Archive for October 12, 2013

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It has to be said — Netflix instant streaming has been keeping me busy this Halloween season (yes, we now have a “Halloween season” just like we’ve got a “Christmas season” — the key difference being that this is a season I actually like), and late last night I indulged in another round of horror nostalgia by watching Children Of The Corn, a movie that positively terrified the living shit out of me when I was a kid, for the first time in — Christ, I don’t know how long.

I figured it probably had to be worth another go, right? After all, it wouldn’t have spawned a veritable army of tenth-rate direct-to video sequels and prequels — the most recent being 2011’s truly atrocious Children Of The Corn : Genesis — if there wasn’t at least some kernel of coolness or creepiness buried in there somewhere, right?

And maybe there is. In Stephen King’s original short story. But not in this limp flick.

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To be sure, adapting this for the big screen probably seemed like a no-brainer back in 1984 : the name “Stephen King” was box office gold at the time, and the glut of poorly-done movies based on his work really hadn’t hit yet. When we thought “Stephen King film” back then, we thought of CarrieThe Dead ZoneChristine, or, best of all, The Shining. The key difference being that each of those was helmed by a genuinely great director, a title which sadly can’t be applied to Children Of The Corn‘s Fritz KIersch (even if Tuff Turf is, admittedly, pretty fun stuff). Given a crackerjack idea to work with — boy preacher convinces all the kids in a small Nebraska corn-farming community to rise up and kill all the grown-ups — Kiersch somehow manages to make a sow’s ear out of a silk purse and delivers a lifeless, tepid celluloid translation of what’s probably the best of all the tales of terror in King’s seminal best-seller Night Shift.

Poor casting doesn’t help matters much, either — okay, sure, John Franklin is solid enough as chief “bad seed” Isaac, but beyond that the pickings are pretty slim : Courtney Gains, who plays his right hand-man (excuse me, boy) Malachi, can stand there and scowl pretty well but never should have been allowed to open his mouth, and as for the young couple who wanders into the midst of this murderous heartland revival, well — let’s just say that Linda Hamilton (well before hitting the jackpot in the biggest divorce settlement in California state history) is a long way from her career-defining turn as Sarah Connor here and Peter Horton comes off as the kind of smug yuppie asshole you’d like to kill personally (and slowly and painfully, I might add) — you know, just like he did on thirtysomething.  Fair enough, “smug yuppie asshole you’d like to kill personally” describes every character on that show, not just his, but still —

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Isaac is compelling enough to keep you at least mildly interested in the proceedings throughout, along with the hope slowly burning in your heart that, even though it seems unlikely, Horton might die a gruesome death, but by the time “He Who Walks Behind The Rows” awakens and the corn comes to life, the whole thing starts to seem too — well, corny to take very seriously. Which would all be fine and good if Kiersch were playing things tongue-in-cheek throughout, but given that he opts for the straight-forward approach, the film’s “climactic” final act just comes off as being uninspired at best, embarrassing at worst. I might even call it cringe-worthy, to be honest, but cringing would require a level of active viewer involvement that this movie just can’t bring itself to have the power to muster up. It’s all too rote, clinical, and lazy to manage to elicit any sort of a reaction whatsoever.

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Maybe I’m being a bit harsh on a film that, for some reason, a good number of horror fans consider to be something of a minor “classic,” but when I wrote about movies that don’t stand the test of time particularly well in my review of Jack’s Back the other day, this is exactly what I was talking about.  I probably should have left well enough alone with this one and just allowed by childhood memories of it to continue to shape my adult perceptions.

Oh well. Too late now.

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One of the fun things about doing these horror movie round-ups ever October is re-visiting old favorites and seeing how well (or not) they’ve held up over the ensuing years/decades. Sometimes they turn out to be hopelessly dated and offer little beyond garden-variety nostalgia value of the “ya know,  I guess I can see why I kinda liked this back in the day” variety, while on other occasions they can seem at least as relevant as ever, if not even moreso, when looked at through older, jaded eyes that possess at least some understanding of how goddamn tough it can be just to get a movie a made in the first place, never mind how much more difficult it is to  have the finished product   turn out to be at least semi-watchable.

One thing you can say for director Rowdy Herrington — even when the movies he makes are lousy, they’re at least entertainingly lousy. Road House is all the evidence one needs to back up that assertion. But occasionally he could serve up an actual, honest-to-whatever-you-believe-in good serving of celluloid, as well, and for my money his best is still the flick he came right outta the gate with, 1988 slasher/supernatural thriller Jack’s Back, which I’m pleased to say has recently been added to the Netflix instant streaming queue and is definitely worth another look — or a first one, if you haven’t seen it before.

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Fair enough, the proceedings are more than a little little busy here, with James Spader doing the dual-role bit as good and bad identical twin brothers John and Rick Wesford, one of whom is a bleeding-heart young doctor-in-residence out to administer free health care to the homeless while the other just might be the reincarnation of Jack The Ripper himself — and wouldn’t ya know it’s the nice-guy sibling who’s  suspected of the crimes perpetrated by the bad apple (well, until he turns up dead himself, that is) and Cynthia Gibb on board as the requisite quasi-love interest, and even more requistite not-so-quasi-damsel in distress, and yeah, the soundtrack music and LA-area location work and not-even-subtle social concerns and much of the dialogue are all a bit hokey and dated, but what of it? Anything and everything is a product of its time and surroundings — not to mention its surroundings at the time — and if half  ofthe “horror thrillers” being cranked out today stand on their own merits a quarter-century down the line as well as this one has, then future generations will have a lot to thank today’s movie-makers for.

Much of that is down to Spader’s performance(s), of course. He flat-out excels on both sides of the coin, and next time whoever’s hired to revamp the Batman franchise for Warner Brothers needs somebody to play Harvey Dent/Two-Face, this is the first guy he (or she) should call.  From nervous ninny to coolly menacing, he can run the gamut without even breaking a sweat. In the hands of a lesser actor, this flick would have sunk like a rock, but the best pure thespian of the so-called “Brat Pack” (sorry, Robert Downey Jr., but essentially playing yourself every time out just doesn’t cut it) really delivers the goods here and elevates a sometimes corny and confused script well above its printed-page roots. He really is the movie, and an early turn (or pair of turns, as the case may be) of this magnitude is almost enough for me to forgive him for slumming and wasting his obvious talents on the brain-dead Boston Legal for all those years. Almost. At any rate, they tell me The Blacklist  is pretty good stuff —

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Herrington manages to get out of the way and let his leading man do most of the heavy lifting pretty successfully, to his credit, while knowing just when, where, and how to ramp up the suspense on his own end. It’s all fairly conventional “Directing 101” stuff, sure, but at least it works, and he wisely eschews the impulse to do Michael Mann-on-a-budget that was so popular at the time. Props for knowing his limitations as well as his strengths and playing to both of them.

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I’m not gonna kid you and say that Jack’s Back is some kind of neglected masterpiece or even that it necessarily meets all the criteria for being even a “forgotten gem,” but it’s solid and effective — if rather unimaginative — “thriller” film-making that has stood the test of time surprisingly well. I was more than glad to give it another shot lo, these many years later, and if you find yourself game to do the same, I think you’ll also walk away quite pleased yourself.