Film Review: The ‘Burbs (1989)

Release Date: February 17th, 1989
Directed by: Joe Dante
Written by: Dana Olsen
Music by: Jerry Goldsmith
Cast: Tom Hanks, Bruce Dern, Carrie Fisher, Rick Ducommun, Corey Feldman, Wendy Schaal, Henry Gibson, Brother Theodore, Courtney Gains, Dick Miller, Robert Picardo, Nicky Katt

Imagine Entertainment, Universal Studios, 101 Minutes

Review:

“[finds a femur] Ray, there’s no doubt anymore. This is real. Your neighbors are murdering people. They’re chopping them up. They’re burying them in their backyard. Ray… this is Walter.” – Art Wiengartner

The ‘Burbs is a rare dark comedy that hits all the right notes. Joe Dante was the perfect person to direct the script and the film was also perfectly cast.

While Tom Hanks was already building a name for himself and was a really good comedic performer that could handle more serious or dramatic material, it was this picture that really cemented his status, at least for me.

Hanks wowed people with a dramatic turn in Nothing In Common and even though The ‘Burbs doesn’t get as serious as that film, Hanks could flip the switch from comedy to serious on a dime, which he did here flawlessly. This and Big, which came out just a year prior, are the two films that made me a Tom Hanks fan. Following this up with the underappreciated Joe Versus the Volcano was also a great move by Hanks.

The cast is rounded out by Bruce Dern, Carrie Fisher, Corey Feldman and Canadian comedian Rick Ducommun – a guy that probably should have had more prominent roles like this. The Klopek family, who were the focal point of suburban curiosity, were played by Henry Gibson – who is always fun, Brother Theodore – who was tailor made for this film, as well as Courtney Gains, who creeped out audiences a few years prior in Children of the Corn. You also get to see a young Nicky Katt, before he would become more recognized in his work with director Richard Linklater. Joe Dante also dips into the well of his regulars and gives us cameos by the great Dick Miller and the awesome Robert Picardo.

Mundane suburban life is at the center of the movie, as it follows three very bored suburban men and their wariness over the strange new neighbors who moved onto their street: the Klopeks. As the story progresses, they suspect the Klopeks are murderers. The plot escalates to the point that they can’t resist the temptation of digging up the Klopek’s yard and breaking into their house when they leave one day.

The film is highly comedic but is also a mystery and a thriller with a touch of horror added in. It is a pretty awesome mix and Dante worked his magic to great results.

It is also a highly stylized picture but in a subtle way. It was filmed on the Universal backlot and utilized some of the houses seen in famous sitcoms and other films. In fact, the house that Hanks lives in was used a few years earlier in another Hanks film, Dragnet. The generic suburban look makes it so that this neighborhood could be any neighborhood but it also has a sort of fantasy feel to it. It’s grounded in reality but it skews reality.

The ‘Burbs is solid, through and through. While it has gotten more popular over time, it wasn’t a critical success in 1989. When I first saw it, most of the kids I talked to hadn’t seen it. As I got older and time rolled on, I found more and more people that loved the film after discovering it on video or cable. Still, it surprisingly only has a 49 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

While not explicitly horror, this is a film I have to pop on almost annually around Halloween.

Film Review: Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979)

Release Date: August 24th, 1979
Directed by: Allan Arkush
Written by: Richard Whitley, Russ Dvonch, Joseph McBride, Allan Arkush, Joe Dante
Music by: The Ramones
Cast: P.J. Soles, Dey Young, Vince Van Patten, Clint Howard, Mary Woronov, Paul Bartel, Dick Miller, Don Steele, The Ramones

New World Pictures, 93 Minutes

Review:

“Those Ramones are peculiar.” – Miss Togar

Roger Corman always liked to capitalize on whatever pop culture trends came along. Initially, he wanted to make a film called Disco High School. However, with the end of the film being capped off by the high school exploding behind dancing students, one of his collaborators said that the ending would fit much better with rock and roll. Corman agreed and after being pointed in the direction of punk rock legends The Ramones by Paul Bartel, a regular Corman collaborator, the rest is history.

Rock & Roll High School isn’t a good film but it is a ridiculous and fun motion picture that features the great tunes of The Ramones and the insane and infectious enthusiasm of its star, P.J. Soles.

The film also stars the always great Mary Woronov as the villainous principal and Paul Bartel as a music teacher that converts to a fan of The Ramones after getting doped up at a concert. We also get a good cameo by Dick Miller and get to enjoy a few scenes with the enigmatic and entertaining Don Steele. A young Clint Howard is also in this.

This movie is mostly a high school teen sex comedy with a heavy emphasis on The Ramones music. It isn’t quite a musical but it plays like one at times. The Ramones have a lengthy concert segment within the film but outside of that, we see P.J. Soles lead a group of girls singing in gym class, as well as the big finale which sees the students and The Ramones march through the school halls as they trash the place to the horror of the administration, their parents and the police outside.

Rock & Roll High School is highly entertaining but probably only for those who love the actors involved or who have a love for The Ramones. I’m not sure how it would resonate for others. It’s definitely a movie that is still well regarded by many because of its ties to punk music, Roger Corman, Joe Dante, Paul Bartel, Mary Woronov, P.J. Soles and because it has a massive nostalgia factor.

Film Review: Bucket of Blood (1959)

Release Date: October 1959
Directed by: Roger Corman
Written by: Charles B. Griffith
Music by: Fred Katz
Cast: Dick Miller, Barboura Morris, Anthony Carbone, Julian Burton, Ed Nelson, John Brinkley

AltaVista, American International Pictures, 66 Minutes 

Review:

“I didn’t mean to hurt you, Lou. But if you’d have shot me, you’d be moppin’ up my blood now.” – Walter Paisley

Roger Corman’s Bucket of Blood by highbrow critics’ standards is probably really frowned upon, especially back in 1959 if critics even bothered with it. They typically ignored these sort of pictures because not acknowledging them somehow made them nonexistent.

However, as time has passed, this is a film that many have come to love and appreciate. I wouldn’t say that it was ahead of its time, as House of Wax treads very similar territory and it predates this by a few years and it is also a remake of Mystery of the Wax Museum from 1933, which itself is based on a short story by Charles S. Belden, published a year prior to that.

The main difference between the films’ narratives is that instead of wax our artist here uses clay. And instead of being a great artist that lost the use of his hands, Bucket of Blood features a beatnik busboy with no talent using clay to cover up his accidental killings and eventually, his premeditated murders.

Bucket of Blood is a pretty short film being only 66 minutes. This was typical for the Corman pictures of the time. Little Shop of HorrorsCreature From the Haunted Sea and others had very short running times. Still, a lot happens in the film. It also moves at a good speed.

The cast of characters in this picture are great.

The film stars Dick Miller, who was one of Corman’s (and later Joe Dante’s) favorite actors to use. He plays Walter Paisley, the busboy turned artistic killer. Miller is stupendous as the bumbling and wimpy Walter. He starts out pretty innocent but evolves into a killer due to his accidental killings bringing him some fame within his small beatnik scene.

The rest of the movie is made up with several interesting and bizarre beatnik characters. The guy who plays the really pretentious pseudo-intellectual poet is pretty fantastic.

Bucket of Blood is far from flawless but it is still a movie worth its weight in buckets of blood. It is pretty tame on the horror and is more of a black comedy with very little blood. Most of the killing is artistically implied. It was well thought out and well executed for the time and for the fact that it was made for the price of a pair of shoes.

Film Review: The Terminator (1984)

Release Date: October 26th, 1984
Directed by: James Cameron
Written by: James Cameron, Gale Anne Hurd
Music by: Brad Fiedel
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Biehn, Linda Hamilton, Paul Winfield, Lance Henriksen, Earl Boen, Bill Paxton, Brian Thompson

Hemdale Film Corporation, Pacific Western Productions, Cinema ’84, Orion Pictures, 107 Minutes

Review:

I got to watch this on the big screen. Okay, not in an actual theater but at a friend’s homemade theater with a twenty foot screen outside under the stars. He was testing his new projector, put up a giant sheet between the trees and decided that we’d watch The Terminator. I couldn’t argue with that.

I’m glad I got to see this thing huge, like it was originally intended by James Cameron, a man who used to make fantastic cinematic masterpieces until that pile of shit Titanic made more money than the GDP of all the EU countries combined.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day is also pretty much a masterpiece but nothing compares to this, the first film. While it isn’t technically considered a horror movie, it is. This is a bonafide slasher flick where the killer carries big ass guns instead of bladed objects.

Arnold Schwarzenegger plays the Terminator. If you don’t know, he is a killer cyborg from the future. He is essentially a clean cut Jason Voorhees that dresses like Rob Halford from Judas Priest. He’s got more guns than John Rambo in the sequels. He is a relentless killer, that will keep coming and coming until he murders his target or he is somehow destroyed. Good luck with that!

Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn also star in this. Biehn, a favorite of Cameron, is great as the future hero sent back to protect Sarah Connor from the Terminator. Hamilton is her most famous character, the aforementioned Sarah Connor. She isn’t the bad ass heroine that she would be in Terminator 2 but she did a good job in this picture, evolving from the damsel in distress type to the powerful strong woman that was on the verge of raising future super bad ass John Connor, the man who would defeat the Terminators in 2029.

Seriously though, Linda Hamilton is so damn good as Sarah Connor that the best way to spot a crappy Terminator sequel is to see if Linda Hamilton isn’t in it. Her voice over cameo in the fourth film doesn’t count. She has to be in the film, as flesh and blood. She is only in the first two movies and for me, that is the story. I ignore everything after part two.

This movie is dark and it is balls to the wall bad ass. It gets going and it never slows down. Even when you think the heroes are safe for a minute… nope! Next thing you know, the Terminator is driving a car through a damn police station and shooting up dozens of cops. You blow up the Terminator in a gas truck… too bad, his skeleton will chase you! You blow up his skeleton… too bad, his head and arms will crawl after you!

This was some of James Cameron’s best work. For a low budget film in 1984, the special effects are pretty friggin’ stellar. This certainly redeems him from that Piranha II movie and it set the stage for his greatest picture Aliens in 1986. The Sarah Connor character was a good prototype for what Ellen Ripley would become in the Alien franchise. Then on the flip side, Ripley became the template for the more evolved Sarah Connor in Terminator 2.

The Terminator is incredible. I can’t imagine what it was like seeing this in the theater in 1984. It probably would have blew my mind but I was five years-old and my mum probably took me to something like Footloose, she liked dancing movies and I always got dragged along.

Film Review: It Conquered the World (1956)

Release Date: July 15th, 1956
Directed by: Roger Corman
Written by: Lou Rusoff, Charles B. Griffith
Music by: Ronald Stein
Cast: Peter Graves, Lee Van Cleef, Beverly Garland, Sally Fraser, Dick Miller

American International Pictures, 71 Minutes 

it_conquered_the_worldReview:

In the early days of American International Pictures, they did some imaginative low-budget sci-fi and horror films. Roger Corman will always be known for being the king of the cheapo horror feature but that certainly isn’t a bad thing. He turned films out at a record pace and was more concerned with tight shooting schedules and doing things as cheaply as possible. His formula worked for a really long time and you have to kind of admire some of the films he was able to put together using this formula.

Most of Corman’s pictures turned a profit and he created a way of doing business that still exists in Hollywood today. Granted, now it just gives us unnecessary Saw and Paranormal Activity sequels, as well as “found footage” horror pictures but Corman was certainly onto something in his heyday.

It Conquered the World is one of these Corman classics. And no, it isn’t a particularly good film but it is still pretty enjoyable and it features a hokey yet really cool monster, a Corman staple.

The film stars Peter Graves, a beloved icon to Mystery Science Theater 3000‘s Crow T. Robot, and one of my personal favorites, Lee Van Cleef. We also get to enjoy the talents of one of Corman’s favorite actors, Dick Miller. Granted, Miller’s role here is really limited.

Van Cleef plays a scientist, Dr. Anderson. He has made radio contact with a creature from Venus. The alien monster claims it only wants peace but it actually wants to enslave humanity through mind control. The alien claims he can bring peace by eliminating human emotions, which is a ploy to administer the brainwashing technique. The alien disrupts all electric power on Earth, crippling the planet’s technology. The alien also releases bat-like creatures carrying mind control devices. Graves’ character, Dr. Nelson, finds his wife to be already assimilated and she attempts to use one of the bat-like creatures on him. The film then takes some dark turns until ultimately, there is a final showdown with the bizarre creature.

The acting isn’t great, the direction isn’t either but Roger Corman didn’t concern himself with these things. He had a monster movie to pump out and couldn’t waste time. It should go without saying that the special effects aren’t fantastic either.

It Conquered the World is one of those sort of films where you either love it or you hate it. It only works for a certain kind of audience: one that is familiar with Corman’s style and can look beyond the problems with the film and just enjoy it as a mindless creature feature that, at its high points, is a lot of fun.

Film Review: Piranha (1978)

Release Date: August 3rd, 1978 (USA)
Directed by: Joe Dante
Written by: John Sayles, Richard Robinson
Music by: Pino Donaggio
Cast: Bradford Dillman, Heather Menzies, Kevin McCarthy, Keenan Wynn, Barbara Steele, Dick Miller, Belinda Balaski, Paul Bartel

New World Pictures, United Artists, 95 Minutes

piranha1978Review:

Some people might not realize this but Piranha was made to be somewhat of a parody to Jaws and its clones, such as Orca. It was also the first film that Joe Dante directed alone. He would go on to direct some of the most memorable films of the 1980s and a few decent ones from the 1990s.

It is hard to just consider this film as horror. It has comedy elements to it, especially where Dick Miller’s water park mogul Buck Gardner is concerned.

The film sees two teenagers go skinny dipping in a pool on what they believe to be an abandoned military installation. The pool is full of genetically engineered piranha that eat the teenagers alive. This brings in Maggie, an insurance investigator. She is a bit aloof and careless and while snooping around, releases the piranha into the local river system. As the film progresses, the killer piranha eat their way through the locals. Eventually, they attack a summer camp and finally, a newly opened water park.

Piranha isn’t just a parody, though. It is also a political commentary on the bastardization of science by the government. With this film being released a few years after the Vietnam War, a lot of the military’s questionable tactics were still fresh in people’s minds.

Most of the actors in this picture are completely forgettable. The only notable characters are those that have just a bit more time than a cameo. Dick Miller is always great and would go on to work with Joe Dante for years. Plus, Piranha was produced by Roger Corman, who also utilized Miller a lot. The film also features horror legend Barbara Steele as a sinister government scientist, trying to keep a lid on the tragedy. Then there is Paul Bartel, who plays the hilarious yet very heroic camp counselor. Bartel is one of the greatest character actors of the 70s, 80s and 90s.

Being that this is a Corman produced movie, you can expect it to cut a lot of corners. The effects aren’t particularly good but they are effective. My only real complaint about the piranha, is the strange sound effects used for the moments where they feast on human flesh.

Piranha is not a great film but it is the best of the Jaws ripoffs. Sure, Steven Spielberg said that first, but I share his sentiment.

Film Review: The ‘Gremlins’ Series (1984-1990)

The Gremlins film series is proof that America wasn’t ruled by overprotective helicopter parents in the 80s. I’m glad I grew up in that era, as opposed to nowadays when a good old family film like Gremlins would be severely toned down and edited or have to be rated R and thus, not a family film.

I saw it in the theater with my parents. I was five. Yes, I saw people killed by little monsters and a bunch of horror violence but guess what? I loved it because I wasn’t coddled into being a complete wuss.

So let me discuss these films that, by today’s standards, should have destroyed me and turned me into a budding serial killer.

Gremlins (1984):

Release Date: June 8th, 1984
Directed by: Joe Dante
Written by: Chris Columbus
Music by: Jerry Goldsmith
Cast: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Hoyt Axton, Polly Holiday, Frances Lee McCain, Dick Miller, Corey Feldman, Keye Luke, Jackie Joseph, Judge Reinhold, Glynn Turman, Jonathan Banks

Amblin Entertainment, Warner Bros., 106 Minutes

gremlinsReview:

The first one is the best one. It is a classic and a “must view” film come Christmas time, even though it oddly came out in the summer months of 1984.

Gremlins is a prefect balance of comedy, horror and holiday cheer. It also is a perfect balance of cuteness and insanity and I’m not talking about the very young Corey Feldman in this picture.

The creature effects are top notch for their time and I would still rather watch these animatronic puppets than CGI any day. And one can’t not be impressed with how many Gremlins they actually put in some of these scenes. In the movie theater segment alone, it looks as if there are dozens of these creatures, all controlled and animated by some off-screen puppeteer.

The story is pretty basic and straightforward but most fairy tales are. But this is a dark and amusing fairy tale. The Gremlins, for being terrifying little monsters are hilarious. They joke around, act crazy and are lethal, even to each other. The fairy tale also has its rules that must be followed. Of course, the rules aren’t followed and that is why we end up with the glorious chaos that is this film.

Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates are perfect as the leads in this film and they had great chemistry, which also worked well in the sequel. In fact, unlike other boys my age, this is the film where I got a huge crush on Phoebe Cates, as opposed to Fast Times At Ridgemont High. Hoyt Axton was entertaining as the father character, a struggling inventor whose gadgets are the butt of several jokes in the films. Judge Reinhold and Dick Miller both show up for a bit as well.

This was one of my favorite movies when I was a kid and it has aged well. It still exudes the magic I found in it as a five year-old in the theater. Yeah, it is cheesy and over the top but it has a grittiness to it that you will never get when this film is eventually remade.

Gremlins is great. It is some of Joe Dante’s best work as a director.

And the soundtrack is fantastically nuts.

Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990):

Release Date: June 15th, 1990
Directed by: Joe Dante
Written by: Charles S. Haas, Chuck Jones
Music by: Jerry Goldsmith, Carl Stalling
Cast: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Dick Miller, Jackie Joseph, Christopher Lee, John Glover, Robert J. Prosky, Robert Picardo, Hulk Hogan, Paul Bartel

Amblin Entertainment, Warner Bros., 106 Minutes

gremlins_2Review:

The New Batch is a pretty satisfactory sequel. I feel like they took too much time off between films but it still has a lot of the spirit of the original. It was also cool to see Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates return, as well as Dick Miller.

The film also has Christopher Lee in it, one of my favorite actors ever, as a mad scientist who does zany experiments on animals. His carelessness leads to the Gremlins acquiring some extraordinary abilities and a few bizarre abilities. The inclusion of Christopher Lee’s character ups the ante in this film, making the Gremlins more of a serious threat than they were in the first movie.

Also joining the cast are John Glover, as Daniel Clamp (a parody of Donald Trump in the 80s), Robert Picardo (a regular collaborator with Joe Dante) and Robert Prosky (as a late night horror movie show host dressed like a vampire). All three of these guys give superb performances, especially Glover.

Gremlins 2 isn’t as good of a film as the first but overall, it might be more fun. It is less dark but it is more campy. It has more Gremlin gags as opposed to a straightforward fluid story. The plot exists and there is a beginning and an end but the in-between stuff plays more like sketch comedy with a few plot points added in to keep it somewhat coherent.

This is a very different film than the first, which is refreshing. I probably wouldn’t want a rehash of what was done previously. This film did a great job of being its own thing while continuing the story on from the original.

I had always hoped for a third and final film but that ship has most likely sailed and Joe Dante isn’t the same director anymore.