Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Double Bill review: Treat Williams

Horror comedies are something that Hollywood just don't do anymore and it's a real shame. The eighties were something of a golden age for the genre. Films like Steve Miner's House, Sam Raimi's Evil Dead II, Joe Dante's Gremlins and Don Coscarelli's Phantasm II all walked the fine line between scares and laughs. By the mid to late-eighties, the two big slashers franchises – Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street were both running out of steam and in the effort to prolong the series to include another sequel they both descended into self parody in an effort to stay fresh. The result were mixed but the effect was that several other filmmakers experimented with mixing horror and comedy.

Dead Heat (1988)

In the grand scheme of things, Mark Goldblatt's Dead Heat is something of a footnote to the horror comedy genre. It's a fairly obscure film that's only been given a fresh audience from being re-released on DVD. The film caught my eye for two reasons. Firstly, Goldblatt, who is a first rate action film editor only directed a couple of other films including The Punisher with Dolph Lundgren. And secondly, Treat Williams was playing the lead. Williams is something of an enigma of an actor as his film roles are wildly disparate, on the one hand you Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America and Sidney Lumet's Prince of the City but on the other hand you have The Phantom and Substitute 4: Failure is Not an Option (I'll be covering The Substitute series soon).

Anyway, to the film, as I said before it's no great shakes but at the same time I'm glad I found it. It's a scrappy, very rough around the edges Saturday night flick. The kind you want to watch with a beer and pizza (though be warned you wanna eat that pizza quick as there's some queasy grossness contained).

Williams plays Roger Mortis (yeah, it that kind of a movie) a good cop who's investigating a laboratory that's been linked to a rash of bank heists perpetrated by seemingly invincible robbers. He discovers the lab has been working on a resurrection machine to bring back the dead but the catch is their bodies still deteriorate. When Roger gets killed during a shootout his partner Doug Bigelow (Joe Piscopo) uses the machine to bring him back to life. Roger has now 12 hours to solve his own murder before his body wastes away and discover who is behind the whole operation.

The film clocks in at 80 minutes and it bolts along. The sets, acting and story are all a bit creaky but the breezy pace keeps your mind from thinking too long. The whole plot is highly reminiscent of the classic film DOA, and there's even a bit where a character watches it on TV. Modern viewers will likely associate the plot somewhat with Crank (another variation on the theme). In fact Crank would make an excellent double bill with Dead Heat, both films have a 'go-for-broke' sensibility.

Dead Heat was made by Roger Corman's New World Pictures, who also made House and House II: The Second Story and like those two flicks this has some excellent 80s latex effects work. One standout sequence is set in a chinese butcher shop where all the meat hanging up comes back to life and attacks our heroes. You haven't lived until you've seen a man wrestle with a living pig carcass!

Goldblatt's directing is okay. It's nothing stellar but he has a feel for action sequences. For those who have seen The Punisher, I'd rate that slightly higher than this. I can't help but feel that someone like Sam Raimi or Robert Rodriguez would have given the film more of a quirky edge. Treat Williams is pretty good as Mortis. There's not a lot of depth to any of the characters but he makes for an easy-going, charismatic lead. There's a genuine rapport between him and Piscopo and the two bounce off each other well. It's pretty funny that Mortis never seems all that bothered by being (un)dead. In fact, most of it is played for laughs. For instance, after Mortis' “death” his face starts to go pale so he buys some lipstick so he'll look normal but just ends up looking like a drag queen. There's also some great little cameos from Darren McGavin and Vincent Price which horror fans will appreciate.

Finally, I don't want to spoil the ending but wow... again I'll probably never see an ending like that again! As I said, this is just a footnote in the horror comedy genre but a good one none the less. Anyone who's curious what a mash-up of Lethal Weapon and Reanimator would look like should definitely check this out.

Deep Rising (1998)

A decade later and Williams returns to the horror comedy genre with Deep Rising. The film Stephen Sommers made before The Mummy and again it's something of a forgotten flick. Reportedly the film was meant to star Harrison Ford but when he dropped out the budget got slashed and Williams brought in as a cheap replacement.

Deep Rising sees Williams play Finnegan, a guy with a boat who agrees to take a group of mercenaries out into the ocean and drop them off. Unbeknownst to him, their plan is to ransack an ocean liner full of rich people and escape with the loot. However, when they get to the liner they find all the passengers dead and carnivorous tentacles trying to pick them off one by one. Finnegan must fight escape the mercenaries, the tentacles and finally the ship. Along for the ride is Joey (Kevin O'Connor) and the sole survivor of the liner, Trillian (Famke Janssen).

Deep Rising was one of a handful of ship-based horrors that were released in the late 90s/early 00s, along with Ghost Ship and Virus. Of the three, Deep Rising is probably the most fun because it never takes itself seriously. I can maybe see that the film was intended as a straight horror but Williams, along with O'Connor as his sidekick, inject the film with so many little bits of humour they might as well classify it a horror comedy. I say horror but nothing in it is particularly scary. Deep Rising was released in those early years when CGI hadn't been perfected even to a perfunctory level. I don't think it ruins anything to reveal that the monster of the film is a giant squid worm sort of thing.

There's some pretty gory shots in the film though. Don't let the crappy CGI lull you into thinking they won't show a half-digested man. Rob Bottin, of The Thing fame, did the special effects and creature design and while they aren't his finest work, they are still pretty damn good.

Like Sommers later film The Mummy, Deep Rising has a lightning fast pace and a wry sense of humour. O'Connor I think should get the most praise, his character could have very easily been an annoying sidekick but instead he's very funny. I can totally see why Sommers has cast him in almost all his subsequent films. Williams too gives a great world-weary, laconic performance as Finnegan that I found very reminiscent of Nathan Fillion in Serenity/Firefly. It's a shame Williams' didn't get the chance to do a few more films like this because he seems very comfortable in the role.

Final praise goes to Wes Studi as the leader of the mercenaries. It's a pretty thankless role and he spends much of the time being the straight man to O'Connor and Williams' quips. The film annoyingly ends on a teasing note of more adventures which sadly never came. Deep Rising was a pretty big bomb at the box office ($40 million budget, $11 million take).

So, if Dead Heat was Lethal Weapon meets Reanimator then this is Tremors meets The Poseidon Adventure.


  1. Great write-ups! Big fan of Treat Williams and loved Dead Heat also. Deep Rising had a lot of fun moments too.

  2. Yeah, I've been working on a review of The Substitute series that I'll post soon. Shame he's so old now he deserved more good films in the 80s/90s.

  3. I need to see both of these. I've been accused in the past of not giving Treat enough run, so maybe these are a couple good places to start.

  4. Absolutely, these are a couple of good humorous roles for Treat Williams. I can't quite put my finger on it but I just enjoy his acting because he seems to be having so much fun himself!

  5. Outside of the Substitute sequels, these are my two favorite Treat performances. Great stuff. He was also the shiznit in The Phantom.

  6. I can't tell you how many times I watched Dead Heat on VHS. It was a staple in my house back then for sure. Just a fun movie all around. I always thought that it was weird too that Mortis never made a big fuss about being dead either. lol. I was also like, "When the hell did Piscopo get buff? He's a comedian!". Weird memories. I haven't gotten it since it came out on DVD and Blu-ray yet, though I keep meaning to. I think you finally gave me the motivation to actually do it. Great review man!

  7. VideoVacuum: Hell yes, Williams was the bomb in The Phantom. Hopefully, going to do a review of that soon along fellow stablemates:- The Rocketeer and The Shadow.

    robotGEEK: To be honest, I've never seen Piscopo in anything else but thought he was pretty good as Bigelow. Yeah, love the ending with them walking off into the clouds. Like that they didn't find some amazing cure at the end.

  8. Dead Heat is a really great time...and Deep Rising is good, too.

  9. Totally Hellford, Williams should have done more flicks like this.