That Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning exists indicates something is wrong with the world. That it is, against its better judgment, a near masterpiece, at least in terms of filmmaking principles and matching those principles to its narrative concerns, implies something is far worse with the world than anyone could have imagined. But yes, the fourth or eighth or ninety-sixth film in the bro-fest science fiction routine slaughterhouse that is the Universal Soldier series, tangled up in its Roland Emmerich-directed roots and choking on them for decades now, is good. In fact, in its own way, it’s fairly great. And how shocking that this way approximates ’70s art-house horror/crime/thriller/ sci-fi that only passingly gestures toward any idea of “action” and even then does wonders to detach “action” from anything resembling Roland Emmerich. What a strange, strange film. Plus, if it means anything to you, it is probably, by several orders of magnitude, superior to anything Dolph Lundgren or Jean-Claude Van Damme have starred in (although the post-structuralist JCVD, a sly little nightstalker of a film, comes pretty close for the latter star). Pleasures abound in this weird, weird world of ours, folks.
John Hyams directs, which is all the more bizarre considering his previous involvement in the stagnant series. I suppose in this case the second time is the charm, having moved from Universal Soldier: Regeneration to what may be, John Wick excepted, the most formally inventive and perplexing action film (if it can comfortably fit in that genre at all) in the better part of a decade. Even if we simply look to the action, what majesty awaits! The opening horror crawl is a real gut-sticker of POV dread, but the first proper action scene, bone-chilling and impactful, is where things go off the rails in the best possible way. Edited and filmed like Nicolas Winding Refn’s surprise entry into the video game medium, color and spatial sense confound in a cinematographer’s wet nightmare of pure visual storytelling and disorientation. Better still, and Universal Soldier may honestly achieve this pairing better than any film in decades, the action is ambidextrous; it is neither “cryptic, poetic, and abstract” nor “bone-crunching, immediate, and tactile”, but both. It reminds of those old ’70s cosmic sci-fi films if they were woven into a real corker of a street-level gangster picture, not unlike if Nicolas Roeg and Walter Hill had a brain-child. Call it The Warriors Who Fell to Earth.
But action isn’t the name of the game in Day of Reckoning; the film is too meaty, and too esoteric for that. It takes up large swathes of time talking, feeling, wandering, and exploring as a man, John, wakes up after a traumatic attack that leaves his wife and child dead, attempts to figure out his life, and discovers he is not who he remembers. Where things go from here, I do not want to spoil, but what unfolds is a shockingly textured meditation on society, individuality, determinism, and free will. As a script, it wouldn’t be top-of-the-class, but then like all genre films, the point of a script is to beget filmmaking that elevates the material rather than directs down to it. And elevate Hyams does, in every shot selection, every edit, every performance tick, all the way down to how he uses Lundgren and Van Damme as physical space on the screen, utilizing their limited acting capabilities as positives by filtering their performances through an air of mystery and detachment. He treats them like they are distant robots, in other words, and this is a perfect fit for both their talents and the needs of a story about inhuman, detached figures skulking around in the dregs of suburbia.
Other small successes abound, like the way Hyams avoids longueurs of dialogue for almost Malickian visual storytelling, emphasizing quiet spaces and wielding dialogue and violence like separators and pin pricks rather than the film’s reason for existence. Day of Reckoning is not for everyone, but its grim, dreary blend of dissonant, disharmonious gut-level action and high-minded social critique is a marvel of storytelling in its own way. For anyone with a passing interest in any of its genres, and for anyone willing to move past what it says on the tin, it is a small wonder that should absolutely be seen.
Curse of Chucky
Something a little more conventional this time around the sun, but no less attractive in its own down-to-earth way. Curse of Chucky, Don Mancini’s long-delayed return to proper old-school meat-and-potatoes horror filmmaking, couldn’t come with a more perfect premise: there is a bunch of people in an old, dark house, and serial killing child’s toy Chucky (Brad Dourif, sly and combative as always) is going to do those people in. Plucky and straightforward with a breathless lack of narrative weight or import or genre-redefinition, Curse of Chucky is about as single-minded as a horror film in the modern era could be. Honestly, it’s all the better for it, stripping away the excess fat and leaving a nice, clean, admittedly bloody, hunk of meat.
The Chucky franchise is a strange, wilderness-bound, wandering spirit, ain’t it? A late bloomer to the slasher genre in 1988, before the genre would implode on itself in the Great Slasher Purge of the early ’90s , Child’s Play was a solid, somewhat standoffish debut loaded with surprisingly competent chills. Mancini, the brain-child of the series, although not its original director, proved a competent mind, but things did not go well for Child’s Play over the course of two increasingly hackneyed sequels. Then, as horror cinema was wont to do in the no man’s land of the mid to late ’90s, things took a turn for the post-structuralist with Bride of Chucky, a somewhat indifferent meta-horror with small delights all around that never quite achieves the sum of its parts. Still, it is much better than Scream, but that is a story for another time. The early 2000s saw the most bizarre entry in the series yet, and maybe the most surreal big franchise slasher sequel ever released (and this is a title for which Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is in heated contest for). Alas, Seed of Chucky is a deliberately befuddling, difficult beast, and it was the first in the franchise directed by Mancini no less. At the least, let no one say he was resting on the laurels of slasher history.
Which is why Curse of Chucky is, in its own way, a lovely little surprise for how straight-faced it is about its chills, taunting us with Mancini’s comic mind and never giving in. It plays with our emotions because it knows we expect a rug to be pulled out from under us. Mancini does just this of course, but he pulls out the rug by leaving it in place, coaxing us to expect a trick and never giving it to us, which itself becomes a trick on its own. For, just as the mid 2000s needed a loopy, nonsensical comedy-not-quite-horror, the mid 2010s are best served by a buttoned-up traditional slasher dressed to the nines in classical filmmaking. That, in essence, is the spirit of Curse of Chucky, the first film in the series to entirely work on its own merits as horror, rather than on the merits of what it has to say about horror films. Ultimately, it is a proving ground for Mancini as a literate framer of horror narratives, and he pulls off the back-to-basics craft like an old pro. It is as if the franchise, after struggling to find its home in horror and eventually earning a new soul in comedy, has taken the high road, given up its successes, and gone home again with something to prove. It’s not simply a good film, but a nice little surprise, with a filmmaker establishing himself in multiple genres and trying new things late in his career.
At some level, there isn’t much to say about Curse of Chucky; it is the slasher film we gullible fans of the genre hope for, a work that doesn’t really try anything new but executes uncommonly well on things that have been tried hundreds of times before. Curse of Chucky works for a basket of easy to understand, difficult to execute reasons: a closed premise that doesn’t threaten narrative scrutiny, a cast of solidly acted, decently-reasoned characters (Dourif’s daughter Fiona Dourif as the main character is a real find and more than a would-be scream queen), pointed and delightful sound design, and visual trickery that hints and implies as it builds up before out-and-out descending into horror madness. You know, the staples. But, and here’s the thing, these are the staples of a good horror film for a reason; when they’re done well, they work cleanly and with economy, and that is exactly what lies in the soul of Curse of Chucky. There are limits inherent in Curse of Chucky’s ambitions, but it is all the better for how it keeps things so low-to-the-ground. Sure, it’s just meat and potatoes, but few meals, when manicured and marinated in filmmaking flavor with spirit, care, and discipline, satisfy so readily. Excuse the pun, but Curse of Chucky makes most modern horror films look like Child’s Play.