Bonus Features: Passion Fish (1992)

Our current Movie of the Month, John Sayles’s 1992 comfort-watch Passion Fish, is a Southern-fried melodrama about a Rude soap opera star whose career comes to a halt after a paralyzing car accident. It looks & acts like a Normie heartwarmer about a proud woman overcoming sudden adversity, but pulls it off with an unusually direct, vulgar bitterness that cuts through the bullshit. In particular, the way the film depicts its lead’s discomfort, rage, and gradual acceptance of her newfound disability & reliance on a wheelchair feels refreshingly honest & relatably human for a 90s-era VHS rental. As a result, most recommendations of further viewing for anyone who enjoyed Passion Fish probably should touch on its unusually frank depiction of newfound physical disability, which really does set it apart from other, more maudlin works in its genre.

Here are a few recommended titles if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to experience similar depictions of recognizably Real people venting relatable frustrations over their own physical disabilities.

Never Fear (1949)

You might be tempted to ask for a better directorial debut from actor-turned-auteur Ida Lupino than the 1949 sudden-illness weepie Never Fear, but it would be tough to ask for a more personal one. Lupino’s first credit as a director is a well-behaved but harrowing melodrama about polio, a disease that Lupino herself suffered early in her career as a young actor. In fact, it was being bedridden with polio (and losing some mobility in her leg and hand) that inspired Lupino to develop skills as a writer & a filmmaker in the first place, as it was a harsh realization that her career as an onscreen beauty was limited & impermanent. She explained in an interview, “I realized that my life and my courage and my hopes did not lie in my body. If that body was paralyzed, my brain could still work industriously . . . If I weren’t able to act, I would be able to write. Even if I weren’t able to use a pencil or typewriter, I could dictate.” Polio was too sensitive of a subject at the time of Never Fear‘s release and, thus, failed to make a splash at the box office, but Lupino fearlessly tackled it head on from a place of personal frustration & anguish that affords it cultural significance anyway.

A young dancer (Lupino regular Sally Forrest) has her career cut short by a rapidly onset case of polio that leaves her paralyzed. She gradually earns her mobility back through painful months of physical & emotional therapy, but in the meantime struggles to maintain the romance, career, and independence she knew before the disease left her unable to dance. There are about twenty minutes of puppy-love bliss shared between the dancer and her partner/choreographer before polio cuts their ambitions short. The remaining hour is a pitch-black tearjerker that threatens to break that blissful romance apart, both through the introduction of potential love interests inside & outside the hospital and through the protagonist’s self-pity that makes her believe she’s no longer worthy of her former beau’s love & devotion. The resulting film illustrates a complex, nuanced psychological portrait of someone bedridden with polio, one that arrived in theaters while the country was still suffering the darkest days of the epidemic.

Never Fear is a romantic melodrama in which Ida Lupino pulls from her personal experience with polio to illustrate just how isolating & embittering the disease could be. It’s more or less a standard sudden-illness weepie, but it’s emotionally fearless in directly tackling its subject in a way that can be impressively horrific in flashes. It isn’t Lupino’s best work in the director’s chair, but it is a film with surprising emotional depth in her expressions of personal, professional anguish, which makes it a worthy watch for anyone interested in her one-of-a-kind career as one of the most substantial female directors in the Old Hollywood system. It’s also one of the few melodramas of its kind that matches Passion Fish‘s bullshit-free depictions of personal, internal conflicts over sudden physical disability.

Misery (1990)

If the bitter disability journeys of Passion Fish & Never Fear are too subtle or gentle for your liking, there’s always the Kathy Bates psychobiddy classic Misery. According to Steven King, Misery was written as a metaphor for his debilitating addiction to cocaine, which figuratively held him captive and forced him to write pulpy dreck far beneath his dignity as a Serious Artist. There’s likely some truth to that, but I do suspect King brandishes that anecdote at least somewhat to cover up the novel’s more obvious expressions of his open, seething contempt for his most enthusiastic fans. In the 1990 adaptation, Kathy Bates stars as a disgraced nurse who kidnaps her favorite pulp author after a blizzard-incited car crash and forces him to write novels that fit her headcanon instead of his own imagination. It’s a wonderfully blatant, literal depiction of the increasingly hostile relationships between artists & their audiences in recent years, where fans’ demands are too often allowed to dictate the work. It’s also, on the surface, a torturous body horror about a man held captive by a deranged medical professional who violently hobbles him to delay his recovery instead of working in his own interest.

In the opening sequence of Passion Fish, May-Alice is a big-city Soap Opera Star who’s frustrated that she relies on the whims & the capabilities of the small-town nurses hired to help her navigate her Louisiana bayou home. Things calm down once she finds an unlikely friendship with a nurse on her own wavelength, but that frustration over her reliance on another human being to accomplish mundane, daily tasks never really goes away. In Misery, a big-city Celebrity Author finds himself at the mercy of a small-town nurse who cares more about the fictional characters he creates than she does about his physical health (to put it mildly). Both films traffic in a warmly familiar 1990s mainstream filmmaking sensibility that sets expectations for a wholesome, safe viewing experience. Passion Fish cuts through that expectation with an unexpected vulgarity & bitterness as May-Alice becomes increasingly frustrated with her newly disabled body. James Caan goes through the same struggle as the Celebrity Author in Misery, except with a pronounced layer of traumatizingly gruesome body horror that even more drastically contradicts director Rob Reiner’s wholesome, mainstream sensibilities.

Weirdly, Misery also happens to employ an overqualified cinematographer in Barry Sonnenfeld, which mirrors Passion Fish‘s employment of industry legend Roger Deakins as its own DP.

The Intouchables (2011)

Maybe Misery‘s gory hyperviolence & Never Fear‘s Old Hollywood prestige are too fringe for a proper Passion Fish pairing. Maybe you just want to watch another by-the-books tearjerker that only strays from melodrama conventions by indulging in some occasional vulgarity. 2011’s The Intouchables isn’t exactly a great film the way Passion Fish is, but it does share some of its recognizable humanity that’s often missing from similar sudden-disability melodramas.

Based on a true story, The Intouchables chronicles an unlikely friendship between a paraplegic French aristocrat (who recently suffered a paragliding accident as part of his adrenaline seeking interest in X-Treme Sports) and the underqualified Senegalese ex-con he hires as his live-in caretaker (who only applied for the job as a ploy to remain on welfare). Although it arrived in theaters two decades after Passion Fish, it stumbles a lot more frequently in its own depiction of a budding friendship across race & class barriers (the Senegalese man is a pothead horndog criminal with no sense of public decorum, an often embarrassing line of humor). Still, there is a core sense of mutual respect & playfulness in their relationship that’s surprisingly endearing, especially in contrast to the long line of unsuitable, uptight, white caretakers who also interview for the job. The live-in caretaker is hired because he doesn’t look at his employer’s disability with any sense of pity or patronizing caution. His vulgar, casual demeanor cuts through the bullshit to allow them to meet on equal terms as human beings, even though one needs the other to accomplish most mundane tasks. The central friendship in Passion Fish is a lot more nuanced (and a lot less problematic in its race & class politics), but both movies share that vulgar, humanistic core.

I feel a little conflicted recommending a film I don’t wholly appreciate myself. The Intouchables alternates between charm & cringe so erratically that it’s difficult to be too enthusiastic about the positives when the whole ordeal is through. For perspective, then, it’s a good idea to follow up the film by watching the trailer for its recent American remake, starring Kevin Hart. It’s a quick way to appreciate how much worse the material could have been (and apparently was!) in even cruder hands.

-Brandon Ledet

IT: Chapter 2 (2019)

So there I am, trying to put together my end of the year list, and I’m trying to find the Swampflix review of IT: Chapter 2 so that I can link back to it, and to my surprise, it’s nowhere to be found. Somehow, this one managed to fly completely under everyone’s radar, even though I went and saw it opening weekend, and was a bit more fond of it than the majority of filmgoers, it seems. And then I figured, well, sometimes you just have to do it yourself.

IT: Chapter 2 continues the story of the Losers Club: Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher in 1989, James McAvoy in the present*) is now a semi-successful horror writer who’s bad at writing endings; Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard in 1989, Bill Hader in the present) is a well-known stand-up comedian; Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis in 1989, Jessica Chastain in the present) is a fashion designer saddled to an abusive husband; Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor in 1989, Jay Ryan in the present) is a chiseled, handsome architect who runs his own firm; Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer in 1989, James Ransone in the present) is a risk assessment specialist for an insurance firm and is married to a woman just like his mother; Stanley Uris (Wyatt Olef in 1989, Andy Bean in the present) is an accountant who loves puzzles; and Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs in 1989, Isaiah Mustafa in the present) is the librarian of Derry. It’s been 27 years since the Losers Club first did battle with the ancient evil being known alternatively as Pennywise the clown or the titular IT (a returning Bill Skarsgård), and IT has returned from its cycle of hibernation to spread terror anew. Mike, as the only person to have remained in Derry and thus the only one who still remembers the particulars of what happened in the summer of 1989, recognizes the rising tide of general inhumanity and indecency in Derry that portends Pennywise’s return and calls on his old friends to do battle with IT once more.

Man, people really, really hated this one, didn’t they? I guess I can see why, but I’m also not really sure what anyone was expecting. IT is a novel that could be adapted a dozen times, and there’s always going to be one shining (no pun intended) truth about it: the Losers Club is always going to be more interesting when the constituents are children, and the “adult” half of the narrative is always going to pale in comparison. There’s just no way around it; it’s baked into the narrative’s very structure. That’s even kind of the point: the extradimensional entity we call Pennywise feeds on fear, and it prefers the fear of kids because children’s fears (killer clowns, abusive parents, monsters) are specific and easy to manipulate, while adult fears (not being able to provide for a family, dying alone, being trapped in a loveless relationship) are abstract and amorphous. Director Andy Muschietti made the right call here by opting to forego the pants-soiling horror of the first film and channel more comedy into this one, although how effective you found that to be does seem to vary from person to person. There’s verisimilitude in that, though: as a child, you’re powerless against the monsters you perceive in the world, and your best hope is to hide under your bed until the “monsters” go away; as an adult, one of the only real ways to defend against one’s anxieties and fears is to minimize and trivialize them, to turn them into jokes. Unlike everyone else, I thought that the Juice Newton needle drop was a delight! Whether or not the humor of that lands for you as a viewer is subjective, of course, but to make the defanging of horror through comedy part of the film’s actual text is fairly clever.

There are legitimate issues here. My first thought after exiting the theater was “Wow, that was a really good Nightmare on Elm Street movie.” Given that Freddy Krueger first appeared on screens in 1984 and Stephen King first started work on IT in 1981 and finished it four years later, it’s unlikely that the film was an influence on the book, but the potential for NOES to affect IT 2 is left up to the interpretation. Both boogeyman primarily prey on adolescents and children, and both can be defeated by their respective victims by refusing to give in to their fear (although a longer series of films means that successive filmmakers have had to create new methods of disposing of Freddy). This isn’t a bad thing, but it does mean that the climax and ending of this film is pretty similar to the ending of the first one, especially given that the adaptations of IT (wisely) choose to exise any references to Maturin the extradimensional turtle and reinterprets the Ritual Of Chüd as the tradition of a (fictional) First Nations group called the Shokopiwah. So, at the end of 2017’s IT, the kids overcome their fears and defeat Pennywise. And then at the end of IT: Chapter 2, they, uh, do the same thing again. But, like, more this time.

But here’s something that a lot of people may not like to hear: that’s okay. This movie has a distinct Dream Warriors feel to it, and given that both Dream Warriors and Dream Child feature the return of Amanda Krueger to assist in the defeat of her evil son (spoilers, I guess), there’s precedent for this kind of thing. I understand that when people go back to a franchise, what they want is more of the samethat’s the reason that over half of the Marvel movies feature villains that are just dark reflections of the hero, no matter how varied the individual films might be. Your audience is going to experience a series of diminishing returns if you’re not able to put forth something new over a long period of time, but when we’re looking at two films that exist purely as a diptych, it’s not a crime for them to metaphorically “rhyme” with one another. I’ve seen a lot of complaints that this film turns too episodic in its middle point, when each surviving member of the Losers Club goes off on their own individual talismans for their fight against IT, but I like that each thing that the characters seek out is a kind of anti-MacGuffin, in that they are ultimately irrelevant to the plot but are significant to the characters. The individual moments that we return to the kids we got to know in the first film and see them through the eyes of the adult selves do a lot more character work than the film is given credit for. These are people who have worked so hard to put their childhood traumas in the rearview, to distance themselves from their miserable and deadly youth both physically and mentally, that they let those traumas control them still. Beverly marries a man who is abusive, like her father; Eddie marries a woman who seems identically overbearing and over-attentive to his mother (down to the fact that they’re played by the same actress); Mike has literally never moved on. One could even interpret Bill’s inability to satisfactorily conclude a novel as a metaphor for the lack of closure he has surrounding the death of his younger brother Georgie. Even if the ritual that requires these talismans is ultimately useless, the act of finding them and remembering what happened to the Losers Club in 1989 is integral to their ability to fight back as adults and finally destroy IT. I found the plot sufficiently engaging that I was never bored; others may have felt the film’s length, but I was along for the ride from start to finish. There wasn’t a single other movie this year where I saw myself as much as in the scene with young Richie asks another boy, on whom he clearly has a crush, to play another arcade game with him, only for the other boy’s interest turn immediately to false disgust and name-calling when bully Henry Bowers shows up.

There are some complaints with which I can agree, however. The monster living in Bev’s old house isn’t very convincing when it moves from shadowed elderly woman to CGI beast; in fact, much of the CGI here is slightly substandard, although Spider-Pennywise looks pretty great in the finale. The way that the film dealt with Stanley’s fateful decision leaves a bit to be desired as well, given that the film not only forgives him for the choice that he makes but ultimately exalts it, which is capital-b Bad. Finally, although I’m never opposed to a Peter Bogdanovich cameo, I’m not sure what the point of including a scene at the beginning with Bill’s wife Audra was if (unlike the novel) she was never going to appear again. But other than those few quibbles, this is a pretty solid sequel, with some truly standout scenes. In particular, both the scenes in which we see Pennywise murder children are spectacularly well done, and don’t shy away from how horrible a thing it is when a child dies (it’s worth noting that Doctor Sleep also did this). The gay hate crime that starts the film is also a perfect reintroduction to the idea that when IT rises, it does so at least in part through the complicity of others and the bystander effect; compare it to the moment in the first film in which an elderly neighbor looks down to the street where poor Georgie was just standing, sees a huge amount of blood, and then goes about her business without questioning it. The same thing happens here to the couple who are bashed, and reminds us that in the years since 1989, hatred for and violence against LGBTQIA individuals may have decreased and support for queer causes and individuals may have ostensibly increased, that kind of freedom isn’t experienced by a large portion of queer people living in huge swaths of America outside of the coasts and other urban areas.

So yeah. Don’t believe the hype backlash.

*The “present” of the film is apparently late summer/early autumn 2016, just to be clear. I assume this is because there’s only room for one monstrous clown to be in power at a time.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Doctor Sleep (2019)

I reread The Shining this past October. It was part of my effort to read more spooky books after finishing up a posthumous Shirley Jackson collection (Let Me Tell You) that had a few good gothic outliers in it but was largely more domestic than the portions of her body of work with which I was more familiar (my next read after The Shining was David Mitchell’s Slade House, which was great but should really only be read if you’ve already finished his Bone Clocks, which is an endeavor). My erstwhile roommate and I talked about it midmonth when we met up for a mutual friend’s birthday, and he mentioned that, of all of Stephen King’s works that he had read, The Shining is the one that most closely resembles an objective (and admittedly pretentious) definition of “literature,” and as someone who loved the pulpiness of The Dead Zone but also literally threw Salem’s Lot into the trash at about the midway point, I had to agree. At the time, I had no idea that the forthcoming Doctor Sleep was an adaptation of the sequel to the earlier novel (or a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining from 1980, or something between the two, as the case turned out to be), but boy was I excited once I learned that was the case!

2019 marks the first time that three theatrical King adaptations have hit the big screen in the same year since 1983, which featured the hat trick of Lewis Teague’s Cujo, David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone, and John Carpenter’s Christine.* I had more positive feelings about IT: Chapter 2 than most (long story short: it was a better Nightmare on Elm Street movie than about half of the films in that franchise) and didn’t see the Pet Sematary remake, but boy was my King itch scratched by Doctor Sleep.

Doctor Sleep follows an adult Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor), who, following the incident at the Overlook Hotel in the first film, was taught by the ghost of Dick Hallorann (Carl Lumbly, taking over for the late Scatman Crothers) to “lock away” the malevolent spirits that followed him—the rotten woman from Room 237, the Grady twins**, and even Horace Derwent—inside mental boxes. As an adult, he finds himself falling into the same patterns as his father and even going further; he’s not just an alcoholic, but abuses harder drugs as well, and even Jack Torrance never stole cash out of a single mother’s purse. Taking an inventory of his life, Danny starts anew in another town, where he seems to thrive and even becomes “psychic penpals” with a girl named Abra, whose Shining is perhaps even stronger than Danny’s. Elsewhere, however, a group of quasi-immortals called The True Knot seek out and murder children with the Shining in order to feed on their psychic essence. When the Knot’s de facto leader Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) becomes aware of Abra, the group seeks her out as their next victim, and she turns to Danny for help.

I loved this movie. I’ve been a fan of Mike Flanagan’s since Oculus, and I think that he may be the best horror director of this generation. The Haunting of Hill House series that he released last year was stunningly, achingly beautiful, and his adaptation of Gerald’s Game established that he was more than capable of adapting the tone, tension, and dry bones terror of a Stephen King narrative. With him at the helm, there was little to no chance that this film would be anything less than perfect. Every shot is beautifully composed, and although I know many probably balked at the film’s 152 minute runtime, there’s not a single frame of wasted celluloid in this film. Even the moments when, theoretically, nothing is happening (like Danny’s and the Knot’s long cross country drives), the camera watches from a place of elevated removal, watching and waiting and letting the tension build, subtly echoing Rose’s viewpoint when she “flies” while astral projecting in her pursuit of Abra. It’s elegant in its simplicity, but isn’t above descending into occasional camp either (Erstwhile Roommate of Boomer mentioned that the villains gave him strong True Blood vibes, which is a criticism not without merit). This film never feels its length, and the muted public reaction and mediocre box office returns are a personal disappointment; this film was never going to surpass The Shining, but it’s not far behind, and Flanagan was right to mix the original film’s solemn meditative qualities with occasional frenetic setpieces. In a lifetime of watching movies, I’ve never been so invested or felt so much tension in my spine when watching a scene of a man eight years sober struggle to not take a drink, even in Kubrick’s opus; it’s powerful movie-making at its best, and I can’t recommend it more highly. McGregor gives one of his best performances here, and Ferguson is likewise a delight (the supermarket scene is a particular standout). Sleep really and truly deserves all the attention that it’s failing to garner in the mainstream, and is the rare horror sequel to live up to (and feel like it truly belongs to) the legacy of its predecessor.

*Graveyard Shift, Misery, and Tales from the Darkside: The Movie all came out in 1990, but Darkside is an anthology with only one King adaptation in its ranks, so I don’t count that. 2017 actually boasted four features, but Gerald’s Game and 1922 both premiered on Netflix and not in theaters, and although IT was a clear success, the less said about The Dark Tower the better. Technically, King’s website also lists an April 2017 release date for My Pretty Pony, which is a movie that I’m not entirely sure exists. Even the Wikipedia page for the short story on which it is based talks about the film’s 2017 release in the future tense, and I can’t find any evidence of the film ever coming to fruition.

** Yes, I know they are not identified as the children of former caretaker Grady in Kubrick’s The Shining, and that Grady’s daughters in the novel are explicitly not twins (being aged 8 and 10); don’t @ me.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

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

IT (2017)

One of the more exciting trends in the last few years has been the significant uptick in artsy fartsy horror productions. Our last two Movie of the Year selections for this site, for instance, were It Follows & The Witch, with plenty of titles like It Comes at Night, Raw, The Babadook, and The Neon Demon filling out the ranks below them in what’s starting to feel like a legitimate low budget horror renaissance. With this embarrassment of riches on hand, it’s easy to lose track of the few stray successes that have cropped up in mainstream horror production, since it’s easier now than it has been in a very long time to favor the underdog pictures over their major studio competition. The most recent adaptation of Stephen King’s 10,000 page novel IT is an excellent wake-up call to the value of mainstream horror filmmaking done right. IT is an Event Film dependent on the jump scares, CGI monsters, and blatant nostalgia pandering (even casting one of the Stranger Things kids to drive that last point home) that its indie cinema competition has been consciously undermining to surprising financial success in recent years. What’s impressive is how the film prominently, even aggressively relies on these features without at all feeling insulting, lifeless, or dull. Even more so than well-received franchises like The Conjuring, Sinister, and Insidious, IT fulfills the major studio promise that big budget horror filmmaking can still be intense, memorable, and above all else fun. While indie filmmakers search for metaphorical & atmospheric modes of “elevated” horror, IT stands as a declarative, back to the basics return to mainstream horror past, a utilitarian approach with payoffs that somehow far outweigh its muted artistic ambitions.

Seven middle school dorks suffer the worst summer of their lives when their problems balloon larger than the usual abuses laid on them by bullies & villainous adults to include a hundreds-of-years-old curse that haunts their small, suburban town. IT converts the childhood nostalgia pangs usually reserved for the 1950s to a more currently appropriate 1980s setting. Inconsequential references to New Kids on the Block, “Where’s the beef?” commercials, and Tim Burton’s Batman slightly update the material’s Scary Stand By Me aesthetic, but its sense of small town Americana feels timeless, mostly untouched by then-contemporary pop culture. The Losers Club avoids contact with their school’s feral teen bullies and their homes’ emotionally & physically abusive adults by hiding out at The Quarry or in the library. Their inner circle is a protective shield against the evils of bigotry, sexual trauma, physical violence, etc. that haunt the larger world, but struggles to stand up to the more metaphysical evil that drives those real world terrors, the titular “It.” A centuries-old demonic force responsible for generational catastrophes that befall the same town’s children every few decades, “It” shows itself in this 1980s context in the form of missing, abducted children. Adults remain in a daze as their children disappear, content to paper over each “missing” poster with the next one down the line, showing no enthusiasm for determining the source of the epidemic. As the ancient evil creeps closer to abducting their own members, The Losers Club are compelled to defeat “It” on their own without the help of clueless adults in a climactic Good vs. Evil showdown. They even find a physical manifestation of “It” they can focus their energy on destroying: a sewer-dwelling birthday clown named Pennywise.

Pennywise The Dancing Clown (a heavily CGI’d Bill Skarsgård) crystallizes The Loser Club’s childhood fears into more tangible iconography than the larger-looming traumas that haunt their private & public lives: clowns (duh), basements, darkness, isolation, and so on. His individual scares work with the routine precision of a rotary dial. Children slowly approach personalized manifestations of their respective fears with a cautious, quiet curiosity until a jump scare releases the tension and the rotary wheel is dialed back for another tense build. IT is a collection of haunted house attractions (sometimes literally) in this way, relying more on the thrill of individual scares & set pieces than overall atmospheric dread. The demonic clown that personifies these horrors with a familiar, if grotesque face is an excellent anchor for its more general, community-wide evils that would usually take several hours of mini-series sprawl or (in King’s case) hundreds of pages of exposition to fully cover in a satisfying way. Smartly, IT doesn’t afford much screentime to mythology outside some light library research & examination of old town maps. Instead, it builds the collective friendships & flirtations of The Losers Club as a single group unit and then cyclically breaks down their ranks into weakened, individual members through the routine of its jump scares. There’s an impressive efficiency in this approach that allows room for isolated scares to properly breathe without sacrificing the pace of the group narrative, with Pennywise’s Evil Clown antics & red balloon calling card serving as an essential lynchpin to the whole enterprise. As fascinating as the more intangible horrors of IT can be, it really helps that the story is also streamlined as a Children vs. Killer Clown narrative to keep things relatively grounded.

While director Andrés Muschietti does succeed in boiling a strange, sprawling narrative into a manageable mainstream horror package, he also allows himself to indulge in IT‘s more surreal, intangible menace in the background details. Pennywise’s drifting irises, the paradoxical positioning of background extras, and a peripheral television broadcast that encourages children to play in the sewers with their friends all subvert the more routine, by the books horror thrills of the jump scares in the foreground. One scene involving a malfunctioning slide projector in particular fully delivers on Pennywise’s potential as a metaphysical being, allowing “It” to take an outsized physical form through a distorted beam of light in what has to be one of the most striking images from any feature film this year, mainstream or otherwise. The movie also impresses in its R-rated willingness to deliver on its children-in-peril threats, tearing out young tykes’ limbs and sinking knives & fangs deep into their flesh. This onscreen violence nicely counterbalances coming of age hallmarks like a flirtatious skinny dipping sequence & a team-building housecleaning montage lifted directly from IT‘s 80s reference points to create something both warmly familiar & genuinely dangerous-feeling. While certainly a straightforward, mainstream horror affair built more on elaborate scare mechanisms than artsy fartsy atmosphere, IT doesn’t just function as a middle school-set slasher featuring a creepy clown with endless rows of sharpened teeth & red balloons. The movie’s more adventurous, unnerving touches may lurk in the background, but they’re essential to the overall effect. Its Scary Stand By Me veneer is deceptively simple, but highly effective, leaving plenty of room for more ethereal horror to creep in at the edges. If nothing else, IT is a succinct, revitalizing argument that Big Budget Horror might be dormant, but is neither toothless nor obsolete.

-Brandon Ledet

Pet Sematary (1989)

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(Viewed 9/2/2015, available on Netflix)

I hate to come down so harshly on a movie screen-written by Stephen King as an adaptation of his own book. It’s possible that I’m coming at it from a bad perspective, like attempting to watch 2001: A Space Odyssey after seeing all of the derivative works. Maybe after years of fast-cut digital movies, I don’t have the attention span to appreciate the pacing. Maybe having read the book first, I’ve ruined my shot at enjoying the movie.

Honestly, I just don’t think it’s a very good movie, following the general trend of Stephen King films. Pet Sematary comes with enough elements to make it truly terrifying, but it never quite gets off the ground. There’s a beautiful young family whose perfect life goes terribly wrong in a perfectly real-world way. Ancient, evil Powers Beyond Human Comprehension bring back the beloved, but brings them back . . . wrong. A rational man of science is driven to acts of madness. A possessed child kills everything in sight. Gory special effects are, well, effectively gory. All of these things should come together to take the viewer on a creepy descent into madness and metaphysical uncertainty. It just never gets there. The characters just sort of wander through the movie.

I truly enjoyed Fred Gwynne’s performance as the old Mainer Jud, which is no surprise because I loved him as Herman Munster. He’s easily the best and most believable actor in the movie, and I would have loved to have seen more of his relationships with the other characters.

I can recommend Pet Sematary to anyone merely looking for a Stephen King film or anyone interested in the Fred Gwynne’s post Munsters work. However, I wouldn’t recommend it for most viewers, simply because it’s not very good, and not bad enough to enjoy.

-Erin Kinchen

The Running Man (1987)

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In honor of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s induction into the WWE Celebrity Hall of Fame, it seemed appropriate to revisit 1987’s The Running Man, a pro-wrestling meets dystopian sci-fi film that helped cement the actor as a cultural icon.

Some action movies feature exploding heads, but few include them by the end of the opening credits. In this violent video game of a movie, human heads are not only exploded in the opening sequence, they’re also burned, shot, impaled and electrified later on. All of this head-squashing takes place around Ben Richards, a former soldier being framed for the deaths of innocent women & children, as he becomes an unwilling contestant on a sadistic gameshow. Richards must fight his way through a gauntlet of assassins (each with their own wrestling-friendly gimmick personas like Fireball, Buzzsaw, Dynamo and Subzero) as bloodthirsty spectators, including grandmothers and children, watch on eagerly. The dystopian hell of Running Man is set in 2017, but thankfully the game shows of today have not sunk to the depraved levels predicted in the film (if you don’t include Fear Factor).

The original host of Family Feud, Richard Dawson, plays the show’s sleazy, always inebriated host in a performance that doesn’t feel far removed from how Dawson himself acted on his real-life gameshow (where he shamelessly kissed & fondled contestants). Dawson chews the scenery every time he’s on-screen, but is just one of the many memorable cameos in the film. Mick Fleetwood, the infamous drummer for Fleetwood Mac, also makes an appearance as a coked out revolutionary. Then there’s the former governor of Minnesota & pro wrestler Jesse “The Body” Ventura as Captain Freedom, who pummels Richards inside a steel death cage in the film’s best scene. As well as being the best, the death cage scene is also the film’s most violent, because in Running Man the two are one in the same.

Truth is, although Arnold’s protagonist in the main attraction, The Running Man never feels like his film. Easily upstaged by the bigger personalities around him, Ben Richards is one of the weaker roles of Arnold’s career. For most of the film he is simply there, acting like a dick until he has to step into action and kill something. He does have a few good one-liners, though, like the Arnold staple “I’ll be back” and my personal favorite, “I’ll tell you what I think of it: I live to see you eat that contract, but I hope you leave enough room for my fist because I’m going to ram it into your stomach and break your goddamn spine!” Despite the one-liners, even María Conchita Alonso (as Arnold’s standard girl-he-kidnaps-who-then-falls-for-him) gives a fiery performance with what little room she is allowed, sometimes outshining Arnold’s.

According to Wikipedia, Arnold stated that the director “shot the movie like it was a television show, losing all the deeper themes.” He is right in that The Running Man never really delves into the social satire that was present in the 1982 Stephen King novel the film was based on. Instead, the film is highly entertaining because of its over-the-top violence, breakneck pacing, and great cameos. I doubt King is a fan of professional wrestling, but the film adaption of The Running Man is like an ultra-violent WrestleMania. Vince McMahon would approve even if King & Schwarzenegger didn’t.

-James Cohn