MONSTERZERO NJ’S SATURDAY NIGHT DOUBLE FEATURE: THE THING 2011 and THE THING (1982)

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In celebration of snagging what appears to be the last Target exclusive NECA MacReady action figure on the shelves, I’ve decided to make a double feature out of Carpenter’s classic and it’s prequel…

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THE THING (2011)

John Carpenter’s The Thing is one of my all time favorite movies. It’s a classic and arguably Carpenter’s masterpiece. So, I tried to put the audacity aside that someone would attempt a prequel and went in trying to view this film on it’s own merits as much as possible. Ultimately, since it’s trying to be part of that film’s story, you kind of have to compare and my mind constantly made such comparisons all throughout. Overall, I wasn’t that impressed, but also didn’t hate it and over time, it has grown on me as a sort of amusing companion piece. Still, obviously far from a classic like it’s predecessor.

2011’s The Thing takes place in the Norwegian camp that is seen briefly in Carpenter’s film in smoldering ruins. It details their finding of the alien ship and it’s passenger in the ice and it’s subsequent escape and infiltration of the camp and assimilation of various members. The Norwegians are joined by some American’s including Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Paleontologist Kate Lloyd, Eric Christian Olsen as scientist Adam Finch and Joel Edgerton as helicopter pilot Sam. Aside from Ulrich Thompson as lead scientist Dr. Sander Halvorson, the rest are interchangeable and generic characters that serve mostly as body count. Only Winstead really tries to make Kate a more rounded character, but she isn’t given much to do but look concerned, or scared, or both, till the last act.

This is where The Thing fails to assimilate the 1982 perfectly as it’s title creature would. Director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. fails to generate much suspense or create the kind of paranoia that fueled the 82 classic. He does create a bit of a sense of dread, but for the most part, he directs this “prequel” competently, but very by-the-numbers. There’s very little of the kind of tension Carpenter built during his film, even though the situation is basically the same. Even if he was trying to craft a film that was more it’s own “thing” he still doesn’t have the directing chops to really pull it off. The film has a nice visual style, there are some well done action sequences and they did do a good job of matching sets and events to link up with the film this is a prequel to, but it still doesn’t come close to Thing ’82.

Heijningen doesn’t get that much help out of his actors either. Other than Winstead and Edgerton, most of them pretty much perform on ‘paycheck’ levels and there are none of the memorable characters like Carpenter’s eclectic bunch. Well, at least there should be some cool monster stuff, right? Not quite. All this talk of practical effects during production was nonsense, as 90% of what we see is CGI, or enhanced with CGI, and it’s only a few levels about your average SYFY channel movie. So even the monster evokes no emotion, because it looks like what it is, phony. And to be honest, the designs lack the impact of Rob Bottin’s now legendary work. Even at their weakest moments, Bottin’s creature transformations generated awe or disgust. You’d think they’d take advantage of almost 30 years of technological advancement in movie effects, yet the creatures have little impact. And, speaking of our alien star, we are never given much more information about the creature than we already know from Thing ’82. They totally blow the opportunity to add to the creature’s mythos.

I’ll admit, there were a few scenes I liked, especially toward the end where the camp is thrown into all out combat with our computer generated invader and there are some clever bits like one involving tooth fillings. I also liked Winstead’s Kate as our lead. I think Winstead is capable of strong roles and it’s too bad she’s wasn’t given stronger stuff till the last act here. She makes a credible heroine. The end credits nod to the Carpenter flick is the best stuff in the movie. At least the lead-in stuff worked very well and the film ends on a spooky note as we know what comes next…a far superior movie.

In conclusion, I didn’t hate this flick, but would only recommend it as an amusing curiosity or a mindless popcorn monster flick as long as you forget about it even trying to stack up to the Kurt Russell classic. The Thing 2011 did have almost impossible shoes to fill and while it falls far short of the mark, it’s also not the complete disaster it’s made out to be. Best “thing” about the movie is that it is a lead-in to Carpenter’s flick, so you can always watch that afterwards.

-MonsterZero NJ

2 and 1/2 (out of 4) flame thrower wielding cuties!

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THE THING (1982)

Arguably John Carpenter’s best film and his masterpiece, The Thing  was a remake of Howard Hawks’ 1951 classic The Thing From Another World, which was itself based on John W. Campbell’s story Who Goes There? Instead of using the 1951 film’s walking, blood sucking alien vegetable, he went back to Campbell’s story which featured an alien creature capable of imitating whatever it fed on.

Carpenter’s film opens with an isolated American research station in Antarctica being buzzed by a Norwegian helicopter that seems to be trying to gun down a lone sled dog. The incident results in the helicopter being destroyed and both raving occupants being killed, one by the station commander Gary (Donald Moffat) in defense of his crew. Now the team including helicopter pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell) are stuck with a bizarre mystery and the surviving sled dog. When MacReady and Doctor Copper (Richard Dysart) investigate the Norwegian camp, they find it destroyed, it’s occupants dead and a huge hollowed out block of ice…not to mention a burned corpse of something barely human. The investigating of the evidence indicates the Norwegians found a strange ship in the ice and brought a specimen back to their camp that apparently was not dead when thawed out. The real nightmare is yet to come as the Norwegian dog reveals itself to be something quite unworldly and that an alien creature with the ability to absorb and become it’s prey may now be among them…or worse, may be one or more of them already. The paranoia and terror grows as the team try to discover who may be a creature in disguise and the creature feeds their paranoia and seeks to eliminate any of the men with the scientific knowhow to unmask it. Can those still human stop it and if they fail, what will happen to the rest of humanity?

The Thing is both a masterpiece of suspense and tension, as well as, of visceral horror. Carpenter, along with Bill Lancaster’s script, perfectly creates the paranoia of not knowing who around you is human and who is not. The setting of isolation is made all that apparent as Carpenter seals his characters in an ice and snow surrounded maze of hallways and dark rooms where the 12 men are trapped with something very inhuman and they can’t even trust each other, as it could be anyone. The team all suspect each other, but as is human nature, turn to those they like for support and turn on those they may have not liked or not gotten along with before. We have 12 men who are social outcasts thrust into a situation where no one is coming to their rescue and they are forced to not only try to save themselves, but literally save the planet, as their failure to stop this creature will unleash it upon an unsuspecting world. Just so we fully understand the enormity of this creature’s threat, we are treated, via make-up FX master Rob Bottin (and Stan Winston who created the dog kennel creature), to some of the most gruesome creature transformation sequences ever filmed. Bottin convinced Carpenter to not go with a standard true form for the creature design, but an organism that is constantly changing and different once revealed and is made up of parts of all the beings it has absorbed during it’s journey through space. The results are visually horrifying and still hold their full impact even today. All this is brilliantly filmed by cinematographer Dean Cundey and accented by a haunting score by Ennio Morricone…who later voiced disapproval of how Carpenter used it. It is said the prominent electronic bits were actually written by Carpenter, though a lot of Morricone’s music is still used.

As for the human players, obviously this is Kurt Russell’s show, as he plays a man who is reluctantly forced to try to save a world he seems intent on hiding from and does so, honorably and selflessly. With 12 characters not everyone is given a lot of attention, but the cast all handle their roles well in presenting a bunch of eclectic social misfits who would rather be in the antarctic than with the rest of the world. The standouts aside from Russell’s MacReady are Dysart’s Dr. Copper, Moffat’s Gary, who crumbles when he really needs to take charge, forcing MacReady to lead the rest, Keith David’s Childs and Brimley’s scientist Blair. Ironic, as Brimley has voiced his complete distain for the film. Maybe he should have read the script before signing on? Rounding out a solid cast are Richard Masur as Clark, David Clennon as stoner Palmer, Charles Hallahan as the meek Norris, Joel Polis as the quiet scientist Fuchs, T.K. Carter as the smart-ass cook Nauls, Thomas G. Waites as cowardly radioman Windows and Peter Maloney as complainer Bennings. Carpenter’s wife at the time, actress Adrienne Barbeau, also has a vocal cameo as the voice of MacReady’s chess computer.

The history of this film is as legendary as the film itself. The flick was critically panned for it’s gruesome gore FX and grim tone and audiences stayed away…not me, though, I saw it at least 3 times back in the day…and it has taken decades for it to finally be recognized as the masterpiece and classic it truly is. Simply a great horror/sci-fi film that has yet to be equaled.

-MonsterZero NJ

A classic 4 (out of 4) Things!

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MONSTERZERO NJ’S SATURDAY NIGHT DOUBLE FEATURE: PRINCE OF DARKNESS and THEY LIVE

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For this week’s double feature I have decided to go with the two low budget movies John Carpenter made as part of his deal with Alive Films in the late 80s. A little burnt on dealing with big studio films, these where modestly budgeted flicks which Carpenter wrote and directed himself and were financed by Alive. A disagreement over the budget of a third film ended the deal, but these two films have become cult classics. I have covered Prince Of Darkness here before, but do think it makes a really good fit with the other film in the Alive Films/ John Carpenter collaberation, They Live
… If you are interested in these titles, both films are currently available with gorgeous new prints and some fun extras from the awesome folks at Scream Factory.

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PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987)

Prince of Darkness is a strange movie written by Carpenter and combining religion and theoretical quantum physics. It sounds like a contradictory combination, but it works better then you might expect. It was the first of a multi-picture deal with Alive Films where Carpenter would make 3 or 4 low budget flicks. The second and last film was the cult classic They Live, as a disagreement over the third film’s budget ended the collaboration.

The story opens with the death of a priest who presided over a small inner city parish. Enter Donald Pleasence as another priest…who’s name is never given…who discovers that the deceased priest was part of a secret society within the church called The Brotherhood Of Sleep. And this sect have been protecting a dark secret that may challenge the very core of what we have come to believe both scientifically and religiously. A team of college students, led by Professor Birack (Victor Wong from Big Trouble In Little China) and including Brian Marsh (Jameson Parker) and Catherine Danforth (Lisa Blount), are brought to the parish to investigate a strange cylinder filled with a pulsating green liquid in a locked chamber in the basement, as well as, the scriptures that come with it. They discover that the liquid is a form of the Anti-Christ and it seeks release in order to bring it’s father, the Anti-God into our world. And as members of the team start to fall under it’s powerful thrall and they all become plagued by the same strange dreams, it’s terrifyingly obvious that the remaining team members are in a fight against an ancient evil that their science may not be able to contain.

Carpenter delivers a very odd but effectively creepy film. It’s has an atmosphere of dread from the start to the finish and presents a very chilling scenario that there may be things in existence that neither our religion or science may be able to handle. And as these are two things people most put their faith in, it is a disturbing concept. It also presents an interesting idea that Bible prophecies may have actually been warnings sent from the future as the dream effecting all our college science students appears to be exactly that. Carpenter also presents the possibility that certain Bible stories were put in place to cover more disturbing truths as the scientific knowledge to explain or understand the reality of it was not available. Basically we were told things in fable form because the science wasn’t there to properly explain it and we weren’t advanced enough to understand it. As someone who was born and raised Christian yet has always had an interest in science, I actually have had this thought myself occasionally and it was interesting to see the master filmmaker weave this theory into his plot. Carpenter also uses his low budget well and keeps the story, for the most part contained in the church. Again working with the fear of isolation as a horde of homicidal homeless people keep our besieged team members inside. Gary B. Kibbe provides the atmospheric cinematography and would collaborate with Carpenter on seven more projects and he gives Prince a very unsettling look yet, rich with color. This is a strange film that may not appeal to everyone, it took me a few years and repeat viewings before I fully appreciated it and it’s grown on me since I first saw it in 87 and wasn’t quite sold on it then.

The film has it’s flaws, some of the make-up FX are cheesy and some of the violent death scenes, especially those perpetrated by the army of homeless people surrounding the church, lead by Alice Cooper, seem a little out of place in a film that starts out working in subtlety. But since it does switch gears and become more of a traditional horror film in it’s second half, as the possessed students try to kill or possess the others who are fighting against their former friends to stay alive, so in the overall scheme they work fine. Some may not have patience for some of the science heavy dialog, but I though Carpenter’s script does a good job of giving scientific explanations for some of the more supernatural elements of the religious scripture presented in his story. Regardless of your beliefs, Carpenter poses some interesting questions and the film is really creepy throughout. And adding to the effectiveness is one of Carpenter’s spookiest scores to date composed with frequent collaborator Alan Howarth.

Overall, Prince Of Darkness is perhaps Carpenter’s oddest and most daring film, in some respects, but yet another that wasn’t all that well accepted at first and now has gained a following over the years and rightfully so. This flick may not be for everyone and it’s mix of science and religion may not work for some, but I think it’s an interesting and thoroughly creepy movie that not only presents some well executed traditional horror elements, but poses some interesting questions and theories about what we believe in as well. Also stars another Big Trouble In Little China alumni, Dennis Dun in a fun role as a skeptical student.

3 canisters of gooey pulsating dormant evil!

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THEY LIVE (1988)

John Carpenter wrote and directed his second and last feature in the ill-fated Alive Films deal. This flick was a fun alien invasion, Sci-Fi/Action flick based on the short story Eight O’Clock In The Morning by Ray Nelson. Carpenter also mixed in some deft messages about class warfare and how the rich and powerful manipulate the government and media to reduce the rest of us to little more then slaves…a message even more relevant today then it was in 1988, with big corporations running our media and, to be honest, our government…but I digress…

The story focuses on unemployed construction worker John Nada (Roddy Piper) who through a series of events comes across a pair of special sunglasses that let him see the world for what it truly is, an alien run society where humans who collaborate and cooperate are made rich and powerful and those who don’t are coerced by subliminal messages placed in all the media to basically follow orders and do what they are told. If you’re not one of the haves, you’re little more than a have-not slave. Nada has nothing else to lose so, he decides to join a growing underground rebellion and fight back, taking reluctant friend Frank (Keith David) and accidental hostage Holly (Meg Foster) along for the ride. But the aliens are everywhere and so are the traitorous humans that have sold out and John Nada and Co. have some pretty big odds to overcome if they are to find and eliminate the beings’ hypnotic signal and wake the world up from it’s alien induced slumber.

They Live may not be Carpenter’s strongest work, but it is still a fan favorite and a lot of fun. The film moves fast and there is a lot of suspenseful action including a now classic fistfight between “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and The Thing’s Keith David and the gunfight finale inside a cable TV office building. As usual Carpenter gives the film a nice look on a low budget with Gary B. Kibbe once again filling former Carpenter DOP Dean Cundey’s shoes nicely with some beautiful camerawork. The political messages are a little heavy-handed, but there is enough action and aliens to even it out and the film has some really nice SPFX for a very modestly budgeted film especially those that portray the real world as seen through the signal blocking glasses. The film has some clunky dialog and it could have used some more time within the workings of the rebellion to get us a bit more endeared to the freedom fighters before they clash with the invaders, but the focus is on Nada and Frank and it is they who are left with the task of taking the bizarre invaders down. The film also has some very uniquely designed extraterrestrials to act as our villains and the make-up FX work well. It is both one of Carpenter’s lighter films and yet, ironically, one of his most politically and socially critical. As, despite the dire message, the film also has a very satirical sense of humor as well and that helps us past some of it’s flaws as it doesn’t take itself too seriously that we don’t have a good time watching Piper run out of bubblegum and kick ass.

And as for our leading man, Piper does OK here. Carpenter hired him because he felt he had a look of someone who has lived a hard life and that works in the case of down on his luck Nada. Piper isn’t the best actor, but he holds his on especially during the action scenes and only stumbles a little in some of the more dialog heavy moments. Kurt Russell would have been prefect, but Piper works better than expected. Keith David is good as always. He makes Frank a likable and honorable man, but one who we believe doesn’t take any crap from anyone. Foster is a little stiff as Holly, but since she plays a woman thrust into a very surreal situation, it almost fits the part. There are also some solid small roles from frequent Carpenter collaborators like Peter Jason as the rebellion leader Gilbert and George ‘Buck’ Flower as a homeless man who discovers the benefit of playing nice with the ruling alien elite. Carpenter and associate Alan Howarth again deliver a memorable score to support the film.

They Live is now considered a cult classic and I certainly agree. While it may have some familiar elements and common themes, it still comes across as a unique little movie and one with an important message that still resonates almost three decades later. And despite it’s message being a large part of the film’s plot, Carpenter wraps it with a fun, Action/ Sci-Fi coating to make it easily digestible. Piper may not have been the strongest actor to cast in the lead, but he does carry the flick and it’s fun to watch him have a good time with the part even if he stumbles a bit in the film’s more serious moments. Not Carpenter’s best flick, but still very enjoyable and once again another film that has found it’s audience years later. Again John Carpenter proves he is a director who is well ahead of his time.

3 men all out of bubblegum!

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MONSTERZERO NJ’S SATURDAY NIGHT DOUBLE FEATURE: THE THING and THE FLY

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This week’s double feature showcases two horror classics, both great remakes of films that themselves were classics and both directed by two of the greatest horror directors of the modern era. Watched this the other night and it was a great evening of classic horror cinema!

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THE THING (1982)

Arguably John Carpenter’s best film and his masterpiece, The Thing  was a remake of Howard Hawks’ 1951 classic The Thing From Another World, which was itself based on John W. Campbell’s story Who Goes There? Instead of using the 1951 film’s walking, blood sucking alien vegetable, he went back to Campbell’s story which featured an alien creature capable of imitating whatever it fed on.

Carpenter’s film opens with an isolated American research station in Antarctica being buzzed by a Norwegian helicopter that seems to be trying to gun down a lone sled dog. The incident results in the helicopter being destroyed and both raving occupants being killed, one by the station commander Gary (Donald Moffat) in defense of his crew. Now the team including helicopter pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell) are stuck with a bizarre mystery and the surviving sled dog. When MacReady and Doctor Copper (Richard Dysart) investigate the Norwegian camp, they find it destroyed, it’s occupants dead and a huge hollowed out block of ice…not to mention a burned corpse of something barely human. The investigating of the evidence indicates the Norwegians found a strange ship in the ice and brought a specimen back to their camp that apparently was not dead when thawed out. The real nightmare is yet to come as the Norwegian dog reveals itself to be something quite unworldly and that an alien creature with the ability to absorb and become it’s prey may now be among them… or worse, may be one or more of them already. The paranoia and terror grows as the team try to discover who may be a creature in disguise and the creature feeds their paranoia and seeks to eliminate any of the men with the scientific knowhow to unmask it. Can those still human stop it and if they fail, what will happen to the rest of humanity?

The Thing is both a masterpiece of suspense and tension, as well as, of visceral horror. Carpenter along with Bill Lancaster’s script perfectly creates the paranoia of not knowing who around you is human and who is not. The setting of isolation is made all that apparent as Carpenter seals his characters in an ice and snow surrounded maze of hallways and dark rooms where the 12 men are trapped with something very inhuman and they can’t even trust each other as it could be anyone. The team all suspect each other, but as is human nature, turn to those they like for support and turn on those they may have not liked or not gotten along with before. We have 12 men who are social outcasts thrust into a situation where no one is coming to their rescue and they are forced to not only try to save themselves, but literally save the planet, as their failure to stop this creature will unleash it upon an unsuspecting world. Just so we fully understand the enormity of this creature’s threat, we are treated, via make-up FX master Rob Bottin (and Stan Winston who created the dog kennel creature), to some of the most gruesome creature transformation sequences ever filmed. Bottin convinced Carpenter to not go with a standard true form for the creature design, but an organism that is constantly changing and different once revealed and is made up of parts of all the beings it has absorbed during it’s journey through space. The results are visually horrifying and still hold their full impact even today. All this is brilliantly filmed by cinematographer Dean Cundey and accented by a haunting score by Ennio Morricone…who later voiced disapproval of how Carpenter used it. It is said the prominent electronic bits were actually written by Carpenter, though a lot of Morricone’s music is still used.

As for the human players, obviously this is Kurt Russell’s show, as he plays a man who is reluctantly forced to try to save a world he seems intent on hiding from and does so, honorably and selflessly. With 12 characters not everyone is given a lot of attention, but the cast all handle their roles well in presenting a bunch of eclectic social misfits who would rather be in the antarctic than with the rest of the world. The standouts aside from Russell’s MacReady are Dysart’s Dr. Copper, Moffat’s Gary, who crumbles when he really needs to take charge forcing MacReady to lead the rest, Keith David’s Childs and Brimley’s scientist Blair. Ironic, as Brimley has voiced his complete distain for the film. Maybe he should have read the script before signing on? Rounding out a solid cast are Richard Masur as Clark, David Clennon as stoner Palmer, Charles Hallahan as the meek Norris, Joel Polis as the quiet scientist Fuchs, T.K. Carter as the smart-ass cook Nauls, Thomas G. Waites as cowardly radioman Windows and Peter Maloney as complainer Bennings. Carpenter’s wife at the time, actress Adrienne Barbeau, also has a vocal cameo as the voice of MacReady’s chess computer.

The history of this film is as legendary as the film itself. The flick was critically panned for it’s gruesome gore FX and grim tone and audiences stayed away…not me, though, I saw it at least 3 times back in the day…and it has taken decades for it to finally be recognized as the masterpiece and classic it truly is. Simply a great horror/sci-fi film that has yet to be equalled. Followed by a Carpenter-less prequel in 2011 that is a moderately amusing companion piece at best.

A classic 4 (out of 4) Things!

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THE FLY (1986)

Much like Carpenter’s The Thing, David Cronenberg’s The Fly is based on a 1950s horror flick of the same name and similar plot which itself is based on a short story, this one written by George Langelaan. Cronenberg’s telling is of brilliant scientist Seth Brundle ( Jeff Goldblum) who plans to revolutionize travel and change the world by creating teleportation devices which can instantly transfer people from one place to another when perfected. He meets and falls for pretty journalist Veronica (Geena Davis) and decides to reveal his work to the world through her, as she documents his progress. The two quickly become lovers and during an evening when Ronnie leaves to deal with slimy publisher/ ex-boyfriend Stathis Borans (John Getz), a jealous and drunk Brundle decides to use himself as the first human test subject for teleportation. At first Brundle seems to somehow have been improved through teleporting being stronger and faster, but soon his body and behavior starts to change for the worse and his health starts to deteriorate. An investigation into his teleporting session reveals a fly was in the telepod with him and the computer became confused and fused their DNA at a molecular level. Now the man is slowly turing into a monster and Ronnie is torn between staying to help the man she loves, or fleeing an evolving creature that becomes less human…and more dangerous…by the day.

Where David Hedison’s scientist in the 1958 classic simply became a human with a fly’s head and claw and the fly had his human head, Cronenberg, working from his own draft from Charles Edward Pogue’s script, uses the transformation as a metaphor for disease…some interpret it as AIDS, but Cronenberg himself nixes the idea he was being so specific. Instead of swapping part’s, Goldblum’s Brundle is merged with the insect at a molecular level and Cronenberg treats us to a grotesque and horrifying gradual transformation from man to insectoid monster. All the more effective because we like the charming and eccentric Seth so much and the romance between he and Veronica works so well, we are horrified to watch him degenerate in front of his helpless lover.

Davis and Goldblum have such great chemistry together and both give terrific performances which really makes the film work, as we become endeared to this cute and off-beat couple and watching her pain and his confusion and terror, as he mutates slowly into a human/insect hybrid, that can walk on ceilings and and could kill viciously if provoked, is mortifying . As performances go, let’s not forget John Getz who creates a slimy, self centered jerk in Stathis Borans yet, still makes him heroic and sympathetic during the films horrifying climax. Even minor supporting characters all perform well here. The SPFX from Chris Walas Inc. are stunning and rightfully won an Academy Award…though Goldblum was robbed of a deserved nomination. Walas and his team gruesomely take us from skin blemishes and fingernails falling off to a full blown insectoid creature in the film’s intense and heartbreaking last act. Their make-up FX not only show the graphic effects of the gradual transformation, but allow the human underneath to come through and enhances an already sympathetic and strong performance by our leading man. Assisting Cronenberg, his actors and his FX team is a wonderfully moody and intense score by Howard Shore and atmospheric cinematography by Mark Irwin.

The Fly is a true horror classic and arguably Cronenberg’s best film and was oddly praised for the same reasons our first feature The Thing was criticized for only 4 years earlier. It is a horrifying and yet heartbreaking sci-fi film about the price and sacrifice one man pays for delving into things possibly best left alone. Underneath all the grotesquery and horror, there is also a tragic love story and an allegory to the torment of dealing with the illness of a loved one or one’s self. A great horror, but also, simply a great movie. Followed in 1989 by an amusing, but far inferior sequel that had only Getz returning as a bitter and now handicapped Borans and was directed by Fly FX man Chris Walas.

A classic 4 (out of 4) flies!

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