Tuesday, January 26, 2010

2009 Horror Movie Postmortem PART 1: A NEW BEGINNING

Okay, so I'm trying to write up a list of every new horror movie I saw in 2009. It's not going to be perfect. I'm bound to forget a few. I still haven't seen seen House of the Devil, my number one most anticipated horror movie of the year, because it never came to D.C. theaters and now I have to wait for home video. I'm a little loose with my criteria (I'll count you as a 2009 release if you weren't easily available until last year, even if you had some sort of small release or showing the previous year.) Still, I'm hovering close to 40 titles right now, and that's not bad. I'm still in tune with modern horror films.

Looking over the list, what are my impressions? Despite a few notable standout titles, my gut is telling me that this was a weaker year for the genre than the previous two years I blogged about. I didn't see an overwhelming amount of crap in 2009 (maybe in part due to avoiding noxious looking stuff like The Fourth Kind), but I'm noticing that many movies I liked stink of mediocrity. See, I love horror, it is without a doubt my favorite genre. If I watch a horror movie and it isn't ungodly awful, then on some level I have enjoyed myself. So for example, I may give Prom Night 3 three stars on Netflix because it made me chuckle a few times, but that's only because there's something wrong with me. Objectively, I understand that it's not a good movie.

On the upside, we got a few entries in the category I like to call the interesting misfire, AKA the noble failure. Those are movies with many elements of greatness that never come together to form a cohesive whole. The result is on the one hand disappointing, but also often fascinating, kinda good and definitely worth seeing.

Before I start talking specifics, I think now is the time for me to do some glib analysis of the state of horror films. The cinema of horror goes through different trends over time. Right now I believe we are close to the end of what I call Cruel Summer. Mainstream horror films have become probably the most violent and mean-spirited they have ever been. Forget torture porn, I'm not talking about that misnomer. The goal of horror films these days is to scare the audience by disturbing or upsetting them, and ratcheting up the tension. They are movies designed to make you miserable; the concept of fun is alien.

I don't mean any of that as a criticism. Many of my very favorite horror movies are joyless, intense and disturbing. But c'mon guys, we've swung a little too far in one direction, it's time to swing back. And I think signs are pointing towards such a swing-back. Just as Cruel Summer was a reaction against the self-referential post-Scream horror comedies of the 90's and the PG-13 deluge of J-Horror remakes in the early 00's, I think we're finally starting to see more filmmakers willfully rejecting the self-seriousness of modern horror and pointing towards fun and funny. It's stumbled a little, with the underperformance of Drag Me to Hell, but the success of Zombieland may very well mean a new trend of horror-comedies.

I mean, Christ, let's hope that's the case. Because if the runaway smash success of Paranormal Activity means that we're about to start seeing a slew of poorly staged, anticlimactic mockumentaries, then I might just stop going to the theater. Here's hoping that if PA's influence is far and wide, it's that it encourages studios to pick up more low budget horror films by interesting, unknown talents. If I'm going to watch a bunch of non-actors stumble around in the dark investigating a strange noise, I'd like it to at least go through the motions of being a real movie and not some cutesy novelty.

But let's talk about the real major trend in horror cinema these days:


If I'm counting right, I saw no fewer than 7 horror movie remakes last year. I'm sure there were many more. Contrary to how a lot of other horror aficionados seem to feel, I'm not opposed to remakes. People act like if a remake of a classic is terrible, it in some way shits all over the original and permanently stains it. That's not the case; the original will always be classic no matter how many shitty remakes and sequel-remakes and prequel remakes the studios produce.

People bitch about the dearth of creativity in Hollywood, that all these remakes are a lazy attempt to cash-in on the name recognition of older, better films. And yes, that's certainly a big part of it. But judging by some of the stranger, lesser known films they've been remaking, I'd like to think that there are some serious creative opportunities here to take interesting, flawed films with good premises and try to improve upon them.

I mean, the producers of Sorority Row couldn't have seriously thought there were enough fans out there of House on Sorority Row to lend it any sort of brand recognition. Right? I mean, I guess I actually was kind of excited to see this one. I'd like to think that someone involved in the production was a big fan of forgettable, college-themed 80's slasher movies, but always thought they'd be better with more bitchy Desperate Housewives style dialogue. After a childhood spent watching edited for content and formatted to fit your screen Friday the 13th movies on the USA network, I've set the bar pretty low for enjoying slasher movies. Sadly, Sorority Row doesn't even clear that dubious hurdle. I could almost accept the film's the sub-Diablo Cody script, if it weren't for the clueless filmmaking: we're back in Prom Night remake territory of choppy, rhythmless, ADD editing and hollow visual stylistics indicative of filmmakers with little interest in the genre. Outside of some memorable kills and some pretty actresses, the only other thing it brings to the table is cynicism/irony, and Scream did that better 13 years earlier.

Speaking of remakes no one (except me) was asking for, did anyone see the DTV Children of the Corn remake? Did anyone even know it existed? Despite the fact that I think this may officially be the worst remake of the year, I'd actually love it if they made like 6 sequels to it like they did the original Children of the Corn. Mainly because I think we're lacking in horror franchises and need to step it up a notch. CotC 2K9 provides some dumb, bad movie fun if you're into that sort of thing, but it's most notable accomplishment is that it somehow made the characters from Stephen King's story even more obnoxious then they already were. That takes skill.

Another somewhat perplexing remake last year was It's Alive. The original is a memorable, quirky Larry Cohen cheapie; this remake drops the quirk in favor of gloom and over-the-top gore, to mixed effect. If the idea of a killer baby movie appeals to you, then you could do worse than this needless remake, but personally I felt some of its thunder was stolen by a better, more complex killer baby movie that I'll mention later.

Is it cheating if I consider Halloween II a remake? Because they've totally already made a movie called Halloween II before. I seem to be in the minority in believing that Rob Zombie's new part II was a worthwhile improvement over his miserable remake, although I don't really like the movie enough to go to bat for it. I thought H2 worked best when Zombie ignored or bucked the requirements of the slasher genre and tried to turn it into some oddball, vaguely surreal psychological thriller chocked full with heavy-handed imagery. Any time it was about a big dude stabbing people, it was mostly tedious. Either way, the man has not lived up to the promise of House of 1000 Corpses or The Devil's Rejects. If they do go ahead with a Halloween III: Not Season of the Witch, I'd almost prefer if they brought in a competent craftsman, with a less personal vision, to direct. At least maybe we'd end up with a functional slasher movie.

Of course, the #1 most obvious, I can't believe they hadn't remade it already remake of the year was Friday the 13th. While I'm sad we won't be getting a Freddy vs. Jason 2 (unless they do one with the remake Freddy and Jason... which now that I've typed it out seems inevitable), the series had gotten fairly ridiculous and was probably in need of rebooting. Which is why I was maybe a little surprised at how little revamping the filmmakers did. Aside from the tell tale signs of a larger budget (nicer cinematography and a cast full of TV actors), and a slightly knowing/wink-wink attitude, this basically could have been an early-to-mid era F13 film. And as far as they go, I think it was about average. It had the right sense of fun, some memorable kills and appreciable gratuitous nudity. I am most enthusiastic about the film's opening 20-ish minutes, which takes the standard F13 plot, boils it down to its essentials and gives the audience all the expected payoffs of an entire film in about 1/4 of the running time.

Vying for the title of best horror remake of the year are Last House on the Left and My Bloody Valentine 3D, both of which may actually be improvements over the originals. Wes Craven's original Last House is indeed something of a revered classic, with its palpable scuzziness and sense of conviction that the remake doesn't match. Still, to me the remake was an infinitely better-crafted, more consistently intense experience by a filmmaker with a surer hand (I'm definitely on board if Dennis Iliadis makes another horror movie), not to mention it had a tighter, more fleshed-out screenplay that was less reliant on absurd plot twists, backed up by a much better cast. It's less shocking and confrontational than the original, but far more effective as a thriller.

On the other hand, My Bloody Valentine was never a classic, just a run-of-the-mill slasher movie that was slightly better and had a more memorable title than a lot of the crap that got churned out in the early 80's. If I ever so slightly prefer its 3D remake to the LHotL remake, it's because MBV3D was the most honest to goodness FUN slasher movie I had seen in a long time. It's gimmicky as hell, over-the-top and drags its whodunit plot out to an awesomely maddening (almost self-referential) degree... basically the kind of movie I didn't think they made much any more. I'm hoping Alejandro Aja paid close attention before he started filming Piranha 3D.

We just don't have enough franchises anymore. At least not any successful ones being cranked out with any regularity. Only the Saw folks are good enough to shit one out on a yearly basis, although the box office disappointment of Saw VI likely means the series won't be around much longer, at least not as a theatrical experience. While personally thinking that this one was an improvement over part five, even a diehard fan such as myself must admit that some of the magic is gone. As much as I'd love to keep going back for more Saw every year, maybe it is getting to be about time to put this franchise down. Sigh.

Although its another series on the decline, I was glad to see that The Final Destination was a success, making the chances of a fifth film seem assured. The series has become way unambitious by this point, content to rehash the same premise over and over again, so my hope for a sequel is that they finally try to mix it up a bit, add some crazy new twist to the plot. (No, making this last one in 3D does not count as mixing it up). Also, I hope the producers continue their directorial tag-team and hire James Wong to do the next one.

Anyone follow the Feast series at all? They've been passably goofy Evil Dead knockoffs written by the guys who did the last few Saw movies. Feast 3: The Happy Finish promised to be the end, and I don't think anyone out there is chomping at the bit for any more. The series was little more than an excuse for exaggerated gore, non-PC humor and bodily fluid oriented comedy, and undermining horror movie cliches in a mildly clever way. On those terms, all 3 films worked, but none ever amounted to anything more than the sum of their dismembered, pus-covered parts.

The 2009 Award for Unnecessary Sequel to an Unnecessary Sequel goes to Wrong Turn 3 Left For Dead. Seriously, who asked for this fucking movie? In fairness, this isn't bad as far as DTV slasher movies go. But mutant hillbillies wasn't enough of a premise for one sequel, let alone two. This time, a bunch of escaped convicts run afoul of the cannibalistic mountain people, but absolutely nothing interesting is done with this idea, just like the reality TV show premise in part 2.

Of course, you know I'll totally watch Wrong Turn 4: Four Wrongs Don't Make a Right Turn if they ever make it.

TO BE CONTINUED.... if I'm not too lazy...