Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

A man drives his car, from where (to where) is not clear.  Every once in a while we flash to a shot of a dead woman, obviously murdered, her body dumped somewhere or just left where she died.

In the first minute of Henry, we see four dead bodies.  The soundtrack switches to the the sounds of struggle that took place before the women were killed.  A perfect way to set the tone for this bleak and uncompromising portrayal of a psychopath.

Henry is really the ultimate serial killer film.  Movies that came after- Silence of the Lambs, Seven, Saw, American Psycho- were fine films, but they missed the point or didn't even try.  Silence is a great movie, but Hannibal Lecter is not a psychopath.  Seven is also a great thriller but it's less a movie about a psychopath than it is a movie about police tracking down (or really, failing to track down) a serial killer.  Saw is just sadism and special effects.  American Psycho is fantastic and it's obvious that everyone involved did their research, but the movie is exaggerated to make a point and is thus more a comedy than it is any kind of serious look at psychopaths.

Henry, on the other hand, is a really masterful "slice of life" look at a day in the life of a psychopath.  Henry is not your typical movie psychopath.  He's not an evil genius like Hannibal Lecter.  He's not a sanctimonious, moralizing character with no depth whatsoever, like the Saw guy.  He's polite and charming, but he's not well-educated (in fact, he is illiterate).  He doesn't revel in his killing, he just does what he thinks he needs to do and does it.

Performances are really phenominal all around.  Michael Rooker's portrayal of Henry is simply amazing.  Every time he talks you just sit there mesmerized.  When he talks about his childhood at one point, you can't help but get chills.  And there is a twist to that discussion too, if you pay attention.

It's a refreshing take on the concept now, never mind back in 1986.  Surprisingly, there isn't even any kind of subplot involving cops on the case.  Henry's murders never even come up on TV or in the news in the movie.  At one point he and his "friend" Otis kill a couple of prostitues and while Otis is worried about what will happen, Henry assures him that there is nothing to worry about, because nothing will happen.

It's a deceptively clever movie.  Rather than just striging together a bunch of murders and calling it a day, everything build up intelligently.  There are two scenes in particular that just blow me away.  The first is a scene where Henry and Otis go to buy a television on the black market, and the end up killing the totally unlikable guy selling the set.  Every single person I have watched with this has the same reaction: laughing and cheering.  The characer is just that slimy and detestable.

Shortly after that, there is a scene where Henry and Otis break into a house and murder a family.  The camera pulls back and you see that the two of them are watching it on a tape they make using a camcorder they stole from the TV guy.  Every single person I have watched with this has the same reaction: dead silence.

There's more to it than, well, the TV guy was awful, and the family didn't do anything to deserve getting murdered.  But did that TV guy deserve to die, just for being a jerk?  Not in hindsight.

Having said all that, the movie is surprisingly bloodless, though you sure won't remember it that way when you are done.  It's that effective.

It's really hard to imagine a more perfect psychopath film.

Maniac (1980)

Frank is a pathetic specimen of a human being.  He lives by himself in a tiny apartment surrounded by manikins that he has dressed up.  He's got pictures of (we assume) his mother up on the wall, and some really unsettling artwork as well (watch on DVD and really pay attention to what he's got up on his wall...)

Years of serial killer movie experience allows us to surmise quickly that this guy is not okay.  And he isn't.  And the movie wastes no time in establishing this.

Maniac is an interesting movie, because while it is about a serial killer, there are no mysteries.  You know from the very beginning that the main character is a psychopath and the only thing that is up in the air is when (if?) he will be caught.

It's a very bleak horror movie, and probably at that point in time included the most realistic portrayal of a psychopath out there (to be eclipsed by Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer six year later).  It's bleak because it offers no easy answers, and because Joe Spinell's performance is so eerie and believable.  And the creepy and inventive soundtrack doesn't hurt.

As Frank continues his spree it appears that he's getting worse.  He's less able to control himself and his outbursts aimed at his dolls get more and more manic, less and less understandable.  And he starts getting sloppy.

The movie ends sadly on a low note, with a scene you are supposed to wonder whether it is supernatual, or all in Frank's head.  Up until that point though, the movie is really amazing.  It would only be another six years before the serial killer movie was perfected...

The Gate (1987)

Some kid, his older sister, and his buddy are terrorized by demons as a result of an inprobable chain of events which has just happened to summon all these demons.  Will they survive?????

I've kept the plot summary short for three reasons.  First, there isn't much to it.  Second, I like this movie a lot, and don't want to really go into much detail so that you will be intrigued and then go watch it.  Third, if you want to check a plot summary, you can go to IMDB or wikipedia or what have you.

The first time I saw this movie was when I was a kid in middle school, on a class trip to Montreal.  Whereas all the older kids were out drinking and going to strip bars with their teachers, all us good (that is, stupid) kids were stuck in our hotel room eating convenience store food and checking out late night movies in French.

Well, this movie came on and I was transfixed.  I understood French a bit back then, and could follow what little story there was.  But more importantly: the effects.  The little demons running around.  The laborer who came out of the wall and fell to the ground only to turn to worms.  The large demon at the end of the movie.  These images all stayed with me over the years.

Once I found out the movie had been released to DVD, I ordered a disc and sat down to watch it.  If anything, it was better than I had remembered.  The other night, I watched it a third time and was really impressed.

It's a clever movie.  It was probably meant for children; it's not very gruesome and of course the main characters are all young kids.  However, it's got a really great sense of humor and no matter how old you are you really have to appreciate the effects, which are a mix of stop motion and guys in rubbers suits and forced perspective shots.

And what kid in the 80s couldn't relate to this movie?  You really can't get more 80s than demon summoning spelled out in heavy metal record album notes.

The performances are all really great, with the exception of the main character who is totally outclassed by heavy metal-loving best pal.  The kid playing him is amazing, and he's also a really well-written character.  The way the three kids act together is really believable and helps the movie to be more than just a special effects flick.

If more "lite" horror movies were more like this, I'd still be watching them in the theaters.


Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (1994)

Everyone from Phantasm II is back!  Except those people that died.  And that same kid from the first Phantasm is back playing the role of Mike.

Taking place right after the end of Phantasm II, Phantasm III follows Reggie and Mike's trail as they hunt the Tall Man, who has returned to life after being melted to death in the second movie.

The story itself is not a whole lot different from that in Phantasm II, but the tone is completely different.  It's much more of a dark action/fantasy/comedy movie and the gore has been turned down quite a bit.

Having said that, this has got to be the best Phantasm movie.  It's hilarious, and it does away with everything that annoyed me about the second movie (telepathy, love interest that goes nowhere, endless chains of "it was just a dream, no it's not" hijinx).  I just really hate dreams, and telepathy, and love.

Here's what I like: jokes and awesome spheres that fly through the air and drill your brains out, and these two things make up about 90% of Phantasm III.  The other 10% is an awesome take on Home Alone, except instead of putting marbles on the floor for the robbers to slip on, the kid stabs them in the face or throat.

It's a great looking movie, but not as good looking as Phantasm II.  Special effects are just as great, but there is just something about it that makes it look low budget compared with the previous movie.

There is only one more Phantasm movie left to go through, and sadly from what I remember it's a boring 90 minutes of people talking and flashbacks.


Phantasm II (1988)

Mike and Reggie are back on the trail of the Tall Man, the mysterious undertaker from the first Phantasm movie.  Mike was committed to a mental hospital for a few years and has transformed into an entirely different actor, but everyone else is the same, just ten years older.

This is such a huge improvement over the first movie that it is a shock.  Instead of a bunch of ridiculous "it was a dream" scenes, piling up to the heavens, dream scenes within dream scenes, you've instead got a cool action/fantasy/horror movie focusing on the much easier to understand theme of Reggie and Mike following the Tall Man, as he leaves devastation everywhere he goes.

It takes the cool stuff that happened at the end of Phantasm, and builds an interesting mythology of it.  And, as the movie poster promises, the ball is back!  This time, there are multiple spheres, each with different powers/weapons.  Man, these things never get old.  For Phantasm V they could just have scene after scene of spheres drilling and slicing people and I would just play the disc on repeat all day, until I was an old man with long fingernails and a general unkempt appearance.  Then I would die and people would say, "don't mourn him- he died doing what he loved, which was wasting his life watching this one stupid movie over and over and over like a fool."

The effects are RADICAL and there is even a thrilling chainsaw battle that is better than most sword fights in serious movies about sword fights.  There is some really gory stuff in here, especially for an American horror film from the late 80s.

The movie is really funny, and it even was meant to be funny.  Some great humor in here, most of it coming from Reggie, who is portrayed as this everyday guy in over his head and he knows it.  This Reggie guy must have taken a bunch of acting lessons or something, because he is so much better in this compared with the first movie that he really steals the show.

There are two stupid things in this movie:

First, the weird love story they have crammed in between Mike and Liz, who is this girl that is in the movie for no reason other than to have a telepathic love interest.  There is a whole scene where she and Mike communicate telepathically while sitting right next to each other, and it's just embarrassing to watch while Mike's voice over goes, "this is great!  We can talk WITH OUR MINDS" while onscreen he is making a happy, but wordless, face.  It just goes on and on.  And there is no point to it, because the telepathy doesn't go on to play any kind of role in resolving the story.

(The second stupid thing is the telepathy actually)

All in all, it's a tremendous improvement over the first movie, and I like it more and more each time I watch it.  Surprisingly, it just gets even better with the third movie, but that is a story for another time.

OR IS IT?!?!?!

*wakes up in a cold sweat*
Oh thank god, it was just a dream!

*zombies pull me through window*


Phantasm (1979)

A young boy named Michael loses his brother Tommy to suicide, shortly after losing his parents, leaving him with just his older brother Jody and friendly icecream man Reggie as support.  Terrified that Jody will leave him, he begins snooping around, only to find that there are some very strange things going on at the local cemetary... and maybe Tommy's death isn't so easily explained.

This is one of those movies that I remember really liking the first time I saw it and being disappointed with its sequels, but then ten years later liking the sequels a lot more.

I really like all the weird monsters in this.  You never know what to expect next, and some of the critters are quite unique.  The sphere never gets old, and it's easy to see why it went on to be used (and improved) in all the sequels.

I also really like Reggie, who is an interesting character because he is such an atypical hero.

Finally, I really liked the scenes at the beginning that focus on Michael snooping around trying to figure out whether or not his brother plans on abandoning him, and the part at the end where you get a glimpse of an alien dimension.

The middle and ending of the movie however have some problems.  It's impossible to tell what is going on in this movie, because people die and come back to life constantly and the only explanation was, "it was a dream."  It just seemed to me that the movie was cut down a lot, and while they did they best they could to tie it all up, not much could be done.  People praise it as having this nightmarish quality, but it's more like a patchwork of "nightmare scenes" from movies, rather than real nightmares you might have (Suspiria and The Beyond are much better examples of nightmarish horror films).

As it is, Phantasm laid the ground work for two really fantastic movies, and is not a bad movie on its own.  Certainly worth spending an afternoon on!


I Eat Your Skin (1964)

Writer Tom Harris is convinced by his agent to research his next trashy romance novel at Voodoo Island.  Along for the trip is his agent, and his agent's shrill wife.  Little do they know, that Voodoo Island is not as innocent as the name would lead you to believe!  Oh wait...

This movie is bad.  Not just for the usual reasons (acting, script, effects), but also because it feels like three bad movies squished together.  Also, it is so bad that the only way they could get people to watch it, was to play it along with the infinitely better I Drink Your Blood; in other words, by holding people hostage.

The first movie is some screwball comedy, with jealous husbands being pushed into swimming pools, and comically escaping from jealous husbands.  I guess you could say the general theme of the comedic parts is "things one does to jealous husbands."  These parts of the movie take up only the first and last five minutes or so (though they feel like hours).

The second movie is a decent zombie survival horror movie, with people trapped in bad situations and a surprisingly gory decapitation.  This part of the movie is pretty good, but it only lasts for twenty minutes or so.

The third movie is your typical "we've got no budget, stand around and talk forever" scifi movie from the late 50s.  Unfortunately this takes up most of the movie.

So what you end up with is like a tootsie roll pop.  On the outside is a thin layer of candy (screwball comedy).  Underneath that is a bunch of tootsie roll (the scifi parts).  Then in the middle you have... uh... more tootsie and that's like... hmmm

So what you end up with is like a Russian doll.  You open up your screwball comedy, and there's a boring scifi movie inside!!!  Then you open that, and there a zombie movie!  Then you open that and... you are back to the... scifi movie... because inside the smallest Russian doll is a... portal or vortex... that allows the scifi movie Russian doll to exist both within and without the zombie doll... hmm...

I'm not sure what it's like, but since the only way to find out would be to watch the movie, I don't recommend attempting this.


Bride of the Gorilla (1951)

Definitely the best gorilla-related movie on that disc that includes only this movie and Kong Island, Bride of the Gorilla is really a morality tale, which teaches us we shouldn't commit crimes or we may turn into gorillas.

Let's talk about this movie.  A guy commits crimes and turns into a gorilla.  I won't ruin the amazing twist ending that will tear your little world into shreds, but let's just say that when you stare into the abyss, the abyss turns you into a "gorilla" and then the "woman you love" gets "killed" "protecting" "you."

Like a lot of cheapo 1950s genre movies, you've got a LOT of scenes of people talking about the story, with very little happening until the struggle at the very end.  There are a lot of retroactively hilarious things about this one though.  Like the islander police chief who was formally educated, played by Lon Chaney Jr. in the most American of American accents, who goes around staring off into nowhere and just going on and on about how his "savage mind" conflicts with his rational policeman brain.  Or how you can't tell where the hell the island is, since every single character sports a completely different "ethnic" accent.

Having said that, it's not a bad movie.  If you, say, are standing on a subway train in oppressive heat, surrounded by dozens if not millions of sweaty people, the number increasing stop-by-stop so that you feel like you are being slowly crushed to death by sweaty rocks wearing suits and reading newspapers, and all you've got is your cellphone with this movie on it, you really have no reason not to watch it.


Kong Island (1968)

You'll have to excuse me because I may have gotten this confused with Bride of the Gorilla, which I watched afterward.  I think this was the one in color?

Some guy has to save some girl from some guy.  I think the guys are mercenaries.  The "kong" part comes from some guys in gorilla suits.  They are really bad suits, and I kept thinking that the evil scientist, rather than controlling actual gorillas, was brainwashing guys into wearing gorilla suits and doing his bidding.  It's all done through radio waves emitted from a single red lightbulb, which is hilarious to me, a man living in the 2000s..

The only other thing that happens in this movie: people are trying to track down, or alternately, avoid coming into contact with, the "sacred monkey" which is just some girl in a "native" skirt.

The only thing good about this movie is the fact that every character, except the Sacred Monkey, is vile.  No one cares about anything except themselves, and I get a kick out of this.  Even the hero is abominable.  When he isn't saving girls for money, he's taking long baths stripped to the waist.  He only agrees to save his girlfriend from the evil Kongs when her father pleads with him, offering a huge reward.

I was honestly quite shocked, because these kind of sociopaths typically only exist in Italian exploitation cinema.  Imagine my delight when I found out this is an Italian movie!  So there you have it.  A movie called Kong Island, that has neither King Kong nor islands, and is full of crazy people.  Not really worth watching unless you've got nothing to do.


Pink Angels (1976)

A bunch of badass-looking bikers are on their way to L.A. But they are GAY.

This is your movie, and there is really nothing else much to say. You can tell that the movie was meant to be a madcap comedy, because obviously making a serious drama about a bunch of gay bikers was just impossible for mankind back in the mid- to late seventies.

So you get your typical "gay" stuff.  Picking out clothes.  Prissy fights while grocery shopping.  Poetry.

Then suddenly, in a twist ending that turns the movie from embarrassing and ignorant to hateful, all the bikers are executed (not just killed, EXECUTED).  I swear to God, it just happens all of a sudden... one second they are all wearing dresses in a club, and you blink and then they are all dead.  It's like they had no idea how to end the movie.

Which is prophetic in a way, because I have to idea how to end this review.

*is suddenly executed*

Misery (1990)

Paul Sheldon, writer of trashy romance novels, has just wrapped up the manuscript for an unrelated novel and after a celebratory cigarette he's off to deliver the goods!  Unfortunately for him, a blizzard, a car accident, and then "rescue" at the hands of his number one fan Annie cut his celebration short.

There isn't much that can be said of Misery that hasn't already been said.  It's a great movie-possibly the greatest adaptation of a Stephen King horror story- let down with a typical "how do I finish this thing?!" Stephen King ending, followed by an even stupider shock ending.

That's not to say it's perfect outside of the ending.  I was really quite surprised by how, well, cheap it looks considering the year it was made and the fact that it largely takes place in a single room.  I just don't know why it doesn't look good, but compare it with The Dead Zone or The Shining and it comes out looking like a high-budget made-for-TV movie.

The exposition can also get out of control.  I don't think you really need to know anything about Annie's past... in fact it would have worked even better if you knew absolutely nothing about her other than she's crazy.  Elaborate backgrounds work better in novels; in movies you should cut that stuff out.  Put it on the movie poster or the back of the box if you really need to.

Having said that, none of this really detracts from the movie.  The performances are great, and I really like the slow burn reveal of Annie's madness.  The infamous "hobbling" scene still packs a punch, mostly because the movie up until that point has been so restrained that the sudden and graphic violence is a definite shock to the senses.

It's also got a really dark sense of humor that is subtle enough that you'd have to pay attention to notice it.  I don't mean stupid stuff like the Farewell to Arms thing in Evil Dead 2.  Classy stuff, like a big old pig.  Or how Paul saves up all his painkillers so he can pour them into Annie's drink, but then she clumsily spills the glass and so he has to sit through a romantic dinner with her for nothing.  Stuff like that.

Watch it, at least so you can see the pig!