Val Lewton was a producer who, in a sense, made a bargain unheard of in the history of Hollywood ego, trading prestige for freedom. He took a job as head of the horror department at RKO, and was given only three restrictions: The movies had to be cheap, relatively short, and the studio would provide titles (so, for example, we have a revisionist take on Jane Eyre and scathing critique of colonialism titled…I Walked with a Zombie). Other than that, he had free rein. The apex of this period was 1942’s Cat People, a stylish psychosexual noir directed by Jacques Tourneur that was much more about repressed trauma and existential dread than monsters…but there were enough horror movie trappings to make it a hit.
The 1944 follow-up is a direct sequel, focusing on two of the original’s main characters and their daughter, but in tone, it’s wildly divergent. A ghost story of sorts, the young girl is haunted, literally, by her parents’ past, but the threat is more emotional than physical. It’s a wonderful, and wonderfully humane, treatment of deeply damaged characters, all of whom are worthy of empathy (living or dead). Director Robert Wise (West Side Story, The Sound of Music, The Haunting, etc., etc., etc.) and company also build some stunning set-pieces, making the most of the film’s barely existent budget. I can only imagine the reaction of 1944 audiences who paid to see a horror movie about curses and cat people only to get a dark but big-hearted, fantasy. Surely the greatest trick Val Lewton ever played.
Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel is set in a dystopian 2045 and follows Wade Wyatt, whose obsession with a global virtual reality game is primed to pay off when he learns of an Easter egg that will grant its finder the keys to the entire kingdom. Finding the necessary clues requires a deep knowledge of games and movies, and Wade is well-prepared. It’s sort of a wish-fulfillment scenario in which all that otherwise useless knowledge will finally pay off. Likewise, Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation includes dozens, if not hundreds, of pop culture callbacks: references to Back to the Future, The Iron Giant, Gundam, The Shining, Jurassic Park, Batman, etc. So many, in fact, that the movie could likely never have gotten made without Spielberg-level pull in getting all of the rights’ clearances. In the world of the OASIS, four-quadrant multi-billion-dollar global franchises are, apparently, niche concerns, and only the nerdiest of nerds would ever be able to identify.
Another movie based on a European import, Dredd comes from the British comics anthology 2001 AD, the character having been created by John Wagner, Carlos Ezquerra, and Pat Mills. It’s, of course, the second go at bringing the character to the big screen and, while the Sylvester Stallone version has its proponents, this is the one that gets it right. It’s a dark, dystopian, and very effective action thriller in the style of The Raid, and yet somehow made no money and was seen by no one.
On a related note, the initial Rocky movies all work on different levels, but by the third, the formula was getting tired, and so the fourth took a gamble by going over the top (not to be confused with Over the Top) patriotic, and it paid off in a big way, earning the biggest box office of the series, before or since.
After boxer Ivan Drago (future movie He-Man Dolph Lundgren) literally kills Apollo Creed with the entire Soviet Union behind him, rugged individualist Rocky goes rogue, getting Drago to agree to an unsanctioned match in the USSR. It’s all laid out invia an all-time great, utterly memorable training montage: while Drago trains with a whole team, modern equipment, and the best steroids communism had on offer, Rocky does it the good old-fashioned way: by chopping down trees and pretending to be a doggie pulling Paulie around on a sled. Like a fuckin’ man.
Without giving too much away, the ending sees Rocky winning over the Soviet audience and earning the applause of Premier Mikhail Gorbachev himself. And that’s the story of the fall of communism.
Jeff “The Dude’’ Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) spends his time smoking weed and bowling with his buddies. One night, hooligans break into his home, mistaking him for a different Lebowski. They threaten him, and worse, they pee on his oriental rug, which really ties the room together. Seeking retribution for his soiled decor, The Dude sets out to confront the other Lebowski, embarking on that journey he doesn’t realize will come to involve kidnapping, ransom money, and high-level crime bosses. The whole movie is a trip. I suggest making yourself a large white Russian and readying a spliff before pressing play.
Where to stream: Digital rental on Prime Video, Apple TV, YouTube
After years of miserable discourse, Zack Snyder’s director’s cut of Justice League is finally here. If you’re not familiar with its storied past, Snyder originally directed 2018’s Justice League. However, he had to step aside midway through the project. Warner Bros brought in disgraced director Joss Whedon to finish the job resulting in a chaotic final product with two clashing visions. For some reason, fans got it in their heads that a full “Snyder Cut” of the film existed (it didn’t). Fans got so up in arms about it that HBO decided to pay Snyder a lot of money to actually make the Snyder Cut into a reality, despite the fact that Snyder’s DC films have been widely panned by critics and fans alike over the years. Nevertheless, a 4-hour Snyder Cut of Justice League will finally be available to watch on HBO Max come Thursday at 3 AM EDT.
The bizarre thing about the film is that everyone’s already decided what they think of it. Fans who begged for it to exist are going to love it, regardless of quality. Meanwhile, those who can’t stand Snyder have already written it off as trash. Of course, there’s only one way to find out if the opinions you’ve formulated are true: by actually watching it. If nothing else, it’s worth grabbing one month of HBO Max just to prove yourself right. We’ve been suffering through this discourse for years and it’s finally over, so we deserve one week of collective dunking or celebration. Pick your poison … you likely already have. The Snyder Cut is a cultural event that’s the culmination of the worst parts of fan culture turned into one gigantic superhero movie. It’s the film of the year, for better or worse.
Oh, am I going to watch it? Jesus Christ, no. Are you kidding?
Maybe it’s a delayed reaction to the cancelation of Halloween five months ago, or maybe it’s just me, but for some reason the internet was even more unsettling than usual this past week. There were menacing stories in the news, a frightening viral video to enjoy, and the unique horror of being so old you don’t even understand what a celebrity is any more. So, let’s dig right in to the spooky.
This week in unnerving news: Haunted elevator, surprise skull, and a real-life Candyman
Our second chilling tale comes from YouTube where U.K.-based paranormal investigators and urban explorers Danny and Felicity Duffy went looking for the supernatural at an abandoned pub in the woods. Unlike most mystic inquiries, they actually found something scary—but it wasn’t a haunt, specter, will-o-the-whisp, or C.H.U.D. It was an actual dead body!
“This is as real as it gets,” Danny reports on his YouTube video while holding up a stranger’s skull. “This is someone’s head. I am not joking right now.” The couple called the Manchester police who quickly began an investigation. The cops don’t know how long the skull has been there or to whom it once belonged, but hopefully answers are coming soon.
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Our third chilling story is the scariest of all. It began last week in New York City, when TikToker Samantha Hartsoe noticed an odd breeze blowing from behind the bathroom mirror in her apartment. She had to investigate, so she lifted the mirror off the wall and found an entire room behind it. I would have moved out right then, but Hartsoe, apparently having never seen Candyman, Parasite, Crawlspace, Bad Ronald, or really any horror movie ever, climbed through the hole and found an entire unfinished apartment. Luckily, the deformed cannibals who live behind her bathroom mirror were out for the night, so Hartsoe escaped with her life. You can check out the entire four-part saga on Hartsoe’s TikTok.
*Ghosts aren’t real and nothing happens after you die.
Celebrities you’ve never heard of: The strange world of CodeMiko
Falling into the rabbit hole of CodeMiko made me feel like I’d wandered away from Grampa Simpson’s old-age home and into a far-future where nothing makes sense and I’m wearing an onion on my belt. CodeMiko is a “virtual streamer” on Twitch, a 3D digital avatar who hangs out in a video game-style world, chats with her fans, and does live interviews with other streamers and the occasional mainstream celebrity. She’s not the first to do this—that’s probably Max Headroom—but CodeMiko takes the VTube genre in a new and meta direction.
First, there’s the fan interactions. For a little money, her chatroom-dwelling fans can alter CodeMiko’s environment in real time—flash messages across her chest, blow things up in her room, and even murder her with a nuclear bomb—all while she’s peppering her guest with rapid-fire, bat-crap crazy interview questions.
To add another layer to the weirdness, there’s “The Technician,” who is purportedly CodeMiko’s creator, the woman who codes Miko’s world and dons a motion capture suit to portray her. Unlike most VTubers, CodeMiko makes no secret of her “real” identity, posting frequent, informal videos that kick through the fourth wall and let you see how the virtual sausage is made…if you believe what The Technician says, of course.
She seems sincere enough, but the whole endeavor is so recursive and postmodern, I don’t trust that any of it is any more “real” than anything else. Overall, I don’t really know what to make of this, other than it makes me feel impossibly old. But check it out if you want a glimpse into the future, but do it quick. CodeMiko’s abrasive style could well get her banned from Twitch… unless that’s part of the act, too.
Viral Video of the week: Teaching Jake about the Camcorder, Jan ‘97
Videographer and actor Brian David Gilbert has been sporadically releasing clever, engaging videos on YouTube for the past four years. He grew a fanbase of nearly a million subscribers with semi-absurdist comedy videos like “Buy My Bed” and “Let’s Get Good at Darts,” but lately, Gilbert has been veering toward the dark and terrible. His newest video, “Teaching Jake about the Camcorder, Jan ‘97” is a full-on horror flick told in a single shot from a 1990s camcorder, and judging by how many people are sharing it, this story of grief, existential terror, and outdated technology is resonating with people in a going-viral way. I don’t want to spoil it with a description, but if you like chilling tales, this is for you.
This week in movies: ‘Space Jam: New Legacy’ details revealed
Entertainment Weekly dropped a ton of specifics on long-awaited sequel Space Jam: New Legacy. The follow-up to 1997’s surprise super-hit Space Jam stars basketball great LeBron James and Don Cheadle, as well as the full collection of Looney Tunes favorites like Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck.
Whether James can fill the sneakers of Space Jam star Michael Jordan is an open question, but the sequel at least seems unique. James will be sucked into the virtual world of Warner Brothers’ servers where he’ll interact with WB intellectual property like Wonder Woman, Mad Max, and Casablanca. There will be a climactic basketball game against weird cartoon monsters as well, bet on that.
The movie hits theaters and HBO Max on July 16, but you should see it on the big screen, if it’s safe in your area. It might be too much to expect the magic of Space Jam to be repeated, but watching LeBron dunk on cartoon monsters should be seen in as large a format as possible…and I haven’t been to a movie in a year, so I definitely hope to leave my house for this one.
When it comes to leading positions in the world of film and television, women have been overlooked. In 2019, women accounted for only 15.1% of directors in mainstream film and television—just over 1% higher than in 2018. Since the Time’s Up movement brought issues of sexual harassment and mistreatment of women in the…
A European tour can be the trip of a lifetime: a high school graduate taking a gap year to see the world, college grads backpacking around Italy, France, and Germany while figuring out what they want to do with their lives, free-spirited women traveling alone in search of a higher calling. (At least, that’s what I’ve…
Speaking of the Joker, Harley Quinn is better known as the sidekick to that iconic villain. She was invented by the creators of Batman: The Animated Series, and has since become a fan-favorite antihero in comics and films.
Harley Quinn’s origin story is well known in the comics but has yet to be clearly detailed in the cinematic world. Elements of her backstory are seen in The Suicide Squad and in 2020’s Birds of Prey. She begins as psychiatrist Harleen Frances Quinzel, treating patients at Arkham asylum. While on assignment, she falls for the Joker’s persuasive personality and becomes his criminal sidekick.
One might argue Joker simply unlocked her true anti-establishment nature, helping her realize her self-actualize. Either way, she eventually breaks free of Mr. J in the new movie, and has become a symbol for women everywhere who choose to say “fuck the system” and embrace their free spirits.
You can stream Birds of Prey, or the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn on HBO Max.