One For My Brother: A ‘Best Of’ List


(DRAFT) Anecdotes and commentary on Gilroy Drastik’s Top 10 favorite movies… (as hard as it was to limit the list to just 10)…

Jaws.

Here’s to swimmin’ with bow-legged women!

Inspired by the Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916, Spielberg’s 1975 iconographic movie of the predatory Great White terrorizing the fictional northeastern Amity Island (filmed at Martha’s Vineyard) was adapted from Peter Benchley’s novel. Ironically, Benchley has said if he’d known a bit more about the behavior of Great Whites, he’d not have written the book as it was. Although, when approached by Doubleday, the writer was told that what they wanted wasn’t non-fiction. They wanted a story about a shark terrorizing a town. For once the Creature Feature was enormously successful (rated among the top 250 of IMDB) and only slightly corny (the obvious moments when on-screen actors are dealing with difficult, animatronic puppet). Despite the intensity and suspense that establishes Jaws as one of the greatest horror movies (or maybe plain old thriller is a better genre heading), it was followed by several sequels, a shitty NES game, and one incredibly ridiculous cheesy theme park ride that only nominally have anything in common with their predecessor film (they were definitely “some bad hat, harry!”).

In a nutshell, the plot centers on the newly ordained Amity Police Chief, Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) who inherits a major dilemma in his initial service – a string of shark attacks during the Island tourist town’s busiest season. Initially met with stupid, yet understandable political and economic pressures bearing down on him as to whether the beaches should be shut down, a few deaths has the small town eager for a quick solution like taking row boats out and a hanging a slab of meat on a fish hook, waiting to throw a handful of dynamite in a hungry shark’s mouth. But, Brody, ever the pragmatist, solicits the help of a university-trained marine biologist (Richard Dreyfuss) and a wry traditionalist boat captain (Robert Shaw, who also starred in The Deep, another sea-side Benchley adaptation) to put an end to the town’s crippling threat – a great white shark.

Farewell and adieu to you fine Spanish ladies…

In part, the movie has survived the test of time because of the cool of its leading late actors, Roy Scheider (Brody) and Englishman Robert Shaw (Quinn). But, it also survives as an example of effective elements in suspense that went beyond the transparent thrills and scare tactics that have saturated most modern American horror. Jaws manages to bring all of its nervous development to a claustrophobic climax rigged with intense doubt – will three desperate men aboard a rather small boat managed to finally put an end to the small town’s persistent terror?

It’s been said that the beach population was significantly down in the year of Jaws‘s release, something understandable where audiences were just as unfamiliar with shark behavior as the author of its source material.

Alien.

In space, no one can hear you scream.

Talk about claustrophobic settings… Alien‘s tensions are brilliant invoked before the movie even begins. Just look at the isolation of the glowing egg encompassed by the black background on the promotional material.

Alien centers around the crew of a commercial spaceship returning to Earth who’s mission quickly turns into tragedy. Ordered by their corporate employers to investigate the unidentified signals coming from something like a mini-planet, they destroy parts of the ship in the process and unknowingly transport the seeds of a vicious alien.

Alien was penned by two guys who made their early career in alien-based science fiction and initially pitched it as “Jaws in space.” In all, it was shopped around nearly ten years before getting the greenlight. Dan O’Bannon was involved in the early stages of Dune (as was director Ridley Scott, who later abandoned the option to direct the project in order to work on Blade Runner) and Ronald Shusett would later work on Total Recall. British director Scott lead a fairly prominent cast for the first of the (so-far) five film Franchise. By 1986, James Cameron took over for Aliens, followed by David Fincher for Alien3.

The notoriously meticulous Scott had been trained in advertising and his early work was as a director of commercials before moving into directing episodes of various series. Alien was only his second feature film, following The Duelists, but really, his first major one, and, as a major commercial success with lasting cult popularity, he quickly earned a spot among sought out Hollywood elite. The funny history is that, in bout 10 years of shopping around the script for financing, Roger Corman‘s studios nearly picked up the film. In the end, 20th Century Fox signed on.

The beauty of Alien, too, is its visuals; the chilling environment modeled on the imagination of then-obscure surreal artist, H.R. Geiger, distinguishing it as a Gothic horror film. But of course, what audiences remember most and what eventually lead to winning an Academy Award was the special effects, especially those few moments so frequently highlighted in horror homage clip show productions like the oft-spoofed (Spaceballs) alien bursting out of John Heard’s chest and the face-to-face encounter between Harry Dean Stanton and the heavily salivating alien, Mother. Outside of a few questionable haircuts and obsolete catchphrases, the film manages to avoid looking too dated (which, hopefully means, suggestions for remakes are quickly dismissed!). Though, what might it look like had Roger Corman’s team actually succeeded a contract to fund the project?

The Thing.

Noticing the trend of creature features in (eventual) isolated settings?

The Thing is a remake of the Christian Nyby’s 1951 science fiction horror of the same name, arguably a better adaption of its novella source: John Campbell, Jr.’s “Who Goes There?” Directed by John Carpenter and released in 1982, The Thing expands on the general plot of Alien: greater odds against the heroes. Here, a Norwegian helicopter carrying the seed of a predatory alien with the ability to mimic its prey is shot down in the Arctic region where a small group of American scientists are stationed. Alien was more political – the fate of the crew was in part, caused by the betrayal of their employers. On the other hand, The Thing, is stripped down to pure psychological play. Uncertain of who can be trusted when the victims can distinguish between human and alien, tensions rise and morals are tested: some prefer the survivalist credo of every man for himself.

Like Alien, the movie doesn’t bend entirely to the expectations of a neat resolution, among other genre standards (finally, the black guy doesn’t die first!) Film editor Todd Ramsay had suggested to Carpenter that the film have a “happy ending,” and an alternative ending was shot in which MacReady (Kurt Russel) is the lone victim to be rescued and, following a blood test, is shown to be human rather than the alien replica. However, this was never actually shown to test audiences in either of the two endings that were screened. Although, The Thing has appeared in “Best Of” lists (including IMDB’s user-rated Top 250 movie list) and archived in the clip-show styled homage Terror in the Aisles, the movie was hardly considered successful in the opening weekend. Carpenter had blamed this on the competing release of Spielberg’s E.T., which of course was a positive,  family-oriented view of alien visitors (and Carpenter’s 1984 romantic sci-fi Starman would be kinder, too) whereas The Thing was bleak and, for critics, the tremendously detailed special effects, were rightfully described as just being too gross (especially a scene in which the doctor has his forearms bitten off while he’s got his hands in a chest cavity).

Blade Runner.

“I am the Nexus One, yeah! I want more like, fucker I ain’t done!” White Zombie – More Human Than Human

Blade Runner is one of the best films of dystopic future (and Paul Sammon’s book gives the best history of the film from inception to release). It was never well-received and not surprisingly survives as a cult classic because it is quite technical, moody, slow, and artistic science fiction. But, the best features is that visually, it’s beautiful; a painstaking construction of what dismal, over-populated Los Angeles might look like in 2019. Director Ridley Scott’s meticulousness and close guard over the craftsmanship is evident and the product is so pristine and perfect for the high-definition home theater luxuries these days. (Scott’s meticulousness, too, is also responsible for some of the off-screen rivalries with the crew and studio).

Scott directed Blade Runner after completing Alien, although initially he was supposed to direct Dune. According to Scott, however, he needed to keep himself busy following the sudden death of his eldest brother and with production on  Initially, the next project not expected to begin for another year, he accepted the invitation to direct this.

It took a long time for Blade Runner to even get studio backing. Hampton Fancher, a book-smart, former child actor was the second to approach the eccentric Phillip K. Kick to option the rights to his novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (The title Blade Runner came from a William Burroughs novel). Dick was never quite satisfied with Fancher’s screenplay version, once calling it too simple. Although, he never seemed too happy with Scott’s version, either, eventually going to lengths to publicly express his disapproval. And when the initially small production team tried to find financing for the film, studios continuously doubted there would even be a significant audience for the film. The novel, too, was always said to be hard to translate to film, anyways.

Blade Runner is a variation of Frankenstein. Man has created a destructive lifeform that ultimately must be destroyed for reasons beyond the creature’s own understanding; means beyond its control. In Blade Runner, when Earth became so over-populated and pollution, the humans looked to inhabit other planets. Replicants – nearly perfect synthetic simulations of humans built to expire in four years – were created for the colonization of other planets, first to fight in the wars, then to be used as slave labor. The movie went beyond the obsolete notion of androids – there was nothing that appeared artificial to the naked eye. Even memories were implanted. A special machine that used an iris-scan while the tester asked a series of mood-altering questions was the only way to really tell.But even this method wasn’t fool proof.

When the Nexus 6 androids staged a violent revolt, replicants were declared illegal on Earth. Blade Runners are the agents hired to kill them. With word that there had been a group in the desolate Los Angeles city looking for their maker – the Tyrell Corporation, Richard Deckard (Harrison Ford) a pathetic looking blade runner (who seemed even more pathetic and jaded in the book) had been forced out of retirement to track them down. With the exception of a chase sequence and the battle-to-the-death-style finale, Blade Runner isn’t really an action movie. It had long been described as noir science fiction. Deckard is a detective asked to solve a mystery with a moral dilemma. He’s on a trail of clues that will eventually lead him to the replicants he’s been hired to kill.

Deckard isn’t really as interesting as a the replicants. He’s like a very drained Sam Marlowe. But, replicants are dynamic, sympathetic creatures, particularly Deckard’s love interest, Rachel (Sean Young, who claimed, ironically,  that Harrison Ford would not speak to her much off-screen), and the ringleader Roy Batty. They merely desire a solution to their plight: stalling the clock on their limetd lifespan. While the replicants are a simulation, the question is, “what does it mean to be human?” There was a particularly heartbreaking exchange between Roy Batty and Richard Deckard during the final showdown:

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time… like tears in rain… Time to die.”

Cheech & Chong: Up in Smoke.

“You wanna get high man?”

Cheech & Chong were a great team; masters of the weedsploitation drama, although with the duo’s film debut, Up in Smoke, released in 1978, Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong started on a high (literally and figuratively) and would gradually end on a low by the final film in the franchise. Other than Nice Dreams, few of their other films were worth much note.

The Cheech & Chong films were borne out of the duo’s stand-up comedy of the 70s and 80s. Up in Smoke was brilliant, improvised silliness and came out of the old days of riskier ventures. Given Lou Adler’s commentary on the DVD, it seemed like the film’s director and producer knew the comedy pair, or their potential, and, with a scant idea of what it should be, had the money to finance a goofy venture. But, they had trouble advertising the movie through traditional means. There was the obvious liability and public relations crisis expected when it comes to promoting a pothead movie to the mainstream… although it doesn’t seem to be much of a problem these days, given the mainstream successes of movies like Half Baked and Pineapple Express. Cheech and Chong was a novelty, too, in that they were also a musical duo, something they did in their stage shows and might have inspired the Flight of the Conchords duo. Cheech and Chong performed some of the songs on their film’s soundtracks and are seen in Up in Smoke actually performing against a handful of self-indulgent punk bands at the Battle of the Bands show. So, the film was advertised in comic strips and left on bus benches. Weirdly enough, it was successful. Released by Paramount, the movie grossed over $40 million and was the 12th highest grossing film of 1978.

There’s a wonderful scene towards the opening of the film where Anthony Stoner (Tommy Chong), hitchhiking, dresses as a woman (including the added detail of fake hooters) in order to get someone to stop and give him a ride. Pedro (Cheech), cruising the strip in his polished boat (this was really Jack Nicholson’s car), catches a glimpse of the hitchhiking woman and the brain to response connection is clear when his his widen and he cries out, “She’s hitchhiker!!. And finally, the center of attention were two non-white guys! Chong had absconded from his rich, nagging white adopted parents who basically yell at him to make something of himself. Cheech is a sort of stereotypical Mexican from the Southern California barrio. Chong befriends Cheech and joins his mariachi band as the drummer. Cheech has the idea that they should compete in the up-coming battle of the bands and in between the journey to finally score some weed and make it to the competition, the oblivious duo is always, and inadvertently two steps ahead of the bumbling drug agents and their frustrated supervising seargent (played wonderfully by Stacy Keach who has the great line: “To think of the time and money I’ve wasted on your training…”).

Nice Dreams came along in 1981, the third in the franchise. But, it somewhat continues the adventures of Up in Smoke. Bumbling drug agents are once again trying to track down the once-again oblivious Cheech and Chong’s successful, covert weed operation, “Nice Dreams.” But this time, Stacey Keach’s character, who has taken an unquestioned desk job where he basically smokes a pretty potent brand of weed, gradually transforms into an iguana. Needless to say, Nice Dreams is more of a surreal comedy (and appropriately so, given the weedsploitation context) than it’s predecessor, Up in Smoke.

The Terminator.

Intimacy. Intimacy. Ya ya ya ya….

For people of the video-cassette age (and I suppose, of the DVD age, as well, though it’s fairly newer), there is that one movie they’ve watched so often, especially as kids, that they’ve ruined the tape it came on. For my brother and I, that movie was the 1984 technophobic sci-fi, Terminator. The hyperactive kid that my brother was, this would surely set him off for invisible combat and inevitably led to us getting on our folks’ nerves and being ordered to go outside and play.

And despite the gaping plot hole (a soldier fighting in the cyber wars of the future volunteers to go back in time to protect the mother of the future hero he will eventually help conceive), the corny dialogue, and the financial glut of the movies to follow in the never-ending franchise (including a television series and theme park attraction), it will always be one of my favorite science fiction films. The first Terminator took place in gritty, punky Los Angeles, and the urban wasteland served as a proper prologue environment to the violent future predicted by Sara Conner. By the first sequel, Terminator 2, studios shelled out millions for the Hollywood polish. By comparison, the first movie was made on a surprising budget of less than $7 million (which might mean that this was not an expensive cast) and obviously, continues to gross well over the double-digit million dollar mark (it too, holds a user-rated ranking in the Top 250 films on IMDB). Gritty as the first one, though, that’s not to say it was a cheaply done production. That’s just not James Cameron’s style even with just $7 million. And the budget was probably largely allotted for special effects. There’s plenty of explosions, construction of active futuristic battleground, stop-motion Terminator animation, and the terrific scene of The Terminator chipping away at the fleshy disguise to reveal the functioning exoskeleton.

Throughout the Terminator franchise, the demise of the future is blamed on the Skynet corporation. Like Blade Runner, the artificial intelligence embodied in creepy chrome exoskeletons created by the corporations defense operations, Cyberdyne Systems, became self-aware and took over military hardware, declaring war on the humans. This plot point doesn’t really become more fully developed until the sequel, Terminator 2, when a now beefed-up Sarah Connor tracks down Skynet engineer Miles Dyson, the man behind the machines. The Terminator 2 3-D attraction at Universal Studios in Orlando introduces the movie with a brief propaganda film from Skynet and its defense operations, Cyberdyne Systems before Sarah and John Connor looking like two butch lesbians, hack into the system to override the video and warn audiences to get out of the building.

What the hell? Goddamn son of a bitch…

Like Blade Runner and a host of other 1980s technophobic science fiction films, The Terminator opens in Los Angeles. In 2029, it’s buried in rubble and destroyed by the hopeless war between Man, a resistance force led by the heroic John Connor, and Machines, who decide to assassinate him preemptively by going back in time to gritty 1984 Los Angeles and disguised as human, kill his mother, Sarah Connor. Sarah was played by director/co-writer James Cameron’s then-wife Linda Hamilton. The movie also introduced Austrian bodybuilding celebrity, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The Terminator was a formidable villain because he was an indiscriminate killer, and one didn’t feel emotion. His method for finding Sarah Connor, initially, is thumbing through the phone book and killing all the Sarah Connors in the county, it didn’t matter which was the right one, as long as one was in fact the future mother of John. (Imagine how doomed the mission would be if she wasn’t listed!) The beauty of the villain was also that it was immune to pain, and the chrome skeleton under the normal wear of human flesh made regular weaponry ineffective, though the T-1000, the liquid metal villain of Terminator 2, was more challenging.

Initially, the Terminator was envisioned to be more inconspicuous rather than the intimidating build, something followed through on in the sequel when the athletic and speedy Robert Patrick was cast as the T-1000. B-movie king Lance Henriksen was considered for the role of the Terminator, but instead was cast as one of the investigating detectives alongside the late, humorously wry Paul Winfield. Michael Biehn was considered, too, but instead played played Kyle Reese, the noble resistance soldier from the future who volunteers to go back in time and protect Sarah Connor. It’s a suicide mission, since the time portal wouldn’t open again to allow him to travel back. This is where the inevitable problem of time traveling tales occur as Kyle Reese is eventually shown to be the father of John Connor, although previously, he’d never met Sarah Connor before.

Sarah Connor… mother of the future resistance leader was supposed to be a mere 19 year old at the time working a thankless job as a waitress and sharing an apartment with an iguana and a spunky roommate named Ginger. Of course, after become enlightened by Reese about the future, she undergoes a complete 180 and turns into the short-tempered, premature resistance fighter with visions of a fatal future. Of course, it’s that kind of babbling that gets her thrown into a mental institution, as seen in the beginning of Terminator 2.

Christian Bale is the latest to be cast as John Connor in the fourth installment, Terminator: Salvation, which, at least suggested by the previews, is that the movie has taken a new direction altogether. Now in the aftermath of Skynet’s nuclear Holocaust and further fighting against the machines, the movie, directed by the American television director rather pretentiously known only as “McG,” transforms into more of a combat movie than the computers-and-bytes kind of science fiction movie it first started as.

The Omen and The Exorcist.

If I had to pick between Richard Donner’s The Omen (released in 1976) or William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (released in 1973 and adapted from William Blatty’s 1971 novel) in terms of movies about demonic children, I would prefer The Exorcist. (I discuss both films here because of the similar theme). My brother has long been a fan of both films (though surprisingly, not of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby). I’ve always found The Omen to be excessively cheesy in parts, using the glassy effects and dramatic strings music (not Jerry Goldsmith’s “Ave Satan”, the one it’s most famous for) in the saccharine portrayal of the American couple played by Gregory Peck and Lee Remick welcoming their first child in contrast, of course, to the devilish threat he’d become. (Liev Schreiber’s remake, released in 2006, was only slightly better since it avoided doing that. But, while visually stunning, it substituted cheesy for bland).

On the other hand, while Linda Blair’s character, Regan, in The Exorcist was a complete nerd, Friedkin manages to mostly stick to the point – the transformation of the darling nerd into the vessel of Satan. (Blair was far from desired for the role of Regan, and one person seriously considered for the part was Denise Nickerson, who is better remembered as Violet in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, since her parents pulled her from the production because of the vulgarity of the material). But then again, there’s a unique regional difference between the two films: The Omen is very English; The Exorcist is an American production. While The Omen was fairly simple, The Exorcist was a little more complex. The film begins with an archeological excavation, and along with this, integrates the story of Father Damien (Jason Miller) who doubts his faith, and the actress mother who needs more than medical help for the disturbing and mysterious symptoms showing in her pre-teen daughter in Georgetown.

The bulk of the movie was filmed on and around the Georgetown University campus. The building that housed the graduate schools of business, public policy, and my former graduate program buttress the infamous steep stairs that in the film, were an instrument in the demise of a priest. Runners tend to make two or three incredible laps up and down that thing. Passerbys have scrawled on the wall things like “the power of Christ compels you” and so-and-so “conquered the Exorcist stairs.

The Omen anniversary DVDs released recently contain the 2005 documentary regarding the weird occurrences during production like lightning hitting planes, lions devouring crew, and dobermans attacking the trainers, not that The Exorcist was without its own rumors of strange occurrences during production, though I wonder how many had to do with William Friedkin’s method directing. The Exorcist carries a lot of possibly dubious reports about how audiences reacted when they first saw it in the theater, vomiting and being dramatic. The movie certainly was stark enough, and sometimes vulgar enough to get some kind of reaction to audiences not yet jaded by horror films like today. The Exorcist was also one of the highest grossing horror films of all time and earned 10 Oscar nominations, including Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actress (Burstyn), Best Supporting Actress (Blair, who really wasn’t supporting at all, though I suspect “supporting” is sometimes a limitation made on the basis of age), Best Supporting Actor (Jason Miller), Best Director (even though he was chosen to direct only after the success of The French Connection), and Best Picture.

Unfortunately, both were followed by a few sequels that never made much note. Damien was followed into adulthood (oops, spoilers!) and Regan became like the spokesman for chronic demonic possession.

Dead Calm.

Dead Calm is a rather obscure, three-character thriller released in 1989. It was a great little suspense film, winding up on cable every once in a while and more recently, on Netflix’s Instant Demand. Based on Charles Williams’s thriller novel of a bi-polar shipwreck survivor who terrorizes a young couple that invite him aboard their boat, it was actually the second time the book was attempted to be translated into film. Orson Wells never finished his film, The Deep, filmed between 1967 and 1969 but abandoned when the film’s star, Laurence Harvey, died. (There were rumors that Wells’s widow was trying to get the incomplete film cut and released in 1997). Australian director, Phillip Noyce, directed the 1989 version, which was a dramatically pared down version of the novel – it only centered on three of the characters: John (Sam Neill) and Rae (Nicole Kidman) Ingram and their tormenting visitor, Hughie Warriner (Billy Zane).

In the novel, Hugie’s wife and the surviving half of another couple aboard their yacht–the husband–were central to John’s survival when, doubting Hughie’s version of what happened to the other crew aboard the sinking vessel, swims over to investigate. We learn that Hughie was a good-looking young guy, in his early 20s. He’d been an aspiring painter and the financing for his work often came from rich women who selfishly sought his company more than admired the brilliance of his work. He’d become habitually spoiled and always flirted with the women who never denied him what he wanted. It’s speculated in the book that, when Hughie and the wife of the other couple are swimming and accidentally left behind, he drowned her in an effort to save himself. When Hughie’s wife an the husband finally figure out that they’ve left their passengers behind, return two hours later to find only one has survived – Hughie, who in a panic, claims that the wife died of a shark attack. When the boat begun going down, already in disrepair and being navigated by an inexperienced crew, Hughie’s wife and the husband of the other couple were locked in the cabin. Hughie had left to save himself, climbing aboard the Ingram’s boat with a story that the rest of the crew had died of food poisoning.

In the novel, John and Rae Ingram are honeymooning. Rae seems like more shrewd character, more outspoken and meets John when he is first suspect to having stolen her yacht, but then, because of the former naval officer’s nautical expertise, helps the widow track down the boat. Had the movie been made closer to the book, it would’ve called for someone a little older than the milky white Nicole Kidman. Maybe Angelica Houston. Or Joanna Cassidy. But when the backstory changed to an instant tragedy explaining the couple’s voyage – a therapeutic trip following the death of their toddler son – Kidman’s cherubic appearance fit.

In both the novel and movie, John swims over to check the condition of the boat and the holes in Hughie’s story of what happened to the other passengers, when Hughie, in retaliation, leaves with the Ingram’s boat, and Rae still on board. John is stuck on a sinking ship and Rae can’t easily convince Hughie to turn back and rescue him.  Billy Zane was perfect for the role of the villain – the baby-faced young man who was a total weirdo, abruptly shifting between empty good moods and a violent temper, much to the confusion and frustration of Rae (Kidman) who in the end, had to figure out how, if not by herself, then with Hughie’s cooperation, she was going to get back to John before time ran out. Luckily, neither Rae nor John were dumb characters. One of the great tactics here was pacing: the never really slows, and with it, neither does the suspense. Stripping down the number of characters and the details of Hughie’s past (not to mention the author Williams’s reliance on too much nautical terminology) obviously makes it much easier for the filmmaker to translate the nail-biting tension into a 96 minute movie.

Jurassic Park.

In the summer of 1993, the year of Jurassic Park’s release, I had spent several weekends seeing the movie with my brother. Admission was a dollar, so this was easy to do. It was one of the rare moments that a film should run more than a month, and that it should still serve packed audiences after weeks of being there. Priority movies were shown on one of two of the theater’s largest screens. As weeks progressed, and the audience size waned, they moved the movies down the hall, to smaller and smaller theaters. We watched the movie in several.

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