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Monday, May 18, 2009

He’s known to many for his numerous mainstream film roles, including turns in efforts by Eli Roth (Cabin Fever), Roland Emmerich (Independence Day), and Adam Rifkin (Detroit Rock City, LOOK). But true movie lovers know him as the genius behind such trailer park treasures as Touch Me in the Morning, Dribble, Period Piece, and Schoof. As part of a week long celebration of all things Giuseppe Andrews, SE&L will be looking at five - yes FIVE new films by the cine-maverick, titles originally slated to be part of Troma’s The Bathrobe Homeschool Box Set. They include long sought after efforts like In Our Garden, Date Movie, and Air Conditioning. For those still curious about what we’re discussing, the links below will lead to our numerous takes on the filmmaker’s fascinating oeuvre. So sit back and enjoy as we ready another pack of raves for someone who truly is the Godard of the Garbage Heap. Once you’ve witness the brilliance that is his creative canon, you’ll never look at cinema the same way again.


Giuseppe Andrews: Godard a Go-Go


Okie Dokie


Giuseppe Andrews: The Americano Trilogy


Giuseppe Andrews: Two More from the Trailer Park


Giuseppe Andrews: A Sampler of Cinematic Splendor


Giuseppe Andrews’ Orzo


Giuseppe Andrews’ Schoof


Giuseppe Andrews’ It’s All Not So Tragic


Giuseppe Andrews’ Airplane Pillows


Giuseppe Andrews’ The Check Out


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Monday, May 4, 2009

It started with a sign. Strike that, with a bumper sticker. Everyday, as I walked to school, I would pass the house at the end of our street and see the familiar message straddled across the back window (apparently, the owner didn’t want their car’s chrome damaged by such a vinyl placard - or perhaps thought the higher placement would attract more attention?). While my memory is now as foggy as a San Francisco morning, I do remember certain parts of the sentiment - and in the light of revisionist history, I am convinced the communication was clear - “Call NBC - Save Star Trek”. At the time, I was probably six, going on seven, and I was unsure what the issue was, including what Star Trek itself…was. Even a couple years later, when older kids in school would lament its passing, I was perplexed.


Fast forward four years. I’m ten going on eleven. Saturday morning TV is my life, as it is for anyone who grew up in the format’s formative decades of the ‘60s and ‘70s. NBC, which I then understood was one of the three major broadcast companies in America, was bringing Star Trek back (there’s that name again…) in cartoon form. Many of my friends in Fifth Grade were ecstatic, anticipating the return of one of their favorite franchises though, honestly, few had any idea what they were actually talking about. As sci-fi nerds, we shared favorite authors and books. But something about Star Trek bridged a gap for many that I, as a maturing adolescent, was yet to discover. So I watched the animated adventures of the Starship Enterprise and was…well, I’m not sure what to say. Then I discovered the reruns of the original series.


You have to remember what life was like 35 years ago. There was no legitimate cable television (though first variations of same were being tested somewhere way out in the Midwest) and for those of us lucky enough to live in a sprawling urban market (Chicago), there were six - count ‘em, SIX! - TV channels to surf through. ABC, CBS, and NBC were the “Big Three” - while there was always a PBS alternative to explore (ZOOM, anyone?). In addition, we were lucky enough to have a local independent, WGN, and a UHF option. So we were literally living in the lap of entertainment luxury, the choices and available time slots seeming to mesh perfectly with our after school/weekend needs. Of course, in retrospect, we were living in an era of paltry opportunities. I sometimes wonder if my appreciation for certain shows is based on a genuine love, or the forced favoritism of having no other alternative.


Yet I loved Trek. It followed me. It tagged along as I moved to Florida (a true bastion of variety nothingness). It accompanied me as I sat through Star Wars seven times. It became a presence in my conversations with friends, and most importantly, a freshman year college ritual. I was one of the few residents in my door with access to my own color TV, and everyday, once classes were completed and the various recreational vices were begun, the 13” mega-screen was tuned to the continuing voyages of that iconic spacecraft and its capable crew going boldly where no man had gone before. My roommate and I would set ourselves up on our beds, then allow in the growing throng, a couple turning into more than a dozen by the time the daily diversion became a habit.


During those heady, smoke filled afternoons, we’d argue over characters and favorite episodes. We’d rally behind certain actors and mock those who favored the so-called “fringe” (sorry Sulu and Chekov). We learned the names of episode writers and sought out books and other contributions by them. And most significantly, we fueled the fanbase fires. We elevated a once dead speculative fiction masterwork, made by people interested in ideas vs. massive merchandising dollars (wonder who that might be???) and argued for its continuing commercial relevance. Debate all you want to over the first fighters in the mix, the men and women who convinced NBC to give the original series one last third season chance. You can also praise the participation of the ‘70s adults, whose fond memories of the material kept the syndication scores high.


But it was us who made Star Trek into the viable property you now see before you today. It was us who tolerated the tepid, trying aspects of The Motion Picture (or “The Motion Sickness” as we called it back then) and turned it into a monster hit. It was us who initially celebrated the returning Wrath of Khan, who practiced our silly Shatner screams and amazing Montalban line readings long before most of you were born. We were the demographic, the 18 to 24 year olds who mandated the movies that were made. We had helped George Lucas cement his status as a fantasy filmmaker to watch (and later, reject). We gave Steven Spielberg his career defining hits, and sadly, helped Hollywood move from the post-modern majesty of ‘70s cinema to the high concept cheapness of the disposable ‘80s.


Perhaps that’s why now, some thirty years after Robert Wise took the original actors and thrust them directly onto the big screen for all the world to see, we Star Trek geeks are ready to see the series reborn. After all the Next Generations and Deep Space Nines, after the outsized ideas of Voyager and the failed origin attempts of Enterprise, the time has come to go back to square one and reset the star date. As Spock would agree, it’s only logical. The first cast is now far too old to jumpstart the franchise, and the various fragmented incarnations of the concept have apparently worn out their welcome (though Jean-Luc Picard and crew could still give the series a run for its residual money). By finding a proper way to bring Trek into the 21st century, by introducing the youth of today to the joys of yesterday’s future, without the stigma of the 11 other films flying over their head, a whole new chapter in series’ lore can be written.


As Paramount reconfigures the original, adding new effects and a professional polish to what was often a seat of their pants production, as DVD gives way to further Blu-ray wonders, fans can look forward to J.J. Abrams reboot masterpiece (my rave review arrives Tuesday) and the possibilities it offers. Let’s face it - if it can satisfy an old school Trek head (both Trekkies and Trekkers seem so…silly) like me, and make me wish for more installments just like it, the individuals behind the scenes are doing something right. Remember, we are the ones who made Star Trek what it is today. It’s nice to know that, some 40 plus years later, the right people were put in place to “save” it. It makes all daily trips past the bumper sticker seem all the more real - and relevant.


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Thursday, Apr 30, 2009

Compiling Best-of Lists is always tough. No matter what you pick, no matter the rest of the critical consensus on the issue, someone comes along who knows a whole lot better than you and proceeds to call the compilation on every misguided choice and each obvious, awkward exclusion. Opinion can never, ever please all the people all the time, but when one goes out on a limb and declares a collection of movies, albums, performance, hamburgers the cream of the cultural crop, someone’s guaranteed to crap all over your determination. Apparently, it’s hard to remember that this is meant as some manner of individual perspective, not a mandated media benchmark by which all other conclusions are judged and joked about.


That being said, Spring makes such issues double tough. As we mentioned yesterday, Hollywood has tried over recent years to broadside the usual tally of terrible titles with occasionally inspired surprise hits. In 2008, Cloverfield and Forgetting Sarah Marshall made the January to May season totally tolerable. In 2007, we got Zodiac and Hot Fuzz. So it’s no surprise that SE&L could find five films that represent the top of the typical Tinsel Town trash heap. What remains incredible is the number of entries that barely missed out. Fans of the serious science fiction format were rewarded with Alex Proyas’ intriguing Knowing, though the final 15 minutes probably turned this doom and gloom thriller from a positive to a problem for many. Similarly, Crank: High Voltage is one of those ‘love it or loathe it’ efforts that will have so called film snobs snickering in half-hearted disbelief.


Monsters vs. Aliens was a hollow 3D treat, while I Love You Man proved the bro-mantic comedy could tolerate a little more seriousness. Horror even got some help in the popularity department with the cruel, crazy My Bloody Valentine update. In the end, the final five represents, at least from our perspective, what will be the most memorable, meaningful films come a final end of the year reconsideration. Of course they will stir controversy. Naturally, some of you will think we are insane. But the truth is - no list is conclusive. It’s all subjectivity passing itself off as objectivity, especially to people who enjoy piling on. So get your argumentative knives ready as we prepare to die the death of a thousand cinematic cuts. Here are the films Short Ends and Leader felt represented Spring 2009’s best, beginning with:




5. Friday the 13th 2009


Along with our selection at Number Three, this will probably be our most controversial and debatable choice, especially for those misguided few who still insist on calling the original franchise anything more than a cheesy splatter diversion. Sure, it hit a cultural nerve, but it can’t hold an aesthetic candle to such obvious ‘80s classics as The Evil Dead, Hellraiser, or The Thing. So when Marcus Nispel signed on to do the same to Sean Cunningham’s signature film as he did with Tobe Hopper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, fright fans had a reason to be cheerful. And when they finally got a chance to see the sadistic slice and dice result, their faith in the slasher genre was instantly reinstated. Nispel should indeed be the go-to guy for any future macabre remake. He instinctually understands the genre and his eye for evil is laser sharp. The best horror film of 2009 so far, without question.



4. Coraline


Henry Selick really should be more popular than he is. Part of the problem is that his one great masterpiece - Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas - was not a major success during its original run, and has since almost completely been given over to the marquee name on the title (though beyond creating it, said savant had little to do with the actual production). No, Selick suffers from his love of a lost artform - stop motion animation - and the limited outlet for such imagination…until now. Rendered in ridiculously lush 3D and sporting a darker than usual story from Neil Gaiman, this rowdy, raucous allegory about children and their dissatisfied family affairs literally leaps off the screen and settles right down inside your sense of aesthetic bliss. It betters everything that makes Nightmare so classic while keeping in line with the author’s outsized view of youth. The combination is crackerjack.




3. Watchmen


Okay - here comes the second of SE&L‘s ill-conceived choices, though we have to admit that Zack Snyder could never live up to the hype generated by a web world of Moore/Gibbons purists. Argue all you want to over the cast, the last act removal of the oft-complained over squid, the leaving of certain subplots to a stand-alone DVD release, or the near religious faithfulness with which the Dawn of the Dead/300 director approached this material. Whatever your argument, pro or con, it’s hard to deny the visionary work on display here. Snyder stepped up and actually gave the Watchmen universe a realistic, authentic sheen. Even elements like Dr. Manhattan’s private parts make sense within this look at a society so sick with it can’t see the saviors within it. For our money, this is the second more important comic book movie after The Dark Knight, another example of mutating the genre to fit more meaningful mainstream goals.




2. Adventureland


Coming of age stories are a dime a dozen, and this critic believes that many who dismissed this film failed to see the key aspect that makes this look back at life circa 1987 so unforgettable - these are COLLEGE kids we are talking about, not numbskulled high school graduates. It’s one thing to see teens haggle over the family car. It’s another to see someone with a sheepskin experience the same socially emasculating reality. Greg Motolla creates the anti-Superbad here, a film that’s exceedingly sweet where his previous hit was scatological…maybe to a fault. Jesse Eisenberg’s pitch perfect performance, a turn that takes a master of understated sarcasm to pull off, leads us deep into a local amusement park populated by real people with even more recognizable issues. And that Motolla doesn’t supply any easy answers is the sad-sweet icing on this amazing masterwork’s creative cake.



1. Anvil: The Story of Anvil


An unusual choice, but then again, this stellar music documentary is a rarity in unto itself - a heavy metal story that’s less about the hand signs and more about the men striving to get fans fired up. Steve “Lips” Kudlow and Robb Reiner were lost teenagers in Canada when they vowed to rock until they made it to the top. Now, after a brief stop over at ersatz stardom circa the early ‘80s, the more than middle aged musicians are still trying to convince an uncaring industry that they really do matter. The fans definitely think so. The filmmaker here - ex-roadie turned Hollywood heavyweight Sacha Gervais - put enough Spinal Tap references in to make one think they are witness to another memorable meta-put-on by a group of great actors. When the truth comes out (Anvil has never quit, producing 13 albums since they formed) it’s both heart breaking and hilarious. Rooting for the underdogs has never been so much fun - especially when said runners-up didn’t deserve to be forgotten in the first place.

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Tuesday, Apr 28, 2009

It’s funny to watch the pundits weigh in, humorous in the kind of sick, twisted and very dark way that comedy can occasionally creep up on you. Critics were kept away and still they had comment on how something so obviously mediocre (since it wasn’t screened for them, you see) ended up becoming a $29 million pre-Summer season smash. Many point to the actress (or “talent”, in this case, one Beyonce Knowles), while others suggest that the urban market, well known for supporting their favorites, took some of the money they set aside for Tyler Perry every year and spent it instead on this ersatz thriller. There’s even the suggestion that race - in this case, the African American as victim vs. Caucasian as cruel villain angle - brought in viewers ready to uncork four decades of civil rights struggles on their local Cineplex.


So which is it? Why did Obsessed, a poorly received, sneaking through the backdoor entry into the typically tepid Spring movie cavalcade, become the exception and not the rule. Tracking had the film making something in the middle teens over the 24 April weekend, and yet when all was said and done, that tally was almost double. It’s nothing new. Every year, some movie comes in with mediocre expectations and thoroughly exceeds them. It’s as much a given as some highly hyped mega-hit in the making walking into the blockbuster foray and coming up short - as in ‘someone’s gonna get fired’ short. But there is something a tad more sinister here, a suggestion that seems incongruous to the way we view the social fabric and, instead, signals a jaded and somewhat racist view of the media, and the movies that rely on it for publicity and purpose.


Going back to our man in drag for a second, it’s always stunning to watch young white male journalists joust over why a film like The Family That Preys or Madea Goes to Jail winds up near or at the top of the three day totals. They blame organized church groups and other special interests for stepping in and buying up entire theaters, while others use an insulting “they don’t know any better” sort of rationale. When teens show up en masse for another Saw sequel, PG-13 horror romp, or stupid sex comedy, they aren’t accused of being compelled as a group no matter the title, or even worse, aesthetically out of step with what is proper and right. True, fright films are often dismissed outright because of their content and craven appeal. But when it comes to movies made for a certain niche, the analysis is not so nice.


Though it might sound brazen to suggest it, people like Tyler Perry and producer William Packer (who tackled both Obsessed and the previous stepping hit Stomp the Yard) realize that, like George W. Bush, Hollywood hates black people. Oh, they don’t dislike their money, or their motivation to see something familiar and fun (right Transporter and Fast and Furious series?). No, what Tinsel Town takes away from all ethnic cinema is the same narrow-minded, common denominator view that finds them changing the nationality of the main characters in 21, or allowing M Night Shyamalan to hire non-Asians to play Asian characters in his anime adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Since they don’t understand people outside their own xenophobic sphere of influence, they instead dumb everything down to a level of ludicrousness that’s truly offensive.


Granted, no one is saying that Perry or his offshoots make the most complicated or realistic looks at life within their community, but if African Americans were really offended by their antics, they certainly wouldn’t line up to fund their farcical morality plays. No, what a film like First Sunday, or Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins offers is a motion picture experience that actually understands (or tries to understand) the minority experience from the inside out. As Spike Lee has often said, filmmakers of color are the only one’s capable of speaking to their people’s sensibilities. And when you have 85% to 90% of Hollywood run by Caucasians, what does that tell you about the ‘voice’ within the films being made? The stereotyping is so blatant that it’s been the source of several scholarly looks at the industry’s inferred intolerance.


Again, no one is arguing for the artistic merit of a movie aimed specifically at a certain sector of society. There are dozens of high minded entries that fail to resonate with their proposed demographics’ ideals. When you watch one of Tyler Perry’s PLAYS (not the film adaptations of same), you instantly understand the difference. The playwright turned cultural phenomenon doesn’t start with characters or situations, he starts with philosophies and racial identity. He combs through the community and picks out things that matter the most - love, religion, hardship, faith, hope, displacement, togetherness, the inevitability of failure, and the enduring reality that family can overcome almost all such strife. He then pulls out some noted archetypes, plugs in some amazing gospel soul music, and - viola! - an instant hit.


It’s not unlike what someone like Judd Apatow does. Knocked Up is nothing but accidental promiscuity taken to the ultimate biological ends, the shiny white TV goddess given over to a relationship with a schelpy Jewish boy in hopes that he will mature enough to become a meaningful partner. Toss in some stoners, a collection of couples clichés, and enough scatology to make it all seem like a frathouse joke, and you’ve got a movie still praised by critics (including yours truly) as something genuinely clever and insightful. Yet how many would argue that a film like Perry’s Why Did I Get Married? or Meet the Browns isn’t the same thing, just shifted over into the world of African American? Even more homemade efforts like So Fresh, So Clean and Family Reunion, The Movie resonate better than a standard slate of opening weekend offerings.


So it’s not surprising that Beyonce, a superstar within the music business, and a movie geared toward taking the minority position in a standard he said/she said thriller winds up walking away with box office gold. Just like when Perry hired Janet Jackson and Jill Scott to be in one of his films, such tied promotion pushes the media transversely across boundaries it may never experience otherwise. Of course, the kicker comes when you look beyond the numbers and see what is really going on behind the scenes. Obsessed may have been produced by people of color, but it was actually directed by a white man from London (Steve Shill), and written by another member of the majority (David Loughery) responsible for other ‘race’ related material like Lakewood Terrace and Passenger 57. Talk about a twist ending. Maybe Hollywood has finally wised up. Or maybe, just maybe, they’re doing what they do best - carpetbagging a concept that someone did first, and does better. 


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Wednesday, Mar 11, 2009

Of all the supposed masters of macabre, Wes Craven has been the most prolific…and practical. He constantly makes movies, even if fans refuse to take him or his latest titles (Vampire in Brooklyn, Cursed) seriously. He’s also been a shrewd businessman, making sure that he keeps control over almost everything he’s done. That’s why, along with John Carpenter, you see so many of his past “glories” being recast for current audiences. As part of the horror remake craze, Craven has seen The Hills Have Eyes redux become a 2006 hit, and he’s got several more projects in the pipeline - Shocker, The People Under the Stairs, even a new version of his ‘80s classic A Nightmare on Elm Street. Yet messageboard fever has been furious over the proposed plans to take on his most notorious film, The Last House on the Left. Some see it as the ultimate form of sacrilege. Others - with a much clearer memory of the original - wonder what all the fuss is about.


With the Craven approved update arriving in theaters this Friday (13 March), SE&L is going to step up and guide you through the major changes and narrative twists that the new version of The Last House on the Left has to offer. While nominal in most cases, those contemplating a Friday evening trip to the Cineplex may be interested in knowing the score. Be warned though - there are MASSIVE SPOILERS o’plenty here. In fact, both movies have the facts and fatalities completely given away over the course of the article. Perhaps a better plan would be to wait until after a viewing to visit this piece. After all, both the original and new Last House rely on shock value as a means of making their point, and nothing spoils suspense faster than a little firsthand knowledge. Either way, here’s the compare and contrast between 1972 and 2009:


The Characters
At the beginning of the original film, Wes Craven offered the standard “true story” tease, stating that certain names had been changed to protect those still living. Oddly enough, something similar could be said about the update. Gone are the goofball cops who provide more slapstick than protection for the local populace. Equally missing are all counterculture sidebars (harassing hippies) and throwaway local color (chicken farmer Ada Washington). Krug is still here, as are Sadie and Junior. Fred “the Weasel” has been renamed Francis and is given a slightly smaller libido than his 1972 equal. He’s not a fellow escaped con but the actual brother of Krug. Troubled girl from across the tracks Phyllis has been replaced by good natured grocery store clerk Paige, and all the subtext about Mari’s friend being “bad” and “slutty” has been swapped for concepts like “trusting” and “innocently reckless”. Again, this is probably to make her death that much more senseless, but it does remove a rather strong element from the wilderness wilding to come. Perhaps the biggest change happens for Junior, however. Instead of being a strung out junkie selling out everyone for a hit, we now get a weak willed kid who just wants to be liked. His transformation is one of The Last House on the Left 2009’s strangest surprises.


On the other side of things, Mari is a strong swimmer (a fact that makes the middle act escape seem rather obvious), Dad is a workaholic type ER doctor (perfect for suturing wounds and delivering emergency chest cavity venting) and Mom is a slightly sexy teacher with a hidden talent for payback. Gone are the arcane, erudite conversations of the 1972 couple. In their place are a matter of fact pair of parents who see no other solution than destroying the people who imperiled their child. Our new guardians are more thoughtful and “hip”. The original were so old school and square that their sudden switch over to maniac mode was truly disturbing.


The Story
Oddly enough, there is little difference between the basic plot of the 1972 film and this 2009 redux. Screenwriters Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth are very faithful to the initial movie’s main set-up (sorry, no trips into NYC to see some scummy rock band) while attempting to expand the emotional core between the characters. We learn that the Collingwoods have faced a tragedy the year before with the death of their oldest son Ben. Everyone, especially Mari, still carries complex memories. Our heroine and her pal Paige fall into a kind of trap, although Junior is far less complicit this time around (in fact, one could argue for his complete innocence). The lure of pot is still the main sticking point for the gals’ deadly fate, but sex is now secondary in Krug and company’s plans. As you’ll see below, Mari doesn’t die instantly after her ordeal, and there is less hospitality and interpersonal interaction between the Collingwoods and the criminals before the mayhem begins. In a recent interview, Craven claims to really like the subtle changes. By keeping Mari alive, mandating that she get to a hospital soon or die, the parents have a real reason to go apeshit on her tormentors. In the original, the vengeance felt anarchic and animalistic. Here, it’s in direct correlation for the couples’ need to help their child.


The Killings
It’s SPOILER time, and if you don’t want to know the fate of any character in either film, turn away now and prepare for Friday’s opening. Indeed, the biggest difference fans will see in the recent remake is the way in which all the deaths occur. For those unfamiliar with the Craven original, Mari and Phyllis are taken out into the woods. Both are tortured and tormented. Phyllis is stabbed repeatedly and then disemboweled. Mari is raped, and then as she tries to escape, is shot in the back and left for dead in a nearby lake. Craven originally intended for the girl to remain alive long enough for her parents to find her (the scene was shot and is available on the recent Special Edition DVD release), but he figured that it was better to leave said reconciliation on the cutting room floor. Instead, Krug and his gang show up at the Collingwood house, they have dinner, and then the killing begins. Junior shoots himself. Fred is seduced by Mom, has his “manhood” removed orally, and is left to bleed to death. And in the film’s shocking climax, Krug and Dad battle until the latter gets the advantage via chainsaw. Mom slits Sadie’s throat and leaves her to rot.


In the remake, Mari burns Sadie with a cigarette lighter. This causes a car crash which breaks Francis’ nose. The gang takes the girls out into the woods, where Paige is stabbed. She bleeds to death. Mari is raped in a very brutal manner, and as she escapes to the lake, is shot in the back. She indeed survives, and manages to make it back home. Desperate to get her to a hospital, Mom and Dad soon discover that the individuals who showed up at the house earlier were actually the fiends who did this to their child. After some emergency meatball surgery, Mari is secured away while her parents exact revenge. Francis is semi-seduced, stabbed, and bludgeoned. Mom tries to drown him in the kitchen sink, and Dad steps in to help. Francis’s hand finds its way into the disposal, and the couple throws the switch. Finally, while screaming in agony, Dad drops the butt end of a hammer into the guy’s skull. After retrieving a gun from Junior, Sadie is shot in the face.


Once again, Krug and Dad fight to the death, and before we know it, the escaped murderer is supposedly dead. However, in a key last minute addendum, Dad returns from the hospital to find Krug lying on a table, paralyzed. Seems our father figure cut his spinal column so he couldn’t move. As the criminal pleads, Dad puts his head in a broken microwave, cranks up the juice, and waits for the moist results. One fried face later and Krug’s coconut literally explodes. The End. Now, in some ways, both films are cruel and callous in their disregard for human life. There is much more physicality in the remake, more fisticuff back and forth between the Collingwoods and Krug’s clan. At the same time, however, the deaths in the original seemed more apropos. Fred’s demise in particular mirrored the horrific way in which he treated the girls, and the original Krug’s animalistic bravado required something as extreme as a chainsaw to end its power. Still, the microwave gag is a wonderful denouement, and audiences will surely respond to the comeuppance given these heartless, soulless creeps.


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