The trailer for Terminator: Dark Fate proudly proclaims James Cameron has returned to the franchise as producer, suggesting we’re getting the real sequel to Terminator 2. While I appreciate the effort to correct course (because it worked so well for Superman Returns and Neill Blomkamp’s failed Alien sequel), there’s already a reliable indicator that a third Terminator film is probably going to suck. It’s called Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.
The teaser trailer which was released for T3 over sixteen years ago looked promising. That’s because it didn’t include any footage from the film. Nick Stahl is so miscast as John Connor that the brief flashforward of him leading the future resistance is embarrassingly unconvincing. Later it’s revealed Sarah died of leukemia, which is code for “Linda Hamilton hated the script.” Coffins and cars are bulletproof, the comic relief is eye-rolling, and the father-son dynamic between Schwarzenegger and Furlong has been entirely abandoned. Admittedly, these are all complaints that (probably) won’t crossover to the new film, but there are a couple of problems which seem inherent to any continuation of the saga.
The main reason the previous film was such a strong sequel is the original left the story wide open. T2 had a great what-if? premise: What would happen if someone discovered the future artifacts left in and around the machine press at the end of the first film? It’s unfortunate the characters of T2 arguably prevented any possibility of Skynet by destroying the very objects which led to its creation in the first place (depending on which understanding of the timeline you subscribe to). T3 ignores this inconvenience with a single line about how the robot uprising was merely postponed. I have big problems with an inevitable Skynet. Determinism isn’t a good look on a series which taught us, “There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.”
The other reason T2 succeeded is its villain. We had never seen anything like Robert Patrick’s T-1000 before. In terms of ingenuity and performance, we never saw anything like it again. The villain in T3, on the other hand, is about as inspired as any decision made in a roomful of studio execs. How could anyone, including James Cameron himself, produce an antagonist even remotely as novel as the T-1000, particularly in a series that ended so definitively back in 1992?
I’m not trying to review a movie I haven’t even seen yet. I’ll probably go see it just because I have always been a sucker for Terminator media and it doesn’t matter what I think of the promotional material. But in the words of Guns N’ Roses: Where do we go now? After seeing Terminator 2 for the first time, I spent many years wondering exactly that.
Last year I began working on a comic strip called Gruelgo (an anagram for my last name) and I wrote like two dozen of these things. The problem was I could rarely come up with good strips involving the title character, but had a ton of ideas involving his witchy wife, who was only supposed to be a supporting character. Unfortunately, the world already has a comic strip about a witch, so I abandoned the project.
Here’s another one of those movies I had no idea existed until it showed up on HBO one day in the early 90s. IMDB lists it as a TV movie, but it looks a helluva lot slicker than most of the TV movies I know. It’s got a killer cast of character actors including a young Julianne Moore and the creature effects are charming. Right now it’s streaming on HBO GO, which makes me wonder if someone who’s in charge of programming has similar B-movie tastes or they just randomly throw movies onto the service to fill a monthly quota.
In this fantasy version of 1940s Los Angeles, magic has become as ubiquitous as cell phones are today. As one character puts it, magic just makes everything easier. David Zucker liked to cram background gags into Airplane and his Naked Gun movies whenever the foreground characters were delivering exposition. Similarly, in Cast a Deadly Spell there’s almost always something going on in the background to remind you it’s an alternate universe, from levitating cocktail trays to a nightclub that’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.
Indeed, the opening story card tells us everybody does magic, which is to say everyone but Fred Ward’s hard boiled detective, Harry Philip Lovecraft. That gives him an edge, as a detective who doesn’t carry talismans or charms is apparently in demand. In his introductory scene, Lovecraft cracks a case that had the LAPD stumped when he declares a voodoo doll the murder weapon.
In typical film noir style, Detective Lovecraft has just been hired by David Warner’s character to retrieve the priceless Necronomicon, which has been stolen by a gangster played by Clancy Brown. (To my knowledge, this is one of two movies Warner has appeared in involving the fictional grimoire, the other being Necronomicon,which I wrote about here.) Brown plans to employ the book in a ritual which will give him godlike powers at the expense of destroying the world.
While the movie shamelessly relies on the old detective tropes a little too much, it never really gets bogged down by it. As I’ve said before, the difference between tropes and cliches is we like tropes and perhaps no other genre gets away with it more than film noir. It’s a fun little movie that’s a lot bigger looking than it has any right to be, which probably comes down to the fact it was directed by Casino Royale’s Martin Campbell and produced by Gale Anne Hurd. That its actors were seemingly born to play roles like this doesn’t hurt either. The film has none of the disposable qualities of a typical made-for-TV movie at the time.
There was a sequel called Witch Hunt which substituted Fred Ward with Dennis Hopper. I don’t think it was as good, but I plan on catching back up to it soon anyway.
A while back I wrote about Take Shelter, a film which questioned its protagonist’s sanity in a meaningful way (the open-ended ending felt less like a cop-out and more like bold punctuation). The heroine of A Dark Song is in a similar sort of predicament: early on it’s revealed she has abandoned the medication and therapy prescribed to her in the wake of her son’s death. Some or all of what happens to her in the course of the movie could very well be the product of delusion. That doesn’t make it any less terrifying.
Whereas Michael Shannon’s character in Take Shelter was ostracized by his community for his (possible) mental illness, the main character of A Dark Song is barreling along the road to losing even more. Her name is Sophia and she will stop at nothing to speak to her dead son. Sophia’s internet research has led her to an occultist who claims he can help. Unfortunately, he looks less like a dark magician and more like a guy who listens to records backwards in his parents’ basement.
Sophia wipes out her savings to rent a secluded house in the Welsh countryside and pay Joseph’s hefty asking price. The ritual, he says, can take several months to complete, but at the end of it Sophia will get a chance to have her guardian angel grant any wish she desires. As Joseph draws a circle of salt around the perimeter of the home, he issues a dire warning: once the ritual starts, they can’t leave the house until their work is finished. Otherwise, they will suffer fates worse than hell itself.
Despite his authentic-looking grimoires and steadfast conviction, Joseph may be full of shit. And for a woman as vulnerable as Sophia, their pairing could be a deadly combination. She’s already demonstrated she’s willing to do whatever it takes, short of forgiving those responsible for her child’s death, and the abusive rites Joseph concocts are highly suspect from the get-go. By the time the rituals show any sign of working, you could just as well believe Sophia’s last trace of sanity has reached its breaking point.
I saw A Dark Song several months ago, which made me a little hesitant to write about it now, but it’s been fresh in my mind ever since, sometimes pestering me at night when I’m trying to sleep. I’ve seen a lot of movies in the months since, but few have been as memorable. Both of its actors are fantastic. Like The Head Hunter, which I wrote about last week, this movie makes the case that underfunded filmmakers should build their casts on quality as opposed to quantity.
In Evil Dead 2, Ash Williams gets sucked into a time portal during an attempt to banish his world of demons. The film ends on a cliffhanger: our unlikely hero inexplicably finds himself in the medieval ages which, for a time, felt like it could be a resolute ending—the story had already come full circle because Ash made the startling realization he was the hero foretold by the book of the dead. We didn’t need any more of an ending than that—but didn’t it get your imaginative juices a-flowin’ at the time, wondering what Ash would encounter in medieval times?
You could be forgiven for conjuring up an adventure that was far more horrific than the sequel we eventually got. And watching The Head Hunter, which wears its Evil Dead influences on its sleeve, I couldn’t help but feel Army of Darkness might have been better served with the extra helping of horror which wasn’t missing in the previous two films. Don’t get me wrong: I really like Army of Darkness, but I love the first two Evil Dead films. And The Head Hunter is a damn good Evil Dead film in its own right, gruesome and inventive.
The Head Hunter opens on a medieval warrior in wicked-looking armor who marches across the woods to do battle with a monster off screen. Most of the encounters in this movie take place off screen. We often see the warrior get geared up and head into action, but rarely see the action itself. There are times we can only hear the action, and the sound design is excellent, but the aftermath of the unseen spectacles is plenty gruesome. Whenever we see the warrior come home, towing the head of a mythological monster in a sack, he is never without nasty wounds.
Yes, the real reason the action takes place off screen is the filmmakers probably couldn’t afford to shoot it. But the locations, the set design, the makeup effects, the acting, the costumes, the camerawork, and especially the sound—every bit of it feels like it came out of a movie that was a lot more expensive than this one. The director’s first feature was ThanksKilling, a ridiculously cheap, ridiculously stupid, and ridiculously enjoyable horror movie that was entirely shot on consumer-grade video. It was nothing if not ambitious and no doubt the reason The Head Hunter finds its limitations so navigable.
In that opening scene mentioned above, we learn the head hunter’s daughter has been killed by a beast and now he wants revenge. You really don’t need to know anymore than that. Each scene is about discovery—what’s he doing? Why’s he doing it? What’s the deal with that horn blaring in the distance? All you need to know is this movie might have just been titled The Medieval Dead.