These Movies DID Play At A
Theater Near You...But You Didn't See 'Em!
The following piece was written in response to the many snippy emails
I've been getting. Those that actually said something outside "You
Suck" or some variation of same essentially fall into two distinct
categories: those that found my reviews too negative or their subjects
Okay. The "too negative" folks must be delusional, as I've given
quite a few unqualified raves. For that matter, I'm well aware that my
negative reviews, for flicks like
SIX DAYS, SIX NIGHTS or
inspire readers to seek them out and form their own opinions, and that's
fine with me.
Concerning the "too obscure" charge, and in particular
the person who complained that I waste too much time on movies "nobody's
ever heard of" while neglecting "important" fare like THE RING and THE
SCORPION KING, my response is twofold: a). Those particular
movies have multi-million dollar advertising budgets and so don't need
coverage from me, and b). I hated 'em both and won't waste the
In the spirit of fairness, however, I'll take a look at five movies
that are not foreign or independent but fairly recent products of
major Hollywood studios (in one case a mini major) that DID play
in a theater near you, and can now most likely all be found in your
local Blockbuster. The only thing is that, unlike many of the "obscure"
films I review, none of the following have attracted much of a cult
following...something I'm hoping this piece will go some way toward
rectifying. And yes, in contrast to my apparent plethora of negative
reviews, all earn unqualified raves.
First up is 1998's NIGHTWATCH, the Miramax sponsored remake
of the acclaimed 1994 Dutch production NATTEVAGTEN. Remakes are always
a dicey proposition, and it could be argued that Miramax shot itself in
foot commercially by following the same route 20th Century
Fox did with its disastrous '93 redo of George Sluizer's Dutch
masterpiece THE VANISHING: hiring the original director, Ole Bornedal in
this case, to remake his own movie with Hollywood stars.
It certainly sounds like a bad idea, particularly since Hollywood
rarely ever releases the original film in these cases (example: the
1994 French-Canadian comedy LOUIS THE 19th, KING OF THE
AIRWAVES, remade by Hollywood as ED TV but never given US distribution). The release of the
original NATTEVAGTEN on DVD last year was a pivotal one, as it afforded
me a chance to contrast the two versions. Contrary to what many would
have you believe, Bornedal's remake follows the original film, a creepy
account of a college kid who takes a job in a morgue where a necrophile
may be loose, extremely closely. Both films are extremely skillfully
made scarefests, but the remake is superior in at least one respect: its
Quite simply, the characters in NIGHTWATCH are sympathetic and
those in NATTEVAGTEN are not. This is probably due to the presence of
charismatic performers like Ewan MacGregor, Patricia Arquette and Nick
Nolte, who for me far outpace the original film's cast. In this case,
it seems the "Hollywoodization" of Bornedal's film was--for once--a good
thing. I'm all for Hollywood bashing (God knows I've indulged in more
than enough of it myself), but it means NOTHING if we look the other way
on those (admittedly brief) occasions when the system actually works.
NIGHTWATCH is definitely an example of a Hollywood product that
works, particularly on a big screen. Experiencing this chiller in an
air conditioned theater was an unforgettable experience; as the horror
mounted, the audience left in droves until by the end I was one of just
two people left in the auditorium (and the other person only
stayed, I'm sure, because she was with me!). This would seem to prove
something I've long suspected: that today's audiences have been so
conditioned by the SCREAM flicks and their insidious offspring they can
no longer handle a REAL horror movie.
In NIGHTWATCH, Bornedal doesn't want to explore the
human condition and pays the concept of social responsibility little
heed. He (to borrow a phrase from Stephen King) just wants to
Taking a 180-degree turn, we come to Spike Lee's neglected 1999
Disney(!) production SUMMER OF SAM. Unlike the previous film,
this is a socially conscious look at the events surrounding some very
real murders. David Berkowitz was the "Son of Sam," a nutcase who
terrorized New York City back in 1977 with a series of random shootings
he claimed were committed on the orders of a dog.
SUMMER OF SAM is a superb film, suspenseful and provocative, but
it's been vastly misunderstood. Critics were apparently expecting a
HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER-like look into the mind of David
Berkowitz, but Lee had other ideas. Although DB, superbly played by
Michael Badalucco, is featured prominently (a scene featuring the
deranged Berkowitz chatting with a dog is easily the film's weakest),
the film's real subjects are the citizens of an Italian-American
community impacted by Berkowitz's reign of terror.
John Leguizamo gives one of the finest performances of
recent years as a nice Italian boy (in an intriguing reversal of a
standard casting practice, Lee has Leguizamo, a Latin, playing a white
person) driven to near-madness. In this film the specter of the Son of
Sam assumes parasitic dimensions, affecting the ways people think and
interact: misunderstandings become murderous, apprehension turns to
paranoia and sexuality grows increasingly perverted.
Let me take a moment to address some of the criticisms this film
has received. Issue was taken with its supposedly "innacuarate"
portrayal of the Italian-American community, and yet no less an
authority than MEAN STREETS/TAXI DRIVER/GOODFELLAS/GANGS OF NEW YORK'S
legendary Martin Scorsese (who even made a movie called ITALIANAMERICAN)
has publicly stated otherwise. Many critics also took the opportunity
to bash Spike Lee himself. I'm not arguing that the guy's an ass, but
I'd advise criticizing the movie and not its maker (otherwise we
couldn't watch the films of Hitchock, R.W. Fassbinder or
Polanski). And then there were the all-too-predictable charges of
excessive sex and violence.
Please! In exploring the way people's psyches are affected
by the specters of fear and paranoia, I don't see how one could possibly
avoid explicit depictions of sex and violence.
Furthermore, SUMMER OF SAM is more pertinent today than
when it was first released. Its cautionary look at the consequences of
unchecked apprehension is one that, in these uncertain days of post-9/11
angst, we'd do well to pay close attention.
Another neglected 1999 big studio gem is RAVENOUS, a product
of Twentieth Century Fox's Fox 2000 division. It doesn't surprise me
that mainstream audiences rejected this outrageous horror-fest, but I
was certain it would quickly gain a cult following, as at least two
other Fox 2000 productions--FIGHT CLUB and PUSHING TIN--have. Well,
nearly four years after RAVENOUS's release, that cult has yet to
materialize. I guess its witty mix of historical revisionism and
unflinching grue is just too unique for today's horror fans, who tend to
prefer their cinema cut and dried.
Still, adventurous filmgoers are urged to check this one out. Set
in a mountainous, snow bound 19th Century landscape, it's a
western of sorts about a band of soldiers adrift during the
Mexican-American war who find themselves set upon by a vampiric cannibal
(Robert Carlyle). The cast and director (the respected British helmer
Antonia Bird) are not known for making horror movies, which in this case
is a bonus.
RAVENOUS resolutely avoids standard horror movie
cliches; there are no old dark castles in sight, the obnoxious false
scares beloved by so many of today's horror filmmakers are kept to a
minimum, and much of it takes place in broad daylight. Also worth
noting is the wonderfully off-kilter, faux Americana score by
Nyman and Damon Albern, which put me in mind of 2000 MANIACS. And the
climactic over the top death duel is one of the most satisfying movie
finales in recent memory, with a capper that wreaks an unforgettably
perverse twist on the concept of manifest destiny.
Next up is 2001's Warner Brothers release THE PLEDGE,
written and directed by Sean Penn--yes, that Sean Penn! Like the
aforementioned Spike Lee film, much of THE PLEDGE's criticism was
centered more around its director than the film itself. Yes, Sean Penn
is a jerk, but please, let's judge the film on its own merits.
THE PLEDGE is very "European" in tone, no question, and like many
European films it demands to be seen more than once. Upon first
viewing, I'll admit I wasn't all that impressed; I found many of the
visuals unnecessarily show-offy and the frequent celebrity cameos by
Penn's Hollywood buddies (like Mickey Rourke and Benicio Del Toro) plain
The film drew me back, though, and now, after having seen it at
least four times, my initial criticisms have all pretty much dissolved.
Far from the standard issue cop movie Warners promoted it as, THE PLEDGE
is a chilling and disturbing psychological horror story charting a
retired cop's descent into madness, triggered by a misplaced vow made to
a distraught mother. Jack Nicholson gives one of his best-ever
performances in the lead role, and Penn proves himself a director to be
reckoned with--even if, as a person, he leaves something to be desired!
Closing things off, we come to Columbia's 1998 Stephen King
adaptation APT PUPIL, another neglected psychological chiller.
No mention of this film is complete without noting the insanely terrible
pre-release publicity foisted upon it in the form of unsubstantiated
allegations (that director Bryan Singer was a pedophile, the production
was out of control, Singer's previous film THE USUAL SUSPECTS was
actually directed by its star Gabriel Byrne, etc.) and a lawsuit brought
by several underaged extras claiming they were forced to disrobe against
their will. If APT PUPIL is remembered at all nowadays, it
unfortunately seems to be for that ludicrous lawsuit, which was promptly
thrown out of court (so there!). Now onto the film itself...
I find Stephen King's novella, published as part of his DIFFERENT
SEASONS collection, one of his most effective works, and Singer
preserves much of what makes it such an unforgettable experience. As
with King, his point seems to be that we, like the story's central
character, have a none-too-secret fascination with what the Nazis did, a
fascination that if allowed to fester could turn into something far more
The 1980's-set story concerns an all-American boy (Brad
Renfro) who befriends an aging Nazi (Ian McKellan); in the course of the
film, the boy finds himself drawn into the latter's world and in the
process discovers his "inner Nazi." APT PUPIL'S view of Nazism is an
unprecedented one, divorced from standard political explanations (such
as just-following-orders excuses or even anti-Semitism) and stripped
down to its core: a love of sadism and absolute control that festers in
all of us, whether we admit to it or not.
APT PUPIL does have some flaws. Scenes involving
a cat in an oven and a cadaver in a basement seemed plain gratuitous,
and I'm a little nonplussed that the ending was toned down from that of
King's original (which, conveyed via one of the most chilling final
sentences ever, had the totally unhinged protagonist embark on a
disturbingly prophetic shooting spree). But when Singer hits his marks
the results are explosive, in particular the sight of McKellan finding
that a newly purchased Nazi costume fits him all too well, and his
climactic confrontation with a terrified concentration camp survivor.
Profoundly disturbing stuff that you may just find, like most of the
other films on this list, disconcertingly close to home.