Thursday, September 8, 2011

Hollywood Video Memories: Uncle Sam (1997)

One of the biggest things that influenced me when it came to choosing what horror movie I would watch next was the box covers. There were two movies in particular that had cover art that immediately grabbed my attention. Uncle Sam and Jack Frost were different than most because they were the only two horror movies that had holographic covers, more specifically I was drawn to Uncle Sam because it had a menacing face of a decaying dead Uncle Sam on the cover. To me, Jack Frost would be saved for another time. At the time, I was about 12 years old and I could hardly care less about what the plot of the movie was. All I cared about were the kills, how much it scared me and whether it lived up to its awesome VHS cover art and from what I remember… I was displeased. To me it was boring and the kills, aside from one, were pretty generic. I thought the mask the “killer” wore was silly looking and I didn’t understand what Kuwait was. The only thing memorable to me was the scene where somebody gets strapped to a wooden display and dies after erupted into a gorgeous array of red, white and blue fireworks. This was my impression of the film for years and until recently I came across it on Netflix and decided to give it another watch.

When I was younger, I always thought the film was about some kind of demonic force that takes the identity of Uncle Sam and I wasn’t that far from what the movie truly is about. Sam Harper, a decorated soldier and Purple Heart winner, was shot down in Kuwait from friendly fire. His young Nephew, Jody (yes, he’s a boy), becomes distraught over his uncle’s death. However, through some mysterious connection between nephew and uncle, Sam is brought back to life on the eve of July 4th. Now, as the entire town celebrates the birth of America, Sam dawns the outfit of Uncle Sam and goes on a killing spree to those who dare disrespect the U.S. of A. But there is more to Sam’s past then just being soldier who enlisted purely for the fun of killing. The only real notable actor in the movie is Isaac Hayes who plays Sam’s former army buddy Jed Crowley and he gives a hammy performance as always. William Lustig, the brain behind Maniac and Maniac Cop, directs this wonderful gem of direct-to-video goodness.

As I already stated, the reason why I didn’t like this movie is because it was slow, boring and drawn out. I didn’t care for any of this “exposition” when I was younger but as I grew older I began to look at things through a different light. Uncle Sam is horror but half of the movie is a drama and the other half is a slasher so it felt lopsided and that’s what turned me away from it in the first place. The first half of the film is a young boy’s struggle to cope with his uncle’s death; an uncle who, in his eyes, set out to accomplish something and died for the good of our country. The second half has that very same uncle rise from his coffin and go on a murderous rampage of draft-dodgers and corrupt politicians. But as I look closer at the first half, it’s not that bad of a story and like myself, this half turned a lot of horror fans away from the movie but I’ve come to accept it. It’s actually a very ominous drama that keeps alluding to Sam’s horrible past but we never know it because we’re meant to see the story through Jody’s eyes.

The movie tackles some pretty interesting topics involving patriotism, what defines and hero and the quandary of war. One of the issues that are brought into the light is the dilemma soldiers have to face in war. Jody’s teacher, a draft-dodger, questioned the reason why we ever got into Vietnam and whether it was right to fight into a war they didn’t believe in. If the U.S. says you must fight for our country despite what you believe in, do you answer the call or do you avoid it? In a very unsettling scene, the movie also asks the question: in war, what defines a hero? Jeb (Isaac Hayes) believes there are no heroes in war, only people crazy enough to try something stupid and get lucky. He believes that those willing to take out an entire company with their bare hands are sick-minded but they’re decorated as heroes. Those willing to throw themselves on a bomb are crazy too but they’re viewed as heroes. For a movie that’s about a zombie soldier dressed like Uncle Sam and seeking his revenge from friendly fire, there are a lot of deep questions that it tries to provoke.

As much as it seems like I’m praising this movie, I’m not because it’s not a great movie but rather an okay movie. It’s not a B-movie because there are a lot of great special effects, explosions and fireworks that invoke a very dark and cynical July 4th. There are still problems the movie suffers, problems that I never really paid attention to when I was younger, problems that I just now noticed as an adult. Just to name a few: Sam’s motivations are quite clear in the beginning; he kills those who do not live by the perceived American ideals, therefore he kills people who defile or deface what America is all about. However, near the end of movie he simply kills just for the pleasure of killing (then again, that’s apparently what he did before he became a zombie). This unique motivation keeps flip-flopping back and forth. The kid in the wheelchair at the end of the movie literally comes out of nowhere and almost acts like a second main character. Who is he? Where did he come from? Why wasn’t he referenced before the very end and most importantly, why is he suddenly telepathic? I also think it’s funny that Jeb, a full grown adult, casually takes orders from him. There are also a lot of small things that are wrong with it but I won’t dive into those because I don’t want to nitpick.

Uncle Sam is a strange one out of the holiday-themed slasher movies because it’s part serial killer and part zombie flick but in the overall plot, it’s part drama and part horror. It’s certainly not an awful movie but it’s also not great… it’s just okay. I’ve gotten past some of the minor things and saw what appeared to be a movie trying real hard to be solemn and political. Part of me is still in 12-year-old mode where I just want to see somebody dressed as Uncle Sam fillet somebody on an American Flag staff. The way I see it, if somebody ever asks me about it (not like they would), I can give them an honest opinion instead of saying something like, “It’s a shitty movie with shitty acting and it’s too boring!” Now I can say, “It’s an okay movie with okay acting but it drags on in the first half.”

Side note: Every time I saw Robert Forster in a movie I would say, "Oh my god it's Max Cherry!" obviously from Jackie Brown. Now when I see him I'll probably laugh and say that I got to see him explode in a celebration of fireworks.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Review - Fright Night (2011)

I have always adored the original Fright Night because of how it combines traditional vampire elements with modern interpretations. I don’t consider it a childhood movie because when I saw it, I was about 13 and rented it in conjunction with Waxwork and Head of the Family. When I heard there was a remake, I couldn’t believe it because I knew they would make it flashy and action-packed so that modern audiences wouldn’t be bored by it. The trailer only reassured me of this. So, I went to see it and I wasn’t wowed by it but I didn’t think it was terrible either. The story, this time around, is different from the original storyline. When Charlie’s friend disappears, his other buddy Ed tries to convince him that his neighbor, who happens to be a vampire, killed him. Charlie, at first, doesn’t believe him but soon discovers that he is right and that he now must protect his girlfriend and his mother from a bloodsucking monster who has survived for 400 years. He can’t do it alone, so he enlists the help of a famed Las Vegas entertainer Peter Vincent, who claims to have encountered a vampire in his childhood. I partially enjoyed the remake because it kept in the small things that made the original so good but it ignored some of the fundamentals of what made the original Fright Night a “compromise” flick.

I’m going to dive right into the small things that I liked about this remake. I always liked that smirk that the original Jerry Dandrige gives Charlie when he realizes that he just embarrassed himself in front of Peter Vincent. Colin Farrell is the perfect modern day candidate to deliver that snarky smirk followed by him taking a big bite out of a green apple. I loved it. It was one of my favorite moments in the original Fright Night and they kept it. I’m glad they kept in the famous lines, “you’re so cool Brewster” and “Welcome to Fright Night,” and although I hated the delivery of the first line, I think Colin did a great job delivering the second line. Although it was partially ruined by CGI, just like the blood in this movie, I am still glad they gave Charlie’s girlfriend a crooked, harlequin like smile when she becomes a vampire. It was something I was dreading from the moment I saw the trailer. They improved on something that the original barely touched base with and that’s the notion that a vampire needs to be invited into your house. I loved it because it’s going back to the old school rules of vampire mythology, something that modern day vampire movies always seem to forget. There is even a small almost unrecognizable cameo from the original Jerry Dandrige that I enjoyed. I think I was the only person to have clapped when I saw him on the screen.

One of the major concerns I had about the remake was the casting decisions and surprisingly, none of them applied to Peter Vincent or Jerry but rather Charlie and Evil Ed. I liked Colin Farrell as Jerry because he has a sort of modern charisma and snarky looks that can really be creepy. I have never seen one Dr. Who episode let along the ones with David Tennant but outside of the Dr. Who franchise, I’m a big fan of his work. I think he was a great cast for Peter Vincent and although, at first, I hated what they did to Peter Vincent I slowly warmed up to him as this cocky stage performer. However, for the first half of the movie, he was annoying and I had flashbacks to Dr. Loomis in the remake of Halloween 2. When he finally got his shit together and assisted Charlie in trying to take down Jerry, that’s when I smiled and said, “This will be good.” Anton Yelchin was actually pretty good as the nerdy Charlie Brewster and had that nervous stutter the original actor had but some scenes were really showing Anton’s age. Not that it matters but you could tell he is definitely too old to be in high school. As for Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Evil Ed, like with Peter Vincent, he was really annoying and not sympathetic as the original character was. I was okay with the casting but it was the way they played Evil Ed off. When he becomes a vampire, he looks more like a werewolf than a vampire, which is good… I guess, but I don’t think it was their intention.

There were lots of fundamentals that they decided to skip out on and in return they enhanced the action to keep modern day audiences more attentive. The original Fright Night is a slow movie and I liked that, in this remake, they get right to the point and they pepper it with house explosions, car chases and a gun & stake fight in Peter Vincent’s apartment. One major fundamental that they got rid of was the uncanny resemblance the original Fright Night had with Rear Window in that there are several scenes where Charlie is spying on his neighbor with binoculars. It was a wonderful aspect that they hardly even touched base upon with this remake. Another fundamental was the romance. I’m all for the cold-emotionless vampires of today but I always prefer my vampire to be romantic, and the original had a very complicated romance between Jerry and Amy. In Jerry’s long past, he was a romancer helplessly in love with a girl but because of his curse, he ended up leaving her. In the climax, when Amy is held down by Charlie, Jerry, as he’s being burned alive, screams out, “AMY!” It was really sad because I believe Jerry really loved her as she reminded him of when he was younger and not cursed. None of this romance and forgotten love is even in the remake. I hated it. It was the perfect chance to infuse traditional vampire mythology with modern day vampire mythos.

Speaking of relationships, there is no relationship between Jerry Dandrige and Charlie Brewster aside from Charlie being frightened by him. The original had such a great confrontation in Charlie’s bedroom and that scene wasn’t even put in the remake. The way I see Jerry, he’s supposed to be sympathetic and not a cold heartless bastard that the remake makes him out to be. In the bedroom, Jerry gives Charlie “a choice,” which is something he never had. This idea of Jerry protecting Charlie was always something that I loved because maybe Jerry sees Charlie as a young him. Jerry is missing a father figure and Jerry, or even Peter Vincent, is that father figure protecting him from something he can’t fully understand. This fundamental is completely absent from the remake and it looses any emotional impact they were going with. Also, there is so confrontation between Peter Vincent and Evil Ed, which I really loved from the remake. The agonizing pain that Ed goes through as he transforms from wolf to teenager was something that not only made Peter Vincent cry but it made me sad as well. Instead, they try to differ it up with the remake and it doesn’t have the impact that the original had; partially because they didn’t use practical and sound effects to create a truly agonizing scene on par with American Werewolf in London.

I try not to be nitpicky but these were fundamentals that I loved from the original. It’s so hard to compare the two films and the characters because the remake is so different from the original but because it bares the same name and basic plot, I feel as though I must compare the two. This is my entire argument, really. Things have been omitted, changed and flopped around to the point where if they changed a few more things, it could have been a great original story that pays tribute to Fright Night. Look at films like Disturbia. Disturbia, at it’s basic premise is exactly like Rear Window but they changed it up a bit, slapped another name on it and I loved it. Look at the movie Rat Race; same basic premise as It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World, but different execution and name. This movie didn’t need to be a remake but rather it’s own thing and I think if they did it that way, I would have loved it a lot more. Since it bares the name Fright Night, my mind will always be in conflict trying to compare an apple to an orange when it reality, they aren’t comparable. Fright Night, though I didn’t hate it, could have been something more original but instead they had to bank off of the name and make a remake. In the end, it makes me want to watch the original even more.