Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

Every year I watch an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie on my birthday as a gift to myself.  This year I caught up with the latest installment in the action star’s career-defining franchise, something I probably should’ve watched on the big screen when that was an option.  For the first half of Terminator: Dark Fate, I was worried that I had goofed up in my programming choice, as Unkie Arnie is nowhere to be seen in what’s mostly a star-making vehicle for Mackenzie Davis, the new badass in town.  Then, the film reunites Schwarzenegger with Linda Hamilton as longtime human/Terminator frenemies and all is right in the world again.  As a pair, their sharply acidic comedic rapport and stone-faced action heroism feel like they haven’t missed a beat since Judgement Day in 1992, even if the world has drastically changed around them.  Because I’m rapidly becoming an old man, that latter half’s familiar callbacks to the series’ James Cameron era are what really hooked me as a viewer here.  Still, Mackenzie Davis’s intrusion in the series as a self-described “augmented supersoldier from the future” provides some much-needed momentum to keep that throwback from feeling like stagnant nostalgia bait, and the movie generally does a good job of maintaining a balance between the old & the new.

Because of its self-fulfilling time travel plots and vague references to many “possible futures”, the Terminator series is free to blaspheme its own internal lore.  The last film in the saga, Genisys, was jeered for its own overwriting of past events in the Terminator timeline (wrongly, in my opinion), while Dark Fate was celebrated for the same disregard for series continuity (rightly so, imo).  In this “possible present” timeline, all Terminator films post-Judgement Day have been wiped from the series, positioning Dark Fate as an alternate Terminator 3.  Sarah Connor (Hamilton) has successfully stopped the Skynet apocalypse, but Terminator-assassins are still created in variations of the future that have nothing to do with Skynet at all.  One of these first-generation T-800 assassins has successfully murdered her son (whose services as a Human Resistance leader are no longer needed anyway), inspiring her to dedicate the rest of her life stamping out time-traveling Terminator bots whenever and wherever they crossover into her timeline.  This particular episode finds her joining forces with a human-machine hybrid from “the” future (Davis) to protect their own timeline’s version of a John-Connor-to-be from another shape-shifting T-1000.  To her horror, this mission must also enlist the help of the original-flavor Terminator who killed her son (Arnie).  Bitter banter, uneasy alliances, and money-torching chase sequences ensue.

Structurally, Dark Fate is smart in the way it gradually highlights each of its four main players as action-hero badasses in distinct layers.  We start with Mackenzie Davis as a fully-formed hero with no patience for Linda Hamilton to pass off the torch as her obvious successor.  Hamilton then forcefully wedges herself into the main action despite Davis’s protests, righteously announcing to the future-soldier and the moviegoers of the world that she’s still a formidable screen presence – complete with aviator sunglasses and a severe haircut.  Schwarzenegger is late to the party, but provides essential monotone humor and retro machismo to authentically tie this new chapter into the series’ decades-old origins.  Newcomer Natalia Reyes has the least to do as the damsel-turned-rebel these muscular brutes circle to protect, but by the end of the film her personality and her place in the future emerge convincingly enough for her to be more than just a human MacGuffin.  At the very least, it’s her character arc that provides the self-fulfilling-timeline tomfoolery that makes this franchise such a fun, resettable time travel playground to begin with.  The movie wouldn’t be anything special without Hamilton & Schwarzenegger growling at each other in reluctant collaboration, but Davis & Reyes do a decent job of refreshing that dynamic for our alternate present.

As a standalone action blockbuster, divorced from its long-running IP, Dark Fate is nothing exceptional.  Even so, it probably is the best sequel in its series since Judgement Day, which I’m saying as someone who has some affection for all Terminator movies – minus McG’s Salvation.  I’ll never enjoy these action-heavy sequels as much as the grimy Roger Corman sci-fi noir of the original The Terminator (Judgement Day included), but Dark Fate understands the exact balance between quippy humor & Hollywood spectacle needed to make them worthwhile.  I miss the tactile effects work that distinguished the original Terminator, and there’s a lot of modern-TV backstory plotting that weighs this thing down; but again, those are the grumblings of an old man who misses the old world.  Dark Fate includes just enough throwback Hamilton & Schwarzenegger rivalry to keep old grumps like me smiling, while also injecting some much-needed fresh blood to keep this machine running into “the” future.

-Brandon Ledet

Ancestors of the Corn

My memories of it were never especially vivid, but the 1984 Stephen King adaptation Children of the Corn scared me silly as a kid. All I truly remembered about the film was a rural town of killer children roaming roadside cornfields under the cult-leader rule of the prophet Isaac, played by series mascot John Franklin. I didn’t even have that central character’s name locked down in memory, though, as I’ve been wrongly referring to him by the more memorable name Malachi for decades (despite that name belonging to one of Isaac’s faithful child soldiers, not the leader himself). Still, even with the only the vaguest memory of that mid-80s cult curio rattling around in the back of my brain, it was easy to recognize it as a clear descendent of our Movie of the Month, the 1976 Euro-grindhouse provocation Who Can Kill a Child?. It’s not nearly as vicious, purposeful or, frankly, as good as Who Can Kill a Child?, but it certainly shares a lot of its thematic DNA.

Originally a short story published in Penthouse Magazine one year after Who Can Kill a Child?’s theatrical release, Stephen King’s killer-children cult thriller is strongly reminiscent of its elder. In both films, a tourist couple are trapped in a remote village overrun by violently rebellious children who’ve massacred all other nearby adults. Both films open with the eeriness of being the only car on the road while violent children quietly watch from their hidey holes. They’re primarily Daylight Horror films staged in open, sunlit spaces that are unusual for a genre that loves to build tension in cramped darkness. Their respective Killer Children contingents are headed by enigmatic leaders who mock traditional religious ceremonies in their town’s abandon churches and, most damningly, share the rarely used scythe as a murder weapon. If King was entirely unaware of Who Can Kill a Child? when he wrote this film’s source material (or if Fritz Kiersch hadn’t seen the picture before directing this adaption nearly a decade later) then this is a phenomenally precise case of parallel thinking.

At first, it appears as if the major distinguishing factor that would deviate Children of the Corn from the Who Can Kill a Child? template is that Isaac’s corn-worshipping flock aren’t killing adults for a supernatural cause, but rather a misguided superstition. There’s a Wicker Man-inspired track here about a cult who believes they must sacrifice anyone over 18-years-old to a vengeful god they call “He Who Walks Behind the Rows” to ensure a good corn harvest. Being ritually murdered by alarmingly organized children on the orders of a false prophet with an overactive imagination sounds genuinely chilling, but that’s not exactly what’s gong on here. There’s plenty of confirmed-to-be-“real” supernatural shit transpiring in these corn fields: harvest demons, Hellish weather patterns, predictive visions, and anything else Stephen King’s coke-addled mind could excitedly splatter on the page in its default over-excited state. If anything, it complicates Who Can Kill a Child?’s supernatural horror by adding more, more, more to the pile instead of appreciating the simplicity of the original’s premise & execution.

The true mutation of the Who Can Kill a Child? formula here is that Children of the Corn perversely feels like a Killer Children horror film made for children. The adult couple abducted by Isaac’s corn-worshiping cult (featuring The Terminator’s Linda Hamilton in an against-type distressed damsel role) provide a basic plot for the story to follow as outsiders who interrupt the killer-children’s natural order. They’re not necessarily the POV characters, though. The film is narrated by a cutesy child actor who plays a detractor within the cult who questions Isaac’s “wisdom.” Even with all the bloodshed & spooky cult rituals, the film plays with a Kids’ Movie sensibility throughout, which excuses some of its sillier touches like its faux-Latin choral score and its dynamic shots of “menacing” corn. A too-early viewing of Who Can Kill a Child? would scar a child for life, but catching Children of the Corn on late-night cable at an early could easily create a lifelong horror fan, something I can personal confirm. I suspect that’s how this deeply silly film earned no fewer than nine sequels, anyway, while Who Can Kill a Child? has been relegated to in-the-know cult status. Children of the Corn is about as original & hard-hitting as a Kidz Bop cover of that superior work, but there are far worse things a film could do than transform impressionable children into future genre nerds.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, the 1976 Euro-grindhouse provocation Who Can Kill a Child? , check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its more muted predecessor, Village of the Damned.

-Brandon Ledet