Friday, October 29, 2010

The Seduction

A sexy, young local newscaster starts receiving creepy phone calls from "Derek," who unbeknown to her is a photographer who lives across the street and likes to take pictures of her from his window. She tries to brush him off as a harmless weirdo, but of course he's a dangerous stalker, and its only a matter of time before his obsession veers into deadly territory.

The real "find" (although I guess technically I found him two years ago, when I first saw Tourist Trap) for this year's YVIAHMMAOIHTNQ is David Schmoeller, a director mainly unknown today who worked in the era of John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper and Brian DePalma and notably shares some of their aesthetic talents . Crawlspace, an elegantly sleazy slasher movie with a great villain performance by Klaus Kinski, proved that Tourist Trap wasn't a fluke. And Catacombs, if a disappointingly typical Exorcist knockoff, still showed a real sense of style and intelligence often missing in that particular subgenre. (He also did Puppetmaster, which I recall hating, but now I wonder if I should give it another shot).

I knew I wanted to work one more of his films into this month's activities, and it was between The Seduction and what appeared to be a Full Moon cheapie called Neatherworld. Since Seduction sounded not unlike Crawlspace, I was more stoked to check it out.

Voyeurism is one of my favorite themes common in thriller and horror movies. Obviously, the concept of someone watching you from the shadows is a creepy one. More importantly, though, voyeurism works well because it goes hand-in-hand with the medium: film is a type of controlled voyeurism, offering the same thrill of watching someone who doesn't watch us back. This isn't a new insight, and horror films from Peeping Tom onwards frequently comment on the voyeuristic elements of the medium.

The first 2/3rds or so of The Seduction effectively exploits this, inviting the audience to watch the reporter as the villain does, making us uncomfortable for sharing his hobby. The film's polished style, upper class settings, and cheesy 80's score are somewhat reminiscent of late night, softcore, cable pornography, and I don't think its entirely accidental. Two of the film's most effective sequences (the opening scene where Derek photographs the heroine swimming nude from his apartment, and a later sequence where he hides in her closet and watches her undress) seem like commentaries on the objectification of women in mass media. The heroine is a reporter, getting by in part on her good looks, and her first line in the movie is something like "I like being watched." (spoken to her boyfriend). By making the villain a photographer, Schmoeller might even be implicating himself in all this.

It's Hitchcock by way of Zalman King, at least for a while, and makes for an effective thriller, before throwing it all out the window by becoming a standard issue, overblown serial killer movie during the finale. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, for a neat twist or some indication that things weren't going to play out by the numbers. And for a few minutes, the film teased me that this would happen: the heroine turns the tables on the villain, the watchee because the watcher, etc. This would have been an appropriate turnaround for the film, but instead it devolves into a standard, boring action movie climax complete a life or death struggle in the bedroom, shotgun blasts galore, and a worthless plot device of a character arriving with clockwork timing to save the day.

I'm still supportive of the film for the first 2 acts, and still plan to see more of Schmoeller's films, but there is a lot of wasted potential on display here.

Grade: B-

Mulberry Street

Infected rats cause an outbreak of a zombie plague in Manhattan, as survivors hole up in their apartments or desperately search for a safe haven. And these aren't just any zombies, but rat-faced man-rodent zombies.

Let me start by saying a few nice things. For a low budget horror picture, Mulberry Street has a bit more of a professional sheen to it (or, should I say, the professional artificial rawness you associate with larger budget pictures) than some of the other modern cheapies I watched this month, like Head Trauma or Salvage. I can't fault it for ambition; much like the excellent The Signal, it tries to do the apocalypse on a budget a shows a certain knack for hiding its limitations. I think it's cool, even though they are essentially not much different from the fast zombies we typically get in modern horror, that the zombies are weird ratmen. The make up effects are a little silly but still neat. Although the rat thing ends up an underused gimmick, its leads to a funny scene where a guy locks a zombie in a closet, and the zombie uses his rat powers to tunnel out through the ceiling.

So, points for trying, but the movie itself didn't much work for me. The most obvious flaw is that the director tries to ape the shaky-cam, rapidly edited, intensified continuity style of the 28 Days Later (Mulberry Street's obvious, unavoidable inspiration), but doesn't have much of an idea of how to do it coherently. The result is an often ugly and muddled mess, such an eyesore that I wanted to turn away. The ironic thing is, its not nearly as shaky or manically edited as 28 Weeks Later, which came out the following year, but is far more difficult to understand visually. I've defended the style in the past, but it has to be done right to work. You still need to respect things like framing & geography, you need to give each shot a clear subject, you need to piece the shots together in a logical sequence, etc. All things Mulberry Street consistently fails at.

If you want to watch a movie like 28 Days Later, just watch 28 Days Later. If you want to watch 28 Days Later with more shaky-cam, watch 28 Weeks Later. And if you want to watch 28 Days Later set in an apartment building, go for REC (or Quarantine if you're too lazy to read subtitles). Mulberry Street is completely skippable.

Grade: C-

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Little Shop Of Horrors

Poor, awkward, put-upon florist Seymour thinks he's found a new draw for the flower shop: an odd, one-of-a-kind plant he names Audrey Jr, after the girl he has a crush on. The problem? Audrey Jr. thrives on human blood, and Seymour must hunt for its food to keep it alive and keep the shop in business.

Being familiar, of course, with the musical remake Frank Oz released in 1990, I wasn't expecting the original Little Shop of Horrors, an early Roger Corman cheapie, to be funny. I assumed the deliberately campy, tongue-in-cheek tone of the remake was new, a way of poking fun at a corny old film. I had no idea how much of the humor was there in the original, even things like the excitable masochist (here played by a pre-fame Jack Nicholson) who eagerly thrusts himself upon the sadistic dentist. I shouldn't be surprised, as it shares a lot in common with Corman's fun A Bucket of Blood, both deliberately silly, goofy movies about sad-sack losers who stumble into murder as a way to improve their careers.

Grade: B-

The Convent

40 years ago, a young woman struts into a church, brutally murders all of the nuns, and sets the place on fire. Today, a group of stereotypes from the local college go to the abandoned church, and are soon enough possessed by demonic spirits, turning them into psychedelic demon-nun monsters.

The Convent is a fast, funny, low budget homage to manic, comedy/horror gorefests from the 80's like Evil Dead 2, Demons, or Night of the Demons (no relation), where a group of interchangeable white people get possessed by evil spirits and kill the living shit out of each other. The Convent is slight, but good fun. Its breakneck pace, goofy sense of humor and trippy visuals help cover up its budgetary and story shortcomings, and though far from perfect, I think it can stand proud next to the movies to which it is paying tribute. And any movie that features a prominent cameo by Adrienne Barbeau as an ass-kicking, leather jacket wearing, motorcycle riding demon hunter is okay in my book.

Grade: B-

The Exorcist III

15 years after the original Exorcist, Lt. Kinderman investigates a series of grisly murders. What he finds is a bizarre connection between a deceased madman known as the Gemini Killer, and the exorcism of Regan MacNeil.

Directed by William Peter Blatty, author of The Exorcist novel, The Exorcist III is most assuredly not for all tastes. It is garish, absurd, go-for-broke, and will probably strike many who watch it as unintentionally funny. Each shot is like a masterpiece of gauche "look at me!" storytelling, the kind of movie where the light coming through a hospital window will be in two giant beams that perfectly silhouette the two character having a conversation. Those of you who know me know that I don't care much for good taste. This kind of overwrought nonsense is my bread and butter.

Apparently the studio forced last minute reshoots on Blatty. I'm not sure what Blatty's original vision would have looked like, but I suspect that the pacing problems that the reshoot seem to create, and the crazy, abrupt exorcism element shoehorned into the ending actually improve the film. Like a Lucio Fulci film, the sudden shifts in tone, awkward pacing and structural unpredictability of certain scenes lend a nightmarish feeling to the final product.

Another fun thing: I live right across the water from Georgetown, and thus I exclaimed "hey, I've been there!" like every 5 minutes during the film.

Grade: B

Monday, October 25, 2010

Paranormal Activity 2

In this prequel to last year's runaway breakout hit horror movie, the sister of the original film's lead character and her family are haunted by the same evil demon. In keeping with the "found footage" style of the first film, the family's house is wired with security cameras, catching all the action.

I very much did not care for the original Paranormal Activity, and let me try to briefly summarize why. When I was younger, sometimes I would sneak into my brother's room while he was sleeping, hide under his bed, make a scary noise to wake him and then grab his ankle when he got out of bed. It scared the shit out of him and was hilarious, no doubt, but it wasn't art. Paranormal Activity is that ankle grab, repeated ad nauseum for 90 minutes. I understand why people like it and find it fun, and I don't begrudge them their fandom. Personally, however, I require more from my horror movies: more intricately crafted suspense sequences, more atmosphere, more ideas. If not more "art," then at least more artifice.

It's not a surprise that I didn't like the sequel. I only really saw it because I like to keep up with current horror events, but I promise I went in with an open mind. I even think the gimmick had real promise to do something interesting, although the film totally blows the opportunity.

The fixed security cameras seemed like a good idea to me. They allow for a much deeper range of focus, which I thought could be exploited for suspense. Initially, the dramatic framing from some of the cameras (the baby's room has a big wall length mirror allowing you to see everything on the opposite side) gave me hope. Sadly, they blow it. Little effort is made to the let action play out on multiple visual planes, where a clever filmmaker could put the characters in the middle ground, and fill the back and fore grounds with creepy details . Instead, PA2 repeats the original's avalanche of abrupt "boo!" scares (pots falling off their racks, doors slamming, plates and glasses flying out of the cupboards) that are only "scary" because they are accompanied by a loud noise on the soundtrack.

The sequel might actually be a little worse than the original, I think mainly due to two things. One, its an unimaginative rehash of the first film's story and structure with only a cursory effort to add anything new. Two, it loses the one virtue I will credit the original with: patience. The multiple cameras allow director Tod Williams to introduce editing to the PA formula that is (relatively) more rapid, giving us fewer of the long takes that distinguished the original. Worse, he uses the editing to cheat. Presumably, the multiple cameras offer the audience a sort of omnipresence in the home; we should be able to see everything that's happening. Instead, Williams goes out of his way on several occasions to cut to camera angles where we can't tell what's going on, and so that things can dramatically disappear and reappear between shots. How'd they get there? Dunno, he doesn't show us that part.

Grade: D+

Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein

The two klassik funnymen star as baggage clerks who stumble across some alarming luggage: the remains of Dracula and Frankenstein's monster. Soon, the fiends are reanimated, and the comedic duo are joined by a monster hunter... who turns out to be the wolfman. It's a veritable monster mash, which makes the obvious omissions of its title seem really odd.

The reason, I think, for this film's classic status is because, like The Comedy of Terrors, it has the atmosphere of a no-shit-for-real horror movie despite being a comedy. This is bolstered by the presence of Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney, Jr. reprising their famous roles as the monsters.

If I'm being honest, however, I have to admit that it didn't make me laugh as much as I had hoped. Too many jokes repeat the same few gags: the monsters do something in the background while no one notices, Lou sees something fishy but Bud doesn't believe him, etc. The duo have their moments, but I don't think I'm being controversial when I say that Abbott and Costello are no Laurel and Hardy. The film is interesting and intermittently funny, but not the all time classic its reputation suggests.

Grade: C+

Panga, a.k.a. Curse III: Blood Sacrifice

Some rich, white assholes in Africa in the 1950's are attacked by some sort of monster conjured with tribal magic.

Does anyone remember that episode of TV's Doug where the titular character was too afraid to watch a horror movie because he didn't want to see the monster at the end, but when he finally sees the movie the monster turns out to be a man in a fake, corny looking rubber monster suit? Well, this is essentially that movie.

I'll say this, all of the Curse "sequels" were better than the original, but it's still a pretty weak "series." To be fair to part 3, although it never grabbed me, it seems like a genuine attempt to build suspense was made on the part of the filmmakers. It still has the crass violence and nudity you'd expect, but there's some sort of reach for class or respectability in the way it keeps the monster offscreen for as long as possible and tries to build an ominous air of mystery around it. In that sense, it's like an updated version of an old 50's scary movie (perhaps explaining why the film is set in that era)... but it lacks the spooky fun of the best of those films.

Grade: C-

Basket Case 2

Picking up right where the original left off, Duane and his tiny, deformed, ex-conjoined twin brother Belial apparently survive the fall from the hotel window and are taken to the hospital. They escape the authorities with help from a mysterious older woman, who brings them back to a special safe haven for mutant freaks like them.

Frank Henenlotter is sort of a poor man's Sam Raimi, making low-budget, demented horror comedies heavy on over-the-top violence and special effects. I've had a certain appreciation for the his that I've seen (the original Basket Case, Brain Damage, Bad Biology) for their warped sense of humor (Bad Biology is about an evil mutant penis that breeds with a woman with a giant, 7-clitted vagina), but they've all been somewhat hampered by their sometimes cheap, awkward production and filmmaking. Perhaps by virtue of the fact that it obviously had a larger budget than his other films, Basket Case 2 was the most all-around solid Henelotter film I've seen.

The main appeal, of course, is the freakshow; the film provides a cavalcade of crazy looking monsters with huge teeth, misshapen heads, weird tendrils, etc. It's a mini-masterpiece of low budget make-up effects that will delight anyone who enjoys this sort of thing.

Two standout scenes: 1) Belial gets laid with a fellow mutant, 2) a man slowly realizes that the other patrons in the bar he's at are not normal people but mutant freaks, all wearing bizarre, expressionless, unconvincing human masks.

Grade: B

Saw VI

Well, I already covered this one last year when it came out, and I don't have much to add to my original thoughts. I've watched it at least one other time before this time, and I have a little more appreciation for the ending (the payoff for Hoffman's story is still underwhelming, but the climax for the insurance adjuster's plot is more entertainingly nuts than I originally gave credit for). I now think it's probably the 2nd best sequel, after part IV, mainly due to some slick cinematography that makes the movie more colorful than any of the others in the series (the editing is still a mess, though), and the film's silly, yet spunky, stab at social relevance.

I had, at some point, some half-baked plan to watch the entire series in preparation for Saw 3D this weekend, but that's just not going to happen. 3D is supposedly the final installment (which normally would sound like a bullshit claim, except the films have made increasingly less and less money), so I'm seriously hoping they pull out all of the stops and make a ridiculous gorefest of never-ending plot twists and absurdity. Fingers crossed.

Grade: B

Saturday, October 23, 2010


A mother moves her two children to a new town, where she hopes to start up a new career as a mortician. Unfortunately, something weird is afoot at the old mortuary they move into, and before you know it: zombie outbreak.

I've long suspected, based on comments that Tobe Hooper has made, that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was something of an accidental classic. From what I understand, Hooper saw the movie as a dark comedy and was almost surprised when people found it scary. Which explains why the sequel, and many of Hooper's other films are so overt and over-the-top in their humor.

Mortuary is no different, although I think it's one of his most successful non-Chain Saw films. It's a spirited horror comedy with a lively cast (including Tasha Yar, and that kid from The Hills Have Eyes remake) that starts off with a relatively low-key charm, before going balls-out, nonstop crazy during its manic final act. It's in such a tizzy by the end that it doesn't even bother to explain what the hell is going on (the cause of the zombie plague is never really accounted for, and there's a lot of talk early in the film about a local urban legend that doesn't really pay off in a way that makes sense), and that's all part of the fun. I was not expecting to like this one nearly as much as I did.

Grade: B

Lemora: A Child's Tale Of The Supernatural

An innocent, virginal young girl is summoned to care for her gangster father, supposedly dying. Unbeknownst to the girl, her father has been abducted by a powerful vampiress, who is looking to bring the girl into her fold. (So to speak).

Lemora is a real oddity: a low budget, heavily atmospheric horror film that strikes the dreamlike tone of a child's fairy tell, but includes a lot of obvious sexual subtext that would make it inappropriate for children. In execution the film is not always successful, but has interesting ideas on how to build horror out of the sexual awakening of a pubescent girl, as seen as an iconic, slightly surreal fable. A hazy, half-remembered nightmare of a horror film, not quite like anything else I can think of offhand.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Vanishing

In this haunting Dutch thriller, a woman mysteriously vanishes one day while on vacation with her boyfriend. The boyfriend becomes obsessed with her disappearance, and spends years fruitlessly trying to find out the truth about what happened to her. Meanwhile, we meet the man responsible for her disappearance, a loving father and husband with a dark secret. As our hero closes in on the truth, he must decide what's worse: never knowing the truth, or discovering that the truth is more horrible than he ever imagined.

Having seen, a good decade or so ago, the American remake (made by the same director, George Sluzier), I was not expecting The Vanishing to fuck me up so bad. The remake hews closely to the original, and although it changes the ending (to a happy cop out), I still knew how this one would end. And yet, to credit the film making, this was an at times almost unbearably intense and disturbing experience for me, one that I had trouble shaking afterward.

Without delving into much detail, the film, even during the earlier, low key scenes, creates a palpable sense of tension and paranoia. The visual style is plain and unadorned, but suggests menace in perfectly chosen details (a crushed soda can on the ground, an unexpected character sitting in the background of an otherwise uneventful shot) and the implication of a threat always existing just off camera.

It's a dark, almost joyless (with the possible exception of what might have been some extremely dark comedy involving the villain) horror story that works its way to one of the most truly horrific, unnerving conclusions in the genre. If you don't know what the ending is, I don't want to spoil it, but it's a gut-punch; shocking and scary, and yet completely inescapable.

Grade: A


Dario Argento returns to the genre that made him famous, or at least names a standard issue serial killer movie film after that genre . A sexy model is abducted by a disfigured, yellow-skinned, cab-driving psychopath who's been on a kidnapping and killing spree in Italy. Her sister teams up with a police detective (Adrian Brody, who has recently redefined himself as a genre movie actor and somehow still seems like he's slumming it here) to track down the killer before it's too late.

We all know that Argento lost some of the magic that he had in the 70's and 80's and will not get it back. Still, I must say up front that I am still something of an apologist for his latter-day work; I seem to be in the rare minority that thinks 2004's The Card Player was actually pretty good, and that nearly all of his recent movies have, at the very least, worthwhile or redeeming facets. So, your mileage may vary, but I think, despite having an uninspired script and being sued/buried by its star, it's not a godawful tragedy. It mostly entertained me. Brody does fine in a ridiculous role (grizzled Italian cop with a bizarre past, which includes an explanation for why he speaks with an American accent [they never do explain why everyone is Italy is speaking English, though]). There's an acceptable amount of ridiculous violence, a lot of good designer filth set design a la Se7en, and some effective chase and stalk sequences. It also has a great germ of an idea for a dark ending that would leave the audience hanging, but it cop outs on that ending and throws in a pointless, abrupt resolution.

But, what the fuck? He made a movie named Giallo that doesn't really feel like one of his old giallos. I know lately in his career he's softened some of his edges, maybe in effort to play up more of his classy, Hitchcockian side, but this movie has almost no trace of his unique sensibilities. One scene, a dream sequence/flashback, is filmed with a weirdly see-sawing camera, but other than that there are none of the bold, visually baroque touches one normally associates with his films. The plot is straightforward (there's not even a whodunit) and avoids the oddball digressions and dream logic of his best films. And since he doesn't come through with that special Argento magic, it means you won't be as forgiving of the problems here that you'd ignore in his other films: bad acting, plot contrivances, awkward dialogue.

Mother of Tears was a deeply, obviously flawed film, but at least it was unmistakably an Argento film. Giallo seems like it could have been made by, well, more or less anyone who makes low budget thrillers.

Grade: C+

Planet Of The Vampires

After crash landing on a harsh, barren planet, a group of spacemen must fight back against the reanimated corpses of their fallen comrades.

I'm not much for Mario Bava, but I recognize the debt many of my favorite genre films (particularly those by Dario Argento) owe to his work. So, at least once a year I'll give another Bava film a shot. Mostly, that results in me watching a lot of forgettable movies (Shock) and unwatchable crap (Twitch of the Death Nerve, 5 Dolls For an August Moon), but every now and then you find a good one, like Black Sabbath or Blood and Black Lace.

Planet of the Vampires is more in the forgettable category, but that at least is preferable to unwatchable crap. It's a low budget sci-fi/horror film with a promising setup, but a languid pace that sputters its way to an underwhelming climax. What almost saves the film is Bava's style. He gives it a bold, comic book vibe, using sparse sets light with bright, solid colors. It looks cheaper than an episode of "Lost in Space," but Bava doesn't shy away from it, and instead turns the cheapness into a sometimes effective aesthetic choice.

Grade: C

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Uninvited

In this remake of A Tale of Two Sisters (a recent classic from South Korea that I re-watched earlier this month), a teenage girl returns home from a stay at a mental hospital to find her father married to her deceased mother's former nurse. The girl and her older sister begin to suspect that their stepmother may be hiding sinister secrets.

The thing about A Tale of Two Sisters is that it's effect is almost entirely due to the powerful, impressionist, unnerving mood that it creates. On a surface level, it's story is not inherently special. In fact, it has many elements that often annoy me in horror films, most obviously a major plot twist that negates and/or makes arbitrary earlier sequences in the movie. In a lot of films that's a dealbreaker for me, but its spooky ambiance and the confusing, almost surreal way the story unfolds turn the film into something unique.

So, you'd think a needless American remake which skimps on the atmosphere, simplifies the storytelling (a less kind individual might say "dumbs down") to make the plot more clear, and plays up the more traditional psychological thriller elements, would be nothing short of completely dire. Yet, I'm here to tell you today that, while no classic, The Uninvited is good fun as far as mainstream, American, teen-friendly, studio horror pictures go.

For one, the cast is excellent. Elizabeth Banks and David Strathairn, as the stepmother and father, are slumming it a bit, but are pros and elevate their stock characters. And Emily Browning (the girl from Lemony Snicket) manages to take her potentially obnoxious, moody teenage character and turn her into a likable lead.

More importantly, perhaps understanding that they could never match the eerie power of the original, directors Charles and Thomas Guard drop all the shadowy gloom and doom, as well as the supernatural elements, and craft it into a sporty, tidy little thriller. Going in, obviously I knew the big twist (which, unlike in the original, is saved for the finale and is more clearly explained), so it was fun to watch for the little hints dropped throughout, and for the clever ways scenes, shots, and lines of dialogue have to be played in order to make sense on multiple levels. Whereas the original film leads the viewer into deliberately unsteady, confusing territory, the plot of The Uninvited comes together like clockwork during the final few minutes, crossing every "t" and dotting every "i," until the final moment, which includes a detail so arbitrary I couldn't help but smile.

Grade: B-

DeepStar Six

A ragtag crew of deep sea explorers run afoul of a dangerous seabeast that invades their base.

Given that DeepStar Six was an underwater Alien knock-off directed by Sean S. Cunningham, director of the original Friday the 13th, I wasn't expecting much more than an underseas slasher movie. It's a little classier than that though. Friday the 13th is a roughly put together, crass bandwagon-jumper film that's more culturally significant than actually good (though it does have its charms), but DeepStar Six, with its likable cast, effectively sterile/mechanical sets, crisp visuals and entertaining monster effects, suggests that Cunningham might have more film making talent than I gave him credit for. As far as needless Alien clones set under the waves go, you're better off sticking with George P. Cosmatos's much stylish and exciting Leviathan, but this one would do in a pinch.

Grade: C+

The Phantom Of The Opera

A mysterious masked figure who dwells in the sewers beneath a famous opera house plots to... wait, do you seriously not know what this is about?

I've seen a lot of different versions of The Phantom of the Opera. Most obviously, there's the Joel Schumacher version of the corny Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. They made it into a slasher movie in the 80's. Even Dario Argento made some weirdass Argento-y vesion, complete with decapitated dwarfs, and human sized rat-men caught in giant mouse traps. All have their merits (I guess) but the best version was and always will be the silent film from 1925, an effectively moody melodrama with an iconic performance by Lon Chaney. A must-see for all horror fans, and a nice opportunity to see just how early on the grammar of horror film making was being established.

Grade: B

Monday, October 18, 2010

Catacombs, a.k.a. Curse IV: The Ultimate Sacrifice

A young woman comes to study at a monastery. She and the monks soon fine that an ancient evil dwells in the nearby catacombs.

Oops. Don't know why when I put this on that I thought it was the 3rd movie in the Curse nonseries. At least in part, it was probably due to my enthusiasm for seeing another movie by David Schmoeller, the director of Tourist Trap and Crawlspace, for whom I'm starting to acquire a real taste.

Catacombs is not as good as those films, not by a long shot, but it's far more interesting and atmospheric than its disreputable pedigree would imply. It's a nicely pieced together haunted house/exorcist movie with a strong cast who actually get the opportunity to play somewhat fleshed out characters. Schmoeller has a real feel for the genre and how to toy with the audience (nice use of out-of-focus motion in the background). On the downside, it's a little too uneventful and its climax is stunningly unexciting. Far be it from me to not appreciate a horror movie that tries to take its time, but its atmosphere is not rich enough to warrant the degree of nonaction on hand. Not to sound too much like a philistine, but a little more violence might have been appreciated.

Grade: C+

Shaun Of The Dead

No need for a recap, I'm sure everyone here has seen this movie a million times like me. It's an all-time favorite, a great comedy that actually takes the effort to extend its wit to the visuals.

Two things I love about this film:

1) It's structured as a series of densely layered comic setups and payoffs, both obvious and subtle, unseen in this level of detail and brilliance since Back to the Future.

2) The final act, while still hilarious, also succeeds as horror. It's unafraid to kill off major characters that you've grown fond of, and as a result builds some very real tension.

Grade: A+

Curse 2: The Bite

In this in-name-only sequel, a young couple are terrorized by mutant snakes out in the desert. The man is bitten and (get this) his arm turns into a giant mutant snake. And then he eventually mutates into some mindless, evil, snake-vomiting monster.

There are things to like about Curse 2: The Bite. It stars Jill Schoelen, the petite, husky-voiced brunette scream queen favorite of mine from The Stepfather, Popcorn, and several other memorable genre films from the late 80's. The effects, while low budget, are sufficiently icky and fun. No doubt, it's an improvement over The Curse (not that anyone was trying to top that film, the producers simply slapped the title on an unrelated horror movie). It seems like the filmmakers were genuinely trying to make a good monster movie, it's not lazy or unimaginative like so many low budget horror films of this era.

It doesn't really work, though. The film doesn't really have much of a build up, it's more a long slog through increasingly elaborate special effects. The ridiculous concept of the snakehand is not used to its full potential (I could think of so many unrealized opportunities for comedy) and too many of the major set pieces and payoffs limply hang there on the screen, even when the concepts behind them are interesting. What I'm saying is, I think someone needs to take this stupid snakehand idea and make a better movie with it.

Grade: C-. I'm tempted to bump it up to a C for some of the more ridiculous moments of gore/monster FX, but if I'm being honest with myself, I would never want to sit through this movie again. Maybe I'd watch a highlight reel though.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Living And The Dead

With his father out of town, a young, possibly retarded and definitely mentally ill young man is left in their large palatial estate with his seriously ill mother. Losing his barrings on reality, he locks out his mother's nurse and envisions himself as the head of the house, despite being completely incapable of understanding how to take care of his mother. Next comes an unflinching look into the lowest depths of humanity, man, and it will shock your eyelids.

The Living and the Dead is not a horror movie in the sense of there being a mysterious killer stalking coeds. It's more like watching a train wreck in slow motion. You see the shit, you see the fan, you see the shit heading towards the fan and there is nothing you can do to stop it. It's clear from early on that this story is destined to end in depravity, murder and madness.

The underlying material is suitably uncomfortable and tragic, but writer/director Simon Rumley undercuts his own film's power with a lot of unnecessary histrionics. For one, the actor playing the son is required to go full-retard (second horror movie this week to do this), a performance of exaggerated manic energy that is a constant distraction. Worse, Rumley feels the need to convey the son's psychosis with lots of pyrotechnics, constantly speeding up the footage, cranking up chaotic music on the soundtrack and cutting to bizarre fantasy sequences. It feels like a cop out, a way to avoid dealing with the harsh reality of the story.

And yet... the movie does work, very much so, in places. I reacted strongly in areas, with that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, helplessly watching the lives of the characters spinning out of control. This movie would almost certainly rub a lot of people the wrong way, which is part of its intention. It's the kind of movie that makes people wonder why it exists in the first place, as it seems to have no point past shoving the viewer's face in ugliness. Personally, I admire a movie that can get under my skin, and find that these sorts of dark, dank tales of misery have a certain cathartic effect; you work through your anxieties by the end of the film. That's (one of the many) reasons I think horror is an important genre, and so I mean this as high praise.

So consider me strongly conflicted on this one. I hated much of its style but respected some of what it accomplished. I've heard Rumley's more recent Red White & Blue is a similar gaze into the abyss, and I'm excited to give it a shot. If he can tone down his blunt tendencies, or at least channel them in a less distracting manner, then he might really have something.

Grade: C+

Head Trauma

A homeless man returns to his deceased grandmother's home to fix it up in an effort to save it from being demolished. However, he is plagued with strange visions of a repressed memory, and tries to piece together the mystery and remember what has happened to him.

Similar to Salvage, Head Trauma is a low budget, shot on cheap digital horror movie that manages to somewhat set itself apart from the trash heap by virtue of its general competence. It's mainly entertaining and not overtly bad, although it has the same major flaw as Salvage. Namely, that it unmistakably indicates from early on that its heading towards a twist ending, which you will likely guess well in advance, but still has to jog in place for a while in order to reach feature length.

I think the problem with a lot of these modern microbudget horror movies is that the cheap video quality does not much look like film, but they still try to embrace horror film aesthetics. The lighting/color palette/etc don't feel as rich on digital, or at least not on cheap digital; the filmmakers should be trying to figure out what digital's strengths are and embrace that, rather than try to copy the style of better known horror films.

Still, Head Trauma really strives hard for the atmosphere of paranoid mindfuck movies like The Machinist and I appreciate the fact that, while it doesn't exactly work, it doesn't fail either. It's not a particularly scary film and falls short of its ambitions, but I suspect with a better budget the director could probably make a pretty good one of these movies.

Grade: C+

The Curse

In a loose adaption of "The Colour Out of Space," one of H.P. Lovecraft's best stories, a comet crashes down in a small farming community, and begins to change the locals in bizarre and unnatural ways.

I don't consider Lovecraft to be a great author in a technical sense; his work is often poorly structured and filled with overwrought, purple prose. Conceptually, however, he had a rare brilliance. The reason his work has remained popular is because of his ideas, which often dealt with unfathomable, ancient evils that would drive a man mad should he ever encounter them.

That sense of cosmic doom is sadly lacking from The Curse, which simplifies Lovecraft's big ideas into a simple, corny monster movie built mostly around its dubious makeup effects.

For YVIAHMMAOIHTNQ, I knew I wanted to watch an entire horror series that I hadn't seen before. On Wednesday night, I tried watching the first Subspecies movie, but it couldn't hold my interest past its first 10 minutes or so. I made it all the way through The Curse, even though it sucked, so I think I'm going to give its 3 sequels a shot. There's an upside: they are all sequels in name only, no relation too each other, made by different filmmakers. So each one starts with a blank slate.

Grade: D+

Tales From The Darkside: The Movie

Captured by a witch with plans to eat him, a little boy tells three scary stories in an attempt to delay his demise. In the stories - grad students unleash a cursed mummy; a hit man is hired to kill an evil cat; a man makes a pact with a demon in exchange for his life, with bizarre and tragic consequences.

As I've said before, a good anthology should have short, compact stories with elegant twist endings. Tales From The Darkside: The Movie (a spin-off from a Creepshow-inspired TV show I vaguely recall watching when I was young) suffers from too much fat but still provides a not unreasonable amount of fun. The first story, despite starring Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore and Christian Slater, is a total wash, but the other two are good times. The second story aims for bizarre dark comedy and some very over-the-top gore, and the final story is ambitious in the way it pitches itself as a serious, if grotesque, tragedy.

Although it eschews the comic book visuals of the Creepshows, this movie is very much in the same vein; a slightly tongue-in-cheek horror anthology that still aims for some serious scares.

Grade: B-

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Hand That Rocks The Cradle

A woman brings sexual assault charges against her molest-y gynecologist, leading to his suicide. That man's wife, who has also recently had a miscarriage, loses her shit, and insinuates herself into the other woman's life by being her nanny, as part of a devious and complex plan to ruin her marriage and turn her children against her.

Manipulation, poor taste and implausibility are often the bedrock of a successful thriller, but The Hand That Rocks The Cradle laid it on a little thick for my tastes. I like that it's trying to push some buttons, which director Curtis Hanson has done effectively in other thrillers like The Bedroom Window and Bad Influence, but if you push too many of my buttons too many times, they start to go numb. This is a movie that exploits for tension such elements as a woman breast feeding another woman's baby, the aforementioned gynecologist rape, miscarriage, an innocent mentally challenged handyman accused of child molestation (played by Ernie Hudson, tragically going full-retard), a villain who verbally abuses children, doubts about the husband's fidelity, children in peril, and many more of your favorite hits. At a certain point enough's enough. It's not that I morally object to any of this (I am the guy who likes Orphan, after all), just that the movie doesn't need to pile it on to such a silly degree. It's a strict adherent to Murphy's Law of Thrillers: everything that can go wrong, will go wrong, exactly when the screenplay requires it.

On the other hand, never let it be said that Hanson isn't a solid craftsman. In addition to an effective suspense scene or two, I couldn't help but admire the efficiency of the film. There's not an ounce of fat, no unnecessary details. Every innocuous thing that happens, from a character having an inhaler, to a character smoking, to an alarm clock playing classical music... it's all some sort of set up for a plot point or or suspense sequence that will pay off later. In that sense, you could say I enjoyed the movie, my enjoyment only matched by how much I disliked it.

Grade: C

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Fearless Vampire Killers, or: Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are In My Neck

I think the name says it all, but in case you want more: In this horror/comedy by Roman Polanski, two vampire hunters travel to Transylvania and face off against a powerful vampire Count (not Dracula, though, some other guy).

I was conflicted during The Fearless Vampire Killers. On the one hand, it's silly, tongue-in-cheek story never much interested me, and the movie didn't make me laugh much (though some sight gags do work). On the other hand, I can't remember the last time I saw a horror movie this visually ornate. It's a real feast for the eyes, and rich with atmosphere.

I think the visuals win out. It achieves a sumptuous visual extravagance; crisp colors, beautiful landscapes, dazzling sets and costumes, complex camera movements. In that sense, it achieves what the Hammer Dracula films and the Roger Corman Poe adaptations always seemed to aim for, a faux classy, baroque production design with an element of spectacle.

It's only been two days since I watched this, and I can barely recount the story, but the style is burned into my mind. And I don't mean that as qualified praise, I think the movie is a real achievement and something I would highly recommend to those who, like me, kno how to appreciate garishness when done right.

Grade: B

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

My Soul To Take (in state of the art, mind blowing, slap your momma 3D)

So dig this, there's this guy, and one night he realizes that he's the elusive serial killer everyone's been looking for, only he didn't know because he has multiple personalities or multiple souls or something, whatever, so he kills his pregnant wife and his shrink and some other people and the cops think they kill him but never find the body. So don't worry about that, now it's 16 years later in the same town, and all the local kids who were born on the same night the killer died (or did he?) are all part of some local legend about how maybe one day the killer will come back and only they can stop them. Got that? Okay, because now the important part is that one of those kids is an awkward social outcast who is obsessed with birds who builds a bird costume for a class project that projectile vomits and shits on his enemies, and also he's got a crush on some bitchy girl at school and he and his best friend get into a bunch of goofy shenanigans trying to find out if she likes him. Only, now he's having weird psychic premonitions and he starts uncontrollably adopting other people's personality traits, and then some weirdo in a Halloween costume is going around killing all the kids born on the same day because, um, actually I'm not clear on that part but....

You get my point. Wes Craven's My Soul To Take is something else. To steal a memorable phrase Roger Ebert used when discussing the Cory Haim/Gary Busey werewolf movie Silver Bullet, this is either the worst horror movie I've seen, or the funniest. Craven has certainly displayed an offbeat sense of humor in some of his films, so I'd like to give him the benefit of the doubt. Obviously some of it is supposed to be funny, I don't think the shitty bird costume was supposed to be taken seriously, for instance. But, no, I honestly suspect this was along the lines of Shocker or Deadly Friend, a seriously misguided project conceived in all earnestness, with hilarious results. On the upside, I think this might be the best of its kind since I Know Who Killed Me.

My Soul to Take
has enough plot for 5 silly horror movies, which it hurtles through at breakneck pace. It veers heedlessly from violent horror film to goofy teen satire, and passes through melodrama, whodunit and camp along the way. When we finally get to the explanation of the killer's motives at the end of the film, it has so many threads to tie up, delivered in a breathless monologue that I honestly have no idea what the hell it meant.

In good way, I promise you, if you're into this kind of thing. I expect I'll be buying the Blu Ray when it comes out.

Grade: This is a tough one. It is kinda terrible, and also wildly entertaining, and what's good and bad about it are so helplessly intertwined that I have to just give up trying to judge it and admit that, good or bad, I had a lot of fun. Call it a "B" movie.

Monday, October 11, 2010


A young woman has a vivid dream that she is assaulted and murdered in her home by a serial killer. But was it just a dream? She can't shake the dream, and soon starts having weird visions of her attacker. And then things get weirder.

Not sure how this one ended up on my Netflix queue, but when it started up, I suddenly got a bad feeling. It was clearly a low budget, shot on digital, direct to video release. Not to slag on low budget film makers, but I've seen too many of these kinds of movies in recent years that were unwatchable or not worth watching; I usually need to have them recommended by a trusted source to give them a shot. Too often they are ugly, poorly made, boring and lazy.

I can't recommend Salvage, but I will at least damn it with faint praise by saying that it was far more competent and watchable than most microbudget modern horror. There's still the awkwardness and insufficient atmosphere that often comes hand in hand with cheap digital photography, but the acting and filmmaking are generally passable.

The film's biggest problem, and I'm going to get into some major SPOILERS here, is that it becomes clear after a certain point that there's a big twist coming at the end, but not enough plot to sustain a feature, so the second half of the film is mainly wheel spinning until we get to the final revelation. I felt like, relatively early on, I already guessed the twist, and I became restless waiting for the other shoe to drop. It's not like the movie is shy about dropping hints, either. They pretty much jam it down your throat what's going to happen, that it wasn't a dream, the girl really was killed, and now she's in Hell reliving her murder over and over for eternity. And here's where I will give Salvage a little credit: the twist is slightly different than what you expect. Turns out that the girl isn't really the girl, she's the killer, now in Hell, being forced to live as his victim, believing he is her, and experiencing her death at his hands for eternity.

Nifty, but it raises some questions. Namely, that if the killer doesn't realize who he is and believes he is the girl, complete with her memory and everything... isn't that still like the girl was sent to Hell and not him? As the girl, the killer goes about her regular life, fools around with her boyfriend, even seems horrified at the end when her mother says "you're not my daughter." He retains no remnants of his personality until right before he is "killed." So it still seems like Hell is punishing the innocent young woman and not the killer.

Not that it matters, this little variation on an old, tired idea lends the movie just a little bit of novelty, and I won't deny it that.

Grade: C

Let Me In

In this remake of the popular Swedish horror film Let the Right One In, a creepy little social outcast, pent up because of the constant bullying he receives, begins a strange friendship with the girl who moves in next door. Only, the girl is not really a girl, you see, but a ferocious vampire much, much older than her childlike appearance would indicate. Soon, each learns that the other may be of value to them.

I liked Let the Right One In well enough back when I saw it, but I've felt that it's been greatly overrated by its fans. It has many admirable traits, including its stark, chilly atmosphere and strong performances. But I suspect its reputation is, in part, due to a common reading of the film that I don't share. I've noticed that many folks see the film as a tale of youthful romance with a dark undercurrent; all I see is the undercurrent. The boy and the vampire don't love each other, each is simply fulfilling a need of the other. The boy, obsessed with knives and crime photos, is essentially presented as a future serial killer, and the vampire is clearly manipulating the boy in order to make him her new "familiar" (the Renfield to her Dracula) now that her old one is used up, to hunt up food for her and protect her.

Well, fans of the romantic interpretation of that film are going to love Let Me In, which plays it more ambiguously but ultimately offers a heavier implication that the relationship is actually love and not just the pimp/whore manipulation I saw in the original. It's admirably dark and violent for a mainstream American movie, but I do feel like it tries to soften a few of the edges from the story and let the audience off the hook of having to think about the deeper implications.

Some of the reviews I've read made this sound like a near shot-by-shot remake of the original, but I don't think that's exactly fair to director Matt Reeves. Now, it's been a while since I saw the original and thus I don't have the clearest memory of it, but it is obvious that Reeves copies some of the major set pieces directly, closely follows the outlines of the plot, and takes major inspiration from the original film's tone. However, this isn't a carbon copy like Quarantine was to REC. There are plenty of noticeable, major changes, and in fact the best scene in the remake is a new one: an attempted murder gone horribly, hilariously wrong, leading to a spectacular car crash, all done in one show-offy shot. I wasn't enamored with Let Me In, but I left with a little more respect than I previously had for Reeves, whose last film, the very well-received Cloverfield, I did not particularly care for.

Grade: B-


After getting stuck working late on Christmas, a woman (Rachel Nichols) discovers that she has been locked in the building. Turns out this wasn't an accident: the creepy, unstable parking attendant (Wes Bentley) is obsessed with her and has plans to abduct her and do lord knows what else. Trapped with the nutcase in the very large parking garage, she has to outsmart and outfight him if she wants to escape.

I've been meaning to see P2 again ever since I caught it a few years ago. I enjoyed it at the time, but watched it with some friends and didn't feel I gave it my full attention. It seemed like exactly the kind of thriller I should love: well crafted, smart, plausibly implausible, with strong actors and a clever screenplay.

I was right, it is exactly that kind of thriller. One thing I really appreciated this time through was how efficiently the movie sets up the rules and mainly sticks to them, and then figures out clever ways for the heroine to break the rules and the bad guy to stop her from doing so. Establishing the rules is key to a movie like this. We not only have to understand the basic layout of the parking garage, but where the bad guy's office is, where his dog is currently located, where the heroine's cell phone does and doesn't work, and so on and so forth.

P2 was produced and co-written by Alexandre Aja, the French horror movie director who, after the seriously problematic but also very promising Haute Tension, and excellent remake of The Hills Have Eyes, seemed like the next big thing in horror. Unfortunately, he followed those up with a complete piece of shit (Mirrors) and a mildly amusing disappointment (Piranha 3D), so I don't really have high hopes for him any more. I was thinking, though, that even if Aja's career doesn't reach its full potential, maybe he's sufficiently groomed P2 director Franck Khalfoun, of whom we can expect bigger and better things. But I looked it up, and all he's done since is a terrible looking low budget Cuba Gooding Jr. action movie. So I'm not holding my breath on Khalfoun either.

Grade: B+

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Masque of the Red Death

When a terrifying plague known as "the Red Death" sweeps the countryside, the sinister Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) holes up in his extravagant castle. There, he throws a decadent party for surviving royalty, where murder, torture and Satanism are the main attractions.

"The Masque of the Red Death" is easily one of my favorite Poe stories, but one of the reasons I love it is because of how it seems like it could only work as prose, and not in another medium. It is short, light on plot and characterizations, and is the closest I've ever come to reading a horror story that is 100% atmosphere. It's not one of Poe's clever mysteries or elegant revenge tales, it's closer to a canorous but unsettling tone poem. Suffice it to say I was highly skeptical how well it would translate to film.

I'm happy to report that this was not only my favorite movie I watched for Time to Pay the Price, but also one of Price's best films, not to mention hands down the best Roger Corman film I've seen. And hell, while I'm at it, quite possibly the best Poe adaptation I've seen, even if it's not a very faithful one.

It's not an accurate representation of the original story, but so what? It takes some serious inspiration from the original story and spins it out into its own thing. At first I was disappointed by this, as the film didn't seem to understand what was great about the story. In particular, the castle, though faithful to the original description, stuck me as too bright and joyful, lacking the the subterranean menace of the story. No bother, it uses some of Poe's ideas to make a film of rich suspense and baroque horror, one that's probably the strangest film I've seen by Corman (with the possible exception of X: The Man With The X-Ray Eyes).

As mentioned before, the Poe short story does not have enough plot for a feature film, so this tells the story of a demented Satanist who likes to play vicious games with his subjects in order to tests the limits of their morality. It also incorporates the excellent Poe story "Hop Frog" as a subplot. Price is heartless, but not a charlatan like in Witchfinder General, and this may be the first time I found him genuinely intimidating and scary. There are sequences of real suspense, such as a scene where Price forces two men to cut themselves with a series of knives selected at random, until one of them picks the blade that has been soaked with poison.

Best of all, though, is the lavish weirdness slathered all over the movie. Much of it is set at a strange and colorful masquerade. There are many unexpected sequences, such as a brutal murder by a bird of prey. And the physical incarnation of the Red Death, who periodically shows up, is a suitably ominous and mysterious figure. The final revelation of the nature of the Red Death and the bizarre dance of the dead that follows is the kind of delicious, satisfying absurdity that modern horror movies wouldn't even bother going for, for fear that people would find it corny. Nay, I say to that. This movie is awesome.

Grade:B +

The Last Man On Earth

Vincent Price stars as the titular character, last man standing now that a strange virus has left the entire world either dead or turned into weird vampire/zombie creatures. Price has to strive hard every day to stay alive, stay sane, and do what he can to kill as many of the monsters as possible.

Although not quite the classic its reputation had lead me to believe it would be, The Last Man On Earth is a reasonably entertaining horror flick that, if nothing else, is a lot more bleak than I was expecting, given the star and the era. The high points of the film for me were an extended flashback of how the world came to an end that captures an appropriately fatalistic tone, and the abrupt, violent, unexpected final scene.

The other real plus is that, against all odds, it makes Price into something of a badass. He's still a little feminine and mincing, but he gets to show his dark side, and also gets to kick a reasonable amount of ass (even getting to chuck a bunch of pipe bombs around during the finale).

The main problem with the film is that I was unimpressed with its direction. I wasn't taking notes or anything while watching it, so forgive me if I'm not sufficiently descriptive here, but the staging is often dull and ineffective. Price is constantly fighting off hoards of monsters, trying to keep them out of his house, and the filmmakers present it with all the enthusiasm of a sleepwalker. I've seen slap fights between preschoolers that were more exciting, desperate life-or-death struggles than the action scenes in this film. (Apparently I watch preschoolers a lot?)

I have not seen the Charlton Heston version of this story, The Omega Man, but I did see and greatly enjoy the Will Smith I Am Legend a few years back, and I'm going to say that it's the superior adaptation.

Grade: B-

Tales of Terror

An anthology of 3 Poe stories directed by Roger Corman, each starring Vincent Price in a different role. Unlike many other horror anthologies, there's no wraparound story; the segments are preceded only by a brief narration by Price. In "Morella," a young woman returns to the home of her estranged father, and finds out about the very bizarre circumstances of her mother's death. In "The Black Cat" (by far the most adapted of Poe's stories, in this instance combined with "The Cask of Amontillado" plus a bunch of extra funny business thrown in), a drunken louse schemes the murders of his wife and rival. Finally, in "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" a man is hypnotized while on his deathbed, with distressing results.

After visiting the rinkydink Edgar Allen Poe museum in Richmond last year, I decided to refamiliarize myself with his work, which I hadn't read since I was in high school. Poe is amazing, he had a control of atmosphere and a depth of imagination that are basically unparalleled. If you've read any of his short stories, however, you've probably noticed that they don't seem like good fodder for adaptation to film. The stories can be very short (sometimes no more than a few pages) and are reliant less on plot and character development than on mood, concept, and description. A faithful adaptation of many of his stories would probably end up about 20 minutes in length and maybe even strike viewers as uneventful.

That is why so many Poe adaptations over the years combine stories together, or pluck the famous scene out of a story and plug it into a completely fabricated master plot. Even Tales of Terror, which reduces the stories to 30 minutes or less each, has to embellish, add, and amalgamate in order to reach a reasonable length. Still, by going for the anthology format, it allows Corman to mainly focus in on the famous sequences from the stories, or at least pay homage to the original concept. As self contained short stories, each segment is an effective piece of horror.

It helps that Corman gives each story a different tone to help distinguish them. "Morella" is the shortest, and mostly a mood piece. "The Black Cat" aims more for dark comedy and is probably the most plot heavy. And "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" takes the creepy idea from the original story (that through hypnosis, the body could die but the mind could live on), milks it for tension and builds a more typically structured story around it.

Grade: B

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Comedy of Terrors

A sleazy, alcoholic undertaker (Vincent Price) and his bumbling sidekick (Peter Lorre) decide to drum up some business for their fledgling enterprise by knocking off rich townsfolk and swooping in to offer their services to the family.

Part of what makes The Comedy of Terrors work so well is that they got a very skillful horror movie director to make it, rather than getting someone more known for comedies. Jacques Tourneur, who made a slew of top notch horror movies in the 40's and 50's, was a master of atmosphere, using a rich, detailed depth of field painted with starkly contrasted light and shadow. This has the aura of a real horror film, which makes all the absurdity even funnier.

What really pushes it over the top, though, is the cast. Especially Price. The movie can, at times, be a little too pratfall-y for my tastes, but Price is always there to save the day. His character speaks in a florid, showoffy series of faux-sophisticated bon mots, put downs and one liners ("Confound you too, sir! Will you kindly have the goodness to die?") that would leave Lost in Space's Dr. Smith tongue-tied, and chomp chomp chomp does Price savor every single word. He gets a plethora of laughs in the movie simply by the perfection of his reaction shots. There are also fun roles for Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone. Joyce Jameson, who I was unfamiliar with, steals scenes as Price's nagging wife and verbal sparring partner. Lorre, unfortunately, would have been close to death around the time this was made and, if I'm not mistaken, plagued with a crippling morphine addiction. He has a few strong moments (and obviously can't help but bring his unmistakable Peter Lorre-ness), but often seems disengaged and worn out.

I know I saw this movie many years ago, as a child or early teen, and didn't like it. I don't know what was wrong with me. This movie is a hoot.

Grade: B

The Tomb of Ligeia

With Shenan out of town for the weekend, I carved out time on Saturday to do a Vincent Price horror movie marathon. I watched 5 of his films, 3 of which were also Poe adaptations directed by Roger Corman. In the spirit of The Price is Right and Two For the Price of One, I will name this marathon Time to Pay the Price.

The Tomb of Ligeia is a loose adaptation (as all three films were, to varying degrees) of the Poe story, about a man who becomes obsessed with his dead wife. He remarries, but soon becomes convinced that his wife holds power over him, and that she is perhaps somehow trying to return to life.

This was probably my least favorite movie of the marathon, but that doesn't mean that I thought it was bad. It works itself to a nice climax (with a lot of cool shots of the characters with flames licking the bottom of the frame), but it's at times a bit of a slog getting there. Most disappointing is that Price doesn't really get to have much fun, as his character is morose and in mourning for much of the film. I think we can agree that the best Price performances are when he really sinks his teeth in and hams it up. In this film he has to underplay a bit. Uh, you know, relatively speaking.

I've seen a few other of Corman's Poe adaptations, and Ligeia has the goods but doesn't really distinguish itself. I don't recall the original short story well enough to know how much this differs/adds/changes/is combined with other stories, but based on his track record I'm guessing a lot. It has all of the Corman trademarks: costumes galore, opulent sets, spooky castle, revelation of a rotting corpse, trippy dream sequence. Worth seeing if you like this sort of thing, but we'll be getting to some better ones later.

Grade: B-

The Video Dead

At some point or another, every single inanimate object will the be the focus of a horror movie. In The Video Dead, a spooky (haunted?) TV shows nothing but zombie movies, and then unleashes those zombies into the real world. Why? Why not!

The Video Dead is the kind of movie we only saw in the 80's, a horror comedy where the tone is a little knowing and tongue-in-cheek, yet it still takes its silly story seriously. I'd like to be able to tell you that this one is a lost classic, but I'd say we're talking more on the level of Night of the Comet than Night of the Creeps. Which is acceptable, mind you. You'll have a little fun with this one. You just won't be in any rush to see it again.

It's scrappy and likable and does what it can with a low budget. I'd say the high point of the film is the finale, where the heroine realizes she can confuse the zombies by acting unafraid and treating them like normal people... which she does by throwing them a dinner party.

Grade: C+


Where to begin? So this stern physician raises his children, a boy and a girl, with very exacting standards. He also has a medical dummy named Pin, and he likes to throw his voice and make his kids think Pin is talking, but insists that the kids can't talk to Pin unless he's around. Of course, the father himself seems to like to talk to Pin when no one else is around, which is disconcerting. One day the boy sees a nurse having a sexual encounter with the unmoving Pin, so that pretty much fucks up sex for him for ever, and he grows up obsessed with and overprotective of his sister. After the parents die in a car crash, the boy becomes attached to Pin, moving him into their house, talking to him, dressing him in the father's clothes. And then... well, I could keep going, but I have to draw the line somewhere.

Pin has a few too many problems for me to recommend it wholeheartedly: some awkward filmmaking, dialogue that's a little too on-the-nose, and a slow second half that loses a lot of the tension built during the eerie setup. Still, there's a certain something here to admire, and if it's ultimately not successful, it's the real deal in terms of its ambitions of being a deeply unsettling psychological thriller. Pin himself is a memorable creation. He's not overtly creepy in his design, even though he's a see-through medical dummy, but his unchanging demeanor coupled with his disembodied voice (always, of course, being provided by the father or the son) is truly unnerving.

What I most admired, though, was the ambiguity. There's never a clear answer, even in the end, on what's going on. The obvious implication is that Pin is somehow alive, but this is only hinted at and never confirmed. He never moves, the filmmakers don't have him "come alive" during the climax. And every time it seems like its going in that direction, there's always (or, almost always) a logical explanation for why Pin might appear to be alive. Could it just be that the father was insane and somehow passed the insanity to his son? The film never says definitively, and that lends it some power.

Unfortunately, right around the time Pin should be turning the screws a little tighter on the audience, it slows down to a crawl and becomes more of a drama about the brother and the sister. The climax finally returns to full fledged horror, but there's a bit of a too little, too late feeling to it. The early scenes of the film were just too effectively creepy to allow for such a bland final act. Still, there is something about the movie that gets under your skin, at least in places, and the final shot strikes just the right note.

Grade: B-

Le Testament du docteur Cordelier

A modern (in 1959) French retelling of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" by, of all people, Jean Renoir.

I've been catching up on my Renoir the past few months, and I've learned that he was far more eclectic than I originally realized. So I'm not surprised that he did a horror movie, but I must say, I have no idea what he was going for with this one. I believe it was a made-for-TV movie. For reasons I can't fathom, the film begins with Jean Renoir, as himself, arriving at a TV studio where he does an Alfred Hitchcock Presents style introduction for the film we are about to watch (even though we have already seen the opening credits). He then narrates the first few minutes of the film and, if I'm not mistaken, isn't heard from again until the very end.

There are two major flaws with the film. One: it treats the story as if you are unfamiliar with it, and presents it as a mystery. Renoir seems to be under the impression that you'd genuinely believe that the Jekyll and Hyde characters (here Cordelier and Opale) are two different people, saving the "reveal" that they are the same person for the last act. Talk about anticlimax. Two: the monster is stunningly unscary, just the lead actor padded up to look bigger and with a big wig and fake facial hair. He saunters around in an oversize suit, swinging a cane, and the only way I can actually describe it, is that it's like if Calibos from Clash of the Titans was trying to do a Charlie Chaplin impression. In fact, the performance is so slapsticky and goofy that I suspect that maybe it's intended as comedy. But of that's the case, I didn't get the joke.

Grade: C-

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Uninvited Guest

Recently dumped by his long time girlfriend, a young man is now stuck living all alone in a big, empty, creepy house. One night he lets a stranger in from off the street to use his phone. He leaves the room for one second, and when he comes back, the stranger has gone. Or has he? As time goes by, the young man begins to feel paranoid; could the stranger still be inside, hiding from him, living in his home?

This movie, man. This fucking movie. I thought I had it pegged, during the first 40 minutes or so, as a slow-burn home invasion thriller, one dependent on ominous shadows and mysterious noises to build suspense by toying with the imagination of the viewer. It could have been that kind of movie, and would have been a good one, but no. Oh no, it has so much more in store for you. Without delving into any spoilers, let us say that eventually, uh, the tables turn and the movie shifts into a bizarro dark comedy about the potential of living in someone's home without their knowledge. That is, until it turns into a moody surrealist horror movie that symbolically doubles many elements from the first half.

Again, without going into much detail here, the film has an unexpected bifurcated structure that reminds me a little of Afraid of the Dark, a peculiar horror movie I watched for last year's YVIAHMMAOIHTNQ. The second half of Uninvited Guest resolves the first half's story only in an abstract sense, and the final "answer" for what is happening during the film just raises more questions. What does it mean? I'm not sure. And I mean that as a great compliment. Highly recommended to those who value the strange and unpredictable.

Grade: B+

All the Boys Love Mandy Lane

Mandy Lane is beautiful, sweet, down-to-earth, and best of all doesn't seem to know what a catch she is. So, naturally, the guys are school are constantly competing for her attention. While on a trip with some friends to a secluded ranch, it beings to seem that a demented admirer of Mandy's is eliminating his competition in a very forthright manner.

Unfairly shelved and forgotten (it's never premiered in the US in either theaters or on video), All the Boys Love Mandy Lane is an uncommonly smart and fun slasher film, from the director of the halfway decent coming-of-age-dramedy The Wackness. Mandy Lane is not a realistic movie by any means, but one of its chief virtues is that it expends a lot more effort on character development than these sorts of films usually do. A solid chunk of the running time is spent hanging out with a group of crass, loudmouth teenagers while they party and get high, so it helps they are shown with a certain sensitivity and affection. When the killer shows up and the bodies start to drop, I'm not going to say that you'll be mourning any deaths... but you won't be looking forward to them like you might in a Friday the 13th sequel.

From the get-go, I suspected that this movie would be a notch above your typical genre entry. Many slasher movies open with a murder, but I don't think I've seen one quite like what happens in Mandy Lane. Two intoxicated teens, both pining over Mandy at a high school party, stand on a rooftop over looking a pool. Sensing his opportunity, one of the boys, at first gently and eventually forcefully, tries to convince the other one that jumping into the pool would impress Mandy. He works the other boy up, first by telling him how cool it would be, assuring him that it's safe, then by going for his pride and telling the other boy that he's probably too drunk. All drunken bravado, the boy jumps, and cracks his head open on the side of the pool and dies.

Thus sets the tone for a horror movie about the treachery of teenage boys, a slasher movie that is fun, funny, tense, a tad audacious and has a little something (just a little, mind you) to say about high school. There are a few major plot revelations during the film that I don't think are too hard to guess early on, but they are still clever and well handled, and the final "twist" felt just right, enough to move this up another notch in my book.

Grade: B+

Thursday, October 7, 2010


A young woman who teaches at a school for the deaf finds out that her horribly disfigured, insane twin sister has escaped from the mental hospital. People close to her are soon murdered by a mysterious killer, but is it her sister, or is something going on that's even crazier than the previous sentence I typed?

I saw Madhouse earlier this year and knew I'd have to revisit it. One has to sift through a lot of mediocrity and crap in order to find an offbeat little gem such as this. The film has a foot firmly planted in two solid traditions: the American slasher movie, and the Italian giallo. Or, maybe it's more accurate to say that it's a giallo in slasher's clothing. Storywise, it bears a passing resemblance to Happy Birthday to Me, and has the look of your typical 80's slasher, but there is a pervasive weirdness and unpredictability that betrays the fact that it was directed by an Italian.

It might benefit from low expectations; you're expecting a run of the mill slasher, but then it throws in some unexpected nightmarishness, rich atmosphere, and some structural surprises. The killer is genuinely creepy and intimidating, and the movie is gutsy enough to go off on tangents, most memorably during a slow, tense cat-and-mouse sequence set in an empty apartment building. The one downside might be some unconvincing special effects (the killer uses an attack dog to finish off the victims, and more than a few obvious puppet dog-heads make an appearance), but in some cases it might add to the movie's strangeness. For instance, in one scene the killer is very obviously being played by a dummy, but I have absolutely no idea why, practically speaking, they couldn't use a real actor for the shot. It's like something out of a bad dream.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Art of the Devil

A golddigger impregnated by a rich asshole learns black magic to get revenge on the asshole and his family. Actually, it's a lot more complicated than that, but does anyone give a shit?

Guess what? Thailand apparently has an answer to the Pang Brothers, and its the guy who made this movie whose name I'm not going to bother to look up. Art of the Devil similarly attempts to deliver scares less through painstaking craft and more through blunt force overediting trauma. Whereas the Pangs do it with flair and a little bit of a wink, this Thai joker couldn't Avid his way out of a paper bag.

Disclosure: the version of this film I watched was dubbed, so even if the story/acting/dialogue wasn't terrible, I would have no way of telling. Conversely, the goofiness the dubbing lended was good for a few laughs and basically the only thing that entertained me after the novelty of the film's hyperactivity wore off. Alas, even the dubbing wasn't enough to amuse me fore more than 20 minutes or so, and I'm not embarrassed to admit that my attention wavered throughout Art of the Devil and I'm not clear on all the plot details. This is not a professional movie review, this is my shitty, unprofessional blog. The scattered bits of Art of the Devil that I clearly remember do not indicate that I was missing anything by not giving it my full attention.

Grade: D

Night Train Murders

Two young girls traveling back home on a late night train are terrorized, tortured, raped and SPOILERS IF YOU'VE NEVER SEEN A HORROR MOVIE murdered by two hoodlums and some weird bourgeois woman who gets off on danger that the creeps picked up on the way. When they reach their final destination, the killers are taken in by a kindly couple, who SPOILERS IF YOU NEVER SAW LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT turn out to be the parents of one of the girls they killed. It's only a matter of time before their secret is discovered and retribution will be dished out in spades.

Aldo Lado directed two giallos I have a certain amount of affection for: Short Night of Glass Dolls and Who Saw Her Die? Neither film is a classic by any means, but both are reasonably entertaining, off-center, and have the proper trashy-to-classy ratio I look for in these sorts of films. So I had some hope for Night Train Murders, and was sad to find that it was boring and embarrassing.

The main problem may be that it takes itself too seriously. That mindset could have been a virtue, and I can respect that, given the luridness of the premise, Lado genuinely seems to make an effort not to linger on the awful things that happen, or make it too graphic, or show much nudity, etc. At the end of the day, however, this is still just another exploitation film, no matter how hard it presses its hands against its ears and goes "lalalalala I am not an exploitation film lalalalalala."

Lado is not Sam Peckipah. He does not have the talent to make a bold statement about the nature of violence, as he intended. Instead, he made a sleazy exploitation film that is slow, tedious and does not even deliver the requisite trash. Lado's idea of showing us that he takes the material seriously is to frequently cut back from the action to a dinner party one of the girl's parents are hosting, as the guests have a silly, on-the-nose discussion about violence and its social roots.

It is well past the half way point before the real conflict finally arises, when the girls are attacked by the thugs, and by that point we the audience have long since tuned out. The film is such a shameless ripoff of Wes Craven's Last House on the Left, right down to the civilized parents wreaking violent revenge, that it is nigh impossible to care about the story on any level. Craven's film, flawed though it may be, has a certain scuzzy honesty about it, and is still shocking enough to wallop even today's jaded audiences. Night Train Murders does even have the integrity to sink to the level of trash.

Grade: D

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Eye 3

A group of sexy young Asians, up to monkeyshines, decide it might be fun if they try out their friend's supernatural handbook to find out if it can make them see ghosts. And then... they see ghosts! AHHHH!

The Pang Brothers' Eye series is, at first appearance, something I should completely hate. It's almost as if they had a check list of everything I despise about bad horror movies: too much needless exposition/plot; ghosts with arbitrary, god-like superpowers; tons of abrupt "boo!" scares achieved by startling the audience with loud, clanging noises on the soundtrack, rather than earning the scares through carefully crafted suspense sequences with clever payoffs. And yet, I found the two previous Eye movies to be, if not particularly noteworthy, than at least mildly entertaining. The Pang Bros have all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, but that's kind of what makes the movies fun. Their hyperkinetic, show-offy, continuity-be-damned pastiche evokes Wong Kar-Wai, if Wong Kar-wai was a shallow moron and made 90 minute music videos masquerading as horror movies.

I was delighted to find during the opening scene of The Eye 3 (amusingly known overseas as The Eye 10, but not because there were 10 movies), when a possessed young woman slaps a bunch of monks in the face with her giant tongue, that this time the Pangs decided to make a goofy, over-the-top comedy. The previous movies already veered dangerously close to becoming self-parody; this one embraces it. It's no Evil Dead 2, but it was a pleasant enough diversion for 80 minutes. Apparently the Pangs have made another sequel, The Child's Eye. Consider me on board.

Grade: B-

Monday, October 4, 2010

Satan's Playground

While driving through New Jersey, a bickering family breaks down in the middle of nowhere. Wouldn't you know it, when they look for help, the locals turn out to be a group of vicious, retarded, baby-stealing psychopaths. And as if that weren't enough, there's some sort of invisible beast roaming the woods eviscerating people with its invisible claws. I hate when that happens!

Let me start out by saying a few nice things. For one, this was a major improvement over the last Dante Tomaselli film I saw. (That film was helpfully titled Horror, I guess in case the viewer forgets what kind of movie he's watching midway through, he can look at the DVD box and remind himself.) It stars Felissa Rose, aka Angela from Sleepaway Camp, so you can reminisce about better times while watching it. Finally (and this is a major improvement from Horror) I never became actively bored during Satan's Playground. Good on ya, Dante, you're getting better!

Still, there is nothing I can recommend about this film. I can't fault Tomaselli for a lack of ambition; in both of his films I've seen, he's set the lofty goal of trying to make serious minded, abstract/nightmarish horror films rather than crass exploitation. His execution, however, does not pass muster. Tomaselli wants to be the next Dario Argento or Lucio Fulci, but his K-Mart surrealism will never come close to the atmosphere those directors built at the heights of their powers. When Tomaselli strives for the bizarre and unexpected, when he really wants to find an image that feels pulled directly from your worst nightmare, the best he can come up with is a grown woman dressed as a baby. Even the most generous audience member wouldn't give that detail much of a reaction past "Dude, WTF, that's fucked up. Pass the bong."

There might be some germ of a clever idea going on in comparing the victimized family with the killer family... in fact, I wondered for a while if the killers were supposed to be the same family from the future or stuck in a time warp or something (some of the killers seem like they could be older versions of the victims), but if so, it's never really developed. The invisible beast is a tremendously boring threat; Tomaselli never figures out a way to give it a presence. And it all ends on the most stunningly obvious, abrupt, pointless cliche imaginable.

Grade: C-