Talkhouse Film Playlist: Awesome August Sleepers from Joe Lynch

Director Joe Lynch offers up a list of personal picks from what he considers the most exciting month in the movie calendar.

By the dog days of August, when the superhero movies have all rolled out, the super-sized sequels have come and gone, studios and other distributors begin to release films that might not be qualified as “sure things” or could be seen as more risky affairs, not warranting a huge marketing push like the bigger releases. It’s also an exciting time for fans of the fringe, when genre movies get more spotlight, and films with more “voice” can be heard.

In most cases, films released in August over the years have by and large been more forgettable than the rest (Rapid Fire, anyone?), but every so often a few films released in August end up smashing into the zeitgeist, hitting a nerve with audiences still hungry for summer thrills, chills and laughs. In August, the release schedule is less crowded with big movies so for these other movies there’s room to breathe and let word-of-mouth take hold. In short, for it to become a sleeper.

August is my favorite time of the summer, mainly because over the past 30 years, I’ve been incredibly affected by a huge number of films that has been released during this month. So many of my favorite films of all time came out in August, from American Werewolf in London and Fast Times at Ridgemont High to The Iron Giant or the ’80s remake of The Blob, all awesome movies that have stood the test of time. August is a time when we can discover new voices, new tweaks on convention, or just the kind of badassery that would make more studio execs lose sleep if they were rolling out on more screens.

So, I’ve put together a sample of some of my favorite August sleepers from the past 25 years. Now, some might not have broken box-office numbers like Guardians of the Galaxy or The Fugitive, but over the years have proven to be lasting entertainment and influential to many. Again, this is not just about surprise box-office hits; it’s about how they affected me at the time and how they’re still firing on all cylinders years later. I’m sure I missed a few of your favorite but hey, make your own and share it with me!

It’s time to shine a light on a few sleepers (circa 1990-2010 or we’d be here all day) to fill in the rest of your summer vacation! Some you know, some you may not, but all are worth your time in the shade…

The Exorcist III (1990)
This movie messed me up. I was already a huge Exorcist fan as a Fangoria-reading geek back then, and I had read the novel Legion before seeing William Peter Blatty’s second film which continues the Georgetown saga, this time from the perspective of Det. Kinderman (George C. Scott, taking the role from the original film’s Lee J. Cobb). This very unnerving and terrifying film follows Kinderman as he investigates a rash of murders in town that could be linked to the Gemini Killer (Brad Dourif) who just happens to be claiming he’s actually Father Karras, the priest from the original Exorcist (Jason Miller)…who is also in a padded cell at the time of the murders. What begins as a mystery evolves into a full-blown gothic horror film that might not be as iconic as the first film, but has enough chills to keep you cool from the August heat. Oh … and beware that hallway scene…
AVAILABLE ON: DVD/Blu-ray (new Special Edition from Scream Factory this fall), iTunes

The Commitments (1991)
My parents dragged us to this film when it seemed nothing else was out and by the time the credits rolled we were all singing the songs and immediately ran to Sam Goody to pick up the CD. Alan Parker’s scrappy portrait of a working-class Irish town beset by economic woes which fosters an R&B band called The Commitments. The joke of the movie was “White Irish people playing black music? NO WAY!” and might feel a little outdated at the moment, but the underdog spirit infused in the film, along with some of the best cover songs ever performed for a movie by the cast (many of whom toured as a band for years after it was released), will have you (legally) downloading the soundtrack immediately. This is a Hard-R triumph of the human spirit that has always cheered me up and if you can find it (it’s only on DVD at the moment but needs to be streamed!), I bet you a pint it brightens yours, even if just with some amazing covers of R&B hits.

Unforgiven (1992)
I don’t think anyone expected Eastwood’s latest (at the time) Western to be so meditative, so masterfully done and so memorable when it was first released. I remember seeing it opening weekend thinking, “Who makes Westerns anymore?!”, only to be completely swept up in the dark adventure about a man trying to escape his past, but is dragged back in one more time. Yes, a familiar genre trope, but Eastwood, along with an amazing cast (Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Richard Harris, et al.) and stellar camerawork by D.P. Jack Green, made this chestnut tale one that seemed an unlikely hit, but ended up grossing $150+ million and winning like a million Oscars, including Best Director for Eastwood. At the time, I don’t think anyone assumed that this would be just the beginning of the “Eastwoodisaince” that hasn’t really let up since, but we’re all glad he decided to hop on the horse one more time.
AVAILABLE ON: DVD/Blu-ray, iTunes, Amazon, Vudu

Babe (1995)
This was the second in a double feature I grabbed at the movies one weekend, along with Brett Leonard’s Virtuosity. Never in a million years would I have thought a movie about a talking pig would have resulted in buckets of tears (both of sadness and joy) and be my favorite movie of the summer, even over Mel Gibson’s epic Braveheart, which had been released two months prior. Gibson’s former partner George Miller (yup, that Mad badass) was the creative force behind the film, and it shows. The wider lenses, the sense of whimsy in the story, a world created just for the tale of a little talking pig that could beat the odds, thanks to his new friends on the farm and a surprisingly sweet farmer (the breakout role for James Cromwell). Braveheart swept the Oscars that year, but my money was on that damn pig and to this day, I’d watch Babe over seeing William Wallace scream “Freedom!” again any day. And rest assured: any Mad Max: Fury Road fan hesitant about watching a kid’s movie should invest in seeing this A.S.A.P. and still feel their sense of macho is preserved; this is a family film that hits all the right buttons for every age.
AVAILABLE ON: DVD/Blu-ray, iTunes, Amazon, Vudu

Conspiracy Theory (1997)
This had everything that could have been a knockout Summer Blockbuster in May or June: two of the hottest movie stars (Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts), one of Hollywood’s more reliable directors (Richard Donner), Joel Silver producing, “Capt. Picard” playing a bad guy…I mean, can’t lose, right? Now while Conspiracy Theory didn’t set the box office ablaze when it was released, the film was such a wonderful departure for most involved. “Crazy Mel” was still playing that role ad nauseum, but here there was a keen sense of vulnerability that wasn’t in his previous Mad or Lethal efforts; this guy seemed about two minutes away from conducting a mass shooting, yet he’s our hero, and somehow we sympathize with him. Gibson plays an isolated conspiracy theorist who may have a shadier past than we first expect, Roberts is his media contact who suspects as much when he’s trailed by black helicopters, and Patrick Stewart is one of the masterminds who was clearly ahead of the “torture porn” trend in the ‘00s. Donner and screenwriter Brian Helgeland (who later that year would explode with L.A. Confidential) crafted a solid summer blockbuster-type, but with more darkness and successful twists than one would expect and having seen it again recently, completely holds up today as one of those “they don’t make ’em like they used to” thrillers.
AVAILABLE ON: DVD/Blu-ray, iTunes, Amazon, Vudu

Blade (1998)
I wasn’t a Blade fan from my comics days and Wesley Snipes had, at that point in 1998, not really piqued the same interest I had in him from New Jack City, so you can assume my shock and awe when I snuck into a screening of Blade between shoot days on my first real movie gig, Troma’s Terror Firmer, just to get out of the heat. My friend and I were just looking for a few hours to kill and some A/C, but unbeknownst to many of us, Stephen Norrington’s Blade was a kinetic breath of fresh air in the stale summer movie slate. A gleefully violent, sexy and over-the-top romp, made before the days of Marvel Cinematic Universes and at a time when most superheroes were relegated to PG-13 fare, Blade begins with a Traci Lords cameo (well played) and ends with a spectacular sword fight between Snipes and Stephen Dorff (!) as Deacon Frost Vampire Leader. All this, along with more style, atmosphere, crazier camerawork and psychotronic sound design than any mid-level genre movie could contain. Snipe’s titular character is a vampire hybrid (“Daywalker”) out to deal with all bloodsuckers after his mother was turned at his birth and stumbles on a group of vamps set out to control the world … and, well, you know what happens next, but damn if it isn’t breathless, gory fun. Blade spawned two sequels (Del Toro’s Blade 2 is a goofy fun romp but the gas went out of the Daywalker by the third film) and a TV show, but the utter slick brashness of the first film, along with Snipes’ charismatic performance (he saves his smiles for just the right moments), makes the first movie the sharpest in the stack. Also, one of the best DVDs at the time to show your friends your cool new “High Def” TV (circa 1998)!
AVAILABLE ON: DVD/Blu-ray, iTunes, Amazon, Vudu

Detroit Rock City (1999)
1999 was a huge year for movies, and it was hard to pick a film in August of ’99, with Iron Giant, Bowfinger and of course The Sixth Sense also opening around this time. But there’s been enough written on those. One film that I’ve always revisited since seeing it opening weekend with my brothers that still holds up is Detroit Rock City, writer-director Adam Rifkin’s loving homage to not just the band KISS, but to the age when we were all a little obsessed with the band and its music. Rifkin’s mix of humor with a little horror and thriller is blasting to 11, following a ragtag pack of KISS-obsessed teens trying to get to the show that night, only to run into (you guessed it) every possible obstacle along the way, from douchebag guidos to militant mothers (one played memorably by Lin Shaye), just to make it to that arena in time. Why? Because they wanted the best, and Rifkin gets it by making the kids be gross, horny, stupid … classic real teens, even if the tone is heightened and goofy. Eddie Furlong, Sam Hunnington, James DeBello and Giuseppe Andrews are the fearsome four (their band name: Mystery) on their quest and it’s one hell of a rockin’ ride, complemented by an appropriate ’70s soundtrack. Sadly, DRC fizzled at the box office, however it’s one of those movies that’s played on TV over the years and had the DVD passed around enough that it completely qualifies for “cult” status, but deserves much more if you like your comedy with a healthy dose of classic rock, flying pizza, vomit (a lot) and Ron Jeremy as a strip club DJ. Cinematic nirvana.
AVAILABLE ON: DVD/Blu-ray, iTunes, Amazon, Vudu

Collateral (2004)
I am a big Michael Mann fan. From the moment I saw Manhunter as a kid in the ’80s (and discovering it was directed by the genius behind Miami Vice), I was a “Mannatic.” His particular voice and style is evident in every frame he shoots, down to the belt buckle (see Ali for that story). But Mann’s 2004 stab at summer moviegoing was more of a high-profile experiment. Here was one of the first studio films embracing the digital movement, with one of cinema’s true pioneers of the form. Instead of trying to create a new world (or recreate an old one to lesser effect, as he did with Public Enemies a few years later) he dropped us into familiar territory – good ole’ Hell. A. – for a one-night-stand-off between two men stuck in one vehicle as it passes like a coyote in the night. Tom Cruise at his chilly platinum best as a hitman on a mission and Jamie Foxx as the innocent cabbie thrown into the midnight madness are a great mismatched team and Mann, using HD cameras with D.P. Dion Bebe, makes Los Angeles look new, creepy, both alive and dead, as Cruise’s Vincent spends the night picking off hits with Foxx’s Max as his unlikely partner. The film crackles with tension, sound, color and pathos, all delivered in that particular Mann fashion that makes even the most conventional genre fare seem like Oscar-bait. The audience I saw Collateral with at the CinemaDome opening weekend couldn’t breathe for two hours, and you likely won’t either till the final MetroLine showdown. (PS: I think this movie needs an Uber update, BTW.)
AVAILABLE ON: DVD/Blu-ray, iTunes, Amazon, Vudu

Tropic Thunder (2008)
I knew something was up when they handed us a free “Booty Sweat” power drink upon entering the theater opening night … In the 1990s, Ben Stiller was one of the sharpest voices in Hollywood, from The Ben Stiller Show to directing Reality Bites and the cult classic The Cable Guy, before branching off into more acting roles, from the light (Meet the Parents) to the dark (Permanent Midnight). But with Tropic Thunder, Stiller and screenwriter-actor Justin Theroux turn the tables on the summer movie genre and delivered not only a sensational action epic but a scathingly subversive satire on the industry itself. With a very game cast (I mean … really?? Tom Cruise, Nick Nolte, Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr,. Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride, Matthew McConaughey, etc., etc., etc.) and a plot similar to another summer sleeper from back in the day, John Landis’ Three Amigos!, Tropic Thunder pits privileged actors against the odds (and the elements) when their production in the jungle on a Vietnam epic goes astray and they’re using real bullets to fend off opposing soldiers, who think they are real soldiers. Shot like friggin’ Apocalypse Now (and using D.P. John Toll at his peak), the film looks like the kind of summer action tentpole that would be released on July 4th, but the biting humor and cynical view of the industry was better suited for an August release. The movie was a hit, and somehow still gets major play on TV; seven years later, it still feels as fresh and exciting as it did after I downed that Booty Sweat drink and had a great time with it opening night.
AVAILABLE ON: DVD/Blu-ray, iTunes, Amazon, Vudu

District 9 (2009)
To be fair, I actually saw Neill Blomkamp’s debut feature at Comic-Con earlier that summer in a secret screening; after it was over, I turned back, shook Neill’s hand and said, “Get ready for your life to change.” Obviously it has for the director since (for better or worse), yet District 9 still stands as his best film, a vérité/sci-fi/action/horror mashup with an incredible amount of heart to complement its political leanings in the subtext. Sharlo Copley broke out as a hapless corporate shill in the middle of an alternate reality where aliens have arrived in South Africa and are now treated like second-class citizens. Copley’s Wikus character then accidentally is infected during a raid and slowly becomes, in a modernized Kafka-meets-Cronenberg style, a “bug” himself, on the run from pretty much everyone until he sides with the aliens to fight back. It’s a heavy lift for a summer movie, but Blomkamp’s unique approach to the genre, in the middle of the “found-footage” trend, gives the audience enough visual sugar to let the medicine go down. The film ultimately was a hit with both audiences, critics and the Academy; I saw the film two more times that August, each time finding more subtle details that add to the satire as well as the humor and emotion. Even if Neill gets his Alien 5 off the ground, his first launch into the Hollywood stratosphere was enough to make a lasting impression on us all.
AVAILABLE ON: DVD/Blu-ray, iTunes, Amazon, Vudu

OK, so this was a hard list to make up, especially since the Talkhouse wanted just 10 movies. So, before you say “What about…?”, here’s a list of my favorite August movies from 1981 to now:

American Werewolf in London (1981)
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
Risky Business (1983)
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)
Fright Night (1985)
The Return of the Living Dead (1985)
The Fly (1986)
Monster Squad (1987)
The Blob (1988)
Married to the Mob (1988)
Parenthood (1989)
Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989)
The Abyss (1989)
Darkman (1990)
Wild at Heart (1990)
My Blue Heaven (1990)
Barton Fink (1991)
The Fugitive (1993)
Natural Born Killers (1994)
Desperado (1995)
The Usual Suspects (1995)
The Fan (1996)
The Iron Giant (1999)
Bowfinger (1999)
The Sixth Sense (1999)
Dark Days (2000)
The Others (2001)
Jeepers Creepers (2001)
One Hour Photo (2002)
American Splendor (2003)
Red Eye (2006)
The Descent (2006)
Death Sentence (2007)
Pineapple Express (2008)
Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Big Fan (2009)
Piranha 3D (2010)
Bellflower (2011)
Hit and Run (2012)
The World’s End (2013)
Into The Storm (2014)
Call Me Lucky (2015)
Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015)
Straight Outta Compton (2015)

Joe Lynch is a director working in various film genres, from horror to action to comedy (both intentional and unintentional). His feature credits include Everly with Salma Hayek, Knights of Badassdom starring Peter Dinklage, Steve Zahn and Ryan Kwanten, the anthology film Chillerama, and Wrong Turn 2 with Henry Rollins. Lynch also co-stars and executive produces the TV show Holliston and co-hosts the popular podcast The Movie Crypt on Geek Nation with fellow filmmaker Adam Green (Hatchet). He loves jump cuts, practical blood and making his days.