Category: Film Reviews

“A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)” Review

“A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)” Review

Of all the slasher franchises to make it out of the horror boom in the 1970s and ’80s, few have had the staying power of A Nightmare on Elm Street. With it’s disfigured mascot Freddy Krueger at the helm, the series enjoyed six sequels, a crossover with Friday the 13th, and a remake. It put New Line Cinema on the map, saving the fledgling company from near bankruptcy and turning it from a B-tier distributor of low budget films to the genuine movie studio that would later go on to make Lord of the Rings. For New Line, it all started with A Nightmare on Elm Street and even though it’s lost much of it’s impact all these years later, the movie remains a fascinating piece of horror history.

Inspired by the disturbing news story of Khmer refugees who died mysteriously in their sleep in the 1970s, A Nightmare on Elm Street follows four youths: bubbly Tina (Amanda Wyss), level headed Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), bullish Rod (Jsu Garcia) and soft-spoken Glen (an almost unrecognizably young Johnny Depp). The group share a common and disturbing nightmare: that of a brutally scarred man hunting them down in a shadowy boiler room, a man with horrific gloves that have knives attached like claws. This is no mere nightmare however; when they are injured in the dream they wake up injured in the same way in real life. As the kids begin to realize that they are in very serious danger, they struggle to find a way to extinguish the nightmare forever.

A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s strongest weapon is it’s characters. One of the most common problems horror movies have is creating three dimensional protagonists that you actually get to care about before they start being brutally killed by whoever the lunatic with the knife is. With Elm Street, writer/director Wes Craven (who helped reinvigorate the horror genre a second time with the Scream series in the late ’90s) spends time building his characters up before he cuts them down. It lends the story weight and, while the characters surrounding the main foursome don’t come off nearly as well, the film benefits from the care and thought taken with its leads.

That extra focus on character work is buoyed by some pretty decent performances from the young cast, with the exception perhaps of Jsu Garcia who capital-A acts his way through the film with a little too much enthusiasm. It’s particularly interesting to see Johnny Depp at work here, not only because he’s so young (this was his first film role, years before he became the dog smuggling superstar we all know and love) but also because he’s playing a normal human being. Depp is an extraordinarily capable actor, one perfectly able to deliver a subtle, understated performance, and Elm Street is a nice reminder of that. While his recent roles skew almost exclusively to the extreme and over-the-top, his debut performance is better than most of them, with the exception of Pirates of the Caribbean.

The story is equally well-done, one that exploits the highly unpredictable nature of dreams for maximum effect. While later entries in the series would lean heavily into the crazy absurdity that populates nightmares, Elm Street 1 plays it disturbingly straight, grounding the action in a dream world just the tiniest bit different from our own. It’s only slightly off kilter but that diluted familiarity is especially effective. Less successful is the disappointing cop-out of an ending. Multiple conclusions were filmed as Craven and producer Sean Cunningham struggled to figure out how to close out the movie, and only one would really have worked in the context of previous scenes. Since that one was an even bigger cop-out then the one we got, the filmmakers elected to go with a final scene that makes little to no sense given what came before. But hey, it left room for the sequels so… there’s that I guess?

A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s biggest flaw is retroactive one: it’s just not very scary anymore. While the stilted dialogue and utterly hopeless adult characters are pretty easy to get past, a lack of scares is a critical absence. Freddy Krueger is a memorable villain and his history and motives are the film’s most disturbing element, but when he jumps out of the shadows and slashes people it all feels by the numbers. The art of frightening filmgoers has progressed enormously in the last few decades (Craven would go on to outdo himself in the excellent opening sequence of Scream, which puts anything in Elm Street to shame) and what worked in 1984 no longer has the desired effect in 2016. Craven is also unusually restrained behind the camera, withholding the creative blocking and framing that would mark his later work. Elm Street has value without it’s scariness but it’s hard to argue that that value hasn’t been diminished.

A Nightmare on Elm Street has influenced almost every horror movie released since it first came out over thirty years ago. At the time it was groundbreaking: a gritty, creative film that easily surpassed the increasingly by-the-numbers Halloween and Friday the 13th sequels that dominated the box office. Looking back on it now, through the lens of 2016, it’s impossible to recapture that. One of the downsides of innovating is that if you’re the first to do something, then eventually someone does it better than you. A Nightmare on Elm Street is a horror movie pioneer and it’s impact cannot be overstated. It’s villain has transcended the series that birthed him and haunted the dreams of pop culture at large, and riffs on the movie’s most famous scenes can be found in everything from The Simpsons to the 2001 version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. This is an important movie, and it’s still very enjoyable today but anyone going in fresh would do well not to expect the same kind of response the movie elicited from audiences three decades ago.

“London Has Fallen” Review

“London Has Fallen” Review

Through bizarre coincidence we got two DieHard-in-the-White-House movies in 2013: Roland Emmerich’s disappointing White House Down and the criminally underrated Olympus Has Fallen. I’m not going to try to say the script was any good because it wasn’t and watching Gerard Butler stumble his way through an American accent gives new credence to Liam Neeson’s decision to not even bother, but I really loved that movie. Thrilling action sequences and a compelling premise as well as a strong supporting cast made Olympus Has Fallen one the rough gems of 2013 and so I approached the sequel with higher expectations.

London Has Fallen takes place several years after the events of the first movie and continues to follow Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Butler), assigned to the personal security detail for President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart), now in his second term. After the British prime minister unexpectedly dies in his sleep from an apparent heart attack, the world’s leaders gather in London for the funeral. The highly protected event is thrown into chaos, however, when terrorists launch a coordinated attack across the city, killing the majority of the heads of state and sending London into lockdown. Stranded with no backup in increasingly hostile territory, Banning must endeavour to find a way to get Asher out of the city.

London Has Fallen bears the same strengths and weaknesses as its predecessor. The dialogue is uniformly terrible, a laughable mess of a script that searches way too much for pithy one liners to end action sequences and rarely ever finds them. The action sequences themselves on the other hand are outstanding, particularly the extended sequence that begins the attack on London. There’s no watered down action here: it’s bloody and visceral, a spiritual successor to the harder edged thrillers of the 1980’s, and there’s a distinct sense of danger that permeates every frame. This is undercut a little by the admittedly terrible CGI which pops up whenever the film does something extreme, but for the most part London Has Fallen tries to go about its business practically and the result is fantastic.

Equally successful is the talented cast, all of whom acquit themselves nicely. Gerard Butler still hasn’t figured out how to hide his Scottish brogue but he’s undeniably enthusiastic about the material. He and Eckhart have great chemistry and they’re given far more of a chance to showcase it this time around. Morgan Freeman returns and remains as commanding a presence as ever, while Colin Salmon, Charlotte Riley and Angela Bassett all shine in supporting roles. Sadly, the film doesn’t utilise some of its performers well at all: Academy Award winner Melissa Leo has maybe two lines in the whole thing, while Academy Award nominee Robert Forster does little except sit at a table and dramatically react as the film progresses. Worst of all is poor Radha Mitchell, who once again is saddled with an entirely extraneous character that could be totally excised from the movie with no repercussions whatsoever. The character was pointless in the first movie and the fact that the mistake was repeated here baffles me.

From a critical point of view, London Has Fallen is not a very good movie. It’s poor script, shoddy CGI and it’s underutilisation of some really talented supporting actors are all unfortunate echos from Olympus Has Fallen and it’s not a particularly intelligent picture as a whole. But there’s something to be said for sheer fun, and that’s something this movie has plenty of. Brutal, thrilling action sequences and admirable turns by every cast member make London Has Fallen a great, dumb popcorn movie and there’s nothing wrong with that.

“Battle for the Planet of the Apes” Review

“Battle for the Planet of the Apes” Review

As the Planet of the Apes franchise entered its final film, the series had lost a lot of its commercial lustre. The last few pictures had seen increasingly diminished returns and by the time Battle for the Planet of the Apes entered production, 20th Century Fox saw fit to label it the last film in the series. The surprisingly dark and violent fourth entry had cost the series a crucial younger audience, so for this last hurrah the studio mandated that it return to the family friendly adventure and action of the first three. Screenwriter Paul Dehn, who had shepherded the franchise from the second film forward found himself ill and unable to contribute a script for the final entry, so Fox approached husband and wife team John William and Joyce Hooper Corrington. The pair was largely known for their work on daytime soap operas, but they had recently seen great success in Hollywood after having written the scripts for films like The Omega Man, based on the Richard Matheson novel I Am Legend (which, yes, was also the source material for the Will Smith movie of the same name), and the early Martin Scorsese film Boxcar Bertha.

The Corrington’s script would draw heavily on biblical parables, following the recently liberated apes as they built a sort of Garden of Eden society in the woods after nuclear war takes down the rest of the human race. Remnants of humanity live among them, but these humans are treated as lesser than the apes and the whole arrangement is a tenuous construction thanks to the machinations of the militaristic, human-hating gorilla Aldo (Claude Akins), who speaks in the third person so as to signify to the audience that he’s an idiot. Caesar (Roddy McDowall) is still running the show, however, and things come to a head when sub-dwelling humans living in the bombed out ruins of a nearby city discover the apes settlement and set out to destroy it.

Easily the weakest of the original Planet of the Apes films, Battle for the Planet of the Apes ultimately has nothing to say and little more to show. The story is threadbare in the extreme, and the conflict between the humans and the apes is given short shrift compared to the rest of the movies in the series. Aldo is a ridiculous villain, a walking cartoon without anything approaching a well-rounded personality, while Caesar’s world view has seen such a massive shift in tone from the previous film that he might as well be someone different entirely. There are also huge gaps in logic: why do the city-dwelling humans live in radioactive squalor when they make it very clear that they can exit the ruins whenever they want? It’s never addressed.

For what it’s worth, the action sequences remain impressive given the much smaller budget, and there’s something undeniably compelling about the idea of humans and apes living together in fragile peace, but the film as a whole just doesn’t work. The Corrington’s script lacks the attention to character that Dehn had displayed time and again in his increasingly bold sequel stories, and the themes of the movie are cast aside to often in favor of simplistic plot development, resulting in a benign, generic story that ends the Apes saga with a pitiful whimper.

In the years following the conclusion of the series Fox tried to move the franchise over to television, first with the simply titled Planet of the Apes series in 1974 and then again with the animated Return to the Planet of the Apes in 1975. Neither series lasted past its first season and neither made much of an impact in the grand scheme of things. Still though, the legacy of Planet of the Apes is undeniably strong. Still held up as one of the best science fiction stories in film (and rightly so), the series has left its mark on pop culture. It’s still going strong today, albeit in vastly modernized form which I will address later on, and the various books, video games and collectables it sired throughout its years remain proof of its longevity. If there’s one thing above all others that stands as a testament to the series’ worth however, it’s that final haunting shot that ended the original installment way back in 1968. Few images have permeated the public consciousness quite so completely as that final chilling scene and that, if nothing else, will forever mark Planet of the Apes as a landmark piece of fiction.

“Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” Review

“Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” Review

Following the incredibly successful role reversal screenwriter Paul Dehn executed in Escape from the Planet of the Apes, the series had a new life to it. Heading into the fourth film, Dehn decided to tell the tale of the ape uprising against the humans described by Cornelius in Escape, and to that end drew heavy inspiration from the civil rights movement taking place in America at the time. Dehn drew particular inspiration from the Black Panthers, a revolutionary group of African-Americans who ascribed to the theory that the pacifist route to equality suggested by the likes of Martin Luther King was severely hampering the movement and that the only alternative was responding to violence from whites with violence themselves. Dehn’s script was an obvious parallel to the movement; a scathing indictment of racism but one with a clear message that violence only begets violence. It’s daring, dark and bold and it remains confronting to this day.

Almost twenty years after the conclusion of Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Zira and Cornelius’ orphaned son Caesar (Roddy McDowall, who played Cornelius in previous entries) is still under the care of the kindly circus owner Armando (Ricardo Montalban). Everything else has changed drastically, however. Following a devastating outbreak of disease that wiped out dogs and cats, humans were forced to look to other animals for companionship. They chose apes, but as time went on it was discovered that apes could be trained to perform menial tasks, like wait tables and clean houses. Quickly, the entirety of human society grew to be supported by ape slave labor, a system built upon brutal and inhumane conditioning techniques and animal abuse.

After Caesar inadvertently blows his cover as the lone intelligent ape on the planet, he’s forced to leave Armando and go into hiding within the system itself, entering into the conditioning laboratories and eventually being assigned to the personal household of the villainous Governor Breck (Don Murray) who rules this Orwellian version of America with an iron fist. As Caesar bears witness to the hardships and atrocities committed against his kind he becomes increasingly certain that there is only one to stop them: revolution.

Planet of the Apes movies had always been somber in tone, but the first three entries have nothing on Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. The first of the series not to receive a G rating in America, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes needed to be edited down in post production after 20th Century Fox began to fear an R rating (the highest of the three ratings for mainstream movies before the overhaul of the MPAA in 1984). A bloody opening scene was removed in which an escaping ape was gunned down in the street, while action sequences later in the film had several shots removed, including one of a man engulfed in flame and another of an ape being graphically shot in the head at point-blank range. The movie managed to score a PG rating with these edits, but the dark tone remains throughout and at the time movie-goers were shocked by the extreme shift in gears.

This move into more adult territory pays off however, offering an unflinching look at a totalitarian society in which all of humanity’s worse instincts are brought to bear on those they feel they are the masters of. It’s this ponderous examination of a system that betrays its least powerful that makes Dehn’s parable of racial tension work, as the story draws clear parallels to both the then fever pitch battle over civil rights in America as well as older conflicts like the Russian Revolution of 1917 and even the biblical tale of Moses.

This new mood is ably handled by incoming director J. Lee Thompson, who addresses the subject matter with an eye that is both sympathetic and sinister and effectively illustrates the revolutions eventual descent into chaos and violence. Roddy McDowall really shines in this, his third Apes movie. As Caesar, the former child actor displays an incredible charisma and deep humanity that slowly hardens into efficient ruthlessness as the tale goes on. It’s a career defining performance for McDowell, and is perhaps the best of any in the original series. Less successful is Don Murray as Governor Breck, who capital-A acts his butt off in this film. He’s shrill and over the top, clearly basing his performance on the behavior of Hitler and other high-ranking Nazi officers, but he fails to realise that by dialing it up to eleven the whole way through he robs the character of a much-needed sense of realism. It’s hard to ever take Breck seriously, as he just comes off as a ranting lunatic with no indoor voice.

Another area the film stumbles in is lighting. This is a poorly lit movie, a huge problem when so many critical scenes take place in the dark of night. It’s sometimes difficult to even make out what’s going on, and while wreathing much of the movie in darkness is probably the right idea from a tonal perspective, there comes a point where it just confuses.

A final critical mistake is the last scene. I mentioned earlier the edits mandated by 20th Century Fox in order to avoid an R rating. The most crucial of these was the ending scene which originally concluded in a much more brutal fashion then it does in the final cut. Forced to rewrite the scene, but unable to refilm it due to budgetary constraints, the ending of the film is a poorly edited hodgepodge cobbled together by running footage backwards and the use of awkward narration. It makes no sense in the context of what has come before and it betrays some of the more confronting themes of Dehn’s script. An alternate cut is included on the Blu-ray release of the film, with the original ending as well as much of the gore reinstated, and it’s a far more honest and affecting conclusion to the story then the studio-mandated theatrical edit. I’d have been fascinated to see where the fifth and final entry in the Planet of the Apes saga would have gone had that original, unflinching finale remained intact but it was never to be and the final installment of Fox’s very first franchise would take an altogether more pedestrian route to resolution.



“Escape from the Planet of the Apes” Review

“Escape from the Planet of the Apes” Review

The ending of Beneath the Planet of the Apes left 20th Century Fox with a peculiar problem going forward. The 1970 sequel had been more successful than the studio had expected and for the first time they began to consider Planet of the Apes as a continuing series going forward, but the apocalyptic ending of the second installment left them in something of a bind. How do you continue a story when the latest entry ended with Earth consumed in nuclear fire and all of the main characters dead? This defiant full stop that had concluded Beneath the Planet of the Apes had backed the filmmakers into a corner. The plan had been for the series to conclude with that second movie, but the promise of money usually overrides artistic intent so writer Paul Dehn was left to find a way out. The way in which he did so was ingenious, drawing on plot elements he’d layered into Beneath that could now be used in a different way, and the successful execution of this maneuver breathed new life into a series left on the brink of death following its lackluster second installment.

The solution was simple. The entirety of the third act of Beneath the Planet of the Apes had taken place underground in the ruins of New York City, exclusively following Taylor, Brent and Nova. This left two major characters, the chimpanzees Zira and Cornelius, offscreen, back at the ape village. Add in the throwaway mention of a rift in time Brent had made in the second installment and the fact that Taylor’s spaceship from the first movie still lay soaking beneath a lake and Dehn had his out: Zira and Cornelius, consummate scientists that they were, had spent that third act of Beneath the Planet of the Apes salvaging the ship, and had taken off just in time to witness the Earth’s destruction before being sucked into the tear in time. Unlike Taylor and Brent, however, the apes would be thrown back in time rather than forward ending up (where else?) in 1970’s America.

When Zira (a returning Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowell reprising the role he’d had to forgo in the second installment due to prior commitments), along with their friend Milo (Sal Mineo), make landfall off the coast of the United States, the human authorities are understandably dumbstruck. The opening sequence in which the spacesuit wearing apes remove their helmets and reveal themselves is brilliantly done, accompanied by an offbeat soundtrack and a sort of self-awareness that sets the stage for things to come. Divulging their futuristic origins to the world, Zira and Cornelius decide to keep a few things to themselves: namely that humans were used as lab rats in their future and that the Earth was ultimately destroyed in a war between the apes and remnants of humanity.

The pair quickly become members of high society, raking in a slew of speaking engagements and international media attention as they adapt to their new life. Slowly they begin to realise though, that human paranoia makes their lives far more dangerous than they think. If apes grow to be the dominant species, doesn’t it follow that Zira and Cornelius may be the catalyst that kickstarts that development?

Escape from the Planet of the Apes is a brilliant swerve for the series to take. The dynamic between apes and humans in the post apocalyptic future had been thoroughly explored in the first two installments, to the point where there was little left to say. By making apes the protagonists of this new tale, and transporting them to an environment where they are the odd ones out (a neat parallel to Taylor’s role in the first film), Dehn and director Don Taylor are given the opportunity to come at the series’ themes from a different angle.

The tone of Escape the Planet of the Apes is more overtly comic than it’s predecessors, but that veneer of humor masks a hidden darkness; a sharp edge that lurks beneath the borderline slapstick absurdity of the opening act. By making us root for the apes, the film persuades its audience to take a harder look at humanity’s inherent instinct for survival, one that often proves destructive when taken to its extreme. As the film goes on it gets progressively darker, and more and more of that humor is stripped away to reveal sinister elements concealed just beneath surface level. The final act is a particularly excellent stretch of film, marking one of the best sections of storytelling featured in the series thus far and further allowing Hunter and McDowell to showcase their considerable capabilities from beneath those iconic masks.

Escape from the Planet of the Apes takes the series in a bold new direction, one that promises great things going forward. Paul Dehn’s cleverly subversive script and strong performances from the film’s leads make this entry in the Planet of the Apes saga one that returns to the highly successful allegory of the first installment, while setting up a wide array of interesting ideas to be utilised going forward.

“Beneath the Planet of the Apes” Review

“Beneath the Planet of the Apes” Review

At the time of Beneath the Planet of the Apes‘ release in 1970, sequels weren’t exactly a common occurrence. The general thinking among movie studios was that a sequel wouldn’t make as much money as the original and the idea of a franchise, spanning movies, books, games, soundtracks and collectibles seemed borderline absurd. This may seem strange to modern audiences seeing as of the 24 movies to gross more than 1 billion dollars at the box office, only 4 (Avatar, Titanic, Frozen and Jurassic Park) were not part of a pre-existing cinema franchise and one of them (Jurassic Park) only crossed a billion years later with a 3D rerelease. At the time though, there was no Star Wars, no Harry Potter, no Avengers. While Beneath the Planet of the Apes’ legacy is certainly no match for it’s predecessor, it does bear the distinction of kickstarting one of the very first blockbuster franchises in cinema history.

At the time of Beneath the Planet of the Apes‘ production, production house 20th Century Fox was going through severe financial difficulties after the commercial failure of several big budget films, most notably the Julie Andrews musical Star!. The production budgets for many films in development at the time were cut as a result, including Beneath the Planet of the Apes, which was also experiencing great difficulty getting key cast and crew to return for the sequel. The original movie’s director Franklin J. Schaffner was asked to return, but he was busy filming the war epic Patton (which would eventually win him an Academy Award for Best Director in 1971), resulting in his replacement by television director Ted Post while Roddy McDowell was unable to reprise his role as Cornelius due to prior commitments directing the British film Tam-Lin. Charlton Heston was also difficult to reaquire: he viewed a sequel as unnecessary, and had little interest in returning to the role of Taylor. Eventually, he agreed to be in the film provided his role be drastically reduced. He donated his salary to charity. Finally, Richard D. Zanuck, the head of production at Fox who played a key role in greenlighting the series, was facing a shareholder revolt due to perceived poor handling of the studio’s output and was eventually dismissed. He would go on to form the independent production company responsible for Jaws, but before he left Fox he gave one lasting directive to Post and his team. His instruction led to the film’s infamously nihilistic and unsatisfying ending, a final jab at the company that had taken his name off his parking spot before he’d even left the property. All in all, it was a deeply troubled development and that hardship is unfortunately reflected onscreen.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes follows new astronaut Brent played by James Franciscus, a popular television star looking to get into movies. Brent has been sent looking for Taylor for reasons never quite explained. Taylor appears to know him, which implies Brent is from the 20th century, but things only went wrong for Taylor after he went into hypersleep somewhere around 2600 earth time. We at least get an explanation as to what exactly the problem was after Brent experiences it as well: a mysterious rift in time that sent them hurtling into the far future as opposed to the more measured time travel achieved through time dilation. A sloppily tied up loose end for sure but at least it’s dealt with.

Brent quickly encounters Nova (a returning Linda Harrison) who has found herself separated from Taylor after he disappeared into an unnatural mirage in the desert. Unable to communicate with him, she takes him to the ape village from the first film to converse with Zira (a returning Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (David Watson). There, he finds the apes gearing for war, seemingly still under the impression that Taylor came from the Forbidden Zone and is therefore one of many. Led by the militaristic gorilla General Ursus (James Gregory), the apes prepare to set off into the Forbidden Zone. What they don’t know is that something very different than they think lurks deep within the wasteland and Taylor has had the misfortune of stumbling into it.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes is an extremely messy film. While it’s opening act is entertaining enough, it quickly loses itself amid an aimless stream of poorly developed plot points and obvious parallels to the Vietnam War. It’s a sloppy movie that drags a talented cast through material they’re too good for and the reduction in budget definitely shows in the terrible facial prosthetics for ape extras.

Most frustrating, however, is the fact that the movie goes nowhere. What little story there is is resolved by an extraordinarily unsatisfying final sequence that bears the dubious distinction of being one of the most explosive anti-climax’s in film history. There is no ending: Beneath the Planet of the Apes just stops.

All in all Beneath the Planet of the Apes is a spectacular disappointment. While it’s predecessor was a smart, tightly plotted exploration of the “human” condition and the dangers of nuclear war, the sequel doesn’t seem to know what it’s trying to do. It’s action sequences pale in comparison to the first film, it’s allegories are veiled as thinly as tissue paper and the plot has a deeply unsatisfying conclusion. It’s an extraordinary failure when compare to the revolutionary brilliance of the original, and it left the rest of the series in an extremely precarious plot position going forward.