Tag Archives: classics

Black Christmas (1974)


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Starring: Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, Andrea Martin
Director: Bob Clark
Screenwriter: Roy Moore
Rating : R

The slasher genre is probably one of the most popoular in the world for over 30 years now. The first of its kind was Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, though some would point out “Thirteen Women” (1932). Those were the precedents that gave birth to a world-wide phenomenon, the film that portrays the criminal endevours of a psychopathic killer. In time, the genre has suffered mutations, reaching out to such outlandish genres as Science Fiction, draining it of even the last molecule of originality. Freddie Kruger, Jason Vorhees, Michael Myers, Hannibal Lecter, Leatherface, Chucky, Jigsaw are but a few of the names in the pantheon of horror. Among the films that set the rules straight where the 1974 classics “The Chainsaw Massacre” and “Black Christmas”. But it wasn’t until the box-office success of 1978’s “Halloween” that really helped the genre break out into the mainstream.

“Black Christmas” can safely be called a standard slasher. A sorority houe in Canada is terrorised by psychopath who makes obscene phone calls. Hidden in the attic of the house, he quickly makes the transition from harmless calls, to brutal executions, taking the girls out one by one, during the Christmas holiday.

The cast is largely unknown except for Olivia Hussey (Maria from “Jesus of Nazareth”) and Margot Kidder (Lois Lane from the original “Superman”). But, the true star is the unseen killer. There’s plenty of carnage going around but don’t expect any gore. The killer blows are mostly off-screen, or visually stylised to conceal any explicitness. The violence is reduced to a level of suggestion rather than the more modern showcasing of blood and guts (see “Saw”), with more efficiency in terms of suspense.

The moments that rely on atmposphere and tension work well and are interesting enough, even if everything feels just a little bit dated and too predictable (only because we’ve seen this done over and over again in countless clones). For example, there’s a scene where the police is trying to trace the call. Not these are the 70s, so don’t imagine any kind of hi-tech tracking gear. No, there’s this cop waiting at the phone company for the call. When the call does come, he has to run around in a big room full of ceiling-high mechanical machines to see which one connected the call. Obviously he doesn’t get it the first time around. Or the second. It’s all about how fast he can get to the right machine in order to find out the address where the call came from. This generates loads of tension, but it’s also funny compared to all this new slick technology on display in modern films.

Obviously, it’s no Oscar contender. Slasher flicks belong to a league of their own that does not require critical acclaim. In a way, they appeal to our darker side, which makes us tolerate these sinister stories. The quality level is subjective, depending on our likes or dislikes regarding the genre. In fact, the only reason why this gets a high poatato score, is because it was an original take on a subject that would never stop being remade.

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Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)


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75

Starring: Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston, Laurie Zimmer
Director: John Carpenter
Screenwriter: John Carpenter
Rating : R

John Carpenter is the undisputed champion of B flicks. The way he exploits violence and builds around an interesting enough plot, with style and wit, has earned him the title. “Assault on Precinct 13 is by now a classic in Carpenter’s filmography, all the more reason to make producers think they needed to make a remake in 2005 (and a surprisingly good one too).

The story unfolds in a gang-ridden L.A. where a war is underway between the law and the extremely well armed outlaws. Collateral damage in this urban conflict is a little girl, shot while getting ice cream. Her father declares his own kind of war on the gangs, kills their leader and runs to safety inside the now infamous precinct 13 (although it’s actually refered to in the film as Anderson Precinct, the 13 bit was added in the title by the producers to make it sound more ominous), which is currently closing down so it’s short on men and weapons. Coincidently, a prisoner transport also makes a stop at the precinct because one of the prisoners got sick. Part of the shipment of inmates is the feared psychopathic killer Napoleon Wilson, on his way to death row. The gangs organize a daring assault on the precinct to avenge their leader, and Officer Bishop, left behind to oversee the closing of the precinct, along with a few other people, including prisoners, prepare to fiercely fight for their own survival.

The idea itsef is perfect for an action film, the bad guys attack in waves, and the good guys attempt to find alternative survival methods with limited amounts of weapons and ammunition. John Carpenter first intended to do a western, but lacking the resources (money that is), decided to go for a gritty urban action film with a western touch. Action-wise it’s not terribly spectacular by today’s standards, but it does a better job by relying on good ol’ suspense and claustrophobic atmosphere. The characters and dialogue are typical western fare, from the good sheriff type (Bishop) and the ruthless morally ambiguous bad guy (Wilson), to the swarm of outlaws beating down the door in a classic western alamo scenario. The interesting idea here is that of the cops and robbers joining forces in order to survive, but it’s not really explored in a serious fashion. It’s just an excuse for tense action. The actors are largely unknown even to this day, which I consider effective for its realism.

The 2005 remake contains an entirely modified storyline and characters (a lot more stars in the cast). What they keep is the basic idea of the siege, which is, obviously, the whole concept of the original. It also concerns itself more with gimmicky action, indeed superficial, but just as much fun, particularly since it has a larger budget to work on. It’s pretty difficult to recommend on of the two. As I said, I personally would go for the remake, and action/violence fans will probably choose the 2005 film as well, but if you are a Carpenter fan (as I am), and you enjoy the classics, or you just hate remakes for what they really are : cynical excuses for producers to make money, you should turn to the original. After all, the remake can’t exist without the original story it’s based on.

The Breakfast Club (1985)


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Starring: Paul Gleason, Molly Ringwald, Emilio Estevez, Anthony Michael Hall, John Kapelos, Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy, Ron Dean

Screenwriter and Director: John Hughes

John Hughes passed away this August, but his legacy remains, as he produced, written or directed some of  the most successful movies of the ‘80s and ‘90s: “National Lampoon’s Vacation”, ”Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”,  “Weird Science”, “ The Breakfast Club”, “Some Kind of Wonderful”, “Sixteen Candles”,  “Pretty in Pink”, “Planes”, “Trains and Automobiles”, “Uncle Buck”, “Home Alone” and its sequel “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York”. His ability to talk to teenagers without being condescending, without minimizing their already small and passionate universe and without making one of the worst mistakes a teen targeted flick writer could do: talk about the former generation instead of the current one – these were some of the reasons his movies were very well received. Some of them even set the tone for countless series and movies to come, as every teen drama has at least one mention of the iconic “The Breakfast Club” and at least one attempt of imitating one of its scenes.

It’s amazing what can be done with very little setting and a fairly simple idea: five very different teenagers belonging to opposed high school cliques end up spending the Saturday in the school library, each having broken a conduct rule. The school is the stage, and seven people are the actors. Andrew (Emilio Estevez) is a jock with a wrestling ambition, but it becomes very clear that that ambition belongs to Clark Senior rather than Junior. The constant pressure has him wishing for a permanent injury and drives him to bully others, making him ashamed of his behavior, and the shame adds even more pressure… a full inescapable circle. Claire Standish (Molly Ringwald) is the prom queen, the prize over which the two halves of a bitter marriage fight.  Rewarded and pampered, she is not actually missed or loved. John Bender (Judd Nelson) is “the criminal” and the only one from a working class background. The constant abuse has him lashing out against everyone, making him to always go out of his way trying to be obnoxious. He is the one that rattles everybody’s cages so that the premise can be outlined. Brian Johnson (Anthony Michael Hall) the brain of the group, the geek that cannot conceive a low grade. When he receives an F at shop class, he acts out in an unusual way and gets detention. And finally, the basket case: Allison Reynolds (Ally Sheedy), a compulsive liar and a sometimes kleptomaniac who is severely deprived of human contact and attention and whose internal void and loneliness has her attaching herself to this unlikely group in the hope of any kind of bonding. They all talk like ’80s teens do, and it still rings true (either that or I’m old). They try to stand out; they all have short attention spans, a predilection for experiencing new forbidden grounds and a desperate need to be unique. On top of that lays a desire common to us all: to be loved for what they are underneath their façades.

This is the movie that set the mark for stereotyping high school life into groups. We all know that cheerleaders are beautiful and popular, geeks are harassed daily and weirdoes are singled out. I frankly do not remember my cretaceous high school era as being so overwhelming. Yes, there is that obvious fight to not be at the bottom of the social pyramid, but other than that, it is fun. Or it should be. The script does not surprise very much because it does not need to: the point of the story is that the typical masks uncover ordinary family tales. Nothing is extreme; nothing makes you gasp in astonishment. Because these cheap tricks would alienate the target audience, the ones that should be able to point at one of the five characters and say: “That is sooooooo me in 10th grade!”. It is authentic and real instead of over the top. That is one of the characteristics of John Hughes’ work.

It also seems to be one of the major strengths of the cast. They blend tighter together as they separate their stories and they all seem to reverting back to their teen years without any visible effort. One of the main reasons I support the “Beverly Hills 90210” type of casting (remember the balding 16 years old Dylan McKay? Or Andrea, the menopausal school paper editor?) is this kind of acting work, acting that does not make your brain melt (have you ever seen Shanae Grimes “act”? Her full-on seizure face contrasts with her deadpan delivery making it impossibly embarrassing to watch).

John Hughes has one of the characters say that “when you grow up your heart dies”. The good thing is that these teens will never grow up because all we will ever see of them are these 90 minutes of anguish.  Nobody will ever know what happened to them after they left the library, and maybe it’s for the best. One of the most referenced movies in history, “The Breakfast Club” is a ‘80s classic.

Christine (1983)


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Starring : Keith Gordon, John Stockwell, Alexandra Paul, Harry Dean Stanton
Director: John Carpenter
Screenplay: Bill Phillips based on a novel by Stephen King
Rating : R

The relationship between man and car can be considered one of mutual interest. Man needs car for transport and mobility, and, strictly from an existential point of view, car needs man to own it, and use it. What happens though, if your car has special needs. What if it doesn’t just require you to drive it, but also to love it and care for it, for you to be owned by it, body and soul. You’ll probably say that’s absurd, but Christine will contradict you.

Who is Christine ? SHE is a red ’57 Plymouth Fury, top of the line back in the day, and she is also a living entity, expressing herself through old songs spontaneously blaring out of her radio. Cool, right ? Wrong ! As the opening shots taking place in the factory where she was built reveal (with “Bad to the Bone” rocking on the soundtrack), she is not very friendly with anyone who doesn’t treat her right. Thirty years later, in bad shape, dusty and forgotten, she is sold to a young highschool geek by the name of Arnie Cunningham. He spends a lot of time restoring her to her glory-days’ shape, and his efforts will not go unnoticed. Christine starts to bring Arnie closer to her dark core, possessing him and changing him. He becomes more aggressive, arrogant and over-confident, isolating himself from his family, his best friend Dennis and his girlfriend Leigh, and Christine starts to kill all those who stand between her and Arnie. Dennis and Leigh eventually realise the dark influence of Christine and they try to find a way to separate the man from the machine.

Carpenter is the undisputed king of B flicks. Without a doubt, if you need a director for a film about a possessed car, then he is the man for the job. Because of Stephen Kings’ popularity at the time, the film went into production even before the book came out. That’s proof that the Hollywood money-making machine never sleeps, just as Christine never does. Carpenter, also famous enough because of his previous successes with “Halloween”, “Escape from New York”, and “The Thing”, is always on top of the story with a steady-hand, never letting the awkward plot lose focus or seem too absurd. He dictates the rhythm, which is constant, tense, with a lot of carefully chosen frames, and some interesting practical visual effects for Christine (in some scenes she regenerates after suffering severe damage). It’s not really an action film, although there is at least one important chase scene to speak of, but it’s really more focused on atmosphere and plenty of ominous close-ups of Christine, which leaves the movie feeling a little empty. It’s also very clean in terms of gore, probably Carpenter’s most blood-free film ever. The leading parts are played mostly by unknowns, which adds to a sense of teenage innocence as no big names appear in the credits. They play their parts convincing enough to prevent you from throwing stuff at the screen. I would to say that the script does a similarly good job, but it falls short when it comes to going all the way with ideas like the “special” relationship” between Arnie and Christine, or the illusion of power and the transformations it implies, but the truth is, the film is stuck at the story level of a killer car on a rampage. Of course, being only aprox. 100 min. in length, they needed to prioritize, so character development and deep-thought issues are the first to go. I guess if more were possible, this would have turned into a mini-series.

I can’t complain though. Sure, it’s not Carpenter’s best, nor is it the best Stephen King adaptation ever, but it is a middleweight horror, with plenty of fun to be had and a satisfying mood for fans of the genre. It will definetly make you think crazy thoughts the next time you enter a vehicle.

Born on the Fourth of July (1989)


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Starring : Tom Cruise, Kyra Sedgwick, Raymond J. Barry, Frank Whaley
Director : Oliver Stone
Screenplay : Oliver Stone and Ron Kovic based on a book by Ron Kovic
Rating : R

Based on the autobiography of Ron Kovic, a Vietnam veteran paralyzed in the Vietnam war who later became an anti-war activist, “Born on the Fourth of July” is one of the crowning achievements of Oliver Stone, part of his Vietnam trilogy alongside “Platoon” and “Heaven & Earth”. In 1990, it earned him his second Oscar Award as a director and it catapulted Tom Cruise’s career to new heights. Today, this film is regarded as one of the best ever made, though still somewhat politically controversial in America.

The film covers Ron’s life (played by Tom Cruise), from his childhood and teenage years in Massapequa, Long Island, to his tour in Vietnam and his critical injury, and the struggle back home, to cope with both his physical and spiritual suffering. His story starts as that of a young man full of ambition, yet misguided by his own family’s conservative values. Life in the small town is quiet and has little to offer to his dreams of glory. His decision to become involved in the Vietnam war comes from his desire to impress and succeed, but soon he will see that war is no place for heroes and it doesn’t spare innocence. During one of the missions in Vietnam he accidentaly shoots and kills a fellow soldier, a mistake which will haunt him forever, while he himself is critically wounded a couple of months later, and remains paralyzed from the mid-chest down, for the rest of his life. After spending several grueling months in a horrid veteran’s hospital in the Bronx, he returns home in a wheelchair, only a fragment of the man he used to be, or thought he would become. He embarks on a journey of self-discovery in which he ends up alienating his friends and family as he becomes disillusioned by the idea of war and that his sacrifice might have been in vain. He tries to understand the anti-war protesters, while struggling with his pride as a US Marine. He is asked to take part in a 4th of July parade, but instead of strengthening his ideals, it only reminds him more of the unthinkable horrors and mistakes he faced during the war. He tries to understand the “other side” by participating with a childhood friend (Kyra Sedgwick) in a student rally against the Vietnam war, and seeing the police brutality against the protesters makes him question his beliefs even more. He travels to Mexico, living alongside other paralyzed war veterans in a drug, booze and whore-filled attempt to forget, sinking only deeper in madness and despair. He even tries visiting the family of the young soldier he accidentally killed seeking forgiveness.

In the end, we know he becomes an important anti-war activist with a bestselling autobiography, but the evolution to that point in his life is truly dramatic, and Stone pulls all the right strings to give us this remarkable man’s story, without trying to soften the punch or ultra-glorifying him. He shows off his slick cinematic craft in using any and all tactics to create an involving narration. The excellent cinematography, lush orchestral score and authentic art direction smoothly support the narrative, an epic combination that Stone always provides for his movies. But it’s really Tom Cruise’s emotional powerhouse performance, embodying both the youthfull exhuberance of the young Kovic and the despair of the bitter veteran that is definetly the gravity center of the film. It is his best film to date, earning him a well deserved Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe Award. It’s probably because of his more popular acting choices like “Cocktail, “Days of Thunder” , “War of the Worlds” and the “Mission Impossible” trilogy, that the world regards him as a poster boy for commercial success, but it is unfair to dismiss the fact that he can indeed act and to anyone who ever doubted it, this is the film they should watch. Some of the most powerfull scenes are lifted above cheap melodrama by his disarmingly sincere and emotional performance. Of course this is not to say that he is alone. A powerfull supporting cast acts alongside him with honors, some even appearing for a few seconds. A lot of cameos, including the Baldwin brothers (except Alec), Tom Sizemore, Michael Wincott, John C. McGinley, Holly Marie Combs, Wayne Knight, even the real Ron Kovic. Blink and you might miss them. Also, worth mentioning are Tom Berenger and Willem DaFoe who appear here after playing opposite each other in Stone’s “Platoon”.

Oliver Stone’s films are almost always politically charged, and this one is no different. If you’ve found along the way that your views on the Vietnam war differ from those of Stone’s, then by all means, avoid “Born on the Fourth of July. But do take in consideration that this is also a powerfull statement of human strength, of a man, lost and confused, mutilated body and soul, who found the strength to overcome his demons and come to terms with his afflictions. Tom Cruise’s excellent performance and Oliver Stone’s steady-hand direction, come together beautifully in a truly perfect film.