Twenty-five years ago, in 1993, Allen and Albert Hughes (credited as The Hughes Brothers) took the American box office by storm with a jarringly violent urban crime drama set in LA titled Menace II Society. Released two years after John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood, Menace II Society avoids much of the more familial melodrama of Singleton’s film – instead turning in a ferocious indictment of inner city violence, something that would then permeate the genre in the mid and late 1990s.
Author: Justin LaLiberty
The year of 1995 was esoteric for fans of genre cinema with a variety of sub-genres and trends brought to a boiling point: the buddy movie (Bad Boys, Money Train, Die Hard with a Vengeance, Tommy Boy, Friday, Top Dog), the revisionist western (The Quick and the Dead, Wild Bill, Dead Man), neo-noir (Se7en, Heat, Devil In a Blue Dress, Kiss of Death, Jade, Things to Do In Denver When You’re Dead) all got their due but the most singular, and eerily prescient, sub-genre trend was the cyber thriller.
Joe Dante’s distinctly American genre career has focused on the horror of suburbia: Gremlins, Small Soldiers, The Hole and, even in title, The ‘Burbs all concern what can happen in our very neighborhood—be it supernatural, science fiction, or just plain ol’ crazy neighbors. Not to be confused with the primarily 80s and 90s staple sub-genre of the Domestic Thriller (such as Poison Ivy or The Babysitter), Dante’s Suburbia Horror almost always positions families, rather than a sole individual, as victim or perpetrator, at the center of the terror. At the center of The ‘Burbs is a family…or two.
It takes nearly ten minutes for the opening credits of John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness to complete their slow, sporadic crawl through the center of the screen. They’re chopped up, delivered piecemeal in a seeming attempt to prolong the inevitable. By the time John Carpenter’s “directed by” credit punctuates the ordeal, we are well aware of whose hands we are in; the brash, electronic score has kicked in, the image is wide and oppressive and the apocalypse has been foreshadowed.
Referring to Prince of Darkness as an apocalypse film is far from novel; the film has long been the center of Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy” which begins with The Thing in 1982 and ends with In the Mouth of Madness in 1995. But where The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness rely on an apocalypse brought about from within man, either than manifested in an organism transmitted via blood or one man’s (mis)understanding of reality, the apocalypse of Prince of Darkness is far more epic – and theological – in nature.
It’s no accident that Agnes Varda’s Kung-Fu Master! has two forms of punctuation in its title; it’s at once concerned with the grammar of cinema as it is the merging of different cinema tropes/styles/modes of production, putting its hyphen to use and it does it with such aplomb that the exclamation point is apt – though adding another wouldn’t seem ostentatious when considering how much energy fits into its meager runtime. And that title almost feels like some sort of cinematic nom de guerre, tricking its late 80s audience into expecting a martial arts film and getting something much more complex, sweet and altogether Varda.
By the time of the 1973 release of The Friends of Eddie Coyle, director Peter Yates already had two great crime films under his belt in the form of Bullitt and The Hot Rock. Like The Friends of Eddie Coyle, both of those were based on novels as well, creating a throughline of late 60s through early 70s pulp that was never equalled by another filmmaker – though folks like Walter Hill and William Friedkin certainly tried.
There’s a fleeting moment in Agnes Varda’s 2008 documentary The Beaches of Agnes where the filmmaker returns home sees her family of cats and bluntly states “I’m home. The cats are here.” And that moment summarizes the film as a whole – as a film that chronicles Varda’s life in cinema, as a woman and as a person aging – while staying as honest and playful as its subject and creator.
The Beaches of Agnes came at a point in Varda’s career where she had all but abandoned narrative cinema – her prior feature length narrative film, One Hundred and One Nights, was released in 1995 – and had spent the past two decades building a body of documentary work, something she had worked with in years prior leading to films like Mur murs and Daguerreotypes. But 2000’s The Gleaners & I brought forth a sea change for Varda, establishing herself as a subject worthy of the same attention she gave to anything or anyone else in front of her camera with the advent of small digital cameras allowing for an intimacy that she was unable to achieve until the new millennium.
If ever there were a year to cement the status of the oft-ignored yet highly profitable Domestic Thriller genre of the ‘90’s, that year would be 1992. The year kicked off with The Hand that Rocks the Cradle in January, and then had a solid summer slate with Poison Ivy in May, Unlawful Entry in June and Single White Female in August. All but Poison Ivy would become profitable in their initial theatrical runs, the most successful being the surprise blockbuster status of The Hand that Rocks the Cradle with an 88 million dollar gross, placing it above other, more high-profile, R-rated films like Patriot Games and Under Siege for the year. And this was only the beginning.
By Justin LaLiberty
There’s a scene in Ken Russell’s long-controversial, rarely-screened-in-its-entirety film, The Devils, wherein Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) riotously exclaims, “Don’t look at me! Look at your city! If your city is destroyed, your freedom is destroyed also. If you would remain free men, fight. Fight them or become their slaves.” By the time this speech unfolds, we have seen Grandier become the victim of Otherness, a martyr to hypocrisy and the lies of men, and an image of what it means to push the limits of social acceptance. For a film that has been accused of various levels of indecency for over four decades – where The Devils now lacks in its ability to shock via its viscera or willingness to expose pubic hair to the masses, it manages to shock in its capacity to mirror both the ideology of the time in which it was produced, as well as our own. It’s not often that a film which takes place in the 17th century can be considered prescient.
By Justin LaLiberty
Tony Scott’s The Last Boy Scout is book-ended by scenes of violence taking place in football arenas, time-honored spaces of an American pastime. In the opening sequence, a young player walks onto the field and opens fire – an ominous opener that seems especially bleak this far removed from 1991. In the showstopper climax, a sniper stationed high above the action on field is attacked by one of our leads, eventually gunned down by the police and – in the film’s Grand Guignol moment – then falls into the spinning rotor of a helicopter, rendering his body into a mere splatter of blood. In these moments, The Last Boy Scout feels most like Scott’s film, yet everything in between is explicitly from the pen of its writer, Shane Black. Only this time, Black’s war isn’t on Christmas. It’s on America.