Posts Tagged ‘Tom Towles’

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One of the things I like best about re-visiting horror classics around this time every year for our annual Halloween round-up on this site is occasionally finding one that’s not just every bit as good as what I remembered, but even better. Sure, the years haven’t been kind to many flicks I once thought of as being seminal examples of the genre, but once in awhile I take a fresh look at something and find that it’s not only held up damn well over the ensuing decades, but that it’s an even stronger and more effective work than what I remember it  as being.

Such is definitely the case with John McNaughton’s groundbreaking shot-in-1986-but-not-released-until-1990 effort Henry : Portrait Of A Serial Killer, a not just street level, but gutter level piece of ultra-low-budget guerrilla film-making based (loosely, I grant you) on the exploits of notorious sociopath Henry Lee Lucas and his semi-retarded cousin, Otis Toole — specifically on their brief time in the Chicago area.

Yeah, sure, this film’s been available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Dark Sky Films in an impressive “special edition” package loaded with extras (but no commentary, damnit!) and featuring a reversible cover with Joe Coleman’s stunning poster art (as pictured below) on the “flip side,” but for all of you too cheap and/or broke to give this movie a permanent place on your shelf, the good news is that it’s also now featured as part of Netflix’s instant streaming queue as well — so watch it, will ya?

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Honestly, you’ll thank me for it later. I admit that even though I actually do own this one, it had been several years since I’d given it a spin, and that’s well-nigh unforgivable of me because it really is “all that” and then some. From the “cinema verite” direction of McNaughton to the “goddamn but he/she absolutely nails it” performances of Michael Rooker as Henry, Tom Towles as Otis, and Tracy Arnold as Otis’ sister/Henry’s nominal romantic interest Becky, everybody here is firing on all cylinders creatively, and the end result is a flick that flat-out burns  a path into the deepest recesses of your subconscious and never loses its grip once there. You want a truly memorable viewing experience? Look no further, my friend.

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Henry seethes with menace from the word “go,” but it’s also not afraid to fuck with your sentiments in a very careful, methodical way as well — you really do sorta hope, for reasons you’re never able /comfortable enough to put your finger on, that our brooding anti-hero might be capable of turning over a new leaf and making a go of it with Becky, but shit —- you also know you’re doomed to be let down on that score, because he is who he is and ain’t nothin’ gonna change that. Still, when he offs her at the end (shit, did I just give too much away?), it still packs a mean wallop even though by all rights it shouldn’t.

McNaughton’s got a lot to say about the nature of what most of us right-thinking (honestly, I swear I am!) folks consider to be “evil” here, and about how a leopard can never change its spots, but he does it in such a free-form, unpretentious manner that you never feel like he’s lecturing you. Why he never went on to become an “A-list” talent as a director I’ll never know — an unwillingness to put up with Hollywood bullshit is probably at the top of the list of reasons — and the same can be said for all the principal players involved here, most of whom have had pretty nice careers (Rooker’s been in everything from Oliver Stone’s JFK to, most recently, The Walking Dead, for instance), but none of whom have ever earned quite the recognition level they deserve.

Oh well. They can all look back on this one with a hell of a lot of pride.

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And you should look back on this one, as well — immediately. Horror doesn’t get any more real, or any better, than this — and neither do movies in general. I may just give it another go when I get done writing this myself.

I’ll close on a weird historical note : while governor of Texas, George W. Bush is infamous for supposedly never granting a single appeal to a convict facing “Ol’ Sparky” — he signed enough warrants of execution to mark him as a pretty goddamn prolific serial killer himself, in fact. You name ’em, he killed ’em — an elderly grandmother who shot her husband dead after decades of physical, psychological, emotional, and sexual abuse? He fried her. A guy whose “defense” lawyer slept through his trial, showed up drunk more than once, and belched and farted throughout the proceedings? Bush figured he got a fair shake and deserved to die. But his reputation for never granting one solitary stay of execution? That’s false. He commuted the death sentence for one — and only one — convict in his tenure as governor. Can you guess who was the recipient of his sole act of compassion?

You got it —Henry Lee Lucas, despite being convicted of over a dozen murders and confessing to well over 300, a number which would make him number one on the all-time list by a wide margin, was granted a stay of execution by the guy who would later go on to implement torture of poor Afghan and Iraqi goat farmers and teenagers as “intelligence-gathers techniques” in his endless “war on terrorism.”

Curious, isn’t it? People who were convicted of murder despite the only eyewitness testimony to their supposed crime coming from somebody who was dead drunk, people who had airtight alibis that placed them out of the state when they supposedly killed someone — Boy George didn’t give them a break. But Henry Lee Fucking Lucas? Bush figured he deserved some leniency. Why would that be?

Well, far be it from me to say I have anything more than a strong hunch here, but Lucas has claimed on numerous occasions that many of the murders he committed were actually contract killings for the CIA disguised to look like “random” and “senseless” acts of violence. And we all know who used to be in charge of “The Company” — the guy the entire Bush clan playfully refers to as “Poppy.”

Coincidence? Maybe. Or maybe real life is is even more twisted — and scary — than McNaughton’s film.

I leave it for you to decide. But either way — this is a movie that has richly earned your attention, whether for the first or fiftieth time.

Just as it wouldn’t really feel like Halloween without reviewing at least one of the films in John Carpenter and Debra Hill’s venerable Halloween slasher series, the season wouldn’t feel complete without reviewing a zombie flick of some sort or other as well, and this year I’ve chosen to revisit one of my personal favorites — 1990’s remake of George Romero’s seminal “walking dead” film, Night Of The Living Dead, written  (and overseen to one degree or another) by Romero himself and directed by former special effects wizard and all-around horror legend in his own right Tom Savini.

Am I going to attempt to argue here that this version is in any way, shape, or form better than the original? Of course not, that would be an absurd proposition, but it’s certainly stands head and shoulders above the bumper-crop of horror remakes that followed in its wake (and continues unabated to this day), stands as a damn fine film in its own right, and is a special treat for those of us who are devotees of the first movie in that it remains absolutely true to its roots while simultaneously being unafraid to toy with our expectations almost from the get-go.

I assume the basic plot needs no real recap here — besieged folks hole up in a farmhouse while the dead return to life and start to attack and feast upon the living — so let me just jump right into the meat of things and talk about why I think the changes Romero and Savini made here work , since that’s the subject that gets most horror fans worked up anyway. First off, Patricia Tallman’s iteration of Barbara is certainly no deranged or shellshocked “shrinking violet”-type here — anything but, and that marks a welcome departure since even by 1990 that sort of portrayal of your lead female character was going to seem hopelessly out of date. Instead, she’s more akin to Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley character from the Alien series and isn’t just unafraid to mix it up and “get her hands dirty,” so to speak, but welcomes the chance to do so. It’s a stark contrast to what we knew about the story — our thought we know — and Tallman pulls it off remarkably well.

Less obvious, but equally as notweworthy in its own right, are the subtle changes the Candyman himsef, Tony Todd, makes in his portrayal of Ben. With Tallman’s Barbara picking up a good deal of the slack as far as the action is concerned, he’s not called upon to be the “hero,” in a the traditional sense, in the same way that Duane Jones was in the original film, yet he is every bit the “glue guy” who holds the group together and functions as both its collective clear head and its conscience, leading by example in a group of strong-willed, industrious people who could all lay claim to the mantle of “unofficial leader” in their own right if they so chose. He’s steady, grounded, and carries on Jones’ legacy with distinction, even while being less a “man of action”-type than his esteemed predecessor in the role.

And while the Harry Cooper of 1990 is still largely an asshole, thanks to a nice turn from Tom Towles in the part he’s a more multi-faceted and all-too-human asshole than he was in the original script.

There are changes I don’t particularly care for — I would have loved for this film to be in black-and white, for instance, and I’m ambivalent about the re-worked ending (I don’t absolutely despise it as some purists do, but I have a certain amount of sympathy for their viewpoint), but on the whole I think Savini does a really nice job of contemporizing a story that didn’t necessarily need it, but was bound to get it anyway given the first film’s — ahem! — “copyright-free” status that insured that somebody, somewhere was going to remake the thing (as others have, unfortunately, since). In short, given that Night Of The Living Dead was essentially guaranteed to be remade, we should all be grateful that the remake that ended up happening first was this solidly-done, respectful, and professional — and that it didn’t just content itself with those things  but was willing and able to successfully update many of the key concepts, characters, and themes carried over from the original, as well. I can’t think of many horror remakes of more recent vintage that have managed to both remain true to their origins while subverting audience preconceptions at the same time; it’s definitely a tricky balancing act to pull off, but Savini and company were more than up to the task.