Darkman (1990)

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I’ve never been much of a Sam Raimi fan. His Spider-Man films felt like the height of superhero cinema mediocrity to me in their heyday. The Evil Dead series was never really my thing, mostly because of the rapist tree & my contention that Bruce Campbell is a second-rate version of Jim Carrey’s worst tendencies. As far as I knew until recently, Raimi’s greatest contribution to the cultural zeitgeist was as a producer on the television show Xena: Warrior Princess, with his directorial work not mattering much to me in any significant way. I appreciated the over-the-top cartoonishness of his aesthetic, but it never connected with me in the same way that the work of, say, Peter Jackson did. Darkman changed all that.

A comic book-inspired noir riding on the coattails of Tim Burton’s Batman, Darkman is a masterfully goofy work of genre cinema. Its comic book framing, over-the-top performances, and stray Ken Russell-esque freakouts were all perfection in terms of trashy entertainment value, pushing the lowest-common-denominator of trash media into the realm of high art. Darkman is not only the finest Sam Raimi film I’ve ever encountered, it’s also one of the most striking comic book movies ever made . . . which is saying a lot considering that it wasn’t even based off of a comic book. Given our current climate of endless adaptations, remakes, and reboots, it’s bizarre to think that Darkman was made from an original idea of Raimi’s & not from bringing a pre-existing character to the screen. The film’s two superfluous, direct-to-video sequels would fit in just fine with our current trend of endlessly returning to the well, but the original Darkman really went out on a limb with its central idea & it’s a risk that paid off nicely.

Tim Burton’s Batman (a film Raimi had actually once been considered for as a potential director) seems like the most obvious point of reference for Darkman‘s cultural context. Released just one year after Batman‘s release, Darkman was a similarly dark, gritty, noir-inspired comic book landscape that even brought longtime Burton-collaborator Danny Elfman in tow for its score. The original idea for Darkman had nothing to do with the Caped Crusader at all, however. It wasn’t even conceived as an homage to comic books. Raimi had first conceived Darkman in a short story meant to show reverence for Universal Studio’s horror classics of the 1930s. It’s very easy to see the mad scientist ravings of characters that would’ve been played by folks like Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff in an earlier era (or both in the case of The Invisible Ray) in Darkman‘s DNA. The outfit the anti-hero uses to hide his face even more than closely resembles that of The Invisible Man. The combination of this monster movie pedigree & the newfound comic book seriousness of Burton’s Batman were a great start for Darkman as a launching pad. Add Sam Raimi’s particular brand of cartoonish camp to the mix & you have a perfect cocktail of violently goofy cinema.

Liam Neeson stars as Darkman‘s titular anti-hero, a brilliant scientist & kindhearted boyfriend working on the secret of creating new body parts for scratch with the world’s first 3-D printer (of organic material, no less). The doctor’s girlfriend, played by Frances McDormand, inadvertently gets him mixed up with some rough mobster types who burn down his lab with the poor man inside it & through some shaky-at-best comic book/monster movie shenanigans, he emerges alive, but forever altered. Horrifically scarred, unable to feel pain, and freakishly strong due to an increase in adrenaline, the doctor emerges as the masked vigilante Darkman & sets out to exact his revenge on the Dick Tracy-esque mobster villains who destroyed his life. His masks alternate from the Invisible Man get-up mentioned above to temporary organic faces contrived from his pre-mutation scientific research & his revenge tactics go beyond basic vigilantism into full-blown, cold-blooded murder. Instead of struggling with the inner conflict a lot of violent superheroes deal with regarding which side of the law & morality they stand on, Darkman truly enjoys exacting revenge on the goons who wronged him in the cruelest ways he can possibly devise.

It’s not just remarkable to me that Sam Raimi happened to direct a movie I enjoyed. What’s most surprising is the ways that Darkman couldn’t have been made by any other auteur. Raimi’s personal aesthetic is what makes the film work and although he could’ve easily allowed the formula to go off the rails (he really wanted Bruce Campbell in Neeson’s role, which would’ve been a disaster), it’s his own cinematic eye & sadistic sense of humor that makes it such an iconic accomplishment. With Batman, Burton had brought comic book movies out of the dark ages, proving that superhero media wasn’t just the goofy kids’ media of Adam West yesteryear. Raimi combined both those extremes, the gritty & the goofy, in Darkman in an entirely idiosyncratic way (as Burton also would in the similarly masterful Batman Returns). The film indulged in some Batman-esque brooding, especially in its noir lighting & in introspective lines like “The dark, what secrets does it hold?”, but those elements are all so over-the-top in their inherent ridiculousness that there’s never any sense that Raimi is doing anything but having fun.

Although Darkman isn’t technically a comic book adaptation it exudes comic book media in every frame. Darkman‘s onslaught of drastic Dutch angles, 1st person shooter POV, Oingo Boingo circus aesthetic, Alterted States-esque hallucinations, and wild tangents of practical effects gore all feel both like classic comic book imagery & classic Sam Raimi. I can’t speak too decisively on the entirety of Raimi’s catalog since there are more than a few titles I’ve intentionally skipped over, but I can say for sure that the director has at least one certified masterpiece of goofball cinema under his belt: Darkman. It’s a work that not only surprised me by becoming an instant personal favorite, but also by inspiring me to consider giving Raimi’s catalog a closer second look to see if he ever repeated the trick.

-Brandon Ledet

Goosebumps (2015)

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fourhalfstar

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I say this with total sincerity, friends: the Goosebumps movie is pretty damn great. The same way films like The Monster Squad, Hocus Pocus, Witches, The Worst Witch, and (on a personal note) Killer Klowns from Outer Space have introduced youngsters to the world of horror (and horror comedy) in the past, Goosebumps is an excellent gateway to lifelong spooky movie geekdom. The Scholastic book series & 90s television show of the same name are now far enough in the past that their original pint-sized audience are old enough to have children of their own, which means that the film could’ve easily coasted on nostalgia to sell tickets & not given much thought to a longterm shelf-life. Instead, Goosebumps strives to stay true to its half-hokey, half-spooky source material, resulting in a film that’s genuinely funny from beginning to end, but still packs a sharp enough set of teeth that it might just keep a tyke or two awake at night. It’s a horror comedy for youngsters that resists the temptation of talking down to its audience the way lesser, similarly-minded films like Hotel Transylvania 2 would. The only film from the past decade that I could think to compare it to is ParaNorman, another well-balanced kids’ horror that I hold in high regard for universal enjoyability that allows for children & adults alike to bond over a love of famous monsters & spooky laughs. What could be more admirable than that?

The story at the heart of Goosebumps isn’t all that important, which is in its own way an important lesson for children to understand what to expect from their monster movies. A Regular Dude, his crush The Girl Next Door, and an annoying Third Wheel Nerd named Champ/Chump accidentally release an epidemic of horror movie creatures on the small town of Madison Delaware (which may as well have been Eerie, Indiana) when they tamper with R.L. Stine’s original Goosebumps manuscripts. The film is genuinely enjoyable before the monsters’ arrival (the first pleasant surprise), establishing a world of dumb small-town cops, single mothers trying their best, high school principals hell-bent on outlawing twerking (“If anyone is caught dancing with their butt facing their partner, they will be sent home immediately. Immediately!”), and kooky aunts with Etsy shops & relationship issues.

The only detail out of place in this well-manicured suburbia is the hermetic “Mr. Shivers”, a reclusive, nerdy creep who soon revealed to be the R.L. Stine. In a way, this detail itself is an intro to the meta horror of films like In the Mouth of Madness & Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, but it’s just a single facet of a larger crash course in horror as a genre. The film’s deep cast of spooky creatures include ghosts, aliens, zombies, werewolves, mummies, abominable snowmen, evil dogs, gigantic killer bugs, killer toy robots that would make Charles Band proud, (Wu-Tang) killer bees, and the list goes on. The only glaring absences I noticed were of vampires & Frankenstein monster types, but they honestly could’ve easily slipped by in the midst of the mayhem. The film also aims to collect classic monster movie settings as much as it does the creatures, making sure to hit up spooky graveyards, empty supermarkets, abandoned amusement parks, and The Big Dance in a sequence that recalls films like Prom Night & Carrie. It’s incredible how much ground the film manages to cover in its relatively short, remarkably tidy runtime.

Goosebumps holds an obvious reverence for its source material, a series of novels for horror-minded young’ns that the movie explains aren’t kids’ books, because “Kids’ books help you fall asleep. These books keep you up all night.” Although the film hosts some great work from lovely people like Jillian Bell, Ken Marino, and Danny Elfman (whose theremin & violin-heavy score is pitch-perfect), it’s Jack Black who stands out as the physical embodiment of that child-adult bridge. Black is a hoot as R.L. Stine, portrayed here as a dastardly nerd so intense in his reclusiveness that his imaginary creations became real (the monsters take shape from black swirls of ink when released from their manuscript prisons). I particularly like his situational one-liner “I have a deadline . . . literally,” and his indignation with being compared to Steven King. Black is also given the opportunity to cut loose in his secondary voice performance as an animatronic ventriloquist doll named Slappy (who appeared in no less than ten novels). Most outright “bad” jokes in the film are attributed to the dummy, which makes total sense logically,  but also further solidifies Black’s central role as Goosebumps‘ hokey-scary vibe personified, thanks to the fact that dolls are effortlessly creepy & just the worst.

If there are any longterm Goosebumps fanatics out there who remember the specific details of the dozens of title in the catalog, I’m sure that there pare plenty of in-jokes and winking references ready to delight you. Certain details (like a levitating poodle & an invisible prankster) went way over my head, but the titles I did remember from my schoolchild, such as The Haunted Mask & The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena, were also prominently featured in the movie. There’s also a concluding credits sequence that pays loving homage to the series’ wonderful cover art. What’s more important than Goosebumps‘ fielty to R.L. Stine’s past, however, is its loving reflections of the past of horror at large.

Obviously, mileage may vary based on individual kids’ personalities & tastes, but I have no doubt there will be large swaths of young children growing up with fond memories of this film the same way my generation fondly looks back at The Monster Squad as an early horror favorite. I noticed at least five walkouts during my screening of Goosebumps (not to mention that the film is sadly struggling to earn back its budget), but there were plenty of other kids in the audience intensely invested in the goofy mayhem. Of course, I personally would’ve preferred if  Goosebumps had been anchored more by practical effects rather than its somewhat tiresome CGI (although there were some genuinely effective visual cues like a beautiful funhouse mirror sequence & a sad little box labeled “Dad’s Stuff” in the film) but the younger generation of kids in the audience are highly likely not to care about that distinction. For them, the film is more or less perfect as a primer for horror & horror comedy as a genre, CGI warts & all and, honestly, that’s all that really matters.

-Brandon Ledet

Mission: Impossible (1996)

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three star

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A few months ago I was so blown away by the ridiculous spectacle of the trailers for Furious 7  that I doubled back & watched all seven Fast & Furious movies for the first time ever just to see what it was all about. What I found was a franchise that I had rightly ignored as a teen for being a mindlessly excessive reflection of what has to be one of the trashiest eras of pop culture to date: that nasty little transition from the late 90s to the early 00s. Over the years, though, I’ve developed an affinity for mindless excess & hopelessly dated trash cinema, so 2015 proved to be the perfect time to watch the Fast & Furious movies from front to end. As expected, they started as a disconnected mess of car porn & Corona soaked machismo, but by the fifth film in the series, something intangible clicked & the movies suddenly pulled their shit together, forming a cohesive action universe built on the tenets of “family”, rapper-of-the-minute cameos, and hot, nasty speed.

I can’t say I was equally blown away by the trailers for the newest Mission: Impossible film, Rogue Nation, as I was by Furious 7‘s more over-the-top flourishes, but there was a similar feeling of being left out there. Rogue Nation will be the fifth installment of a franchise that’s been around for nearly two decades. Despite the ubiquitousness of the image of Tom Cruise suspended from a ceiling in a white room in 1996, I can’t remember ever seeing a single scene from the Mission: Impossible films. The Rogue Nation ads suggested a similar trajectory for the franchise as the Fast & Furious films. It seemed like something along the way had finally clicked for the series, like it now had its own mythology & core philosophy, which is a feeling I’ve never gotten before from the outside looking in. My mission, should I choose to accept it (that’ll be the last time I make that awful joke, I promise) is to come to know & understand the series form the beginning, to figure out exactly what’s going on in its corny super spy mind, the same way I became part of Vin Diesel’s “family”.

What I found at the beginning of the Mission: Impossible saga was unexpectedly classy. This was a retro action movie starring (a pre-Scientology-fueled couch-jumper) Tom Cruise when he still defined what it meant to be Movie Star Handsome. This was 1996, a beautifully naive stretch of the decade before we let rap rock ruin America. This was a unnecessarily intricate mood piece espionage film helmed by (former Movie of the Month) director Brian De Palma, arguably the king of unnecessarily intricate mood pieces. This was a dumb action movie with a classic score by Danny Freakin’ Elfman, for God’s sake. In other words, why did I wait so long to watch this? I wasn’t absolutely floored by what basically amounted to a love letter to the same 60s super spy media that the incredibly funny Spy spoofed earlier this year, but I was at the very least pleasantly surprised by how well-executed it was. These days it’s difficult not to meet news of an old TV show getting a big screen adaptation with a pained groan, but back ,in its day Mission: Impossible was kind to its source material (despite fans of the original series grousing at its initial release), obviously holding immense respect for the era it came from, while still updating it with a certain amount of mid-90s badassery.

A lot, if not all, of the film’s success could be attributed to Brian De Palma. The needlessly complicated camera work he throws into this film elevates the material immeasurably. Within the first major sequence alone the eye is overwhelmed by an onslaught of tracking shots, Dutch angles, first person POV, ridiculous Old Hollywood noir lighting, etc. De Palma is known for his tendency towards excess and Mission: Impossible definitely has him operating at his least inhibited, displaying the same lack of good taste & visual restraint that he brought to the ridiculous Nic Cage thriller Snake Eyes. It’s a genuine treat. There’s some other cool, big ideas at work here, like the way the movie poses espionage as a form of theater (at one point a character lays out a secret plan as “Here’s the plot . . .”), but it’s really De Palma’s overreaching visual style that makes the movie special.

That being said, a 60’s sense of class & an overenthusiastic De Palma can’t save the movie from its own action movie trashiness entirely. Mission: Impossible is essentially a mere three ridiculous action sequences & some much less exciting connective tissue and there’s plenty of camp value to be found at the very least in its super spy gadgetry. For instance, despite the obviously technically proficient world of international super spies detailed here, they’re all fighting over possession of a floppy disk, a very era-specific MacGuffin that really takes me back. Besides this goofery, there’s also a truly ludicrous scene where a helicopter chases a train into a tunnel, there’s a lot of mileage squeezed out of the high tech masks that allow characters to rip off their faces & become other people, and the infamous Tom Cruise hanging from the rafters sequence features a lot more puke than people typically mention. All of this and Ving Rhames. I cannot stress how much Ving Rhames’ mere presence brings to the table, camp wise.

I didn’t know exactly what to expect with Mission: Impossible, but I was pleasantly surprised. I honestly think it’s super cool that a franchise that Tom Cruise pays for & stars in himself has such a classy, but (intentionally) campy beginning. As far as super star vanity projects go, you could do much worse than a cheesy Brian De Palma action flick starring Ving Rhames & an exploding helicopter. It’ll be interesting to see where the series goes from here, but for now I’m really liking what I’m seeing.

-Brandon Ledet

Shrunken Heads (1994)

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Family members collaborate on films all the time, but when the Elfman family gets together for a film, things get really weird. Richard Elfman, the brilliant mind behind the film The Forbidden Zone, directed Shrunken Heads. Richard’s brother, Danny Elfman, composed the main title theme, and his son, Bodhi Elfman, plays the role of street punk Booger Martin. Add the sick mind of Charles Band to the mix, and you’ve got the perfect B movie.

Shrunken Heads is an abnormal superhero movie with elements of horror and dark comedy. A street gang viciously murders three boys from New York City, but it just so happens that the boys’ neighborhood pal, Mr. Sumatra (Julius Harris), is a Haitian witch doctor. He sneaks into the funeral home after the boys’ service comes to an end, saws off their heads & takes them back to his apartment to shrink them with magical powers. Sumatra is able to train the boys’ shrunken heads to use their new powers, and they begin to put an end to the crime in their neighborhood & take revenge on their killers. These three little heads float around the city streets like The Powerpuff Girls, killing all the bad guys & turning their victims into zombies. While doing his best to rid the streets of crime, Tommy (one of the heads), also tries to develop a relationship with his old girlfriend Sally, which is difficult since he’s dead & doesn’t have a body. Mr. Sumatra ends up being a love guru as well as a witch doctor and is responsible for one of my favorite quotes in the film: “Never have I seen or heard of a human head made so small to show affection of this sort.”

Being one of my favorite B movies of all time, I highly recommended Shrunken Heads to everyone because there really is a little something for everybody in this film. There’s action, comedy, drama, magic, love, lots of cool/cheesy special effects, and even a portrayal of the step-by-step process of making shrunken heads.

Shrunken Heads is currently available on Hulu.

-Britnee Lombas