don't breathe (fede alvarez, 2016)

Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez and his team, working on a budget of $10 million, turn out a picture that grossed more than $150 million. Don’t Breathe does such a good job of using atmosphere to deliver thrills that you don’t mind that the story is nothing new.

Three young burglars try to rob the house of a blind Army vet with money. It doesn’t go as planned. The blind man is very resourceful when it comes to dealing with intruders. He also has a few secrets. Alvarez and co-writer Rodo Sayagues do a good job of parceling out information, so that we know the blind man suffered greatly from the loss of his daughter, but the ramifications of this are held back until just the right moment. This is standard stuff for horror films, but the movie is almost done before the predictability takes over.

Stephen Lang as the blind man is the best thing about Don’t Breathe. He is both frightening and sympathetic, at least at first, and he convinces us that he can do the physical acts he performs despite being blind. The three robbers aren’t the usual klutzy doofuses ... they just overreach, and aren’t expecting that blind man to be such a powerful opponent. It’s fun to see Dylan Minnette a year before 13 Reasons Why, and Jane Levy plays ... well, if you don’t know who she plays, you haven’t read much theory about modern horror. (Hint: think Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween.)

Everything is compact and efficient. Alvarez and cinematographer Pedro Luque offer some elegant visuals in the early going, taking full advantage of what amounts to an old-dark-house setting. And it doesn’t exactly peter out at the end. It’s just that the “surprises” come more and more quickly, so that you begin to expect them, which takes away the scariness. If Don’t Breathe sounds good to you, chances are you’ll like it. But it doesn’t transcend its genre, so it’s not a must-see if you aren’t a fan to begin with. 7/10.


the screaming skull (alex nicol, 1958)

I should create a new category for movies like this. Call it “Creature Features”. There are no actual creatures in The Screaming Skull, but it’s the kind of movie that turned up on late-night Creature Features TV shows. It was done by the MST3000 guys. That kind of movie.

Often, the trivia is more interesting than the actual movie, so here goes. Director Alex Nicol also appears as a mentally challenged gardener, which makes sense, as Nicol had been acting throughout the 50s (The Screaming Skull was his first directorial effort). Female lead Peggy Webber is still with us (91 years old) ... she is a big figure in radio and appeared in Welles’ Macbeth. She is nicely summarized in the title of an article about her from 2015, “Radio Theater's Peggy Webber Is 90 — and Cooler Than You”. The producers used their tiny budget well, as there are only five characters, and all of the action takes place in the same place. It’s not the kind of cheapo movie where no one knows what they are doing ... the camera is always where it belongs, the acting is acceptable, and the music is helpful. That music is by Ernest Gold, who won an Oscar two years later for Exodus. The cinematography is by Floyd Crosby, who had himself won an Oscar all the way back in 1931 for Murnau’s Tabu. (And he’s the father of rocker David Crosby.)

And with that, I’ve dispensed with most of the trivia. Well, I could mention that this American International Picture was released as part of a double bill with Terror from the Year 5000.

And the movie? As I mentioned, it’s competent. It doesn’t suck. It’s over in 68 minutes. But it’s also clichéd, obvious, and boring. It’s Gaslight without the entertainment, and if that’s a spoiler, well, this is a B-movie from almost 60 years ago, I think the spoiler time period has elapsed on this one. 4/10.


the host (bong joon-ho, 2006)

I wrote about The Host almost ten years ago, and I guess you could it was a case of damning with faint praise, when I devoted a mere one sentence to what I thought was a 7/10 movie: “Korean monster movie, a few dozen rungs above what you'd see on any random Saturday on the Sci-Fi Channel, if not quite the 5-star masterpiece some critics call it.” Having just watched it again, I have to say, I don’t know what the hell I was thinking back in 2008. At the least, I should have realized that “a few dozen rungs” is a lot.

Partly, I have context now, having seen a lot of Korean horror since 2008. Just to take Bong’s movies, there are Memories of Murder, Mother, and Snowpiercer (the latter actually being his American sci-fi-action flick). In other words, I’m a fan of Bong and Korean movies in ways I wasn’t when I first saw The Host, so I’m more predisposed to like it.

There are other little things ... Scott Wilson, who’s had a long career in everything from In Cold Blood and The Great Gatsby to The Walking Dead, has a cameo at the beginning of the movie. And Doona Bae, who I hadn’t noticed before in several movies, but who is a fave of mine on Sense8, so now when I re-watch The Host, there’s Bae as the archer. These are the kinds of things that bring a familiarity to The Host that wasn’t there before.

But enough explaining. I still missed the boat, because The Host isn’t just a few dozen rungs better than Sharknado, it’s in another league. The monster is cheesy but intriguing. The political undercurrents are there without taking over the movies. And the core characters, from a dysfunctional family that responds in various ways to the monster’s appearance, are finely-drawn and interesting in their own right. The Host works as a family drama, even without the monster.

Plus, the comedy isn’t stupid, and like the politics, it never overtakes the movie.

I still think I’d start with Mother if I wanted to introduce someone to the work of Bong Joon-Ho. But The Host is getting closer. #104 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st cenury. 8/10. (At this rate, if I watch it again in 2026 and 2035, I’ll give it a 10/10.) (Trying to imagine me watching a Korean monster movie when I’m 82 years old.)


godzilla’s revenge (ishirô honda, 1969)

The title has nothing to do with the movie, and it would probably be better to use an alternate English title, All Monsters Attack, which is at least closer to what we see on the screen.

I’m sure many people think all of those old Japanese Godzilla movies are equally bad, with perhaps a nod to the original, which is actually a fine movie. Well, even fans of the movies tend to agree that Godzilla’s Revenge is the worst Japanese-made Godzilla movie of all time. Just think of how bad some of those movies are, and then try to imagine the depths to which Godzilla’s Revenge must go to take the title of Worst Ever.

For instance:

The fight scenes among the monsters are footage from earlier Godzilla movies (and not necessarily the best ones). Godzilla does not go on a rampage in a city with a large population. He lives on something called “Monster Island”.

“Monster Island” doesn’t actually exist ... it’s a place the hero, Ichirô, dreams about when he sleeps.

Thus, none of the monsters, including Godzilla, are “real” within the context of the film’s universe.

Ichirô is a latchkey kid who lacks parental advice because they are always working, and who is regularly bullied by the other kids.

When Ichirô dreams of Monster Island, he hangs out with Godzilla’s son, who speaks, thus allowing them to have conversations where Son of Godzilla explains that his dad is trying to teach him not to be a coward.

When Ichirô is awake, he uses his dream memories to emulate Little Godzilla, finally getting the courage to fight back against the bullies.

Oh, there’s also a plot about two bank robbers that are captured thanks to Ichirô.

Seriously, this is one awful movie. And I confess, I watched it on our DVD copy. Yes, I own Godzilla’s Revenge. 2/10.