Sunday, October 30, 2011

October 28th: Howling V: The Rebirth (1989)

It's 1489 in Budapest, Hungary, and in a secluded castle, three generations of families have committed mass suicide, leaving the Prince and his wife, who informs the Prince that the baby is dead. The Prince kills his wife and then himself; but as he dies, the Prince hears the cries of the baby and screams out that they have all died in vain.
500 years later in 1989, Count Istvan (Philip Davis), attempting to attract tourist business to Hungary, invites nine strangers to attend the re-opening of the castle: model Gail Cameron (Stephanie Faulkner), photographer David Gillespie (Ben Cole), tennis player Jonathan Lane (Mark Sivertsen), bimbo actress Mary Lou Summers (Elizabeth She), author Ray Price (Clive Turner), Dr. Catherine Peake (Victoria Catlin), millionaire Richard Hamilton (William Shockley), beloved European actress Anna Spencer (Mary Stavin), and Professor Dorsen (Nigel Triffitt).
Once at the castle, the Count informs his guests that an unexpected blizzard has hit, meaning that they'll have to stay for the night; Gail, well aware that a blizzard was expected, grows suspicious of the Count's motives. When the Professor, convinced there's a reason the castle's been closed for 500 years, disappears while exploring, Gail fears someone else is in the castle and when the other guests start disappearing, the Count reveals why he's brought them all together; one of them is a Werewolf.
I love The Howling, but I must say I can't think of another great movie to spawn so many terrible sequels; Howling II: Your Sister Is A Werewolf is unbelievably awful, Howling III: The Marsupials is downright unwatchable and Howling IV: The Original Nightmare, though slightly easier to endure, was dreadful on its own. And there's still FOUR MORE sequels to go!!
Let's start the latter half of the series with Howling V: The Rebirth. Suffice it to say, things aren't looking good from the onset. Clive Turner and Freddie Rowe, the men who ruined the previous film, are handling screenwriting duties once again. As with Howling IV, Turner and Rowe branch away from the original film in favor of another standalone entry. Worse yet, the director is Neal Sundstrom, the co-director of Space Mutiny, featured on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 and starring Howling II's Reb Brown and Howling IV's Norman Anstey. May I remind you Clive Turner is involved?
What. The. Fuck. I'm in shock. As I sit here and write this, I can't believe what I'm typing. It's not possible; it's scientific fact this can't happen. Hold on to your asses, because what I'm about to say makes no sense, but is surprisingly true; Howling V isn't terrible. There, I said it. This fifth Howling is not a bad movie. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that believe it or not, this is actually a well made, mildly entertaining sequel that was relatively easy to sit through. How did this happen?
For starters, it was nice to see a Howling sequel with good production values; It helps that Howling IV was shot on location in Budapest. In his first and only time as a Production Designer, Nigel Triffitt has done his job quite well, producing an appropriately creepy castle, which reminds me of the gothic castles I love seeing in the Hammer Horror films of the '50s and '60s. Cinematographer Arledge Armenaki bathes the film in gorgeous blue lighting, giving it a cold, steely look that works well with the dark, somber tone of the story.
I also want to give credit to Sundstrom; his resume didn't inspire much confidence, but he does a very respectable job here. It's nothing groundbreaking, but the man knows how to make a horror movie. There's some very good use of shadows and lighting to create some atmosphere and though it's overused, he's in the right mindset to prefer ambiguity and suspense rather than overabundant blood spilling. One wonders what this guy could've done with more money and a better script.
Speaking of which, Clive Turner and Freddie Rowe did nothing with Howling IV but make me curse whoever gave them careers. In Howling V, they've made some improvements, primarily with the setup; I love a good murder mystery, so this plot kept me intrigued throughout the film. Furthermore, I found it refreshing to see some twists on the typical character stereotypes of horror films; the creepy old guy turns out to be an anti-hero, the obvious final girl bites it early on and the people you expect to drop dead first are the last standing.
It's too bad the actors fail miserably to make these decent characters work. As the illustrious Count, Philip Davis is dull rather than menacing and while I think he was aiming for aloofness, he comes off as bored. Elizabeth She's cheerful bimbo Mary Lou is right up there with Halloween 5's Tina in terms of inspiring intense hatred from me. Cliver Turner's performance as Ray Price gives me another reason to despise this man, while Nigel Triffitt steps in front of the camera for the brief role of the Professor. Victoria Caitlin (Bruce Campbell's wife in Maniac Cop) and Ben Cole are nothing more than adequate in the lead roles, while the rest of the cast is best forgotten.
While I'll admit their script is better, Turner and Rowe have not yet redeemed themselves for the horrors of Howling IV. The 1489 opening scene is rather perplexing and what information we learn later on doesn't do much to clear it up. This cast of characters is overstuffed; we got two preppy guys with medium-length blond hair and two actresses, not to mention it's awfully convenient some of the characters know each other. Furthermore, I'd like to know exactly how Count Istvan knew these were the right people to pick; am I wrong to assume Visa applications don't require you to list all birth marks?
In addition, I feel these guys missed an opportunity when crafting the character dynamics. Think about this; you have nine people (mostly strangers) trapped in a castle during a snowstorm. As someone who loves The Shining and The Thing, there was a great opportunity to create a sense of paranoia among the characters; let them know early on one of them is a Werewolf. They'll be at each other's throats the whole time, distrusting each other and backstabbing at a moment's notice. It would've fit perfectly; instead, they just sit around and talk relationships, careers and history and for the most part, they get along too calmly given the circumstances. The word "werewolf" isn't even uttered until the last third of the film. I appreciate trying to develop characters, but there's a fine line between having good characters in a horror movie and having a horror movie about people talking about their lives and loves; Howling V crosses that boundary.
This being a Werewolf movie, I was expecting some gripping terror to occur, yet surprisingly most of the horror is never shown, probably due to the budget. Of the 12 deaths, eight of them occur offscreen, almost all of them having their throats ripped out; the four deaths that you do see are of minor characters and none of them die at the hands of a Werewolf. The most onscreen brutality we get is someone accidentally chopping a head off. Like Howling IV, the actual onscreen appearance of a Werewolf is strangely curtailed; the best shot we get of the Werewolf is very darkly lit and quick. While I prefer implied violence, there comes a time and a place in most horror movies to put the red stuff on display and this film holds back way too much, resulting in neutered scares and zero tension.
Given that Howling II: Your Sister Is A Werewolf, Howling III: The Marsupials and Howling IV: The Original Nightmare rank among the worst films I've ever seen, I am truly impressed that Howling V: The Rebirth is relatively good. Now by no means am I saying that I fully approve of what's been done here; we're a long ways off from what Joe Dante created. There's a lot of missed opportunities with this setup, there's too many characters running around the castle, the acting is pretty atrocious, and the scares are too few and ineffective. But thanks to a clever setup, impressive production values and a fun murder mystery angle, I can't say I regret watching this and for a Howling sequel, that's a tremendous accomplishment. 2.5 out of 5 Stars.

Next Up: October 29th: The Mummy's Shroud (1967)

Saturday, October 29, 2011

October 27th: Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)

It's 1988; Julie Featherston (Lauren Bittner) is living a quiet, easygoing life in California with her daughters Katie (Chloe Csengery) and Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) and boyfriend Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith), who makes his living shooting wedding videos. Following Katie's eighth birthday, Kristi begins interacting with an imaginary friend named Toby; while Julie and Katie think nothing of it, Dennis begins to notice strange occurrences happening around the house shortly afterwards.
While Julie and Dennis try to film a sex tape one night, an earthquake occurs; the next morning, Dennis and his friend Randy (Dustin Ingram) go over the footage and see dust land on an invisible figure, forming what appears to be a face. Intrigued, Dennis decides to set up cameras throughout the house, in his and Julie's bedroom, in the girls' bedroom and in the living room/kitchen, to see if he can catch anymore unexplained paranormal activity.
Checking the girls' closet, Dennis discovers strange symbols scribbled on the walls. Dennis eventually discovers a connection between the symbol and a witches coven, leading him to believe the entity inside the house is demonic in nature. During the month of September, Dennis sees the paranormal activity gradually getting worse and when Kristi refuses to listen to Toby anymore, the demon's attacks towards the family become increasingly violent.
Let's go back to 2009 for a moment; while remakes were all the rage, the decade truly belonged to Saw. Taking the torture porn concept a step further, Saw created a brand new horror franchise that was dominating the box office around Halloween and with Saw VI right around the corner, it looked like Jigsaw would reign triumphant once again. Then there was Paranormal Activity. With a meager $15,000 budget, computer software programmer Oren Peli pulling quadruple-duty as director, writer, editor, and cinematographer and first-time actors Katie Featherston and Miach Sloat in the lead roles, Paranormal Activity didn't exactly scream box-office success.
Thanks to the persistence of horror fans and the efforts of people like producer Jason Blum, studio executive Adam Goodman and Steven Spielberg, Paranormal Activity went from barely known oddity to nationwide phenomena in the fall of 2009, unseating Saw from its throne, revitalizing the found footage genre and giving audience nightmares. A year later, Paranormal Activity 2 was released to similar success, defying understandable skepticism by expanding on the story in an inventive way.
Now in 2011, we have Paranormal Activity 3, which begs the question: Is there any life left in this series? Surprisingly yes. With Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost of Catfish fame in the directors seat and the previous film's co-writer Christopher B. Landon now handling the screenwriting duties on his own, Paranormal Activity 3 manages the unenviable task of keeping the trademark scares coming fast and furious, all the while creating genuinely real, likeable characters for the demon to torment.
When it comes to found footage films, especially those in the horror genre, the film lives and dies on its cast; these aren't supposed to be actors reading lines, but real people reacting to horrific situations and for this to work, it is vitally important for the cast to sell their characters and thus far, all three films in this series have accomplished just that. Lauren Bittner is a joy to watch, exuding a spunk and charisma reminiscent of JoBeth Williams in Poltergeist. Even better is Christopher Nicholas Smith, whose Dennis is enthusiastically loveable, even more so than Micah Sloat and Daniel Rey in the previous films. Chloe Csengery and Jessica Tyler Brown successfully avoid the precocious child stereotype of horror films to deliver sweet performances, especially Brown as a young Kristi, the object of the demon's affections. Special mention goes to Dustin Ingram's Randy, Johanna Braddy's babysitter and cameo appearances by series star Katie Featherston and adult Kristi Sprague Grayden.
I also have to give huge kudos to Christopher B. Landon; let's face it, Paranormal Activity didn't need a sequel, let alone two. But by taking the prequel approach, Landon has found a way in both films to expand on and add to the mythology of the first film. In the case of this third film, Landon manages to retain the formula of the original while giving the series something new at the same time. Julie and Dennis' relationship is quite similar to the Katie/Micah dynamics, albeit with even looser morals and some pot-smoking thrown in; their chemistry is spot-on and colorful, never dry or boring. On the other hand, the presence of young Katie and Kristi gives the franchise a different edge; whereas Hunter in Paranormal Activity 2 was never in any real danger, these kids, especially Katie, are clearly taking the brunt of the demon's fury and it's terrifying to see them in danger.
Speaking of which, Schulman and Joost have a lot to live up to in terms of the scares. Paranormal Activity is generally accepted to be one of the scariest movies since The Exorcist and Paranormal Activity 2 had its share of freaky moments, punched up by more special effects-laden scares and an exorcism. I'm happy to report that Paranormal Activity continues this trend; the scares come fast and furious, far more so than its predecessors. I'm coming to think the 18 years in between the timeline of this film and the first two films mellowed the demon, because in 1988 Toby is way pissed off and pulling no punches. Rooms are trashed, doors are slammed, people are tossed around, and in the film's creepiest moment, the demon stands behind the babysitter with a sheet over it, only to disappear before the babysitter notices. It's downright chilling and worthy of this series.
Given the more limited technology of the '80s, I was curious to see the filmmakers utilize the found footage technique in the 1980s; fortunately, they've found some creative ways to do so. While the concept of Dennis film weddings for a career is awfully convenient, it's quick to forgive when we see the inventive ways Dennis sets up the cameras; the bedroom cameras and handheld cameras are standard of the series, but it's all about the living room/kitchen camera, which is attached to the base of an electric fan; for the first time, the camera can actually move around, giving a wider view and creating opportunities for effective scares; every time that camera turns one direction, you can't help but be frightened about what's going to be on the other side. Sure the film quality looks a little too polished for 1988, but once again I'm able to forgive it because the filmmakers are making me squirm in my seat ad nausea for the 81 minute running time.
That being said, there are two types of scary movies; movies that scare you in the moment and movies that stick with you long after the credits roll. Whereas the original film is certainly the latter, this third film is firmly the former. Far more than the previous films, Paranormal Activity 3 made me jolt out of my chair time after time; but by the next morning, I found that I slept like a baby. Even upon repeat viewings, the original film remains creepy and unsettling, as does the second film to a lesser extent. Other than the sheet in the kitchen, I doubt anything in this film will scare on repeat viewings. It's easy to make someone jump; make loud noises and throw something at the camera, you got a jump scare. It's much harder to genuinely get under someones skin, especially jaded horror fans like myself. The fact that Paranormal Activity continues to scare every time I see it is a testament to Oren Peli's talent; the fact that Paranormal Activity 3 didn't give me any sleepless nights is disappointing.
Then there's the climax, which raises questions that leave me with mixed feelings. Personally, I've always preferred ambiguity in my horror films and tend to resist answers to questions I don't need answered; I don't want to know why Michael Myers snapped and killed his sister. I don't care if Jack Torrance's psychotic breakdown is the result of demonic possession or mental instability. I don't want to know what demon possessed Regan MacNeil. These things are unnecessary questions and nine times out of ten, the answers provided leave me furious and wishing the filmmakers ignored the question. Up to this point, all we knew about the demon in the Paranormal Activity films is that a relative of Katie and Kristi's mother made a deal with it, leading it to pursue the first born male in the family. Going into Paranormal Activity 3, I knew the filmmakers were going to fill in more backstory; the question is whether they go too far and ruin the mystique or give me just enough information to leave me wanting a part four.
In the end, they've done both. Without getting into too much detail, the filmmakers form a connection between the demon and witches; I'm not particularly fond of this new revelation. Demons are badasses on their own. Do they really need to have witches help them do their bidding? It just takes away from the demon, now knowing that it worked with a coven of witches in the past. Regardless, I can't help but be intrigued by this new wrinkle; it doesn't contradict anything seen in the previous films and for someone who values ambiguity in horror films, I can't help but actually ask questions about the nature of this relationship and the role witches play in this whole affair. I'm genuinely excited to see this aspect handled in a fourth film; whoever thought I'd go from wanting no sequels to looking forward to a part four?
If I have to be technical, then I'll go ahead and admit that Paranormal Activity 3 is the victim of diminishing returns. The creepy, atmospheric chills from the previous films are mostly gone and a new twist on the mythology takes away from the overall power and aura of this demon. But let's be honest; we're used to franchises dipping in quality, especially by a part three. Do I really need to remind you people of Howling III? It's an impressive feat that three films in, these filmmakers have found a way to keep this story going without sacrificing quality storytelling, well-developed characters and intense, nail-biting scares. To pull a phrase from a far lesser franchise, if it's Halloween, it must be Paranormal Activity. 4 out of 5 Stars.

Next Up: October 28th: Howling V: The Rebirth (1989)

October 26th: Howling IV: The Original Nightmare (1988)

Successful author Marie Adams (Romy Windsor) is in the middle of working on a new book when she starts seeing bizarre visions of a mysterious nun (Megan Kruskal). During a meeting with her agent Tom Billings (Antony Hamilton), a vision of a Werewolf sends Marie into hysterics. Dr. Heinemann (Dale Cutts) believes Marie's visions to be the result of stress and advises her to leave Los Angeles for a few weeks.
Marie's husband Richard (Michael T. Weiss) takes Marie to Wilderness Cottage, a cabin located in Drago, a secluded Southern California town, home to cranky Sheriff Carson (Norman Anstey), store owners Mr. and Mrs. Ormstead (Dennis Smith and Kate Edwards), Dr. Coombes (Dennis Folbigge), a mysterious tow truck driver (Clive Turner), and eccentric artist Eleanor (Lamya Derval).
Once in Drago, Marie's visions of the nun continue and she hears howlings at night. One day, Marie meets Janice Hatch (Susanne Severied), an ex-nun who's come to Drago to investigate the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of her friend Sister Ruth Brooks, the nun Marie's been seeing visions of. Working together, Marie and Janice begin exploring the dark history of Drago, leading them to discover Werewolves living in the town.
Howling IV: The Original Nightmare is an odd entry in the series; though it claims to be the fourth installment, this is actually a quasi-remake. Like Joe Dante's The Howling, this film is an adaptation of Gary Brandner's 1977 novel The Howling. For that alone, I was actually curious to see this film. It helps that Philippe Mora of Howling II and Howling III infamy is long gone and that director John Hough and screenwriters Clive Turner and Freddie Rowe eschew the camp humor of Mora's films in favor of straightforward horror. Believe me, I wasn't expecting anything great but at the very least I was intrigued to see someone try to make a scary, atmospheric Howling film.
That's not saying this series has redeemed itself; in its best moments, Howling IV is slightly easier to endure than the previous sequels and in its worst moments is every bit as wretched and pathetic. Part of the problem comes from the fact that this film and its original are following the same storyline; yes, there are minor differences throughout but there's way too many obvious similarities to ignore. A successful woman with a career in entertainment living in Los Angeles? Check. Said woman going with husband to a secluded town to recuperate from work-related stress? Check. Husband seduced by eccentric local? Check. Husband becoming a Werewolf? Check. All the town locals are Werewolves? Check. The Werewolves killed by fire? Check. It's the same damn movie, only with roughly a fraction of a fraction of the quality Joe Dante and John Sayles gave this story seven years earlier.
From what I've heard, Howling IV is more faithful to Brandner's novel than the original, leading me to believe Gary Brandner is a terrible writer (he wrote Howling II for christ sakes), or this movie's been royally fucked over by Clive Turner and Freddie Rowe. Personally, I'm thinking it's the latter, because while I haven't read The Howling, I do know that Karyn Beatty's nervous breakdown is the result of her being raped and suffering a miscarriage; having Marie Adams snap due to hallucinations brought on by writer's block isn't exactly an appropriate change. Watching this only makes me appreciate John Sayles' writing more and more, because Turner and Rowe have no sense of building tension or fleshed out characters. What's even more terrifying to me is that Turner wrote Howling V and wrote, starred, produced, and directed Howling VII: New Moon Rising. No wonder this series went direct to video once Turner got involved.
Watching Howling IV also makes me realize how much I miss that wonderful cast Dante pulled together. If only this cast had an ounce of their presence. Whereas Dee Wallace Stone's traumatized Karen White feels real and genuine, Romy Windsor just looks continually perplexed and stoned. Michael T. Weiss is well-known as Jarod on TV's The Pretender in the late '90s; it's hard to believe anyone hired him after a performance this stale. Antony Hamilton doesn't even try to hide his Australian accent, let alone act. When Susanne Severeid pops up, I honestly thought she had a speech impediment; her line readings were that awkward. Everyone else onscreen is equally bad, including Clive Turner in a bit part as a tow truck driver.
That leads me to what really hurts Howling IV; the piss-poor execution. Let's face it, remakes aren't exactly a rarity in the film industry and as much as I despise them, I'm willing to accept someone rehashing a classic if they manage to do it well. Let's just say John Hough doesn't and move on. No? Okay, here we go. I've never seen any of his other films, but I do recognize two films on his resume: Escape to Witch Mountain, which was remade recently as Race To Witch Mountain, and The Legend of Hell House, a well-respected cult classic from the '70s. I've got to believe he was a much better director then, because he does nothing here to make me think he ever made one reportedly good movie, let alone two.
To be fair to Hough, he didn't exactly have much of a chance here. Clive Turner started out as director, but lost funding and brought in cult producer Harry Alan Towers, who replaced him with Hough. By the time Hough started filming, the budget was non-existent and it shows. The South Africa locations don't look anything like California (though the city scenes were filmed in L.A.). What's even more off-putting is the bad dubbing; the budget was so low most of the scenes were shot WITHOUT SOUND. Really? That's how you save pennies, by not recording the actor's dialogue and having them come in to dub their lines over? No wonder there's so many scenes of people saying nothing or talking offscreen. I'm not trying to apologize for John Hough; he directed most of this movie and certainly deserves condemnation for making such a drab-looking movie. I'm merely stating that Hough's directing is the least of this film's problems.
As I said before, I was ready to see a scary Howling after the campy, unwatchable humor of Philippe Mora's films. While I'll never want to go back there, it would've been nice to see some levity here, because Howling IV really suffers from being stark and depressing. The colors are toned down, there's absolutely no attempts at humor and everything is delivered way too seriously; this is clearly meant to be a chilling film and I certainly appreciate the notion, but these filmmakers fail to create anything resembling tension and suspense, unless they think visions of a bug-eyed nun and old people are creepy.
One of the best things going for The Howling were the spectacular Werewolf effects, which took a steep fall in quality in Howling II and were inexcusably amateurish in Howling III. How does Howling IV stack up? It's hard to say, because for a Werewolf movie there's shocking little Werewolf action going on. For most of the film, they're reduced to howling in the background; there's no real Werewolf action until the finale, in which most of them look like third-rate knockoffs of Henry Hull from Werewolf of London; nothing wrong with that film, but '30s era Wolf People sporting bad hairdos and fangs aren't exactly frightening anymore.
It doesn't help that the filmmakers can't seem to decide what kind of Werewolves they want; other than the bad Wolf People, there's a lot of actual wolves and dogs running around with glowing red eyes, meaning that I'm supposed to believe these Werewolves can pick between Wolf People and Wolves. That's not to say there's no true Werewolves walking around; we do get two of them, but they don't get much to do. The first Werewolf, blackish-gray with glowing yellow eyes, only pops up for a second of screentime. The second Werewolf, shown below, looks like a bat-dog hybrid; to be fair, I actually like the look of these Werewolves, but they're so darkly lit and underused that you almost wonder what the point was.
As for the transformation scenes, Howling IV gets brownie points for actually being inventive; in the two transformation scenes we see, the Werewolves' human skin falls off in a disgusting, putrid manner before the actual transformation can occur. It's a genuinely icky moment when a character's skin begins to melt away and his skinless body changes. All in all, I can honestly say that for the first time since The Howling, I'm relatively satisfied with the effects. That being said, decent special effects don't make a good movie and this film is certainly proof of that.
Deep down, I do believe Howling IV had the potential to be good; the basic story is simple enough and I'm quite happy to see somebody try to inject some atmosphere and suspense back into the series. It's hard to know who to blame; John Hough for doing nothing to keep the plot moving or the visual interesting, Clive Turner and Freddie Rowe for showcasing some truly dreadful writing abilities or this cast for giving performances even soap-opera actors would be embarrassed by. There's no question the finished film is an improvement over Philippe Mora's films, but that's faint praise that in no way defends yet another abysmal Howling sequel. 1 out of 5 Stars.

Next Up: October 27th: Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)

Thursday, October 27, 2011

October 25th: Red Dragon (2002)

In 1980, FBI criminal profiler Will Graham (Edward Norton) is investigating a bizarre series of murders in Baltimore, Maryland, working closely with psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) on developing a psychological profile of the killer. While at Lecter's home for another consultation, Graham discovers evidence proving Lecter to be the killer. Lecter tries to disembowel Graham, but Graham gets the upper hand and apprehends Lecter. Lecter is convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, while Graham, psychologically traumatized, retires from the FBI.
Three years later, Graham is living peacefully in Marathon, Florida, with his wife Molly (Mary-Louise Parker) and son Josh (Tyler Patrick Jones) when Special Agent Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel) pays him a visit. The FBI is investigating the murders of two families, the Jacobis in Birmingham, Alabama and the Leeds in Atlanta, Georgia, both committed by a serial killer nicknamed The Tooth Fairy (Ralph Fiennes), a deranged man named Francis Dollarhyde, turned monstrous by his sadistic grandmother (Ellen Burstyn) and driven to kill by his alternate personality, The Great Red Dragon.
Baffled by a lack of evidence, the FBI's single, solitary clue is that the Tooth Fairy's killings coincide with the full moon, giving them only three weeks to catch him before the next full moon. Despite some initial reluctance, Graham agrees to help Crawford, promising Molly that he'll only look at evidence and not get deeply involved. With the prospect of a third family's death weighing on his conscience, Graham inevitably becomes deeply involved, but comes to realize that if he is to catch the Tooth Fairy before he kills again, he must seek advice from Hannibal Lecter one last time.
The only horror film to win Best Picture, The Silence of The Lambs is an iconic classic, the perfect blend of crime procedural, horror slasher and psychological character study. Everything about it works; the acting, especially Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster's Oscar-winning performances, are outstanding, Jonatham Demme's direction is perfectly gothic and atmospheric and Ted Tally's script is tightly wound and executed to perfection. It's rare for a film to be flawless and The Silence of The Lambs is in that class of filmmaking.
Interestingly enough, The Silence of The Lambs is not the film that introduced Hannibal Lecter to the world; that honor goes to Manhunter, a Dino De Laurentiis production from 1986, predating Demme's film by five years. In comparison to the world of The Silence of The Lambs, Manhunter exists in an entirely different universe. Michael Mann gives the film a bizarre, almost dreamlike style, favoring haunting, coldblooded visuals over Jonathan Demme's gothic atmosphere, while Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter is predated by the deranged Hannibal Lecktor, played by Brian Cox.
Why do I bring up Manhunter? Because both that film and this film are based off Thomas Harris' novel Red Dragon, which was the very first Hannibal Lecter story; both films follow renowned FBI criminal profiler Will Graham coming out to retirement to catch the Tooth Fairy and seek advice from Hannibal Lecter. For the most part, Manhunter and Red Dragon are very similar films, featuring the same plot points, characters and setups. So why redo this story? The answer is Dino De Laurentiis; despite dreadful reviews, Ridley Scott's Hannibal was a huge box office hit and, with Manhunter having been mostly forgotten by 2002, De Laurentiis decided to take another swipe at the original Lecter story.
Given the impressive cast and crew assembled for this, there's a lot to be hopeful about and with good reason; Red Dragon is a worthy addition to Hannibal Lecter's film resume. Though he may seem lightweight compared to his predecessors, Ratner gives Red Dragon a brisk pacing that keeps the story going and the audience intrigued. His visuals are in all fairness workmanlike, lacking any real visual panache; that's not to say it's poorly directed but in comparison to Michael Mann and Jonathan Demme, Brett Ratner's take on Hannibal The Cannibal is visually less striking, even forgettable most of the time.
Though the visuals are shabby, Red Dragon does win points for storytelling; Ted Tally's script is really the backbone of this film. In contrast to Michael Mann's script for Manhunter, Tally manages to get the story moving quicker while still covering a lot of the same territory. Furthermore, Hannibal Lecter is wisely given more to do here and the Tooth Fairy is better integrated into the story. It's also a delight to see Hannibal before his capture (with a ponytail, no less) and to finally witness the Lecter/Graham confrontation only hinted at in Manhunter.
Unfortunately, Tally's script isn't flawless and although the plot holes are few and far between, they're big, glaring holes, all of which deal with the character of Will Graham. Though I can't speak for the way Graham is presented in Harris' novel, Michael Mann's film presents him as a troublesome figure; whereas we feared Clarice Starling's lack of experience would cause her to make a mistake that would get her killed, we fear Will Graham's extensive experience has made him unstable and dangerous; in Red Dragon, Graham lacks any edge to his personality and seems to have no psychological trauma whatsoever. So when Tally tells us that Graham spent time in a mental hospital and is a monster like Hannibal, it doesn't jive at all. In addition, this Will Graham rarely comes off as the resourceful criminal profiler of Mann's film; he has to rely on Hannibal far more for clues and when he actually busts Hannibal in the opening scenes, it looks like he got lucky rather than smart.
I've always liked Edward Norton, but his Will Graham leaves something to be desired. In Manhunter, William Petersen conveyed Graham's psychological torment and reluctance to return to the force, but also presented Graham as selfless and heroic. Norton is certainly likeable as Graham and conveys his humanity very well, but he's just not interesting to watch; he seems bored most of the time and lacks the intensity necessary for this character, not mention that he looks too young to be a seasoned criminal profiler. Furthermore, Norton has no edge to his personality here and never once do you question his mental state. It doesn't help that he's saying and doing much of the same things Petersen did in Manhunter and by comparison, Norton is a dull, lifeless presence for most of the film.
Fortunately, Norton's co-stars step up to the plate in a big way. Following a rather unimpressive performance in Hannibal, Anthony Hopkins redeems himself with a performance closer in spirit to the one that won him the Oscar. Harvey Keitel is commanding and enjoyable as Jack Crawford, though I personally prefer his predecessors Dennis Farina and Scott Glenn. Philip Seymour Hoffman is appropriately sleazy as tabloid journalist Freddie Lounds, despite awkwardly stumbling through his dialogue. Emily Watson lives up to Joan Allen's portrayal of Reba McClane, but gets more time to develop the character as well. Special mention goes to Anthony Heald, returning to play the sinister Frederick Chilton, and Frankie Faison, back for a third time as Barney Matthews and the fourth time overall (he played Lieutenant Fisk in Manhunter).
Then there's Ralph Fiennes, a rather unusual choice for the role of Francis Dollarhyde. Aside from his role as Amon Goeth in Schindler's List, Fiennes was known at the time for doing talky character dramas like The English Patient, which Seinfeld made fun of to great effect. As Dollarhyde, Fiennes crafts a more sympathetic version than Tom Noonan; this Dollarhyde is tormented and struggles with his murderous impulses, especially in a well-crafted attic scene where Dollarhyde refuses to kill Reba. Though effective as a sympathetic villain, Fiennes is lacking any real menace or intensity, especially in comparison to Tom Noonan, whose Francis Dollarhyde was a fucking nightmare come to life.
Looking at this as an adaptation of a book, how close does Red Dragon the movie come to Red Dragon the book? All in all, it's a pretty close adaptation, certainly more so than Manhunter, though I would say Manhunter is the better film. It doesn't help that Ratner reminds me of that by throwing in visual callbacks to both the original film and The Silence of The Lambs; sure it's the same story, but that doesn't mean the filmmakers have to remind me by showing Lecter in the mask or having a flaming body in a wheelchair. Fortunately, Ratner and Tally throw in new twists, some from the novel and some original; the best of these being the final confrontation between Graham and Dollarhyde, in which Graham finally shows why he's so renowned by the FBI; it's easily the most tense scene in the whole movie and makes sitting through the whole movie worth it, though the final moment with Hannibal and Chilton is needlessly tacked on.
I'll admit I was skeptical coming into this one; Hannibal had killed all momentum this series had going for it, Manhunter had done this story perfectly well and while I like Ratner, I knew he wouldn't make a film on the same level as Michael Mann, let alone Jonathan Demme. Overall, I'm pleasantly surprised with Red Dragon, thanks primarily to a rock solid script by Ted Tally, brisk pacing and the wonderful supporting cast, with Hopkins giving it his all in his last performance as Hannibal The Cannibal. While it has its story flaws and suffers from a weak lead in Norton and a non-frightening villain, in this day and age where remakes are tossed out willy nilly with little to no attention paid to quality control, it's nice to see a remake that actually tries and, by and large, lives up to its predecessor. 3.5 out of 5 Stars.

Next Up: October 27th: Howling IV: The Original Nightmare (1988)