We offer up five films that will warm you up perfectly for the upcoming (and bound to be a cult hit) Nicolas Cage film Sympathy for the Devil…
Nicolas Cage is a gift from the cinema Gods. His Cagenaissance in recent years has seen him in an array of colourful films like Color Out of Space, Willy’s Wonderland, Prisoners of the Ghostland, Renfield and Mandy. He’s also starred as himself in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, cranking his performance up to 12, like only Nic Cage can. Yet Cage can still surprise us, as he did with his understated turn in Pig, a film that was sadly bypassed by a wide audience.
When he reminded the world of his unrestrained brilliance in Mandy it seemed as if audiences were totally down for Cage to go wild in more films. He is an international treasure. Given it’s been mere weeks since his last release (Renfield) the prolific Cage’s lack of presence in the new release section is causing fans to get the itch. Well, worry not because he’ll be back in July with Sympathy for the Devil which sees Cage seemingly offering us the reimagining of Robert Harmon’s B picture classic, The Hitcher (with Rutger Hauer) we’ve always wanted (haven’t we?).
Judging by a very fun trailer filled to the brim with beautiful neo-noir lighting and a suitably unshackled and maniacal Cage, it would seem this film definitely falls into the category of horror/thrillers about regular shmoes being terrorised by a singular menace, intent on toying with their victims for 90 (or more) tension-filled minutes. Now, I love these kinds of films so it makes perfect sense to cobble together a playlist of perfect entrees before a Cage main dish on the big screen…
Yes, Sympathy for the Devil’s trailer just SCREAMED The Hitcher to me and this is most definitely a perfect film to set the mood prior to watching Cage’s new film. Described by Hauer himself as a fucked up fairy tale, this dark, twisted, nightmarish and oddly metaphysical film was reviled upon release, and discarded as exploitative horror trash. It was hugely popular on video, largely thanks to those reviews but in time has grown a cult following who look deeper into the strangeness lurking beneath the horror tropes in this stalker classic.
Hauer is a hitchhiker who gets a lift from young cross-country driver C. Thomas Howell and proceeds to torment him like a persistently looming spectre. A moment when Jim Halsey (Howell) drives from a blue sky under a formation of ominous black clouds tells you everything (a real shot too). The film is elevated by Hauer’s impish ability to dance off the script pages and add unique flourishes. There are also fortuitous moments that happened during the shoot, like the sun suddenly hitting Howell’s face just at the very moment his character is trying to will himself to pull the trigger on a gun he’s pointing at his own head. It’s as if God warms Halsey’s mind with an epiphany and a will to survive.
Whether you read more into the film, or if there was much intentionally layered beneath the surface by Robert Harmon and writer Eric Red, it matters not because this film looks stunning. Vast expanses of dusty, never-ending (symbolic) freeway are captured, along with nightmarish night sequences in torrential downpours, under the watchful eye of Oscar-winning DP John Seale (Mad Max: Fury Road). Hauer is a blazing tour-de-force, balancing blue-eyed charm with inhuman menace and always retaining an aloof ambiguity. He elevates the inescapable pursuer trope and Howell plays the tormented Halsey to perfection. For good measure, we also get an evocative dreamlike score from Mark Isham that only adds a sprinkle of cerebral magic to this film whilst it’s also blessed with great action set pieces too.
This tidy little potboiler from Wes Craven has a delightfully simple concept. A hotel manager played by Rachel McAdams rushes to catch a red-eye flight so she can head back to her family home after a death in the family. Prior to take off she meets a charming ‘exec’ played by Cillian Murphy, whilst also having to deal with hotel issues over the phone. Turns out, that when she finds herself sitting next to the exec on the plane, it wasn’t by chance. Yes, said exec has been paid to ensure Lisa (McAdams) facilitates a change of room for a visiting politician at the hotel and there’s a hitman waiting outside her dad’s house to execute him, should she fail.
A large chunk of the film takes place on the plane and Craven manages to simmer the tension nicely. As all good potboilers should do, there are a few contrivances along the way to a cat-and-mouse finale where she has to take down Rippner (Murphy) back at her old homestead (and lucky that she was a Hockey champ at school, and her dad can’t bring himself to clear out her room, including hockey stick).
Yep, it’s silly but it’s taut and expertly done. Every trick Lisa tries and fails in trying to dig herself out of the situation provides plenty of tension. Most of all, for this kind of concept to work, which is predominantly a two-hander, you need a great cast and McAdams and Murphy are just that. Murphy was just establishing himself in Hollywood at the time and his piercing stare has held him in good stead in years since.
This underrated gem from 2001 takes a hearty dose of Duel and offers a nice crescendo of rising tension. Two brothers on a road trip with a CB radio in their vehicle find themselves talking to a trucker. They prank him over the radio for shits n’gigs but it backfires hugely when the trucker begins to track and hunt them across freeways.
There are several reasons why this one is the perfect Friday night, nail-biting popcorn fare. For one, producer and writer J.J. Abrams has a flair for paying homage to classic genre cinema and his take on the Duel formula manages to stick most of its landings. Then you’ve got assured genre direction from John Dahl who does a great job of cranking us from level 1, to 2, to 3 up til we blow our wad in the suitably goofy finale.
Then there’s a decent cast of amiable leads in Paul Walker, Steve Zahn and Leelee Sobieski. In fairness to the film, it was a success and spawned (inferior if passable) sequels but probably deserves a bigger cult following. Yeah, we’ve seen it all before but rarely this well orchestrated.
John Hyams might be one of the most underrated genre visionaries of the modern age. He made remarkably ballsy and divisive Universal Soldier sequels which were far more sure of hand and creatively vivacious than a straight-to-video sequel has any right to be. Day of Reckoning in particular is a gumbo of influences that forms a truly unique dish, even if Van Damme fans felt like it had a dash of middle finger to their expectations for their once heroic protagonist (as played by Jean-Claude Van Damme).
Hyams then sidestepped into TV zombies and occasionally slipped a feature film out, to massive critical acclaim but frustratingly small audiences. One of those was Alone where a recently widowed traveller heading through the wilderness is stalked and kidnapped by a serial killer and taken to his remote cabin. Thus begins a cat and mouse, relentless chase as she escapes and must get herself to safety.
The film is ruthlessly simple, largely focused on only the two characters, the hunter and the hunted. Hyams frames it all with his typically assured eye of course and sets out just making a great thriller on modest means. Jules Willcox and Marc Menchaca are both fantastic, really keeping us gripped throughout. It doesn’t rewrite the book by any means but it’s found a wide viewership on Netflix, which granted is always hard to quantify, but if you want a gripping thriller with a protagonist being tormented for 90 minutes before they deliver suitable comeuppance then it’s a perfect streamer. As for Hyams, someone needs to fire this cat a $50 million budget and let him loose.
Two men on different ends of the economic scale and both having a monumentally shitty day, have a road traffic collision, causing them to be even later. Thus ensues a series of escalating ludicrous attempts by both men to get revenge on each other. It’s the perfect exaggeration of our innermost road rage fantasies.
Around this era, there was a whole slew of big-name, modestly budgeted (but suitably slick) thrillers being pumped out of Hollywood. Films like this feel quite rare these days, albeit Changing Lanes was half rebooted with Russell Crowe’s recent, Unhinged. Changing Lanes is daft, to say the least but it’s a great example of raising stakes and building up to the bombastic finale.
Ben Affleck is the yuppy and Samuel L. Jackson is the blue-collar dude on the edge and the pair collide and neither wants to pull back from the butting match. It’s a great piece of escapism which beautifully draws from the friction between our two anti-heroes. The difference here from other similar films in the genre is that there’s no clear hunter/hunted which at least gives this something of a unique edge over other similar films. It’s been slightly forgotten in time but is one of those perfect films that you can give a long overdue revisit and remember just how much daft fun it is.
Are you looking forward to Sympathy for the Devil? Let us know on our social channels @FlickeringMyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award-winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out around the world, including When Darkness Falls, Renegades (Lee Majors and Danny Trejo) and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan), with more coming soon including Cinderella’s Revenge (Natasha Henstridge) and The Baby in the Basket (Maryam d’Abo and Paul Barber). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.