Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Halloween 2023: September 20th

The slasher subgenre seems to exist these days, mostly, within the realm of nostalgic throwbacks. I guess the bloody murder-fests will always be linked to the seventies and eighties. Clever reinventions of the style have been done – including one from the original “Scream’s” writer earlier this year – but have yet to break out with the public at large. Instead, it seems only the big, recognizable franchises are being revived. Maybe those are the only ones movies studios are willing to put in theaters. All of this is a roundabout way of saying that it does bring me some comfort to be watching a new slasher sequel a year after the last one. I didn’t love 2022’s “Scream” but a willingness to crank out a new one in twelve months, like in the good old days, is nice to see. 

“Scream VI” arrived in theaters this past March but it’s set around Halloween, making it fitting viewing for this season. A year after Samantha Carpenter, her sister Tara, and their friends Chad and Mindy survived a new set of Ghostface murders in Woodsboro, they’ve moved across the country to New York City. Sam has been the target of internet conspiracies, that accuse her of being the actual killer, and has become overly protective of Tara. Try as Sam might to outrun the legacy of her actual father Billy Loomis, a new Ghostface has caught up with her in Manhattan. This latest murderer has a personal grudge against the heroes, with familiar faces like part four’s Kirby and Gale Weathers quickly getting involved too.

The opening scene of “Scream VI” gave me hope that this sequel might actually do something new. After the obligatory opening kill of a special guest star, the film seemingly dismisses with the whodunnit structure that has defined this series. That would’ve been a new angle for this sixth entry to explore. Instead, these copycat Ghostfaces are quickly assassinated by a different Ghostface, re-establishing the sequel’s commitment to “Scream” formula. As with Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillette’s previous entry, this “Scream” makes motions towards a bold, new direction while actually just continuing to eat its own tail. Mindy’s thesis-establishing monologue suggests this movie is about “franchises,” which are designed to keep the I.P going and always catch audiences off-guard. This idea is clearly inspired by Marvel and other cinematic universes, not so much anything in the horror genre. 

Moreover, “Scream VI” doesn’t actually seem interested in surprising or shocking the viewer. There’s exactly one twist that caught me off-guard in this sequel and it doesn’t come until the last act, during the (always tedious) trademark sequence where the killers laboriously reveal their identities and motivations. Otherwise, most of the narrative misdirects and false leads are easy to predict. In fact, I found myself taken out of the movie several times by gaps in real world logic. Sam and Tara casually break a law in order to save a friend and face no consequences for it. At no point, despite being high-profile people-of-interest in a murder investigation and known targets of a killer, are they ever offered police protection. The entire last act of the movie is set in a massive shrine to the Ghostface killings, full of artifacts from previous movies. Which is a neat idea that stops making any sense the minute you think about the logistics of assembling such a collection. Is this nitpicking? Maybe. But a properly immersive horror flick doesn’t have you thinking about this shit. 

That murder museum, set inside an admittedly cool old movie theater, represents the worst tendencies of “Scream VI” and maybe all the “Scream” sequels. Despite what the characters say, “Scream VI” isn’t really about anything other than the “Scream” franchise. It’s full of nostalgic nods to past movies. Kirby’s reappearance and Gale Weathers getting socked in the jaw are just the most prominent examples. Disappointingly, the dumbest plot point from the last movie – Sam having ghost-like visions of Billy Loomis – is revisited here. Much talk was made of Neve Campbell ducking out of this one but the lack of Sidney Prescott might’ve forced “Scream” to actually evolve. Instead, the killer’s motivation are directly rooted in the last film’s events. The half-assed nods towards social commentary – the QAnon-like dis-info campaign swirling around Sam and one of the killers seemingly being an incel – are minor variations of part five’s limp invoking of toxic fandom and other Trump-adjacent malcontents. There’s no bite to any of it. “Scream VI” is happy to tickle nostalgia for the older movies and nothing much else. 

Despite the trailer’s insistence that this Ghostface isn’t anything like the others, “Scream VI” feels strangely low on stakes. It pretends to have an “anyone can die” structure but it’s always obvious which characters will survive and which are knife-fodder. The film, in general, seems oddly inconsistent about how invested we should be in these characters. Sam and Tara’s conflict plays like melodrama, as does the somewhat random decision for Chad and Tara to develop a will-they/won’t-they dynamic. The interaction between the likable core cast is still probably the best thing about “Scream VI” and a few moments even made me chuckle. Yet the group banter is too flippant. (Okay, the line about Letterboxd did make me laugh.) Everyone behaves a little too much like hyper-confident action movie bad-asses, especially in the last act. These people saw friends and loved ones brutally murdered right in front of them, many of them literally have scars from it. Shouldn’t they all be a bit more traumatized, instead of trading Marvel superhero style quibs? Compare this to David Gordon Green’s “Halloween” and “Halloween Ends,” which devoted extensive time to the effect such events would have on people. “Scream VI” seems half-assed in comparison. 

Clearly, I have a lot of criticisms for the Bettinelli-Olpin/Gillette “Scream” sequels. The directors’ past as music video experts are also obvious during a few obtrusive needle drops. Yet I will say this about these guys: They know how to engineer intense and gory stalk-and-slash scenes. The opening call from Ghostface puts a clever spin on the set-up, effectively spotlights the New York setting, and ends in a brutal stabbing. Knife blades are thrusts into eyes, faces, and bellies repeated throughout the film to intense effect. Yet maybe the best sequence build suspense from the setting. Sam and Tara hiding out in a bodega from a shotgun-wielding Ghostface is clever. As are the moments where the heroes cross from one apartment to the next on a ladder spread between two open windows or Ghostface disguises himself in a subway full of Halloween partiers. Whether these guys can create compelling characters or drama remain to be seen but they are gangbusters at brutal executions and suspenseful chase scenes. 

Ultimately, "Scream VI" left me feeling much the same way the last one did. When it's good, it's pretty good. (And I liked the horror references, which range from the expected "Jason Takes Manhattan" homage to "4 Flies on Grey Velvet," as well as numerous nods to more moderns films.) Yet the sequel stubbornly refuses to learn from the past films' mistakes, instead replicating the same structure for the sixth time in a row with only cosmetic changes. That isn't a big deal in a Jason or Freddy film, where you have a charismatic killer and comfy junk-horror vibes to grab the audience. In a whodunnit film where we are expected to be invested in the actual characters, it presents more of a challenge. I have no doubt much of the same cast and crew will return for a seventh killing spree, even if the directors aren't. I guess I'm on the hook to watch that one too but my opinion remains that someone desperately needs to blow up the "Scream" series with some genuinely fresh ideas. [5/10]

Over the previous two Halloweens, I reviewed two of the three mad scientist movies Boris Karloff made for Columbia with director Nick Grinde. Last time, I promised to cover “The Man with Nine Lives” next September and wrap up the trilogy. Well, the time has come. Each of these three films have similar stories, with Karloff playing scientist dabbling in ostensibly plausible new medical treatments. In “The Man They Could Not Hang,” it was an artificial heart. In “Before I Hang,” it was an anti-aging serum. And in “The Man with Nine Lives,” it's cryonics. In fact, the movie even begins with a little title card informing the audiences of 1940 that freezing bodies to delay illness is not science fiction but fact and may one day be a common place occurrence. I think writers at the time might've overestimated the efficiency of freezing technology

Dr. Tim Mason has pioneered a revolutionary new medical treatment that involves packing patients in ice, essentially putting their bodies into hibernation while procedures are performed on them. Mason declares his work to be a potential cure for cancer, a statement which gets his funding cut. Alongside his nurse/wife Judith, he decides to seek out Dr. Kravaal. A decade earlier, Kravaal was researching the same methods when he mysteriously vanished. Tim and Judith explore Kravaal's abandoned mansion. After she falls through the floorboards, they discovered a hidden room downstairs packed in ice. Inside is Kravaal. They defrost him and he wakes back up from this state of apparent death. There's also five other men frozen inside the vault. While Mason is eager to help Kravaal continue his research at first, it soon becomes clear that the doctor is more than a little unhinged.

Of the three films Karloff made with Grinde, “The Man with Nine Lives” is definitely the driest. “The Man They Could Not Hang” concluded in an elaborate game of revenge inside a booby trapped home. “Before I Hang” bent towards a Jekyll and Hyde-like story, of Karloff reverting to a murderous personality. “The Man with Nine Lives,” on the other hand, contains nothing that elaborate. A lot of the film revolves around Kravaal and Mason debating the ethics of what they are doing here. The most exciting scene has the mad doctor slipping some sleeping pills into a soup Judith makes. There's a few moments of smoke billowing out of vials but, otherwise, the mad science here is fairly subdued. This one is devoted to terse conversations between guys in suits in a dark room. 

Almost all of Karloff's mad scientist characters were sympathetic, to one degree or another. Boris couldn't help but make his doctors somewhat reasonable, their initial quest into unnatural science usually motivated by a good cause. This is definitely the case in “The Man with Nine Lives.” Dr. Kravaal only wants to heal people. He's only motivated towards extreme acts by short-sided, greedy businessmen. When the recipe for his solution is burned, that's when Karloff leaps up with a gun. Yet even after committing murder, Kravaal seems pretty reasonable. Maybe it's Karloff's pleading eyes or the fact that he rarely raises his voice. By the end of the film, you get the impression that its villain is far more misunderstood than he is calculating. Karloff, of course, was excellent at playing exactly this kind of character. Most of what works about “The Man with Nine Lives” can be credited to him.  

Another problem facing the film is that it's rather limited in scope. “The Man They Could Not Hang” and “Before I Hang” both featured some shadowy, expressionistic visuals to help further sell their standard classic horror narratives. “The Man with Nine Lives,” meanwhile, is set almost entirely within two or three rooms. There's the big frozen vault Kravaal and his victims are found inside of and the adjoining few chambers. This seriously limits the opportunities for spooky ambiance and cool cinematography. A lot of the film feels like a stage-play, devoted to folks talking stuff out across from tables and in cramped locations. Grinde and his team certainly did the best they could. The movie still looks good and these underground scenes are admittedly a decent set. But there's just not much to look at here as in his other films.

By the way, the title is essentially a non-sequitur. Kravaal can only really be said to have two lives, as he's awaken from his death-like slumber in the beginning. As for the men also kept in the vault, there's five of them. Counted once, they comes up one short of nine. Counted twice, that puts the tally of lives at twelve. I guess “The Man with Twelve Lives” doesn't have the same ring to it... While Karloff always manages to make a movie worth watching, and the film certainly scratches my itch for a creaky old horror movie, I can see why this one is not as discussed as much as the other films old Boris made with Nick Grinde. By the way, Karloff made another mad scientist movie with Columbia around this time, with a different director, so I guess I know what's on the list for next year's marathon. [6/10]

Cabinet of Curiosities: Lot 36

Years ago, I referred to “Masters of Horror” as having one of my favorite premises for a TV show ever, even if the episodes didn't always live up to that promise. While Mick Garris has had no luck reviving that concept in the last eighteen years, Guillermo del Toro – who gave the original Masters of Horror their name, after all – would try something similar last year. As part of his fruitful development deal with Netflix, the beloved filmmaker would conceive the series “Guillermo del Toro's Cabinet of Curiosities.” It would be eight hour-long episodes, each directed by an established filmmaker handpicked by del Toro and many of them based on stories by well-known authors. While many of the chosen directors could be better described as up-and-comers than “masters” exactly, I still felt the same spirit emanating from this project. Just to make the idea even more fun, del Toro hosts each episode, plucking objects from the titular cabinet and clearly channeling “Night Gallery”-era Rod Serling.

Based on a short story by del Toro himself and directed by his regular cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, “Lot 36” follows embittered Vietnam vet Nick. At the start of Desert Storm, he's taken to buying abandoned storage units and selling the contents for easy cash. Badly in need of money, he purchases the mysterious Lot 36. Inside, he discovers a photo album of Nazi memorabilia, a candelabra made from the melted down gold teeth of Holocaust victims, and a table adorned with a pentagram. After getting the table appraised, he learns it contains three volumes of a four-volume arcane text. That the table was used in seances by a notorious family of German war manufacturers, said to have summoned demons. Retaining to the storage unit to find the fourth book, which will make him rich, Nick discovers something much more frightening. 

E.C. Comics casts a long shadow over any horror anthology series and that seems to be the case with “Cabinet of Curiosities” as well. “Lot 36” is primarily the story of a nasty son-of-a-bitch getting his just desserts. Nick is introduced listening to a right-wing talk radio show, enthusiastically agreeing with the host's racist patter. He offers no sympathy to a Spanish-speaking woman whose defaulted-on storage unit he bought, showing her clear enmity. Though he's on friendly terms with the storage facility's black owner, a heated conversation about Vietnam has Nick's white resentment immediately bubbling to the surface. Having this belligerent asshole's antics play out against the first Bush administration's bombing of Iraq – with Nazi war crimes always in the back of the story – makes it clear that Nick's everyday type of bigotry is a stand-in for all types of prejudice the world over. And, of course, his selfish, racist attitudes come back to bite him in the ass in the end. 

I have no idea if this is true but it's easy to imagine that del Toro wrote the original “Lot 36” story around the same time he was working on the first “Hellboy.” Both narratives deal heavily with Nazi occultism meeting up with Lovecraftian horror. In fact, I wonder if del Toro hadn't tried writing this story as a feature film at one point. “Lot 36” lays on the back story a little too thick at times. The elderly original owner of Lot 36 is introduced chopping up rabbits and later bunny hops around, the exact meaning of which is only hinted at. We gets lots of information about the degenerate acts of the Nazi family, which also involve incest and body swapping. Specific rules are laid down for the summoning ritual to work. It's a lot to absorb in all of 45 minutes, none of it exactly adding to the simple narrative either.

Nick is obviously an unlikable protagonist. However, he's also played by Tim Blake Nelson, a character actor who exudes a certain likable sleaziness even when playing the biggest asshole in the world. It helps that Nelson is given some colorfully profane dialogue to spew. With Navarro being an Oscar-winning cinematographer, the episode obviously looks good too. The shadows and grungy interiors of the storage facility definitely strike the right kind of ambiance. The finale gets nicely grisly, with some clever special effects and creepy creature designs. There's too much about “Lot 36” that appeals to me for me not to like it, even if it feels a bit underserved by the short run time and simplistic characters. [7/10]

Chucky: Halloween II

I enjoyed the first season of the “Chucky” TV series, even if I had the same problems with it that I do with most serialized television. The season two premiere picks up right where we left off, with Andy Barclay driving a truck full of Chucky dolls (and a gun-wielding Tiffany) off a cliff. We leap ahead six months. Jake has moved in with a new foster family, living in Salem, New Jersey, and bonding with his new little brother. The distance has put stress on his relationship with Devon. On Halloween night, both get a threatening phone call. That same night they are shown a video live-stream of someone very short walking into Lexy's home. It's not long before the trio reunite, all of them convinced a certain homicidal plaything is about to come back into their lives.

If nothing else, I am impressed with how much story Don Manchini squeezes into “Halloween II.” It wraps up season one's cliffhanger, breaks the gang up before getting them back together again, and introduces the idea of Lexy abusing drugs to cope. Just when you think the episode is settling into the classic “Child's Play” formula of a creepy doll manipulating a little kid... The titular “My Buddy” knock-off comes crashing back into the story. This proceeds an unexpectedly grisly pay-off, before the episode points in the actual direction season two will be going in. The misdirect totally worked on me. Chucky's abrupt re-entrance cuts through all the bullshit, the violence genuinely surprised me, while the final reveal promises something much more interesting than a rehash of the first season's story. 

I don't know how invested I am in “Chucky's” young cast. I can't say I've thought about them any since finishing season one. However, Alyvia Alyn Lind is clearly the MVP here. Pill-snorting, pot-smoking, foul-mouthed Lexy is already a lot more interesting than Jake and Devon navigating the perils of young love. (Though, as always, the show's embracing of queer elements is refreshing.) Obviously, Brad Dourif's swearing, murderous doll is the real star here. As always, he infects every scene he's in with some smart-ass humor. Alongside some homages to other horror classics – “The Strangers,” “Scream,” “Scooby-Doo” – and some decent Halloween atmosphere, the second season is off to a promising start. [7/10]

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Halloween 2023: September 19th

Pop culture is a constantly shifting landscape. Today's biggest hit can be forgotten tomorrow, the hottest new movies and shows lost amid the ever-expanding current of content. Yet some images have remained in the cultural memory. There aren't too many characters more consistently popular than Batman, arguably among the most well known heroes in all of media. No icon exists in a vacuum however. Author Mary Roberts Rinehart, all but forgotten today, had a bestseller in 1908 with her mystery, “The Circular Staircase.”  The novel's success prompted Rinehart to adapt the tale to the stage. As “The Bat,” the story become enormously popular on Broadway. It was so popular that no fewer than three film adaptations would follow, the first of which being a silent version in 1926. While all these bats would be largely forgotten over the years, the play – when combined with pulp character Zorro – likely inspired Bob Finger and Bob Kane's undying superhero

In the city, the owner of a rare emerald is killed and burgled by a costumed thief calling himself the Bat. Leaving a taunting calling card to the police, the Bat next promises to rob the mansion of supposedly deceased bank owner Courtleigh Fleming. The building is said to house a secret room containing treasure. The drafty old mansion is currently being leased to Cornelia Van Gorder, a constantly knitting writer of mysteries. Soon, a number of people arrive at the mansion: Lizzie, the nervous maid; a mysterious new gardener; Cornelia's niece; a doctor; a Japanese butler; and Fleming's greedy nephew. When the nephew is murdered on the staircase, it becomes clear that the Bat is lurking about. A pair of police detectives arrives to determine who among the guests could be the masked murderer and locate the secret room. 

“The Bat” represents a prototypical example of the old dark house movie, right down to getting its start on-stage. The blending of genres and tropes that define stories like this are present and accounted for. “The Bat” is basically a murder mystery that is pushed into the horror genre, thanks to the monstrous costume the killer wears. The spooky old mansion setting, with its secret passageways and hidden rooms, recalls the gothic style. There's a shrieking comic relief character, in the form of Lizzie the buffoonish maid, who gets involved in some slapstick shenanigans. Some romantic intrigue goes down as well, before the killer is unmasked and the mystery unraveled by the gang of quirky detectives. 

Whether you find this blending of elements compelling is heavily depended on what type of classic horror fan you are. The comedy in “The Bat” is fairly shrill, devoted often to the maid getting startled at something and shrieking in surprise. The dialogue she trades with her spinster employee is occasionally amusing, though you'll have to excuse the racist depiction of the Japanese butler. The whodunit aspect is what's mostly emphasized. The film collects together a whole ensemble of red herrings and potential suspects, each with their own motives. The story quickly gets a bit convoluted, as these different plot threads collide together in various ways. I didn't find the pay-off to the mystery especially satisfying, as it involves a switch-a-roo of identity that feels like cheating to me. I've not read Rinehart's novel, so I don't know how much this “Bat” differs from the source material. Yet it definitely feels like one of those mysteries most preoccupied with keeping the reader guessing and not so much with sticking together as a coherent whole. 

If you're looking for some classic horror vibes, “The Bat” will required you to be patient. The mansion setting is cool, with plenty of opportunities for dusty atmosphere and expressionistic shadows, which the film takes advantage occasionally. There's some cool shots of a masked man climbing up a ladder or a room going dark. (And effect that probably played like gangbusters on stage.) That the Bat inspired Batman is impossible to ignore. There's even a sequence where a bat symbol is cast on the wall via a spotlight, like the famous Bat-Signal. The Bat, however, is a monstrous villain. He scales buildings with a grappling hook and has pointy ears on his costume but his mask is meant to invoke fear in everyone, not just the cowardly and superstitious. It's not surprising that the scenes devoted to the masked killer's grotesque appearance and sinister intentions are the film's most memorable. 

That connection to a beloved superhero is still probably the most interesting thing about “The Bat.” The story would still be ridiculously popular in its day. A sound version would follow in 1931 from the same director, while Vincent Price would star in a rendition in the sixties. Of course, there were many other old dark house plays and movies that followed in its footsteps. Similarly titled films like “The Terror,” “The Gorilla,” and “The Cat and the Canary” would quickly follow. (The former two are lost while the latter is probably the best of this subgenre that I've personally seen.) By the thirties, there was practically a cottage industry of old dark house films. Though how much value the original “Bat” holds now is debatable, it is probably essential viewing for horror historian and especially devoted comic book nerds. Better filmmakers and writers would follow the blueprint laid down here but some respect must be given to those that came first. [6/10]

I know people who keep leeches as pets. While I try not to judge any animal and see that every critter that creeps and crawls on this earth can be loved by someone... Leeches just aren't for me. The idea of willingly letting the invertebrates feed on my blood is especially uncomfortable for me. I'm far from alone in feeling this way. If they don't associate the slimy bloodsuckers with centuries old medical practices, most probably think of leeches as side effects of unfortunate camping excursions. Despite their overall infamy, few horror films have featured the annelids. You'd think, considering the genre loves vampires, one of nature's ickier natural vampires would star in more movies. As far as I can tell, that's only been the case for one original motion picture: 1959's “Attack of the Giant Leeches,” produced by Roger and Gene Corman and directed by Bernard L. Kolowski. 

Deep in the Florida everglades, a local drunk claims to have shot at an enormous leech the night before. No one believes him. After discovering his younger wife is cheating on him, the local sheriff takes the girl and her lover down to the swamp to shoot them... Only to see the pair pulled into the water by the same enormous leeches. No one believes his story at first either but game warden Steve Benton begins to suspect otherwise. He's soon on the trail of the giant leeches, which are mutations resulting from near-by nuclear tests. Will Steve find and destroy the bloodsuckers before anymore local yokels are drained? 

When I think of the settings of fifties B-movies, my brain inevitably goes to the pleasant small towns at the center of “Tarantula” or “The Monolith Monsters.” Even if those movies were set out in the middle of nowhere, the towns were more Mayberry than Macon County. “Attack of the Giant Leeches” distinguishes itself with its deep south location. The stereotypical rednecks and hayseeds that make up the swamp residents are impressively grotesque. The subplot about the rotund patriarch threatening his sex kitten spouse – played by Playboy centerfold Yvette Vickers – represents the film's hillbilly melodrama at its trashiest. There's a real sweatiness to much of “Attack of the Giant Leeches” that the audience can feel. It might be the movie's main positive quality. 

The Cormans originally hoped to have Paul Blaisdell, who made so many memorable monsters for A.I.P., to design the titular creatures. However, the special effects budget was far too minuscule to pay even Blaisdell's fee. Instead, the giant leeches are played by actors in shapeless, trash bag looking costumes adorned with rows of papier-mâché suckers. They are endearingly goofy creatures, waddling about awkwardly the few times we actually see them clearly on-screen. Despite the silliest of the central monsters, the horror element here is a little grislier than expected. Several minutes of screen time are devoted to the leeches' victims floating up through the watery depths of the swamp. In these moment, there's an eerie sense of hopelessness to “Attack of the Giant Leeches.”

Unfortunately, you will have to be very patient to get to these high-light moments. A lot of “Attack of the Giant Leeches” is devoted to all-too-typical B-movie tedium. Ken Clark's Steve is exactly the kind of bland, stout-chinned authority figure that was the hero in too many of these movies. Quite a lot of the film's meager sixty minute run time focuses on Steve and his unexceptional love interest searching the swamp for anything unusual. The leeches themselves are only on-screen for a few minutes. Far more screentime is devoted to Clark hanging around his girlfriend's place, talking theories and trading exposition in the blandest fashion possible. It all leads up to a shockingly underwhelming climax, a shrug of an ending if I ever did see one.

If it had been a bit more lurid, or at least had a little more money during production, “Attack of the Giant Leeches” probably would've been an enjoyably absurd creature feature. Instead, this was a Corman quickie with little time or budget devoted to making it worthwhile. Like the other films the Cormans produced during this time, “The Giant Leeches” is in the public domain. This has insured the movie has appeared on countless horror hosts programs, including a pretty funny episode of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” There was an equally low budget remake too, perhaps the only other horror movie about leeches. I really wanted to like this one but, ultimately, it's more dud than potboiler. [5/10]

Seven years before “Predator” was released, and gave sci-fi/horror fans an alien big-game hunter they could call their own, a movie with a surprisingly similar premise came out. Directed by Greydon Clark, an exploitation specialist whose previous films include “Black Shampoo” and “Satan's Cheerleaders,” “Without Warning” was made for all of 150,000 dollars. Despite the low budget, the script attracted some notable talent. Rick Baker and Greg Cannom – who would go on to win 7 and 4 Academy Awards, respectively – provided the make-up effects. Dean Cundey, not long after shooting “Halloween” and “The Fog,” was the director of photography. And, in what has to be some sort of cosmic coincidence, the alien hunter was played by Kevin Peter Hall, the same man who would play the Predator later in the decade. 

Though the two films are certainly comparable, “Without Warning” ultimately has more in common with a typical slasher flick than “Predator.” Instead of a team of expert commandos, its cast is mostly made up of four teens traveling to the countryside for a weekend of relaxation. While the Predator hunted in service of a warrior code, this alien guy mostly just seems to be picking up lunch. The hikers are soon whittled down to just Sandy and Greg, who have to make the tough decision to trust one of two local eccentrics: Taylor, a human hunter who has been tracking the alien beast for a while now and Sarge, a shell-shocked Vietnam vet who fears an intergalactic invasion is imminent. 

Once again, there must've been something about “Without Warning” that caught people's attention. For a down-and-dirty horror flick, it's got a loaded cast of kooky character actors. Cameron Mitchell appears as an asshole weekend warrior seemingly plotting to murder his ambiguously gay son. "F Troop's" Leo Storch features as a Cub Scout troop leader, a part meant to up the body count but which Storch manages to bring a little quirkiness to. Neville Brand shows up as a drunk in a bar. (What else would Neville Brand play?) The two big stars are Jack Palance as Taylor and Martin Landau as Sarge. Landau gets to stare with wide-eyed intensity, relating bizarre conspiracies and loosing himself to flashbacks. That would be enough for most low-budget thrillers but this movie also has Jack Palance, oozing crusty menace as only he could. While the character is ultimately closer to Dr. Loomis than Crazy Ralph, Palance still plays him with an unhinged twinkle in his eyes. The moment where he goes running through the fog towards the monster, while shouting “ALIEN! ALIEN!,” might in fact be the main reason to see the whole movie. 

It's a good thing “Without Warning” has so many familiar, colorful faces in the supporting cast. The young people who are ostensibly the stars of the movie are as bland as can be. Of the quartet, Beth and Tom immediately disappear for some hanky-panky. Tom is played by a young David Caruso but otherwise these two are given no further elaboration before being bumped off. As for Sandy and Greg, there's some passing attempts to give them more personality. Yet they are ultimately just pushed along by a story that is honestly more than a little messy. If “people wandering around until the killer/monster snuffs them” has always been a part of the slasher movie formula, “Without Warning” is a little heavier on that than some are.

Though deeply flawed, I think “Without Warning” ultimately has more positive qualities than not. Dean Cundey's cinematography is, as you might expect, quite atmospheric. The night shots are full of deep blacks and blues, with some nice fog around the edges. (Cundey throws in some Michael Myers-style POV shots too.) The creature effects are top shelf. There's actually not too much gore in the movie. Instead, the focus is on close-ups of the alien's jellyfish-like shuriken suckers that he tosses at his prey. There are so many shots of these fleshy, squishy, doom frisbee sailing through the air. When the towering, blue killer finally slinks on-screen, he does make for an intimidating variation on the classic grey alien design. 

You can tell a little bit of thought was put into the script. The way Taylor is always talking about hunting, and eating what he kills, are meant to contrasts with the alien antagonist. The bizarre opening scene, when paired with Sarge's ramblings and a few passing comments from Greg, suggest masculinity and war was on the screenwriter's mind too. I just wish it came together into something coherent or meaningful. Ultimately, it does feel a little bit like “Without Warning” was written and shot in a hurry. Yet if you're going to make a quickie, cash-in fusion of “Halloween” and “Alien,” a top shelf cast of reliable performers, top-of-the-line special effects, and some strong visuals certainly can't hurt. For these reasons, “Without Warning” has become a minor cult classic. I definitely wanted more from this one but Landau and Palance's gravelly charisma goes a long way. [7/10]

As a horror fan, I do the best I can to keep abreast of the genre. I have a document listing new and upcoming releases I'm interested in that I keep constantly updated. Yet, despite that, titles slip by me all the time. I remember seeing the trailer for “The Autopsy of Jane Doe” in 2016 and dismissed it at the time as just another jump-scare filled ghost movie. I don't know why I thought this. The movie starred Brian Cox, one of my favorite character actors. It was directed by André Øvredal, who previously made the quite good “Trollhunter.” Maybe I thought it was a remake of “The Corpse of Anna Fritz” or something. Some time after the movie was released, I started to hear raves about it. I don't know how that was already seven years ago but it's finally time for me to catch up with this flick that I unfairly dismissed upon release.

Austin and his dad, Tommy, work as coroners in a small town in Virginia. Austin is ready to head off and spent a night with his girlfriend, when a new body arrives in the morgue. The corpse, of a beautiful young woman, was found at a crime scene with multiple bodies. Despite her body seeming unharmed, Tommy and Austin soon discover many strange details about this Jane Doe. Her wrists and ankles are shattered, without any bruising on her skin. Her lungs are totally black, even though not an inch of her is burned. Soon, the strange evidence around the body escalates. Alongside it, a storm rolls in and unusual events begin to happen around the morgue. It becomes apparent that this is no ordinary Jane Doe. 

“The Autopsy of Jane Doe” is structured very much like a mystery. We begin with a bizarre scenario, of this pristine dead body left at the site of multiple homicides. As Austin and Tommy dig into the body, they uncover more and more contradictory injuries. How does a person break bones without bruising or have stab scars on their heart without any entry wounds? These questions draw the viewer in quickly. Even after the film reveals that something clearly supernatural is going on here, you're still intrigued by the exact circumstances of what Jane Doe is. The script keeps you guessing too, on the way to a fairly satisfying reveal that notably is not the climax of the story. I assumed this would be a vampire or ghost story or something but the movie is more clever than that.

As his subsequent horror films have made clear, Øvredal is a filmmaker adapt at capturing an eerie atmosphere. “The Autopsy of Jane Doe” is largely set within one location, most of the scenes taking place around the autopsy room itself. The director and his regular cinematographer, Roman Osin, do everything they can to make this building as creepy as possible. Shadows are used excellently, the audience quickly watching the spaces behind the characters for anything unusual. The film's sound design is also excellent. A creepy children's song plays from the radio – a cliché the film smartly uses sparingly – while a door shutting or a bell ringing become ominous warning signs. It all adds up to create a real sense of dread, which makes the escalating supernatural events far more unsettling than they would've been otherwise. Even the handful of jump scares in the movie worked quite well, the movie building up to the shocks suitably. 

Maybe it shouldn't be surprisingly that “The Autopsy of Jane Doe” manages to be quite creepy. A morgue is, most people would agree, an uncomfortable location to begin with. The first scene shows the coroners going about their business, slicing into a body and cutting out organs nonchalantly. The casualness of cleaving through bones and throwing bits of flesh into examination treys can't help but be somewhat off-putting. When Jane Doe is wheeled in, the film constantly focuses on her face and eyes. This makes us relate more to the seemingly unliving corpse, as her body is treated in such a detached, scientific manner. Smartly, the film leans into the vulnerability of this Jane Doe. As her backstory is discovered, it turns out to be sympathetic, her revenge from beyond the grave being somewhat justified. The result is an un-moving antagonist that nevertheless feels like a living character, both an active threat and someone we can feel sorry for.

Further helping root the viewer in this story are two strong lead performances. Brian Cox is excellent, of course, at playing a surly but wise authority figure. A clean-shaven Emile Hirsch is surprisingly convincing as Austin, something of an everyman who flirts in a cute fashion with his girlfriend. It's easy to root for him, as he's overwhelmed by the increasing supernatural activity. (Assuming you can put Hirsch's real life behavior out of your mind.) The father and son have a traumatic backstory that is smartly hinted at throughout the film's first half, giving us a good idea of what happened without stopping the movie cold for an expositionary backstory dump. When that moment inevitably arrives, Cox's ability to bring a lived-in world-weariness to any material manages to make it touching, not tedious. 

When watched late at night, in a house by yourself, “The Autopsy of Jane Doe” manages to hit just the right notes of creepiness. There's a dread-filled ambiance to the proceedings, emphasized by the strong direction and sound design. A likable duo of leading actors and a story that manages to catch you off-guard further seal the deal. I'm happy to say that everyone who recommended this one to me over the years was totally justified. “The Autopsy of Jane Doe” is indeed a hidden gem, made further enjoyable by the less you know about it going in. [8/10]

If you are insufficiently online, you might not be familiar with the term “analog horror.” It's a style of horror that has become especially popular in the last few years, influenced (and often crossing over with) found footage and creepypastas. Analog horror represents the perhaps inevitable combination of two of the internet's favorite past times: Nostalgia and urban legends. In analog horror, the physicality of the media itself becomes part of the scares delivery machine. While this style of horror has come to popularity largely through Youtube series like The Backrooms or LOCAL 58, there are predecessors to the genre. Such as “In Order Not to Be Here,” a 2002 short film from landscape artists and director Deborah Stratman.

“In Order Not to Be Here” would probably be classified by most as a non-narrative film though it does, obliquely, tell a story. We begin with grainy, aerial night-vision footage of cop chasing after a man. The scene is scored to half-heard chatter from the police scanner. Stratman then shows us commonplace locations from any small, suburban town: Back allies, banks, pharmacies, grocery stores, fast food places. The entrance signs to housing developments are lingered on, as we see shaky footage of the outside of a house and then the inhabitants within. The sounds of police sirens sometimes break the silence. Eventually, the film focuses in on a man fleeing, pursued by attack dogs and recorded from overhead. We learn, from audio interviews and news reports, that this person was seemingly a mild-mannered father who, without apparent reason, set fire to his house and family.

We are obviously in artsy-fartsy territory here, as Stratman's film clearly sets out to say any number of things about modern society. The way the ordinary locations are shot, always from a far-off perspective, suggest a watchful eye from on-high. Later on, we see a camera recording everything and an officer dispassionately looking at monitors. Clearly, this is an indictment on the post-9/11 surveillance state, where everyone is always being watched at all times. The police are omnipresent, the sounds of their sirens and radios never far off. Yet, despite constantly being under watch by law enforcement eager to act, it hasn't made any of us feel any safer. Random crime and violence can still strike our suburban lives, at any time, no matter how sterilized we make them. (That the night vision footage makes the fleeing man look dark-skinned was no doubt intentional too, a further critique on police violence in modern America.)

Stratman's use of grainy surveillance footage does bring modern analog horror to mind. Images of a police dog barking wildly or a privacy invading shot of a little girl laying in bed are made creepier by the quality of the film. Yet “In Order Not to Be Here” predicted another modern internet trend. This is a film all about liminal spaces. The familiar – Target, McDonalds, and CVS are three common brand names visible here – is rendered uncanny. These normal places rarely features any people in them. When we do see humans, it's usually unclear and from far away. The familiarity of these settings yet the lack of life in them is undeniably eerie. Stratham's use of subtle sound designs and loud noises, lulling you into an uneasy sense of isolation before it's broken by sudden interruption, is the movie in microcosm. The result is an uncanny, prescient thirty minutes with a lot on its mind. [7/10]

Monday, September 18, 2023

Halloween 2023: Preamble


Earlier this year, some renovations where being done in my home. After taking a picture frame in a storage room off the wall, a sleeping bat was discovered. At first, I was worried the little guy was dead. Instead, I quickly realized he was just hibernating. I laid the fellow on the ground outside, before giving him some water. A few hours later, he had flapped his little wings and flown away. All throughout the summer, my little Spooky dog demands her first walk of the day around five A.M. This turned out to be an excellent time of day to see a bat, and the family of friends he's seemingly made, flap around my home. In many cultures, a house bat is considered good luck. If nothing else, they eat mosquitoes and other pests. Me being the kind of person I am, I immediately gave the little guy the nickname of Hector the House Bat. May long he reign. 

I bring this up because it's a good metaphor for the way the Halloween season is never far from my mind, no matter what time of year it is. As long as I have bats in my belfry, the autumnal days of creepy frights and warm hearths will never be out of reach. Halloween lives in my heart, alongside all the spiders and dead things and, yes, bats that flap around the creaky old cemetery that exists where my rib cage should be. Too often, especially when it's sweltering outside and life is getting me down (as it often did in the last year) that creepy feeling inside is what gets me through. 

Well, we made it. The Autumn Country is here. Store shelves are packed full of decorations and candy. In fact, it's been that way since late July. When I was a kid – I say from my on-high position as a decaying nineties kid – you were lucky to find any Halloween goods haunting store shelves before September. Things sure have changed since then, when skeletons and tombstones pack big box stores of all types during the dog days of summer. Honestly, starting my Halloween Horror-Fest Blog-a-Thon on September 18th feels like a relic of this more conservative time. I know it's just capitalism pushing everything forward, to make way for three whole months of Christmas shopping. Even now, stores are filling up with Santa schlock. But I like to think it's a good example of the world at large embracing the spookiest time of year. Everyone knows Halloween is awesome now. Everyone wants to own a twelve foot tall skeleton these days. 

Still, the first time I spot a ghost-shaped pitcher or an enormous scarecrow or felt pumpkins or bottle stoppers shaped like Edgar Allen Poe's head, I do get giddy. A delightful little shiver runs up my spine and I feel like a kid again. The same is true when I'm munching down on a bowl of the first new Monster Cereal introduced in my lifetime. (Carmella Creeper is very tasty, by the way.) It's how I feel when I stalk stores and random locations for any sort of spooky accessories. In the wise words of Matt from Dinosaur Dracula, the greatest gift of the Halloween season is that it turns the simplest acts into a celebration. 

That is probably why I'm still doing the Blog-a-thon after all these years, even though nobody reads blogs anymore and devoting only six weeks to the holiday seems tame in 2023. The only reason I haven't made the jump to two whole months is I'm not sure it would be feasible for me. The small handful of regular readers I have these days – sorry for taking four months off in the middle of the year, I was busy having a nervous breakdown – probably know that I pack the next forty-three full of as much spooky bullshit as possible. I'm going to be living the Halloween life style 24/7 for the next six weeks. It makes me happy. I wouldn't have it any other way. 

In some ways, as I look at my watch list for this six weeks, it seems a little more relaxed than in past years. I only plan on watch my way through two film franchises this year. That would be Full Moon's vampire saga “Subspecies,” which finally had a new entry after a break of two and a half decades earlier this year. After seeing a ton of people cosplay as Art the Clown at Monster-Mania back in August, I decided it's finally time I sit down and see if these “Terrifier” movies even remotely live up to the hype. I've been quite skeptical of them, to be honest. (Because I'm an obsessive compulsive completist, I'll also be watching the two “All Hallows Eve” anthology films that “Terrifier” spun-off from originally.) 

Don't think this means I'm going to be watching less, overall, than I normally do. I have a big-ass list of titles I hope to explore this year. Many familiar faces, classic stars, and directors that I enjoy will be making their expected appearances over the next six weeks. As always, I use this time to catch up with some new releases I've meant to see throughout the year. Naturally, I will be journeying to my local theater to see some hot new releases this Halloween season as well. I've got a large number of TV shows to cover too. I plan on finally watching the first season of Guillermo del Toro's Netflix anthology series, “Cabinet of Curiosities,” as well as continuing with the second season of the “Chucky” TV show. As I've done for the last few years, I also plan on including a number of selected episodes from a number of classic, obscure, forgotten, and more recent horror anthology shows. That's become a yearly tradition I really look forward too. There will be a couple of short films too.

See, that feels like a lot when I list it all out like that. As I write this preamble, I find myself asking the same question I ask at the start of every Halloween Horror-Fest Blog-A-Thon: Why do I do this? It's not like a ton of people read these reviews. I put far more work into them than is really justified. The Six Weeks of Halloween tradition has been almost totally forgotten, save for one other fellow traveler. At this point, I do it because I have to. Watching and writing about a shit ton of horror movies and TV shows, old and new, loved and despised, familiar and unseen, is how I honor this season. It's become my own tradition, part of the season, even more-so than carving pumpkins, bingeing on candy, or nailing black cats to people's doors.

I can get very pretentious and philosophical when writing about why this is important to me. I do it every year. I don't put much faith in the existence of ghosts or spirits, or even in any sort of afterlife. Yet, during the Halloween season, I am a believer. I can feel the spirits of the dead move through me. They stir in my heart and soul, every time I see a dead leaf flutter down to the ground. Every time I pass a colorful or morbid costume. And, yes, every time I watch a crappy old horror movie or a modern day shocker. If Halloween is about honoring the dead, celebrating the harvest, opening the door from one season to the next, then this is how I celebrate. I perform these cycles, every September and October, because they mark this time on the calendar as special. As my ancestors did, in their way. As my descendants will do, in their own way. 

This is why Halloween, and all the ways we celebrate it, is important. It connects us with our past, with the mysterious corners of the world. It allows all of us, no matter how skeptical or reasonable, to indulge in the fantastique for a little bit. It allows the ghosts and goblins, the witches and warlocks, to spirit us away to another world where anything is possible. The Celts believed that the dead walked among us during this time and I can't help but believe that too. They live in us through the stories we tell, the traditions we embrace, and the monsters we become. 

Alright, enough words. It's orange and black time. Time for ghoulishly grinning pumpkins, full moons, screeching black cats, cool October nights, skeletons dancing in cemeteries, and ghosts clanking their chains. It is time, once again, now and forever, for Halloween. Throw open the gates. Hail, hail, hail. I can smell the Autumn Country now. I am home. Let's party. 

Sunday, September 3, 2023

Director Report Card: Steven Spielberg (2002) Part Two

Some stories are too good to let go of. In 1980, convicted fraudster Frank Abagnale Jr. published his autobiography “Catch Me If You Can.” The colorful story – of how Abagnale ran away from home as a teenager and began a lengthy career of impersonating pilots, doctors, and lawyers while cashing hundreds of fake checks – immediately attracted attention from Hollywood. The project cycled through different producers and studios for years. Early on, Dustin Hoffman was attached to star. At one point, David Fincher was going to direct. Eventually, Gore Verbinksi was set to direct with Leo DiCaprio and James Gandolfini starring, and Steven Spielberg producing. Scheduling issues threatened DiCaprio's involvement and Verbinksi exited. At this point, Spielberg himself took over the project. The real life Frank Abagnale Jr. eventually said that he always thought Spielberg was the only man for the job, so maybe this was meant to be all along.

In 1969, check forgers and conman Frank Abagnale Jr. is apprehended in France by FBI agent Carl Hanratty. Hanratty has been chasing Abagnale for years. In 1963, upon learning that his parents were divorcing, sixteen year old Frank left home. He impersonated a pilot and began cashing bogus checks. Thus began a intercontinental career of travel and ripping people off. After having a run-in with Hanratty that he barely escaped, Frank switched to impersonating a doctor, even coming very close to marrying one of his nurses. After that con ran its course, he switched to pretending to being a lawyer. All the while, he thinks back to his separated mom and dad and frequently teases the FBI agent on his tail. Even after being caught, Frank is looking for his next scheme...

A few times over the years, Steven Spielberg has expressed interest in directing a James Bond movie. It's never happened, for a lot of different reasons. (The Broccolis being reluctant to hand their franchise over to an auteur being a big reason why.) Unable to ever work on an official 007 project, “Catch Me If You Can” emerges as Spielberg's homage to the super-spy series. It's right there in the film, with Frank seeing “Goldfinger” and then going out and buying the same suit and car Connery had. Beyond Bond, the film is generally Spielberg's homage to the swinging sixties. The glamour of air travel in that decade is heavily featured, as are the fashion and music of the day. “Catch Me If You Can” is as invested with a love of the pop culture version of this time period, much the same way Spielberg has paid tribute to the forties and fifties.

Early on, we spy a “Flash” comic book on young Frank's bedside table. Later, while traveling around the country, he assumes the identity of “Barry Allen.” The comic book connection is fitting, as “Catch Me If You Can” is a movie all about people with secret identities. An inspiring moment for the boy is the day his dad uses tricky techniques to impress the bank. Later on, Frank discovers his mother is having an affair, her asking her son to cover for her infidelity. Along his journey, Frank meets a glamorous model who soon reveals herself to be a call girl. The sweet little nurse he seduces reveals she had an abortion as a teenager. Even one of the FBI agents working alongside Carl talks about going undercover before. Frank is the most prolific bullshiter in the film but “Catch Me If You Can” is all about deception and double lives.

With one notable exception. Carl Hanratty is introduced dryly marching through the methods of check fraud, to a room of bored FBI agent. While his co-workers trade ribald stories of past adventures, Hanratty dismisses them bluntly. This is a man of such sturdy principals that he comes off almost like a humorless fuddy-duddy. When his boss offers him a chance to step away from the case, he insists on staying on in a similarly direct fashion. In other words, Hanratty is the ideal foil to Frank. “Catch Me If You Can” quickly becomes a story of a master liar being paired against a man of unyielding honesty. In comic book terms, they were destined to become archenemies. 

Lots of movies have been made about double lives and sole honorable men chasing master criminals. What really makes “Catch Me If You Can” special is the unique Spielbergian touches the director brings to the material. Young Frank looks up to his dad, even if the patriarch is struggling with the IRS. When he arrives home and is presented with his parents' divorce, he runs off immediately. All throughout his adventures, Frank is often shown thinking about his parents. Every time he sees his dad, he naively hopes his parents can get back together. One of the final scenes in the film sees a now-mature Frank, at the end of his con man career, returning home and still hoping to see mom and dad together again. Hope springs eternal for this child of divorce, his parents separating being the primary trauma that defines Frank's life and everything he does. This makes “Catch Me if You Can” another entry in Spielberg's examination of this phenomenon, how kids' lives are shaped by their parents' failing marriage. 

Even though “Catch Me If You Can” handles an emotional topic, the film maintains a breezy and light-hearted tone throughout. This is largely thanks to the hugely energetic visual techniques Spielberg and his team engineer. From the art deco animated opening credits on down, the movie is imbued with a youthful energy. The editing, from Michael Kahn, is top notch. Several montages devoted to Frank's techniques – whether that be him forging checks or trying different cons at different locals – perfectly cut between each other and build on one another. Tension is expertly created as Frank considers his escape options while Carl is below at an engagement party. The choice to hold on Frank's face or wait when to reveal where he is, makes “Catch Me If You Can” such a rewarding experience. The film is a crash course in all the ways editing can increase suspense.

As its title implies, “Catch Me If You Can” is essentially a chase movie, about two men pursuing each other. Considering some of his best films more-or-less fall into this category, it's not surprising that Spielberg and his team can engineer some great sequences. The scene where Frank and Carl first meet, in a hotel room where he attempts to outfox the agent, nicely balances the chummy energy between this two with a quiet tension. This adds to the theme of doubles and dual identities in the film, while also being a corker of a sequence. The film has a fittingly thrilling climax too, when Frank makes a daring escape from an airplane as it touches down. Watching the details of the escape come to light sure is a lot of breezy fun. 

Of course, even a director as good as Spielberg can't totally resist the clichés of the cop-chases-criminal genre either. Despite being on opposite sides of the law, Frank and Hank do form a kinship of sorts. The con artist calls the FBI agent at Christmas every year, taunting him but also doing it because he's lonely. The idea that law enforcement and the criminals they pursue are more alike than different is an idea explored in roughly every cop movie ever made. This becomes especially explicit in the scene where Carl catches Frank the first time, inside a counterfeit money printing factory in France. This scene involves the agent performing a similar con on the con man. Now, it's a good scene, with a bristling tension underneath its sweaty interactions. Yet it also feels like something that could've appeared in any number of similarly themed films.

Something most other movies like this don't have is stars of this caliber though. Spielberg shows a clear understanding of the winning qualities of his leading men. Leonardo DiCaprio is baby-faced as Frank Jr., which suits a young man whose looks are very deceiving. DiCaprio is, naturally, incredibly charming. He inhabits the role of a slithering conman, able to act his way out of almost any scenario and fool just about anyone once, with absolute ease. Leo is also a heartthrob, obviously. His youth and beauty also helps sell the inherent vulnerability too. If “Catch Me If You Can” is a movie about secret identities, it never lets us forget that Frank's original identity is a hurt teenage boy, trying to outrun his broken home.

Tom Hanks, in his second collaboration with Spielberg, is also well utilized as Carl. Sporting a comically exaggerated New England accent, Hanks plays the FBI agent as an unfailingly honorable man. In the hands of a less charming performer, the character would come off as smothering in his strictness or perhaps even bland. Hank's innate likability instead makes the agent a compelling everyman, who works hard at his job because he believes in it. The middle-aged and dough-bodied Hanks also makes an ideal physical foil to the young and gorgeous Leo. As the two become friends as much as rivals, you can't help but feel yourself getting attached to the characters too.

A prime supporting cast is assembled too. Christopher Walken got an Oscar nomination for his role as Frank's father. It utilizes Walken's slithery charm and one-of-a-kind screen presence perfectly, as Frank Sr. is something of a con man too. Yet Walken's deep blue eyes reveal the weight he carries inside, from his failed marriage and troubled finances. Walken speaks volumes with just a few lines, dripping with multiple meanings. There's also a line of recognizable faces in the roles of the various girls Frank seduced along his way. A young Amy Adams is the nurse he almost marries. Elizabeth Banks is a bank teller he tricks. Jennifer Garner is the call girl he has a memorable interaction with. You'll notice each of them are in the kind of roles that would make their careers: Adams as a girl-next-door type who contains volumes, Banks as a quirky but determined worker, and Garner as a double agent of sorts. Another example of the director's ability to recognize star factor when he sees it. 

Powered by a jazzy score from John Williams, that knows when to scoop on the emotions as well, “Catch Me If You Can” is pretty much a delight from start to finish. It's a breezy time at the movies, awash in groovy style while also containing enough pathos to tug at the heartstrings. Some fine performances and an excellent presentation further seals the deal. By the way, in 2021, it was determined that the real life Frank Abagnale Jr. had fabricated most of the story from his autobiography. If someone admits to being a conman, a liar, and a cheat, don't be surprised when the outrageous story he tells you turns out to be largely embellished. This doesn't change any of the factors that makes “Catch Me If You Can” a wonderful motion picture. In fact, it might even improve it in a sense. What could be more fitting for a story like this than for it to all be based on a great big lie? [Grade: B+]