Tuesday, October 24, 2006

There Can Be Only One - Highlander 10/21

The leaves are falling from skeletal tree limbs once again, signaling the return of my favorite time of year – Halloween. Last year, the Rockford area was host to two massive haunted attractions: Rockford Screamfest, held in a series of vacant storefronts in the Machesney Park Mall, and Trail of Screams, which features a horror-themed redecoration of the woodsy Camp Winnebago. We left it kind of late last year and were only able to hit the Rockford Screamfest. The attraction was a blast, featuring a pre-tour Midway of Terror filled with carnival & video games, and trips through the Willowdale Farm (a woods set and haunted farmhouse), the Institute for the Criminally Insane, the Realm of Darkness, the Riverview Cemetery, and the Nightmare in 3-D (one of those things that uses glow in the dark paint where the visitors wear prism glasses for a disorienting effect). It was great fun, densely packed, with people and things jumping out of the dark to grab your ankles and scream at you as you grope your way past.

Last year we left it too late to visit the Trail of Screams (the line was three people deep and a city block in length), so we went last weekend before the crowds swarmed in. To say that it was disappointing after the build-up to last year’s event would be an understatement, as most of the tour through the “haunted” woods involves walking through the dark from one haunted building (a cabin, barn, prison, crematorium) to another, waiting in vain for something to jump out at you – which, unfortunately, never happens.

Satanica is always a hoot at these things, as she instinctively covers her head with her hands and laughs/giggles/screams her way through the maze. The spooky dudes in costume always zero right in on her, provoking her to further heights of madness, all to the greater amusement of her compatriots on the trail.

Compared to last year’s Rockford Screamfest (no longer in service this year – drats!), the Trail of Screams was a let down. This coming weekend we’re thinking of taking in the Tebala Shriner’s Temple of Terror, a concept that just seems so completely crazy that it would have to be worth a look.

And, also coming up in the coming week is our household’s annual Frightfest Halloween party / horror movie marathon. This year we’ll be screening a full six hours of non-stop terror, including the full length features Near Dark, Creep and Feast, each of which will be preceded by a bunch of classic horror movie trailers and a short film. In the lineup is Mario Bava’s The Drop of Water segment from his film Black Sabbath; the Satanic Brazilian short Love From Mother Only (Amor so de Mae), which is one of the spookiest things I have personally seen in years; and the Mummy Daddy episode of Steven Spielberg’s old Amazing Stories TV show. I’ll cover Frightfest 2006 in more detail next week. In the meantime, you can check out my overly thorough coverage of our previous Frightfest marathons by clicking on the following links: Frightfest 2001, Frightfest 2002, Frightfest 2003, Frightfest 2004, Frightfest 2005

At this past Saturday Night Freak Show we had a smaller turn out than usual due to various weddings, and birthday & Halloween parties. Our small group consisted of myself, Dr. Sinestro the Master of Ceremonies, my lovely wife Satanica Pandemonium, Trixie Blowpop, my sister, and Oblisk the Tormentor, her husband, the Man Who Will Furthermore Be Known as Special K, and The Woman For Whom I Have Not Yet Worked Out a Nickname. We all indulged in a big pot of Bad Ass Chili (into which I pour four different types of beans, and, apparently, not enough meat), followed by pumpkin pie and cinnamon ice cream. Given the subject matter of tonight’s movie, I should have had something like haggis (sheep’s stomach stuffed with meat and barley!), but I don’t think I have the intestinal fortitude for it.

We kicked off the evening’s programming with one of the Animatrix shorts, this one titled A Detective Story. Written and directed by Shinichiro Watanabe, the creator of Cowboy Beebop, the story follows a private detective named Ash and his assignment to track down a renegade hacker named Trinity. The Animatrix shorts were conceived as an extension of the universe established in The Matrix films by the Wachowski Brothers, but (with the exception of The Final Flight of the Osiris) were produced by Japanese anime studios. A Detective Story is arguably the best of the bunch, taking place in a noir-drenched futuristic cityscape depicted in stark, nearly black and white visual design. Very cool.



Our movie for the night was chosen in honor of Trixie and Oblisk’s as yet-to-be-conceived first born son, Connor. Highlander comes at us from 1986 and features Frenchman Christopher Lambert as Scottish highlander Connor McLeod of the Clan McLeod. In the 15th century, McLeod is fatally wounded in battle against the Russian-born Kurgan (played by American Clancy Brown) but miraculously survives his own death. Suspected of being “in league with the devil” by his sheep-pokin’ townsfolk, McLeod is cast out of the village. Soon after, he meets up with Spaniard Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez (essayed by scenery chewing Scottsman Sean Connery) who reveals to McLeod his true nature – that they are both a member of a brotherhood of immortals who battle each other down through the centuries to claim The Prize. Only by beheading can they be killed, so each must be proficient in swordplay.


The film jumps around in the events of McLeod’s long life – we first see him living in New York City in the guise of an antique dealer and going by the name Russell Nash. After killing another immortal in the parking garage of Madison Square Garden, McLeod attracts the attention of the NYPD, especially forensics expert Brenda Wyatt (Roxanne Hart) who has a thing for ancient weaponry. It soon becomes clear that the evil Kurgan has also survived into the modern era, so the stage is set for the ultimate showdown.

I first caught Highlander on VHS circa 1987. Looking back on it now, it’s flaws are more readily apparent: there’s mention of how Ramirez’s katana was made 1000 years before the Japanese were building their weapons that way, but no explanation is ever given; each time an immortal is killed, their conqueror experiences The Quickening, sort of a powerful electrical energy burst that seems to decimate entire city blocks & parking decks; and the goal of all this inter-species warfare, The Prize, is kind of sketchily described as the ability to read minds.

What Highlander has going for it is an intriguing and (at the time) original concept - kind of like the prolonged existence of vampires grafted onto a clan of warrior swordsmen – and an arresting visual design by former music video director Russell Mulcahy. His style involves lots of rain and reflective, wet pavement, sweeping camera moves and slick transitions between modern-day New York City, 15th century Scotland, and 19th century Boston. The DVD version we screened, from Anchor Bay Entertainment, contains a slightly longer cut than the one previously available VHS – including a flashback to 1940’s occupied France and an extended sex scene.

Another selling point at the time of the film’s release was the inclusion of a selection of original songs by Queen, including the recently-performed-on-American-Idol song “Who Wants to Live Forever”, which underscores a particular tender scene between McLeod and his first love, Heather (Beatie Edney), who dies of old age. Other songs include “It’s a Kind of Magic” (also the title of the soundtrack album), and “Princes of the Universe” and are used to good effect throughout the film, as is Michael Kamen’s epic score.

Highlander performed modestly at the box office but was explosive on home video in the 1980’s. Its success and cult cachet helped ensure the creation of the inevitable sequel, Highlander II: The Quickening in 1991. Also directed by Mulcahy, The Quickening transports McLeod and Ramirez to a Blade Runner inspired, sci-fi future of endless night where they must fight aliens from their home planet of Zeist (yes, you read that correctly) headed by Captain Katana (Michael Ironside). Future academy award nominee Virginia Madsen also stars in what is possibly the worst movie ever made. (Mulcahy has since tried to repair some of the damage by re-editing the movie into a self-described Renegade Version which eliminates the alien origin subplot). This was followed by a five year run of the television series, Highlander, starring Adrian Paul as Connor’s cousin Duncan McLeod. Then came Highlander III: The Final Dimension, which ignores the events of Highlander II and pits McLeod (Lambert again) against immortal sorcerer Mario Van Peebles, who sat out the events of the first movie by being entombed in a cave. Highlander: The Animated Series followed, and then another live action series (albeit short lived) called Highlander: The Raven, which followed the exploits of a female immortal thief. The entire saga was capped off in 2000 with the release of Highlander: Endgame, the only series entry (beside the television versions) unseen by me, which brings together Connor McLeod, from the movies, and Duncan McLeod, from the TV show, in one movie – and in the end, there can be only one.

Christopher Lambert gained stardom thanks to a role as Tarzan in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes and has since gone on to appear in numerous movies including the title role in an adaptation of Mario Puzo’s The Sicilian, along with his wife at the time, the smokin’ hot Diane Lane, in the mystery Knight Moves, Re-Animator director Stuart Gordon’s sci-fi Fortress and it’s sequel, and appeared as Raiden in the big budget adaptation of the videogame Mortal Kombat.

Clancy Brown went on to do the 2nd worst movie of all time, Pet Sematary II, before starring in Frank Darabont’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shawshank Redemption. He has since gone on to be a featured voice in every cartoon and videogame ever made. Notable film & television appearances include the series Earth 2, E.R., and Lost, as well as a memorable part as Sergeant Zim in Starship Troopers (1997).

On the behind the scenes side, screenwriter Gregory Widen would go on to write and direct another story of warring immortals, The Prophecy, starring Christopher Walken as the angel Gabriel. Director Mulcahy previously directed the Australian outback set killer boar movie, Razorback. Subsequently, he went on to the Joel Silver produced Denzel Washington vehicle Ricochet, the terrible mummy-movie sweepstakes entry Talos the Mummy and the bad, bad, bad big screen version of The Shadow, starring Alec Baldwin. As of this writing, he’s off in the desert with Mila Jovovich shooting Resident Evil: Extinction.

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