Horrors At Home: Sam Raimi’s Darkman and the 1980’s Remake of Cat People

Horror has always been a pretty big business, especially on home video. So, in the advent of Blu-Ray, DVD, and Digital Download, which titles are worth seeing? Which ones are worth avoiding? Read on to see the best, worst, and most “whatever” available genre titles now.

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The film Darkman (Shout! Factory) was Sam Raimi’s first film for a major studio after the indie success of “The Evil Dead” and its sequel, “Evil Dead II.” Originally, he wanted to direct “Batman,” but that eventually went to Tim Burton. Then he wanted to do “The Shadow,” but that went to the guy who had directed “Highlander.” So he basically went and decided to make his own superhero and give him a movie. The end result was not only his first superhero film (sorry “Spider Man”) but is an all-around entertaining melding of the superhero genre with dark comedy and an old creature feature movie vibe.

Peyton Westlake (not yet superstardom Liam Neeson) is a scientist that has created a new kind of synthetic skin. However, as will happen with some of these origin stories, he is attacked by ruthless gangsters leaving him for dead and disfigured to boot. We wouldn’t have a movie if he had kicked the bucket, so he survives, and decides to extract revenge via disguising himself with his nifty new synthetic skin. In the process, a ruthless mob boss (Colin Friels) and his right hand man (Larry Drake) want him dead while Westlake also wants to reconnect with his ex-wife (Francis McDormand).

From start to finish, “Darkman” is a blast. The action is kinetic and lively, often peppered with a wonderfully offbeat sense of black humor that wouldn’t be out of place in say, Raimi’s next feature film “Army of Darkness.” It’s also well acted throughout, with Neeson perfectly capturing the spirit of the movie playing a man out for vengeance and a man who just wants to be human again, whilst Friels and especially Drake are over the top in all the right ways with their roles. Of course, it contains all of Raimi’s hyper-kinetic direction, with all kinds of oddball visuals, hyper zooms, and inventive use of camera angles that help accentuate the fun comic book tone of the proceedings. Fans of the director and fun popcorn movies are in for a treat here.

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Believe it or not, Jerry Bruckheimer produced two movies for director Paul Schrader. The first of which was “American Gigolo,” and the second was this sort of remake of the 40’s horror classic Cat People (Shout! Factory), which was co-written by Alan Ormsby (whose credits as a writer also include “Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things,” “Dead of Night,” “Nash Bridges,” and additional story material for “Mulan”).

Here, Irena (Natassja Kinski) is a young woman who has found her sexuality blossoming, as well as a possible first love. But she harbors a secret – she and her brother (Malcolm McDowell) are Cat People. Or are entities that look like people, but have to have sex with other Cat People (including those related to them) in order to turn into leopards. The overall demands, along with the violent instincts of her brother, start to build with everything pushing her further towards the man of her dreams (John Heard) and what may be a new type of destiny.

Part of what makes “Cat People” work is the fact that Schrader clearly doesn’t want to do a straight forward remake. Whilst it has the gory violence once would expect from movies of this period, don’t expect a piece focused on creature effects. This is a movie that is about mood and atmosphere instead of the usual splatter and gnarly monsters. He also gets a great performance from Kinski, who manages to work the paradox of oozing sexuality whilst still coming off as both threatening and curious. There’s also some interesting themes regarding sexuality; ranging from the comparison of roles between men and women along with some intriguing subversions of expected female roles in sexual relationships. The score by Giorgio Moroder is excellent, and if you’ve seen “Inglorious Basterds,” then you’ll recognize David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting Out Fire With Gasoline)”.

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Here Comes The Devil (Magnolia) deals with a married couple (Laura Caro and Francisco Barreiro) who end up losing their two kids during a trip in Tijuana, Mexico. However, the kids soon reappear – albeit without much of an explanation – only there is something noticeably different. Sure, they look and sound just like them, but it is obvious that something is wrong…

Whilst the premise to HCTD intrigued me, the end result left me feeling a bit disappointed. It’s not a terrible movie by any means; the acting and directing is solid as is the cinematography and there are some genuinely shocking and creepy moments. As it goes on, the movie becomes an example of what happens when you have all the right ingredients (atmosphere, gore, and an intriguing story) and don’t do a whole lot with them. When the movie finishes, it feels more like the director wanted to show his audience how much he loves Occult and Satanic horror movies from the 70’s. The parents here are the two dumbest, least effectual parental figures imaginable at times, and the conclusion just left me thinking “That’s it?”

***

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In spite of it’s title, Silent Night, Bloody Night: The Homecoming (Elite Entertainment/MVD) is not a sequel to the 1973 original. Nope, it’s a (very) low budget remake, which must have been easy considering the original is in the public domain. The premise deals with a man named Jeffrey Butler (Alan Humphreys) whom has gained the old house of his insane grandfather Wilfred (Philip Harvey). Wilfred committed suicide years ago. However, as negotiations get underway, a masked killer with an axe starts knocking people off.

You know the saying “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”? That doesn’t apply here, as this movie is fucking terrible. Though one could normally say that its flaws are a result of budgetary limitations, the problems here run much deeper than that. It features little if anything involving an interesting story or characters, has largely uninspired kills, and blatantly “borrows” scenes from other movies (such as the dinner table scene from the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”.) This is a movie that in no way feels like it needed to be made. Here’s a pro tip: If you have $20,000 or such and the movie you are remaking happens to be in the public domain, put forth an effort. Everything about this is lazy, and feels like it was made only because the original was in the public domain.

***

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Finally, there is Death Promise (Code Red), not a horror movie but definitely fits the exploitation bill of this series. The story takes place in New York, where greedy landlords are trying their hardest to get rid of the old apartments and the people that live in them, even by committing murder. However, when they kill the father of Charley Roman (Charles Bonet), they soon discover they messed with the wrong man as he goes on a search and destroy mission that’s targeting those who killed his father.

Like the previously reviewed Devil’s Express, “Death Promise” is not what one would call a good movie. It has all the bad acting, poor fight choreography, and cheese that is found in these types of exploitation films. The fact that the whole thing is what happens when people, without a lot of talent, try to mix then popular genres of kung-fu and vigilantism merely adds to the enjoyment factor. This is anything but competent film making. But as low budget trash with moments of bloody violence and gratuitous female nudity, it can be a fun time. Like the aforementioned “Devil’s Express,” it’s a slice of 70’s exploitation that knows exactly what its audience wants and for the most part delivers.

Next Time: “Ms. 45” has you as a target, and 80’s slasher fun with “The House on Sorority Row”

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