Film Review: Sleepwalkers (1992)

Also known as: Stephen King’s Sleepwalkers
Release Date: April 10th, 1992
Directed by: Mick Garris
Written by: Stephen King
Music by: Nicholas Pike
Cast: Brian Krause, Mädchen Amick, Alice Krige, Ron Perlman, Glenn Shadix, Stephen King, John Landis, Joe Dante, Clive Barker, Tobe Hooper, Mark Hamill

Columbia Pictures, 91 Minutes

Review:

“Stop looking at me! Stop looking at me you fucking cat!” – Charles Brady

I didn’t like this film when it came out way back in 1992. I was in middle school, at the time, and all the kids were obsessed with Stephen King. While I love many of the film adaptations of his work and did enjoy a couple of his stories, Sleepwalkers was not among King’s work that I found worthwhile. I did see it in the theater, after having my arm pulled by several friends and because I was crushing hard on Mädchen Amick back then, thanks to her character on Twin Peaks.

Seeing it all these years later was not a better experience. It didn’t age well, there wasn’t some sort of endearing or charming quality to the film and frankly, it was hard to sit through.

The special effects are pretty crappy. the transformation animations when the werecat characters’ faces shift is quick and fluid but just looks insanely hokey and bizarre. It is on par with something you would see in a music video from the same era. And while I’m aware that this movie had a modest budget, other similar horror films with modest budgets were doing better effects a dozen years earlier. Look at An American Werewolf In London and The Howling, for instance. Hell, look at the amazing effects in Fright Night, which came out in 1985, seven years before this.

The film also suffers from being completely bogged down by awful 1990s cliches. The fashion, the music, the overall style… it all just reeks of the worst things that decade had to offer. Sleepwalkers is teen horror at its worst and the 90s panache really just shovels a few extra pounds of shit into this gaping hole of a movie.

The creature effects, once the monsters appeared in their final form were okay. The werecat vampire monsters looked fairly cool but it wasn’t anything that could save the picture.

At least the film had cameos from several horror directors and also had small roles for Ron Perlman, Mark Hamill and Glenn Shadix.

So does Sleepwalkers deserve to be put through the Cinespiria Shitometer? To quote the legendary professional wrestling manager Paul Bearer, “Ohhhhhhhh, yessssssss!” So the results read, “Type 4 Stool: Like a sausage or snake, smooth and soft.”

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.

Ranking the Films of Joe Dante

joe-dante-howlingAfter Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, Joe Dante also had a body of work that I was pretty captivated by as a kid. From Gremlins to The ‘Burbs to Explorers to The Howling to the original Piranha, dude could make great imaginative pictures. Here are his films ranked:

1. Gremlins
2. The ‘Burbs
3. Matinee
4. Explorers
5. Innerspace
6. The Howling
7. Twilight Zone: The Movie (“It’s a Good Life” segment)
8. Gremlins 2: The New Batch
9. Piranha
10. Hollywood Boulevard
11. The Hole
12. Small Soldiers
13. Looney Tunes: Back In Action

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.

Film Review: Matinee (1993)

Release Date: January 29th, 1993 (USA)
Directed by: Joe Dante
Written by: Charles S. Haas, Jerico Stone
Music by: Jerry Goldsmith
Cast: John Goodman, Cathy Moriarty, Simon Fenton, Omri Katz, Kellie Martin, Lisa Jakub, Robert Picardo, Dick Miller

Universal Pictures, 99 Minutes

matineeReview:

Joe Dante made a slew of really good and iconic pictures from the late 1970s into the early 1990s. Matinee is the one that I consider to be the end of that great era. Which I guess should tell you that I enjoy it.

The film takes place in Key West during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The setting really adds a lot to the picture and gives it more meaning than it would’ve had otherwise. John Goodman’s Lawrence Woolsey sees the event as an opportunity to capitalize on people’s fears and worries, as he releases his newest atomic-themed sci-fi/horror film on the people closest to the looming threat of nuclear annihilation.

The subject matter is very dark but this is still a pretty light-hearted family film. The nuclear subtext however, is used to make a stark political and social statement very similar to how Toho Studios did it in the 1950s with Gojira (the original Godzilla). This is more than just a movie about old school monsters and sci-fi thrills and it has a lot of heart and charm as it tells its story. This very well could be Joe Dante at his absolute best.

John Goodman put on a stellar performance as Woolsey, a living legend among horror and science fiction aficionados. This film also came early in his theatrical career, when he still hadn’t evolved into the great actor he would become. This is from the same era as the disappointing Babe Ruth biopic The Babe, as well as the fairly shitty but amusing King Ralph. Although he did have the near-masterpiece Barton Fink on his résumé already. Plus, he was still in the middle of playing America’s favorite dad in the 90s, Dan Conner on Roseanne.

Goodman’s Woolsey was a big showman and master of theatrical gimmickry like William Castle (director of the original House On Haunted Hill and The Tingler). He rigs the movie theater with gadgets and other tricks, in an effort to make his film interactive with the audience. There are buzzers in the seats, special lighting effects, smoke and optical illusions that go off throughout the film’s duration.

The centerpiece of this motion picture, is the young cast. Mainly, the two brothers Gene and Dennis. Their father is shipped off to deal with the Cuban Missile Crisis and they are stuck in Key West with their mother, not knowing what the immediate future holds. The film also follows Gene’s friend Stan and his budding relationship with Sherry, all while dealing with her psycho ex-boyfriend.

The kid actors are great and the fact that they aren’t all that recognizable really is a benefit to the film. They feel like real kids in real situations, despite the absurdity of their situations at times. The kid cast kind of reminds me of the kids from The Sandlot. They are all really likable and relatable and they feel authentic in this period piece film.

I also have to mention that Joe Dante regulars Robert Picardo and Dick Miller knock it out of the park in this one. I only wish Miller’s part would’ve been bigger, considering his character’s backstory.

Matinee is a fantastic and really fun film. I wouldn’t call it my favorite Joe Dante movie but I would say that it might be his best.