The Belko Experiment 2016

An old friend of mine was saying how horror was going through a pretty mean-spirited phase during the mid noughties. Not only with the Saw and Hostel movies, it infected all the genre films around, as if it was a reaction to the jokey times of the Scream movies and their like a few years before. You could say we’ve moved on, with hauntings and possessions being back in vogue along with John Carpenter homages and other eighties throwbacks its like horror has become fun again. Don’t you worry though, The Belko Experiment has come to take that fun away.

The Belko Experiment claims to be a cross between Office Space and Battle Royale and in that it is set in an office and involves people thrown into a kill-or-be-killed situation it is just that. But really the underlying tone is the grim downbeat nihilism of the Saw movies. Does anyone care about that kind of stuff any more? Isn’t there enough of it in the real world?

Hey, lets not totally knock The Belko Experiment. Director Greg McLean handles everything very well, it all looks good and is suitably tense. What really helps is the excellent and experienced cast. Tony Goldwyn is used to playing dicks ever since he was Patrick Swayze’s best friend in Ghost, but recently he’s been playing suaver characters like POTUS in Scandal. Here he combines the two – he’s both the superior CEO of this branch of the mysterious Belko company and pretend friend to his co workers. When a voice over tells them they have to kill 30 people in the building or 60 will die Goldwyn puts his business head on and goes about working out who should die – this is, after all, only business. That’s one of the best aspects of the script, dealing with how the cost of human life and business can be seen as separate so cold calculations can be made.

On the other side of the moral debate, pointing out death can never be taken lightly is likable John Gallagher Jnr as l, I guess, the Tim from The Office. He is the one who always states the bleedin’ obvious. When told they have to kill thirty of them he points out that once that is done then the would still face another round of deaths. The film mostly centres around Gallagher and Goldwyn as the two opposing forces, basically two views on how to run the business. This aspect of the film is the most interesting but it can’t last: sooner or later it has to become a bloodbath, it’s just inevitable.

Other good characters played by other good actors abound. Adrian Arjona as Gallaghers girlfriend has a great start of an arc as she is clearly torn between her loyalty to him and what her business head is telling her to do, i.e. join Goldwyn’s side. Unfortunately his side contains hard toothed and square headed John C. McGinley as a demented office manager and stalker of Arjona. For a while it seems she will join Goldwyn and co even though she told McGinley to fuck off five minutes beforehand. Unfortunately this story idea evaporates as the film progresses. And this seems to be the main problem with The Belko Experiment – lots of good ideas, none of them fulfilled

A perfect example of this would be Melonie Diaz as an office worker who has pretty much a completely different story to everyone else. She spends a lot of time crawling down tunnels and finding herself witnessing or being dragged into other people’s dramas and deaths. Eventually she takes control of things and manipulates the situation to her advantage. We follow her for long stretches having her own adventures and it’s a really interesting idea, having a second story running concurrently to the main one. But then, right at the end (SPOILERS) she opens a lift door onto the final survivors and is immediately shot in the noggin, dead. What a waste of a plotline and character.

Ultimately I don’t think that The Belko Experiment is all that good. It feels like the script was either overworked with chunks missing from it, or not worked on enough, with ideas severely underdeveloped. The cast do their best as does McLean, but ultimately it’s a pretty cold film with not enough of The Office and too much of Battle Royal. It gets too caught up in its violence to properly entertain. There’s some humour to be had here but mostly it all feels a tad too familiar.  It’s not really that far away from Blum House’s own The Purge series – normal people being allowed to kill their fellow citizens – but lacks those films’s comic strip sensibilities. So if you really want to see a horror version of Office Space then please watch Severance instead. That’s a film that is able to be both funny and nasty in just the right way.

 

Ms .45 1981

In some respects it is really weird that the rape/revenge subgenre nearly always gets lumped in with horror movies rather than, say,  thrillers or even action depending how much revenge is met out. But when you think of these type of films they are indeed on the horror lists: I Spit On Your Grave and its miserable remake and sequels, Last House On The Left and others I try not to think about. You can see why they are here though. From the horrific act of rape itself to the invariably grisly revenge which will at the very least involve castration and might even go so far as chainsaw decapitation or, in the case of the Last House On the Left remake, death-by-microwave. Also a lot of these films don’t feel like they are taking the subject matter as seriously as they could: the act of rape often feel like an excuse to make something exploitative and sleazy rather than trying to make a point.

Ms .45 tries to have it both ways. On the one hand it DOES have a feminist message about not letting men take control of women’s lives through sexual violence, but on the other the main character looks like a fashion model and by the end is dressed up like a nun with stockings and suspenders. Maybe it’s because the film is directed by New York sleaze king and all round madman Abel Ferrara. He is clearly an intelligent man but also, well, a man. And one who engages in his base instincts and wants to show them to us up on the silver screen.

Ms .45 begins with a young, quiet woman called Thana (Zoe Lund) who works as a seamstress for some wildly camp clothes designer. On her way home she is pulled down a back alley and (mercifully brief and hardly seen) raped by a masked mugger. Traumatised, Thana stumbles back to her apartment only to be raped again by a burglar. Throughout all this she doesn’t say a word. This is because she can’t. She is a mute and so no one can hear her cries for help because she has none. So she has to take matters into her own hands. After beating the burglar to death with a clothes iron and chopping him up and storing him in the fridge, Thana takes his weapon, the Colt .45 and sets out for revenge on the streets of New York.

Thana transforming herself from a meek mouse of a girl into a stunning supermodel isn’t just about trying to kill her rapists though. Its about getting revenge on mankind, firstly potential rapists, but by the end any man at all! As she blows them was away her fear of them also disappears. The first man she kills only dies when he has chased her down a dead end and she is cornered in fright. However soon after Dana walks into the middle of Central Park at night (at the time surely one of the most dangerous places in America) in order to bait as many violent men as she can so she can execute them with her pistol. She handles the gun itself like it is her penis, pulling it out on men to destroy them in the same way they used their tool to destroy her innocence.

New York is a big part of Ms .45’s atmosphere and energy, but it is a New York that doesn’t exist any more. In 1981 a woman could not walk outside at night alone and some parts were so rough that even in daylight it was a no go zone. Ferrara captures the time and place perfectly, filming in Central Park at night probably was as dangerous as what they were trying to film. Then there are the back streets that seem like a post apocalyptic wasteland, deserted apart from the garbage, the collapsing houses and characters you wouldn’t dare look in the eye.

The movie is full of slimeball male New Yorkers all trying to take advantage of Thana. Many of them are street hustlers but there are also poor drunks, rich Arabs and even her flamboyant boss who foolishly makes a move on her, all of which meet their end at the wrong end of Thana’s .45. Things reach a head at the climax as Thana, dressed in the nun outfit with sexy underwear and her gun in her garter, murders every man at a Halloween party,  all in glorious slow motion. It’s a mixed message certainly as Thana displays innocence and slutiness, drawing foolish men in an all-in-one Madonna/whore package. Its also Ferrara having his cake and eating it: he’s showing off a hot woman in an exciting and tense action scene whilst also making a feminist statement. Ferrara has always been a provocateur and this is a great early example. The symbolism does get fairly crass by the very end with (SPOILER) a female co worker stabbing Thana in the back whilst holding a knife at her groin like a penis. Thana is so shocked by this that she is finally able to break her silence with just a one world whisper of betrayal – “Sister!” And Ferrara hits you over the head with his sledgehammer. Its still a really good ending though. (END OF SPOILERS)

I’m not a fan of rape revenge movies, never have been and never will. If I really feel I have to see one for completions sake, for example Last House on the Left, then I can’t imagine ever watching it again. I’ll probably never see Ms .45 a second time either but at least Ferrara keeps the actual rape scenes down to a minimum and least exploitative. Its still pretty repellant but Ferrara uses this set up more to get what he’s really interested in: having a mute model/nun blow men away in a weirdly stylish fashion whilst making a positive (ish) if simplistic feminist statement. I guess that makes Ms .45 better than most.

Emelie 2015

Let’s get this straight from the get go: if you are a parent don’t bother watching Emelie. It will ruin what little social life you have as you will never hire a baby sitter again.

For everyone else then there’s a lot of fun to be had here. Oh no, well no that’s not true, there’s very little entertainment to be had from watching children in peril. Personally I spent the entire film with my hands pressed to the sides of my head, mostly to hold the distress in.

Sarah Bolger plays the less than trustworthy baby sitter who looks after three siblings whilst their parents go out for an anniversary meal (their 13th no less, surely they should have realised that was a bad idea). What helps set up Emelie‘s tension so well is that we know from the opening shot that Bolger is not the new babysitter Anna that she says she is: we’ve just seen her getting bundled into the back of a car. So while the parents obliviously go off to try and rekindle some romance in their relationship, we know that their children are basically fucked.

Fortunately, although Emelie the fake babysitter is clearly insane Bolger downplays everything in such a way that at first she seems kind of liberating to the children. She lets them draw on walls, eat all the cookies and dress up in their parents clothes. However even from early on its clear she is not a good person: she constantly picks on the middle child (and only girl) Sally and asks the oldest boy to fetch her a tampon when he discovers her sitting on the loo. Having been an eleven year old boy I can tell you this would be way beyond an awkward moment. By the time she’s fed Sally’s hamster to the pet snake and then made the kids watch their parents’ home made pornography even the children know something is up.

So far the tension has been slowly building up nicely. Unfortunately we’re then suddenly hit with an incredibly clunky moment where she reads a story to the youngest which explains exactly who she is, why she went mad and what her intensions are. It’s fine you know, but really unnecessary. What’s wrong with a little mystery. Besides, its pretty obvious what her plan is shortly after this moment because of her actions and what she says. And we don’t need to be told that she has lost her mind, that’s pretty obvious when she, and I cannot over emphasise this enough, asked an eleven year old boy to get her one of his mum’s tampons (the green one in case you needed to know).

Its only one scene though and we’re soon back on track. Other than that one hiccup of exposition the script is really excellent, not only in its portrayal of children but also in its structure – there are lots of little moments which set up what will happen in the back end of the movie.

In fact Emelie is a well made film all round. Everything is meticulously crafted from slow tracking shots to the subtle but unnerving music. The child actors are particularly good. Tiny Thomas Blair as Christopher is hilarious and so natural as the youngest of the children that you get the feeling that he’s not so much acting as having a whale of a time on a film set. Actually, I’m not sure how they even made this film with child actors having the restrictions on working hours that they have, but they pulled it off. The oldest Jacob (Joshua Rush) has to tackle the bulk of the action as he is the one who has to grow up and take responsibility for his siblings and Rush is a great adversary for the much older and more experienced Bolger.

But it is Bolger herself who really makes Emelie work, mostly due to her subtle and understated performance. Even when things are clearly going wrong for her she underplays things beautifully. Having such an open and kind face (something children are always drawn towards) just makes her contrary character work even better. It would have been easy (and okay) to have Emelie as a raving nut job but by doing things differently Bolger elevates the film into something much more grounded in reality, and so something genuinely frightening.*

This is why parents should not be allowed to watch this film – because Bolger, with the rest of the cast and crew backing her up -make you believe this could really happen. And there’s nothing more horrifying than that.

* Not SO frightening for me, not having children. I have a small French Bulldog called Mylo, and whilst I am always convinced someone is about to snatch him away from me, I can’t see anyone making a horror movie about it. Unless you include this.

House of Wax 2005

Mainstream horror was in the doldrums come the mid noughties. Between the so called torture porn movies (which had about one idea) between them and the endless remakes the studios put out it seemed like our favourite genre had reached a point of creative bankruptcy. By the time it came to digging back far enough in the libraries to remake the Vincent Price classic House of Wax expectations were pretty much at rock bottom. So much so that the fact that it was a remake didn’t seem to be a selling point at all. Surely the whole idea of a remake was that its familiar name would bring a new audience into the cinemas? Instead Warner Brothers had so little faith in their own brand that the main selling point for the 2005 film was “come and see Paris Hilton die horribly”.

Yes, in a desperate piece of stunt casting, socialite and gossip rag-haunting stick insect Paris Hilton is cast as a sex crazed party goer. It shouldn’t be a big stretch for Hilton but sadly she fails to be convincing in the slightest. I’m not sure why she was such a selling point, people who liked her wouldn’t see a horror movie and those that didn’t like her would do anything to avoid even more Hilton (she was everywhere in 2005) so wouldn’t go and see House of Wax either. Not that she is in it that much, which is a relief, but she’s arguably the worst part of the film.

The other main problem is that House of Wax 2005 has abandoned pretty much everything from the original film bar the title and the wax museum setting and instead gone for, and please stop me if you’ve heard this before, the five friends break down in the middle of nowhere plot. This story is so familiar and done with such little variation from the basic formula that it really brings the whole first third of the film down. There’s even a local hick who could be on vacation with Tucker and Dale. It’s a turgid affair that even the decent cast (other than Hilton) can’t bring to life. Its weird to think that Warner Brothers coughed up $30 million dollars for this nonsense.

Fortunately there is some hope. The prologue is a dazzlingly detailed montage of close ups of some horrific childhood involving good and bad (or more likely mad) twin toddlers at the breakfast table and some poor parenting decisions. It suggests that director Jaume Collet-Serra knows what he’s doing even if he is nobbled by the by-the-numbers set up. That promise pays off in the second and third acts of the movie when we finally reach the House of Wax and the town that it is located in. Wax models have always been creepy and ones which encase real life bodies are more so. Collet-Serra exploits this well, putting across the horror of being encased in hot wax as well as the nightmare of having your flesh torn off as your friends try to rescue you from your candle based entombment.

The twin villains of the film are also pretty good too and its nice that they have a counter part in having a brother and sister who are twins on the victims’ side – although this is never explored as well as it could be. Actually a lot of the more interesting aspects of the characters and back story are garbled through as things rush onto the next wax-based imagery. But even if the script is a little undercooked at least the film does what it says on the tin: literally there is a whole house made of nothing but wax.

Its this house which provides the show stopping moment of the film, as the climatic battle involves the main characters running around the house as it melts into a blubbery mess around them. This scene is a fantastic mix of excellent practical effects and mostly good digital ones as people sink through floors and tear their way through melting walls. Two characters even climb out of through the museum’s front wall with its name on it; so they actually climb through the title of the film. Add into that that as all the wax melts all the previous victims of the evil twins are revealed, and you have some fantastic horror imagery that is as impressive as anything you’ll see in genre cinema. Its a shame that all the good stuff only really happens at the very end but at least it leaves an impression.

Unlike Paris Hilton who leaves no discernible impression at all, although lets give credit where credit is due – the marketing people where right: she does die horribly.

She doesn’t, however, get turned into a wax model like in the poster below and then melted in the big bonfire at the end. This is unlike her acting career which disappeared like that cheap wax that doesn’t drip, it just evaporates into the air as if it had never existed in the first place.

Kong: Skull Island 2017

The giant monster movie is a tricky dilemma for Hollywood. On the one hand there is a sizeable audience who really want to see large creatures beating the crap out of each other, smack down flying machines like they are flies and swallow humans like tiny, salty snacks. On the other it seems like there is a limit to how many people will turn up for this kind of entertainment. Godzilla, King Kong, Pacific Rim and now Kong: Skull Island all seem to reach around the half a billion dollar mark and then peter out at the box office. Considering how expensive it is to make a movie about a big ape, lizard or robot this is a problem for Hollywood execs. Clearly they want to make these big spectacles (as they have since the original King Kong) but too much money spent will not make a profit for them. These are, after all, just fun b-movies, albeit very expensive ones.

So Legendary Pictures and Warner Brothers clearly have a plan in mind with 2014’s Godzilla and now Kong: Skull Island. Its a shared universe plan (obviously in this day and age) and I guess the thinking is if we can make so much money with Godzilla and then so much more with Kong, then put the two together and we’ll have an Avengers-style hit on our hands.

Well that may be. I’m not sure if they’ll be able to capture the public’s imagination the way the Marvel characters have but I am really glad they are trying. Any horror fan worth their salt should ALWAYS welcome the sight of a beast the size of a tower block trying to snap the jaw bone of another monster, and Kong: Skull Island certainly delivers those mega thrills.

It’s not all about the money though. First and foremost a giant monster movie has to engage and entertain us. This can’t be done with the monsters alone. You will always have to have human characters you can relate to. Godzilla tried really, really hard with that and failed, maybe because there was TOO MUCH character work (on some pretty bland characters as well). Kong goes the opposite way – there are loads of really interesting characters who we hardly get to know at all.

Maybe its because the characters are played by such charismatic actors – Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John C. Riley, Tobey Kebbell, John Goodman, John Ortiz… and many more – but despite the fact you really don’t know much more than their jobs (not even that in some cases: I have no idea what Tian Jing was doing there) you are still rooting for them. Personally I would have had less characters with a little bit more time for them to breath and develop, but then, hey, I didn’t make this film. Also things race on at such a cracking pace there is little time for anyone to become anything more than “my dad gave me this lighter before he got killed in World War 2”.

I wonder if Peter Jackson’s King Kong had anything to do with the pacing of Kong: Skull Island. As beautiful and occasionally magical that film was, the one thing everyone will say about it (and I mean EVERYONE, apart from I guess Peter Jackson) is that it is way, way too long. The plot of the original King Kong was told in a solid 100 minutes and that felt about right. The 1976 remake is well over two hours and felt like it was stretching things. Jackson’s 2005 version is over three hours (200 minutes in the Director’s Cut) and there just isn’t enough story to fill it up, so it goes on and on with minor characters getting whole arcs (and aren’t even in the final act of the film) and scenes lasting for what seem like a week. Perhaps Kong: Skull Island listened to the complaints and kept things as brisk as possible, maybe at the expense of the human interest if not at the expense of the action.

Because what action it is. Kong this time round is a big old bruiser of a monkey. He’s rough-haired and scarred, reminding me more of Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler than some love sick ape of old. Okay so he has a little bit of a moment with Brie Larson (though it is more mutual admiration than anything cross breedingly weird like other versions) but most of the time he is just being old, and moody, but kind at heart, and really ready for a fight. He doesn’t have any moments of soppiness, just the odd inquisitive look at these puny humans, before getting back the job at hand, which is mostly beating seventeen types of shit out of these really ugly (and well designed) lizards called the skullcrawlers.

Jordan Vogt-Roberts, director of the lovely but how-the-hell-did-he-go-from-that-to-this Kings of Summer, kicks everything up to a mad cacophony of colours and imagery, taking liberally from Apocalypse Now with slow motion shots of helicopters swooping over the jungle and Kong silhouetted against the sinking sun, but also keeping the action clear and understandable (even as the edits fly by).

Really things race by so fast that it shouldn’t really work at all, but Kong is a loveable fella and between him, the great cast and fantastic monster fighting action its hard not to be engaged and swept up with it all. It make monster movie making look easy, even when it clearly isn’t. Its only afterwards that you realise this is all as shallow as biscuits, but what the hell – you’ve had a good time.

So let’s get the monkey and the lizard together as soon as possible please, and quick, before the money men realise what they’re doing.

 

The Devil’s Candy 2015

For me heavy metal and horror have always been uneasy bed fellows. Metal may have embraced the imagery of horror since the early days with Black Sabbath named after Mario Bava’s classic movie but there’s always something a little camp and ridiculous about this musical genre. When it is inserted into a horror movie it stops the film from being scary and just becomes silly. Whenever metal started playing in the old Nightmare On Elm Street movies it undermined the terror rather than reenforced it. To be fair I am mostly talking about bands like Dokken so maybe it doesn’t count. Anyway, the point I’m making is that to get the two outsider genres to work in perfect sync is a form of alchemy that has yet to be created. Until The Devil’s Candy came along that is.

The Hellman family are a cute little family who move to some crazy cheap farm house in the middle of the Texas countryside. Of course the reason the  house is cheap is because two people died there: an old lady who fell down the stairs and her husband who killed himself as he couldn’t live without her. Of course we already know that this is bollocks. The opening scene shows that they had a son who is not the greatest at child-parent relations, who also might have the devil whispering to him in his ear. Never a good sign. It doesn’t help that the father of the family, Jesse, can also hear something whispering to him the moments he moves into the house.

So the dynamics seem to be set for how this story will play out, and by the end you can see that it does follow a classic story framing. However it doesn’t do quite what you think it will. This partly due to the well defined characters who are full of contradictions. Jesse, played with huge charisma by an unrecognisable Ethan Embry, may be a devoted and loving husband and father but he’s also a heavy rock artist who’s trying to embrace his commercial side to help pay for his family’s new home. Shiri Appleby as Astrid is the sensible one but she’ll kick back with a spliff from her husband to enjoy their life rather than just worry about it. Their teenage daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco) is the best person on the planet – she shares her dad’s love of heavy metal but will pull him up if he is unkind or foolish. It’s their loving and lovable relationship that is the heart of the film, so when the shit hits the fan you are really rooting for them.

The shit that hits said fan is mostly in the form of hulking man child Ray Smilie (Pruitt Taylor Vince) who stumbles about, initially trying to drown out the voices in his head with a Flying V guitar and Marshall amp, but soon giving into their demands. These involve something awful with a saw and a suitcase. Smilie wears a bright red tracksuit with white piping so looks like a sick or drunk evil Santa Claus, but his large frame and barely able to focus gaze makes him terrifying rather than funny.

Look, I don’t really want to get into the ins and outs of what happens, The Devil’s Candy is only eighty minutes long so its probably best to let you discover its delights yourself. But let’s just say that the metal music works really well in the soundtrack. Jesse as some kind of ultra cool hard rock Jesus father shows that despite what the words and images of metal often suggest, it can also be a force for good. Also the metal and horror come together perfectly in the climax, rather than fighting against each other or making one or the other seem stupid.

One thing I can say is that director Sean Byrne is clearly a genius. We’re two film’s into his career and both this and The Loved Ones, whilst maybe not to everyone’s taste (what’s the matter with you?!!?!?), is a guy who really seems to know what he is doing. His two horrors are both visually strong (with a great understanding of cinematic storytelling) and hugely entertaining at the same time. Byrne does not seem to be a man in a great rush (this was completed in 2015 and has only just got released now, The Loved Ones took even longer) but maybe that’s not his fault. I can’t wait to see what he’s going to do next.

I LOVED The Devil’s Candy. Despite its short running time it is packed with interesting ideas and incident. It also has brilliant characters that I was rooting for, even screaming out “noooooooo!” at one point. Plus it has a damned fine sense of what makes Heavy Metal the horror fan’s music of choice… and you can’t argue with that.

Twilight Zone: The Movie 1983

On paper the idea of two of the most successful directors (at the time) cherry picking two up and coming directors and the four of them revisiting their childhood memories of TV’s The Twilight Zone must have seemed like a great idea. Especially when those two directors were John Landis, having just made An American Werewolf In London and Trading Places, and Steven Spielberg who was coming off the most successful of all time, E.T. Yet somehow both of these mega talents fluffed it. Well Spielberg fluffed it, Landis sowed the seeds that would ultimately destroy his career in the most awful way. Thank god the two directors they picked for the other two segments of the Twilight Zone movie where Joe Dante and George Miller.

It is, it has to be said, a relief that the first story in the film is the John Landis one. Not only because it is easily the weakest one of the lot (that things can only get better after this) but because of the tragedy that happened whilst making this story. It hangs over the production like a ghost. The story concerns a loud mouth racist, bitter about having been passed over for promotion for a fellow, Jewish worker. He finds himself flipping through time to various racial atrocities in recent history, from being lynched by KKK members to being rounded up as a Jew in Nazi occupied France. If you did miss what happened behind the scenes, Landis made some ill advised judgements about safety whilst filming the story which resulted in the lead actor and two child actors being killed by an out of control helicopter (you can look up the footage up on Youtube but I would NOT recommend it). Vic Morrow was the lead actor and is the highlight of this story, playing the bigoted protagonist with wild-eyed conviction. Of course the story doesn’t have the ending which was indented for it as Morrow was not there to film it. It just kind of stops, the downbeat ending has him shut away in a train and shipped off to the gas chambers (the original ending which was meant to involve him rescuing two Vietnamese child prisoners). However even if things hadn’t gone so awfully wrong you have to wonder why on earth Landis chose this story in the first place. Its not to say it isn’t an interesting idea, or that it couldn’t have something to say about bigotry, but its simplistic, sledge hammer stuff – a racist learns how to not to be one. And whilst it does have time travel (for no explained reason) it just doesn’t feel particularly Twilight-Zoney. Plus if you’re going to start a big budget scifi anthology movie is this really the tone you want to start it with? With some white dude making racist slurs to half the audience and then the best they can come up with is a denouement where he is executed along with millions of Jews? Plus, and I’m not sorry to repeat myself, three people died making this.

Steven Spielberg’s story is up next and obviously fares much better in that everyone survives, but we’re still stuck with the same question – why would you choose something as bland as “Kick The Can” to represent you in the Twilight Zone movie. The story involves some wise old black man who visits old people’s homes and gives pensioners their wishes by turning them back into children. Actually you can see EXACTLY why Spielberg chose this. It plays into the man-child Peter Pan ideas that Spielberg was supposedly crazy about back in the day, until he was able to fully plummet this trope with his Hook movie – THAT sure put him off. Here though he is in full saccharine mode. Everything is so sweet and twee it makes you want to throw up. Its all so inoffensive it actually goes right round the other way and becomes offensive. Worst of all it is all so trivial and pointless. It doesn’t have any real insight into ageing – old people yearn for their youth, no shit Sherlock – and the acting is muggy and over the top. I’ll admit it is hard not to love Helen Shaw as Mrs. Dempsey who might be the cutest old person their has ever been, apart from my mum. At least this story is beautifully and cinematically shot, unlike Landis’s one which looked like a poor TV movie.

Things finally turn around at the half way mark when Joe Dante gets to take up the director reigns and deliver one of the classic Twilight Zone stories “It’s a Good Life”. When you think of the Twilight Zone there are certain stories that you know, and the one about the boy who can wish for anything is one of those. How did Landis and Spielberg not KNOW that  if people were wanting anything from their cinematic version of this anthology show it was to have the great stories retold in a big, beautiful way? I get the feeling that after all the stories were in the can, Spielberg must have sat down and had a look and realised he and Landis had fucked up. The last two stories are SO much better than the first two it is like Dante and Miller had been given totally different briefs. Its surely why the last two stories are the best – save the best til last huh?

Joe Dante was apparently picked by Spielberg because he thought Dante’s Jaws rip-off Piranha  was the best of all the Jaws rip-offs (he’s right) and this was a good move. The story of Michael, a ten year old who’s relatives all live in terror of him and his whims, is told with demented cartoon-like energy as the adults stagger about in fear of what the boy will do to them next. Its particularly good to see Kevin McCarthy from Invasion of the Body Snatchers in there as Uncle Walt, having to perform dreadful magic tricks involving giant mutant rabbits being pulled out of his top hat. The weird live action cartoon creatures which appear here are pretty revolutionary and they, along with the child-like (but not childish) macabre tone, are something Dante would revisit and refine over his career. Maybe this story is a little bit of a case of style over content but it’s a lot of fun all the same. Why couldn’t Landis and Spielberg have this sense of glee in their stories is beyond me. Any fun at all would have been nice.

They say save the best til last, and maybe by having the all-time classic Twilight Zone story Nightmare at 20, 000 feet George Miller had it easy, but the final story really is so much better than all of the ones that came before it. The original television episode had William Shatner ripping apart the scenery as a demented passenger convinced there is a gremlin on his plane, tearing apart the engines in a storm whilst everyone else thinks Shatner is a loon. Even watching that crusty old black and white story now has the power to thrill. Miller takes the same story and cranks it up to eleven. This time it is a perfectly cast John Lithgow who starts of paranoid and ends in an insane, mouth-frothing frenzy. Miller whips the tension up so masterfully and with so much dynamism that you can feel Lithgow’s deranged horror, as only he can see what is about to happen to the plane and all its passengers. It is a supremely exciting roller coaster of pure cinema boiled down to twenty minutes. There’s a small and annoying pig-tailed brat who perfectly reflects poor Lithgow’s mind: the more convinced  they are going to die the more annoying she gets, needling away at him like an irritating inch. At the same time the gremlin on the plane wing torments Lithgow by pulling apart the engines whilst laughing in his face/ Lithgow´s fragile state is being attacked from inside and out. It’s a fantastically thrilling climax.

Twilight Zone The Movie is definitely a mixed bag. Its the more established directors who let the thing down. The new guys they brought in were clearly hungrier and more willing to let their imaginations and technical skills run riot. Thank god Spielberg recognised this enough to finish the film on a high note.