Snyder and Gunn, above all else, help make zombies terrifying again.
Mission: Impossible. 1996. Directed by Brian De Palma. Screenplay by David Koepp & Robert Towne from a story by David Koepp/Steven Zaillian; based on the television series created by Bruce Geller.
Starring Tom Cruise, Jon Voight, Emmanuelle Béart, Henry Czerny, Jean Reno, Ving Rhames, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vanessa Redgrave, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, and Rolf Saxon. Paramount Pictures.
Rated PG. 110 minutes.
There are certain movies out of the 1990s I remember fondly because they’re titles I’d rent on the weekend and watch with my parents. They were always pretty good about letting me watch a lot of things, as long as my little sister wasn’t around, and depending on how crazy it was they would probably watch it with me. But even before that, when I lived with my grandparents – my grandfather was a member of Columbia House when it was in its prime and he’d get like 9 VHS tapes for such a low price. So their place was full of old movies on VHS; I saw tons of stuff I probably shouldn’t have seen at ages 7-8.
Mission: Impossible is one of those movies I remember seeing after it came out on video. My parents and I rented it, I remember enjoying it so much it was one of those films I’d watch over and over. Honestly, I think Brian De Palma did an excellent job directing this with a great deal of suspense and tension, plus there’s the fact I think it’s a pretty damn good adaptation from the original 1966 series. No doubt hardcore fans of the original television series might not enjoy it, however, I think they modernized it, updated things just well enough while keeping the spirit of the original to make it something interesting.
When Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) heads to Prague on another mission with his IMF team – including wife Claire (Emannuelle Béart) and top agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) among others – things begin as per usual. Unfortunately, there is an incredible failure during this new mission; a fatal failure. But no one is sure who did what to cause the chaos.
After he is left the sole survivor in a massacre which sees Phelps and Sarah Davies (Kristin Scott Thomas), among others, all die at the mysterious hands of an outsider, Ethan Hunt is accused of mutiny and the failure of their mission is pinned on him. With the help of Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Franz Krieger (Jean Reno), and even a shadowy arms dealer named Max (Vanessa Redgrave), Hunt goes underground, using everything and everyone at his disposal in order to uncover exactly what has been happening. Most importantly, he hopes to find out who laid waste to his colleagues from the IMF and why they hoped he would be framed.
Above all else, I think De Palma does well by crafting a genuine atmosphere of suspense because while there’s action here, it would come off like any other action film were there no such feeling to the movie. It follows along with the flow of the plot well. As we start, things are light and fun – the team feel in sync with one another, joking, laughing, generally acting as if being secret undercover agents in a dangerous high stakes type of game is no big deal. However, this quickly cuts from that lighthearted feel to one of tension. As the IMF team, one by one, are dispatched, the tension gets thicker. Even the way in which De Palma has the scenes go, the fog on the night air almost seems to intensify with the plot’s movement. Everything is shrouded, until finally it’s Ethan left; things clear off, he is the only one living, and then there are the police. This sets up how the next segments will feel, as we move into the heavy mystery of Mission: Impossible.
Something I’ve always loved about this movie is how there’s a ton of action, but it’s not a load of gunshots and muzzle flares and smashing objects, walls and other set-pieces filled with bullet holes. I find it’s all intense action while not having to resort to the typical gunplay with which so many other American action/crime/thriller movies seem to be obsessed. This is where that ever present air of suspense and tension helps.
While many films might’ve flubbed the scene where Ethan Hunt (Cruise) suspends himself down over the lasers, in that high tech security room from Thieves Hell, De Palma makes this so insanely tense you can almost feel Tom’s butthole clench just watching it. It’s great stuff because what could be so simple and visually unappealing at the hands of another director becomes the stuff of action movie legend under the guidance of Brian De Palma. He doesn’t have a perfect track record as a director – but honestly who in the hell does? Not even Kubrick for those typical film fans who say he’s perfect; he was amazing but not perfect – but I think De Palma is absolutely one of the greats of American cinema. No doubt in my mind about that. Here, he shows why he’s a master of the craft.
The entire sequence leading up to the ‘suspended above lasers’ moment is classic. Well filmed, nice pace, and the set they used for that is very cool. Always loved the way De Palma includes the shot showing a drop of perspiration slipping off a plastic cup, setting off the alarm in the laser protected room; such a perfect zoom in close on the cup as Ethan Hunt describes the security inside. Not sure why I particularly enjoy that little moment, but it’s always one that strikes me for whatever reason.
Ever the fan of Alfred Hitchcock, as so many are, De Palma has a magnificent shot a little over 30 minutes in which reminds me of the staircase in Vertigo (which is my personal favourite Hitchcock). I don’t know if that was intentional, or simply a wonderfully coincidental shot that came up from the use of that location, but either way it is awesome. A wonderful homage. The camera rotates opposite the staircase and it creates a neat effect. Disorienting slightly, in a good way.
One of my favourite scenes is when Ethan uses his explosive gum. The way it’s shot, the angles De Palma frames each one, there’s a good pace of suspense up until the explosion, then Hunt is gone again. Not a long scene, it’s just well executed. De Palma goes for a lot of interesting low angles and tight close-ups in those suspenseful moments. Another great example is when Ethan first meets Max (Redgrave) and they’re watching for a signal – something simple, once more, becomes impressive because of the precise, honed direction. Has all the earmarks of a fabulous thriller.
Though I do like a couple of the other Mission: Impossible films, it’s easy to see the distinction between this and every other one. I was even a huge fan of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, though, there is still no comparing it the original in this series of films. I mean, there’s such a genuine measure of tension built up throughout almost every scene, or every second one, that the movie never seems to let you go. Start to finish. From those opening bits, as the IMF team watch Ethan Hunt do his thing – mask and all – to the incredibly subtle, suspenseful moments as Ethan is being lowered into the ultra secure room at Langley a.k.a CIA Headquarters in Virginia; every important piece is shot in such a way that the maximum suspense comes out. Most of the franchise after the first movie seems to rely heavily on massive, epic-style set-pieces alongside fast paced action sequences and gunfire, as well as the odd explosion and demolition. I’m not saying that’s no good because with movies such as Mission: Impossible, you do come looking for a certain degree of explosive, big Hollywood budget type action movie stuff.
However, Brian De Palma gives us so much more. Almost each shot is deliberately framed which aids in setting the pace, and in turn the tension. Even in Ghost Protocol which I enjoyed to the fullest, there’s not the same type of tense atmosphere and tone created in any of the sequences, it’s mostly balls to the wall sort of filmmaking. Again, nothing wrong. Just different here. De Palma makes this more than another action flick, and more than a reboot of some old television series (something ALL too familiar now in 2015) – this is a genuine thriller, with mystery to boot, and there’s a bonafide sense of old school filmmaking from an old school director.
While my only complaint is mostly a bit of the acting (mainly Jon Voight who I find personally is either hit or big miss), I think the script itself is pretty solid. Lots of good twisty-turny corners and red herring-like activity going on, which fits perfectly with Brian De Palma who, as I mentioned, comes from the school of directors who pretty much worship Hitchcock. Overall, I’ve got to say this is a solid 4.5 out of 5 star film. A few things could’ve been improved on, but I think ultimately so much of this is pure excitement, thrill, and suspense/tension that it’s hard to deny how great of a film it is. Not to mention De Palma’s direction elevates this above all the general tripe we get calling itself action these days.
Naturally, there are some over-the-top elements absolutely. However, I think the way De Palma plays with everything, plus the fact the script knows exactly what it is and what it aims to do, really helps make it all so very worth it. Boasting an impressive performance by Tom Cruise, including his penchant for trying to do as much of his own stunt work as possible, Mission: Impossible is one of my all-time favourite action movies; it has everything from intensity to a drop of humour, and don’t forget there’s an expertly cultivated atmosphere at the hands of De Palma which would never have made it to the screen had this film been helmed by anyone else.
The People Under the Stairs. 1991. Directed & Written by Wes Craven.
Starring Brandon Adams, Everett McGill, Wendy Robie, A.J Langer, and Ving Rhames. Universal Pictures. Rated R. 102 minutes.
★1/2 (Blu ray release)
I really have a thing for Wes Craven. Do you think he knows?
He’s written and directed some incredibly disturbing, unsettling, and wild horror films. Let’s count the great ones, shall we? The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, Swamp Thing, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Hills Have Eyes Part II (maybe I’ll draw some ire by planting that one in here, but I love it, and think it’s unfairly maligned by a lot of critics and horror fans), The Serpent and the Rainbow (directing credit only), Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, Scream (directing again only).
This is not to mention the bunch of other fun horror films he’s had a had in producing, such as Feast, Wishmaster, and the fantastic remake of his own The Hills Have Eyes. I mean, for A Nightmare on Elm Street alone Craven gets a spot on the top horror masters of all time. Brilliance. But there are a few of his films (such as the aforementioned sequel to his The Hills Have Eyes) which don’t get the credit they deserve.
Cue: The People Under the Stairs.
At first the film could appear to be a crime thriller about some robbers, but (aside from having Craven’s name on it) you can quickly tell it isn’t going to be the same old story. The film starts off with “Fool” Williams living in a ghetto in L.A. His family is soon to be evicted. Luckily, or realistically unfortunately, for Fool, he knows Leroy who is a lifetime criminal. They quickly decide to rob The Robesons, who lovingly call themselves Mommy & Daddy (played fabulously by former onscreen husband & wife in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, Wendy Robie and Everett McGill), who live in a big, old house with only their daughter Alice. Once they get inside the house, hoping to find all the supposed riches the Robesons have hidden away, they discover, to their horrible surprise, it isn’t any treasure Mommy & Daddy have been hiding; the secrets in the house are far worse.
I really love the trailers for The People Under the Stairs because it has such a creepy, dreadful feeling. It starts with the ominous “in every neighbourhood… there is a house that even the adults talk about“, or something similar. Just superbly disturbing. Once you get into the film, past the bits of ham, there are some wild bits that really creeped me out. In particular, Everett McGill puts on a suit at one point that turned me away, by pure fright, from leather – long before I ever enjoyed the devilishly fun first season of American Horror Story, and the Rubber Man.
One thing I love is how hard Craven attacks the Reagan era. Particularly, you can see how he is really skewed in the Mommy and Daddy naming of the two crazy people who own the house. It’s known that Ronald often called his wife Nancy Reagan “Mommy”. While Nancy called the Commander-in-chief “Ronnie”, you can still see, along with the rest of the film skewing his era of presidency, how the names Mommy and Daddy were certainly meant to really poke at the political & social commentary of The People Under the Stairs. Even at one point when Fool is looking around the house, he comes across a television set, which is clearly blaring graphic news reports of armed forces conflict (most likely they’re videos from the Gulf War which ended the same year this film was released). I mean, Daddy even stalks Fool and Leroy around the house, eventually shooting Lero, using a high-powered pistol with a red dot sight on it. The artillery Daddy is packing in that house is beyond simple home protection. I think there’s a little message about guns, or at least the military, under Reagan floating around here.
It all lines up, with the plot itself of course, to be very clear Craven doesn’t only intend this as a sometimes campy other times disturbing little horror flick. There’s more than meets the eye.
The acting here is generally pretty good. Rhames is decent in his small part. Really it’s McGill and Robie who shine here. They’re perfect for the role. Of course, they were also perfect on Twin Peaks, so I didn’t doubt they’d do a great job here. Everyone else fills out the cast just fine for the most part.
The People Under the Stairs is mainly all about the plot and story. I liked where it all went. It was disturbing and creepy. Plus, there are some fun and camp-ish moments that really fit well with the overall film. I really do think this movie works as a social metaphor. I’ve seen a few good theories. One in particular talked about how there was, especially around that time in the late 80’s and going into the 90’s, a big divide between those being oppressed and those who were aware of the oppression. Maybe even not so much the times, it’s something that always happens. Generally, until a situation completely boils over (such as it would in 1991 after the Gulf War ended and then Rodney was beaten a month later, one of the many, continuing brutalities committed by police against black men), there are pockets of society unaware of how serious a particular group is being oppressed, and often times eradicated. Here, we see a couple black people break into a home only to discover there are white people literally trapped in the walls. The divide between these two groups being held down are Mommy and Daddy, perfectly representative of Ronald Reagan and his administration in the White House.
I don’t know – maybe it’s nonsense. But I happen to agree with the person who was giving out the theory. Others seem to agree. I don’t mean it’s a perfectly and amazingly profound film, it’s still a weird and wild horror, but there is definitely something else behind it. Craven intended The People Under the Stairs to speak both to horror fans, as well as those looking for a bit of social commentary in their movie-going experience.
As a film, I’d absolutely have no problem saying this is worth 4 out of 5 stars. I think Craven has taken a few missteps in his career, but this is not one of them. Some don’t particularly put this at the top of his filmography. Me, however, I believe it’s one of the better written horrors Craven has done simply because there is bit more meat to it; it isn’t all blood and guts and scares. There is a little dark comedy, some hammy acting, and disturbing moments, all wrapped into one package. I dig it.
The Blu ray is not great. Aside from the picture, there is nothing worth talking about. Literally nothing. You can put on subtitles, pause the film, or look through its chapters. Other than that? Don’t count on wiling away the hours on special features. There are none at all. Too bad. I wouldn’t have minded a bit of behind-the-scenes stuff, a featurette or two. Nothing here.
It’s still worth it to own this fun horror on Blu ray. The picture quality is fabulous. Makes a great 1990’s horror classic look pristine. If you haven’t yet experienced The People Under the Stairs do yourself a favour and watch it soon. Especially if you’re a fan of Craven; this one deserves more attention and less ridicule. I think it’s a solid horror, a little different from most. There are even some pretty gory bits just before the hour mark hits. This definitely stands out among a lot of shitty 1990’s horror.