Thursday, January 22, 2009

Dan's 2008 Year in Review Horror Movie Postmortem Extravaganza Part III

Funny Games

Teeth - The cutest and most charming movie you will ever see where several penises are graphically sliced-off by a girl with teeth in her vagina. Not funny or provocative enough to fully recommend, but worth seeing if it ever comes on TV or anything. Definitely a novel idea, but I'd prefer it as less of a teen comedy, and more of a franchise Freddy/Chucky thing we're the girl goes around biting dicks off on purpose and then saying funny catch phrases. "Looks like you'll never get a-HEAD in life" etc etc.

Dance of the Dead - A sort of John Hughes meets Dawn of the Dead thing going on here. Much like teeth, it's cute and somewhat funny, but not enough so to get a strong recommendation from me. This kind of Evil Dead 2-style horror comedy needs to build a sense of lunacy to work, being affable doesn't quite cut it. Still, it's not the worst way to waste your time.

Jack Brooks Monster Slayer - And again, cute and amusing but just not enough. Come on, guys!

The Signal - I don't think I'm going to bother trying to rank my favorite horror movies from 2008, but know that The Signal would be near the top of the list if I did, possibly #1. What this movie lacks in budget it makes up for in cleverness and skill. It is by turns tense, paranoid, funny, disturbing, satirical, surreal, intense, cerebral. It's essentially a Crazies - style set up, with a weird TV transmission turning everyone who watches it into a homicidal maniac. But instead of playing up the action, the movie plays up the paranoia... who is crazy, and who isn't? And if you're crazy, would you know it or would you think you're one of the sane people? It's an uncommonly well-written and especially well-acted horror film, and I think a must-watch for any serious horror fan.

Stuck - Stuart Gordon's been shitting them out for 25 years now, and I swear in a lot of ways the guy just gets better. He's had a bit of a renaissance in the past few years, with King of the Ants, Edmond and now this one. Stephen Rea plays a homeless man who is hit by a drunk Mena Suvari with her car, and gets lodged in the windshield. Only instead of going to get help, she locks him in her garage and waits for him to die. It's both an effectively tense thriller and a hilarious pitch-black dark comedy. And it makes up, at least somewhat, for the fact that Suvari was also in that shitty Day of the Dead remake this year. Fans of old-school thrillers and Gordon's transgressively violent style are highly encouraged to partake in Stuck.

The Happening - Sure, maybe it wasn't intended as a comedy, but you'll laugh nearly as much as you did at the last Judd Apatow movie. But heck, why do I need to dump any more shit on this movie than has already been dumped? And I'd even argue that it was less fucking terrible than The Village. Then again, it also features a scene where Mark Wahlberg talks to a plastic tree, so I dunno.

Thrillas and Chillas

The Strangers - This is a horror movie in the same spirit as Halloween, a horror movie that takes it's time to create atmosphere, present likable characters and works hard to build suspense. I was glad to see that this did pretty strong business, because I'd like to see the studios release more horror films like this, horror films that are aimed at adults and are actually scary and aren't PG-13ified to draw in the idiot teen and pre-teen audience. Yeah, okay, so the movie does lose some tension in the last 20 minutes or so. But that still means there is a great 50 minutes preceding it, and even better the unrated version out on DVD now has some additional scenes in the later part of the film that reintroduce some creepiness into the finale.

Red - This is a movie by Warren Beatty where he plays a reporter in the 1920s who travels to Russia to... no, wait. That's not right. This is a great little slow-burn thriller about an old man who wants revenge for the death of his dog. I had been excited for this one for a long time because it was Lucky McKee's newest movie, and I think his film May is one of the best horror films of this decade. But then it turns out that he quit or was fired part way through shooting and some other guy was brought on board, so I can't really say how much of this movie represents his vision. Either way, I enjoy this one greatly and still look forward to the day when McKee makes a new movie for real.

The Ruins - Another top notch horror movie that knew how to pile on the dread and tension. It's about killer plants, which sounds like the plot to a bad 50's B-movie, but somehow the filmmakers strike exactly the right note and turned it into a minor classic. Also, I would like to credit the film for having some of the most effective gore sequences of the year. There is an amputation scene that will make you squirm, and I would like to make those directors of all those shitty European horror films I bitched about watch it to show them how it's done.

Unclassifiably Weird

Return to Sleepaway Camp - Only 25 years after the original, here comes the true sequel, a slasher movie so inexplicably oddball and funny that I'm not exactly sure why I don't own a copy yet. I could spend all day telling you about Alan, the film's one-of-a-kind protagonist (who hangs out with frogs and screams "your ass stinks!" at everyone who pisses him off), but instead I would like to mention to you that there is a scene where a man's genitals are tied to a jeep with fishing line, and the killer scares the driver into driving away. That scene alone is worth watching the movie for, but pretty much the entire thing is that good. See it now.

Midnight Meat Train - Besides the fact that it's title sounds like a description for a giant cock, there's plenty of other weird things to enjoy about this one. Like the fact that it's a slasher movie where the killer turns out to be the servant of a race of human-eating monsters that live underground and somehow rule our society. Oops, spoilers.

Well, this motherfucking series of posts really dragged out a lot longer than I meant it too. Oh well, if one good thing came of it, it's that I saw Mr. Brooks in the meantime and can talk about it here. Like some of the other movies mentioned, it might almost be fucking terrible if it wasn't also so awesome. It's about a serial killer played by Kevin Costner who has an imaginary friend played by William Hurt and they like to break into people's houses and shoot them and then Kevin Costner cums in his pants or something and then he poses the bodies and takes pictures, and then Dane Cook tries to blackmail him into teaching him how to kill and meanwhile Costner's daughter may also be a serial killer. There is a part where Costner slits a man's throat with a shovel, and somehow they work in another serial killer into the plot and a shoot out and a car chase action scene when Demi Moore is kicked out of a moving vehicle. I don't know how Costner and Hurt got cast in this movie, it seems like some sort of clerical error where they were accidentally inserted into some weird late night Showtime movie but they are amazing in this. And kudos to the casting director who thought to cast Dane Cook... normally I can't stand the guy, but he's pretty much spot on as a perverted creep. Almost makes up for all those jokes he stole from Louis CK. This movie came out in 2007 so I couldn't really include it in the writeup, but I thought it was worth mentioning any way.

And that's it, 2008 horror movies in review. I was going to write some sort of conclusion, but I'm fucking sick of this so draw your own conclusions. Peace out.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Dan's 2008 Year in Review Horror Movie Postmortem Extravaganza Part II

Aliens (because they are foreign films, not because they are about aliens)

Last House in the Woods - Italy is the home of the giallo, Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci and gratuitous Edwige Fenech nudity. I like their horror films, which at their best often display an effective mix of high style and unapologetic sleaze. You get your art and your trash all rolled up in one. But this low budget Italian riff on Texas Chainsaw Massacre doesn't really succeed at either. Occasionally it's violent enough to be unpleasant, but mostly it's a bore. And it makes a mistake that I've noticed more and more in horror movies these days: it tries to be both disturbing and over-the-top fun at once, and they cancel each other out. You can't be both Reanimator and Hostel, you have to pick one and stick with it. Also, props to the American distributors for the original title.

Frontier(s) - Unlike Last House in the Woods, this is a French riff on Texas Chainsaw Massacre. As opposed to an Italian one. And you know what, they should really leave this genre to the Americans. Sorry Europe, I just don't think you understand how to make a good cannibal redneck movie. It's because of your lack of barbecue, which is the appropriate way to eat a human. It's just not scary if you make a person into tartar and wash it down with a glass of cabernet.

Inside - This is it, this is my vote for worst horror film of the year. It had potential to be great. It's a home invasion thriller with a twist: the heroine is pregnant and the killer wants to cut out her baby. That's some fucked up crazy shit right there, but Inside blows it by eschewing suspense and tension for a comically high body count and a lot of overdone make up effects that are too over the top to be disturbing and too seriously presented to be fun. I'm becoming convinced that Europeans don't know how to film violence any more. I mean, say what you will about the Saw and Hostel movies, but they at least know how to properly present gore, whether it be for serious or entertaining purposes. I'm guessing these European directors grew up watching the same hyper-violent 80's horror shit that I did, but maybe something got lost in translation and all they understood was that violence should be graphic. They never figured out that it should be a means to an end... to help set the tone of the film, and to provide dramatic payoffs. Anyway, read my lengthy takedown of Inside here.

Rogue - I'm convinced Australian director Greg McLean is going to do something great at some point. His movies look nice, know how to build tension and have much stronger performances and character work than your average horror movie. But so far, he's given us two movies with a lot to like and also some serious flaws holding them back from being as good as they should be. Oh well, maybe next time. The first 2/3rds of Rogue is one of the best monster movies in a long while, but it loses it's way with a final act that drags on, and when they finally show all of the giant crocodile, it's an unconvincing special effect that kills the mood. McLean is going for the tried and true approach of leaving the monster offscreen to build tension and then revealing it with a classic payoff, but you wish he would have just skipped the payoff and left the croc as a mostly unseen presence. If I'm being a little hard on the movie, it's because it's a good horror movie that had potential to be an excellent one.

Mother of Tears - Maybe this is a bad one, I don't know, but I was so excited to finally see a Dario Argento film in theaters that I didn't notice. I'll admit that it's not his best. But it has baby murder, a woman being strangled with her own intestines, slutty witches, and Asia Argento's tits, so I'm pretty sure I enjoyed it. And like Phenomena and Inferno and some of his others, I suspect it may improve with multiple viewings, at least on the level where you appreciate just how fucking weird the thing is. Still, I'm disappointed that Argento didn't use the same colorful, hyper-stylized look he went for in the other Three Mothers movies, and instead made it look like his other less visually intense recent movies. I was expecting a throwback to his glory days but what I got was a reminder that his best films are probably behind him.

The Orphanage - I did a longer write-up on this one here about my disappointment with the film. Unlike Inside, however, it was because I admired a lot of what the movie attempted, but didn't feel it was properly executed. If I recall, The Orphanage received very strong reviews on it's release in the US, and I can understand why, it's looks nice and seems competent and lacks a lot of the sleazy elements that critics normally object to. But I would venture to guess that, now that time has passed, most of them have forgotten this one, and that few horror fans are finding this one worth revisiting. Any tension they would have felt the first time is ruined by a bad, sorta twist ending that makes everything before it seem completely unscary. So what you're left with is a long, slow horror movie with no tension, some atmosphere and dreary tone that isn't powerful enough to get under your skin, but just effective enough to make the movie a bummer.

Cruel Summer

Untraceable - I think we can officially say that 2008 was the year that torture porn went mainstream. How else do you explain how a blatant Saw ripoff like this movie was made starring fucking Diane Lane and Colin Hanks. Those aren't the names you'd associate with a transgressive horror film, those are the heroine and gay best friend in a romantic comedy. Hell, just sign on Matthew McConaughey to the lead role and you're ready to start shooting Must Love Failing to Launch a Guy in 10 Days. The once derided torture porn genre has been domesticated, it's now no more threatening to our values than Paul Blart: Mall Cop. Oh and in case you couldn't guess it, this movie sucked.

Trailer Park of Terror - I guessed that this was a horror comedy going in to it, but if it was supposed to be funny then the filmmakers and I do not share a sense of humor. Even though this has evil undead trailer park rednecks as its villains, it's surprisingly sick and and cruel in places. One character gets skinned and then boiled alive in grease. In another scene two teenagers are forced at knife point to have sex on camera for the villains' pleasure. So we're not really talking about an Evil Dead 2 style romp here. For what it is, it has some effective moments, but... I still don't understand how this silly premise lead to this dark movie.

Saw V - I've enjoyed this series more than any reasonable person should, I think mainly because I'm excited to have an honest to goodness Friday the 13th or Nightmare On Elm Street style franchise where they shit out a new movie every year. Too bad this was, after two highly ridiculous and entertaining entries, the worst one since part II. Too short, with not enough crazy over-plottedness. Still some satisfying violence and other insanity, but I'm hoping they kick it up a notch with part VI later this year.

Seed - What happened to my beloved Uwe Boll? The man responsible for some of the most unintentionally hilarious films of all time has gotten boring in recent years. Seed, his attempt to cash in on the torture porn genre, sucks mainly because Boll seems to think that he has a real serious, disturbing, provocative horror film on his hands, when it's really just an especially cruel Jason movie. I haven't seen Postal or In the Name of the King yet, I'm hoping those reach the levels of transcendent camp that he achieved with House of the Dead and Blackwoods. However if he keeps trying to make serious films, I'm giving up on him.

Pathology - The guys who did Crank wrote this, a fairly entertaining and amusingly sick movie about a bunch of young hotshot doctors who get off on murdering random people in ways they won't get caught for. What follows is a respectable amount of nasty gore, transgressive sex and dark humor. Not great, but good sick fun.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Dan's 2008 Year in Review Horror Movie Postmortem Extravaganza Part I

I guess I'm a guy that takes horror movies pretty serious. I mean, I take movies in general pretty serious, but sometimes I feel that perhaps that I'm not cultured or intelligent or well spoken enough to discuss my views on Truffaut, or Ozu, or Lubitsch or whatever. But horror movies, I've watched a shitload more of those than I have probably any other genre (and not to toot my own horn, but I watch a lot of movies in general), so I feel like I know what I'm talking about. Plus, no one expects you to write eloquently about chainsaw evisceration or zombies or Jason or any of that, so it's a nice built in handicap.

Let me be upfront and admit that I might cheat a little bit this year. A few of these movies, especially the foreign ones, may have technically been released in previous years, but I'm only counting them if they didn't become widely available in the US in theaters or on DVD until 2008.

While we're on this topic, I would like to note that I was disappointed to see that I couldn't technically count either Joshua or Them for 2008. I thought they came out last year, and both would have easily made it to my list of the best horror films of '08. Them was a tense and to-the-point home invasion thriller, that would make a great companion piece with '08's The Strangers to show how opposing approaches to the same premise can yield equally successful results. And Joshua was the most unsettling and unpleasant-to-watch horror movie I'd seen in a good long while. (I mean that as a compliment). Overall I think '08 was a good year for horror movies (maybe not as good as '07), but the absence of these two movies weakens my argument a little.

Right now I'm looking over a list I made of all the new horror movies I saw in 2008, and I'm trying to figure out if there are any important trends I should be commenting on. One thing I think has happened over the past few years is that horror films have gotten really violent again, with a mean streak to boot. And not just the so called "torture porn" movies like Hostel or the Saw movies, but some real mainstream fare, including a Diane Lane movie I'll mention later.

A few years ago I noticed a strong revenge theme in many horror movies, and I always figured that had something to do with 9/11. I.E. you are attacked unexpectedly and you must fight back, but in the process of fighting back you become like your aggressors etc etc. Now, we have the more of the cruelty but less of the revenge. I'm curious as to what this means culturally. Sure, mostly it's probably just a reaction to the success of the Saw franchise, but I have to believe there is something more to it. Maybe it's all the Abu Ghraib and waterboarding stuff, etc etc, going on with our government that has us thinking about this shit.

Enough of that. Now is the time to talk about all the new horror movies I saw this last year, give me final thoughts on them and see where they fit in to the big picture. I will break them up into themed sections.


Day of the Dead - Who needs a new idea when there are plenty of old ones to steal? Just playing, I actually don't mind remakes. At least, not in theory, and especially not when the original movie wasn't very good to begin with. Case in point, here we have a direct to DVD remake of George Romero's worst zombie film, starring the cute Menu Suvari and the unbearable Nick fucking Cannon. And hey, I honestly don't think it's much worse than the original. It's not as boring, preachy or as poorly acted. It is, however, more generic and stupid. I wouldn't even call it a remake so much as it is an attempt to trick people into thinking it's a sequel to the Dawn of the Dead remake by reusing one of its cast members and rehashing the fast-moving zombies. Only for some reason these zombies can also scale walls and weird shit like that, I didn't really understand why. It's a bad movie, but also inconsequential and therefore hard to hate. I think indifference is the right response.

Wizard of Gore - And again, how much can you really mind a remake when the original was a piece of shit? Hell, if you want to be generous, this is a remake that is better than the original. Not that that's saying much. I'll give the Wizard of Gore remake credit for being ambitious, it tries to combine extreme gore with a mindfuck, reality bending plot. It also has Crispin Glover, so I'm going to go ahead and call it the most improved upon horror movie remake of the year. It still sucks though. The plot is convoluted to the point that it's incomprehensible, so instead of drawing you in it alienates you. The gore is mostly CG, and I just can't stand for that. I'll give it points for trying to do it's own thing, it can't easily be lumped in to a subgenre. It just isn't a good movie.

Prom Night - Okay, damn, you think they would have actually tried to remake a good movie at some point, right? They got to this one before they got to Last House on the Left? I watched Prom Night for anthropological reasons, to find out what the state of horror movies aimed at teenage girls was. Not so hot, apparently. My problem with this shit is it doesn't feel like the filmmakers know or care much about horror movies. It was directed by some dude who mostly did TV up until now, and it was probably just a way for him to get into features. It's competently filmed, in the sense it looks nice and the staging isn't awkward, but there isn't even a sense that the filmmakers tried to create atmosphere or build tension. It's just a bullet point on the director's resume that shows he knows how to keep the shot in focus and get adequate performances out of his cast.

Mirrors - If not quite the worst horror movie of the year, it may have been the most disappointing. I haven't seen the Korean movie this was based on, so I'm not disappointed that it didn't live up to the original. I'm disappointed because I thought director Alexandre Aja had potential to be the next great horror filmmaker. His remake of The Hills Have Eyes is one of the best looking, best made slasher movies of the last decade or so, and was a notable improvement over his well-shot but flawed debut High Tension. I thought he was going to go right on improving with each movie, until he released this embarrassing mess. It is a horrible offender of two of the genre's biggest sins: focusing on an overly complicated plot that no one could possibly give a shit about, and having a supernatural villain who does completely arbitrary scary things that don't make any damned sense.

Funny Games - So what if I didn't see it? It's a shot for shot remake of the original by the same director (I guess one-upping Gus Van Sant's Psycho remake?), I know it still sucks. I don't understand how some horror fans have embraced it, when it's the most deplorable horror film of the year: a horror film that tells you that you are an asshole for watching a horror film.

The Return of the Curse of the Blair Witch Project's Ghost

Cloverfield - For what ever reason, '08 marked a major renaissance in the faux-documentary style horror film, popularized 10 years ago by The Blair Witch Project, a movie I wasn't a big fan of to begin with. In all honesty, I don't often like horror movies done in this style. Theoretically it's done to heighten the sense of realism, but instead it tends to underline it's own stagey-ness, i.e. you recognize that the actors are acting and aren't real people, you recognize that everything is pre-planned and not happening spontaneously. And Cloverfield, despite all the love it seemed to get this year, is a particularly strong offender. Even discounting that I didn't much care for the characters or find the story interesting or think that there were any memorable set pieces or whatnot, the movie never worked for me because it felt fake. And I think maybe that had to do with the budget and scope of the film. There were too many special effects, and they always looked like special effects. A more modest film, say one where there isn't a giant dinosaur stomping around New York, would work to hide its special effects and as a result might look more convincing. Somehow when you combine a "realistic" style of filmmaking with an unconvincing special effect, it's extra jarring.

Diary of the Dead - Yeah, with the rise of You Tube and camera phones and all that shit, the return of the faux-documentary trend was inevitable. I said I don't normally like the style, but I suppose it could have seemed like it might be an effective way to comment on the effect this technology has had on our society. "Seemed" being the operative word, because this year George Romero definitively proved that it's an awful idea that should never be attempted again. The observation that our media-saturated culture has left us disconnected from reality just sounds pointless when you say it out loud, and believe me, Romero has his characters state it out loud many, many times. There is some occasional entertaining zombie mayhem here, but nothing about the gimmick enhances any of it. It would all work just as well if done straightforwardly.

Quarantine - I could have counted this under remakes, since this is an Americanized version of Spanish movie that came out in 2007, but I wanted to include it with the faux-documentary set as it is a rare example of an excellent horror film done in this style. No heavy handed themes about isolation caused by modern technology. No over elaborate special effects distracting from the "realistic" style. Instead, it uses the handheld look to create unease in the early scenes, and to add some manic energy during the conclusion. Also, another point I'd like to make is about a smart choice they make about the acting. The main character is a news reporter, so it works that she doesn't feel entirely natural because her character is performing for the camera. One of the year's best horror movies.