Friday, February 17, 2006

Boiler Room

First off, let me just say that being in my 20's, born and raised in New York probably doesn't hurt my view of this film in any way. In some ways, I probably not only like it a little more due to this history, but identify with the characters a little more also. This is not to say one has to be in their 20's or from New York to like this film, quite the contrary actually, it's a damn good movie.

Second, since this is the second movie in a row to have both Vin Diesel and Giovanni Ribisi in them, I'd like to make clear that I am not particularly a Vin Diesel fan. My dislike for him isn't as strong as some (probably because of this film), but I've never seen "Triple X" either. Just not my cup of tea. Giovanni Ribisi, though, is shaping up to be one of my generations great actors. "Boiler Room" is evidence of that. Ribisi is the star of the film and as a young actor, carries his duties and the film like an old school Hollywood veteran.

"Boiler Room" is the story of Seth Davis (Ribisi) and his attempt to rise through the ranks of the greedy world of the stock market because his father (Ron Rifkin doing an excellent job), a judge, doesn't approve of the back room Black Jack he's running out of his apartment to make money. Having started his casino to help him pay for bills while in school, it took off fast enough for Seth to decide to quit school and run the casino full time. One night, an old friend stops in with a business associate. Seth proceeds to take all of their money at Black Jack, and within a few days is being courted by JT Marlin, a quickly growing stock company unlike any of those found on Wall Street.

When Seth decides to take the job with JT Marlin in order to please his father, the game is afoot. "Boiler Room" isn't just about stock market companies with questionable methods, it's about trying to grow up in a society which decides a persons worth by their job title and net worth. It's about what it's like to spend one's life watching others get rich while you're not and having all of society act as if they are valued more than you are, just because they have money. It's about the all pervasiveness of greed and materialism and what it does to people, to families and communities.

The ensemble cast includes, Ribisi, Diesel, Nicky Katt, Jaime Kennedy, Nia Long, Scott Caan, Tom Everett Scott, and Ben Affleck in a hilarious, but small part. Vin Diesel plays Chris, a broker who takes Seth under his wing in order to show him the ropes of life at JT Marlin (and he's actually very good). Nicky Katt plays a deliciously despicable senior broker who's team Seth has to work on while dealing with a jealousy complex because he's started to date Nia Long's character, Katt's former girlfriend. Jaime Kennedy plays the old friend whose appearance at Seth's casino begins his lesson in fast money making cheap lives. Scott Caan plays a hot head broker, while Tom Everett Scott plays the owner and mastermind behind JT Marlin's success. Ben Affleck plays a senior member of the staff charged with hiring and coaching new brokers. His performance in the group interview scene ("yeah right," Seth says in the voice over, "it was more like a Hitler youth rally") not only steals the show, but gets some hilarious lines and the opportunity to sneer and smirk through a set of lines strongly reminiscent of "Glenn Gary, Glenn Ross" motivational speech. It may not come across as the strongest cast one could hope for, but they all pull off their parts beautifully and John Papsidera did a great job with the casting. These guys seem like the roles were written specifically for them.

On a side note, when "Boiler Room" was released in theaters I was working in a music store, and we started to get a lot of requests for the soundtrack. When it was originally released on DVD, another wave of requests came through. After seeing it, I understand why. If you're at all a fan of late eighties, early nineties hip-hop, the score by Angel is a gem. Unfortunately, the small film didn't have enough money to release a soundtrack, so you'll have to find the tracks individually. Classic De La Soul and other New York hip-hop are perfectly matched to this film and it's story of greed and corruption. On the DVD, there's a music only track with a commentary by Angel done through a computer, so her creativity doesn't just show up on the score and soundtrack itself, and her talent is evident in the degree to which the music is so complementary to the film and the story. I hope to hear more work from her in the future.

"Boiler Room" is like "Ocean's Eleven" without making the crooks look cool. It's slick, funny, gripping, extremely well written and acted, and just a whole lot of fun to watch. It's often compared to "Wall Street," but I have to say, I like this a lot more because there's a much more realistic feel to it. There's no Gordon Gecko here, no Charlie Sheen (thank God) over acting, and though "Wall Street" is the characters motivational film of choice and probably what they aspire to, this film is far superior because of the writing, the score, the performances, and the use of New York as a character itself. It's as if the city is constantly looming over them and somehow the thing pulling the strings behind their actions. And in a way it is. Seth being from Queens, the brokerage firm hiding out on Long Island, Manhattan is always there almost taunting them to come and play in the big sandbox, which is really all any of them want. They all just want a shot at the big time, to be taken seriously.

It's a really well made film and looks great for the minimal budget it had to contend with. If you're from New York or even harbor dreams of one day going there and making your fortune, "Boiler Room" should be required viewing. It's a great film, slick, funny, suspenseful, but still has an emotional core, and moral conscience. It's more complex than it initially seems because it's so well put together by writer/director Ben Younger. The quality of the film is actually somewhat shocking considering it's Younger's first time in the directors chair for a feature. Credit for the films realism has to be given to him though because he put in his time in one of New York's small stock companies which gave him the inspiration for the script.

Some credit should also go to New Line Cinema too, for taking a chance on a first time director and helping him secure such a good cast. They've got a small classic on their hands which probably won't ever have the audience that the likes of "Glenn Garry, Glenn Ross" has, but is a great film on it's own. If you haven't seen this one, give it a shot. Posted by Picasa

Saving Private Ryan

Considered by many to be the greatest war movie ever made, Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" is every bit worth it's reputation, from the emotionally crushing opening scene to it's heart felt finale.

"Saving Private Ryan" is not for the squeamish, I'll tell you that right up front. The first twenty-five minutes of the film are now legendary, and for good reason. I'm a fan of horror movies, and I've seen it all from cheap, buckets of blood slashers to weird, art house euro-trash. Nothing I'd ever seen before prepared me for the opening of this film. By all accounts, there is no more realistic portrayal of either war or this particular assault as the one committed to celluloid here. The D-Day landing depicted here was as close to hell as human beings can ever get while they are still alive, and it's grueling to watch. Spielberg doesn't pull any punches, nor does he save us any of the gory details, and the shaky, grainy, documentary style camera work just makes it seem all the more real. It's brutal, and that's really all there is to it. If you haven't seen "Saving Private Ryan" yet, be warned, this is not your fathers war movie. This is no John Wayne flick, this is dirty, nasty, mean, cruel and unforgiving, all glorification of war is left out of this one. It's not the warfare that's glorified in this film in any way. It's depicted as totally dehumanizing, and it's not only more courageous for it, it's more effective.

Glorification is saved for the regular, everyday, average people that were the soldiers in America's last good war. It portrays them as men doing extraordinary things in extraordinary circumstances. What it doesn't do is portray them as having done anything for extraordinary reasons, they were all just trying to make it through and get home, and also trying to make sure the guys with them had a chance to do the same. They weren't out there fighting for some high ideals, they were doing it because they thought what the Germans were doing was wrong, they wanted to win, and they wanted to come home. The heroes here are the men who brought their everyday values to situations most people never face in a lifetime, and those values held them together and took them to levels of courage that haven't actually existed on film before. Precisely because they weren't looking to be heroes at all, they were.

When the initial assault of the first twenty-five minutes of the film is over, we begin to get into what the story is all about. Captain John T. Miller (portrayed by Tom Hanks in a performance which proves he is every bit the greatest actor of his generation) is given a mission in which he and a small unit must travel behind enemy lines to find one Private James F. Ryan and ensure his safe return home. Ryan is one of four children, and by the time D-Day is over, he's the last survivor. The problem is that Ryan is a paratrooper and the German anti-aircraft defense was so strong during the D-Day invasion that almost none of the paratroopers sent out were able to jump to their objectives. Historically, this is accurate. D-Day was relatively poorly planned, and had it not been for the training of the soldiers executing the mission, it would have been a mess. So, Miller and his small squad of seven other men have to go and find one man, somewhere in Southern France who may not even be alive anymore. And so begins a journey through territory infested with Germans, and the story of these seven men and their trials in trying to find someone they don't know, aren't sure they care much about, and don't fully beleive they should have to go rescue.

"Saving Private Ryan" is as good as movies get. Steven Spielberg has released his fare share of Hollywood clap trap crap, but this is not it. No matter what your feelings are on Spielberg, you can't deny that this film, along with "Schindler's List", is proof that although he may not always best use his talent, he may possibly be the greatest director to ever step behind the cameras. This film has more heart than most films released in a year combined. Tom Hanks, Edward Burns, Tom Sizemore, Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi, Adam Goldberg, Barry Pepper, and Jeremy Davies are superb as the squad of men sent out on a mission which does actually seem impossible. The film is peppered with the appearance of familiar faces like Dennis Farina, Ted Danson, Paul Giamatti and Dale Dye (a retired military man and one of the films technical advisors whose also made a second career advising film makers and working as an actor in small parts like this one), and they're all great, and maybe purposely placed to give us the same sense of comfort at seeing familiar faces as the soldiers would have for finding other Americans.

"Saving Private Ryan" may be the first anti-war film which doesn't at all preach. In the long run, though the soldiers believe in the war they are fighting, and today most people feel WWII was the last "good" war America was involved in, it still leaves the audience and in fact and an elderly Private Ryan wondering whether such loss of life can ever be accounted for, is it ever worth it, can we ever live up to the sacrifice others make in war? It's a hauntingly effective film, and in it's own way a meditation of the dehumanizing effects of war, not in some big dramatic way, but in the small ways which make day to day life harder having lived through something like that.

"Saving Private Ryan" is probably the greatest war movie ever made. It immediately took it's place among the "Apocalypse Now," "Platoon," "Full Metal Jacket" contingent of films and even those films may not match it in raw emotional power and pure sensory assault. "Saving Private Ryan" is the kind of film which only rarely comes along, and I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to see it in theaters. Probably the most effecting thing about "Saving Private Ryan" for me wasn't anything which happened in the film itself, but on that opening weekend, coming out of the theater when it was over, seeing how many men of that generation were wiping tears from their eyes in public. I have a grandfather who is a part of the WWII generation, had two of them for a long time, and men of that generation do not cry in public, they may not cry at all, but definitely not in public. But coming out of "Saving Private Ryan" there were many crying, wiping their eyes and holding the hands of their loved ones, who maybe for the first time understood what kind of hell they survived. For that alone, "Saving Private Ryan" deserves to be called the greatest war film of all time. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, February 16, 2006


It's the grand daddy of the slasher genre of horror film. It's the one which has spawned a thousand imitators, some of which were good (most of which were horrible), but none of which come close to the class or style of the original. Like "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," "Halloween" has long been beaten on by critics for violent content and bloody imagery. My first thought about this is to question whether or not these guys are even watching the movies they are speaking or writing about. The two films are nearly bloodless, and have less violence than your average night of prime time television.

The genesis of Halloween began when producer Irwin Yablans decided he wanted to make a horror film. He came up with an idea taking place in one night, about someone stalking babysitters because he felt it would be easy to identify with, "Everyone has been a baby sitter or been baby sat." Once he'd settled on that, he thought it might be even more interesting to set the film on Halloween. His first thought being someone would already have used the name, he went to researching, and found to his amazement that no one had used the name. Not only that, but the word Halloween had never been used in a title before, so he set about finding someone to write the film.

Yablans had done a small action/drama called "Assault on Precinct 13" with a young screenwriter/director named John Carpenter. Though the film hadn't done well here in the US, it did very well in Europe and John Carpenter had gained a reputation as an up and coming talent there. Having had a good experience with Carpenter on "Assault on Precinct 13," Yablans contacted Carpenter and asked him if he would be interested in writing and directing a film based on the idea. When Carpenter came back with an idea for the film and claimed he could finish the film for three hundred thousand dollars, Yablans jumped at the chance. He said, "For three hundred thousand dollars, I'll give you anything you want, your name above the title, final cut, whatever. Nobody else would claim to be able to make it for that little," Yablans would later claim.

And so was the beginning of a film which has frightened and thrilled audiences for almost thirty years. Halloween has spawned a cultural icon in the form of Michael Myers, and the classic film is nearly required viewing for teenagers looking for a good scare. John Carpenter and partner Debra Hill wrote a script with simple, like-able characters who we could all identify with. Though the majority of the cast was female, the great thing about them is that we all know girls like Laurie, Annie and Linda. Not to mention that Carpenter managed to make Southern California look like Anywhere-ville U.S.A, it was easy to identify with these characters and their lives. They were near perfect archetypes for All American Girls. Debra Hill was more the influence on the female characters as she had once of course been a teenage girl. But it is Carpenters eye for style, and his contribution to the script of the character of Michael Myers and Dr. Sam Loomis which set Halloween far apart from it's sequels and imitators.

In the films opening sequence we are seeing things through someone's eyes as they spy through a window on a man and young woman making out in a living room. They proceed to head up a flight of stairs holding hands as we watch. We see as the lights go out in a room up stairs and then go around the house, through a back door, into the kitchen, a hand pulling a large kitchen knife from a drawer, and through the house. The young man is seen leaving the house as we continue and then go up the stairs where a small mask is picked up and placed in front of the camera, creating two eyes we now see through. We come to a topless young woman brushing her hair in front of a mirror. When she turns realizing there is a figure standing there (one whom we have yet to see, but whose perspective we are still seeing through), she exclaims, "Michael." With that, the hand and knife swing through the air repeatedly, camera focusing on the hand slashing through the air, not actually seeing her being stabbed, as if the character himself has no idea why he's doing it. Then, when she falls to the floor, we go back down the stairs and through the front door we'd seen the young man leave through earlier. As we come out, a car is pulling up in front of the house. Two people get out and again exclaim, "Michael." The man coming over and removing the mask whose eyes we've been seeing through and the camera cranes back and up, revealing the eyes we've been seeing through have been those of a young boy dressed in a clown costume, bloody knife still in hand.

And so begins the story of Michael Myers. The entire beginning sequence was shot with Steadicam, which at the time was a relatively new invention, and has an incredible effect. It's not only an extremely ambitious shot because of the use of the Steadicam, but also because it's one long continuous shot, which seems to have no cuts. The effect it has is to really make the audience feel as if they are there seeing through the character's eyes. With no cuts, and the movement afforded by the Steadicam, the audience is forced into being a part of the action on screen. It would almost be like a cheap magicians trick if it were not both so ingenious and so effective. The shock of finding out we've been seeing through the eyes of a young child who has just murdered a young girl (who we come to find out was his sister), combined with the fact that the audience is being forced to see things from his point of view are incredible. Carpenter could not have set the stage better either, because there is no exposition, no reasoning behind it, nothing.

Leaving us with no information as to why this child would have just killed this young girl, we are now hooked. We have also been given some very important exposition points with little to no dialogue and a kind of visual vocabulary which continues through out the film. Because of heavy use of Steadicam through the entire film, it does help to give us a sense of a floating terror, which could really be anywhere, watching, and waiting as he was in the beginning of the film. There have been a number of extremely memorable opening sequences in horror history, but none like this one for sheer style, strength, and effectiveness. Even though it was a Steadicam sequence, the composition of the shots was great, the musical cues were haunting, and most importantly, the audience is now hooked. They want to see what happens next.

What happens next is a perfectly paced exercise in suspense. Although it's credited with beginning the slasher film craze which would last through the eighties, "Halloween" has more in common with "Psycho," than "Friday the 13th." Carpenter directed the film to bring out every second of suspense each scene could possibly capture. Michael Myers becomes the doom lurking in the shadow, the bushes, the closet, not the weapon wielding madman chewing through scenery and cast members the way not only the sequels tend to portray him, but all of his imitators tend to be portrayed. Michael is, as Carpenter wrote the character, the manifestation of the bogeyman we've all feared as children, waiting in the shadow or under the bed for us to fall asleep or for our unsuspecting guardians to stop paying attention to us for just one second. Except Micheal's not after the children in this case, he's after the girls charged with being their guardians for the evening. On All Hallows Eve, an evil thing has come out. It's come out of the psychiatric institution a few counties away, but it's come out all the same.

Cast as the unfortunate object of Micheal's attention is Jaime Lee Curtis, then nearly unknown other than a quick stint on televisions Petticoat Junction. Co-writer and co-producer Debra Hill suggests her after Carpenter's first choice, another up and coming young actress turns them down cold because her career seems to be doing too well to star in a low budget horror film released by an independent company. I'm sure she kicks herself later, because after Irwin Yablans, the executive producer finds out Curtis is the daughter of Janet Leigh, star of "Psycho," he agrees immediately. Lucky for us all because Curtis gives a great turn as the young, repressed Laurie Strode. Her shy, intelligent character is impossible not to like and impossible not to identify with. Her co-stars, Nancy Loomis and P.J. Soles (whose role was actually written for her by Carpenter, having seen her in "Carrie" the year before, but not sure she would accept the role), play the wise cracking, strong willed Annie, and the stereotypical cheerleader Linda. Both are great fun to watch as they breath life into what could have been very formulaic and standard characters. Particularly Soles character who, other than the scene in which she meets her end, never finishes a sentence or phrase without saying, "totally." There's also a great moment just before Loomis final scene where she looks directly into the camera with an expression that begs, "Hey, did you notice that," and it's almost a great laugh.

Then there's film veteran Donald Pleasance who plays psychiatrist bent on stopping Michael Myers, Dr. Sam Loomis. Pleasance was offered the job after a number of other actors had turned it down, Peter Cushing, and Christopher Lee included, both having had incredible success with the Hammer Horror films during the decade. Cushing had been in "Star Wars" the year prior and refused the film, as did Lee (who would later admit it was the one move he regretted in his career). Irwin Yablans suggested Pleasance after having seen him in "Will Penny" where he played an eccentric character in the Old West. Pleasance was offered the twenty thousand dollars the budget had set aside to attempt to draw one well known actor to the small project. He agreed to make the film for forty thousand, which brought the total production cost up to three hundred and twenty thousand dollars. Pleasance showed up on set and proclaimed to Carpenter that he didn't know what he was doing there. The only reason he'd taken the job was because his daughter had seen Carpenter's "Assault on Precinct 13," and being a musician had loved Carpenter's score. Considering both Pleasance and Curtis weren't among the director's first choices, and they were both hired because of third party influence, it seems Providence was behind "Halloween" from the beginning.

Speaking of the score, the hauntingly simple piano and synthesizer score for the film was also done by Carpenter. He'd done the score for "Assault on Precinct 13"(which resulted in Pleasance taking on the Shape), and for "Halloween" created a theme and score which like the movie it accompanied was deceptively simple, and yet still unnerving. The theme for "Halloween", that simple piano line has become as iconic as any of it's characters, including Michael Myers, and is so easily recognizable from it's first few notes, only possibly the theme from "Jaws" is more well known. On the second disc for the 25th Anniversary Edition, Carpenter comments that it was "Halloween" which taught him how important music really is for a film because he screened it for some studio executives at one point before the music had been added and it hadn't been scary at all, but after adding the music, it had taken on a much more sinister and frightening tone. The music, like the film and it's villain, is composed to grow in depth and become more overpowering as the film continues. During the films finale, the use of only two bass keys on a piano help to heighten the suspense and create in one scene, a panic which is rivaled by only the greatest of horror films.

The composition in the film is meticulous. From the opening sequence which is incredibly ambitious for a film this size, to the finale, it's shot almost as if it were a period drama, characters all in frame together, few cuts to close ups and with very spare editing which helps to establish the reality by letting us sit longer with the characters in each shot. The less we change angles from the cameras perspective, the less we are reminded, even unconsciously, we are watching a film. One interesting thing about the cinematography of the film is that the early shots of Michael Myers are very wide shots, not close at all. Through most of the first half of the film we can't tell whether the mask he's wearing is even supposed to have features or not because it's too far off. But as the film goes on, the lens pulls in tighter and tighter on Myers, creating a feeling as if doom is creeping closer and closer to the unknowing teens. The use of wide angles, and the very heavy use of Steadicam create a visual vocabulary for the film from the beginning all the way through, and it looks great. It's part of what elevates "Halloween" above it's imitators, it looks as if each shot was thought out and tested long before hand to enhance the almost postcard like look of the neighborhoods and settings of the film. Unlike so many other slasher films, "Halloween" is very pretty to look at for the low cost at which it was made.

Because the story is so simple and straight forward, Carpenters level of technique has to be praised. Like "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," "Halloween" is often criticized for being too violent and gory. The truth is though that in watching the film, once again, the violence and blood are all off screen. An episode of "ER" or "Animal ER" is more gruesome than "Halloween" because Carpenter was following the example of Alfred Hitchcock, who's now famous approach was that the less you show onscreen, the more frightening it is because the audience fills in the pieces themselves, and they know what scares them better than a director does. "Halloween" is a near perfect exercise in suspense precisely because Carpenter is patient with everything. From the cinematography, to the plot revelations and it's the patience which creates such a thick atmosphere of suspense. "Halloween" is really a masterpiece in film making. It was the most profitable independently released film of all time until the release of "The Blair Witch Project," which although a good movie, did rely on a gimmick for it's success. "Halloween" has been the little train that could for nearly thirty years, and hopefully future generations will continue to see it for it's genius, not for it's few flaws.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Stanley Kubrick's, The Shining

I'm aware not everyone has an interest in horror films. When I reveal my own fondness for horror films, it's often received with a tilt of the head and an "I don't get it." In time I've found enough people who have the same love for these films as I do. My love of all things scary, bizarre and creepy in film goes back to the fact that "The Shining" was the first horror film I ever saw. I was probably ten or eleven years old, and it scared me out of my wits. I loved every pulse pounding, claustrophobic second of it, and I've been a fan ever since. I'd be willing to bet it's also somewhat due to the fact that "The Exorcist" was the second horror film I saw, and that too scared me silly. I was a lot luckier than most to have had my introduction to horror films be two of the finest the genre has to offer.

I'd lost my interest in kids books a pretty young age and when I got my hands on a copy of Stephen King's "Pet Semetary" it was off to the races for me. My parents always gave themselves and me enough credit to not think I'd mistake fantasy for reality, and so my journey into the world of horror began.

As I became more aware of the world around me and it became clear to me my love for the world of horror wasn't shared by everyone else, I went from feeling just plain strange about it, to feeling it was some badge of honor (I was, of course, intellectually superior. Yes, I'm kidding now, I wasn't then) to realizing it's like the difference between one persons favorite color being blue and another persons being red or green. What I have found though, is that if I ask someone who's not particularly a fan of horror films to name one they did like, it's nearly guaranteed the answer is going to be "The Shining."

One of the reasons for that is "The Shining" doesn't rely on what even then in 1980 when it was released, were already established horror genre cliche's. There are no cheap scares. If you're scared, it's because you've been given a damn good reason to be scared. It's a combination of masterful restraint, and all out assault on the senses. Now, don't make the mistake of thinking that by assault on the senses I mean an assault on good taste, because somehow, that's never the case. The film never goes for the cheap scare, never treats it's audience as anything other than intelligent, and doesn't' rely on blood and guts for its' scares. Although there is some blood in the film, with the exception of one quick camera shot, all of the violence (which there is little of to begin with) is either implied or takes place off camera. It's a film which somehow scares one to death without using any of the cheap tricks which we've all come to expect. It's so artfully, masterfully crafted that it doesn't need gore. If not for the supernatural overtone, I'd be willing to bet that like "Silence Of The Lambs," "The Shining" wouldn't be considered a horror movie by most, but a thriller, psychological or otherwise. What the two films have in common is incredible quality, and a love for them by those who made them which is clear by just how powerful they are.

According to IMDB the tagline for "The Shining" is - "A modern masterpiece of modern horror," and in what is such a rare case, it's absolutely the truth. This is of course, "Stanley Kubrick's, The Shining" and not Stephen King's "The Shining" so it's not completely faithful to the original novel. I was lucky to have seen the film before I read the book, so the two things stand on their own for me, not as extensions of the other. Stanley Kubrick is absolutely at the top of his game for this film, and that's saying a lot considering the man is one of the great genius who was able to elevate film to an art form.

Kubrick was known as an eccentric genius who was nearly obsessive compulsive when it came to his attention to detail in his films. This reputation is proven as fact in every shot, every sequence of "The Shining." Kubrick instills the entire film with a sense of dread and foreboding which builds from the opening shots of Jack Torrance driving the mountain roads on his way to an interview at the Overlook Hotel to the ending sequence as the camera follows the films characters through the hotels hedgemaze. The tension which grows throughout the film starts out as a feeling of unease and crescendo's as all out terror and panic.

There are four pieces to the puzzle of what makes this film so superior, not only to others in the genre, but also to so many other films in general, the puzzle of what makes it a masterpiece in not only modern horror, but in film making. First is Stanley Kubrick being at the top of his game. He lent his genius to films in a number of different genres, and in many cases his creations are considered the greatest in their genre, "The Shining" being another example. It is to the horror film what "2001: A Space Odyssey" is to science fiction, what "Dr. Strangelove (Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb)" is to comedic satire, what "Full Metal Jacket" is to the war/basic training genre. The history of film making may not have another director who can claim those kinds of achievements. And let's not forget that he also co-wrote the screenplay for "The Shining," adapting it from the novel himself. Not an unusual thing for him to do. Kubrick's beginning's as a still photographer can be seen in every frame of "The Shining" as every single shot is meticulously composed. One of the most inspired choices he made in creating this film was to almost completely do away with a conventional score, and instead to have used what is more a soundscape than a score. It doesn't sound so much like music as it does like musical instruments being tortured into releasing sounds they weren't meant to make. Without it, the overall experience with this film would be drastically different.

Second is the incomparable performance turned in by Jack Nicholson. By the time "The Shining" came around, Nicholson had already become a star with such films as "Easy Rider," "One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest," "Chinatown," "The Last Detail," and "Five Easy Pieces." But for all of his star power at the time, it was his turn in "The Shining" which would catapult him to the status of icon. His portrayal of a man overcome by his demons, both inner and exterior was not only terrifying, and at times hilarious, but also unforgettable. His delivery of the line "Heeeeeeeerrreesss JOHNNY," has become part of the cultural vernacular as well as his psychotic grin and sarcasm have become part of the collective unconscious. Without Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance, "The Shining" wouldn't have been as effective. In an interview with Kubrick's daughter who was on set for filming, Nicholson comments on the fact that an actor spends his time, his training saying, "I'm going to make this real, I'm going to get it to be real. I'm going to make this more real than they've ever seen before. Then you meet up with someone like Stanley who says, 'Yeah, it's real, but it's not interesting." Luckily for all of us who love film, Nicholson went with Kubrick's suggestion and tried to turn in an interesting performance because more than interesting, it's unforgettable.

Next we come to Shelley Duvall as Wendy Torrance. Upon first viewing it's very easy to be completely unsympathetic to her character, to almost wish her husband does her in. But the more I watch this film, the more I become aware of just how subtle and ingenious her performance is in this role. Beyond the fact that I don't know any woman has ever been so convincingly terrified in a film, Shelley Duvall imbues this character with enough of a genuine care for her child's well being and an absolute ability to make us believe she does not understand what is happening at all that without her, without which the film wouldn't hold together at all. Her character is the lynch pin in the entire story. She is the one who is least aware of what is really happening to her husband as they try to wait out the winter together in the deserted resort hotel. Her son's psychic abilities, or his ability to "shine" as the always interesting and sympathetic Scatman Crothers calls it, gives him some ideas about what's going on she is never privy to. Her husband is losing his mind completely as she so memorably finds out when she reads his "manuscript" which is nothing but a number of reams of patterned typing of the sentence, "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." Kubrick and Duvall had many a disagreement during filming, but she would later go on to say the film and Kubrick had probably taught her more than anything else she'd ever done. One is forced to wonder in seeing interviews with her during filming whether or not Kubrick purposely pushed her to her limit emotionally to help to bring this performance out. One way or another, Duvall has a place in my Hall of Fear for her incredible performance. When you consider the fact that she has at least as much screen time as Jack, and that the film never lags when she's not sharing the screen with him, you have to conclude that although he got the juicy lines, Duvall went toe to toe with Nicholson in this film.

Last, comes the real antagonist of the film, The Overlook Hotel. Oregon's Timberline Hotel is assigned the task of taking over the role of the sinister Overlook. It's isolated location, rooms both large and small somehow all contribute to the films feeling of claustrophobia and ever present evil. Never has such a breathtakingly beautiful location been so terrifying at the same time. There may not have been another place in the world which would have so well lent itself to the story. Since the hotel is actually a character in the story, it was essential to find someplace which was both majestic and somewhat unsettling, and I'm not sure whether it was Kubrick's directing entirely or just the sheer size of the place which helped create that. Again without it, the film would never have worked nearly as well as it does. The hedgemaze outside being the absolutely perfect place for the climax of the film, and another somehow eerie touch during the rest of the film.

This is one of those rare films that not only transcends genre, but also transcends time and in many ways the limits of the medium itself. "Stanley Kubrick's, The Shining" is a masterpiece and work of art in film, not only in horror films. Even if you're not a fan of horror films, this is one you have to see. If for no other reason than the fact that you'll be able to add one horror film to the list of your favorite films.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

I'm not sure that in the history of film, one has been so unfairly maligned as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Yes, it's a disturbing film. Yes, it's frightening and will probably cause someone watching it for the first time to ask themselves why they are still continuing to watch. But, these aren't the reasons the film is so usually attacked by critics and the rising tide of people claiming movies are too violent these days. It's usually under the auspices of "what about the children", but let's be honest, it's always about adults trying to censor each others viewing and listening habits.

Anyway, back to the matter at hand. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (or TCM, as the fans call it) was the brain child of director Tobe Hooper. He'd spent the better part of the 60's as a college teacher and a documentary cameraman. Hooper and partner in crime Kim Henkel developed the story based on the stories of cannibalism, grave robbing, and hmm, I don't know there's a term for it other than just wearing the skin of the dead which Hooper had heard as a child visiting relatives who told him stories of a madman who would come and get him if he wasn't well behaved. The stories, he later found out, were based on the famous murderer who'd lived close to his relatives years before, Ed Gein. Some how Hooper began to ask himself the question of what it would be like if there were a whole family of lunatics like Gein out there, and what we see is what he and Henkel came up with. Psycho was also loosely based on the Gein case.

Hooper collected a group of college students and professors to put them to work on TCM. One of whom was John Larroquette lending his talents to the opening voice over, after being directed to do his best Orson Welles imitation. Hooper himself says on the DVD commentary that it still just sounds like John Larroquette imitating Orson Welles, but you have to forgive them all something. They were after all basically kids.

One of the things about this film which makes it so incredibly good is the fact that it isn't what you might expect. Although it is widely considered one of the forefathers of the "splatter" movement which got it's boost in the eighties, it's a near bloodless film. The majority of the blood which is seen onscreen is on the set. The thing is that it's so effective in making the audience uncomfortable, many times are sure they've seen things which were not on the screen at all, but fabricated in their own imaginations. Hooper had originally intended to make a film which would get a PG rating from the MPAA, so the actual on screen blood and foul language are at a minimum, but becaue it was so effective in it's delivery, the MPAA deemed it too intense for a PG rating. Hooper achieved his fright goal a little too well, but in the long run, it didn't matter, the film is still considered one of the greats in the genre and went on to fame and success.

This is one of those films whose limited budget may have worked somewhat in it's favor. The grainy look and dark tone to it give a feeling of being almost documentary style, and that sense of realism really just boosts up the terror scale (remember the Blair Witch?). It had to be a team effort too because they just didn't have the money for anyone to slack off, there was no money to make it up with. The set design also contributed greatly to the overall disturbing feeling to the movie. Just the set alone is creepy as all hell. If I walked into a place like that, I'd be running like a rabbit with a hot poker in it's butt. Not to mention the performances on the parts of Gunnar Hansen (Leatherface), Edwin Neal (the Hitchiker), and Jim Seidow (The Cook), who in the first few viewings made me ask myself if the film makers had gone to the local counties and found the three biggest crazies they could to be in the movie. Marilyn Burns as Sally was great too, she absolutely sold things in the last quarter of the movie because she threw herself into it so hard. I don't know if it would have worked as well as it did if she wasn't so dedicated to giving it one hundred percent, and it's obvious she was just in her performance. She looks absolutely terrified and on the brink of losing her sanity through the last sequences.

Daniel Pearl (who was also the cinematographer on the disappointing remake, although it was pretty) did a great job making the camera part of the storytelling. In the scene preceding the meat hook incident, his following the girl up to the porch, showing the exposed skin on her back was not only a stroke of genius, but is also one of the most imitated shots in film history (Cabin Fever anyone?). He really gave the whole look of the film a great combination of wide open isolation and claustrophobic terror.

TCM is like a boxing match the first time you see it. It leaves you exhausted, feeling battered and bruised, wondering if there's going to be any long term damage. Few films get even close to eliciting the kind of raw, animal reaction this one does. It's gotten it's reputation as one of the great horror films for that reason, it's so disturbing and so mind blowingly dark it leaves it's mark on you for a long time. And that folks, is something only a great horror film can do.