Ryan Coogler filmography (Fruitvale Station / Creed / Black Panther)

I’ve been meaning to dive into the filmography of Ryan Coogler for a while now; from his interviews to his subject matter, he’s seemed like a filmmaker I need to watch, and one that I want to get into the ground floor on. So with the release and success of Black Panther, what better time than now to go through Coogler’s three films in order?

e2ba8ab17ed11729d3364ce93a1d0b6dCoogler started his career with Fruitvale Station, an account of the last 24 hours in the life of Oscar Grant III, who was shot and killed by police on New Year’s Day, 2009. Coogler has said that his goal here was to depoliticize Grant’s death, essentially attempting to do for this incident what Paul Greengrass’s United 93 did for that event – depict it honestly, calmly, and without sentiment, and without getting into the aftermath and the way the event was dealt with in the aftermath. On the whole, Coogler succeeds in this, I’d say  (here’s a good article about how accurate the film is and isn’t, but the short version is, it’s largely faithful to the reality). Even if occasionally he hits the dramatic ironies a little hard, and even if the scene where Oscar comforts a dying stray dog feels like a bit much, Coogler does his best to depict Oscar not as a saint, not as a sinner, but as someone more complicated – a troubled young man with anger problems and a lot of boiling rage, one who might be turning his life around, or might not. It’s not the hagiography you might assume, but Michael B. Jordan’s charisma and the knowledge of where this is all going (Coogler opens the film with cell phone footage of the actual event) can’t help but make you empathetic for this human life that’s about to be pointlessly lost.

But it’s in the depiction of the event that Coogler’s talent is undeniably most seen. From the escalation to the horrifying moment of the shooting to the panic and chaos afterward, Coogler captures every second of it with an eye that never lets you forget what’s happening. But while what’s depicted is horrible, Coogler remains focused not on the event, not on the larger issues, but on Oscar – a young man who’s in his last minutes on Earth. That, more than anything else, is what makes Fruitvale Station so powerful and effective – the way it takes Oscar Grant III out of the narrative and reminds us that first and foremost, before he was a victim, before he was a moment, he was a human being – a father, a son, a boyfriend, a friend – and that loss in of itself is tragic and horrible, no matter what deeper societal issues it exposed in the process. (That being said, the outcome of this case is legitimately, incredibly infuriating on every imaginable level, so  enjoy that.) And any refusal to admit that is removed by the film’s closing moments, which earns its final shot of Grant’s real-life daughter who’s growing up without a father. Sometimes, things deserve to be hit hard and shoved back into our faces, and the consequences of real-world news events forced back into our consciousness. Rating: **** ½

P.S. If you’ve seen The Wire, you should read David Simon’s very brief piece about the film, which is heartbreaking all over again in its final lines.

rocky-spinoff-creed-poster-600x889I’ve only ever seen the first Rocky film (which I really liked), so I can’t talk that much about how Creed stacks up against the rest of the sequels. What I can talk about is how much Coogler makes the film his own, taking what the original Rocky did – using a boxing story to explore a character, and delivering a character study with all the trappings of a boxing movie – and using it to follow his own interests. In this case, that’s the story of what it’s like to grow up as a young black man without a father, struggling to make his own identity. Once again uniting with Michael B. Jordan, Coogler follows the story of Adonis Creed, who’s attempting to grow up and make himself his own person, outside of the shadow of his late father. That leads him to seek out Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, of course), and ask him for training.

In taking on Creed, Coogler manages to somehow marry a mid-budget Hollywood tentpole film – an entry in a storied franchise – with all of his own passions and style, creating something far better than you would expect in the process. The relationship between Jordan and Stallone is beautifully handled, with nuance and depth, but also a rich humor that brings both men to life. Stallone, too, has rarely been better; it’s so easy to forget how great of an actor he can be, but even so, the way he plays Rocky here – lonely, older, feeling his age – is remarkable, bringing out the vulnerability in the character, but also his passion and pride. But his relationship with Jordan becomes more than the sum of their parts, with Coogler using it to play with the themes of father/son relationships and what they can mean – and what family can do for us. It gives the film a richness, thematically, investing us in each of these men and their arc. That the film does its best by Adonis’s love interest, a musician played by Tessa Thompson, is no small feat, nor what it does his mother, played by Phylicia Rashad; each woman is given a strength and motivation all her own, and even if they’re supporting characters, they’re handled far better than most films would even try to do.

But for the purpose of this review, I can’t help but discuss how much more assured and confident Coogler’s filmmaking is here, only one film later. The mid-film boxing sequence is incredible – a long, flowing single shot that weaves in and out of the action, gives us close-up shots, follows the action of the match, and gives it a tension and power all its own. It contrasts all the more with the final match, made up of reaction shots to the audience, as well as with each fighter, helping us understand that this match is less about the physical battle, and more about the emotional and mental stakes. That level of confidence goes throughout the film, as Coogler takes on montages, long shots, Steadicam shots, and more, truly stepping into his natural role as a filmmaker in a way that Fruitvale all but guaranteed.

I truly loved Creed, which I honestly didn’t expect; from its depiction of a weary Rocky Balboa to Jordan’s uncertain, questing fighter; from dazzling fight choreography to impactful, genuine emotional stakes; from strongly created relationships to thematic depth that explores real world stakes and issues; all of that and more turns Creed into a worthy successor to the original Rocky – a story of young men finding a way to prove themselves, and figure out who they are. I absolutely loved it, and was floored by Coogler’s growth and style as a director. Rating: *****

dws6uagu0ae4e77And now comes Black Panther, in which Marvel Studios finally cuts loose and generally lets a director make a Marvel product as personal as possible. I’ve long complained about the Marvel formula and the way it’s robbed movies of their individual flavor, and I won’t say that none of that applies to Black Panther. The big action climax of the film is overdone and bland – pretty much, it ends up feeling like it could come from half a dozen other comic book movies – and that goes doubly for the final showdown between our hero and the main villain, which becomes little more than a dull CGI whirl of action – a far cry from the intense, psychological battles of Creed, which married physical conflict with mental games. (That being said, there is a mid-film battle in a casino that unfolds in a dazzling long take that I enjoyed; it reminded me of what Coogler did in that mid-film bout in Creed, and to pretty great effect. It’s the one action set piece that really stands out in the film, and not coincidentally, the most engaging.)

But thankfully, moments like that are the exception in Black Panther, not the rule. Freed of almost any need to tie in to other Marvel movies (the mandatory end-credits scene aside, which can easily be ignored), Black Panther feels like no other Marvel movie to date, thanks in no small part to how deeply, truly African it is. Eschewing the usual generic cityscape of every other Marvel movie, Coogler fills the frame with colorful costumes, tribal fashions, and a rich tapestry of visuals that give the film a truly revolutionary feel. (I’m a straight white dude, so there’s no way I can speak to what this must feel like for so many other people, but to me, Black Panther felt truly like a film that got to celebrate black heritage and ancestry in a way that almost never happens.)

But as rich as the visual palette is, what really makes Black Panther work is the way that Coogler brings his wide, sprawling cast to life, filling his film with the sort of realistic, natural conversations that rang so true in his other movies. The result is that the film feels lived in in a way that Marvel rarely has for me; from the tribal priest, played by Forest Whitaker, to T’Challa’s sister Shuri (a scene-stealing, joyful performance by Letitia Wright), from Danai Gurira’s steely bodyguard to Winston Duke’s intimidating, surprisingly funny chieftain, Coogler takes the time to bring every character to life, letting them not just exist as plot points, but as characters and people.

But where that’s most evident, and most revolutionary, is in the film’s villain, Erik “Killmonger” Stevens. (A side note: Andy Serkis’s portrayal of the secondary villain, Ulysses Klaue, is a blast – he’s chewing the scenery gloriously and having so much fun that it’s infectious.) Set aside the fact that Killmonger is portrayed by Michael B. Jordan, whose effortless and massive charisma (and, let’s be honest, physical attractiveness) instantly makes his Killmonger watchable and fascinating. black-panther What’s truly remarkable about Killmonger is how trenchant and valid his concerns are, and how obviously Coogler uses him as a way to smuggle in truly revolutionary and incendiary ideas.

After all, here is a character who is driven by the loss of a father who himself was infuriated by the treatment of black communities; who is angered by the way Wakanda has let black people around the world suffer while they’ve prospered; who wants justice and payback for centuries of racism and injustice. It’s hard to hear Jordan’s angry, violent rhetoric and not feel like he’s the voice of reason here…and what’s more remarkable is the way the film takes his concerns seriously, with characters acknowledging the truth of his ideas, even as they fear and deplore his methods. That debate gives Black Panther far more depth than you’d expect, and the way the movie ends up becoming a discussion about the responsibility of the well-off to care for the less fortunate, as well as a vicious commentary on how a history of racism has corrupted and angered a generation, is all the more incredible for what Coogler has managed to do within the framework of a Marvel movie, the most formulaic of genres. (Jordan’s final line of dialogue in the film is a nuclear bomb of defiance that sent shivers down my spine, and I can’t imagine what it felt like as an African-American.)

I’ve come all this way, and there’s more I could talk about – I haven’t even touched on Chadwick Boseman’s soulful performance, which finds him moving between royalty and grief, between a loving brother and a threatened head of state, nor the film’s glorious afrofuturism, which mixes so effortlessly and seamlessly with the rest. The short version is, yes, Black Panther is still a Marvel movie, but it’s the first one that has pushed back against the limits of the genre to any sort of success. And if it eventually falls back into some of the weakest elements, that only underlines all the more what Coogler got away with here – how many ways he got away with an uncompromised, unique vision and trenchant social points. It’s the sort of movie that, to me, actually represents what I loved about comic books growing up – not the battles, but the ideas, the intelligent voices, the rich characters, and just the incredible worlds of imagination. But best of all is the fact that Coogler does all of this while somehow still creating something that’s recognizably his. No small feat, that – and it bodes well for a long career that will give us interesting, thoughtful films both in and out of the studio system. Rating: **** ½

IMDb: Fruitvale Station | Creed | Black Panther

Blue Ruin / **** ½

blue20ruinI wanted to see Blue Ruin even before I saw Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room, his follow-up and all around incredible film. Indeed, as much as I loved the claustrophobic tension of Green Room, the fact that Blue Ruin sounded so Coen-esque – a murder story that escalates – had me even more intrigued. But what I got was something more interesting and substantial (though no less well-made) than I expected; while Blue Ruin handles some of the same themes as other revenge films – primarily, the question of whether or not revenge is worth the blood that it spills, or the violence that sometimes blows back upon the avenger – it does so by creating something more complicated and mundane than most revenge films. This is Coenish in the “regular folks getting in over their heads” feel that it creates, but rather than using it for black comedy, as the Coens so often do, it’s used to increase our unease, our tension, and the emotional impact of the movie.

Much of Blue Ruin‘s impact has to be laid at the feet of Macon Blair, who has to carry so many scenes entirely on his own, without dialogue or any other actors to play off of. Even from the film’s opening notes, where we’re introduced to Blair as a homeless, unkempt drifter, the film lets his performance tell the story, as he wanders around, gets food, and eventually finds himself brought in by a police officer who wants to let him know that someone is being released from prison. Saulnier fades the audio here, prolonging the mystery, but Blair’s face tells us all the story we need – there is some deep tragedy here, and it’s how this man ended up where he is. To some degree, that sets up the recurring theme of the film: the way that violence ripples out far beyond its original target, leaving far more devastation in its wake than a single act might suggest.

Yes, Blue Ruin is a revenge film, but it’s not the one you expect; indeed, Blair’s act of revenge doesn’t end the film so much as it kicks it off, leading to a chain reaction of escalating violence that leaves plenty dead, more wounded, and the damage both emotional and physical hard to quantify. Saulnier stages it all perfectly for tension and unease, constantly reminding us how over his head Blair is, but also how broken he is – how little he has left in him beyond this quest to even the scales, no matter what it takes. And while there’s a lowkey comedy to some of the proceedings, Blue Ruin feels more like a tragedy than anything else – not just in terms of Blair, but in all of the participants in what follows.

None of this might make Blue Ruin sound as good as it is, or as tense; as he did in Green Room, Saulnier stages things expertly, extending the tension until it’s unbearable, using gore and violence for maximum impact, and investing us in these characters so that their fates matter to us beyond the machinations of a plot. Much of this comes down the performances, but also Saulnier’s control of the film; especially given how little this film gives us in terms of exposition, the fact that we’re never lost as to what’s going on is remarkable. But the way each setpiece unfolds slowly and horribly makes for some truly gripping viewing; yes, these are undeniably the acts of an amateur, but that only makes them more emotionally affecting and desperate, investing the film with even more power.

Blue Ruin‘s Coen brothers comparisons are understandable on a number of levels, but they don’t really prepare you for the film, which feels more like a very violent drama than a true revenge thriller or crime caper. It’s a film about violence that doesn’t flinch from it – similar to what Saulnier would do with Green Room – but it’s also about what these acts can do to a human being, both as a perpetrator and a victim. It’s a pretty stellar entry into the film scene, and bodes well for years of Saulnier films to come.


Buster’s Mal Heart / Logan Lucky / Tangerine

large_busters_mal_heart_ver2I missed Buster’s Mal Heart last year at the Chattanooga Film Festival, a festival whose tastes almost always align with mine; as a result, when it showed up on Netflix, I figured it was worth checking out. A weird, twisty, psychological thriller starring Rami Malek (of Mr. Robot fame) and written/directed by Sarah Adina Smith, Buster unfolds in three separate stories whose connections are unclear for much of the film’s running time. In one, a heavily bearded Malek drifts in a rowboat on the ocean, screaming Spanish obscenities at the sky; in another, he plays a wandering drifter named Buster who’s wandering in and out of the houses of the rich. But in the main story, he plays Jonah, a hotel clerk whose marriage and relationship with his daughter is suffering under the strain of his night shifts and the influence of a wandering drifter (DJ Qualls) preaching about the evils of civilization.

It’s all an interesting enough setup, and Malek plays his parts incredibly well. But Buster’s Mal Heart is far less than the sum of its parts, with the ultimate connection between the story feeling meaningless and more than a bit pretentious, and some of the film’s other big moments ending up thudding and obvious. It all feels like it’s going for something profound, or at least mind-bendy, but instead, it just ends up muddled and dull, Malek’s performance aside, turning into something little more than a tired retread of ideas from better movies. Rating: **

1510598-bI’m pretty glad that Steven Soderbergh is unable to retire, from a film fan point of view. As long as he’s working actively, I’m guaranteed a regular stream of interesting, engaging movies; more than that, he’s almost completely incapable of repeating himself (a couple of Ocean’s sequels aside), as Logan Lucky shows. It would be entirely easy for Soderbergh to retread Ocean’s 11 again; after all, this is a heist film at its core. But, instead of giving us a smooth, sophisticated con game, we get something more low-key and natural-feeling, which befits the different world of Logan Lucky. This isn’t high rollers and con men; this is the working poor, stealing to stay alive, and Soderbergh brings a more controlled, thoughtful approach to much of the film’s setup period.

Indeed, it’s fascinating how much the downturn in the economy has shaped recent Soderbergh films, from Magic Mike to The Girlfriend Experience, and Logan Lucky is perhaps the most explicit version of this to date, with Channing Tatum’s single working dad getting laid off due to insurance liability, and Adam Driver’s bartender only having one arm thanks to three tours in the Middle East, a job he took due to a lack of other options in the area. It’s never hammered on, but the subtext is impossible to ignore here, and it’s what keeps the movie from being the condescending look at the poor that some people have accused it of being. Soderbergh’s clearly got some cynical feelings about corporations and big business, culminating in a brief scene in the aftermath of the heist where we get the business’s side of it, and his sympathy is deeply with these characters. Does he find the comedy in them? Oh, undoubtedly – Logan Lucky is incredibly funny. But all of these people are smarter than you might first assume, and there’s an undeniable Robin Hood feeling to the heist – the poor robbing from the rich.

All of which adds up to a great heist movie, but something that’s also quintessentially Soderbergh – something more character-driven, more stylish, and more entertaining than the simple story would ever lead you to believe. I had a blast with it, and love that Soderbergh’s work ethic means he’s going to be churning out more movies for a long time to come. (Oh, and the famous Game of Thrones joke? It’s every bit as funny and wonderful as you’ve heard and then some.) Rating: **** ½

tangerineBefore he made the incredible The Florida Project (my favorite movie of last year), director Sean Baker rose to fame with Tangerine, a dark comedy/drama that follows two transsesxual prostitutes on a Christmas Eve of manic events, largely orbiting around Sin-Dee’s (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) efforts to track down her pimp/boyfriend who cheated on her while she was in prison. At the time, I was never sure if Tangerine was famous because it was good, or because it was shot entirely on an iPhone and still looked pretty great; having seen it, I can tell you that it’s almost entirely the former.

Yes, Tangerine looks incredible, to the point where you probably won’t remember the iPhone shooting while you’re watching; it doesn’t hurt that Baker has such a great eye for finding the beauty in everyday images, as well as a cinephile’s eye for framing. But as he did in Tangerine, Baker creates a naturalistic, fleshed out world, one where you don’t feel like you’re watching a movie so much as trespassing in a whole society that we’re only barely privy to. As Sin-Dee and her friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) make their way around the city – Sin-Dee hunting down her boyfriend, Alexandra trying to drum up audience interest in her performance that evening – we watch as they argue, talk at each other and everyone else, chat with old friends and new enemies, and just sort of exist. The result is a little more plot driven than Florida Project was – the two women have a full character arc each, as does Razmik (Karren Karagulian), a local cab driver who’s got his own life that weaves in and out with these women. Again working with primarily new faces, unknown actors, and inexperienced newcomers, Baker brings his world to life, depicting these lives without pity or judgment.

The end result is surprisingly funny; there’s no end of drama and screaming, but I ended up laughing at a huge amount of it, and there’s no denying that Alexandra’s dry commentary on half of the drama makes every scene all the better. But Baker finds the emotional core buried deep within the women, ending on a quiet scene that’s perfect in every way – a moment of tenderness, understanding, and peace in the middle of all of it. In a way, that’s Baker’s movies, too – an affectionate, nonjudgmental portrait of people we tend to overlook. Rating: *****

IMDb: Buster’s Mal Heart | Logan Lucky | Tangerine

Hunt for the Wilderpeople / *****

hunt-for-the-wilderpeople-movie-poster-2016-1020773853It has been a long time since I fell in love with a movie as hard as I did with Hunt for the Wilderpeople, director Taika Waititi’s wonderful, incredibly funny, deeply warm-hearted film about a foster child who goes on the run into the New Zealand bush with his uncle rather than be returned to Child Services. That doesn’t sound like the setup for a comedy, but I cannot overstate how often and how hard I laughed at Wilderpeople. But more than that, what won me over about Wilderpeople was its incredibly big heart and humane spirit; it’s never cheesy, never ridiculous in its earnestness, but it never is less than kind to its characters and honest in its belief in the importance of love and kindness.

That mixture is evident even from the opening scenes of the film, which depicts the arrival of new adoptee Ricky (Julian Dennison, whose performance is a wonder) at the home of Bella and Hec, a couple living near the edge of the New Zealand bush. Hec is gruff and silent, and Ricky is presented as “a bad seed” – a trouble maker, a wanna-be gangster, and just generally a bad kid. But Bella’s mothering can’t be denied, and the look on Ricky’s face when he finds that she’s left a hot water bottle to warm his bed for him speaks volumes – it’s a moment of kindness toward a child who may have never experienced any, and Dennison’s underplayed reaction is quietly moving in its appreciation and awe.

That’s how the film goes, though. Waititi is known for comedy, and Wilderpeople is laugh-out-loud funny throughout, with Waititi making the best of the wonderful chemistry between the outsized personality of Dennison and the taciturn straight man of Sam Neill. But he populates the film with silliness throughout, never letting the film escape the grounding of its story, but finding the absurdity and ridiculousness in almost every scene, from a bewildering funeral speech to an entirely overzealous child services officer. And none of that even takes into account the brief role played by the wonderful Rhys Darby, who never fails to make me laugh, as the self-titled “Psycho Sam”.

And yet, even though it’s that funny, what turned me from enjoying Wilderpeople to loving it is the depiction of this lonely, rejected child and the hardened man played by Neill. Yes, I’m sure you know the broad outlines of how that relationship will go, but none of it detracts from the way that Waititi fleshes it out – the slow unveiling of both characters’ past traumas and vulnerabilities – nor the way both performances convey so much about the characters without Waititi needing to spell out every detail. Indeed, so much of the joy of the film comes from its willingness to take its characters seriously, even when it’s peppering you with silliness.

For some, I suppose the disconnect of the absurdity (which hits its peak in an elaborate and over the top finale) and the human element might be an issue. But for me, somehow, Waititi holds it all together, letting his characters drive the comedy, generally preferring the simple gag to the elaborate one, but always making the humor about the world and the characters, not at them. Even Ricky, who’s presented as one sort of trope, becomes something better and richer – a young child who just wants to be loved, and whose front is, well, a front. That he manages all this while still giving us a rich adventure tale in the New Zealand bush – a manhunt, hunting trips, confrontations with locals, and more – is all the more remarkable, but makes the overall movie all the more joyous and warm as a result. It’s funny, humane, kind, absurd, and just wonderful in almost every way I can think of, and I loved every second of it.


Brawl in Cell Block 99 / *****

7801760-5With his first movie, Bone Tomahawk, director S. Craig Zahler made a name for himself, creating a compelling vision of the Old West before turning his True Grit-flavor abruptly into brutal and violent horror. It was a movie I liked a lot, even if at times I made the comment that it felt a little overlong and shaggy at times. And, to be sure, the comment could easily be made that the film feels intentionally disjointed and disconnected, but it still makes for an odd viewing experience.

But with his second film, Brawl in Cell Block 99, Zahler makes a huge step forward, creating something tonally unified, unfiltered, and absolutely effective. It’s unmistakably a 1970’s grindhouse revenge film tribute, but one that makes use of Zahler’s willingness to take his time in his films, letting the characters develop to make the payoffs all the more effective. And please trust me when I tell you that  the payoffs here are effective – but they are also brutal. At times, this makes the violence of Bone Tomahawk seem like a dry run; it’s shocking, horrifying, and undeniably disturbing.

But that’s fitting for Brawl, which takes the form of a 1970’s revenge film, more or less. It’s the tale of Bradley (Vince Vaughn), a man trying to get his life on track, but struggling to stay employed. Through a complicated set of circumstances, Bradley finds himself going to a minimum security prison, when something happens that changes his whole plan. (If it sounds like I’m being vague, that’s intentional; while this isn’t a plot heavy film, it’s best enjoyed relatively cold, to savor Zahler’s brutal and unexpected machinations.) That, of course, leads to the titular brawl…which lives up to expectations and then some.

But as much as the film’s violence is effective, jarring, and nightmarish, what lingers more than anything else is the mood of the film, which gives even the happiest scenes a feeling of dread and inevitability, and makes the film’s slow progression to its looming conclusion all the more intense. From the blue-tinted lens work to the lived-in feel of the dialogue, it’s not hard to feel that Zahler’s work has stepped up another notch from his already outstanding work in Bone Tomahawk, creating something even more intense and gripping.

For all of that, there’s no way to talk about the film without talking about Vince Vaughn, who may have never been better in a film than he is here. Gone is Vaughn’s usual swagger and ironic charm; his Bradley is a hard man, shaped by a troubled past that we only get hints of and the vagaries of a difficult daily life. There’s none of Vaughn’s usual motormouth tendencies, none of his ability to talk his way out of situations. His Bradley is all physicality – tense, dangerous, coiled. (It doesn’t hurt that Vaughn bulked up so much for the role; he’s big enough to seem like a threat that’s ready to pop at any moment.) And yet, we get glimpses of the man underneath it all; even as he’s doing horrifying things, there’s no joy in it, no savage delight – it’s just survival. That’s especially relevant, given how much Zahler turns the plot on Bradley’s need to protect his family; for all of Bradley’s physicality and violence, he’s a deeply loving man whose only priority is to provide for those he loves.

There are other great performances here – Don Johnson makes the best of a small role as a prison warden, turning a role that could easily turn into camp into something more threatening and hard – but truly, Brawl works so well due largely to Vaughn’s incredible performance here, one in which he fully commits to the part. That he’s matched – or forced into stepping up his game – by Zahler’s outstanding direction…well, that combo makes Brawl as good as it is, turning pulpy revenge into something more gripping, effective, and tense than it might be on paper. It’s not for the faint of heart, but for those up for it, Brawl is an absolute knockout of tension, mood, and performance. Just be prepared for what you’re getting into.


Night of the Living Dead / *****

909_bd_box_34x490_originalI’ve seen George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead more times than almost any other horror movie (with the possible exception of Tobe Hooper’s original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, one of the few films I put on equal footing with Romero’s stone cold classic). Every time, I worry that I might enjoy it less, that this might be the time that I question whether my love of it is unjustified, and every time, I love it even more, finding more and more evidence that the original Night is one of the greatest horror movies ever made – a film that’s undeniably of a time fraught with anxiety and fears about racial unrest and an unpopular war, and one that reflects those worries, making it impossible to look away.

It’s this aspect of Night that I found myself thinking most about on this rewatch (which, incidentally, was also my first watch of Criterion’s new 4K restoration – it is a knockout, plain and simple, and a revelation). In so many ways, Night of the Living Dead is a film that bridges two eras of horror. We begin in the 1950’s, with camp, exaggeration, and mannered performances; we end in the 1960’s, with no justice, no easy answers, and no flinching from the nightmare of the world. (A lot of spoilers are going to follow; this is more of an essay than a review.)

Look, for instance, at the opening scenes of the movie. A brother and sister arrive in a graveyard to pay their respects to their long dead father. The film looks cheap and B-movie level, at best, at this point. The performances are broad, the dialogue mannered, the banter overwritten. That first zombie attack? It’s ridiculous. It’s a man basically playacting as Frankenstein(‘s monster), with a death that’s so bloodless we don’t even know if it’s actually a death, followed by a hurried, not particularly urgent escape.

So far, so good. This is familiar territory for 1950’s monster flick fans. A lot of fun; in theory, it could be scary, but mainly, it’s silliness, and a good time at the movies.

But then the film starts to change a little. Just a little, though. Sure, there’s Barbara, portrayed by Judith O’Dea in a mannered, B-level performance of hysteria, anchoring the movie squarely in the genre of the 1950’s. Nonetheless, there are signs that things aren’t quite what we think. A surprisingly graphic corpse rotting upstairs. The arrival of our new hero – Ben, an African-American man, whose blackness feels revolutionary, and yet the film leaves it uncommented upon. More than that, there’s the sharp contrast between O’Dea’s performance and that of Duane Jones, who feels more naturalistic, grounded – more in line with the naturalistic feel of performances we were starting to see in the new Hollywood wave. Still, setting aside these brief moments, the whole thing generally feels like a low-budget monster movie, and that’s no bad thing. For a while, our characters are talking inside a house, rather than fighting zombies. They’re making plans, and the glimpses of the zombies are brief and sporadic.

Obviously, the film is going to change, and change drastically, after the end of the time in the house. On this watch, though, I was more and more aware of how Romero was gradually tossing in more and more elements of 1960’s film, letting them sit in sharp contrast to the 1950’s elements. The cast continues to split, with most of our protagonists turning in 1950’s square performances, but there’s a greater and greater sense of divide between them and Jones. That finds a mirror all the way down to the various newscasts, which vacillate between War of the Worlds-style commentary and visceral newsreel footage, the latter of which features yet another grounded, realistic performance by George Kosana, playing a local sheriff who’s leading zombie-killing posses.

What’s more, there’s a creeping dread that what’s outside isn’t as safe as we thought it was. The news reports start drifting from 1950’s cheese (“The dead have begun to walk!”) to more brutal, disturbing claims of cannibalism and mutilation. The brief zombie forays get more violent, with one intruding hand being slowly torn apart by a hammer. There’s a sense that the child downstairs might not survive the night. In other words, there’s a slowly growing sense that the rules as we know them aren’t applying anymore.

And then, our heroes make an effort to fill up a truck with gas, and all hell breaks loose. Our teenage couple dies – not in a bloodless knock to the head like Johnny in the opening’s scene, but in a ball of flame that burns them alive. Ben is nearly left to die thanks to the cowardice of the surviving white male lead. Suddenly, the film isn’t fun anymore. People are dying, and not in safe ways.

All that before the zombies literally tear the victims apart, chewing and feasting on their flesh in gory, graphic ways – ripping the flesh off of severed hands, fighting over slippery intestines, and worse, thanks to the truly disturbing foley work.

Even in a day and age where zombie gore is nearly passe thanks to shows like The Walking Dead, there’s something shocking and unforgettable about Night‘s gore, and it’s in no small part because of how long the film takes to get to it. Before the gore, there’s been a sense that we’re in an old monster movie. After the horrifying death of the teenagers and their graphic dismemberment, though, we can’t hide from this world anymore – the rules as we know them seem to have been thrown away.

What could be more appropriate than that for a movie made in a decade where the facade was ripped off of race relations, forcing Americans to grapple with their own complicity in oppression and cruelty? Or for a decade in which footage was coming through on the nightly news of wartime violence, uncensored and unedited, to say nothing of the wartime crimes being committed?

From there, there’s no going back. A child brutally and graphically murders her mother, stabbing her over, and over, and over, and over, until we just want it to stop. Ben – our hero, our protagonist, the one decent man – kills a man, not because he’s a zombie, but because he almost let him die. It’s murder, plain and simple, and even with Ben’s successive killing of a mother and child because they’ve turned, there’s a sense that we’ve crossed another line, one in which morality is gone, too. Barbara? She doesn’t make it either, pulled away by her own brother. Even those we love turn against us in Night, making us question whether we can truly know what’s in anyone’s heart. And in the midst of all of it, we catch a glimpse of that zombie from the opening scenes. He’s unchanged – still lurching, no more graphic than he was – and yet, he’s not funny anymore. None of it is. Is it just part of the way the film comes full circle, ending where it began? Or is it a darker comment on how this horror has been underneath the surface all along, and we’ve just been blind to it – the same way so much of America was blind to the horrors of war, or racial intolerance?

And then there’s the ending. Not giving his an audience even a moment to relax as he builds to the unforgettable final moments, Romero fills the scene with loaded images: cops holding back straining German Shepherd dogs, wandering patrols in grassy fields picking off people one by one. It’s impossible to see these patrols and not find them horrifying, no matter if intellectually we tell ourselves that they’re hunting zombies – it’s too close to what we’ve seen on the news every night, and the enjoyment they’re feeling is too nauseating,

Too nauseating, even before they shoot Ben as an afterthought. No big music sting. No teased hope. Just a short, brutal death – a betrayal of any hope that good might win, and an image whose resonance hits home even after 50 years. (Maybe more so, in a world after countless examples of black men killed for the color of their skin.)

And then, Romero cuts to newsprint-style credits, but even there, there’s no escape. We watch as Ben – our hero, the voice of reason, the survivor – is impaled by hooks, tossed on a blazing inferno. The still images give way to a towering inferno of corpses.

Cut to black, and our journey is complete. We started in the world of the 1950’s. Threats were childish, and we could joke about them. The world made sense. Heroes would win, villains would lose, and order would be restored. There were risks and uncertainties, sure, but the world tended towards justice. White heroes would thrive, would be brave. Villains were easy to identify.

But we end in the 1960’s. We have met the enemy, and he is us (an “us” that might be “humanity in general,” or just “suburban white people”…or maybe both). Racial violence is impossible to ignore. The authorities are not our saviors. The world doesn’t make sense. Death is ugly. Humans are cruel to each other. You can try to cling to the old ways – like Barbara did, acting as though this is nothing but men in rubber suits and it’s all going to be fine – you won’t make it. But even those who adapt, like Ben, sometimes have no chance. And sadly, even fifty years later, every bit of it still hits home relentlessly. Authorities still kill black men without remorse. Men with guns kill and feel like big men because of it. War makes every brutality acceptable. Humanity is willing to turn on itself at a moment’s notice. In other words, despite us “moving forward” as a human race, every bit of the ugliness and nastiness uncovered in the film is still relevant and trenchant today.

And that’s far, far scarier than any zombie ever could be.


Hellbound: Hellraiser II / ** ½

mv5bmzixzja2mzatztu5ms00n2fjlwi2ndqtngmwyzqxmge1ndlmxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtqxnzmzndi-_v1_sy1000_cr006471000_al_Man, do I wish this movie was 2/3 as long as it is.

Let me back up for a moment. I’m a big fan of the original Hellraiser, both as a low-budget, unsettling horror film and as an adaptation of Clive Barker’s work. I think that there are few authors out there like Barker, but movies have always struggled to match his surreal imagination, boundary-pushing horror, and blurring of lines between morality and pleasure. Barker was never an author interested in conventional horror stories, and any effort to turn his work into something more easily pigeonholed usually ended up disastrously.

All of which is to say, I wasn’t really expecting Hellbound to be any good. It’s not as though Hellraiser really needed a sequel, and knowing how the later films essentially turned Pinhead and the Cenobites into generic slasher villain tropes – thus missing every appeal of the original film and novella – I assumed Hellbound was just the first step down a long path of mediocrity.

Which is probably why I got so frustrated by the film’s final act, because up until then, Hellbound is way more interesting than you’d expect it to be. Yes, it still feels like an unnecessary sequel – it picks up right after the events of the original, and follows Kirsty’s fears that her stepmother Julia can be resurrected the same way Frank was in the original – and can sometimes feel a bit like a retread, with characters sometimes just going through the motions to keep the original plot cycling through again. And yes, there’s undeniably a sense of “missing the point”, with the filmmakers clearly not interested in Barker’s blending of pain and pleasure and instead going full on torture and gore.

And yet, Hellbound manages to capture the unsettling, otherworldly, Lovecraftian feeling that Barker sometimes managed. The glimpses of the other world that we get here are genuinely unsettling and strange; Pinhead and the Cenobites are still forces of malevolent nature, incomprehensible to human understanding; the horror is still visceral and truly horrifying. (I try not to be an old man about movies too often, but there’s little denying that Hellbound‘s effects largely work because of their practicality. The latex body suits are tactile and horrific in that texture, giving it all a physicality that computer effects never could. And the same can be said for the matte paintings, which are moodier and stranger than CGI could often create. I’m not saying all CGI is bad – far from it – but the first two Hellraiser films are testaments to the power of practical horror effects.)

All of which makes it all the more frustrating when Hellbound goes so far off the rails that the word “off” doesn’t even do it justice. Up until the scene in which of the film’s antagonists meets what seems to be his final fate in a hellish box, I was into it. But within seconds after that, character motivations veer wildly, physical behaviors make no sense, power struggles become unclear, and the film loses any sense of coherence, clarity, or any purpose beyond gore and violence. It makes for an exhaustingly awful, pointless, and truly incomprehensible final act, and it’s so bad that it takes away from how surprisingly solid, if unoriginal, I found the rest of the movie. If you love the original Hellraiser, you might be surprised by how good Hellbound is for a while; just trust me when I tell you that it’s time to turn the movie off after the aforementioned scene – that is, unless you want to be able to pinpoint the exact, precise moment a film implodes.