Have You Ever Seen...
I've been making it a point these days to put some time to the side to relax and work through a huge catalog of older movies on my weekends. I don't really want to spend the time doing big breakdowns per movie though, but I thought it could be fun to just give quick mini-reviews as I go and maybe I can spotlight something some of you may have never heard of or spark the desire to go back for a rewatch.
So let's get started, and keep in mind the tone will generally be all over the place because that's how I roll.
The Ninth Configuration (1980)
Ninth Configuration is written, produced, and directed by William Peter Blatty, the writer of the Exorcist novel as well as the screenplay for the film adaptation. This was also his directorial debut and it's pretty damn impressive.
The film is a psychological drama with a splash of comedy. It's set towards the end of the Vietnam war in a castle in the PNW (which is sort of an amalgamation of 3-4 different castles in reality) where the US gov set up an insane asylum for military personnel. The story follows Colonel Kane as he's supposed to take over treatment of the patients, but Kane brings his own mystery to the castle as he interacts with a wide range of characters, including a former astronaut named Cutshaw that also appeared in the Exorcist (a possessed Regan MacNeil told him he would die in space).
The film is also the 2nd in what is known as Blatty's "Faith Trilogy" which starts with the Exorcist and ends with Exorcist III. Just ignore Exorcist II because it's just not good. When pulled together the three films tackle issues such as the existence of God, the mysteries of faith, and the nature of evil. You don't really need to watch them all, but considering how good they are on their own (Exorcist III is one of my favorite movies), why not?
The cast is pretty fantastic as well, featuring Stacy Keach, Scott Wilson, Jason Miller, Ed Flanders, and Robert Loggia just to name a few. Besides Jason Miller returning from his role as Father Damien Karras in the Exorcist and coming back in Exorcist III, Ed Flanders would go on to play Father Joseph Dyer in Exorcist III so there's a nice connective tissue in the casting throughout this trilogy.
Besides the overall storytelling, actors, and the thematic trilogy aspects I also just really love Blatty's editing choices. He has a very distinctive style in that regard and does these quick establishing cuts to set up locations and tones that are purposefully disconcerting. He also brings a real sense of humanity, pain, and existential grief to his works that imbue them with a sincerity in the subject matter and characters. You can feel his genuine sense of purpose throughout and the care he puts into crafting these characters and this story.
10 out of 10.
Monkeybone is a mess, but it's a mess I still love.
Directed by Henry Selick (Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline) and written by Sam Hamm (Tim Burton's Batman), MB is also based on an obscure (and unfinished) comic called Dark Town. It's also somewhat rare, because in my 25 years of working comic retail I've never seen a copy and what few pop up on Ebay tend to go for over $100 bucks.
The film follows cartoonist Stuart "Stu" Miley, the creator of popular character Monkeybone. One day Miley gets into a car accident and goes into a coma, his spirit becoming trapped in a limbo like nightmare realm called Down Town where trapped souls live among living figments of the imagination. There the god Hypnos plots to send Monkeybone back to the land of the waking in Stu's body, a similar trick they've successfully pulled off with Edgar Allen Poe, Lizzie Borden, and Steven King (who was replaced by Cujo). Once there Monkeybone can impact the real world and create new nightmare fuel to feed the realm of Down Town.
That plot alone nails down why I love this film because the sheer creativity at play here is impressive. The film uses a mix of stop-motion, claymation, animation, and practical costume effects to create the nightmare land of Down Town and its denizens. There's also a ton of odd and great casting decisions at work, as Giancarlo Esposito plays Hypnos, Whoopi Goldberg plays Death (with her uncredited henchman Thomas Hayden Church), Rose McGowan as a catgirl bar waitress, and Chris Kattan as the corpse of an Olympic gymnast. Plus it stars Brendan Fraser, and c'mon we all love him.
Interesting side notes include some design work and art by Mark Rydden popping up throughout, plus Bob Odenkirk pops up for a bit so we got two Breaking Bad alums. There's also a lot of references to the Church of the SubGenius throughout, so there's some interesting nods here and there to weird stuff.
It is very much a flawed films, feeling like it has one foot in the door of bad 90's comedies and another in experimental surreal fantasy. This creates a sort of whiplash of tone, where the end of the first act and start of the 2nd are the strongest and then we're stuck in the wacky comedy for the latter portion of the film. Still, it gets points for sheer creativity and for the design work and practical effect elements alone.
7 out of 10.
While not really scary or like, good per se, I still have a soft spot for this Stephen King film. Some of it is because you don't see cat succubus monsters too often, and it also has the oddest humor inserted in the weirdest ways. Plus it features the Borg Queen (Alice Krige) briefly fighting Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and it's crammed with cameos by John Landis, Joe Dante, Clive Barker, Tobe Hooper, and Stephen King himself because of course it does. Oh and Mark Hamill pops up as a sheriff for like 3 minutes.
The story follows a mother and son who are nomadic shapeshifting energy vampires who feed off the lifeforce of virgins. The only way for the mother to survive is for the son to find young girls to feed off of, and then he transfers the life energy to his mother by having sex with her, because Stephen King. It's a very tonally weird story, made especially so because the monsters are the POV characters. We spend more time with them then their potential victim (Mädchen Amick, who played Shelly from Twin Peaks) and we're given enough character focus moments to feel sort of sympathetic towards them despite the fact that they're incestuous cat monsters. And that is certainly a decision.
If we're looking for pluses:
Lots of cats. Stephen King likes cats. Cat Cop Clovis steals the spotlight many times.
A deputy gets stabbed to death with a corn on the cob. I haven't seen that before.
Ron Perlman makes everything better.
Decent use of Enya's 'Boadicea'. Since I was 10 when this came out, every time I heard that song sampled I always thought it was just from Sleepwalkers. Which meant I thought the Fugees were just big Stephen King fans back in 1996.
The effects are so bad and I get a different type of joy from that alone.
There's a scene where a cat gets shotgunned off a monster's back and it is legit funny as hell and I had to rewind it a few times because it felt so out of place and marvelous. - Reading about how scenes with cats were pulled off was genuinely interesting.
It's campy and not at all scary, but it has its own nuggets of joy sprinkled throughout so I do think it's worth watching.
6 out of 10.