Brian Collins | SCREAMFEST

Revisiting The RESIDENT EVIL Franchise

Share

No one expects much out of a movie based on a video game, and even fewer would expect any such film to become a major franchise with almost as many entries as the game series that inspired it. But the Resident Evil films did just that; Paul WS Anderson and Milla Jovovich joined forces six times from 2002 to 2017, presenting an ever-escalating story about Alice (Jovovich) and her endless battles with zombies and other monsters that were spawned by the evil Umbrella corporation. Paul WS Anderson wrote and produced all six entries, directing four himself, and since they often pick up where the previous one left off (albeit with some nagging retcons, more on those soon) they make for a fairly consistent experience if you opt to marathon them, unlike some other major horror franchises that will give you whiplash from all of the changed directions.

Sony agrees, and has boxed together the films in a new set, presenting most of them on 4K UHD disc for the first time and housing them all in a fancy box. Each film is given a digipak type case with both the 4K UHD disc and a standard Blu-ray, the latter of which contains all of the bonus features from previous releases, while the fancier 4K discs only have a handful of brief featurettes and/or trailers (if that), presumably to use every bit of disc space on the film itself. That said, given the plethora of audio options on the films, it's strange that the accompanying audio commentaries aren't included on the 4K versions; I'm the type who likes to listen to the track right after watching the movie, so it's a bit obnoxious to have to switch discs to do that, when it seems like one more audio track to join the dozen it already has wouldn't have been too draining on the "bit budget".

But the films themselves are the real draw, of course, and it was fun to go back and revisit them all in fairly quick succession (it took me a little over a week to get through them all). It had been a while since I watched the 2002 original; so long that I actually forgot it does not contain a single major character from any of the games. While Umbrella is still the big bad and it uses a few recognizable monsters (the dogs!) and locations from the games, all of the human protagonists are original creations from Anderson, which makes sense when you consider the script was an unrelated one he wrote earlier and refashioned into a Resident Evil film. At the time this bugged me, I knew Milla's character was new beforehand, but as a fan of the games* I was hoping to see Jill, Chris, etc represented somewhere in the film, even if briefly. But over the years I've come around to what it *has* instead of what it lacks, and can appreciate that it was a big budget zombie film at a time when no one was making such things. The success of this film (and 28 Days Later the following year) helped revive the sub-genre, and for that I give it thanks.

However the film does feel rather small in retrospect, given how much more expansive the followups were. 2004's Apocalypse is my favorite of the series, upping the ante on the action and the scale while also bringing in a few game characters, namely Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory). Anderson left direction duties to Alexander Witt, and it's a mostly successful switch; Witt does this weird choppy slo-mo thing whenever the zombies are running around, and it looks awful, but the rest of his action is well staged. And there's a good variety to it; this is probably the most action packed entry (or tied with Retribution) as the characters are constantly on the move, so you get interior and exterior battles across Raccoon City, some more monsters (Lickers! The Nemesis!), and a sense of how much havoc Umbrella has wreaked in just a short time. I know it's often on the lower end of fans' rankings (presumably for the aforementioned zombie-cam) but I enjoyed it just as much now as I did on opening night; even if it’s not directly related to the games’ plots, it takes what works and makes it bigger, same as the 2nd game did for the original “Biohazard” that started it all in 1996. This release actually presents an uncut version of the film that runs a few minutes longer, though none of the additions are all that significant - mostly just a few extra jokes and other bits of dialogue here and there, not a lot of action-related content. Most of it comes in the church scene, which is when Alice joins the group, so I suspect most of it was just cut for pacing in order to speed up her arrival.

Russell Mulcahy directed the third entry, 2007's Extinction, a curious one in retrospect since it was mostly ignored in subsequent films. In this one, which picks up several years after Apocalypse, the world is said to be completely overrun and essentially a Mad Max-ian wasteland, but that element gets dropped for the next three films. And it also suffers from Jill Valentine's absence; Guillory was unavailable for shooting and so they simply did a quick "Ctrl+R" replacement on the script, swapping out Jill for Claire Redfield (Ali Larter), another game character. There is no explanation for where Jill went and Claire is given almost no introduction whatsoever (in fact the other Apocalypse survivors are following her around), so it's a very lazy and frustrating switch, as both characters and their respective actresses deserve better. That said, it also brings Iain Glen's Dr Isaacs into the forefront after a quick appearance in Apocalypse, so that along with the novel fact that it's set almost entirely in daylight gives it a boost. And even though he wasn’t directing, I like that Anderson brought Linden “Johnny Cage” Ashby into the fold as a survivor named Chase, a little nod to his previous video game success.

Extinction also ramped up the fact that there are Alice clones (in fact, our Alice might just be a clone herself!), something that takes center stage in 2010's Afterlife, which was also the series' first 3D entry and brought Anderson back to the director's chair (where he'd remain for the rest of the franchise). It's also the weakest one in my opinion, as the story is weightless even by this series' not-high storytelling standards. The entire plot is Alice looks around for a place named Arcadia only to find it after crash landing her plane on the roof of a building that is basically next door. So she heads there, and that's pretty much it. As usual, along the way she meets up with a group of survivors, half of which die as they make their way on this latest A to B journey, but (more lazy scripting ahead!) this time they bring in Chris Redfield, the first game's hero and Claire's brother, a plot point that has no bearing on anything as the two share almost no time together and the amnesia-ravaged Claire doesn't remember him anyway. But still, what luck for Alice and Claire to crash their plane on the building where he was located!

It's also a slower paced entry compared to the others, which doesn't help when it's the least interesting story of the lot (on that note, it’s worth noting that it’s the only entry to not have a tie-in novelization, as if there wasn’t enough material to embellish). It seems like Anderson was simply more excited about playing with the 3D cameras (the same ones used for Avatar) than making "Resident Evil 4", so despite some fun casting choices (the great Kim Coates as a slimy movie producer is clearly having fun) and a series' best score (from tomandandy) its main attraction was seeing the various 3D effects... in theaters. The disc is 2D only (Sony's VR headset can play 3D movies even if your TV is not equipped, so like the commentaries I see this as a rather silly omission given how much they tout the Playstation on the package), so now you can just laugh at all the "COMIN AT YA!" type shots that are left in the film despite the absence of their reason for being.
resident-2.jpg
But whatever growing pains Anderson was displaying in that entry, he came out full force with Retribution, a top notch installment and easily the best of the three sequels he directed himself. It was shot in 3D again, but without any of the pacing issues that hampered Afterlife - the action here is almost literally non-stop, bringing in the most game characters yet (Barry Burton, Ada Wong, Leon Kennedy, and a return of Jill Valentine, who popped back up in a post-credits scene earlier) while also reviving several old friends - including Michelle Rodgriguez as Rain, last seen in the first film. Thanks to Umbrella's cloning operations the filmmakers had license to bring anyone back as long as the actor was available, but they finally make the most of it here. It's so fun to see everyone again that it's almost easy to forget that the script just omits Claire and Chris from the proceedings; Afterlife ended with Alice and the Redfield siblings bracing for an attack from Umbrella's warplanes, but when this one opens on that attack, Alice is seemingly a solo act. Chris is never mentioned in the film, or the next one for that matter. It’s probably the most curious use of a game character in the entire film franchise.

Otherwise though, it's a blast, giving plenty of action variety (including a big car chase!), a fun detour into Alice's suburban life (allowing Jovovich to play an average housewife for a few minutes, a very odd sight), and the rarest image in the entire series: a group of men fighting monsters without any women around. There's a sequence where Leon, Barry, and a few other soldiers storm an Umbrella facility, and it's almost disorienting not to see any women in the scene. For all the talk about how Marvel and DC kept dropping the ball on female superheroes, it's interesting to note that this six-strong franchise put women front and center for every entry. And yes: women, plural. Milla may have gotten on all the posters, but every entry put at least one woman as the 2nd lead, with Rodriguez, Guillory, Larter, or this film's Bingbing Li (as Ada) kicking just as much ass along the way. The men in the series have largely filled one of two roles: quickly dispatched fodder (any male hero who survives an entry is either killed off in the next one or forgotten entirely) or bad guys. Wesker (Shawn Roberts) and Isaacs serve as the series' primary villains, and there are several evil dudes who popped up in a single entry along the way, without any female antagonists of note (the closest is Jill, but she's mind-controlled and is returned to "good" status) When it comes to the fighting and heroics, it's the women doing the lion's share of the work in all six films. Respect!

Alice also has a daughter in Retribution, but she is unfortunately one of the many survivors of this film who just disappear in the next one, as Anderson once again sets up a cliffhanger here (Alice and her friends teaming up with Wesker!) and then ignores it when it's time to make the followup. The Final Chapter picks up immediately following that one, but once again Alice is the only character we see; via voiceover she tells us that they were betrayed by Wesker (shocker!) and she was left for dead. So we have to assume that Wesker and his team killed the others (including the little girl) but none of them are mentioned by name, so it's unclear. But being unclear is kind of par for the course for this entry, as despite having a fairly solid script and some fun new characters, Anderson ditched longtime series editor Niven Howie for Neveldine/Taylor cohort Doobie White on this entry, and it's a painfully bad choice. White hyper-edits every single action sequence (and even some of the slower chatty moments) to the point of incomprehensibility; it's actually the longest entry in the series but at the same time feels edited down to (even a bit past) the bone, making every action beat a headache inducing nightmare.
resident-3.jpg
If you can get used to it, or just have some kind of advanced superbrain that allows you to process what you're seeing when White is making six or seven cuts in a second, it's an enjoyable finale to the series, however. Glen returns (in two roles!) and we get a lot of answers about where Alice came from and why Umbrella became so evil in the first place (let's say Thanos would approve), and Larter also come back to give Alice some much needed backup after all her other friends disappeared, allowing the series one last "someone just happens to find their friend in a wasteland" moment. There are giant bat monsters, literally thousands of zombies, the dogs, super soldiers... Whatever it lacks in connective tissue to the previous film, it more than makes up for in scale, and it's impressive that they can still find new ways to kill people after all this time (a giant fan factors into one big action scene - not everyone makes it past!). And while the ending is a bit of a copout, in general it's a very good climax, paying off Alice's 15 years of fighting Umbrella and its minions.

Apart from the extended version of Apocalypse and a few featurettes, the only thing new here is the 4K transfers, so if you're not upgraded or don't see enough of a difference to warrant the double (triple?) dip, there's little reason to get this set if you already have the previous Blu-ray releases. But if you never dove into the series or perhaps are stuck with only a handful of entries on lowly DVD, treat yourself this holiday season. There are no flat out bad entries (even Retribution, for its weightlessness, has some solid action scenes), and the behind the scenes consistency makes it a fun ride to revisit. The transfers are all outstanding (perhaps a bit TOO good in Retribution's case - the 2D presentation of the original 3D imagery, in such resolution, makes some of it look a bit like Sin City) and the Blu-ray discs are jam-packed with bonus features, so if you're into the bells and whistles of such things you'll be living inside Raccoon City for quite a while. And even if you just want the movies - they were never the greatest things in the world, but seeing such B-movie fare on an A-list budget every couple years is the sort of thing we aren't likely to get much of anymore, so while they have their missteps I think time will be kind to the series as a whole. Might as well get on board now.

*I actually bought a Playstation 1 for the sole purpose of playing the first game, and likewise made Code Veronica the first game I played when I got a PS2 several years later. So it's a bit amusing to me that every one of these discs kicks off with a spot for the newly released/ impossible to find PS5, which is also heavily promoted on the packaging itself. Maybe by the time there’s a Resident Evil 8 to play I can finally find one.

Come On Ride The TERROR TRAIN

Share

Jamie Lee Curtis made three slasher films immediately after HALLOWEEN'S success in 1978 and 1979. The first was PROM NIGHT, a very dated and poorly paced movie that has more ironic fans (thanks, disco dancing Leslie Nielsen!) than legitimate ones. The most famous is probably 1981's HALLOWEEN II, which picked up directly after the events of the first film, which meant she spent most of the movie in a hospital bed. And then in the middle is TERROR TRAIN, probably the least seen of the trio but also - in my opinion - the best of them as well.

Like PROM NIGHT, it starts with a tragic accident, as Alana (Jamie Lee) and some of her college pals (mostly frat guys/med students led by Hart "Ellis" Bochner) trick a virginal nerdy kid named Kenny Hampson into thinking he's about to get laid, only for him to discover his "girlfriend" is actually a corpse from their medical lab. Kenny suffers a psychotic break, and then we cut to a few years later when the group has rented an excursion train to celebrate New Year's as well as Alana's early graduation. Everyone is in costumes for some reason (is that a New Year's thing?), allowing the killer to hide in plain sight among the revelers as he wipes out everyone involved with Kenny's prank.

But the killer isn't your average Michael Myers or Ghostface, choosing one costume to associate himself with. No, instead he continually takes the costume of his last victim, which causes confusion among the core group ("Ed? I just saw him!" someone says about a character who died a half hour earlier) and allows people to keep letting their guard down throughout the film. One victim, believing the killer to be a would-be hookup (there's a lot of casual cheating going on; had they survived these people would definitely have monthly key parties), actually drags *him* off into seclusion, and poor Jamie Lee is fooled even in the climax, running toward the safety of someone she believes is the train conductor. The film has an inordinate number of offscreen deaths - perhaps due to the MPAA? - but it allows director Roger Spottiswoode to throw a few surprises our way.

It also ties into the film's theme of misdirection, emphasized by none other than David Copperfield as a magician that has been hired (or HAS HE?) by the group for entertainment. Unlike modern films that use CGI and other trickery for magic scenes, this 1979 production had only Copperfield's legitimate skills at their disposal for the most part, and Spottiswoode doesn't even cut to reactions more often than not, letting the tricks unfold more or less as they would on stage. Copperfield’s Magician (occasionally referred to as Ken, but billed simply as “The Magician”) doesn't perform any of his grand illusions, instead sticking mostly to card and sleight of hand tricks (the cigarette through the quarter still impresses me, not gonna lie), but the effect still works, and (spoiler) all of it works as a pretty good distraction for the identity of the killer. At least two victims are killed in plain sight of dozens of onlookers, something you can't quite imagine Jason or "Harry Warden" being able to pull off.

That's just one of many interesting elements about the film that makes up for its lapses (slowish pace, the aforementioned abundance of off-screen kills). It was certainly a fascinating (re)watch in 2020, where I had to laugh at my initial recoil over seeing two people hug, not to mention the plot of packing into a cramped train for a party. After nearly a year of varying degrees of lockdown, I have noticed that I occasionally look at such behavior in movies the same way I do when I see a character smoke indoors or casually use homophobic/racial slurs. "What were they thinking back then," I ponder, "Look at these people hugging and not wearing masks!" Unlike indoor smoking and off-the-cuff bigotry this will presumably/hopefully be a temporary thing to "date" our movies, but for now it sure is strange to look at "people just having fun" as something taboo.

On the subject of homophobia, one thing about TERROR TRAIN that has gone relatively under the radar is that it's a potential stepping stone for queer cinema. Again with the spoilers here (skip the rest of this paragraph if you haven't seen it yet!), but the male killer spends most of the movie rather convincingly dressed as a woman*, and Bochner's character Doc is potentially in love with Alana's boyfriend Mo. When Mo and Alana have a fight, Doc says to him "Well you'll always have me," which Mo chuckles at as if it was a kind of self-deprecating joke, but Doc's expression and added "I mean it" tells us that he is in fact, serious. He also attempts to get them to break up, and when Mo is killed it's the only time he displays any sort of regret or concern for the tragic events of the evening (which are largely his fault, as the primary instigator of the prank to begin with). Not as overt as FREDDY'S REVENGE, no, but there's definitely a little more going on here than you'd find in any other slasher of the 1980-1982 golden era, at least that I've seen.

So while it comes up a bit short in some areas, this now forty year old (!) slasher has managed to remain relevant while so many others of the time have dated too poorly for anyone to bother trying to "discover" now. The relative lack of on-screen violence and blood is more in line with HALLOWEEN (the film was indeed pitched as "HALLOWEEN on a train"), so if you're not interested in the high body counts and gore of the majority of its successors (including HALLOWEEN II) this will be more up your alley. The New Year's Eve angle is incredibly limited, yes, but it's given me an excuse to revisit it around this time just about every year since it came out on Blu-ray, and every time I find more things about it to appreciate. If you've never seen it, or written it off from a viewing as a younger and less wise fan, there's no better time to hop on board.
Jamie Lee Curtis as Alana

*Slightly less convincing in high def, alas. While the camera usually puts "her" in medium/long shots, there is one particular semi-close one that, freed of the murkiness and blurriness of VHS, makes it pretty clear that the face matches the one we saw on Kenny in the film's prologue.

Psycho Goreman: A Saturday Morning Cartoon Gorefest

Share

Over the past decade, there has been a welcome shift in the use of CGI when it comes to low budget/independent genre films. As these tools got cheaper and easier to use, there was an unfortunate period where digital beasties were cropping up in productions that didn’t exactly have the resources to let them compete with the likes of ILM, but I’m happy to see that those sorry examples are becoming rarer.

Instead, practical creatures/suits have become in vogue again (while still retaining the use of CGI to enhance them; no one is saying it has to be one or the other), and there isn’t a better recent example I can think of to demonstrate that than Psycho Goreman, This Canadian effort (from most of the Astron-6 team that gave us Manborg and Father’s Day) was made for well under two million dollars but still gives us a dozen full-sized humanoid creatures, plus a few glimpses of the alien worlds from where they came. For a practical FX aficionado like myself, it’s nirvana.

It’s also a pretty fun movie, though I will caveat that sentiment by noting that it will certainly not be for everyone. This is definitely a “love it or hate it” kind of affair, one you have to be in the right mood for or else you’ll find it unbearable. If you’ve seen Manborg, or - perhaps even more apt a comparison - director Steve Kostanski’s “W is for Wish” segment in ABCs of Death 2, I think you’ll get an idea of whether or not this movie will be for you.

Psycho Goreman (PG for short, and yes the allusion to the MPAA rating is intentional) tells the story of a murderous alien warlord who is resurrected on earth thanks to an amulet that two kids find in their backyard. He wants to just kill them and everyone else on the planet, but as long as the kids have the amulet in their possession he has to do what they say. And so they do what any adolescent kid would do with a monster pet: they make him play games with them, fight back against their bullies, and try to make him blend with their real world. But when his arch nemesis, Pandora, also comes to earth seeking to destroy him, the kids find themselves caught in an intergalactic battle to the death.
psycho-groman2.jpg
And the beauty of it is that it’s even more ridiculous than it sounds, diving into R rated elements despite its Saturday morning cartoon storyline. As Kostanski admits on his director’s commentary, he’s a “big fan of random nonsense that doesn’t service the plot”, something that he demonstrates time and time again. At one point PG turns the kids’ friend Alastair into a deformed blob, an event few others (including the child’s parents) seem to be particularly bothered by. PG (dressed as Alan Grant from Jurassic Park for no discernible reason) also uses his powers to turn a town cop into a melting drone who continually tries to kill itself, a sight gag that never stops being as funny as it is completely pointless.

But even if you mute the sound and fast forward through the scenes with only human characters, I think anyone would have to appreciate the amount of craftsmanship that’s on display for such a low budget film. PG’s costume (apparently not comfortable or easy on the actor, who is in nearly every scene) alone would be more impressive than what we get out of most films on this budget, but all of his enemies have a similar “look” and are played by actors who similarly stuffed themselves into suits to play ridiculous aliens with names like Cassius 3000, Darkscream, and Witchmaster.

The aesthetic is very much in line with things like The Guyver and the best incarnations of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers; Kostanski was a child of the 90s and has dove in deep to pay homage to that era of (mostly) pre-CGI man in suit spectaculars. And there’s an impressive amount of variety among the creatures (most of whom are watching the events on Earth in scenes Kostanski admits is a parody of the interminable council scenes in the Star Wars prequels), as opposed to “a race of (samey looking things)” that would let him cheat with CGI duplication. However you might feel about the movie, there is no denying how much work the team put into building as much of this world, and doing it without relying entirely on pixels.

That old-school aesthetic is carried over into the Blu-ray, which is among the most packed I have seen in years for a modern film, harkening back to the glory days of the late 90s, when DVDs were new and the studios were jamming them with as much content as they could think of. In addition to Kostanski’s commentary, there’s at least an hour of interviews, storyboards, pre-viz footage, behind the scenes footage, and other elements that will give you an even better look at the crew’s abilities to stretch every dollar of their budget without having to sacrifice any major ideas. I also quite enjoyed one creature performer giving an interview in character, comparing his murderous alien leader to a certain divisive political figure here on Earth and how neither of them think much of human beings.

Somewhere along the way Kostanski mentioned that the concept of the film is “What if a kid wanted He-Man as a friend but got Skeletor instead”, and he truly succeeded at bringing that insane concept to life. Again, it’s not going to be loved by everyone who sees it, but those who find themselves on its peculiar wavelength will have a blast; I’ve seen it three times now and there are still parts that make me burst out laughing (“You’re…. welcome…”). But more importantly, even when a gag isn’t landing, I never stop being impressed that the film gives you more visual flair and lo-fi ingenuity than you’re likely to find in a half dozen movies that had far more resources at their disposal.