Category Archives for "film essay"

October 11, 2019

NHE’s Modern Horror Classics: American Psycho (2000)

Christian-Bale_American_Psycho_hip-to-be-square

​When the novel “American Psycho” by Bret Easton Ellis was released in 1991 it came out to a hailstorm of controversy. As it would turn out the cinematic version would be no different. In fact long before it was released in cinemas in 2000 the project went through various controversies. In some ways it is surprising it reached the screen at all with producer Edward R. Pressman originally buying the property in 1992 and turning various scripts over the years before settling on the script of eventual director Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner. This process included a script by Ellis himself which Pressman described as “completely pornographic and ending with a musical number”[1] and as interesting as that sounds it is easy to see why they did not go in that direction.

Settling on script, director and lead star Christian Bale did not end the productions troubles. First there was the wrangling with studio who thought the project needed a starrier lead which led to Leonardo Dicaprio been thrust on to the director much to her annoyance. It is easy see why as while in his current vintage it is possible envisage DiCaprio in the part, let’s face it his role in “The Wolf of Wall Street” is not a thousand miles away, back then in his post-Titanic period  he would have been ridiculous in the part. Harron well knew this but her objections only led to her being sidelined, and Oliver Stone put in her place as director. Again as great a director as Stone is satire is not really his forte and given the usual standard of his female characters you figure the film might have ended up in even more hot water than it eventually did. Both Harron and Bale held tight as they felt this version would inevitably fall through which it duly did and saw them both return to the project.

Given the events leading up to the shoot it is not surprising that the shoot itself was set with difficulty. Not that this had to do with on-set issues but more to do with outside factors such as brands mentioned in the movie pulling out or distancing themselves from it or various people trying to have the production shut down with feminist icon Gloria Steinman prominent amongst them. Another prominent thorn in the side of Harron during production was C-CAVE (Canadians Concerned About Violence in Entertainment) who linked the novel to the case of notorious Canadian serial killer Paul Bernardo. This was due to a copy of the novel being discovered on his bedside table upon his arrest. Although the copy of the novel was later thought to be owned by his wife rather than the barely literate Bernardo. The group also threatened to protest the filming throughout. In the end these protests never came to fruition however that did not stop the protests becoming part of the films myth. As Harron wryly points out “As so often happens, a tabloid frenzy had been mistaken for real life.” [2]

The tabloid frenzy did not abate when the movie was released. This frenzy is more connected with the times than the movie itself as this was 2000 and Post-Columbine there had been much debate about the influence of certain movies and musicians. The movie itself is not the gorefest or the exercise in torture porn you would expect if you were just reading the headlines of the time. For one up until near the end there is not a great deal of gore. Also while there are bloody set-pieces that is not the main thrust here. The movie is more focused on satirising the vanity, greed and obliviousness of this gilded class of Wall Street traders. The central joke being Bateman could get away with committing these murders under everyone’s nose as long as he follows the social conventions of high society. Then again did he commit the murders? While the novel makes it very ambiguous whether he is a murderer or just a sociopath with homicidal tendencies the movie seems to explicitly state it is latter before confusing things with the final scene. Whether or not the murders happen has been a matter of keen debate amongst horror fans ever since.

In the end it does really matter what side of the debate you fall down on as it does little to take away from this excellent. There are several stand-out moments but this personal favourite is the “Hip to Be Square” scene in which Bateman bloodily butchers Paul Allen (Jared Leto) to the sounds of Huey Lewis and the News. This is a scene of perfectly pitched black comedy and is emblematic of the film generally with it mixtures of nasty violence and jet-black. Not an easy balancing act but one that Harron manages exceedingly well. It is a great scene for Bale to show off his acting chops too as he progressively becomes more unhinged during his monologue on Huey Lewis before going completely beserk at the end, only to casually sort himself and light a cigar once the deed is done.

It is ironic that many movie insiders had told Bale the film would be “career suicide” as it turned out to be quite the opposite. As while the feature itself got a mixed critical reception Bale was unanimously praised his performance and, as you will know, went on to much bigger things on the back of it. Most of the criticism focused on the ironic gaze of the violence, misogyny and the satire being repetitive. The latter element is partially true as the story does make some of the same points about 80s materialism and greed culture repeatedly. In terms of the other criticism this seems unfair as the view of the violence is dispassionate as we the viewer are seeing these act through the lens of Bateman but never does the film empathise with that view and there is still scenes that are properly shocking. Similarly while there is a lot of misogyny on display the film never feels itself misogynistic. In fact Harron is clearly satirising misogyny.

In terms of legacy “American Psycho” spawned a truly terrible direct-to-video sequel and there was a mooted TV series that never got made. Funnily enough the former initially had nothing to do with “American Psycho” and was then retconned into being a sequel which is only notable for starring a young Mila Kunis and weirdly William Shatner. Thankfully not many people know about the sequel leaving the films real legacy as being one of the first great horrors of the 21st Century as well being a great snapshot on male narcissism (something that feels even more relevant now).


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/film/2000/mar/24/fiction.breteastonellis

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2000/04/09/movies/film-the-risky-territory-of-american-psycho.html


September 27, 2019

NHE’s Modern Horror Classics: Final Destination (2000)

Final-Destination_Devon_Sawa-Disaster

While this series delves more into the indie side of horror, I thought it silly to ignore some of the more mainstream releases. The reason for Final Destination’s inclusion is, not only did it kick one of the biggest horror franchises of the 21st Century’s first decade but also your writer here considers it to be one of the most fun franchise of the 21st Century so far. There is little doubt these are silly movies right enough, but for pure popcorn horror thrills most of the “Final Destination” films work a treat.

The 2000 original started life as an X-Files spec script by screenwriter Jeffrey Reddick way back in 1994. A fact well known by fans but maybe less known was when the first draft of the screenplay, then titled “Flight 180”, was sent to New Line Cinema, the project executive took it to read on the flight to read. A decision he changed upon realising that he was on Flight 180 from LA to New York and praying it would land safely which it did.

The X-Files connection remained as after New Line bought the Reddick treatment and brought him on to write the first draft they then brought in eventual director James Wong and Glen Morgan to rework it both of whom had written for the show. In the end, Wong and Morgan rewrote the script, but Reddick’s story and concept remained.

 In some ways, the movie is quite an inventive mix of teen slasher, disaster movie & X-Files episode. The latter aspect is particularly accentuated by the two FBI Agent characters in the film. That said Agent’s Wiene and Schreck (get it? As in Robert Weine and Max Schreck, there are also several other horror referencing character names in the movie) are no Mulder & Scully. In many ways, it looks and feels like that kind of late 90’s/early 00’s Post-Scream slasher.  You can certainly see this in the casting with many of the cast coming off the back of successful teen movies or TV shows at the time such as Sean William Scott (American Pie), Ali Larter (Varsity Blue), Kerr Smith (Dawson’s Creek) and lead Devon Sawa (Idle Hands). The difference here being there is no monster or physical killer instead these teens are stalked by death itself. Not some black hooded version of death either as the studio wanted but an unseen elemental force.

There may be several outlandish and over-the-top moments in the movie, but it does have very creepy opening effectively using sound and music cues as well as clever edits to make what is really just a scene of someone packing seem sinister. The eerie atmosphere is kept well in the opening act in the lead up to the plane disaster something helped out a lot by Sawa’s performance as lead character Alex Browning who envisages the plane's explosion and set off the events of the rest of the film. Other acting performances in the movie are less decent as is to be somewhat expected in this type of movie. There is however a great cameo from Tony Todd who would go on to be a franchise regular. However, those going to see it for the great acting but the deaths. Here the movie delivers for the most part.

The over-elaborate deaths are the thing that is most entertaining and central to the appeal of the film and the franchise. Now some of these over-elaborate accidents are genuinely effective, and some are just ludicrous. Take the first post plane accident death for example. Here the character of Tod (Chad E. Donella) is killed by a chain reaction of things that lead him to be strangled by a cord in the bathtub. Not too ludicrous you would think but more so when you see the scene where he appears to be stalked by the water that he eventually slips on to fall into the tub. Even more hilariously it snakes away post-kill. That is not the most overblown or convoluted death though that honour goes to the death of Miss Lewton (Kristen Cloke) who dies in a chain of events too convoluted to go into, but it ends with her being impaled with a falling knife and her house exploding. Not that this is necessarily a complaint as it is very entertaining to watch.

The most brutally effective and best deaths though are also the simple ones like Amanda Detmer’s characters death via speeding bus or the decapitation of Sean William Scott’s character. The funny thing about the former is you know it is going to happen, but it still works. Much like a joke that you know what the punchline is going to be but laugh nonetheless.

Upon release, the movie did poorly critically but did pick up the odd positive review most notably from the late Roger Ebert who gave it three out of four stars. Also in 2010, the film was featured on a Metacritic list entitled 15 Movies the Critics Got Wrong. It is easy to why critics took against as, as previously mentioned, this is a silly movie, and few would claim stone-cold classic horror status for it. However it’s also easy to see why audiences liked it as the film has a killer concept, some great deaths and it is just very fun.

The same can be said for the franchise it spawned as, except for the fourth one, all of them are solidly entertaining films. Sure it is the same formula repeated in different settings but each entry has a lot of fun with that formula, and there are several stand-out deaths peppered throughout. The Final Destination is also one of the few horror franchises to go out on a high with many sighting “Final Destination 5” as their favourite one. That film also cleverly brings the series full circle by tying into the original giving the franchise a fitting end. We can only hope this fitting conclusion will not be ruined by the long rumoured but as of yet unmade “Final Destination 6”.

September 13, 2019

NHE’s Modern Horror Classics: Ginger Snaps (2000)

Ginger Snaps (2000)

​Werewolves have always been the poor relation when it comes to cinematic monsters while most horror fans can name several great vampire or zombie movies they would struggle to come up with a handful of werewolf ones. Certain movies do immediately spring to mind when you think of great werewolf films such as The Wolf Man (1941), An American Werewolf in London (1981), The Howling (1981) and The Company of Wolves (1984) however there is not that many more after that. This movie however also belongs in that company and is one of the two excellent werewolf films made since the turn of the millennium, the other being Dog Soldiers.

Like many a cult success, however, this low-budget Canadian feature took a while before it reached its audience and gained the cult reputation that it has today. Things started positively enough for the film as it premiered to a good reaction at the 2000 Munich Film Festival and based off of that there was a buzz around it when it was shown at The Toronto Film Festival the same year. It was after this it started to have problems as due to poor market handling the movie pretty much disappeared only to resurface for a brief theatrical run in 2001. It was not a disaster at the box office but not a blazing success either. It would be on the DVD/VHS market where it would find its true success though and 18 years after it still holds a cult appeal and is now regularly listed as one of the all-time great werewolf films.

The movie itself centers of the Brigitte (Emily Perkins) and Ginger (Katherine Isabelle), who are death-obsessed teenage sisters. Their obsession is on display in the title sequence where we get a montage of photos the girls have taken where they have elaborately staged their own violent “deaths.” It turns out they did this as part of a school project much to the shock and disgust of their teacher. While they are busy doing that there are a lot of strange goings on in their neighbourhood as several dogs in the area turning up mutilated which is rumoured to be the work of some mysterious beast. Inevitably these two things collide as Ginger is attacked by the beast mere moments after getting her first period (which is worth noting as the film plays heavy on lycanthropy being a puberty metaphor). After this Ginger starts changing in attitude and appearance something that most around including their mother Pamela (Mimi Rogers) put down to the onset of womanhood but her sister knows that it is down to something more sinister and suspects Ginger is now a werewolf, which of course she is!

After this, we are soon following the path of carnage that Ginger paves, but the movie is not really about that as this is a horror movie very much rooted in character, namely the characters of Brigitte and Ginger. Both Perkins and Isabelle excel in their roles both in terms of convincing as sisters and making their characters believable teens and not the kind of stock characters you are likely to find in your average slasher horror movie.

Regarding the other characters, it was noted by many critics at the time that Mimi Rogers’s role as the mum is an odd fit and even unsettled the film. There is a certain amount of truth to this as Rogers’s performance is quite bizarre and the wackiness of her character does not seem to fit in with the tone of the movie. That may be the case but for this writer it still kind of works in a weird way and it is a never less than watchable performance.

The film may be character-based, but that does not mean it’s skimp on the horror. Quite the contrary as the film set out its stall in the pre-title sequence where a mother comes across their son playing with something in a sandbox which she discovers to her horror to be a severed dog paw. We then pan to the remains of the dog scored by the screams of the woman. There are several more brutal dismemberments throughout the film. These scenes are generally well-staged and brutally effective. Also while the film has a slow build, it cranks up to some entertaining carnage in the end.

 Further on the horror, it also good that the filmmakers do not show the werewolf a lot. Instead, there is a lot of the monster in the shadows and us as the viewer seeing the aftermath of attacks. Although this was probably done as much for budgetary reasons as it was for stylistic ones, it is done well all the same.

“Ginger Snaps” also stood out at the time due to the fact not only were the central characters female but so was the screenwriter, Karen Walton. This female-ness may not seem unusual now as there has been more and more female horror filmmakers and writers appearing in the last few years, but this was much less common in 2000. Walton did not go on to do further work in horror but is a regular TV writer/producer and was one of the regular writers on “Orphan Black” which was co-created by the director of this film, John Fawcett.

As I mentioned earlier while not a commercial success initially the picture did find an audience on home video. Due to this success, the film got two follow-ups, a sequel, and a prequel. These movies “Ginger Snaps 2: Unleashed” and “Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning” were filmed back-to-back in 2003 and were obviously cash-in's. The most surprising thing about them though is while not as good as the original both are solid features. The second film sees Perkins return and, much like “Halloween II” follows directly where the first film left off while the third reunites Isabelle and Perkins and see them as 19th Century versions of the Fitzgerald sisters.

Aside from the follow-ups “Ginger Snaps” also gave us one of the horror stars of the new millennium in Katherine Isabelle. It is only a shame that equally talented Perkins did not go on to such heights, although she has appeared in several films & TV series since this flick. Isabelle and she will also always be fondly remembered for this film which turned out to be one of the first horror classics of the 21st Century.