Monday, October 31, 2011

Halloween Short-Cut # 12: "Drag Me To Hell" by David Pretty

Felicitations, Fear Fans!  

Director Sam Raimi cut his teeth making "splatterific" horror entertainment so I suppose it made sense for him to return to his roots after laying down the weighty mantle of the Spider-Man franchise.  So, is it a triumphant comeback by a conquering hero or just a watered-down, derivative re-hash of his previous shticks? 

Well, if the super-slick trailer is any indication, it looks like a partial success at least:

Drag Me to Hell - Trailer by dreadcentral

In a timely premise, Alison Lohman plays Christine, a bank loans officer who's encouraged to play hardball with clients while competing for a promotion.  After she acts contrary to her conscience and denies a creepy old woman an extension on her mortgage, it's revealed that the old hag is actually a powerful gypsy who curses Christine with a terrible fate.

Within days our plucky heroine is visited by a "Lamia", a goat-like demon who proceeds to torment her as a preamble to hauling her into the bowels of H-E-double-hockey-sticks.  Raimi trots out all of his time-honored tricks here: ambient noises echo through the soundtrack, the environments are manipulated to great effect, possessed people get all floaty and freaky, bodily fluids are abundant and there are more jump-scares than you can shake a crucifix at.

My capsule review is as follows: Drag Me To Hell is Evil Dead with training wheels.  In fact, some of these techniques were actually done better in Evil Dead and and its superior sequel-cum-remake Evil Dead 2.  And although Alison Lohman might be easy on the eyes, she's just not a great actor and the film suffers from a distinct lack of presence that a Bruce Campbell might provide.

Nevertheless, Drag Me To Hell is a fun, relatively ungory old-skool horror romp that serves it's purpose as a introductory roller-coaster ride of thrills and scares.  But unlike Raimi's earlier films, I'm not sure if this is a ride I'd ever be interested in going on again. 

Tilt: down.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Halloween Short-Cut # 11: "The Evil Dead" by David Pretty

Greetings Deadites and Dead-ettes!

I recently re-watched The Evil Dead for a blog entry I wrote about movies that scared the crap out of me as a kid.  Alas, the digital era and even the film's own creators haven't been particularly kind to the old girl.  So much so that my viewing experience the other night became an exercise in cataloging one now glaringly obvious flaw after another.  

Does this mean that the film no longer holds any appeal?  Hells, no!  Ponder this esoteric segue as you watch the film's still-atmospheric trailer...


Although Evil Dead 2 (and especially Army of Darkness) is regarded as the horror comedy, there's still a lot of black humor in the first film as well.  This is made especially apparent if you make the glorious error of listening to the hilarious Sam Raimi/Bruce Campbell DVD commentary in which the director and lead gleefully inventory all of the film's warts.
The Evil Dead was made on a budget so low it makes Napolean Dynamite look like Avatar.  I'm pretty sure that director Sam Raimi and producer Rob Tapert would never have guessed that their cheaply assembled little horror picture would one-day fall under the merciless magnifying glass of digital home video.  Indeed, the realm of hi-definition is downright cruel to The Evil Dead.  It makes every blemish stand out like pimples in a grad photo.   

I really do believe that certain movies are only meant to be seen in a run-down theater or on a crappy VHS cassette passed around more times then the Pamela Anderson sex tape. And that's the way I first saw The Evil Dead: via a magnetized strip of thin black plastic that provided a suitable filter of concealment for this acne-ridden cinematic hellraiser.        

As a neophyte horror film aficionado, my rendezvous with The Evil Dead was inevitable.  After all, Stephen King had proclaimed it to be "the most ferociously original horror film of the year".  Squeamish Baby Boomer Horror anthology writers constantly referred to it as vile and loathsome.  It had also been banned in several countries and the U.K even went so far as to add it to their notorious list of "Video Nasties" alongside such charming titles as The Beast in Heat, Deep River Savages and Gestapo's Last Orgy.  

So, by the time I'd gotten a chance to slip that  ratty old videocassette into the willing maw of my "Panavonic" brand VCR, I was already soundly convinced that what I was about to see was pure cinematic evil.  Even more evil then Sarah Palin's Alaska.  And let me assure you, folks, the first time I experienced The Evil Dead, I certainly didn't see any matte lines around the moon, seams in the prosthetic makeup or dwell on the lousy performances.  First I was intrigued, then I was horrified and finally I was thoroughly repulsed all in one economic sitting.

WARNING: This review is tad more "spoileriffic" then average so BEWARE!

In The Evil Dead, five (very) senior college students travel to the world's most decrepit cabin, practically abandoned in the Tennessee back woods.  Even before someone has a chance to crack a beer, the flighty, artsy Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) starts to uncontrollably scrawl away in her sketch pad, eventually drawing an evil-looking book with a face on it.  Apparently nonplussed by this interlude of demonic possession, she then proceeds to act as if she's just been visited by her muse. 

In a wacky co-incidence, Ash (Bruce Campbell) and Scotty (Hal Delrich) find a nasty-looking tome and a tape recorder down in the cellar.  When they play the tape, it spouts off a chilling Sumerian incantation from the accompanying flesh-bound Necronomicon, or the colorfully titled "Book of the Dead".  The next thing we know, demonic McNasties spring up in the woods and start to assail the cabin in an effort to possess the "kids".  One stomach-churning set-piece follows after another. 

Nowadays, it's really hard for me to believe that the seemingly jovial, impeccably-attired, "Three Stooges"-obsessed, Spider-Man-directing, Xena-producing Sam Raimi was once capable of depicting the sort of sick, twisted shit on display in The Evil Dead.   In fact, after watching the character of Cheryl get raped by a poplar, I remember coming to the conclusion that this director had to be completely demented.
The horrible sights just kept piling on.  A possessed Cheryl stabs Ash's girlfriend Linda (Betsy Baker) in the ankle with her friggin' pencil, producing one of the most wince-inducing moments in horror film history.  Then Shelly (Theresa Tilly) gets occupied by one of the "Deadites" and attacks Scotty with an ancient Kandarian dagger.  After he saws at her wrist for a little bit with his hunting knife, Demon Shelley then proceeds to finish the job by chewing off her own friggin' hand.  Jesus, talk about hardcore.
All the while she's making this horrible, high-pitched, guttural scream which never fails to turn my blood into ice water.  Finally Scotty ends his misery (and ours) by grabbing an axe from a shit-baked Ash and dismembering what's left of his girlfriend.  To this day I'm still amazed that Raimi had the stones to show the axe actually hacking through her limbs.  As if that wasn't gross enough, he trumps this only seconds later by training his camera's unblinking eye on the disembodied body parts flopping around by themselves on the floor.  *HURK!* 
A-a-a-a-a-a-a-n-d that's when I stopped the tape on my inaugural viewing.  I remember just sitting there as if I'd been smoked in the head with a canoe paddle.  All I could think was: 'Wow, I like being scared as much as the next jobber, but this Sam Raimi guy is a crazy motherfucker.  He isn't playing fair!  Who gave this lunatic a camera? Clearly he's out of his mind!' 

After dry-heaving/hyperventilating into a paper bag for about ten minutes I screwed up the courage to press "Play" again.  Yeah, it didn't get any better.

 Linda also becomes a walking demonic time-share and soon she's tormenting Ash in this creepy, sing-songy little girl voice that would drive the Dali Lama to homicide within sixty seconds.  Then, after braving the woods all by himself, Scotty returns to the cabin bloodied, beaten and presumably sporting an alder-branch-sized poop shoot.  For a moment Cheryl and Linda return to normal and they nearly succeed in ganking Ash after he foolishly lets his guard down.  

Poor Ash does everything he can to try and subdue the possessed Linda short of dismembering her.  He locks her out of the cabin but she sneaks back in and tries to impale him with the dagger.  He turns the weapon on her and, thinking that she's finally dead, attempts to bury her in the front yard.  Naturally she springs back up again like a demented Jack-In-The-Box, all the while screaming bloody murder.  Ash tries to knock her out by clobbering her in the melon with a conveniently discarded railroad tie.  She just keeps coming at him relentlessly and eventually our "hero" is forced to decapitate his better half with a shovel.  

Hey, kids, are we having fun yet? 

The whole thing comes to a completely insane climax after the demonic husks of Scotty and Cheryl double-team Ash inside the cabin.  Our hero temporarily manages to save himself by pushing his thumbs through Scotty's orbital sockets.  Speaking as someone with a real phobia about eye trauma, I distinctly remember watching that particular scene for the first time through a web of interlocked fingers.  

When Scotty's corpse begins to smolder after the Necronomicon ends up close to the fire, Ash finally puts one and one together and attempts to throw the evil tome into the blaze.  While he's doing this, Demon Cheryl begins to whale away on Ash's lumbar region with a fireplace poker whilst a blind (but apparently no less determined) Scotty starts gumming away at his leg like your grandmother trying to eat a turkey leg.  Right then and there, I decided that The Evil Dead deserved to win the "Most Horrible Thing Anyone Could Possibly Imagine" Award.   

After the book burns up in the fire we're then subjected to a sickeningly creative amalgam of stop motion animation, demonic puppetry, free-range live vermin and what appears to be about a gallon of non-dairy coffee creamer mixed with porridge.  Honestly, words fail me; you just have to see this for visual eye-rape for yourself.  I assure you, the compulsion to take a shower ten seconds into the film's closing credits is overwhelming. 

The film's messy finale atones somewhat for the unforgiving glare of 1080p resolution, which often exposes the previously seen "specials effects" as neither special nor particularly effective.  Often the Deadite look boils down to a bunch of pancake makeup, contact lenses and veins drawn on with purple eyeliner.  Whenever the full-blown demons are asked to move violently, you can clearly see the seams between the poorly-blended facial appliances and the actor's skin.  Mercifully, Demon Cheryl's final appearance is pretty unnerving, Bar-B-Que Shelly is uber-nasty and, as I've already established, the final scene is supremely nauseating.  

Since the film was made over the course of eighteen months, continuity and technical gaffes abound.  Car tires inexplicably squeal on dirt roads.  Scotty enters the cabin in broad daylight and by the time he gets inside it's pitch dark.  Ash gets covered in gore and two seconds later he's freshly scrubbed.  Rogue crewmembers and lighting equipment pop up with more frequency then Eggos at a daycare. 
Like the special effects and continuity, the performances are also run hot and cold.  The ladies all acquit themselves quite nicely, however.  Ellen Sandweiss as Cheryl is very adept at displaying frantic terror, shell-shocked resignation and then sinister evil.  Betsy Baker may be perfectly cast as Ash's sweet, virginal girlfriend but just as soon as she's  possessed, she morphs into one of the most annoying and creepy monsters in cinema history.  And although Theresa Tilly doesn't get as much to do as Shelley, her shock and awe over Cheryl's transformation is so genuine that when she says "Look at her eyes! For God's sake, what happened to her eyes!?" you can't help but be chilled to the bone.

Richard DeManincor (acting under the screen name of Hal Delrich, presumably to avoid union issues and possibly distance himself from the production) is decent as the insensitive oaf Scotty but he always seems to be trying too hard.  Also, before he became a demi-god to horror film geeks everywhere, Bruce Campbell seemed reserved and self-conscious in his first go-round as Ashley J. Williams.  Unlike their female co-stars, both guys seem to think its a full time job just to keep a straight face half of the time.

Which may be forgivable, considering how ripe some of their dialogue is.  The notorious "necklace" scene between Ash and Linda is about as fraudulent as the jewelry itself.  After Scotty decides its time to bug out, Ash plaintively reminds him that Linda can't walk.  When Scotty replies in his best asshole-ish tones: "Look! I'm getting out! I don't care what happens to her! She's your girlfriend, you take care of her!", you just can't help but cracks up.  

I also love it when the Deadites start tormenting Ash and he whines back: "You bastards! Why are you torturing me like this? Why?".  But the absolute pièce de résistance has to be Ash's pathetic soliloquy to an obviously dead Scotty: "Now, the sun will be up in an hour or so and we can all get out of here together. You, me, Linda, Shelly. Hmmmmm...Well... not Shelly...".  Gold, baby, gold!     

And then there are moments of monumental stupidity.  Cheryl decides that it's a good idea to go walking around in the haunted woods all alone after she's been spiritually jacked up by a demonic sketch artist.  Ash gets trapped not once but twice under the world's flimsiest book shelf.  Scotty also decides to go out for a casual hike because, hey, it worked out so well for Cheryl.  And finally Ash chooses to ignore every grain of common sense by venturing solo into the cabin's uber-spooky, blood-soaked cellar.    

Regardless of the bargain basement aesthetics, half-baked performances and occasional bouts of rank idiocy, The Evil Dead is still a remarkable achievement.  The creative camerawork that came to epitomize Sam Raimi's unique visual style is in a formative but ambitious stage here.  Shaky-cam shots and Dutch Angles abound, but the level of creativity Raimi uses when applying these techniques is nothing short of genius.          

I love the camera lens behind the pendulum of the wall clock.  The shot displaying the keys on top of the door frame really ramps up suspense as Cheryl frantically tries to get back inside the cabin.  Ash's tete a tete with the mirror is exceptionally cool.  The "floor cam" which follows a dead body being dragged out of the room is simple yet original.  

But my favorite set up has to be the top-down shot following Ash at the end of the film.  Every time the camera moves past a beam in the ceiling we hear a cool "wrr-ROOW" noise as if the demonic force above his head is reacting to proximity.  Raimi didn't have to do this; it isn't relevant to the plot.  It just shows his incredible attention to creative detail.

He also seemed to be very keen on the film's sound design.  Music is used sparingly, but to great effect when needed.  Guttural, disembodied voices periodically invite the characters to "JOIN US".  The genuinely disturbing voice acting by the Deadites is great, drunkenly crashing between sarcastic mocking to school ground teasing to inhuman, banshee-like screams.  Also, whenever the camera is crashing through the woods like a whirling dervish, the unearthly drone made by the unseen force is genuinely disconcerting.           
For it's incredibly innovative visual style, spooky and claustrophobic setting, bargain basement innovations  and unwavering commitment to depict the sickest images imaginable, The Evil Dead remains a charmingly flawed horror film classic. 

Tilt: W-a-a-a-a-a-a-y up.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Halloween Short-Cut # 10: "American Psycho" by David Pretty

Happy Horror-ween, Psychos and Psychettes!

People with tattoos, Mohawks and piercings have always seemed more "normal" to me then self-obsessed business types with flawless hair, perfect tans, and Armani suits.  The original novel American Psycho and the subsequent film which followed in 2000, really took this concept to the high water mark.  Although the movie works disturbingly well on a superficial level, it also has a blast playing around with a veritable gold mine of social parody.

This particular trailer is quite unnerving, first setting the tone with Bateman's "Ed Gein" quote and then juxtaposing scenes of mayhem with the sunny melodies of "Wouldn't It Be Nice" by the Beach Boys:   

On the surface, Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is the prototypical modern American male.  He's handsome, in flawless shape, impeccably dressed and society has crowned him a Master of the Universe.  The fact that he's barking mad doesn't seem to enter into consideration.

In fact his behavior seems perfectly in step with his surroundings.  Bateman and his business proteges are constantly trying to undermine one another.  Despite doing no quantifiable work, they feel superior to most plebes and entitled to special treatment.  Their relationships are illusory, transient and self-serving.

Every time one of them manages to trump the others with a new toy or unattainable restaurant reservation, you can just see their collective hackles rise despite all of the fake smiles.  The only difference is that Bateman parleys all of his frustration with chasing the consumerist dragon into becoming a first-rank serial murderer.  

After Patrick's new business card is humbled by a co-worker, he viciously kills a homeless man and his dog.  When rival/doppelganger Paul (Jared Leto) scores a big contract then mistakes Patrick for an interchangeable co-worker, he ends up on the receiving end of an axe.   Even as a nosy detective starts sniffing around, Bateman steps up his game and starts torturing and murdering prostitutes.  Soon he's dropping bodies with such frequency that you can't help but suspect that he wants to be caught.

Which brings me to the most fascinating thing about American Psycho.  Despite broadcasting his peccadilloes from the rooftops, the elevated status foisted upon Bateman seems to have given him carte blanche to do whatever he wants without recompense.  The movie's observations about the pointless and maddening pursuits of consumer goods may be fascinating, but it's the concept of the teflon CEO that makes the film particularly relevant today.  Although set in the Eighties, Bateman's invisibility evokes thoughts of the corporate criminals who dissected the economy in 2008 without any supervision or repercussions.

Since the original novel was lambasted (somewhat justifiably) by women's groups as violent and misogynistic it made tremendous sense to assign directing duties to a woman.  Mary Harron does a masterful job interpreting the controversial original source material.  She manages to keep all of the original novel's satiric social barbs intact while distilling the sometimes-repellent subject matter down to something filmable.  Despite having to jettison a lot of the novel's crazier sequences, it's still pretty shocking when Cara Seymour as Christie attempts to flee from a completely naked, blood-spattered, chainsaw-wielding Bateman

After having tremendous success capturing the 60's in I Shot Any Warhol, Harron brings a similar attention to detail to American Psycho.  Indeed, the ship-in-a-bottle-sized portable phones, suspenders and tortoiseshell glasses really helps to evoke the Gordon Gecko "greed is good" era.  The excellent use of lighting and pristine sets really suggests an artifice over everything: business meetings, training regimens and posh restaurants all seem sterile and rarefied.  Everything is just a little too perfect.         

Just like corporate, overproduced music that makes up the film's excellent soundtrack.  Bateman, a passionate fan of Huey Lewis and the News, Whitney Houston and Phil Collins, likes his music safe and soulless.  It's just another part of his facade.  In addition to grounding the film firmly in the "Me" decade, these completely vapid tunes are used ironically to great effect.  Suffice to say that whenever Patrick starts to wax philosophically about the deeper meaning of "Sussudio" we know the shit's about to hit the fan. 
At times the film seems a tad disjointed and characters act detached from one another, but this just adds to the thematic underlay of self-absorption and social disconnect.  No-one in interested in conversing with anyone else, they just want to monologue about themselves.  Evelyn (Reece Witherspoon) obliviously yammers on about wedding plans even while her fiance Patrick openly talks about his need to "engage in homicidal behavior on a massive scale".  When Bateman tells a girl at a club that he's into "murders and executions", she interprets this as "mergers and acquisitions".  Even when he confesses everything in a rambling voicemail to his lawyer, his intended audience just thinks it's a joke.

Christian Bale was a relative unknown at the time, but his showing in American Psycho deservedly propelled him into the limelight.  Supposedly Bale partially based his performance on a talk show appearance by Tom Cruise in which the superstar exhibited "this very intense friendliness with nothing behind the eyes."  Indeed the illusion he creates here is seamless.  For the duration of the film's run time, you believe that he is Bateman.  There isn't a detectable ounce of fear or pretension in his performance.     

When he narrates the minutia of his daily workout regimen you hear the conviction in his delivery.  When you see him frenetically doing stomach crunches with Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre frolicking in the background, you see the intensity.  When he's hacking away at a victim with an axe, his rage is genuine.

But when he's forced to abandon the fraudulent smiles and smarmy deliveries in lieu of full-blown lunacy, he's equally at home.  His final late-night rampage and the resulting phone confession is pure genius.  Notwithstanding the grisly subject matter, I'd venture to say that his performance is Oscar-worthy.

He's backed up by some truly talented support.  Reece Witherspoon, playing a variation of Elle from Legally Blonde, is perfectly oblivious.  Willem Defoe is cheekily annoying as detective Donald Kimball.  Jared Leto does a great job playing Patrick's condescending mirror-image.  Finally a young Chloë Sevigny is tremendous as Bateman's pining secretary Jean.  She's able to convey such naive, earnest empathy that her reprieve is completely feasible.

American Psycho is a modern classic.  Although it's perfectly acceptable as an intense horror picture on a superficial level, viewers can also have a great time mining for a wealth of clever subtext.  It's all about the layers.

Just like Patrick Bateman.             
Tilt: up.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Halloween Short-Cut # 9: "Children of the Corn" by David Pretty

Greeting, Gore Hounds!

Some films can be overlooked when they're first released, but thanks to home video every movie now has a fair shot at finding its audience and achieving cult status.  With all the special edition DVD and Blu-Ray releases for Children of the Corn over the years, I just figured that it had joined those hallowed ranks.  But no, it's just plain hollow. And rank.

Here's the film's ghetto-looking trailer:

In a prologue that leaves precious little to the imagination, we learn how the tiny hamlet of Gatlin inexplicably gave asylum to a fringe group of pre-pubescent death-worshipers.  After the town's cash crop of corn fails, the residents turn to prayer to guarantee a good harvest next year.  The cultists decide to see and raise the evangelicals by staging a coup and then sacrificing all of the adults to a demonic entity called "He Who Walks Behind The Rows".  I would have suggested a judicious application of Miracle- Gro but, hey, whatever works.

Not long after, an annoying married couple (Vicky played by Linda Hamilton and Burt played by Peter Horton) mistakenly run over a kid while driving past Gatlin.  Naturally, instead of burying the brat in a shallow grave and driving on, they try and do the right thing (always a noob move in horror flicks) by bringing the kid's husk (Haw! See what I did there?) back into town in their trunk.

Of course, Gatlin is eerily deserted and perfectly preserved in a bizarre Normal Rockwell/alternate universe sort of way.  After Burt and Vicky encounter a few kids who are opposed to the cult they're forced to contend with a pack of Our Gang rejects armed with spades, shovels, pitchforks, scythes and hoes (*snicker*).  This group is nominally led by a translucent, chromosome-depleted mutant named Malachai who I suspect is single-handedly responsible for my generation's appalling attitude towards gingers.

Naturally this all leads up to an inevitable and cheap-looking finale in which Vicky is captured for sacrifice, the cult's leadership is contested by a pint-sized Republican named Isaac, Burt learns the purifying power of fire, and we find out that "He Who Walks Behind The Rows" is nothing but a second-rate optical effect left over from the original Star Trek.

Honestly, there's really not much of value here.  The dialogue is laughably bad so I suppose the awful performances by the kids can be partially blamed on this.  Since the film hangs it's fright hat on the threat level of the children, this makes Children of the Corn about as scary as an average episode of The Waltons.  Which is to say it's only Michele Bachman scary at best.  

The only decent things here are a couple of atmospheric shots and some cool production design.  Having said that, even "He Who...yada...yada...yada..." is a giant letdown since it's depicted as a crappy glowing red optical effect or a couple of threatening clouds.  OoOoo, look out, kids!  It's gonna rain!

Rain crap, maybe!

The only other compelling thing to watch out for is Linda Hamilton's pup-tent-sized cargo shorts.  Can you imagine a female lead in a horror flick wearing something like that now?

Hopefully this thing doesn't garner any unwarranted attention just because it's old or it's "the firstest horror movie I ever seen."

God, there's soooooo much better out there.

Tilt: down.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Halloween Short-Cut # 8: "Stained" by David Pretty

Greetings, Indie Horror Fans!

Sometimes as I'm wading through my annual diet of Shocktober fright flicks, I get worn down by convention.  Mercifully there's always the realm of independent horror, which often can be counted on to smash expectations and venture to dark places where studio films often fear to tread.

Unfortunately, you also run the risk of trudging through some pretty amateurish shlock.

Mercifully, Stained is an original study in mental fragility and the ravages of past trauma.  It also has a pretty grim view of the male of the species, which, frankly is somewhat justified.  Any woman who's ever felt as if she's gone a little bit Coo-Coo for Cocoa Puffs after witnessing or suffering through childhood/formative abuses of the heart will probably find a lot to relate to here.

Check out the film's trailer before we dive into the nitty-gritty:

Tinsel Korey plays Isabelle, the owner of a used bookstore located in a major metropolitan city.  She's plagued by an economically shaky present and a downright traumatic past.  Whenever she's besieged by stress, the camera surreptitiously catches her idly massaging a nasty-looking suicide scar on her wrist.

Like most women who chafe under the constant pressure to find validation through relationships, Isabelle is goaded into a date with the meat-headed but well-meaning Rolf (Stephen Huszar).  During their awkward time together, Isabelle displays a hypersensitivity to every possible subject ranging from her parentage to the quality of her baked goods.  When Rolf tries to touch her, she go ballistic and kicks him out of her apartment.

Through an initially stingy dribble of flashbacks, we eventually discover that Isabelle was immersed in an abusive relationship with a jackass named James (Tim Fellingham).  Like a bad penny, this toxic creep suddenly turns up from out of nowhere and the two start seeing each other once again.  Naturally, this re-union only serves to deepen her emotional turmoil.  Sisterly Jennifer (Sonja Bennett) seems to sense looming disaster and tries to keep tabs on her childhood friend as best she can.

A string of nasty events continues to inflate the powder keg of Isabelle's deteriorating mental state.  Urged on by Jennifer, she initiates yet another ugly break-up with James.  In order to keep the bookstore afloat, she's forced to dismiss an explosively hostile employee.  She begins to feel as if she's being watched inside the store and then followed on the way home.

One day Isabelle returns home to find that her cats have killed a pigeon and tracked blood all over the floor.  This unpleasant image triggers a complete breakdown and, in a torrent of flashbacks, we finally get to see why Isabelle is so damaged.  This is further cemented when we learn about the unconventional nature of her initial break up with James.

The first half of Stained is sometimes maddeningly vague and distracting.  Many of the flashbacks are image-based and don't contribute much to the narrative.  There are also more gratuitous shots of cats then I could ever hope to shoot a spray bottle at. Granted the sketchy flashbacks can be interpreted as Isabelle's repressed memories slowly coming to the surface and the cats can be seen as thematically relevant, but these things also feel a tad self-indulgent, like the narrative equivalent of barrels being thrown into Mario's path during a game of Donkey Kong.

But then something gleefully unexpected happens.  Perhaps influenced by Takashi Miike's Audition, the last third of the film calmly removes the kid gloves and begins the pay off the vagaries.  All of the disparate pieces of the film's somewhat disjointed first half start to fall into place.  As if that wasn't cool enough, the finale gives us no less then three wrinkles guaranteed to inspire distinct reactions from the viewer.

For the record, my reactions were (in order) "Aha!  I knew it!" then "Oh, crap!" and finally "WTF!?!"

In fact, the conclusion is so imaginative and unconventional that it retroactively repaired some of the issues I had up to that point.  For example, Jennifer's husband Dave (Stephen Lobo) initially comes across as a selfish,  emotionally manipulative man-child.  When Jennifer tells Dave that she's driving into the city to help Isabelle, his reaction would certainly confound the average male viewer.  However, taken in context with future revelations, it becomes somewhat justified if not completely logical.

For a modestly budgeted indie horror film, the technical aspects of the production are quite strong.  There are lovingly beautiful captures of the Prairies at sunset and great use of film speed, filters, angles and effects.  Director Karen Lam employs a slew of subtle visual clues that gives the unconscious mind something to gnaw on while we're watching.  For example, I love the shot where Isabelle wakes up after a very bad night and finds herself lying in the same pose she found her ill-fated mother in.

Lam also demonstrates the importance of audio in horror films.  In addition to using music to evoke an emotional reaction from the audience, she also has a lot of fun tweaking the white noise.  Occasionally she'll uses a Lynchian low rumble on static shots to create unease or distort the volume of a telephone conversation to create distance.  All of these sly techniques help to convey Isabelle's deteriorating mental state.

The performances are all pretty good for an indie film as well.  Tinsel Korey is asked to go through the mental wringer here as Isabelle.  She's generally quite solid, although sometimes her 'distress' would seem more appropriate if she'd just dropped a glass of milk on the floor.  Sonja Bennett is miraculously sympathetic as her pregnant pal.  Tim Fellingham expertly channels "asshole" vibes as James.  Steph Song is refreshingly natural for her limited screen time.  And finally, Anna Mae Routledge is great as the slightly skanky, creatively disgruntled Janna.                

Even in light of the film's boffo ending, I still have some unresolved issues.  I find Jennifer's unquestioning willingness to help her friend with the most distasteful of tasks really strained the film's credibility for me.  The first half, with its seemingly endless scenes of Isabelle coming and going from her apartment, still feels somewhat tedious.  Finally, all of the male characters in the film are either scary ogres, abusive dicks or total milksops.  Having said that, I can certainly forgive this as "sauce for the goose", mainly because the number of movies featuring universally unflattering portrayals of women certain outnumbers this alternative.

By the time the movie settles into a stronger narrative and the flashbacks become increasingly relevant to what's going on, Stained begins to surprise the viewer pretty consistently.  And frankly, considering the creative bankruptcy exhibited by most "product" cranked out by the major studios, surprise is a very rare and precious commodity nowadays.


Tilt: up

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Halloween Short-Cut # 7: "The Changeling" by David Pretty

Greetings, All You Spirit-Seekers and Armchair Mediums!

The Changeling is a hoary old-school ghost story which represents a style of film-making that is now nearly defunct.  Can you imagine a big-budgeted, major studio film being released now that featured such deliberate pacing and a fifty-three year old actor in the lead?

Ponder that for a moment as you watch the film's creepy-ass trailer:

Well, I guess such permutations weren't such a gamble back in 1980.  Veteran actor George C. Scott plays John Russell, a music composer who loses his wife and child in a freak roadside car accident.  In a effort to distant himself from this horrible tragedy he moves out of his apartment in New York City to Seattle Washington in order to teach music at a local university.

While there he rents a spacious but inherently spooky-looking mansion after it's been abandoned for twelve years.  Initially things are fine and John slowly begins to find some peace of mind.  Unfortunately, odd things start to happen in the mansion.  He hears what sounds like someone pounding on the pipes.  Water taps start running on their own accord.  Doors begin to open and close as if by some unseen force.

Eventually John locates a secret room in the loft and discovers clues to the house's dark history that seem to implicate a powerful political clan.  Soon all hell breaks loose with creepy bathtub manifestations, disembodied voices, a rogue rubber ball, a nerve-jangling seance, a vacant but inexplicably mobile wheelchair and a götterdämmerung climax involving fire and a killer chandelier.

Make no mistake, this isn't the scariest film I've ever seen but it's certainly got it's fair share of what Buffy used to call "the wiggins".  There were at least two or three points in the movie where I felt the hackles rise on my back, but then again, I'm a sucker for "spiritual horror" films like The Shining or The Exorcist.

Unlike Paranormal Activity, The Changeling starts off with some modest anomalies and then stacks increasingly eerie stuff on top, building to a great climax.  Director Peter Medak really has my number here.  He wrings some intense scares out of his creative use of sound and his ability to show fleeting glimpses of things unexplained.  Turn out, it's also an effective little whodunit which doles out the revelations at a satisfying pace.

The performances are also top-shelf.  George C. Scott is alternately sympathetic and then relentless as he's driven to piece together the cryptic clues laid out before him.  It's as if his single-minded desire to vindicate the victim will allow him to atone for the loss of his wife and child.  Scott's real-life wife at the time, Trish Van Devere, is also empathetic and resolute as Claire Norman.  After helping John secure the house in the first place, she now feels partially responsible for his plight and determined see things through.

Supposedly the film was inspired by screenwriter Russell Hunter's real-life experiences in a similar house, which certainly accounts for the film's restraint until the final reel.  The exteriors, clearly shot in Canada, are still atmospheric and the house itself has just as much character as John and Claire do.

All told, this is is creepy little flick.  Current horror films would be well-advised to steal a few moves from its playbook and then update them for modern sensibilities.

  Tilt: up.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Halloween Short-Cut # 6: "Diary of the Dead" by David Pretty

Hey There, Brain Munchers!

Diary of the Dead?  Yeah, more like Diarrhea of the Dead...  


Honestly, I'm a huge fan of George A. Romero.  After all, the man single-handedly redefined the modern zombie with Night of the Living Dead (1968) and then followed that up with Dawn of the Dead (1978), which has been rightfully described as the Gone With The Wind of zombie films.

Day of the Dead (1985) did a serviceable job rounding out the trilogy, but it was somewhat marred by overwrought performances and tragically truncated gore effects.  Then Romero took a much-needed break from the genre, that is until zombies became ridiculously popular again thanks to 28 Days Later and Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake.  Honestly, I really can't slight Romero for wanting to go back to the undead well again, especially in light of the resounding thud that movies such as Monkey Shines made upon release.

So, after a twenty-year hiatus, Romero gave us Land of the Dead (2005), a respectable affair that, at the very least, had loads to say about the growing divide between class in our society.  It also served up a loopy performance by John Leguizamo as Cholo and a relatively sedate showing from Dennis Hopper as the bloodless, ice-cold bureaucrat Kaufman.  It was also the first of his films to feature NRA-flavored zombies with an aptitude for firing guns; as if a slowly-shambling horde of flesh-eaters isn't threatening enough!

In the intervening years between Land and Diary, the hand-held camera/found footage genre became hot thanks to flicks like The Blair Witch Project so Romero had a bash at "zombifying" the technique.  Unfortunately, in addition to feeling a little late to the party, the decision to tether the camera to only a few characters really makes it seem as if the film was actually shot by the students.  Which is to say, rather poorly.

Romero uses a lot of slick editing and stock footage to overcome this deficit in the trailer:

The movie itself begins with rarely-glimpsed film-maker Jason (Joshua Close) on the set of his low-budget student horror flick.   In the middle of their shoot, the crew begins to hear odd news reports about recently deceased bodies coming back to life and attacking the living.  Upon hearing this, Jason immediately switches gears and begins to document the event, convinced that what's going on will render his fictional project completely irrelevant.

After they retrieve Jason's girlfriend Debra (Michelle Morgan) from her deserted dormitory, the crew quickly discovers first hand just how badly things have gotten when they take a wounded friend to a nearby hospital.  The building is positively rife with shambling, cannibalistic walking corpses.  While trying to escape, one of the students is bitten and soon it's established that anyone who dies is destined to come back as an Undead Amaerican.  Yikes!

The group then decides to take their trailer on a road trip to Scranton (?) to reunite Debra with her parents.  Along the way they encounter an Amish holdout, a community of rogue National Guardsmen and, of course, hordes of undead ghouls.  All the while, Jason's camera is ever-present and it quickly becomes obvious that he's obsessed with recording every aspect of society's meltdown.

Like many of his previous flicks, Romero packs Diary of the Dead with tons of clever subtext.   The horror maestro has a veritable field day commenting about how mainstream media can falsify "reality"  and how the  proliferation of privately owned video cameras and social media can counter-balance this.  Also, the film covers some of the same themes touched on in Midnight Meat Train (reviewed here by your truly).  Indeed, Jason manages to insulate himself quite effectively from all the horror thanks to the distance and abstraction provided by the cold camera lens.      

For this reason alone, the film earns a marginal reprieve, but it still doesn't prevent it from being a somewhat turgid, static and even unintentionally funny affair.  I just kills me how Jason keeps filming incessantly, even when Debra is being assaulted by her zombified brother.  Regardless of how committed he is to capturing everything on video, I can assure you that as soon as he made the mistake of doing this just once, the zombies would be the last thing he'd have to worry about.  In fact his next documentary subject would probably be the inside of his own colon.      

The performances are generally quite good, especially for a Romero flick.  Unfortunately, the hand-held technique seems to devalue the efforts of the actors somewhat.  It also doesn't help that Romero's occasionally ripe dialogue and heavy-handed characterization comes across as a tad hackneyed.  Scott Wentworth as the laconic, British academic advisor really labors under this particular burden.

Although the production values look pretty solid, the found footage approach makes it seem needlessly cheap and amateurish.  If this actually was a student film, I'd be somewhat impressed but coming from an industry veteran like Romero, it's kinda weak-sauce.  To make matters even worse, Romero actually stoops to using generous dollops of CGI, which sticks out like a sore thumb.  Coming from one of the biggest proponents of practical, in camera splatter effects, this is pretty disappointing.

The sad fact is, having our point of view constantly linked to a conceptual "video camera" really is counter-productive when generating suspense.  For example, the "climactic" final act in Ridley's house is completely devoid of tension since the mansion's security cameras show us everything that's going on.   Sorry, but grainy footage of an actor in barely-discernible zombie make-up stumbling comically around until he runs into a character wielding a camcorder is barely engaging let alone scary.

At least Romero went through the trouble of infusing his story with some subtext, which is a helluva lot more then what most writer/directors do nowadays.  Unfortunately the technique chosen to tell the story is counter-intuitive to it's impact.  It's a failed experiment that probably looked a lot better on paper then in did the editing room.

   Tilt: down

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Halloween Short-Cut # 5: "Near Dark" by David Pretty

Greetings, Enfanginated Ones!

My Player-style pitch for this movie: Near Dark is like True Blood being molested by Natural Born Killers.


I first saw this flick as the opening act of a double bill with Hellraiser.  In many ways, this young, punk upstart blew the high-profile veteran off the stage.  Long before Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to receive an Academy Award for Best Director for The Hurt Locker she was making balsy, modestly-budgeted horror and action films.

Around the time same Near Dark was made she was rubbing shoulders with Hollywood luminaries like James Cameron.  They eventually married in 1989 but divorced two years later.  It's obvious to me that Kathryn picked up a few directorial techniques from Cameron since Near Dark features several stylistic picks ups from The Terminator and Aliens (as well as cast alumni Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton and Jenette Goldstein.)  The funny thing is, I consider the writing and especially the dialogue to actually be a tad sharper here.

The film's premise is quite simple: bored of small town life, local hayseed Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) becomes taken with a beautiful stranger in town named Mae (Jenny Wright).  When they go out on disjointed date together, Caleb is fascinated by Mae's sad but ethereal quality.  Then, just prior to sunrise, she inexplicably gives him a class-A hickey and then promptly runs away.  Caleb tries to go after her but is horrified when his skin begins to pop and sizzle under the glare of the morning sun.  He's barely rescued by Mae's unconventional family, which includes laconic Jesse (Henrikson), slinky Diamondback (Goldstein) and borderline psychotic Severen (Paxton).

Severen considers Babyvamp Caleb to be useless baggage and tries to convince the others to kill him.   Mae manages to negotiate a temporary reprieve, provided he can learn to hunt and kill.  Unfortunately he proves to be completely inept at this and Mae is forced to let Caleb feed from her wrist just to keep him alive.

Caleb finally manages to ingratiate himself to the group when he daringly rescues them all from the police.  But eventually Caleb is forced to choose between the mortal family that seeks to recover him and the undead clan that that now refuses to let him go.

Anyone who thinks that female directors can't make a full-blooded horror film obviously hasn't seen Near Dark.  To this day, I'm bitter with Lion's Gate studios for releasing the Blu-Ray with this horrid Twilight-inspired cover:

Stephanie Meyer may have found inspiration in Near Dark's forbidden love story but that's where the similarities end.  The vampires in Near Dark are vicious, cruel and truly enjoy savoring the fear of their victims.  When this pack of undead lunatics enter a shit-kicker bar bent on perusing the walking menu, the scene slowly builds from squirm-inducing to nigh-unbearable.  It's during these times that the film hits Tarantino-like heights of tension.

Despite it's modest budget, the film also looks fantastic, with plenty of evocative night sky and daybreak scenes.  The film's production design and costume departments also serve to dial up the grungy and dangerous tone the film is striving for.

Bigelow also manages to wring some genuinely emotional scenes out of the material; an area in which her "King of the World" ex-husband sometimes comes across as heavy-handed.  The performances are also very tight.  Adrian Pasdar is earnest and true as the hero and we root for him as he doggedly clings to the last vestiges of his humanity.  Jenny Wright is winsome and sexy as Mae and I really wish she was still active in films.

As for the "bad guys": Lance Henriksen couldn't deliver a bad performance if his life depended on it and I've been a charter member of "The Jenette Goldstein Fanclub" ever since her star-turn as Vasquez in Aliens.  Finally, Bill Paxton steals the show as the unhinged Severen and every scene he's in exudes danger and chaos.   He's a destructive force of nature who's motivation to create mayhem, suffering and terror seems to be just as pressing as his need for blood.

Now, some might consider the end of the film to be a bit of a cheat but I think it's interesting to view their condition as almost medical.  After all, the word "vampire" is never actually mentioned in the entire film and I love that the supernatural aspects of the affliction have been jettisoned.  I also think it's relevant that no core members of the original pack ever consider seeking help for their "affliction" since they're having way too much fun.

Near Dark has been overshadowed somewhat by The Lost Boys (also from 1987) but I actually think I like this one a tad better.  This one is a bloody and beautiful good time.

Tilt: up.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Halloween Short-Cut # 4: "The Midnight Meat Train" by David Pretty

Greetings, Cenobites and Cenobelles!

The twisted psyche of Clive Barker is responsible for foisting some of the most disturbing literary and cinematic images onto the consciousness of modern horror film fans. The Midnight Meat Train is no exception: it's bloody, bleak, nasty, repellent and coldly stylish.

A part of me just wishes that the film had quit while it was ahead and hadn't been derailed by such an infinitely moronic finale.

But before we get to that, here's the film's intense theatrical trailer:

So, Bradley Cooper plays Leon, an aspiring photographer who's desperate for a career breakthrough.  After a chance meeting with Susan Hoff (Brooke Shields), a local luminary in the New Your arts scene, Leon begins to feel pressured to capture the "real" (read: seamy) underbelly of the city.  After using his camera to thwart an attempted assault, the same girl he rescues ends up dead later that evening.  After reviewing the photos he took the previous night, Leon becomes convinced that he's captured the girl's real killer in some of his stills.

Leon becomes obsessed with tracking down and investigating this mysterious subway denizen: a tall, imposing, impeccably dressed professional butcher named Mahogany (Vinnie Jones).  Eventually Leon's persistence pays off and he actually manages to photograph the murderer's grim handiwork.  Unfortunately he's spotted by the killer, subdued and then wakes up the next day with a bizarre symbol carved into his chest.

Concerned for her boyfriend's safety and convinced that he's right about the murders, Maya (Leslie Bibb) decides to break into Mahogany's apartment (!) to try and recover Leon's camera.  Naturally, this doesn't go over so well.  After her friend is kidnapped, Maya goes to the police with what little evidence she has and their non-committal response seems to hint at a deeper conspiracy.  This sets things up for a final confrontation on the train between Mahogany and Leon, who now seems to have been taken on many aspects of the butcher's dark persona.

This movie starts s-o-o-o-o good.  Then it gets s-o-o-o-o bad.  S-o-o-o-o-o quick.

Which really is a bloody shame, since director Ryuhei Kitamura has assembled a visually stunning flick.  It might seem odd to describe a horror movie as beautiful, but this truly qualifies.  With its desaturated colors, grimy sets, creative lighting, inventive camera angles, time-lapse photography and arresting (not to mention sometimes repellent) use of closeups, Midnight Meat Train is shot almost like an art film.  Which I suppose makes sense, considering the thematic relevance that photography has to the story.  Indeed, the film seems to be challenging the long-held perception that a camera can somehow insulate and protect a photographer from their sometimes-ghoulish subject matter.

As great as it is for a film called Midnight Meat Train to have some deeper meaning, when everything is said and done, it still has to deliver the gruesome goods.  And, let me tell you folks, Kitamura isn't shy about coming at us full force.  In quick succession he bludgeons us with a "victim cam", an innovative shot I've come to refer to as "Decap-O-Vision", unflinching hammer-falls to the face and a spate of flying, wayward eyeballs.  At one point  the camera lingers sickeningly on Mahogany's handiwork as he "harvests"...things from the face of his victim.  Even this old gore hound was duly repulsed.

The performances are great.  Although its hard to separate Bradley Cooper from his role as Phil in The Hangover, he capably fulfills the script's arc for the character, going from determined to frantic to vacant and then unhinged.  Leslie Bibb is attractive and sympathetic as Maya.  Despite the fact that her character is asked to make some pretty loopy judgment calls, her willingness to do just about anything to save the love of her life is well-sold.

But a large part of film's success has to go to Vinnie Jones, the hulking villain of the piece who I'd have to describe as a brick shit-house with a crew cut.  Fortunately he's not just a Frankenstinian ogre.  His expressive eyes and face are put to good use and he's able to express a whole host of emotions, most of them patently repugnant.

So, after such bountiful praise, how can I possibly criticize this film you ask?  Simply put, the second half borders on ludicrous.  At the mid-way point I was on the verge of awarding this flick at least four stars and then a veritable shit-storm of stupidity began to rain down.

I've seen enough horror movies to know that often characters have to do stupid things in order to further the plot, but dear zombie Jesus, there are some unforgivably idiotic things that happen in the later half of this film.  As soon as Maya breaks into Mahogany's apartment the film goes from being an efficient and intelligent thriller to an asshole practical joker who keeps trying to straighten the "SUCKER" signs on our backs.  The fact that Maya then willingly decides to waltz right into the lead villain's lair completely alone is just the heights of stupidity.

But that's not the ending's worst offense.  Clive Barker may be responsible for the cool deeper meanings infused in this story, but he's also the guilty of peddling the dumbest possible reason behind all the killings.  Like his contemporary Stephen King, sometimes I get the sense that Barker is a great concept guy but just pulls endings out of his ass like an afterthought. 

So, after establishing this gritty, creepy, urban twist on the slasher/serial killer genre and teasing us with the very terrestrial conspiracy that's afoot, the revelation at the end of Midnight Meat Train comes across as spectacularly lame.  Almost as lame, in fact, as the ending to Steven King's otherwise incredible novel IT.   Seriously, why don't these great writers figure out an intelligent ending first and then work their way backwards?  After all, audiences tend to formulate their final opinions based on the last thing they witnessed.

But I can't completely jettison this film as a failure merely because of a few bad ideas.  For the most part it's a slickly lensed, well-performed and genuinely horrifying thriller.

In fact, if you hop off the Midnight Meat Train just before it makes its final stop and you'll end up having a fun and very scary thrill ride.

        Tilt: up.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Halloween Short-Cut # 3: "Bug" by David Pretty

Hello, Friedkin Freaks!

Right out of the gate, I'd have to characterize Bug as a brave failure.  I thought the whole thing seemed kinda "stagey" until I found out that it was based on a play by Tracy Letts.  Now, that's not to say that there haven't been plenty of plays successfully adapted into films, but works such as Amadeus and A Man For All Seasons had plenty of scene changes and visual variety to sustain a cinematic interpretation.

Bug, on the other hand, keeps the story contained within the confines of a depressing, flea-bitten hotel room.  Slowly it wears the viewer down until it decides to reward those brave few souls with a good, hard kick to the accouterments.

Before I move on to the process of dissection, here's the film's appropriately bizarro trailer:

The run time is mercifully short considering how relentlessly bleak and oppressive it becomes.   Ashley Judd plays Agnes, a waitress who's shacked up alone in a crummy run-down motel in a small Oklahoma town.  We soon come to learn that she's recovering from some major trauma in her life: namely the disappearance of her young son Lloyd and some very abusive treatment at the hands of her anger-prone ex-husband Jerry (Harry Connick, Jr.).

She has a nominal relationship with a co-worker named R.C. and, as the film begins, we witness their sad approximation of a social gathering.  Along for the ride is a stranger whom R.C introduces to Agnes as Peter (Michael Shannon).  He's mild-mannered, quietly assertive and after R.C. leaves he slowly begins to ingratiate himself to both Agnes and the viewer as he opens up about his past and shares his personal thoughts.

She offers him the couch to stay overnight since he's "kind of living in-between places" at the moment.  The next morning Jerry shows up uninvited, slaps Agnes around, absconds with her tip money and then threatens to come back.  When Peter sees her condition,  he begins to comfort her and ask questions about hr past.  Vulnerable and unwilling to be left alone, Agnes invites Peter to bed.

Almost immediately things go from slightly off-kilter to downright weird.  Like David Lynch weird.  Peter wakes up in the middle of the night convinced that aphids are crawling all over the bed.  As viewers, we can't see anything despite Peter's assertions.  He soon confesses that he's AWOL from the U.S. military who were doing strange tests on him.  He claims that they infected him with something that may or may not have been passed on to Agnes when they had sex.

At first she doesn't believe him, but in her desperate desire to hold onto him, Agnes slowly starts to believe Jerry's paranoid theories.

Then things get CLASS-5/Andy Dick bizarre.  

Low flying helicopters shake their room, lighting it up with searchlights as if fulfilling Peter's most irrational fears.  He begins testing his blood for parasites and decorating the room with fly paper and bug lamps.  Jerry re-appears and now seems distressingly normal in comparison.  The pair begin to self-mutilate themselves in an effort to get bugs out from under their skin.  R.C. attempts to intervene as the final voice of reason.

A-a-a-a-a-n-d then things go completely off the deep end.  

Look, I've loved some of Billy Friedkin's films in the past.  In fact, I still think that The Exorcist is one of the best horror movies ever made and the influence of The French Connection on modern cop dramas is undeniable.  But Bug just left me cold.  In the first half of the film, Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon are nothing short of brilliant but as their characters venture into over-the-top delusional behavior the film becomes unintentionally funny.  When Agnes screams "I am the super mother bug!" towards the end of the film I almost sprayed tea across the room.

Although Friedkin maintains that the film is "in many ways, a black comedy love story" the story ultimately fails in the same way that From Dusk Til Dawn failed to satisfy as both a horror film and as a crime drama.  For a film that covers similar dark territory but does it infinitely better, I would highly recommend you see Requiem for a Dream instead.

I still have to give the film a bit of praise.  It has a lot to say about how psychologically fragile people can be easily manipulated.  It examines the fine line between good and evil behavior.  It ponders what's real and what's merely a symptom of a very fevered collective imagination.  In fact, the movie is the cinematic equivalent to walking down Hastings Street in Vancouver just to witness the ravages of drugs and psychosis first hand.

Although the film itself is almost impossibly brave, the subject matter, crazed tonal pitches and dialogue-heavy, stagy qualities will likely ensure very few people stick around towards the end to get the point.

Tilt: down.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Halloween Short-Cut # 2: "The Devil's Rejects" by David Pretty

Hey, Theatrical Thrill Seekers!

Welcome to the second installment of my Halloween-inspired horror review series for the month of Shocktober!

Well, although I struck out with my first selection, my second pick really put expectations over the fence:

Actually it's somewhat of a minor miracle that I even gave this film a chance since I despised Rob Zombie's first film House of a Thousand Corpses so much.  In fact, it took me eight friggin' years worth of positive word of mouth about this film to finally overcome my objections.  But, man, am I ever glad I finally broke down and watched it.

Here's the film's hair-raising trailer:

Soooo, needless to say, this isn't the sort of movie you sit down and watch with your nan...

The film follows the exploits of the completely loopy Firefly clan, who you suspect live just up the road from Leatherface and company.  Whereas most families define quality time by hanging out together and playing Clue twice a week, the Fireflys like to bond over such wholesome activities as kidnapping, torture and murder.  After nearly eighty people vanish from the area without a trace, the police finally start looking at the local family which includes an eight-foot-tall burn victim and a creepy clown with atrocious oral hygiene.  As if this isn't enough compelling evidence, there's also the preserved pig head mounted on their front gate.

During the resulting raid, the giant Tiny goes missing, Rufus is gunned down and the clan's matriarch Mother Firefly (Leslie Easterbrook) is arrested by the cops.  However, two of the clan manage to escape through the charnel house's sewer system.  The fugitives include beautiful but deadly Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie ) and her half-brother Otis (Bill Moseley).  This lethal duo quickly secure transportation after Baby plays possum in the road and Otis gets all stabby on a Good Samaritan who has the misfortune of stopping to help. 

The two re-unite with Baby's pappy/cable access jester Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig) and together this triple threat of galloping psychotics proceed to blaze a trail of bloody anarchy and random homicide across rural Texas.  After dispensing with an entire country and western band (?), the trio seek asylum at the bordello of Spaulding's brother Charlie (played by the always-awesome Ken Foree).  Little do our repellent anti-heroes know, they're being relentlessly pursued by John Wydell (William Forsythe), a Texas Sheriff who's determined to avenge the murder of his own brother by whatever means necessary.

This sequel has everything that was painfully absent from its predecessor.  The storyline is considerably more fleshed out, yet still feels free-form and unpredictable.  At first the capture and torture of the Banjo and Sullivan crew seems like a pointless deviation, but it really drives home just how dangerously crazy the Firefly clan really is.  In addition to amping up the squirm factor, this entire sequence is capped off with one of the most gruesomely realistic "death by vehicle" scenes ever captured on film.

The film's southern fried visual style is also note-perfect.  All of the sets look sun-bleached or feature garish primary colors that really bring to mind the palette of 70's Grindhouse films.  Indeed, The Devil's Rejects uses it's keen visual eye to evoke shades of exploitative fare, yet it doesn't use it's pedigree to excuse rock-bottom production values.

The production design is also fantastic.  The Firefly farmhouse is evocative of the mansion from Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  The gas station looks sun bleached, rundown and flea-bitten.  Charlie's brothel, with its lurid use of neon signs and tacky decorations, makes you feel as if your eyes are in danger of catching an STD any second.  Whatever the setting, the film's fine attention to detail really sells the realism and helps propagate a dark mood.  To help compliment the movie's tone, Zombie also employs a sizable catalog of tonally ironic and/or eerily appropriate southern rock and swamp boogie. 

Whereas Rob Zombie's direction in House was alternately uneven, hackneyed and inappropriately stylish,     his efforts here are considerably better.  The set ups, angles and proficient editing make for a very dynamic and incredibly tense experience.  The hotel room scene is almost Tarantino-esque in its level of sustained tension.  The film is also book-ended by two Peckinpah-style slow-mo gun battles which are both gratuitous and well-choreographed.  Indeed, Zombie seems to have learned from past transgressions and takes great pains to invest the action with its own narrative.

The dialogue is also up to snuff, combining a healthy dose of Seventies-style badassery delivered by actors with their tongues firmly encheeked.  When kidnapped musician Adam Banjo begs: "Please, Mister!  This is insane!" Otis tartly replies: "Boy, the next words that come out of your mouth better be some brilliant fuckin' Mark Twain shit, 'cuz it's definitely getting chiseled on your tombstone!"  Or how about when a movie expert makes the grievous error of insulting The King in front of Sheriff  Wydell?  It's great when the lawman screams back: "Son, if you ever say another derogatory word about Elvis Aron Presley in my presence again, I will kick the living shit out of you!"

The dialogue is made better by the amazing Rogues Gallery of cult-film legends that Zombie has amassed  to dispense it.  In fact, it's kinda like watching some dysfunctional, Grindhouse version of the Justice League.  Sid Haig, for example, does nothing whatsoever to change my already piss-poor opinion of clowns.  He constantly oozes menace, perversion and decadence in one gleefully evil scene after another.  Until the end of days, I'll always curse Rob Zombie for giving Haig a "love scene" at the beginning of this movie.  Needless to say, I've been trying to buff that particular image out of my eyeballs with 320 grit silicon carbide sandpaper ever since.

Bill Moseley, who's had a long and storied career in horror films, really deserves a Mirror Universe Academy Award for his genuinely scary turn as Otis.  With his gangly frame, long stringy hair and unkempt beard, he's almost unrecognizable in the part.  He's managed to craft a character that always seem seconds away from a Joe Pesci-style burst of irrational violence.  Indeed, when, after foiling an escape attempt by his captives, he tells them "I want you to see what happens to heroes..." we know that some heavy payback is about to be levied.  

Sheri Moon Zombie's performance in House was pretty amateurish but she's definitely raised her game here.  Although she'll never give Kate Winslet insomnia, she's a helluva lot less one-note in this film.  In fact, in The Devil's Rejects, Baby is perhaps the scariest character since her sex appeal/black widow tendencies makes for an irresistible but deadly siren song to any man.  Even if her line readings are sometimes a bit tin-eared, Ms. Moon does an absolutely amazing job when asked to morph from winsome temptress into a total batshit nutjob.  And let's face it, kids, that's something that even Kate Winslet might not be capable of.

Zombie really complicates the sympathies of the audience by having our supposed protagonist, Sheriff Wydell, go completely bizonkers in his single-minded quest for righteous justice.  The beefy and intense William Forsythe has been playing roles like this since the 80's so he's really in his element here.  As the film's run time ticks by, he becomes increasingly belligerent, unhinged and sadistic, first murdering the defenseless Mother Firefly, then hiring a pair of cold-blooded hit-men and then indulging in his own sadistic whims.  Through it all, Forsythe is like a human cyclone.  What's interesting is that, given just a few changes in circumstance, you can easily picture Wydell fitting in well with the Fireflys.

As if all the leads aren't amazing enough, we also get a slew of fantastic cameos and supporting performances.  For example, Dawn of the Dead's Ken Foree and Michael Berryman from The Hills Have Eyes share a side-splitting scene which examines alternate uses for poultry.  Seeing these two B-movie legends in this bizarre sequence together almost tore the cinematic space-time continuum asunder for me.

We also get memorable appearances by Danny Trejo and wrestler "Diamond" Dallas Page as a pair of twisted assassins.  Sad sack comedian Brian Posehn appears briefly as one of the ill-fated musicians.  Halloween scream-queen P.J. Soles does her victim due diligence in the role of Susan.  Former 80's porn queen Ginger Lynn Allen has a cameo as Spaulding's "dream girl".  And finally, the still-lovely Priscilla Barnes has a brave showing as Gloria Sullivan.  Words cannot describe how unnerving it was to watch Teri from Three's Company get abused by these freaks.

Now that The Devil's Rejects has given me irrefutable evidence that Zombie is capable of making a good, tense, well-assembled movie I no longer feel completely opposed to the idea of checking out his Halloween remake.

But that's a tale for another time, kiddies.                 

                                        Tilt: up.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Halloween Short-Cut # 1: "1408" by David Pretty

Happy Halloween Month, Horror Fanatics!

I try not to watch very many fright flicks during the year because I usually completely spaz out on them during Halloween month.  So, now that we've made it to to October, I'm gonna try and review as many horror titles as I can before my poor brain explodes a la Scanners.  

Unfortunately, I'm not coming out of the gate very strong with my first choice. 

Stephen King sure does find hotels creepy, but then again, so do I.  After all, The Shining was a genuine  masterpiece of horror fiction (and subsequently, horror cinema), so I really can't slight him for wanting to go back to the well again.  This time the action of the story is confined to a single, creepy room in a Manhattan high rise.  Surely the setting alone should result in even greater heights of claustrophobia and fear?  Right?  Right!?  


Pity, since the trailer, (and the film's initial set-up) is actually quite promising:

John Cusack plays Mike Enslin, a writer who's daughter has recently passed away after a lingering illness.  After his relationship with his wife founders under the strain, Mike drifts away from a respectable career as a novelist and begins writing pulpy, disposable books about supposedly haunted vacation spots.  Every one of his investigations guarantees paranormal peril, but every time Mike stays overnight the experience is a bust.  Indeed, it's obvious that the jaded writer really wants to witness some kind of supernatural phenomenon first hand, if only to prove that his daughter has a chance to be at rest in a better place.

He soon receives a mysterious invitation to stay at the Dolphin Hotel, a very old but very troubled building which is home to the titular spooky room.  When the hotel manager, Mr. Olin (Samuel L. Jackson), tells him that over fifty people have perished in the cursed suite and that no guest has survived in there for longer then an hour, Mike's curiosity is officially piqued.  Could Room 1408 really be the place to knock the spectral chip off of his shoulder? 

Naturally, when Mike first gets in there, everything seems disappointingly mundane and it looks as if he's been set up for another crushing disappointment.  But then increasingly weird and nasty things begin to happen.  The clock radio switches on, blasting "It's Only Just begun" by the Carpenters.  As if this isn't horrifying enough, the digital display begins to count down sixty minutes, which seems to be referencing Olin's earlier claim that no one lasts longer than an hour in Room 1408.

Unfortunately, this also so happen to be where the film collapsed and ceased to be even vaguely frightening to me.  When Mike gets his hand slammed in a window, is subsequently burned by boiling water in the bathroom sink and then breaks the knob off the door as he tries to escape, the movie instantly veered from potentially creepy to a Buster Keaton comedy.  Aside from all the slap-sticky "peril", eventually we're treated to a couple of spectral apparitions.  Unfortunately, they're rendered so poorly that they're about as scary as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Return of the Jedi.   

A lot of this evil room's "menace" is served up by its physical manifestations, but, frankly, this was boring in the dreadful 1999 remake of The Haunting and it's just as boring here.  The hotel's neighboring windows vanish, preventing escape via the ledge.  The room suddenly drops into a deep freeze.  The ceiling splits apart and gouts of water flood in.  The walls become blacked as if by fire.   OoooOoooOoo!!!  Big fat, hairy deal.

Worst off all, two-thirds of the way through the film any sustained tension generated thus far is jettisoned when Mike suddenly pops back to sunny California.  Now, we know that there's just no way he could possibly have gotten back there and since these things can't be happening in the context of the hotel's reality, then we have to chalk it up to an hallucination.  And if it's an hallucination it's not "real".  And if it's not real, well, face it folks, it just ain't scary.

John Cusack does a serviceable job, but frankly, I think he's a bit miscast here.  The role really needed someone a lot crustier, someone considerably more world-weary.  Frankly, I just can't take Lloyd Dobler from Say Anything... slowly going nuts in a hotel room very seriously.  When Mike flips out and starts attacking the inside of a bar-fridge, it's unintentionally funny.  I just started chuckling to myself.

And although I'd gladly watch Samuel L. Jackson read transcripts from C-Span for two hours, I think he's slightly out of place in this story as well.  He does a fair job building tension and atmosphere with his dire warnings to Mike, but I can't help but speculate on how much creepier this could have been if a Jeremy Irons, Anthony Hopkins or Christopher Walken had delivered these same lines.  Indeed, Samuel might be a Bad Mother-Fucker, but eerie he ain't.

The film does have a few cool moments.  Swedish director Mikael Håfström does a fair job building suspense and anticipation cinema-verite style before we actually enter the room.  There are a few nice jump-scares courtesy of a knife-wielding lunatic.  Mike's harrowing misadventure through the steam vent is claustrophobic and tense.  But the most unsettling moment comes when Cusack's character is re-united with his daughter Katie (Jasmine Jessica Anthony).  Watching him lose her again, and in such a disturbing manner, is actually pretty unnerving.        

It's not a horrible film, but when you consider that there's more "crap yer pants" terror packed in the "Room 237" sequence in Kubrick's version of The Shining, I'm afraid that 1408 is a comfy, relaxing stay in a well-appointed penthouse suite in comparison.

   Tilt: down