20 Notoriously Bad ’90s Sci-Fi Movies (And 5 So Bad They’re Good)

The 1990s were an interesting time for science-fiction movies. On one hand, the decade provided us with some certified classics, including Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Jurassic Park, and The Matrix. There were a handful of other very good titles. The Fifth Element, Men in Black, Independence Day, and Contact are among them. Pictures like Dark City, Strange Days, and Gattaca weren’t immediate hits, although they found their audiences over time, thanks to the twin miracles of home video and cable TV. All in all, it was a fruitful decade for the genre.

On the other hand, there were at least as many sci-fi turkeys as there were quality efforts. The ’90s saw studios eager to crank out science-fiction tales, believing that they were practically a licence to print money. Some suffered from low budgets that were insufficient to carry out grandly conceived ideas. Some were ruined by feeling too similar to other movies. And some just had terrible scripts that never should have been put into production.

What follows is a rundown of some of the worst sci-fi films from the ’90s. These titles are widely recognized for being sub-par. Additionally included are five movies that, while not exactly good, are nevertheless kind of fun to watch. We’ll tell you why each movie is either bad or “so bad it’s good.” In every case, an effort was made to dazzle audiences, and in every case, that didn’t quite go as planned.

Here are 20 Notoriously Bad ‘90s Sci-Fi Movies (And 5 So Bad They Were Good).

Bad: Judge Dredd

Fans of the Judge Dredd comic books were excited to see the character brought to the big screen. Then they saw the movie and that excitement vanished. Sylvester Stallone has the title role in this 1995 dud. The plot finds him being framed by a criminal he sent away.

The uneven tone of Judge Dredd is a big part of what makes it so bad. At times, the film tries to be a hardcore action flick, while at other times it almost seems to be a parody of one. Stallone doesn’t do a whole lot to make the character distinct, either. He mostly plays his own well-honed screen persona.

Bad: Freejack

Freejack certainly has a good, if unusual cast that includes Mick Jagger. That’s right, Mick Jagger. The Rolling Stones rocker plays a bounty hunter hired to track down a race car driver (Emilio Estevez) whose body has been transferred to the future for use in a bizarre plan hatched by a sinister business tycoon (Anthony Hopkins).

Despite those actors and a potentially interesting sci-fi story, Freejack was panned by critics and rejected by audiences. An ambitious idea got foiled by cheap, unconvincing special effects. And while Jagger is a charismatic musical performer, his skills as an actor leave something to be desired.

Bad: The Puppet Masters

The Puppet Masters is based on a well-regarded Robert Heinlein novel. Despite that fact, it didn’t successfully translate to the screen. In the movie, aliens arrive on Earth and take control of the minds of humans in order to carry out their evil plans. Donald Sutherland plays a government agent attempting to stop them.

Before making this film, director Stuart Orme did music videos for Phil Collins and Level 42. Consequently, The Puppet Masters has a slick look, yet lackadaisical storytelling. Considering the drama inherent in the premise, there’s surprisingly little suspense to be found here.

Bad: Virtuosity

Before they appeared together in American Gangster, Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe made an utterly forgettable sci-fi thriller called Virtuosity. Crowe plays a virtual reality simulation that has been programmed with the personalities of serial killers. When it escapes into the real world, former cop Washington is brought in to track it.

Like several other ’90s thrillers, Virtuosity attempted to create paranoia about what modern technology might be capable of. At the time, the movie just seemed oddly disjointed and muddled. Today, its portrayal of VR’s potential for abuse is laughably preposterous.

So Bad It’s Good: Carnosaur

Three weeks before Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park was released, another dinosaur-themed movie hit theaters. That film was Carnosaur, a low-budget B-movie about an insane scientist (Diane Ladd) with a plan to wipe out humanity by impregnating human women with dinosaur eggs. Then one of her creations escapes the lab and terrorizes a small town.

Carnosaur has the cheap-o effects and exploitative vibe of many B-movies. That, plus Ladd’s impressively intense performance, makes it weirdly enjoyable to watch. The film had an unlikely supporter in film critic Gene Siskel, who gave it “thumbs up.”

Bad: I Come In Peace

Depending on where in the world you live, you will know this movie as either I Come in Peace or Dark Angel. It was released under different titles in different countries. Either way, Dolph Lundgren plays a detective tracking down an alien who came to Earth in order to extract endorphins from humans.

That plot is fairly straightforward, yet the movie muddles it badly through an excess of plot holes and some distractingly choppy editing. A comic buddy-cop vibe between Lundgren and an FBI agent (Brian Benben) similarly does the movie no favors.

Bad: Island of Dr. Moreau

Released in 1996, The Island of Dr. Moreau was the third screen version of H.G. Wells’ famous story. David Thewlis stars as a United Nations representative who finds himself on a remote island. There, the demented Dr. Moreau (Marlon Brando) is mixing animal and human genes together, creating some disturbing-looking creatures in the process.

It’s entirely possible The Island of Dr. Moreau could have been a good movie under different circumstances. Some well-documented behind-the-scenes drama — including the original director being replaced, Val Kilmer being difficult, and Marlon Brando being weird — turned it into a perplexing mess.

Bad: Wing Commander

Bad movies based on videogames are common, but few are as borderline unwatchable as Wing Commander. Freddie Prinze, Jr. and Matthew Lillard play members of a futuristic fighter squadron trying to win the war against a ruthless alien enemy known as Kilrathi. Along the way, Prinze also falls for his leader, played by Saffron Burrows.

For a movie that is supposed to be a cool and exciting space adventure, Wing Commander is filled with laughably bad special effects and a cheesy romantic subplot. The performances are overwrought, but then again, the actors are forced to spout inane dialogue, so perhaps they aren’t entirely to blame.

Bad: Sphere

There is no reason why Sphere should have been bad. It was based on a terrific Michael Crichton novel, was directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Barry Levinson, and had an A-list cast of Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, and Samuel L. Jackson. And yet both critics and audiences hated it. What went wrong?

The consensus from reviewers, who awarded it a dismal 14% at Rotten Tomatoes, was that the story of alien life at the bottom of the ocean felt a little too familiar, especially in the wake of James Cameron’s superior The Abyss. An attempt to send a profound message at the end is also hampered by some corny visual effects.

So Bad It’s Good: Timecop

The concept of Timecop is amusingly goofy, but it’s the casting of Jean-Claude Van Damme that lands it in the “so bad it’s good” category. The movie is about a police officer who goes ten years back in time to foil a corrupt senator, as well as to prevent his wife and children from being eliminated by the man.

That’s a perfectly serviceable premise. But since JCVD stars, there was a need to insert martial arts scenes. Consequently, Timecop is kind of like a Terminator rip-off that can’t fully decide whether it wants to be science fiction or a typical Van Damme action flick. It’s improbably, enjoyably both.

Bad: Ghost in the Machine

If you can hear the premise of Ghost in the Machine and not fall immediately into hysterical laughter, pat yourself on the back, because you’ve got real restraint! The movie is about a violent psychopath whose mind is turned into electrical energy after lightning strikes the hospital where he’s having an MRI. Suddenly, he can use computer networks to continue his crime streak. A hacker and a single mom try to foil him.

As if being inherently preposterous wasn’t bad enough, Ghost in the Machine takes itself so seriously that it ventures into the realm of unintentional comedy.

Bad: Barb Wire

Barb Wire was supposed to turn Baywatch‘s Pamela Anderson into a full-fledged movie star. Instead, the film became a joke. The actress plays the Dark Horse comics character, a futuristic bounty hunter on a mission involving a special pair of contact lenses. The only thing worse than that absurd plot is Anderson’s stiff, one-note performance.

When it was released in 1996, Barb Wire got crushed at the nation’s cinemas. According to Box Office Mojo, it opened in 12th place, with a debut gross of $1.8 million. Anderson’s career as a big screen leading lady was appropriately short-lived.

Bad: Solo

Mario Van Peebles plays the title character in Solo. He’s an android solider sent into battle in Latin America. Unbeknownst to the American military, he has a thing against eliminating innocent people, so when he comes to empathize with the oppressed citizens of a small village, he instructs them in the art of fighting back.

Solo has many of the hallmarks of bad science-fiction cinema. The dialogue is clunky, the performances are bland, and the self-serious tone often provides unintentional laughter. The film earned a weak 6% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Bad: The Thirteenth Floor

The year 1999 gave audiences a trippy, mind-bending sci-fi masterpiece that made them question the very nature of reality. That film was The Matrix. And then there was The Thirteenth Floor. It goes for the same type of vibe, telling the story of a scientist who has recreated 1937 in a virtual reality simulation. He becomes the suspect in a slaying.

Whereas The Matrix had a plot that knotted your brain, it made sense at the end. The Thirteenth Floor, on the other hand, is maddeningly confusing. The movie never figures out what it wants to do with its potentially engaging ideas.

So Bad It’s Good: Tank Girl

Tank Girl is based on a comic book character created by Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlitt. Lori Petty plays her in this tale of a post-apocalyptic rebel fighting an organization that wants to control the water supply. Critics panned the flick for its hyperactive visual style and over-the-top performance from its star.

No, it’s not great, but Tank Girl rocks anyway. In what other sci-fi movie will you find random animated sequences, a Busby Berkley-inspired musical number, and the astonishing sight of Ice-T playing a half-human/half-kangaroo? Every scene offers some wacky new surprise.

Bad: Soldier

Kurt Russell is, of course, awesome. The same cannot be said of his 1998 sci-fi action picture Soldier. Russell portrays a man raised since birth to be a lethal fighter. As part of that training, any moral code he might have has been thoroughly wiped out. After being discarded to a rundown planet, he helps its denizens fight a war of their own.

Writer David Webb Peoples has claimed that Solider is a “spin-off” of Blade Runner. It shares none of that classic’s intelligence, though. Mostly, this is just an endlessly violent snooze-fest.

Bad: Johnny Mnemonic

Four years before Keanu Reeves hit the sci-fi jackpot with The Matrix, he headlined the infamous dud Johnny Mnemonic. The film casts him as a courier who has a digital message inside his head. Unfortunately for him, the Yakuza wants to intercept that message before he can deliver it.

Reeves is a fine actor in the right role. This is not the right role. His performance earned him a Razzie Award as Worst Actor. Johnny Mnemonic also suffers from a lack of compelling action, a dim-witted plot, and an unmemorable villain.

Bad: Alien Resurrection

After Alien 3 managed to disappoint just about everyone, the franchise’s producers scrambled to get it back on track with Alien Resurrection. Their solution — bring back the now-deceased Ellen Ripley as a clone and add Winona Ryder!

In fairness, the consensus at the time was that, while nowhere near as good as Ridley Scott’s original or James Cameron’s Aliens, this fourth installment was slightly better than the previous one. However, over time, that third entry has developed a legion of fans who insist it’s underrated. Almost no one says that about Resurrection. The movie lacks the intensity fans expect.

Bad: Eve of Destruction

Eve of Destruction stars Renee Soutendijk as Dr. Eve Simmons, a scientist who has created a military robot made to resemble herself. When it gets damaged and promptly goes haywire, military official Gregory Hines is assigned to hunt it down.

Serious miscasting is a major factor in this movie’s low quality level. The late Hines was a wonderful actor who usually radiated pure joy onscreen. He simply isn’t credible as a tough-as-nails action hero. A bizarre subplot about the robot’s desire to act out its maker’s arduous fantasies is similarly out of place.

So Bad It’s Good: Event Horizon

In Event Horizon, a spaceship ventured into a black hole years ago. When it comes back through, the crew of a rescue ship discovers that something very, very evil has accompanied it. Sam Neill, Laurence Fishburne, and Joely Richardson star.

Upon its initial release, Event Horizon was widely panned for being ridiculously, needlessly gory. Some of the nightmarish sights are stomach-churning. An appreciative fanbase has sprung up around it, though. While the movie only has a 27% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes, it boasts a much higher 61% audience score. That over-the-top violence is catnip to gore fans.

Bad: Congo

Michael Crichton’s Congo is a terrific book. The movie? Not so much. A primatologist returns an expertly-trained gorilla to Africa during a mission to determine how a diamond expedition went tragically wrong. Things go even more wrong from there. Laura Linney and Ernie Hudson are among the stars.

Computer-generated effects in 1995 were pretty good, but not yet good enough to render a believable gorilla. As such, Congo often feels very silly as human actors interact with something that doesn’t look real enough. The tongue-in-cheek tone is also a betrayal of the novel’s dramatic themes.

Bad: The Lawnmower Man/Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace

The Lawnmower Man is about an intellectually disabled man made smarter — and dangerous — from using a scientist’s virtual reality program. The film was deemed too cerebral by its studio, which chopped the running time by over 30 minutes prior to release, leading to a disjointed mess.

Still, it’s Citizen Kane compared to the sequel, Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace, in which an evil business tycoon uses “Jobe” to unite all the world’s computers, which he can then control. It has a plot that makes little sense, in addition to some inexcusably cheesy visual effects.

Bad: Abraxas: Guardian of the Universe

Abraxas: Guardian of the Universe is a cheap-o sci-fi adventure starring former professional wrestler/Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura. He plays an intergalactic cop who arrives to Earth in order to prevent another alien from impregnating a human woman with an embryo designed to destroy the universe post-birth.

Weak production design seriously hampers this film, as do awful effects, unconvincing performances, and a plot that feels ripped off from a dozen other movies. As an actor, Jesse Ventura is no Dwayne Johnson or John Cena. Abraxas is real bottom-of-the-barrel stuff — the kind of thing you expect to find on cable TV in the middle of the night.

Bad: Godzilla

Godzilla was supposed to be a major summer blockbuster in 1998. It had a strong opening weekend, but then terrible word-of-mouth set in and box office business dropped precipitously. The movie has since become a prime example of Hollywood excess gone overboard.

Director Roland Emmerich put too many overblown CGI sequences into the film, making it feel soulless. The characters are one-dimensional, and a romantic subplot between Matthew Broderick and Mario Patillo is both laughable and annoying. The movie has none of the appeal of classic Godzilla flicks. In particular, the title creature lacks personality.

So Bad It’s Good: Waterworld

Waterworld is well-known for having had an extremely troubled production that ended the longtime friendship between star Kevin Costner and director Kevin Reynolds. A near-endless barrage of bad publicity made it difficult for audiences in 1995 to see beyond the problems.

Look at it now, though, and Waterworld reveals itself to be admirably ambitious. Yes, it has a number of flaws, but it also has big ideas and the courage to go after them. Time has been kind to the film, which has seen its reputation grow. Even if imperfect, this aquatic adventure is fascinating in its scope.

It’s A Cinema World After All

When I was a kid, we lived for a few years in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, a town about 32 miles outside of Pittsburgh. My dad ran two of the local radio stations, WHJB-AM and WOKU-FM. I was five when we moved there, nine when we left. Even at that tender young age, I was obsessed with movies. Obsessed. And not just kids’ movies — any movies. My favorite day of the week was Sunday, because we’d get the Pittsburgh newspaper with the big entertainment section filled with movie ads. I’d spend hours staring at them, trying to imagine what they were like from the artwork and the taglines.

As such, my parents took me to the local theaters on a fairly regular basis. One of them has always stood out: Cinema World in the Eastgate Plaza. It was your basic ’70s movie theater — a square building with four shoebox-like auditoriums inside, two on either side of the concession stand. The place was located in a shopping plaza that also had a Gee Bee department store and a supermarket, among other things. Cinema World was an important part of my childhood, one that I have always remembered with great fondness. Here’s what it looked like:

Photo courtesy of Third Stop on the Right

Some of my most important moviegoing memories happened inside this building. My dad took me to see Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein here when I was six years old. The film was my introduction to Brooks, who instantly became the first director I was consciously aware of. Decades later, I remain a major fan. Around the time I turned eight, my parents brought me to Cinema World to see The Bad News Bears. That film was a revelation. I’d never seen a movie in which children used profanity. There’s a moment at the end where one player hurls an insult at the other team, and it blew my young mind that a kid could talk that way.

Dad and I also saw the Neil Simon-penned detective comedy Murder by Death, starring Peter Falk and Peter Sellers, at Cinema World, along with the car race comedy The Gumball Rally, the Jane Fonda/George Segal romp Fun with Dick and Jane, and the Blake Edwards farce The Pink Panther Strikes Again. My family also caught the disaster movie sequel Airport ’77, which completely freaked me out. That’s the one where the plane crashes into the ocean, trapping everyone a hundred feet under water. To this day, deep water makes me nervous, and I’ve never flown in an airplane.

Like I said, I was obsessed with movies. We ended up in the Eastgate Plaza quite a bit because of the stores there. Whenever we went, I would make my parents walk me over to Cinema World so that I could study the posters displayed on the far left and far right sides of the building. In 1975, there was a sex comedy called If You Don’t Stop It…You’ll Go Blind!!! I looked at that poster for the longest time before finally asking what the title meant. My folks wouldn’t tell me. Similarly, I stood there examining the poster for Mother, Jugs & Speed, eventually figuring out that there was a reason Raquel Welch’s character was “Jugs.”

Photo courtesy of Third Stop on the Right

One of the really cool features of Cinema World was its right-hand side, facing the road. There were four mini marquees there. Each held the title of one of the movies playing. Now, there was a traffic light right beside the theater, so whenever we got stopped while traveling beyond the Eastgate Plaza, I would intently stare at those marquees until we moved again, once more trying to imagine the movies’ content based solely on their titles.

I saw the words Marathon Man up there and contemplated what that phrase might mean. I also recall other titles that captivated my young mind: Two-Minute Warning, The Man Who Would Be King, Gable and Lombard, Annie Hall, A Star Is Born (the Streisand/Kristofferson version), and Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Of course, I was not old enough to see most of those, yet they captured my imagination nevertheless.

The reason Cinema World has taken up a small place of residence in my heart is that it held a lot of awe and wonder for me. My passion for film was in its earliest stages, and this was a location where it started to blossom. As you can probably surmise from the movies I saw there, my childhood wasn’t confined strictly to kiddie fare. Getting a taste of stuff a bit above my level suggested a whole world waiting to be explored. That’s why I was so consumed with posters and marquees and newspaper ads; they were the promise of what was to come.

Cinema World lasted a fairly long time — 25 years, in fact. It closed its doors in 2000 and was demolished shortly thereafter. A Chick-fil-A restaurant now stands in the spot where it once existed. I still think of it often. For hardcore film buffs, our personal history isn’t just the movies we saw, it’s also the theaters in which we saw them. Those experiences make up who we become as cinephiles. Cinema World was an essential part of my story.

A Chick-fil-A restaurant on the site of the former Cinema World in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. (Photo taken from Google Maps)

My most sincere and heartfelt thanks to Rachel at Third Stop on the Right for graciously allowing me to use her pictures of Cinema World. Her blog is a lot of fun to read, and there are some great reflections on notable locations in Western Pennsylvania. 

Photo courtesy of Third Stop on the Right

Tigers Are Not Afraid [Fantasia 2018 Review]

The Mexican film Tigers Are Not Afraid combines gritty reality with horror/fantasy in a way that recalls Guillermo del Toro’s superb films The Devil’s Playground and Pan’s Labyrinth. At the same time, writer/director Issa Lopez forges her own path, creating a dark fairy tale that oozes imagination while also showing deep empathy for the story’s young characters. The film, which has been making a splash on the festival circuit, screened at Fantasia 2018.

Paola Lara plays 11-year-old Estrella. Her mother has disappeared, presumably falling prey to the violence of the local drug cartels. Abandoned and lonely, she falls in with a group of boys who are similarly living on the streets. One of them is in possession of a cell phone belonging to a cartel member. That guy and his cohorts come looking for it, causing the kids to become embroiled in a struggle to survive.

The fantasy element in Tigers Are Not Afraid comes from the way Estrella clings to imagination as a means of dealing with the terrifying reality in front of her. She sees a line of blood that follows her around when something unpleasant is about to happen, there’s a stuffed tiger who provides her with an important clue, and a couple of times she views ghostly figures. Estrella also believes that she has been given three magical wishes. Over the course of the story, she uses them strategically.

Those elements are used to underline the harsh experience she’s stuck in. Lopez wisely does nothing to water down the depiction of young Mexican children living on the streets. The film takes you deep inside that issue, showing how scary it is and how helpless these kids feel. To call the film a gut punch would be an understatement. The sole bright spot is that Estrella finds connection with the other children, most notably Shine (Juan Ramon Lopez). All in the same boat, they overcome initial mistrust, recognizing that their chances of survival increase when they band together. Watching how this happens is affecting.

At 76 minutes (minus end credits), Tigers Are Not Afraid certainly had room to develop everything even further than it does. Then again, it’s not necessarily a bad thing when a movie is so good that it leaves you wanting more, right? The performances from the young actors are authentic, and the film spotlights a very real problem too many children are forced to deal with, in a manner that rattles you while still providing the entertainment value that comes from watching a skillfully-made work.

Mike McGranaghan

For my reviews of movies in current release, please visit the main page of The Aisle Seat.

For more information on Fantasia 2018, please visit the official website.

Bodied [Fantasia 2018 Review]

Joseph Kahn has directed music videos for some of the biggest names in the industry, including Taylor Swift, Maroon 5, Katy Perry, and Eminem. Clearly, he’s someone very in touch with contemporary style, music, art, and film. Those things serve him well with Bodied, a movie about  rap battles. This is an unusual picture, in that it’s overwrought to the point of becoming tiresome, yet it also has some worthy things to say about race and its use in pop culture. The film screened at Fantasia 2018.

Former Disney Channel star Calum Worthy plays way against type as Adam, a young (white) man writing his Master’s thesis on the use of the N-word in the competitive rapping community. His investigations put him into the orbit of a master rapper, Behn Grymm (Jackie Long). Through a series of events, Behn encourages Adam to take on another guy in an impromptu battle, and it turns out that he’s kind of good at it. This gives him entry into the competitions themselves. Adam’s politically correct girlfriend Maya (Rory Uphold) is none too happy about him partaking in an event that routinely utilizes misogynist and racist terminology.

The value of Bodied is twofold. First, it has a ring of authenticity in its portrayal of rap battling, taking you into a culture where bravado and creative wordplay are powerful tools. As Adam points out, it’s really people competing against each other using cleverly-crafted, sometimes vulgar poetry. Second, and more importantly, the movie is an examination of how different races view each other — and themselves. In order to fully make it in rap battling, Adam has to adhere to the style, which involves saying racist things that he would never dream of saying in daily conversation. At the same time, to say such things means that they must first be thought. Bodied suggests that we all have a touch of racism within us somewhere.

Concurrent with that, the film wants to be a satire of political correctness and the mindset, common especially among younger people, that every sentence uttered by someone must be intensely scrutinized to determine whether it could be even the slightest bit insensitive to any group of individuals. That’s absolutely worthy of satire, and there are moments when Bodied hits the comic bullseye. More often, though, the movie is too on-the-nose about it. The point of satire is that the message need not be explained; it’s inherent in the joke. The screenplay has a tendency to have the satire explain itself, which robs it of humor.

A few other things undermine the picture’s total success. The performances are mostly very exaggerated. Worthy, for instance, plays Adam with that broad quality that Disney Channel and Nickelodeon sitcom stars are trained in. He raps credibly, but his scenes outside the ring make Adam nerdy to an un-relatable degree. Bodied also runs two full hours, which is much longer than the story needs to make its point.

There’s definitely some good stuff in here, particularly the rap battles themselves, which — just by sheer virtue of the things said — point out that offensive remarks are  sanctioned in certain situations, yet still bring with them repercussions and the ability to wound. Those positives are, however, buried under a needlessly long running time and frequent heavy-handedness.

Bodied deserves admiration for its ambition, even if the execution isn’t where it could have been.

Mike McGranaghan

For more information on Fantasia 2018, please visit the official website.

For my reviews of movies in current theatrical release, please visit the main page of The Aisle Seat.

Lifechanger [Fantasia 2018 Review]

If Richard Linklater’s Slacker was remade as a horror film, it might resemble Lifechanger. The movie, which had its world premiere at Fantasia 2018, is ambitious and intriguing, with one heck of a twist in the final ten minutes. Writer/director Justin McConnell clearly has big ideas on his mind, which makes this something worth paying attention to.

Bill Oberst, Jr. provides the voice of Drew. We don’t really see him because he’s a “body thief.” Somehow he moves from person to person, killing them and taking over their bodies until they start to rot, at which time he finds a new host. Early scenes in the film show him inhabiting a body, spending a day or two in it, then moving to another (hence my Slacker reference). Aside from the trail of death and destruction left in his wake, there is an additional complication. Drew has fallen in love with Julia (Lora Burke, in a very good performance), so he continually works his way into her orbit with each new guise.

The heart of Lifechanger is that Drew wants to be near Julia, but he can’t if he dies, so he has to continue his murderous ways. That’s one heck of a hook! We follow him as he uses various metrics to determine whose body he should take over, and as he tries to figure out how to achieve the desired closeness with Julia in spite of his inability to remain static.

It takes a little while for the movie to get going. Understanding what’s happening and the “rules” of it takes some time. You also have to get to know Drew through his voiceover, since we don’t see the real him onscreen. That involves listening to what he says as he passes through several bodies and analyzes his predicament. Put the effort into doing those things and you’ll be rewarded. Lifechanger builds to a climax that pays off its premise in a thematically perfect way designed to make your jaw drop.

In terms of horror, there are absolutely some moments that will shock you. McConnell shows an aptitude for making things just as gruesome as they need to be to maintain effectiveness, without going overboard. The way violence is handled here makes Drew’s situation feel almost as tragic for him as for his victims. It becomes a warped, twisted version of the food chain.

Lifechanger combines an interior kind of horror with a very external kind of horror, which makes it a movie to have on your radar.

Mike McGranaghan

For more information on Fantasia 2018, please visit the official website.

For my reviews of current theatrical releases, go to the main page of The Aisle Seat.

 

The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot [Fantasia 2018 Review]

From the title alone, you might expect The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot to be a massive slice of cinematic insanity. It’s true that there’s a really bonkers sequence in which star Sam Elliott fights the legendary Sasquatch. Beyond that, though, the movie — which had its world premiere at Fantasia 2018 — is fairly restrained. That’s a good thing, because there’s far more depth here than the awesome and technically accurate attention-getting title suggests. Using the word “melancholy” to describe a film with such a moniker is odd, yet also perfectly apt. However you want to describe it, this is a special work that hits you in unexpected ways.

Elliott plays Calvin Barr, a man who has been carrying around a secret for decades: he assassinated Adolf Hitler. For a variety of reasons best unrevealed here, he never got credit for it, not that he cares. Despite eliminating one of history’s greatest villains, Calvin regrets having taken a life. The event also cost him his relationship with girlfriend Maxine (Caitlin FitzGerald), who is seen in the flashbacks that permeate the film. Aidan Turner plays Calvin during those scenes.

It is not a welcome event when representatives from the FBI and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police show up at Calvin’s door asking for his help. The FBI agent (Ron Livingston) knows about Hitler and now wants him to track and kill Bigfoot, who is carrying a disease that could wipe out mankind. After some initial resistance, Calvin agrees to put himself into a situation where he’ll have to kill again.

The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot has two questions at its core. The first is, What if you did something truly remarkable but had ambivalent feelings about it? The second is, Would it be foolish to do something remarkable again, given those ambivalent feelings from before? Writer/director Robert Krzykowski explores how Calvin struggles to reconcile what he did with how it affected his life. Yes, he made the world better for everyone else. For himself, though? That’s another matter. He’s not sure if it was ultimately worth it. In some respects, the movie is reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven in the way it maps the emotional toll getting pulled back into violence takes on the lead character, although Calvin Barr’s outcome is certainly different than William Munny’s.

Sam Elliott gives yet another stellar performance here, expertly conveying the way Calvin’s ordeal and its subsequent repercussions have worn him down over the years. You can feel every drop of guilt, remorse, and sorrow. At the same time, the actor shows how his character gradually opens up to himself and finds some form of acceptance over the course of his adventure pursuing Bigfoot. It’s more great work from a performer who routinely delivers greatness.

The fact that The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot is so hard to categorize is part of what makes it so special. Predicting where it will go from minute to minute is impossible. Krzykowski confidently weaves the story between past and present, reality and fantasy. A “big” moment will be followed by one that’s quieter and more introspective. He scatters little cross-references between timelines, and utilizes a clever metaphor for Calvin’s problem — one that involves his shoe. The cumulative result is that the movie takes what could have been a jokey premise and instead melds it into something mythic and meaningful.

One of the most pleasing qualities of genre films is their ability to tackle deep themes in a way that’s not as heavy-handed or obvious as they could be if tackled straight-on. The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot is as good an example of that as you will find. This is a touching, affecting story about a man coming to terms with his life’s deeds. And it just happens to have him fighting Bigfoot.

Mike McGranaghan

For more information about Fantasia 2018, please visit the official website.

For my reviews of movies currently in theatrical release, please visit the main page of The Aisle Seat.

Cam [Fantasia 2018 Review]

Cam is like a really taut episode of The Twilight Zone set against the backdrop of sex work. From the opening scene, it grabs you and doesn’t let go for an hour-and-a-half. The movie, which had its world premiere at Fantasia 2018, pulls you into the world of “cam girls” — women who host sexually-explicit online shows, and often get on slightly personal terms with their fans. Graphic, but never offensively so, it delves into the psyche of one such cam girl as her world starts to fall apart.  

Madeline Brewer gives a brave, ferocious performance as Alice. She has a loyal viewership in her guise as “Lola,” but is obsessed with breaking into her web host’s top 50. That entails using extreme tactics like implications of self-harm in addition to the usual sexual teases. Alice wants to tell her mother (Melora Walters) about her profession, yet figures it’s better to wait until she’s reached the appropriate level of success first.

Trouble strikes when Alice gets locked out of her account. Worse, someone else is broadcasting on it. Someone who looks and sounds exactly like her. How is this possible? Her effort to find out puts her in contact with two creepy regular viewers, and in pursuit of the #1 cam girl around. What she discovers is shocking.

The questions of how Alice’s account gets hacked and who does it are only answered very generally. That’s perfectly okay, because Cam isn’t so much about what happens as it is about Alice’s reaction it. Despite some horror overtones, this is ultimately a story of control. On her shows, Alice has it. She decides what she’s comfortable doing, how to present herself, and in what ways she wants to interact with her viewers. Using sex appeal as leverage, she calls all the shots. Once her account is hijacked and the other Lola takes over, she no longer has that control, which threatens to derail her dream of rising in the ranks. This realization leads to taking greater risks to get that control back.

Cam was written by Isa Mazzei, a former cam girl herself. That makes a huge difference, as the movie is filled with authentic details that add exponentially to the effect. Even if you’d never watch one of these broadcasts, the way Cam delves into the behind-the-scenes preparations, the relationship-building with viewers, the technical complications, and the rivalries between hosts is captivating. Director Daniel Goldhaber paces the film like a rocket, zipping back-and-forth between Alice’s real world and her online existence, showing how the two have become intertwined.

At the center of it all is Madeline Brewer (The Handmaid’s Tale). She palpably captures Alice’s single-mindedness in wanting to be a top cam girl. Although tough and determined on the outside, Brewer also suggests an inner vulnerability, as though Alice doesn’t see much potential in herself other than that which her hotness provides, so she willingly capitalizes on it. This role deserves to make the actress a star.

Cam is destined to be compared to the work of David Lynch, particularly Mulholland Dr., with its nightmarish, surreal quality and duel identity plot. Truthfully, though, the movie is more accessible than Lynch’s (admittedly great) output. There’s also a freshness to the treatment of the subject matter that makes it unique.

All the way around, Cam is a bold, electrifying thriller.

Mike McGranaghan

For more information on Fantasia 2018, please visit the official website.

Mega Time Squad [Fantasia 2018 Review]

If you’re a fan of time-travel comedies, Mega Time Squad is going to blow your mind. The movie, which had its world premiere at Fantasia 2018, puts an ingenious and often hilariously funny spin on the whole concept of how time-travel is used in movies. If you think you can guess where this New Zealand import’s story is headed, you’re completely wrong.

Anton Tennet plays Johnny, a low-level drug dealer who performs errands and chores for a local kingpin, Shelton (Johnny Brugh). One day, he gets the bright idea to stage a heist of his own, making off with the money Shelton has ordered him to steal from a local Chinese-run antique store with ties to a triad. In the process, he also swipes a magical ancient bracelet — one that, when a button on it is pushed, allows him to travel a short way back in time. There’s just one hitch: it also creates another version of him. And according to legend, a demon appears if a time-traveler meets himself.

Needless to say, Johnny uses it. What follows is a madcap adventure in which five different iterations of Johnny are pursued by people trying to get the money back.

Early scenes in Mega Time Squad are highly comical, as Johnny repeatedly gets out of trouble by foolishly generating new copies of himself. One scene, set in a public restroom, is especially uproarious. Then there’s a unique twist in the second half. Without spoiling anything, let’s just say that Johnny and his duplicates don’t necessarily trust each other. (That the character is self-aware about his own disreputable nature is one of the film’s shrewdest jokes.) Everything leads to a climax that finds Johnny and Shelton confronting each other. The way this resolves itself is deeply satisfying.

The special effects used in the movie are so seamless that I assumed director Tim van Dammen had somehow found quintuplet actors to play Johnny. You can’t see the seams anywhere. There’s a jaw-dropping sequence in which all the Johnnies confuse Shelton and his goons by wandering through a house simultaneously. Done in long, steady shots where he repeatedly passes himself, the scene is astonishing to watch. These are, however, just effects. There is only one Johnny, and Anton Tennet does a terrific job playing all the many versions of the hapless character. It is a testament to his abilities that we can keep them all straight.

One of the hardest things for any time-travel movie to achieve is to have everything be airtight, so that there are no “holes” in the plot and so that everything adds up 100%. I’m not entirely sure Mega Time Squad does that. Then again, it really doesn’t matter. The clever premise and appealingly offbeat sense of humor are more than sufficient to make this a comedy worth savoring.

Mike McGranaghan

For more information on Fantasia 2018, please visit the official website.

Boiled Angels: The Trial of Mike Diana [Fantasia 2018 Review]

Mike Diana drew insanely offensive art. That was his whole point. He wanted to be appreciated not by the masses, but by people who were on his own demented wavelength. Odds are you’ve never heard of Diana. He is the first U.S. artist convicted of obscenity. Now he’s the subject of an important documentary from director Frank Henenlotter (Basket Case, Frankenhooker) called Boiled Angels: The Trial of Mike Diana. The film had its international premiere at Fantasia 2018.

After a brief, informative history of underground comics, the documentary zeroes in on its subject. Diana was a young Florida man who published a zine (a homemade magazine sent out to subscribers by mail) called Boiled Angels. It was filled with cartoons that spoke to his personal obsessions: sexuality, religion, and violence. The sexual assault of children and infants was a common theme in his work, although it was presented in an extremely exaggerated fashion.

Through a freak confluence of events, Diana’s drawings came to the attention of the police. A traffic stop turned up a copy of one issue, and the officer noticed some similarities between the illustrations and a series of brutal murders that had taken place in Gainesville, Florida. Authorities tracked him down and immediately began investigating to see if he might be the killer. He wasn’t. That said, his work was deemed obscene, leading to an arrest and trial, at the end of which he was convicted of obscenity. No one had been hurt, and the zine only went into the hands of 200 or 300 people, all of whom voluntarily subscribed to it.

Henenlotter interviews Diana about his ordeal, but also talks to his parents, the prosecutor who won the case, a woman who followed the story in the media and showed up in court to confront him, and multiple fellow artists. Each offers a unique perspective on the trial and its long-term ramifications.

Boiled Angels: The Trial of Mike Diana uses these interviews to get at its main point, which is that it’s absolutely absurd for anyone to have been convicted for drawing provocative pictures. It’s precisely the thing the First Amendment is supposed to protect, and yet somehow, in this particular instance, justice was not served. If anything, Diana used his artwork as a means of getting rid of his demons in a productive, non-violent way. The problem is not what he drew, it’s that people couldn’t deal with those drawings once they saw them.

Narrated by punk rocker Jello Biafra and featuring a healthy swath of its subject’s work, Boiled Angels makes a strong statement about the need for art to push boundaries, to confront us, and to occasionally assault our sensibilities. Diana is clearly a shy man, so he doesn’t necessarily go deep into his feelings, but Henenlotter makes sure to fill everything out, leading to a documentary that will offend and enlighten you simultaneously.

Mike McGranaghan

For more information on Fantasia 2018, please visit the official website.

Four Must-See Movies at Fantasia

The annual Fantasia International Film Festival is soon upon us. The event, which takes place from July 12 through August 2, brings together some of the most innovative, cutting-edge genre films from around the world. The 2018 fest has an amazing-looking roster of titles.

Here are four must-see movies playing at Fantasia this year, which are certain to get a lot of attention:

Arizona – Danny McBride stars in this dark comedy, set during the 2009 housing crisis, as a disturbed guy who takes out his frustrations on anyone who displeases him. McBride is, of course, best known for goofy comedy, but there’s always been an underlying angry edge in his work. Here, he appears to indulge in that edginess, which promises an unforgettable ride. The screenplay was written by Brooklyn Nine-Nine scribe Luke Del Tredici, so you just know the dialogue is going to crackle. This could be a picture that shows its star in a whole new light.

Tales from the Hood 2 – Rusty Cundieff’s Tales from the Hood is one of the most important horror movies of the 1990s. The anthology uses issues related to race in each of its segments, leading to a viewing experience that is both provocative and entertaining. Years later, Cundieff delivers a sequel starring the great Keith David as the new Mr. Simms. (He takes over for Clarence Williams III.) It will be exciting to see how the director weaves in contemporary issues of race, especially in light of recent events that have rocked America. Tales from the Hood 2 looks to be a much-needed cinematic barn-burner.

Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich – If you grew up in the era of VHS, you doubtlessly know the Puppet Master franchise. These low-budget productions are notable for their murderous puppet creations, twisted violence, and wicked sense of humor. The latest installment, Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, is more than just another sequel, though. It was made by the people behind the acclaimed genre film Bone Tomahawk, so it’s obviously going to be a totally original take, especially since it revolves around a Nazi puppetmaker played by Udo Kier. Thomas Lennon and the always-awesome Barbara Crampton co-star.

Our House – Thomas Mann plays a young guy working on an invention that allows for wireless electricity, while also caring for his brother and sister following the tragic death of their parents. What he doesn’t initially realize is that his gizmo actually opens up a portal allowing contact from the Other Side. I’m including Our House on this must-see list for a simple reason: I’ve already seen it, and it’s terrific. (The movie has begun screening for critics in advance of its July 27 opening.) A full review will follow in the weeks ahead. For now, I’ll just say that it continues the trend — started by A Quiet Place and Hereditary — of 2018 horror films that are as concerned with character and emotion as they are with scares.

Of course, there are many other awesome films playing at Fantasia, and I’ll be covering some of them here. For more information on what’s screening, check out the official Fantastia 2018 website.