About Vernor Rodgers

I have been a movie fan all of my life. But it was in 1972 that I became a bona fide movie nut. I started keeping a log of every movie I have seen, now more than 3,000. Started writing movie reviews for www.dabelly.com in 2000.

‘Ouija’ conjures up little in suspense, horror

The makers of “Ouija” deserve an A for effort on this, the first major feature for writer-director Stiles White and co-writer Juliet Snowden. They tried to take on a subject that can be creepy and chill-inducing but were unable to add any new elements to the story. The result is another ghost yarn that is just a variation of the “Paranormal Activity” series, but minus the found-footage, jerky motion format.

The Ouija board, a conduit between the physical and spiritual world, has been featured in dozens of movies over the years, most notably in “The Exorcist” and more recently had a guest-starring stint in “Paranormal Activity.” The consistent thread in these appearances is that using the Ouija board, like playing with matches, can usually lead to trouble. It seems every  time a call is made to the great beyond via the board, it is not Casper the friendly ghost who answers. It is more often than not a spirit that is upset or riled about something.

“Ouija” begins with two young girls, Laine Morris and Debbie Galardi, playing with an Ouija board and Laine gets spooked when her sister Sarah comes into the room uninvited.

The movie advances several years and now teen-age Debbie (Shelley Hennig), alone in her house, seems to be unnerved about something. She tosses an Ouija board into the fireplace,  wanting to destroy it. Then, when Laine (Olivia Cooke from “Bates Motel”) comes by so they can go to a high school basketball game, Debbie begs off for vague reasons, making Laine suspicious something is up. But Laine goes on to the game.

Back alone in the house, Debbie experiences some strange things and soon is dead, having hung herself.

In the days following the tragedy, Laine, grappling with the guilt that she was unable to prevent Debbie’s suicide, begins to sense something else is going on. Conveniently, Debbie’s parents decide to leave town for a while to recover from their sorrow, asking  Laine to watch the house during their absence. Also, Laine, whose mother is no longer around (either split from the marriage or dead — it is never revealed), is left with her rebellious  sister Sarah (Ana Coto) while her father is on a business trip. This gets the parents out of the way.

Laine discovers the Ouija board at the Galardi house, not aware it supposedly was burned. Giving in to her intuitions that Debbie might be trying to contact her, Laine drafts four other people to join her in a seance at the Galardi house: Sarah, Laine’s boyfriend Trevor (Daren Kagasoff), Debbie’s boyfriend Pete (Douglas Smith) and Isabelle (Bianca Santos).

The Galardi house is the epitome of a place with a bad history — two-story, old and creaky, and despite having numerous lights throughout always seems to be dark. Some unusual events occur during the seance held by the young people, but nothing substantive results from the attempt to contact the dead.

However, over the next few days, four of the young people encounter the same message in various ways — written on a wall with chalk, etched on a desk, appearing on a laptop screen and scrawled on window condensation — leading them to believe it is indeed an attempt by Debbie to contact them.

So the Ouija board is hauled out again, but soon the young people discover there is something more sinister going on. Here is where the screenplay by White and Snowden gets bogged down in yet another haunted house story. Fans of such spooky stories will enjoy the appearance of Lin Shaye from the “Insidious” films, playing a different character but in a similar role as someone who may have an explanation for the creepy incidents. Also, Vivis Columbetti, who played the nanny Martine, a person who sensed evil things brewing before everyone else in “Paranormal Activity 2,” plays the Galardi housekeeper Nona, who counsels Laine on how to battle these nasty spirits.

“Ouija” does build some suspense, but the payoff scares just fall flat. Flickering lights, mysterious shadows, doors opening on their own and the creaks and pounding have become mundane after so many uses in movies of this type.

Cooke, who starred as Jane Harper, the young woman supposedly possessed by a doll in “The Quiet Ones” earlier this year, anchors “Ouija” as Laine, a strong-willed young woman whose attempts to make sense out of a friend’s death unwittingly launches more peril around her. Unfortunately, other than Coto as Sarah, the sister who likes to sneak out at night with an older guy, none of the other characters has much personality. They are props whose role is to be terrified.

“Ouija” falls short of creating any substantial apprehension. When the secrets are finally revealed, they are not particularly startling. In the end, White and Snowden simply revisited the familiar themes of the ghost story movie.

Jacob Goodnight on the killer path again in ‘See No Evil 2′

These are exciting times for horror fans. There is so much talent out there, and with conventions and film festivals, these people are getting opportunities to show their projects while social media help us horror aficionados to connect with kindred spirits and learn about these great new feature-length movies and shorts. Ah, the joys of discovering there are a lot of us who like our movies scary, gory, mind-boggling and disturbing.

Thanks to Screamfest Horror Film Festival held at the TLC Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, “See No Evil 2,” the latest directorial effort from Jen and Sylvia Soska, was given a big-screen presentation in the days before its release on VOD, iTunes and DVD/Blu Ray.

That “See No Evil 2″ was not given a theatrical release was distressing to those of us who viewed the Soska twins’ “American Mary” and were eager to see their next venture. So, it was a treat having a screening in a nice big theater in front of viewers who love their horror good and bloody.

“See No Evil 2,” as the title reveals, is a sequel, and as such is bound by the restrictions of such follow-up films. It does not bring anything new to the table. With Glenn “Kane” Jacobs reprising his role as the vicious psychopath Jacob Goodnight, we know what is going to happen. Jacob is going to slaughter some people — just who and how are the mysteries.

The Soskas, whose jaw-dropping “American Mary” in 2012 served notice that these two ladies have enormous talent, received some financial muscle via WWE Studios when given the assignment of “See No Evil 2.” This movie should be considered as something of a warm-up, like a baseball player in the cage for batting practice — honing the skills. The Soskas were able to make “American Mary” look like a movie with major financial backing while working with a small budget. Now given expanded resources, they have put together a film in “See No Evil 2″ that takes a predictable story line and molds it into a beautifully choreographed and photographed piece of horror mastery.

The script by Nathan Brookes and Bobby Lee Darby picks the story up where the original “See No Evil” left off, in the aftermath of Jacob’s killing spree and his own supposed death. Jacob’s body, along with those of his victims, are deposited in the morgue while only three staffers are present — the minimal graveyard shift. The staffers include Amy (Danielle Harris), Seth (Kaj-Erik Eriksen) and the wheel-chair bound Holden (Michael Eklund). It’s Amy’s birthday and although her shift is about to end, she volunteers to stay and help Seth deal with the incoming bodies, canceling post-work celebration plans.

Thus, some of Amy’s friends, and her brother, pay a surprise visit to the morgue for a late-night impromptu party. The arrivals are Tamara (Katharine Isabelle from “American Mary”), her boyfriend Carter (Lee Majdoub), Amy’s brother Will (Greyston Holt) and Kayla (Chelan Simmons), who has designs on Will.

The character development is effective in that while these people may be flawed, they also have good traits, and none deserve to die. Isabelle’s Tamara is the weirdest of the bunch, and her portrayal is a real departure from her turn as Mary Mason in “American Mary.” She is creepy but funny and her party-time proclivities lead to what is likely to be the most talked about scenes in “See No Evil 2,” some antics that are darkly humorous and have the viewer on edge in anticipation.

Jacob, with his right eye poked out, is first seen laying on a slab, seemingly cold meat. When he suddenly disappears from the slab, it’s party over. Time for terror.

The Soskas love horror movies, and this is evident in the atmosphere, tone and style of they set in “See No Evil 2.” They have taken the morgue, the venue for this kill-fest, and turned it into an unwitting accomplice to Jacob, with its deadly maze of corridors, locked doors, stairwells, elevators that are never available at the right time and windows too small to let in the bright, living world. And the Soskas, bless their hearts, opted for steadier camera work instead of the jerky motions of handhelds that can mar otherwise splendidly heart-pounding action sequences.

The Soskas dialed back a bit on the graphic gore, but that does not diminish Jacob’s ferocity. The horrifying killer almost seems at home in the morgue. He also knows his way around the facility better than the employees.

The cast, led by Harris as Amy, the most level-headed of the group amid the bloodbath, does a credible job of infusing life into the characters before they segue into the next stage of the movie, trying to avoid being killed. Jacobs is a formidable physical presence, a man whose massive silhouette against a lighted backdrop can induce chills in even the most hard core horror fan.

“See No Evil 2″ is a solid effort, 90 minutes of what one expects from the crazed killer theme. It has a few surprises in it despite the standard blueprint. It’s a safe bet that upon future viewings, things will be spotted in the movie that were not noticed before.

‘Dracula Untold’ revisits the most famous vampire of them all

Vampire stories have become so prevalent in the horror movie genre, right up there with zombies, that it was inevitable the top blood-sucker of them all, Dracula, would be revisited.

Gary Shore, who has directed commercials for popular brands of products, along with the writing team of Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, have put together as their first major major feature the movie “Dracula Untold.” Unlike previous Dracula films wherein the vampire has been around and fed off the blood of humans for centuries, “Untold” focuses on how this person became a vampire in the first place.

The notion that author Bram Stoker based Dracula on Vlad III of Transylvania — also know as Vlad the Impaler — has been speculative. There is a passage in chapter three of the “Dracula” novel that makes references to the dark times in which Vlad lived, and later Dracula’s nemesis Van Helsing is quoted as believing Dracula came from that era.

Shore, Sazama and Sharpless build upon that speculation and portray Vlad / Dracula as a more sympathetic character than history has.

In the 1400s, the Turks were the conquerors of territories and exploited Transylvania by claiming 1,000 of the country’s boys, enslaving them and training them to become killers for their army. Among those taken by the Turks was Vlad, who would grow up and become the feared and legendary Vlad the Impaler.

As an adult, Vlad (Luke Evans) has returned to the Castle Dracula and is a beloved prince in his homeland Transylvania. There has been a fragile peace with the Turks and it is a time of prosperity.

While out patrolling in the wilderness near the castle, Vlad and some of his soldiers come across a Turkish helmet. Fearing the Turks are sending out spies, they investigate and end up inside a cave on Broken Tooth Mountain. There they tragically encounter some sort of savage being. The shaken Vlad returns home and soon learns from Brother Lucian (Paul Kaye), that what they found in that cave was a man who had made a pact with a demon that of course betrayed him, leaving this man cursed to living in the dank cave for eternity as a vampire.

Shortly thereafter, Transylvania’s Easter festivities are interrupted by messengers for the latest Turk Sultan, Mehmed (Dominic Cooper), who announce that the ruler is renewing the decree that Translyvania give up 1,000 of its boys to be trained for the Turkish army. This order also includes Vlad’s son Ingeras (Art Parkinson). Since Vlad and Mehmed grew up together, the prince believes he can talk his old childhood buddy out of this ruling.

But Mehmed (Cooper at his strutting, villainy best) brushes off any alternative proposal by Vlad, even insisting that Vlad can always have another son, replacing the one he will be giving up.

Vlad barely gets home when a half-dozen Turks arrive to claim Ingeras. In addition, they foolishly taunt Vlad, a fatal mistake.

Knowing that Mehmed will be sending a vast army he and his people will not be able to repel, the desperate Vlad returns to Broken Tooth Mountain in hopes of harnessing some of that power from the cursed vampire residing in the cave.

The  vampire is played by Charles Dance, and he sees this as an opportunity. If he can pass on his vampire curse to Vlad, he will be free to escape the cave and carry out revenge on his betrayer. Vlad must drink some of the vampire’s blood, which will give him enormous power, but only for three days. However, if Vlad succumbs to the what will be a ravenous appetite for blood in those three days, he will become a vampire for eternity.

“Dracula Untold” now presents the challenge of whether Vlad can defeat the Turks in three days and whether he can resist the temptation of drinking blood. Also, Vlad needs to stay out of the sun.

Evans, who was the lethally calculating Driver in the 2012 blood-fest “No One Lives,” presents Vlad as a man who has managed to maintain a perspective on his ultra violent past and now savors the peaceful life with his wife Merina (Sarah Gadon) and son. He is a strong and wise leader of his people. Backed into a corner, he must risk it all to save his people from an unyielding force. Evans has a commanding screen presence and adequately conveys a man tormented by the forces that lead him to making such perilous decisions.

“Dracula Untold” is beautifully shot among a dark and foreboding backdrop. Unfortunately,  the battle scenes are choppy and hard to follow. It is earnest in its presentation, and aside from Vlad, Merina, Ingeras and the Vampre, the supporting characters are basically scenery with little to make them memorable.

The movie’s ending also points to this being a reboot of the Dracula franchise.


‘Annabelle’ triggers a few chills but little else

What you get with “Annabelle” is a potpourri of scary movie elements, including the creepy toy or doll, lights flickering, interruptions in TV or radio transmissions, furniture moving on its own, strange noises, uninvited spiritual visitations, doors closing by themselves, spooky hallways and basements and children or babies in peril.

What you do not get is a lot of originality or truly terrifying moments.

The screenplay by Gary Dauberman details a simple story, one that has been told before. Some object is brought into a household, in this case a doll that is about three feet tall. Shortly after this doll is in place, bad things happen, and even a change in residence does not relieve the victims of terror.

“Annabelle” takes place in the months after the Tate-La Bianca murders committed by members of the Charles Manson “family” in 1969. A young couple, John and Mia (Ward Horton and Annabelle Wallis), live in a nice neighborhood in Santa Monica. John is about to begin his medical internship and Mia is late in a pregnancy with their first child.

Mia is an expert at sewing and collects dolls, and one day John presents her with the one doll she has been coveting, the one that will be the biggest in her collection. A couple of horrible events soon follow that lead to discarding of the doll and convincing John and Mia to move. Also, their daughter Lea is born.

With John working at the Huntington hospital in Pasadena, the couple relocate to an apartment building in that city, and even though the doll had been thrown away at the Santa Monica residence, it somehow manages to appear in the Pasadena apartment. Despite that strange occurrence, Mia elects to keep it.

With John putting in long hours at the hospital, Mia is home alone with the baby and per usual in these chillers, strange things begin to happen, escalating from annoyances to terror. Mia, meanwhile, is befriended by Evelyn (Alfre Woodward), the owner of a local bookstore and a woman who has endured tragedy in her life.

As spooky events continue, John and Mia turn to their church and seek help from Father Perez (Tony Amendola). Eventually Evelyn also gets involved with helping Mia.

At this point, the expectations are that John and Mia may be betrayed by people they trust, people with diabolical motivations. This adds an element to the movie, which suffers from lack of effective creepiness. There are a couple of good, jolting scenes, but the overall effect is a mildly chilling movie.

Horton and Wallis are an attractive young couple, and the interplay between Wallis and the always watchable Woodard adds some touching moments to the proceedings.

“Annabelle” may hook some viewers who are drawn into the creepy-doll genre of horror films. Those who like their scares to be more intense will find “Annabelle” to be ho-hum.

Washington’s character summons past skills in ‘The Equalizer’

It was pretty cool having movies starring Liam Neeson and Denzel Washington released on successive weekends. These two men have a commanding screen presence, and in Neeson’s case, his work carried an otherwise slow-paced and murky “A Walk Among the Tombstones.”

Washington, on the other hand, while being the major force in “The Equalizer,” had some solid backing, starting with the director, Antoine Fuqua, who teamed up with Washington on the superb “Training Day,” along with a coolly lethal foe in Teddy (Marton Csokas).

The title character is Washington’s Robert McCall. a former government operative now living a quiet life working in one of those giant hardware/home maintenance super stores. An insomniac, he spends his off hours in an all-night diner, drinking hot tea and, in a tribute to his late wife, reading classic novels.

He also is the kind of person who is giving. He is helping one of his co-workers, Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis) drop weight and train so he can apply for a security guard position.

Another regular customer at the diner is a young lady, Teri — whose real name is Alina — (Chloe Grace Moretz), who is employed at an escort service run by ruthless Russian gangsters. McCall and Teri strike up a friendly acquaintance, with McCall giving the young woman encouragement to pursue her dream of a singing career. He is very aware of her current status, and it is a tribute to Washington’s acting skills that you can detect in his eyes the conflict he feels in whether or not to help Teri break away from this horrible work. He knows that if he does, it will require him to summon again the deadly skills he had used in his earlier life.

But when Teri is so badly beaten by her handler that she is hospitalized, McCall no longer can stand by. McCall pays a visit to this man, Slavi (David Meunier) and his crew and tries to give them a peaceful way out. But his gesture is rudely dismissed, so he extracts a bloody revenge that leaves five men dead.

This action has implications reaching all the way to Moscow, where the head of the Russian syndicate sends his best “cleaner,” Teddy, to the U.S. to find out what happened.

It takes a little while for all of this to set up, but it is worth it. Once Teddy zeroes in on McCall, the movie becomes an intriguing game of cat and mouse between two men who are at the top of their game. Csokas is mesmerizing as Teddy, so terrifyingly soft-spoken but brilliant and calculating, and when he explodes in violence, is it truly jarring.

McCall also is quiet, and always gives his adversaries a chance at redemption, the result usually being a verbal spit in the face. That is when McCall issues his form of justice — swiftly and efficiently.

The interplay between Csokas and Washington is brilliantly executed. McCall detests Teddy but clearly respects the man’s intelligence and dedication. And Csokas, an excellent character actor, aptly conveys that Teddy, under his veneer of cool confidence, is harboring an uneasiness about going up against McCall, and maybe even grudgingly respects him.

Fuqua, as shown in “Training Day,” does not hold back on the violence. It is brutal and the film is very worthy of its R-rating. He presents a graphic movie that pits one man with a steadfast conscience against a powerful machine driven only by profit, at whatever means. It’s a match-up that can keep the audience riveted.

Neeson again a flawed hero in slow-moving ‘Tombstones’

Back in the day when John Wayne was a box-office giant, the knock on him was that, in his Westerns at least, he played variations of the same character, usually a gunfighter who followed his own moral compass, a man who could be counted on in a crisis but one who seemed more comfortable wielding a gun than engaging in working or intimate relationships.

Liam Neeson of late has stepped into a role that he does well, that of a flawed man whose skills put him in a dangerous world. There he thrives, while his personal life is a shambles. The characters in his most recent high-profile movies — Bryan Mills in “Taken” and “Taken 2,” Ottway in “The Grey” and Bill Marks in “Non-Stop” — fit snugly into this mold.

Neeson is not only good in this role, he draws us into his characters, and that has paid off in these movies. His work is a major asset in “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” classified as a crime thriller mystery that is not all that thrilling and does not even try to be a whodunit mind bender.

Based upon the novel by Lawrence Block, “Tombstones” is written and directed by Scott Frank, who did a superb job of adapting two of Elmore Leonard’s novels — “Out of Sight” and “Get Shorty” — to the screen. In those movies, it was not the crimes, but the characters, that carried the story. Frank makes that same effort with “Tombstones,” and the results are mixed.

Neeson’s character is Matt Scudder, who when the movie begins, is a plainclothes New York City cop in 1991. While he is indulging in some free drinks in a bar, three ill-fated robbers hit the place, and moments later, Scudder has taken them down with gunfire, two of them fatally.

The movie jumps ahead to 1999 and now Scudder is an unlicensed private investigator and a an alcoholic who has been dry for a while. Unfortunately, the trailers for “Tombstones” reveal why he left the police force, which diminishes the emotional impact when it is detailed in the movie.

One evening in 1999, Scudder encounters Howie (Eric Nelson), a fellow Alcoholics Anonymous member, who says that his brother Kenny (Dan Stevens) could use Scudder’s services.

Scudder meets with Kenny, who tells him his wife Carrie was kidnapped and even though a ransom was paid, Carrie was murdered, dismembered and left in the trunk of an abandoned car. Kenny wants Scudder to find the men who did this and bring them to him.

Kenny seems well off financially and finally admits to Scudder he is a drug trafficker but plans on getting out once he builds a nice nest egg. Scudder refuses to take the case initially but soon is drawn back in. He then learns through his investigation that these kidnappers have done this before and Scudder believes they will do it again.

While in a public library checking out microfilm for old newspaper articles on these crimes, Scudder meets TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley), a homeless boy who latches onto Scudder because he wants to become a private investigator some day. Scudder tries to discourage him but soon the two develop a unique kinship.

The identities of the two kidnapper-killers are revealed about midway through the movie as Ray (David Harbour, seen most recently as Reed Ackley in “Manhattan”) and Albert (Adam David Thompson), but beyond that little else is exposed about these two characters. They live together, but whether they are intimately involved or just partners in crime who share a home is never addressed.

The only real mysteries in “Tombstones” are why these two became serial kidnapper-killers, and what are their motivations for singling out certain people for their crimes. This assures some lively post-movie discussions and prevents “Tombstones” from stumbling into what can seriously erode a crime thriller — the obligatory monologue by the bad guys as to why they commit these atrocities.

Amid Scudder’s investigation, Ray and Albert strike again, this time abducting the teen daughter of another drug trafficker. These two guys, however demented their intentions, are very good at covering their tracks. Meanwhile, Scudder, without the resources of a law enforcement agency, must rely on a motley crew of associates that include the revenge-minded Kenny, the drug-addled Howie and the street kid TJ. It seems like a major mismatch.

A lot of the footage shows Scudder walking among the broken down areas of New York City, interviewing people and finding little evidence to go on until he questions a groundskeeper, James Loogan (Olafur Darri Olafsson), who works at a cemetery where the remains of an earlier victim had been disposed.

Frank’s screenplay ties in redemption with Scudder’s efforts to bring down the two killers, and the movie plods along at a slow pace. “Tombstone” tries to be a thinking person’s crime mystery, but too much information is left out to make it memorable in the end. Nevertheless, Neeson once again brings out a character haunted by inner demons who can only find meaning when he has to immerse himself in the muck of the worst of humanity.

Son of Monsterpalooza looks at “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” 40 years later

When talking about horror movies that were pacesetters in the genre of scary films, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is always regarded as one of the most influential in this type of entertainment. The original movie, which came out in 1974, has spawned four sequels, one prequel and two reboots and even has a place in the New York City Museum of Modern Art for its importance in the development of American cinema.

Its depiction of violence was so intense that it is mistakenly remembered as being more graphic than it really was. But it did set the stage for the modern horror genre that has become more explicitly gory than ever thanks to the evolution of special effects.

In honor of the 40th anniversary of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” four surviving cast members appeared at the Son of Monsterpalooza event the weekend of Sept. 12-14 at the Marriott Burbank Convention Center. On hand were Teri McMinn (Pam), William Vail (Kirk), Edwin Neal (Hitchhiker) and Gunnar Hansen (Leatherface). On Friday evening and all day Saturday, these actors greeted fans, signed autographs and posed for photos, and on Sunday sat on a panel to talk about the making of the film. Sadly, two of the other main stars, Paul A. Partain (Franklin Hardesty) and Marilyn Burns (Sally Hardesty) have passed away, Partin in 2005 and Burns a little more than a month ago on Aug. 5.

Directed and co-written by Tobe Hopper — along with Kim Henkel — “Massacre” is about Sally and her paraplegic brother Franklin, who along with three friends — Pam, Kirk and Jerry (Alan Danzinger) — take a road trip in a van to visit the grave of the Hardesty siblings’ grandfather, not only to pay respects but to follow up on reports that the cemetery has been hit by grave robberies. Along the way the five people pick up the hitchhiker, played by Neal, a bizarre character who eventually gets kicked out of the van after cutting Franklin on the hand.

The group ends up nearly out of gas in a remote area and soon come upon a house where Leatherface literally bursts into their lives for some terrifying and ghastly and in some cases fatal encounters. It turns out Leatherface and Hitchhiker are part of a family that murders people for their meat that they sell for barbecue.

The Sunday panel gathering of the four actors also featured some selected clips from the movie, allowing the stars to make comments.

In one clip that shows Hitchhiker in the van demanding payment for a Polaroid picture he has just taken of the other passengers, Neal quipped, “And we’re still selling photographs.”

McMinn said that when Neal was brought in to play Hitchhiker, she thought he had actually been recruited from a local insane asylum. “Wow this guy is crazy,” she said.

Vail revealed that he and Neal had been roommates in college, a fact McMinn was unaware of until this panel event.

One of the first shocking scenes in “Massacre” is when Kirk (Vail) enters the old house, looking for residents and Leatherface makes his violent debut, fatally clubbing Kirk, throwing him against a wall and then dragging the body into a back room. In recalling the fatal hammer scene, Vail said that originally, Hansen did not hit him hard enough to respond, throwing off the timing in the scene. So Vail encouraged Hansen to attack with more force.

“Gunner was so pumped, blood vessels around my eye were ruptured (when he hit again),” Vail said. Then Hansen threw him so hard against the wall that Vail said he passed out. Hansen concurred. “I was so pumped that I threw him head-first into the wall.” Fortunately, pillows had been placed off camera for Vail to land on. “So he did have a soft landing,” Hansen added.

In recalling terrifying scene in which Leatherface slams the door shut with such force, Hansen said the segment works so well because the door was not properly aligned in the door frame, so it just jammed suddenly and didn’t bounce or jiggle despite being light metal. Instead it appears that it is a heavy door being violently shut.

Vail said that director Hooper purposely kept the group of actors playing the victims apart from the those playing family members, so that when Vail and others initially see Leatherface, they actually were encountering that character for the first time.

Another clip shown was one of the most grisly scenes, when Pam is scooped up by Leatherface and taken to the back room and hoisted upon a meat hook. Regarding that scene, Neal said that he has won many $5 bets from people over the years who insist that the hook can be seen protruding out of Pam’s chest, which is not the case. In fact, the hook is never seen penetrating any flesh.

Once the meat hook scene was filmed, pretty much in one take according to McMinn, the entire set was quiet. “It brought us to a realization of the finality of the violence,” she said.

Hansen was eager to talk about the chicken seen confined to a bird cage in a room full of feathers and bones. Hansen said that Bob Burns, the art director who handled the props, was adamant that the poor chicken being handled humanely. What Burns never found out was that the chicken did die overnight. In fact, several chickens had to be used because they did not last the nights. Co-writer Henkel was secretly going to a nearby chicken farm and purchasing a chicken to replace the latest one that had died.

Hansen also revealed that prior to playing Leatherface, he had never handled a chainsaw  before. In the scene in which Leatherface is shown chopping up the dead Kirk, the actors were flirting with disaster. “First of all,” said Vail, “Gunner could not see very well,” because of the leather mask on his face, yet he still had to bring the chainsaw as close to Vail’s head as possible. The scene was set up so that Vail’s head could not be seen, just most of his body from the shoulders down. Vail said he could feel the hot oil and wood chips hitting his face, but could not flinch or otherwise move, since he was supposed to be dead.

Hansen said Hooper insisted that a real saw be used so as to capture the authentic sounds of the blade cutting things. Although Hansen pointed out “that’s what post (production) is for,” Hooper prevailed in this decree. Hansen of course did not realize that when a saw contacts the object it is cutting, it can jerk forward, so even though Hansen is a big man at 6-foot-4 and believed he could control the chainsaw, he would not have known to anticipate the jerking . Fortunately he managed to keep the saw from hitting Vail.

“There were stories that in this film some people came close to death,” Hansen said. “No, nobody ever came close to death, but death came real close to several people.”

Said Vail, “I trusted Gunnar to take care of me and said let’s shoot the film. We were young and dumb.”

The four actors also expressed appreciation for Burns and Partain. As the wheelchair-bound Franklin, Partain insisted in staying in character even when not shooting any scenes. At one point between scenes, Partain asked Vail to bring him a Coke, upon which Vail told him to get out of the wheelchair and fetch his own soft drink. The actors said Partain was in character so much that his fellow stars ended up not liking him.

Hansen said that during the filming, Partain only got close to John Dugan, who played Grandfather, and confided in Dugan that he was afraid he would “lose” Franklin if he ever went out of character, and not be able to recover him when it came time to film scenes. “He called everybody by their character name,” Hansen said.

The strategy paid off in a macabre way. Hansen said that when it came time to shoot the scene in which Leatherface attacks Franklin, he was really looking forward to “killing” the character because Partain had become so convincing in portraying this annoying person. It was about 20 years later that Hansen was able to reunite with Partain, meet the man outside of the Franklin character and build a friendship before Partain’s death in 2005.

Regarding his own approach to Leatherface, Hansen said, “Leatherface is not a method actor.” Hooper, meanwhile, told the other performers that Hansen was a jerk as a way of creating some real tension during the shooting.

Hansen said that he never felt he was actually assuming the character of Leatherface. It was more a physical role because Leatherface could not speak, just grunt and make pig noises. Hansen always referred to Leatherface in the third person. It wasn’t until a late scene, at the family dinner, that Hansen finally began to feel himself in the role of Leatherface.

Burns’ recent death made it difficult for the other cast members to talk about her.

“She was my best friend,” McMinn said. “We loved spending time together. It’s been really hard.”

Neal recalled that one time he and Burns had agreed to attend a screening of “Massacre”  in Texas, and upon arriving they learned they had to wait until the movie was over before they would meet the attendees. This allowed the two people a chance to chat for a couple of hours. Neal said he asked Burns what frightened her the most. Was it the fear of death? She said no. So he pressed: What’s your greatest fear? After a moment’s thought, she said, I do have a great fear: One day years from now you and I will be at the opening of a 7-11 in Oklahoma, and there’s two people in line.

“We miss her because we lost someone from our family,” Hansen said.

Marilyn Burns left horror fans with an indelible performance as the first, and in many viewers’ opinion, the best of the “final” girls, the ones who survive at the end despite the relentless pursuit of a deranged killer









‘The November Man’ pushes all the right buttons for a spy caper

The spy thriller enjoyed its heyday in the 1960s, thanks mostly to James Bond, but still endures five decades later because it provides everything viewers want in their entertainment: action, suspense, sometimes colorful villains, great spy vs. spy posturing and sex appeal.

Pierce Brosnan has earned his “license to kill,” having done a term as James Bond and also starred in less fanciful but engrossing political thriller films such as “The Tailor of Panama.” In “The November Man” he fits in comfortably as Devereaux, an ex-CIA operative trying to live a quiet life as a restaurant owner who is called back into the game by a former colleague. He is asked to conduct what seems to be a simple extraction mission but it turns out to be a complicated entanglement that involves high politics and ends up putting a big, fat bulls-eye on the back of Devereaux.

Like most heroes in such adventures, Devereaux was exceptional in his job performance, a real asset to the company. Also, as a familiar plot element, it is tragedy of a mission gone wrong that likely led to his retirement.

“November Man” opens with a sequence in 2008 in which Devereaux, on a mission to thwart a potential assassination, is working with a younger operative, Mason (Luke Bracey), whose disobedience of an order by Devereaux results in unintended collateral damage.

Five years later, the retired Devereaux is visited by one of his former handlers, Hanley (Bill Smitrovich), who informs the ex-operative that some other agents in the field are being picked off by a coldly efficient killer, Elexa (Amila Terzimehic), and one of those in danger is a woman, Natalia (Mediha Musliovic), with whom Devereaux has had a history and now as an undercover agent is a close associate of the man expected to be the next president of Russia, Arkady Federov (Lazar Ristovski). Hanley claims that Natalia’s cover has been compromised, and she specifically requested Devereaux for the extraction mission.

Although Devereaux does manage to pick up Natalia, he learns things are not what they seem. Natalia was not expecting him after all, and soon the two are being pursued by some unknown people. Things wind up bloodily, and Devereaux learns that he and Natalia are being targeted by the CIA, with Mason as part of that team.

Natalia had provided Devereaux with the identity of a woman who has information that could not only destroy Federov’s political ambitions but also have him put away for war crimes. Devereaux soon hooks up with Alice (Olga Kurylenko), who may be able help him track down this woman before others find her and kill her.

Of course, now Devereaux is a marked man, by the agency that previous employed him. In addition, the professional killer Elexa also hot in pursuit.

“The November Man” becomes a story of two people being hunted by dangerous people with a lot of resources at hand. So the odds are against Devereaux and Alice, and the added touch is the now adversarial relationship between an old pro and his former pupil.

Director Roger Donaldson, who worked with Brosnan previously on “Dante’s Peak,” maintains a lively pace, and the script by Michael Finch and Karl Gajdusek — based upon a novel by Bill Granger — does a good job of keeping the viewer guessing. There are the usual twists and betrayals and finger-biting scenes of potential disaster to keep the audience taut.

Brosnan presents Devereaux as a world-weary man who once again has to rely on his instincts and skills to survive. Realistic elements include the man’s need to calm his nerves via alcohol and the revelation that Devereaux, when training Mason, in one vital aspect did not practice what he preached.

‘And things were going so well’: Lackluster box-office may send ‘Sin City’ to morgue

The movie-viewing audience stayed away in droves for the opening weekend of “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.” How bad was the box-office draw? Well, it pulled in only $900,000 more than “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” a nice little movie that will not pack the houses, and is in its third week of release.

This sobering box-office take could dampen enthusiasm for more movies based on Frank Miller’s graphic novels. The brain trust no doubt is grappling for answers as to why this film, written by Miller and co-directed by Miller and Robert Rodriguez and the second in a visually innovative screen adaptation, has fizzled.

There was a downgrade in the critical consensus, which was to be expected, given what the original “Sin City” delivered in style and wallop when it hit the screens nine years ago. What was astounding in 2005 is not going to generate as much of an impression in 2014. While “more of the same” can be a profitable blueprint in many movie series, “Sin City” seemed elevated above that. It set a new tone, and building on that is a tough task.

For the most part “A Dame to Kill For” scores above average. Its animated-live action mix, shot in black and white with selective color, again is a stunning presentation. The breakdowns in the film occur in the stories, character development and mood.

Noticeably absent in “A Dame to Kill For” is the macabre humor. Even some of the minor bad guy roles had their shining moments in the original — such as the sigh of resignation from the thug who gets an arrow through the head, shot by Miho (Devon Aoki). In “A Dame to Kill For,” villains are dispatched by the handful and not one of them stands out like that guy did.

On the plus side, fans of Marv (Mickey Rourke) will be happy because he is the most dominant character in “A Dame to Kill For.” This hulking creature with a hideous face who viciously hands out his own justice is back, offering viewers a look at some of his previous adventures before he put it all on the line in the original “Sin City” to avenge the death of the hooker Goldie (Jaime King).

“A Dame to Kill For” opens with a great sequence in which Marv, sitting in the aftermath of some terrible violence, now has to rely on his medication to help him remember what just happened. A quick review of the bloody action shows that Marv was administering his usual brutal justice, this time to college punks picking on the weak.

Marv then has vital supporting roles in two of the other stories in the film, coming to the aid of friends. Here it is not personal for Marv. He’s just helping his buddies, and enjoying every minute of it.

The rest of the movie has mixed results. Josh Brolin takes over for Clive Owen in the role of Dwight, and Brolin’s version is darker, more brooding, and not as colorful nor resourceful. While doing private detective work — gathering evidence of infidelity on the part of a successful businessman — Dwight gets a call from Ava (Eva Green), a woman who stole his heart and decimated it by dumping him and marrying a wealthy man. Against better judgment, Dwight meets with her and although she claims all she wants from him is forgiveness, he is not buying it. But darn it, he just cannot seem to resist Ava and is lured back into her life, rendered vulnerable by his passions.

Green has earned some critical acclaim for her work as Vanessa Ives in “Penny Dreadful,” and as tempting as it is to say she is dreadful in “A Dame to Kill For,” that is a bit extreme. But Green, who spends most of her screen time out of her clothes, gives a performance that is almost parody as she tries to portray a manipulative femme fatale. Some of her scenes are broadly over the top, and if this was the intention, it falls flat, making it hard to digest that her overt phoniness would work in getting men to do whatever she asks.

Luckily for Dwight, he has Marv, Gail (Rosario Dawson)  and Miho (played here by Jamie Chung) for support and if it were not for them, he never would have survived to have his hilariously dark encounters later with dirty cop Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro).

The other two stories in “A Dame to Kill For” are the weak points in the movie. Joseph Gordon-Levitt  plays Johnny, a gambling wizard who takes on the powerful and corrupt Sen. Roark (Powers Boothe reprising his role) in a high-stakes poker game. He learns brutally that Roark is a poor loser. Battered, Johnny vows revenge but the promise of a nasty bit of getting even completely wimps out.

The other story centers around Nancy (Jessica Alba), the bar dancer who took on a new identity as she was a witness as a child to a crime that could bring Sen. Roark down. Nancy is not doing too well now that the police officer Hartigan (Bruce Willis), whom she loved, sacrificed himself so she could live on without fear of Roark tracking her down. She bitterly talks to the ghost of Hartigan, pouts, cuts short her dance routines, drinks and night after night cannot bring herself to shoot Roark even though he is in a neighboring room playing poker. She does wise up and drafts Marv to help her finally go after the sinister politician.

As with the original “Sin City,” each story will have its fans and detractors, but as a whole, “A Dame to Kill For” does not match its predecessor. Most ardent fans of “Sin City” will find things to like about this second entry, but if it weren’t for Marv and Gail, “A Dame to Kill For” would be a much weaker follow-up. As it is, unless it manages to hang in there at the box office and recoups costs in DVD/Blu-Ray releases, the “Sin City” franchise could end up like most of the bad guys in these movies — dead and gone.

In ‘The Expendables 3,’ the new blood dilutes the power

Sequel-itis is sometimes painful to watch. A movie connects with people critically and/or commercially and the green light stays on for more of the same. The horror genre can thrive on this because its fans readily embrace the continuation of the outrageous plot devices — Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger cannot be destroyed and those pesky paranormal entities just remain active — and are more interested in who will get killed first and how hideously.

In the more mainstream movies, keeping a franchise going, especially if it is not a Marvel or DC super hero, presents difficult challenges that often lead to disasters. Sylvester Stallone apparently did not learn anything with the decline of the “Rocky” series. They were pleasant enough movies but obviously were pushing the envelope in credulity. Also, the recent misfires from the “Die Hard” and “Red” films should have served as warnings.

In 2010, Stallone came up with a certified hit in “The Expendables.” The concept of Stallone teaming up with other action stars like Jason Statham, Randy Couture, Dolph Lungren and Jet Li to form a crack unit of mercenaries to bring down bad guys was a winning one, especially with Arnold Schwarzenegger thrown into the mix in a nod to the Sly vs. Arnold as action icons of the 1970s-80s going face to face. Its $100-plus million take at the box office made it a no-brainer that the Expendables were not finished.

The second Expendables movie in 2012 added Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Bruce Willis to the cast list, and there was an inevitable decline in box-office power, $85 million. Still that was enough to guarantee “The Expendables 3.”

As a co-writer, along with Creighton Rothenberger (“Olympus Has Fallen”), Stallone felt the need to inject more into the story than the usual high-body-count, heavy-weaponry action. So he and Rothenberger went with an “out with the old, in with the new” plot device. Not necessarily a miscalculation, but it was mishandled.

“The Expendables 3″ starts strongly with a sequence in which Stallone as Barney Ross and his group free a former colleague of Barney’s, Doc (Wesley Snipes), from a heavily fortified foreign prison, an operation involving a speeding train, a helicopter and lots of ammo.

The Expendables are mostly here: Christmas (Statham), Gunnar Jensen (Lundgren), Toll Road (Couture) and Caesar (Terry Crews). Only missing initially is Yin Yang (Li). Now with Doc on board, the Expendables go on another mission that ends disastrously with one of them seriously injured and Barney learning that Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), who along with Barney formed the Expendables but went to the dark side and became an arms trader, is alive and thriving. Barney had believed he killed Stonebanks earlier.

Back home and licking his wounds, Barney decides to retire his group despite still under contract with Drummer (Harrison Ford) at the CIA to bring Stonebanks back alive.

So Barney goes on a recruiting tour with his recruiting agent Bonaparte (Kelsey Grammer) and signs up four young people: Thorn (Glenn Powell), Mars (Victor Ortiz), Smiley (Kellan Lutz) and Luna (Rhonda Rousey, a mixed martial arts competitor who was trending on Twitter over “The Expendables 3″ opening weekend for her involvement with World Wrestling Entertainment’s Summer Slam show). These four up-and-comers are more tech savvy but still have an appreciation and expertise in weaponry and hand-to-hand combat.

Unfortunately, Stallone and Rothenberger created characters here who are bland and not only lack chemistry and camaraderie among themselves but do not deliver any punch in providing a real threat to the older Expendables. On the plus side, Barney does reluctantly sign up Galgo (Antonio Banderas), another mercenary past his prime but eager to work. He is the most colorful of the newbies, although his exuberance and verbosity tend to get annoying.

While the idled Expendables sit around glumly, Barney and his new group, with Trench (Schwarzenegger) in tow, manage to capture Stonebanks without a hitch — it is too easy and the potential for things to go awry weighs heavily in the air. There is a void here that only can be filled with the return of Christmas, Gunner and the others.

Like the astronaut movie “Space Cowboys,” “The Expendables 3″ then  becomes a story of the old guys still having enough spark to stand and fight side by side with the next generation.

This movie does have its positive points. The action is well choreographed, and the interplay between the original Expendables is lively. There are bits of inside jokes throughout and the movie even pokes fun at the ludicrous nature of these kinds of action flicks wherein only the good guys can hit their targets.

Aside from Banderas, the new members of the group have no qualities that make them stand out, although Rousey gets to show off her martial arts skills. The show stealer is Gibson. Although his personal image has  blown up in recent years, he seems to have progressed smoothly from an anti-hero as Mad Max, to flawed hero as Martin Riggs in the “Lethal Weapon” movies and now seems comfortable strutting around as a well-dressed but vicious villain (he was seen last year as Voz, an arms dealer in “Machete Kills”).

An “Expendables 4″ has been announced and hard-core fans of the franchise are expressing concerns that Stallone has taken it too far off the tracks. He can recover if he sees the weak points and fixes them.