Saturday, October 17, 2015

Jaws (1975, Movie Review)


        Wow, it’s been a big month full of silly and scary monster movies revolving around animals gone bad, but now it’s Halloween, so it’s time to close the month with one of the most famous horror movies ever made. It should come as no surprise that I saved the 1975 classic “Jaws” for the last film. It’s so famous and it goes far beyond a popular monster movie, it truly is one of cinema’s most classic and beloved motion pictures. Actually, it’s thanks to “Jaws” that we have summer blockbusters, this is the one that started it all, and no one felt safe swimming in the open water again. Movies revolving around killer sharks may seem incredibly gimmicky and clichéd by today’s standards, but “Jaws” still holds up very well, and is much smarter then all those silly shark spoliation films. Now earlier this month, I commented that “Deep Blue Sea” is personally my favorite animal attack movie, and thus my favorite killer shark movie, which it still is, but that doesn’t mean its better. Obviously “Jaws” is far superior to “Deep Blue Sea”, and the greatest killer shark movie you can possibly ask for, but why is that, what is it about this simple monster movie that makes it so great. Well, let’s dive right in and find out.

           The movie is based on the bestselling novel by good old Peter Benchley, making this the second movie I’ve reviewed this month to be adapted from one of his books. Now the plot itself isn’t that special, in fact it’s about as generic as monster stories get, the only difference is that it’s crafted so well. When a rouge great white shark settles in at a local beach, it starts making meals of the tourists, the first victim being this poor young teenage girl. This opening scene is probably the most famous animal attack scenes in movie history, as we never see the beast, and the young woman’s bloodcurdling screams that go unnoticed by a nearby group make this situation one of the most frightening of its kind and a great way to kick off the film. Once the body count starts to rise, three men decide to hit the seas in an effort to hunt the beast down and slay it. While the shark itself looks kind of fake, especially by today’s standards, this film dose at least capture the tension and dread that comes with a predator of this sort. Unlike the Creature from the Black Lagoon, killer sharks do exist, and it’s not uncommon for them to attack humans. There’s also select moments when the movie blends in stock footage of a real shark, which works great.

        Let’s cut to the chase, the best aspect of the film really isn’t the shark at all, it’s actually the human characters that make this movie so appealing. We have excellent performances from Roy Scheider as the towns police chief named Officer Brody, Richard Dreyfuss playing a marine biologist named Hooper, and best of all is Robert Shaw as the tough as nails seafaring captain named Quint, and he steals the show with every scene he’s in. All three characters have their distinct personalities and charismatic qualities that allow the audience to relate and cheer for them on every step of the adventure. I love their banter, and their simple interactions make them feel like real people instead of actors reading off a script. My favorite scene is when they sit down for a couple drinks and share their scars and back stories with one another. This leads to Quint sharing an eerie tail in which he encountered a shark and barley survived, it’s one of cinemas most memorable and classic monologues ever. Then the sounds of whale songs get our hero’s to start singing, and then they suddenly get attacked by the shark ... all of that just in a phew minuets, it’s brilliant. Also, aside from the opening victim, the movie completely dispenses with any of those generic, cardboard cutout teenage stereotypes that plague these movies now days. 

         I also love the films 1970’s style and setting, because it allows the characters to do things that you just don’t see in movies today. For example, there’s a scene in which Brody researches shark attacks by looking through an old book on sharks. In movies today, you only see characters researching info on the internet, and I kind of miss that time when people would actually go to the library to find information. It may seem like a small and pointless thing to give so much attention to, but seeing Brody flip though the pages of this old Shark book, and seeing those cryptic illustrations of killer sharks really helps set the mood and builds our expectations for when we finally see the beast. Of course Steven Spielberg directed this movie, and he treats this film like an Oscar winning picture. While the story telling is basic, it’s still very well crafted, and there’s a sheer sense of terror that keeps things very exciting. It’s almost pointless to mention John William’s classic music score because it’s so well known, but it’s definitely one of the films strengths as it builds suspense, and allows you to feel the sharks presence without showing it on screen.
What really makes my skin crawl is the brilliant under water cinematography. Those overhead/underwater shots alone of unsuspecting people swimming make the concept of a shark attack seem all the more terrifying as you can’t see what’s swimming beneath you, but the predator can definitely see you. It’s a rare kind of horror movie that succeeds at building suspense and forcing you to jump out of your skin with some terrific shock moments, most notably the decapitated head on the sunken boat.

      You could say that the movie is split into two distinct acts, the first half is when the shark terrorizes the beaches, and the second half is when our three hero’s go out hunting the shark. I personally prefer the first half, because I just love how ominous the buildup and atmosphere is as the looming danger of the shark comes into play. The second half has its highlights to be sure, especially the setting which isolates our hero’s in the middle of the ocean, but I find the tone of act two to be a little uneven. There’s a scene when they get the shark to drag a bunch of yellow barrels, and it’s all matched to this upbeat and cheery soundtrack, which spoils the mood a little and the scene itself goes on for way to long. Thankfully things get awesome again as we segue into the climax. It’s a thrilling roller coaster of a finally as the music builds, the shark sinks the ship, and our hero’s slay the beast in one of the greatest creature deaths of all time. Now Peter Benchley wasn’t too pleased with this ending as it was extremely over the top in comparison to the ending of his novel in which the shark was harpooned by a spear, instead of erupting in a bloody explosion. While I can appreciate his point of view on this resolution, it’s still one of my favorite creature deaths of all time and it’s so triumphant to see that big shark blown sky high.

        Of course there were sequels, all of them completely inferior to the original, but not without some merits. “Jaws 2” really wasn’t terrible, but it certainly wasn’t good, as it took a more over the top approach and just came off as an unnecessary follow up. Then came “Jaws 3”, which was stupid, but it at least had an original and slightly inventive setting. It took place in a huge water themed park that the shark terrorizes from the inside, which was at least kind of creative. The series concluded with “Jaws: The Revenge”, which is easily one of the worst sequels in cinematic history. It hit all the low points with a boring pace, a brainless plot involving a shark bent on revenge, cheap effects and lots of really, really stupid scenes.

       While the original “Jaws” is nothing more than a strait forward B monster movie, it’s at least pulled off with class, a brisk pace, it has terrific characters, and even though I personally never found this film to be that terrifying, it still succeeds in creating an eerie mood which accelerates into a thrilling finally. Today’s audiences may find it a little too tame, but it was still very influential for the time, and still proves to be one of the most competent and entertaining animal attack movies ever made.

                                                         I give “Jaws” 4 stars out of 5   

                                         HAPPY HALLOWEEN! 

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Kingdom of the Spiders (1977, Movie Review)

       Earlier this month I reviewed the 1990 movie “Arachnophobia”, in which I commented that no other animal scares me more than spiders, and it’s a common fear that many people have, which is why there so prominent in horror movies. Spiders have been recognizable movie monsters sense the 1950’s, in which tarantulas would be featured as giant monsters that rampage across the country side. In 2002 there was a movie called “Eight Legged Freaks”, which brought giant sized spiders back to the big screen, in that good old B movie fashion. Personally, the concept of giant spiders always came off as the wrong idea, because spiders are always scarier when their small, and harder to notice. It’s their ability to sneak in and out of our comfortable living areas that make them so creepy. So let’s instead look back at a B movie from the 1970’s, in which spiders are still their proper size, but still just as menacing and destructive as any giant monster. As I said in an earlier review, in the 1970’s, horror movies themed around nature attacking were very popular, becoming its own horror subgenera, and complete with films like “The Birds”, “Killer Bee’s”, “Frogs”, “Night of the Lepus” and of course “Jaws”. The 1977 movie titled “Kingdome of the Spiders” is one of the more memorable “nature on the rampage” movies that came out during the time, and became a cult classic among killer animal horror film buffs, but let’s see how much of it still holds up.

            Our story is set in an isolated small town in the country side of Arizona, it’s one of those small communities where every inhabitant knows every single neighbor. Among them is a veterinarian played by good old William Shatner, and he’s got his hands full dealing with live stock, pet dogs and cows that are randomly dying do to a mysterious ailment. Fearing it might be a plague of sorts, he joins forces with an attractive young entomologist played by Tiffany Bolling, who confirms that the animals are dying after being pumped with several gallons of spider venom. It doesn’t take long for them to realize that a massive swarm of enraged tarantulas is migrating across the country side, and their town is right smack dab in the middle of it. Soon the spiders spread like wild fire, and a massive epidemic of these killer tarantulas is under way, with our two hero’s trying desperately to keep the spider population under control.

            Before I go into all the lovely details of the spider apocalypse, let’s first talk about William Shatner in the lead role. Of course we all remember Shatner the best for playing Captain Kirk on “Star Trek”, but some may also remember him for staring in a long list of really crappy movies, mostly genera films like this one. As you’d expect, this film doesn’t help his resume of campy and silly movies, but he does prove once again to carry a film like this with ease. His performance is actually very restrained by Shatner standards, but all his familiar tropes are featured. He’s an alcoholic, and he wastes no time hitting on woman he doesn’t know, heck the movie actually begins with him chasing down a cow girl and trapping her in a lasso. The girl in question was actually Shatner’s “then” wife Marcy Lafferty in the role of a sister-in-law. The remaining characters in this movie all act like idiots, there’s a little girl who’s completely oblivious to a huge swam of spiders crawling under her while sitting on a swing, and there’s this one woman who actually shoots her own hand off when a tarantula gently crawls on her wrist. There are several moments in which the spiders clearly aren’t even doing anything threatening, but the people still over react to them. The performances and reactions are all extremely over the top, exaggerated and silly, making Shatner look Oscar worth by comparison. 

        The spiders are genuinely creepy, and there’s plenty moments that might make your skin crawl. We have a scene with the tarantulas swarming a bed with a little girl on it, and there are lots of nasty shots of dead bodies all covered with spiders. Every spider victim gets wrapped up in a cocoon, almost like in “Alien”. For little creatures that can fit in the palm of your hand, these tarantulas tend do a lot of damage. They sneak up on a guy driving a car, forcing him to drive off a cliff side. There’s a scene when they swarm a pilot, forcing his air plane to crash and explode into a building. There’s another scene in which they cause a vehicle to crash into and bring down a big water tower. We do reach a point in the film when the spider epidemic goes critical, and we see mobs of people running around in the streets, lots of carnage, and it’s all so over the top that it becomes unintentionally funny at times.   

          It should be noted that this movie used real tarantulas, which is something that I have mixed feelings toured. On the one hand, it is a lot scarier seeing real spiders crawling all over these actors, as opposed to a bunch of fake looking CGI creatures like what we see today, but it’s also kind on alienating to think of how many got harmed during the making of this movie. Many of the spiders died during filming, and others were presumably tortured in order to walk and crawl in certain directions, which really bothered animal rights organizations. I freely admit that I can’t stand spiders, and have an instinct to kill them if I see one in my house, but I also hate to think of animals being killed and tortured for the sake of cheap entertainment, especially in a movie like this. Animal cruelty in general sickens me, and it always ruins a movie when I know what went on behind the scenes, even if the victims were a bunch of creepy spiders.  

         Now let’s talk about the ending, I don’t think anyone cares, but I might as well issue a spoiler warning. Our hero’s barricade themselves in a cabin, while the spiders relentlessly attack outside. Some of them take out the power, forcing Shatner to go down to the basement, in which he gets swarmed by spiders. This whole climax is spent with Shatner just covered in tarantulas, which must have been a living hell for the actor. Much like Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds”, we have an ending in which nature wins and the humans are all trampled underfoot, except this time it’s even worse as we never see our hero’s escape. The spiders basically turn the entire town into one giant cocoon, and we hear someone on the radio who’s completely oblivious to the whole epidemic, emphasizing that it was an isolated incident with no hope of anyone coming to the rescue. Some may say that this ends the movie on a chilling high note, while others may feel like they wasted there time with a movie that doesn’t bring any resolution to its crises. Personally, I think the ending is a little to abrupt for its own good, and while that final image of the town covered in a giant web is kind of a cool visual, it’s also really silly.    

         Overall, “Kingdome of the Spiders” is a pretty typical genera flick, not a good movie by any means, but I’ve definitely seen worse. If you’re a fan of these “man versus nature” movies, you’ll get your fair dose of animal attacks, ma ham, as well as sloppy acting and some really bad dialogue. In comparison to the last spider themed horror movie I reviewed, I’d personally recommend watching the 1990 movie “Arachnophobia” instead. While that movie wasn’t a masterpiece, it was still a fun film and very self away of what kind of movie it was. It had fun with itself, and managed a perfect balance of scares and laughs. “Kingdome of the Spiders” on the other hand seems to take itself too seriously, like it’s trying to be on par with “The Birds” or “Jaws”, but failing to reach the heights of those films. This movie at least has its creepy moments that make my skin crawl, and plenty of memorable scenes, but nothing that special either. It’s not as fun as some of the other killer animal movies I’ve reviewed this month, but it really isn’t awful like several others I know off, it falls somewhere in the middle.

                                          I give “Kingdome of the Spiders” 2 stars out of 5.                                           

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Beast (1996, Movie Review)

         The Ocean, it takes up three quarters of our planet, it’s a mysterious world full of colors, life and danger. Dating all the way back to the days of Christopher Columbus, sailors feared their ships would be taken down by sea monsters. In other words, the ocean is the perfect setting for stories that revolve around terrifying creatures that hid in the deep, and strike without warning. Author Peter Benchley has wrote several novels revolving around the terrors of the Ocean, his most famous book being none other than “Jaws”, which would later be adapted into a land mark motion picture film, but that’s not the story I’ll be talking about in this review. When I was a child, I grew up in Hawaii, and every time my parents took me out to the beach, I’d always spot sail boats out in the distance, and I’d always fear that they’d be taken down by Giant Squids. That was always my biggest child hood fear of the ocean, it wasn’t sharks or jellyfish ... it was always giant squids. So, for my October animals unleashed month, I couldn’t help but do a quick review of the 1996 TV movie based on Peter Benchley’s novel titled “The Beast”, a story about a monstrous giant squid.

     This is the only made for TV movie that I’ll be reviewing for this month’s marathon, because of all the film’s I’ve seen revolving around giant squids, I think this one’s as good as they get. Obviously, “20000 Leagues Under the Sea” and “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” are both much better movies, but they don’t count because they only feature giant squids, neither movies are actually about the squid. So, like I said back there in the intro, this movie is based on Peter Benchley’s novel “The Beast”, and Benchleys name was even included in the title of this movie. However, to be very straight forward, the film only loosely connects to the original book, and on its own, this isn’t a terrible movie, but I probably wouldn’t call it a great one either. Our story is set in a Pacific Northwest resort community called Grave’s Point. A couple on their yacht mysteriously disappear one night, and soon other locals, and visitors discover that the area is no longer safe due to a giant squid that’s come to their area do to a short supply of food. One local fisherman teams up with a marine biologist, and a female coast guard officer to come up with a plan to either capture the squid or drive it out to sea. However, a harbor master wants that squid dead, so he places a bounty on the creature, which draws the attention of several hunters that want the money. At first they seem successful in killing the squid, only to discover that it was an infant squid they killed. Now the mother is royally pissed off, and unleashes her vengeance on the whole area.  

        I’m not going to lie, if your hoping for a fast paced monster film with lots of awesome giant squid action, you’ll probably be disappointed with this film. That’s not to say it doesn’t have some cool squid attacks, but the majority of the film plays out in a similar tone and style to “Jaws”, where all the attention and focus goes to the people first. The creators behind this film clearly want this to come off as a more mature, and respectable movie rather than just a mindless creature feature, which is ambitious, but that doesn’t make the movie memorable or re-watchable either. Even though it is an admirable effort, it just doesn’t reach the same high quality of “Jaws”. The characters in this film are slightly better than your typical monster movie survivors, but not by much. I certainly give credit to the actors, there at least trying to make their performances come off as believable as possible, but they just can’t escape their stereo type trappings or admittedly clichéd scenes. Perhaps if the movie was shorter it wouldn’t have been much of a problem, unfortunately this movie drags on at a run time of 176 minutes, which is insane. With a run time like that, you need some larger than life characters, and some killer action scenes.

       While I don’t know for sure, I think the giant squid itself is only given maybe 7 minutes of screen time total, at least that’s what it feels like. I will say that the squid effects are actually very good, blending in just enough life like animatronics, and puppet work with the CG effects. Even though the movie’s long run time makes it challenging to sit though, it did still generate just enough excitement whenever the beast attacks. I can’t really say the film came off as scary, but it certainly captured just enough of my child hood tension of a giant squid that would terrorize sailors. The climax is the most fun the movie gets as the squid attacks a fishing boat, and our hero’s have one final showdown during a rain storm. While this battle is going on, the movie cuts back to our main hero’s little girl, who’s at home baking dinner, hoping that her father would return soon for supper. A scene like this probably could have worked in a more serious film, but it just doesn’t work when we cut back to her dad in an over the top situation like fighting a giant squid monster.   

           Now to be as fare as possible, this film aired as a miniseries split into two parts, so it really wasn’t meant to be watched in one sitting. Also, by the standards of a TV made movie, it’s actually quite impressive on some level, and at times it almost feels like something that could have been released in the theater. The problem once again is that it’s very long, and while I wouldn’t call the film a complete waste of time, I couldn’t imagine sitting though this film more than once. There’s just no re-watch value to it, and if you’re going to watch a movie that’s over 3 hours long, make sure it’s something with more substance than this. I do wish that there were more monster movies revolving around giant squids, especially considering how many shark movies there are. It seems that for the moment, this is the closet we’ll ever get to having a really good giant squid movie, and for what it is, Peter Benchley’s “The Beast” really isn’t terrible, it has some good acting, mildly good action and some awesome squid effects. It’s by no means a great film, not even on the grounds of B monster movies, it just falls somewhere in the middle of OK and serviceable.

                     I give the 1996 movie “The Beast” 2 ½ stars out of 5.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Congo (1995, Movie Review)

      Whenever someone thinks of a movie revolving around killer animals, usually the first creatures that come to mind are poisons spiders, deadly snakes and raging sharks, but for today’s movie I’ll be highlighting killer Gorilla’s. While Gorilla’s have been featured in classic movies like “Planet of the Apes” and “Mighty Joe Young”, they’ve never really joined the ranks of popular Hollywood monsters. Well ... with the exception of “King Kong”, but he was a giant, and that gave him an advantage. I’m talking about regular sized Gorilla’s, which in real life aren’t the most freighting animals in the world, but I suppose they can be relatively dangerous, at least when provoked. The 1995 movie titled “Congo” is one of the few monster movies to feature Gorilla’s as threatening movie monsters. It’s based on the novel by Michael Crichton, the same talent that wrote “Jurassic Park”, but this is a very loose adaption. The book was much darker in tone, where as the movie goes for campy B movie entertainment, and the result is an admittedly stupid, but mostly entertaining film.  

        As you’d expect from the title, our adventure takes place in the African Congo, and revolves around a group of explorers who are all after something individually. There’s a woman named Dr. Ross who’s in search of her missing fiancé, there’s a greedy archeologist on a quest to find a temple that holds a valuable diamond, and finally there’s a scientist who’s determined to return his pet Gorilla named Amy back to the place of her berth. It’s a rocky yet productive venture at first, but things get really serious when they become the prey to a group of silver haired Gorilla’s that kill humans and other apes for sport.

       While none of the characters are really that great, there is a very talented and respectful cast here. Dr. Ross is played by Laura Linney, and while she doesn’t have much to work with, she’s clearly trying to put her all in what she’s got. Bruce Campbell of “Evil Dead” fame makes an appearance, and while he doesn’t do much, it’s always great to see him in silly B monster movies like this. The lead scientist played by Dylan Walsh has little to do, and is arguably the weakest character in the film. Then there’s Tim Curry as the Romanian Philanthropist who’s out for diamonds, and while I’m a huge fan of the actor, this unfortunately is one of his weakest performances. Having said that, I do find myself busting a gut laughing at how over the top-silly both his accent and performance is. The best actor in this movie by far is Ernie Hudson who plays the teams expert guide named Munro Kelly. This guy is simply made of awesome, and I’d gladly follow him on an expedition into the unknown. Ernie Hudson is just an incredibly gifted actor who’s extremely charismatic, and a lot of fun to watch.

      The worst character in this movie by far is the pet Gorilla named Amy. It’s bad enough that it’s clearly an actor in a bad ape costume, but the character is made even worse because she wears an electronic glove that allows her to speak English. The voice is annoying, and her mannerism is beyond stupid. She belches out loud, wears 3D glasses, annoyingly asks to be tickled all the time, and there’s even a scene in which she smokes a cigar. It’s one of the stupidest things you could possibly have in a jungle themed adventure movie, and the electronics on the apes face make it look like she’s enjoying that cigar a little too much. Yeah, there are a lot of really dumb scenes in this film, and most of them revolve around this stupid gorilla and her power glove. 

     The creature effects in this movie were done by Stan Winston, and he usually hits it out of the park with his monster visuals. While the Gorilla’s are obviously people in costumes, I do still like overall designs of the savage killer Gorilla’s once they make their appearance. Giving the Gorilla’s a furry Grey-albino makeover was a nice touch, and gave them a creepy edge. Now, I’m not going to lie, it takes a long time before we see any of the Gorilla’s attack. The wait is worth it because the ape action is actually pretty sweet. I mean, it’s not high class entertainment or anything that special, but for this kind of film, it’s perfectly serviceable. There’s a scene when they attack a camp, and our hero’s fight back with heavy weapons, and mechanical machine guns mounted on tripods. Kind of reminds me of the ones seen in “Aliens”. There are also laser guns, and laser nets on display that also look like belong in a 1950’s Sci-Fi movie. Sense the Gorillas can leap high, and climb all over their terrine, they can transcend to all out action better than most other movie animals which are usually restricted by their natural form and capabilities.  

      This is also a very nice looking movie, with good cinematography and some beautiful shots of Africa. The Jungle setting kind of becomes a character in of itself, and I do enjoy the variety of things that our hero’s encounter on their expedition. There’s an African ghost tribe, a lost city that looks like it came right out of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book”, and there’s other dangers like a scene in which their attacked by hippo’s. The music is composed by the late great Jerry Goldsmith, who’s always been one of my favorite composers, and while this isn’t one of his best tracks, it does give the location some atmosphere. 

       The climax is excellent, probably even one of my favorite finales to any animal attack movie I’ve ever seen. Our team venture deeper into the mysterious Jungle city and find an underground mine, and its here that Dr. Ross finds a diamond that can power her high-tech, ape zapping laser gun. What follows is an all out ape attack, as the grey Gorillas emerge from their caves, and take lives without mercy. There’s energy weapons going off, Gorilla’s leaping all over the place, a super volcano erupts beneath them, rivers of lava flowing everywhere, temples collapsing, lots of destruction, and it’s just a wild ride.  

       In the end, “Congo” is a campy jungle adventure with intentionally stupid scenes, laughable dialogue, and mildly impressive excitement. It’s by no means a good movie, but to be honest it’s actually a really fun film. There are obviously better adventure movies that I’d recommend over this, but for what it is, “Congo” is a mostly inoffensive diversion. While some of the stupid scenes can be hard to swallow, the Gorilla action is exciting, the B movie charms hit all the right notes, the cast can be really amusing at times, and it’s by no means a boring experience. If you can get a laugh from silly B monster movies, then give this film a watch, but if you’re not a fan of the genera, skip this and watch “Jurassic Park” instead.   

                                                        I give “Congo” 2 ½ stars out of 5.