Sense of Wonder: Jason vs. the Mummy

As you can see, it’s Jason Mania here at Cinefantastique Online. By clicking on the tag for Friday the 13th, you can check out reviews of the old films and of the disappointing reboot that opened this weekend. One interesting aspect of the new film is that it brings into focus the human tendency to view films from one’s formative years as being the apex of cinematic achievement: everything before is just one long prologue; everything afterward is just one dull decline. This tendency is amusing in the case of the FRIDAY THE 13TH franchise – which, unlike most famous horror franchises, does not boast a single classic films among its many iterations. No matter how many disappointing sequels there were to FRANKENSTEIN (1931), HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), or A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STEET (1984), the originals continue to hold their own as great movies – something that cannot be said for 1980’s FRIDAY THE 13TH, a rather lackluster, mechanical thriller most notable for the gory special effects by Tom Savini (DAWN OF THE DEAD).

Friday the 13th (2009)
Friday the 13th (2009)

It is, therefore, with a certain wry detachment that I read heated debates on message boards about whether the new FRIDAY THE 13TH lives up to the old. All too predictably, fans who grew up watching the originals tend to give the new film a thumbs down, while the next generation of horror fans are all to happy to embrace the new incarnation of Jason Voorhees. I feel a certain sense of vindication, knowing that once upon a time these older FRIDAY fans were disparaging horror films from an earlier generation; as it always does, the pattern comes full circle, and now they reap what they used to sow, scorn from younger viewers who think horror films of their generation kick ass over boring old “classics.”
I don’t really have a dog in this contest, so I am content to let both sides claw each other bloody while I sit on the sidelines, but I do think it worth noting that the new FRIDAY promises to exactly duplicate its progenitor in at least one regard: while being critically reviled (27% at Rotten Tomatoes), it will earn a ton of money (the weekend estimate so far stands at $42.2-million).
What this means regarding critical approval versus popular taste is not a question I want to explore at the moment. Rather, I want to take a moment to step back and remind older viewers that being old does not necessarily make a film better than something new. Yes, we recall the favorites of our childhood and teenage years with fond nostalgia, but that doesn’t mean they are all classics, and we shouldn’t begrudge the current movie-going generation for enjoying films that are probably no more flawed than many that we think of as a “masterpiece.”
This may sound like something that should go without saying, but sadly it bears repeating. This truism first occurred most obviously to me several years while channel-surfing with an older friend, a fan of classic horror from the Universal era (1930s and’40s) and stumbling upon FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VII: THE NEW BLOOD. While my friend (who shall remain nameless) launched into a rant about how terrible modern horror films, I tried to point out that this particular film was at least trying to do something a little different and interesting with the old formula.
When that strategy failed to appease him, I shifted to pointing out that, for better or worse, the FRIDAY films are really not much worse than the old MUMMY movies that are considered “classics”; in fact, when you come to think of it, Jason and the Mummy have a lot in common. Both are slow-moving, silent, decaying monsters whose ability to instill fear relies much upon their implacable nature. You might be able to outrun them, but they never tire and they never quit; eventually, inevitably, you will find yourself pausing for breath or running down a blind alley with no way out. Either way, once you are targeted, you’re doomed, even if that doom arrives on striding feet that do not break into a run.

Boris Karloff

One might argue that the FRIDAY films are cruder, relying on gore rather than subtlety, but the MUMMY film are not necessarily subtle. The very first one, Universal’s1932 THE MUMMY with Boris Karloff, did keep the title character’s decayed visage and bandaged body almost entirely off-screen, but when the studio revived the concept in the 1940s, the whole point was to show this ugly, rotting monster, the very sight of whom was supposed to instill terror.
When Hammer Films remade THE MUMMY in 1959, the character took another step in Jason’s direction. Combining elements from the 1932 original and Universal’s subsequent ’40s films, Hammer’s Mummy (played by Christopher Lee) was no longer an arthritic cripple shambling along at a snail’s pace; instead, he was a striding juggernaut, smashing through windows and doors and mowing his victims down with admirable dispatch. He did not wield any sharp implements, but their was a brutal efficiency to his methods, as when he rebels against the high priest and breaks his back over his knee.
This last sequence finds an approximate corollary in FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VI: JASON LIVES, when Jason bends a sheriff backwards. I can’t say that writer-director Tom McLoughlin was making a direct reference to the 1959 MUMMY, but the film shows him to be a fan of classic movie monsters (he names a store after Boris Karloff, the original Mummy, for example).
Also a fan of old horror movies was John Carl Buechler, who directed the next FRIDAY THE 13TH film, PART VII: THE NEW BLOOD. He told me once that the slasher icons of the ’70s and ’80s (Leatherface, Michael Myers, Jason) did not have the same appeal as the previous generation of horror characters like Dracula and Frankenstein; only when Jason became one of the walking dead (in JASON LIVES) did Buechler start to find the character interesting. Indeed, one of the strengths of Bueckler’s FRIDAY film is the depiction of Jason, whose costume and makeup (when it is finally revealed) go a long way toward making him resemble a good old-fashioned movie monster.
What all this tells me is that the distinctions we might like to draw between films of different eras are not so clear cut as we might like to believe. Our love for films we saw at an impressionable age is not to be dismissed lightly, but neither should it blind us to the strengths and weaknesses of films are either older or newer than the ones we usually prefer. Here at Cinefantastique Online, we treasure classic movies not because they are old but because they are good and/or historically important. We may look askance at popular trends, and we don’t quaff each new brand of Kool-Aid that Hollywood pumps out to an undiscriminating public, but we don’t dismiss the new simply because it is new; we appreciate good work from any era. I wish the new FRIDAY THE 13TH had been a better film, one worthy of becoming the big success it seems poised to be. But I won’t let my disappointment fool me into thinking that those old Mummy movies are somehow intrinsically better in a way that a Jason film could never hope to be.

Laserblast DVD & Blu-Ray: Mummy 3, Death Race, Grindhouse & Man Who Fell to Earth

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Since the heady days of the laserdisc era, the Criterion branding had made cineastes everywhere breathe easier when forking out big bucks for their lauded special editions of classic films. After a shaky transition to DVD production (with more than a few non-anamorphic, recycled transfers) they regrouped rather masterfully, showing an amazing ability to come up with exhaustively detailed supplemental material (it takes about as long to sift through their 3-disc set of Mr. Arkadin as it did for Orson Welles to complete the film) to compliment a beautifully rendered feature. When Criterion announced earlier in 2008 that they would begin issuing their catalog on Bluray disc later in the year, there was much excitement – even from those of us who could host a month-long tag sale featuring double dipped DVDs. Among their first wave of HD discs appearing this week are Nicholas Roeg’s delirious, kaleidoscopic, and ultimately tragic The Man Who Fell to Earth. More than 30 years after its original release, Roeg’s film about a visitor from another planet (David Bowie, in the best and bravest performance of his career) who arrives on Earth and sets up a corporate behemoth that will allow him to build a ship to bring his people back from their dying world. Fans of the film will understand that any attempt at a plot description is folly; this is no simple Sci-Fi tale, nor was Roeg content with a Rod Serling-esque attempt to use genre elements to hold a mirror up to the human condition – the Peckinpah-influenced editing rhythms combine with the breathtaking cinematography and sound design to create a sensory experience, that, unlike other “trip” movies of the era, still holds up beautifully today. The extras replicate those found on Criterion’s standard-def DVD release, with the unfortunate exception of the handsome reprint of the Walter Tevis novel on which the film is based, otherwise they are as follows:

  • New, restored high-definition digital transfer, supervised and approved by director Nicolas Roeg
  • Audio commentary by Roeg and actors David Bowie and Buck Henry
  • New video interview with screenwriter Paul Mayersberg
  • Performance, new video interview with actors Candy Clark and Rip Torn
  • Audio interviews with costume designer May Routh and production designer Brian Eatwell
  • Audio interview from 1984 with author Walter Tevis, conducted by Don Swaim
  • Multiple stills galleries, including Routh’s costume sketches; behind-the-scenes photos; and production and publicity stills, introduced by set photographer David James
  • Gallery of posters from Roeg’s films
  • Trailers

Also appearing in Criterion’s first wave of Bluray releases this week are Carol Reed’s The Third Man, Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express, and Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket, each replicating the plentiful extras of their SD counterparts.

The Mummy Trilogy
The Mummy Trilogy

Has it really been nearly a decade since Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy opened? We vividly remember being wowed by the picture during its initial theatrical release, enjoying the melding of cherry picked horror elements with a Raiders of the Lost Ark-like affection for the adventure serials of the 30s and 40s, and infused with an orgy of (at the time) state of the art digital effects. But most of all we enjoyed the lead performance of Brendan Fraser, who’s chiseled, leading man visage sits easily with an open, engaging sense of humor. Fraser had to work a bit harder in the sequel, The Mummy Returns, which tried hard (with some success) to hang on to the air of pure fun that the original achieved so effortlessly. And if the show leaned a bit too hard on the accelerator for fear of boring its perceived audience of young children, it also wisely retained nearly all of the engaging supporting cast of the first film, including the always stunning Rachel Weisz, and the formidable Arnold Vosloo. Unfortunately, this past summer’s The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor jettisoned the majority of the supporting cast from the previous films and shifted the action to China. We’ll look forward to spinning the Bluray and hope that some of the original film’s goofball adventurism remains. (Note – not to be confused with 2008’s other underperforming, effects heavy, vaguely Victorian-era period film starring Brendan Fraser, Journey to the Center of the Earth).
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Universal is releasing lots ‘o Mummy this week, with 5 separate releases choking the shelves. Tomb of the Dragon Emperor arrives in single-disc widescreen and fullscreen editions (presumably to sell at supermarket checkout lines) and a 2-disc edition featuring deleted and extended scenes alongside the standard EPK-style making of documentaries and featurettes. The Bluray release has all that, plus several HD exclusives, including an interactive trivia game and a visual commentary track with director Rob Cohen (that appears to be the same track utilized in audio-only form for the SD releases). Dragon also joins its forbearers for a Bluray 3-pack featuring all three films of the franchise, excluding The Scorpion King.
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Director Uwe Boll has long been taking advantage of certain labyrinthine German tax laws that generously reward investors with a 100% write-off for their investment in a German film production. Fair enough, but there has been no such explanation for why his films, once completed, actually manage to get released. Hating Uwe Boll has turned into a cottage industry in the last few years, with his incompetently shot, incoherently edited string of video game adaptations continually enraging unknowing renters, critics, and gamers alike (according to Wikipedia, a recent video game industry award show had the category “Game Most Deserving of a Uwe Boll Adaptation”). Uwe’s latest, In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, hits Bluray this week in an “unrated director’s cut” and clocking in at a mind bending 162min! According to the back of the box:

When a bloodthirsty legion of half-man/half-beast Krugs rampages through his village, one man picks up a sword and undertakes a quest of vengeance… and honor. Haunted by the memory of his son’s death and the kidnapping of his wife (Forlani) by the Krugs, Farmer (Statham) ignites a duty-call for others to join his crusade to stop the campaign of terror waged by an evil sorcerer (Liotta) whose ruthless quest for the crown could spell doom for the entire Kingdom.

The show had been previously released on DVD in its PG-13 theatrical length of 127min, and while we haven’t had the chance to view the film yet, it would be impossible to say that the thought of seeing evil sorcerer Ray Liotta share the screen with Burt Reynolds and Matthew Lillard wasn’t tempting. I’d also be interested to know how top billed Jason Statham wound up in this particular gutter, as he generally finds himself in the somewhat more rarified air of a Transporter picture, or at the very least a…

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Death Race. Those of us charting the progress of the remake train were a bit surprised that it took them this long to get to the Roger Corman station. Corman, a producer who didn’t so much pinch pennies as grind them into a fine powder, has a mile-long list of exploitable titles that he’s more than likely thrilled to sell the remake rights to – terrific stories that could be enhanced by a more luxurious budget. This remake of 1975’s Death Race 2000 gives us the near ubiquitous Jason Statham in David Carradine’s former role of ‘Frankenstein’, this time forced along with other inmates to participate in the titular race by a for-profit prison authority. We haven’t had the chance to see the picture yet, but are holding out hope – particularly since Stephen King named it as one of his favorite pictures of 2008 – that the modern update can take director Paul Bartel’s bare-bones concept of a cross country race across a economically devastated American landscape (watch for hysterical background bits like a hospital-sponsored euthanasia day) where points are awarded for killing innocent people and retain its madcap spirit. Classing it up with slumming thespians Joan Allen and Ian McShane certainly helps, and we’re always hopeful that director Paul W.S. Anderson’s story telling sense will one day match his visual flair. Available in the requisite unrated versions in both SD DVD and Bluray, which features the enticing “My Movie Commentary” feature, that apparently allows the viewer to record their own race commentary.
Also debuting on Bluray are the extended editions of Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof and Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, once known as the two halves of Grindhouse. Released to lukewarm business in 2007, Grindhouse was a labor of love for the two directors; two separate films designed to show as a double feature and featuring a quartet of faux trailers for other genre offerings and vintage theatrical title cards. Tarantino and Rodriguez even went to far as to digitally scratch-up their films (which works much better for Planet Terror) so as to better represent a battered print that has been playing in seedy ‘grindhouses’ all over the country. It’s not hard to imagine why more people didn’t turn out to see the film; aside from a hardcore audience that would relish the idea of returning to the days when you could wander down to 42nd street and sit through hours of kung-fu pictures, blaxsploitation epics, and Euro-sleaze vampires, while counting how many trailers for New World Pictures contained Roger Corman’s famous exploding helicopter shot, most in the younger set could barely grasp the concept of a double feature. This led to Miramax splitting the two films up (and extending the running time for each) for foreign theatrical and domestic DVD release. Fans in the US were bitterly disappointed when they weren’t given the option of seeing the Grindhouse edit on video, particularly because the brilliant trailers by Eli Roth (Thanksgiving), Edgar Wright (Don’t) and Rob Zombie (Werewolf Women of the SS) were left off both DVD releases.
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While still massively irritating, the separation of the pictures has been kind to our favorite of the two, Planet Terror. While the directive was to make a film that embraced the grindhouse experience, only Rodriguez seems to have fully committed himself to that end. Planet Terror is a lovingly raucous ode to the Italian zombie/infection sub-genre (see Luigi Cozzi’s 1982 Contamination for a clearer example) that perfectly captures the gooey thrill ride of a film unencumbered by a moral compass. Death Proof, however, is another story. Though there are few complaints about the huge performance from Kurt Russell as the mysterious Stuntman Mike or the thrilling car chase that caps the show, the picture almost doesn’t recover from the endlessly chatty first half. As of this writing, the only place to secure the feature as shown in theaters is a pricey Japanese DVD release (available via Amazon Japan) that contains the theatrical edit along with the individual cuts. As both films were designed to look absolutely ravaged, Planet Terror and Death Proof might appear at first to be unusual candidates for HD disc. Planet Terror features all of the extras from the previous DVD edition, including a typically engaging commentary track from Rodriguez, a fun audience reaction audio track (their reaction to Rodriguez’s own fake trailer for Machete is priceless), and several featurettes including 10 Minute Film School that concentrates on the special effects, and The Friend, The Doctor, and the Real Estate Agent detailing some unorthodox casting decisions. But also present (and in HD no less) is a “newly discovered” scratch-free print of the film, which basically removes all the digital manipulation used to age the film, rendering it in spotless 1080p glory – it makes for an interesting viewing, if only to further appreciate the level of commitment Rodriguez had for the project.
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Death Proof also ports over the extras from the previous release, including Introducing Zoë Bell, a tribute to the endearingly plucky stuntwoman/actress, and Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike, which reiterates that Kurt is the coolest guy on the planet. No scratch-free version this time around, as Tarantino apparently didn’t feel like he needed to bother scratching his half of Grindhouse up all that much to begin with. As long as there’s cash to be made, count on the Weinsteins to run the string of separate releases out to the very end before giving fans what they’ve been asking for – in line behind me, lemmings!
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Also showing up this week with a surprisingly low profile is what ought to be one of the most eagerly anticipated genre titles on Bluray, Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. Warner Bros (through subsidiary New Line) has been cancelling and postponing this for months now, with some copies having already leaked out through online retailers. Craven’s film has attained the status of an unquestioned masterpiece, as important to the 80s as Halloween was to the 70s and Night of the Living Dead to the 60s, and though it regrettably ushered in the era of the wisecracking, crowd pleasing serial killer, it’s also a wholly original, artistic triumph. And while the picture on the Bluray is a substantial improvement over New Line’s older Infini-Film edition, the lack of any extras for such a historically important film tells us to prepare for a deluxe Bluray somewhere down the line.

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008) – Fantasy Film Review

After popular but uninspired THE MUMMY and THE MUMMY RETURNS, there was never much chance that THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR was going to turn out to be a great film, but a new setting, the introduction of a new villain, the recasting of the female lead, and the presence of Rob Cohen in the director’s chair suggested that sequel would be at least a slight change of pace. Although the formula remains much the same tanna leave concoction as before, there are indeed few new wrinkles on the dessicated old corpse, just enough to make this pleasant popcorn movie for viewers seeking action and adventure without too many chills and thrills. As before, the last thing this MUMMY movie wants to do is actually scare anybody; it’s all good clean fun obviously patterned on the INDIANA JONES movies, but without the gung-ho pro-American jingoism. Continue reading “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008) – Fantasy Film Review”

Laserblast: The Ruins crumble, Batman Begins again, The Mummy returns

It’s summer, and that means summer movie blockbusters, and that means old titles arriving on DVD to cash in on the summer movie blockbusters. With THE DARK KNIGHT, THE MUMMY 3, and THE X-FILES looming on the theatrical horizon, we have a flood of related titles arriving on home video. Meanwhile, if you’re looking for something new, THE RUINS arrives in three different versions: an unrated Blu-ray disc, an unrated DVD, and a standard DVD. This well received horror film did lackluster business during its brief tour of theatres; perhaps it will find its audience now. In his review for Cinefantastique Online, Lawrence French wrote that the film ” is quite an intelligent re-imaging of an already overworked area, that still manages to deliver some incredibly visceral shocks and tap into some basic primordial fears, which for horror fans, will make it quite a fun movie to watch.” Continue reading “Laserblast: The Ruins crumble, Batman Begins again, The Mummy returns”

The Mummy returns (again)

Production is currently underway on THE MUMMY 3: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR. Brendan Fraser is back in the lead, along with co-star John Hannah. Maria Bello replaces Rachel Weiz, and Hong Kong action stars Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh have also been added to the cast. Rob Cohen (DRAGON: THE BRUCE LEE STORY) takes over the directorial reigns from Stephen Sommers.
On his official website, detailing the production, Cohen recently posted the first from from the film.