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The Big 2-9

Aside from the fact that this day sealed my fate as the “Never Gets a ‘Happy Birthday’ from the Teacher or Your Classmates Because School’s Out for Summer Kid,” June 28 never seemed like a terribly interesting day to be born.

Until I realized that’s also the day sublimely talented actors Kathy Bates, John Cusack, the late Gilda Radner and the late Pat “Wax On, Wax Off” Morita headed toward the light of the birth canal. June 28 also gave King Henry VIII to England (bet that’s one pregnant lady the Great Holy Aardvark wishes he could have uninseminated). And June 28 happens to be the only day every year where the month and the day are different perfect numbers*.

But really, the only reason I ever get all jacked up is because the 28th of June is when the World’s Greatest Director — the reason I love movies and the reason I have such a warped, wacko sense of humor — Mel “Lepetomane” Brooks classed up Planet Earth’s population.

This year, though, looks be far more exciting because Andy at Fandango Groovers hatched a brilliant idea: Write a post listing favorite films for every year I’ve been breathing. Later in 2010 Andy’s planning a blog event on this theme, so start thinking about your choices, readers. Without further adieu, here are my favorites from 1981-2010:

Ash will saw off your nose.

1981: “The Evil Dead” — Maybe directors did horror-comedy before Sam Raimi’s cult classic, but those movies did not feature the unstoppable Bruce Campbell as erstwhile hero Ash, who would later go on to coin the phrases “boomstick” and “hail to the king, baby.”

1982: “First Blood” — The first in the Rambo franchise, Sly Stallone’s “First Blood” combines jaw-dropping action, buckets of bloodshed and a surprisingly poignant message about the treatment of Vietnam vets in America.

1983: “The Big Chill” — College pals Glenn Close, Tom Berenger, William Hurt, Kevin Kline and Jeff Goldblum reunite to mourn a friend’s suicide. This much acting talent on one set is a recipe for goodness.

1984: “Blood Simple” (full review) — The fact that this is Joel and Ethan Coen’s first film is almost as astounding as the film itself. Almost.

1985: “The Breakfast Club” — The late John Hughes showed us, in this poignant ode to real teen issues, that lurking inside everyone there’s a princess, a jock, a brain, a basket case and a criminal in search of connection. And a little doobage.

1986: “Aliens” (full review) — Twenty-four years later and Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) remains a female action hero with smarts, guts and muscles. What a novel idea.

1987: “The Untouchables” — Most gangster movies offer plenty of bloody shoot-em-ups, slick double-crosses, dark double-breasted suits and bank accounts stuffed like you wouldn’t believe. Brian De Palma’s “Untouchables” also has something else: a conscience.

Velcome to vaxwork...

1988: “Waxwork” (full review) — There are crappy films, and then there are films that revel and delight in their own crappiness. Guess which kind “Waxwork” is.

1989: “Heathers” (full review) — No matter how cruel the queen bees in your school were, they don’t hold a candle to Idi Amin wannabe Heather Chandler.

1990: “GoodFellas” (full review) — Powered by the performances of Joe Pesci, Paul Sorvino, Lorraine Bracco, Robert De Niro and Ray Liotta, “GoodFellas” set the bar for gangster movies impossibly high.

1991: “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” — The follow-up to Cameron’s impressive “Terminator,” the sequel blasted the volume up to 11, boasted some thrilling chase scenes (the semi rundown is iconic) and reached the level of Whoa, I’ve Never Seen That Before! with its ice-cool villain T-1000 (Robert Patrick). 

1992: “Reservoir Dogs” (full review) — Quentin Tarantino gives the Cuisinart treatment to the traditional caper-gone-wrong and ends up making one of the most inventive films of the ’90s.

1993: “Schindler’s List” — Steven Spielberg’s sweeping, horrifying and heartbreaking retelling of the story of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) mission to rescue Jews during the Holocaust is emotionally punishing, but it’s a film that must be seen. It can change your life if you let it.

1994: “Pulp Fiction” (full review) — It’s got John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson as hitmen, a booty-shaking soundtrack and scene about Christopher Walken wearing a watch up his ass two years. That’s all you need to know. 

Will the real Keyser Soze please stand up?

1995: “The Usual Suspects” (full review) — Not only does Bryan Singer’s noirish, twisty thriller feature a killer-good ensemble cast (Kevin Spacey AND Gabriel Byrne AND Benicio del Toro AND Chazz Palminteri), “The Usual Suspects” also has the best twist ending. Ever written.

1996: “Fargo” (full review) — Dear Coen brothers: Thank you for showing me that it’s never impossible to take an old formula (best-laid plans gone to hell) and put a devious, violent spin on them. Sincerely, M. Carter @ the Movies

1997: “Chasing Amy” — Too few directors of romantic comedies have no interest in showing relationships as they actually are. Kevin Smith is not one of these directors. His “Chasing Amy” is raw, frank to the point of crudeness and deeply heartfelt, and it examines the problems all lovers — gay and straight — face.

1998: “The Opposite of Sex” — “The Opposite of Sex” is the best black comedy you’ve never seen. Don Roos puts the screws to the traditional narrated film formula with Dee Dee (Christina Ricci), a heroine who may be plucky but isn’t the least bit lovable. She’ll ransom your dead gay lover’s ashes and not think twice about it. 

Move Milton's (Stephen Root) desk to Storage Room B and see where that gets you.

1999: “Office Space” (full review) — Mike Judge takes a maze of cubicles and turns it into a feature-length film that’s the personification of Dante’s limbo, then sets it to a fantastic rap soundtrack. It’s good to be a gangsta.

2000: “Quills” (full review) — No other actors slips so effortlessly into the part of the villain as Geoffrey Rush can, and that mirthful, slightly evil glint in his eyes makes him the perfect (and only acceptable) choice to play the infamous Marquis de Sade.

2001: “The Believer” — Based on the true story of Dan Burros, a Jew who became a Neo-Nazi, Henry Bean’s “The Believer” looks unflinchingly at all aspects of faith and features what may be Ryan Gosling’s most gripping performance. Ever. 

2002: “City of God” — Fernando Meirelles’ crime drama plays out like an elegaic marriage of the best parts of Martin Scorsese’s “GoodFellas”  and Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” capturing the bloody, grim realities of a life lived in Brazil’s rough Cidade de Deus (City of God) favela.

2003: “Mystic River” — Author Dennis Lehane understands, deep down in his soul, the rhythms of Boston’s shady, bleak underworld. Director Clint Eastwood understands the people who have fallen through the cracks. Together, “Mystic River,” about three childhood friends dealing with a murder, they make an unbeatable team.

Javier Bardem's performance is anything but bleak.

2004: “Mar adentro” (full review) — Is it possible to make a film about a quadriplegic (Javier Bardem) who wants nothing more than to die and have that film turn out to be an affirmation of life? Look to “Mar adentro” for the answer.

2005: “The Constant Gardener” — Taut political/medical conspiracy thrillers ordinarily don’t offer emotions as complex as the plotlines. But director Fernando Meirelles etches characters (Rachel Weisz, Ralph Fiennes) who matter to each other, and so they matter to us.

2006: “The Lives of Others” (full review) — Movies about Big Brother rarely take the time to humanize the enemy, but director Henckel von Donnersmarck finds humanity even in the most ardent supporter (Ulrich Mühe) of suppressing free will.

2007: “No Country for Old Men” (full review) — Call it the Coens’ Law: Every time you think they’ve made their best movie ever, they top themselves. How they’ll top this gritty, violent and blackly funny caper is something this reviewer has gotta see.

2008: “The Dark Knight” — With “Batman Begins,” Christopher Nolan single-handedly revived a years-ailing franchise; in the inspired sequel — part Greek tragedy, part action flick, part sweeping character drama — he let Heath Ledger reinvent the iconic Joker in the spirit of creation.

Get in my bell-ay, Jew Hunter!

2009: “Inglourious Basterds” (full review) — In terms of sheer imagination and cojones, almost no director working today can match Quentin Tarantino, who in this misspelled epic rewrites the ending to WWII and gives cinema one of its greatest villains (Christoph Waltz).

2010: So far? “Shutter Island.” The predicted winner? “True Grit.”

*It’s my birthday and I’m giving you a math lesson. Can you say “nerd”?

Cinema of Scare: (My) Big 10

Happy Halloween, everyone! If you’re wondering why I’m saying this today, it’s because every day is Halloween. Or should be. Just think about it: the potential for the world to become a neverending buffet of candy corn, dollar-store cobwebs and glow-in-the-dark skeleton earrings.

Of course, this would increase the possibility that more people would show up to work in clown costumes on idle Tuesday mornings. Hmm. Better give this some more thought.

No more talk of clowns, though. Let’s talk about Bill over at Bill’s Movie Emporium. Connoisseur of scare that he is, he dreamed up something called the Splatter Time Fun Fest Awards (love the title, Bill), and that got me inspired. Well, maybe that’s overstating things a bit, since I’m not sure creating a list of great Halloween movies the day before Halloween is inspired. But I’ve been known to make some noise about being a fan of the cliche, so I will press on with my own collection of movies that ruined me for entering darkened houses, babysitting a child sporting a blonde braids-n-bangs combo, or going camping:

1. “Halloween”

youngmichael

A miniscule budget, no-name actors, almost no blood or gore and a killer who never utters so much as one syllable? Only a genius frightmaster like John Carpenter could take all the reasons why a horror movie should not work and transform them into clear-cut advantages. He mines the bleakest parts of our collective consciousness to bring humanity’s biggest fear — that evil is everywhere, and it’s unstoppable — to heart-stopping life. Brilliant. 

 

2. “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer”

henry1

Henry (Michael Rooker, who’s blank-eyed perfection) has a pretty practical theory about killing. “It’s always the same and it’s always different,” he tells his buddy Otis. And here he reveals the dark, twisted purpose of John McNaughton’s “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer”: to remind us that pure, inexplicable evil wears a human face, and one we never seem to notice until it’s too late to scream for help.

 

3. “M”

M_poster

When horror movie chatter turns to accomplished serial killer films (see above), Fritz Lang’s distressing “M” is nowhere to be found. Pity that, because it’s a grim, dank, chilly and thoroughly unnerving exploration of a killer stalking Berlin’s children. Peter Lorre makes Hans Beckert (who closely resembles German serial murderer/pedophile Peter Kürten) the kind of soulless villain who’d haunt Hannibal Lecter’s dreams.

 

4. “Nosferatu”

nosferatu

With vampire books and movies and TV shows overwhelming our senses, it’s all too easy to forget about F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu,” the film that turned these blood-lapping mythological creatures into pop-culture staples. Without benefit of technicolor, special effects or even sound, Max Schreck’s otherworldly Count Dracula creeps into our dreams and stays there, waiting for the chance to lunge. 

 

5. “The Evil Dead”

evildead

Before the ultra-campy “Army of Darkness,” with Bruce Campbell cloning himself and playing, well, Bruce Campbell, there was “The Evil Dead,” headed for cult classic status with its no-budget effects. But the original rates highly as a horror staple because of its opening credits — the finest and creepiest ever filmed — and the no-holds-barred performance of Campbell, who makes his terror palpable. And don’t forget that tarty tree branch.

 

6. “Carrie”

laughatyou

“Carrie,” based on Stephen King’s first published novel, is at its heart a pre-“Surviving Ophelia” look at the crushing effects of bullying and how, in the right setting, constant torment can produce murderous rage in the meekest people. Herein lie the chills in “Carrie”: There’s violence aplenty, all of it rained down on fairly deserving and cruel parties, but we’d never see it coming from a girl like Carrie (Sissy Spacek). How profoundly disturbing.

 

7. “Dawn of the Dead”

readfile

Horror movies that scare us are in hefty supply, but the ones that squeeze in pointed commentary about mass consumerism and America’s shopping mall mentality are not. George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” is proof positive that scares don’t have to be mindless and blood-soaked; they can spring from the realization that we’ve scaled the roof to escape our problems (or zombies), and now there’s nowhere to go but down. 

 

8. “The Bad Seed”

badseed

Kids — it’s all sweetness and innocence, all fun and games until one of them sets a janitor on fire. At least, that’s the image of youth we get in “The Bad Seed,” with Patty McCormack using her blonde braids and sweet smile to disarm her prey. But she’s hiding a whole mess of devilment behind those patent-leather shoes, and the movie’s hiding an ominous warning: Don’t think you know what lurks in a person’s heart.

 

9. “The Shining”

johnnyboy

That Jack Nicholson, always with the Cheshire Cat-that-gulped-the-canary grin. He plays bad better than most anyone, but he’s at his baddest (and creepiest) in “The Shining,” a ghoulish thriller that blows the “happy families stay together” concept to smithereens. Jack’s googly-eyed overacting works OK here, but what really shivers the timbers is the inspired camera work and a foreboding, oppressive score that pierces your brain. 

 

10. “The Blair Witch Project”

confession

“The Blair Witch Project” is not a movie that inspires lukewarm reactions. No, this documentary-style thriller, with its queasy footage, unknown actors and largely ad-libbed script, is a love-it-or-hate it kind of movie. Still, there’s no denying this film’s directors accomplish a startling feat: They never show us the villain. And the not knowing what’s threading sticks and piling rocks out there in the dark? That’s the part that’s purely petrifying.

Honorable mentions: “Identity,” “The Omen,” “The Stepfather” (1987 version), “Poltergeist,” “28 Days Later…”

10 horrifying characters

When I’m not savoring this fruitful life of free blogging, I spend much of my free time looking at photos of LOLcats. Now, if you’re about to rifle through your bag-o-insults to find all the best “hey, you’re a crazy cat lady!” zingers, don’t bother. I don’t own a cat, have no desire to own a cat and don’t harbor any particular fondness for creatures that look at human beings as though they are quietly hatching a plot to wipe us off the planet. 

This LOLcat craze, though? For some odd reason, it’s piqued my interest, and today I found a photo that got me pondering the scariest characters ever created — you know, not villains, but the faces that induce chills and (sometimes, if there’s no ominous score to warn that chesty blonde not to walk into that dark abandoned barn) necessitate a quick change of undergarments. Not that I would know what that’s like.

But pay no attention to this digression; it is like the Man Behind the Curtain. So since the Season of Scare is upon us, let’s revisit these 10 frightening creations — classical and modern — that make us cringe, cry, squirm and cry sloppy, unrepentant “I want my mommy now, dammit!” tears:

Take it from Mikey -- talking is overrated.

Take it from Mikey -- talking is overrated.

1. Michael Myers, “Halloween” — Masks do strange things to our insides. They obscure the eyes and mouth, obliterating personality and humanity in ways that make us very, very nervous. John Carpenter went wild with this notion in “Halloween” and created Michael Myers, a hulking, lumbering, knife-wielding mute killer rendered nearly immortal by his desire for victims. The mask makes him scary, but it’s his ability to feed off human terror without so much as a peep that solidifies him as the scariest of the scary.

2. Pennywise the Clown, “It” — Clowns are curious little things, brightly dressed and made up to delight children that end up terrifying them (and plenty of adults, too) into quivering, wimpering blobs of goo. So coulraphobes everywhere quaked in their boots when Stephen King introduced Pennywise, a murderous evil spirit in clown garb. With his pointy yellow teeth and glinting eyes, he’s the stuff of hideous night terrors and a most excellent reason to stock up on nightlight bulbs.   

3. Mombi, “Return to Oz” — The fact that this cheesy 1985 release inexcusably and shamelessly bastardized a timeless classic is beside the point. What’s squarely on top of the point is Princess Mombi (Jean Marsh), a witch with a Carrie Bradshaw-like fetish for collecting heads. That’s right. She’s got a cabinet full of heads. All kinds of heads. With eyes that look and mouths that talk. It’s enough to make your inner child cower under the bed with Blankie. And your outer adult, for that matter.

4. Annie Wilkes, “Misery” — With her freakball set of core values and menacing politeness, Annie (Kathy Bates) belongs in a class of her own. She’s the kind of woman who got hugged too much as a child and quite possibly stalked the hell out of every sap dumb enough to wrap his arms around her. When she grins, you see the horrified faces of her victims in the shine of her dingy teeth. Yet there’s an element of childlike innocence about her that’s utterly disarming. You can’t see the menace for the sweetness. What a perfectly freaky combination. 

Rhoda: Like Pippi Longstocking, only evil-er and with more peroxide

Rhoda: Like Pippi Longstocking, only evil-er and with more peroxide.

5. Rhoda Penmark, “The Bad Seed” — Of late Hollywood has become obsessed with making villains out of pasty, dark-haired children with eyes that all but flash “666.” But back in the 20th century (1956) blonde hair shivered our timbers, with evil taking human form in one Rhoda Penmark (Patty McCormack). You don’t see Rhoda’s devilment coming, and nothing’s as scary as evil that sneaks up on you (see above).

6. Nosferatu — Vampires are enjoying quite a renaissance these days, though the “True Blood”-styled plasma poachers are more interested in having sex than biting necks. Let us not forget, however, the one who started it all, the Godfather of Vampirism: Nosferatu, star of the so-named 1922 silent film that still chills our bones. Max Schreck’s eerie, goosebumpy performance reminds, and not gently, that simplicity can unnerve in ways that CGI can’t touch. 

7. The horny tree, “The Evil Dead” — With this, the first installment of the “Evil Dead” trilogy, Sam Raimi unleashed a Hoover Dam’s worth of blood and gore and gave us some seriously strange costumed undeaders. None of those things can eclipse the sheer, unbridled craziness of that oversexed forest tree, with its naughty branch becoming a catalyst for the most bizarrely unnerving rape scene ever filmed. It’s like “The Happening” … on angel dust.

Overalls and horizontal stripes never looked so creepy

Overalls and horizontal stripes never looked so creepy.

8.  Chucky — Pediophobia doesn’t seem quite so strange when you stop to consider Chucky, that demonic doll who vaguely resembles My Friend Buddy minus the unflattering bowl cut. Yes, this possessed toy, with his shiny butcher knife, chipmunk cheeks and milky marble eyes is about 472 kinds of terrifying, partly because Chucky taps into that ancient human fear that inanimate objects aren’t all that lifeless. With the advent of Furbies, I ask you: Is that fear really so unfounded?

9. Freddy Krueger, “Nightmare on Elm Street” — Forget that machete-toting lunkhead Jason Voorhees; he’s got nothin’ on the Krueg, Wes Craven’s knife-fingered psychotic burn victim who delights in using the dreams of children and adolescents to snuff them out like Glade candles. Robert Englund makes this guy — and the singsong rhyme that immortalizes him — a character infinitely scarier than his tight striped sweater.

10. The Blair Witch — Everyone has that “things that go bump in the night” concept stashed securely in a safe somewhere way deep down in the dank basements of our psyches. Then movies like the spare but monumentally disquieting “Blair Witch Project” come along and up comes the ageless fear of the dark and what might be lurking in it. We never see the Blair Witch — from a logistics standpoint, we cannot even prove she exists — but the suggestion, the faint whiff of evil, is enough to remind us that what we don’t see is far more terrifying than what we do.

Honorable mentions: Leatherface; Norman Bates; Damien Thorn (“The Omen”); Cruella DeVille.