So I’m introducing a dear friend tonight to “28 Days Later” (2002). It is possibly my favorite horror film of all time, maybe even narrowly beating out “Aliens” (1986), “Alien 3” (1992), John Carpenter’s “The Thing” (1982), the Sutherland-tacular 1978 version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” and George A. Romero’s first three “Dead” films (1968, 1978, 1985). (Whenever “Star Wars” fans refer to their “Holy Trilogy,” I muse inwardly that those last three are its equivalent for zombie horror fans.)
My friend thinks it’s funny that I refer to “28 Days Later” as “my sacred cow.” I’ll be crestfallen if she does not like it, and I told her as much. And that’s weird for me … I usually don’t feel let down when someone doesn’t enjoy the same books, movies or music that I do. Not everything is for everyone. Art would lose its mystique if it weren’t subjective. If all art appealed to all people, it would lose all its appeal altogether.
Part of me feels, unconsciously perhaps, that “28 Days Later” is the kind of film that “redeems” the horror genre (even though no genre needs such redemption — if art is well made or if it affects people, then it’s just fine).
Most comic book fans of my generation can tell you how people can occasionally roll their eyes at their favorite medium. (Comics have far greater mainstream acceptance today than when I started reading them in the 1990’s.) For horror fans, it’s sometimes worse. Horror is a genre that is easily pathologized — and sometimes with good reason, because a portion of what it produces is indeed cheap or exploitative. I wish I could accurately describe for you the looks I’ve gotten when acquaintances find out that I’m a horror fan. They aren’t charitable.
“28 Days Later” and movies like it are so good that they elevate horror to a level that demands respect from the uninitiated. It is an intrinsically excellent film — it just happens to have a sci-f-/horror plot setup and setting. It’s beautifully directed by Danny Boyle, it’s perfectly scored and it’s masterfully performed by its cast — most notably by Cillian Murphy and Brendan Gleeson.
“Willard” (1971) and its sequel, “Ben” (1972), were another pair of 1970’s movies that got plenty of airtime on 1980’s television. I read both books when I was a kid too.
First I picked up Stephen Gilbert’s Ratman’s Notebooks at a yard sale, because that’s how you found cool horror books during summer vacations when you were too young to drive. (Sometimes adults had few compunctions about what they sold to minors too. I bought a vampire book in gradeschool that was full of nude photos, for some reason, and that led to what I’m sure was an interesting conversation between my parents and the neighbor-proprietor down the street.)
Anyway, I absolutely loved Ratman’s Notebooks (despite its lamentable absence of nude photos) and I finished it in a day or two. The novelization of the “Ben” film by Gilbert A. Ralston was somewhat less impressive, but I still enjoyed it.
If you’re a comics fan, like I am, then it might occur you that “Willard” and his army of trained rats seem to inspire a villain in Batman’s rogue’s gallery — Ratcatcher. Ratcatcher has been a minor league villain since he debuted in DC Comics in 1988, but he’s a pretty neat bad guy when placed in the hands of the right writer.
I feel certain that anyone will recognize Ernest Borgnine in the first trailer below– his face and voice are impossible to confuse with those of another man. If the disaffected, spooky, eponymous Willard looks familiar to you, that’s none other than a young Bruce Davison. He’s a good actor who’s been in a lot of films, but I think a plurality of my friends will know him as Senator Kelly from the first two “X-Men” movies (2000, 2003).
You’ll note the presence of flamethrowers in the trailer for “Ben.” Flamethrowers were a staple of 70’s and 80’s horror films; it was just part of the zeitgeist. They were handy for heroes fighting any nigh-unstoppable nonhuman baddie — think of “The Swarm” (1978), “The Thing” (1982), “C.H.U.D.” (1984), “Aliens” (1986), and “The Blob” (1988), for example. Hell, 1980’s “The Exterminator” featured a vigilante using a flamethrower to kill criminals. It was a weird time.
I swear this spider was as long as my thumb. I could have put my shoe or maybe a quarter next to it for scale, but I don’t want to stick any part of my body near this thing, and I don’t want to subsidize its hellish agenda. (I did kinda zoom out so that you can compare it to the size of the curb.)
What does it eat?! Birds?! Why does it appear to have racing stripes?!
To quote the immortal Ellen Ripley, I say we take off and nuke the site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.
Update: someone is trying to persuade me that this is a “garden spider,” and that they are quite harmless. I’m not sure I buy that.
“Kingdom of the Spiders” (1977) was yet another 70’s bug-apocalypse flick that aired from time to time on 1980’s television. As I recall, this one was kinda good … or at least it was scary enough to impress me as a grade-school kid. The movie wisely made use of a truly frightening adversary (and used live tarantulas for filming). And it had the kind of jarring, open-ended final scene that I hadn’t seen before for a sci-fi/horror film.
The only thing that detracted from its creep-factor was the presence of William Shatner as the lead. It wasn’t that Shatner did a poor job with the role — it was just that he was indelibly linked in my young mind to his iconic role in the original “Star Trek” (1966-1969). I simply couldn’t get past the idea that Captain Kirk was an ordinary veterinarian; it took me out of the movie. I’m willing to bet that Shatner was helming the cop drama “T.J. Hooker” (1982-1986) at around the time that I saw “Kingdom of the Spiders,” but that was a show I didn’t watch.
Anyway, if you want to catch the flick in its entirety, you can find the whole thing over at Youtube right here.
Until last night, I’d never actually seen 1988’s “Pumpkinhead” — even though I occasionally joked online about its inspired, iconic titular monster. I was predictably pleased by the movie’s creature effects, but even more disappointed than I thought I’d be by the film’s overall quality. I’d rate the film a 7 out of 10, based on my own enjoyment of it — but I’m a horror fan who loves monsters and who’s typically forgiving of 80’s cheese. If you haven’t seen “Pumpkinhead,” I suspect you’ll finds its flaws a little more egregious than I did.
The film’s strengths are its fantastic monster, designed by legendary visual effects master Stan Winston, and its interesting story concept. It’s easy to see why the sneering, towering golem here inspired a cult fanbase — complete with sequels, videogames and comic books. (Yes, horror movie pedants, I realize that Pumpkinhead is technically a demon-infused and magically mutilated corpse, and not a golem. Whatever.)
This is Winston’s first turn as a director, too … and it seems to me that his genius apparently didn’t quite extend to this larger role. “Pumpkinhead” feels cobbled together, even by 80’s-movie standards, with poor writing, acting and editing throughout. The presence of Lance Henriksen improves matters somewhat, as does an adolescent Brian Bremer in the role of “Bunt.”. (Bremer looks to be about 13 or 14 years old, but he easily outshines his adult co-stars. His surprisingly relaxed performance might be the equal of Henriksen’s. The latter is usually as good as we expect, but even he actually flubs a line here and there. He’s a long way from his brilliant turn as the “Bishop” android in the classic “Aliens” two years prior.)
All things considered, I’m not sure I would actually recommend “Pumpkinhead.”
It’s true what they say about “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” (2019) — its script is almost completely brainless. It’s got about as much depth as the old “G.I. Joe” cartoon (1983-1986) that played after school when we were kids.
But I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t enjoy this. And I’m sure you know why — the big-budget, big-MONSTER special effects. They were spectacular — and sometimes they approached being unexpectedly beautiful. (It’s hard to explain here, but our eyes are treated to more than skyscraper-tall brawls between “titans.” We get a light show too — thanks to some confusing, thinly scripted, but nonetheless dazzling energy-based monster powers. It was really damned good.)
Add to this a generally excellent cast, and you might be able to forgive the screenplay for insulting your intelligence. I know that most people would name Ken Watanabe as the actor who truly classes up the joint. And there’s plenty of truth to that, but I myself would name Charles Dance as the movie’s biggest standout. The man’s craft is goddam Shakespearean, and I think he’s equal of the likes of Patrick Stewart or Ian McKellen. And I’d like to think that his throwaway line, “Long live the King,” was at least partly a fan-service reference to what I’m guessing is his best known role — Tywin Lannister on HBO’s “Game of Thrones” (2011-2019).
Based on my own enjoyment, I’d rate this movie an 8 out of 10 — with the caveat that I’m a kid at heart when it comes to giant monsters. If you’re the same way, then “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” might just become a guilty pleasure that you return to more than once.