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Once in Horror Thriller land, there was this knock-about schlub whose name was Ash. Ash got himself into a predicament where, against his will, he was forced into the role of hero and had to fight off the monstrous hoardes. He didn't like it; he didn't want to. But fate worked against him and he had to just to survive. And he did it through three movies.
Then there was a guy named Jack Burton. A likable goof who talked too much and didn't understand half of what he said or even experienced. He too got himself into a predicament where, against his will, he was forced into the role of hero and had to fight off the monstrous hoardes. He didn't want to at first, but then he really got into it and helped to save the day.
But those guys were a long time ago. Yet fans of Supernatural and Scifi Horror Thrillers remain mad about such fun characters from THE EVIL DEAD, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, and even FRIGHT NIGHT and TREMORS. When the DUKE NUKEM 3D video game came out back in the 1990s, muscle-bound Duke ran around spouting Ash one liners, fans went bananas, and the game shot to the top of the sales charts.
But Duke was also a long time ago and no one has come up with another comedic heroic goof to add to such a blue collar pantheon.
But hey, Writer and director Jon Knautz, along with his writing partners, John Ainslie, Patrick White, and Trevor Matthews, thought they'd give it a shot!
In true formulaic Hollywood schlock fashion, JACK BROOKS: MONSTER SLAYER starts off with a five minute gotcha sequence that makes no sense at all, but should hold the fleeting attention of all of you thick-skulled MTV rubes. A group of natives, multi-racial natives no less, have some kind of one-eyed varmint surrounded and are yelling and threatening him with their spears. This irritates the varmint to no end lemme tell ya! The critter fights well for a creature with no stereoscopic vision and soon the tribal group of hippies (I'm guessing because who ever heard of a tribe of multi-racial natives?) run back to the commune with their wounded.
In the village stands a carving of the one-eyed varmint so I'm guessing that some of these folks want to worship the critter while others want to kill their God. Multi-racial AND multi-cultural. Truly a progressive bunch as far as primitives go. A third set of folks stand outside of a tent, apparently beseeching whoever is inside to come out and do something, anything.
Inside we see a long haired guy getting ready for ... something. But whether he is getting ready to worship or kill the varmint is anyone's guess. I suppose it all depends on whether he wins or loses the fight. In voice-over he tells us that his name is Jack Brooks (Trevor Matthews) and he has a real problem with his temper. It got him into a lot of trouble in high school and in flashback we see that he just can't handle his rage. Of course, it wasn't always like that, and thanks to a deeper flashback we see what made him such a loud, foul-mouthed, unlikable asshole.
Still, Jack is telling this story and I'm sitting here watching it so I want to like this guy, if only the movie will give me the chance...
Apparently there is a long and frustrating relationship between these two. Jack is confrontational, acts like he doesn't want to be there even though he is the one who showed up without an appointment, and in no time he is raging at, cussing out, and insulting the doctor about an unrelated incident that took place the other day. This scene could have been played for laughs, could have been hilarious, and the script was there for it. In fact, I can think of any number of comedic actors who could have pulled it off - but actor Matthews (also Producer on this flick) wasn't up to it. Loud and animated doesn't equal funny. Instead Jack is a barely contained violent maniac and I was left wondering at what point he was going to jump across and beat his therapist.
Next, Jack enters his night college science class just as they're winding down. His teacher, Professor Gordon Crowley (Robert Englund: YOU know who that is!) notes his tardiness but isn't too concerned. After all, he's a teacher at a junior college teaching night classes of all things. It's not like he's churning out brilliance.
In fact his students largely seem to tolerate the class as if it's part of their parole requirement. But the Professor knows his chemistry and keeps the students entertained with explosions and smoke. That's more than Jack can say. Jack was not only late to class, he didn't pick up his girlfriend, Eve (Rachel Skarsten: FEAR OF THE DARK) to bring her to school. And this is not the first time. He shrugs off her frustration with a defensive and indifferent "Sorry..." and doesn't seem to notice when his douche classmate, John (James A. Woods: ETERNAL, THE WATCH) starts snaking his girl right in front of him. It's kind of curious what does and doesn't set Jack off.
Heh! I said Jack Off!
The story takes hold when The Professor, having noticed that Jack drives around in a plumber's van, kind of creepily asks Jack if he could come over tonight and "take a look at my pipes."
It's late at night. The older teacher is asking his young hunky male student if he could come over and fix his plumbing.
Again, this scene had every potential to be squirmingly funny, and Englund delivered. But the pace, timing, and Trevor being so utterly clueless made it fall flat. Don't get me wrong, utterly clueless could have worked if Jack was naively feeding into the humor of the moment. Instead, Jack gives nothing back to heighten the "Ha!" quotient.
Professor Crowley lives out on a dirt road in an old house and does indeed have actual plumbing problems that Jack needs to fix.
The music swells, Jack approaches the suitably old and gothic house, a wolf or coyote howls and Professor Crowley, lit from below, opens the door and cheerfully greets his visitor. All good elements here, except director Knautz shot the whole thing in one long take and with so much distance - full body shots on both men - that there was zero build-up of tension, fright, comedy, or anything else. It was merely a pedestrian shot of point A to point B. Again, it must have been great in the script.
Crowley is friendly, helpful, and decidedly less creepy. He's just a lonely guy out in his old house - which he got for cheap because it has a nasty history - and there's nothing for Jack to get mad about, except at the Professor's plumbing.
The job is much bigger than a simple snake and root job, and Jack winds up making things worse. Which gets Jack mad. So he goes back to his therapist, verbally assaults him, and leaves. Yes, so far there is nothing likable about Jack. In any other Horror Thriller, he'd be one of the jerks we can't wait to see get slaughtered.
Meanwhile, Jack's botched job has unleashed something in the Professor's backyard and smoke rises from the ground. When the Professor gets a whiff, he clearly gets possessed by "something" and goes off to dig in the backyard.
Crowley discovers something nasty to go along with his house's reputation and in short time, becomes another thing altogether. He becomes a monster and Englund's performance as a possessed professor is hilarious.
The trailer for JACK BROOKS: MONSTER SLAYER really sold me and boy did I want to like this movie.
There were three big things working against it though.
Knautz' direction: He can't actually set up the scene within the camera shot, except for those moments when he is clearly lifting a shot from another movie (and you'll recognize them: staring down the center of a winding flight of stairs, slowly turning the angle of the camera as someone goes up a flight of stairs, tracking toward a smoking hole in the ground, etc.). Knautz is also aware of the emotional effect the audience will get from lighting someone from below.
Cinematographer Joshua Allen lights everything quite well, but he doesn't creatively mood light anything at all. This combined with Knautz pedestrian direction doesn't deliver. There is no monster or anything else scary going on for the bulk of the picture. Those two brief gotcha scenes at the beginning were supposed to hold us until the Professor gets possessed. And that would have worked except for big problem number 2.
To tide us over, the script was funny. The problem is, Co-Writer / Producer, Trevor Matthews is not a comedic actor. He can pop up the rage, he can pop out the vulnerable, but he can't bring the funny. And as a director and in the editing room, Knautz couldn't get it out of him. Another thing about movies that tell the story of one main character: Jack never has his time.
Any story about a large central character has to give that character his own time.
Who is Jack?
When watching THE EVIL DEAD, we see Ash alone and working through his circumstances - in all three EVIL DEAD movies, Sam Raimi made sure that Ash had his own time, that time which defines who Ash is.
It was the same for John Carpenter's Jack Burton. There are many scenes where Burton is left to his own devices and we see who HE is.
If your tale is about a single strong person, then you have to have scenes about that single strong person. We saw them in all of the Indiana Jones movies, James Bond movies and on. But Jack Brooks never has his own time.
Everything we see about Jack is entirely defined by what others think of him; how he acts toward others, and he's almost always a raging asshole.
Even in the one moment where Jack is left by himself in Crowley's basement, we get a close-up of Jack's hands working on the plumbing, which becomes a brief montage of how to snake a pipe. We don't witness him actually working through his problem, the scene is all about the cruddy goop spurting out of the plumbing. Other characters are funny around him, but Trevor can't work the comedy to throw the joke back or even let it bounce off of him as a straight man. With Trevor, it's throwing a joke down a hole. You have the funny set up, but no punch line. If Trevor wants to continue as a comedic actor, he'll need to suffer through a few years of performing stand-up comedy.
And the third big problem: One of the best things about JACK BROOKS: MONSTER SLAYER, is the score by Composer Ryan Shore (HEADSPACE, THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, SHADOWS). Unfortunately, and what Ryan had no control over, is how Knautz and crew would use his music. Music is used to create emotion, ambience, tension, even suspense: Movie music enhances the visual. In JACK BROOKS: MONSTER SLAYER, Knautz basically takes Shore's excellent score and throws a bucket of cold notes at the film. The relative volume of the music to the scene is so overblown as to be out of sync with what we see. During chases, fights, or even Jack simply walking up to a house, the music drowns out all. Even when people are screaming and shouting to each other, their voices are subdued by the VERY LOUD MUSIC flooding everything in its path.Despite these problems, the film finally finds its feet in the last third and the monster battle is fun and frightful. As we expect from the title, the poster, the trailer, and the opening scene that takes us into this flashback, Jack discovers a way to channel his violent outbursts and become a hero.
JACK BROOKS: MONSTER SLAYER is one of those movies where the exciting final part saves the movie from being a complete disaster. From what I can tell, the script was solid enough and good enough to make a very cool fan favorite film. But the writers shouldn't have tried to make it.
3 barely earned Shriek Girls
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