Friday, November 13, 2009

Day 271: Horror of Dracula (1958) - Rank 3.5/5


Back on another "Hammer Films" bender, I decided to check out the film that allegedly sparked Christopher Lee's horror icon status (though he was in "Curse of Frankenstein" a year prior). While the film was entertaining, I was a bit let down by this rendition of Dracula. I think it's because I've had the image below burned into my mind since I was a child, peering at it on the back of VHS clam shells, expecting an awesome bit of vampiric badassery.


What I got was a laid back drama that made Tod Browning's 1931 version seem speedy. I'll assume that most folks are familiar with the Dracula tale, so discussing the plot here is decidedly unnecessary. An interesting alteration to the usual renditions is that the early portion of the film centers around Jonathan Harker's attempt to dupe the Count into believing that he is a librarian so that he can dispose of Dracula properly. But Dracula is wily, and Harker soon finds himself converted into a vampire. It's then up to Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) to eliminate Harker, explain, tactfully, to Harker's fiance, Lucy, that her beloved won't be coming back, and then dispose of Dracula.

To be honest, I think a major reason why the film crawled is the distinct absence of Dracula. You'd think that if you're pushing Lee as Dracula that he would get more screen time. But as it stands, Dracula is in the film for approximately ten minutes of the whole film and receives about a dozen lines. Therefore, images, such as the one above, are not indicative of the film as a whole. Pity.

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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Day 270: Baxter (1989) - Rank 3.5/5


After watching this film, it's likely that the most predominant thought rolling around in your nonplussed head is: "The French are fucked up." From Cocteau to Jeunet, the French have been trumping American cinema far longer than the Japanese. While they're the butt of countless "surrendering jokes," they undoubtedly have the last laugh when they see half of the movie screens in our country playing "Twilight." Well, in 1989, France also produced a film that was undoubtedly the answer to the talking animal indistry.

Don't act like you don't know what I speak of. Anthropomorphized animals have been popular since the dawn of Disney. Live action animal films are prime box office fare for toddlers with Kool-aid stained lips and their mothers who drag them in front of a screen in the desperate hope that a cat making butt-licking jokes will satiate her child's sugar-fueled insanity for ninety minutes. "Homeward Bound," "Benji," "Milo and Otis," "Beverly Hills Chihuahua," "Air Bud," "Cats Vs. Dogs"...the list goes on. "Baxter" is a film so atypical for the genre that it blows my mind.

Baxter is a cathartic bull terrier that dreams of having a master whose impulses mirror his own. Baxter enjoys refusing the compassion of his elderly owner and watching the young married couple across the street make love. Eventually he grows weary of his old crone caretaker and trips her on the steps, killing her. When another couple takes him in, he tries his best to make their newborn baby suffer a similar fate. Eventually, he ends up under the care of an aspiring neo-Nazi, who begins training Baxter to maim and kill his classmates. And Baxter is happy.

I love dark films, but this gets so heavy at times, I was left wondering if I genuinely enjoyed the film. I would liken "Baxter" with "Requieum for a Dream" when it comes to considering the film an enjoyable watch. Both titles are excellent, intriguing fare with moments of delightfully macabre humor, but they aren't films that demand frequent, repeat viewings.

Day 269: Mad Love (1935) - Rank 4/5


Peter Lorre's first starring role, in Fritz Lang's astounding "M," no doubt left German filmgoers thinking, "Damn, that man's creepy." As Lorre's first American release film, the actor clearly wanted to make the same impression on an audience across the ocean. Certainly, his role as the genius surgeon, Dr. Gogol, could have easily been named Dr. Guignol for all of Lorre's bug-eyed brooding and nefarious scheming. The end result was Lorre became a permanent icon in horror just as Vincent Price did after his role in "House of Wax." While I can't speak for Lorre, I don't regard such typecasting with negativity. After all, if you're good at what you do, then why not exploit it.

Dr. Gogol is a classic, sympathetic villain. As is typically the case with such rogues, he's enraptured by the beauty of a stage actress, Yvonne. But the romance is not meant to be, for all his pining in the world cannot ruin her love for her husband, pianist Stephen Orlac. Ah, but when Dame Fate throws Orlac into a train accident, leaving his hands crushed, Yvonne has no other choice but to turn to her long-time admirer and brilliant surgeon, Dr. Gogol. Gogol gives Orlac hands that work, but they are the hands of a knife-throwing murderer, and when Orlac realizes this and begins to fear that those hands are developing a mind of their own, Gogol exploits this irrational fear in the hopes of driving Orlac mad and bringing him closer to Yvonne.

The "appendage gone awry" has been a plot contrivance for decades, but this might be the origin of the idea. Whether it is or not, it is one of the few times where it advances the plot rather than serving as the gimmick. As for Lorre, he sinks into the role of the tormented and scheming surgeon with glee, making "Mad Love" a refreshingly entertaining bit of classic horror.

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Day 268: Orpheus (1949) - Rank 4.5/5


When it comes to films that can only be described as "dreamlike," Jean Cocteau's "Orpheus" is as hypnotic as "Eraserhead" is nightmarish. The story is entrancing and drenched with moments that are both eerie and beautiful. Even today, such a film would be considered avant-garde, so I can't help but wonder how mind-blowing it was sixty years ago.

While slightly more linear than other surrealist films, "Orpheus" still possesses enough of a disjointed plot to make a synopsis difficult. The tale is centralized around Orphée, a poet who witnesses a tragic accident and soon finds himself the target of affection for one of Death's close associates, Princess (Maria Casares). Princess takes Orphée's wife to the Underworld and Orphée retrieves her only to learn that he may never again look upon the face of his beloved for fear of losing her to Death forever.

Cocteau uses the Greek tragedy of Orpheus as his inspiration, but brings the tale into the modern day, using bikers as Death's reapers and the radio as a hellmouth for non-sequitur poetry. In addition, characters interacting with other characters on rear-projection screens, scenes filmed backwards and presented in reverse and other trick shots boggle the mind far more than current digital trickery. The result is a gorgeous slice of fantasmagoria that clearly laid the groundwork for the countless other surrealist filmmakers, such as David Lynch or Michel Gondry, that followed.

Day 267: My Best Fiend (1999) - Rank 4/5


If I were to walk into my classroom tomorrow and ask my students to name a director and actor that frequently collaborate together, I'd probably find myself looking out across the same sea of blank stares that greet me every time I pose a query like "What function does a ribosome carry out in the cell?" Now, regardless of the question, there are those bastions of saving grace, and undoubtedly those few would respond: "Johnny Depp and Tim Burton." Go back and time ten years ago and ask me and you'd probably get: "Leo G. Carroll and Alfred Hitchcock," shortly before my ass is beaten for knowing too much about my mother. I kid. But for those who develop a penchant for what Werner Herzog has to offer, cinematically speaking, they soon learn that there is no duo more infamous than the German auteur and the rabid Klaus Kinski.

"My Best Fiend" is a dark, yet anecdotal documentary chronicling the foibles of the pair as they collaborated on one maddening production after the next. Herzog helms the project as he revisits some of the pivotal locations of his films, as if conducting a life journey. In a way, I don't suppose that description is far off. Herzog handles his subjects (himself and his deceased colleague) with more grace and tenderness than one might expect. It's as if the film is a partial vindication for the oft misunderstood Kinski.

Don't assume for a moment, though, that the production is laden with saccharine. Herzog recounts moments of Kinski's notorious temper, such as a two-day period where Kinski stayed locked in the lavatory and tore the room asunder. And, as one would assume, Herzog does retell (and clarify) the classic story of his alleged "directing by gun" on the set of "Aguirre: The Wrath of God." However, Herzog doesn't digress into the sensationalistic either. The documentary strikes perfect harmony between the gentle man and the anguished actor to instill the sense of awe for Kinski - a sense of awe that Herzog conveys that he, too, once felt for his past friend.

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Monday, November 9, 2009

Day 266: The Shout (1978) - Rank 4/5


My fascination with Peter Weir's "Picnic at Hanging Rock" and "The Last Wave" drew me to this film. I never realized that there was a subgenre within Australian New Wave that focused on the juxtaposition of colonial "civilization" and aboriginal mystique. Thank goodness there is, because I have yet to be disappointed, and I can only hope there are other works that fall into this obscure category.

The film opens during a cricket match at an insame asylum (ah, if only more films began like that...), when a new doctor at the facility (Tim Curry) is invited to keep score alongside the eccentric inmate, Crossley (Alan Bates). Crossley decides that he wants to tell the new doctor a story behind one of the match's players, Anthony Fielding (John Hurt). Crossley's story involves his slow but steady integration (or should I say infiltration) into Fielding's life. Fielding, an effects artist making a study of various sounds, welcomes Crossley in one afternoon for lunch, and before he knows it, Crossley is showing up at the home every day and going as far as to have a blatant affair with Fieldin's wife (Susannah York). When Fielding becomes confrontational, Crossley threatens to use "the shout" on him - an aboriginal bit of magic that will kill any living thing that hears it.

The sequence where Crossley demonstrates his shout is fabulous. He and Fielding walk for hours to find a secluded environment, and even though Fielding plugs up his ears with cotton and wax, he slips into unconsciousness during the demonstration as sheep and birds drop dead all about him. But to assume that these mystical powers are real is to give Crossley the benefit of the doubt, especially when he's clearly an unreliable narrator. There is more than one moment in the film where the story (and Crossley's concentration) is interrupted by the cricket match. When the tale starts back up, minor elements have changed. The complexity of the characters and the battle of wits unfolding between them is enough to interpret as it is, but throw an element of incredibility into the mix, due to the unreliable nature of the storyteller, and you've got an engrossing and thought-provoking film that demands multiple viewings.

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Saturday, November 7, 2009

Day 265: WALL-E (2008) - Rank 5/5


I decided to take a break from all the murder, monsters and mayhem to indulge in a bit of Disneyfied treacle. So schmaltzy, in fact, that it even melted one of the many layers of ice covering my heart. There were also unconfirmed rumors that approximately one to two tears were seen in the vicinity of my eyes, though a lack of sufficient evidence has yet to yield any substantial conclusions.

Disney and Pixar rejoined forces to produce WALL-E, an anthropomorphic robot in the distant future. He spends every day cleaning up the trash-ridden world that was abandoned by humans centuries earlier. When a robot probe named EVE is sent in search of plant life, WALL-E is smitten and follows her across abandoned metropolises and space alike. WALL-E stows away on a survey ship that takes him to a giant cruiser that now holds the entire human race, and WALL-E soon becomes the target of the self-aware ship computer, for he possesses the one thing that would end the ship's tour of duty and return humans to Earth - a plant.

It's weird for me to think that all the cloying relationships in all the live action films in the world scarcely touch me, but when it comes to the animation medium, I'm a sucker. Perhaps its the melodramatic nature of the plots, or maybe it's just that the inner child in me is touched, leading to some bizarre, sentimental reaction. Either way, "WALL-E" is an endearing film that's positively gorgeous to behold and a testament that children's films can successfully appeal to and touch all ages if a solid script is there.

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Day 264: Curse of the Werewolf (1961) - Rank 4/5


Oliver Reed as a werewolf? Don't mind if I do. Reed, a delightfully flamboyant actor who is prone to chewing the scenery, is in rare, subdued form in his first starring role. While playing characters of a brooding nature became is forte in life, Reed portrays Leon Corledo, a peasant afflicted with the curse of lycanthropy, with a quiet, but tortured, nature that makes you truly sympathize with the character.

The overall film feels very much like a fairy tale, albeit one far darker than you'd ever tell a child at bedtime. Beginning in 18th century Spain, roughly fifty years earlier, the story follows a poor beggar who comes to the town of Santa Vera in search of food and drink. He ends up at the castle of the cruel Marquis during his wedding feast. The Marquis provides the beggar with nothing but wine, and the result is drunken entertainment for all the guests until the beggar unwittingly offends the Marquis. Twenty years he lives in the dungeon for his offense, becoming more bestial by the year, until the fated day that he rapes the daughter of the dungeon master. She flees, is found half-dead and pregnant by Don Corledo, and is cared for by the Don and his wife until she dies during childbirth. The result is a child that possesses the spirit of the wolf within his blood. In reality, this probably isn't too far from the true origin for Oliver Reed (speculation based purely on the actor's rakish lifestyle).

Anyway, the werewolf being nothing more than a surreal metaphor for the beast that lies within every man is a unique twist to an old idea. It's explained during the film by a priest that every man possesses such a creature deep within his soul, but Leon's is far more prominent due to his past. His only hope is that he will find a woman who can tame that beast, and so he does in Cristina (Catherine Feller). But love is as cruel as Leon's past, and when he becomes separated from his love, the beast emerges and blood is shed.


The makeup for Reed as a werewolf is fantastic. The alteration of his neck and torso takes him beyond the look of a man with crepe hair slathered on his face. No, extra flesh added to Reed's large frame makes him look positively bestial and intimidating. This rendition, added to the macabre love story/fairy tale tone of the film, makes "Curse of the Werewolf" one of the superior installations in the lycanthrope lineage.

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Day 263: Faces (1968) - Rank 4.5/5


"Faces" marks my first entry into John Cassavetes territory. My "film geek" friends that I consort with have attempted entry into this world before, but had lukewarm receptions to the avant-garde director's works. So I braced myself for boredom at worst and indifference at best, but was greeted with neither. Perhaps it's because I chose a film that none of my cronies had viewed, or maybe the simple explanation that Cassavetes is more my taste would be fitting, but I relished "Faces."

The film scarcely possesses the standard narrative that most cinematic works did in the late 1960's, and with a central focus on the topic of marital infidelity, it probably pushed some buttons too. It's a cinéma vérité collection of seven conversations/scenes, beginning with the end of a stint of "innocent debauchery" between businessman Richard Forst (John Marley) and prostitute Jeannie (Gena Rowlands). Richard goes home, informs his wife Maria (Lynn Carlin) that he wants a divorce, and that night, the former couple go their separate directions to find sexual happiness (Richard with Jeannie and Maria with a young hippie played by Seymour Cassel). But the more the individuals in this tale seek happiness and contentment, the more it eludes them.

The bleak analysis of the disintegration of marriage and conventional relationships in America is nothing short of hypnotic. The performances of each character range from manic to introspective and it's easy to see how Cassel and Carlin both snagged Oscar nominations for their performances. I was surprised that John Marley was not nominated though. Marley spent most of his career playing bit parts and this feels like the proverbial "role of a lifetime" for him. He certainly puts his heart into it as if it is. Without the performances of the film's four major players, the impact of "Faces" would have easily been lost, but as it stands, John Cassavetes' commentary on social dynamics in America stands out as a wonderful piece of art.

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Day 262: Brides of Dracula (1960) - Rank 4/5


Over the years, Dr. Van Helsing has undergone as many permutations as Dracula. In Tod Browning's adaptation, Dr. Van Helsing is played with scholarly finesse by an aged Edward Van Sloan. Anthony Hopkins portrayed the doctor in Coppola's adaptation as an eccentric, dancing the fine line between insanity and brilliance. Jack Gwillim devoured the scenery as the vampire hunter during his brief role in "The Monster Squad." Hugh But when it comes to Peter Cushing, I believe my friend Dave put it best when he said, "It's a Van Helsing you can root for." Cushing's Van Helsing is an action hero who relies on his intellect, reminiscent of Indiana Jones.

"Brides of Dracula" follows where "Horror of Dracula" left off. Dracula is dead, but his legacy continues through the Baron Meinster. The baron has been imprisoned for most of his life by his mother, the Baroness (Martita Hunt). But when young Marienne visits the castle, she takes pity and unlocks the Baron. The result is a trail of female corpses that later rise as vampires and take their place by the Baron's side. But as fate would have it, Van Helsing is in town and has no qualms about killing women.

Cushing is absolutely delightful, and Hunt is equally enjoyable, casting an impression of both elegance and impending doom whenever she appears on screen. The film also features a sequence where Van Helsing is bit and must overcome this obstacle if he's to defeat the Baron. I won't mention the outcome, but needless to say, it's the first time I've regarded Peter Cushing as a badass.

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Day 261: Vampire Circus (1972) - Rank 4.5/5


Before the credits even roll, you're treated to the pedophilic killing of a waif by a vampire, ample tit shots and sex, followed by the gory disposal of said vampire at the hands of an angry mob. Such moments in film enkindle the inner thirteen year-old in me, resulting in a tiny voice at the back of my mind that need exclaim only one thing: "Cooooooool!" "Vampire Circus" can't be considered anything but a guilty pleasure film, but, ah, what a guilty pleasure at that.

The plot could best be summed up as: an adaptation of Ray Bradbury's "Something Wicked This Way Comes"...but with vampires. Count Mitterhouse is the bourgeoisie vampire that is slain prior to the film's titles, and upon his death, he claims that a plague will fall upon the residents of the village as punishment, and that he will, one day, be resurrected by the blood of those who took his life. The plague does come and soon the village is cut off from the world, like a lot of lepers, so you can imagine their glee when the circus comes to town (the term "circus" being used here, since "band of gypsies" would be more apt a description). Every night, the town's population is entertained by the metamorphosis of animals to man, hypnotic dances and other manners of black magic presented in a merry fashion.

I suppose the film could also be compared with "The Circus of Dr. Lao," for many elements of the circus lead to the demise of the original slayers of Count Mitterhouse in mildly ironic fashions, just as foolish patrons meet unexpected fates at the hands of Medusa or other creatures with Dr. Lao's show. The film is both dark and surreal, and it still pushes the envelope by today's standards (much less, by those of Britain in the early 1970's). Definitely a lot of fun!

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Thursday, November 5, 2009

Day 260: Inglorious Basterds (2009) - Rank 5/5


It could be argued that the film's are nothing more than cinematic masturbation on the director's part. He takes the kitchy elements of the film genres he digs (blaxploitation, kung fu, spaghetti westerns, etc), pumps them full of steroidal violence and ties up his sequences of cruelty with dialogue that often feels to clever for its own good. But I'll be damned if this predictable and self-serving form of showmanship fails to entertain.

The story is centered around a pack of Jewish-American soldiers who are sent behind enemy lines to pick off as many Nazis as they can. The men accept this mission, headed by Lieutenant Raine (Brad Pitt), and together they terrorize the French countryside, torturing and scalping Germans with utter glee. In a parallel tale, Shosanna Dreyfus, the owner of a French cinema, will be welcoming the Nazi elite to her theatre for the premiere of Joseph Goebbels latest propaganda film. Unbeknownst to the Germans, she plans to burn down the theatre on the night of the premiere. Both missions inexorably begin to converge, but are also threatened by the actions of a sly S.S. officer, who is known for his Jew-killing revelry.

Now, before I say this, please keep in mind that I love the "Kill Bill" saga, as well as "Pulp Fiction," but "Inglorious Basterds" has will undoubtedly assume the rank of "favorite Tarantino film" in my mind. It's one of the director's more accessible films to the general public, yet it also regresses into one of the most violent climaxes I've ever seen; it was a moment that made me realized that Tarantino has become the new Ken Russell where excess for the sake of excess is concerned. One forewarning though - I was thrown off by my misconceptions as to what could happen based on history and found myself pondering how the film would accommodate itself to reality. Keep in mind that Tarantino's film brings only two words to mind: "Fuck history!"

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Day 259: Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter (1974) - Rank 4.5/5


Just a forewarning - this marks the beginning of a very long, Hammer Studios binge on my part. The decision has come about out of a passion for horror films, stemming from the classic monsters (Wolfman, Frankenstein's monster, Dracula, etc). However, while the legacy set forth by Universal Studios is certainly the most prominent in the minds of many when it comes to the cinematic interpretations of these fictional creatures, Hammer Studios also invested a great deal of its time and money into these franchises. Many received more sequels than the Universal monsters ever did, yet I've managed to only see a handful of those in my lifetime. With the exception of "Curse of Frankenstein" and "Revenge of Frankenstein," I haven't seen most of the quintessential films the studio put out. My tastes have always been aimed at their more offbeat sagas ("X: The Unknown," "Quatermass and the Pit," "Four-Sided Triangle," etc.). Therefore, I felt the need to amend this sorely neglected aspect of my horror knowledge, and in starting with "Captain Kronos," I certainly kicked things off right.

"Captain Kronos" is an exceptionally unique film for a couple of major reasons. The first is it is an atypical "horror" film, bridging the gap between horror and action. It blends swashbuckling braggadocio with Gothic brooding in perfect harmony. Kronos (Horst Janson) is a nomadic vampire hunter, whose only close friend is a hunchbacked doctor named Professor Krost. They arrive at a village where virginal lasses are being drained of their life essence left and right.

The other unique twist to the tale is that it has a new take on the vampire legend. Krost and Kronos explain to the villagers that there are different breeds of vampire, just as there are great varieties of fish or bird. The notion that vampires can only come out at night and drain blood from the neck is an antiquated one to Kronos. The vampires plaguing the town feed only on the youth of girls, draining it from their lips during broad daylight. I thought this was delightfully refreshing, especially considering that vampires are often weaker than humans in the sense that they are not immune to sunlight, running water, garlic, crucifixes, etc.

There's one fabulous sequence where the town doctor begins to show signs of vampirism and Kronos begins experimenting with different means to killing the doctor in order to understand the lineage of vampire's he's fighting a little more. Stake through the heart - no dice. Hanging, flame - no good. But steel...Ah, that does it. So Kronos absconds with a large cross from a cemetery and Krost tempers it down to a sword for Kronos to use in battling the youth-draining vampires. What more can I say really? A lot of action and a lot of fun all around.

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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Day 258: She-Wolf of London (1946) - Rank 2/5


For all intents and purposes, a good werewolf flick should not have me tapping at my foot, wondering how much longer it has. Especially when that film is scarcely over an hour. Ah, but such was the case with "She-Wolf of London" - a film that struggled to work lycanthropy into its plot. Phyllis Allenby (June Lockhart) worries that she's a werewolf when a series of murders begins in the park adjacent to her estate. She comes up with this notion with the help of her eccentric Aunt Martha, who believes there's a curse tied to the family. As a result, Phyllis descends into a private reverie of madness, severing her ties with the man she loves. Ah, but he's the dedicated sort and he strives to crack the mystery.

While there are moments of fair suspense and mystery, the majority of the film comes off as what it truly is: quick, low-budget fare. Lockhart, along with her fellow cast members (Don Porter, Sara Haden) seem to be doing their best with the material available. The problem is that the screenplay is rather flat. So much so that I find myself struggling to find something noteworthy about the film worth adding to what I've already said. I cannot, so there you have it.

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Day 257: Hitcher II: I've Been Waiting For You - Rank 2.5/5


"The Hitcher." What a weird film to choose for a straight-to-DVD sequel. "The Hitcher" is a fairly obscure title as it is, and it's certainly not like it raked in a ton of dough. Not only that, but the original was also a film that not only required a great suspension of disbelief - it necessitated taking your disbelief, packing it in a box and shipping it across country (though, admittedly, "The Hitcher" is a guilty pleasure for me). And yet, here we are.

The sequel is entertaining enough, though it has two strikes against it. First, it requires an even greater suspension of disbelief than the original, which I can live with. But, that brings me to strike number two: Jake Busey is no Rutger Hauer. Hauer was positively intimidating in the first film. You had no doubt he was a serial killer (in either the film or real life for that matter). Busey? Not so much. He waltzes through the film with a puckish glee that seems uncharacteristic of the "Hitcher" character.

The premise is that he is the reincarnation of the devil that C. Thomas Howell's Jim Halsey was plagued by twenty years earlier. Howell returns as his character, along Kari Wuhrer as his fiance. Howell serves as a source of exposition (though unnecessarily so - after all, how many folks who have never heard of "The Hitcher" are going to buy a copy of "Hitcher II?") as well as a reason for the pair to end up back in Texas as he hopes to resolve the inner turmoil that's been plaguing him for the past two decades. After that, he's promptly killed and soon Wurher is pitted against Busey's "Hitcher." The film is mildly entertaining, but to me, all it truly accomplished was putting me in the mood to rewatch the original again.