Movie Review: SILENCE OF THE LAMBS

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silence of the lambs
Orion Pictures
1991
R

“A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.”

  • Clarice Starling is a top standout at the FBI’s training academy. Jack Crawford wants Clarice to interview Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a brilliant psychiatrist who is also a violent psychopath, serving life behind bars for various acts of murder and cannibalism. Crawford believes that Lecter may have insight into a case and that Starling, as an attractive young woman, may be just the bait to draw him out.

Silence Of the Lambs. The classic psychological thriller crime drama that has transcended to iconic classic. It was also the movie public’s second introduction to the character of Hannibal Lecter, the first being in the movie Manhunter in 1986. I had no idea of any of this when I walked into the Cinema 3 theater back in my Junior year in high school, when this movie was originally released. I wasn’t even aware it was based on a novel that was written years prior. I went in completely cold. I walked out…well, I’ll get to that in a bit.

We begin with watching trainee Clarice Starling running through a calisthenics gauntlet at the FBI Academy, when she’s pulled by Jack Crawford of the Bureau’s Behavioral Science Unit. She’s assigned to interview Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter, a former psychiatrist with a rather gruesome gastronomical hobby. They’re hoping that she’ll be able to convince him to help catch a psychopathic serial killer that was nicknamed “Buffalo Bill”, the latest in the Ed Gein-style wackadoos (with a splash of Ted Bundy) who kidnaps young women and then removes the skin from their bodies. The latest kidnapping by Buffalo Bill happens to be the daughter of Senator Ruth Martin. After employing the scientific method of “playing with her head like a drunken kitten”, Lecter eventually agrees to provide information in exchange for a quid pro quo from Starling, offering clues about Buffalo Bill in exchange for personal information. Meanwhile, the Senator’s daughter is alive and kept in the pit of Bill’s basement, being starved to loosen her skin up, and beset upon with chilling catch phrases that will haunt the minds of everyone who has watched this when walking down the skin lotion isle at the drug store. There’s also what is famously known as a “man-gina” scene, so this movie is just chock-full of mentally scaring material. The FBI follow up some false leads, Hannibal Lecter manages to escape his imprisonment in the most gruesome way possible, and Clarice pretty much stumbles into her victorious nabbing of the Buffalo Bill killer and saves the day. Oh, and the Senator’s daughter is also still alive. Then, while celebrating her being made an official FBI agent, Clarice receives one last phone call from Dr. Lecter, who congratulates her, and mentions he’s having an old friend for dinner.

After first watching this movie in the theater, my first reaction was, “Huh. That was interesting.” I noticed I wasn’t as “disturbed” or “freaking out” like many of the other patrons at the movie that night, and when a couple of class mates noticed I was there as we were exiting the theater, one of ’em quipped, “Oh, crap, Case* was there. Were you taking notes?” This was probably my first personal suspicion that I may not normally view such horror and psychological terror the same way as “normal” people do. As a matter of fact, I was more amused by the gasps and little squeals of terror from the audience during that tense night vision stalking scene, than on the edge of my own seat.

Mind you, I was far from being that guy who was rooting for the baddies. I was firmly in the “Good Guy” party, rooting for Clarice to catch the guy. And I know that what Lecter did was bad, but I also had to admire his grace and style, especially his artistry and taste (no pun intended). And I also realize that this is starting to sound less like a movie review, and more like a psychological study on myself. I’m nothing if not self-reflective.

As far as the movie goes, yeah, I love it. I try to watch it every year or so. It’s one of my favorites. Also, this happens to be the one movie that I haven’t read the Thomas Harris-penned novel yet. Might have to remedy that, soon. Otherwise, Silence Of The Lambs is highly recommended, as it is a classic, in my not-so-humble opinion.

[*Case functioned both as my last name, and as a quirky nickname by my high school chums…ah, memories]

Movie Review: TRUCKER’S WOMAN

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trucker's woman
Super Pix
1975
R

  • A son is sure that his truck driver father’s deadly roadside crash was no accident; he leaves college to take up the old man’s profession and seek clues to determine who is responsible.

In the 1970s, America was obsessed with truckers. It was a pop culture phenomenon that spawned its own fashion, novelty songs, and obsession with CB radios. Oh, and there were several films romanticizing these noble asphalt cowboys. Cannonball Run immediately springs to mind. But, we’re not here to go over a good truckin’ movie. We’re here to review Trucker’s Woman.

Shot in only three weeks, and originally going by the title Truckin’ Man for the first few months of its theatrical release, Trucker’s Woman is probably one of the most 70s things I’ve ever experienced to have come out of that era. And remember, I was born two years prior to this getting released. There are pictures still floating around of me rocking a butterfly-collared magenta leisure suit as a wee lad. Why was the title changed to Trucker’s Woman, you ask? Sex appeal. The distributor figured doing that would result in higher box office returns. Rather than, you know, making a good movie, or something.

The story of Trucker’s Woman, in case you skipped the obligatory movie description blurb up top, involves a middle-aged young man named Mike Kelly, whose truck drivin’ daddy was killed by truck drivin’ bad guys. And so, since there was no other way to get justice for his murdered papa, Mike takes a job truck drivin’ for the same company that employed his dad to investigate and get to the bottom of things. But, the road to vengeance is a long and lonely one, so he makes time to stop at various truck stops and do…things with various truck stop ladies. Which one’s the titular Trucker’s Woman? Probably the one named Karen, who turns out to be the daughter of the eeevilll gangster kingpin at the trucking company he works for, whose goons may be the ones that iced his pop.

So, what we have with Trucker’s Woman is true Z-grade exploitation at its…well, no its finest, in a matter of speaking. It definitely does not deliver on the promises made from the movie poster and cover art for the VHS and DVD releases (especially the Troma edition in the early 80s, but that’s because Troma is Troma). I’ve seen truck driving instruction videos with more action and excitement than this movie has. The editing and cinephotography are choppy and uneven and uninteresting, and the acting is…well, it’s just bad. I’m not sure, but I think the dialogue was ADR’d completely. The action scenes, especially, are laughably bad. I found myself checking my watch several times during this runtime, and that, my tender readers, is not a good indication of quality viewing. If you must watch this, for whatever reason, watch the Rifftrax edition, so you’ll at least get a few intentional laughs out of this.

Book Review: The GHOST FILES

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ghost files 1
Apryl Baker
Limitless Publishing
2013

  • Cherry blossom lipstick: check. Smokey eyes: check. Skinny jeans: check. Dead kid in the mirror: check. For sixteen year old Mattie Hathaway, this is her normal everyday routine. She’s been able to see ghosts since her mother tried to murder her when she was five years old. No way does she want anyone to know she can talk to spooks. Being a foster kid is hard enough without being labeled a freak too. Normally, she just ignores the ghosts and they go away. That is until she see’s the ghost of her foster sister… Sally. Everyone thinks Sally’s just another runaway, but Mattie knows the truth—she’s dead. Murdered. Mattie feels like she has to help Sally, but she can’t do it alone. Against her better judgment, she teams up with a young policeman, Officer Dan, and together they set out to discover the real truth behind Sally’s disappearance. Only to find out she’s dealing with a much bigger problem, a serial killer, and she may be the next victim… Will Mattie be able to find out the truth before the killer finds her?

The second e-book I read from the cluster of free Kindle horror books I downloaded (as mentioned in my article for The House Next Door), The Ghost Files was one of those books that, in hindsight, was probably not intended for my particular reading demographic. But, it was free. So I read it. And thus, I am reviewing it.

As with the other authors in the Kindle Kluster (see what I did there?), I was unfamiliar with Apryl Baker. Her biography at the end of this book–as well as on her blog–doesn’t really inform much, and kind of goes for the Lisa Frank style of whimsical fluff, but in word form. Yep. Modern Young Adult author. A peak at her entry at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database shows she’s been publishing since 2011, with the Ghost Files series starting up in 2013 and already five-ish volumes in.

Let’s take a look at the first book in that series: The Ghost Files.

In this first outing, we meet 16-year-old Mattie Hathaway, a foster child who is getting ready for a party. Within the first few paragraphs, we’re clued in to the fact that Mattie can see ghosts, as one appears behind her in the mirror she’s grooming in. Apparently, Mattie’s been able to do this since she was a young child–5, as a matter of fact–so she just ignores the specter and heads off with her boyfriend to the party. But then, after encountering the ghost of her foster sister–who was alive and talking with here not even an hour or so beforehand–she’s shocked to learn that there might be a serial killer targeting foster children. Getting some help from the dreamy 20-something policeman and the ghosts of the victims, she’s getting close to figuring out who the killer is…and she’s not going to like the answer to that mystery, or even survive…

For a YA novel, the story with The Ghost Files wasn’t all that bad. Mind you, it had its flaws: while not necessarily a full-blown Mary Sue character, it does seem that all the boys wanna git wit’ sweet Mattie. This includes the 20-year-old policeman who more or less declares his love for, I have to point this out, this 16-year-old girl. A girl who, when she’s not going on with the mystery and the trials and tribulations of a foster child, actually stops the narrative to fawn over the hot guys she comes across. She even gets the hots for a ghost of a boy. Again, I realize I may not be the demographic for this genre (even back when I was the right age for this type of book, I was cutting my horror fiction teeth on Stephen King and Clive Barker, so I may have a bit more of a disadvantage), but it seems more than a bit arbitrary, really.

On the plus side, though, once we get past the fact that I more or less guessed the big twist reveal before I finished the fist chapter, The Ghost Files does manage to end on a satisfactory note. Sure, there was the obvious sequel bait (this is an ongoing series, after all), but at least the ending didn’t tie everything up in a nice neat package where everything works out in the end. Mattie is a tragic hero, here.

Overall: While there were points where I found myself rolling my eyes at the parts that were clearly not written for my particular demographic, this first volume of The Ghosts Files held my attention with a pretty good supernatural mystery that had some spine-chilling moments. It did prompt me to get a few more volumes in the series when the chance presented itself. Worth a look-see.

Movie Review: UPGRADE

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upgrade
Blumhouse Productions
2018
R

“While I am state of the art, I am not a ninja.”

  • After his wife is killed during a brutal mugging that also leaves him paralyzed, Grey Trace is approached by a billionaire inventor with an experimental cure that will “upgrade” hi body. The cure: an Artificial Intelligence implant called STEM, gives Grey physical abilities beyond anything experienced, and the ability to relentlessly claim vengeance against those who murdered his wife and left him for dead.

So far, Blumhouse has had a pretty steady track record when it comes to low-budget genre flicks. Nobody’s going to accuse them of releasing more arty type horror and science fiction, like A24 has been doing. But, if your taste runs more to the cheesy yet well-produced B-movie side of things–like I do–Blumhouse has got you covered. They’re able to do a lot with just a little. And that talent is very evident in the 2018 sci-fi thriller Upgrade.

Made for a budget of $3 million, Upgrade is basically The Six Million Dollar Man by way of Death Wish: A mechanic in the FUTURE! specializing in refurbishing combustion engine-powered cars (i.e., the kind we drive right now) drops one off at his client, an eccentric and reclusive tech innovator. After showing off his latest techy gadget–a multi-purpose microchip he dubbed STEM–the mechanic and his wife take off, but on the way their automated high-tech future car goes DERP! and crashes, then the couple are jumped by four men, killing the wife and leaving the mechanic paralyzed from the neck down. All a coincidence, I’m sure. Months later, he’s a paraplegic being taken care of by his mother at his new automated house. One day, he’s contacted by his old client, the inventor guy, offering to install the chip he showed him all those months prior onto his spine to gain his mobility back, and much more. An upgrade, if you will. The caveat being that the reclusive tech inventor guy has to perform the operation himself, and the mechanic has to keep all o this on the down-low, on account if it’s kinda, sorta illegal and stuff. So, he can walk and has all his functions back, but he has to pretend to be paralyzed in public. Which he agrees to…until the chip begins talking to him. And convinces him to use his new upgraded talents to find the men responsible for his wife’s violent death and his current state and make them pay. And so he does. Which catches the eye of a police detective. And it seems to be getting harder to keep the chip from taking complete control of his body. Not to mention there may be more of a conspiracy behind him taking the chip than he realized.

I missed out on watching Upgrade when it was out in the theaters. That was mostly due to me not being aware of its existence, because I don’t watch television and I’m not privy to a lot of movie advertisements outside of the trailers at other movies. Mostly I heard about this through the other reviewers that I glom to for movie information, and almost everybody gave Upgrade a pretty high rating, calling it a pretty good sci-fi action flick with  solid mystery story. So, I got ahold of a rental, and gave it a watch, and…yeah. Upgrade is a pretty solid movie.

The movie does a great job at crafting a dark, existential and somewhat bleak scenario, while mixing in some well-choreographed fight scenes while the story unfolds in a way that, okay, maybe not the most original one I’ve come across, but still ends on a very, very satisfying note. At least for me, anyway. If you prefer a more upbeat, happy ending, you maybe won’t like the ending as much. Regardless, Upgrade is very much worth a watch.

 

Movie Review: SPIRIT STALKERS

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spirit stalkers
Big Biting Pig Productions
2012
NR

“Expectant attention is not a mistake the Spirit Stalkers make.”

  • The Spirit Stalkers reality show, once a big hit, faces cancellation without a rating boost, which leads the investigative team to Gloria Talman, whose house is rampant with unexplained ghostly activity.

During my extended period of health-related exile in the year of our Lord 2019, I did watch a bunch of free-for-streaming movies on Amazon, and yet somehow managed to hold on to some semblance of sanity.

One of these movies that wound up in my watching que was 2012’s Spirit Stalkers, a direct-to-video horror flick that, on the surface, looked like another one of those found footage / mocumentary style movies about a group of ghost hunters who happen to stumble upon a real haunting. Since these kind of movies are almost literally a dime a dozen, I steeled myself for what I hoped would at least be a so-bad-it’s-good kind of movies. So, imagine my surprise when Spirit Stalkers wound up doing something slightly different than what was expected.

The Spirit Stalkers in question is a reality television show about a team of ghost hunters lead by a guy who is more concerned with uncovering the truth behind the aledged “hauntings” than relying on the sensationalism tactics. Of course, this is not good for ratings, and the producers and other cast members try to introduce more ratings-grabbing tactics–ghost hunting gadgets, suggesting there are real ghosts, trying out new catch phrases and younger cast members–he’s finally told to either find a real haunting, or get canceled. Fortunately for him, there appears to be an actual, honest-to-goodness haunting going on in the house of a single mother, where she and her teenage daughter seem to be experiencing weird things. So the Spirit Stalkers are on the case! But, will this wind up to be another fake haunting easily explained by science, or is there something more sinister going on? The answer is yes.

I’ll start off by saying that I’ve seen far worse independent horror flicks than Spirit Stalkers. It has its flaws, and make no mistake, I will be addressing them. But at least this was made with some skill, rather than a camcorder and delusions of adequacy. Here, there’s some decent editing, along with some very well executed framing and cinematography, lending to some good atmosphere. And at least part of the storyline has an intriguing kernel of an idea that I wish they would have explored more.

For me, the parts of the movie that worked the best were the television show angle itself. What they should have done was make that the main focus, leaving the bits with the lady and her daughter at the house introduced later on. Instead, the flashing back and forth constantly between the two interrupted the flow of the narrative something bad. Making things even more convoluted is the tendency to feature memory flashbacks that don’t really contribute to the story and makes one more confused than anything.

Also working against the movie is the subpar acting, which isn’t as bad as I’ve come across elsewhere, but is still cringe-inducing at times. But, like I said, I do like what they did with the ending. It wasn’t jaw-dropping or game-changing, but I respect the direction they took.

Overall: If I actually used a numerical system for rating these things, I would go with a 2 out of 5. It’s surprisingly much more watchable than your usual stable of haunting movies, but nothing that results in a must-see. Good for a time waster.

Movies+Beer Pubcast: DETECTIVE PIKACHU

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detective pikachu

James is joined by Brian, Andrea, Jacob, Everett and Sarah to discuss the live-action Pokemon movie, Detective Pikachu. Was it good? Was it merely fan wankery? Do the Exalted Geeks go down several rabbit trails during the discussion of the movie? Listen in and find out…

Movie Review: The HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS

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The House With A Clock In Its Walls movie posterUniversal Pictures
2018
PG

“Be a dear. Fetch a knife and stab me in the ears.”

Ten-year-old Lewis goes to live with his oddball uncle in a creaky old house that contains a mysterious `tick tock’ noise. He soon learns that Uncle Jonathan and his feisty neighbor, Mrs Zimmerman, are powerful practitioners of the magic arts. When Lewis accidentally awakens the dead, the town’s sleepy facade suddenly springs to life, revealing a secret and dangerous world of witches, warlocks and deadly curses.

The House with a Clock in Its Walls was a young adult Gothic mystery that was written by John Bellairs and published in 1973. I’ve never read anything by John Bellairs. I even went through his bibliography to make sure I didn’t inadvertently read one of his novels in grade school and just didn’t remember doing so. I was a voracious reader, even back then, and gravitated towards mysteries with a solid spooky supernatural feel to them. Weird as a kid, weird as an adult. But, no, I hadn’t read any of his fiction, which is odd, as they would have been right up my alley.

Anyway, The House with a Clock in Its Walls was the first in a series of books staring protagonist character Lewis Barnavelt, and proved to be a hit with the readers. It was adapted once before as one of three segments in the television anthology Once Upon A Midnight Scary, which was hosted by none other than Vincent Price back in 1979. Then, it was adapted into a full-length feature film in 2018 staring Jack Black.

The first thing I want to point out about this adaptation is that, this is directed by Eli Roth. Yes, that same Eli Roth who gave us the movies Cabin Fever and the Hostel series. He also did the cannibal horror film The Green Inferno, helmed the Death Wish remake, and stared in Inglorious Basterds. I’m not criticizing his movie choices; I’m merely pointing out that Eli Roth’s name isn’t exactly in the Top Five of names that pop up when we’re discussing family friendly fantasy films.

Also, I didn’t mean to use alliteration like that. Totally unintentional.

Second, did we really need to use the lettering style in the title to be a rip-off of the Harry Potter film series titles? Derivative, smacks of desperation, shows a lack of confidence on the studio’s part for letting this movie stand on its own. Ultimately, a pointless gripe. Moving on…

As a movie, I believe that Eli Roth has a bright future with young adult family dark fantasy films, if The House With A Clock In Its Walls is any indication. This movie is right up there with personal favorites like the Addams Family movies and the classic Tim Burton flicks. Jack Black is his usual fantastic self here, playing the roll as the eccentric warlock uncle Jonathan Barnavelt kind of subdued to his normal manic style. He plays off well with Cate Blanchett’s Florence Zimmerman character, the longtime neighbor and friend who is constantly trading barbs with Jonathan. Owen Vaccaro is also rather good as the child character of Lewis Barnavelt, the nephew that is brought into the world of magic, starts to learn magic himself, and then resurrects the dead to impress his friends. As you do.

It’s dark, it’s whimsical, it has some great visuals as well as a good Gothic atmosphere, and it doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of the story. The House With A Clock In Its Walls is a great movie, thumbs up all the way. Check it out if you haven’t done so already. Recommended.

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