Tales from the Crypt Vol. 1 (2007 revival series) [Comic Books]

With the worrisome news that M. Night Shyamalan is rebooting the Tales from the Crypt television series for TNT, I looked to the relatively recent comic book revival to lift my spirits. Instead, it all but crushed them. Even the lackluster cover suggests a downgrade in quality, but once you get to the first story you’re assaulted by some hideously out-of-place artwork.

Case in point:

Does anything about the above panel suggest horror to you? I’m not saying this is bad art, just that it has no business being in a Tales from the Crypt title. Yeah, I get they’re going in a new direction, but creative decisions like these suggest the creators were more interested in doing their own thing and only slapped a familiar title on it to sell it to an unsuspecting fan base. (I admit it worked on me, but isn’t the idea to sell a series of comics, as opposed to just one?) This looks more like Sunday paper funnies and the other stories don’t do much better of capturing the original run’s spirit.
Below is probably the best panel from the entire thing:
There’s something wrong when you have a lot less bite than your 1950s counterpart.

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) [Midnight Movie]

If you’re looking for a high-octane chase movie like the original Gone in Sixty Seconds, Two-Lane Blacktop isn’t the movie you’re after. There’s a drag race at the beginning of the movie which is cut short by cops, a short drag toward the end of the movie, and a drag at the very end of the movie that’s cut short by the filmmakers themselves (or their lack of a million-dollar budget). The final destination’s a little too avant-garde for my tastes, but the trip through post-60s America just about makes up for it. 

Real-life musicians James Taylor and Dennis Wilson play The Driver and The Mechanic dispassionately, as if they’re auditioning for 2001: A Space Odyssey. While I appreciate what they did here I almost wish they took a backseat role to the mean ’55 Chevy their characters drive, which seems to be the real star of the film for the first twenty minutes or so. We get a glimpse into the boys’ street racing lifestyle shortly before they pick up a hitchhiker who’s simply named The Girl.

The Girl is played by model Laurie Bird, who probably would have gone on to become a household name if she hadn’t died at the age of 25. She only appeared in two other movies, one of which was Annie Hall, the other of which was the director’s follow-up, Cockfighter. Like Blacktop, it also featured Warren Oates and Harry Dean Stanton.

Oates’ character is called G.T.O., because that’s what he drives, and he likes to pick up hitchhikers so he can tell them his life story. Yet G.T.O. has a different story for each of his hitchhikers and we only get a hint of his real identity when he briefly ends up drunk in the passenger seat of the Chevy. Early on in the movie, The Driver and The Mechanic goad G.T.O. into racing across the country for pink slips, but G.T.O. is so unsuited for the race that the Chevy drivers frequently pull over to let him catch up. It’s no fun for them to get a huge lead on the G.T.O.

What Oates has done here is something quietly nutty and often humorous. He’s a big reason to watch the movie, which might be disappointing to anyone watching Blacktop for the thrills. Go into it expecting more Easy Rider than The Fast and the Furious and you’ll probably like it. I picked up the Criterion Collection Blu-Ray, but I wouldn’t have been terribly disappointed had I settled for the much cheaper DVD version… it just doesn’t take much advantage of 5.1 sound and HD.

First impressions of Resident Evil 7 (2017) [PC]

This isn’t a review. More like notes I made during my first session. No spoilers. No VR headset, either. Current hardware: i5-4690k @ 3.50 GHz, GTX 970, 16gb RAM.

My first disappointment came immediately after launching the game: a text screen asked me to create save data and I couldn’t select the “YES” option until I plugged in a gamepad. Once I plugged the gamepad in, the mouse cursor appeared and I was able to continue with the keyboard and mouse.

I miss the spooky voice intoning “RESIDENT EEEEEVIL” when I start a game. Why abandon one of the game’s most memorable trademarks.

Motion blur is turned on by default and I’ve never been a fan of motion blur in a game. I can only imagine how nauseating it must be in a VR headset. Changing the FPS option from “VARIED” to “60” made the mouselook feel a lot more natural and responsive. Besides upping the FOV, I left the other settings on their default values and the game looks and feels great.

The controls are responsive, and the times you get stuck in a deliberately paced animation have been significantly reduced… no more waiting forever for a door to open up.

I can’t believe how fast this game loads from the desktop. Loading times in general are exceptional.

At times, the main character sounds awfully causal about a lot of the fucked-up going-ons.. he simply isn’t emoting enough fear (to give specific examples would spoil some of the surprises). I feel this is a voice directing issue rather than an acting one. Otherwise, the voice acting is good, sometimes great, but the dialogue and the character writing is frequently weak. The game indulges in various horror movie cliches, such as the dumb cop who gets himself killed before calling for backup (that’s not a spoiler for anyone who’s ever seen a horror movie… it’s immediately obvious that’s what’s going to happen).

I am really digging the Texas Chainsaw Massacre vibe.

I like that the game gives you more bullets than the first handful of installments did, but fewer than the action-oriented sequels. (Not that bullets do much good in most situations.) It seems to balance the frustration and suspense factor a lot better, too.

I grew tired of the hiding mechanic in Alien: Isolation. Haven’t grown tired of it here yet. You’re not hiding in lockers, but staying crouched and almost always moving.

Instead of saving at typewriters, you save at cassette players, which are found few and far between. You don’t have to worry about collecting limited ink ribbons, either. (Horror games which allow you to save freely can get fucked.) The punishment of having to replay certain sections upon death gives the experience legitimacy. Thankfully, this aspect is also balanced well… it’s frustrating, but not fun-breaking.

The map design is brilliant. It feels like a first-person Metroidvania style game in the way you progress and backtrack… the environment is always changing, which opens up new paths to old checkpoints and points of interest. Other games in the series have done this, too, of course, but it’s just so much more refined now.

Occasionally you pick up a VHS tape and play it in a VCR to get additional chunks of the backstory. The ensuing cutscenes require player input, which kind of breaks the immersion for me. I would rather watch the cutscenes through the main character’s eyes than play as secondary characters. Imagine trying to watch a tape for important clues while constantly checking over your shoulder for ax-wielding maniacs.

In one of the aforementioned cutscenes, it seems more like the demo, in which the game favors trial and error to skill. (At one point I didn’t really know what I was supposed to do until a hint on the death screen told me.) In the game’s defense, I haven’t played it long enough to see how important this gimmick will become later on, if it all.

Puzzles. I’m getting bored of puzzles in video games, but they haven’t annoyed me in this installment… yet. I love that, during one of the complicated puzzles, the main character wonders aloud: “Who the hell makes this shit?”

I have a feeling this game’s going to be short or repeat itself by the end. The richness of it seems too great to sustain for several hours.

That’s it for now. I can’t wait to get back into it tomorrow.

Jason Vs. Leatherface (1995) [Comic Books]

Sometime between Friday the 13th VII and VIII, Jason gets unexpectedly freed from his watery resting place, wanders onto a freight train, then kills a hobo and his dog. From there he hitches a ride to Texas and—wouldn’t you know it?—he stumbles across Leatherface and his family of dimwitted cannibals. Talk about coincidence!

Before going any further, maybe it’s time to confess my shameful secret: I loved (and still love) comic books from the 90s. Yeah, modern fans live to shit on the era of impossibly posed women and gun-wielding anti-heroes, but if it weren’t for the likes of graphically explicit horror titles (and Spawn… let’s not forget Spawn), I might not have read many rags outside of Mad Magazine and EC reprints.

Speaking of EC horror, I was sure the evil businessmen responsible for draining Camp Crystal Lake (and subsequently freeing Jason) were going to get their just deserves in true Tales from the Crypt fashion. Nope. Just as in real life, these corrupt businessmen skate right by any undesirable consequences for their amoral actions. Maybe there was a follow-up planned that would address the lake’s draining, but as is it seems like an extremely convoluted excuse to get Jason up and killing again.

Which begs the question: How did the lake get refilled? And how does Jason find himself at the bottom of it again in time to take Manhattan? Those questions are not entirely explained. JvL feels more like an alternate timeline, sprouting from a fork in the road before Part VIII and Jason Goes to Hell, even though the comics’ editorials are adamant this is all canon.

The title, too, is misleading: if you’re expecting a colossal battle between the horror icons, you’ve come to the wrong place. At their first meeting, Jason and Leatherface get into a scuffle, but Leatherface loses his chainsaw within a couple of panels. At this point Jason could easily kill Leatherface, but he doesn’t because, for the first time since he was a child, he found somewhere he fits in.

And that’s where Jason Vs. Leatherface unexpectedly shines: the character development. I didn’t ask for it and I didn’t think I wanted it, but getting inside Jason’s head isn’t just a gimmick to fluff out three issues. I’m always annoyed when sequels and spin-offs attempt to rob a character’s mystique by explaining too much of their backstory, but it works here. Apparently Jason is a character who could use some fleshing out, which might explain why so many of the sequels grew stale.

You can tell writer Nancy A. Collins (a horror novelist) has a soft side for Jason, choosing to see him as a human being who doesn’t know why he kills. This version of Jason actually reminds me of Man-Thing and a little bit of Swamp Thing (the latter of which Collins also worked on). Nobody can blame Frankenstein’s monster for killing the little girl in the 1931 film… Jason Vs. Leatherface is a lot more gruesome than that, but hey, it was the 90s. What did you expect?

So Jason and Leatherface finally square off, which isn’t the story’s high point, but most of the stuff leading up to that point (and coming after it) is organic and endearing, particularly when Jason sympathizes with Leatherface’s situation. You expect a versus story to answer the “Who would win?” question, but Collins isn’t the least bit interested, which is a brave choice considering that’s how most buyers were sold on it. I would even say this mini-series is actually better than many of the movies which inspired it.

You’re going to like Jason here even though he is a ruthless serial killer.

Demolition Man (1993) [Midnight Movie]

Demolition Man is a movie I watched so many times on HBO, I started watching it in the network’s secondary audio program to mix things up a bit. (I think that probably taught me more Spanish than the class I took, too.) It’s been at least a decade since the last time I saw it, so I was surprised to discover all the lines were still bouncing around in my head. I was also surprised it was a little more clever than I remembered it.

This isn’t to say Demolition Man is a brilliant movie, only that it isn’t mindless. John Carpenter’s Escape from New York, which shares similar frustrations with the fact Americans prefer safety to freedom, feels a lot more genuine by making its lead character an apathetic anti-hero. Stallone tends to get on a soapbox when he’s not delivering questionable one-liners. It’s not as heavy as it was in Cobra, and Stallone has mellowed out a lot since that film, but it’s still apparent. Speaking of forgoing subtlety: not only is Brave New World flat out mentioned, but Sandra Bullock’s character is named Huxley.

The movie opens four years in the future—1997 to be precise—and Stallone plays a bad ass, door-kickin’ policeman by the name of John Spartan. When we first see him, he’s hovering in a helicopter high above an urban war zone in the middle of Los Angeles. Just before repelling down to the scene, he adjusts his beret and mutters, “Send a maniac to catch a maniac.” The ensuing stunt is good, as are most of the film’s stunts, but the way the editors cut it together would have broken any human’s back… not that I mean to suggest Stallone is merely human.

The maniac Spartan wants to catch is Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes) who manages to murder a group of hostages before framing Spartan for manslaughter. Both men are arrested and, since this is the future, they get placed in cryogenic storage which has replaced traditional prisons altogether. Fast forward to the year 2032, in which crime has been reduced to the point policemen don’t even know how to arrest people anymore. Phoenix manages to escape the cryo facility during a parole hearing, at which point John Spartan has to be awakened to stop his murderous rampage. A smarter science fiction story would have explored the implications of sentencing a human being to cryo-prison, but Demolition Man just wants to entertain. It does a good job of it, too.

Never mind the fact the setup is stupid. The setup doesn’t matter because it’s a conceit to see two 20th century men in a future setting where most people listen to shitty music, eat shitty health food, outlaw everything they don’t like, and bury their heads in the sand rather than acknowledge the inconvenient truths underlying their superficial lives. And yeah, the film’s message wallops you over the head, but you probably won’t find a modern action film even beginning to lift a corner of that veil.

Another surprising aspect of the film is that it actually deals with Spartan’s culture shock quite a bit. Yeah, it chooses to do it with a lot more humor than drama, but it’s there. There is one scene about midway through in which Huxley begins to look up Spartan’s daughter and he stops her. He stops her because he knows what kind of world his daughter grew up in, and it’s a world that’s completely incompatible with someone like him. Something about that short scene strikes me as honest, and it’s another reason I would have preferred a story that dove headfirst into the implications of freezing criminals.

And then there’s the three seashells, also played for laughs, that demonstrates just how weird the future might be to someone who ended up there against their will. No, I don’t think the filmmakers were shooting for anything more than a cheap laugh, but the character’s conundrum did stimulate me in exactly the way I want to be stimulated by science fiction. I’m not entirely sure we won’t do away with toilet paper by 2032.

Even though it came out near the fall of the Tough Guy Movie, Demolition Man is a pretty good example of the subgenre. It feels like Joel Silver’s attempt at a John Carpenter film, at least in terms of subject matter. And all the principal actors are great, in particular Snipes who obviously had a blast filming his scenes. Also good here is Dennis Leary who more or less does his stand-up routine, but hey, he’s good at it and it works, so I ain’t complaining.

Commando: The Director’s Cut (1985) [Midnight Movie]

No, Commando isn’t as good as Terminator, Predator, or Total Recall, but it’s better than just about any Schwarzenegger vehicle which came out after True Lies. It’s better than his comedies, too, but I’m biased because I’m not a huge fan of Twins or Kindergarten Cop. (I appreciate the effort, but I get it already: he’s playing against his masculine image… is that really funny enough to carry multiple movies?)

All you really need to know about Arnie’s role in Commando is he’s a special forces type whose daughter (Alyssa Milano) has been kidnapped by Dan Hedaya, who plays a pretty good bad guy. In fact, most of the bad guys in this movie are pretty good bad guys. You won’t believe any of them are appropriate matches for fist fights with Schwarzenegger, but that’s beside the point. The point is Schwarzenegger’s going to kill them all and that’s enough for me.

It’s been so long since I’ve seen the original cut of Commando I’m not entirely sure what the uncensored cut reinstates. If I had to guess, it’s probably the brutal scene in which a handful of henchmen trap Schwarzenegger in a garden shed and he comes out hacking and slashing with circular saw blades and a sling blade. It’s a flurry of insanity and Savini-level gore effects which seem to be taken straight out of a Friday the 13th movie. Brief as it is, I doubt I’m going to see anything as awesome from any movie which comes out in 2017.

No, I’m not here to lament about how awesome movies were in the 80s because, overall, they really weren’t. Commando, like so many of the other movies I feature here, is an exception to the rule. I’m perfectly happy that we still get great exceptions like Ex Machina, Arrival, and The Witch—three movies I think we’ll also remember in thirty years. Every decade has exceptions in the overwhelming pool of shit and I happen to think this decade is the best for exceptions in a long time.

Having said that, you just can’t dispute the fact Commando contains an absurd amount of entertainment value, which makes me all the more likely to watch it again instead of the movies I mentioned above. And I’m not even ignoring the fact that Commando is a dumb movie… really dumb. In one scene, Schwarzenegger is tackled by a dozen security guards who he casts off of him with Superman-strength. He rips seats out of cars, carries trees on his shoulder, and easily rights flipped sport cars. Bad guys who clearly have the tactical advantage conveniently can’t shoot worth a shit, even when they get the drop on him, and when one bad guy finally manages to clip him, it’s only a flesh wound. Then you’ve got Rae Dawn Chong’s character, who has absolutely zero motivation and proves completely pointless until she has to fly a plane, but she’s actually pretty great at doing nothing.

It’s easy to look past the movie’s faults because it’s is an unstoppable machine with one function and it performs that function very well: dazzling its audience with great explosions and decent stunts. Legendary producers like Joel Silver hadn’t yet figured out Schwarzenegger could carry smarter roles (perhaps he couldn’t yet), but he was getting better with almost every movie he made and it’s always fun to see him at the various points of his career.

I’ll be first in line for John Wick 2, but that’s just a throwback. Commando is the real deal.

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) [Trailer]

This would have been the first Blu-Ray I bought this year if it weren’t forty friggin’ dollars. On the other hand, I’m surprised it got a Criterion Collection release. So that’s something.

Edit: One day after posting this, the movie went on sale for $27.99, Amazon, which rivals the cheapest price I saw on eBay… and it became the first Blu-Ray I bought this year after all.

The Specialist (1994) [Midnight Movie]

Sylvester Stallone and James Woods used to be explosive experts for the CIA, specializing in assassinations. Yet when James Woods attempts to blow up a vehicle which will claim a little girl’s life, the two split ways. Stallone becomes a freelance assassin while James Woods falls in with a crime syndicate run by Rod Steiger and his son, Eric Roberts. One day, Stallone is contacted by a mysterious woman (Sharon Stone) who wants to put a hit on the men who killed her parents, who happen to be the aforementioned criminals. And if that sounds a little too clunky to you, you’re right, but at least things explode.
The difference between the deaths in a PG-13 and an R-rated movie are usually minor. The Specialist, which isn’t cram-packed with wall-to-wall action, features violence which could have easily passed in a PG-13 movie if not for its perfectly timed (and briefly executed) close-ups. In one scene, a booby trapped door blows a bad guy across the room, which would have been tame enough for a Jason Bourne movie, only there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it close-up of the victim’s head smashing through an aquarium. In another scene, you don’t just see a car blow up, you can actually see the detail on the driver’s face as he tumbles out of the fireball.
These are tiny creative decisions, but they make all the difference in the world. It’s why action movies today just don’t have the same bite to ’em. (I’m reminded of the comically timed cutaway of a bullet-riddled corpse in Schwarzenegger’s Total Recall getting trampled by bad guys and panicking pedestrians alike… and yet studio executives still wonder why no one went to see the PG-13 remake.) And although the action sequences in The Specialist are few and far between, they’re more exciting—if not a lot more ludicrous—than the kind of movies which are too eager to blow their loads. There’s an unexpected restraint on display here, an effort to rise above the usual reckless pace and non-stop violence. Unfortunately, the questionable plot twists and far-fetched feats drag the movie right back down again.
For instance, Sylvester Stallone is wearing nothing more than a towel when he’s informed the bad guys are on their way up to his hotel room to kill him. He not only manages to get dressed (in a suit, no less), but he rigs up a complicated booby trap which surgically blows the room off the side of the hotel without causing any collateral damage whatsoever. Never mind the fact the interior and exterior shots of the hotel are completely at odds with one another (the doorways seen in the hallway would have to be on an outside wall), it’s a pretty dazzling sequence which climaxes with a bad guy’s death that seems brutal even by Stallone’s standards.
Then there’s James Woods’ character, who strolls right into the police station and builds a bomb to convince the department he should lead the manhunt for Stallone’s character. Completely unbelievable, yes, but Woods is so nutty in the role it’s better to let such absurdities slide. Stallone might be the one who calls the shots and makes all the money in his movies, but the villains have more fun.

Let’s not gloss over the real reason people went to see The Specialist: the love scene between Sly Stallone and Sharon Stone was hyped through the roof shortly before release… and the hype is real, my friends. The filmmakers don’t gloss over it with blurry images or bullshit dissolves, either—it’s where they really earn the R-rating. I love memorable screen couples and this is a surprisingly great one, hampered only by a cheesy montage and some poorly worded dialogue, both of which feel like leftovers from Cobra. Doesn’t matter. The scene itself is the kind of stuff you’d expect to see roped off in a museum. It’s as if they filmed The Vitruvian Man and The Birth of Venus getting it on.