Creative Influences – El-Hazard

I promised you a blog post today based on my last post. So, let’s get down to it.

One of the things I’ve wanted to do for a while (over a year, really) is to take some time to go over the storytellers and/or stories that have helped to shape me into what I am. I don’t want to hit anything too heavy (I could probably write a book about Neuromancer at this point) so I thought I’d go with one of the lighter pieces for today. It also helps that I watched this title again with my girlfriend two days ago.

The story in question is from an anime hailing from the mid-nineties: El-Hazard.

What Is It About?

The story is a common one in Manga and Anime: a group of people from our world are transported to another world. In this case, the new world is called El-Hazard. The world has a strange mixture of high-technology and mysticism that provides what falsely appears to be a magical society. Priestesses manage El-Hazard’s  advanced technologies, most of which have been lost to time. Everything has an Arabic flavor from the clothes to the environments.

The four new immigrants to El-Hazard have varying degrees of difficulty adjusting to their new world. The main character, Makoto, quickly learns that he is a dead ringer for one of the local princesses (which he finds super awkward). Nanami finds herself in the middle of a desert, having to waitress to make a living. Katsuhiko realizes he’s surrounded by bug people. And their teacher, Mr. Fujisawa… well, he adjusts pretty well at first since it seems he’s been granted great physical skills and unrivaled fighting techniques – so long as he’s sober. Which is kind of a problem for him, what with him being an alcoholic.

Like Mr. Fujisawa… they all gain strange abilities, some immediately apparent, others not. Katsuhiko can speak with the local insect monsters, the Bugrom. Nanami can see through illusions. And Makoto… nah. I won’t spoil that for you. Despite the fact that the Anime is twenty-two years old.

El Hazard Fujisawa Out of Alcohol
“Oh shit! Someone else is outta alcohol!”

Makoto, Nanami, and Mr. Fujisawa find themselves embroiled in local power struggles after Makoto is coerced by the nation of Roshtaria into posing as their secretly missing princess. Katsuhiko uses his newfound and innate ability to speak with the Bugrom to rally an giant insect army.  He pushes the Bugrom and their queen, Diva, to launch an attack on Roshtaria. The reason he does this is because his ‘life long rival’ Makoto is amongst their people – well, that and because he has a massive inferiority complex. To add to the conflict, there’s also the matter of the Phantom Tribe. They’ve worked for centuries to bring the whole of El-Hazard under their rule. Soon enough, devastating ancient technologies are being deployed in a growing war and the mystical powers and long lost relics start making for fantastic fight scenes.

The whole of El-Hazard hangs in the balance, with the four newcomers providing the pivotal thrusts that will decide the fate of millions.

Why This Story?

The story itself isn’t a new one. Like I said earlier, Anime uses the misplaced stranger(s) in a strange land trope frequently, as do most other mediums and genres. El-Hazard simply plays it to the hilt. More importantly, it’s a story with multiple levels. It starts out silly and light hearted, with alcoholic hijinks, gender-bending mistaken identity, megalomaniac delusions of grandeur, and, yeah… a lot of cheesecake and sexual comedy. It also manages a fair amount of drama as well, featuring everything from young infatuation triangles to the impact of what genocide does psychologically to a living weapon that is made to wage it.

The characters all stand out as well. One of my favorite characters is one of the Priestesses of Mount Muldoon, Shayla-Shayla. She’s easily in the top ten heroes list for me when it comes to Anime. She typifies the kind of flawed hero you find in the genre: brash, hot-headed, young, a little too eager to fight because she’s badass. She has issues making connections with people (apart from using her fists) but, she’s always on the right side of the battle. She always fights with style. She’s a character that I’ve used to create RPG characters from. She made for a great Fire-aspected Genasi Ranger In Forgotten Realms.

el hazard shayla
Shayla is the kind of character that will use fire as their go to solution, just like every good player character should.


Another personal favorite character is Mr. Fujisawa. Personally, I think he could have a series all of his own, letting us all watch the life of a genial alcoholic who gets super powers when he’s sober (and even more powers if he stops smoking). He’s a great bit of flavor for the whole story. Whenever things get too heavy, he’s there to relieve some of the pressure with either a well placed FUJISAWA KICK (you must capitalize this signature move) or an inopportune bender.

I dunno if he's kicking or falling here. Either way, he's probably schmammed.
I don’t know if he’s kicking or falling here. Either way, he’s probably schmammed.

The rest of the cast aren’t small potatoes either. Nananmi, Allielle, Dr. Schtalhubal, and the other two Priestesses have their own charisma to bring. Even the bad guy, Katsuhiko, is the kind of villain you love to hate – mostly because he’s so catastrophically inept despite commanding Queen Diva, the Demon Ifurita, and the Bugrom.

And then, there’s this guy:

el hazard babumbum
“Bum. Ba bum bum!”


I don’t think he (?) even has a name and he shows up for less than ten seconds. My fellow Otaku (the pejorative Japanese word for fanboy/girl –  more benignly used in the US) in the area have always just called him ‘The Ba Bum Bum’ (a name rooted in onomatopoeia – it’s the only noise he makes).  He waddles through a single scene. His only purpose is to make Mr. Fujisawa think he has the DT’s. God bless him. I love this… thing.

Given all of the above, I get nostalgia and an inner glow when I think about El-Hazard and the time I was first introduced to it. It’s still out there on DVD, though I’m not sure there’s a Blu Ray release of it just yet – at least not one you can find stateside. But when I find one, oh yeah. Come to papa.

Ultimately, all of the above led me to try to make stories that could have layers, be fantastical as I could make them, and present (sometimes hilariously) flawed characters that readers hopefully come to love.

Bonus Material: El-Hazard Births A True Otaku

El-Hazard wasn’t my first Anime. but it’s definitely the first I took seriously enough to collect all of it. My intake of Anime was limited since it was not as big in the States in 1994 as it is now.

My personal collection back then consisted of two feature films (Akira and Macross: Do You Remember Love?), a handful of incomplete Robotech VHS tapes that were Macek’ed to hell and back, two VHS of Macross II (ugh, my taste was poor), and several Starblazers tapes of truly horrible quality. I’d also seen a few rentals like Fist of the North Star (ugh), Appleseed (an adaptation of a great Manga to middling Anime), Black Magic 88 (another meh entry), and yeah, I’d been scarred by Urotsukidoji (why people watch that kind of shit is beyond me).

Then I met Marc.

Marc was a little older than I was and had built up a wealth of Anime viewing in those extra years. His access to early Anime hubs like Anime Crash (sadly, no longer a thing) and ties to the Otakon and New York university scenes (where fansub culture thrived) made him practically a connoisseur by comparison to me at the time. Delaware was not exactly loaded with Anime at that point.

To put it in the terms of another Anime, Haibane Renmei, he helped me through my new feather phase.

He suggested a lot of great stuff in the fall of ’96 and the year of ’97. El-Hazard was one of the two big series he got me hooked on; the other was Giant Robo, released by Manga Entertainment (arguably the biggest of the production companies back then). When he lent me his Dubbed VHS of El-Hazard… that was that. My Anime collection was on the rise. I’d save money to hit Tower Records or Suncoast Video – two of the only places in Philadelphia where I could reliably find Anime at a price I could afford. When they were in at Between Books back in Delaware, I’d get them there (tax free!). It cost a lot for me to get my own El-Hazard collection (and many other titles) – but it was worth every penny. It was probably the first Anime I bought with my own money and with any kind of regularity. I get warm fuzzies just thinking about it.

More Bonus Material: El-Hazard and the Collapsing Sub / Dub Wars

This also marked the beginning of what I like to call the ‘Pioneer Era’ (roughly between 1995 and 2000). During the eighties and nineties, Otaku were working off VHS tapes, and that had consequences. When you bought a title, you had to make a choice: original audio with subtitle tracks, or english dub and no subtitles. Debate raged hotly between Otaku over which was better – and still does, though it’s an argument that doesn’t involve opening your wallet any longer (thank god for multiple language tracks/subtitles). While I was okay with dubs, many were not – and usually for good reason. U.S. Manga Corp (one of the big producers at the time) was not one to spend a lot on dubbing Anime titles, nor were a lot of other production houses. There were some truly awful dubs out there (the original Captain Harlock comes to mind) if you didn’t want to read your Anime. If you showed up to an anime night with a group of Otaku, the groans would start when one format or the other was revealed. Subbers said the audio translations were poorly made and executed. Dubbers hated having to read an already busy medium. Ideological purity threatened friendships. I know at least one Otaku who will still leave the room at the sound of an English dubbed Anime.

El-Hazard was one of the first VHS dubs that I remember with an audio track that didn’t feel phoned in or waaay off the mark. Pioneer went on from titles like El-Hazard to create excellent dubs (Tenchi Universe, Serial Experiment Lain) that only got better once they turned into the Geneon studio (where they produced great dubs for Trigun, Last Exile, Hellsing). They’re still around, but after the American Anime Bubble finally burst in the late 00’s, they retreated back to Japan where they work on that side of the Pacific only. According to Wikipedia, they’re now owned by NBC/Universal.

Due to Pioneer’s early efforts and the emergence of multi-language DVD options, later production companies would get better voice talent, better translations, and generally and put more effort into their production process.



1994: The Cutting Room Floor

A Change In Format

Forgive me for the brief interruption, but I’m feeling like The Cutting Room Floor is shaping up more like a series of lists and one-liners than something more insightful. I’ll still be giving you the content you remember: the good, the bad and the indifferent won’t be going anywhere, nor will my cinematic sins that fell by the wayside. I’ll be trying to expand content in the lists a bit more, but mainly I want to include a couple articles about my experiences and realizations with cinema generally during the nineties and beyond. We’ll get to my topic for this post just after we get through…

The Good, the Bad, and the Indifferent.

1994 True Lies


Cabin Boy (Bad) – Chris Elliott is Chris Elliott in this largely forgettable movie about a man-child brought onto a ship as – you guessed it – a cabin boy. At least his pipes are cleaned.

Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (Bad) – Sorry, this was too much of Jim Carrey in a ninety-minute period for me. A Wacky guy with a knack for working with and retrieving lost animals goes after yet another animal quarry. Courtney Cox falls in love with this idiot along the way. Points given for the bit where Carrey’s butt asks for Binaca.

Blank Check (Indifferent) – This film has something to do with Miguel Ferrer trying to get a lot of dirty money back from a kid who he has paid hush money to in the dumbest way possible. Smart criminals don’t write blank checks, dumbass.

Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (Indifferent) – No O.J. this time given the Trial of the Century. It’s probably not the only reason the movie is forgettable though. After a while, all of this franchise’s films feel like they’re just the same movie on repeat. Leslie Nielsen does variously dirty and humorous things while fighting crime.

Clean Slate (Indifferent) – Dana Carvey is not Garth in this ho-hum comedy about an amnesiac detective. I think. It’s hard to remember. And I paid theater ticket price too. Lesson learned.

The Flintstones (Bad) – It’s okay to leave some properties alone, Hollywood. We can just watch the old cartoons. They’re better. Put your money into something more innovative next time. I honestly can’t remember anything about this movie other than wanting to escape despite the presence of John Goodman and Rick Moranis in the film.

City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold (Indifferent) – I can only tell you that this involves Jack Palance not being around anymore and something about his supposed hidden gold which Billy Crystal and Daniel Stern look to find. I don’t think they went for a City Slickers III after this one. Yet. Give the studio time though.

Speed (Bad) – Whoa. The bus can’t stop. Whew, I stopped the bus. Kiss me, leading lady person. Where is my paycheck? This must be what it was like to be Keanu Reeves in the nineties. Sandra Bullock also features as leading lady person.

Wolf (Good) – This wasn’t a bad film really. Had a good cast between Jack Nicholson, James Spader, and Michelle Pfeiffer. Nicholson gets bit my a werewolf. Spader gets bit by Nicholson. Then, they fight over sexual access to Pfeiffer. But… that’s really kind of it.

The Lion King (Good) – You can crib worse plots than Hamlet (you can also rip off worse series than Kimba the White Lion). The technical work was good between the rotoscoping and the shading technologies emerging at the time, but this film doesn’t get me back to watch it too often. It’s a definite highmark in terms of technique. Hakuna Matata will always be better than YOLO.  Oh, and Disney, you might pay for the songs you use in your soundtrack too.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Indifferent) – Where it’s cousin, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) had a conversion that moved the dial for me in my inexperienced youth, this just… didn’t. I may also have finally seen this after actually reading Frankenstein… which kinda ruined it for me since adaptations don’t frequently scratch the itch the same way a novel can.

The Santa Clause (Indifferent) – By the time I saw this, most kid movies had lost their charm. Tim Allen plays a guy who gets roped into becoming the real Santa Claus. Tim Allen’s not bad as a comedian or an actor – I loved Home Improvement (1991 – 1999) – but… eh.

Leon: the Professional (Good) – I saw this one late. Like, last year late (2016). So a lot of the stuff that was over the top for its day didn’t have the punch I suppose to make it one of my higher rated films. It is however definitely worth a watch, not only for Gary Oldman’s performance, but also that of a very young Natalie Portman. Additionally, anything with Jean Reno is worth watching. It’s about a little girl who loses her family to some very crooked people and wants her neighbor – an assassin – to train her for a path to vengeance.

Star Trek: Generations (Bad) – Another Star Trek plot that bring the original series and the Next Generation cast together. I’m assuming that what left a bad taste in my mouth was the thing that kind of gets me with all television-to-big-screen adaptations: it’s just another episode and Trek isn’t really my go to sci-fi franchise. This is just a longer episode with better special effects, a couple tacked on big names, and a mild crossover from the original series. Features William Shatner, Malcolm McDowell, and the Star Trek: the Next Generation(1987-1994)  crew, including Whoopi Goldberg.

Junior (Indifferent) – Another foray into comedy for Schwarzenegger. This time, he’s carrying a baby inside of him! Not as funny as it sounds.

Dumb and Dumber (Bad) – Is there something wrong with me? Maybe I just don’t like comedy?Two idiots embark on wacky adventures in their dog grooming van. While I don’t really like Carrey all that much (as you can probably tell by now), Jeff Bridges is kind of awesome. He at least should have moved the dial up to indifferent but… no.

Maverick (Good) – This western, focusing on gambling and riverboat casinos, didn’t quite move the dial as much as Tombstone did. You do, however, get great performances by Mel Gibson, James Garner, and Graham Greene.

True Lies (Good) – I remember this film clearly. My cousin and I took my dad to go see this as a surprise for his birthday I think. He’d helped my cousin and I a lot that year, and Dad loved it – especially the bits with the Harrier Jet. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays an undercover agent. His line of work gets in the way of his marriage with Jaime Lee Curtis though. She feels alone and wants some excitement in their romance again. Unfortunately, this gets her tied in with his work, which both she and he are totally unprepared for. Good supporting cast in the form of Bill Paxton and Tom Arnold.

Music To Outshine the Movie

Let’s take a moment before we get to my cinematic viewing failures to discuss something that’s been on my mind for the past couple of nineties posts: music.

You’ve no doubt seen music come up in the notes for a lot of my favorite films already. It goes to say that most movies that grip you in your very soul have some musical accoutrements going on, even if you may not be consciously aware of it. Graeme Revell is one of the best guys at doing this, though I’d also credit Trevor Jones and James Newton Howard. You also get the household names who ubiquitously stand out for their significant melodic contributions, such as John Williams or Danny Elfman.

But, there’s another kind of soundtrack that comes up again and again: the ensemble soundtrack. These are performed by the famed and justly popular ‘Various Artists.’ This leads to a weird phenomenon that I’ve noted when it comes to the ensemble soundcast. Their collected artists blend to form exactly what the movies need, above and beyond a score (soundtracks and scores being very different).

But, sometimes. Just sometimes… you get a lackluster or even terrible film that has a great soundtrack.

I have a couple of these in mind, but the one I’m going to use as an example is the movie Mortal Kombat (1995). This movie is pretty awful. While some video game franchise adaptations have gotten big (Tomb Raider 2001, Resident Evil, 2002) this was not the era for that kind of outcome (though Mortal Kombat did spawn several, equally awful sequels – so they must have done something right). Video game adaptations were more likely to come out like the much maligned film, Super Mario Brothers (1993). Mortal Kombat wasn’t quite that bad, but when you cast Christopher Lambert as the Japanese God of Lightning, you have failed spectacularly. Even with Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as Shang Tsung, they still had a lot of explaining to do.

The soundtrack, on the other hand, is amazingly good. If I’m sitting down to write or to get work done, I am very likely to have Mortal Kombat’s soundtrack on hand. It’s high energy and features a lot of great acts like KMFDM, Juno Reactor, Gravity Kills, Orbital, Fear Factory, and Type O Negative. These are not mainstream acts either. Most of these guys are hailing from the school of electronic and industrial music. But good goddamn do they put on a hell of a show.

1994 MK Soundtrack

Not only bombs get stunning soundtracks, though . There are other good films whose soundtracks really outshine or perfectly compliment the film. Empire Records (1995) comes to mind as a good example of this. While it was a great film at the time I watched it, it’s impact has lessened over time – but the soundtrack has not. It’s not a bad movie per se, but the music definitely outshines it, at least for me.

There are also great movies that get even better soundtracks. Stuff that gets watched again and again, but you listen to the soundtracks way more frequently. A great example of this is Grosse Pointe Blank (1996). It’s soundtrack is like a love song to New Wave and the eighties in general.

Here’s a couple more examples (from both good and bad films) of nineties soundtracks that get listened to more than the movie gets watched. I think you can figure out the good from the bad:

  • Batman Forever (1995) featuring Seal, U2, Massive Attack, and the Flaming Lips.
  • The Crow (1994) featuring The Cure, Nine Inch Nails, Stone Temple Pilots, Jesus and Mary Chain, and My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult.
  • Judgement Night (1993) featuring mashups such as Biohazard with Onyx, Cypress Hill with Pearl Jam, Sir Mix-a-lot with Mudhoney, and Run D.M.C. and De La Soul.
  • Demon Knight (1995) featuring Pantera, Ministry, the Gravediggaz, Rollins Band, Megadeth, and Filter.
  • Dangerous Minds (1996) featuring Coolio… and surprisingly little else, but I listen to that song way more than I watch that film (I don’t think I’ve revisited it since the first watching).
  • Romeo + Juliet (1996) featuring The Cranberries, Garbage, Everclear, Radiohead, Butthole Surfers, and the Cardigans
  • The Matrix (1999) featuring Rammstein, Rob Zombie, Rage Against the Machine, Rob Dougan, Spybreak, Ministry, the Deftones, Marilyn Manson, and the Propellerheads.
  • Space Jam (1996) featuring R. Kelly, Seal (by way of Steve Miller), Tommy Chong with Cheech Marin, and Salt-n-Pepa
  • Clerks (1994) featuring Bad Religion, Stabbing Westward, Soul Asylum, and Alice in Chains.

I am positive that I haven’t even hit a fraction of the soundtracks that are going to push peoples buttons. These are just mine. But the fact that the byproduct of the film can be just as engaging or even better than their films boggles my mind sometimes given the difference between the cost of making a film and finding suitable music.

Cinematic Sins

1994 Natural Born Killers

As always, there were some films that were explicitly blocked by parents, others that came and went too quickly, or that I was too limited in personal growth to see the potential value of. I’d like to think that by the age of seventeen that I’d have something resembling sense, but… nope. No such luck.

Blink – I vaguely remember this title pinging the radar at some point, mostly because it was about a person who through medical advances gets their sight back. Further research showed it features Madeleine Stowe, which is a plus given how much I like 12 Monkeys (1995).

The Getaway – Mostly this would be good to watch just for the basis of its cast. It didn’t have robots, zombies, aliens, or anything ‘weird,’ so it failed to draw my attention. With Alec Baldwin, Kim Basinger, Michael Madsen, Jennifer Tilly, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and James Woods, it probably wouldn’t be a waste of my time.

Reality Bites – Sullen and single me wouldn’t have been down to see this at the time. I’m glad I’m not such a moody shit anymore. This was Winona Ryder in her prime. Plus Ethan Hawke, Ben Stiller, and Janeane Garafalo before she really got famous.

Sugar Hill – Another gritty portrayal of people involved with the drug trade. So you can imagine this one didn’t pass muster for parental funds. Also at that time I hadn’t really got into the genre of crime movies yet. That’d change in the next year with The Usual Suspects (1995). It’s got Wesley Snipes before he went batshit crazy too.

The Hudsucker Proxy  – I like Tim Robbins. Let’s give it a go. I’ve heard you either love this film or you hate it. Not a lot of middle ground.

Threesome – See Reality Bites above for the reason and replace the actresses and actors with Lara Flynn Boyle, Stephen Baldwin, and Josh Charles.

Surviving the Game – I don’t remember this one coming around but it came up in my research for this year. It’s Rutger Hauer and Ice-T. I’m down for that.

Brainscan – I can hear my friend Nick tutting at me for not having seen this. I shall have to reach out to him for a viewing. I would not be surprised at all if he has this on DVD somewhere.

PCU – This film is another example of what I call ‘The Shawshank Factor’. It is a movie that I have seen bits and pieces of, multiple times, but have never watched in total. I am unsure as to whether or not I have seen all of this film. It’s got some great work by Jeremy Piven and David Spade, so I’ll need to get back to this from start to finish.

Crooklyn – Another Spike Lee Joint. He was a voice for both my generation and the one before it. And, arguably for today’s as well. I really need to catch up on his work. Plus one of my favorite actors. Delroy Lindo, is in the cast.

Renaissance Man – I like Danny DeVito. Sure, why not?

Wyatt Earp – I like the lore of the men and women involved in Tombstone’s history, but I never had the three hours and ten minutes to sit down and watch this film on one of the most famous of those people, the titular Wyatt Earp.

The Client – Maybe if I like The Firm (1993) I’ll watch this one too. Lord knows I can’t seem to sink my teeth into Grisham’s novels, so movies are probably the better way to go.

Clear and Present Danger – There are so many Tom Clancy adaptations that this one just became another in the mix. I don’t typically go out of my way for Republican ideology in my fiction either. But this is Harrison Ford. I can trust him, right?

Natural Born Killers – This is where my parents drew the line in 1994. I may have gotten away with Pulp Fiction. I may have snuck in Clerks on VHS. But they were not putting money into my hands to go see a movie that they felt glorified serial killers. It didn’t matter how cool Oliver Stone might have seemed after JFK. I just never got back to this one, not even with its great lineup: Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Robert Downey Jr, Tommy Lee Jones, and Tom Sizemore.

Quiz Show – So many people have talked this one up and at the time I couldn’t have cared less. Now that I know a little bit more about its background, I think I’d probably enjoy it.

Ed Wood – Given my leanings, I have no idea why I wouldn’t have gone immediately to the theater to watch Tim Burton’s biopic on Ed Wood, starring  Johnny Depp.

1994: The Dream of the Nineties In Film

So, Where Was I In 1994?

This was a year where I started to come together as a human being. I’d been in my high school music program for two years. Along with my visual arts training, this was where I’d finally started to feel like I had a place of refuge. I’d risen to a section leader in the marching band, was swapping in and out of first chair positions between me and a friend of mine who, no shit, was named Tom Jones. This marked a two year period where sometimes, just sometimes, high school could be fun. The bullies got a new target somewhere (I didn’t care where), I wasn’t an underclassman any longer, and I felt strangely in control of where things were headed for once.

This was also the year where the movie theaters couldn’t keep me out. I turned seventeen this year – old enough to show an ID to someone in the ticket booth and validate my presence there. This didn’t mean my folks were always pleased with my viewing habits. It was a push to get in to see Pulp Fiction that year (a film my mother would later see in her sixties and love).

While the internet had been something I’d used for a while, this was the year it really started to gel for me personally. We were still on dial up, using the much maligned AOL service. Squelches and beeps were a part of every day life, as was the vocal shouting of “MOM! I’M ONLINE! DON’T PICK UP THE PHONE!”

The world continued to move along. NAFTA got barreled through congress and was signed by Slick Willie. Congress flipped to Republican control, which set the stage for an impending impeachment. The PowerPC was released by Apple, and the blurring of platforms started a short time later as the internet brought rival operating systems a bit closer together in terms of compatibility. Rodney King got a shit ton of money in reparations for the violation of his civil rights, further blackening the eye of the LAPD’s public image. To add to the mix of crazy in Los Angeles, Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman are found dead at Brown’s home, resulting in the ‘Trial of the Century.’ The nation plastered itself to the television as Brown’s and Goldman’s suspected killer – football hero, OJ Simpson – took off in a low speed chase with one of his former teammates, Al Cowling.

As always the films of the year continued to mold and shape me. This was a great year for film. This year still informs a lot of my writing and creative sensibilities. Some excellent storytelling came to me, and no doubt 1994’s films will continue to shape me in years to come as my fiction continues to grow.

The Schlock

The Shadow

1994 The Shadow

When I Saw It: 1994
What It Taught Me: Pulp Tropes, A Furthered Love For Art Deco
Rating: ★★★

My music courses were not limited to school hours – practices were both before and after the standard six-and-a-half hour school day. Dad would drive me to practices while we listened to audio dramas. One of the dramas was, of course, The Shadow. Sometimes the titular character was voiced by Orson Welles, other times by William Johnstone and Bret Morrison. This time, we’d get to hear Alec Baldwin perform not just the voice, but the man’s visage – provided alter ego Lamont Cranston would let us see him. I remember being really worked up to see this film.

The movie was okay. It lacked the punch of the other year’s films, mostly because of it’s moderately campy leanings. They overdid it a little, particularly with Tim Curry who plays a patsy for the main villain. It’s hard to overuse Tim Curry – but he put in a little too much extra it might have been better to tuck it back.

What remains with me from the film though was the presentation of Manhattan in the forties. Much like with The Rocketeer (1991), there was a heavy deco leaning to the set that lingers with me, informing me (for better or worse) of the motifs of the times. It also gave me more lead in the pencil for describing and setting the stage for that particular era. It also helped to cement a lot of the tropes and plots of that time: two fisted goons working under shady manipulators versus the one man with special abilities that can stop them.

The Mask

1994 The Mask

When I Saw It: 1994
What It Taught Me: 2D to 3D Effect Transition, A Little Carrey Goes Too Far
Rating: ★★★

I am not particularly a Carrey fan (we’ll get into this a bit more in 1994’s Cutting Room Floor). His signature ability in the 1990’s was to be completely and totally off-the-wall. I’m not certain how he got more energy than Robin Williams had (though one might suspect illicit substances which were also Williams’s forte), but he put it to good use in the Mask.

I liked the concept of this piece, though I’m told it did veer from the canon according to fans of the original Dark Horse Comic from the 80’s and 90’s. It’s the story of an everyman guy, Stanley Ipkiss (played by Jim Carrey), who finds a mask that basically turns him into a nigh-invulnerable, green-skinned trickster so long as he wears it. The Mask comes with some unfortunate complications though, and soon Stanley can’t really keep up with all of the things the Mask gets up to when it’s in control – and it manages to get Stanley into binds ever more frequently the longer he wears it. When Tina Carlyle (Cameron Diaz’s first appearance), hits up Stanley’s bank to open an account. She’s really there get info on banks to rob for the mob. Stanley falls in love with her, and soon The Maskis all over her, and the mob doesn’t like this one bit. Slapstick violence and Jim Carrey being Jim Carrey ensue.

This wasn’t a particularly great film, though for its time its effects were remarkable. Additionally, it was the goal of the team to bring the manic energy of not only Carrey, but the well-respected and talented animator, Tex Avery. Tex is regarded as one of my gods in my pantheon of art, so it was no big surprise that I liked at least that part. They more or less got it down in these clips.

Somewhere In the Middle

No Escape

1994 No Escape

When I Saw It: Circa 1996
What It Taught Me: Complex Dystopia, Better Than Lord of the Flies
Rating: ★★★★

I’ll admit that my recollections of this film are somewhat hazy, but I remember really liking it. As far as I am concerned, the plot is easily explained thus: Escape From New York (1984) on an island. Ray Liotta is Snake Plisken, but there’s no President to be rescued. Liotta just wants off the island to clear his name and expose the corruption that landed him on a remote prison island in the pacific.

I mean, really, framing any movie as ‘Escape From New York, But…’ will pretty much get me to watch it (Escape From New York has been a favorite since I watched it in 1993). I love movies like that portray fantastical societies bred by human nature left to its own devices in strange places. I shouldn’t like movies like this based on my reception of Lord of the Flies (see my Disastrous freshman year in an earlier post). All William Golding really needed to say was ‘the fat kid with glasses dies first when society’s rules go away.’ I knew that because I was a fat kid with glasses. Social dynamics weren’t lost on me. But, what Escape From New York and No Escape had was the set dressing and cool toys on occasion. That and a bad ass guy at the center who had the right antihero tropes.

I really want to revisit this now to see if it still holds up well. It had a pretty good cast with Liotta at the center, and a good array of B-listers surrounding him: Lance Henriksen, Ernie Hudson, and Kevin Dillon.


1994 Airheads

When I Saw It: 1994
What It Taught Me: Soundtrack Love
Rating: ★★★★

So, you have a floundering band that can’t seem to get a break. No one is listening because you’re not on the radio. All doors are shut. How do you open one?

Take a radio station hostage.

Of course the guns are fake – these guys don’t have the stomach for real violence. They figure they’ll use plastic (but real looking) uzi-styled water guns, a little bravado, and get the station playing their new single. What could go wrong?

This is a pretty stupid plan so things go wrong almost immediately. From there on it’s a heartwarming tale of rock and roll revolution, the magic of music, and obligatory Stockholm Syndrome.

What I remember though were two things: Harold Ramis’s appearance, and the Soundtrack. In particular the song ‘I’ll Talk My Way Out of It‘ by Stuttering John. Yes, that Stuttering John.  Yes, you may question my good taste.

Additionally, this was around the time that the three lead rockers were all getting big. I knew Adam Sandler from Saturday Night Live and his comedy CD ‘They’re All Gonna Laugh At You’, Steve Buscemi was becoming a favorite after seeing Reservoir Dogs (1992),  and Brendan Fraser had a string of successes. All three were on their way to big things during this movie’s filming and release.


1994 Stargate

When I Saw It: 1994
What It Taught Me: Diaspora
Rating: ★★★★

A fringe Egyptian Linguist (James Spader) is brought into a top secret project initiated by the Unites States Government by an aging scientist who believes his work will unlock a great mystery. He accepts and finds himself under the command of a high ranking military man with a haunted past (Kurt Russel). Russel’s project is related to an ancient artifact found in Egypt and taken by the US military. They have no idea what it does, but they have a couple ideas. Once Spader joins the team, they realize the artifact is a portal – but to where they have no idea. So, they get volunteers led by Spader and Russel to go through the portal and into a world that seems very much like Egypt. The locals at the other end of the portal are shockingly human, they have their own language derived from Egyptian… and they are brutally oppressed by alien masters who appear to have been the architects of the entire ancient Egyptian societal structure. The aliens were, in fact, their gods. Spader and Russel then go on to liberate the oppressed world and to presumably exploit the hell out of the gate system they’ve discovered after the credits roll (the film even got a set of spin off shows on The SciFi Channel).

The idea of extraterrestrial human societies as the norm appealed to me. That humans were not unique to earth or might even be the ‘typical’ species found in space due to a forgotten diasporas in the ancient past really took seed and sprouted story ideas for years to come. The film’s visual effects also served as reference for me  years later in college – a lot of FX heavy films did, though this one sticks out due to the rippling water effect of the gate.

The Ref

1994 The Ref

When I Saw It: 1994
What It Taught Me: Stretching the Concept of a Christmas Movie, Escalation
Rating: ★★★★

Denis Leary hit me like a lightning bolt with his comedy disc ‘No Cure For Cancer’ in 1993. It got listened to a lot, so when he had top billing in this dysfunctional family comedy, I leaped.

Leary plays a career thief. He decides to pull a job on a millionaire’s house on Christmas Eve. He’s caught up by a trap in the house that identifies him.  This sends him on the lam, looking for a place to go to ground and wait out the dragnet. To accomplish this he kidnaps a couple (Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis) who have been at each other’s throats for years. He coerces them into keeping him hidden under the threat of violence against their juvenile delinquent son. This gets Leary embedded in Spacey and Davis’s own family problems when he realizes the best story he can use as a cover for the arrival of their relatives is to pretend that he’s their marriage counselor. When the extended family arrives, things get much, much worse for everyone and things escalate to a spectacular breaking point.

This is not only a great comedy, but it’s a movie I watch around Christmas every year, along with Die Hard and Gremlins. Much to my mother’s disappointment.

Personal Blockbusters

Forrest Gump

1994 Forrest Gump

When I Saw It: 1994
What It Taught Me: A Deeper Sense of a World Before Me, What Special Effects Could Really Do
Rating: ★★★★

This was easily the hit of the year for most audiences (though not my personal favorite if the title banner of the article didn’t give it away). Tom Hanks really showed his chops with this one, and sent his career down a notably different path from most of his past performances.

Hanks portrays Forrest Gump, a good natured man of lower-than-average intelligence. He has a storied and exceptional life despite his many challenges. He starts from humble origins, the illegitimate son of a hard-working mother who does anything she can to raise him right. The story goes from his early years, through adolescence, through his time in the military and Vietnam, and then an improbable celebrity that comes after. Throughout the film, he traverses several high mark moments of history that have been emblazoned into the Baby Boomer experience. It’s an amazing work that encompasses so many themes and emotions that it’s difficult to catalog all of them. It really did deserve its critical acclaim.

One of the (many) things that it won awards for though was its special effects. Up to this point, effects from the computers of hard-working FX staff was on the purely fantastical. We’d seen Jurassic Park, which gave us some of the most realistic looking dinosaurs that have ever been set to film. Space battles were looking cooler. Lava was flowing without causing a hazard to people on sets. No one had yet though to start using computer generated effects to replace what might feel like mundane practical shots. Things like say… a wandering feather. This film showed that you could do the impossible, and make it look practical. The feather wasn’t the only thing though. The film manages to place Hanks in existing and modified footage with known celebrities and politicians; to set an olympic class ping pong game up without having to do take after endless take to get it right; and to get the weather to cooperate on command. It really opened up the boundaries of what was possible.

Additionally, it started to put a lot of what I’d only read about in my history classes into context. I knew that there was a world before I came into it, but no one had really sat me down to show how it affected everyone else – or at least no one had for many of the film’s moments (I actually had wonderful US and World History teachers in my public school, plus my Dad to fill in some blanks). This opened up my understanding on things like the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Era, and the Fifties and Sixties in general.

The Shawshank Redemption

1994 The Shawshank Redemption

When I Saw It: 2017
What It Taught Me: Layers On Layers
Rating: ★★★★★

You read that right – I just watched this movie this year. It’s hard for me to believe I never saw it sooner. Truth be told, I’d seen the back third of the film many times. The movie airs on cable on the regular. It’s one of those movies I have a theory about: you can watch twenty-four hours of television a day and have it all be either The Shawshank Redemption or Law and Order just by flipping through multiple channels. There’s no period of time when those titles are not playing. They’re that popular.

Having had the ending blown for me, I just never really got around to the beginning, which is a shame because the movie is that fucking good. My girlfriend and I sat down to watch it about a month ago after she properly chastised me for not having watched it earlier in life. I am quite pleased with it. The movie deftly performs acts of cinematic magic.

The story opens with the trial of Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) who very well may have killed his wife. He is sentenced to life imprisonment in Shawshank Prison where he has a great struggle adapting to life inside of the prison walls. He does however make friends, notably another lifer named Red (Morgan Freeman), and begins to ease into the life of a convict as much as one can. He suffers a great many indignities. He is beaten and raped; brutalized in mind, body, and spirit. He is often at odds with both his jailers and his fellow inmates. He not only perseveres – he retains his humanity while working toward his elaborate liberation.

The drama is amazing – but I expect that from most Morgan Freeman films. What really got me with this was the depth of the plots. Most good films have subplots – stories that weave in and around the main one. Usually there’s one or two. This one has many. They’re layered in so that the subplots seem to have subplots. It adds to the length of the movie, but in such a gripping way that you won’t mind sitting through 142 minutes of film. Time just melts away. You simply take in all of the layers as easily as breathing. It just takes your breath away.

Interview With the Vampire

1994 Interview With the Vampire

When I Saw It: 2017
What It Taught Me: How To Build a Relatable Monster
Rating: ★★★★★

When I look back at it, this was what started the trend of vampires starting in my youth until my second bout of college. We’ve had zombies in the mind for the last eight years (barring a sudden outbreak of vampirism in the form of Twilight (2008) but we can expect vampires to come back due to a weird kind of political phenomenon. Let’s hope they can get more Anne Rice and less sparkling.

The film opens with a man who has nothing left to live for. Louis (Brad Pitt) has lost both wife and child to a tragic pregnancy. Lost and without purpose, he puts himself in harm’s way, begging for something to put him out of his misery. The vampire Lestat (Tom Cruise) takes this as an open invitation and preys on him, eventually taking him on as his child of darkness, transforming Louis into a vampire. This begins the extended life of Louis the vampire. The two quickly find themselves at odds: Louis will not kill with the glee of his father of darkness, but must lest he waste away and molder in some forgotten crypt.

The film essentially is about Louis coming to terms with his nature, learning to walk the fine balance between man and beast. He suffers great trials of emotional fortitude, navigates moral quandaries, and ultimately suffers terrible consequences for his actions (such as the making of his own child of darkness, an actual child turned vampire named Claudia (Kirsten Dunst). The film is an emotional rollercoaster punctuated with horror and despair. I am a fan of morality pieces and situations where there is no wrong and right. It creates an environment where you’re never really sure what’s going to happen, and this had that effect.

This is also one of the rare cases in which the movie outshone the original book in my opinion. I’ve tried three times to read the book and never finished – yet I’ve seen the film dozens of times.

Pulp Fiction

1994 Pulp Fiction

When I Saw It: 1994
What It Taught Me: Non-Linear Storytelling, Making The Horrific Hilarious
Rating: ★★★★★

It was a fight to see this movie. I mean, I tried like hell to get in. This film was released just a short time before I turned seventeen. The movie’s reputation and outrage of parent groups had ticket sellers checking for IDs. I’d gone to see R-Rated films at the theater before. Even a couple without parents present. But this film. Oh man.

On my fourth try, I finally got the money, the available time, and a license I could slap on the counter that no one would deny. My cousin and I chose one of the oldest, seediest theaters in the area. The last time I’d been there was to see The Jungle Book (1967) when I was a kid. And, oh boy, did we not see anything family friendly when that curtain opened.

This movie was transformative in terms of not just content, but also in terms of storytelling. It covers a couple of different stories: one about two robbers deciding to rob a diner on impulse; another about a pair of hitmen trying to get a suitcase back to their boss; another about a boxer who refuses to through a fight for a crime boss; and another about a crime boss’s goon who’s given the task of taking his lady out on the town so she doesn’t get bored. Each is broken up into its own vignette, and each story ties into each other story in ways either trivial or of great consequence. They’re not told in any order either. In fact, they’re totally shuffled. It’s the kind of film where the end is the beginning is the end. Everyone has read the story where you start in media res and you jump between now and then. But this took that idea to a higher plane of existence. It was masterfully done. Tarantino outdid himself with this film, and it’s the one that made me follow his career for good or ill over the next decade.

It also transformed careers. John Travolta had been in a slump, as had Bruce Willis, but this film got them rising from the ashes anew. Samuel L. Jackson had been working steadily, but this was the film that I feel opened bigger doors for him. Uma Thurman definitely took off, and Tim Roth graduated from quirky roles in unexpected gems to helming films as a lead role. You also got Eric Stolze as a scummy LA drug dealer, Christopher Walken as a family friend I think no one would want, and then you got Ving Rhames, who definitely took off after this film cemented itself into cinema history.

The thing that stuck with me most though was the Car Scene. I’m pretty sure you know what I’m talking about, but I’ll spell it out for you. After Travolta and Jackson finish up a job in which they should have died in a hail of unexpected gunfire, they are taking a man to their boss in the car. Jackson claims epiphany, that god had directly intervened on their behalf, resulting in Jackson’s belief that this is his last day working for crime boss Marcellus Wallace. Travolta isn’t having it and an argument starts. Eventually, Travolta, looking for support for his side of the debate, turns to their passenger in the backseat, gestures his gun at him to emphasize his point… and the pistol goes off accidentally, resulting in a spectacular spray of gore and blood as the passenger’s head disintegrates.

That’s a pretty shocking thing to have happen. It’s the kind of thing that if it happened in front of you in real life, you’d be absolutely horrified. There’d be years of therapy. Lots of neuroses. Total breakdown.

I could not stop laughing.

Neither could the rest of the people in the theater. But, me especially. I was laughing four minutes later, out of breath. People were staring at me. They must have thought I was a psychopath (I wondered this too driving home from the film).

There was just something about it. The suddenness and the fact that after it happens, Travolta and Jackson just continue to bicker with almost no pause. And while they are both upset, they never stop to deal with the morality of killing a dude by accident. Travolta doesn’t hardly even raise his voice. To him it’s like discussing the price of weed. They just argue about how they’re going to finish the job and what to do about having a car filled with blood and brains in the freeway. It was such a shock, followed by an incredibly inappropriate response that the absurdity of it lit up every humor circuit in my head.

I guess that makes me a pretty bad person.


1994 Clerks

When I Saw It: 1994
What It Taught Me: Irreverence, Timing, An Appreciation of Black-and-White Medium In a World of Color
Rating: ★★★★★

I’ve noted before that my parents were extremely restrictive on what I could watch. They might lose in the battle of films on the big screen, but they could police what came into the house. They weren’t always consistent though, and they couldn’t watch me all the time. Public school teachers pretty much work all day, so sometimes I could sneak in a little something.

I missed Clerks in its entirety for it’s film run. This was no big surprise – it was an indie film from Miramax that didn’t get a huge run. I finally saw it on video later in the year when a student of my dad’s brought it over during our weekly comic book run.

Denis Leary had paved the way for comedy that would get me in trouble for listening to it at anything louder than a whisper’s volume, but it still didn’t quite prep me for Clerks level of brutal honesty and total vulgarity. This punched up my obscenity meter by leaps and bounds. Considering I grew up in a school district where the word ‘fuck’ almost could replace birdsong, this was no mean feat. I could swear like a sailor before I was nine and this opened up whole new vistas of foul mouthedness and wholly inappropriate behaviors.

Along with that, it also gave me another great foundation on how to execute timing. Timing is everything, but especially so with comedy. Smith has a great sense for it, and would go on to use it to great effect in further endeavors in the Askewniverse such as Mallrats (1995) and Dogma (1999). It’s timing is almost Sorkin-esque, but with a little more room to breathe.

The thing that really gets me though was that this film was so low-budget that it had to be filmed in black-and-white. I kind of held black-and-white television and film in low regard back in 1994. Mostly, it was because I was stupid – I had this idiotic belief as a kid that newer is always better. Kevin Smith wasn’t from the fifties or sixties, and there was no excuse for outdated film options when you could get ‘better.’ This was a film which set me on a path of being older and wiser.

I don’t think Clerks would have been as powerful if it had been shot in color. As someone who’s had the experience of working in a crap retail job, it kind of robs the color out of your life. Sure, it’s there, but you’re not feeling it. The only thing you feel is the click of the keys at the register, the crying of someone’s baby, throwing a chronic masturbator out of the store, or the complaining of someone who feels ill used (rightly or not) by capitalism. It takes the film’s nature and starkly puts it in front of you. It’s not the only film to have made this deliberate choice in a world of color (The Mist, which showed in color ultimately, had a special cut of the intended black-and-white version in the BluRay edition), but it’s one of the better ones.

The Crow

1994 The Crow

When I Saw It: 1994
What It Taught Me: Everything
Rating: ★★★★★

If you ask me what my favorite book is, I’ll tell you Neuromancer without thinking. If you read that book and then read any of my science fiction stories for just a couple of minutes, it’s likely you’ll see how deeply the book informs who I am as a person and an author.

I mention that book not out of an inherent plot connection, but because The Crow is my cinematic counterpart to Neuromancer. When I write horror in an urban hellhole, you might catch Eric Draven wandering in the alleys, watching.

The Crow is about Eric Draven (Brandon Lee): a man returned to life after he and his fiancee are murdered on Devil’s Night by a gang of arsonists and killers. He finds that he has not only cheated death, but that he is granted powers from a great crow that seems to accompany him everywhere he goes. He seems to be invulnerable to any kind of physical punishment. He has the ability to get psychic impressions from the past by holding objects or touching people. He is stronger and faster, and has a newfound capacity for great violence. He can see through the eyes of the crow. He can vanish without trace. But, lastly, he possesses an eerie knack of being in the right place at the right time to set things as right as they can be set.

He instinctively knows that he will never be able to bring his love back to life – but he can make sure that the men who killed his bride-to-be will never kill again. He will make sure that every last one of them get exactly what they have coming to them.

With his supernatural talents, he goes on to avenge the deaths of his fiancee and himself, cutting a murderous swath through a city infested with darkness and depravity. One by one, he takes on his killers, leaving a trail of fire, blood, and crow symbology in his wake.

This movie drips with all of the dark horror conventions I like to work with in my fiction: The merciless world that often seems to actively work against you – not in some abstract way, but rather a city that attacks you like it’s personal; despair in alleys; dark recesses of urban blight that are best avoided; crews of criminals in an organized nightmare court who will do anything, knowing no restraint; supernatural forces that move within light and shadow; uncaring parents and drug abuse; ubiquitous and callous violence; all-encompassing vengeance; doing the right thing the most wrong ways; moral ambivalence; hope, false or otherwise.

This is fear countryThis is the ultimate in revenge.

It’s also visual poetry. The stage is set, and the actors going through it make it sing. The fights are well choreographed (it helps that Eric Draven is played by Brandon Lee, Bruce Lee’s son). The lighting is just so. Fire and darkness mix to create long shadows and a gothic feel. The performances are solid. It feels real despite the supernatural elements. I have watched it over and over again. There’s not a shot shown, not a line of dialog, not an action cue that I do not know like the back of my hand. This is my toolkit, by bible for portraying darkness – and also redemption.

Because, amongst the other things the film embodies, The Crow is also a romance. Draven doesn’t kill out of some kind of personal vengeance. He does this for Shelley. For his lost love. He has returned, but she has not. What he does, he does for her. All of it. Be it guarding over their local street kid, Sarah; be it connecting with Officer Albrecht (Ernie Hudson) to thank him for staying with Shelley in her final hours; be it taking out not just their killers but the man who stood behind them and ordered it- it is all for Shelley Webster. Once the job is done, he fades with her into the afterlife, her personal angel of vengeance come home for his reward.

It chills me to think about it. It thrills me to write something as in vein. It has been an inspiration, and is easily at the top of all of my film loves.

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