Thursday, February 19, 2015

Retribution


Retribution (2006) aka Sakebi
Dir. and written by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Starring Koji Yakusho, Manami Konishi, Riona Hazuki, Tsuyoshi Ihara




Well folks, here we are at very nearly the end of what turned out to be the most grueling four-month Halloween horror movie festival ever. I wanted to save something special for the end, so I held off on this one, the last out-and-out horror film from the great Kiyoshi “no, you’re thinking of Akira” Kurosawa in a decade. The guy has never disappointed me, and I correctly guessed that he wasn’t going to start now; RETRIBUTION isn’t quite on par with his classic masterpieces CURE and KAIRO (PULSE), but it’s still a spectacular testament to both the man’s formidable imagination and technical prowess.


It’s kinda a mish-mash of tropes from a couple previous films, but recontextualized and reimagined. It’s got the apocalyptic overtones of KAIRO and mysterious vengeance-minded apparitions of SEANCE, but it begins as almost a sequel to CURE, with detective Noboru Yoshioka (Koji Yakusho, CURE, 13 ASSASSINS) on the scene of a bizarre, inexplicable murder. Seems a young woman in a bright red dress has been drowned in a flooded field beside a river… but the coroner discovers something stranger: her lungs are filled with salt water. She’s been drowned somewhere else and deliberately placed here. Not only that, but there are some curious clues at the scene: fingerprints and a orphaned button. But when the crime lab examines them, they both turn out to belong to Yoshioka himself! He didn’t commit this crime… did he?




Things get stranger. Yoshioka starts seeing a ghost in a red dress, but strangely it may not be the same woman from the opening. Elsewhere, a series of seemingly unrelated murders occur, all featuring a completely unexpected and violent murder of a friend of loved one. It all has something to do with the ghost in the red dress, but what? And what does it have to do with Yoshioka himself?


The answer, as you would hope from a K. Kurosawa film, is never entirely clear, but leaves you just enough of a trail of breadcrumbs that you can try and parse it out. In part, of course, it’s the classic revenge tale, with an aggrieved ghost lashing out at those who wronged it in life. Only, just like Kurosawa’s intriguingly atypical SWEET HOME, this movie has decidedly mixed feelings about how valid that anger is, and if the right thing to do is placate the ghost or try and oppose it (or if that’s even possible).


Possibly to an even more extreme degree than is typical for him, Kurosawa directs this with a resolute aversion to anything resembling your typical scary movie hokum. No jump scares, loud noises, creaky old houses, dark and stormy nights. Almost everything here takes place in the bright, cold sunshine, in the most ordinary and mundane domestic situations imaginable. And of course, it’s this very juxtaposition which makes everything so much more frightening. Ordinary horror movies play on our fears and vulnerabilities -- darkness limits your senses, teeth and claws threaten your body, loud noises startle you and provoke an anxiety response. But you can protect yourself from those things: switch on a light, get yourself a boomstick, keep yourself on alert for sudden danger. But what do you do when the danger is more diffuse, enigmatic, when it can come suddenly from anywhere, shattering the comforting security of the mundane? What do you do when you can’t understand or predict, when you must finally admit that you are well and truly at the mercy of a capricious and dangerous world? And, even more troubling, what if the threat, this menacing evil that threatens to lash out, unbidden at any time… what if it maybe in some way might come from you, yourself, in some way that you can’t understand or control or even remember, but find yourself inexplicably linked to?




Like KAIRO a bit, but also quite a bit like JU-ON/THE GRUDGE, this one is interested in the idea of guilt, and in particular collective guilt. The ghost here is very, very angry, in part at a few specific people but also more or less at the entire world. It’s not entirely unjustified, but then again, who other than George Clooney doesn’t have some reason to be mad at the hand life dealt them? It’s not fair, none of this is fair. But when we set our mind on retribution, what does that do to us? If that secret, curdled little impulse of violent resentment exists in all of us, what does it take to let it out? I don’t know that these questions are specifically on K. Kurosawa’s mind, and in fact I don’t think his films are exactly meant to be parsed for hidden moral messages. But his mastery of cinematic language and his icily evocative, quiet little nightmares stir the psychological pot in an interesting way, get you to engage with issues on an emotional and subconscious level. These feeling are deeper than words, so why try and use words to untangle them? Here, we’re allowed to simply experience, unencumbered by the taming, transfiguring forces of logic.  


If there’s a reason this one isn’t quite on par with his best work, it may be that it’s actually a little too literal, a little too plot driven (not by any normal standards, obviously, but in comparison with his previous output). It’s plenty metaphorical and ambiguous, but at the heart of things here there really is a discreet mystery, with a clearly delineated solution. Who’s causing problems? A ghost. Why? Well, we’ll find out by the end. Kind of unusual for a K. Kurosawa joint, it’s just not the sort of thing he’s typically been interested in. I don’t know much about the production here, but I’d wager that a part of this has to do with Japanese superproducer Takashige Ichise, who is well-known for his contributions to J-horror, having produced THE GRUDGE, THE  RING, and their various sequels. In fact, RETRIBUTION was produced as part of Ichise’s “J-Horror Theater” cycle, which also included Masayuki Ochiai’s INFECTION, Tsuruta Norio’s PREMONITION, and of course Takashi Shimizu’s REINCARNATION. Haven’t seen all of those, but boy, a whole bunch of the ones I’ve seen have that same image of the pale female ghost with the long hair lurking around and causing problems, and they nearly all have the same mystery structure where we have to find out why. The script is credited solely to K. Kurosawa, but there’s a lot of speculation online that Ichise has a pretty big hand in shaping the way this turned out. Unquestionably, it’s the director’s most conventional horror film structure since the strangely normal horror romp SWEET HOME back in 1989.




Fortunately, though the structure of the narrative is a little more straightforward than usual, the director keeps a firm hand on the helm and comes out with something plenty evocative and interesting. Another fabulously impenetrable performance by Yakusho helps a lot; he’s a rare actor who is fascinating to watch even when we’re deliberately kept in the dark as to what we should think of him. He’s inscrutable and opaque --for most of the movie we’re not even sure if he’s the hero or villain-- but still an absolutely arresting presence. And even the more standard horror stuff is executed with wit and vigor. There’s a great bit where the cops are interviewing a suspect who can see something they can’t, and all but has a heart attack while the investigators stare in confusion. And if you’ve gotta have a scene with a pale woman with long hair menacing people, this is the guy you want to shoot it; he knows to keep quiet, to let the images linger and soak into your brain rather than tart them up with a bunch of flashy editing and scary musical stings. If it’s something of a minor film by the standards of this great auteur of horror, well, it’s still better than 99% of the movies out there by anyone else. There are plenty of things in life which are unfair, but this particular movie is solid enough that no Retributin’ will be necessary.*

* At least, it won’t be as long as we get another Kiyoshi Kurosawa horror movie this century. Come on, K-dawg, horror fans are getting the shakes here. I know your movies are supposed to be slow and deliberate, but does your work pace have to be, too?!



CHAINSAWNUKAH 2014 CHECKLIST!
The Hunt For Dread October

  • LITERARY ADAPTATION: No
  • SEQUEL: No
  • REMAKE: None
  • FOREIGNER: Japanese
  • FOUND-FOOTAGE CLUSTERFUCK: No
  • SLUMMING A-LISTER: Koji Yakusho has been in a number of high-profile Japanese movies, but he's not exactly a mainstream icon in America. Besides, no one is slumming working on a Kiyoshi Kurosawa movie.
  • BELOVED HORROR ICON: None
  • BOOBIES: No
  • SEXUAL ASSAULT: None
  • DISMEMBERMENT PLAN: Bag of bones
  • HAUNTED HOUSE: There's a haunting, but its not localized in a house
  • MONSTER: No
  • THE UNDEAD: long-haired pale-faced Japanese ghost variety!
  • POSSESSION: Yes
  • SLASHER/GIALLO: No
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): Yes, multiple killers
  • EVIL CULT: No
  • (UNCANNY) VALLEY OF THE DOLLS: No
  • TRANSMOGRIFICATION: None
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Mid, probably one of the more high-profile K. Kurosawa efforts, but little known in the US. Still, at least you can get it here.
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: People wearing red in horror movies are the opposite of people wearing red in Star Trek: they can't be killed but they're gonna try and kill you.
  • TITLE ACCURACY: Accurate
  • ALEX MADE IT THROUGH AWAKE: N/A

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Dario Argento's Dracula 3-D


Dario Argento’s Dracula 3D (2012)
Dir. Dario Argento
Written by Dario Argento, Enrique Cerezo, Stefano Piani, Antonio Tentori
Starring Thomas Kretschmann, Marta Gastini, Asia Argento, Unax Ugalde, Rutger Hauer




Man, just what the world needed: another adaptation of Dracula. You know, pretty much the most adapted story in the history of the world. IMDB lists over 400 film and TV iterations of the character (only Sherlock Holmes has more), and since the first film adaptation (1921’s Hungarian DRACULA’S DEATH) it seems like barely a decade goes by between new attempts by various auteurs to make the definitive Dracula film. Dracula’s been played by Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr, Paul Naschy*, Christopher Lee, Jack Palance, Udo Kier, John Carradine, Leslie Nielsen, Gerard Butler, Judd Hirsch, Denholm Elliott, Frank Langella, Rutger Hauer. He’s been a romantic anti-hero, a mindless monster, a seductive villain, a demon, a comic foil, a duck. He’s been to England, America, China, Africa, Russia, India. To space, to the future. He’s tangled with Wolfman, Frankenstein, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Blade, Scooby-Doo, Batman, and I’m gonna go ahead and guess a luchador or two. Obviously someday I’d like to make the definitive version of the Dracula story, but until then I’m not sure that human culture was really hurting for another adaptation to throw on the pile. And what the hell, if we’re bound and determined do it anyway, why not make things all the more dubious by hiring a once-great director, now clearly in a later-career phase of artistic decline, who at his career zenith was most apt at crafting wildly violent, sleaze-art nonsensical dream logic set pieces, and hence would obviously even in his prime have been a terrible choice for an adaptation of anything, let alone Bram Stoker’s understated Victorian novel of gothic atmosphere.


Given all that, you’re gonna approach this one with cautiously lowered expectations. But somehow Dracula’s first sojourn to the 3rd dimension (there would be another the same year, and another in 2013) is still a pretty depressingly crappy film. First of all, it’s a disappointingly safe adaptation; there’s (almost) nothing too weird or unexpected here, it’s mostly a fairly direct adaptation of the various semi-direct movie adaptations that have preceded it, changing around a few minor details (setting the whole thing in Romania, for example, probably done tax purposes rather than artistic ones) but nothing that really has a significant impact on the traditional story beats. This is a problem for Argento, because it means that the vast majority of the runtime is dialogue scenes, drama, and plot setup, all things he openly never cared about, let alone had a propensity for. With its dodgy international cast standing around in period costumes on nicely lit Victorian sets prattling on about this or that, it actually has the distinct feeling of a low-effort Hammer film, or perhaps one of their mid-60s Italian derivations, like THE WHIP AND THE BODY or something.




That’s not in itself a disaster, although it’s about 40 years too late to be cool. It’s probably Argento’s best-looking film since… I dunno, 1998’s PHANTOM OF THE OPERA? 1993’s TRAUMA? Cinematographer Luciano Tovoli (who shot Argento’s SUSPIRIA and TENEBRAE, as well as Julie Taymor’s magnificent TITUS) indulges only occasionally in some lovely deep-focus multiple-plane chicanery which makes use of the added dimension, but he paints his images with an unusually vivid palette, not aping his surreal monotones from SUSPIRIA but instead washing everything in bright flecks of high contrast orange, blues, greens, and (of course) reds.


Alas, a pretty picture does not a film make, and unfortunately way too much of DRACULA 3D is squandered on direly uneventful mumbling. Thomas Kretschmann (KING KONG 2005, DOWNFALL, BLADE II) is about as middling a Dracula as the role has ever had, mooning around mournfully without even the faintest hint of intensity or interest. I think he’s trying to make the legendary villain feel sympathetic and humanized, but if there was ever a time this would have been a good idea (and, judging from the toothless DRACULA UNTOLD, there isn’t) an Argento film definitely is not it. He looks lost and confused a lot of time, like he’s waiting for someone to come along and direct him (ain’t gonna happen on an Argento set, pal). Partly this is because the script gives him almost nothing to do; for the whole first three-quarters of the film, it’s his hot-blooded and frequently naked lady friend Tania (Miriam Giovanelli...as far as I can tell no prior significant film roles) who does most of the horror heavy lifting. But the other part is that the script gives no one else anything to do either, so you’re faced with an absolutely unforgivable amount of standing around and handwringing with actors who range from utterly forgettable (Marta Gastini, THE RITE, as Mina) to the staggeringly inept, (Unax Ugalde, CHE PART 1, as Jonathan Harker). It probably doesn’t help that every actor is from a different country, and they seem to all be trying to attempt their own unique idea of… I dunno, a British accent? Romanian? Suffice to say the result is only a hair away from the final sequence of CLOUD ATLAS, or maybe the all-Esperanto William Shatner masterpiece INCUBUS, in terms of authenticity.




Complaining that an Argento film has bad acting and writing (the scripting process appears to have adopted the mantra of, “why use one writer to adapt one of the most adapted stories in history, when you could use four or more?”) is kinda petty and pointless, like complaining that a David Lynch film has some plot holes or that a Michael Bay film makes you bleed from your eyes and ears. I mean, you know what you’re buying by this point in this auteur’s career. But if I’m gonna forgive that stuff, you gotta give me something else to pay attention to instead, and this DRACULA seems to forget that far too often, leaving you with no choice but to actually attempt the impossible task of paying attention to the actors and plot and stuff. And on that topic, I have no choice but to single out this guy Unax Ugalde for giving what may be the single worst performance I’ve ever seen a human being attempt (non-porno category). I realize that sounds like shameless hyperbole, but I assure you it is not. Look back at my hundreds of previous reviews and see if you can find another one where I make a claim like that. I would not pull out that sentence unless I really meant it, but Ugalde more than earns it. Granted, he has the advantage in that regard of playing Jonathan Harker, a part with a rich and storied history of bringing out the worst in actors, but I swear watching this guy maniacally fail to capture even the vaguest vestigial hints of human behavior would cross over into uncanny valley territory were it possible to observe for any extended period without nodding off.


That’s a lot of bad news, and it’s more than enough that you would be forgiven for just writing the thing off based on those obvious and damning flaws. But fortunately the bad news ends around the 70 minute mark, when Rutger Hauer (BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN) finally shows up. Hauer is an actor who is incapable of being uninteresting, even when he sometimes tries really, really hard at it, and his historic turn as the first actual Dutchman to play the famously Dutch vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing** in the entire history of cinema seems to have energized him mildly more than you sometimes see these days. Or maybe playing Van Helsing is a way of helping him deal with the trauma of having played Dracula in DRACULA 2000 III: LEGACY. Either way, he’s the liveliest thing in here, so go just go with it. Since there is no Dr. Seward here, Van Helsing has even less actual link to the human drama, but it doesn’t matter because as soon as he shows up he jumps right into the action, and after that the film starts humming along at a nicer clip with way more violence and craziness. There’s a sequence where Drac turns himself into a gigantic 3D-CG praying mantis, which will either be the definitive nail in the movie’s coffin or the obvious artistic highlight, depending on your temperament towards such things (I think you can guess which side of the equation I fall on). Another where he shows up unexpectedly at a town hall meeting and just kills the absolute hell out of everyone there. And a finale which --with its graveyard setting-- recalls the posthumously published short story/deleted chapter of the original Dracula, Dracula’s Guest. So while it’s front loaded with boring stuff, there’s a solid 40 minutes at the end which are full of charm, especially if you get the chance to see it in its original stereoscopic 3-D.




As poorly executed as it is, there are a few grains of genuinely interesting ideas in here. It's at its best when it strays from the familiar threadbare beats of typical adaptations and wanders into less well-trod territory, i.e. giant 3D praying mantises, etc. There's two particular ways in which it does so: First, it introduces (and then ignores) the tantalizing idea that the local villagers are well aware of Dracula’s vampirism, and are actually in cahoots with him, feeding him strangers in exchange for his magical good fortune (judging from the condition of this backwater village, I’m not sure they were getting a very good deal, but hey, you’re going to go up there and complain?). Nothing comes of this, but I eagerly look forward to some future movie version of the story which incorporates this detail in a more interesting way (the cinematic Dracula story, of course, has a way of accruing details over time since no one ever actually reads the original novel but everyone has already seen a few dozen film versions).


The more interesting idea here is that despite the late boost things get from an incoming Van Helsing, this is a curiously female-centric iteration of this story. There’s an interesting tension between Dracula’s conquests of Mina and Lucy and his relationship with his vampire brides, in this case played significantly more assertively and personified by Giovanelli, who as I mentioned earlier really is a more active villain than the Count himself for a good bit. Argento and his fellow writers (wisely) shuffle Harker to the background fairly quickly, and in the absence of suitors for Lucy (Asia Argento, xXx, failing to live up to her promise of not appearing nude anymore), the conflict ends up being between the gals: Lucy, Mina, and Vampira. This little variation does manage to pique the imagination somewhat, and it really makes you wish they’d just dumped the Count altogether and focused on this somewhat less-explored angle.*** Dracula the novel is very much about patriarchal ownership, essentially a story of who gets the girl, so it’s nice that this version, intentionally or not, plays with that notion a little and sets the girls, vampiric and otherwise, at the center of attention for a good chunk of time (admittedly, the boring half).




It would be foolish at this point to expect a late-career resurgence from Argento, and this one does very little to shake that assumption. But still, if one were the sort to irrationally look for signs of such a thing, there are a few flickering indications that Argento is still intermittently putting some effort in. Getting back together with Luciano Tovoli is a huge step in the right direction, obviously. Claudio Simonetti (formerly of Goblin, and as such part of the classic scores for PROFONDO ROSSO, SUSPIRA and DAWN OF THE DEAD) is always a welcome presence as composer, though truth be told he seems to be running a little low on creative juice too (fun fact: the last time Goblin wrote a score together was also the last time Argento made a 100% great movie, in 2001 with SLEEPLESS. Let’s get the whole group back next time). DRACULA 3-D proves that age has not heightened Argento’s interest in acting or scripting, but at least it still proves he’s capable of getting one great actor who doesn’t need his help to be interesting and engaging, a trick which has served him well in the past. And finally, even if this material is now well over a hundred years old, the addition of stereoscopic 3-D suggests that the old guy hasn’t completely given up the ambition and experimentation that led him to some of the most influential horror movies of all time. Is that reason enough for hope? Probably not, but fuck it, I’m gonna be hopeful anyway. The world may not need any more Dracula adaptations, but it sure could use a few more masterpieces from one of horror’s great modern luminaries.


*I actually didn’t even know that for a fact, I just stands to reason so I wrote it down and then went back to check later on. Sure enough, he played the Count in 1974’s El gran amor del conde DrĂ¡cula.


**So says IMDB, I have no way of actually checking this information, but come on, just go with it. This is definitely (as near as I can tell) legit the first 3-D Dracula film so why wouldn’t it be a trailblazer in Dutch casting too?

***One thing I’ve been noticing this Chainsawnukah is that while we reasonably don’t usually think of Italian film as being especially enlightened on the subject of sexual equality, by the same token they also seem a lot more comfortable than American filmmakers with making women the primary protagonist. It would be kinda a big deal to have an American film with this much focus on female characters.




CHAINSAWNUKAH 2014 CHECKLIST!

The Hunt For Dread October


  • LITERARY ADAPTATION: Semi-faithful adaptation of the Bram Stoker novel.
  • SEQUEL: None
  • REMAKE: Obviously there have been about a million versions of this novel, but this is not credited as a direct adaptation of any of them.
  • FOREIGNER: Italian
  • FOUND-FOOTAGE CLUSTERFUCK: No
  • SLUMMING A-LISTER: Thomas Kretschmann is in THE AVENGERS, and Rutger Hauer has been in his share big-ticket movies.
  • BELOVED HORROR ICON: Rutger Hauer, Asia Argento
  • BOOBIES: Yep, mostly from Miriam Giovanelli but Asia Argento proves once again unable to avoid appearing nude in her dad's movies.
  • SEXUAL ASSAULT: Unwanted vampire sexiness, but nothing rapey.
  • DISMEMBERMENT PLAN: Head lopped off!
  • HAUNTED HOUSE: No
  • MONSTER: No, unless you want to count the many laughable CG animals Drac turns himself into.
  • THE UNDEAD: Vampires!
  • POSSESSION: Some of that old villainous hypnotic vamp stuff.
  • SLASHER/GIALLO: No
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): No
  • EVIL CULT: None
  • (UNCANNY) VALLEY OF THE DOLLS: No
  • TRANSMOGRIFICATION: Man into vampire, vampire into wolf, owl, bat, praying mantis.
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Mid. Not much theatrical release, but a fairly big deal to those in the know.
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: Stop. Fucking. Remaking. Dracula.
  • TITLE ACCURACY: Dracula is present, in 3-D (if you have a 3-D TV.)
  • ALEX MADE IT THROUGH AWAKE: Yes.
This is me being generous again, because a lot of it is quite crappy. But there's just enough real talent there to make it worth the effort.


Thursday, February 12, 2015

Nightmares (1983)

Nightmares (1983)
Dir. Joseph Sargent
Written by Jeffery Bloom, Cristopher “Cross” Crowe
Starring Cristina Raines, Emilio Estevez, Lance Henriksen, Veronica Cartwright, Richard Masur




This four-segment anthology horror didn’t begin life as a film; like JOHN CARPENTER’S BODY BAGS these four segments were originally headed for TV, in this case for ABC’s short-lived anthology series Darkroom. When Darkroom was canceled in 1982, they took four orphaned segments (claimed to have been excised from the series because they were “too intense for TV,” though I wouldn’t rule out the idea that they just had four segments left over that they wanted to squeeze a few more pennies out of), cobbled ‘em together into a movie (no framing story or anything, not even the James Coburn narration from the series) and titled it as generically as possible just to ensure there was nothing to stand out or make it memorable or anything. Someone in the marketing department must have had a bad feeling about this strategy, because even the poster admits that this doesn’t sound like too hot a ticket: “each summer, one film opens that you’ve never heard of…” (“hey Steve, it’s summer, man, wanna go check out that new movie NIGHTMARES?” “never heard of it. let’s do some coke instead.”) “...and will never forget.” (“OK, that sounds a little more confident, but what movie could they be talking about?”) …”NIGHTMARES is this years sleeper.” (OOOOoooh, I get it, you’re talking about the movie that this poster is advertising. Good fakeout, 1983’s NIGHTMARES.)


To be frankly honest (arguably the edgiest kind of honest) this movie NIGHTMARES is not that great. These segments may have been too intense for ABC in 1983, but they’re nowhere near intense enough for a legit horror movie, despite the totally unearned R rating. They definitely feel like they would be something that played on network TV in the 80’s. Not that they’re incompetent or ugly or anything, they look fine, in fact, they look better than a lot of the movies that would follow them in the 90’s. They just seem kinda small-scale, flat, unambitious. There’s no significant gore, and very little in the way of imagination, they’re pretty derivative and uninspired from a narrative viewpoint, so they just don’t really have a lot going for them. Dan P from the Roads? Where We’re Going We Don’t Need Roads blog, who watched most of the Chainsawnukah movies with me, fucking loathed this one, thought it was just utterly without merit, an insult to the entire endeavor of human civilization. Me, I wasn’t as offended by it, I found it a perfectly agreeable little time-waster, in fact occasionally kinda charming in its 80’s goofball cheesiness. But that’s absolutely the best thing you could argue about it: it’s benign and dorky enough to mildly hold your attention. Well, at least intermittently. Not so much at the start.


It begins with one of those hookhand-killer-on-the-loose type stories. I’m informed by the internet that it stars Cristina Raines, William Sanderson, and even has Fear singer Lee Ving in it, but honestly I have no memory of this whatsoever at this point, and didn’t even remember it was in the film, let alone the lead segment, until I checked IMDB in preparation for this review. Let’s move on.

Do you even arcade, bro?

Segment 2 is probably the one which is either going to make or break this one for you, depending on how many episodes of I Love the 80’s you were able to watch without vomiting Crystal Pepsi onto your lite-brite. It’s the most openly and shamelessly absurd episode here, so much so that I bet you could throw it on a sketch-comedy show today and everyone would wholeheartedly believe it to be a modern parody, rather than a legit 80’s artifact made with the serious intent to terrify and disturb. Basically the premise is this: Emilio Estevez (FREEJACK) is the raddest dude in 1983, and that radness is exemplified in the one thing that truly defined radness to a kid with a blonde crew-cut in 1983: he’s the king of his local mall’s arcade. The other kids are in awe of him, and he draws a crowd* as he plays Atari games with a grim seriousness that would probably be a little excessive for a speech addressing Congress of the start of World War III. 

As a player, he has no peer, but he does have a nemesis: the brutally difficult Battletank-esque “Bishop of Battle,” a notoriously difficult shooter featuring nefarious monochromatic polygonal shapes which torment the player through 12 punishing levels of difficulty, and --perhaps!-- a fabled 13th. When his parents forbid him from wasting his youth in front of a flickering 8-bit screen and beg him to please, please, just for them, knock up some teenager or something, just anything else but the video games, he rebels and sneaks out at night, breaking into the arcade and indulging in a marathon session with the Bishop of Battle… until things start to get a little too real. So basically this is the embodiment of every gamer’s nightmare since we saw THE WIZARD: the game comes to life and tries to get him. What’s funny is that although you might assume that the vaguely geometric polygons in the game are actually 8-bit symbolic representations of planes or UFOs or something, when they emerge from the game they look exactly the same. Apparently the game was a photo-realistic depiction of what just happen to be nefarious real-life 8-bit invaders.


The computerized villains were all created using ACS1200, and IMDB claims they “cost so much they nearly bankrupted the production” (not sure how that fits in with the “these were cut from TV for being too intense” theory, but I guess it would explain its reported 9 million dollar budget), but they have all the hallmarks of something some studio executive overheard his kid talking about and told his producers, “the kids like it, bring me some of that, money is no object.” Estevez also reportedly took two weeks of gun training to convincingly mimic shooting his Nintendo Zapper at invisible enemies, which should be about as telling a detail as one could hope for about how hilariously wrong-headed this whole concept is. It’s hard to believe anyone could have possibly taken this thing seriously, but there is every indication that someone, possibly everyone, did. Cocaine is a hell of a drug.

Swipe left.


Drugs are also a good explanation for the next segment, which stars noted greatest-man-alive Lance Henriksen (PUMPKINHEAD, HELLRAISER 8: HELLWORLD) as a disillusioned former Catholic priest who is leaving his parrish only to face stiff opposition in that front from…uh.. you know, it’s not really important. It’s something, I don’t remember, what, you expect me to keep track of every little detail in these movies? Look, there are some things you’re just better off not knowing. OK! Ok, well, it’s a malicious black Chevy 4x4. They have kind of a car fight, and then he throws holy water on it and kills it. It’s not even as cool as it sounds.


Actually, Henriksen is pretty much the only reason I watched this one, I’d had a few people tell me that this is one of his best performances. It’s a fair point, he really digs in deep to bring this poor guy’s inner struggle to his face, but you know what, he’s always great, so that’s not exactly a shock. Unfortunately redoing DUEL but with a smaller truck and way worse filmmaking is one of the lamest ideas I’ve ever seen in a Horror movie, at least MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE had that one truck with a gobin face on it, NIGHTMARES can’t even be bothered to do that. Henriksen is great, but he’s also great in DYING GOD (2008) and THE INVITATION (2003) and THE PENITENT MAN (2010) and come on, you’re not going to see those. He spends most of his screentime yelling or driving, not the best use of this fantastic actor if I may say so. The only thing of note here is that at one point, the crafty evil Chevy hides itself from its prey by burrowing underground and then roaring up out of the soil into the air, like that time Chuck Norris did the same thing in LONE WOLF McQUADE. Otherwise, kinda a wash.

Why? Why did you sign the contract to appear in NIGHTMARES!!?

The last segment is arguably the best, and the only one which even remotely manages any kind of serious build or respectable horror atmosphere. But even so, its pleasures are pretty mild. It concerns married couple Richard Masur (RISKY BUSINESS, MY GIRL 2) and Veronica Cartwright (CANDYMAN 2: FAREWELL TO THE FLESH, oh yeah, and THE BIRDS and ALIEN) who encounter an unusual rodent problem. First, wifey just hears rats in the wall, but the problem escalates with a frightening aggressiveness. She wants to call an exterminator, but her dickhole husband doesn’t think its necessary…until it becomes so blatantly necessary that a shotgun rat hunt is in order. I was sort of surprised at how effective this piece is; its nothing too imaginative, but there’s a sweaty, fevered...well, nightmarishness about this bizarre scenario. It has a Yellow Wallpaper kind of vibe to it, a slippery suggestion that under the prim surface something is rotting -- possibly the marriage between our two leads, possibly their sanity. Cartwright and Masur are good enough actors that they convey the emotional escalation of the situation with some surprising heft, reluctantly dragging you down this rathole into its absurd conclusion, which features some unfortunate effects but doesn’t quite manage to entirely shake off the dreamy paranoia of the escalation. This is mild praise, but it is praise, and that’s not something that NIGHTMARES deserves in abundance, so enjoy it while it lasts.


Another thing NIGHTMARES doesn’t have much in abundance? Anything memorable. If not for the ludicrous killer Atari segment with Estevez, there would be almost nothing here imaginative enough to register. I sort of liked the last segment, but it would be a minor effort at best in any self-respecting Horror anthology worth its salt. I appreciate NIGHTMARES’ attempt at a serious tone, but everything about this production screams small-scale, low-ambition, limited imagination early 80’s TV. There’s a small place in my heart which has some nostalgic affection for the era, which is probably how this one managed to avoid actively offending me, but without that cover there’s really very little here to recommend it. Watch it for the ironic enjoyment of the Estevez sequence if at all, and even then, I don’t recommend attempting this feat without some bitchy friends and a good provision of booze. Still, if you fancy an unassuming night of semi-competent low-stakes 80’s horror TV, you might find some value here.

*One of whom is Moon Unit Zappa



CHAINSAWNUKAH 2014 CHECKLIST!

The Hunt For Dread October

  • LITERARY ADAPTATION: None. From the writer/director of FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC, THE MOVIE and ... wow, the writer for LAST OF THE MOHICANS!!?
  • SEQUEL: None
  • REMAKE: No
  • FOREIGNER: No
  • FOUND-FOOTAGE CLUSTERFUCK: No
  • SLUMMING A-LISTER: Emilio Estevez?
  • BELOVED HORROR ICON: Lance Henriksen, Veronica Cartwright
  • BOOBIES: No
  • SEXUAL ASSAULT: None
  • DISMEMBERMENT PLAN: No
  • HAUNTED HOUSE: No, unless the evil rats count.
  • MONSTER: Devil rat. Unfortunately the truck that menaces Henriksen is just a regular truck, not the monster variety.
  • THE UNDEAD: No
  • POSSESSION: None
  • SLASHER/GIALLO: Arguably the first segment, with its escaped killer.
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): No
  • EVIL CULT: None
  • (UNCANNY) VALLEY OF THE DOLLS: No
  • TRANSMOGRIFICATION: Man into... 8-bit man.
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: High, out of print, quickly forgotten.
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: Some things are best left on television.
  • TITLE ACCURACY: Nothing about these four shorts would suggest nightmares.
  • ALEX MADE IT THROUGH AWAKE: No
This is being pretty generous and awarding a whole thumb for basic competency and awesome ACS1200 graphics.