Drugstore Cowboy (1989)

Drugstore Cowboy – 1989

Director – Gus Van Sant

Starring – Matt Dillon, Kelly Lynch, and James LeGros

There are a few basic steps that each and every narrative film must go through to ensure that the audience can relate to, continue to watch and enjoy the film in question.  Step one: Develop compelling characters.  We as the audience need a trustworthy, reliable vehicle through which we can experience the story.  Step 2: Craft an interesting tale.  Fashion a story that has a message about something the audience either already knows something about, or would be interested to learn about.  And step 3: Tie the whole thing together and make it fun (or in the absence of fun, make it important).

In the case of Drugstore Cowboy, Gus Van Sant cherry picks from the list of steps, taking elements that he likes and leaving the rest.  While it does have characters, they aren’t very compelling.  In fact they are all rather shallow and unlikable, each a little smarmier than the last.  As far as story goes, it is of the long, agonizing, downward spiral variety.  Not super compelling, really, just a little boring to watch.  As for the last step, that was actually sort of a success.  These, selfish, venal characters were married very well with the uncomfortable depressing story, unfortunately the fun and importance WAS left out.

To bring everyone up to speed, here is a brief breakdown of the story.  Bob, Diane, Rick and Nadine are a group of junkies and opportunists out to commit small-scale robbery of drugstores (hence the name) in order to steal the controlled medication from the pharmacy counter.  When they aren’t faking seizures and or breaking and entering all in the name of getting high, they’re getting wasted, antagonizing the cops and belittling each other and their drug addled stoner neighbor (which ends up being important later on in the story).  After one of them accidentally overdoses, the three remaining addicts hole up in a haze of pot, heroin and dilaudid, and try to figure out how to ditch the body and avoid the police.

Like some of his other films (Elephant, Gerry, and To Die For spring to mind), Gus Van Sant seems to gravitate towards subject matter without a light at the end of the tunnel.  But where Elephant was an examination of the country’s reaction to the Columbine school shooting, and To Die For was an interesting, well acted, noir story at its best (I never saw Gerry), Drugstore Cowboy lacks any real redeeming quality.  Matt Dillon’s Bob spends so much of the movie as a paranoid, shitty human being, that I found it hard to give a shit about his so called “redemption” and thought it seemed rather tacked on and false.

Heather Graham as Nadine was the most sympathetic of all the characters, and only really because I felt sorry for her.  Where as the others seemed reap what they had sewn, Nadine seemed decidedly innocent and tragic.  Matt Dillon, and the rest of the major players did a fine job acting, and in truth they were probably fairly accurate to how these people would be in real life, I simply took no pleasure in watching them.

As far as direction, I far prefer the rather optimistic Gus Van Sant who surfaces every now and again to direct the occasional Oscar bait like Good Will Hunting, and Finding Forrester.  These films are far less confrontational, but they also balance the director’s inherent malaise a little better with the occasional sweetness and intelligence that we all know he’s capable of.

Now I realize I’m being a little overly harsh on this film.  It simply wasn’t my cup of tea.  In terms of its structure, and artistry, the film stands up fine, but the subject matter and the characterizations really left something to be desired for me.  I know it’s not fair to pre-judge a film, but I have a feeling that I will have an equally hard time with My Own Private Idaho which I will also have to watch as it is one of the 1001 on this list.  But I’ll do my best to give it a fair shake, and who knows…maybe I’ll be surprised.

If you’re looking for a dark movie revolving around drug addiction, and poor choices, I don’t know that you can get any better than Requiem for a Dream.  Strangely enough, the highs and lows are far deeper than those of Drugstore Cowboy, and the ending is just as (if not more) bleak and depressing.  Still the craftsmanship, architecture and immersion of Requiem left me feeling strangely satisfied, like I had really just seen something vital and important, something with a very strong warning message about the dependence and co-dependence of drug addiction, not to mention the inter-personal relationships of the people involved.

“Terrible people doing terrible things in a terrible movie.” – Ashley

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Who will survive…and what will be left of them?

So it’s my favorite time of the year…Halloween. So why not indulge myself a little and review some of the best horror, thriller, and suspense films in the book. Some of them I’m super thrilled about writing reviews of, and some are certainly popular but not necessarily my favorites. Read on to find out which is which. Enjoy!

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

A classic, certainly without which we wouldn’t have such staples as The Walking Dead, Dawn of the Dead and it’s remake, or the fantastic Shaun of the Dead, as well as a whole host of other films that have borrowed from it. The paranoia, mounting tension, and overwhelming odds of this first Zombie movie, transferred smoothly into non horror themes, such as isolation, race-relations, and fear of the Nuclear age in which we live.

L’uccello Dalle Piume Di Cristallo AKA The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970)

In this early film, Dario Argento, arguably the biggest name in italian horror, creates a film that is more Hitchcock than it is a slasher movie. The tension and carnage that ensues is more about pacing and misdirection than it is vicious thrills, and gore. That being said, it does have its share of gore. Oh, those italians, never short of gore. While good, I actually liked his later, more iconic film, Suspiria better than this one.

Deliverance (1972)

A horror movie of a different variety, rather than use a monster or a psychopathic antagonist, this film explores the terrible behavior exhibited by humans onto one another. The group of hunters looking to spend some time together having fun, get to know way more about each other than they ever wanted to know. Normally I wouldn’t give away any spoilers, but I think most people know exactly what the “twist” to this movie is. Men raping men has never been so much fun.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Quiet, slow, and nearly bloodless apparently equals really effective and terrifying. Who knew! Despite the fact that I credit The Exorcist with being better all around (scares, craftsmanship, and acting), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is pretty fantastic in its own right. By all means you should see the original version and relish in the grainy washed out film stock, the real locations that haven’t been over dressed or grimed up to such a degree as to make looking at them unsanitary, and the overall impact of a movie that can utilize calm as well as it does chaos. One hell of a good movie!

The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

This film predates the slasher sub-genre of horror movies by close to 5 years, however it definitely shares and in some cases has inspired certain sadistic qualities in them. The movie gives us a family full of socially dysfunctional, nomadic killers as the source of our fear, an anxiety, and a nice everyday innocent family to compare ourselves to. More camp than scare. More sadism than not.

Suspiria (1977)

This film is far more surreal, and otherworldly than The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, the other Dario Argento film that I’ve seen. It is by far, more psychological and subtle in how it works under your skin, but also has a far less believable (read: ridiculous) set of traps and horrors for our heroine to escape. A room in a dance academy that is inexplicably filled with coils upon coils of barbed wire, is decidedly unbelievable, and therefore draws us out of the “story”. That being said, I still liked it better than The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, for its use of rich full color, and it’s dedication to that certain uneasy feeling.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Holy Shit! If you have managed to make it through your life to this point without seeing this movie, do yourself a favor, go buy (not rent) it and watch the shit out of it! For a movie that is so closely associated with the horror genre, Dawn of the Dead manages to be so relevent and forward facing on such a large variety of subjects. From race relations, religion, and consumer culture, to the nature of willful violence, and interaction between the sexes, not to mention some pretty outstanding makeup effects. This film has so much to offer first time and repeat viewers alike. Granted some of the makeup looks a bit bad by today’s standard, and some of the euphemisms seem a bit dated and clunky, but by and large this film has all the energy and fire of the films of the seventies, plus a pretty compelling horror story to boot. Make sure to buy the version that comes with the theatrical and directors cuts, so you can compare and contrast the values of each. (Hint: The Director’s Cut is better.)

Halloween (1978)

In terms of craftsmanship and construction Halloween is a master-class in editing and pacing. Featuring very little in the way of jump-scare type tactics, this film instead, skillfully builds the tension slowly through the use of shot composition, and editing, along with skillful acting and directing. Of course, John Carpenter is no stranger to the praise due to him from the horror fan community, including myself. I’ve enjoyed almost every single one of his films, and I only say “almost” because I can’t remember if there has been anything that I haven’t liked. Watch this!

Alien (1979)

In terms of futuristic visuals and slow building tension, Ridley Scott seemed to have cornered the market in the late 70’s and early 80’s. With films like Blade Runner and Aliens he helped to bring a living, breathing, realism to the science fiction genre that had before been absent. Where Star Wars was shiny and optimistic, Alien was concerned with the accurate depiction of its characters in a true to life setting. With Alien, he also managed to bring horror to a new level. For proof, just go watch the still terrifying trailer for the original Alien.

“The baby alien is soooooo cute! And there’s a cat!  And a butt crack!” – Ashley

The Shining (1980)

With the Shining, Stanley Kubrick made one of the finest films ever committed to celluloid (or digital mediums, I’m not playing favorites). The power and the impact of the imagery sticks with you long after the film is finished (they’ve been with me since I saw it way back when I was young.), and while the dialogue and delivery seems stilted at first, it all serves a grander purpose of creating a slightly skewed feeling in the viewer. The disharmony and discord starts to build at an imperceptible level, but once it rears its head, it is obvious that it has been around for a long while. Absolutely one of my favorite movies, and well deserving of being on this list!

“You know it’s a good horror movie if Shelley Duvall is in the film and still not the scariest part.” – Ashley

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

A classic in my circle of friends, this is actually a movie that I came to finally see rather late (only 4 years ago or so), and I’m really glad I did.  Part slapstick comedy, part horror movie, American Werewolf in London manages to balance the two genres giving a room for the comedy to live, without ruining the scary elements.  Then there is the astounding fully lit, werewolf transformation scene, something that was nearly impossible in the days before CGI.  Definitely worthy of its spot on this list.

“Suck it CGI!” – Ashley

Check out guest reviewer Mike Petrik’s review, here!

The Thing (1982)

Kurt Russell and John Carpenter have, together, made a pair of my most favorite films ever, Big Trouble in Little China, and this movie, The Thing. Along with being a completely absorbing well paced thriller in its own right, it also happens to have some really outstanding special makeup effects, and puppetry. Add in to the mix a young Wilford Brimley, Keith David in all his glory, and who could forget the heartbeat of a score that relentlessly pushes us onward, towards the end of the film. Outstanding all around!

(***Warning Spoilers***)

“One point for the great special effects makeup…one point for the sexy Kurt Russell beard…negative one million points for the hurting beautiful puppies” – Ashley

Poltergeist (1982)

As far as this list goes, the Poltergeist has perhaps left the smallest impact on me. All I really remember is the tiny woman with the child’s voice. She actually played good character in the film, yet still she stands out as a defining characteristic of this horror film far more than the big gauzy skeleton, the skeletons in the basement, or heaven forbid the terrifying child-sized doll that those shitty parents put in their kids room.

“Thanks to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, I know that Poltergeists are not ghosts.” – Ashley

The Evil Dead (1982)

Despite the fact that this film revolutionized the way that horror films were shot, produced, watched, edited, and scored, The Evil Dead was, in my opinion not nearly as good as its slapstick sequels, The Evil Dead Part 2, and Army of Darkness. Definitely worth watching, but make sure you watch the other two, so you can see director Sam Raimi reboot his own film, and make it worlds better.  Give me some sugar, baby!

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

This was the movie…the movie that scared the bejesus out of me as a kid far more than any other movie has ever done, before or since. Looking back at it now, it doesn’t make sense why this film had such a profound effect on me, but none the less, it did. The most terrifying image in the film (in my younger-selfs opinion), comes in the first 10 minutes, and the real terror of the first watch was the anticipation of whether it would be topped in the remaining 80 or so minutes. Not to mention, the film had a rather ingenious premise of allowing the victims to be vulnerable in their dreams, a place that no one can escape. Worth the watch, but I’ve heard you should avoid the remake.

Manhunter (1986)

The best of the Hannibal Lecter movie adaptations, this one combines the visual sensibility of Michael Mann, the menace and animalism of Tom Noonan, and the depth and intelligence of Brian Cox as Lecter into a luscious, dangerous, thrilling movie. Despite it’s inclusion on this list, I feel that the more popular Hannibal Lecter story, The Silence of the Lambs, is far inferior to this film, though there are many who would disagree vehemently. One thing that everyone can agree on, however, is that the remake of Manhunter, Red Dragon, is completely a piece of shit by comparison.  Brett Ratner my ass!

The Fly (1986)

Your standard story about a man who invents teleportation devices only to have it backfire on him when a simple little house fly gets caught in the machine with him. This film creeped me out quite a bit when I was a kid, particularly the arm wrestling scene. The Fly is a great horror movie, worthy of inclusion on this list!

Aliens (1986)

Quite possibly my favorite of the movies on this Halloween list. I grew up with this movie, so as a result, I am in capable of judging it in any way other than favorably. A great continuation of the story that began in Alien, one that manages to go far beyond it in terms of action, character development, and stakes. Where the original was effective through the isolation of its characters, Aliens succeeds by forcing them to band together to combat the threats from without as well as within.  This is when James Cameron was at his peak in my opinion (well, that or during the Terminator movies), not during the bloated gimmicky Avatar days.  Robot versus space-bug!  That really says it all.

Spoorloos AKA The Vanishing (1988)

If you’ve seen the remake of this film starring Jeff Bridges and Keifer Sutherland, then do yourself a favor, drink a bunch of turpentine till you forget that one, and when you’re back from getting your stomach pumped at the hospital, watch this creepy-as-hell movie. Using simple tactics to inspire fear, Spoorloos is surprisingly contemplative, and deceptively calm for a list such as this. Don’t let that fool you though, it’s terrifying all the same.

Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

Creepy. Creepy. Creepy. CREEPY. This mind-bending film tests the limits of the audiences perception, making us debate up until the very end whether or not we think our main character is, in fact, crazy, delusional, or correct that there are strange beings out to get him. The fantastic Danny Aiello electrifies every scene he is in, and make sure to watch out for a small appearance by Ving Rhames, too!.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Way, way over-rated. While this movie isn’t bad, the fact that it took home best picture, best actor, best actress, and best director honors at the Oscars is a little absurd if you ask me. Hopkins was good as Lector, but not nearly as menacing as Brian Cox was in the role just a scant 5 years earlier. Foster was good as well, but has been much better in better things as well. Jonathan Demme, is the exception. Though I don’t think he necessarily deserved the Oscar for his work here, this actually is the best thing he has ever done. In fact, he did such a bad job on The Truth About Charlie, a terrible remake of one of my favorite movies of all time, Charade, that he ought to have any awards and accolades stripped from him.  He actually owes me an Oscar.  Watch Manhunter instead.

Scream (1996)

I saw this movie at just the right time for me to see this movie. I saw it with a bunch of really good friends, and had a really good time doing it. The movie as it turns out was pretty good too, turning the usual conventions of the horror movie on its ear to great effect. This movie also benefited from an up and coming cast, a good soundtrack, and a rejuvenated director, Wes Craven, ready to attack the genre that he helped create in the first place.

Tetsuo (1998)

It’s strange that this is the only Japanese horror movie that is included in the list of 1001 movies, that I’ve seen, especially considering the fact that Japan seems to specialize in decidedly creepy horror movies. Tetsuo is really more of a bizarre, sci-fi-sex-fantasy with a fair amount of blood in it. Basically a man turns slowly and painfully into a machine, a process which grants him great strength and power, but also makes him a terrible monster at the same time. If you’d like to know if you will like it, base whether you see it on this spoiler-ish phrase…”Drill penis”. And there you have it.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

I’m a fan of its concept, I’m a fan of the mark such a low-budget movie was able to make, but I was not a fan of the fact that it spawned a lot of cheap imitators, nor was I a fan of the movie itself. There was so much hype surrounding this movie, that it couldn’t help but fail in the eyes of a film student / horror film fan like me. You will never hear anyone say this again, ever, but I liked The Blair Witch Project 2: Book of Shadows way better.

“Ughkk…God!” – Ashley

Mulholland Dr. (2001)

My lovely wife would disagree of my assessment of this film. I thought it was an un-paralleled work of craftsmanship and genius, with a creepy/dreamy surrealistic concept that translated well to the glimmering, shining facade of Hollywood. She thought it was crap. In my humble opinion David Lynch redeemed himself after the terrible, and terribly confusing Lost Highway, to make a work that stands alongside his very best (Blue Velvet, Wild At Heart, Twin Peaks, and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me). Of course he went right back to making terrible crap with Inland Empire, but there is no need to dwell on that here. Go see Mulholland Dr., one of the scariest movies that isn’t supposed to be scary , you’ll ever see!

“I know experimental narrative.  I like experimental narrative.  I went to film school to make experimental narrative.  You sir, are not an experimental narrative.” – Ashley

And there you have it.  Just a few of the horror selections on the list.  I don’t necessarily agree that these should all be held up and called the best of the best, but conversely, some of them are absolutely worthy of such distinction.  Good or bad, however, each has its importance in terms of the history and art of film.  Happy Halloween!

Un Chien Andalou (AKA: An Andalusian Dog)(1929)

Un Chien Andalou (AKA: An Andalusian Dog) – 1929

Director – Luis Bunuel

Conceived by surrealist auteurs Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali, Un Chien Andalou is your standard story about a guy, posing as a nun gets hit by a car while a couple watches from a window.  And goes on to tread even more familiar ground when after witnessing the accident, the man spends great amounts of time and energy trying to knead and massage the womans breasts and butt while she tries to fight him off.  Not one to take no for an answer, he starts leaking ants from the hole in his hand, that is, until he loses his arm in their skirmish.  And of course who can forget the  straight razor cutting woman’s eye sequence which even by this point was extremely clichéd.

All joking aside, Bunuel and Dali managed to construct a piece of film that is just as shocking and talked about today as it was back in 1929.  While it is famous for the notoriety of its authors, the film itself is infamous today thanks to the aforementioned eye cutting scene.  My teacher in film school introduced the film, explained the intention, and then had to leave the room before showing it because of the ability of that image to upset.  If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth watching just once, if only to say that you did it.  The fact is, it would be hard to find more indelible imagery throughout the history of film than is found in the 20 minute run time of this one film, and while it has a statement, it is not one that is easy to discern from watching the film.

Strictly speaking, the narrative is meant to confound the brain.  It was conceived, purposefully, to seem fleeting and dream-like.  Dali and Bunuel practiced sleep deprivation in order to prepare themselves for the conception and script-writing phases of the film.  The imagery is meant to horrify while at the same time seem like it should make sense when it doesn’t.  This feeling of connectivity through the course of the film is what ties the images together.  Themes and undertones were the goal, not story and character.

Not shockingly, the film got mixed reception at its release, receiving positive marks from those in the art world, and negative ones from those not familiar with surrealism or (then) modern artistic expression.  Despite the mixed reception, Un Chien Andalou stood out as a masterwork of editing, composition, and pacing.  It is interesting to note, that it stands out as being far creepier and more unsettling than most horror or thriller movies released since.

While not for everyone, Un Chien Andalou, is definitely an important benchmark of cinema, as well as a springboard into the works of directors as diverse as David Lynch, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, and Tim Burton.  It definitely deserves it’s place on this list!

“Bitch got her eye cut!” – Ashley

The Elephant Man (1980)

The Elephant Man – 1980

Director – David Lynch

Starring – John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft

Slow, cruel, and beautifully filmed.  These are the main adjectives I would use to describe David Lynch’s, The Elephant Man.  Set during the Victorian era in London, The Elephant Man tells the real life story of John Merrick, a seriously deformed man led from one freak show to another.  Anthony Hopkins stars as Frederick Treves, a doctor who takes it upon himself to rescue Mr. Merrick from the actual freakshow that he is performing in, puts him up in his hospital, and attempts to teach him civilized behavior.  Treves parades Merrick around, using his notoriety to advance his own reputation, all the while claiming to help him.

When word gets around that the “Elephant Man” (called this partially due to his appearance, and partially because his mother was mauled to death by an elephant) has gained a certain popularity with the upper crust, the owner of the freakshow (Bytes) comes back to collect his “treasure”.  Treves and Bytes play a game of tug-of-war with Merrick, neither considering him or his feelings in the least.  In terms of characters, Merrick himself played with a certain amount of humanity and grace by John Hurt, is the only character who really has any redeeming characteristics.  Despite his huge prosthetic make-up appliances, Hurt manages to imbue Merrick with a certain subtlety.

On the brightside, the film looked beautiful.  Shot in silky black and white, each characters shadowy nature plays itself out visually on the backdrop of dreary, foggy London.  Each of the set pieces is crawls with life, some of it unsettling and horrible, and some of it approaching dignity.  As the movie goes on, the mood, as well as the visual tone of the film grows subtly and slowly brighter.

Of the Lynch films that I’ve seen so far, I would have to say that this is smack in the middle.  It doesn’t reach the fantastic weird heights of films like Mulholland Drive, or Blue Velvet, but it doesn’t quite fall to the un-intelligable depths of Lost Highway, or Inland Empire.  If you’ve seen any of David Lynch’s other films, you will see some similarities but he clearly grew and matured since finishing this film.  Despite, or perhaps because of this, The Elephant Man was one of his more critically successful films and has since allowed him to go on and become a unique independant voice, if only for that reason, this film deserves it’s place on the list of 1001 Movies You Should See Before You Die.