead, it is the anticipation of what will happen that keeps audiences on the edge of their seat. It makes for some truly horrifying moments, yet the simple moments of Pennywise speaking to the kids and moving in odd jerks are some of the most sinister scenes I have seen in a horror film. Unfortunately, the filmmakers choose to break many of those moments with shaky camera work and Pennywise wreaking havoc. It makes for intense moments, but sometimes less is more when it comes to scares. These scenes also tend to involve a hefty amount of CGI as well, even on Pennywise himself. Logistically it is clear why CGI is used, but I wish the filmmakers had scaled back a bit and relied more on the practical makeup.

IT (2017) is one of the most successful adaptations of any Stephen King novel to date. There are still some flaws to it, like the heavy CGI use and the lack of trust the filmmakers have in Pennywise being terrifying without any gimmicks. Yet it is impossible to ignore the stellar performances, the more frightening and dangerous situations with the kids, and the chemistry between each and every member of the losers’ club. On top of that, I believe audiences get a truly sinister villain that is more terrifying than the original (Sorry, Tim Curry, I still love you though). This film is a must see for any horror fan.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

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The Night Watchmen

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A group of night watchmen and their new recruit keep watch over the offices of a newspaper. One night, when everyone is staying late to do inventory, a coffin is accidentally delivered to the building. Little do the night watchmen know that the late great Blimpo the clown is in that coffin and he met an untimely death in Romania. Blimpo is now a vampire and soon the night watchmen find themselves fighting for their lives as people in the office are turned into bloodthirsty monsters.

Of all the films at the Phoenix Film Festival and International Horror and Sci-fi Film Festival, I can say without a doubt that The Night Watchmen is the most fun horror film they programmed. This film really has everything one could want from a gory horror-comedy; lots of laughs, awesome practical effects, hilarious actors, and a fun story. The filmmakers managed to combine different things that scare people in order to create a spooky, hilarious hybrid. Clowns and vampires can be terrifying on their own. When you join them into one “clownpire,” then you get absolute insanity. The filmmakers also make the vampires in the film almost more zombie-like until they become a bit older and have more blood. This is smart because it allows them to create more carnage and excitement because the young vampires are essentially feral, wild animals.

Obviously the entire concept of this film is hilarious, but there are smaller details that elevate it to a higher level of humor. The three night watchmen and their new hire make up quite the team. The leader of their team is the typical buff ex-military guard. He is more experienced than the others so he naturally takes the lead. This character is hilarious because he fits into a certain stereotype, until the craziness begins and then you see that he isn’t quite the macho man he appears to be. The leader’s best friend and fellow night watchman is described in the film as “the worst black guy ever.” He commonly says common phrases incorrectly and enjoys things a stereotypical black man would not enjoy. This is a trait that can be seen in most of the main characters. The filmmakers do a great job of introducing caricatures and stereotypes of different people, but then show that they actually do not fit into that mold at all. It adds a more subtle layer of humor amidst all the fart and sex jokes.

The interesting and complex characters would be nothing without the actors who play them. The Night Watchmen is filled with laugh out loud performances from the lead characters all the way down to the smallest roles. All of the watchmen deliver performances wrought with humor and even a certain level of complexity not typically seen in this kind of horror-comedy. Ken Arnold (Men in Black 3, Lovely Molly) plays tough-guy leader, Ken. Arnold adds many layers to his character’s personality making him much more engaging and lovable. Kevin Jiggetts (Concussion, Won’t Back Down) plays the equally lovable Jiggetts, Ken’s best friend and the aforementioned “worst black guy ever.” Jiggetts does an amazing job of acknowledging the stereotypes people expect his character to fall into and then he completely shatters that stereotype. Max Gray Wilbur (Thrill Kill) is yet another example of breaking expectations in his portrayal of the rookie who is fondly known as “Rajeeve.”  One would expect him to be the hero of the story since he is the young fresh face, but the audience quickly learns that is not the case. Then there is Kara Luiz (Jerks with Cameras, American Poltergeist 3) as the strong female lead of Karen. I love the character of Karen and Luiz’s portrayal of her because she is not a damsel in distress. In the workplace she ranks higher than the male leads and she takes charge and refuses to be the helpless victim. Other great performances come from Dan DeLuca (Crazy Eights), Tiffany Shepis (Tales of Halloween), James Remar (Unnatural), and of course Gary Peebles as the great Blimpo.

This is a very gory, bloody film. It would have failed miserably without those who create the amazing practical effects. Every wound and bit of gore is very well done. It is definitely over the top at times when looking at the amount of blood and guts, but it works in this kind of film. The creature design for the vampires is one of the best aspects of the practical effects. I appreciate that, instead of the usual two elongated fangs and alluring demeanor, the filmmakers broke the vampire mold (much like with the main characters) by having a mouth full of sharp teeth and rabid behavior. The vampires are feral, wild beasts instead of the usual calm and composed sex symbols. It makes them more frightening and dangerous, especially as they slowly begin to gain more intelligence with each drop of blood they drink. I also love that they make Blimpo stand out as the leader by making him the strongest, most intelligent, and making him appear larger than everyone else. Blimpo is not a clown you would want to meet in a dark alley.

The Night Watchmen is an insanely fun and bloody ride that is sure to tickle the funny bone of horror fans everywhere. In this film you get lots of gore, excitement, and laughs. While the fart jokes may go on a little too long, the filmmakers make up for it by giving the audience surprisingly complex characters. Those complex characters are portrayed by an all-around fantastic cast that has electric chemistry between them. I not only want to see more of these characters, but I also can’t wait to see what the filmmakers come up with next.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

Kong: Skull Island

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A group of scientists team up with soldiers to travel to an uncharted island. Their goal is to use seismic charges to study and map the geological structures on the island. Little does the team know that this island is filled with mysterious creatures. Many of these creatures are larger than life and unlike anything the group has seen before. Unfortunately, their explosions have awoken the king of the island, and this is a king they do not want to cross.

Most audiences know the story of King Kong. It is a plot that has been redone several times, and the story is typically the same: a large gorilla-like creature rules Skull Island. He typically falls for a beautiful blonde woman who happens to be with a group of men exploring the island, then Kong gets captured and taken to New York, escapes, then climbs a tall building. This plot is usually set in the 1930’s. While some of these elements are present in Kong: Skull Island, audiences are (for the most part) given a fresh, unique take on the giant ape we know and love. The biggest difference is that the film is set in the 1970’s at the end of the Vietnam War. The filmmakers do a great job of creating the look and feel one would expect when watching a Vietnam War era film. They clearly draw heavy inspiration from films like Apocalypse Now, especially when looking at the color choices made throughout the film. Another substantial difference between the classic King Kong story and this film is that, while there is a blonde female character traveling with the group of men, she is by no means a damsel in distress. This female character, Mason Weaver, proves early on that she can tough it out with the best of them because she is an anti-war photographer in the trenches of Vietnam. These two differences alone make Kong: Skull Island stand apart from its predecessors.

When the first teaser trailer came out for this film I was very concerned about the size of Kong. I understand that Kong was enlarged to make him a more suitable foe to battle Godzilla, but taking him from 50ft to 100ft seemed like a bit much. He doesn’t scale tall buildings anymore, he’s the size of a tall building! Luckily the filmmakers manage to make Kong’s size work along with the other plot changes. Taking into consideration we will eventually have a Godzilla vs Kong film, one of the most successful aspects was how the filmmakers connected King Kong to the same universe as Godzilla. In King Kong vs Godzilla (1962) the two monsters are haphazardly thrown together in Tokyo to have an epic battle without much explanation. Kong: Skull Island clearly establishes the existence of an extensive underground system of caverns that are inhabited by all sorts of giant monsters including Kong, Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah. The audience is given a great Kong story while also getting a taste of what future Kong and Godzilla films will have in store.

This is definitely an action packed monster flick, but it is also driven by the human characters. With the likes of John Goodman (10 Cloverfield Lane), Tom Hiddleston (Crimson Peak), and John C. Reilly (Step Brothers) you know  you’re in for a treat. While the dialogue does leave a bit to be desired, there are many amazing performances that make up for it. One of the more interesting roles is played by Samuel L. Jackson (The Hateful Eight). He plays Packard, the leader of the group of soldiers. What makes his performance truly stand out is how his actions seem to directly mirror Kong’s. Both of them seem crazed and animalistic at times, but really their only goal is to protect those they care about. As I mentioned earlier, this film has the perfect strong female character in photographer Mason Weaver, played by Brie Larson (Room). There is something about Larson and how she portrays this character that makes her a true role model. In all honesty, there are so many fascinating and likeable characters that my biggest qualm with this film is that there are almost too many characters. I also wish many of the characters had been given more backstory, especially Goodman’s character.

Both the cinematography and special effects elevate the film to another level. Many scenes are so beautifully shot you almost forget you are watching a giant monster movie. One scene that stands out for its cinematography is the iconic shot when we first get a glimpse of Kong with the sunrise behind him. More gorgeous and thrilling cinematography is seen when Hiddleston runs through bright green smoke while using a sword to cut down flying monsters. In these two scenes and many others the use of vibrant color adds beauty to perilous situations. The CGI creatures are incredibly well done. With Kong, he is clearly a gorilla-like creature, but unlike gorillas Kong stands upright. This gives the perception that Kong may be somewhere between man and ape. There are various other creatures inhabiting Skull Island. Each one has a unique and beautiful creature design. The “skull crawlers” are particularly disturbing in their odd shape and the way they move, yet their features are logical for being underground lizard-like beings.It is clear that a lot of thought went into the creation of the many giant beasts.

Kong: Skull Island is my favorite giant monster film since Cloverfield (2008). It makes up for many of the mistakes that were made with the recent Godzilla film, especially in that there are more compelling characters and Kong is more prominently featured. That being said, this film does repeat some of the same mistakes. With such a star-studded cast, it is impossible not to enjoy each and every performance. Unfortunately there are simply too many characters and not enough time to really dive into each of their histories, and often the dialogue between them can sound uninspired. Despite that, audiences still get an exciting monster movie that has great creature designs, breathtaking cinematography, and a story that instantly grabs your attention (all the way through to the end of the credits). You will walk out of the theater eager to see what comes next in this epic universe of giant monsters from the depths of the earth.

OVERALL RATING. 8/10

Throwback Thursday Movie: In The Mouth of Madness (1995)

John Trent is an insurance fraud investigator. After the disappearance of a famed horror author Trent is assigned the case to discover the truth behind what happened. Along with the help of the author’s editor, Linda Styles, Trent descends into a dark world. The more he learns about the author and his work, the more the lines between fantasy and reality begin to blur. It seems like there is more to this story than meets the eye.

To be completely honest, I had never heard of this movie until June of this year. I was at John Carpenter’s Live Retrospective. Carpenter started playing a theme I had never heard before and was showing scenes from a film I had never seen. As soon as I got home I looked the film up and discovered In the Mouth of Madness. After watching it for the first time 21 years after it was released I can say that this film is truly another masterpiece by the great John Carpenter. This is a very different kind of film for Carpenter. It is the kind of film where you have to pay close attention or else you might miss some vital little details. It is also different from other films that Carpenter directed in that it deals with Lovecraftian themes and it makes you question what is real.

The basic premise of the plot focuses on John Trent. When horror author Sutter Cane goes missing Trent is hired to see if Cane’s publishers faked his disappearance in order to get the insurance money. Through this investigation we as the audience are taken on a journey that does not have a linear timeline. This adds to the feeling that reality is bending as the story continues. We also learn that Cane’s books not only seem to have a psychological effect on the readers, but that they may be part of a plan to unleash monstrous creatures from another world. This plot really drew me in because it was unexpected, and it made you pay attention. If you didn’t pay attention you were likely to miss some of the best parts.

This was a brilliant performance by Sam Neill (Jurassic Park, Event Horizon) as John Trent. Neill has been in many major motion pictures, and he never disappoints. His portrayal of Trent stood out as another great performance because of the transformation his character goes through. Again, this isn’t something you see in a linear timeline. The audience is introduced to Trent towards the end of his transformation; then they get to see what lead to his downward spiral into madness. His journey as the ever practical and skeptical investigator that eventually becomes a man whose world has been turned upside down is breathtaking.

Carpenter is known for having gorgeous practical effects in his films. This one is no different. For the most part we see simple makeup effects on the people who have been infected by Cane’s writing. There were only a few of the practical effects that truly stand out. One amazing effect was of the editor, Linda Styles, as her body contorts and twists into a grotesque thing. Another practical effect from the film was brilliant because of it’s subtlety. The sweet little old inn keeper, Mrs. Pickman, becomes a horrific tentacle covered monster. What is clever about the practical effect is that you never see the monster full on. There are small close ups of a tentacle here and there, but for the most part it is a simple silhouette. The final stand out scene is when the evil beings from the other side break into our world. There are many giant, slimy, tentacle covered beasts ready to wreak havoc in our world. The effects, much like Trent’s grip on reality, become more and more fantastical as the story progresses.

The only negative I can say about this film is that I wish I had seen it sooner. In the Mouth of Madness is another marvelous work of art by John Carpenter, albeit a lesser known work. This is the kind of film that you will come back to again and again, each time finding new details that you had never noticed before. It will also stick in your mind for days after viewing, making you ponder reality, fantasy, insanity, and where the lines are drawn. All those who are in need of a horror film that will give you a mental workout, this is your film.

OVERALL RATING: 9/10

The Shallows

Nancy is on a quest to find a remote Mexican beach her mom surfed at before Nancy was born. After finding this tropical paradise she enjoys catching a few waves. Little does Nancy know there is a great white shark stalking her just below the surface. The shark attacks, leaving Nancy’s leg badly injured. Luckily she managed to get to a small rock island. Nancy must fight for her life and find a way to get to the beach that is so close, yet it might as well be miles away.

Going into this film I did not have high expectations. The first teaser trailer looked like the film would be quite a thriller, but when the full trailer came out I was unimpressed by the CGI shark leaping out of the water. I’m pleased to report that The Shallows was actually a fun, intense film. Considering this is a rather short film that takes place in the span of roughly 24 hours, the filmmakers laid out the plot in a way that allowed them to maximize the impact of events. Of course the story is rather basic (girl gets attacked by shark, girl tries to outsmart the shark, lots of bad things happen in the process), but it is still fun and exciting to watch. They even managed to fit in a bit of backstory, but they did it while other events were occurring. This makes you more invested in whether Nancy lives or dies without overdoing it with flashbacks and extra fluff that isn’t necessary. The filmmakers also did an excellent job of lulling the audience into a feeling almost like safety before a flurry of intense action. You would watch the film and be focusing on something Nancy was focusing on. That is when you least expect something to pop out and scare you, so of course that is exactly what happens.

Taking into consideration this is a PG-13 film, there were a couple scenes that were fairly graphic. After Nancy gets attacked by the great white, her thigh is badly wounded. She essentially has a flap of skin and muscle that is loose on her leg. Not only was it a bit hard to look at, but it was also an incredibly realistic looking practical effect. Since Nancy is at least partially in the water at all times her wound is also bleeding to some degree throughout the entire film. Another scene that was more graphic than I expected involved another victim of the shark. While the attack itself is strategically kept off screen, you still get to see the aftermath. Let’s just say it is some rather gruesome carnage.

The shark itself was of course done in CGI. While I tend to be repelled by the use of CGI in horror films, there was really no way around it in a film like this. For the most part the audience is only shown the shadow of the shark or it’s dorsal fin. There are only a few key scenes where you see the shark in all its computer generated glory. The CGI isn’t amazing, but it is passable enough that it doesn’t feel like you’re watching a made for TV Syfy channel movie.

As far as the acting in this film, there is really only one person to discuss. Obviously the main character, Nancy, was played by Blake Lively (Age of Adeline, Green Lantern). Blake Lively isn’t what you would call an amazing actress, but she is good enough that you enjoy watching her.Lively is someone who has the look of a stereotypical surfer girl, which makes it more believable for the audience. Casting her was also a wise decision by the filmmakers as she will draw in more of the younger audience they want with the PG-13 rating. While this character isn’t necessarily a true actor, I have to mention the amazing Sully “Steven” Seagull. This was a live animal actor who remained by Lively’s side through a majority of the film. The Shallows was Seagull’s first major motion picture role.

The Shallows isn’t quite at Jaws status, but it is a refreshingly well done and exciting shark flick in a sea of low budget drivel. I can honestly say that it is the best shark horror film I have seen in at least the last decade. My hope is that this will be a trend taking us away from the likes of Sharknado and more towards the thrilling shark films of the past that actually made you fear what was in the dark depths. Keep in mind that if you go in expecting to see Jaws or something that is gore galore, you will be disappointed.  This is a film that is fun and exciting, but know that it is a PG-13 film. It is a thrill ride that is light enough for people of many ages to enjoy.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10