Posts Tagged ‘Revenge’

26. I Spit on Your Grave (2010)

Director: Steven R. Monroe

Starring: Sarah Butler, Jeff Branson, Daniel Franzese, Rodney Eastman, Chad Lindberg, Tracy Walter, Andrew Howard

Brave little soldier that I am… and because it was part of the same DVD package as the original… this year, I watched 2010’s “I Spit on Your Grave” back-to-back with its 1978 counterpart. While that’s not a decision I regret (I’d seen both before), the combined brutality of both does leave me feeling a tad unclean. Pretty much every popular horror movie from the 1970s and 1980s has been remade within the last fifteen years. It was only a matter of time before this one happened. It was fate. To its credit, “I Spit on Your Grave” goes out of its way to outdo the original in terms of shocks. It was virtually impossible to make the rape scenes any more graphic without resorting to filming unsimulated sex, so the majority of the shocks and discomfort this time come from the initial physical assault, as well as the near-cartoonish violence during the revenge portion of the story.

Jennifer Hills (Sarah Butler) is a young novelist who has chosen to spend some time at a secluded cabin in order to work on her latest novel. Unlike the first film, a specific location in the United States is never pinned down. Judging from the accents, I’d call it a safe bet that we’re meant to be somewhere in the Deep South. Along the way, Jennifer comes into contact with gas station attendant Johnny (Jeff Branson) and his friends Stanley (Daniel Franzese) and Andy (Rodney Eastman). Johnny flirts with Sarah but, although she’s polite about it, his advances are all for naught.

When she is not writing, Jennifer spends the rest of her time relaxing in the sun, smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol, which she has enough of to put an entire fraternity in the hospital. The cabin she’s staying in isn’t perfect. For one thing, the plumbing needs work, with only dirty brown water coming from it. When Matthew (Chad Lindberg), a plumber with an obvious mental handicap comes to her rescue, Jennifer rewards him with a quick kiss as her way of saying “thanks.” Matthew then goes to his friends… the guys from the gas station… to tell them all about this girl up in a cabin who likes him. His ego still bruised from the earlier encounter, Johnny and the others all decide to go up to the cabin and teach Ms. Hills a lesson.

After some initial harassment which includes tossing dead birds at her window, the four men break into Jennifer’s cabin with the intent of helping Matthew to lose his virginity. They force Jennifer to perform oral sex on a gun and a bottle. Here’s where the movie’s plot takes more than a minor detour from the plot of the original. Jennifer somehow escapes into the woods and finds Sheriff Storch (Andrew Howard) out on a hunting trip. He goes with her back to the cabin, which is now empty. While there, Storch notes her stockpile of alcohol and her stash of marijuana, then takes it upon himself to frisk her. As he is doing this, Jennifer is starting to feel violated. Her concerns are worsened when the boys return, revealing that the they and the Sheriff are all in this together.

Jennifer is held down on the floor. Matthew is pressured into raping her, which he refuses to do. But, when the others begin taunting him and calling him names, Matthew finally relents. After Matthew is finished, Jennifer makes her way out into the woods, where she is cornered and held down again. Storch has his way with her, while Andy periodically holds her head underwater. As they do this, Stanley is filming the entire thing. It’s implied (though not explicitly shown) that the others take their turns as Jennifer passes out from the pain. When she comes to, she gets up and walks toward a bridge. Just as Storch is about to shoot Jennifer, she falls from the bridge, presumably to her death in the water below, although no evidence of her body can be found. Wanting there to be no trace of evidence, Storch destroys Stanley’s tape.

A month passes by. There is some evidence to suggest that Jennifer is still alive, but nothing concrete has yet surfaced. Then Stanley comes to realize that his camera is missing, and he panics. It would seem that the tape which Storch destroyed was blank, and that the tape containing Jennifer’s rape was still inside the camera. Upon hearing this, Johnny almost kills Stanley. Later that night, Johnny is harassed at his home in the same manner that Jennifer was, with dead birds being thrown at his window. When he sees that one of Jennifer’s slippers and a few of Matthew’s bracelets are part of the debris being thrown, Johnny suspects that Matthew is the culprit. When Storch’s wife receives a digital camera-sized tape in the mail, Storch angrily interrogates the boys to find out who sent it. They think it was Matthew. Also, Storch murders his hunting partner (he same man who rented the cabin to Jennifer), citing “loose ends” as his reason.

Matthew, haunted by what happened, goes looking for Jennifer inside the cabin. Finally finding her sitting on the couch waiting for him, an apologetic Matthew breaks down. “Forgiving” Matthew, Jennifer states that his apology isn’t good enough and, remembering how he choked her as he raped her, Jennifer chokes Matthew with a noose until he passes out. This is only the start of her revenge. Jennifer next goes after Stanley and Andy. She captures Stanley in a bear trap, turns on his camera, pins his eyelids back with fishhooks and smears fish guts all over his face. Birds then come and peck his eyes out. The guy who likes to watch can no longer see. Andy gets knocked unconscious with a baseball bat. When Andy comes to, he’s suspended above a tub filled with water. Jennifer pours some lye into the water, then removes one of the boards underneath him. Stanley can’t hold his head out of the water forever… and you can guess what happens when flesh meets lye.

This leaves Johnny and Sheriff Storch. Capturing Johnny, Jennifer recalls how he’d threatened to knock out her teeth. Accordingly, she pulls a few of his out before chopping off his manhood, causing him to bleed to death. Lastly, she lures in the Sheriff by visiting his wife and daughter and then apparently taking the daughter to the park. Storch is knocked out from behind. When he comes to, the man who anally raped Jennifer now has a shotgun shoved up his rectum. The trigger is tied to a string around an unconscious Matthew’s hand. When he wakes up, the gun goes off, killing both men.

While I applaud the writers for connecting each of the murders to actions committed by the men earlier in the film (something which the 1978 film didn’t do), the impracticality of Jennifer actually being able to carry out her plans does detract from it a bit. Not to mention how truly hard to watch it all is. Actress Sarah Butler does a tremendous job displaying Jennifer’s transformation from innocent victim to crazed killer, but I find the ambiguity of the fate of the sheriff’s daughter to be truly unsettling, and it does tend to leave Jennifer a bit less sympathetic than she started out. In fact, I find the inclusion of the Sheriff character and the whole subplot with his family to be one huge and unnecessary complication. The original film (which barely hinted at one of the characters’ families) got along just fine without all of that.

Shockingly, there is not one but two sequels to 2010’s “I Spit on Your Grave,” the latter of which sees the return of Sarah Butler as Jennifer Hills, more bloodthirsty than ever. There’s even apparently going to be a belated sequel to the 1978 film! This begs the obvious question: WHY?! What possible good can come from continuing the story? I can watch both the 1978 and 2010 versions of “I Spit on Your Grave” without much of a problem. It’s all pure fiction, and should be looked at as such. But nothing about either inspires me to actively search for more.

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25. I Spit on Your Grave (1978)

Director: Meir Zarchi

Starring: Camille Keaton, Eron Tabor, Richard Pace, Anthony Nichols, Gunter Kleemann

Sometimes… not very often, but sometimes… I come across a horror movie so notorious that I question whether or not I should actually review it. I’m into exploring as many horror movies with infamous reputations as I think I can stomach. But I recognize that not everyone feels the same way. For this very reason, I held back on discussing 1978’s “I Spit on Your Grave”… a brutal story of rape/revenge… for at least a year, if not two. Originally titled “Day of the Woman,” “I Spit on Your Grave” is notorious for its scenes of graphic violence, both inflicted upon and carried out by its protagonist. How we react to said violence says as much about us and our notions of right and wrong as it does about the film itself.

Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton) is an aspiring writer from New York who has chosen to spend some time at a secluded cabin in Connecticut in order to work on her first novel. The long-haired, free-spirited young woman comes into contact with gas station attendant Johnny (Eron Tabor) and his unemployed friends Stanley (Anthony Nichols) and Andy (Gunter Kleemann). After hearing from Matthew (Richard Pace), the mentally handicapped grocery store delivery boy, about a recent encounter with Jennifer (where Matthew says he “saw her breasts”), the men decide to take action. Stanley and Andy use their speedboat to harass Jennifer.

One afternoon, the men grab hold of Jennifer’s canoe while she is relaxing, and force her to shore where Johnny is lying in wait. The three men corner her, intending for Matthew to rape her… thus losing his virginity. Matthew declines, and so Johnny takes his place. Once the deed is done, Jennifer isn’t allowed to get very far before she’s cornered and raped a second time, by Andy. Nearly spent, Jennifer uses what remaining strength she has left to make it back to the cabin. Just about to call the authorities, Jennifer is stopped at the last second by the returning gang of thugs. She is raped a third time, first by Matthew (who says he can’t finish with the others watching) and then by Stanley. As they leave, they realize they can’t leave Jennifer alive, and they instruct Matthew to finish the job. He can’t bring himself to stab her, merely wiping blood from her cheek onto the knife as “proof.” The entire sequence runs about 32 minutes. If you’ve somehow managed make it this far into the movie, you may as well keep going to the end.

It takes a little time for Jennifer to gather herself together. In the meantime, the gang starts to grow concerned that no news of Jennifer’s supposed death has come up. It’s been days… weeks, even… and a body would start to stink up the woods like nothing else in that time. So, they go investigate. Sure enough, she’s not dead, and Matthew is beaten for his disobedience. That’s when Jennifer begins her plot for revenge. Oh brother, does she ever!

First, Jennifer orders from the grocery store. At first reluctant to make the delivery when he hears the address, Matthew rides his bike up to the cabin. Jennifer acts seductively, even allowing Matthew to have consensual sex with her out by the lake. Just as he climaxes, however, Jennifer ties a noose around his neck and hangs him from a tree. She next goes looking for Johnny at the gas station. At first holding him at gunpoint, Jennifer brings Johnny up to the cabin to give him a bath. While pleasuring him, Jennifer uses a knife (which Matthew had stolen from the grocery store) to… shall we say… separate Johnny from his best friend. As Johnny lay screaming and bleeding to death in the bathroom, Jennifer locks the door and goes downstairs to drown out the noise with classical music, later disposing of the evidence.

When Johnny doesn’t show up for work, his two remaining lackeys go up to the cabin in their speedboat in search of him. Andy goes ashore, armed with an axe. Stanley, still in the boat, is pushed out by an emerging Jennifer. Seeing this, Andy moves to attack but misses, and Jennifer gains control of the axe. As Andy tries to help Stanley, he is killed with the axe. Stanley then pleads for his life, but Jennifer (echoing words which Stanley had spoken to her) says, “Suck it, bitch!” and disembowels him with the boat’s motor.

It’s impossible to disguise the fact that “I Spit on Your Grave” is an unpleasant movie from beginning to end. There is no way for someone to call this movie entertaining and come out sounding sane. The acting is purely amateur hour. One positive I can legitimately draw from the movie is the almost total lack of music, allowing for zero distractions during the movie’s most serious scenes. Another would be this: While the promotional material touts that “no jury in the world would convict her,” there is a sense that perhaps we are not necessarily intended to cheer one form of violence over the other. Not that you aren’t allowed to. It is only a movie, after all.

Licence to Kill (1989)

Director: John Glen

Starring: Timothy Dalton, Carey Lowell, Robert Davi, Talisa Soto, Anthony Zerbe

I mentioned in my review for “The Living Daylights” that with Timothy Dalton we finally had a 007 that resembled the character as he should have been following the events of “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (for which Dalton himself had been a candidate before declaring himself too young at the time). But we didn’t get that Bond in 1971, one of the many reasons why “Diamonds Are Forever” was such a crushing disappointment. With 1989’s “Licence to Kill,” we not only have THAT Bond, we also have the story to match. What better way to put on display this Bond’s characteristics, which include responding to personal attacks with cold and deadly force, than with a simple revenge story?

In the Bahamas, James Bond (Timothy Dalton) assists his CIA pal Felix Leiter (David Hedison) in the pursuit and capture of notorious drug lord Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi). Afterwards, Bond performs one more assist as best man at Felix’s wedding. Della (Priscilla Barnes), Felix’s bride, tosses Bond her garter which he accepts but only half-heartedly. Felix explains that Bond had been married once before, ‘but that was a long time ago.’ That the memory of “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” is invoked once again speaks to two very sobering realities: Firstly, it’s a subject which Bond will never get over as long as he lives. Secondly, weddings in James Bond movies lead to nothing but pain and sorrow. With help from a Judas-in-training DEA agent, Sanchez escapes and his men ambush the newlyweds. Felix is taken to an aquarium owned by Sanchez henchman Milton Krest (Anthony Zerbe). There, Felix is lowered into a shark tank, losing a leg and nearly losing an arm.

Unaware that anything’s amiss, Bond is at the airport picking up his ticket for a flight back to London when he gets word of Sanchez’s jailbreak. Bond races back to Felix’s house where he finds the place ransacked. To his horror, Bond finds Della dead. In his eyes, you can almost see Bond reliving the moment that he lost his beloved Tracy. Bond finds Felix, maimed but still breathing on a nearby couch, his blood everywhere. Bond calls for an ambulance, and then sets out to find those responsible. Finding the place where Felix was mutilated, Bond eliminates several men including the traitorous DEA agent, whom Bond pushes into the shark tank and coldly watches as the man is devoured. A roadblock in Bond’s path appears in Key West in the form of M (Robert Brown), Bond’s superior at MI6. M discourages Bond’s personal vendetta and reminds him of his duty to Her Majesty’s Secret Service. When Bond refuses an assignment in Istanbul, M revokes his licence to kill.

Undeterred, Bond presses on as a rogue agent, albeit one receiving aid in an unofficial capacity from Q (Desmond Llewelyn). On board a ship owned by Krest, Bond sabotages a shipment of cocaine and steals $5 million. Running afoul of a group of Sanchez’s thugs led by Dario (Benicio del Toro) inside a bar, Bond eludes them with the assistance of former CIA agent Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell). Bond and Pam travel to Isthmus together, where Bond resumes his pursuit of Sanchez. Thwarted by Hong Kong narcotics agents who accuse Bond of messing up their long-planned drug bust, Bond avoids being sent back to England when Sanchez’s men kill all the agents and pull an injured Bond out of the rubble.

Bond is able to persuade Sanchez that it was the Hong Kong agents and not he who had just tried to kill Sanchez with a plastique explosive device. Recognizing that Sanchez must be a special kind of stupid, Bond also preys upon Sanchez’s paranoid nature, convincing him that there must be a traitor inside his organization. With help, Bond frames Krest as the person who stole the $5 million in cash.Bond then eavesdrops as Sanchez locks Krest into a hyperbaric chamber and messes with the pressure, killing Krest. Saves Bond the trouble of doing it himself! For his perceived good deed, Sanchez accepts Bond into the fold and stands ready to show off his inner sanctum, where all the secrets behind his drug smuggling business will be revealed. Bond’s cover will work great so long as he does’t run across anyone who can finger him.

Part of Sanchez’s cover includes a televangelist named Joe Butcher (Wayne Newton). The donations this guy is able to collect help to fund Sanchez’s drug racket. Butcher’s favorite catchphrase, no matter the situation, is ‘Bless your heart!’ Seriously, they couldn’t have him say ‘danke schoen’ just once? Pam subdues and interrogates Butcher, and just in the nick of time, too, as Bond is about to be identified by Dario. Meanwhile, back at the laboratory, Bond tries to create a diversion to buy some escape time, but he’s captured and placed on a conveyor belt leading to a particularly unforgiving-looking device that helps break up the cocaine. Only Dario sticks around to watch, foolishly stepping over the rail to ensure that Bond makes it all the way down. Instead, Dario is shot by Pam and it is he who falls into the machine and meets a gory fate.

Sanchez takes four tankers with his cocaine loaded on board and hits the road, with Bond and Pam in aerial pursuit. Assuming control of one of the tankers, Bond destroys the other three. An angry Sanchez attacks with a machete, causing the final tanker to crash. Both men are alive but injured, with Sanchez covered in gasoline. Recognizing this, Bond quickly pulls from his pocket the cigarette lighter given to him by Felix and Della, and he sets Sanchez on fire. Afterwards, Bond’s license to kill is restored, and Sanchez’s girlfriend/prisoner Lupe (Talisa Soto) thanks Bond for freeing her. Bond finds himself in a unique position, having two women to choose from at the end of a mission. Bond chooses Pam.

“Licence to Kill” was the subject of many firsts and lasts in the 007 series. It was the first time a Bond film almost got saddled with an R-rating for violence. It was the first Bond film not named after an Ian Fleming story, although it does share certain things in common with Fleming’s “Live and Let Die” novel. David Hedison became the first actor to portray Felix Leiter more than once. Appropriately, his first film in the role was “Live and Let Die.” This would be the last Bond film for Robert Brown as M, Caroline Bliss as Miss Moneypenny and for the film’s director, John Glen. Sadly, it was also the last one for Timothy Dalton as James Bond. In part because the growing popularity of the action film was starting to make Bond look a bit old hat in comparison, but also because of the then-unprecedented blockbuster summer of 1989, “Licence to Kill” got a bit lost in the fray.

“Licence to Kill” happens to be one of my all-time favorite Bond films. The more lighthearted Bond films have their charm, but I love it when 007 goes dark. This was the series’ darkest tone in twenty years, and it wouldn’t go this dark again for almost another two decades. As Bond, Dalton really stepped up his game from what was already a fine performance in “The Living Daylights.” Though Robert Davi’s Sanchez is a gullible fool, he’s still a fine addition to the lineup of nasty Bond villains. I didn’t always love the song “Licence to Kill” by Gladys Knight, but it’s grown on me over the years and has become one of my favorite Bond themes. Fans of the “Mortal Kombat” series of video games will recognize both Talisa Soto (Princess Kitana) and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (evil sorcerer Shang Tsung) from the 1995 film adaptation. Fans of the Daniel Craig era of Bond who’ve somehow missed “Licence to Kill” should look this one up. Hopefully afterwards you’ll agree with me that the Timothy Dalton era should have been at least three films long.

Game of Thrones

So, here it comes: My first retraction of a prior statement on this blog. With my previous “Game of Thrones” editorial, I had noted that the ninth episode in a given season of this series seems to always bring (with the help of a single, powerful event) the biggest emotional wallop. As of last night’s airing of the Season 5 finale, entitled “Mother’s Mercy,” that’s simply no longer the case. Season 5, Episode 10 didn’t just top the one, horrifying aspect of Episode 9 (“The Dance of Dragons”). It threw cowpies at it, stabbed it repeatedly, and then burnt it to ashes with a seemingly endless barrage of doom and gloom. “Mother’s Mercy” was a brilliant title, in that it may have lulled some fans into a false sense of security. Unfortunately, those who watched received very little in the way of mercy. More than is typical for even this show, the overall theme for the final hour of Season 5 is the ruination of everyone’s best laid plans. Even more taxing, however, are the cliffhangers we’ve been left on. So. Many. Cliffhangers. Leave it to director David Nutter to once again make us lose sleep on a Sunday night.

If I’m to go any further on the subject, I’ll have to put forth the traditional spoiler warning. With that in mind….

****MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD****

Although “The Dance of Dragons” had sported a bloodbath in Meereen and also the burning of Shireen Baratheon with her own father’s consent, there were at least long periods when one could breathe. “Mother’s Mercy” offered very little opportunity for this, as the situations in Dorne, King’s Landing, Braavos, Winterfell and Castle Black each took sudden turns for the worse. Meereen got a mention also, but as I said, the bad had already happened, so when we rejoined Tyrion, Daario, and Jorah, they were still sorting out the mess left over from the attack by the Sons of the Harpy, which they would never have survived if not for Drogon, one of Daenerys’s three dragons. Tyrion was also reunited with Varys, he who had helped to smuggle his friend out of Westeros and to convince the rogue member of House Lannister to seek out Daenerys in the first place. Daenerys, having ridden on the back of her “child,” found herself back in Dothraki territory, where we first got to know her in Season 1. This is perhaps the most positive portion of the episode, and yet even Daenerys is finding that her best intentions have literally sent her right back to where she started from.

Stannis Baratheon, having now killed or allowed to be killed two members of his own family in a desperate attempt to seize the Iron Throne in King’s Landing, finds his efforts stalled in Winterfell when half of his forces desert him, with the other half being wiped out by House Bolton. There is no dog in that fight to root for, as both are despicable. One side is now gone, while the other lingers on. Stannis himself is dispatched (although it’s not definitively shown… hmm…) by a vengeful Brienne of Tarth, who was unable to protect Stannis’s brother Renly when Stannis killed him back in Season 2. Clearly, the Lord of Light was never truly backing this waste of human flesh. Good riddance.

In Dorne, Jaime Lannister has been attempting, at the behest of his sister Cersei, to secure the release of Myrcella, their daughter and one of three children by incest. It was feared her life might be in danger, and it was, thanks to Ellaria Sand, the still-grieving paramour of the late Oberyn Martell and mother to their three bastard daughters known as the Sand Snakes. After a scuffle and brief imprisonment, an agreement appeared to have been reached between them thanks to Oberyn’s brother, Prince Doran Martell. Sadly, someone conveniently forgot (for the second time) that the Martells are experts in deadly poisons, and that it might be more reasonable to have Ellaria say her goodbyes verbally rather than allow her to give Myrcella a parting kiss. Jaime has ultimately failed in his mission, now having helplessly watched two of his children succumb to death by poison. Worse still, if the prophecy we were shown in flashback at the season’s beginning holds any weight whatsoever, then the gentle King Tommen I won’t be far from joining his siblings in the great beyond.

Once Cersei learns of this latest tragedy, it will only add to her own woes, having been completely humiliated by the High Sparrow. Shorn of hair and forced to walk naked from the Great Sept of Baelor to the Red Keep, with hundreds of angry citizens standing ready to throw objects and yell obscenities, this is Cersei at her lowest point. Whether or not you believe she deserves this level of punishment depends entirely upon your perspective. Among all the other horrible things she’s done, Cersei placed herself in this situation when, based on the aforementioned prophecy, she had taken careful, ruthless steps to consolidate power and at least attempted to provide protection for Tommen. She’s also had it in for Margarey Tyrell, whose own ambitions to be Queen led her to wed Cersei’s psychotic firstborn, King Joffrey I, and then later his brother when the former was assassinated at his own wedding. Though she did manage, with help from the High Sparrow, to get Margarey imprisoned, it only led to the same treatment for herself, and now all of King’s Landing is in shambles. Nice going, Cersei.

Of all the various family houses, though, none has more consistently been given the shaft despite being undeserving of it than House Stark. In Braavos, Arya Stark has been training to become a faceless assassin, but can’t let go of her vengeance wish list. She collects the first name on that list, brutally murdering Meryn Trant whom she’s wanted to see dead since Season 1. It’s a truly satisfying moment, but she is soon after punished with blindness (temporary, we hope) for the act. Her sister, Sansa, has been trying to figure a way out of her own messed up situation for several episodes now. Ever the helpless victim, Sansa is rescued by Reek (formerly Theon Greyjoy) from certain death/disfigurement. What is unclear is where they’ve gone to, as the last image we have of them is jumping from the castle walls.

Whatever I said about Shireen’s death last week being a near equal of the emotional impact of the Red Wedding, forget it! That was folly! The fate of Ned Stark’s bastard son Jon Snow, which readers of the book series have been stewing about for going on four years, was finally revealed to fans of the TV series, and boy does it suck to be him! Jon’s reward for trying to play the role of peacemaker between the Night’s Watch and the Wildlings is the same for most men who try to be revolutionaries. The assholes of the world who want to hold on to things the way that they are won’t allow change to stand in their way, and neither will the Night’s Watch as they mutinied against one of the show’s most beloved characters and appear to have Julius Caesar-ed his ass.

If Jon Snow is 100% dead, and it’s implied that he is, I am not certain where that leaves the show. Certainly, main character offings have become a “Game of Thrones” tradition, but Jon Snow was perceived as one of THE three main characters along with Tyrion and Daenerys (i.e. nigh untouchable). This gives back to the show the unpredictability it had been sorely missing, but it also leaves a void not easily filled. It would be strange, I think, to end his story now when there seems to have been a buildup to something more, which is why I’m not entirely convinced this is the end for him. Resurrection has been proven to be a real thing on “Game of Thrones.” With this precedent having been set long ago, it’s not out of the realm of possibility for Jon Snow to perform a Christ-like rise. But no one who watches the show does or ever should come to expect such a reprieve. In any case, it’s going to be a full year (i.e. an excessively long wait) before we find out what happens, and now we no longer have book spoilers to help us plan for what to expect. Not since the Season 3 cliffhanger of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” a quarter-century ago have I been cursed with such anticipation.

Drive Angry (2011)

Director: Patrick Lussier

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Amber Heard, William Fichtner, Billy Burke, David Morse

Okay, I admit it… This is another one of those movies which I sought out purely because of the woman in the poster art. I enjoy the female form. Sue me. Yet, there’s more to “Drive Angry” than just the sexual appeal of its female lead. What you have here is equal parts revenge story, 1970’s “car movie,” action, comedy, and just the right splash of the supernatural for good measure. Nicolas Cage came in already familiar with this kind of movie, having played another unkillable anti-hero with ties to Hell in 2007’s “Ghost Rider” (and would follow “Drive Angry” with a “Ghost Rider” sequel). One difference between Johnny Blaze and Cage’s character here is that he seems to be having more fun with the part. He’s also working with a more well-written script. That always helps. No doubt named for the author of “Paradise Lost,” Milton may not find his origins in comic books, but his creators have a knack for setting up in-joke references.

Jonah King (Billy Burke) is the leader of a cult which has the means by which to bring Hell to Earth. For Milton, this wouldn’t change much since he’s already been there, but he has other reasons for performing a jailbreak from the Underworld. It seems that Milton’s daughter had joined this cult. When she decided to leave, Jonah forbade it, so she robbed Jonah of his manhood and Jonah killed her. Worse still, Jonah plans on sacrificing Milton’s infant granddaughter, the only tie to Milton’s daughter left to him, in order to raise Hell. As good a reason as any for a guilt-ridden father to come back from the dead.

Of course, this unholy cross between the Crow, Mad Max and the Terminator is still going to need a ride. In Oklahoma, he helps out a waitress with a nasty domestic situation (involving a two-timing husband played by screenwriter Todd Farmer), and then hops in the driver’s seat of her car: a black 1969 Dodge Charger. Not that Piper (Amber Heard) can’t take care of herself in a fight, as we see in numerous occasions where she recklessly takes on men who should be able to ruin that pretty face of hers. The best is her introduction where she fends off sexual harassment from the fat cook at the diner by grabbing him by the balls so hard that it hurts me to watch it. Reportedly, actress Amber Heard is very much like her character in real life. If that is true, I would not want to be the guy who pisses her off.

Completing the package is actor William Fichtner. He has this permanent look on his face that just screams “arrogant asshole.” In “Heat,” he did all that he could to screw Robert De Niro before getting his comeuppance. In “The Dark Knight,” he’s the bank manager in the opening scene who is willing to stand up against the Joker before getting a smoke bomb shoved in his mouth. His most memorable role up to this point has been as Col. Willie Sharp, the know-it-all NASA astronaut who is resentful of a team of oil drillers being tasked with saving the world in “Armageddon.” In “Drive Angry,” Fichtner plays an agent of Satan known simply as “the Accountant” who will stop at nothing to see Milton (in his eyes, little more than an escaped convict) returned to Hell where he belongs. Like Milton, he’s not an evil man, but he’s not exactly what you’d consider “good” either.

“Drive Angry” is honestly one of Nicolas Cage’s better films of the last decade or so. Possibly because it’s not a crappy remake (“The Wicker Man”) nor an ill-conceived comic book adaptation (“Ghost Rider”), and there’s more than one word in its title (“Next,” “Knowing,” “Trespass,” etc.). Having a blonde bombshell like Amber Heard along for the ride is definitely a plus, but is also not a crutch for the movie to either stand or fall on. “Drive Angry,” born of two 1970’s stand-by’s (the Steve McQueen high-octane car chase thriller and gothic horror), covers all of its bases so completely that it is bound to please just about anyone.

The Devil's Rejects (2005)

Director: Rob Zombie

Starring: Sid Haig, Bill Moseley, Sheri Moon Zombie, William Forsythe, Ken Foree, Matthew McGrory

It has always been the case that murderers are more glorified (getting their names in the news, etc.) than their victims. It’s even worse when the press gives them a nickname. All that does is give them what they want: instant celebrity and immortality. Something about evil is morbidly fascinating. Still, there’s no doubting that it would all be less fascinating if you or someone you care about were their latest target.

“The Devil’s Rejects” begins with a shootout between the infamous Firefly family… wanted for at least 75 known murders… and the cops, led by Sheriff John Quincey Wydell (William Forsythe), whose brother, also an officer of the law, was a victim of the Fireflys. Only Otis Driftwood (Bill Moseley) and Baby Firefly (Sheri Moon Zombie, the director’s wife) escape the firefight, while Mother Firefly (Leslie Easterbrook) is taken into police custody.

While waiting to rendezvous with the last of their merry band of serial killers, Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig), Otis and Baby terrorize and murder a traveling family of musicians known as Banjo & Sullivan. Meanwhile, as it is made clear to the police that the Fireflys all have names corresponding to characters played by Groucho Marx in the Marx Brothers’ films, Sheriff Wydell is slowly losing his sanity and is plotting his revenge. The sheriff and his three enemies are destined to butt heads once again, and if anyone on either side makes it out alive, they’re going to wish they hadn’t.

Setting aside the incredibly high count of profanity in “The Devil’s Rejects” (overkill, no pun intended), it remains a remarkably fascinating picture. There are no such things as “good guys” in this movie. The “bad guys” are the protagonists, and Sheriff Wydell is so short-tempered and unhinged himself that there is little to separate him from these people for whom he has nothing but hatred, contempt, and a strong desire to see them all dead by his own hands. This movie shares in common with “The Last House on the Left” that strange moral dilemma of whether any amount of violence in the name of vengeance is any different from the same done in the name of evil/just for the hell of it. “The Devil’s Rejects” takes it another step beyond that, asking: Can you root for the bad guys? If you root for anyone in this movie, then yes, you do root for the bad guys, because everyone here has a bit of evil in them.

“The Devil’s Rejects,” being set in the 1970’s, is powered by a period rock soundtrack. This includes “Midnight Rider” by The Allman Brothers Band, “Rocky Mountain Way” by Joe Walsh and, of course, “Freebird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd. Writer/Director Rob Zombie couldn’t have given this movie more appropriate music if he’d supplied his own material.

Everybody in the main cast creates extremely memorable characters, but Sid Haig is definitely the standout. Captain Spaulding is the creepiest clown since Tim Curry’s Pennywise from “Stephen King’s It.” An overweight, insane makeup-wearing serial murderer, Captain Spaulding is every bit as foul-mouthed as Baby and Otis, and is the only one with the ability to slap down or flat-out embarrass Otis to keep him in check. Also noteworthy is the inclusion of 1970’s horror icons Ken Foree (“Dawn of the Dead”) and Michael Berryman (“The Hills Have Eyes”).

I didn’t know until after the first time I saw this movie in late 2005 that it was actually a sequel to Rob Zombie’s debut film, 2003’s “House of 1000 Corpses.” While that film plays out like some kind of psychedelic, macabre music video, “The Devil’s Rejects” is more focused. This one plays with much different conventions than the first film did. “House of 1000 Corpses” owed more to the movies of Tobe Hooper (i.e. “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” & “The Funhouse”), while “The Devil’s Rejects” is more of an anti-hero road picture like “Bonnie and Clyde.” Granted, it’s far bloodier and more profane, but the comparison is still valid. If you’re not into that sort of thing, and if you have a hard time getting behind a movie without a clear black & white, good guy/bad guy struggle, this may not be the movie for you. But if you’re like me, and you enjoy horror films that take risks and push the boundaries of what’s acceptable… then, my friends, you will find that Rob Zombie actually does have at least one decent movie in his filmography.

The Last House on the Left (1972)

Director: Wes Craven

Starring: David Hess, Lucy Grantham, Sandra Cassel, Marc Sheffler, Ada Washington

There are horror movies you watch to sit back and have fun for 90-120 minutes, and then there are those which make you feel like taking a shower afterwards. 1972’s “The Last House on the Left” could easily fall under the latter category, but certainly never the former. Based on Ingmar Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring” (which, in turn was based on a 13th Century Swedish ballad entitled “Töres dotter i Wänge”), “The Last House on the Left” is the product of a collaboration between writer/director Wes Craven and producer Sean S. Cunningham, the creators of “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Friday the 13th,” respectively. As he would five years later with The Hills Have Eyes, Wes Craven delivers a story that preys upon the worst fears of any parent.

Right away, the film uses the “this film is based on actual events” ploy. Come on, we’re not falling for it. 17-year old Mari Collingwood (Sandra Cassel) is off to a concert featuring a band called “Bloodlust” with her friend, Phyllis Stone (Lucy Grantham). Mari’s parents are setting things up for their daughter’s birthday celebration, and although they object to Mari’s choice of not wearing a bra and have obvious misgivings about Phyllis coming from a bad neighborhood, they’re “hip” enough to let their daughter make her own decisions.

Along the way to New York City for the concert, Mari and Phyllis hear a news bulletin on the car radio about a group of escaped convicts who killed two prison guards and one German Shepherd. There’s the leader, Krug Stillo (David Hess, who also provides the songs for the movie), his son Junior (Marc Sheffler), Fred “Weasel” Podowski, and Sadie (whose last name is never mentioned). Junior is only the getaway driver, and doesn’t appear to be in on the more gruesome aspects of the groups activites. His only reason for tagging along is that his father has him hooked on heroine in order to control him. Seemingly forgetting the part of the bulletin that listed “dope-pushing” in addition to murder and rape among the list of offenses committed by Krug & Co., the girls happen upon Junior standing outside the apartment being used for a hideout, and ask if they can score some grass. This mistake leads to their kidnapping and rape, which continues into the next day.

One thing that always strikes me about the first half of “The Last House on the Left” is how the events play out so strikingly similar to events that too often appear as news reports on television. As with many real-life kidnapping/murder cases, the location of the movie’s most disturbing scenes is none other than the woods across the street from Mari’s house! Because so much time has passed since the previous night’s concert, Mari’s parents have called the local sheriff and his deputy. The sheriff’s deputy is played by Martin Kove (known to fans of the original “The Karate Kid” as John Kreese). It is the inclusion of these two characters that brings about one of my biggest complaints about this movie. They are obviously there for little more than comic relief, which I find highly inappropriate and detrimental to the overall mood of the picture. The two find the escaped cons’ broken down getaway vehicle abandoned close by the Collingwood’s home.

Meanwhile in the woods, the group takes turns humiliating Mari and Phyllis. With Mari on the verge of a total breakdown, Phyllis devises a plan that involves her running off to distract Krug and the others while Mari is supposed to run for help. Mari, who recognizes where she is, attempts to gain Junior’s trust, giving him her necklace and trying to encourage him to run away with her along with the false promise of his next fix. Phyllis almost makes it to the street before being cornered. Stabbed in the back, the only thing Phyllis can do is spit blood in the face of her attackers before being stabbed again. Over and over again, to the point where her insides are on the outside! Having wasted time, both trying to convince Junior to join her and calling out to Phyllis, Mari is caught before she can run home across the street to safety. Instead, she is raped by Krug. Then, an odd thing happens. As Mari collapses to her knees, vomits and begins to pray, the audience is given reaction shots from Krug and the others. They look as though they’re actually feeling remorseful for the things they’ve just done to these two young women! But they also recognize they can’t leave any witnesses if they expect to get away, so they follow Mari down to the lake where Krug shoots her three times, killing her.

Thus begins the second half of the film, which suffers some in its inability to live up to the intensity of the first half. Krug & Co. wash off the blood, change clothes and go looking for a house where they can get a free meal and some rest. The choice they make reminds me of something Krug made a point of insisting to Phyllis back at the apartment: “We ain’t stupid!” If that were truly the case, why then would these four choose to stick around after learning that they’d picked the house belonging to the parents of one of their victims? But that’s exactly what they do! Mrs. Collingwood is the one who figures it all out, spotting Mari’s necklace around Junior’s neck and then overhearing the location of her daughter’s body while looking through the suitcase full of the group’s bloody clothing.

Another problem I found with this film, besides the unnecessary comic relief, is the editing. In particular, I was dissatisfied with the way the scene where Mari’s parents discover her body is pieced together. Firstly, Mari can clearly be seen moving around while her father is declaring her to be dead (quite a feat in itself, since he never moves his mouth). Secondly, it is immediately followed by a dream sequence that Weasel is having that involves the Collingwoods laughably dressing in medical garb and the father chiseling away at Weasel’s teeth. Until the quick shot of Mari on the living room couch, it’s hard to tell whether they’d actually gone out and found her, or if Weasel dreamed it.

Finally, the Collingwoods decide turn the tables on their daughter’s killers. This is where the movie’s true message comes into play: Is any one form of violence better than another? There is a degree of ambiguity, but the suggestion is that the answer would be no. The movie allows us to get caught up in the revenge and then stand back to choose whether or not it goes too far.

A remake was released in 2009. The overall plot more closely represents what Wes Craven originally had in mind for his version, especially in regards to the fate of Mari. To be honest, I think the more effective approach in terms of storytelling is to have both girls die. Furthermore, although I’ve spent time listing certain flaws of the original (while leaving out a few others), my overall impression is that this is a well made horror film by men who still had yet to leave their biggest marks on the genre. Flawed, strangely edited, and often too silly for its own good, but undeniably memorable in the very best sense.