Friday, January 20, 2017

#2,292. The Running Man (1987)

Directed By: Paul Michael Glaser

Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Maria Conchita Alonso, Yaphet Kotto

Tag line: "The year is 2019. The finest men in America don't run for President. They run for their lives"

Trivia: When Rob Cohen purchased the rights to the Richard Bachman novella 'The Running Man', he had no idea that Bachman was actually a pseudonym for Stephen King

Before I get into my write-up of The Running Man, I want to take a moment to relate the unfortunate events that surrounded my first viewing of this film. 

It was in the fall of 1987. I, along with two of my friends and my younger brother, went to a local multiplex to see The Running Man. My friends, Chris and John, were with me when I saw Predator (released a few months earlier), which we caught down at the Jersey shore during Senior Week. And all three of us loved it. My brother had yet to experience a Schwarzenegger film, so we figured he was in for a treat.

But we ran into a problem; when we went to buy our tickets, one of the women behind the counter, a middle-aged lady we’d never seen before, wouldn’t sell my brother (16 at the time) a ticket because The Running Man was rated “R”! We told her John was 19, and therefore qualified as an “accompanying adult” (as the rating said, “No one under 18 admitted unless accompanied by an adult”), but still she refused.

Slightly pissed off, we got out of line to figure out what we were going to do. Chris suggested we instead see the PG-13 rated Dirty Dancing, which was also playing. My immediate response was “Bullshit!” No way would I settle for Dirty Dancing when I was all hyped up to watch Schwarzenegger kick some ass. So, we split into two groups; John and I bought tickets for The Running Man, and Chris and my brother paid for Dirty Dancing.

And the woman watched us like a hawk, making sure they didn’t sneak into the theater with us (clearly, she was on some sort of a crusade; my brother told me later that night that, just before Dirty Dancing started, she walked through the theater telling anyone under 13 to leave… even the kids who were with their parents!)

Set in the futuristic world of 2017 (yeah, I know), when America is controlled by a totalitarian regime that regulates everything from how much food you eat to what you watch on TV, The Running Man opens with army pilot Ben Richards (Schwarzenegger) refusing to fire on a group of civilians, who are rioting in the streets below. As a result of his insubordination, Richards is arrested on trumped-up charges and sent to a labor camp, where, after a year or so, he, along with fellow prisoners William Laughlin (Yaphet Kotto) and Harold Weiss (Marvin J. McIntyre), stages a mass breakout. 

On the run from the cops, Richards hides out in his brother’s apartment, only to learn his brother was evicted a month earlier, and that musician Amber Mendez (Maria Conchita Alonso) now lives there. Using her ID, Richards buys 2 airline tickets to Hawaii and forces Amber to accompany him, but she turns him in at the airport before they can board the plane.

While this is going on, Damon Killian (Richard Dawson), host of the incredibly popular game show The Running Man, is looking for a new contestant. A reality-based program, The Running Man pits lowlifes and prisoners against professional assassins (known as “Stalkers”). Each “contestant” is set loose in a quarantined section of Los Angeles, and must survive for 3 hours to win the game (and their freedom). But it won’t be easy; the heavily-armed Stalkers could be lurking around any corner, ready to kill them without a moment’s notice.

Impressed with the surveillance footage of his prison escape, Killian recruits Richards to be his next contestant, and to make it more interesting sends both Laughlin and Weiss into the “game” with him. As the three men battle against stalkers such as Sub-Zero (Professor Toru Tanaka), Buzzsaw (Gus Rethwisch), and Dynamo (Erland van Lidth), Amber begins to question whether or not she did the right thing by turning Richards in, and starts digging into his past, only to be caught and sent into the game area herself!

With three people to look after now, Richards takes the fight to the Stalkers, causing a bit of embarrassment for Killian and the network when he manages to defeat a few. With a live studio audience, and millions of people at home, watching their every move, Richards and the others look for a way to gain control of the satellite feed, hoping to show the world what both Killian and the government have been doing behind the scenes. But will they survive long enough to spread the message?

Based on a novel by Stephen King (written under his pseudonym Richard Bachman), The Running Man is an entertaining sci-fi / action hybrid, with great set designs and a cool-as-hell story about an ultra-violent, government-sponsored TV show. In addition, the movie has Arnold Schwarzenegger, on the brink of becoming a major box-office draw, doing what he did best. The scene where Richards and his cohorts escape from prison is definitely exciting, but is nothing compared to what they go through while running for their lives in the “game”.

Each of the Stalkers chasing them has their weapon of choice (Subzero’s hockey stick has an actual blade built into it, while Buzzsaw uses a chainsaw that can cut steel), and dress as if they were on their way to a Halloween party (Domino is in full-body armor with hundreds of little lights attached to it). But despite their spotless record (we’re led to believe no Stalker has ever been so much as injured in the line of duty), these guys are in for the fight of their life against Richards. Whenever he subdues a Stalker, Arnold delivers one of his patented one-liners, a few of which are real groaners (“Hey Killian! Subzero... now plain zero!”), but throughout The Running Man Schwarzenegger shows us time and again why, in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, he was the biggest action star around (his battle against Fireball, a Stalker played by Jim Brown, is bad-ass).

Yet as good as Arnold is, Richard Dawson steals The Running Man right out from under him. Having spent years as the host of the popular game show Family Feud, Dawson was the perfect choice to portray the egotistical Killian, a guy who is more concerned with ratings than he is justice, or even human life. We see early on just how much of a bastard he is; while walking through the network’s main lobby, an elderly janitor accidentally runs a mop over Killian’s shoes. As the poor guy is apologizing, Killian turns on the charm, telling him not to worry about it, and that he’s doing a great job. But once he’s in the elevator, Killian turns to his assistant Brenda (Karen Leigh Hopkins) and says “If that asshole is still mopping the floor tomorrow, you’ll be doing it the rest of the week”. Whether trying to coerce Richards into being his next contestant or working his studio audience into a frenzy, Killian is a creep of the highest order, and Dawson plays him to perfection.

It wasn’t until almost 15 years later that I finally saw Dirty Dancing, and I have to say I was glad I made the decision I did back in 1987. Dirty Dancing may be a halfway decent musical / romance, but it isn’t nearly as much fun as The Running Man!

Thursday, January 19, 2017

#2,291. Big Wednesday (1978)

Directed By: John Milius

Starring: Jan-Michael Vincent, William Katt, Gary Busey

Tag line: "Three friends. Twelve Turbulent Years. And One Day We All Must Face"

Trivia: Director John Milius appears briefly as a marijuana peddling drug dealer on the streets of Tijuana

On the surface, Big Wednesday may look like a surfing movie about a group of buddies who spend their days catching waves and going to parties. But it’s something much more substantial than that: it’s a well-realized coming-of-age tale set against the backdrop of the turbulent 1960’s, and its story of friendship remains as poignant today as it was in 1978.

Big Wednesday follows three surfers: Matt Johnson (Jan-Michael Vincent), Jack Barlow (William Katt), and Leroy Smith (Gary Busey), throughout the 1960s and into the ‘70s, when their carefree lives were turned upside-down by war and the inevitability of growing older. Yet no matter what direction life pulled them in, they always had the ocean and their surfboards to bring them together again.

Writer / director John Milius was himself a surfer (Big Wednesday is semi-autobiographical in nature), and because it’s such a vital component of the story, the film’s surfing sequences have an almost epic feel to them. Several times during the course of the movie, a narrator (looking back from an unknown point in the future) reviews the various big swells that hit the area over the years, talking about each one with a sort of reverence, as if he was a poet describing some great event. These scenes are punctuated by Basil Poledouris’s often majestic score, and most of the surf footage comes courtesy of filmmaker Greg MacGillivray, who in the past few decades has produced a number of award-winning IMAX documentaries (The Living Sea, Coral Reef Adventure).

In addition, the character of Bear, played by Sam Melville, is something of a beachside guru, telling grand stories about the ocean that make surfing sound like a religious experience. He is someone the others admire, and even when life slaps him down (a failed business, etc), Bear never loses the younger generation’s respect. For him and everyone else in Big Wednesday, surfing is much more than a sport; it’s a way of life, a state of mind, and the force that keeps their relationships strong.

Yet as integral as surfing is to Big Wednesday, what you will remember are its characters, and how their friendship survived the test of time. Played by Jan-Michael Vincent, Matt Johnson is, at the start of the film, a surf legend, the guy the kids all look up to. But he’s also an alcoholic. Not even marriage to his longtime girlfriend Peggy (Lee Purcell) nor the birth of his daughter can straighten him out. Then, one afternoon, his carelessness causes a bad accident on the highway, and only then does he begin to realize how self-destructive he’s become.

William Katt’s Jack also has his share of life experiences, including a long-term relationship with Sally (Patti D’Arbanville), a waitress at the local diner; and a tour of duty in Vietnam. As for Leroy (the always fun Gary Busey), whose nickname is “The Masochist”, he remains crazy through much of the movie (it was Leroy who devised the plan that kept him and Matt out of the army, and their antics at the induction center are a definite highlight). But of the three, it’s Matt who undergoes the biggest change, and even though he’s a different person at the end of the film than he was at the beginning, the bond between him and his two best friends seldom wavers.

It’s unfortunate that Big Wednesday failed so miserably at the box office (after bringing in a meager $4 million or so, it disappeared from theaters). It’s a remarkably touching film about a bygone era, featuring a trio of buddies who saw the best and worst of what the ‘60s had to offer, and came through it together.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

#2,290. Die Another Day (2002)

Directed By: Lee Tamahori

Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Halle Berry, Rosamund Pike

Tag line: "Events don't get any bigger than..."

Trivia: Roger Moore actively voiced his displeasure with the film, citing the invisible car and the weak CGI as being a low for the series

The first time I saw Die Another Day, the 20th entry in the James Bond franchise and the last to feature Pierce Brosnan, was on its opening night back in November of 2002. And I hated it. Absolutely hated it. To me, it was less like the Bond pictures I knew and loved and more like a modern action film, with a stylistic flair that felt entirely out of place. In fact, on a list I kept back in 2002 of the movies I saw theatrically that year. Die Another Day was at the very bottom, the worst of the bunch.

After this most recent viewing, I’d say that ranking was a bit harsh; Die Another Day is not a terrible movie. But compared to the rest of the series, it definitely missed the mark.

While on a mission in North Korea to assassinate Col. Moon (Will Yun Lee), a military leader with a keen interest in illegal South African diamonds, James Bond (Pierce Brosnan), despite using an assumed name, is identified as an enemy agent and thrown into prison. After 14 months of intense interrogation, Bond is released as part of a prisoner exchange, swapped for a man named Zao (Rick Yune), who had been Col. Moon’s closest advisor. Part of the reason for the exchange is that the Americans, namely the NSA under the command of Damian Falco (Michael Madsen), are convinced Bond was passing information to the North (the top U.S. agent in North Korea was recently killed, and they believe Bond may have revealed his identity while being tortured). Pending an investigation, Bond’s 00-status is temporarily revoked by M (Judi Dench), but even she knows that won’t stop her top agent from trying to find out who was actually responsible for the info leak.

Ignoring his suspension, Bond hops on a plane bound for Havana, Cuba, where, according to his sources, Zao is trying to alter his appearance. Once there, 007 tracks down Zao, who manages to slip away and avoid capture. Fortunately, Bond also discovers, by way of specially marked diamonds, that Zao is somehow connected to Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens), a wealthy diamond merchant / adventurer who was recently knighted by the queen. Aided by American agent Jinx Johnson (Halle Berry) and Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike), an MI6 operative who is working undercover, posing as Graves’ personal assistant, Bond heads to Iceland, where Graves is about to unveil his pet project: a satellite that can harness the sun’s powerful rays and turn them into a weapon of mass destruction. 

How does Zao fit in with Graves? More importantly, who is the traitor from the west passing secrets to North Korea? As usual, 007 has very little time to answer these questions, but with the safety of the free world once again hanging in the balance, you can rest assured that James Bond is the right man for the job!

Though very few people would rank his four movies among the series’ best, Pierce Brosnan was terrific as Bond, and his performance in Die Another Day proves how well he had settled into the role, balancing humor with the character’s rugged determination while also handling the action scenes like a pro. Equally as good are Halle Berry and Rosamund Pike as the ladies in Bond’s life (Berry’s first appearance on-screen was clearly an homage to Ursula Andress and Dr. No). As for the villains, Gustav Graves is a dashing, yet quite insane adversary, and Rick Yune’s Zao (whose previous encounter with Bond left him with several diamonds lodged in the right side of his face) is no slouch himself, crafty enough to escape capture and strong enough to put up a hell of a fight when needed. In addition, Judi Dench continues to impress as the often-humorless M, and John Cleese’s brief return as Q results in a few hearty laughs.

As for its story, I give the filmmakers credit for keeping things simple; after the complicated plotlines that plagued the series ever since Timothy’s Dalton’s debut in The Living Daylights, Die Another Day is refreshingly basic. I also liked the pre-title sequence (the mission that led to Bond’s capture and imprisonment); the exotic locales (especially the scenes set in Cuba); and, of course, the gadgets (Bond’s vehicle du jour, though admittedly a bit over-the-top, has one very cool feature). Even the theme song, sung by Madonna, has grown on me (there was a time when I despised it)!

Alas, what keeps Die Another Day from becoming a top-tier Bond picture is its general style. For one, it is very loud, with the sound cranked up as high as it can get in some scenes, and the film’s over-reliance on slow-motion (inserted at random moments throughout) is almost laughable. This, plus the quick cuts used to “spice up” several sequences, made it look as if director Lee Tamahori and his team were trying to emulate the action movies of that period (Vin Diesel’s xXx was a box-office hit that same year, and utilized many of the cinematic bells and whistles present in Die Another Day). As a result, what should have been some of the movie’s most exciting scenes (like the chase on the ice lake) were confusing and, even worse, kinda dull.

Sure, previous entries in the 007 franchise have relied on what at the time were state-of-the-art effects, stylistic tropes, and even the world’s political climate to “update” the series for a modern audience, but seeing as the standard look and feel of many action films in the early 2000’s annoyed the hell out of me, I was sad to see Die Another Day go down this same road.

Still, much like my recent experiences with The Man with the Golden Gun and Moonraker, Die Another Day is a better movie than I remember it being. With so many great elements in place, though, it should rank among the series’ best.

And it doesn’t. Not by a longshot.

Monday, January 16, 2017

#2,289. Scavenger Hunt (1979)

Directed By: Michael Schultz

Starring: Richard Benjamin, James Coco, Scatman Crothers

Tag line: "Winner takes all!"

Trivia: Filming took place in and around San Diego, California, incorporating local landmarks such as Balboa Park and the Centre City Building

I admit I was a little apprehensive to re-watch 1979’s Scavenger Hunt, a wild and crazy film that I hadn’t seen in about 35 years. It was a cable favorite of mine back in the early ‘80s, but as I recalled the comedy was extremely broad, and I knew there was a strong possibility it wouldn’t hold up well. But with its impressive cast, plus a number of high-profile cameos, I figured Scavenger Hunt might just be worth the risk.

Millionaire gaming tycoon Milton Parker (Vincent Price) has died, but instead of leaving his estate to his next-of-kin, he sends his would be heirs off on a scavenger hunt, the winner of which will receive his entire fortune. In all, five separate teams take part in the contest: 1. Parker’s sister Mildred Carruthers (Cloris Leachman), who is joined by her attorney Stewart Sellsome (Richard Benjamin), and her son Georgie (Richard Mazur); 2. Nephews Jeff (Dirk Benedict) and Kenny (Willie Aames), who are assisted by Mildred’s kindly stepdaughter Lisa (Maureen Teefy); 3. Son-in-law Henry Motler (Tony Randall) and his four young kids (Julie Anne Haddock, David Hollander, Shane Sinutko and Missy Francis); 4. Parker’s most trusted servants: valet Jenkins (Roddy McDowell), limo driver Jackson (Cleavon Little), cook Henri (James Coco) and maid Babbette (Stephanie Faracy); and 5. Marvin Dummittz (Richard Mulligan), a feeble-minded taxi driver who once did Parker a favor.

Each group is given a list of identical items to retrieve, and have until 5 p.m. to collect as many as they can, by any means necessary (short of actually buying them). With Parker’s lawyer Charles Bernstein (Robert Morley) officiating, the teams set off on their quest, and with $200 million on the line, you can bet that nothing, not even the law, will stand in their way!

Directed by Michael Schultz, Scavenger Hunt follows the same basic formula as 1963’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World: assemble a collection of well-known comic actors and put them in a situation where their character’s greed pushes them to do outlandish things. Some of the “hunters” are more interesting than others; Dirk Benedict’s group has a few humorous scenes, as does Tony Randall and his 4 kids, but both are overshadowed by the remaining three teams, my favorite being the servants, who get into the zaniest predicaments (their attempt to steal a cash register from a convenience store is particularly funny).

And like Mad, Mad World, there are some great cameos in Scavenger Hunt, including rock star Meat Loaf (as the leader of a biker gang), Ruth Gordon (a sweet old lady who just happens to own a bullet-proof vest, a grenade, and brass knuckles), Avery Schrieber (a zoo keeper with a pronounced lisp), Scatman Crothers (a security guard who teams up with Dummittz), the legendary Vincent Price (as the deceased, Milton Parker) and even Arnold Schwarzenegger, a few years before he became one of the cinema’s biggest box-office draws (playing Lars, the lead trainer at a local gym).

Scavenger Hunt is, for the most part, a very silly film: there’s a lot of physical humor (everything from slapstick to car chases) and the characters are all exaggerated and over-the-top (especially Cloris Leachman as Parker’s loudmouth sister, and Richard Mazur as her dim-witted son). But if you’re a fan of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, odds are you’ll have a good time watching this movie as well.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

#2,288. I Am Not a Serial Killer (2016)

Directed By: Billy O'Brien

Starring: Christopher Lloyd, Laura Fraser, Max Records

Tag line: "Every Town Has Its Monsters"

Trivia: Based on the young adult novel series of the same name

2016 was a great year for horror films; instead of a top 10 list, I have a top 16, and some movies that would have made my list in previous years (Lights Out, Viral) didn’t make the cut. There were simply too many good ones to choose from, and among 2016’s most pleasant surprises was director Billy O’Brien’s I Am Not a Serial Killer, the gripping, frightening, and ultimately disturbing tale of a troubled teen who, after witnessing a murder, decides to take matters into his own hands.

John (Max Records) is not your typical teenager. For one, he spends a good deal of his spare time at the funeral home that his mother (Laura Fraser) and Aunt operate, and even helps out with some of the embalmings. And aside from his buddy Max (Raymond Brandstrom), he doesn’t have any friends, choosing instead to pal around with his elderly neighbor Mr. Crowley (Christopher Lloyd). In addition to all this, John is a diagnosed sociopath, and he and his therapist Dr. Neblin (Karl Geary) have discussed at length how John possesses many of the characteristics found in your average serial killer. But when his small Midwestern town is rocked by several brutal murders, a fascinated John launches his own investigation into the killings, and in the process uncovers an evil that’s more dangerous than he ever imagined.

The last time I saw Max Records, he was getting into sod fights with Carol, Judith, and all the other oversized monsters in director Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, and back then I felt, based on his performance in that 2009 movie, the young man showed great potential. With his turn in I Am Not a Serial Killer, Records proves his earlier success was no fluke, and here creates a character who garners our sympathy one minute, then scares us the next (the scene at a school dance between John and local bully Rob, played by Vincent Risso, will send a shiver up your spine). Later on, as he’s stalking his town’s resident killer, we get the distinct feeling that John is learning more about himself than he ever did during his sessions with Dr. Neblin, and the various sequences in which he actually gets involved (trying to prevent further murders) are among the film’s most intense.

Christopher Lloyd is predictably strong as the neighbor Mr. Crowley, as is Laura Fraser, who brings a vulnerability to the role of John’s mother, a feeling of helplessness as she tries to understand her son’s behavior but is unable to do so. Set during late fall / early winter, I Am Not a Serial Killer also takes advantage of its snowy landscape (it was shot on-location in Minnesota), enhancing the isolation that its lead character experiences through most of the movie (the film’s pivotal moment occurs on a frozen lake).

Truth be told, I’d love to discuss this movie in greater detail, but to do so would run the risk of spoiling many of its best surprises, and while the ending was a slight disappointment, I Am Not a Serial Killer still impressed the hell out of me. I’ve seen it twice now, and I intend to watch it again as soon as I can.

Friday, January 13, 2017

#2,287. 31 (2016)

Directed By: Rob Zombie

Starring: Malcolm McDowell, Richard Brake, Jeff Daniel Phillips

Tag line: "Welcome To Hell"

Trivia: Sheri Moon Zombie was in the middle of quitting smoking during filming, which she said added to the misery of her character

Rob Zombie may not be every horror aficionado’s cup of tea, but I’m an unapologetic fan of his films. His first two efforts, House of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects, were tremendous (I watch both every single October), and while his Halloween updates had their problems, they were, in the end, decent slasher flicks. Even Lords of Salem featured a handful of creepy moments, and I’m hoping I get a chance to revisit it in the near future

Unfortunately, the writer / director’s newest film, 2016’s 31, was a major disappointment, and is, to date, the worst movie he’s made.

October 31st, 1976. Five carnival workers: Charly (Sheri Moon Zombie), Roscoe (Jeff Daniel Phillips), Panda (Laurence Hilton-Jacobs), Venus (Meg Foster) and Levon (Kevin Jackson), are abducted and taken to a remote warehouse, where they’re forced to participate in a life-or-death contest known as “31”. With Father Murder (Malcolm McDowell) acting as emcee, the five are released inside the warehouse and hunted by a variety of maniacal killers, all wearing clown make-up. In 12 hours, those left alive will be set free, but with the homicidal Doom Head (Richard Brake) hot on their trail, the odds aren’t looking good that either Charly or any of her friends will survive this terrifying ordeal.

31 is, in every way, a Rob Zombie horror film (foul-mouthed characters, a ‘70s setting, and good period music such as Steven Tyler’s "Dream On" and "California Dreamin’" by the Mamas and the Papas), and I really liked the opening scene (a priest, played by Daniel Roebuck, is tied to a chair, and is taunted by Doom Head). Mind you, it’s not the best pre-title sequence Zombie ever created (he has a long way to go to top the intro to House of 1,000 Corpses), but it definitely piqued my interest, leaving me anxious to see where the movie would go from there. 31 also has a terrific cast, including Laurence Hilton-Jacobs (whose Boom-Boom Washington was my 2nd favorite Sweathog in the ‘70s show Welcome Back Kotter, just behind Ron Palillo’s Horseshack) and Meg Foster (the gorgeous, blue-eyed bombshell of They Live and Carny fame).

And while a good many people have taken issue with it, I have no problem whatsoever with Zombie casting his wife, Shari Moon-Zombie, as the lead in his films; cinema’s long, rich history is full of such actress – director relationships (Marlene Dietrich and Josef Von Sternberg; Greta Garbo and Clarence Brown), and Moon-Zombie does a fine enough job in 31 to justify her inclusion. In addition, Richard Brake gives a magnetic performance as Doom Head, who, despite being a typical Rob Zombie character, still had a few surprises hidden up his sleeve. That said, 31 should be the last time that Zombie and Malcolm McDowell collaborate on a movie, because the pairing is not working for either one of them (McDowell was ineffective in both Halloweens, and brings nothing at all to this film).

But truth be told, neither Moon-Zombie nor McDowell, or indeed any of the actors, are the weakest link in this particular movie.

The issue here is that, for a “stalk and slash” motion picture, 31 generates zero tension throughout. I mean none. There wasn’t a moment during the entire film when I was on the edge of my seat (instead of keeping us in suspense, Zombie simply parades out a new killer every few scenes and turns them loose on his main characters).

Also, aside from Doom Head, the collection of killers was pretty weak (Sick Head, a Nazi midget portrayed by Pancho Moler. was interesting at first, but ultimately talked a better game than he played). Even more disheartening was that, unlike Zombie’s earlier films, 31 was, at times, kinda predictable (I, and I’m sure a good many others, knew what the payoff of the dinner scene was going to be well before it was over).

Though I was disappointed with 31, I still want Rob Zombie to continue making horror movies; all things considered, his track record in the genre remains impressive. I just hope he gives us something better next time out.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

#2,286. The Good Neighbor (2016)

Directed By: Kasra Farahani

Starring: James Caan, Logan Miller, Keir Gilchrist

Tag line: "You never know who's watching"

Trivia: The film was screened at the South by Southwest Film Festival under the title The Waiting

Some of the best horror movies of 2016 featured home invasions, but with a twist; both Don’t Breathe and Intruders showed us what happens when the “victims” of a break-in become the aggressors, while the excellent Hush gave us a lead character with a disability (she was deaf) trying to fend off a would-be killer lurking outside her house. Directed by Kasra Farahani, The Good Neighbor presents an invasion of another kind: an invasion of privacy, where a pair of teenagers attempts to convince an old man that his house is haunted. Tense, fascinating, and ultimately very surprising, The Good Neighbor is an exceptional motion picture.

Armed with surveillance cameras and mechanized gizmos, wannabe filmmaker Ethan (Logan Miller) and his tech-savvy friend Sean (Keir Gilchrist) sneak into the home of Ethan’s elderly neighbor, Harold Grainey (James Cann) and rig it for what they hope will be a grand experiment (in short, they want to persuade Grainey that he’s living in a haunted house). By way of the three monitors set up in Ethan’s bedroom, the pals watch as Grainey reacts to each new “event” they subject him to; flickering lights, cold spots, and a screen door that opens and closes by itself. Initially, Ethan and Sean hoped only to scare Grainey, but as the days stretched into weeks, the old man’s behavior became frighteningly erratic, suggesting to the teens that this “experiment” may reveal more about their neighbor that even they anticipated.

Thanks to his work in movies like The Godfather and Rollerball, James Caan established himself as one of the most reliable actors of the 1970s, and with The Good Neighbor he shows that, all these years later, he hasn’t lost a step. Early on, Ethan, having just told a group of his friends about the “experiment”, describes Mr. Grainey as a “creepy psycho hermit” who, rumor has it, may have had a hand in his wife’s death. Sure enough, in his first few scenes, Grainey manages to insult a police officer and threatens to kill a neighbor’s dog for pissing on his lawn (though, to be honest, neither of these is as troubling as what he does to the screen door that won’t stay closed). But, as we’ll eventually learn, there’s more to Grainey than meets the eye, and Caan does a masterful job bringing what proves to be a complex character so convincingly to life.

In addition, The Good Neighbor intersperses, within the main narrative, scenes from both the past (flashbacks of Grainey and his wife, played by Laura Innes, that offer glimpses into the old man’s personal life) and the future (a court case, dealing with the events that occurred during the teens’ so-called “experiment”, hints that the entire ordeal ended in tragedy), yet still manages to sustain its central mystery throughout, never revealing until the very end what happened, or why. With intriguing sequences from three different timelines and a strong performance by James Caan, The Good Neighbor is a thriller of the highest order, and one of the finest horror films of the year.