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13 Is an Unlucky Number

An Aisle Seat Entry

By Andy Dursin

We have seen it happen too often in the last few years: a movie is made, and then somewhere along the line the "powers at be" -- be they the studio, test audiences, or producers -- decide that the movie doesn't quite work, and strive to improve it through the magic of refilming, and/or rescoring, and recutting.

Such is the sorry case of THE 13TH WARRIOR (**1/2 of four), which as it currently stands, is a flawed though entertaining Viking epic, filled with thundering action sequences and the kind of old-fashioned adventure we rarely see at the movies anymore. Antonio Banderas stars in this adaptation of Michael Crichton's "Eaters of the Dead" (the film's original title) as an Arab who improbably finds himself assisting a band of Vikings who come to the aid of a small village besieged by an "unseen evil" that strikes in the dark, in the fog, and feasts on the remains of its victims.

Directed (at least during principal photography) by John McTiernan, THE 13TH WARRIOR combines the blood n'guts violence of CONAN THE BARBARIAN with the old-fashioned quest adventure of THE VIKINGS, and comes up with an energetic and at-times thrilling fantasy with several memorable stand- alone sequences. The movie has lavish production design and the look of quality, and yet has so many holes that you feel compelled to give it an "Incomplete" grade instead of a true rating, since it seems that much of the movie was left on the cutting room floor.

Specifically, you know you are in trouble when

1. It seems as if the first half-hour of the film has been condensed into the opening 90 seconds (if you don't pay attention, you'll miss all 60 seconds of the Bagdad scenes and Omar Sharif's introduction, which have been cut into an incomprehensible prologue muttered by Banderas in voice-over narration).

2. Characters completely disappear never to be seen again (such as Banderas's love interest), and others are introduced if they have already played a major part in the film, even though we've hardly seen them before (as in the apparently arrogant leader of the village whom the Vikings have a problem with). These players also disappear, never to be heard from again.

3. You'll have to figure out for yourself what the inner clan workings of the "Eaters of the Dead" are, since the movie never explains who, what, or why the mysterious tribe acts the way they do. Among the many unexplained scenes (a cave meeting with a female tribal member is also shot as if it holds more significance than we're told it does), one particular naked child wanders back near the village fort. Has the child been abducted by the tribe in their method of recruiting new members? Perhaps Diane Verona's character had something to do with explaining what's going on, but we don't see any of that in the final cut. (We are, however, treated by an unbilled cameo by Anne Bancroft, who appears to conveniently explain to our heroes how to kill the tribe's leader).

4. Plot holes abound through the film, such as: why do the Eaters primarily attack in hundreds of numbers, yet when the Vikings first meet them, there only a dozen of them?

5. Music cues don't seem to fit certain sequences, and the ending seems to have no connection with the rest of the film.

THE 13TH WARRIOR's behind the scenes story has been well-documented (eighteen months on the shelf, countless re-edits), and somewhere amongst all of the post-production problems likely are the answers to the film's troubles.

Although he didn't write the script, Michael Crichton produced the film and after John McTiernan turned in his first version of the movie, Crichton promptly took over control, overseeing a mass of changes to the picture which delayed its original Easter 1998 release date to a series of other dates (Thanksgiving '98, Christmas '98, January '99, etc.) it never met until last weekend.

While some new material was apparently added, it seems as if what Crichton primarily did was hack away at McTiernan's original version. I'd love to see McTiernan's original cut, which I assume includes all of the character development and background information on the various tribes featured in the film, most of which had to have been relegated to the cutting room floor. After all, you don't typically open a movie with a helter-skelter first five minutes which seems as if it encompasses enough narrative material for a film onto itself.

Crichton also brought Jerry Goldsmith in to write a new score for the movie, replacing Graeme Revell's more "ethnic," less Hollywood-like original soundtrack. Goldsmith's rousing orchestral score, while having been criticized by many reviewers for its bombastic tendencies, is actually one of Jerry's better efforts in the last few years, but even though Goldsmith re-scored Crichton's first version of the film, he apparently didn't re-score the movie again once Crichton removed even more footage over the last few months.

If you listen to the soundtrack album, you'll notice that many of the album's opening tracks only appear in fragments. While some re-recording was done in L.A. (at least according to the film credits), it doesn't seem as if Jerry had enough time to completely go in and overhaul his music to fit the final version that Crichton turned in.

Of course, all of this leads to the feeling one is left with at the end of THE 13TH WARRIOR: that Crichton should have left well enough alone with the production of McTiernan's film. Having been in the editing room for the duration that this movie was in likely robbed the producers of their objectivity in cutting together this severely compromised released version of THE 13TH WARRIOR, and it's a shame since there are moments in the movie which work splendidly: the glare of the Eaters' torches as they thunder across the mist-ridden plains, on their way to attack the villagers; the raw intensity of the battle scenes; and the entire story itself, which seems like a natural candidate for a great, classic adventure story.

Unfortunately, the released 13TH WARRIOR misses greatnesses by a fairly wide margin. The sad thing is that it perhaps wasn't so much the movie itself that was the problem, but the insiders in the editing room who thought they knew better in hacking the film to death, much in the same manner that Crichton's Eaters slaughter the innocents in a film whose best moments are likely the ones that we still haven't seen. (R, 102 mins; if anyone out there has a copy of the workprint on video, please email me at dursina@att.net as I'd be happy to trade with you; of course this is for private home use only and will remain discreet!).


DVD News

Trimark's horror line-up continues to churn out one DVD after another, and to give credit where it's due, the company's transfers are improving with each release. It's just too bad that the movies themselves are just sorta... well, for an "acquired taste," anyhow.

The better of Trimark's two new DVDs is MR. MURDER, a mini-series from earlier this year based on Dean Koontz's novel, with Stephen Baldwin playing a horror writer who finds out that he's been cloned as an evil Captain Kirk-type counterpart. The ensuing production plays like a variant on Stephen King's THE DARK HALF, and it's at least a good hour too long, though at least Trimark has included the full 178 minute version so you can't carp that you don't get your money's worth here. The full-frame transfer looks good, and the stereo sound features a score by Louis Febre with a theme contributed by X-phile Mark Snow. Plus, the movie has James Coburn and Julie Warner, so it couldn't possibly be a total washout... could it?

The other new Trimark effort is SOMETIMES THEY COME BACK... FOR MORE. Now, before you read any further, try and remember what Stephen King's story was about (or even what the first made-for-TV movie of this series was), since this third movie to be allegedly based on King's short story "Sometimes They Come Back" is set in an Antarctic research station and plays like a Pagan version of Agatha Christie's "And Then There Were None." In fact, about the only connection with King is that demons lurk about, and one of the main characters's dead loves returns from the grave to help him out. We'd call this a "loose inspiration" in the loosest sense of the word, right? Anyhow, the movie isn't awful, and director Daniel Berk at least fares fairly well filming the claustrophobic horrors of this made-for-video production, which stars Clayton Rohner and Faith Ford. The transfer is matted and the Dolby Surround soundtrack fares well, sporting a run-of-the-kill synth score by Brian Langsbard. And the next entry, I'm just guessing, will be called SOMETIMES THEY COME BACK... FOR EVEN MORE?

Anchor Bay, meanwhile, has unleashed on DVD a vintage '70s made-for-TV chiller, 1975's acclaimed TRILOGY OF TERROR, starring Karen Black in a trio of Richard Matheson-penned stories, adapted for the small screen by producer-director Dan Curtis, writer William F.Nolan (LOGAN'S RUN), and Matheson himself. The first two tales are well-done examples of psychological horror, if not fairly obvious with their requisite "twists," with the supernatural playing a large part in the third and best-known story, "Amelia," with Black being chased around the house by that little Zuni hunter doll. Capped by a neat (and predictable) coda, it's the real reason why TRILOGY OF TERROR has a cult following among terror fans, who will undoubtedly find the stunningly clean transfer on Anchor Bay's DVD to be the finest presentation of Curtis's telefilm to date. The full-frame DVD lacks any special features, although a recent, interesting interview with Black is included with the liner notes, touching upon the film and her somewhat unwanted career attachment to horror movies. Recommended, particularly as we approach the Halloween season.


Soundtrack Corner

Whenever I receive a CD of a movie I have yet to see, I always treat it with more than a little bit of trepidation. Until you see the context for which the music was composed, of course, it's almost impossible to judge how well the music fits a movie. Such is the case with STIGMATA, which apparently boasts a pair of musical score efforts; one by Elia Cmiral (RONIN), the other by Smashing Pumpkins member Billy Corgan in association with Mike Garson. There are also a handful of techno-driven songs found on the soundtrack by the likes of Chumbawumba among others, plus an original song from Natalie Imbruglia, written for the film by Corgan.

Now, I don't know the extent of Cmiral's involvement in the film, though for some reason his billing on the poster credits has been switched (he's listed after Corgan now), and there's a notable absence of both his name and score on Virgin's soundtrack CD (47753-2), which features some 36 minutes of Corgan's output. Apparently some of Cmiral's music remains, though how much and to what degree is something we'll just have to wait and see in the movie to verify. (Cmiral's music will apparently be available from Intrada in a special limited promo editon next month).

Corgan's music is certainly eclectic but a bit subtler than you might imagine, it being an electronic assemblage of drum beats, grinding percussion, sampled choruses, and the occasional pause for quieter piano passages (which sound like a relative to Marty Davich's original scores from "ER"). Again, having not seen the film, it's difficult to criticize the score, which does seem to be one of those soundtracks where a viewing of the film is a real necessity to appreciate the work. The songs are more or less a matter of taste (David Bowie and Bjork also contribute to the album), though Imbruglia's song features some thematic material found in Corgan's score.

Virgin has also released an enjoyable all-song soundtrack from one of the summer's flops, DICK, though it's hard to miss with a line-up of '70s classics, featuring nine #1 hits among them. One of my favorites is "Love's Theme," from the Love Unlimited Orchestra (written by Barry White), an infectious disco instrumental with full-blown orchestra that has been used in recent years on ABC's coverage of various PGA golf tournaments! The lone original track is a routine cover of Abba's "Dancing Queen" by Sixpence None the Richer, who fared better with their original hit "Kiss Me" from the far more successful teen comedy SHE'S ALL THAT earlier this year.


Mail Bag

>From Ed Wang <pugsley@excite.com>

    Hi, Andy. Wouldn't be surprised if someone else has already written to you about this, but the last PG-rated animated feature was "The Prince of Egypt" eight months ago, and it grossed $100 million domestic. I think your comments about the difficulties of marketing a non-Disney animated film are accurate, but I think Warner Brothers made the mistake of marketing it LIKE an old Disney animated film; more specifically, as a gee-whiz kiddie movie (witness the gee-whiz tone of the narrator in the trailer). They might of thought about pitching the movie to fans of "The Simpsons" (on which director Brad Bird used to work, and whose fans have the right attitude and sense of humor for "The Iron Giant") and to fans of anime (did anyone else besides me and Roger Ebert think this movie approached the look and sensibility of a Miyazaki movie?). And, oddly enough, I think that if they had been given this film, the guys at Disney would have been able to market it differently and successfully (remember that super-cool teaser trailer for "Tarzan"?; that one trailer sucked in a huge adult audience). Please, please, please, Disney... buy this movie outright from Warner Brothers and let your marketing department have a go at it for the video release. Let's just say that I know for a fact that there are more than a few fans of "The Iron Giant" at Disney Feature Animation.

NEXT TIME: More of the usual, insane ramblings, and remember to email with your comments at dursina@att.net. Have a great week as we enter into September (already???!).


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