It’s Halloween, and frustratingly, my blog schedule hasn’t alighted on John Carpenter’s classic horror.
I’m not picking and choosing the order of this blog, as regular readers will have been able to divine. The digitizing process was fairly random, pulling tapes out of the many boxes they’re stored in, and digitising them in whatever order they come out. Often, tapes are grouped together roughly from the same time period, but when I start a new box, we’ll be going backwards and forwards along the VHS timeline.
I’ve decided to write the blog entries in the same order that they came out of the boxes. There’s two reasons for this.
First, if I pick the ones I want to blog about, I’ll do all the good ones first, leaving me with hour after hour of NYPD Blue to slog through at the end, and nobody wants that, least of all me.
Second, I don’t want to waste time having to keep a separate tally of what I’ve watched and haven’t watched, and spend time for each tape deciding what to watch next. If I just go through the recordings in the same order they were digitised, I don’t have to think about it and I can just start on the next one that comes along. I don’t do well with the tyranny of choice.
This is all to explain why I almost broke my own rule, when I noticed that the tape after this one actually does have John Carpenter’s Halloween (with an Alex Cox introduction, what’s more) and it would have been perfect timing to just swap these two tapes, just this once.
But no, without arbitrary, meaningless and inviolable rules, we’re no better than animals.
That’s not to say this tape is entirely inappropriate for Halloween – later on the tape there’s an (admittedly weak) entry in Clive Barker’s horror series, Hellraiser III, but before that is something rather better, a favourite of mine.
Sneakers is Wargames for the nineties. Well, some might argue that Hackers is Wargames for the 90s, but I’m not quite as in love with that one as other people. It was way to trendy and hip for me, so I prefer the nerdiness of Sneakers.
I like the titles – with the first few names rendered as anagrams.
Sneakers opens with a black and white prologue. Two young men are doing something nefarious with their college computer. One of them bears a great resemblance to a young Robert Redford – this is excellent casting and hair styling, as he really sells it.
They’re hacking the phone company, and when young Redford goes out to get pizza, he has a lucky escape as he sees the feds running into the building to arrest his friend.
Fast forward to present day, and the now older and wiser Redford is on some kind of mission with a team. They’re breaking into a bank. It’s a very hi-tech operation, intercepting the security guard’s, setting off a smoke bomb in a safety deposit box, cutting alarm wires.
Next day, he visits the bank and withdraws $100,000 in cash, then, rather than walking out, he takes it to the bank’s office, and delivers his report to the management as to their security vulnerabilities.
Later that day, he’s visited by two men from the NSA. One is Eddie Jones, who we saw being lovely in A League of Their Own,
He’s less lovely here.
The other is Timothy Busfield, Elliot from thirtysomething, and Danny Concannon from The West Wing, also, usually, lovely.
They’re looking for his help, but he tells them he doesn’t work for the government. But when leaving, they show him a wanted poster for him, under his previous name, for the hack at the start.
So he reluctantly goes to see them to find out what they want his team to do.
They’re interested in a German mathematician, Gunter Janek, who’s a specialist in prime number theory and cryptography. He’s just got an enormous grant from an organisation that is a front for Russia, so the NSA guys want to know what he’s working on, He’s making a ‘little black box’ and the project is called Setec Astronomy.
He’s still not happy taking the job. They pressure him reminding him that his friend from the beginning of the film, Cosmo, got 12 years. “And we all know what happened to him inside.” Later we learn Cosmo died in prison.
So he reluctantly takes the job, and his team are unhappy that he’s been keeping secrets from them all this time.
His team is rather impressively cast. David Strathairn is Whistler, a blind man whose acute hearing helped him phreak phone companies for years.
River Phoenix is a younger member of the team, who was caught (by Redford) when he hacked into his school computer to change his grades.
Sidney Poitier is a former FBI man.
Dan Aykroyd is Mother, a conspiracy nut.
For this assignment, to see Janek lecture, he decides to ask Mary McDonnell, an old friend who doesn’t really want to return to the fold. “I have a new group of gifted children now, and I like the fact that they’re under 30.”
Janek is lecturing about massive prime factors. McDonnell is the maths expert, and she wonders if Janek has found a shortcut to factorising large numbers used in cryptography.
They watch his office, and work out where he’s keeping his ‘little black box’ so then they have to steal it. One thing I love about this movie is how many little bits of hacking craft they get right. There’s little bits of social engineering all through the film, like when he gets a building security guard to buzz him through, even though it doesn’t have a card, just because he’s carrying cake and balloons, and Phoenix is distracting the guard with a fake delivery. It’s all quite convincing. Not that everything in the movie makes as much sense.
Like when they’re playing scrabble, and Mary McDonnell says that ‘scrunchy’ isn’t a word. But the scrabble leads to the deciphering of the true meaning of ‘Setec Astronomy’ into ‘Too Many Secrets’.
At the same time, Whistler and Mother are looking at the device inside the black box, and discover that somehow, when combined with a computer terminal, it can magically decrypt any connection. This is the bit that doesn’t particularly make a huge amount of sense, certainly not the way it’s presented, with the text on the screen warping and changing until the random characters become readable text.
But this isn’t ‘The Net’ levels of silly, and so much of the rest of the movie is smart and vaguely accurate that I’ll give it a pass.
The hacking scene is nice and tense, though. “Want to crash the federal reserve?” jokes Whistler. Then, looking at an Air Traffic Control screen, “Want to crash a couple of aircraft?” It’s a very economical way to demonstrate the immense implications of the device, and the stakes involved.
Things go awry when they hand over the device to Busfield and Jones. Poitier sees a news headline in the paper (these days he’d get a google news alert) saying Janek was dead in a suspected arson attack, and the two leave the rendezvous at haste. The office building where Redford met them had been demolished, and the NSA never had an office there. They’ve just handed over the device to an enemy power.
Redford confronts a former KGB spy he knows to see if it was him. “Your codes are entirely different from ours. We never had any luck in breaking them. Lord knows I wanted that box.” This is probably nonsense, since it doesn’t matter if both sides use precisely the same code methods, as long as the secret keys are long enough to be virtually unbreakable.
He helps Redford identify one of the fake NSA agents, but their car is stopped by the FBI, who then take Redford’s gun and use it to kill Redford’s spy friend and his driver. Then they kidnap Redford and take him for the man they work for. It’s Redford’s old friend, the formerly dead Cosmo, now all growed up and played by Ben Kingsley.
Is that a Cray computer they’re sitting on?
I guess it’s sentimentality that makes Kingsley explain his whole plan, then let Redford go, albeit while also implicating him in the assassination of a Russian consular attache, and outing his former identity as a wanted hacker.
The team have to try to contact someone in the NSA to try to get a deal. There’s a neat (but slightly implausible) scene where they speak to someone in the NSA, and they’re running a lie detector and a reverse phone trace.
They try to work out where Redford was taken, to locate Kingsley’s headquarters. He has to remember what the journey sounded like, and with Strathairn’s help and some maps, they track him down.
So now, the mission is to get into Cosmo’s office. The security is, obviously, intense. The first task is to get into the office next to Cosmo’s. They locate the occupant, and have to get a security card and a particular pass phrase on tape. It’s up to Mary McDonnell to romance the man, the lovely Stephen Tobolowsky, and get him to say all the words in the passphrase.
There’s also the motion detectors and infra red detectors to get past which requires them to raise the office temperature to blood temperature, and move no faster than 2cm/s. It’s the slowest heist in cinema history.
They almost get away with it too. Tobolowsky twigs that somethings going on, and drags McDonnell to the office, but by this time Redford has got the box and is hiding in the roofspace, so there’s nothing incriminating.
Kingsley is about to let her go when Tobolowsky says “I won’t use computer dating again” leading Kingsley to say “A computer matched her with you? I don’t think so.”
It twists and turns, but the crew get the box back in the end, only to find the real NSA in the form of James Earl Jones, and the team get to negotiate what the NSA will give them to hand over the box.
I love this movie. It’s funny, smart (enough) and filled with great actors.
After this, something a little more suitable for Halloween, Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth. The Hellraiser movies were definitely a case of diminishing returns. The first was a lean, gory horror, helped by its low budget and prosaic Cricklewood locations. The second, written by Peter Atkins, not Clive Barker, was overblown and portentous.
This one is also written by Atkins, and the setting is now America. It opens with a smug looking man in a quiff visiting a gallery, and finding a sculpture of tortured figures. He buys it, which is a terrible idea in any Hellraiser film, as we all know that art usually ends up killing you.
Terry Farrell is Joanne ‘Joey’ Summerskill, an up and coming reporter on local news, who has to do the dull stories nobody else wants. While doing a piece on an empty Emergency Room, she sees someone brought it, covered in blood, with chains trailing from him. He’s taken into surgery, but I don’t think the operation went as expected.
Joey doesn’t have any pictures, so naturally it’s not a story, so she has to investigate it alone. Oh good, it takes her to a nightclub. I love nightclubs, they’re my favourite movie location ever.
I think that might be writer Peter Atkins as a barman. Looks a bit like him, anyway.
Joey asks him “I’m looking for a pretty girl” with no other information, and he points out where she should go. I’ve no idea what he’s saying, though. Sounds like “JP1 row, that way.” Maybe this is how people communicate in clubs? I wouldn’t know.
Further enquiries follow, Joey says “She might be JP’s girlfriend.” I don’t know if this is what the barman said, or information she had before.
This establishment also contains a fine dining restaurant, with a string quartet playing Bach. JP is the man who owns it, and he’s the smug man who bought the sculpture at the start.
He’s unhelpful to Joey, so she goes to leave.
All of a sudden we’re in a vietnam war film. A group of soldiers are shot to pieces by the enemy, a rescue helicopter flies off, and a woman (probably Joey, I find it hard to tell) dressed in a floaty white dress is shouting “Where are you going? My daddy’s still alive.”
The woman she was looking for, Paula Marshall as Terri, who accompanied the dying man into the hospital, gets in touch, and after a bit of chit chat during which the woman says she never has dreams – I wonder if that will become significant? – she shows her the thing the man stole from JP’s club. Look familiar?
Meanwhile, JP is in his Art Vault, another huge room, looking at his creepy sculpture. He notices the hole where the box was taken. He also hears movement from inside, so naturally, he sticks his hand in there. He’s bitten by a rat, spraying a bit of blood on the sculpture, another bad thing in the Hellraiser world.
Joey and Terri go hunting for clues at the place where JP bought the sculpture, and find a lot of information about the Channard Institute. This was Kenneth Cranham’s hospital in the second Hellraiser film. We see pictures of Ashley Laurence, original star of Hellraiser, as well as Doug Bradley, the man behind Pinhead, in his human days.
She also gets a tape from the Channard Archive, of Laurence explaining about the puzzle box.
JP does some sex in front of the sculpture, then is horrible to the girl, then the sculpture treats her even worse, firing chains out, ripping her entire skin off, then absorbing her. The Pinhead embedded in the sculpture is starting to get more chatty with JP, obviously recognising a kindred spirit.
JP calls Terri, and invites her back to his place, and she agrees. Joey has another dream, this one in World War One, and she keeps seeing Pinhead’s human form on her TV saying “You have to help me”.
God, JP is such an appalling lunkhead that I can barely stand it any time he’s on screen. I hope he’s less offputting once he’s been cenobitized.
Which happens quite soon, and now Pinhead’s out of the sculpture.
Joey’s dreaming again. This time she’s got an old Bakelite radio in her closet, and her apartment window has become a portal to somewhere else. She meets human Pinhead, named Captain Spencer.
He tells her she has to stop Pinhead (i.e. him). “There is a gateway to hell through which he can be taken back. He wants to close that door forever.” “Where is it?” “Your apartment.” Actually he’s talking about the box, asking Joey to use it to bring Pinhead into whatever ghost dimension Spencer lives in.
Meanwhile Pinhead is busy in JP’s nightclub, working his bloody, chainy magic on the clientele. I forsee a big drop in JP’s TripAdvisor ratings.
Joey goes over there, as does her cameraman friend Doug. He doesn’t fare as well as she does.
Pinhead gets a bit messianic in a church.
Joey does, eventually, get Pinhead into Spencer’s world, and they fight in a satisfyingly icky way.
Joey succeeds in sending him back to hell, and disposes of the puzzle box in some wet concrete in a building site. The movie’s final shot is of the inside of the completed building. This doesn’t bode well.
Whilst the movie definitely does at least deliver the kind of excessive gore that the brand implies, courtesy of series regular effects artist Bob Keen, I think it suffers from a lack of interesting characters. It’s turned into a bit of a Cenobite of the week parade.
The tape ends just after the movie.
- trail: She Wolf of London
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