Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Flashback Review: THE GLIMMER MAN (1996)

Seagal's first foray into mystery/thriller territory, and his first film after his first box-office failure On Deadly Ground (1994), is a fast-paced, endlessly entertaining hodgepodge of genres, with Seagal in fine form as a Buddhist cop after a serial killer targeting families and with a penchant for Catholic imagery. The film finds Seagal (who also co-produced) relaxed, apparently having lots of fun with the role, while his on-screen chemistry with co-star Keenan Ivory Wayans is fun to watch. As for the fight sequences, they are thrilling and show Seagal at his best. The only fault the film has is a plot that is nigh incomprehensible, but strangely it doesn't take away from the fun of the whole thing. Recommended.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2016.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Quick Review: SLASHER: SEASON 1 (2016)

Despite having one of the coolest posters I have seen in a while, Slasher: Season 1 (2016) proves to be a disappointment. After a disturbing, tense and violent opening scene, Slasher quickly devolves into a glum, unevenly paced, and overplotted mess. Its main faults are unimpressive leads, a heavy handed approach, and an overly nihilist streak that makes it a dull watch. When you watch something called Slasher, you expect a smattering of that genre's main ingredients, namely a fun, fast, and violent story with likable characters and a memorable villain. The makers of Slasher fail to include any of the above. Forgettable and unpleasant.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2016.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Book Review: RUNNING WITH THE DEMON (1997) by Terry Brooks

Brook's finest work, Running With The Demon is the best dark fantasy/horror novel you've never read. The prose is lean, the autumnal atmosphere hypnotic, and the evil strange and frightening. This is a grand tale of good versus evil, with terrific characters and a whopper of an ending. Unmissable.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2015-2016.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Quick Review: BELLY OF THE BEAST (2003)

Proof positive that Steven Seagal made some good movies in his direct-to-video (DTV) era, Belly of The Beast (2003) is one wild ride full of action and extravagant stunt-work. Directed by Honk-Kong cinema master Ching Siu Ting, Belly of the Beast is visually stylish, moody, with some ridiculously fun action and fight sequences, and Seagal seems to be having loads of fun delivering one-liner after another and some truly impressive fight moves. This is also one of Seagal's higher-budgeted DTV efforts, resulting in some fierce action set-pieces and shoot-outs and some dazzling wire-work. The story even has some intriguing mystical undertones, with magic battles, sorcerers and powerful monks!

Conclusion: If you are looking for some mindless, stylish, fast-paced action fare, look no further than this. This is vintage Seagal.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2016.

Review: DOMINION: Prequel to THE EXORCIST: The Truth Behind The Scary Production of A Unique Horror Film

The Exorcist series has proven to be fascinating over the past 30 years or so. The original, released in 1973 changed cinema and horror movies forever. The sequel Exorcist II: The Heretic, released in 1977, was a polarizing, controversial film, while Exorcist III: Legion, released in 1990, was a flawed masterpiece that took the series in a different direction.

And now we come to the prequels Exorcist: The Beginning and Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist, both produced in 2004.

But the making of both of these prequels is a tremendous story in itself. Dominion was supposed to be directed by John Frankenheimer, who actually started to helm the picture, when he fell gravely ill and left the production. Paul Schrader, the brilliant, always controversial filmmaker stepped in to complete the film, only to be fired after submitting his final cut to producers. The producers then hired Renny Harlin to re-shoot almost the entire film with the same crew and basically the same cast, and the result was Exorcist: The Beginning, released in 2004.

But Exorcist: The Beginning was a critical and financial failure, and Morgan Creek, the production company behind the whole debacle, decided to bring back Schrader to finish editing his version, giving him very little money to complete the post-production process. Schrader’s version finally saw the light of day in 2005 as Dominion.

So, after all this trouble, which version of the film is better? Surprisingly, the answer to that question isn’t that easy to come by. On the one hand, Renny Harlin’s Exorcist: The Beginning is seemingly much more commercial, with a lot more bells and whistles, and the cinematography by Vittorio Storaro is nothing short of sumptuous. One goes in expecting a crass, mind-numbing commercial horror movie, and what one gets (with the exception of the hysterical exorcism sequence near the end of the film) is a relatively subdued, polished and compelling supernatural thriller.

Paul Schrader’s Dominion is a completely different creation. It is not a horror film by any means, there are no bells and whistles (which is understandable, since Schrader was given very little time and money to complete post-production) and the special effects are kept to a minimum. But these are the same factors that make Dominion such a compelling film. With emphasis on mood, long master shots, and nuanced performances, this is a slow, hypnotic and strange psychological thriller.

In terms of how it fares compared to the other films in the series, Dominion is somewhere between an art film and the metaphysical musings of Exorcist II.

So, which version is better? Arguably, both versions, Exorcist: The Beginning and Dominion, have merit. But Dominion is much more haunting, and, therefore, more memorable.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2014- 2016.

* This article originally appeared on Bitlanders.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Review: OUT FOR JUSTICE (1991)

Original Theatrical Poster
Released right before Steven Seagal hit it big with Under Siege (1992), Out For Justice (1991) is considered by many to be one of his weaker efforts. I disagree. While Steven Seagal has always been an acquired taste, fans of american action movies from the 80's and 90's know that Seagal is the real deal, and it can't get any realer than Out For Justice. The film has one of Seagal's better performances, as a cop with mafioso roots caught between being the good guy and unleashing his darker side, while the plot is original and the writing much better than expected. Add some thrilling fight sequences and a mesmerizing performance by William Forsythe as a coked-up spree killer, and you got one helluva an entertaining action pic from the Golden Age of Hollywood action movies.

N.B. The film's choppy editing and slightly uneven pace is a result of studio interference during post-production, as studio executives reportedly wanted a shorter, faster film than the one Seagal and co. presented with their original cut.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2016.

Review: TWIXT (2011)

Original Poster
When Francis Ford Coppola announced that he was making another horror movie, his first since 1992's Bram Stoker's Dracula, many rejoiced, including myself. When released, Twixt (2011) proved to be a polarizing effort. On the one hand, in terms of technique, it's mostly unpolished, with the Hi-Def cinematography looking occasionally drab, while the editing and pacing are on the uneven side.

On the other hand, this is Coppola the master filmmaker enjoying the freedom of making a low-budget movie, and one that is both fiercely atmospheric and surprisingly personal (the plot touches upon the tragic death of Coppola's son in a boating accident). As for the plot (a washed out horror novelist investigating a mystery involving vampiric murders in a sleepy little town), it's basically fodder for creating some striking Gothic visuals and playful performances by all involved, especially Val Kilmer and Bruce Dern. And then there's the ending: a haunting, confusing, scary final touch that caps a horror film that is flawed, ambitious, and a welcome return to a genre that Coppola obviously loves.

N.B. The plot, especially the ending, bears some minor similarities to author Richard Laymon's masterpiece, The Stake (1990).

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2016.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Book Review: BLOOD OATH by Christopher Farnsworth

Highly readable horror-action/thriller centering on Nathaniel Cade, an ancient vampire working for a secret branch of the US government to protect the world from "The Other Side", the place were monsters, demons, and other creatures of the dark come from. It's a fast-paced, fun read, with a good sense of humor. But it's also over-plotted, and at times reads more like a screenplay for a summer blockbuster than a novel. Nothing special, but it's energetic and diverting enough.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2016.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Review: OUTCAST: SEASON 1

Outcast: Season 1 (2016) is, in my humble opinion, the best horror show of the year and the best new show of the summer. Based on Robert Kirkman's (The Walking Dead) horror comic-book series of the same name, it deals with Kyle Barnes, a troubled young man with a dark past, as he deals with his newfound ability to exorcise demons out of possessed humans.

But this is not your typical demonic possession/exorcism tale, with Catholic trappings and over-the-top exorcism sequences, as Kirkman and co. have something else in mind. This is a show that is all about mood, deliberate pacing, and dark imagery that lingers in the mind. There are jump scares and "demons" aplenty, but the emphasis here is on grounded horror, gritty, blue-collar characters, and devastating violence, both physical and psychological, especially child abuse and its long-lasting effects on the psyches of the victims.

While the overly ambiguous nature of the evil/antagonist of the story can be frustrating, especially in the season finale, which asks more questions than it answers, this is a richly textured, subdued horror show, that is clever, moving, and horrific. Highly recommended.

Highlights: The compelling pilot, directed by Adam Wingard (The Guest, You're Next), and the pen-ultimate episode, "Close to Home", a horrific, disturbing hour of television that is even more powerful than the somewhat disappointing season finale.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2016.

Flashback Review: POLTERGEIST III (1988)

Lambasted upon its release and basically disowned by its director, Gary Sherman, Poltergeist III (1988) is the black sheep of the trilogy that began with the Steven Spielberg-produced original. Upon first look it's easy to see why this movie is perennially criticized: The story is incoherent and the characterization almost nonexistent, while the film also has a detached, cold mood that makes the film sporadically uninvolving. Then there's the ending; a messy, rushed set-piece that is very underwhelming.

But that's not the whole story. Poltergeist III, despite the myriad faults, also has a few things going for it. Thanks to Gary Sherman's insistence on practical/live effects, the film is mainly one big haunted house ride, with one dazzling magic trick after another taking place right there on the screen, most of which involve mirrors or reverse cinematography. Add to that a quick pace and some memorably creepy visuals, and you get a sequel that, though flawed, manages to be original and at times frightening.

Even though it will always be remembered as the final film of child actress Heather O'Rourke, who tragically died before the ending could be completed (which led to numerous post-production problems, including a hastily shot finale using a double for O'Rourke), Poltergeist III is worth rediscovering as an underrated, entertaining, and stylish horror film from the late 1980's, and a daring attempt to do a horror film that relies on live effects and camera tricks rather than opticals.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2016.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Flashback Review: A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2: FREDDY'S REVENGE (1985)

Original Theatrical Poster
The Nightmare On Elm Street (NOES) series is, arguably, the finest horror movie series ever made. Yes, most of the sequels have uneven plotting and plot-holes galore. Yes, some of the effects haven't aged very well. But in terms of sheer imagination, visual style, and atmosphere, the NOES series trumps all.

But, for the most part, A Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985), the first sequel to Wes Craven's groundbreaking original, is reviled and avoided by most fans, mainly because it wreaks havoc with the mythology that Craven established with his original. It is true the NOES 2's plot doesn't make a hell lotta sense, but the film is rife with subtext, the performances are earnest, and the visuals teeming with fascinating psycho-sexual symbolism and imagery (fire, heat, and sweat are in almost every scene). And the film deals with the teen protagonist's sexual frustration in a disturbing yet compelling manner that was somewhat ahead of its time, especially considering that the film's protagonist is arguably gay or bi-sexual, a point of argument among many fans and even the filmmakers themselves.

Add Jack Sholder's stylish direction, Jaques Haitkin's rich cinematography, and some truly scary hallucinatory sequences, and you've got a horror film that demands to be watched again and again; since, aside from Craven's ingenious New Nightmare (1994), this is thematically the richest sequel of the whole franchise. Highly recommended.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2016.

Book Review: THE LEFTOVERS by Tom Perrotta

Original Book Cover
Stephen King described it as reminiscent of The Twilight Zone. Well, not quite. The premise of an unexplained mass disappearance of millions of people around the world (the Biblical Rapture, more or less) and how it affects the leftovers, or those who were are behind, is endlessly intriguing, and Perrotta gives us a cast of interesting, if not fascinating, characters to follow. And while his portrayal of religious cults is interesting and the overall atmosphere of the novel somber and hypnotic (his prose is lean and highly readable), there are passages that are annoyingly pretentious, and the hugely anti-climactic ending is a major disappointment. Still, this is an original tale, well-told, even if it's ultimately a bit underwhelming.

N.B. The novel is the basis for the HBO series of the same name, though the series continue the story past the events of the novel.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2015-2016.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Book Vs. Movie: PHANTOMS

Phantoms (1998) is sort of an oddity. It’s got a good cast, good production values, and atmosphere to spare. But, for some reason, it never quite gets it right.

Let’s backtrack a bit and explain how this movie came to be.

After his book Whispers hit it big in 1980, Dean Koontz, now considered one of the world’s best-selling authors, was asked to write another best-seller. His publisher advised that his next book should be a horror novel since they were all the rage at the time (thanks to Stephen King). Koontz, who doesn’t consider himself a “horror writer” per se, reluctantly agreed, mostly due to financial reasons. The result was Phantoms, published in 1983. It was a hell of a book. Moody, intelligent, with well-drawn characters, and Satan as the villain. The novel became a huge bestseller when it came out in paperback.

Fast forward 15 years later, and Dimension Studios (the company behind the Scream, Hellraiser, and Children of The Corn franchises) decided to turn Phantoms into a movie. The result was Phantoms (1998), starring Joanna Going, Ben Affleck, Rose McGowan, and Peter O'Toole.

Phantoms (1998), more or less, retains the basic story of its source material, with a few subtractions and a couple of major changes. The concept remains the same: the entire population of a small town suddenly disappears into thin air. Menacing shadow creatures begin to emerge out of the dark, toying with the handful of people who stumble upon the mystery. An expert on mass disappearances is called in, and he claims that the entity behind the mayhem is an ancient, seemingly omnipotent being, that maybe Satan himself.

What is different about the movie version is that the story has been streamlined (or dumbed down), with the rich scientific background found in the novel basically removed. As for the characters, again, they have been streamlined and simplified, losing most of their depth. The one pleasant surprise in this version is Dr. Timothy Flyte, a character that was basically fodder for the creature in the book. In the movie, and in the hands of Peter O’Toole, the character of Dr. Flyte saves the film, as O’Toole’s portrayal is delivered with verve and a wry sense of humor, which turns the character into some of sort of a modern Van Helsing with a worldly bent.

The script, by Koontz, also features some witty moments, as in the 15 years since the original book was published, Koontz had matured as a writer, and the screenplay feels more like one of his novels published in the late nineties: slick, laced with humor, and designed to thrill.

But despite the endearing performances, the eerie atmosphere (thanks to director Joe Chapelle's stylish handling of the material), and the satisfying ending (which, I might add, is superior to the ending featured in the original novel), the film has one too many cringe-worthy moments, ultimately preventing it from rising above its B-movie trappings.

So Phantoms (1998) is what it is: an entertaining, stylish b-movie, with a few things to offer. But after watching the movie version, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of the original novel. You won’t be disappointed.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2014- 2016.

* This article originally appeared on Bitlanders.*

REVIEW: THE NINTH CONFIGURATION (1980): The Exorcist Sequel You Don't Know About

Original Theatrical Poster
The Ninth Configuration (1980) is one of the strangest films you’re ever likely to see. Written and Directed by William Peter Blatty, the author of the novel The Exorcist and the screenplay of the film adaptation, this is a film that defies categorization, and is designed to polarize audiences.

The wild plot includes an asylum for Vietnam war veterans, patients posing as doctors, an astronaut with a crisis of faith, and Shakespeare plays performed entirely by a cast of dogs! Amid all the madness, there are conversations about God, faith, and the nature of evil.

Blatty, whose screenplay is based on his 1966 novel Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane, is all over the place. As the film starts as a black comedy, shifts gears into a Bergman-esque meditation on the existence of God, and finally becomes a dark, somber metaphysical thriller. Blatty considers this the true first sequel to The Exorcist (1973), as the film features the astronaut Custshaw, a character mentioned in that seminal horror film (the scene where Regan, the possessed girl, says to the unnamed astronaut that he’s “going to die up there”), and both films have the same obsessions about the nature of faith and the eternal battle between good and evil.

But Blatty doesn’t entirely succeed in realizing all his stupendous ambitions, as the film occasionally meanders, becoming a self-indulgent, incoherent story, while the oppressive, glum tone of the film is ultimately wearying. But there is no doubt that this is a daring piece of filmmaking, with some truly haunting visuals, terrific performances, and a sense of existential, cosmic torment that is uniquely powerful.

A film not for everyone, but anyone who watches it will probably never forget it.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2014 - 2016.

* This article originally appeared on Bitlanders.*

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Quick Review: PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2007)

I am not a fan of "found-footage" movies and docu-dramas. For the most part, they are lazy, repetitive, and dreary. But Paranormal Activity (2007), despite some weak moments and a drab look, succeeds where many movies of this type fail: It is compelling, has believable if occasionally annoying characters, and, most important, has true fear in it. Highly recommended.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2016.