Thursday, January 15, 2009
“Underrated” might be one of my dad’s favorite movie terms. He loves plenty of classic films, like The Godfather or The Shining, but he has a soft spot in his heart for all manner of overlooked or forgotten gems. Here’s my rundown of some favorite underrated movies, including one that will forever be known in the Lockwood house as “the movie Mom made Dad walk out on.”
Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) This oddity from producers John Carpenter and Debra Hill had a lot working against it from the beginning, being a complete departure from the knife-wielding shenanigans of Halloweens I and II. Rather than bring back Michael Myers, who they’d attempted to kill off in II (he’d be resurrected six years later), the creators spun a whole new story in hopes of creating an annual anthology of Halloween related features. No dice: the movie met with lukewarm box office and scathing reviews, and was almost universally reviled by fans. I didn’t like it the first time I saw it, but on the recommendation of my friend Roman (this is actually his favorite of the series) I gave it another look and was pleasantly surprised by how dark, moody, and entertaining it is. Season of the Witch tells the tale of Dan Challis (Tom Atkins), who witnesses a patient’s bizarre death and tries to uncover the mystery behind it. With the deceased’s daughter Ellie at his side, Challis uncovers an unspeakable plot by the head of Silver Shamrock Novelties, a small-town toy company whose Halloween masks are almost as ubiquitous as their annoying commercials. (“Three more days till Halloween, Halloween, Halloween, three more days till Halloween, Silver Shamrock…”) Robots, gore, and a piece of Stone Henge (!) all come into play as our heroes race to save America’s children from a gruesome fate on All Hallow’s Eve. Because it’s written, filmed, and scored by the same team as the first two films, HIII actually feels a lot more like a Halloween movie than most of the subsequent sequels. It’s also intense and frightening, with a completely nihilistic ending that pays homage (like the rest of the movie) to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Two decades later, director Tommy Lee Wallace has reason to feel good about his misunderstood creation: at last fall’s Halloween convention in Pasadena, I was one of many fans who told him how much we love the movie.
Nightbreed (1990) Clive Barker’s follow-up to his Hellraiser movies was this adaptation of his novella Cabal. Reportedly the studio’s misguided attempt to market it as a slasher flick (which it definitely isn’t) contributed to its box office failure, though it seems to have gained newfound appreciation in the years since. Although it’s dark and frightening, Nightbreed is more of a fantasy than a straight-up horror film, with a clever twist: the monsters are the heroes, and the humans “the bad guys.” When troubled Boone (Craig Sheffer) is framed for a series of murders actually perpetrated by his therapist Decker (David Cronenberg, better known as a director but absolutely frightening here), he flees to Midian, a mythical city he’s heard is a haven for misfits and monsters. His arrival is initially met with opposition, though; the vicious Peloquin takes a bite out of his chest! (It was at this point that my mother forced my father to leave, an indignity that he’s never let her live down.) Soon, though, the vividly imagined denizens of Midian accept Boone as their own, and he discovers some beastly powers, too. With the help of faithful girlfriend Lori—who seems to subscribe to the philosophy that it doesn’t matter if a man’s a monster, so long as he’s *your* monster—Boone fends off Decker and the police in their attempt to destroy this secret community. With its saga of authorities persecuting what they don’t understand, Nightbreed works as a queer allegory (Barker is himself gay), but however you read it, this is a compelling and highly stylized adventure with unique characters and a lot of heart.
Loser (2000) Any movie with a title like this is tempting fate, since it’s all too easy for critics to trash it with “witty” puns. It didn’t help that writer-director Amy Heckerling was coming off the universally adored Clueless, a movie so funny and of-the-moment that it spawned its own lexicon. (“As if!”) But while Loser isn’t the equal of that modern classic, it deserved better than the largely scathing reviews it received. Jason Biggs puts his lovable loser persona to great use as Paul, a naïve Midwesterner who comes to New York City for college and gets a hostile reception from virtually everyone he meets. His roommates are hard-partying douche bags, Professor Alcott (a perfectly smarmy Greg Kinnear) is a dick, and even his attempt to give old ladies subway seats are foiled by rude commuters! The sole saving grace is fellow student Dora (Mena Suvari), an artsy chick who’s unbelievably sweet and adorable, yet unaware that she deserves much better than the vain Alcott (with whom she’s having an affair). Of course, we know these two kids are going to end up together, but the fun part is watching their friendship and romance unfold. The appealing leads have great chemistry, and as Paul stands up to the machinations of the roomies and Alcott, we get the satisfaction of watching a likable underdog come out on top. Loser’s attempts to jumpstart its own lingo fell flat (though I still like “skoach”), but it’s a movie worth checking out.
Bully (2001) Director Larry Clark has gotten a lot of flack over the years for his relentlessly downbeat stories and borderline pervy fixation on scantily clad adolescents. Bully certainly fits both assertions, with an attractive cast of barely dressed teenagers caught up in a naïve murder scheme that quickly spirals out of control. (The movie was adapted from Jim Schutze’s gripping Bully: A True Story of High School Revenge.) But while Bully isn’t easy to watch, I’d argue that it’s a fascinating and important look at the dangerous obsessions that pervade youth culture. Nick Stahl and the late, great Brad Renfro star as Bobby and Marty, two life-long “best friends” living in small town Florida. When Marty starts going out with shy, insecure Lisa (Rachel Miner), his new girlfriend soon realizes how physically and emotionally abusive the relationship is, with Bobby dominating and controlling his supposed pal. (He even whores his friend out to older gay men for phone sex and stripping, a subplot inspired by the pair’s real-life exploitation of gays.) After Bobby rapes Lisa’s best friend, she suggests that they kill him, and they enlist an ever-growing number of friends for this hopeless and deadly plot. As the teens joke and laugh about killing Bobby, we’re reminded that they’re just kids—and all too unaware of the very real consequences their actions will have. After Bobby is killed, the group begins to unravel and the weight of their guilt pushes them all towards exposure and persecution. Clark directs this dark drama with a savvy understanding of what drives his over-sexed, underworked protagonists. At one point one of their mothers lambasts them all for their aimless existence, little realizing just how far their “idle pursuits” will go. Great, naturalistic acting from the young cast makes Bully a devastating and affecting cautionary tale for parents and teens alike.
Vanilla Sky (2001) These days, perhaps no other actor is as misunderstood (and underestimated) as Tom Cruise, whose bizarre personal life has overshadowed his once titanic career. The downward slide may’ve begun with this much-maligned Cameron Crowe drama; some viewers were so incensed that theaters offered refunds! I’ll never really understand why so many people trashed or passed over the film; in any case, its melancholy tale of lost love and shattered dreams appealed to my emotional state when it was released (I’d fallen hopelessly for a friend who never reciprocated my feelings). Adapted from the Spanish film Abre Los Ojos, Vanilla Sky tells the story of David Aames, a wealthy playboy whose hedonistic existence is interrupted by the arrival of Sofia (Penelope Cruz, reprising her role from the original film), a beguiling woman for whom he falls in love almost immediately. This doesn’t sit well with Julie (Cameron Diaz), David’s “friend with benefits” who is not-so-secretly in love with him. The day after his magical evening with Sofia, David makes the mistake of accepting a ride from Julie, who drives them both off of a bridge. She dies; his face is horribly mangled. Despite this, David is able to make his relationship with Sofia work; but bizarre and surreal events soon threaten his happiness, forcing him to question the very nature of reality. It’s this trippy aspect that confused and frustrated so many, although to me it was explained sufficiently by the ending (which I won’t reveal here). Then again, I enjoy even the mind-bendingly bizarre works of David Lynch, so I suppose my tolerance for inscrutable weirdness is higher than most. In any case, Vanilla Sky is a fascinating romantic mystery with nuanced performances and a killer soundtrack. It’s also one of my friend Josh’s very favorite films, so I’m not the only one who feels it’s unfairly denigrated.
The Rules of Attraction (2002) The works of Brett Easton Ellis have always been polarizing, inspiring admiration in some and seething protests from others. The gruesome satire American Psycho became a lightning rod for feminists, who felt it’s scenes of rape, torture, and murder celebrated violence against women. In 2000, Mary Harron pulled off the seemingly impossible task of adapting that book to the screen, to widespread acclaim; the time was ripe for another Ellis film, and Roger Avary’s spirited take on The Rules of Attraction was it. But if Psycho’s mix of social parody and bloody murder was off-putting to some, Attraction was even more bedeviling. The film starts with Lauren (Shannyn Sossamyn) getting raped, then goes backward to reveal how she, gay Paul (Ian Somerhalder) and drug-dealing Sean (James Van Der Beek) came together and eventually fell apart. Though the movie is chock full of sex and drugs, the story’s cynical tone negates any potential glamour, and the heart-breaking suicide scene and homoerotic content were sure to repel more mainstream viewers. But for those willing to endure its excesses, Rules is an endlessly engaging, detailed study of aimless youth and its consequences. The talented cast performs with humor and gusto, and Avary has lots of fun with filmmaking techniques, from a tour de force split-screen sequence leading up to Lauren and Sean’s first meeting to a dynamic European vacation montage compiling hundreds of hours of footage into three minutes. For all its darkness, this blackly comic film also includes one moment of pure joy: an inspired bedroom dance between Paul and old lover Richard (Russell Sams) set to George Michael’s “Faith.” That scene alone makes The Rules of Attraction worth checking out.