Freaked (1993)

Ricky Coogan

I usually don’t like movies which try this hard to be funny, but the jokes here are less like their lazy ancestors in a Not Another ______ Movie and more like the groaners a dorky dad would tell. It also doesn’t hurt that the people telling these jokes are kind of charming. You’ve got Mr. T playing the bearded lady, Keanu Reeves as the wolfman, and Bobcat Goldthwait as a sock puppet with a human body. Why not?

The creature effects are unbelievable for a film which was, for all intents and purposes, a straight-to-video flick; I’m not even sure I knew it existed until it quietly appeared on Cinemax one night in the mid-90s. Screaming Mad George is probably the king of special effects for movies like this, which is why I’m disappointed his last major credit is 2003’s Beyond Re-Animator. Like I said when I featured Society: his films aren’t always great, but they’re almost always great to look at. Freaked is no exception.

Hammer time freaks

Alex Winter plays Ricky Coogan, a narcissistic movie star who signs on as the spokesman for an evil corporation which deals in toxic fertilizer. He and his best friend fly down to South America (for reasons which are escaping me at the moment) and end up getting detoured by a sideshow attraction operated by Randy Quaid. It turns out Quaid is using the evil corporation’s fertilizer to transform unsuspecting victims into freaks of nature. He turns Coogan into a hideous monster and turns his best friend into one-half of conjoined twins—the other half of which can’t stand his guts.

When Randy Quaid was normal

The movie is gross, in a Garbage Pail Kids kind of way, and the violence is cartoonish enough not to push its PG-13 rating. There are things to dislike about Freaked, but every bit of it is overshadowed by the aforementioned special effects and well-meaning vibe of it all.

The jokes don’t always land, but it’s fast paced and fun. I have no complaints.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017)

Optic nerve extraction

I put S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk near the top of my list for the best movies of 2015, which was already the best year for twenty-first century movies. If I were to go back and revise that list, I suspect the film would rank a little higher. As if to prove he’s no fluke, Zahler has made Brawl in Cell Block 99, a movie which I enjoyed even more than Tomahawk.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 is pure, unabashed pulp, the furthest you can get from the increasingly predictable Oscar bait that’s been plaguing awards seasons since time immemorial. In the opening scene we see Vince Vaughn’s towering figure rise from the cab of a tow truck, the back of his bare head adorned with a crucifix tattoo. His character’s name is Bradley, never Brad, and anger undulates beneath the surface of his skin—we can see him struggling not to explode every second he’s on the screen. He’s a surprisingly smart and moral guy for his criminal underpinnings, but the world seems like it’s out to get him. He does the best he can do with shit situations which ambush him on a daily basis.

The same day the recovering alcoholic loses his job, he discovers his wife (Jennifer Carpenter) has been having an affair. He calmly waits for her to leave the scene and proceeds to dismantle her car with his bare hands. A man who shoves his fist through the headlight of a vehicle to rip its wiring out like the guts of a fish is a man who is possessed. Vaughn is 100% believable in the role, so much so it’s hard to believe this is the same guy from Swingers.

Jesus Christ your head

Once he has thoroughly murdered the car, Bradley walks inside and politely tells his wife he’s getting back into the drug dealing business. And that’s what ultimately leads to his incarceration, which will have him behind bars during his daughter’s birth. Bradley takes his medicine without complaint, but the people he’s pissed off are about to concoct one of the most heinous revenge plots ever seen.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 is not for the faint of heart. No single thing which happens in it is quite as gory or gruesome as that infamous scene in Bone Tomahawk, but as a whole the movie might just be a bit more shocking. I can think of no other film I want to see more than the director’s next one, which will take a portion of this cast and add Mel Gibson to the mix. The name of that film is allegedly Dragged Across Concrete, which is fitting if it’s anything like this.

Goddamn, what a breath of fresh air.

American Satan (2017)

DaBand

After watching A Ghost Story, I decided I needed something a little louder to cleanse the palette. (For the record, I enjoyed A Ghost Story, but I did fall asleep during the drawn-out pie-eating scene). I booted up my VOD service and saw American Satan near the top of the horror section. With no prior knowledge of the movie I started it.

I’m impressed. What I saw, during the first third of the slightly bloated runtime, was a movie that didn’t look or feel like the current trend of indie horror films. From a technical standpoint, the movie’s damn near flawless. Despite the abundance of clearance merch’ from Hot Topic, I surprisingly found myself engaged by the young characters’ plight to move to Hollywood and become big rockstars.

That’s because the characters are a lot less annoying than their regrettable fashion choices would suggest. Once you see Denise Richards turn up as the main character’s mother, you’d expect another “Gee, my parents just don’t understand” subplot, but the movie never goes there. There are a lot of places it avoids, places lesser horror movies go to time and time again, but this is a movie that’s focused on cutting through the bullshit and getting to the point. Much of it verges on cliche, but not nearly as much as you would expect from a movie in which the main characters sell their souls to the devil for rock stardom.

Malcolm McDevil

Forty minutes in, however, you start to see the cards up its sleeve: many of its plot points seem to have been recycled from Behind the Music and other rock n’ roll legends, stories involving floozies who sneak their party-hard daughters onto the tour bus and musicians appearing on live television, drugged out of their minds. The realization doesn’t necessarily ruin the movie, but it does disperse a little bit of the magic. As far as plots go, this one’s about as pleasantly aimless as a Scorsese movie, only dragging a little towards the end.

I could have used a little less of the conspiracy theory exposition. This stuff is certainly fun, but going to such lengths to “prove” that real-life rock stars have enjoyed flaunting their devilish affiliations slows down the otherwise smooth pace. Still, I enjoyed it a lot, more because of what it doesn’t do than what it does. It’s just a fresh, fun movie with as many recognizable faces as new ones.

The Raid 2 (2014) [Midnight Movie]

Some of my favorite sequels are the ones which take the characters we care about and throw them into entirely different ordeals. It’s the reason Die Hard with a Vengeance is my favorite sequel in that franchise, and why Die Hard 2 kind of sucks ass. In The Raid 2 there isn’t even a raid, but as far as sequels go, it’s probably best case scenario. Spoilers for the original film follow.

The sequel opens mere minutes after the ending of the original. Rama discovers the evidence collected in the original film is inefficient at best. If he wants to catch corrupt cops, he’s going to have to go undercover in an Indonesian prison. (There’s a lot more to it than that, but it’s hard to go into detail without ruining some of the surprises… of which there are many.)

At this point you think: Okay, I get where this is going. Whereas Rama had to fight his way through thirty floors of insanity in the first film, he’s going to have to fight his way out of prison. But the movie only bothers with a couple of fight scenes in this setting before jumping ahead to Rama’s release, by which point he’s befriended a key player in the crime syndicate he’s been tasked to infiltrate. It should be noted that Rama, who thought he would only serve a few months in the prison, was stuck there for three years, unable to make contact with his wife and newly born son.

As brief as Rama’s backstory is, it really heightens the urgency of the already brutal action. While the individual fight scenes are no less stunning than those in the original, the movie spends a lot more time in between, which allows us to get to know Rama more than we did before. It’s as if the filmmakers weren’t trying to top or repeat what we saw in the first film, at least not on a superficial level, which allows the story to unfold organically. I probably prefer the sheer kineticism and originality of the first film, but there will be those who prefer this one.

I’m ecstatic that Yayan Ruhian, who played the exceptional henchman in the first film, returns in an entirely new role. Now he’s a machete-wielding assassin who roams the streets under the guise of a vagrant. What’s interesting is you think they’re setting him up to be the kind of bad ass he was in the original film, but they spend a surprising amount of time developing him into a sympathetic hit man.

Even though the two movies look and feel completely different, it’s hard to say which one is better. Again, I think I preferred the original for balancing that extremely thin line between exciting and exhausting, but this one’s so good I can’t wait until The Raid 3 is announced.

The Raid: Redemption (Unrated Cut) (2012) [Midnight Movie]

Twenty policemen raid an Indonesian apartment block with the intention of extracting a sadistic drug dealer. The problem is the target owns the building; once he realizes the police have arrived, he cuts all communication with the outside world and traps the good guys inside. To make matters worse, he offers his scumbag tenants a deal: anyone who kills the cops gets to live rent-free in the building for life.

What follows is a dizzying gunfight which leaves both sides of the battle bloody and strapped for ammunition, at which point blades and martial arts become the standard. The sight of machete-wielding bad guys, roaming the halls for the badly beaten survivors, is a chilling visual. The head honcho is particularly ruthless, as evidenced by the fact he likes to chow down on noodles as he executes his rivals. Even so, he’s got at least two henchmen who are more interesting than the main villains in most films.

At the center of the chaos is Rama (Iko Uwais), a rookie cop who’s soon to be a father. There’s more to him than that, even though you’d think the absurd amount of action would squeeze out the character stuff, but I won’t spoil it. In fact, The Raid pushes the action to the absolute limits; we’ve seen movies with more action, sure, but those movies usually become exhausting by the end. There’s a high level of noise at times, but it’s always punctuated by perfectly timed breaks.

Then there’s the tasteful use of CGI, most of which you won’t even notice, combined with A+ stunt work. I can’t imagine the stunt team on this movie walking away without actual broken bones. The punches never look pulled, the blows look like they land, and there’s a two-on-one fight scene which looks legitimately painful. I often find myself dazzled by early fights scenes and bored by the latter, but The Raid manages to top itself each time until the spectacularly satisfying ending.

There are few things I enjoy more than watching movies. The reason is sometimes I find one as thrilling as The Raid. I’m not exaggerating. I don’t think I could list ten movies more exciting than this one. It’s operating on a level that makes many action movies look embarrassing by comparison.

I’ll post my thoughts on the sequel next Friday.

Take Shelter (2010) [Midnight Movie]

 

I was surprised to find Take Shelter on Shudder because I wasn’t under the impression it was a horror movie. Thankfully, it fits in quite well because it’s more unsettling than a lot of the catalog there. You could call it “psychological horror,” but that’s misleading as well.

It’s hard to talk about Take Shelter without diluting it. I’d advise you to stay clear of online discussions and marketing material until you’ve had a chance to see it for yourself. I’ll tread lightly in regards to the plot. I always do, but I’ll be especially careful here.

Michael Shannon, who walks a fine line between everyman and “hey, it’s that crazy guy,” is just about the only person who could play this role: an everyman who might be going crazy. Shannon has increasingly vivid visions of impeding doom, which he tries to keep a secret from his wife (Jessica Chastain) and his deaf daughter. Global doom is scary, sure, but the film also plays with a host of other fears including debt, job instability, health care, and the inability to protect and provide for your family.

This may seem like quaint subject matter, but the movie is potent because it’s so grounded. The best movies about global events (Romero’s Dead films, the Mad Max series, Children of Men, etc.) are great because they’re not really about the superficial apocalypse stuff at all. Indirectly, they’re about what’s going on beneath the surface, particularly the fear of the future and the unknown. Take Shelter does the same thing, but in an entirely different way. The apocalypse may or not be real, but it’s coming either way.

Had the end of this film been in almost any other movie, I would have rejected it as pretentious nonsense. I’ve read plenty of differing opinions on the matter, and while none of ’em have fully swayed me, I appreciate so many people get something different out of it.

As for Shannon, I’m beginning to think it’s worth while to check out everything he’s ever done. Even in the movies I didn’t like, he was worth watching. And I’ve been on the fence in regards to Jessica Chastain, probably because I haven’t seen many of her movies, but I grew fond of her warmness in Take Shelter almost immediately. Supporting actor Shea Whigham, too, is pretty spot-on; I regret that in my Splinter post I reduced him to “a guy who kind of looks like Robert Carlyle.”

Seriously, don’t mess around with trailers or reviews or any of that shit. Just give the movie five minutes and see if it doesn’t hook ya.

Prom Night (1980) [Midnight Movie]

During a game of hide-and-seek, four school children accidentally push a little girl from the top floor of an abandoned building, killing her instantly. The bitchy ring leader of the gang makes the other three survivors swear they’ll never tell anyone what really went down. Fast forward six years and the children are now teenagers, gearing up for prom night. They’ve managed to keep their dark secret and it doesn’t really seem to affect any of them. This is odd to say the least.

Jamie Lee Curtis, who looks a little too old to be a high school student, is the sister of the victim. Her father is Leslie Nielsen, who isn’t nearly as fun as he was in Creepshow, and Sledge Hammer’s Anne-Marie Martin plays Curtis’s hot, Corvette-driving rival. The instigating moment of the film, mentioned in the paragraph above, happens in the first five minutes. Then nothing interesting whatsoever happens until the final act, at which point the masked killer will chase the characters through scenes that go on for far too long.

Martin’s character, who feels jilted by her ex-boyfriend’s interest in Curtis, concocts a Carrie-like prank which will humiliate Curtis as she accepts her tiara as prom queen. Another dreadful scene attempts to capitalize on Saturday Night Fever’s famous dance sequence, poorly, while the rest of the movie is chock full of high school rivalries and pointless gossip. I probably would have loved this movie if I were a teenager, provided I were a teenager in 1980.

I’m not sure why Prom Night is sometimes considered a classic. It’s about 90% filler and it’s immediately clear the killer is one of three people while, at most, only around four people will die. The infrequent kill scenes are so tame the film probably could have gotten away with a PG-13 rating if not for a handful of shots containing brief nudity. Unlike most slasher films, it’s not poorly made on a technical level (it’s actually pretty decent), but it really isn’t very interesting content-wise, either.

I started Prom Night 2: Hello Mary Lou soon after finishing this one and, although it was immediately more fun and campy, I fell asleep… hard. In fact, I haven’t slept so long during a movie in my life. (I suspect this has more to do with slogging through the first one than attempting the second.) I’ll give the sequel another chance in the future, but for the moment I feel like I’ve seen all I need to see of this franchise. Which is a shame because the VHS cover for part 3 has always piqued my interest.