6WH: Week 6.5 - Speed Round and Halloween
Well here we are, a single day away from Halloween. Six weeks have come and gone, and we've watched a heck of a lot of movies. As per usual, I have not actually covered all the movies I've seen during the horror movie marathon. Sometimes a movie just doesn't fit with a given week's theme, or perhaps I only caught a portion of it on television, and sometimes I just don't have much to say about a movie. So every year, I close out the marathon with a quick roundup of everything I saw that hasn't already been covered. Behold:
Dial M for Murder - Hitchcock's tale of a man who devises an intricate plot to murder his wife only to find that things go horribly wrong. But he's able to improvise an impressive plan to evade the police anyway. Or is he? This is an impressively engaging movie considering that 90% of the movie takes place in a rather small apartment, and most of the action consists of simple conversations. I get the impression that folks like Quentin Tarantino cribbed from this while trying to ensure their long dialog scenes maintain a certain level of suspense. This is actually one of the better movies I saw during the 6WH. ***
Scream 2 - I was listening to the Bangers n' Mash show on the Scream Tetralogy and they seemed to have a high opinion of this, maybe even preferring it to the first Scream. I haven't seen it since it came out, and I guess I liked it well enough, but it really didn't make that much of an impression back then. It's got some interesting stuff going on, I really like the opening of the movie (something the series generally excels at) and there's a lot of good banter about sequels and whatnot. Unfortunately, it pretty much falls into the same trap as most sequels and in my mind, doesn't really compare to the first. This is a fine film though, and worth checking out if you've never progressed through the series (the third movie, on the other hand, is a harder sell). **1/2
It Came from Beneath the Sea - I watched this during the Kaiju week, but since it's not actually Japanese, I didn't think it fit into that post. But it's pretty similar to the Kaiju movies. A giant octopus is attacking boats and eventually even the coast, and a team of plucky scientists is the only thing that can stop it. Or something like that. I'd say it compares favorably to Rodan or Ghidirah, but seeing as though I was not particularly on board with those movies, that' snot saying much. I wasn't enthralled, though it has some interesting historical value. **
Eight Legged Freaks - Good old fashioned fun horror movie about a spider researcher who accidentally doses his collection with some sort of growth serum, thus making them gigantic. This ain't going to be a transcendent experience or radically challenge your status quo, but it's a fun way to spend a couple hours. **1/2
The Cabin in the Woods - This movie is holding up reasonably well, and it's still a fun romp, especially towards the end. The more I see it, the more the very last scenes bother me, but it's still a minor complaint. Otherwise, not much different from my previous thoughts on this. ***
I Spit on Your Grave - I watched this because of a book I was reading that featured a chapter on Rape Revenge films, and boy is this one the mother of them all. It's a pretty brutal film to watch, but it does have its interesting aspects. A hard one to recommend, but it's interesting to see how this film prefigured more mainstream efforts later on... **1/2
The Wicker Man - This is the remake, and yes, it's every bit as bad as you've heard. Is it so bad it's good? Well, at times it is. Nicolas Cage is kinda sleepwalking through some of the movie, but at other moments, he's extremely animated and simultaneously terrible and great. The bee sequence is particularly brilliant. But it's still a terrible movie. Check out Kernunrex's take, which is much better than mine. *
The Thing - Not much to say about this one, except that it still holds up pretty well. Great practical effects, fantastic ambiguous ending, and if you haven't seen it, you really should check it out. ****
Tales from the Crypt: Season 2, Episode 1 "Dead Right" - I did manage to watch a bunch of Tales from the Crypt this year, and ran out of Wednesday posts to cover them, so here they are. This first one is a prototypical episode. A fortune teller gives Demi Moore advice on how to get rich by marrying into money. Of course, things work out badly for Demi, and in an ironic way.
Tales from the Crypt: Season 2, Episode 2 "The Switch" - This episode was directed by Arnold Schwartzenegger! And he even makes an appearance at the beginning with the Cryptkeeper. The story is about an old man in love with a younger woman. To please her, he spends all his money on a way to rejuvenate his body, only to find, well let's not ruin the ironic ending. It's a good episode though.
Tales from the Crypt: Season 2, Episode 3 "Cutting Cards" - Another really good episode, this one stands out primarily because of amazing performances by Lance Henriksen and Kevin Tighe. It also doesn't follow the typical TFtC formulas, which makes it more interesting.
Tales from the Crypt: Season 2, Episode 4 "'Til Death" - And here we have a story where the formula is utterly predicable, and this tale of a gold digging real estate prospector ends badly for him in a way that you can see coming from the very beginning of the episode.
Tales from the Crypt: Season 2, Episode 5 "Three's a Crowd" - Another middling episode, this one about a husband who's convinced his wife is cheating on him is saved primarily by its ending, which is, you guessed it, ironic.
Tales from the Crypt: Season 2, Episode 6 "The Thing from the Grave" - This one would be mostly forgettable except for the performance by Miguel Ferrer, who plays this smarmy, entitled little prick. As per usual, he gets what's coming to him.
So there you have it. I'm sure I'll throw Halloween on tomorrow night, as per tradition, and some of this year's activities will spill over into the coming weeks of blog posts too. So stay tuned, and have a great holiday!
6WH: Week 6 - The Eighties Were Weird
Coming down the homestretch, this week's theme was a serendipitous one, as I didn't realize until I was near finished that these were all 1980s movies, and that their batshit insanity quotient compared favorably with the rest of this year's marathon. Score. Otherwise, there's not much to tie these movies together, but still, it was an interesting one.
Children of the Corn - Adapted from a Stephen King short story, this is an odd duck of a movie. It clearly strikes a nerve with audiences, and to be sure, there are some really creepy aspects to the story. The kids who've taken over the town and murdered all their parents at the behest of some sort of creature pretending to be God is an interesting idea, and some of that stuff lands effectively in this movie. The casting, for instance, works really well. Often movies like this will crumble under the weight of the many adorable moppets required by the story, but this cast is solid.
In particular, Isaac and Malachai are great, as are our heros, Peter Horton and Sarah Conner herself, Linda Hamilton are doing what they can with a poorly conceived character. On the other hand, it's an interminably silly movie that never really delivers on its premise. Most aspects of the production are functional at best, and some stuff doesn't work at all. Its hard to really bag on this movie though, because it is a bit on the fun side. It's got a sorta campy, so-bad-it's-good vibe that clearly works for folks, as they've made a crapton of sequels to this sucker (which I have a mild curiosity about, perhaps we'll revisit next year). **
Alone in the Dark - This year's batshit quotient was a bit lacking, but this movie puts us well on our way. It's the strangest movie of this year's 6WH marathon, and it's a fair amount of fun, even if it's not particularly accomplished. It's definitely got the most unexpected cast of the year, with folks like Donald Pleasence, Martin Landau, and Jack Palance all hamming it up. But Dwight Schultz (you may know him as Howling Mad Murdock from The A-Team or the weenietastic Barclay from Star Trek:TNG) is the lead, a psychologist who comes to a new hospital to help treat a bunch of psychopaths. Donald Pleasence runs the place, and has installed a fancy new "electric" security system. Naturally, a mysterious power outage lets the pyschopaths, led by Palance, escape. This is a bizarre movie. The opening non sequitur scene is fantastic, but I have no idea why its there. Pleasence seems to be just about as insane as the inmates, and the whole situations is rather strange. When the psychos escape, they immediately head to the general store to stock up on civilian clothes and weaponry, putting on hockey masks and using gardening implements to rip out a cop's throat (I'm pretty sure that guy heads off screen, never to be seen again). From there, the movie turns towards a more home invasion type scenario. And the ending, well, I don't know what to make of that either. It's an interesting movie. It's not something that will work for any but the most devoted genre hounds, but for us cuckoo nutsos, it's kinda fun.**1/2
Angel Heart - A marked departure from the rather silly two movies above, this one is a much more serious effort. A sorta neo noir movie that only really approaches horror towards the end, though it's pretty clear from the very start that something is awry. A private detective named Harry Angel (played by Mickey Rourke) is hired through a law firm by a mysterious man named Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro) to find another mysterious man named Johnny Favourite. Of course, things are not what they appear to be, and everyone Angel interviews seems to wind up dead. In case you can't tell from the character names, this movie lays on the symbolism with a shovel, and not just with the names. De Niro is just chomping scenery, and his character's look is perfect, if a bit on the nose (there's a scene where he's peeling a hard boiled egg that is utterly fantastic).
There's all sorts of visual motifs as well (the fan, the elevator to hell, etc...) and director Alan Parker is not shy about laying this stuff on. Parker also has a keen visual sense, and the movie is well composed and gorgeously photographed (this really stood out against the above two movies!) Great supporting performances by Robert De Niro and even Lisa Bonet, and actually, all the performances in the movie are pretty good. The movie does have a sorta languid pace, and could perhaps use some pruning, but it's otherwise a pretty good little film. I can't say as though the revelations towards the end are particularly brilliant or well executed (I mean, if you can't figure out who De Niro really is from the first scene...), but they work well enough, and the movie did manage to get under my skin a bit towards the end. It's a solid little film, perhaps not for everyone, but it works. ***
Stay tuned for the usual Speed Round on Wednesday, which will finish off this year's marathon. It's been a good one, and I'm already looking forward to next year!
6WH: Week 5.5 - Finishing Saw
Back in Week 2, we watched a few of the Saw sequels, ending on the rather uninspired Saw V. While I don't particularly love these movies, Saw V was the series' first clear misfire. Given the rather complicated (and actually pretty impressive) continuity between each film, I thought it would probably be better to finish off the series than to forget all the details and try and come back up to speed next year. So, will the final two installments represent a return to form, or was Saw V the beginning of a downward spiral?
Saw VI - Of course, this movie picks up right where Saw V left off, with Hoffman (aka Jigsaw Jr.) having triumphed over Agent Strahm and continuing Jigsaw's work. This time, the target is a health insurance executive, one who finds loopholes to avoid paying out claims. Yep, the Saw series' attempt to get relevant, I guess. And what's more, he's even relevant to the rest of the story(he apparently denied an experimental procedure for Jigsaw a while back). Meanwhile, Jill (Jigsaw's former wife) gets a box willed to her from Jigsaw, and proceeds to execute Jigsaw's final request. The police are also beginning to suspect that maybe all is not what it seems. There's a lot going on here, including a lot of flashbacks, but it holds together much better than the previous installment, and even starts to make a little sense. For his part, Hoffman is really emerging as a good villain, and Jigsaw's well laid plans allow us to root against Hoffman (not that we weren't before, but the series seemed content with him taking over for Jigsaw, rather than being a pawn, which is what he really is). The insurance executive is a good subject, and the film mines his story well. Of course, there are lots of traps here, and they're actually pretty well done. In the end, this isn't the best film in the series by a long shot, but at least the series is back on track.
Saw 3D - While I'm sure we'll see the series reemerge at some point in the future, this was billed as The Final Chapter, and it may be the only film series to reach seven installments in just seven years. Add in the complex and intricate mythology and continuity, and the series does have a certain charm, even if the gore and torture might be over the top. Fortunately, the series manages to go out on a strong note too. This is the best installment since at least IV, and maybe even going back to the original. Part VI ended in a way that set up a bit of a confrontation between Hoffman and Jill, but that doesn't quite turn out as fun as I thought it might. On the other hand, Hoffman does get what's coming to him, so there is that. There's another good Jigsaw target in this one: a guy who faked having survived a Jigsaw trap, and is parlaying that into a book deal and fame (we get a nice flashback of Jigsaw getting his book signed by the fraud, too). There's even a Jigsaw Survivor's Support Group, and thus we get to see a bunch of familiar faces... including this guy:
Man, I had really wondered if they'd ever get back to Cary Elwes' character, and I like what they did with him in this movie, even if it is a tad obvious what his role will turn out to be. I obviously didn't see this in 3D, and I generally hate that treatment, but in this case, it seems like it forced the filmmakers to come up with more creative traps and less camera jiggling and whatnot, which actually is a good thing. It's certainly not a perfect film, but it's actually a fun one, and it ends the series on a high note.
Once again, I can't say as though I particularly love the series. I like the continuity and puzzle-like nature of most of the plot, but a lot of it seems to be steeped a bit too much in misery for misery's sake, especially when Hoffman takes over for Jigsaw. Still, I'm impressed with how well the series holds together, and it never devolved into anything really cheap or gimmicky, like making something supernatural or psychic (or, uh, sending Jigsaw into space). This is impressive for a series done on the cheap in short timeframes (seven movies in seven years has to be a record of some kind).
I do think the series and I suppose the sub-genre as a whole, deserves a closer look. There are a lot of things about these movies that could benefit from a deeper dive, both from a series perspective but also from a thematic perspective. I'm not claiming these are particularly enlightened movies, but hey, if people could do it for slashers, it can be done for torture porn. As I mentioned in my previous post on the subject, I love the idea that in 20 years, some dork like me is going to look back on these films from his or her youth and marathon them (like I did with slashers), and then someone smarter than me will contextualize it into our post-9/11 angst or something like that. One can only hope.
In the meantime, we're running out of runway here. We've got one weekend left (no idea what the theme will be, if any) and then the Speed Round and the big day. I think there will be some bleedover into the following weeks as I finish off a few books and whatnot, but it's been a good year folks. Stay tuned.
6WH: Week 5 - Anthologies
By their very nature, anthology films are a challenge. Anthology television series are more forgiving, as each story is meant to be taken on its own merits. An anthology film, though, is comprised of multiple stories that are meant to be watched together. This presents a few big issues. One is that some stories are better than others, leading to a perceived inconsistency in quality. Similarly, tonal shifts between stories can be jarring, though you could argue that this comes back to inconsistency. Finally, what is it about these stories that warrants being grouped together in a single viewing experience? It is this question that ultimately defines the film. In most cases, the talent behind the film is the reason for the anthology. Indeed, all three of this week's films are like that (more below). Unfortunately, this often leads to those quality or tonal inconsistency issues mentioned earlier, especially if the talent is spread out amongst the segments.
The best anthologies, though, seem to have a purpose, they add up to one larger experience. We've already talked about one of these during this year's Six Weeks of Halloween, back in week 3 - Trick 'r Treat. It is comprised of smaller stories, but they are interlocking and share the holiday theme. This is, naturally, a more difficult feat to pull off, and a lot of films will use some sort of framing devices to try and tie the stories together somehow, though this is often not very convincing. Trick 'r Treat also benefited from the fact that it was the product of a singular vision rather than a collaboration (as two of the below are). Ultimately, everything comes down to the typical horror movie measurements. Sometimes a mediocre collection can contain a gem that will stick with you far longer than most full-length features. So let's dive into a few of these and see what happens.
Creepshow 2 - I did not realize this until I started watching, but I'd seen this before, many moons ago... but the only segment that I really remembered was the second one. This may very well have been because I only saw the second one. Here in the on-demand digital future, it's hard to remember stumbling onto a movie on cable late at night, watching for 30 minutes, and then stumbling away. Anywho, this is the second installment of the series in which Stephen King supplies all the stories. George A. Romero remains involved, but as a screenwriter adapting the stories (rather than as director). The three stories are completely unrelated, and have a loose framing device about a child reading a horror comic supplied by a crypt-keeper-like, uh, creature? Whatever. The first story is about a wooden Native American statue that comes to life in order to avenge some injustice that was perpetrated on its owner. Entertaining enough, and very typical anthology story (bad people receive supernatural comeuppance, usually in ironic way). The second tale is the one that I remember, and it follows a group of kids who want to hang out at a lake. After swimming out to the little raft anchored in the middle of the lake, they notice a oily looking blob in the water... and it slowly proceeds to devour our hapless teenage heroes. I was terrified of this segment when I was a youngin, and it actually is a pretty effective setup. The blob in the water is a simple, elegant monster that really struck a nerve with my younger self. Unfortunately, there's not really anywhere for this story to go, and it ends in typical fashion. The third segment features a hitchhiker that simply won't die. Like the rest of the film, there's a base level of competence here that comports itself well enough, I guess. Ultimately, it's fine, if not really anything special. It's on Netflix Instant right now, so the effort to see this is minimal, so it's an enjoyable enough way to spend an hour and a half. **
V/H/S/2 - I liked the first installment of this movie, though there were a few nagging complaints - notably the framing device, which was filled with annoying dudebros and made no real sense. This movie has a slightly better framing device, a PI and his assistant go to this house looking for a missing kid, only to find a bunch of VHS tapes and TVs and stuff, which they naturally start watching. This is mostly unrelated to the framing device from the first film, but the circumstances are similar enough that there might be some overarching reason for these framing devices that won't become clear until a later installment (I'm not holding my breath on that one, though!) Anyway, the gimmick here is found footage on said VHS tapes (wondering how obviously digital footage ended up on an analog tape is probably missing the point), and each segment is done by a different director (or 2 in some cases).
"Phase I Clinical Trials" is directed by Adam Wingard (of You're Next fame) and features a guy getting a digital eye, which has a built in recorder. Of course, this new technology also allows him to see... things. This segment certainly has the best jump scares of the weekend, and some otherwise effective imagery too, though it ultimately isn't something that sticks with you. "A Ride in the Park" comes to us from Gregg Hale and Eduardo Sanchez (of Blair Witch fame) and details a zombie outbreak in a unique way. This is clever, and very gory, and reasonably effective, though again, the follow through on these tales isn't that great. "Safe Haven" is maybe the most effective of the bunch, and it features a lot of really disturbing stuff. It's directed by Gareth Evans (of The Raid) and Timo Tjahjanto, and it follows a film crew making a documentary about a cult of some kind. Naturally, while they're their, some weird apocalyptic shit goes down. Now this is one that I did find very unsettling and I have a feeling it will stay with me a bit. Finally, we've got "Slumber Party Alien Abduction" from director Jason Eisener (of Hobo with a Shotgun), which is exactly what it sounds like. It's a little more difficult to follow this one, and while I found the events effective, something about it never quite congealed into something that I particularly enjoyed. Tonally effective, but not my favorite of the bunch. One point of order here, the theme in these stories appears to be that, well, everyone dies. This gets a bit tiresome, and may explain why I wasn't as invested in the last segment - I knew exactly what would happen to all these characters and didn't really care. Overall, well, it's a decent collection, about on par with the first movie. **1/2
Three... Extremes - A cross-cultural anthology from Chinese, Japanese, and Korean directors, this one doesn't even bother with a framing device, simply presenting each story, one after the other (which, honestly, is fine, as framing devices often come off as being sorta tacked on). First up is "Dumplings" from Fruit Chan, a filmmaker I'm unfamiliar with. And this one is a doozy. It's almost as if he's daring you to walk out on this movie in disgust, and yes, I had some severe reservations with this segment once I realized what was going on. But it ultimately boils down to an old story, someone seeking to prolong their life by any means. On that front, it really is effective, if hard to watch (that sound design, ugh). Next, we've got Chan-wook Park's segment, called "Cut", which follows a director as he's confronted by a stranger. I won't ruin the segment, but it is probably the most traditional of the three, while still being somewhat harrowing. It bears a fleeting resemblance to that reviled torture porn genre, though it's far from the worst on that front. It's well done, and if you've seen his "Vengeance" films, this will strike a familiar note with you. Also worth noting is that the camera is much more dynamic here than in the first segment, and it fits well with this story (which could get a bit static in lesser hands). Finally, we've got "Box" from Takashi Miike, the most artistic of the bunch, and the most abstract. There's a lot of open questions here, but it basically amounts to a writer trying to cope with a tragedy in her past.
Ironically, while this movie has no framing device and none of the three segments are related, it holds together well as one viewing experience (maybe even better than the above two). Furthermore, the themes explored here are deeper and more mature. Attempting to defy the ravages of time, money and class issues, and coping with tragedy; these are not shorts for the faint of heart. On the other hand, this is the longest anthology by far, and I think perhaps even too long. Each segment is around 40 minutes or so, which isn't that long in the grand scheme of things, but the content didn't really need that much time. Still, it's an interesting watch, and I'm glad I got to it. **1/2
Holy crap, I can't believe we're already 5 weeks into the Six Weeks of Halloween. I'm betting you'll be seeing some more horror related posts after the high holiday of horror has come and gone... Anyway, no idea what I'm going to do next week, but stay tuned for the last two Saw films on Wednesday.
"If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there." - Anton Chekhov
This concept is known as Chekhov's Gun. These days, people often refer to it in the context of narrative twist endings, where some object or character, innocuously introduced early on in the story, turns out to be a key to the narrative. This being the internet, calling something a Chekhov's Gun is usually meant as a pejorative because, like, dude, I totally noticed it for what it was and wasn't surprised by the twist ending at all. But Chekhov's point wasn't necessarily to conceal the importance of the gun, just that you shouldn't be spending time on something if it's not essential to the story. I'm betting that Chekhov would hate The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh.
The plot here is that this guy Leon inherits his estranged mother's creepy old house, spends the night, and then leaves. Spoilers, I guess. The titular Will and Testament is mostly played in voiceover and not something that Leon directly interacts with or hears, but it seems that Rosalind Leigh liked her communications to be oblique and weird. Leon's parents were apparently part of a religious cult that worshiped Angels, and after the father died mysteriously when Leon was just a wee lad, Leon stopped believing and eventually left the house, never looking back (hence the estrangement). Until now! Will Rosalind Leigh save Leon's soul with her elaborate figurine collection?
More importantly, do we really care? Leon's kinda a melancholy turd. Aaron Poole plays Leon well enough, and he looks like a sorta cross between Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad) and Rob McElhenney (It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia), which I found amusing. And this movie is an actor's dream. It's all in one house, and you don't really see anyone else (there are some phone calls, off screen voices, audio cassettes, etc...), so he has to carry the movie on his shoulders. He's given plenty to work with, but it's all so vague that the character never really worked for me.
On the bright side, the film is absolutely gorgeous, and even when nothing is happening, the camera is always moving. I was never bored watching the movie, and I love the atmosphere this movie evokes. Amazing production design, and the cinematography is first rate. There's a great long take towards the beginning that takes you on a sort of short tour of the house, which is quite creepily appointed with all sorts of baroque figurines and humanoid figures, amongst all sorts of other melancholy stuff. The camera lingers over everything, even as it is constantly roaming through the household. It's as if the filmmakers are daring you to pick out the Chekhov's guns. Will all these figurines come to life? Will the organ pipes start playing a tune?
And to be sure, many Chekhov's Guns go off as you might expect. There's some knitted sayings on the wall, like this ominous one: "If you drop a knife on the floor a man will knock on the door, a spoon and a woman will knock, if a fork it will be neither." Naturally, whilst eating dinner, Leon drops his fork, which is followed by an immediate knock on the door. Spooky! We never see the person at the door, but we hear him and they have a nice conversation. Now, this was well executed, but not exactly earth shattering. Other Chekhov Guns are not nearly as successful. Another saying on the wall indicates that if the faucet is dripping, it will rain, and ZOMG, it does! A locked door with a missing key? I wonder what's behind it? We do get to find out, but it turns out to be nothing particularly important. There's a book called Communicating With the Dead, and Leon has a semi-relevant dream. Wow.
There's some hokum about a wolf-like creature inhabiting the backyard and the house, and there's a great big Angel statue that has an unsettling backstory, but nothing really comes of any of this. There's a ton of stuff that is alluded to or foreshadowed, but those guns never go off. And, to be fair, Chekhov was a short story writer. A masterful one, but given that context, you can see why he advises keeping only essential elements in the story. So red herrings can be fine if employed in the service of a great story, and it can be commendable not to hit up the obvious horror movie tropes where the statues and suits of armor come alive and attack our hero. There's a theme here about losing the faith, regret, and loneliness, and maybe some unreliable narration spiked with mommy issues for spice, but it never quite congeals into something that really connected with me. I will admit that I was a little surprised at the conclusion, not wholly in a bad way, but this movie at least sticks to its guns.
I can see why this movie has a following. It's impeccably made and again, gorgeous. While I'm sure it's a low budget film, in never feels that way, and it never goes for cheap thrills, which I can totally respect. Something this well made and mature also has to appeal to genre hounds who get sick of all the cheap, crappy horror out there. It is very ambitious and thoughtful and one could probably spend a lot of time parsing out what everything means... but on the other hand, why would you want to do that? I feel like this is a movie that could easily be cut in half (at least) and still work just as well (if not better), which is odd considering the running time is a relatively svelt 80 minutes. So it's not a total waste of time and I appreciate slow burn movies as much as the next guy, but this did not work for me. I guess I'm coming down on Chekhov's side here. If it's not essential, don't put it on screen. Alas, there's a lot of unessential stuff in this movie.
6WH: Week 4 - Netflix of the Undead
Not much of a planned theme this week except to say that I was going to clean out my Netflix Instant queue and watch some stuff that's been lingering on "My List" for far too long. These three are also somewhat recent films, all from the the past 5 years or so. And as it turns out, all three films were somewhat uncommon takes on the undead, whether they be ghosts or zombies. Many quibbles to be had about that sort of theme (especially given the "uncommon" nature and twists on familiar tropes of the first two of these), but hey, I'm going with it, and you should too.
The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror V: The Shinning (sorry, no vid online)
The Ward - Has there been a director who has fallen so far as John Carpenter? He went from genre-defining classics like Halloween and The Thing to worthless duds like Vampires and Ghosts of Mars. True, this happened over a long period of time, and Carpenter had a fantastic run in the late 70s and early 80s that only really tapered off in the mid 90s (with his last great film, In the Mouth of Madness (which is flawed, to be sure, but still wonderful). He's been largely absent from the filmmaking scene in this current century, turning in a couple episodes of Masters of Horror (of which only one, Cigarette Burns, is worth watching) and... this 2010 movie, his first in nearly a decade. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite feel like a Carpenter movie; it's more like a traditional horror film that's going through the motions, and while there's no dramatic issues with the movie, it never quite congeals into something fantastic either. But if you're in the mood, it will get the job done, which is normally fine, but less than what we expect from Carpenter, you know what I mean? There's not much here that is indelibly Carpenter. Perhaps its the lack of Carpenter soundtrack, or the general cinematography, but it never quite gets that Carpenter ball rolling.
The story is a typical one, set in an asylum where girls have been mysteriously disappearing. New girl Kristen (played by Amber Heard, who also played the titular character in All the Boys Love Mandy Lane from last week) quickly figures out what's going on and tries to protect some of the other girls. In a refreshing development, the orderlies and doctors are not completely evil rapist abusers (typical of this setup), though they clearly know something that Kristen does not. There is a twist at the end of this story, something that may not make complete sense (especially given the visual treatment) and is definitely not original, but works well enough so long as you're willing to go with it. Between the intro and the twist, though, the meat of the movie has a nice atmosphere and is reasonably well done. It leans too heavily on the "boo" moments and jump scares, while oddly eschewing a lot of opportunity for tension building. There are many sequences that could have been excellent stalk-and-kill scenes, but you get no inkling of the ghostly presence until it happens (as signified by a screech on the sountrack and a quick cut). As these things go, it's still reasonably well executed, and I actually kinda liked the ending (the last shot, in particular, is great), but this is no classic. Worth a watch for the Carpenter faithful, and it's fine, I guess, but perhaps Carpenter's early success is doing him no favors now. **1/2
Pontypool - The premise sounds a bit suspect: it's a zombie outbreak, but it's mostly set in a radio station where three people are simply trying to make sense of what's going on outside and broadcast that to the rest of the world. A "bottle" story certainly befits the horror genre's low budget roots, of course, and as we find out how the infection spreads, it quickly becomes clear that this is actually the perfect setting for the story.
The first act plays out as a great thriller. You've got no direct contact with zombies, you're just hearing first hand and second hand accounts from folks calling in, and the producers are trying their best to piece together a coherent story. Things start to escalate in the second act, with zombies actually showing up at the station. Some of these scenes are terrifying. Just very tense stuff going on then. We start to find out what's causing all this, and it's a novel take on the typical zombie fare. There's a lot of interesting discussion to be had about all of this, and the movie does a great job positing this sort of metaphorical tie to the real world without getting preachy or overly didactic. Unfortunately, I feel like the third act falters a bit. Basically, there's not much resolution here, it just sorta ends. Oh, there's an attempt at resolution, and I guess you could call it ambiguous, but it doesn't quite work as well as it could. This is apparently based on a book, so I wonder if it's more clear there than in the movie. Its origins in literature makes sense though, as a lot of the dialog feels, er, writerly (and I mean that in a good way, it's really well done) and Stephen McHattie (typically cast as a villain, but making an excellent lead protagonist here) has a great voice and delivers it all with aplomb (Lisa Houle and Georgina Reilly also do well in supporting roles, but their dialog isn't as meaty). Regardless, despite the ending, I think this is very much worth watching and it actually might be one of my favorites of this 6WH... Definitely worth checking out, even if you're not a big zombie person (and for the record, I'm not). ***
Dead Snow - This movie can be summed up in two words: Nazi zombies. What else do you need, amirite? Alright, so we've got a typical horror movie setup: a bunch of kids (in this case, early 20 something grad students) head to a remote cabin for partying... and death! Other tropes are hit hard too. A creepy old man shows up to drop history on our unsuspecting heroes, plenty of slasher-like stalking sequences, and so on. The setting is great, all wintery snow and visible breath, but the tone is a bit all over the place. It's definitely got a goofy streak that I suspect would play well in a crowded theater, but watching it alone makes it seem a bit odd. Still, Nazi zombies.
Some amazing gore and the all out battle towards the end is great fun. Alas, the ultimate motivation of the Nazi zombies is a bit hokey (gold!) and inconsistent (there are folks who bite it that don't seemingly warrant Nazi zombie attention), and the ending leaves a bit to be desired (though the last shots are good). So yeah, I had fun with this, but it's not really pretending to be anything more than a movie with Nazi zombies in it. As gimmicks go, that's a good one, so I'd say it's worth checking out. **1/2
So there you have it. Three films down, 171 left in the queue. So much for cleaning out my list, heh. Stay tuned for a Final Girl film club review, moar Saw movies, and some feminist discourse on horror. Lots to come.
6WH: Link Dump: Other Halloween Movie Marathons
Apparently I'm not the only nutbar watching crazy horror movies and generally partaking in Halloween festivities. I know, right? These people are awesome, check them out:
Six Weeks of Halloween - The man, the myth, the legend - kernunrex invented the six weeks of Halloween because those 31 dayers are just slacking for any real horror fan. As per usual, lots of interesting stuff over there, and he posts almost every day (definitely putting my horror movie intake volume to shame).
Final Girl SHOCKtober 2013 - As per usual, the awesome Stacie Ponder is doing her thing. This year's list is based on reader submissions of "movies that scared you the most", as such, lots of idiosyncratic choices, especially in the early going (323 movies were submitted, and we're only a hundred movies in at this point - all with a single vote so far).
Film Thoughts Halloween 2013 - So this Bonehead (that's what he calls himself, for reals, though I think his name is Zack) is doing a pretty great job covering horror movies this season, and he also puts out a quasi-podcast on Youtube called Bangers n' Mash that is totally worth checking out (personally, I just use listentoyoutube.com to convert those videos to mp3s and listen to them like any other podcast)
NeedCoffee 32 Days of Halloween - Widge tries, and surpasses the pedestrian 31 day marathon, but only by one day. That's kinda like bidding $1 in Price is Right, right? Anyway, always interesting stuff going on over there.
Hey Look Behind You 31 Days of Halloween - So I've given short shrift to the "normal" 31 day marathons, but in reality, those people are still awesome. Like Nikki! Who somehow always manages to find new and interesting short films as well as covering general horror stuff. Plus, she does this year round, so maybe it should be the 365 days of Halloween or something.
There are tons of other blogs doing their own Halloween marathon, but I like these ones, so you should to. Special mention to Horror Movie a Day, which, after 6 years and 2500 reviews, has finally slowed down to a 1-2 post a week pace. So while he doesn't seem to be marathoning for the holiday this year, his site is still an invaluable resource of horror movie reviews. That's all for now. Still have no idea what I'm watching next weekend. Tune in on Sunday to find out!
6WH: Week 3 - Shelf Sitters
Movie releases can be delayed for any number of reasons. The obvious explanation for the delay is if the movie is terrible, but for a surprising number of films, that's not the case at all. For instance, sometimes a movie gets made and everyone from studio execs to the audience loves it, but it still sits on a shelf for a year or two because the distributor or studio went out of business, or the rights were sold, or something along those lines. Other times, movies get shelved because clueless studio execs want a sure thing, so movies without big name stars that aren't remakes or sequels or blatant ripoffs of existing success get dumped. This seems to be a particularly trenchant problem when it comes to the horror genre, so let's take a look at some of the recent shelf sitters that have been (finally) making their way to audiences:
All the Boys Love Mandy Lane - You guys, this movie was ready in 2006. It's been 7 years! What's more, while the film has its detractors, it's often cited as one of the better horror movies of the past decade. It's the directorial debut of Jonathan Levine and it's had a pretty tortured existence, enduring studio and distributor failures (it was owned by the Weinsteins at least twice) until someone finally managed to secure a short release this Halloween season. Having heard about this movie for so long, expectations were pretty high and one thing about shelved films like this is that you really, really want to root for them.
Fortunately, it's a pretty good movie. It's not perfect, and the hype derived from the extreme delay is not really warranted, but it's a solid flick and well worth your time. It's your typical horror movie premise: a bunch of high-schoolers take a trip to a secluded ranch to party... and die! Invited along is Mandy Lane, a strange combination of shy and popular, she's an outsider that everyone wants to know. Or something like that. So this is your typical slasher movie setup, but things don't quite follow the formula exactly either. Indeed, the horror elements are barely hinted at for the first third of the movie, and the body count surprisingly low until we get to the last 20 minutes or so. For instance, the "killer" is revealed pretty quickly, and it's not your typical masked costume sort of thing that people will dress up like for Halloween (perhaps another reason for the studio waffling). This might make for some slightly weird pacing issues, but it all comes together well in the end. It's definitely a movie that is self-aware, but not in a winking, Scream-like way. There are a few big twists on the formula as well, and it's the ending that ties it all together. I don't want to ruin anything so I'll just say that it's a very good movie. If you're a slasher fan, you might enjoy some of the twists, but it's also something that would appeal to non-slasher fanatics. I don't think the lenghty stay on the shelf does it any favors, but I'm glad it's finally available! ***
Trick 'r Treat - This one was ready in 2007, but "only" sat on the shelf for 2 years, garnering a series of festival showings, culminating in a craptacular direct to DVD release in 2009. It has subsequently built up a pretty solid reputation, though I really think this would have made a great movie to see in the theater (supposedly director Michael Dougherty was hoping for this to be a series that would have one entry every year, utilizing different creative teams - alas, that was not to be). I actually reviewed it during the 2009 Six Weeks of Halloween, noting that I liked it a lot even if I wasn't sure it lived up to the hype. After a few years and a few rewatchings, I have to say that it's a film that's really grown on me, to the point of becoming an annual tradition. And that is the greatest thing about this: it's a celebration of the season. They didn't just throw some pumpkins and dead leaves in the background, they made this movie about Halloween, and every segment of the movie uses the holiday as much more than just setting or window dressing.
It hits those nostalgic notes too, reminding you of Halloweens gone by and making you want to dress up and go Trick 'r Treating. Like all anthology films, there are some segments that work better than others, but the seamless connective tissue and general excellence on display here put it far above your typical horror anthologies. So yeah, this is a fantastic movie, perfect for the season. ***1/2
You're Next - And here I cheat a little, as this movie is spiraling its way out of theaters as I type. This movie was actually playing at the 2011 Fantastic Fest when I attended. I had tentatively penciled it in for its second showing, but after it premiered, Lionsgate picked it up and immediately canceled that second showing. Those that did manage to see it raved about it, and if I remember correctly, it took home the audience award at the end of the fest. Why Lionsgate sat on it for so long only to unceremoniously dump it in August is beyond me, as this is a real crowd-pleaser of a film.
One of the things I find really interesting about this movie was how much I didn't like the opening. After a short, promising pre-credits sequence we settle into the film proper, following various family members as they arrive at the (remote) country home for an old-fashioned family get-together. Naturally, they're a dysfunctional family, and while there are some laughs to be had at that (Ti West plays a pretentious documentary filmmaker that's dating one of the daughters and is pure gold), it gets really grating really fast. Luckily, someone starts shooting arrows into the house and people start dying. At first, this leads to a lot of arguments and screaming and crying and annoying but at this point, the movie turned it all around for me as we see the initially mild-mannered Erin (played by Sharni Vinson) take charge and kick some major ass.
I find that a lot of movies have a great hook, a great first 20 minutes, but then peter out at the end. This movie does the opposite. The first 20 minutes or so are a bit rough, but then it just keeps getting stronger. I don't want to ruin anything, so I'll leave it at that, but I really had a ton of fun with this movie and judging from the Box Office, you haven't seen it, so give it a shot when it hits video (and give it a half hour to warm up). It puts the "Fun" back in Home Invasion movies! ***
Another successful week. Stay tuned for, heck, I'm not sure what's happening next weekend. Perhaps a long-overdue Netflix queue cleaning? Maybe a no-discernable theme week? We shall see!
6WH: Televised Miracles, Havens, and more
I love The X-Files. I revisited the series last year, mostly focusing on the one-off creature-of-the-week type episodes (someday, I will go back and revisit the continuity episodes, but that day is not today). Now, we could quibble about it, but to me, The X-Files is a horror show, and it's probably my favorite horror TV show of all time. Sure, there are plenty of Twilight Zone or Tales From the Crypt episodes that I think are great, but they're anthologies and are more uneven experiences than The X-Files, where I generally enjoy spending time with Mulder and Scully, even in lackluster episodes. Since the X-Files has gone off the air, I have often found myself jonesing for this type of show. There are, in fact, many pretenders to the throne, but they never seem to scratch that itch perfectly. This is partly just the nature of the beast: the show I think I want would be seen as derivative and probably very boring. These pretenders, shows like Fringe, Warehouse 13 (which has the added bonus of also being a sorta reprise of that old Friday the 13th series (you remember that, right? The one without Jason?)), and Supernatural (amongst many others), all have their merits and indeed have carved out an identity of their own (as well they should), but they just can't seem to hit that sweet spot the X-Files so consistently targeted. Despite that, I do still find myself checking out shows, new and old, in the hopes that they'll fill the X-Files shaped hole in my media consumption. And what better time to try this out than during the 6 Weeks of Halloween? Here's a few shows/episodes I've watched recently:
Miracles - Episode 101 "The Ferguson Syndrome" - Described by the series creators as a "spiritual version of The X-Files", which sounds promising. The premise is interesting too. Paul Callan (played by Skeet Ulrich) is a modern-day investigator of alleged miracles for the Catholic Church. The only problem: Callan is so good at his job that he finds mundane explanations for every supposed "miracle" that comes his way. He gets burnt out and goes on a sabbatical, but it isn't long before his mentor, father "Poppi" Calero (played by Hector Elizondo) calls him and asks him to look into a local kid who may have healing powers. Spoiler alert: the kid's for real, but when he heals someone, he only hurts himself. Convinced that he's witnessed a true miracle, he excitedly reports back to the Church, who brushes the whole incident aside for lack of evidence. Well screw that noise, Callan quits and starts up with Sodalitas Quaerito ("brotherhood in search of truth") who look into all sorts of wacky crap. Yay! Suffers from typical pilot episode issues, but it's all promising enough. And creepy too!
Miracles - Episode 102 "The Friendly Skies" - Ah, now we get into real X-Files territory. A plane on approach disappears right in front of the tower's eyes. About a minute later it reappears. The authorities are baffled, and the passengers are all telling weird stories and displaying weird symptoms. Who you gonna call? Sodalitas Quaerito! So it doesn't roll off the tongue like "Ghostbusters" but I guess it's good enough. Decent enough episode, with a bunch of hokey aspects, but it works well.
Miracles - Episode 103 "The Patient" - Another very X-Filesy premise here, a doctor working with totally paralyzed patients starts to see signs of intelligence. Is his treatment working, or is it the work of... a demon!? I'll give you one guess. For the first time, the series tries to show a sense of humor (it's been very stoic so far), and it's not quite as effective as it wants to be. There's also a "twist" that you can see coming, oh, within the first 10 minutes. Still, it's fine, if not a prized episode. Thus ended disc 1, and I'm on the fence as to whether or not I'll move disc 2 up in the Netflix queue. It's certainly not a home run, but it ain't bad and there's some potential here. Of course, there's only 13 episodes and this thing got canceled after 6, but it might be worth burning through the rest of them.
Haven - Episode 1 "Welcome to Haven" - Based (perhaps loosely so) on a Stephen King novel (The Colorado Kid), this seems to start very much like the X-Files, it even follows an FBI agent! Special Agent Audrey Parker gets sent to the small town called Haven in Maine. Naturally, all sorts of weird crap is going on, like oddly specific weather patterns and whatnot. It's a bit loose, but as a first episode, I think they've set up the main players and it seems fun enough, if not particularly horrific. It's on Netflix Instant, so I'll probably check out at least a few more episodes.
Hemlock Grove - Episode 1 "Jellyfish in the Sky" - Hoo boy, this Netflix Original series from Eli Roth is pretty horrible. This first episode is damn near unwatchable. There are some interesting elements, but on the other hand, there are a lot of pointless elements. There's some sort of werewolf thing going on right now, but I get the impression that there's lots of other supernatural junk going on. And gypsies! Again, it's no Netflix Instant, so it's possible that I'll check out another episode... but not likely!
And that's all for now. Stay tuned for some long-shelved movies on Sunday!
Six Weeks of Halloween 2013: Week 2 - Saw Sequels
In 2006, while grappling with the film Hostel, NY Magazine critic David Edelstein coined the phrase "Torture Porn" to describe the emerging focus on explicit scenes of torture and mutilation, as presented in not only Hostel but in films like "The Devil's Rejects, Saw, Wolf Creek, and even (dare I blaspheme?) The Passion of the Christ." Since then, the debates have never really stopped. On the one hand, "Torture Porn" is a poor descriptor because it is applied to widely and it implies a pejorative that isn't even really present in Edelstein's original article (He describes Hostel as "actually not a bad little thriller" and gives it a lot of credit for things like "the mixture of innocence and entitlement in young American males abroad", even while poo pooing the torture). That being said, the sub-genre went on to be almost universally reviled (at least, critically) for most of the aughts. In that way, I feel Torture Porn shares a certain kinship with the (also almost universally reviled at the time) slashers of the early 1980s. This immediately endears me to the sub-genre (and makes me think it a fertile ground for analysis in the future, what with the very real torture being debated out here in the real world, etc...), but it's still a tough sell.
In general, this revulsion isn't that controversial, even amongst folks who seek this stuff out. Movies agreed to be in the sub-genre are unpleasant affairs (to put it mildly), and will frequently prompt me to wonder why on earth I'm actually watching something like this. This isn't a new thing for me, I've often wondered why I'm attracted to the lurid sadism of horror films, but when I look closely, I find it's not about "horror" at all. Unless you consider various bits of culture, ranging from frustratingly difficult video games to Shakespearean tragedy, to be "horror" as well... Why is it that we, as humans, seek out and engage with pieces of culture that steep us in failure, tragedy, and/or pain? In attempting to explain paradoxical popularity of Greek tragedy, Aristotle argued that while we experience negative emotions in the course of our normal life, empathizing with fictional tragedy helps to purge those emotions from us in a cathartic way. That may be true of works like Oedipus and Antigone (or Shakespeare's work), it may even be true of a lot of horror films, but something about torture porn makes me question that thesis. I feel no real catharsis when watching Martyrs, I just feel dirty and, well, bad. Man, that movie is a downer, and I have a lot of respect for it, but I can never recommend it, nor do I ever want to watch it again. Perhaps the other philosophical approach would apply here - one cannot know happiness without experiencing sadness. Or something. What am I, Plato?
There were plenty of movies before Saw that could be considered Torture Porn (like Audition, which is fantastic, and Ichi the Killer, which is not), but Saw seems to be the real flashpoint of the sub-genre, not to mention its most (surprisingly) successful franchise. I actually think it's a pretty good movie. Clearly low budget and a bit sloppy, that kinda works in its favor, and while its influences are clear (notably Se7en and The Abominable Dr. Phibes, amongst others), it carved out an identity of its own. I have seen the second movie before, and while I was impressed with the continuity (a theme that will continue below), I found it to be less approachable (i.e. more "why am I watching this?" than catharsis). From there, I sorta opted out of the franchise. I've somehow seen the first few minutes of Saw III a few times, but never really followed through. Well, that ended this weekend:
Saw III - Picking up right where Saw II leaves off, this film proceeds to fill in some backstory from the previous films while moving ahead with its own tale. I like the effort they make to maintain continuity in all these movies (something franchises of the 80s rarely did), though I'm not entirely sure if this is just a good retcon job or if they really did plan this stuff out. Given the franchise's obsession with well laid plans, that might not be that far fetched. On the other hand, I'm not sure if this is really something to be that proud of in the first place. The frequent flashbacks and byzantine narrative of this movie work well enough, provided you're actually interested in that sort of thing. Personally, I like puzzle movies, so while the resolutions to these movies tend to be faintly ridiculous, I enjoy that part of it well enough. And they do try to change things up a bit here, putting one man named Jeff through a series of trials meant to help him deal with his son, who died in a tragic car accident (rather than groups of people, like in previous movies). Various other people who played a role in his son's death are put into traps, and he has to make the decision to save them or let them die. I like the approach, and there are some effective bits here (I felt for the dude when he had to incinerate his son's toys and whatnot in order to progress to the next phase of Jigsaw's test), but on the other hand, he wrings his hands and emotes in exactly the same way for every victim, which is too repetitive (not to mention annoying). The traps and gore are mildly creative, and while one twisty trap is pretty crazy, it never quite hit the ick factor of the needle pit in part II.
Visually, this isn't exactly breaking new ground and pretty much all of the movies have that same aesthetic; it looks dirty and grimy, as it should. I was a little surprised at the ending, even though I was pretty sure I'd heard about this before. Spoiler alert: Jeff kills Jigsaw. And Jigsaw Jr., Amanda, dies as well. Given that there are 4 movies left in the series, this seems like an interesting approach, no? On the other hand, given Jigsaw's superhuman ability to plan for every eventuality, that's maybe not so surprising. Heck, even as he's getting his throat cut, he whips out a tape recorder and plays the appropriate message. I'm sure he has a few other mini-me Jigsaw Jr's hanging around. All in all, it's an entertaining enough film, even if the varied plotlines and flashbacks are getting a bit unwieldy.
Saw IV - So Jigsaw really is dead, and yet, we see as much of him in this movie as we ever have, thanks to the power of flashbacks! Lots and lots of flashbacks! We get more backstory here than we have in the previous three films, actually, seeing the events leading up to Jigsaw's eventual obsession. But back in the present, we've got various detectives and FBI agents trying to pick up the pieces from part III, and Sgt. Rigg comes to be the main victim that Jigsaw is targeting here.
The puzzle here works better than I thought, though I'm not sure if I really got the ending. The pieces fit, but maybe the concept is just getting a bit old. And we do find out that there is indeed another Jigsaw Jr. out there, though he seems to be following through on Jigsaw's plans. It's surprising that these movies are still working and fitting together, even if this isn't exactly awesome.
Saw V - And here's where the series finally derails (you could make arguments for earlier, but this seems indisputable). Jigsaw Jr. is continuing his ways and covering his tracks, and there's yet more flashbacks, and obsessed detectives, and there's a bunch of people in a series of Jigsaw traps, and blah blah blah. The folks in the traps don't seem to be related to all the wrangling outside the story, even if they are all related internally. For what its worth, the very end of this does tie some things together in a way I found mildly clever, but that's just the same puzzle structure as all the other movies. And Jigsaw Jr. doesn't quite have the anti-hero charm of the original Jigsaw. When Jigsaw wins in the end, you can kinda see the logic and even ethics behind it. When Jigsaw Jr. wins? Not so much. He's just a dick, and I'm actively rooting against him. Which is odd, because, you know, he's the "villain" and I should be rooting against him. So this movie is inverting the inversion of the series? Maybe, maybe not. It is repetitive, and the flashbacks are just getting annoying, and it's also repetitive. In the end, the series is getting a bit long in the tooth at this point, and the entries are starting to blur together in my head (even having watched them in relative proximity). It's just not holding together very well in this movie. My understanding is that VI and VII are actually better, so I guess we'll have to check them out sometime. But not right now.
So I don't love these movies, but I can see why they are popular (and I do like the byzantine, puzzle-like nature of the plots) and I like the notion of having a sorta Slasher movie equivalent in aughts. In 20 years, some dork will be marathoning these movies in much the same way I marathoned Friday the 13th movies or Nightmare on Elm Street movies, and I think that's pretty cool.
And if you're worried about what the popularity of these Torture Porn movies means, fear not, as the movement is largely over, having been displaced, oddly enough, by the relatively bloodless Paranormal Activity style ghost story (at least, in my mind). These are definitely more my style, to be sure, and we'll see some in the coming weeks. I hope!
Six Weeks of Halloween 2013: Week 1 - Kaiju Movies
The most awesomest time of the year has arrived, bringing with it stuff like decorative corpses, mutilated pumpkins, bite sized candy, pumpkin beers, and a whole host of other nominally ghastly objects that suddenly become socially acceptable. Halloweentime is so fun, and it's the horror movie nerd's high holiday, so in honor of this most glorious of seasons, I always buckle down and watch a bunch of horror movies.
Inspired by Pacific Rim, I'm kicking the festivities off this year with a bevy of Kaiju movies. The Japanese term Kaiju literally translates to "strange creature", but to us yanks, it basically means "monster". I've seen bits and pieces of these over the years, and I believe I've even watched some in MST3K form (I definitely remember a couple of Mothra flicks from that era), but I've never given them a serious, sustained look. So let's do that:
Godzilla - The granddaddy of all kaiju, Godzilla is one of the most recognizable creations of Japanese pop culture, appearing in upwards of 27 films, not to mention video games and other ephemera. This 1954 film is, to my knowledge, the first official kaiju film and well worth a look. The Japanese have a unique perspective on technology, particularly nuclear technology, so while this isn't the first (cinematic) giant monster created by nuclear testing, it's the most famous.
Watching it now, the special effects don't really hold up so well (that's clearly a dude in a suit and those exploding trains are clearly toys), but the thing that surprised me most about the movie was it's sophisticated sense of responsibility in the face of new technology. There's the obvious commentary on nuclear testing, but when the eyepatch wearing Serizawa discovers a new weapon, there is a great deal of (deserved) hand-wringing about the use of a new and terrifying weapon. What's more, there is also a sense of responsibility around Godzilla itself. Should we destroy the beast, or is it merely a force of nature that begs for study and understanding? Sure, Godzilla lays waste to Tokyo and there's all sorts of tanks and planes and explosions, but it's the morality of the tale that makes this an enduring film, and it's well worth revisiting for that side alone. I was really not expecting this sort of ethical and moral sophistication, and I'm really happy I went back and watched this movie. ***
Rodan - Rodan is a mutated prehistoric reptile, caused by (you guessed it) nuclear testing, but it was also uncovered by a mining operation, a wrinkle on the cautionary nature of these tales. Unfortunately, none of the subtlety or sophistication of Godzilla are present here; no moral conundrums, and only a minor retread and tweaking of the cautionary themes. The plot is barely worth elaborating. Workers in a mine start disappearing; one survivor witnesses a giant egg hatching to reveal Rodan, a flying monster whose main weapon seems to be the wind caused by it's acceleration and supersonic speed. Unfortunately, the movie barely does anything with this. Plenty of destruction and mayhem, but little human conflict to anchor that to. After the pleasant surprise of Godzilla, this was a big disappointment. *
Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster - So Godzilla is the king of the monsters, but then, what can stand up to him? Enter the "big bad" of the kaiju movies, Ghidorah, a fire-breathing monster of extraterrestrial origins that is so powerful that Godzilla can't take him on alone. Instead, we get Mothra convincing Godzilla and Rodan (formerly enemies) to put aside their own petty squabbles in order to defend their planet. Godzilla had been portrayed as a villain or a force of nature, but now he makes the transition to hero. All of the sudden, these monsters became likable and we started applying anthropomorphic traits to them. The challenge of featuring these giant monsters teaming up to battle another giant monster is that humans are sorta extraneous, so we end up with a very disjointed tale of a princess who thinks she's from Mars, warning the planet about Ghidorah and dealing with a hit squad from her homeland. Or something. This is certainly an improvement over Rodan, but not quite to the level of Godzilla. Still, I certainly had enough fun with it, so it may be worth a watch if you're interested. **1/2
And so the first week of Halloween is in the books, only 5 more weeks to go. Stay tuned for a look at some of the Saw sequels next week.
The Book Queue, Halloween Edition
As the Six Weeks of Halloween approaches, I've excitedly been planning the festivities. In a fun way, of course. I'm not a monster, even if that would be appropriate for the season. Anywho, after a few years of this, the horror movie marathon is pretty much on auto-pilot, and I could do that in my sleep. The thing that I've never been very good at, though, is aligning my reading schedule with the 6WH marathon. I managed a decent showing last year, but I kinda lucked into a couple of those choices, so I figured I should put some actual thought into it this year. As such, here's a few things I'm planning to read during the 6WH marathon:
Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film by Carol J. Clover - I've made no secret of my inexplicable love of Slasher movies, that most reviled of sub-genres, but for some reason, I've never gone back and read this seminal text. Clover is famous for coining the term Final Girl, and I've even referenced this book before on the blog, so I figured it's worth checking out. I'm not much of an identity politics kinda guy, but so far, so good. I am cheating a little in that I've already started reading this book a few days early, but that's ok, right?
Locke & Key, Vol. 1: Welcome to Lovecraft by Joe Hill - I know very little about this, but it's been highly recommended to me by Kaedrin compatriot Mike Connelly, one of the hosts of the most excellent Echo Rift podcast. It's a comic book, and I'm usually able to burn through these trade paperbacks at a pretty fast rate, so I expect further volumes to be read during the season.
Night Film by Marisha Pessl - Another book I don't know much about, but I've heard favorable comparison's to Mark Z. Danielewski's creepy House of Leaves, which is pretty high praise. A quick scan through the pages even reveals lots of non-standard text, pictures of web browsers, and so on. Not quite as expansive or weird as House of Leaves, but that might ultimately be a good thing. While I really enjoyed most parts of House of Leaves, it was tough to get through at times. Still, I've heard good things about this from multiple sources, so I'm looking forward to it.
Books of Blood, Volume Three by Clive Barker - I have, very slowly, been making my way through Barker's short stories from the 80s. As you might expect from a short story collection, it is hit or miss, but even the misses are so blindingly creative and weird that I generally don't mind. Of the six short story collections, I think I'll only have one left after I read this. But! Did you see that The Scarlet Gospels has finally been completed? He just sent it to the publisher, so it probably won't be out until next year (at the earliest), but since we've been waiting for this thing for 20 damn years (for serious, he's been talking about this Pinhead versus Harry D'Amour story since the early 90s, first as a short story, now as a hugemongous 240,000 word monster), another year can't hurt too much. Unless they split it into two volumes, as publishers sometimes do with novels of this size. Now if we can just get Barker to finish the third Book of the Art (which he's been talking about since 1990, sheesh), we'll be in good shape.
And I think that should be enough to keep me busy for these 6 awesometastic weeks. Tune in Sunday for week one of the horror movie marathon. It's looking like Kaiju movies this weekend, so stay frosty. It's going to be good Halloween season!
6WH: Week 6.5 - Speed Round and Halloween
It's hard to believe that six weeks have passed and the big day has arrived, but here we are. As per usual, I have not actually written up every movie I saw during this festive Halloween season. Sometimes a movie just doesn't fit with a given week's theme, or perhaps I only caught a portion of it on television, and sometimes I just don't have much to say about a movie. So every year, I close out the marathon with a quick roundup of everything I saw that hasn't already been covered. Stay frosty everyone, here we go:
Sisters - An early Brian De Palma thriller where he, of course, apes Hitchcock... but to good effect. Lots of interesting twists and turns, and a couple of great split camera sequences too. Totally worth watching, actually one of the better things I saw during the marathon. ***
The Hunger - Tony Scott's first film, it's an overly artsy vampire flick that features a lot of boring long takes and you never really know what's going on and you don't really care anyway and hmmm, lesbian vampire sequence? Visually impressive, with feints towards some interesting concepts, but not much to really sink your teeth into. **
Idle Hands - Stoner comedy meets horror, and the results are actually a lot of fun, though I think your mileage may vary depending on how much you're into this sort of thing. Which, for some reason, I am. This may have been one of the most enjoyable movies of the marathon. ***
The Devil's Backbone - This is sorta like Guillermo del Toro's dry run for Pan's Labyrinth. A ghost story set in a creepy school during the Spanish civil war, this one is very creepy, with some great spook sequences, though it doesn't quite put you through the emotional ringer like Pan's Labyrinth (which isn't necessarily a bad thing).
Assault on Precinct 13 - John Carpenter's first film about the last night a police station is open. Staffed with a skeleton crew, they take in a crazy dude who, it turns out, has been marked by a local... gang? It kinda plays out like a zombie film or a siege film. Some really disturbing stuff (including a brutal child murder), but an ultimately effective and tense affair. I kinda enjoyed the relationship between Napoleon (one of the prisoners) and Ethan (the one cop left at the station) and the whole thing works well enough. I haven't seen the 2005 remake, but this original film strikes me as something that could certainly be improved upon, even if I enjoyed it quite a bit. ***
Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 - This movie is a bit of an abomination. It's not strictly a found footage movie, but it makes overtures in that direction by having the characters film themselves and watch the tapes later when they're trying to figure out what happened during a particularly raucous night in the woods. Some interesting ideas at the beginning here... It's a movie that acknowledges the existence of the first movie - very meta. But things devolve into silliness and boring shenanigans. A potentially decent twist at the end, but ultimately worthless unless you're a bad movie aficionado. Or Burn Notice fans! *
Slither - I forgot just how fun and gross and gory and entertaining this movie was. Another take on the pod people, but with some disgusting alien physiology, and lots of other fun stuff. Plus, captain Malcolm Reynolds! James Gunn needs to make more of these (apparently he's been tapped to make the Guardians of the Galaxy movie, which could be good I guess, but I'd rather he have the freedom to make something wacky like this or Super again). ***
Creature from the Black Lagoon - I thought I had seen this before, but it must have been one of the sequels or something because I didn't remember any of this. It's another one of them Universal monster movie classics, but I don't think it has fared quite as well as the others. It was entertaining enough and worth watching, but not one of my favorites. **1/2
28 Days Later... - I forgot how effective the first half of this movie is, and was wondering why this movie doesn't loom larger in my mind's eye... and then I got to that final third of the movie, which just drops off a cliff at some point. It's still weel made and effective enough I guess, but to me the emotional center of the film (spoiler!) is when Brendan Gleeson gets turned. It's just so heartbreaking, and the film never really recovers from that. Also, the motivation of the military guys is rather silly. *** (maybe less, but I love that first 2/3 of the movie)
The Shining - A classic, one of my favorites. I guess it's a little slow moving, but I love it anyway. There's just something so discordant, so unsettling about the movie that really gets under my skin. Also worth checking out, Filmspotting's sacred cow review... ***1/2
Ghostbusters - Yep, it's kinda an annual tradition at this point, and this is a true comedy classic. ****
Ghostbusters II - And this was quite a letdown from the perfection of the first one. Vigo is actually a pretty nice villain, but otherwise, this movie just devolves into ridiculousness. Gah, they drive the Statue of Liberty with a fricken Nintendo controller. **
Paranormal Activity 4 - I almost forgot to include this, which I think says something about the movie, which is fine I guess, but the series is really starting to show some fatigue at this point. The present day setting and fancy tech gizmos don't really add too much to the proceedings (though I guess the Xbox Kinect thing was used well enough) and at this point, I'm happy enough with the series, but for the first time, I'm not really looking forward to more movies. But who knows, maybe they'll surprise me. I'm kinda shocked it's managed to last this long. Worth watching, but probably the worst in the series so far. **1/2
Halloween - "You know, it's Halloween... I guess everyone's entitled to one good scare, eh?"
So there you go. Another year, another crapton of horror movies. By my count, I watched 34 movies and 20 television episodes (I suppose I should have mentioned that I watched 8 Treehouses of Horrorses, but methinks I'll save that recap for next year sometime). This is actually somewhat less than last year, though I did have a film festival somewhere in there, which is tough to compete with. As usual, I'm significantly outpaced by the likes of Kernunrex, who averages something like 2-3 movies/shows a day. Not that it's a contest. It's been a great season, and don't you worry, next year's marathon will be on us soon enough. Have a great Halloween everyone!
Posted by Mark on October 31, 2012 at 07:23 PM .:
Sunday, October 28, 2012
6WH: Week 6 - No Discernible Theme Week
Coming down the homestretch! Though we're battening down the hatches in preparation for the Frankenstorm (pretty much directly in the path over here), we nevertheless took in some horror films this weekend, because we're dedicated like that here at Kaedrin. Alas, no real theme this week, though that's a sorta yearlytradition of its own. Let's see how we did:
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 - So, what to do when confronted with a chainsaw wielding maniac? Dennis Hopper knows the score. In this movie, he fights chainsaws with more chainsaws.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. This sequel is quite the odd duck. Hopper plays a former Texas Marshall named Lefty who has been hot on the trail of the cannibals from the first film... for a dozen years. So yeah, not very good at his job, but we're rooting for him anyways. It seems that said cannibal family has moved on, settling in the Dallas area and winning chile cookoff contests. Their secret? It's all in the meat. They're also quite the interior decorators. Anyway, when a DJ accidentally records the call of a victim, things get hairy for her. Or something. Plot isn't exactly the strongpoint of this movie. Inbred hicks with metal plates in their head? Hot chainsaw on chainsaw action? Yes. Storytelling? Not so much. That being said, it's an enjoyable enough film. It's a little goofy, but the series hadn't yet completely devolved into outright parody of itself (if memory serves, that distinction is held by the third installment). Tobe Hooper is an effective craftsman, and there's some creepy visuals here, though Leatherface is the sort of guy that's creepier the less you know about him... and we get a little too much of a look at him in this movie. Things go on perhaps a bit too long, but again, this is a mostly fun experience. **1/2
The Loved Ones - I don't know how I heard of this movie, but here it is, piping hot off the Netflix queue. It's a sorta Aussie torture porn flick, though not quite as extreme as other entries in the sub-genre. On the other hand, it does feature a creepy father/daughter kidnapping (what can I say, dude loves his daughter) and a frontal lobotomy administered via a power drill.
For his part, our intrepid hero does pretty well for himself despite said lobotomy. The main thread here is pretty effective and visually interesting, though I don't know that there's really enough there to sustain the entire movie. As it is, the thing is padded out by our hero's buddy, who is taking a hot goth chick to the school dance. As near as I can tell, there's no real purpose to that thread in the movie at all, except maybe to pad out the length a bit. It's an interesting movie, and worth watching for fans of torture porn. **1/2
The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror I: Bad Dream House
House on Haunted Hill - Nothing like a little Vincent Price to liven up the Halloween season. In this movie, he plays a millionaire who invites 5 other people to spend the night in a haunted house, paying $10,000 to each person who survives the night. Clearly a movie that owes a lot to The Cat and The Canary, with multiple shots seemingly lifted right out of that earlier film. For a movie made in the 1950s, there's actually quite a bit of spooky imagery, and the film effectively establishes a lot of tension during the early proceedings. As things proceed, we find out that Price and his wife don't exactly have the best of relationships, and are plotting to kill one another and blame it on the other guests. This is all in good fun, though the tension mostly dissipates once you realize what's going on. Still, the twists and turns in the final act are entertaining and well done, and at 75 minutes long, the movie certainly doesn't overstay its welcome. ***
I didn't realize it until now, but if I had been more careful about the third movie selection, I could have done a power-tool murder weapon theme or somesuch (I'd think of a better name, but since I can't actually use that theme... what was I talking about again?) Anyways, it's been a fun six weeks. The big day is coming up quickly, and if my home hasn't been completely devastated by the Frankenstorm, I'll post the annual Speed Round - quick takes on all the other movies I watched this season, but which didn't quite make it to their own post. See you (hopefully) on Wednesday!
Posted by Mark on October 28, 2012 at 08:39 PM .:
Wednesday, October 24, 2012
The Six Weeks of Halloween horror marathon continues with this BBC series written by Steven Moffat, who would go on to produce the most excellent Sherlock series as well as take on the show running responsibilities for the most recent seasons of Doctor Who. Like Sherlock, Jekyll is a modern-day retelling of a famous Victorian-era story, in this case Robert Louis Stevenson's famous novel, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
As with a lot of other British shows, this one is a simple, 6 episode season that has had no real follow-ups (though I suppose Moffat left things open enough in the end to continue the story if needed). Once again, this is a bit of a modernization of the story, so Moffat is able to play with the conventions established in Stevenson's original novel, even to the point of self-awareness by referencing Stevenson's novel.
The show starts a little on the slow side as it establishes the setting and situation our main protagonist is in. Many mysteries and conspiracies are cycled through, and our main character has quite the interesting arc, making you wonder who is the real villain of the story. For the most part, this plays out in a grand tradition of fun, as you learn more and more about Jekyll and Hyde, their origins, and how they impact those around them. I don't want to give much away, but there are plenty of red herrings and mysteries that are eventually resolved in a somewhat satisfactory manner.
The production is generally well orchestrated, with solid visuals and music, if perhaps not quite as polished as a usual TV production would be. It shares a lot in common with Sherlock, though it clearly retains an identity of its own.
The crucial part of Dr. Jekyll (and his modern incarnation as Dr. Jackman) and Mr. Hyde is played by actor James Nesbitt, who certainly sinks his teeth into the part. He may even delight a little too much in the part, which becomes a bit showy. Of course, it's quite a juicy character, a man with two distinct and opposite personalities, so there's not much to complain about there, and again, he does quite a good job keeping up with the production.
As horror, it's not really gory or scary, per say, but it certainly touches on such sub-genres and establishes a tension all its own. I found the beginning to be a bit on the slow side, but it became more involving as things went on, and there were certainly of twists and turns ans the series progressed, each episode ending on a minor cliffhanger, but proceeding anyway. I wouldn't call this a masterpiece or anything, but I had a fun enough time giving it a gander during the Six Weeks of Halloween...
Posted by Mark on October 24, 2012 at 09:24 PM .:
Wednesday, October 17, 2012
6WH: Halloween Season's Readings
Every year, the Six Weeks of Halloween marathon creeps up on me, and I completely forget to line up some good horror books to read. Well not this year! I've already detailed my first season's reading a couple weeks ago, the near-comprehensive Slasher Movie Book, and in this post, I'll chronicle some other recent readings along those lines, as well as some genuine horror fiction. Let's get this party started:
Red, White, and Blood by Christopher Farnsworth - The third book in a series chronicling the adventures of vampire secret agent Nathaniel Cade (I've already written about the first two novels. Highlight: a fictional account of "Bin Laden's assassination - by a vampire who stuffed a grenade in his mouth and then threw him over a cliff so he exploded in midair.") Interestingly, this novel seemingly works on a smaller scale than the previous entries, and that actually brings some much needed focus to the series. In the first book, you've got a shadowy conspiracy creating a small army of Frankenstein-like monsters. In the second book, another shadowy conspiracy (actually, multiple interlocking but distinct conspiracies) unleashes Reptilians on the world. In this third installment, we get the Boogeyman. Oh sure, that shadowy conspiracy angle is still there, but it's pushed way into the background (and it does help set up the next novel), but the general thrust of the story is more personal. Both the Boogeyman and Cade have done battle before (multiple times), with the basic tally of their encounters being a stalemate. And this time, the Boogeyman has switched up methodology! It's not going to win the Pulitzer or anything, but it was great Halloween reading, and the Boogeyman makes for a great pseudo-slasher villain (he even wears a chinsy rubber mask in the form of a big smiley face, which is so awesome I'm surprised there isn't a real slasher movie featuring that kinda mask). Fun stuff.
Books of Blood Volume 2 by Clive Barker - I don't normally get all that "scared" by most horror books, and even this collection of short stories isn't that fear-inducing, but Barker's shear creativity and inventiveness can get unsettling at times. Nothing in this book stood out as much as some of Barker's other short stories (my favorites being "In the Hills, The Cities", "The Last Illusion", and "Twilight At The Towers"), but there's some freaking, weird stuff going on here, as I generally expected. Reading these short stories, I really wish Barker would get off his butt and finish The Scarlet Gospels (seriously dude, it's been well over a decade, almost two decades actually, since you started talking about that book!) and the third and final Book of the Art (the second book was published in 1994, for crying out loud). Fortunately, I have plenty of other Barker short stories to work through. I forgot how much I enjoyed them.
Morning Glories, Vol. 1: For a Better Future and Morning Glories, Vol. 2: All Will Be Free by Nick Spencer (Author) and Joe Eisma (Illustrator) - These are comic book collections recommended to me by the Radio Free Echo Rift podcast a while back. It's an interesting series. Perhaps not strictly "horror" but there's enough creepily bizarre events that it sometimes reads like it. The story follows a few new students at an exclusive prep school as they realize that the school is more of a prison with nefarious purposes. I'm actually getting a very Lost TV show vibe from this, in that I'm not entirely sure they'll be able to resolve all the disparate threads and mysteries, but so far, they've done a pretty good job of it... and I have Vol. 3 sitting on my shelf right now...
Crystal Lake Memories by Peter M. Bracke - If the breadth of film knowledge covered by the Slasher Movie Book came at the expense of depth, Crystal Lake Memories sacrifices breadth for depth. It's actually made a great one/two punch, though I should admit that I have not yet finished it (it's only 300 pages, but the pages are huge and the type is very small!) It basically chronicles the origins and production of the entire Friday the 13th series in exhaustive detail. Bracke seemingly interviewed everyone ever involved in the Friday the 13th movies, from the lowliest crew member or teen victim to the producers to the directors to other folks only tangentially related to the series (like Wes Craven). So far, it's actually been one of the most fascinating books about the film industry that I've ever read. Since Bracke spent a lot of time talking to producers, and since these movies emerged at a key time in the movie industry, when production and distribution were being revolutionized and streamlined, you actually get an intensive look at the business side of things and how studios drove the creation of franchises in the 80s, and so on. Again, I'm only about a third of the way through the book, but it's been a really great read so far. Plus, the book is filled with gorgeous full color images, including a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff that I've never seen before.
And that's all for now! Stay tuned for some batshit insane Italian horror on Sunday.
Posted by Mark on October 17, 2012 at 09:59 PM .:
Sunday, October 14, 2012
6WH: Week 4 - Now Playing
Alrighty then, enough with the obscurehistorical horror. Out with the old, in with the new. This week, we look at some current horror flicks. Two are still in the theater, one just came out on Netflix Instant (it was apparently in theaters a month or two ago), and all are worth watching.
Frankenweenie - A surprising return to form from Tim Burton, this is an excellent, loving homage to all those old Universal horror movies. Obviously the Frankenstein movies are referenced extensively, but it's clearly got a more general love for the genre. The story concerns young Victor Frankenstein and his dog Sparky. Victor is a bit of a loner, and when Sparky unexpectedly passes on, he vows to bring back his beloved pet. He is, of course, successful in his endeavors, drawing the attention and ire of his competition in the school science fair.
The tale of Frankenstein has always been one of caution against meddling, but this film attempts to modernize the idea, indicating that science is basically value neutral and can be used for good or ill. The movie stumbles a bit in the ridiculous town hall scene, but is otherwise pretty successful at stressing these themes. It's beautifully shot in black and white and the stop motion animation and production design are top notch. Ultimately, though, it's a movie with a heart, and I'll admit, the theater got a little dusty in the end. Ok, so this isn't really a scary movie, but it will still appeal to horror fans and is a must see for just about anyone. ***1/2
Sinister - This movie was written by C. Robert Cargill, perhaps better known as Massawyrm, who made his name writing about films at Ain't It Cool News. In short, he's done well for himself. The movie is somewhat derivative of the current trend in found footage and passive-aggressive demon possession (popularized by the Paranormal Activity movies and stuff like Insidious), but it puts an interesting twist in both, making this a worthy effort. The found footage portion is exactly that - a character in the movie finds a bunch of old movies and watches them as research for a book he's writing. And the films, chronicling a series of bizarre ritualized murders, are intensely creepy and unsettling. This film might dip into that well a bit too often, but they did such a great job with those in-film home movies that I didn't really mind. There are some typical horror movie tropes going on here too (apparently no one's heard of light switches - this is a dark movie) and there's some clumsy exposition courtesy of a college professor, but I don't know, all of this stuff ended up hitting the right note for me. And the demon at the heart of the mystery is indeed creepy and well done. It's an effective film, if not a perfect one. ***
The Tall Man - Writer/director Pascal Laugier is perhaps best known for 2008's Martyrs, pretty much the end-all-and-be-all of torture porn. It's a movie I have a lot of respect for, even if it was an aggressively (and intentionally) unpleasant watch. This movie is the follow up, and no, it has nothing to do with the Phantasm films. Instead we get a twisty exploration of child abducting Urban Legend, starring Jessica Biel as a mother trying to catch up with her abducted child. Or is she? The movie shifts gears early and often, consistently keeping me off balance. This is a good thing, although some of the twists do rely on obscure side characters that I didn't notice much earlier in the film, which added a little confusion at times, but for the most part, the twists worked out well enough. Unfortunately, I don't quite know what to make of the "truth" of what's going on here. I don't really buy it, though it's reasonably well constructed. This is nowhere near as intense or disturbing as Martyrs, but there are some similarities when it comes to the whole secret societies and conspiracy angles. It's certainly well shot and visually interesting, and the acting is fine (music is a bit lackluster, but not distractingly bad or anything). And the movie is gripping and tense enough as you watch, it's just, again, once you learn the full idea behind the premise, I don't know how convincing it really is... A worthy effort, and I'd be curious to see what else Laugier does. **1/2
That's all for this week. Stay tuned, next week is Italian horror week. Got a couple Argento films lined up, along with some other stuff...
Posted by Mark on October 14, 2012 at 07:30 PM .:
Sunday, October 07, 2012
6WH: Week 3 - Revisiting 1981
This was originally going to be a week chock-full of slashers, but despite an excellent start on that front, things gradually got less-and-less slashery. As it turns out, all three movies are bona fide members of the horror class of 1981, a year in which changes in distribution and low-budget independent filmmaking conspired to release an explosion of horror movies on an unsuspecting populace. Much of this was driven by the slasher craze, but horror in general was booming in the early 80s and particularly in 1981.
Naturally, I've already seen a lot of the classics from that hallowed year, but there were a few high profile movies I'd missed out on for whatever reason, so here goes:
Happy Birthday to Me - Someone is offing the cool, smart kids (but I repeat myself, heh) at a prestigious prep school, but who? There are approximately a gajillion red herrings in this film, as the mysterious killer takes out each of the "Top Ten" students, and Ginny keeps having weird flashback to past trauma. Lots of suspicious characters, including one of the Top Tenners that specializes in... taxidermy? This leads to amusing puns along the lines of "Hey, stuff it, dude."
Happy Birthday to Me!
Directed by J. Lee Thompson (who made the well regarded Cape Fear), this is one of the more fun examples of the teen slasher genre, with creative deaths (including a neat scarf in the motorcycle wheal death, a death-by-barbell, and the most famous weapon, death by shish-kebab) and a series of goofy, Scooby Doo-like twists at the end. There's even a grand unmasking as the true killer is revealed. Clocking in at 110 minutes, it's one of the longest slasher movies ever made, but it's still a lot of fun. Not quite top tier, but certainly top of the middle tier. ***
The Funhouse - This is a film that's generally lumped into the Slasher sub-genre, but in the end, I have my doubts. It certainly starts off by totally aping Halloween and Psycho, but it winds up being a practical joke, not a real shower-murder scene. As the film progresses, things certainly get tense, but it's still not quite like a traditional slasher, as the villain seems to have more in common with monsters like Frankenstein (whose mask the killer wears for the first half of the movie or so) than the past-tragedy-inspired killers of your typical slasher. Unlike most killers, this guy evokes a certain amount of pity, even if he's terrifying and deformed.
The plot revolves around a bunch of stupid kids who elect to spend the night in the titular Funhouse of their local carnival, only to find said deformed monster murdering a fortune teller over an expensive handy. Naturally, all the doors are locked and the carnies can't leave any witnesses... hijinks ensue. This one certainly takes its time, but once it gets going, it's pretty solid. It's atmospheric and tense, featuring much less gore than you'd expect for a movie of this era, but it gets the job done. Not one of director Tobe Hooper's best movies, but a worthy effort nonetheless. Probably somewhere in the middle of the middle tier of slashers, definitely worth watching if you like that sort of thing. **1/2
Bloody Birthday - And this one wound up being very light on the slasher elements, probably better classified under the realm of Kids are scary and hate you! movies. In this case, said kids were all born during an eclipse, thus making them into psychopaths who begin exploring their murderous tendencies starting around their 10th birthday. Lots of foreshadowing, as people who deny the kids what they want get their inevitable comeuppance. Not a lot of gore, but they make up for it with lots of boobies. It's not scary or even very tense at all, but it winds up being great fun, as it seems to recognize just how silly it is, and it revels in making you hate those sneaky little shits as they engage in their murderous shenanigans. Kid actors in movies are usually a precarious thing, but here, those eclipse kids are kinda awesome, always smirking and looking all smarmy and evil. Overall, not really a noteworthy film, but I had fun with it. **1/2
So there you have it. Not really sure what next week will bring, perhaps some stuff currently in theaters, or maybe just a week with no discernible theme. Stay tuned!
Posted by Mark on October 07, 2012 at 07:18 PM .:
Wednesday, October 03, 2012
6WH: Tales from the Crypt - Season 1
Tales from the Crypt was one of those shows I was vaguely aware of, but never really watched much. Let's just say that I was young and foolish and didn't appreciate the Crypt Keeper's puns. Now? I value a good pun. Is that value ironic? Oh God, am I becoming a hipster? Well, whatever, I figured it was worth revisiting this show, and since the first season was only six short episodes, it wasn't too much of a time investment. It's funny, but I never quite realized just how much talent was involved with this show. In this first season alone, we've got episodes directed by Walter Hill, Robert Zemeckis, and Richard Donner. And that's not even considering the familiar actors and writers. Plus, the episodes are a relatively short 25-30 minutes, so even if you don't care too much for an episode, you don't have to put in that much time. So let's see how the first season fared. There were only 6 episodes, so I got through them pretty quickly:
The Man Who Was Death - So what happens when an executioner (the guy who throws the switch on the electric chair, to be specific) loses his job because the state outlaws the death penalty? Why, he simply starts freelancing his executioning, that's what.
This was actually a great start to the series; well acted and visually interesting with an appropriately ironic outcome. Lots of longish takes and breaking of the fourth wall, and well written too. Like The Mad Executioners from this past weekend, this one also has shades of Dexter, as the executioner punishes folks who are getting away with murder... I really enjoyed this one, and it set the tone rather well for what would follow.
And All Through the House - Regular readers know of my affinity for HolidayHorror, and this tale of murder, greed, betrayal, escaped mental patients dressed as Santa, and general mayhem makes for a fine addition to the pantheon of axe-wielding Santas (of which there are surprisingly many).
Directed by Robert Zemeckis, this seems uncharacteristic for him, but the episode's got a goofy sensibility that seems appropriate. Series is two for two so far!
Dig That Cat... He's Real Gone - A bum is endowed with 9 lives and attempts to get rich at a carnival sideshow by using up his lives as Ulric the Undying. Basically, he kills himself on stage, and people pay boatloads to see it. Great central performance by Joe Pantoliano and you know what, even Robert Wuhl is pretty great as the sleazy sideshow showman. Again we get lots of fourth wall breaking as Joey Pants explains how he came to acquire his 9 lives (let's just say that it involved a mad scientist and a cat), and overall, this is the third straight great episode.
Only Sin Deep - Well, I guess they can't all be winners. This tale of a gold-digging hooker who sold her beauty to a pawn shop so that she could seduce a rich dude is fine for what it is and certainly better than a lot of other horror anthology episodes I've seen (I'm looking at you, Fear Itself!), but it's a distinct step down from the first three episodes. For a series whose premise essentially boils down to "Isn't it fun to watch bad people get their comeuppance?", it's hard to say that I just didn't like our main character here, but I really just couldn't see much redeeming quality to her character. In the first three episodes, the main characters had at least some likable traits, however minimal. This lends a certain pathos to the tragedy. Here, we've got nothing. And she's pretty dumb to boot. Not horrible or anything, and the premise could work, but I wasn't a big fan.
Lover Come Hack to Me - Rich but meek Peggy marries handsome douchebag Charles. Aunt Edith is wary of Charles (assuming he's just marrying Peggy for her money), but Peggy just wants to have a nice honeymoon. But, of course, the road is blocked and they're forced to spend the night in a spooky house. Hijinks ensue. Interesting change of pace for the series so far, and a nice series of reversals make this one an improvement over the previous episode, but perhaps not the best of the series so far. Still, I liked this episode quite a bit.
Collection Completed - Ah the perils of retirement. The great M. Emmet Walsh plays Jonas, the new retiree who doesn't seem to enjoy spending time with his wife and all of her pets. Naturally, he takes up a... hobby. Heh. Solid episode, but a little on the melodramatic side, which ain't really my thing. Still, it's fun enough. Not quite the strongest finale for the season, but a worthy episode nonetheless.
So the quality seemed to fade a bit towards the end of the season, but it was all enjoyable enough that I immediately added season 2 to my Netflix queue.
Posted by Mark on October 03, 2012 at 10:14 PM .:
Sunday, September 30, 2012
6WH: Week 2 - The German Krimi Film
One of the more obscure sub-genres of film is the German Krimi, which translates to "crime" or "mystery thriller". Interestingly, these movies all had their origin in the crime novels of ridiculously prolific British author Edgar Wallace (dude wrote somewhere on the order of 175 books). I had never heard of these movies before, but J.A. Kerswell devoted a short chapter to this movement in his Slasher Movie Book.
...the krimi was at its height of popularity from the end of the 1950s to the mid-1960s (although it was still being made into the early 1970s). Mostly filmed in Germany, the krimi films fetishized England and presented a decidedly Germanic idea of Englishness, which produced an otherworldly, alternative reality. ...These krimis are typically peopled by dastardly villains in outlandish costumes - featuring everything from a green skeleton in a cape to a whip-grasping monk in a red habit and pointy hat.
Increasingly flirting with the horror genre, the krimi satisfied the conventions of the crime caper as well as Teutonic farce.
By today's standards, these are pretty tame films, and as the description above might imply, they're not out-and-out horror, though they have leanings in that direction. There are some key horror conventions on display here though, including POV shots, macabre mad scientists, masked killers, and, strangely, a lot of throwing knives. I'm glad I tracked these down, but the overwhelming reaction I had to all of these movies was that they had some interesting ideas that weren't quite fully developed. This was perhaps due to the time they were made, but hey, if you're looking to remake movies, these seem like great candidates to me. Anywho, let's get this party started:
Fellowship of the Frog (aka Face of the Frog) - Adaptations of Edgar Wallace novels were produced as early as the 1920s, but the heydey of the krimi began in 1959 with the release of this film about a mysterious criminal mastermind known only as "the Frog", who peppers his daring heists and robberies with the occasional murder. Hot on the Frog's tail is Scotland yard, with an assist from an amateur American detective (and his British butler). The Frog's costume, featuring a mask with gigantic glass eyes (lending the impression of a frog), is actually somewhat effective, if a little on the outlandish side.
His dastardly scheme winds up being pretty silly though, and I'm not quite sure I really understood what he was getting at with his plan. Basically, he wants to win the affection of a pretty lady... by terrorizing her brother and father? There's a nice Scooby-villain unmasking at the end of the movie too. There's a lot of neat elements here, but nothing to really pull it together into a great film. I actually really enjoyed the amateur American detective guy, he's kinda like Batman without the costume: embarrassingly wealthy, fights crime in his spare time, has a British butler, fancy car, and wacky gadgets. And the Frog has the makings of a great villain. He leaves a neat little calling card after each heist, and he brands his loyal minions with a little frog symbol too. Cool elements, but alas, the film settles for something less than satisfactory. I'm glad I watched it, but it's not a particularly accomplished film. **
The Life of Death by Clive Barker (short story from Cabal)
The Mad Executioners - This film was made a few years later, while the krimi was enjoying great popularity, and the story here fares much better than Frog, though there are still some odd components (which we'll get to in a bit). The story begins with a mysterious hooded society passing judgement on a criminal who thought they had gotten away with their crime. We later find out that there's been a series of executions by this society, each victim a criminal who was "beyond the reach of the law" (shades of Dexter here, perhaps this movie was an influence?) Each body is found with a file detailing all the evidence, and the victims are hanged with an infamous hangman's rope, stolen from a museum. Soon, we see copycat societies taking up the cause, and a mysterious rash of gruesome beheadings has claimed the sister of our heroic Scotland Yard detective.
A Mad Scientist
This movie is an improvement over Frog, but some of these elements don't quite fit together. In particular, the side-story about the mad scientist experimenting on decapitated heads seems kinda tacked on, like it was from another movie or something. On the other hand, there's a lot of red herrings, which always kept me guessing, and while the tale may be a bit disjointed, both of the main threads are intriguing enough on their own... It all comes together in the end, and I found it a reasonably enjoyable experience, but again, it feels like these ideas could be more fully developed. **1/2
Circus of Fear (aka Psycho-Circus) - This film was made as the krimi was winding down, but it's also probably the best of the films covered in this post. The movie opens with an extremely well filmed heist. I particularly enjoyed the way director John Llewellyn Moxey cut between the various groups of criminals by employing imagery of watches and clocks. Anywho, the heist doesn't go quite as well as planned, and a guard gets shot. This leads the crooks to split up, one of whom heads towards a creepy circus, where he quickly runs into the business end of a throwing knife.
Other crooks become suspicious and start looking for the body and money he was carrying. The film is actually populated by well-respected actors of the likes of Christopher Lee and Klaus Kinski, and some nice dynamics at the circus keep things interesting. Of course, Scotland Yard is also on the case and as the bodies start to pile up, the suspects seem to be piling up. There's lots of fun to be had here, including a masked lion tamer and a scheming little person. Once again, I don't know that the movie fully delivers on its various ideas, but I found it to be the most enjoyable of the three, and the most visually interesting as well. **1/2
Apparently latter krimi pictures were coproduced in Italy and released as giallos there... Italian Giallo films had emerged and evolved alongside the krimi, but quickly overtook the German sub-genre in terms of visual style, violence, and mayhem. I found this to be an interesting exercise, but I'm a much bigger fan of Giallos and quite frankly, these aren't really horror films. There are some horror elements, but for the most part, they're probably, at best, thrillers.
Posted by Mark on September 30, 2012 at 07:56 PM .:
Wednesday, September 26, 2012
6WH: The Slasher Movie Book
I like slasher movies. There, I said it. Of course, longtime readers of the site (all 5 of you!) already knew that, as slashers tend to comprise an inordinate proportion of movies watched during the Six Weeks of Halloween horror movie marathon I do every year. As sub-genres go, it's not particularly well respected, but again, I like them. I've written about this before, so I'll just say that I find them comforting, like curling up under the sheets on a cold autumn night. Oh sure, they're all working from a relatively limited and predictable formula, but sometimes that works and I'm a big fan of folks who are able to find new and interesting ways to think inside the box.
Having read the book, I think it's safe to say that Kerswell is indeed an expert, and not just on slasher movies. Indeed, the first several chapters of the book cover broad swaths of horror movie history. He's mostly focusing on proto-slashers, but it's clear that Kerswell has broad expertise in the rest of the genre as well. As most horror movie histories begin, this one starts with the Grand Guignol (a theater in Paris that specialized in short plays featuring graphically portrayed acts of torture, murder, and general mayhem), but quickly transitions into silent horror films (which have guided my recent viewings).
From there Kerswell spends a chapter on German "Krimi" (translates roughly to "Crime" or "Mystery Thriller") films, a sub-sub-genre originating in the 1950s that I'd never even heard of before (as such, I will be devoting this coming weekend to some Krimi films I was able to wrangle from Netflix, tune in Sunday to see the results!), then moves on to the Italian Giallo movement (which is a sub-genre I've enjoyed greatly) and other similar proto-slashers from the 60s and 70s.
But the bulk of the book focuses on the Golden Age of the Slasher film, those hallowed years between 1978 and 1984 when slashers were formally codified and replicated ad nauseam. Starting with Halloween and basically ending with A Nightmare on Elm Street, there were seemingly hundreds of slashers made and released in that era. And Kerswell's seemingly seen every last one of them. I mean, I know I said I'm not an expert, but this dude outstripped my knowledge on just about every page. The book is nearly comprehensive, especially in the Golden Age portions. Unfortunately, that breadth of film knowledge comes at the expense of depth. Most films warrant little more than a sentence or two. The classics of the sub-genre obviously get more attention, though even these portions are not exhaustive. But really, how could they be? There are probably a thousand movies mentioned in the book; going into meticulous detail on every single one would be tedious and boring.
Instead, Kurswell does a pretty deft job and summarizing the ebbs and flows of the genre, from the origins of various conventions in early films to the progression of said conventions through the Golden Age. He traces the genre's roots as they move from gritty realism to a reliance on the supernatural to the self-reflexive parodies that kept it alive. He's identified the trends and movements within the genre while cataloging examples to demonstrate. This is a book I assumed would bog down in repetition or simple regurgitation, like that part in the Bible where Jeremiah begat Jededia, Jededia begat Jebediah and so on, for like 10 pages. But this never really reached that kind of boring territory for me. Of course, I'm kinda obsessive about this stuff, so this book fed me a steady stream of new and unknown movies, all contextualized with stuff that I was already familiar with. It worked well.
The book rounds things out with a look at International slashing, the dark days of slashers, "Video Hell", the reinvigoration of the sub-genre at the hands of Scream, and a survey of latter day horror.
...there's enough evidence throughout the book to suggest that I won't always see eye to eye with him, as he refers to New Year's Evil as "dull" (no movie with a killer name-dropping Erik Estrada can be considered as such, in my opinion) and considers the (IMO) rather bland House On Sorority Row to be a top-tier slasher on the same level as My Bloody Valentine. But I have to remember that everyone has their own favorites; the book's introduction explains that Halloween II was his first slasher and thus he has a soft spot for it, though he's thankfully honest about its shortcomings in the text itself. And he's on the right (meaning: MY) side for some other underrated flicks, such as the 2005 House of Wax, and he also (correctly) refers to Cold Prey II as one of the best post-Scream slashers, a bit of a surprise given his affection for Halloween II, which it was clearly aping.
I'd never judge a book of this type on a few opposing views of some low-rent slasher films, however - it's meticulously researched and the occasional flubs are likely due to typographical error, not ignorance (though he seems to suggest Wes Craven directed Hills Have Eyes 2 AFTER Nightmare On Elm Street, when in reality they were just released that way). But I'd have to stop just shy of calling it "exhaustive," as there are some puzzling oversights. No mention is made of 1991's Popcorn, for example - strange given the fact that it was one of precious few slashers of that time (and fairly well regarded to boot), and Craven's Shocker is also missing, odd considering that the "death" of the slasher cycle of the '80s could probably best be exemplified by one of the genre's founding fathers trying and failing to create a new slasher icon. No Dr. Giggles either, another "too late" attempt to revive the sub-genre. I wouldn't consider this odd in a typical book that just covered the marquee titles (Friday the 13th, Halloween, etc), but come on - there's two paragraphs on To All A Goodnight but not even a passing reference to Horace Pinker? For shame...
Brian is dead on (read: he agrees with me) about New Years Evil and House On Sorority Row, and some of his omissions are good calls to... One omission I would mention is Alice Sweet Alice - Kurswell does mention it in passing under it's original title (Communion), but I would have expected more info on what I thought was one of the clear proto-slashers (I mean, not even a picture of that creepy mask? Come on!) You can't please everyone, I guess. As mentioned above, Kurswell needed to walk a fine line here. Too much info and the book gets cumbersome and boring, too little information and doofuses like me whine about it on the internets. Again, this book is about as good as it gets when it comes to breadth of information.
It's also a very pretty book. Paperback, but all in color, with oodles of gorgeous poster art and stills. I'm not one of them poster art curators that seek out foreign lobby cards and obscure movie art, but I can appreciate that sort of thing when I see it, and if that's your bag, you'll love this. Tons of goofy stuff, along with genuinely effective imagery.
It's a fun book for fans of the sub-genre. Kurswell seems genuinely enthusiastic about the subject and treats it with a respect that few do. As a result, I've come away with dozens of movies I want to track down (if not, uh, hundreds). But don't worry, I'm only planning on spending one week on out-and-out slashers (probably next week).
Posted by Mark on September 26, 2012 at 10:18 PM .:
Sunday, September 23, 2012
Six Weeks of Halloween 2012: Week 1 - Silent Horror
The leaves are turning, the wind is gusting, little plastic corpses and bite sized candy are showing up in grocery stores, along with graveyard themed decorations and mutilated pumpkins. It's my favorite time of the year, and as usual, it's time to celebrate the season by watching lots of horror movies. As usual, Kernunrex has gotten the festivities started off in style, and gives as good an introduction to the concept as one could hope for:
Halloween, the high holiday for horror geeks, has no equal. When is the science fiction fest? Which day do comedy kooks celebrate? Would there ever be a spaghetti western wingding? No, horror is special; it's primal and emotional, tapping into the deepest parts of our psychology and yanking at those uncomfortable pieces we normally pretend do not exist. Something this unique deserves more than a mere day of honor at the end of October. I say: let Halloweentime last for six weeks!
Hell yes! Six weeks of horror movies and pumpkin beer, let's get this party started. Stock the Netflix queues, batten down the hatches, it's gonna be a bumpy ride. Every year, I start off the season thinking to myself: self, you should probably become more familiar with silent-era filmmaking, why not spend a week doing so? Then I promptly forget as I tear through a bunch of trashyslashermovies or Giallos or what have you. Well not this year!
My experience with silent horror films is pretty much limited to a viewing of Nosferatu not that long ago. I guess you could also consider Hitchcock's silent film The Lodger as horror too. The silent era of film is a bit of a blind spot in general, so it's definitely something I should be making myself more familiar with, and this provided a good excuse. So it was a quiet weekend, if you take my meaning. Let's see how much choices were:
The Cat and the Canary - The original tale of relatives brought together in a haunted house for the reading of a will, this thing seemingly presages, well, every horror movie ever made. Haunted house, check. Escaped lunatic, check. Prowling POV shots from the killer's perspective, check. Scooby-like plot to manipulate the will, check. Goofy, incompetent cop, check. Creepy housemaid, check. Indeed, the cat-and-canary analogy itself could describe the way killers stalk their victims in countless horror films (though I guess it's more frequently referred to as cat-and-mouse).
The atmosphere of this film is quite effective, but the creaky old manor, filled with cobwebs and secret passages, is yet another horror staple that we've all seen dozens of times. As with most of my experience with silent films, this one moves a tad slow and the acting style of the era was one of overemphasized motions and theatrical gyrations. As visual storytelling goes, though, this one is actually one of the better examples that I've seen. A must watch for students of horror, but perhaps not something that would thrill general viewers. ***
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari - This is another movie that sorta foreshadows a lot of the genre that would come later. In particular, a case could be made that this is the first slasher, though the film also seems to have been a major influence on Noir films as well. In terms of it's visual style, it's a most striking example of the German Expressionism style, with a set design that is very angular and thus somewhat unsettling. Expressionistic films are not usually this overt or bold, but this film really does get in your face with that sort of distortion of reality. The story itself is somewhat pedestrian. Dr. Caligari sets up shop in a local carnival to exhibit a Somnambulist, a man he claims has been asleep for decades, but who walks and talks in his sleep. The Somnambulist is kept in a coffin (aka the titular cabinet), and Caligari breaks him out and has the crowd ask questions. One unfortunate soul asks "When will I die?" and the Somnambulist's reply is "At first dawn!" Sure enough, the next morning at dawn, the man is found dead.
More hijinks ensue, and there's a few reversals and twists towards the end, but the thing that really sets this movie apart are its visuals. Really, it's just the set design, with it's discordant, angular lines, that is most memorable here. There is basically no camera movement at all, apparently the result of a low budget. This makes the overtness of the film's expressionism a little more explainable, as that's how they sought to make the movie visually interesting. Alas, the film has a preponderance of intertitles, making this rather textually heavy despite its silent origin. Again we get slow pacing and melodramatic acting histrionics. It's another influential and important movie, but I liked The Cat and the Canary much better... **1/2
Waxworks - Perhaps the least horror-like movie of the bunch, this nonetheless has some unsettling, weird elements that at least go in the right direction. The story concerns a writer hired by a wax museum to create backstories for the various wax figures. This makes the film into a sorta anthology as the writer concocts tales for three figurines. Harun al Raschid is a Caliph who gets caught up in a squabble between a baker and his wife. Ivan the Terrible thwarts attempts at his life, only to go mad when he thinks that one has succeeded. And Spring-Heeled Jack seemingly threatens the writer in the wax museum! Each story is shorter than the last, though, making this a somewhat lopsided affair, with the grand majority of screen time focused on Harun al Raschid and Ivan the Terrible. Fortunately, all three tales are worthy and interesting, even sometimes incorporating surprise twists. There's a cleverness here not really present in the other two films I watched this weekend, and despite not being horrific, it's still pretty entertaining. That being said, it's got the same pacing and acting ticks that I notice in most silent films. It's a fun film, well worth checking out for film buffs... ***
Well there you have it. I still can't say as though I'm in love with the silent era, but I do find some of these movies fascinating, if only because of their influence and historical value. Next week, I shall return with some proto-slashers, including a German Krimi film and whatever else I can scare up.
Again Update:Bonehead XL is also writing about The Cat and the Canary. It's all Cat and Canary, all the time on the internet! You should watch it too! Ok fine, he's got a bunch of other reviews too and his site promises to be another 6 weeks of Halloweeny fun.
Posted by Mark on September 23, 2012 at 07:20 PM .:
Wednesday, November 02, 2011
6WH: Week 6.5 - Speed Round and The Big Day
It's hard to believe that Halloween has already come and gone. These 6 weeks of horror movie watching seem to go faster every year (and hitting up Fantastic Fest probably accelerated things this year as well). Well, as usual, I haven't written up all of the movies I've seen this Halloween season; perhaps it didn't fit with a given week's theme, or perhaps I just didn't have much to say about it. Whatever the case, I typically do a quick roundup of them all during the last week of the marathon, so here goes:
Stake Land - Get it? It's a vampire movie and Stake is in the title. Yeah. So it's actually a well executed Vampire/Zombie Apocalypse style adventure, with one of the best badasses of the year (will certainly be nominated in the KMAs). It's reminiscent of Westerns and features a lot of road-trip tropes, which is a nice combo. Very enjoyable, though also quite cliched in some respects and I don't think it ever really catapulted me beyond my typical post-apocalyptic story complaints... Still worth a watch, especially if you're not averse to zombies/apocalypse movies like I sometimes am... **1/2
The Sentinel - Leave it to the Catholic Church to devise the most arcane and bizarre way possible to choose the new guardian (aka Sentinel) of the gates of hell. I originally watched this for the Haunted House week, but it got bumped from the writeup when I saw PA3 in the theater. It's a very unusual movie that often doesn't make much sense, but which features some mildly effective sequences. I don't think I'll find myself recommending this often, but it's not bad either. Ultimately, I don't think it really hits the mark, but again, there are some interesting elements. **
Insidious - Another film from Haunted House week that I just didn't write up, perhaps because it is so similar to Paranormal Activity (and I was already writing about that). But this is one of the better executed versions of the story, and I did really enjoy it. Quite solid and well worth a watch. ***
M - Fritz Lang's classic tale of a serial killer (of children, no less) who runs afoul of the local criminal element (in a beautifully ironic twist, the police get so frustrated that they can't find the killer that they crack down on the typical criminals, who quickly get sick of this and resolve to find the killer themselves so that they can get back to business as usual). Lang's brilliant expressionism, along with great performances and photography, make this film an absolute classic. I don't know how well it qualifies as a "horror" film, but it's certainly along those lines, and it's an amazing film, among the best of all time (I can't believe it's taken me so long to get to this). ****
Dylan Dog: Dead of Night - A breezy and fun sorta horror-detective-adventure film, it falls apart towards the end, but I had a fun time with the movie. Ultimately nothing particularly special, but I have to say that I enjoyed Brandon Routh in this (and in some other recent things I've seen). **1/2
The Beyond - Lucio Fulci's goretastic zombie flick (one of many, actually) is well worth a watch for fans of gore, though that's all it really has going for it. There's a really evocative prologue, and that's referenced later in the movie, but Fulci doesn't show much interest in exploring that side of things, instead preferring to devise new and interesting eye-gouging gags (and there's a really good one in this movie, too). Fun stuff, just don't look for anything deep here... **1/2
Martin - George A. Romero is known for his Zombie movies, but I think it's a shame that he only seems to make those (I presume part of this is that he can only really get funding for zombie stuff), as Martin is one of the most original and unique takes on a vampire story out there. The titular Martin thinks he is a vampire, but not a "magical" vampire. He doesn't have fangs, can't transform into other animals, sees himself in mirrors, and has no problems with sunlight, garlic, etc... But he methodically traps his victims, sedates them, cuts their wrists with razor blades, and drinks their blood (generally framing the murder as a suicide). Romero preserves the ambiguity of Martin's true nature, which works best, and the film never seems predictable. It references and comments on the typical tropes of vampire tales without actually succumbing to them - an impressive feat. It's not perfect, and it can get a bit slow at times, but I think it's the most interesting film I saw during this year's 6WH. I now need to see what other stuff Romero has done outside of zombies... ***1/2
Just Before Dawn - Not sure where I heard about this, but it was one of those movies that was in my Netflix queue for years and basically came to my house by accident. And it's pretty good! It's a kinda hybrid of hillbilly horror, demonic possessions, and slashers. Certainly not a perfect movie or even a great movie, but pretty effective for a movie with such a familiar premise (kids in the woods run afoul of demonically possessed hillbillies!) It's also pretty well shot too, elevating it above a lot of its contemporaries. **1/2
Masters of Horror: We All Scream for Ice Cream - An interesting concept that's ultimately squandered. I mean, how hard is it to make clowns scary? Not very. But they manage it here. I wasn't angry I watched it or anything, but I found it pretty unfulfilling. **
Horror Business - I'm usually a sucker for Horror documentaries, but this one ended up being unwatchable (I gave up after about 30 minutes). The problem here is that the interview subjects are mostly... unsuccessful. There are some famous folks here, but they're clearly short, extemporaneous interviews that were gleaned from other appearances. Most of the interviews are with folks like Mark Borchardt (the subject of American Movie). None of these movies that are referenced seem particularly good or interesting. Since I didn't finish it, I won't rate it, but I didn't really enjoy what I did see.
Nightmares in Red, White and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film - Ah, now here is a horror documentary that gets things right. This one is mostly about the history of American horror, and it's quite good, though I will say that I didn't really glean any sort of new insights into horror films or the history of the genre. Still, if you're in the mood for this sort of thing, it hits the spot... **1/2
Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI - It's one of those films I'm inexplicably fond of. Among the first self-aware slashers (a decade before Scream), it's probably also my favorite of the Friday the 13th films. How many franchises can claim that their 6th installment is actually the best entry?
Phantasm - Another yearly tradition, I've inexplicably seen this movie more times than I care to admit (I believe in the triple digits). A ton of fun.
Halloween - Of course, I finish off every 6 Weeks of Halloween marathon with the classic slasher. Do I really need to say anything else about it? A nearly perfect movie.
So there you have it, another year, another crapload of horror movies. Excluding all of my Fantastic Fest movies (all 19 of them), I watched 27 horror films (and about 6 TV episodes). Including FF, that makes for 46 movies, which is still falling far behind Kernunrex (who watched a whopping 61 1/3 movies and 27 episodes of TV shows), but I'm quite happy with the season. Like every year, I'll probably end up watching some more horror flicks into the holidays, but posting on the blog will return to normalcy soon.
Posted by Mark on November 02, 2011 at 06:28 PM .:
Sunday, October 30, 2011
6WH: Week 6 - The Slasher Calendar (Again)
I've done this before, so I won't go over why so many slasher films are centered around holidays and dates, but yeah, they are. I don't know that I've seen every holiday slasher, but there are certainly enough that you could create a calendar of events throughout the year, with at least one or two slashers per month. Fortunately, there are some holidays that are still open, so if I were to actually make a slasher, Flag Day is still available (perhaps I could combine it with jellyfish and crocoroids). Anyway, in visiting the calendar this year, it's become clear that I've exhausted most of the good holiday slashers, and am in the distinct second or third tier. But no matter. Slashers are like cinematic comfort food. So let's get on with it:
Mother's Day - Made not too long after Friday the 13th, this one was still early enough in the popularity of slashers that it doesn't strictly adhere to all the tropes the way a lot of movies afterwards did... It turns out that this was a Troma video, which basically means it's really weird and ultra-low budget (and it's worth mentioning that low budget in 1980 is way worse than low budget in 2011 - these movies look pretty bad these days). So pure B-movie exploitation here. The movie is basically about a trio of women who go camping every year, only this year they chose to camp near an old lady and her nefarious sons, who have a habit of kidnapping and raping girls at the behest of their mother.
So there are some elements of the slasher here, but it's arguably not a slasher. It's also somewhat unpleasant and it doesn't really make a ton of sense. It probably goes on too long too. On the other hand, we've got a little old lady in a neck brace who is pretty awesome, and I have to admit that I loved the last shot in the film, which kinda left me with a better opinion of the film than it probably deserves from any objective evaluation. Only really for genre completists, but maybe some others would get something out of it... **
Graduation Day - Ah, now this is more like it. Another Troma movie, but this is textbook slasher material right here. We've got a tragedy from the past (though not quite the distant past) and a mysterious killer seemingly avenging that tragic death. The film centers around a track and field team (cue obligatory team photo, with members crossed off one by one as the killer makes the rounds). One of the members of the team died of a blood clot earlier in the year, and now other teammates are dropping like flies. The potential suspects are numerous. It seems that everyone is sporting a gray sweatsuit and black gloves (and a stopwatch), just like the killer. The weaponry tends towards the bladed variety, including that badass fencing helmet (good idea for the mask, though its only used a few times). As a whodunit, it's not lighting the world on fire, but it gets the job done. The budget is still super low, and it shows during the kill sequences, which are somewhat creative, but which also would have benefited from some more expertise on the special effects side. They try to get around it with clever camerawork, and sometimes even succeed, but there's only so much you can do with that. Ultimately, this hit the spot much better than Mother's Day did, though its ending isn't quite as great and it's clearly not on par with the best examples of the genre. **1/2
New Year's Evil - Probably somewhere between the previous two films in terms of hitting the slasher tropes, the thing that struck me the most about this movie is how much better it looks. I'm certainly not talking blockbuster stuff here, but it clearly had a bigger budget, and you can see that in every aspect of the filmmaking. Though it doesn't hit all the right conventions of the slasher, there are some interesting things going on here. The film takes place on New Year's Eve, where a radio/TV host is counting down New Years across the time zones. She takes a phone call, and a guy calling himself "Evil" informs her that he's planning to kill someone every hour, on the hour. At first, everyone thinks it's a crank call, but then dead bodies start showing up. It's actually pretty fun, and unlike a lot of slashers, you spend a lot of time with the villain. He seems frighteningly normal and even charismatic (and he's a master of disguise! Look at that porno 'stache!), again quite unusual for slashers.
There's way too much 80s rock music and the film unravels towards the end. There are some interesting twists, but I don't think they really figured out a great ending. Well, I shouldn't say that, as the last shot works well enough, I guess, but everything leading up to that feels kinda rushed and disjointed. Ultimately, still a second-tier film, but one probably worth watching for fans of the genre. I actually quite enjoyed it. **1/2
Well there you have it. I can't believe Halloween is tomorrow. This whole season flew by. I'll probably post my typical Speed Round post on Wednesday, as I've seen a bunch of movies that didn't quite fit with previous weeks' themes. And quite frankly, I'm still in the mood for horror. We may just need to make this the 8 weeks of Halloween or something. Have a great Halloween!
Posted by Mark on October 30, 2011 at 08:03 PM .:
1) Favorite Vincent Price/American International Pictures release.
It is perhaps dreadfully uncool to pick the film the entire quiz is named after, but my pick is honestly The Abominable Dr. Phibes. It's a fine film by itself, but it's also much more influential than most of its contemporaries, influencing the likes of Seven and even Saw (not to mention the franchise that spawned and the whole torture porn sub-genre).
2) What horror classic (or non-classic) that has not yet been remade would you like to see upgraded for modern audiences?
This is quite a difficult question. For one thing, a lot of movies that get remade have no real need of a remake - they're perfect the way they are. So what does need a remake? Well, there are some movies, no matter how great they are, that are just products of a different time, and could use some updating. There are some movies that just don't have enough of a budget or production value, and they could also benefit from a remake. Finally, there are movies that have a really neat premise that fall down when it comes to execution. That last one is especially difficult because they're not normally good or beloved, and thus are unlikely to be greenlit by a studio exec. But for the purposes of this question, there are no studios or commercial concerns, so what movie to pick? Well, when it comes to classics, the obvious choice would be Creature from the Black Lagoon - the only of the old Universal monsters that hasn't been updated and redone ad nauseum. The reason for the Gill-Creature's lack of remake probably has less to do with the popularity of the character than to the fact that it was one of the few Universal creature features that was totally original. Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Mummy (which is mildly arguable, but I'm including it anyway) are so popular because the characters are in the public domain (Universal owns some aspects of the appearance of the various monsters, but that is easily avoided because the characters themselves are not). Because of this, characters like Dracula can be continually reinterpreted and reinvented for new audiences and generations. Indeed, Dracula has racked up over 200 appearances in film - one of the most portrayed fictional characters in all of cinema. But the Gill monster? It will never be as popular because Universal had so tightly controlled the copyright... at least, not until the film enters the public domain. On the other hand, maybe it's a silly movie that wouldn't survive a reinvention. But we won't know unless we get someone talented to give it a shot, and it's probably worth trying.
3) Jonathan Frid or Thayer David?
Well, I've never been much of a Dark Shadows kinda guy, so I'm afraid I can't really give a good answer for this, except to say: Jonathan Frid. Because I feel like it.
4) Name the one horror movie you need to see that has so far eluded you.
There are a lot of questions like this in these quizzes, and my answers tend to fall on a particular era of film: Silent Films. In keeping with that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is probably the one classic horror film that has so far eluded me. Along with several hundred others, but I keep thinking to myself: Self, you should really become more acquainted with the Silent Era. And then I promptly ignore that impulse. Indeed, for this year's 6 Weeks of Halloween marathon, I had originally intended to devote a week to silent films (including Caligari), but there's only one week left, and I really want to watch me some slasher films. But I will get to silent horror at some point. Oh yes.
5) Favorite film director most closely associated with the horror genre.
A truly difficult and tricky question. Does someone like David Cronenberg count? He spent the first decade or so of his career putting out solid or even great horror films, but he has since moved on to other genres (mostly). How about John Carpenter? He's made two of my favorite movies of all time (Halloween and The Thing), but he's also made some stinkers and he hasn't even made a decent movie in over 15 years (though I have yet to see The Ward). Maybe it's just that I'm bad at picking favorites. Names are just coming to me. Mario Bava. Don Coscarelli. Alfred Hitchcock (does he count?) Sam Raimi. Wes Craven. Jeeze, we could be here for a while. I'll stop now.
6) Ingrid Pitt or Barbara Steele?
Hey, I'm actually mildly familiar with these two. Mildly. I'll go with Ingrid Pitt, because I've seen her in more things, but Barbara Steele is no slouch...
7) Favorite 50’s sci-fi/horror creature.
A tough one. The Gill Creature kinda qualifies (is that really sci-fi?), but in the interest of variety, I'll go with The Blob. There's something just so great about the inhuman, unfeeling nature of the blob.
8) Favorite/best sequel to an established horror classic.
Aliens is the first to come to mind, but while it's quite a tense affair, I don't know that I would call that a horror film (though the Alien certainly was) so much as an action/adventure/thriller. The other obvious choice is Bride of Frankenstein, a film many believe is better than the original (though I'm not with them on that, it's still among the best sequels). And while I wouldn't call anything in the Friday the 13th series "classic", I do have an inordinate fondness for Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI. Yeah, did I say I have trouble picking favorites? Because I do. Oh, and Phantasm II. And definitely Evil Dead II. Ok, I'll stop now.
9) Name a sequel in a horror series which clearly signaled that the once-vital franchise had run out of gas.
This one's really hard, because there are so many horror series, all of which run out of gas from time to time, only to be revitalized (even if only for a short time). There are probably a bunch of Dracula movies that would fit that mold. But what the hell, I'll just say A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, which just stopped the series in its tracks (not that it was soaring so high at that point, but still) and I don't think it ever really recovered...
10) John Carradine or Lon Chaney Jr.?
These two actors have over 500 films to their credit. Yikes. I'll go with Lon Chaney Jr., for The Wolf Man alone.
11) What was the last horror movie you saw in a theater? On DVD or Blu-ray?
Last horror movie I saw in the theater was Paranormal Activity 3 (I was surprised that the series had not worn out it's welcome - I generally enjoyed it). On DVD, it was Lucio Fulci's goretastic The Beyond (fun, but not much to it other than gore, which I will grant, is pretty awesome in that movie). On Blu-Ray, it was Dylan Dog: Dead of Night, a mildly diverting film that was enjoyable enough, though again, nothing special. On Netflix Streaming, it was The Sentinel, a decent 70s haunted house film that is nevertheless kinda sloppy and disjointed and very weird. Interesting, but nothing to go crazy about.
12) Best foreign-language fiend/monster.
The most obvious answer would be Godzilla, though I've never been a particularly huge fan of those movies. The "fiend" part of the question does indeed open this up to probably too broad of a category, so I'll just leave it at Godzilla.
13) Favorite Mario Bava movie.
Oh, this is a difficult one, but after a microsecond of thought, I'll go with Blood and Black Lace. Impeccable.
Blood and Black Lace
14) Favorite horror actor and actress.
Oh, this is an easy one, right? Cause there aren't that many actors or actresses that do a lot of horror films, right? RIGHT? Ok, fine, I'll go Boris Karloff for the actor, and Jamie Lee Curtis for the actress.
15) Name a great horror director’s least effective movie.
John Carpenter's Vampires and Ghosts of Mars. Another question that could probably have a thousand answers, unfortunately.
16) Grayson Hall or Joan Bennett?
Again with the Dark Shadows? I decline to answer. Ok, fine, Joan Bennett. There. You happy now?
17) When did you realize that you were a fan of the horror genre? And if you’re not, when did you realize you weren’t?
When I was in fifth grade, I hated horror films. Or, at least, I was terrified of them and avoided them at all costs. Then, one halloween, I spent the night at a friend's house, and we watched Halloween. Nothing like peer pressure to get you to watch something you wouldn't normally watch. And I was shocked to realize that I loved the movie. I was hooked. I started watching all the 80s slashers that came on TV (through my fingers at first, then when I realized that it wasn't that bad, I really started to eat up horror films), and now I watch nothing but horror movies for the six weeks leading up to Halloween every year. Not to mention all the other horror films I watch throughout the year.
18) Favorite Bert I. Gordon (B.I.G.) movie.
I can't say as though I've seen a lot of his movies, but Empire of the Ants comes to mind.
19) Name an obscure horror favorite that you wish more people knew about.
This is a hard one because "obscure" can be a relative term. What constitutes obscure for a horror fanatic? It's difficult, because horror fanatics watch a lot of obscure movies just for the hell of it. But my pick will be Mute Witness, a movie that I rarely hear about, even in horror film circles. I won't ruin it by talking too much about it, but it's about a mute woman who witnesses a murder and then has to escape the clutches of the murderers, even though she's in a remote area and can't speak.
20) The Human Centipede-- yes or no?
Yes. Look, it's a disgusting concept, but I have to admit that the first film is reasonably well made and even restrained. It was nowhere near as bad as I feared. On the other hand, the sequel is pretty foul. But even that is well shot and there's something interesting about what he chose to do in that movie. These are films I would probably never recommend to anyone, but if you're inclined to watch disgusting movies, these are fine.
21) And while we’re in the neighborhood, is there a horror film you can think of that you felt “went too far”?
The aforementioned IMDb - The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence is certainly a candidate, but the one that came to mind after that was Martyrs, a film I have a lot of respect for, but which also made me wonder what the hell I was doing watching this thing.
22) Name a film that is technically outside the horror genre that you might still feel comfortable describing as a horror film.
Genres are inherently fuzzy. That's part of their charm! That being said, a couple examples would be Blue Velvet and The Silence of the Lambs and maybe even Se7en. Did I mention that I'm bad at picking just one film?
23) Lara Parker or Kathryn Leigh Scott?
Alright, Jesus, I'll watch Dark Shadows, ok? Just stop giving me these choices!
24) If you’re a horror fan, at some point in your past your dad, grandmother, teacher or some other disgusted figure of authority probably wagged her/his finger at you and said, “Why do you insist on reading/watching all this morbid monster/horror junk?” How did you reply? And if that reply fell short somehow, how would you have liked to have replied?
I haven't been around too much of this sort of attitude, so I don't really have an answer prepared, but I'm sure I could come up with something about the nature of fear or something. And quite frankly, anyone who's so lacking in empathy that they can't understand why someone would *gasp* like something different than them, is probably not worth responding to...
25) Name the critic or Web site you most enjoy reading on the subject of the horror genre.
26) Most frightening image you’ve ever taken away from a horror movie.
A difficult one, as the most frightening stuff, for me, is the stuff that's not shown. But just to answer the question, I'll say Phantasm has quite a few shots that haunt me...
27) Your favorite memory associated with watching a horror movie.
Well, I've already mentioned my first viewing of Halloween, so I'll call out my first viewing of Paranormal Activity. Before it got hyped to high heaven, it was just a small film, struggling to get a release. The filmmakers managed to wrangle some midnight screenings (and later used footage of the crowds in their trailer), one of which I got to attend. It was a big and fun crowd, there were lots of scares, and as a midnight showing, I didn't get home until around 2:30. And if you've ever seen the movie, you know that all the bad things that happen... happen at around that time. Let's just say that I stayed up for a while after that.
28) What would you say is the most important/significant horror movie of the past 20 years (1992-2012)? Why?
Two films come to mind. Scream's postmodern approach made it ok to make horror movies again. I know a lot of people don't like it or love it, but it is an important film, if only for the influence it's had on the genre. The other film would be The Blair Witch Project. It wasn't the first found footage, mock-documentary film (nor was it even the only one made that year!), but I think it might be the most effective one, and given the strength of the format over the past decade or so, I think that deserves a callout.
29) Favorite Dr. Phibes curse (from either film).
"Death of the first born" from The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Ironically, an quasi-unsuccessful curse, as well. But it was elaborate and horrifying, moreso than most of the others.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes
30) You are programming an all-night Halloween horror-thon for your favorite old movie palace. What five movies make up your schedule?
Well, at least you didn't say I could only pick one movie.
Trick 'r Treat - Gotta kick things off with an ode to the holiday itself...
Halloween - How can we have a halloween movie marathon without it?
Are you sure I can't pick 10 movie movies? Or maybe 20? This is hard, but I'll leave it at those 5, as I could be here all night tweaking the list.
And there you have it, another great quiz. I'm already looking forward to the next one!
Posted by Mark on October 26, 2011 at 07:28 PM .:
Sunday, October 23, 2011
6WH: Week 5 - Haunted Houses
Well, the past 5 weeks have flown by much quicker than expected (perhaps because of the first two weeks or so were taken up by Fantastic Fest). This week's theme is haunted houses, so let's get this party started:
Session 9 - Ah, nothing like a good old haunted hospital, is there? Hospitals are creepy in and of themselves, and dilapidated abandoned hospitals even more so. Hospitals are a place of sickness and death. They're supposed to be clean, but an abandoned hospital is always dirty and grimy. The history of medicine being what it is, it also calls to mind strange experiments and lobotomies and whatnot. In this case, we follow a group of workers seeking to remove asbestos from Danvers State Hospital in Massachusetts. Danvers was a real-life abandoned insane asylum, which lends the already effective setting some additional credibility. Of course, one of the workers finds a series of tapes detailing the titular "sessions" with a woman and her multiple personalities. The setting is probably the most effective part of the film, though there are some nice twists and turns in the story. Ultimately it's not quite as scary as I'd have liked, but it made for interesting watching. **1/2
House (aka Hausu) - Last week, I talked about a few loopy Wes Craven films, but the batshit quotient of this film puts those to shame. It is, of course, Japanese, and it's primarily comprised of profoundly weird and surprisingly funny sequences of pure lunacy. The sheer quantity of absurdity packed into this film is amazing. Filled with stylistic flourishes, fades and cuts, even including some animated sequences, and lots of other bizarre imagery, the film follows a group of Japanese schoolgirls as they visit one girl's aunt at her old mansion (which is, of course, haunted... I guess. It's not entirely clear what the hell is going on...)
Weirdly enough, the girls' names are mostly just funny superficial descriptions like Gorgeous (who is very pretty), Sweet (who likes to clean), Melody (a musician), and my favorite, Kung Fu (guess what she's good at). So yeah, here we have a woman lunging into a flying kick, striking a painting, which then floods the room with blood. Then a piano eats someone. It's a difficult movie to describe. The unrestricted flow of stream of consciousness here may not make much sense, but it's always compelling. I could probably watch this every day and not get bored with it. ***
Paranormal Activity 3 - Sequels are usually worse than the original, and prequels are even more likely to be horrible. The problem is usually that, by necessity, you know where the prequel will end. You may also know that certain characters need to survive, and so on. So the Paranormal Activity series has been quite unusual in that it now has not one, but two prequels. I loved the original movie, and the first prequel did a surprisingly good job of retconning the stories together (even if the chief premise of the film was starting to get tired). I expected the series to wear out its welcome in this third installment, but then I heard that it would be yet another prequel, this time taking place in the 1980s, when the two main characters from the first two films were only children. I don't know how they did it, but they effectively managed to retcon this movie into the series as well. Oh sure, it's the same gimmick: cameras all over the house, implausibly capturing weird things on video. And it does suffer from some typical prequalitis, as we know the two little girls will survive. The actions of "Toby" seem more contrived this time around too, as is the ultimate origins of the mythology that would drive the series. All that being said, there is something about the way this series is made that just gets under my skin. Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (who made the questionable "documentary" Catfish) show a good capability for storytelling here, and they manage to wring a bunch of tension out of the exhausted found-footage format of the series. It's not the greatest movie ever, but I'm surprised at how well this series has progressed (er, regressed?) If you liked the first two, it's well worth a watch... **1/2
And that covers that. Tune in on Wednesday for a my answers to a long horror movie quiz, and then next Sunday for another edition of the Slasher Calendar!
Posted by Mark on October 23, 2011 at 06:27 PM .:
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
6WH: Link Dump: Other Halloween Movie Marathons
As you might expect, I'm not the only one drinking fiendish pumpkin beers and watching all sorts of horror films in preparation for Halloween. Here are a few blogs I follow that have been playing along with the season:
Six Weeks of Halloween - I would be remiss if I didn't call out kernunrex first, as he's the whole inspiration behind my own 6 week marathon. As usual, he's putting me to shame with the sheer quantity of his movie watching and reviews. Definitely a must read during the season.
Final Girl's Shocktober 2011 - Stacie's been listing a couple of her readers' favorite characters each day, often (but not alwasy) with some sort of connection between the two featured characters. Fun stuff, as always.
Need Coffee - Widge and the gang are hamming it up, as usual, for their 32 days of Halloween. They seem to be featuring a lot of audio features in addition to the typical movie reviews and funny shorts/trailers that typically punctuate October horror marathons. Always worth following.
Horror Movie a Day - In reality, October is just the month in which a bunch of bloggers aspire to become a pale imitation of Brian Collins, who watches and reviews a horror movie every single day, all year round, and has been doing so for over 4 years. I'm in awe of his dedication.
Hey Look Behind You - Nikki has been doing her thing this month as well, including her usual focus on horror shorts.
And I think that just about does it for now. Stay tuned for some more horror goodness on Sunday. Not sure if it will be haunted houses or another slasher calendar, but it's going to be awesome either way.
Posted by Mark on October 19, 2011 at 09:42 PM .:
Sunday, October 16, 2011
6WH: Week 4 - Wes Craven
The six weeks of Halloween continues with three as yet unseen Wes Craven horror films, including some of his most recent work. Craven's an interesting director. He's worked primarily in horror and he's made at least two or three seminal films in that genre, but even his "lesser" works generally have something going for them. Even in films that don't necessarily work, he always manages to strike a nerve or two, which is more than could be said for most other directors. This week, I watched three of his films:
The People Under the Stairs - I was a little surprised at just how batshit insane this movie ended up being. It's a really, really strange film. It begins with some poor folk, including young Fool and Ving Rhames, attempting to rob the slum lords that have been making life hard. There's a persistent rumor of buried treasure in the rich folks' house, but things are not what they appear. Once the man and woman of the house show up, things start to get really crazy, thanks in large part to gleefully manic performances by Everett McGill and Wendy Robie (both of whom were apparently in Twin Peaks as well). It turns out that they're brother and sister and they've locked their kin in the basement and... holy shit, did he just get dressed up in a gimp costume and start shooting a shotgun at everyone?
Yeah, it's that kinda movie. The other character worth noting is the house itself. Filled with trap doors and secret passages, it's one of the best creepy houses out there. But aside from some well executed "Boo!" moments, it's not really much of a scary movie. Indeed, given the antics, it's actually rather funny. I can't really tell if that's intentional or not, but I had fun with it. It's certainly not a perfect film, but as I mentioned earlier, it does scratch a certain itch. **1/2
The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror VI: Nightmare on Evergreen Terrace (sorry no vid online)
My Soul to Take - So if The People Under the Stairs was insane, this movie goes ahead and increased the Batshit quotient by at least 4 or 5. It doesn't make much in the way of sense, but it's strangely compelling and watchable nonetheless. There's something about a serial killer known as the Riverton Ripper and 7 kids born prematurely the night the Ripper was caught and disappeared (they never found the body, zomg!) Naturally, when the Riverton 7 turn 16, the Ripper comes back to kill them all. Or something. It doesn't really matter. It's just an excuse to do some slasher-esque horror, which isn't exactly groundbreaking, but which I generally enjoy. I guess you could say there's a bit of a whodunit as well, but in a movie this bizarre, it's hard to say whether or not it was all that well executed. It's not a particularly good movie, but like all of Craven's films, there's something that strikes a chord here. Sure, it's filled with dreadful teenage dialogue and whatnot, but it all comes together reasonably well. I think the film is a bit unfairly disparaged, even if it isn't particularly great. Perhaps because we know Craven is capable of more, but ultimately, I'd call this an interesting failure rather than an out-and-out failure. It's got some interesting elements and at least he's trying something strange and different, which is more than can be said about most other horror films these days. **1/2
Scream 4 - The first Scream film was a clever and self-aware slasher film, the culmination of two decades of horror films. The second film looked at slasher sequels, and like most of it's target films, it's not as good as the original. The third film tread that same familiar ground, and like most franchises that make it to a third film, that installment was pretty horrible too. So now we come to Scre4m (Screform?), where Craven teams up with the original writer, Kevin Williamson to take on the whole Remake/Reboot trend. The film opens with a familiar phone call sequence... with a twist. And it actually works really well. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie never quite lives up to the promise of those initial sequences. This isn't to say that it's bad, I actually quite enjoyed it. All the familiar faces are there, along with an all new teen cast that's just ripe for stabbing. In particular, I enjoyed Hayden Panettiere and Alison Brie, though neither is given much to do in the movie.
Still, it's all good fun. Some of the dialogue gets a bit too on-the-nose at times, and the premise is getting pretty tired by now, but it was certainly a big improvement over the third film and maybe even the second film (I haven't seen either in a while, but that's the impression I get). If you're a fan of slashers and dislike the general trend of remakes/reboots, check it out. ***
And that just about covers it for this week. Not sure what I'm going to hit up next week, but perhaps some haunted houses are in order!
Posted by Mark on October 16, 2011 at 07:15 PM .:
Wednesday, October 12, 2011
6WH: Week 3.5 - Fear Itself Fear Itself is a horror anthology TV series that ran on NBC in 2008. It's sort of the unofficial third season of the Masters of Horror series which aired on Showtime, but this time it's on network television, so the episodes are shorter and feature less gore, nudity and profanity. Like MoH, each episode is essentially an independent story made by different writers and directors, usually folks famous for their horror chops. And like MoH, the series so far appears to be very uneven. So far, none of the episodes really approaches MoH's best stuff, though one or two are mildly diverting enough to be worth watching for genre fans. It's available on Netflix streaming (and I feel ok saying that now that they've reversed the whole Qwikster debacle), so I've hit up a few of them this past week (note: apparently the series was aired out of the originally proposed order, which is how Netflix has it ordered):
Eater: Director Stuart Gordon was the man behind two of the better episodes of the MoH series (not to mention Re-Animator), and from what I've seen so far, this is the best of the Fear Itself episodes. As you'll see below, that's sort of damning with faint praise, but this was actually reasonably well done. The story concerns a serial killer's layover in a small town police station. He's a cannibal, and of course, he knows some obscure form of Cajun magic. Our heroine is officer Danny Bannerman, played by Elisabeth Moss (she of The West Wing), and there's a nice supporting turn by Stephen Lee as well. The Cajun Cannibal is played by Stephen R. Hart and he's certainly an imposing presence. There's some nice creepy moments and stingers in the episode, but the ending is ultimately a bit weird. Still, the most satisfying of the Fear Itself episodes I've seen so far.
Spooked: This is director Brad Anderson's (of Session 9 fame) contribution, and it's a middling episode at best. There's an interesting idea at the heart of the episode, but it's executed somewhat poorly, and there's a little too much... melodrama? Also, it stars Eric Roberts. I'm not normally like this when it comes to actors, but I just take anything this guy does seriously. The mere fact that he's in it is a big strike against it for me, even though he was probably no worse than the other actors in an objective sense. I don't know, maybe he wronged me in a previous life or something. Anyway, he's a private detective and he's been hired to sit in a haunted house whilst staking out the house across the street. But, you know, all is not what it seems. As the episode started, my mind was racing, as there were many interesting directions the episode could have gone. And yet, it doesn't really do any of that. Fleh.
Community: Mary Harron, who directed American Psycho, did her best with this, but damn, it's derivative and kinda boring. It actually reminded me of an old X-Files episode. Unfortunately, that episode was much better than this one. It's basically a story about the horrors of the suburbs, gated communities, and homeowners associations. It stars Brandon Routh, who's a charismatic actor and does his best, but again, this is a hard episode to elevate. Not recommended.
The Sacrifice: Once again, we've got an interesting premise that's been executed rather poorly. The setting is rather interesting. A few criminals (though it's never really established what they're doing) have car trouble (that's original!) and seek to take refuge in a nearby... almost Amish-like compound. There's a preacher and three beautiful women living there... along with a pesky vampire. Again, there's some interesting stuff going on here, but the main characters are kinda hackneyed and dumb here, and well, I almost fell asleep watching this. Oh, and Breck Eisner? This is a director who has never had much in the way of success and even if he did, he's not exactly known for horror (which may be a bit of a problem on a series premised on showcasing horror directors). This has been the worst episode yet!
In Sickness and in Health: Wow, an actual decent episode. On the day of her wedding, Samantha the Bride gets a note with some rather disturbing information about her husband-to-be. It's one of those stories where you're constantly wondering why the hell no one actually wants to talk to each other, but it works well enough, and in the end, there might be a reason for it (even if it's a rather thin reason). Directed by John Landis, it's got some well constructed atmosphere going for it, and the script isn't absolutely awful. Worth a watch...
Well, things haven't been particularly encouraging so far. I doubt I'll get much farther into the series this year, especially seeing as though I still haven't seen all the Masters of Horror episodes (which are also mostly available on Netflix streaming)... See you Sunday for some Wes Craven awesomeness.
Posted by Mark on October 12, 2011 at 06:12 PM .:
Sunday, October 09, 2011
6 Weeks of Halloween: Week 3 - Val Lewton Horror
In 1939, RKO-Radio Pictures was the smallest of the major studios. Its first ten years had been tumultuous, but things were looking up. They had just offered the talented youngster Orson Welles a multimillion dollar contract, hoping to capitalize on his success in their radio division. Welles' first film was Citizen Kane, which opened to critical praise and has gone on to be frequently cited as the greatest film ever, but which also lost money for the studio at the time. In addition, Charles Foster Kane was obviously based on newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who took the film none too kindly. In response to Welles' hubris, Hearst's media outlets boycotted the film, intimidated theaters into following suit, and threatened RKO exects with exposing fifteen years of suppressed Hollywood scandals. Welles' second film, The Magnificent Ambersons was even less successful.
After some leadership shakeups, one of the ways RKO sought to reverse their fortunes was to focus on B movies, and specifical B horror movies. Enter Val Lewton, who was offered "artistic freedom" if he accepted a few conditions:
He had to produce "horror programmers" with runtimes under 75 minutes.
Each film had to come in under a $150,000 budget.
Each film's title would be determined by marketing research.
Lewton's salary would be $250 a week.
Lewton readily agreed, famously noting that "They may think I'm going to do the usual chiller stuff which'll make a quick profit, be laughed at, and be forgotten, but I'm going to fool them . . . I'm going to do the kind of suspense movie I like." And he certainly seemed to do so. There were no classical monsters in Lewton's movies (the closest he came was with zombies, but those aren't the Romero zombies we're all too familiar with these days). They seemed unique and rather restrained. In today's gore-happy world of Human Centipedes and Saws, they seem downright quaint, but they're still very interesting.
Cat People: RKO studio head Charles Koerner was apparently of the opinion that vampires, werewolves, and man-made monsters had been over-exploited and that "nobody has done much with cats." Before Lewton even went to work, the title was chosen: Cat People. Lewton was apparently terrified of cats and drew on folk tales from his native Russia to make this film. The story concerns a Serbian girl, Irena (played by Simone Simon), who is convinced that she is cursed to turn into a panther and kill the man she loves. In theory, very similar to The Wolf Man (and other "enemy within" type stories), but in practice, a very strange yet well executed film.
There a number of effective sequences, including a nighttime chase sequence where the audible footsteps quickly dissapate, replaced by the quieter patter of a stalking cat. There's also a tense sequence in a pool, and another in an office (where our heroic architect brandishes a T-square, which looks very much like a cross). There are some panthers in the film, but the action is usually shown in shadow - an effective choice. I don't want to give the film too much credit, but it does prefigure a lot of what became known as the hallmarks of film noir. Many of the techniques in this film were used ad nauseam in the decade to follow. For instance, many of the scenes are framed in such a way that Irena is confined by shadows or other such shapes (for instance, at the zoo, the shadows of the zoo's cages surround her), indicating that she is trapped by the curse of her people. This was replicated numerous times in film noir, using things like venetian shades to indicate the bars of confinement. Much of this is due to cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, who was heavily influenced by German Expressionism and who helped refine the various noir techniques throughout the 1940s. Indeed, after launching Lewton's first three films for RKO, director Jacques Tourneur moved out on his own, eventually teaming up with Masuraca again to produce one of the classic films noir, Out of the Past. Cat People is restrained, yet filled with lurid love triangles, repression, and vanity, all exacerbated by the supernatural folk tales of Serbia. The film was a big success, some saying that Cat People saved RKO, which was nearly bankrupted by Welles' shenanigans at the time. It's a tame film by today's standards, but quite interesting nonetheless. ***
The Curse of the Cat People: The most intriguing thing about this sequel? There are no cats or panthers or pumas. Well, in the opening shot, there is a black house cat that scampers across the screen, but other than that, nothing. The title had been handed down from the studio's marketing department, but Lewton, unphased, wrote a "very delicate story of a child who is on the verge of insanity because she lives in a fantasy world." The film features much of the cast of the first film, including the... ghost?... of a cat woman. Despite the lack of cats, it turns out to be a very poetic and personal film about the fears and dangers of childhood. By 1944, RKO had moved Jacques Tourneur on to other things (their thinking being that splitting Lewton and Tourneur, they would get twice the output for the same price), so Lewton hired Gunther von Fritsch, whom he fired almost immediately because he was so slow (remember, these movies were made quickly and on a tight budget). In came a young Robert Wise, who would go on to direct classics like The Haunting and The Andromeda Strain (among many others). Once again, audiences were quite taken with the poetic and humane story presented in the film. It's a very different film, practically unrelated to the original, but still quite effective in its own right. ***
I Walked With a Zombie: I actually watched these films a bit out of order, as this was the second of Lewton's productions, also directed by Jacques Tourneur. A recurring theme of Lewton's work seemed to be his exasperation at the titles he was handed from the marketing department. In this case, he was quite distraught until he came up with the idea to simply adapt one of his favorite books. He described this movie as "Jane Eyre in the West Indies." With zombies. (Note, this was 60-70 years before Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and the numerous mashups that followed). Not being that familiar with Jane Eyre, I can't say as to how successful Lewton was in terms of adaptation, but the film itself is pretty damn good. There are several standout sequences, my favorite being when two women, dressed in white, navigate through a dark field towards the distant drums of a voodoo ceremony (which are, in themselves, a wonderfully atmospheric touch). Ultimately, I didn't find this as enjoyable as the two Cat People movies, but it was an interesting watch nonetheless. **1/2
The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror III: Dial "Z" for Zombies (sorry, no clips online)
The Body Snatcher: Another Robert Wise film, this time based on the short story The Body Snatcher by Robert Louis Stevenson. Here Lewton was relieved by the good title and the classic source material (which also happened to be in the public domain), though exasperation came later when the initial script, which had introduced much more mayhem than Stevenson's original story called for. Lewton himself rewrote the script at the last moment, making sure that the film still appealed to stars Boris Karloff and even the ailing Bela Legosi. Well, whatever his worries, the film turned out fantastic. Wise and Lewton relished being able to create a period piece that could still be filmed cheaply. Legosi was very ill at the time, so he was not quite up to speed, but luckily, he played a rather small part as the mad scientist's half-wit assistant, so his infirmities were actually appropriate for the role. Karloff was at the top of his game though, delivering the sharp dialogue with gusto.
The story concerns a doctor (played by Henry Daniell) who requires fresh cadavers in order to continue his studies and teach his students. The law being somewhat in opposition to this practice, he had to hire an insolent cab-man (Karloff) to rob the graves of the recently deceased. When there are not enough bodies to meet the doctor's needs, the cab-man resorts to murder! It's all very well done, the relationship between the doctor and the cabby gradually escalates with tension, and Karloff and Daniell clearly got under each other's skin. The film reaches its climax with Karloff delivering a wonderful monologue: "I am a small man, a humble man, and, being poor, I have had to do much that I did not want to do. But so long as the great Dr. MacFarlane jumps at my whistle, that long am I a man. And if I have not that, I have nothing." Karloff's performance is something to behold. Having spent most of his career playing various monsters, Karloff clearly relished playing a human being, even if the character was a manipulative villain. In today's parlance, he's just chewing the scenery. Playing opposite Karloff was the capable Henry Daniell, who certainly holds his own as the conflicted and guilty doctor, ashamed of his past and perhaps even his future. Once again, while perhaps a bit grisly for its time, this is tame by today's standards... but it's definitely worth watching for Karloff's performance alone. ***
Ah, it's good to be back in the flow of traditional 6WH posts. Stay tuned for some quick reviews of the Fear Itself anthology series and I think I'll end up covering three Wes Craven movies next week. Recommendations are always welcome, though I can't guarantee I'll get to it (but if it's available on Netflix streaming or Amazon Prime's free streaming, I'll probably give it a shot).
Posted by Mark on October 09, 2011 at 08:51 PM .:
Wednesday, October 05, 2011
Fantastic Fest Dispatch #3
Coming down the homestretch, only a few movies/events left to go over. See also: Dispatch #1 and Dispatch #2.
Extraterrestrial - So. Nacho Vigalondo. Best director name ever? Probably. But he's an institution at Fantastic Fest. You see him all over the place, and later in the night, he's usually drunk and very animated. Here at Kaedrin, we're big fans of his work. His 2007 film Timecrimes made my best of the year list, and is an entertaining and intricate time-travel story. He's also the director of numerous short films, including 7:35 in the Morning, which was nominated for an academy award (note to self: seek more of these out!)
As a followup to Timecrimes, Vigalondo started working on an even bigger, even more intricate script. Knowing that it would take a few years to get that going, he set about doing a film in the meantime, which brings us to Extraterrestrial. Julio wakes up in Julia's apartment with quite a hangover. After some awkward pleasantries, he seeks to depart... and that's when they notice. Cell phones, land lines, television, and the internet are down. And there's something, something massive, in the sky, sitting above Madrid.
It's a setup we've seen a million times before, but it doesn't play out like any other similar film. In a very real sense, this is similar to Melancholia in that the SF premise is only a catalyst for the human story. It is almost literally window-dressing. But unlike Melancholia, this movie remains awesome. It's twisted and funny. Really funny, actually. It's Nacho Vigalondo's take on the romantic comedy, and probably best of it's ilk that I've seen in a long time. It's perhaps a bit silly (it is a comedy, after all), but I think it works very well. It doesn't hit all of my personal buttons in quite the way that Timecrimes did, but in a big way, this is a more assured film, and I'm glad that Vigalondo has avoided the dreaded "sophomore slump". Highly recommended - if you get a chance, give it a watch. ***1/2
The Day - I don't like post-apocalyptic movies. There are a few exceptions, but a filmmaker has to do a lot to make me overcome my disdain. In this film, we follow a group of 5 survivors as they attempt to make it past cannibal-infested land. They're carrying two jars of hope and faith (i.e. seeds), with which they hope to establish a semblance of civilization again. Of course, they get cornered and have to fight, and there are revelations and twists and turns and badass action sequences. In particular Ashley Bell was impressive as the female lead. Not quite Ripley, but clearly a conflicted badass. It's ultimately a fun film, but I always have nagging questions about post-apocalyptic worlds that are never quite explained. Fortunately, this film wisely chooses to completely ignore whatever caused the apocalypse, instead focusing on the struggle for survival. This mitigates the nagging question problem, though those issues still arise after the film ends. This sort of thing might hold it back from true greatness, but I'm also willing to go with it, and the film manages wring tension out of its premise. Good ending too. If you're a fan of post-apocalyptic movies, give it a try. **1/2
100 Greatest Kills - So I was sitting next to a guy during The Day whose name was Tron (apparently not named after the movie - he was born before it came out). Very nice fella, and he told me that I would LOVE this 100 Greatest Kills event. I didn't realize it, but apparently they take submissions for the best onscreen kills, and if you submit it, they'll play it during the event. That being said, they try to keep things obscure, though they do give the classics their due. When I first got in the theater, the lights dimmed, and they started playing Stairway to Heaven while showing all of the most famous death scenes. Great selections here, but this isn't really why you attend. They immediately started playing some truly obscure stuff (quite frankly, I don't remember any of these), including a series of kills from 80s VHS movies. Some of the kills were also quite disgusting. For example, in one of the video movies, a guy cuts open a pregnant woman, grabs the baby, screams, and throws it against the wall. This actually sounds a little more horrifying than it looks, as it's quite low budget and very poorly acted, so it comes off as being a little comical. But still disgusting. Some of the others were also pretty gross. Not helping was the little digital gizmo they had that let them play and replay death scenes, sometimes in excruciating slow motion. Examining the Scanners head explosion frame by frame was pretty darn fun. We also watched the Brad Pitt death from Meet Joe Black many times. The final clip was a 15 minute gorefest from another of those video movies from the 80s (seriously, how do people find these things?) and it was quite disturbing. But they gave out free copies of Tobe Hooper's Eaten Alive, so look for a capsule review of that during the 6WH... Overall, it's a really fun event. If you're not squeamish, it's highly recommended...
Master Pancake Presents: Highlander - So this wasn't actually part of Fantastic Fest, but my Austin friends got me a ticket to see it and I cleared my schedule that night to see it. For the uninitiated, Master Pancake is basically like MST3K, but it's performed live. The three guys that do it are very funny, and it's actually quite a production. They start off with a simple introduction and banter, set up a drinking game (in this case, you have to drink anytime sparks appear on screen - and if you've ever seen Highlander, you know that anytime a sword strikes something, it emits sparks, so there was a lot of drinking), and then launch into the film, with a brief intermission and skit performed live onstage in the middle of the film. Lots of mocking, especially of Sean Conner's unbelievable performance as Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez (seriously, he plays this Egyptian Spaniard without even attempting to maks his Scottish accent). Very funny, and a great time. If you're ever in Austin, it's well worth trying to get yourself a ticket for Master Pancake! Thanks again to Kaedrin reader and friend Spencer!
And that about covers what I saw at Fantastic Fest. I saw 19 movies, went to 4 events, and of course, Master Pancake too. I won't go through the pomp and circumstance of a full awards post, but here are a few:
All in all, quite a successful festival. Will I go again next year? It would certainly be really nice, but I'll have to see what my schedule is like (not to mention money, vacation time, and so on). I definitely want to go to the festival again sometime, as I did have a blast... And that concludes my Fantastic Fest posting. Regular 6WH posts to resume this weekend (this week's theme: Val Lewton horror!)
Posted by Mark on October 05, 2011 at 06:06 PM .:
Sunday, October 02, 2011
Fantastic Fest Dispatch #2
As mentioned in the first dispatch, Fantastic Fest was quite a hectic but fun week for me. I don't really have much to say in terms of an introduction, but there are some thoughts on the festival itself interspersed with the movie reviews below. Also, just to mention that this technically represents the second week in my annual 6 Weeks of Halloween horror movie marathon. It doesn't take the general form of most 6WH posts, but there's plenty of horror and weirdness below, so enjoy! See also: Dispatch #1 and Dispatch #3.
Fantastic Arcade Story In Videogames - One of the neat things about Fantastic Fest is that it's not all movies all the time. Over at the Highball, they set up something called the "Fantastic Arcade". Filled with Free-Play arcade cabinets and various PC/PS3/X360 machines, you could just wander around and play games all day if you wanted. There was a nice indie-game competition as well. And there was even a series of panels surrounding various issues in gaming. This particular panel was all about how to work story into video games, and it featured a team from Lightbox Interactive (makers of the forthcoming Starhawk) and a couple of filmmakers, including best-director-name-ever (and apparently a Fantastic Fest institution) Nacho Vigalondo. The panel started off a bit like an advertisement for Starhawk, but as with any panel featuring Nacho Vigalondo, things derailed pretty quickly and thus became much more interesting. They discussed the preponderance of cut-scenes and the inherent challenges of video games, especially how video games tend to put players "on rails" and the ways around that. Then Nacho started talking about how the Angry Birds are actually the villains in that game (terrorists?), thus kicking off a 15 minute digression into the various incongruities of Angry Birds, including the architectural style of the pigs (their structures often seem pretty impressive at first, but then you realize that they've sometimes just completely surrounded a pig in the structure, essentially burying it alive!) All in good fun. I had to leave a little early to catch my next movie, but it was definitely a lot of fun.
Melancholia - The best part of this movie was the 15-20 minute interview with director Lars von Trier that preceded the film (he was not there in person as he apparently does not fly, but had participated in a Skype interview earlier in the day). He was very open and honest and even quite funny. The film, on the other hand, was a bit of a mess. I shouldn't say that, as von Trier certainly knows his way around the camera, and the film is, as always, immaculately composed and shot. The story, on the other hand, is quite unfulfilling.
The opening of the film is actually brilliant. It's very arty and experimental and whatnot, but also compelling and visually spectacular (it also doesn't appear to fit in with the timeline of the rest of the film). From there, the movie rewinds, focusing on a wedding between Justine (Kirstin Dunst, apparently recommended to Von Trier by PT Anderson!) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård, True Blood fame). At first, it seems like a typical rich folks wedding reception at a huge country club, but it soon becomes clear that there are deep problems in the family, and Dunst's character is suffering from chronic depression. This part of the film is somewhat insufferable. After the wedding, we find out that there's another planet (unironically called planet Melancholia) that is on a collision course (or perhaps just a close flyby) with Earth. That is quite an interesting concept, but the film only really uses it as window dressing - something that sets off the depression amongst the family. I'd be curious about the actual physics of all this. For a time it does come off as being plausible, though there is one event towards the end that I couldn't come up with a feasible explanation for... but again, this isn't really the film's main point.
At one point, I thought maybe there would be a twist that the characters were actually on Melancholia, and that it was the Earth that was appearing in the sky, but that doesn't pan out. However, the film does seem to be set in an other-worldly location. They mention a nearby town, but for the most part, the entire movie is set on the grounds of a golf course/country club, and after the wedding, there really aren't any other characters that show up. It's a really bizarre setting for the film, which could have been fine, but I don't think it was really in service of anything. The final sequence of the film is also pretty great, but not enough to make up for all the stuff that happens in between. Again, very well made, but didn't really do much for me. **
Beyond the Black Rainbow - Very experimental and trippy, like a slower version of the end of 2001, drawn out over 110 minutes. The story, inasmuch as there is a story, is about a young girl who is seemingly trapped in an institute that bills itself as a technological cure for various mental maladies (or something). Who is she? Why doesn't she talk? Why can't she leave? What's going on at this institute? What's with the girl's doctor? These questions aren't really answered, but you do get a series of dreamlike vignettes that are visually interesting, if not really spectacular. As if the film wasn't trippy enough, at one point, we get a flashback where one character does acid, after which we're treated to a 10 minute scene where he's submerged in black liquid and his face melts (Spoiler? Not really.) Things get more interesting towards the end of the film. We see that the girl (and her doctor) seems to have some sort of mental powers, and the film becomes something of an escape film. But that's probably giving it too much credit for plot. There is a narrative, but it seems more appropriate for a 15 minute short than an almost 2 hour film. I don't hate this film. It's got some merits and I'm glad I got to watch it, but it's also not a particularly good film either. **
Knuckle - There were only two documentaries playing at Fantastic Fest, and this was one of them. It follows 12 years of a violent feud between two (or maybe three) Irish Traveler clans. Most of this is accomplished via bare-knuckle fighting (officiated by third party clans). Interestingly, the documentary seems to have come about by accident. Director Ian Palmer was hired to videotape a wedding, and from there, the various Traveler families (especially the Quinn McDonaghs) allowed him to tag along at the various fights and tape them for their own records. It seems that the feuding families often produced video tapes taunting the opposing family and sending for representatives at the next fight. After 12 years of this, Palmer compiled everything together, did some additional interviews, and made this movie. Videotape isn't exactly a high-quality medium, but in this case, it's an accurate representation of what was happening and everything was very well documented. Ultimately, the film plays out like a microcosm of all human conflict. The two main families in the film are actually blood related, but their feud goes back decades, and few are interested in ending the conflict. Listening to various family members talk about it is almost heartbreaking, not just because these two families seem to be locked in a circle of violence, but because we can so easily recognize the pattern. You can see this sort of needless conflict all throughout history and even in present day conflicts. It might be too presumptuous to apply it to something as controversial as the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, but like I said, the movie is a microcosm. It's a much smaller conflict, but it still seems hopeless, especially when Palmer cuts to young children playing in the street, pretending to fight. It is not a perfect movie, but it was one of the more interesting and thought provoking films of the festival. ***
Fantastic Debates! - After Knuckle came the Fantastic Debates, an annual tradition wherein two folks participate in a traditional verbal debate, then box for two rounds. This year's debates featured two hobbits debating the benefits of World of Warcraft, two comedians debating whether robots were better than humans, an astrophysicist debating the "fuck Nasa" guy (I'm not generally a violent guy, but I enjoyed seeming him get an ass whooping), and finally, the main event, Alamo Drafthouse mogul and FF organizer Tim League fighting James Quinn (the undefeated bare knuckle brawler from Knuckle) over the topic "Texans are tougher than the Irish" (I particularly enjoyed the way League was able to argue his point while at the same time kissing Quinn's ass). It was all great fun, and there are numerous vids covering the event on youtube. This is the sort of event I'd love to go back in time and watch from previous years. The only drawback to the event was that an apparently great movie was scheduled at the same time, and didn't have any other showings during the festival. Dammit.
The Corridor - Four lifelong friends go camping in a remote area and discover an impossible hallway in the woods. They've been the best of friends, but things are changing. They're getting older, balder, crazier, and so on. It hits the two main tropes pretty hard. I mean, how many movies about old friends camping do we really need to see? The early-mid-life crisis stuff is a little less trodden, but still a pretty common thing, and the film is a bit too on the nose with some of its commentary on that subject. That being said, the actual corridor piece is pretty interesting, and there are quite a few creepy sequences that result from that. It was actually well made and acted, and I did enjoy watching it, but I think I would have appreciated a little less cliche in the script. **
Elite Squad: The Enemy Within - One of the frustrating things about film festivals in general is that you don't always get into the popular screenings. But at Fantastic Fest, this can be a blessing in disguise. I had originally planned to see the "Secret Screening" at this time, but it was sold out. I later learned that the secret screenings are generally not very interesting (I was expecting some crazy movie I never heard of, but it was apparently Paranormal Activity 3, which will be out in wide release in less than a month). So I had to "settle" for this film: a most excellent Brazilian film about police corruption. It would actually make a nice companion to City of God. That film was told from the perspective of children growing up in a violent neighborhood. This film is told from the perspective of the police.
At first, I was a little worried about the political posturing of the film. For example, early in the film, the voiceover decries the political left. It's a seemingly typical sentiment among law enforcement: liberals make it hard to do their job. Later in the film, you start to see the corruption on the police side of things. And finally, the film reaches an equilibrium, not endorsing either side, but rather, emphasizing that both sides must work together in order to succeed. It's an interesting, well considered position, and films that can pull off that balancing act are few and far between. Oh, and there are also good characters and even some decent action sequences. I really enjoyed this film, one of my favorites of the festival. This is apparently the second film in a series, so I'll have to seek out the first film, because this was really fantastic. ***
Karate Robo Zaborgar - Another film that wasn't my first choice, but which wound up being one of my favorites of the festival. It's apparently a loving remake/parody of a 70s Japanese television show about robots, karate, and, of course, sexy lady cyborgs. I don't think I can sufficiently explain the pure insanity on screen here, but it's got everything you want out of a Japanese comedy film. You've got motorcycles transforming into robots (apparently the original series was part of the inspiration for Transformers), a ludicrous love story, a group of down-on-their-luck former police officers called "The League of Smiles", and, of course, someone lights their fart as a form of propulsion. Again, difficult to describe, but I was laughing the entire time. Well worth a watch, especially for fans of Japanese robot cinema! ***
Borderline - A French film following a beaten down family man and lawyer who stumbles on a bag of drugs, and decides to start selling it to make ends meet. Of course, the original owner of the bag eventually tracks him down, and things go downhill from there. It may not sound like the setup for a pure comedy, but it's quite funny, though it gets a bit dark later in the film. Still, a very solid movie. Not quite as uproariously funny as Zaborgar, and actually quite tame for a festival like this, but it's a fun film. **1/2
Juan of the Dead - One of the most popular films of the festival, this Cuban zombie film is quite funny. Unfortunately, just by virtue of its title, it forces comparison to the nearly perfect Shaun of the Dead, a film that's better than this one. That being said, there's a lot to like here, and it was definitely one of the funnier films of the festival. Like most zombie films, it doesn't really have much direction, but it's actually got some well drawn characters and some decent arcs that elevate this movie above a lot of other zombie movies. I'm not typically a big fan of zombie movies, but I really enjoyed this and it's definitely worth seeking out. Also of note, director Alejandro Brugués has challenged Fantastic Fest mainstay Nacho Vigalondo to a Fantastic Debate next year (with the topic of "What the fuck is Timecrimes about?". I guess this means I'll need to go back next year! ***
Cost of Living (short) - I didn't go to any of the film shorts programs that Fantastic Fest had, but they do show some shorts in front of movies, and this one was so good that I had to call it out. It's about two security guards who work at some sort of science institute. Basically one of those places that only exist in video games that create mosters, which of course get loose and start wreaking havoc.
Anyway, Brandon Routh is absolutely hysterical here, and if you ever get a chance to watch this short, go for it (a quick search did not yield any videos, but perhaps it will be available someday). ***
The Squad - A squad of Columbian soldiers comes upon an outpost suspected of being attacked by guerrillas. What they find is less than clear. A cryptic outpost log sheds no light, and then someone discovers a lone, traumatized survivor in a room that has been sealed off by bricks. Rumors quickly abound that she's a witch that caused the destruction of the outpost. It's actually a somewhat interesting premise. Unfortunately, the entire thing is bungled. I never got a sense for any of the characters, the layout of the outpost and surrounding environs was very poorly established, the squad does not act like any military unit I've ever seen, and everyone actions like an idiot. This is a movie that relies heavily on character interactions, but I feel like we were missing a lot. I didn't care about or like any of the characters, yet the dialogue assumes that we do. All throughout the movie, people keep talking to this one character, Ponce, as if we know who he is or care about him in any way, but of course, we don't. The entire film is framed in medium shots and closeups, and most of the camerawork is handheld and shaky. It's also got some weird depth-of-field issues. All of these things can be effective if used for a specific reason in specific situations. They can emphasize the isolation of the characters or the chaos of battle, but when they're used this often, they yield diminishing returns and only serve as a distraction. The story is almost non-existent. There's clearly some traumatic history for this squad, and the film references it numerous times, but I ultimately found that I could really care less. It wasn't scary, there's no real plot, and its atmosphere suffers because of it. There is actually quite a nice final shot in the film that I really liked, but it was too little too late. My least favorite film of the festival. *
Let the Bullets Fly - I know a lot of critics say this, and it seems absurd, but watching 4-5 movies a day can be exhausting. By the time I got to this movie on the fifth day of the festival, I was starting to flag. It's a lighthearted action comedy starring Chow Yun Fat and featuring an intricate, Yojimbo-like plot. I have to say, it seemed like it was a ton of fun, and I did enjoy myself, but I was clearly fatigued. Maybe it was just that The Squad sucked so bad, or maybe it was because I'd just seen, like, 5 subtitled movies in a row and this one had really quick dialogue, or perhaps I had too many late nights and early wakeups. I was exhausted at this point. I watched the whole movie and managed to enjoy it, but it's something I want to revisit at some point when I'm more refreshed. I'll refrain from rating it at this point, but it did seem like a good film, so check it out.
Fantastic Fest Awards - So I was very tired, but this sort of event re-energized me a bit, or perhaps I just got my second wind. There were lots of various awards handed out, including awards for bumpers, which takes some explaining. Most film festivals feature a short promo for the festival itself at the beginning of each screening. That short film is called a bumper. It's usually the same short film, over and over again, but Fantastic Fest is different. They select a theme (this year's was Altered States, which most people took to mean drugs), then accept submissions from local filmmakers, and we wind up seeing a different bumper before each showing. Some are funny, some are disgusting, some are just plain bizarre. The winning bumper was one of the disgusting ones which basically depicted a vasectomy. It was certainly shocking, but quite frankly, it was rather stupid and didn't demonstrate any talent on the filmmaker's part (the way most of the other ones do). Anyway, they also gave out awards for a bunch of films and short films, and it seems that You're Next was a big winner, much to the chagrin of its producer, who had to accept all the awards. At this point, I should note that the awards were basically big beer mugs, and in order to accept the award, you have to chug it... so this guy basically had to chug 5 mugs of beer within about 15 minutes. It was all pretty funny. This was a fun event, but I'm not sure it'd be something I'd want to go to every year (if I went to the festival every year). On the other hand, it was exactly what I needed at this point in the festival.
The Fantastic Feud - So every year, they do this horror trivia challenge, pitting international filmmakers and critics against American filmmakers and critics. The whole thing takes the format of family feud, and it's quite fun. The only real drawback was that it was really short this year, like only 40 minutes long (apparently previous years were much longer and even more fun). I had a great time, but as previously mentioned, I was exhausted, so I was almost glad to be finished for the day... Still, it was one of my favorite events, and definitely something I'd do again (if I ever go again!)
Whew, I still have a bunch of other things to write about (including a review of Nacho Vigalondo's excellent Extraterrestrial), but this entry has already grown to mammoth proportions, so I'll save that for Wednesday, perhaps along with some other thoughts about the festival. After that, the 6 Weeks of Halloween horror movie marathon will resume as normal.
Update 10/5/11: Added some images to this post. Fixed some typos. Added links to other FF dispatches.
Posted by Mark on October 02, 2011 at 11:12 AM .:
Sunday, September 25, 2011
Fantastic Fest Dispatch #1
So things have been quite busy so far. Not much time to really record detailed thoughts, but since it's Sunday, I'll list out a few of the movies I've seen earlier in the week. Tons of fun stuff going on, but quite frankly, not much time to discuss. I'll probably have more time to cover movies next weekend (and since I'm traveling on Wednesday, probably no post then either)... Also, this is technically the first week of the 6 Weeks of Halloween Marathon. Not all of the below movies are horror and thus aren't necessarily Halloween movies, but they're all pretty weird and at least a few are pretty horror-focused. See also: Dispatch #2 and Dispatch #3.
Blind - I missed the beginning of this movie by about 15 minutes, so I missed out on some of the establishing scenes. Near as I can tell, a blind former police officer becomes a witness to a crime. Naturally, this presents a bit of a problem, and the serial killer starts playing cat-and-mouse games with her. The description initially reminded me of Kaedrin fave Mute Witness, but while this film is well done and engaging, it never manages the suspense of Mute Witness. That being said, it does feature some excellent set pieces (most notably the one on the subway) and some effective relationships. Very solidly constructed thriller, but not something that will blow you away either. **1/2
Boys on the Run - Bizarre movie about... I honestly don't know how to describe it. It's an exaggerated romantic comedy, in a way, but one with Japanese perverts, inopportune boners and sex workers and the like. Lots of embarrassment humor, a nice taxi driver homage, and one of the best slow-clap sequences I've seen in a while. I really liked the performance from the female lead's roommate - very funny. The ending was somewhat disappointing though, making me wonder why I bothered watching it. It's got its moments, and it did make me laugh, but I never really connected with it either. **
The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence) - Human Centipede 2 has all the disgusting, graphic scenes I was dreading in the first film. Not exactly a good thing, but it represents an interesting commentary on the fans of the original film. Devin Faraci has probably the best take on this I've seen so far:
This time it’s meta. Martin is a bug of a man, round like a beetle with huge, bulging eyes. He’s Peter Lorre working the dead shift at a parking garage, where he spends his hours obsessing over the movie Human Centipede. Finally he begins to create the ultimate fan fiction - a human centipede of his own, except this one is 12 people long. ...
Martin is a direct parody of the fans. He’s fat and sweaty and awkward and possibly mentally disabled. He’s also a parody of how the detractors see the fans. He’s malleable and unable to tell reality from fantasy. ...
Six is attempting a level of critique that’s impressive, and the film feels like a response to every single review and editorial written about the first Centipede.
As Devin says, it's a big "Fuck You" movie. I don't think I'd use the word "restraint" to describe the first film, but it actually was pretty cold and clinical and you really don't see that much (it's graphic, but not as much as you fear), while this sequel is dirty, grimy, and explicit. The film doesn't hold back at all, breaking every taboo it can, and then some, leaving me wondering just what Tom Six has planned for the third (and hopefully final) film in the series. In the Q&A after the movie, Six says the third one will be "really sick". Given how grotesque this movie is, I don't know if I really want to take Six up on that third film. One last thing - I'm a little disappointed. I counted, and there were only, like, 40 legs on the creature that Martin creates. While a big improvement over the first movie, that's still, like, 60 limbs short of an actual centipede. Perhaps this is what Six plans for the next film. Anyway, the film is surprisingly well directed and acted, and it does make an interesting comment on the nature of fandom and critics, but I still can't really recommend it in any fashion. You were warned. (this one kinda defies rating, but I'll say **)
The Yellow Sea - Gritty Korean crime picture featuring more knife and hatchet fights than any movie I've ever seen. Unfortunately, some of that is obscured by shaky-cam action, a trend I wish would just go away at this point. The movie tells the story of a poor cab driver in China who goes to South Korea to find his wife. She's gone earlier to make money, but has now disappeared. In order to fund the whole venture, the cab driver must take on a job - assassinate one of the Korean crime lords. It's probably not a spoiler to say that the cab driver is betrayed at nearly every turn. There's a lot of resilience in the face of adversity going on here, and some nice touches in terms of the nuts and bolts of things. It's a little long, but very complex and never boring. ***
Retreat - Interesting and twisty single-location film. A troubled couple travels to an isolated island for quiet time, but when a bloody stranger turns up at their doorstep, things start to get weird. The twists aren't quite mind-blowing, but they always keep things interesting. The remoteness of the cottage they're staying at certainly increases the tension a bit, as the only person within radio distance is not answering. On the other hand, there are some stupid horror movie character moments when you want to yell at the characters for doing something so stupid. Thematically, there are some interesting reversals, but ultimately it doesn't really gel. Well shot and well acted, it can be a bit of a downer, but it's worth a watch if you're into this sort of thing. **
And that covers it for now. Again, probably no entry on Wednesday. Maybe I'll get to something on Thursday, but probably more likely to see posting resume next Sunday. There are still about 3 or 4 movies I'm really looking forward to, so let's hope I can actually get into those shows!
Posted by Mark on September 25, 2011 at 01:31 AM .:
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Earlier in the year, I had noticed a pile of books building up on the shelf and have made a concerted effort to get through them. This has gone smoothly at times, and at other times it's ground to a halt. Then there's the fact that I can't seem to stop buying new books to read. Case in point, during the Six Weeks of Halloween, I thought it might be nice to read some horror, and realized that most of what I had on my shelf was science fiction, fantasy, detective fiction, or non-fiction (history, technology, biography, etc...) So I went out and picked up a collection of Richard Matheson short stories called Button, Button (the title story was the source material for a very loose film adaptation, The Box).
It was a very interesting collection of stories, many of which play on variations of the moral dilemma most famous in the title story, Button, Button:
"If you push the button," Mr Steward told him, "somewhere in the world, someone you don't know will die. In return for which you will receive fifty thousand dollars."
In the film adaptation, the "reward" was raised to a million dollars, but then, they also added a ton of other stuff to what really amounts for a tight, 12 page story. Anyway, there are lots of other stories, most containing some sort of moral dilemma along those lines (or someone exploiting such a dilemma). In particular, I enjoyed A Flourish of Strumpets and No Such Thing as a Vampire, but I found myself most intrigued by one of the longer stories, titled Mute. I suppose mild spoilers ahead, if this is something you think you might want to read.
The story concerns a child named Paal. His parents were recent immigrants and he was homeschooled, but his parents died in a fire, leaving Paal to the care of the local Sheriff and his wife. Paal is a mute, and the community is quite upset by this. Paal ends up being sent to school, but his seeming lack of communication skills cause issues, and the adults continually attempt to get Paal to talk.
I will leave it at that for now, but if you're at all familiar with Matheson, you can kinda see where this was going. What struck me most was how much a sign of the times this story was. Of course, all art is a product of its cultural and historical context, but for horror stories, that must be doubly so. Most of the stories in this collection were written and published in the 1950s and early 1960s, which I find interesting. With respect to this story, it's primarily about the crushing pressure of conformity, something that was surely on Matheson's mind after having just finished of the uniformity of the 1950s. The cultural norms of the 50s were perhaps overly traditional, but after having witnessed the deadliest conflict in human history in the 1940s, you can hardly blame people for wanting some semblance of tradition and stability in their lives. Of course, that sort of uniformity isn't really natural evil, and like a pendulum, things swing from one extreme to the other, until eventually things settle down. Or not.
Anyway, writing in the early 60s (or maybe even the late 50s), Matheson was clearly disturbed by the impulse to force conformity, and Mute is a clear expression of this anxiety. Interestingly, the story is almost as horrific in today's context, but for different reasons. Matheson was writing in response to a society that had been emphasizing conformity and had no doubt witness such abuses himself. Interestingly, the end of the story is somewhat bittersweet. It's not entirely tragic, and it's almost an acknowledgement that conformity isn't necessarily evil.
It was not something easily judged, he was thinking. There was no right or wrong of it. Definitely, it was not a case of evil versus good. Mrs. Wheeler, the sheriff, the boy's teacher, the people of German Corners - they had, probably, all meant well. Understandably, they had been outraged at the idea of a seven-year-old boy not having been taught to speak by his parents. Their actions were, in light of that, justifiable and good.
It was simply that, so often, evil could come of misguided good.
In today's world, we see the opposite of the 1950s in many ways. Emphasis is no longer placed on conformity (well, perhaps it still is in some places), but rather a rugged individuality. There are no one-size fits all pieces of culture anymore. We've got hundreds of varieties of spaghetti sauce, thousands of music choices that can fit on a device the size of a business card, movies that are designed to appeal to small demographics, and so on. We deal with problems like the paradox of choice, and the internet has given rise to the niche and concepts like the Long Tail. Of course, rigid non-conformity is, in itself, a form of conformity, but I can't imagine a story like Mute being written in this day and age. A comparable story would be about how lost someone becomes when they don't conform to societal norms...
Posted by Mark on November 10, 2010 at 09:23 PM .:
Best Performance (actor): Joe Spinell as Frank Zito in Maniac
Best Performance (actress): Deborah Kerr as Miss Giddens in The Innocents
Best Supporting Performance (actor): Tom Atkins as Detective Ray Cameron in Night of the Creeps. "Thrill me!"
Best Supporting Performance (actress): Lynda Day George as Detective Mary Riggs in Pieces. "Bastard!" (See clip below)
Best Fight Sequence: Zombie vs Shark, in Zombie (aka Zombi 2). I mean, come on, it's a zombie fighting a shark.
Most Cring-Inducing Death Sequence: Splinter vs eyeball, in Zombie (aka Zombi 2). Disgusting, and shown in gratuitous detail.
The Proximity to Jason Vorhees Award for Heroic Stupidity: Well, the dumbest people in the marathon are certainly the meth-addled heroes in Cookers, but that movie doesn't quite fit. As such, Pieces would probably be the best fit. Both films feature really dumb characters, after all.
Best Comedic Film: It doesn't look like I watched any films that were technically comedies this year (Zombieland would be a shoe-in if I hadn't already seen it last year), so it looks like it will go to Night of the Creeps. More of a loving homage than a parody, but there are lots of comedic elements there.
Scariest Movie: It's a bit strange to say this, but most horror movies aren't really all that scary. They may be disgusting or suspenseful, but when I'm laying in bed at night, I'm not usually haunted by what I've seen. A couple of movies did that this year, and I'll have to go with Dead Birds. Paranormal Activity 2 also has its merits, though I think the creepiness factor is largely a residual effect of the first film...
Well, there you have it. Another successful Halloween horror movie marathon. I'll leave you with the single greatest scene I saw this year, referenced above under the best supporting actress award:
See you next year!
Posted by Mark on October 31, 2010 at 06:09 PM .:
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
6WH: Week 6.5 - Speed Round!
It's time to cover some movies that I've seen recently, but that haven't been discussed in the Six Weeks of Halloween marathon so far. Some of them just didn't fit with a given week's theme and some of them are just things I've seen already (and have maybe even written about). So here goes:
Paranormal Activity 2: Ultimately a repetitive and pretty unnecessary venture, it still manages a few well executed "Boo" moments and they actually manage to retcon a semi-interesting link between the two films (sure, it doesn't make a ton of sense, but it's much better than I was expecting). It's a little too slick and redundant for its own good, but it's not devoid of value and there's something about the premise that just gets under my skin. I'll give this one a pass, but I expect the third installment will finally wear out its welcome... **1/2
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon: It's not really as clever as it wants to be, but it's an interesting, self-aware neo-slasher parody and worth a watch for fans of the sub-genre (as I am). It tries to put a name to the many conventions of the genre, though the only really new terminology that's coined is the concept of an "Ahab" (basically, in the context of slashers, the primary example of an Ahab would be Dr. Loomis from the Halloween films). **1/2
Alice, Sweet Alice: This 1976 movie, on the other hand, is a proto-slasher and prefigures some of the conventions. The Catholic themes and one of the more interesting masks make this a step above most of the sub-genre, though I don't think of it as one of the greatest examples. ***
The Roost: If you've seen any of Ti West's other movies, this one won't really come as a surprise. It's a very deliberately paced tale of... something that lives in a farmhouse and seems to be turning people into zombies. It's obviously low-budget and it's not exactly a great film, but it's clear that West's less-is-more approach works well, even on a small budget. **
Piranha Part Two: The Spawning: I've noted several times that the Piranha series has a surprisingly good pedigree, and for this one, we get James Cameron's second effort as director (apparently he was fired from this film though, so it's not all his fault). It's a surprisingly fun schlock-fest, and while there was a small reprise of the silliness at the end of the most recent Piranha installment, I would have liked to have seen more flying Piranha... **1/2
Zombieland: Revisted this movie and had a blast with it. It's just as funny as it was the first time, it's got the best cameo ever, and in the end, it's a big ball of fun. ***
Ghost Busters: After seeing it mentioned in Zombieland, I had to throw my blu-ray in and watch it. Not much to say about it though - it's a classic! ****
The Hills Have Eyes II: A pretty tiresome retread of a tiresome premise. The big twist this time around is that the victims are in the National Guard. ZOMG! It's still a boring, paint by numbers, gory horror film. I had trouble staying awake. **
Masters of Horror: "The V Word": The MoH series has been wildly inconsistent, and this tale of teens accidentally becoming vampires comes in somewhere around the middle of the pack. It's always nice to see Michael Ironside getting work, but it's otherwise unremarkable. **
Masters of Horror: "The Black Cat": How did Edgar Allen Poe come to write his story "The Black Cat"? Do we care? Not really. I think what I learned in this episode is that Poe was a douche. **
Masters of Horror: "The Washingtonians": A quite intriguing premise, but the episode doesn't quite deliver on the potential. It's one of the more entertaining episodes in the series, and it features the most absurd ending of any of the episodes I've seen. **1/2
Session 9: Haven't seen it yet, but it's on Netflix Watch Instantly, so I'll probably take a gander before Halloween...
Martyrs: Just came in the mail from Netflix. I've heard a lot about this one, and figured it was time to check it out.
The Brood: I've inexplicably neglected Cronenberg's early filmography, and this one just came in the mail too.
Grindhouse: They've finally released the theatrical cut of this movie, complete with fake trailers and missing reels, and I went and bought me the blu-ray as soon as I found out. Now I just need to carve out 3 hours to watch it!
That's all for now. See you on the big day, when I'll probably do some awards (any categories beyond the traditional that I should consider? Let's see, best picture, best director, best performances (actor, actress, supporting, etc...), scariest movie, best kill, and of course, "The Proximity to Jason Vorhees Award for Heroic Stupidity". Anything else?
Posted by Mark on October 27, 2010 at 07:53 PM .:
Sunday, October 24, 2010
6WH: Week 6 - No Discernable Theme Week
These six weeks have absolutely flown by, but lucky for me, Halloween falls on a Sunday this year, which is basically giving me an extra week of horror watching.
The Fog: I really wasn't trying to have a Jamie Lee Curtis movie every week this year, it just seems to have worked out that way (I swears!). This one was on my list for the more mundane (and inexplicable) reason that I never saw this follow-up to John Carpenter's classic, genre-codifying Halloween. The film starts off with an old man (played by the excellent John Houseman) telling a campfire story of tragedy and revenge. Legend has it that an unearthly fog will descend upon the hundred year old fishing town, and the ghosts of murdered sailors will return to take their revenge. The film starts out great, following numerous unexplained occurrences throughout the normally sleepy town and digging into the checkered history of the town's founding. A series of payphones ring, cars in a parking lot start honking and flashing lights, a priest finds an old journal hidden in the walls of the church, and so on. Carpenter captures it all and infuses it with dread. You know nothing terrible is going to happen just yet, but you know this foreshadows a coming menace. The first two thirds of the film do a great job of establishing that atmosphere of dread, and even manage to instill some fear in the blank, featureless fog. The last third becomes a bit more conventional and maybe a bit too convenient, but it's still eminently watchable. The ensemble cast does a reasonable job here. You'll recognize a lot of the smaller folks from Halloween making a reappearance here, as well as some bigger hitters like Janet Leigh, Hal Holbrook, and Adrienne Barbeau (though I think that Barbeau's radio broadcasting schtick kinda wore out its welcome at that same two thirds point of the movie.) It doesn't really approach Carpenter's masterful Halloween or The Thing, but it stands on its own as one of a long string of successful Carpenter flicks in the early 80s. ***
Cookers: Ultra-low budget tale of meth cookers and their paranoia as they use too much of their product and slowly go crazy in the abandoned hose they've chosen to hide-out in. I hated this movie. I think my biggest issue is that I really hate watching people on drugs just for the sake of doing so. If there's a larger purpose to the drug use or a coherent storyline, then it's usually fine, but in this movie, watching meth take its toll on three pretty unlikeable characters is just a torturous experience and I hated almost every second of it. There were occasional respites in the misery, such as when Merle (he wears a John Dear baseball cap and a hillbilly mustache, just in case you didn't understand that he's white trash) recounts an urban legend of a young girl who disappeared mysteriously and the ghost that supposedly abducted her, but even those aren't that great and the way the film attempts to tie that in with the rest of the "story" doesn't really work too well. The film looks like it was shot on a crappy, consumer-grade video camera from the mid-90s. Normally this wouldn't bother me, and to be honest, they did a reasonably good job with what they had... but given that I really fucking hated watching these characters tweaking out, it was just adding to the frustration. I know some folks find this movie entertaining, and I suppose if the concept of watching people tweaking out on meth sounds fun to you, give it a shot, but I really hate this movie. To me, the best part was watching what happens to the character of Hector. The problem was that it took 90 minutes to get there. I wanted it to happen approximately 87 minutes earlier. Not recommended! *
Dead Birds: Another low budget haunted house film, this one turned out, oh, about a million times better than Cookers. It actually takes place during the Civil War era, and it follows some bank robbers who take refuge in an abandoned plantation house after one of their heists (naturally, said heist had gone wrong and lots of people ended up dead). Of course, the house is haunted in the extreme and has no intention of letting the wayward robbers leave. It's an effective setup and it's executed really well. Despite the extreme nature of the characters, they are actually able to induce some empathy, thanks primarily to some excellent casting. Most horror these days tends to cast young and pretty teenagers, but the filmmakers here went for a more seasoned bunch, and the film is better for the choice. Henry Thomas plays the leader of the crew and does an admirable job. Patrick Fugit plays his injured brother, and manages to make a lot out of very little. Nicki Aycox and Isaiah Washington also do quite a good job, despite little in the way of screen time. But the real surprise were the two smallest characters, played by Michael Shannon and Mark Boone Junior (both of whom are guys you'd recognize from other stuff, but not necessarily know all that well - they are "that guy" actors). They're total mercenaries, ruthless and cold (Shannon gets to unleash some pretty unrestrained racist rants, even)... yet, you can't help but enjoy watching them. Ultimately, they get what's coming to them and then some, which is where this movie really surprises. It's very restrained and deliberately paced, and it has an almost Japanese flavor to it, though the setting is distinctly American. In this age of hackneyed remakes and sequels, this makes for a great, refreshing mixture, and while I'm sure some would crave more action, I thought it was pretty well balanced. While I'm sure this had a higher budget than Cookers, it was obviously still quite low, and yet this film looks really good. All of the practical effects are great and the film is photographed really well.
The only real complaint from a visual perspective is the CGI, but that is used quite sparingly and it worked well enough for me The one thing I'm not entirely in love with is the ending. It's not terrible, but it feels like they kinda wrote themselves into a corner. There's no real satisfaction there, and that might have been the point, but there's still something a little off about the ending. Nevertheless, it's well worth the watch. ***
Well, that covers what will unfortunately be the last week of full-time horror movie watching, but stay tuned on Wednesday for the typical Speed Round, feating short capsules of a whole slew of other stuff I've watched during the season. Not sure what I'll be posting on Halloween proper, but I plan to celebrate by rewatching Halloween (natch) and maybe checking out the new Walking Dead series...
Posted by Mark on October 24, 2010 at 08:12 PM .:
Wednesday, October 20, 2010
A few short films of the horror variety:
Posted by Mark on October 20, 2010 at 09:18 PM .:
Sunday, October 17, 2010
6WH: Week 5 - Slashers
Coming down the homestretch already? The past 5 weeks have absolutely flown by... There's still a bunch of movies I want to watch and I'm not sure I'll even be able to get to them. In any case, this week, I got back to basics and went with a favorite sub-genre, the slashers! They've been a staple of previous years, but I specifically attempted to decrease my consumption this year because I like to mix things around a little. So far, I think I've done a pretty good job of that, but I couldn't stay away for too long - here's what I watched:
Terror Train: So I know Jamie Lee Curtis got her start in the Halloween movies and earned the title "Scream Queen" but I never realized how many horror/slasher movies she was involved in in the early 80s slasher explosion. Indeed, this movie marks the second movie I've watched and been surprised to see her in (the other being the Ozploitation flick, Road Games). This film takes place on a scenic train that a bunch of college frat boys have rented out for the night. Of course, a freshman prank gone wrong a few years ago is ripe to be avenged, and you'll never guess who the killer is! Or something. It's a surprisingly tame entry in the slasher sub-genre. There's some brief nudity and some blood, but nothing gratuitous. The unique, cramped setting does make for some nice atmosphere, and the surprise of seeing Jamie Lee Curtis and even a young David Copperfield (an aside: magic shows can be very impressive in person, but they never make the transition to movies very well - we've all see hundreds of making-of documentaries showing how almost anything can be accomplished on screen with a little trickery, even before the era of CGI. As such, while Copperfield's magic is pretty awesome, it's also a bit suspicious.) was a welcome change of pace. It's ultimately not that scary, but there's a lot to like about it. **1/2
The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror VI: Nightmare on Evergreen Terrace (sorry no vid online)
Maniac: Meet Frank Zito. He misses his mommy! He's also a murderous maniac that likes to scalp his victims to create wigs for his collection of mannequins. This is a bit of an oddity when it comes to slasher films. For the most part, the film is told from the perspective of the killer, played by the decidedly odd (and perfect for this part) Joe Spinell (you may remember him as a wiseguy gangster in The Godfather, or as a wiseguy gangster in Rocky). Spinell is perfect in this roll, whether he's delivering manic monologues or just skulking around in his killin outfit, and to the extent that this movie works, it's mostly due to Spinell's performance. The rest is due to the makeup effects by Tom Savini, whose work is as gloriously gratuitous as ever (the standout sequence involves a shotgun shot to the head). Otherwise, the story is a bit of a mess. I guess this is to be expected considering that the story is told from the perspective of a nutjob, but that doesn't really make it an endearing movie. That's not really what it's going for anyway, but that still doesn't make it fun to watch. Then again, I have to admit that it was a bit more artistic than I expected and I did really enjoy the ending, where things just start going way over the top and falling apart. It's a must watch for students of the genre, though it's not one of my favorites. **1/2
Twilight at the Towers, by Clive Barker (Short Story from Cabal)
Pieces: I think you could say the other two films in this post had some sort of relatively high aspirations. Neither were going for an Oscar nod or anything, but they didn't seem like they were just attempts to cash-in on the successful slasher sub-genre. Pieces, on the other hand, is a much more exploitative experience. The story is about a chainsaw-wielding maniac who is chopping off various victims' body parts, presumably to put all the pieces together into a Frankestein-like (perhaps Frankenhooker-like is more accurate) monster. Lots of fun horror tropes here. Axe-wielding kid, the crazy bearded groundskeeper, a kung-fu professor (!?) who claims he ate bad chop suey, a water bed murder, lots of chainsaws that can cut through the human body like butter and gratuitous gore in general. Though not aspiring to much, I think this might have been the most fun of all three of this week's movies. There's some great gore and lots of unintentionally hilarious moments. The highlight for me was when the undercover cop discovers that the killer managed to murder someone right under her nose, after which she exclaims something to the effect of "Bastard! You bastard! BASSSTAAAARD! BAAAAASSTAAAARD!" It goes on for about a minute (I know that doesn't sound much, but a minute of screen time is actually quite long for something like this).
I don't know if the actress was intentionally hamming it up, or if she thought it was her prestige moment, but I prefer to think of it as the latter, as that makes me laugh even more. The other notable sequence is the very last scene. I don't want to ruin it because it is pretty surprising, but it's... eye opening, to say the least. **1/2
That's all for now. No idea what's next, but I think it's probably time for a no discernible theme week! Maybe I'll have some updates on Wednesday as well... Oh, and go Phillies!
Posted by Mark on October 17, 2010 at 02:25 PM .:
Wednesday, October 13, 2010
6WH: Link Dump: Other Halloween Movie Marathons
It would seem that I'm not the only one watching lots of horror movies in preparation for Halloween. Here are a few blogs I follow that have been watching tons of movies:
Six Weeks of Halloween - I would be remiss if I didn't call out kernunrex first, as the whole reason I do my six week marathon is because of him, and he's racking up quite the list this year, posting reviews almost every day.
Final Girl: Stacie Ponder, as always, has wonderful things to post during the month she dubs Shocktober. This year, she's been collating a number of top 20 horror lists that people sent her (much to her surprise, she ended up with 732 different movies on the master list, which is pretty astounding). She's also got other lists, and some more lists, and pretty much lists everywhere. This blog has been a long time Kaedrin favorite, so give it a shot.
Need Coffee - As per usual, Widge and the gang are watching lots of movies and finding obscure audio and video horror bits that are always fun to check out.
Horror Movie a Day: I'm sure everyone thinks they're all badass for watching horror movies all month, but Brian watchings horror movies every day, all year long. And posts about them too. And he's been doing so for several years now. I'm kinda in awe of this.
Midnight Tease: I seem to have infected Ben with a desire to participate, which he's been doing on a weekly basis like myself. Some interesting stuff, as always.
Hey! Look Behind You: Nicki has been doing a 31 days of Halloween thing as well, with at least a post a day. I don't know how everyone does it. I can barely keep up posting twice a week!
I'm leaving out hundreds of blogs here, but lucky for me, Countdown to Halloween has a pretty large list of other blogs doing the month of horror thing, so if you're still itching for more horror, check it out.
That is all for now. I think this weekend I'll be getting back into some bread-and-butter slasher films of the early eighties.
Posted by Mark on October 13, 2010 at 08:02 PM .:
Sunday, October 10, 2010
6WH: Week 4 - Zombies!
The Six Weeks of Halloween horror movie marathon continues with some zombies! I've never actually been that big a fan of zombie movies. Sure there are a few good ones and they have a certain amount of influence within the genre, but there's something that never really connects with me. They're such a blank slate that you can apply almost any sort of sociological message to them, which is one reason we see so many zombie movies. This isn't to say that the sub-genre of zombie movies is worthless though, and I can certainly accept that many people find these movies and their repetitive tropes to be comforting (after all, I'm a self-admitted slasher fan). Indeed, I don't mind the more mindless entries in the sub-genre, it's when pretensions start to run high that I start to waver. Nevertheless, there have always been some zombie movies that I've wanted to see for one reason or another, and below are three:
Zombi 2 (aka Zombie): In 1978, George A. Romero released Dawn of the Dead to worldwide success. In Italy, it was released as "Zombi" and Italian director Lucio Fulci was so taken by the movie that he made his own zombie movie and called it "Zombi 2". Of course, Fulci's movie was not related to Romero's film in any way and to make matters even more confusing, "Zombi 2" was released in the US simply as "Zombie". In any case, this was the film that really cemented Fulci's career (see earlier 6WH post on Giallo films for more Fulci), and it establishes many of the mainstays of his later cinema: zombies, gratuitous gore, eye gags, etc... This film, in particular, is notable for two standout sequences. First, there is a scene where a zombie fights a shark (seriously, the scene takes place underwater - you may have seen parts of this scene recut into a Windows 7 commercial, with a Discovery channel voiceover). This battle alone is worth the price of admission here, but there is another sequence that actually made me cringe. That scene features an eye gouging in explicit detail. The rest of the film is pretty much your average zombie island film. The characters aren't especially well established and the story is practically non-existent, but who cares, there are zombies fighting sharks here people! **1/2
Cemetery Man: I have to admit, I have no idea what's going on in this movie. Is it supposed to be a black comedy? Is it some sort of weird existential meditation on life and death and sex and relationships? Or is it just a pointless series of zombie gags? Rupert Everett plays Francesco Dellamorte (which translates to Francesco of Death), the titular cemetery man who works in a town where the dead come back to life about 7 days after they're buried (after which, he kills them (again)). He has a brief relationship with a widow (who becomes a zombie and thus must be killed), and then he starts to lose his mind and kill human beings (instead of the zombies he normally takes care of)... but someone else keeps taking credit for his kills. There's also a pretty funny episode where his mute assistant falls in love with a zombie head. The zombies here are a bit weird - they talk and act like regular humans, except that they seem to have developed a taste for flesh. Anyway, by the end, I wasn't sure what was going on and I didn't really care much either. For people who appreciate ultra-weird movies like Meet the Feebles or Delicatessen, you might want to take a gander, but even then, this is an inferior movie. It's stylish, but I'm not sure there's much of a point. **
Night of the Creeps: Does this technically count as a zombie movie? Most descriptions of the film mention the term zombie, but these aren't your typical zombies. They're really just dead people who are hosting a slug-like alien creature. Director Fred Dekker clearly has a love for old-school SF and horror movies (not to mention noirish pot-boilers), and you can really see that shining through (the same can be said for Dekker's more popular The Monster Squad), from the opening sequence (set in space!) to the hilarious noir detective/action hereo, played brilliantly by Tom Atkins. He answers the phone and bellows "Thrill me!" Later, in a nifty bit of self-awareness, he exclaims: "What is this? A homicide, or a bad B-movie?" If you've ever seen James Gunn's excellent Slither, you'll notice a lot of similarities here. It's not a classic or anything but it's a ton of fun and well worth a watch. ***
That's all for now. Not sure what next week's theme will be (if there is one!) but right now, it's looking like either Silent Horror or slashers. We shall see. There also might be a few mid-week updates if I see more movies...
Posted by Mark on October 10, 2010 at 04:10 PM .:
Sunday, October 03, 2010
6WH: Week 3 - Ozploitation!
Last year, I had the good fortune of watching Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!. I love these types of documentaries about a narrow spectrum of movies. Making-of documentaries about a single film tend to get a bit repetitive, but in a movie like Not Quite Hollywood, you can cover dozens of interesting films (in this case, the film covers tons of obscure films from Australia's exploitation film industry). Unfortunately, not a ton of these films are available on DVD/Netflix, but I was able to find several for this week's Halloween movie marathon:
Patrick: Richard Franklin's slow-burning tale of a nurse assigned to take care of a comatose patient named Patrick is quite the interesting film. The central performance here is from Robert Thompson as the titular Patrick. He spends the entire film in a stationary position, laying down on the bed, staring blankly and unblinkingly forward. It's a seemingly simple and repetitive performance, but the more I think about it, the more I'm impressed by it. Thompson can't react to anything that's going on around him. He can't blink, he can't focus his eyes on movement, he can't flinch. This sort of passive performance has to be harder than it looks, and it's strangely effective at establishing tension in the film. You just keep waiting for something to happen...
Of course, that's not the only thing this film has going for it. Director Richard Franklin freely admits to his aping of Hitchcock's style, and while I don't think this film really approaches the hights of Hitchcock's best, it's well above the average horror film in terms of photography and framing. The characterizations are surprisingly well done and and the manifestations of Patrick's power ramp up in a well planned progression. I'm sure there are some people who would find the film slow and poorly paced, but I found myself engaged throughout the entire film and never got bored. All in all, it's an effective film and well worth a watch. ***
Thirst: I'm not entirely sure what to make of this film. A wealthy woman is kidnapped and informed that she comes from a long line of vampires. The kidnappers claim to be superior to the human race due to the fact that they drink blood. They "farm" humans for their blood, and they're attempting to condition our heroine to drink blood, and thus fulfill her family's destiny. Or something. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense. The centerpiece of the film is a half-hour long dream sequence, thrusting our heroine from one horror set-piece to another. Actually, I'm not sure if the entire film isn't a series of dream sequences. There's a certain unreliability to what we're watching, and added to the lack of coherent story, I don't think it works particularly well. There are a few standout sequences, such as the shower scene or the woman drowning in a vat of blood, but ultimately I'm not sure it was done in service of anything worthwhile. If you're a huge fan of cults or vampires, it might be worth a watch, but it didn't do too much fore me... **
Road Games: When I was in high school, I drove across the US with my brother and uncle. One of the interesting things about such trips is that you actually tend to see the same people over and over again. You might pass someone in the morning, stop for lunch, then pass the same car again later in the day. You might see the same folks at the camp site every night, and so on. Apparently this phenomenon is even more pronounced in Australia, where there are only a handful of roads that take you across the continent. Writer Everett De Roche and Director Richard Franklin, both big Hitchcock fans, looked at that phenomenon and somehow came up with the idea of creating a sorta moving Rear Window. Instead of setting it in an apartment complex, they set it on the road, which allowed them to show the same set of recurring characters over and over again while instilling a certain kinetic energy into the story. Of course, the film doesn't entirely live up to , but it's still a rather effective thriller.
The story concerns a truck driver who notices a strange green van that's picking up hitchhikers in conjunction with a series of disappearances. The truck driver is played by Stacy Keach, and he's a surprisingly well established character. He seems to be a big fan of poetry, constantly quoting his favorites and playing games with the hitchhikers that he picks up. When he says that he's a man who drives trucks, not a truck driver, you almost believe him. He picks up Jamie Lee Curtis at one point, and she seems hellbent on discovering what's going on with the green van.
I think I knew I was in for a good movie here when I saw the first murder sequence. At first, I thought I was going to be seeing kinda standard slasher fare, but Franklin immediately defied those expectations with a gorgeously photographed and well orchestrated horror sequence. The film is nearly bloodless, but it almost doesn't feel like it. There are only a handful of attacks, and they tend to rely on implied violence rather than gory detail. When I was planning out this week's movies, I didn't realize that this film and Patrick were done by the same director, but I'm glad I've discovered Richard Franklin and look forward to perhaps seeing more of his work in the future... ***
The one film I wanted to see but didn't get to here was Howling III: The Marsupials, which looks like an incredibly cheesy, low-budget blast. It's actually available on Netflix Watch Instantly, but I just ran out of time. In any case, I'm hoping enough other films will be available for another week of Ozploitation next year, as I really enjoyed these movies (I'm even glad I watched Thirst, even though it's not quite my thing)...
Posted by Mark on October 03, 2010 at 08:01 PM .:
Wednesday, September 29, 2010
6WH: Slasher Statistics
There are certain RULES that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie. For instance, number one: you can never have sex. BIG NO NO! BIG NO NO! Sex equals death, okay? Number two: you can never drink or do drugs. The sin factor! It's a sin. It's an extension of number one. And number three: never, ever, ever under any circumstances say, "I'll be right back." Because you won't be back. -- Randy (Scream, 1996)
The slasher film is an unusual beast. It's often criticized for its lack of originality, simplistic premises, repetitive nature, and strict adherence to formula. Of course, it's often praised for such qualities as well. For fans of the slasher, watching a new film that follows the formula is like eating comfort food.
Ahhh, horror comfort food. Watching an '80s bodycount film, I find, is relaxing. You kinda know what's going to happen and all of the characters act in predictable ways, but that's why it's like putting a sweater on on a chilly day.
The funny thing about this is that the so-called formula isn't exactly precise. I've written about genres in general before:
A genre is typically defined as a category of artistic expression marked by a distinctive style, form, or content. However, anyone who is familiar with genre film or literature knows that there are plenty of movies or books that are difficult to categorize. As such, specific genres such as horror, sci-fi, or comedy are actually quite inclusive. Some genres, Drama in particular, are incredibly broad and are often accompanied by the conventions of other genres (we call such pieces "cross-genre," though I think you could argue that almost everything incorporates "Drama"). The point here is that there is often a blurry line between what constitutes one genre from another.
As such, it's usually easy to spot a Slasher flick, even if there are lots of traits that are uncommon or unique. That being said, there are a number of characteristics common to a lot of slasher films:
A Killer: Usually a lone, male killer, but not always.
Victims: Usually more than two victims, introduced at the beginning and slowly killed off as the film progresses (in the manner of Ten Little Indians)
A Survivor: Usually a female, and usually the main protagonist that defeats the killer in the end.
Gratuitious Violence: Usually a variety of weaponry is used to dispatch the victims in a relatively gruesome manner. Rarely are impersonal weapons (such as guns) used, except in certain exotic cases (such as the speargun, common to the Friday the 13th series). More personal weapons, like knives and other bladed weapons, are usually the norm, and the result is generally depicted in gory detail.
Sex: Nudity and sex are usually involved, and are generally indicators that those participating will die. Sometimes this is a deliberate commentary on sexuality, sometimes it's just a more specific example of punishing those who are distracted.
History: There is usually some tragedy in the past that is being revisited upon the present in some way. This is less common than the above tropes, but still frequent enough to be mentioned.
There are tons of other tropes that I could go into, but that covers a good portion of the conventions used in the slasher film. Another interesting thing about the slasher film is that while there are a number of Ur Examples (i.e. primitive slashers) and Trope Makers/Codifiers, there are some pretty distinct time periods that are important. Again, there are lots of pre-slashers, notably movies like Psycho and Black Christmas1, but for all intents and purposes, the slasher film started in 1978 with Halloween and went into overdrive with the release of Friday the 13th in 1980. The period between 1980 and 1983 saw the release of countless imitators and sequels, and by 1986, the sub-genre had slowed considerably2. There were still some series limping by (Friday the 13th, Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, etc...), but by the mid-90s, the sub-genre was all but dead. Wes Craven then revived things with the ultra-self-aware, mega-referential Scream, but by that point, the tropes of the sub-genre were so well established that subverting them became the order of the day. Post-Scream slashers don't quite resemble the early 80s slashers and perhaps deserve their own sub-genre definition (neo-slashers?).3
So to me, the "true" slasher film was made between the years of 1978 and 1996, with the primary concentration being in the early 80s. Sure, there were a ton of influential films made before 1978 that featured or established important tropes, but none of those films even approached the success of Halloween and it's imitators. Similarly, films made after Scream were forced to acknowledge the tropes and conventions of the sub-genre, and thus they shouldn't really count.
In 1992, Carol Clover coined the term Final Girl to describe the lone surviving character at the end of slasher films, and a new controversy was born. Because of its seemingly rigid conventions, the slasher film is ripe for post-modern interpretations and deconstructions, and it's easy to get carried away with such things. Clover started a more academic discussion of the sub-genre, and it's continued for the past 18 years. The discussion has mostly revolved around the role of women in these films, with the general contention being that more women are killed than men, and in a more graphic way. There have been papers arguing one way or the other, and as you might expect, none are particularly definitive.
The article is detailed and thorough enough that it would be of interest to any fans of the genre, even if it's possible to nitpick a number of details in their methodology. Given what I wrote about above, I think you can see where my nitpicking was focused. In particular, I was baffled by the film sample list (see page 11).
Earlier in the article, the authors discuss previous efforts, and dismiss them for various reasons. One of the previous articles is criticized for a small sample size - which is a pretty legitimate criticism. Another is criticized because it selected films by commercial success:
The sample size
in the Molitor and Sapolsky (1993) study is adequate; however the decision to sample the most commercially successful films may raise problems with sample bias and interpretation of the findings (Molitor & Sapolsky, 1993; Sapolsky et al., 2003). Films featuring frequent presentations of extremely graphic violence may appeal to a smaller audience, generating lower box office revenues. Thus, the findings in the existing research may not reflect the true nature of violent presentations characteristic of the slasher subgenre.
This I find less valid, especially given the author's concerns surrounding the impact of slasher films on society. If a film is not commercially successful, it is less influential, almost by definition.
All that being said, the authors came up with a new methodology which involved using IMDB's power search capabilities. To my mind, their new methodology is probably just as problematic as previous studies. Their definition of the slasher sub-genre seems a bit broad, and as such, some of the films chosen as part of their study are questionable at best. For one thing, they include several pre-Halloween films and several post-Scream films, which dilutes the sample. Indeed, some of the films are arguably not even slashers. For instance, the inclusion of two Saw films seems like a bit of a stretch. It is true that Saw leverages some similar tropes, but it's also one of the defining films in a different sub-genre - the "Torture Porn" film. Perhaps I'm splitting hairs, but I can't imagine anyone jumping to Saw when asked to think of a slasher film.
The lack of any sort of measurement of influence is another issue. This is a more general problem, but it impacts this study in particular due to the random nature of the sample collection. For instance, there is no way that a movie like Cherry Falls should be used as a representative member of the slasher sub-genre. A study that focuses on commercial success of a film (i.e. box office and home video sales) would never have included that film.
Ultimately, these complaints amount to nitpicks. Even with these flaws, some of the study's conclusions are still interesting:
Contrary to the findings reported in previous research, the current analysis suggests that there are several differences in the nature of violent presentations involving male and female characters. Male characters in slasher horror films are more likely to experience relatively quick, graphic, and serious acts of violence. Comparatively, female characters are more likely to be victims of less serious and less graphic forms of violence, such as stalking or confinement, with increased cinematic focus on depicting close-up states of prolonged terror. Women in slasher films are also more likely to be featured in scenes involving sexual content. Specifically, female characters are far more likely to be featured as partially or fully naked and, when sexual and violent images are concomitantly present, the film’s antagonist is significantly more likely to attack a woman.
This is ultimately not all that surprising, though I do wonder about a few things. For instance, since the Final Girl is a common convention, and since the final battle with the killer is likely to last a lot longer than earlier murders, it would make sense that the violence against women characters is less serious, but prolonged. I suppose one could also argue about the inclusion of non-physical violence as violence, which could get a bit hairy. The stats surrounding nudity and sex are also interesting, though I wonder how they would compare against other film genres (action films, for instance). The study presents the slasher as some sort of outlier, but I don't know if that's the case (not that it would excuse anything). I don't know that any of these correlations can be tied to a causation, but it's interesting nonetheless.
It's an interesting article, and well worth a read for anyone interested in the sub-genre. Thanks to And Now the Screaming Starts for the pointer and stay tuned for the next installment of the Six Weeks of Halloween movie marathon. That's all for now, but don't worry, I'll be right back!
2 In particular, April Fool's Day and Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI, both released in 1986, began to recognize the conventions of the genre and started the self-awareness trend that would culminate in Craven's Scream. There are probably lots of other good slashers made during this 1986-1996 corridor, but the slasher film was seriously on the decline at that point.
3 It might be a bit insulting to Film Noir, but there are some parallels here. Critics basically defined the film noir after the fact and once that definition became popular, all new films that featured noir-like characteristics became known as neo-noir. Of course, this is not a perfect parallel, but there is a similarity here. Once people self-consciously started making noir films, they lost a certain quality, and the same is probably true for the slasher, and in particular, films like Scream and those that followed.
Posted by Mark on September 29, 2010 at 08:16 PM .:
Sunday, September 26, 2010
6WH: Week 2 - Sixties Horror
At first, I didn't think I'd have a recognizable theme this week, but then I realized that these three films were all made in the 1960s (even though one is probably more of a thriller than a horror film, I'm going to let it slide, especially since it does feature several horror hallmarks). So here we go:
The Innocents: The quiz I posted on Wednesday featured a question about picking a Freddie Frances directed movie, and my answer indicated that his fimography as a cinematography was more impressive, and The Innocents is a prime example of why. Speaking of that quiz, I think one of the questions could have been something like "The Innocents or The Haunting", as these two films certainly share a certain thematic similarity. The Innocents isn't as bold or striking as The Haunting, but that sort of subtlety is its defining characteristic. The film is an exercise in suggestive storytelling, so the lack of pyrotechnics is appropriate and even contributes to the film's repressive atmosphere. This isn't to say that the film is poorly made - it's just that the filmmakers are so confident in their story (based on Henry James' horror milestone, The Turn of the Screw) that they don't feel the need to spice things up with flashy camera angles or stinging audio cues. The camera moves fluidly and the cinematography is gorgeous, but neither really calls attention to itself. The acting, especially Deborah Kerr's performance, is very good, but again, not showy. Kerr's repressed personality is well portrayed, but this doesn't exactly set the screen on fire (nor should it).
The story concerns a governess hired to take care of two children in a country manner. The children's parents have died, and their uncle is a lifelong bachelor who is unwilling to change his ways, so he hires Miss Giddens (played wonderfully by Deborah Kerr) to take care of the kids. When she first arrives, she meets young Flora and all seems well. But then Flora's brother Miles comes home early, having been expelled for reasons that are unclear. As the story proceeds, we get hints that the previous nanny and caretaker were lovers and that they've corrupted the children somehow. Like Miles expulsion from school, the servants transgressions are never really all that clear, and all we have to go on are certain suggestive cues.
There are some genuinely creepy moments in the film, and there's certainly something to be said for a subtle and suggestive story, but something rubbed me the wrong way about this film. It may have been the ending that left me a bit cold, or maybe it was just that I kept thinking about The Haunting as I was watching this movie. Director Jack Clayton has said that he wanted to get away from the popular horror films of the day (his contemporary competition would have been Hammer Horror), and in that, he has certainly succeeded (I like this film much more than the Hammer films I've seen). There's a lot to like here and the film probably deserves a larger audience, but I also think there's a reason this is a cult film that's often overshadowed by the likes of The Haunting. **1/2
Carnival of Souls: Moody and atmospheric, this tale of a car crash's lone survivor is short and sweet. The most notable thing about the movie for me is the soundtrack. Our heroine is an organist, you see, and she's been hired to play for a local church. But after her accident, she seems strangely withdrawn... almost like she doesn't have a soul! The organ-heavy soundtrack is quite evocative and Candace Hilligoss's empty (in a good way) performance hits the perfect note. It's difficult to tell a story with a main character who has no soul because, well, how can the audience relate to that? But Hilligoss imbues her performance with enough pathos that you can't help but feel for her. Plus, she keeps seeing this strange ghoul-faced man all over the place, eventually leading her to explore an abandoned carnival, and as you might expect, things get even weirder from there, including an interesting but not entirely unexpected ending. **1/2
Wait Until Dark: Perhaps less of a horror film than a mere thriller, this film does feature a number of striking horror-like sequences, enough so that I'm not going to disqualify it (plus, uh, I didn't have any other sixties films lined up for this week:p). The plot is simple and maybe a little gimmicky. A doll stuffed with drugs accidentally makes its way to the apartment of Susy Hendrix (Audrey Hepburn), and a group of criminals (lead by a sinister, infamous-sunglasses-wearing Alan Arkin) conspires to get it back by conning Susy.
The gimmick here is that Susy is blind, leading to several scenes where our villains attempt to exploit their ocular advantage. Unfortunately for them, they're not as smart as they think, and Susy pretty quickly figures out what's going on (or, at least, she realizes that things aren't as they appear). The film starts a bit slowly, but the tension mounts pretty evenly as the film proceeds, leading to a few standout sequences late in the film, including excellent use of darkness, sound, and an exceptional "boo!" sequence towards the end of the film that will probably shock you even though you were expecting it. ***
Not positive what will be next, but coming up will definitely be a week of Silent Era Horror and some Ozploitation.
Update: Yeah, I should probably mention some other folks doing some horror movie blogging as well. Ben has been infected by my efforts and inspired to watch some horror in preparation for the season (this time, he's going for underwater horror), and of course, kernunrex continues his yearly marathon (which had originally inspired me in the first place). I haven't looked around a ton, but I'm sure lots more folks will be starting up once we reach October...
Posted by Mark on September 26, 2010 at 10:00 PM .:
Sunday, September 19, 2010
Six Weeks of Halloween 2009: Week 1 - Giallo Films
Halloweentime is my favorite time of the year, and like kernunrex, I celebrate the season by watching a ton of horror movies, eating bite-sized candy, drinking pumpkin flavored beer, and playfully decorating my home with (fake) corpses and mutilated pumpkins. I've got Netflix queue full of movies and only 6 weeks to get through them all, but if you have any suggestions, feel free to leave a comment or play along!
I'm starting this year with a distinctive Italian sub-genre known as the Giallo. The word "giallo" means "yellow" in Italian, and the sub-genre takes that name because of the distinctive yellow backgrounds on a series of pulpy, Italian crime/mystery novels.
The defining characteristics of these stories are all familiar to fans of traditional pulp fiction. There's usually a whodunit murder/mystery element, combined with lurid sexual themes and often bloody violence. These films started appearing the in the early 1960s and ultimately lead into the slasher craze of the early 80s (may of the elements of the slasher are prefigured in Giallo films - more on this below).
Blood and Black Lace (1963): The origins of the modern slasher film are usually traced back to Hitchcock's Psycho. That film, of course, is not really a slasher, but it originates some of the common tropes of the sub-genre. Rumor has it that Italian director Mario Bava saw Hitchcock's film and was so inspired by the brilliantly staged death sequences that he vowed to make a movie with three times as many deaths. And thus was born the body-count movie. Even beyond that, this film prefigures the modern slasher more than any other of its contemporaries (until 1974's Black Christmas). Besides the body count, it also features a masked killer (and it's a surprisingly effective mask, perhaps because it's so simple and elegant), some POV shots, lots of young models, and well staged, violent deaths though means of elaborate or unusual weaponry (in particular, the three-pronged metal claw stolen off of a piece of armor). Of course, Bava is a much more talented filmmaker than much of the slasher-ilk that would follow, and this film features several exceptional set pieces, and not all of them are murder sequences either.
The film takes place in an Italian modeling agency/fashion house. The first victim is almost immediately dispatched and later, one of the models finds the victim's diary and places it in her purse. Bava playfully dances around the scene, first executing a quick montage of paranoid onlookers, then orchestrating a long sequence where the bag never leaves the camera's gaze, but characters maneuver around the screen, attempting to get at the diary (which presumably holds some sort of clue about her murderer, and the assumption at this point is that it's someone at the fashion house that's responsible).
The production design is also well done. It seems to feature a lot of ornate, body-shaped objects such as mannequins, statues, and suits of armor. The effect being that you always feel like you're seeing people who aren't really there. Bava's impeccable sense of framing almost always frames the murders in the presence of these figures (Bava will also follow up a murder by moving the camera towards an angelic figure, an interesting symbolic motif that persists throughout the film). Ultimately, the story of the film is rather commonplace by today's standards, but it's extremely well made. Bava is known as the father of Italian horror, and his influence can be seen far and wide, both in future Italian cinema as well as American cinema. Bava's Twitch of the Death Nerve (aka Bay of Blood) is especially influential (it's another slasher precursor, and it's also blatantly copied by the early Friday the 13th films, especially part 2) and Planet of the Vampires seems to have an awful lot in common with Alien (though Bava's film absolutely pales in comparison to Alien). All in all, Blood and Black Lace is a great film for those in love with the genre. It may seem a bit tame by today's standards, but that's only because we're so used to the conventions this film helped to establish. ***1/2
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970): Dario Argento's directorial debut is a well executed murder mystery that shows some hints of what's to come in that director's career. In a lot of ways, it's very derivative of the aforementioned Blood and Black Lace, but Argento manages to assert himself a bit by the end of the film. Many of his trademark themes are here, in particular the idea of a protagonist who sees something of great importance but doesn't realize the significance of what they saw (or can't remember a key detail of what they saw). One of the interesting things about this film is that on the police procedural side of the story, we see a lot of precursors to the current forensic craze (represented by TV shows like CSI, etc...). This film taking place in the 60s, the methods are somewhat primitive, but it's an interesting element (and it makes me wonder if, thirty years from now, some joker will be saying the same things about CSI). While I've not seen a ton of Argento's films, this film ultimately takes a back seat to his later works, in particular the exceptional Deep Red. This film is worth a watch for Argento fans, but if you're not familiar with him, I'd recommend Deep Red ahead of this... **1/2
Don't Torture a Duckling (1972): Lucio Fulci's disturbing and controversial tale of a series of child murders is reasonably well made and very disturbing. Part of this is just because of the subject matter - killing kids is a pretty lurid and manipulative thing to do to an audience, but this film goes there, and it doesn't flinch. Interestingly, the most disturbing death scene in the movie features no children at all. I don't want to ruin the sequence for anyone who decides to see this, but the way Fulci juxtaposes music with the violence during the sequence is expertly done. And that scene is quite violent and relatively gory, even by today's standards (well, maybe not quite, but it's close). Fulci would later become known for his out-of-control gore, but he's still somewhat restrained at this point in his career (the zombie films he produced in the late 70s and early 80s are another story). The controversy surrounding the film is not only because of the age of the victims, but because of a somewhat critical stance against the Church, which is apparently something of a no-no in Italian cinema. The film was only released in the US on DVD in the past few years. Like Argento's Crystal Plumage, this film is a solid example of the genre, but probably not for a casual viewer (if you enjoy Deep Red and Blood and Black Lace, you might like this).
Well, that about covers it for this week. Except that I probably need to watch a dozen other Giallo movies! Lots more movies on the docket for this year, including a few good old fashion hauntings, some crazy Japanese splatter films, and maybe even some silent horror. Stay tuned!
Posted by Mark on September 19, 2010 at 06:55 PM .:
Sunday, November 08, 2009
So I finished up my yearly horror movie marathon on Halloween last week, and it seems that while most bloggers didn't partake in an entire 6 weeks of horror movie watching, many did fire up their DVD players on Halloween weekend... their posts have been hitting all this week, including people who watched many of my favrorite series. Here's a few links:
Not really scary, anymore...a bunch of jump scares is all that's left. Although I can see how this movie could have been really scary when it first came out. I think Freddy may have been the first "Supernatural Monster Demon" slasher. The modern audience is so steeped in the tropes and concepts of slasher movies now that the concept isn't frightening anymore.
It's an interesting point: Context matters. I have to wonder if audiences today would be as terrified of the movie as I was... I ended up writing rather lengthy comments in response (and, uh, just blabbing about the movie), which I will excerpt a bit here (I suppose it's kinda tacky to post a quote of my own comments, but whatever):
I was terrified by the first NoES when I was a kid, and I think there is still some residual terror there for me. The thing that really scares me is the inescapable nature of the plot. How do you hide from something that gets you when you sleep? Also: Some of the best and most creative death scenes in all of slasherdom.
One of my favorite things about the series is that it takes a common trope and crutch of the horror genre - the dream sequence - and really explores it in a unique and interesting way. Normally dream sequences are used (and overused) as a sorta false scare. In NoES series, they ARE the scare. Then there's the way that Craven plays around with the perceptions of waking life and dreaming, sometimes implying one when the other is what's really happening. It's a movie that invites more intellectual engagement than most slashers, which again separates it from the pack.
The other notable component about Freddy is that he's got a personality. The other classic slashers like Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers are almost robotic in nature. They are implacable and yet almost predictable. Freddy's personality certainly isn't pleasant. He's a vicious sadist with a wicked sense of humor, but that's something that is missing from the grand majority of slasher films (indeed, most slashers don't even talk, and even when they do, they don't say much).
Ben also covers part 2 and part 3 in his post (including an interesting bit about dysfunctional families - I'm in Ben's boat when it comes to that discussion)... I had planned to cover more of the series in this year's 6WH series, but got stuck at part 3, as Netflix was stuck on "Very Long Wait" (and it appears to still be there). I've seen bits and pieces of most of the films, but I've only seen a few of them from beginning to end, and one that I really want to catch up with is New Nightmare. That movie is intriguing for a couple of reasons. First, Wes Craven returns to the series he created and puts a new spin on things (and I like Craven's style). Second, it was apparently Craven's first attempt at a sorta post-ironic slasher... an approach he would score with in his later film, Scream. It should be interesting to see what the upcoming Elm Street remake brings to the table as well (at the very least, I bet we can expect a nice new edition of the original on Blu-Ray, right? That's one big benefit of the recent horror remake trend...)
Friday the 13th: What’s it all about, Jason?: Justin Zyduck watched a few Friday the 13th movies in preparation for Halloween, and he seems to have a very common reaction to the series (at least, among folks my age): "It’s my favorite horror series, and I’m not always sure why." Heh. Indeed, this sort of feeling seems to be common amongst all horror films, leading to similar statements about all sorts of other movies. I suspect it has something to do with the irrational nature of fear. Not that I'm immune or anything. For instance, I have oftenprofessed my inexplicable love of Phantasm and earlier this year, I revisited all the Friday the 13th movies even though I have no idea why I enjoy them so much. Anywho, Justin eventually settles on Jason as the reason he likes the series so much:
He’s not a character, he’s a big scary guy who walks around killing whoever he comes upon. Jason is a gimmick - and I say that as someone who loves Jason. A good gimmick is still a gimmick, and Jason as a horror icon owes everything - everything - to being a fantastic visual; there’s no reason in the story or thematically why he should be wearing a hockey mask, but it works to create a haunting image.
It's a good post. He also mentions His Name Was Jason, a fluffy little documentary covering the history of the franchise. It's a decent watch, but I found it lacking for some reason. I think it's missing some of the outside perspective of the films, instead focusing in on those who actually made the films. Maybe that's a bit harsh... I just wish Wes Craven and John Carpenter interviews were in every horror documentary.
On Army of Darkness: Kelson celebrated the holiday by watching the Evil Dead movies, and in a little bit of horror blasphemy, mentions that his favorite of the series is actually Army of Darkness. He also makes an excellent observation about the series:
I also started thinking about what sets the Evil Dead trilogy apart from other 1980s horror series: instead of focusing on the villains, the later installments are all about the hero.
Friday the 13th? All about Jason. Nightmare on Elm Street? Freddie Kruger. Hellraiser? Pinhead and the Cenobites.
Evil Dead? Ash. Hail to the King.
Brilliant. To me, the other interesting thing about this series has always been how it encapsulated the trajectory of the horror genre throughout the 80s and into the 90s. The Evil Dead was made in 1981 and was an excellent low-budget horror film. It wasn't perfect, but it was an earnest effort and it's primary purpose was to establish tension. Evil Dead II was made in 1987, and here you see pretty much the same story as part 1, but with more comedic overtones. There were still some scares, but you also saw elements of slapstick and other physical comedy. By 1992, the series had morphed into outright comedy. There were a few horror elements in Army of Darkness, but more than anything else, the purpose of that film was to make you laugh. Horror was not doing so well as a movie genre in the 90s, in large part because it had become laughable. No one was scared anymore. This also went for series like Nightmare on Elm Street, which stopped being scary somewhere around part 4 (though I'm not sure, as I haven't revisited yet:) Freddy's once creepy and sadistic villain became a caricature of himself, relying a little too much on one liners and silly jokes. I don't mean to imply that the Evil Dead movies caused this or that they're bad or anything, I just think they encapsulate the phenomenon rather well (and in just 3 movies made during the 10-11 year span).
Socialists and Zombies: Not sure if Fledge was watching zombie movies for Halloween, but he has some interesting musings about:
...an allegorical film where zombies attack a town in the usual fashion, and are killed off by shotguns by the usual rouugh types, but for some reason everyone in the film never uses the word “zombies”, instead they call them “socialists” - and instead of brains, the zombies go looking for wallets.
It's perhaps a bit too blatant for my tastes, but then, that's part of the reason I don't care much for zombie movies. The socio-political statements are always too obvious. Of course, as with any metaphor, you can twist it to mean something else if you try hard enough. To me, zombies could almost always be read as representative of socialism. There is no private ownership in zombie society. They allocate resources (i.e. food) as they find it. You don’t see zombies hoarding resources, nor do you usually see zombies eating a body by themselves. The limiting factor seems to be how many zombies can physically surround the food. There is no greed, there is no hierarchy, there is no emotion, hell, there is no money in zombie society. There are no poor or rich - all are equal. Even in George Romero's original Dawn of the Dead, you could read the zombies that way. The film would still be a scathing indictment of consumer culture and capitalism, but those elements are captured very well by the humans in the film. In any case, I still don't care for zombies. They're just too easy to map fears onto.
Completely unrelated, but I got my PS3 Netflix disc on Friday. It's a bit of an awkward experience (you have to put a disc into the PS3 every time you want to watch) and it can be very sloooow... but in the end, I'm still excited. It's probably not as good as the XBox functionality, but it's a lot better than my experiments with PlayOn and other media streaming solutions. Again, it's slow, but the quality seems pretty good (and I haven't even watched one of the available HD movies) and the experience is fine for now. Also, I'm pretty sure the awkward experience is due to some sort of XBox exclusivity deal Netflix is trying to get around by using a disc. It's rumored that the functionality will be made available directly on the XMB next year (and that the whole disc thing will just go away). I'm also assuming some improvements in the application as time goes on. This seems to be the way Sony has been operating with PSN. It seems to be steadily improving as time goes on, and of course, it's free so I don't have to pay to use internet features on my PS3 (XBox users have to pay to use Netflix streaming). In any case, I'm just happy that I can watch my Netflix streaming stuff through my PS3. For those who are interested in what the experience is like, Joystiq has a hands-on video...
Posted by Mark on November 08, 2009 at 08:07 PM .:
Again, more title screens in the extended entry... Have a great Halloween!
Also, while I realize this isn't especially in the spirit of the marathon, Go Phillies!
Posted by Mark on October 31, 2009 at 04:23 PM .:
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
6WH: Week 6.5 - Speed Round!
Only a few days away from Halloween, so I figured it's time to cover some movies that I've seen recently, but that haven't been discussed in the Six Weeks of Halloween marathon so far. Some of them just didn't fit with a given week's theme, and for others I only made it two movies into the theme. So here goes:
Horror of Dracula: First in a Hammer Horror double feature: Christopher Lee is a good Dracula, Peter Cushing is always good, and the plot is a slight improvement over the original, but I'm kinda let down by all these old Vampire movies. I liked the original better, but even that wasn't so great. **1/2
The Curse of Frankenstein: Second in a Hammer Horror double feature: Peter Cushing and Robert Urquhart are excellent, but I didn't care for Christopher Lee as the Monster (on the other hand, the reveal of the Monster is great filmmaking). The story is similar, but Frankenstein is more diabolical, with the conscience being stressed by the character of Paul. Ultimately, the original is a lot better. **
Cannibal Holocaust: Wow, this is a disgusting and irresponsible film. I guess it's effective, but the real animal mutilation is inexcusable. I don't especially want to watch this ever again...
The House on Sorority Row: A pretty straightforward 80s slasher, I had actually gotten this confused with Slumber Party Massacre (and am a little disappointed that those movies aren't on Netflix). It has a few good Boo! moments, some interesting visuals, and some unexpected plot development too. Interestingly, I watched this around the same time as Slaughter High, and both movies feature quasi-jester costume hat thingys. **1/2
The Burning: Yet another in the summer camp slasher genre, this one is perhaps most notable for featuring Jason Alexander (with hair!) and being one of the first films produced by the Weinsteins. Maybe a bit above average, but not really rivaling the greats. **1/2
Prom Night: Another slasher of the high school variety. Aside from the fact that it stars Jamie Lee Curtis and Leslie Nielsen, this is fairly unremarkable. I guess the relatively few kills distinguishes this one, as does the "twist" ending (which is pretty easy to see coming). Perhaps worth watching for the absolutely horrific dance sequence in the middle of the film. Yikes. **
The Prowler: Yeah, another slasher... but this one is slightly above average. I rather like the backstory and the killer's outfit. **1/2
The Last House on the Left: Wes Craven's first film and from a technical perspective, one of his weaker films. However, he taps into something raw and dark with the general story, which is why it gets so much praise, even today. ***
Surveillance: Jennifer Lynch (daughter of David) directed this rather twisted tale. It starts with promise as something of a modern, dark Rashomon type story, but it eventually takes things in a different direction. It's perhaps a little too reliant on a twist in the story, but I thought it was rather well done. Some interesting casting choices as well. ***
Final Destination 3: Surprisingly good for a third entry in a pretty straightforward series. By this film, the formula was well in place, but they were still having fun executing it. **1/2
Ginger Snaps: Lycanthropy as a metaphor for puberty, and reasonably well done. ***
Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust: I always thought vampires would make the best vampire hunters, and a number of stories play on that, but they always seem to be half-vampire, half-human. Why is that? Anyway, I rather enjoyed this film much more than the various Dracula films I saw. Also, it's nice to sneak some anime into the marathon. ***
Don't Look Now: I've heard a lot of good things about this, so I was a little disappointed when I finally sat down to watch it. The pacing is rather awkward and I think I might just hate Nicolas Roeg's visual style and editing (I didn't like The Man Who Fell To Earth either). The ending of this film almost makes up for it, and there are some good moments throughout. **1/2
Blue Sunshine: Don't do acid, kids. Because 10 years later your hair might fall out and you'll go crazy and start murdering people. Or something. There are some insanely stupid things in the script (i.e. when he learns how to shoot the gun, then repeats his lesson later in the movie), but I had a lot of fun with this one, and it's reasonably well crafted too. ***
Masters of Horror: Family: Norm! This was one of John Landis' episodes, and whatever you think of the man, he's a decent filmmaker. This is an above average MoH episode, but clearly not the best. ***
Masters of Horror: Valerie on the Stairs: Another above average MoH episode, this time directed by Mick Garris and based on a Clive Barker story. It reminded me a lot of other episodes, but it was also pretty good. ***
Nightbreed: It has its moments, but it is far inferior to the book and I'd rather Barker focused his attention on writing rather than directing. Not that this movie held anything back, but seriously man, when the hell are you going to write the Book of the Art 3 or even The Scarlet Gospels. He's been talking about both novels for like 15 years (no exaggeration). Dammit. Anyway, the movie features David Cronenberg as an actor and a few interesting monsterous characters too. **
Deep Red: This one is on its way here from Netflix, I plan to view it and write something up for the Italian Horror blog-a-thon...
The Walking Dead: Based mostly on Karina Longworth's recommendation on the now defect Filmcouch podcast a while ago, this one is also on its way. It stars Boris Karloff and is directed by Michael Curtiz - how could it be bad?
Blood Feast: Also on its way. I figure I need to see some Herschell Gordon Lewis at some point, and this seems like a good place to start.
That's all for now. I included some films I still need to watch above, but I'll also probably watch some of the old standbys, notably Halloween.
Posted by Mark on October 28, 2009 at 07:14 PM .:
Sunday, October 25, 2009
6WH: Week 6
It's hard to believe we're in the last week before Halloween, but here we are, coming down the homestretch. This is another week without a real theme, but they're all films I've wanted to see since last year's 6WH marathon.
Trick 'r Treat: I've been hearing about this film for about 2 years now. It gets rave reviews everywhere it goes. Festival screenings were packed and viewers were, by all appearances, very enthusiastic about the film. Devin Faraci even ranked it as his #6 movie of 2008 and called it the best Halloween movie of all time (even though it hadn't officially come out yet). Whether it was because of internal politics at Warner Brothers or because they were scared of the Saw franchise, the film never got it's rightful theatrical release... but it has finally appeared on DVD/BR and so I now get to watch it, and it's quite good. I'm not entirely sure it lived up to the hype, but it's still a very good film. The movie consists of several intertwined but mostly unrelated stories, sorta like a horror version of Pulp Fiction (a lot of horror anthologies have more delineation between the various short stories, whereas this movie has a lot of overlap). The thing I like best about the film is that it truly engages the holiday of Halloween like no other movie has. Sure, I love John Carpenter's original Halloween, but that story wasn't really dependent on the holiday... The great thing about Trick 'r Treat is that it incorporates all sorts of Halloween lore and rituals as plot elements. Most of the dangers are things we've heard of: watch out for poisoned candy (or candy with razor blades), never blow out a Jack O'Lantern, and so on. Writer/director Michael Dougherty even attempts to add to the mythology by creating a kind of mischievous mascot in Sam (short for Samhain), the little guy with the orange outfit and sack mask. One of the segments features a modern urban legend, several seem to indicate that things are more dangerous than they seem, and there are some connections between the segments. To be sure, I'd like to see more of Halloween's traditions examined than what appears here, but it's still quite good. I suspect it will become a big cult hit in the years to come, as it is a film that truly celebrates the holiday, but it's hard to tell if it will ever really attain that status as the go-to Halloween movie. Very solid stuff, one of the better horror films of the past few years, and something I definitely want to revisit in the future. ***
The Other: Last year I watched The Others and Steven noted in a later comment that The Other is also a very creepy film. After a fitful start and a twist I saw coming a mile away, he was indeed correct to note the creepiness factor in this film. It starts slow, following some kids who are playing on a farm (or at least, a very rural area). There's definitely something odd about the main characters, and we later find that their grandmother has taught them how to play a "game" where they essentially practice telepathy. We first see them do it with animals, then later with humans. Of course, mysterious accidents start happening and dead bodies begin appearing, and it's all centered around this little boy Niles and his twin brother Holland. The beginning of the film is unevenly paced, but reasonably effective at setting the stage and hinting at things bubbling beneath the surface of this otherwise ordinary farm. About 2/3 of the way through the movie, there is a twist. Now, it's not a poorly executed twist, to be sure, but it is something that's been done a million times since this film was made in 1972, so I had it pegged from the first scene in the film. But as luck would have it, the film is not completely reliant on the twist to establish the chills. Indeed, from that point on, things get much creepier and much more intense. It all leads up to a rather dark ending that I found quite shocking. There's a real edge to this movie that isn't apparent at first, but which hit like a ton of bricks later in the movie. I don't want to ruin anything, and the movie is certainly not gross, but there are some very disturbing scenes towards the end. If you're a fan of the slower burning 70s psychological horror, this is a pretty good example of the genre. ***
Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead: I had originally planned to do a whole week of Troma films, but due to time constraints and quite frankly, not being in the right mood for extreme (and I do mean extreme) gore, I decided to limit it to just this one entry, which has to be a contender for the goriest movie of all time (and even among the other Troma movies, that's saying a lot). There is so much fake blook, feces, and, uh, green chicken zombie goop that is sprayed all over the place in this movie that I couldn't help but wonder where it was all coming from. I mean, there is splatter flicks, and then there's this movie where people gush more blood and pus than could ever conceivably fit in their body. There's even a shot of a camera pointing up from within a toilet (while someone is on the toilet). The film itself takes aim at the fast food industry, and though it gets a few digs in at the typical protester-type, it's pretty steadfast in its desire to gross you out about the food industry. Don't get me wrong, there's no attempt to seriously examine anything in the movie, but those Troma types like to whip a message at you along with all the goop and blood. Also, it has musical numbers. I was certainly not expecting that, though the songs are spread somewhat unevenly throughout the film. In the end, what we're left with is an extremely silly, amazingly gory film. If you're a fan of the Troma aesthetic, you'll love it. If not, you could possibly hate it. It's pretty disgusting after all (of course, that's exactly what it's going for, so it's hard to hold that against them). **1/2
That's all for now. Coming down the homestretch, I've got a couple of additional posts planned for this week, including a speed round of movies I watched but haven't covered (just like last year), and some other stuff too, so stay tuned.
Posted by Mark on October 25, 2009 at 12:43 AM .:
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
6WH: Week 5.5 - Vincent Price
It has recently come to my attention that I am woefully deficient in my knowledge of Vincent Price and his filmography. So I set about rectifying that, and so I've watched (or rewatched) four of his movies in the past couple of weeks.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes: Doctors are being found dead under mysterious circumstances. As the deaths continue, a pattern begins to emerge. The deaths are following the 9 biblical plagues and the dead doctors were all involved in an unsuccessful operation involving the wife of Dr. Anton Phibes (who is a concert organist, theological scholar, and mechanical genius). 9 plagues, 9 doctors. But Dr. Phibes can't be the one responsible, can he? He died in a car accident after the death of his wife! This isn't the world's greatest movie, but it's campy fun and you can definitely see the influence in modern films like Se7en (biblically inspired kills) and Saw (dig the key out of this body to save your son). The one major crime the movie commits is making it so that Dr. Phibes (played by Price) can't talk without the aid of some device that sorta distorts his voice (I could listen to Price reading the phone book, why cast him in a role without much talking and a distorted voice?). On the other hand, it turns out that Dr. Phibes doesn't actually look like that, he's just wearing a Vincent Price mask. Heh. Anyway, Price is very good (despite the dearth of dialogue), and I also rather liked the bumbling Inspector Trout (played by Peter Jeffrey). The movie was followed by a quick sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, this time focusing on Egyptian mythology for his kills, but that film is really just more of the same. So the sequel is worth a watch if you liked the first one, but nothing special. **1/2 (for both movies)
Witchfinder General: This isn't really so much of a horror film as it is a period costume drama with some horrific elements. Price plays Matthew Hopkins, the titular Witchfinder, and he's the villain. The film is set during the English civil war of the mid-1700s. As such, the authorities are engaged elsewhere, leaving Hopkins and his sadistic sidekick to roam the countryside and make whatever accusations they like. There's nothing pious or righteous about what they do, it's a big power trip for them, and they usually make a tidy profit as well. In one town, they engage a priest and his beautiful niece, accusing them of witchcraft and eventually taking them down, leaving the niece's fiance to hunt down Hopkins in revenge. Price plays Hopkins as a total scumbag, cowardly and cruel, and you're hoping for his comeuppance throughout the film. This ends up being a much darker film than the other two covered in this post. Hopkins is a true scumbag and the film doesn't pull its punches when it comes to his exploits. Visually, the film has some interesting touches. The director, Michael Reeves, was very young when he made this movie, and he showed a lot of promise as a filmmaker... unfortunately, he died of a drug overdose not long after this movie was released. The film moves a little slower than I would have preferred, but it's still an interesting watch. **1/2
The Tingler: The most notable and interesting thing about this film is that it is truly a gimmick, and I feel bad watching it on my television... this is a movie that demands to be seen on the big screen with a big crowd. Director William Castle pulled out all the stops here, even going so far as to install buzzers beneath certain seats in the theater that would vibrate the seats during especially scary moments, a system he called "Percepto." Indeed, at the start of the film, Castle himself walks on screen and warns you about it. Later in the film, Price kinda sorta directly addresses the audience in a rather clever way. But I'm getting ahead of myself. The film concerns Dr. Warren Chapin (played by Price) and his quest to understand fear. He discovers a mysterious creature that lives in vertebrates and grows when its host experiences fear. He calls this creature, The Tingler! It's a great bit of silly cinema logic, but in the world created by Castle and Price, it's almost believable. It was great fun (if not all that scary), even on the small screen. It must have been a blast to see this in the theater, especially during its heyday... ***
As I mentioned above, I could listen to Price read the phone book. While I couldn't find any clips of him doing just that, I did find the next best thing. Check out the Cooking With Vincent Price link. I'm particularly fond of Foods From the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Well, I didn't listen to the whole thing, but how could you not like that title?
Posted by Mark on October 21, 2009 at 08:53 PM .:
Sunday, October 18, 2009
6WH: Week 5 - No Discernible Theme Week
I was hoping to have some sort of theme this week, but the Philly Film Fest got in the way and so I didn't watch much this weekend. So here are a few mostly unrelated movies I've seen in the past week or two:
Grace: A pregnant woman named Madeline (Jordan Ladd) gets into a car accident. Her husband and unborn child are killed and even though no one thinks it's a good idea, she decides to carry the fetus to term. When the baby is born, Madeline's seemingly insane decision pays off, as the baby mysteriously comes back to life. Or does it!? Baby Grace certainly seems to have some strange appetites... So yeah, this movie is disgusting. On the other hand, that seems to be exactly what writer/director Paul Solet is going for. The movie doesn't take any of the typical horror film avenues that you'd expect, which is a good thing, but unfortunately, it also doesn't entirely work. The pacing is a bit uneven and the film moves awfully slowly at times. There's a little politics thrown in for good measure - Madeline is a vegan and the movie seems to be a bit snarky about that sort of thing (though it doesn't exactly glorify meat eating either). As the film progresses, there are some uncomfortable psychosexual moments concerning Madeline's mother-in-law and a bizarre encounter with a doctor and his antique breast pump. Indeed, this film sustains a pretty high level of discomfort throughout. The ending is a bit predictable (and one imagines that a sequel would take a more obvious horror movie tack), but that's only because there's not really anywhere else to go. This is risky and adventurous filmmaking, but I'm not really sure how to feel about it. It's certainly not enjoyable, but then, that's the point. Incidentally, the Blu-Ray for this movie seems to have a rather poor transfer, which is disappointing because from what I can see, it's a very slick and well photographed movie. **1/2
Hatchet: Director Adam Green's love letter to the slasher film is entertaining and somewhat impressive in the post-Scream, ironic state of horror. A number of films have attempted to recapture the classical 80s slasher feel, but Green is the only one who has really done it well. Despite a decent amount of humor, there's no winking at the audience or irony in the film, which is a welcome strategy. Green obviously appreciates the genre and his enthusiasm shows through in the end product. Unfortunately, I'm not sure that's enough to make it a great film. A group of people visiting New Orleans for Mardi Gras sign up for a haunted swamp boat ride. Of course, the boat crashes near the house of local legend and possible ghost Victor Crowley, who is apparently none-to-pleased at the intrusion. Hijinks ensue. I have to admit that I wasn't that impressed with Crowley's look, but his backstory was ok and his killing methods are awesomely gory and a blast to watch. He doesn't just stab people, he goes the extra mile, literally ripping people's heads off. The characters are a step above the usual slasher fare and for the most part, you actually care when they get offed (but Crowley's creatively gory methods make it fun to watch anyway). All that being said, the film doesn't really have anywhere to go and it ends with something of a whimper. With a better ending and maybe a better villain design, this could have been a modern classic. As it is, it's a solid throwback slasher. This is nothing to sneeze at though, and Green seems to show a lot of promise. I very much enjoyed his follow up Spiral (which is an extremely different type of movie) and am looking forward to his next film, Frozen. **1/2
Black Sheep: It's about goddamned time, isn't it? Those sheep think they're so cute. But no, they're bloodthirsty monsters. Yes, this film from New Zealand features genetically altered sheep that begin attacking and infecting their human masters. This movie is hilarious. Sometimes the transition from gory horror to slapstick or one-liners is a bit incongruous, but on the whole, it works well. With writer/director Jonathan King, we've got another case of someone who seems to have a genuine love for the genre, and you can see evidence of that on screen. For instance, when an infected human turns into a mutated sheep-monster, the transformation is handled almost exactly like various werewolf movies. Again, it's not a perfect mixture of humor and horror, but it works well enough as a B-movie... ***
Sheep are evil
I'm a little disappointed that the trailer for Night of the Lepus doesn't even mention that it's a movie about giant, killer rabbits. You'd think that would be a prime selling point. Then again, it's apparently not a very good movie. Anywho, much more to come. Expect more on the coming Wednesdays, including some Hammer Horror, Vincent Price, and maybe even some Troma Studios stuff.
Posted by Mark on October 18, 2009 at 12:07 PM .:
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
6WH: Slaughter High
We're coming down the homestretch of the Six Weeks of Halloween Horror Movie Marathon, so it's going to be all horror all the time here until we reach the glorious day of costumes and candy. Tonight, I'm playing along with the Final Girl film club and their selection of the cheesetastic 80s slasher, Slaughter High.
Meet Marty Rantzen, the uber-nerd of Doddsville High School. The resident jocks and hot chicks don't seem to like him very much and are always playing jokes on him. Thanks to a horrible April Fool's joke gone wrong, Rantzen is badly burned and scarred in a chemistry lab accident. Cut to 5 years later, when our unsuspecting jocks and hot chicks are invited to a class reunion at the now condemned school building. Someone's gone to a lot of trouble to get them all there and has set up one hell of a party filled with booze, drugs, and DEATH!
Marty the Nerd
I don't want to get carried away with picking apart the unrealities of the plot setup, but there are a lot of things that defy logic. I mean, wouldn't it seem odd when only 10 people showed up for a class reunion? And if you show up for your class reunion and the building is dilapidated and all locked up, would you stick around for like 5 hours before trying to get in (or, you know, leaving)? And walking around the school, the whole thing is in pretty bad shape... except for one room which is pretty lamely decorated... and this setup doesn't set off any alarms for people? Another strange plot point is how the characters deduce that Marty is attempting to kill them all on April Fool's day - the anniversary of his accident. But for some reason, they decide that April Fool's day ends at noon? What? (Update: According to BC at Horror Movie a Day: "IN EUROPE that’s how April Fool’s Day works. Here in the real world of America, we celebrate that shit all day!")
But that's all missing the point, isn't it? It takes a little while to get started, but it's fun once it does. Again, the progression of the plot (such as there is one) doesn't make much sense, but I appreciated the touch of Slasher Marty using chemistry-related means to kill off a few of the guests. I must also admit that the use of the creepy old woman jester mask thingy is pretty damn awesome (gratuitous shadow/silhouette shots of the hat, along with the auditory jingle are reasonably effective). Some of the kills strain credibility (to say the least), and because of the setup, we don't really care about... any of the characters, really. Even Marty isn't particularly likeable. He didn't deserve to be burned up in a chemical fire, of course, but that doesn't really make him a guy I want to spend a lot of time with. But the kills are at least somewhat creative at times, if not as gory as they could have been.
Marty lurks in the shadows!
I've got a mixed mind about the music by Harry Manfredini (of the Friday the 13th movie series fame). There are really two modes in evidence here: First, you've got a so-bad-it's-funny 80s synth-rock song that gets repeated ad nauseam throughout the movie. Second, you've got the typical F13/Psycho rip-off, with the shriek violins and whatnot. It's so obvious and overdone that it actually kinda works. The film is obviously not going for any sort of emotional resonance, it's just hoping to revel in the gory fun of your typical slasher film, and in that respect, the music works.
The ending of the film is rather bizarre, for a couple of reasons. First, it happens during the day, which is odd in itself. Second, well, I don't want to ruin the ending, but it's an amazingly bizarre, almost nonsensical sequence of events (which might, in some ways, answer some of the plot-related questions above - but then, it also opens up a whole new can of crazy worms).
In the end, what you've got here is a thoroughly 80s slasher film. It follows the conventions reasonably well and it has a few interesting touches, but it's not very good in any sort of objective sense. In fact, it's pretty bad, but it's a reasonably fun and entertaining bad that's well worth a watch if you're a fan of 80s culture and slashers. **
More screenshots and comments in the extended entry...
As previously mentioned, this movie is pretty firmly part of the Slasher Calendar, taking place on April Fool's Day.
This is a teenager?
This is the drop dead gorgeous Caroline Munro. I suppose she's what passes for the heroine of this film, but while she is incredibly hot, there's no way she really passes for a teenager... or for that matter, someone who is 22 years old. She was easily in her mid thirties here, and to be honest, most of the rest of the cast is in the same boat (but the rest of the cast is nowhere near as nice to look at).
I believe this is what's referred to as "foreshadowing."
I love how the movie handles the physics of a bottle of liquid dropping on the table. Apparently it shoots a jet of acid directly at your face. The funny part is that they show the bottle crashing into the table, and the liquid doesn't splash much, then it cuts to his face and you get the above screen. Heh.
So after breaking into the building, they wander around the dilapidated building until they stumble onto this room, which is cleaned up and decorated in a decidedly craptacular manner. Again, no warning bells for these characters here? This is perhaps why it's not so bad watching them die horribly.
In one of the most hilariously typical scenes in the film, this guy takes a long drag on the joint, then while trying not to exhale too much, he says "That's good shit, man..." as he passes it on to the next in line. You really need to see this moment to get how perfect and hilarious it is. Classic.
At one point during the party, this douchebag shotguns a beer. I double-checked, and yes, he's drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon.
The implication is that Marty used his chemistry superpowers to poison the beer so that drinking it will cause your intestines to burst out of your stomach, but those of us familiar with Pabst Blue Ribbon aren't fooled.
Again, I'm pretty sure that Pabst Blue Ribbon does this anyway.
Another in a long line of silhouette shots...
One of the odder kills happens when two characters, who know that they're locked in this building with a homicidal maniac, decide to take a time out and fuck. Oh, and she's actually cheating on her boyfriend (who I believe was attempting to fix up a riding lawnmower in an attempt to escape - don't ask). Marty electrocutes them both.
Again, the conclusion of the film happens in broad daylight, giving you your first really good look at the killer... It's a pretty cool costume for a killer.
Look, it's the hulk! This is from the aforementioned crazy, almost nonsensical ending in which all the people who were killed come back as quasi-zombies or something.
Well, that wraps it up for this movie. I can see why it's become something of a cult hit, but it's not one of my favorites...
Posted by Mark on October 14, 2009 at 07:57 PM .:
The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror VI: Nightmare on Evergreen Terrace (Sorry, can't find online vid)
A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge: Like most sequels, this film is inferior to its predecessor, but I found it much better than I was expecting. What makes the movie work is that it's playing with variations on the theme instead of repeating the same stuff from the original film. In this movie, Freddy doesn't haunt the dreams of a group of teenagers, he focuses on one specific teen. Instead of murdering the teen in his sleep, Freddy possesses the teen and carries out his kills in the real world. This movie extends and twists Freddy's powers while retaining the brilliant inescapable nature of the original film. In that movie, you were afraid to sleep because Freddy might get you. In the sequel, you're afraid to sleep because Freddy might possess you and make you kill your friends. In some ways, this is an even more horrific idea and the film does its best to pull it off, but ultimately it's not as fresh or fun as the original. It has its moments though. The scene where Freddy climbs through our hero's stomach terrified me as a kid and I have to admit that it's still pretty effective. It's a valiant effort, and better than most sequels. **1/2
Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers: I was surprisingly taken with the first movie in this series, and in this sequel we find Angela alive and well, and after years of therapy, she returns to camp, this time as a counselor. As usual, the camp is populated with horny, foul-mouthed kids, horny, foul-mouthed counselors, one of the greatest mullets ever captured on film, and, of course, DEATH! This movie ends up being a lot different from its predecessor - it's silly and more self-aware. Most of the character names are taken from members of the Brat Pack and there are even nods to slasher icons Jason, Freddy and Leatherface. Angela is played by Pamela Springsteen (yes, Bruce's sister - no joke), and she plays the role with a campy glee. For a homicidal murderer, she's pretty likeable. In the end, the movie is a lot of fun, but it doesn't really have anywhere to go. The ending pales in comparison with the original film (which has one of the great horror movie endings ever), making this a worthwhile watch, but ultimately not one a great film. **1/2
Halloween II (2009): (Note, I actually watched this a while ago because for some reason the studios think that the perfect time to release a movie called Halloween is in August (of course!)) I actually liked Rob Zombie's remake of Halloween. The biggest problem I had with it, though, was that it was a remake of Halloween and thus demanded comparison to a film that is nearly perfect. Change a few character names, keep the killer in the mask he had when he left the mental facility, and replace the soundtrack, and you've got a decent throwback slasher movie. Not a classic or anything, but watcheable. Now, Zombie has made a sequel, and he's apparently stopped trying to make any sense at all... and that part of it is actually kinda awesome. This isn't a remake of the 1981 Halloween II (though, ironically, the best scene in Zombie's film takes place in a hospital), so Zombie has freed himself of any necessary structure there (the second half of the first film suffered because it needed to hit all the beats of the original). The iconic Halloween theme is no longer present (though the ending makes use of some other Halloween music). The mask is barely even recognizable anymore. The only thing that remains from the original franchise are the character names, and it's almost easy to pretend that this series isn't even related to the original movies. The problem is with the execution. Zombie seems to have adopted the quick-edit, shaky-cam style... and let's just say that Zombie is no Paul Greengrass. The action in this film is nigh incomprehensible. There's no build up to the kills either - they are all so disconnected and pointless that no tension is ever established. There is some limited success at the beginning of the film at the hospital, but it devolves pretty steadily from there. Storywise, we get a lot of weird shit, and that part I like. Myers is hallucinating a lot, seeing visions of his mother and a white horse (!?) Symbolism is abound. Dr. Loomis makes a few appearances, and boy is he a douchebag. To be honest, I'm not even sure why he's in this movie, as he serves no real purpose (but his scenes, including one that features a funny cameo, are kinda fun to watch). Laurie Strode does find out that she is Myers' sister (this was technically from the original series, but Zombie had sorta established it in his first movie). The town of Haddonfield seems to have changed considerably in that it's a more rural area now, but whatever. So I'm conflicted about this movie. I like some of the ideas (even the kooky ending), but the execution, especially of the action, is way off. It's a hard movie to recommend, but if you like crazy imagery, this movie has a bunch of that. *1/2
Incidentally, why is it so hard to find Simpsons Treehouse of Horror shorts online these days? Get with the program Fox! I have most of them on DVD, but it would be nice to share, right? Anyway, that's all for now. More on Wednesday.
Posted by Mark on October 11, 2009 at 08:31 PM .:
Sunday, October 04, 2009
6WH: Week 3 - Now Playing
For the last couple of years, I've strangely not seen very many horror movies in the theater. Part of the issue is that most of them don't come out in the Halloween corridor, which makes it somewhat pointless. It seems that the Saw franchise has cornered the market on the Halloween season and studios don't want to risk challenging it for some reason. That being said, I've seen several horror films in the theater lately, and I've really enjoyed a couple of them...
Paranormal Activity: So I heard about this movie, right? It was supposedly scary, but it was only playing at the occasional festival and certain theaters. Then I heard it was coming to Philadelphia for a limited run of midnight shows. I thought, why not? I knew nothing about the movie, except that it had something to do with ghosts and it seemed like a found footage movie (a la The Blair Witch Project). And I loved it. Walking out of the theater, I couldn't help but notice the copious amounts of people registering their disappointment. In an attempt to avoid my bedroom once I got home (for reasons that will be obvious after you've seen the movie), I started looking into the movie a bit, and man, it's hyped to high heaven. Suddenly, people's negative reactions seemed more reasonable. Hype is a difficult thing. Stacie Ponder summarized it well:
Sure, we've all experienced movies that turn out to be not quite as good as we'd hoped, but what I'm talking about goes beyond that. I'm talking about people who buy into the hype and walk into a theater with their arms crossed and a "Scariest ever? Then prove it." attitude. How could a movie ever please an audience like that?
Unfortunately, if you're reading this, it's probably too late. The limited release strategy combined with the hype leads to all sorts of "This wasn't worth it" feelings from audiences that drove 50 miles just to see the movie (though that wouldn't have changed my feelings for it at all). Fortunately, it's the sort of thing that would probably work just as well on video, if not better. If you can, avoid everything about this (no trailers, stop reading this review after this sentence, etc...) before seeing it, and don't expect anything action packed or super-exciting. That being said, I loved it. Its got an incredibly simple concept and yet it's everything I could hope for in a horror movie. For the first time in a while (6 months is a while, right?), I was actually scared in the theater. That industrial strength, slinking-back-into-my-seat fear is pretty rare for me these days. When I got home, I couldn't get certain images out of my head, and they kept playing over and over again as I eventually made my way up to bed (that's one good result of the midnight-showing-only aspect of the movie's release). This is very much a film that relies on the fact that things that go bump in the night are more scary than gore or special effects, and the use of sound is exceptionally well done. There isn't much of a soundtrack, but what's there does a great job of establishing an atmosphere of dread. It's not really breaking new ground, but it's very well executed. I don't want to hype it up too much though, and it's certainly not perfect. The setting is repetitive, the daytime scenes were a bit bland, and there's not much plot. I can see how some folks would find it annoying, but it all worked for me. The repetitiveness lulls you into a false sense of security, the blandness of the daytime scenes release the tension built at night and give you a chance to start breathing regularly again, and the plot is no less effective for being simple. For me, the film accomplished exactly what it needed to: it scared me... ***
Zombieland: Does this count as horror? Inasmuch as it features zombies, I suppose it does. There are a couple of obligatory "boo!" attempts as well, but the film is much more interested in comedy than anything else. Fortunately, it's quite successful on that count. The film follows "Columbus" (played Jesse Eisenberg) as he attempts to navigate his way throughout a zombie infested America. Along the way, he meets Tallahassee (played by an actor I've never really cared for, Woody Harrelson, in a performance that is actually quite good), who loves to kill zombies and is on a quest to find and consume a twinkie. They also run into Wichita (played by Emma Stone) and Little Rock (played by Abigail Breslin), who are trickier than they seem. The film essentially turns into a road trip movie where an unlikely group of people manage to bond and become friends (there is a romantic subplot, of course, but the film also spends time developing other friendships and paternal feelings...) Also notable is the quasi-secret cameo that caps off the second act. It's a brilliant sequence, and it was great to see this particular actor in this type of role again. The film isn't perfect, but it's a whole lot of fun. ***
The Life of Death by Clive Barker (short story from Cabal)
The Final Destination: This has been a relatively weird series. The first film had a somewhat clever idea. The second film took that idea to extremes and might be the best of the series. The formula was well in place for the third film, but it was executed very well there. In this latest installment, the formula is getting stale. There's nothing really new here, unless you consider the gimmick of 3D (which, unfortunately, I didn't get to experience). You know the drill, a kid has a psychic experience, envisioning some sort of huge accident (in this case, a crash at a NASCAR event), freaks out and saves a bunch of people from said accident. But Death doesn't like it when you upset his plan, so he begins to take out all the survivors in the same order they would have died in the accident. In the universe of this series, Death is a huge fan of Rube Goldberg and prefers to murder victims through convoluted, indirect means. Perhaps it was the whole 3D gimmick that ruined it for me, but the deaths in this one seems awfully straightforward (or maybe it's just that the series has run its course). I mean, one of the victims gets run over by a truck. That's it. There wasn't any sequence of absurd actions leading up to the crash, it just happens. I could certainly be wrong, but I don't remember anything like that in previous installments. In the end, you know exactly what you're getting with this movie, which if you've seen the other three movies, is a bad thing. It's not terrible, it's just not especially good and the once original idea has pretty much been beaten into the ground. **
That's all for now. Next up... probably some more slashers.
Posted by Mark on October 04, 2009 at 03:48 PM .:
Thursday, October 01, 2009
Now that we've entered October proper, it seems that some other folks are jumping on the Halloween season bandwagon with those of us who started out a few weeks early (which consists of, uh, me and Kernunrex). Here's a few other folks celebrating the season:
Stacie Ponder over at Final Girl has dubbed the month SHOCKTOBER and has vowed to watch and review a movie every day for the duration of the month (that post also contains a bunch of links to other folks celebrating the season).
Widge & friends over at NeedCoffee have begun their annual 32 days of Halloween, always an entertaining venture.
Brian eschews the whole seasonal thing and just watches a horror movie a day, all year long. Now that's dedication.
I'm sure there are lots others, but that's all for now. Go forth, and be scared.
Posted by Mark on October 01, 2009 at 11:08 PM .:
One of the conventions of slasher films is a holiday themed setting. This trend was arguably started by Bob Clarke's influential 1974 film Black Christmas, but it really kicked into gear (along with Slashers in general) in 1978 with John Carpenter's Halloween. After Halloween's success, slasher films were flooding the market, many of which attempted to copy Halloween by focusing on different holidays. Indeed, at this point, there's a pretty full calendar of slasher films that you can watch, if you're so inclined... and in case you can't tell, I am so inclined. I think this trend overlaps a bit with the convention of having some sort of historical element to the story (i.e. a tragedy of the past revisited in the present), but on the other hand, lots of slashers aren't calendar oriented either. Still, it's a common enough trope that I watched a bunch recently:
My Bloody Valentine (1981) and My Bloody Valentine 3D (2009): One of the better films to arise out of the success of Halloween and Friday the 13th was 1981's My Bloody Valentine. A prime example of both the holiday setting and the historical tragedy revisited, this movie takes place 20 years after a horrible mining accident in which the sole survivor was named Harry Warden. He managed to survive only by eating his friends. Warden blamed the supervisors, who had neglected their post in order to attend the annual Valentines dance, and eventually took his revenge. Harry warned the town that so long as they held the dance, people would die. 20 danceless years later, the town of Valentine Bluffs had finally had enough and started up the old tradition of the Valentines dance again. Suddenly, people start disappearing and it seems that Harry Warden's curse wasn't just the ravings of a madman. Again, this film is generally a cut above most other slasher films of the era. It's more polished and it has more of an interesting story than most, not to mention that the whole miner's outfit thing makes for a great slasher costume (not to mention the trademark pickaxe, which can come in handy for the slasher on the go). It's the little details that make this one work though. I'm no expert, but the production design really seems to capture the mining town aesthetic, the working class characters are actually somewhat empathetic (unlike the throngs of teens in a lot of slashers), and how can you not like the killer's poetic calling cards (a card on the first victim reads: "Roses are Red, Violents are Blue, One is Dead, And So Are You!!!"). There's an inferior remake that was released earlier this year, and despite being slightly elevated by the gimmick of 3D, it ultimately fell flat. It's worth checking out if you're a fan of the original, but if you haven't seen either, check out the original first (like a lot of remakes, this one is perhaps most notable for shining a light on a generally overlooked film). *** for the original, ** for 3D!
April Fool's Day: This movie came out during the tail end of the slasher craze and its box office was ruined by word-of-mouth - once people heard about the twist ending (which I will not ruin), they stayed away in droves. Personally, I found it to be a rather unique slasher film and I appreciate the winking and nose-thumbing aspects of the movie. The film opens as a group of teens head to the island vacation home of their friend Muffy St. John for Spring Break. It being April 1st, it doesn't take long for the pranks to start, and things get pretty hairy pretty quickly. As the weekend progresses, guests begin to disappear and Muffy starts acting very strangely. Again, it's one of the higher quality slasher efforts, with a decent look and actors who aren't completely made out of cardboard (indeed, many of the characters are privileged punks, so the fact that you don't seem to mind hanging out with them is actually an accomplishment). Interestingly, the gore is surprisingly minimal here, and the real focus is on the story. The film knows what it is and it has a sense of humor, something that audiences just weren't ready for yet, I guess. The ending does feature a bit of a twist, and I'm sure there are some who don't like it (and don't get me wrong, this is not a tightly written film - there are plenty of near disasterous plot holes), but I thought it was an interesting and new idea. Alas, audiences did not respond and this film seems to signify the waning interest in slashers at the time. The big three slasher series would limp into the nineties, but after this film, the slasher craze was effectively dead. ***
Silent Night, Deadly Night: Slashers in general were controversial in their time, but this film apparently upped the ante to the point where people were protesting and picketing movie theaters. And they were successful - this film was pulled from theaters after a week or so, and it then became very hard to find on video (and apparently even DVD, as I had trouble getting my Netflix copy). In all honesty, this is a pretty mean-spirited movie, so I guess the protesting is understandable. I mean, this is a movie where not one, but two Santas get gunned down in front of a group of orphans (and one of the Santas was a kindly old deaf priest (the other was a homicidal axe murderer, but that's besides the point)). This isn't a very impressive movie. There's no real artistry, the performances are crappy, and even the Santa costumes are pretty lame. There are some high points though, including one of the first scenes in the movie, when an old man warns our young hero that Santa is coming to kill him because he's been naughty. He does this in a weird, grizzled old-timey tone that is just awesome. It's probably the best part of the movie. Also, what can I say, I'm a sucker for the Christmas setting. This film doesn't really come anywhere near the Christmas horror classics, but it's worth a watch if you like slashers and Christmas. **
Santa's gonna git ya
And that wraps up the slasher calendar for this year, but we've got another installment of slasher sequels coming, as well as some other miscellaneous slashers. In other news, The Devil Rides Out is now unavailable, so the Hammer Horror week needs to be replanned.
As usual, Kernunrex is doing it up at his site, and he's making lots of headway. He's even playing Castlevania (in an experience similar to mine with Metroid, he was able to beat the game using save states) and other horror related video games. It's always funny when we have overlap too. He watched The Deaths of Ian Stone this week - a movie I watched last year (our thoughts are very similar). Other than that, not much overlap... though I can see some convergences coming later.
Posted by Mark on September 27, 2009 at 11:37 AM .:
Sunday, September 20, 2009
Six Weeks of Halloween 2009: Week 1 - Universal Horror
It's that time of year again. Halloween is my favorite time of the year, and it provides a convenient excuse to explore one of my favorite genres of film (as I have done for the past couple of years). In preparation for this year's six week celebration of Halloween, I pretty quickly drew up a list that could easily take me through ten weeks... I doubt I'll get through them all, but I'm going to have fun trying. Highlights include this week's look at classic Universal Horror films, a sampling of the later Monster revival with Hammer Horror, perhaps some Vincent Price, and of course, some slashers and miscellaneous horrors to round out the pack (including the much anticipated Trick 'r Treat, amongst others). If you can't get enough Halloween madness here, be sure to visit Kernunrex, who's been doing this whole Six Weeks of Halloween thing a lot longer than I have... (Someday I'll redesign Kaedrin so as to allow for an easy switch to Halloween colors like he does... that day is probably not coming anytime soon, but still.)
Its the nicest weather Earth has ever had!*
As previously mentioned, this year's marathon kicks off with a look at Universal Studios' classic monster films. I've seen two of the following films before, but not since I was very young, so I figured it would be worth revisiting (as a result, I now want to revisit the original novels upon which the following films were based, which if my current queue is any indication, means I'll get to them sometime in the 2020s). Here goes:
Frankenstein (1931): My memories of Frankenstein were fond but not overly enthusiastic. I remember these films being hokey and over-the-top, and to be sure, there are elements of that here, but it is much more effective than I remember it being. Adapted from Mary Shelly's classic novel of the same name, the film is dramatically different from both the novel and the many stage variations of the preceding century. Despite the changes, the movie retains the feel and thematic resonance of the novel. This cautionary tale of technology gone awry is something that strikes a chord throughout most of history, perhaps even more now than when it was written. It certainly helps that James Whale was behind the camera and Boris Karloff was in front of it, and the movie has aged quite well (it is perhaps the best of today's choices). ****
Bride of Frankenstein (1935): I may have seen bits and pieces of this film before, but never the whole thing. This direct sequel to the 1931 film features mostly the same cast and crew, and as such, the technical aspects of the film are superb. Indeed, they may even surpass the original. Karloff is given more to do in this film, and while he was wonderfully expressive in the first film, he goes above and beyond in this film, infusing the Monster with emotion and even evoking sympathy. Director James Whale had also honed his skills in the intervening years and the Bride's creation scene is particularly well done, especially when it comes to the editing. This film's special effects also stand out, as when Dr. Pretorius displays his miniature experiments for Dr. Frankenstein (the scene holds up remarkably well, which is more than I can say for a lot of special effects from the era... (or even modern effects, for that matter)). Another standout scene is when the Monster encounters an elderly blind man, who teaches the Monster about bread, wine, and rudimentary English. He also introduces the Monster to the concept of friendship, which drives the rest of the story. I must admit that the story does get to be a bit more silly in this installment, but it still works very well. Thematically, the film expands upon the original, and adds some new twists of its own. The ending is actually quite moving, as the Monster realizes what he is and where he belongs. Many consider this sequel to be superior to the first film, and in many ways, it is. However, it is sillier and more over-the-top than the previous film. It is still a wonderful film in its own right, and something I'm glad I caught up with. ****
Dracula (1931): I was curious to revisit this film in light of the current pop-culture craze for vampires we're experiencing right now. There are many who believe that vampires have been watered down these days:
Once upon a time, vampires were monsters. Creatures of the night. Beasts who crawled from their coffins at night; consorted with spiders, bats, and rats; ravaged women and tore out the throats of men. They were demonic; spawns of Satan. The best known image of the vampire is that of Bela Lugosi, whose intonation of the line: "I never drink wine" has become the standard.
And indeed, many recent vampire stories take a less monsterous approach, favoring instead a more emotional and empathetic creature (though I must admit that I don't mind that approach either, just that it has become the pervasive approach). So in revisiting this classic film, it was refreshing to see Dracula portrayed as something unnatural and evil. Director Tod Browning is at his creepy best when framing Lugosi's Dracula onscreen. Lugosi's menacing glare is undeniably effective and his Dracula is indeed a creature to fear. Alas, the mechanics of the plot (and, uh, the special effects) leaves something to be desired. This is a little disappointing, though still quite entertaining and better than much of today's vampire stories (I'm looking at you, Twilight!). Someday, perhaps, I'll check out the Spanish language version of this film, which was apparently shot at the same time and using the same sets. Some believe it to be superior to the English language version... ***
One of the surprising things about all three of the above movies is that they are all between 70-75 minutes in length, significantly shorter than even the shortest movies in theaters today. It's worth noting that many of the above films are also restored from cut versions. In particular, the scenes missing from the original Frankenstein are quite important (the missing scenes were restored in 1986 and most DVDs of the film have them), particularly the scene when the Monster plays with the little girl. It's actually quite a disturbing scene, but Karloff was always able to walk that line between evil and misunderstood, creating a monster that was scary and sympathetic at the same time.
It's also interesting to note that the characters of Dracula and Frankenstein are two of the most frequently utilized fictional characters in the history of film. Dracula has 200+ appearances, while Frankenstein has only had a mere 80+ roles. And I think both will continue to rack up the appearances. Interestingly, I think there are several more recent horror icons that could give the classics a run for their money... Jason Vorhees, Mike Myers, and Freddy Kreuger have established themselves pretty firmly in modern film culture, but I'm not sure they will ever be as prolific as the old Universal classic monsters. Why? Devin Faraci has speculated on this:
There is one major obstacle that's stopping Freddy and Jason and Mike Myers and Leatherface from really getting to that position of being among the truly eternal monsters of filmland: copyright. While the versions of the Universal Monsters we love are copyrighted in terms of their appearance (although a zillion manufacturers of Halloween ephemera have skirted the edges of that legality), the characters themselves are in the public domain. This is what has allowed them to become such prominent forces in film, keeping them going in permutation after permutation. If Universal outright owned the characters then Hammer, for instance, would never have been able to reinvent them in the 50s and 60s (my colleague Ryan Rotten very astutely notes that what Platinum Dunes is doing with the characters of Jason, Freddy and Leatherface, and what Rob Zombie is doing with Michael Myers, is very similar to what Hammer did with the Universal Monsters, recasting them and re-presenting them for a new generation with new tastes). In fact, the copyright on the Gill-Man from The Creature from the Black Lagoon may be one of the things keeping him from really ascending and going places as a character. Being tightly controlled by Universal keeps him from escaping into the pop culture world at large.
Perhaps audiences will still be squirming in their seats in fear of Jason, Mike, and Freddy a century from now, but maybe not. One thing is for sure though: Audiences will still be entertained by updates on Frankenstein and Dracula...
* With apologies to the MST3K Movie for that joke, though it works even better on the newer variations on the logo...
Posted by Mark on September 20, 2009 at 12:00 PM .:
Where am I? This page contains entries posted to the Kaedrin Weblog in the 6 Weeks of Halloween Category.