Thursday, November 3, 2011

Witchery

David Hasselhoff, a pregnant Linda Blair, an obnoxious child, the worst actress of all time, and some old people end up stranded at a mysterious house on a small, secluded island, and suffer the wrath of a vengeful witch who can make them travel into some sort of evil witchery dimension or something.

The whole month can be summed up with a deceptively simple question: Witchery, or Faceless? Actually, no it can't, those are just two shitty horror movies that Andy procured for me that happened to start and close out the month. I never intended to end this year's festivities with Witchery; in fact, Andy and I tried to watch it the first weekend of October. But we watched it late at night and got kinda tired the first time and turned it off after a confusing half hour. Then we tried again a few weeks later... and the DVD turned out to be broken, and the last half hour wouldn't play. So I finally tracked down another copy and watched the rest of it on Halloween.

And that story is a lot more interesting than Witchery itself, although unlike some of the other unfortunate crap I watched this month, it's a pretty funny bad horror movie. It has an incoherent plot about haunted houses and witches and mysterious lights and alternate dimensions, a lot of elaborate but shitty looking and poorly staged make up effects (that one woman sure takes getting her mouth stitched shut well), a really hilarious bad recurring effect where shots of the actors waving their arms and moaning are superimposed over some poorman's 2001-style swirling void. And I swear the film ends with the world's worst actress, in a monotone voice I assume was meant to convey horror, saying "A baby?" and then looking directly into the camera:


If I didn't know better, I'd think the filmmakers were actually trying to make a comedy. Although it still wouldn't have been a very good comedy.

Grade: D++

I do these marathons every year in the hopes that I'll find some forgotten classic or unknown gems. Although I had no trouble discovering a lot of okay to really good movies this year, I didn't really find anything I hadn't seen before that really blew me away. I worry sometimes that I've already seen all the great horror movies that have already been made, but that's not going to stop me from searching. And to show you how positive I still feel about all this, here is a list of the movies I saw for the first time this month that I enthusiastically recommend, even if none of them were quite great:

(in no particular order)

Nightwish
Rampage
The Abandoned
Scissors
Vanishing on 7th Street
Bereavement
A Horrible Way to Die
Make-Out With Violence
A Chinese Ghost Story 2
I Bury the Living
The Baby
Kuroneko

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Rampage

A ruthless serial killer is captured and put on trial. The liberal prosecutor is given a tough assignment: to get the jury to go for the death penalty.

My final William Friedkin film for YVIAHMMAOIHTNQ, Rampage is a little less of a horror movie than The Guardian was, instead it's sort of a legal thriller with some horror movie elements. What it does have that The Guardian lacked is that spooky Friedkin brand of ambiguity. The film is actually an interesting and sometimes provocative probing of an interesting idea, which is how do we legally define insanity, and how much can an insane person be held accountable for their actions? For clearly this man is nuts; no sane person would commit these crimes. And yet, he shows forethought, planning, a sense that he knows what he did was wrong...

I thought for a while that this movie might be taking a more conservative stance on this issue, but in classic Friedkin fashion, you're actually less sure about how to feel about everything by the end. The killer remains not only mysterious but unknowable. He is left both unexplained and, unlike so many other serial killers in film, unglamorized. Is he remorseless, or simply un-self-aware? He expresses a desire to change, but is he for real, or is it an act? Rampage reminded me a little of The Ugly, another serial killer film I watched this month. But where that film sought to explore and explain, Rampage is all the more chilling and effective because it refuses to explain, and rather takes a hard look at the uncomprehandle nature of the mind of a killer.

Grade: B

Screamtime

I believe this is officially the laziest setup for an anthology film ever: two guys steal a couple of horror movies from the video store and watch them over at a friends house. In the movies they watch: the enemies of a bullied puppeteer are brutally murdered by a mysterious killer; a woman has strange visions of a killer roaming around her new home; a young man plans to rob the old ladies he works for, and then, um, something about haunted lawn gnomes I guess.

The poor quality of the Netflix streaming video didn't help, I'm sure, but I found Screamtime to be near unwatchable. It's a British anthology film (though the wraparound story is American, for some reason), but lacking in any of the style, class, wit, or budget that distinguished the classics like Tales From the Crypt or Vault of Horror. It's a dull, awkward looking film with overlong stories that build to obvious endings. It may not quite be the worst movie I saw this October, but it may have been the dullest.

Grade: D

Creature

Astronauts, space monsters, let's do Alien on a budget, you know the drill.

Notable things about Creature:

1) Klaus Kinski having fun overacting in an extended cameo.

2) A slightly campy tone, sort of a throw back to old 50's sci fi movies.

Otherwise, this is just like every other sci fi/horror movie to come out after Alien.

Grade: C

Case 39

A social worker saves a little girl from her strange, murderous parents. She is granted custody of the child, but soon discovers that maybe the parents weren't the dangerous ones after all.

Case 39 takes a while to get going, and for a little while it seemed like it was a perfect example of everything I hate about the studio horror films of the last decade or two: heavy-handed screenplay, choppy direction lacking in finesse, bombastic music, name actors floundering in underwritten roles. But when the other shoe finally drops, and Case 39 finally starts to turn towards its real story, it becomes a surprising amount of expertly manipulative, if silly, fun. It reminded me a bit of another recent evil-child movie, Orphan, although not quite as awesome.

The plot grows increasingly crazy (in good ways), the major set pieces (especially the one where a bunch of hornets crawl out of a dude's mouth, ears and eyes) are solid, and the child actor has that amazing Dakota-Fanning-like ability to seem far too mature and intelligent for her age. I'm not sure if this movie was intended in total seriousness, and if it was then it's probably something of a failure. But as a piece of absurd, far-fetched fun, it had me mostly delighted.

Grade: B-

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Legend of Hell House

A group of paranormal experts and psychics are hired to investigate an infamous, supposedly haunted house.

The Legend of Hell House is a throw back to classic haunted house movies like The Haunting and House on Haunted Hill, with a little bit of sex and violence thrown in to update it for the 70's. Like those films, it tries to play up a central mystery as to whether or not something supernatural is going on, or if there is a rational explanation for the strange events. I think the main reason I was mostly indifferent to this one, despite some solid technical credentials, is that it goes about this the wrong way. The problem is that the events are clearly supernatural, and the only mystery is whether or not it is being caused by a ghost, or by the psychic powers of some of the main characters. The tension in this type of story is supposed to be between the real and the fantastical, but here it's between one ludicrous supernatural explanation and another equally ludicrous supernatural explanation. Whatever "rationality vs faith" (or however you want to term it) debate there is raised by the story is immediately made moot, and I spent most of the movie wondering why they even bothered making it a mystery at all. The film's frequent stabs at trying to seem authoritative and plausible just make it all the more silly. It opens up with a disclaimer that though the film is work of fiction, it's based on stuff that, like, could totally possibly happen or something. Which is some pretty hilarious bullshit.

On the other hand, the film does star Roddy McDowell, which counts for a lot.

Grade: C

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Alucarda

A young woman, sent to a convent by her father, is roomed with the mysterious, free-spirited Alucarda. Unfortunately, Alucarda is maybe a little too free-spirited and adventurous, and soon the girls are all caught up in a world of satanic rituals, orgies, torture, vampires, and gratuitous nudity.

Alucarda aims to be, I think, a sort of surreal, over-the-top, possibly intentionally campy expression of religious and sexual hysteria. The dream-like opening scenes, where the girls meet some weird hairy man in the woods and follow him to a castle no questions asked, showed a lot of promise as oddball entertainment. It keeps this weird tone going through the whole film, but that doesn't really prove to be enough. At some point, it just seems like, as ridiculous as the whole film is, it really needs to cut loose and bust out a crazy blood bath or something. Instead, it mostly feels like a film full of half measures; everything is all weird and tawdry, sure, with the sex and the torture and beheadings and stuff, but nothing crazy enough ever happens, and never for a sustained period of time. I guess shit does finally hit the fan at the very end, but by that point it was too little, too late. For such a strange, sleazy film, it could have benefited from a little less restraint.

Grade: C

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Eyes Without a Face

A wealthy, amoral surgeon and his loyal assistant begin abducting young women, with plans to use them as donors for his disfigured daughter's face transplant.

I had sort of wanted to try to make Eyes Without a Face my last movie of October, since I started the month with Jesus Franco's crappy ripoff Faceless. But I have tentative plans on the 31st, and I was worried I'd accidentally blow it and not fit this one in in time.

Of course, if you haven't seen this one, it's a real classic. It's a creepy but classy affair, icky and surprisingly violent for its time, but with a strange elegance and beauty to it. The doctor's daughter, Christiane, is one of the real accomplishments in horror cinema. She has a horribly disfigured face (which we never see, except in one purposefully out of focus shot) and is made to wear an unnerving, white, expressionless mask. By all appearances, Christiane is the film's monster, but she's a complex, conflicted character, and the one the audience ends up most empathizing with.

I had not seen this in several years, and the thing I forgot about it that is really cool is that the first 20 minutes or so play as kind of a mystery. The film opens with the doctor's assistant dumping a corpse in a river, so we know something terrible is going on, but for a while we are lead to believe that the corpse is that of Christiane, and the doctor's actual involvement in what is going on is unclear.

This leads to a great scene that plays very differently the second time you see the film, where the doctor runs in to the father of the young woman he has murdered. The doctor has falsely identified her body as Christiane's, and when the man tries to open to the doctor about his concern for his missing daughter, the doctor chastises him, saying something like "It's funny I should have to console you, when you still have some hope left." That shit is chilling on so many levels.

Grade: B+

Friday, October 28, 2011

American Horror Story (Episode4 "Halloween Part I")


Okay, the last American Horror Story of October and... I don't really have a lot to say. This was a major improvement over last week's silly episode, but doesn't show enough of the promise that I felt episode 2 displayed. There's enough crazy stuff going on by the "cliffhanger" endings that I'm curious to see part 2, which means I'm hanging around at least one more week. Yet it suffered from the same lack of focus as last week's episode and the pilot, and mostly just felt like an hour of setup for what I'm hoping is going to be a cool payoff in part 2.

The biggest development was the death of Addie, and since she died before her body could be put on the property, it looks like she won't be coming back as a ghost. Which is a damn shame, because Addie was (by default) the closest thing the show had to a likable character. They spent a lot of time setting things up for her character over the past 4 episodes that I'm kinda stunned to see her go so soon, so maybe she will (somehow?) be back. I hope so, because the Harmon family and everyone else on this damn show are so mopey that even when they get to go over the top (like this week when the dad punted Burn Face's candy basket across the lawn) it still feels pretty dour.

Grade: C+

Attack the Block


A gang of teenagers in London find themselves doing battle with some nasty, hairy aliens with glow in the dark teeth.

This is a classic case of a movie getting overhyped before I saw it. It's funny and cute and I liked it, but when people start invoking the name of John Carpenter in their reviews I'm sort of expecting something a little more accomplished than this. Attack the Block has a great cast (this ought to be a starmaker for the kid who plays Moses, the hero) and a nice look, but its pace is rushed and uneven. I can appreciate that the filmmakers may have wanted to get right to the action and keep the momentum going, but if that was the case they should have streamlined the story more. Even coming in under 90 minutes it still has too many damn subplots and characters padding things out.

I'd say it's all more clever than successful. It has a fun screenplay with some good ideas for some cool action and suspense sequences (especially one where the kids get lost and disoriented in a smoke-filled hallway) but director Joe Cornish doesn't really have the chops to pull it off. As fun as it is to watch punk kids fight evil space monsters, the action is all kind of choppy and otherwise unremarkable in its execution.

I don't want to pile on this one too much, so I'll stop here. I still did quite enjoy it, I just wish my expectations had been set a little lower. I'd say it's more of a slight but genuine pleasure, rather than the new classic some folks have painted it as.

Grade: B-

The Silent House


A young woman and her father are staying at a creepy old house, which they have been hired to fix up. Her father goes to investigate some strange noises, and she hears what sounds like a struggle. Is she trapped in the house with a killer?

The gimmick of The Silent House is that it was designed to look like it was filmed all in one shot. In fact, I've read many claims online that it was done in one shot, but I'm positive I saw several masked edits. I love checking out stuff like this, but I also have to admit that it's kind of pointless. There's rarely a valid artistic reason for attempting this kind of thing, it's usually just a gimmick slapped on the cover up how unremarkable the rest of the film. Sometimes you get a nice fit of style and material, like the similarly gimmicked Rope, but not everyone has Hitchcock's technical chops or his gift for showmanship.

The Silent House is actually pretty good for a while. The house is a great location, with great set design, and that's important because 80% of this film is just a girl walking around a dark house with a lantern looking at things. The setup is suspenseful, and despite the fact that the one-shot style must have limited the filmmakers' options in terms of lighting, framing, etc, it has a little bit of atmosphere going for it, too.

I think the main thing that gets in its way is the underwhelming story, which ends up limiting the film's possibilities rather than expanding them. I would have been perfectly happy if it was just a girl in a house with a killer, with quiet scenes of her exploring the house looking for an escape route punctuated by an attack every 10 or 15 minutes. Instead, the movie runs out of steam probably not much past the half way mark, as details of what is happening are left vague because, sigh, there's a SPOILERS really predictable twist ending coming. The kind I really hate, where it pretty much negates everything that came before it. That's annoying under normal circumstances, but it's even worse here because it seems to violate the entire point of the one-shot gimmick. Presumably everything we're seeing is happening in "real time," but the ending makes it clear that much of what we were seeing wasn't happening at all.


Grade: C+

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

I think the title says it all.

For years, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has been a film I very much liked but never really loved the way a horror fan is supposed to love it. It's an undisputed classic, yet as much as I liked it I never thought it stood up to any of the other classics from its era. Why was I reluctant to embrace it fully? Was it because it's not as suspense driven as my favorites tend to be? Was it because of the unlikable lead characters? Was it because of it's more rough hewn look, when I typically prefer something a little more elegant?

All true, but I think I need to finally just say "uncle" and admit what this is. It will probably never mean as much to me as Halloween or Deep Red or Dawn of the Dead, but who said this had to be a horse race? It's a masterpiece of grimy, gritty atmosphere. There are countless strikingly framed shots. The set design is awesome. The lead actors all kind of suck, but the actors playing the killers are creepy as hell. There are more than a handful of all-time classic horror movie scenes, most notably the first appearance of Leatherface, which has to be in the top 10. It's not as scary as my other favorites are, but it's strange and wildly entertaining, and a lot more darkly funny than I think it gets credit for. So I hereby shed off any hesitation I had about calling this a great horror movie. It's a great horror movie.

Grade: A-

The Abandoned


A woman travels to Russia to trace her family history, and ends up at their old farmhouse where she meets her long lost twin. Only some spooky shit is going down there, and soon enough she's facing off against a sinister force.

I watched two of Nacho Cerda's short films earlier in the month, and though neither was exactly a home run, they both showed enough potential that I knew I wanted to check out The Abandoned, apparently his only feature. And I'm glad I did. This is a weird, spooky film, heavy on atmosphere and with a nice dash of suspense. At heart I suppose it is a haunted house story, but one with some odd and unique ideas, enough so that you're not really sure where it's going at any given moment. And I'm not even sure I could totally explain what was supposed to have happened, but sometimes I like it like that. It has ghosts and ghouls and time loops and man-eating warthogs, really going out there with a crazy story and yet maintaining an eerie tone that keeps it from getting silly.

Though not completely without dialogue as his short films were, Cerda is good a crafting long stretches of film without any talking, focusing more on mood and suspense and doing a pretty good job of it. Good chunks of the movie are just the protagonist walking around witnessing spooky things happening, which can be tedious in some films, but I'd say the mix of creepy ideas and atmosphere is potent enough to keep the viewer engaged throughout.

Grade: B

Anthropophagus


A bunch of obnoxious assholes take a trip to a little island town, only the town appears to be inexplicably deserted. Before you know it, they're all being picked off by some sort of invincible (?) cannibal dude, who apparently has already murdered literally everyone in town.

Andy pretty much insisted I watch this one, so I obliged. But I don't think he wanted me to watch it because he thought I would like it, so much as he bought it blind, didn't like it, but wanted it to get some use so it didn't feel like a complete waste of money.

Anyways, it's a lousy movie: ugly, boring and artless. And I'm still not sure I understand the story. So, like, the cannibal guy managed to wipe out the entire town, including all law enforcement, without anyone realizing (?) even though he's just one dude. So I think they explain at one point, when the protagonists find a journal that details what happened, that the guy is unkillable. Except at the end they totally kill him in a normal, straight forward way. So if he wasn't invincible, how the hell did he not get killed by the cops or something?

Whatever. The only remotely good thing about the movie is the killer, who looks genuinely creepy and, if I recall, has a cool introduction where he steps out of the shadows and there's lightning and stuff. Otherwise, this is just dull eurosleaze best suited for the lowest common denominator gorehound.

Grade: D

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

God Told Me To

After a string of random, seemingly unrelated murders by ordinary people, a detective finds that the perpetrators keep giving the same reason for their acts. And guess what that is?

Larry Cohen is something of a master of conceptual horror, by which I mean he has great ideas for horror movies, and his films rely more on those concepts and exploring them then they often do on, say, crafting tight set pieces or building atmosphere or what have you. And this has got to be one of his best ideas. It raises so many provocative questions about the nature of religion and faith in such a cool, creepy-ass way that of course the movie isn't really going to be able to live up to it, and the explanation and conclusion is going to be a bit of a letdown. That's just how Cohen usually rolls, and I think it's best to just accept the great ideas then nitpick how it could have been better.

Grade: B-

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Paranormal Activity 3



In this prequel, we find out how Katie and Kristi first experienced the supernatural, as children. And fortunately for us, their mom's boyfriend videotaped the whole thing, so the movie conveniently doesn't have to change format from the series' found footage gimmick.

I didn't really care for either of the first two Paranormal Activity movies, but the thing that the original understood that the sequel didn't seem to get is that fear in movies is all about anticipation. It's not so much about the scary thing as it is about waiting for the scary thing to happen. Anyone can say "boo!", but getting someone to dread a hypothetical future boo is the real skill set.

Part 3 understands this, and in fact I thought it was the best of the series so far. It was directed by the guys who did Catfish, the much talked about documentary that's not really talked about because of its merits or flaws so much as because everyone wants to know if it was bullshit. Whether or not Paranormal Activity 3 is their first fake-umentary or their second, both films are somewhat adroit at milking the audience's anticipation of what is going to happen next for tension.

Though the story is just another rehash of the events of the original (with, granted, a bit of a twist at the end this time) complete with an abrupt anticlimax, this one is probably the most clever of the three. The film's masterstroke is to have one of the cameras mounted on an oscillating fan, slowly panning between the kitchen and the living room and creating a nice tension between what's in frame and what's out. This leads to some fun scenes where objects ominously disappear, or mysterious figures appear, as the camera pans back and forth.

There's not a lot of what I look for in horror films going on here. There's little to no atmosphere, not much going on that's conceptually scary or disturbing, the story is neither original nor a clever twist on the old. All it really has is the suspense factor, and it's not scary enough to me to sustain feature length. (It probably didn't help that I saw this the morning after watching Halloween and The House of the Devil, which is sort of like taking a master class in suspense). Yet there was at least a little tension here and there, and I caught myself having fun watching this one in a way that I didn't with the previous installments. All in all, not bad.

Grade: C+

The House of the Devil


Despite her friend's warnings, a college student takes a babysitting gig under shady circumstances because she's hard up for cash. Between the odd behavior of the family, and a shadowy figure lurking around outside, something is going on, but what?

Ti West's The House of the Devil, from 2009, has fast become one of my favorite horror movies. It's like some sort of perfect distillation of everything I love about the genre. It's focused on suspense rather than shock (but it knows how to shock when necessary). It is deliberately paced, yet the story is streamlined to its essentials. It's richly atmospheric without being distractingly stylized. It knows how to use violence effectively without relying on it to provide all the entertainment.

And, maybe most importantly, it's legitimately scary, but in a fun way. These days, if a horror movie is scary it tends to have to be disturbing or completely downbeat, or if it's fun then it's a horror/comedy. It's such a rare treat to find a movie that understands how fear and fun don't have to be mutually exclusive.

Grade: A

Monday, October 24, 2011

Halloween

If you seriously don't know what this movie is about, then congratulations, you're just like our downstairs neighbors/friends were Saturday before we forced them to watch this. John Carpenter's Halloween is one of my all-time favorite movies, period, but I go back and forth on whether or not it's my favorite horror movie. I go mostly back and forth between this and Carpenter's The Thing (meaning I do feel comfortable calling him my favorite horror movie director, and maybe just flat out favorite director), although catch me on the right day and I might argue for Aliens, or Deep Red, or Dawn of the Dead.

I'm not going to write any more about this, because I might be using Halloween for the kick-off post for a horror movie themed blog project I've been considering. So, we'll see if that happens.

Grade: A+

The Guardian



A young couple, new parents, discover the shocking truth about their new live-in nanny. No, it's not a Hand That Rocks The Cradle situation, actually she just worships some sort of tree-god to which she intends to sacrifice their baby.

A killer tree seems kind of a silly thing to base a horror movie around. And, you know, it is. I mean, even considering that this tree is pretty tough, able to rip off people' limbs and eat them and cause them to spontaneously combust; even considering that it has a loyal pack of ferocious wolves to do its bidding; even though it has a sexy, baby-stealing nanny doing its dirty work... just, like, don't go into the woods. End of movie.

Still, The Guardian is actually a lot of fun. It doesn't really have a good screenplay, or good acting, or anything like that, but it's actually quite well shot, atmospheric, entertainingly violent, with a few solid set pieces to round it out. And that's because this silly little horror movie was directed by none other than the great William Friedkin. This was 1990, when Friedkin's stock wasn't as high as was in the 70's, so this is a lot less ambitious and artsy than his classics; I wouldn't be surprised if this was just a work for hire. It lacks the spooky ambiguity and strong central performances of his best films, but it just goes to show you how a director can craft weak material into something worthwhile if they have the technical chops for it.

Grade: B-

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Kuroneko


The ghosts of two women who were raped and murdered by a group of samurai get their revenge by luring samurai wandering through the woods back to their home to murder them. A young warrior is sent to do battle with the spirits, and discovers that they are in fact his wife and mother.

I was taken aback for a moment when the translated title of Kuroneko came up on the screen as Black Cat. This couldn't possibly be another adaptation of the Poe story, right? And luckily it wasn't, although I guess resetting a Poe story in Feudal Japan would be novel.

Last year I watched Kaneto Shindo's Onibaba for my October festivities, and it was an offbeat, moody drama/horror that I very much admired. Made by Shindo just a few years later, Kuroneko shares more than a few similarities with the other film, and in fact sometimes feel like a more elaborate (bigger budgeted?) rehash. This one has a great first act and final act, but I thought it floundered too much in the middle, with a little too much focus on melodrama and not as much on the horror and the atmosphere. So I didn't enjoy it as much as Onibaba, but it's still an interesting, sometimes pretty eerie supernatural horror movie with a little bit of revenge drama thrown in for good measure.

Grade: B

Saturday, October 22, 2011

American Horror Story (Episode 3 "Murder House")


Well, that sucked. Right off the bat, the episode disappointed, opening with a pointless flashback to events we've already heard about and then segueing into more boring family melodrama before the opening credits. I had been hoping that, as per the first two episodes, American Horror Story was going to start every week with a cold open that was essentially a short story unto itself. Instead, it was just a bunch of development of the still uninteresting, unfocused master plot(s?), and the rest of the episode followed suit. Like the pilot, this didn't really have a strong central story, it was more a bunch of shit that happened that wouldn't even really feel related if it weren't all happening in the same episode. Unlike the pilot, however, none of this was campy or crazy or over-the-top enough to hold my interest. The story in the middle of the episode about the previous owners was okay, and the abrupt murder at the end at least made me laugh, but that was about it for entertainment value.

Also, the dude with the burned face... he's got to be in the father's imagination, right? Otherwise, how did he know all that info about the lover, and why was he there to kill her just at the perfect moment? So I'm guessing that the father is insane and is eventually going to try to murder his family a la his imaginary friend's backstory, only then ol' Burn Face asks him for $1,000. Not sure why a fake personaily would need cash. Hmm.

Grade: C-

Body Melt

Residents of a small Australian town are secretly the test subjects of an evil corporation, trying out a strange new drug. Unfortunately, the side effects include melting, exploding, birthing mutant killer babies, and flat out vanishing into thin air.

Body Melt feels scattershot throughout, so I wasn't too surprised to see at the end that it was based on four different short stories by the director. The experimental drug thing mainly seems like an excuse to hang together a bunch of otherwise disconnected scenes of funny, gross-out special effects. And there's not much more to the movie than the effects. The movie feels a little like early Peter Jackson (and I'm not just saying that because of the accents. Not entirely, anyway), but where as the dopey tone of some of Jackson's movies could be charming, here it's a little more groan-inducing. The attempts at humor in the story and dialogue are weak, with most of the laughs coming from the enthusiastic, if unconvincing, special effects. Good news is, there are a lot of these effects, enough to keep you entertained through the brief run time.

Grade: C+

Friday, October 21, 2011

Bloody Reunion


In this South Korean slasher flick, a group of former students, now adults, have a reunion at the home of their old, ailing teacher. As the trip wears on, old resentments start to come out, tension is in the air, and soon enough some psycho in a bunny mask is running around slaughtering everyone.

South Korea has given the world some of the best, most stylish, most creative, most unique genre films of the last decade or so. Bloody Reunion should most definitely not be included on that list. There's very little about it to recommend outside of the occasional striking image and some kill scenes notable for their creativity and brutality. Otherwise, this is a slow moving mess, filled with whiny, obnoxious characters, that builds up to one of those annoying twist endings that negates everything that came before... and then has the gall to drag on for another 10 or so tedious minutes of what appears to be sincere melodrama.

Apparently, the movie's original title was To Sir With Love, which I have to admit is a pretty hilarious, deliberately ironic name. The teacher is female, so that name wouldn't make a lot of sense, but I'm assuming the main reason it was released under a different name in America is that it was a copyright issue.

Grade: C-

Make-Out With Violence


A small town mourns the apparent death of Wendy, a teenage girl that everybody loved. Twin brothers Carol and Patrick and their young brother Beetle are taking it especially hard... until they find that Wendy has returned from the dead, as a zombie, and they decide to take her in.

Make-Out with Violence initially got on my radar because the premise sounded a bit like Deadgirl, a movie I kinda hated. I wanted to see what someone else would do with similar material, and much to my delight, the two films couldn't be more different. Deadgirl is a film about teenage boys who find a female zombie and rape her. Make-Out with Violence is a film about teenage boys who find a female zombie, and care for and fall in love with her. In fact, Make-Out isn't really a horror film, it's more like someone took a quirky, coming of age, indie comedy drama and added an offbeat horror movie twist to it. It evokes the films of Wes Anderson, or Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides, or, as my wife astutely pointed out, The Adventures of Pete and Pete (although much less wacky).

Sometimes on my blog I think maybe I'm prone to complaining about the technical aspects of low budget films, and I worry that maybe I come off as trashing those movies simply for their limited means, meanwhile praising other movies simply for having better resources. But that's not what I mean to say. My problem is with the low budget films with no vision, or the ones ambitious in the wrong ways. Too many low budget horror movies want to emulate more effects/set-design/money driven films that they can't hope to match, and end up looking shoddy and laughable.  

Make-Out with violence is so cheap it that I'm basically assuming that it was made by a group of friends in their back yards, but it has a real style, tone and point of view to it. It's a real movie by real filmmakers, and although far from perfect and a little derivative, it is strange, effective and a little poignant. It over relies on its ubiquitous, standard issue, soft rock indie soundtrack, and it mishandles a potentially great ending for a bit of a last minute let down, but it's still the kind of thing that gives indie movies a good name. It's the directorial debut of the Deagol Brothers (really brothers? I can't find their names online), and I am definitely on board if they make another feature.

Grade: B

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Requiem for a Vampire

Two young women, apparently on the run from the law, aimlessly wander the countryside. They are captured by a vampire and his brood, where they are to take part in their orgies and massacres and whatnot.

I don't know what brought me to watch another Jean Rollin movie, considering that The Grapes of Death and Zombie Lake are two of the worst films I've seen in my life, but here I am trying him out again. And I bet it will happen again some day. I just want to understand what the deal is, why this maker of such ugly looking, tedious, stupid movies seems to have a legit cult following. I keep hoping one day I'm gonna watch one of these pieces of shit and something will click, and even if I don't like it, I'll at least get it.

I think I'm getting closer, but I'm not there yet. Requiem for a Vampire is terrible, but it kind of tricks you into thinking it's not terrible at first. (I think Grapes of Death might have done the same). It starts abruptly, in the middle of a car chase/shoot out, with the two women being chased by the cops while dressed as clowns with no explanation as to how any of this came to be. It sounds awesome, and in theory it is, although in classic Rollin fashion the actual chase is dull. Eventually the chase ends, the women torch their car (with their wounded accomplice still inside) and begin wandering the countryside. There's next to no dialogue during any of this, so for a while you're thinking "Ok, maybe this isn't terrible, it's just arty." You think the long shots of them walking around doing jack shit might be setting some sort of mood. You think it's leading somewhere.

I think this must be what Rollin fans feel; they see the flat, boring, stagey, silly nonsense as a bold stylistic choice, the see the lack of a coherent plot as surrealism, they see the shitty looking sets and costumes as deliberately sparse. But I think if you take a hard look, you'll see there's no there there. The film just descends into an incoherent mess of gratuitous, unsexy sex (and rape) scenes, lame attempts at titillation, and dull, unconvincing, meaningless violence. The sex is probably the worst because it's so icky. I don't say that as a prude; I love sex and nudity in films, and this movie has some gorgeous women that I very much looked forward to seeing naked. It's just that the scenes are awkwardly long and mechanical, and no fun. And Rollin doesn't seem to have the healthiest view of women and female sexuality, managing to both sexualize and infantalize the two women, often at the same time. Ick, dude.

Sort of the poor, perverted man's Lucio Fulci, Rollin does the microbudget horror thing and maybe tries to infuse with a little arthouse flavor, but he takes the worst elements of both worlds. This is by far the best of the three Rollin films I've seen and it's still the worst piece of shit I've watched all month. And I'm thankful for that. My pointless grades have been way too homoginized so far; everything has been mediocre to good, but nothing I haven't seen before has been great or terrible. Finally, something terrible.

Grade: D

Red State


Three horny teenage boys plan to meet a stranger they met online for sex, and instead find themselves captured by a weirdo group of fundamentalist Christians with some extreme ideas on how to atone for your sins.

Way back in February, I wrote a post where I made a bunch of predictions about how Kevin Smith's ambitious but also kind of obnoxious plans for the distribution of Red State, his first ever non-comedy, would turn out. I then, more or less, promptly lost interest and forgot to keep following the story. So I'm not really sure if any of my predictions came true, and at the moment I'm too lazy to do any research.

There is one comment, though, that I'd like to eat. Or at least nibble a bit. I predicted that it would lack "the needed atmosphere and tight directorial craft that make for a truly special horror film." I guessed correctly that I would enjoy it but have mixed feelings overall, but my problems with the film honestly had little to do with Smith's direction. In fact, he does a pretty okay job going out of his comfort zone and trying something new. Cop Out had lead me to think Smith incapable of doing anything besides scenes of people talking at each other, but Red State looks and feels like a real horror movie. So kudos to Kevin for stretching his wings.

The problem I guess is that it's a movie that works more in concept than it does in execution. For instance, it pulls what is, in theory, one of my favorite tricks in horror movies, right out of the Hitchcock playbook, where SEMI SPOILERS characters we might assume are the lead characters are abruptly knocked off, making way for other characters. It's a nice way to shock the audience out of complacency, but I don't think Smith pulls it off entirely, and the result is that the film feels more disjointed than it should.

The same goes for a lot of other major elements. The film is going for a pretty bleak tone, with no real heroes or likable characters, which I admire but it also has the side effect from removing a lot of the suspense out of the second half of the film. It essentially becomes bad guys vs bad guys. It doesn't stop being entertaining, but you're not so much invested in the actual outcome. Near the end, Smith throws in what seems to be a pretty radical, biblical twist... but then walks back from it and provides a much less interesting explanation.

The film is, the more I think about it, chock full of great ideas, but a lot of them don't really play out as successfully as you'd like. It's not a disaster either; these ideas are legitimately good and they get milked enough to keep you going along. Plus, you can't help but admire the effort. It sounds like Smith is going back to comedy, but I'd actually like to see him tackle something like this again. It's an ambitious film with a lot of intriguing elements, strong performances, unique touches. Even if it doesn't come together like gangbusters, we need more people out there trying to make these kinds of horror movies.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Evil Dead Trap


In this Japanese horror film (with absolutely no relation to the beloved American Evil Dead series), a woman who works for a television program that airs viewer submissions receives what appears to be a snuff film. She and her crew decide to try to track down the source of the tape, only to find themselves ensnared in a deadly trap. An evil dead trap, if you will. (I won't).

What starts off seeming like a Japanese Videodrome turns into more of a slasher film, with something of a focus on bizarre, elaborate traps. So in that sense, I suppose Evil Dead Trap is more like a precursor to the Saw series than anything else. For a while, it's not bad verging on good. It looks nice, has a cool score, some good gore effects, a really fun scene involving a crossbow set to go off when someone opens the door. It had its problems (including a gratuitous rape scene), but it was shaping up to be a good time at the movies.

Unfortunately, it turns in to one of those slasher movies where pretty much all the side characters get killed in the first half, the movie goes slack, and the heroine spends the rest of the movie aimlessly wandering around, hiding from the killer, and slowly solving the not particularly interesting mystery at the center of the film. Outside of a ridiculous twist in the final 15 minutes that gives a slight boost to the final confrontation, not much of interest happens during the second half of the film. It's boring enough to pretty much retroactively wipe out any of the fun you had during the first half.

Grade: C

Torture Garden


It's your prototypical anthology film setup: a creepy carnival barker promises to show a group of people their fates in exchange for a little extra money. In the stories, a man becomes obsessed with his late uncle's strange, sinister cat; an up and coming Hollywood actress discovers the bizarre secret behind her costars' good looks; a piano becomes possessed by a vengeful spirit; and collector of the works of Poe kills a fellow collector to get a look at a very special part of his collection, and what he finds is quite curious indeed.

Pretty run of the mill as far as British anthologies from this era go, but that's not a bad thing because I kind of love these movies. I don't have a lot to add (as much as I enjoy these movies, they are all sort of the same, so it's hard to think of new tings to say) except that these are fun, reasonably well made stories, and if you enjoy this sort of thing then it's worth your time. Director Freddie Francis also directed at least two other anthology horror films: the excellent Tales From the Crypt and the acceptably okay (though wonderfully titled) Dr. Terror's House of Horrors. I'd say that Torture Garden falls somewhere between those two, in terms of quality.

Grade: B-

The Thing (2011)



In this prequel to/remake of John Carpenter's The Thing (itself a remake of The Thing From Another World, itself based on a story called "Who Goes There?"), we discover what happened to the Norwegian outpost, the grisly story of which were only hinted at in Carpenter's film. Turns out that the Thing, an alien capable of ingesting and then perfectly imitating other living creatures, um, basically did the same kind of stuff to them that he did to the American's in the 1982 version.


Look, Carpenter's The Thing is one of my top 2 or 3 favorite horror movies of all time (and by extension, one of my all time favorite movies of any kind), so there was no way that this was going to hold a candle to it. Just not possible. But that's cool. I'm a laid back guy, I try to keep an open mind. I don't get upset when my favorite movies get needless remakes. In fact, considering that Carpenter's version was already at least the third version of this story, it would be downright silly to complain about it being remade. I went in with an open mind.


It's not terrible. It's just not any good, either. It somehow manages to be reverent to Carpenter's film (copying the look, set design, props, basic structure, even reusing some of Morricone's great score) without really capturing any of its magic. Or, really, even understanding what's so great about that film. Carpenter's film is probably best remembered for it's eye-poppingly awesome, disgusting special effects, but in between the big payoff scenes the film is moody, tense, downbeat and paranoid as hell. The new Thing pays some lip service to the idea that no one can trust each other, but it's so short and briskly paced, it's basically just in a rush to get to the big special effects scenes. And don't get me wrong, some of the effects are cool, but they aren't enough to hang a whole film on.

What the new film doesn't understand is that the Thing is scary because it hides. It disguises itself as your friend, a perfect copy right down to the cellular level, and waits. It only attacks when it gets you alone or when it's forced out into the open. Not this time, though. This time, the Thing is prone to Thing-out for no particular reason, at any given time, basically whenever the filmmakers decide that it's been too long since the last gross special effect of a morphing monster. There's no rhythm, no build, no suspense, really, just sporadic money shots that come out of nowhere.

One last note: the movie kind of has an anticlimax, because if you've seen the 1982 film, you know how it has to end. What I want to know is, for the people who say this one but never saw Carpenter's version, what the hell do they make of the final scene? During the credits we essentially see the lead up to the first scene of Carpenter's film, as two Norwegians get in a helicopter chase down the Thing, currently disguised as a dog. And then it abruptly ends. Hopefully this will inspire them to see Carpenter's version, but I have to imagine there were a lot of confused teenagers walking out of multiplexes this past weekend.


Grade: C

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Cruising


A serial killer is on the loose, preying on gay men he picks up at S&M clubs. The NYPD send in an undercover cop (Al Pacino) to cruise the gay scene and see if he can smoke out the killer.

I already wrote extensively on Cruising a few years ago, and I don't have much to add to my original thoughts except that I liked it even more this time. It has the trappings of a more run of the mill serial killer thriller (with the admittedly unorthodox-for-its-time gay themes), but leave it to William Friedkin to strip out all the usual structure, thrills and resolution, leaving a weird, sparse work of profound ambiguity. The story is disjointed, the hero is held at arm's length, tantalizing plot threads lead nowhere, the mystery is never satisfactorily resolved to the degree where it's heavily implied (but never clearly answered) that the hero might be the killer, or at least one of several killers. The film is dark and unknowable.

Also, awesome. It's more of a mood piece exploring some odd themes, scoring chills not through tightly crafted suspense sense but through revealing in the creepy mysteriousness of everything. One of the things that really threw me the first time I saw Cruising is that it seems to set up this identity crisis for Pacino's character but then never really explores it or resolves it. It's not clear what's up with him, whether his work disgusts him or turns him on or what. But now I think that maybe the film just externalizes his identity crisis. Cops and gays start becoming a fluid concept in the world of the film. There are cops sexually assaulting trannies, a cop-themed gay S&M club, cops employing large black men in ass-less chaps to slap suspects around, even the title is a double meaning applying to both cops and gays... what the hell is going on with this movie sexually? Exactly.

Grade: B+

The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence)


A retarded, mentally unbalanced man, obsessed with the movie The Human Centipede, begins abducting people in order to make his own centipede. Unfortunately, unlike the mad scientist in the film he so loves, this man has no real medical experience and goes about making this hideous creation with duct tape and a staple gun.

Tom Six's first Human Centipede turned out to be something of a pleasant surprise. It wasn't the grueling, perverted endurance test I was expecting; more of an old fashioned mad scientist movie with a particularly unique, disgusting (but not too graphically explicated) twist. And it had something of a playful sense of humor, a welcome touch.

Part 2 is a little closer to the movie I had imagined in my head when I heard about the first one. It feels more like a reaction on Six's part to the over-reaction to his original film. "Oh, you guys think my movie was sick and twisted? Well, I'll show you something sick and twisted..." It's everything part 1 was not. The original's sterile, clinical atmosphere and (relative) restraint is here replaced with a grainy, black and white grittiness and absurdly filthy and over-the-top violence.

So far over the top, in fact, it's clearly intended as even more of a comedy than part one; granted, a comedy that would probably nauseate and repel most audiences. Six is clearly going for the "I can't believe I just saw that" brand of shock humor, and with the exception of a few missteps (the movie has a few details that veer it into more serious territory that it just can't handle) he's pretty good at it. I don't know, guys, maybe there's just something wrong with me. Certainly, I'm at a loss for words for why the scene where he gives the centipede some powerful laxatives and then cackles with glee as all the members have to violently shit in each other's mouths was funny, but I wasn't the only one in the theater laughing. It's just so far outside the bounds of acceptable content that you have to go with it.

It's a little too crass, cheap and slight for me to praise it too much, and overall as a film I didn't like it as much as the original. Still, one thing I have to give it credit for: the main character never speaks, and long passages of the film go by without much dialogue. That can sometimes draw attention to itself, when a movie attempts long, silent sequences. Yet it didn't even dawn on me until the extended, basically dialogue-free finale how much of the film played that way. I think it's a testament to Six's skills as a visual storyteller (and the relative simplicity of the screenplay) that you barely even notice until afterward.

Grade: B-

Monday, October 17, 2011

A Horrible Way to Die






A recovering alcoholic meets a nice young man in her support group, but has trouble opening up to him due to some dark secrets in her past. Meanwhile, a serial killer escapes from jail, and leaves a trail of bodies behind him as he travels the country. Flashbacks slowly reveal a shared history between the two, and it becomes clear that their paths will be crossing again soon.

Things were off to a bad start, and I was not inclined to give director Adam Wingard the benefit of the doubt. His Home Sick was one of the worst horror movies in recent memory, and I had to shut off Pop Skull after 30 minutes due to boredom. So when A Horrible Way to Die started in with its desaturated, hand held style (often obnoxious, lazy, low budget shorthand for "this movie is serious and gritty, yo"), I was ready to write it off. I'm glad I didn't. Much like how Stevan Mena made major personal improvements between Malevolence and Bereavement, so too has Wingard evolved into a promising filmmaker. A Horrible Way to Die is a smart, moody thriller/character piece with some seriously strong performances and a few unique ideas. It's serious minded and even kind of sad in a way few horror movies ever bother for these days. And though Wingard's initial aesthetic choices rubbed me wrong, they are mitigated by his favoring of long takes and naturalistic performances.

My main misgivings here come from the ending, but I don't want to get specific because I'm still highly recommending this one. After an hour an 15 minutes or so of muted, understated atmosphere (punctuated by effective scenes of violence) and thoughtful character work, it throws in a silly, unnecessary and borderline insulting twist that makes some of the movie seem weaker in retrospect. But then, the movie throws in another twist that's actually kind of cool and, unlike the first, follows logically from everything we've seen before. So I guess I'm conflicted.

As a final note: just a shout-out to actor AJ Bowen, who plays the serial killer. Bowen is becoming something of a scream king; he was in two of my favorite horror films from the last decade, House of the Devil and The Signal, and stole every scene he was in. As far as I know, maybe he hates it and feels like he's stuck in the horror movie ghetto, but I'm always happy to see someone doing strong work in the genre. Here, after so many lively, wisecracking serial killers in the movies, Bowen brings us a guy with a real sense of melancholy and inner-turmoil, and he's a big part of why this film works so well.

Grade: B

American Horror Story (Episode 2 "Home Invasion")


Episode 2 of American Horror Story is considerably more cohesive than the pilot, and consequently a more satisfying hour of television. Though I had a certain admiration for its insanity, the pilot more felt like a bunch of weird shit that happened without rhyme or reason than it did a coherent story. Although episode 2 ("Home Invasion") did move some of the myriad subplots from the pilot forward, it had a central story with a clear beginning, middle and end. And it was a fun one, too: the house turns out to be the site of some murders committed by a famous serial killer back in the '60s, and a group of his weirdo followers break in and tie up the mom and the daughter, hoping to reenact the grisly crimes. It's not exactly a masterpiece of suspense, but it's a funny, exciting episode that gives me a little bit more confidence for where this show is heading.

Some overall notes:

- The ADHD editing from the pilot is still here, prevalent enough that it's obviously a (poor) stylistic choice and not just incompetence. Looks like I'm going to have to learn to ignore it if I'm going to enjoy this show.

- Like the pilot, the cold open is a flashback to something terrifying happening in the house years ago. I like this, and I hope the other episodes do the same. It sort of makes the beginning of each episode like a little short horror film unto itself.

- I don't take notes while I watch this, but I'm pretty sure both this and the pilot used bits of various old Bernard Herman scores. And why not? I'm sure some people out there don't like hearing their favorite film scores being re-purposed, but I tend to take the Quentin Taratino view that great music should be reused.

- I still am not finding myself caring much about the characters or the overall story. The family is going through a lot of boring, troubled family cliches. The parents are too morose to like, the daughter too bitchy. The only actor I'm enjoying watching is Jessica Lange, who is having fun going a little bit over the top while still maintaining some level of emotional honesty.

- The best part of the episode was, clearly, the ipecac-filled cupcake and how it pays off. But I'm still unclear as to why Lange's character wanted to give it to the daughter. Is it because she doesn't like the way the daughter treated her family, or did she somehow know that one of the killers would eat it?

Grade: B

Ghost Story


Returning home after the bizarre death of his twin brother, a man learns of the dark secret his father and his father's friends have been hiding for the last 50 years.

Milquetoast, I suppose is a good word for this one. It's not bad so much as kind of dull and unsurprising. I was very curious about it based on the description and the cast (including an elderly Fred Astaire and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), but it's story (based on a Peter Straub novel) is a bunch of sub-Stephen King cliches involving small town life, the supernatural, hidden secrets, etc. I guess I'm getting in to some SPOILERS here, but I think it's pretty clear within 5 minutes that 1) There is a ghost and 2) the old men are responsible for her death. Yet the movie teases this out slowly, over two hours, as if there is some sort of mystery. We are even treated to an extended flashback (seemed a good 20 or 30 minutes) late in the film to finally "explain" everything, and of course it's just a bunch of information we already inferred earlier in the film. There is no mystery, it's exactly the same story as every other ghost story, only longer and slower.

Grade: C

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Genesis


In this short film, a sculptor working on a tribute to his late wife finds himself in a bizarre situation when the statue begins turning into flesh... and he begins turning to stone.

Another short film from Nacho Cerda, whose Aftermath I also watched for this year's YVIAHMMAOIHTNQ. Genesis is a much, much less disgusting film, in fact this premise basically could have been used for an old Roger Corman movie or something. It's much more of a classical horror film setup, spooky and a little dreamlike, and far less of a confrontational piece of work. In that sense, I think this one was a lot more enjoyable and I'd actually be comfortable recommending it to other people. Aftermath I felt like I could defend but not really endorse; Genesis is just a cool little artsy horror short that anybody could get behind.

Like Aftermath, Genesis's story is told without dialogue, instead relying on clear visual storytelling and a simple to grasps premise that supplies some memorable visuals. Cerda definitely shows talent, although he's also a bit of a needless over-director (like a pointless nightmare scene full of whooshes and flashes and sped up footage and all that stupid crap), which is ultimately what keeps this from being a better film. Enough of this film is done right that it's kind of a shame that they throw in some silly, show-offy flourishes like that that kind of breaks the spell. Oh well.

Cerda also has a full length feature called The Abandoned; I haven't yet decided if I want to give it a shot this month.

Grade: B-

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Wolf Man


A young man is bit by what he thinks is a wolf while protecting a lady the beast was attacking. He beats the creature to death, but the police find the body of a dead man instead. Could the beast have been some sort of... wolf man?

Considering my love of horror movies, I have to admit that I'm not too familiar with some of the old, established classics. It's a bit of a bias on my part. There are a lot of wonderful horror movies from all eras, but I tend to be drawn towards horror films from the 70's onwards. So this is always a good time of year to slip in a few beloved classics that I've never seen, to at least get them under my belt.

The Wolf Man is not an all-time great, in my esteem, but it is atmospheric and fun, and has a good cast to boot. It's one of those movies that's engrained enough in the culture that you sort of feel like you've already seen it, even when you haven't. It is kind of a kick to see a movie from back before werewolf movies were an overpopulated subgenre. The characters all act as though this "werewolf" concept is totally alien to them, they have to be told that silver kills werewolves, etc. On the other hand, everything that this film does has been done a thousand times since (and in some cases, better) so there is nothing here to really surprise or wow. It is, I suppose, exactly the movie I expected it to be.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Invisible Man

A scientist, experimenting on himself, has managed to turn himself invisible but has not yet discovered a way to turn himself back. The invisibility has some unfortunate consequences: his new found ability to basically get away with anything has given him a serious superiority complex, and he begins expressing his supremacy in increasingly violent and detestable ways.

The Invisible Man turns out to be a much funnier movie that I expected; while not exactly a horror/comedy, the antihero is just so delighted with himself and his evil deeds that it's hard not to crack a smile, even when he's doing some pretty heinous stuff. In fact, the whole movie is more in the spirit of fun than anything else, with the other major draw being the frequent, creative invisibility special effects. You know, doors opening by themselves, objects floating across the room, clothing walking around with seemingly no one inside them, that kind of stuff.

What maybe keeps the movie from being a little better than it is, is that it lacks a center. The main character is really the invisible man, but he's evil and completely unsympathetic, plus its hard to identify with a character if you don't even know what they look like (until the final, pretty cool shot of the film). The ostensible hero of the film is a passive, weak-willed loser who spends the whole movie afraid of/getting pushed around by the invisible man, so we don't really like or care about him either. As a result, it's hard to get too invested in what's going on, even though the humor and the effects most definitely do provide a fair amount of fun.

Grade: B-

I Bury the Living


So there is a cemetery, and at this cemetery there is a map of all the plots. The map has a simple system: plots with black pins are in use, and plots with a white pin are reserved but empty. One day, the new proprietor accidentally sticks black pins in some empty plots. Soon after, the owners of those plots mysteriously drop dead. Is this a tragic coincidence, or has the man discovered some sort of terrible power?

Despite not featuring anyone getting buried alive like the name implies (the name is really just a confusing way of saying "I kill people"), nor any zombies like the poster shows (although it does tease the audience that things might be heading that direction), I Bury the Living is a pretty cool old low budget horror movie. I'd say it's a little bit like a feature length Twilight Zone episode, where its more about setting up and exploring a creepy concept than it is about action or violence. It also reminded me a little bit of Jacques Tourneur's excellent Night of the Demon, where most of the tension comes from the ambiguity: is there something supernatural going on here, is it just coincidence, or is someone trying to fuck with the hero? It turns out to be a (slightly confusing) combination of those options, and though I would have preferred it left things more ambiguous, it still all comes together as a tight, tense, scrappy little horror movie with an intriguing moral dimension.

Grade: B

The Keep


In WW2, a group of Nazis (including Jurgen Prochnow and Gabriel Byrne) stationed in Romania accidentally incur the wrath of a head-exploding demon, locked away in massive citadel. Their prisoner, a Jewish scholar (Ian McKellan) brought in to help investigate, secretly tries to unleash the monster, in the hopes that it will slay the Nazis, while a mysterious man with glowing eyes (Scott Glenn) arrives to offer ominous warnings. Or, more briefly, imagine if someone tried to turn the finale of Raiders of the Lost Ark into a feature length film, but less awesome than that sounds.

One recurring plea I make is that I wish more talented filmmakers with strong, recognizable styles would go out on a limb and make horror movies more often. I feel like there are so many great directors out there whose unique skill sets could make for some awesome horror movies, but the genre has this stigma that seems to keep a lot of filmmakers away, even if they wouldn't bat an eye at making a more action oriented film (or nearly any other genre, for that matter). Michael Mann would have been on my list of non-horror directors with the chops to make a killer horror film, due to his films' rich atmosphere and his (inconsistently applied) ability to make precisely crafted set pieces. Turns out that he actually did make a horror film, back in the early 80's, so I knew I had to check it out.

(And, okay, now that I think about it, Manhunter has some serious horror movie elements to it, even if it's more of a thriller/police procedural.)

Well, I guessed right about the atmosphere part. This is a gorgeous looking movie, creating a dreamy, fog-covered world, filled with strange, endless caverns and war torn battlefields straight out of a nightmare. It also has a great, characteristically trippy Tangerine Dream score that lends much to the tone of the film. Although the film is probably at least as much fantasy as it is horror, I was surprised to find how much of the score was energetic and rousing (as opposed to dark and creepy). It's a little incongruous at times, as Tangerine Dream's scores often are, but in an interesting way where it feels more like it's adding unexpected dimensions, rather than misjudging the tone.

Unfortunately, it's one of those visually wonderful films that's all great shots and no good sequences. Mann would later become known for his action, but here none of his shots are pieced together in a way that suggests he cared at all about giving the movie any sense of energy, or narrative propulsion. There's nothing like a real set piece or suspense sequence. Everything is just mood, and its all the same mood, whether its an action scene or just a drawn out sequence of a boat drifting across the ocean while the sun sets in the background. It all plays at the same speed. A scene of violence is given the same weight as a character standing around doing nothing.

Mann's silly, tin eared screenplay doesn't help. A dynamite cast is forced to spit out a lot of dumb, over written dialogue and interact with cool but dated special effects, and I'd say McKellan is the only one who comes out without embarrassing himself. Like a lot of Mann's films, The Keep often feels like it was whittled down from a much longer film. It has way too many major characters than it can sustain in its brief 95 minutes, with characters often vanishing for extended periods of time only to re-emerge during a seemingly climactic moment... and ultimately prove their presence pointless in the overall scheme of things. Mann would have been smarter cutting most of the characters out and focusing on McKellan and the demon, unquestionably the highlights of the film.

If it seems like I'm slagging this one, well, I am, but I also had a certain affection for it. It has a corny, indelible 80's-ness to it that I enjoyed, a great score, some fun special effects, and a rich visual style. So I'm giving it a thumbs up, but I must be honest that by the end of the film, my frequent laughter was mostly at the film's expense and not simply out of fondness.

Grade: C+

The Baby

A social worker finds herself drawn to a bizarre case, that of a supposedly retarded grown man with the mind (and behavior) of a baby. Only, she comes to believe that there's nothing wrong with his mind at all. Rather, she suspects that Baby's domineering mother and sisters have deliberately kept him trapped in a state of eternal infancy via bizarre abuse.

Ick. Just ick. Even if The Baby was a shitty movie, the premise alone would be enough to get under my skin. Something about a grownup dressed in baby clothes and making baby noises creeps my shit out. No offense to those adult-baby fetishists all over the internet, you guys please feel free to continue to live your lives in whatever way makes you happy, but gross.

Thing is, The Baby is also a pretty good horror movie. It's deliberately paced and, while far from a realistic portrait of abuse or abnormal psychology, spends a lot of time milking the psychological dimensions of its premise for its creepiness, rather than inserting too many arbitrary, phony thrills. Things do become more overtly thriller-y during the last half hour or so, but it's earned after a strong buildup, and works in a great, icky final twist that must have a large part in giving this film its (deserved) cult status.

Grade: B

The Ugly

A psychiatrist with potentially dubious motives interviews a notorious, incarcerated serial killer, a surprisingly unassuming looking dude, who had no patterns, no modus operandi, no consistency and seemingly no motive for any of his crimes. Can she shine some new light on his actions? And is she inadvertently putting herself in danger?

The Ugly, made in New Zealand in the mid 90's, is sort of an ambitious little movie that could. It's something of a low(ish) budget attempt to make a stylish Holywood serial killer thriller a la Silence of the Lambs or Seven. On that level, it's not very successful. Most of the stylistic tics (shaky cam, camera flashes, aggressive sound track) come off more as obnoxious than slick. Also it has that over-lit 90's cinematography that makes everything in the frame look homogenized, and it can't always shake (and I hope I don't come off too condescending here) that New Zealand-y sense of affability that undercuts many of its attempts to be dark or edgy.

Yet there are some things about The Ugly that work swimmingly. A handful of sequences managed to build real, if only minor, suspense, particularly a clever one where the killer hides in a bathroom shortly after a murder, trying not to be seen by the victim's wife. The subjective flashback structure leads to some cool visual gimmicks, where elements of the present intermingle with elements from the past, or things we're seeing on screen are obviously tainted by the killer's warped perspective (most obviously, all the blood during his murders is jet black).

Best of all, the subjective nature of the film leads to some real, slightly haunting weirdness during the final act. For much of the film, despite some cool gimmicks, it's a standard (even a little cliched) serial killer story, but then it raises some odd questions near the end and deliberately leaves much of it unanswered or seemingly contradictory. I'm honestly not sure what the last 15 minutes or so mean, and I mean that in a good way. Maybe there's an objective "truth" or answer it's all pointing to that I'm just not getting, or maybe it's supposed to show how the mind of a madman makes no rational sense, but either way it stuck with me. The Ugly is a flawed film, but it haunted me at least a tiny bit in the days since I watched it, and that's saying something.

Grade: B-

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Possession





Okay, I've already written about Possession here, and I don't have much to add. I would like to note that I had the opportunity to introduce this one to some new audience members, and this is a great movie for that. It is a real joy to watch it with newcomers, to see their reactions as the film flies off the rails into previously uncharted levels of madness and hysteria. I love the shit out of this movie.

Grade: A

As a note, my companions and I also "watched" To the Devil a Daughter the same evening we watched Possession, but the drinking and talking and general merrymaking was such that I don't recall hardly a damn thing about it. Unlike with Amok Train, I didn't catch enough of it to feel comfortable including it. I think I may have to atone by watching the film for realsies this month.

Amok Train (a.k.a. Beyond the Door III)


Some students go on a study abroad trip, but their professor turns out to be some sort of satanist trying to lure them into a ritual sacrifice. They flee and eventually manage to board a moving train, but the troubles don't end there.

Okay, I'm going to level with you. I was a little intoxicated for this one, and got a little distracted, so I'm not 100% clear on what happened during the 2nd half of the film. I'm going to refrain from giving it a grade, but I'm still including it in the marathon, because it's my fucking marathon and I can do what I want.

Online reviews for this one seem pretty harsh, but from what I saw it wasn't all bad. The production values are decent, there seemed like there might have been a genuinely creepy moment or two. The reveal that the professor is evil is pretty great: right before he gets onto a ferry with his class, he gets a telegram that the main character's mother died in a car crash... which he promptly crumples up and throws into the water. But what little I can recall of the second half seemed pretty dull, a lot of endless, repetitive train scenes, which turns out to be kind of a boring and limited location.

Grade: N/A

Nightwish






A group of grad students apparently studying nightmares accompanies their creepy professor to a secluded house to document some supernatural activity. The professor claims that the supernatural "entity" can cause feelings of paranoia and delusions, so they need to trust him if shit starts getting weird. But is that true or is he up to something more sinister? Could he just be trying to study their fear? Or is something even more bizarre going on?

I don't want to give away the game here, so I'm going to try not to talk too specifically about the story of Nightwish. It starts off a little slowly, and the crappy VHS-looking quality of the video on Netflix is a little hard to get past (it was bad enough that my brother made me turn it off when we tried to watch it a few weeks ago). Stick with it, however, and Nightwish turns into a completely crazy paranoid thriller that has fun pulling the rug out from under the audience every chance it gets.

By the time the professor has everybody handcuff themselves to some posts in the basement (supposedly so they won't run away if they get scared by the entity), and everyone slowly starts to realize that maybe they shouldn't be trusting this guy, I knew this was a keeper. It's the kind of movie where, at any given time, there seem to be 4 or 5 plausible yet contradictory explanations for what could be going on, and every time you think you know what the hell is happening, the movie takes another abrupt twist.

So what I'm saying is, Andy, you totally should have stuck with this one.

Grade: B

Monday, October 10, 2011

A Chinese Ghost Story 2


Shortly after the events of part 1, our goofball hero Ning is mistaken for a criminal and jailed. Ning escapes, only to find himself in another case of mistaken identity, where a group of rebels (led by a woman who looks exactly like the departed heroine of the first film, naturally) mistake him for a wise elder sent to help their cause. Soon Ning is once again forced to do battle with the forces of evil.

Much like the original Chinese Ghost Story, part 2 is an irresistibly silly, imaginative hybrid of kung-fu, fantasy, horror and comedy. I suppose, like most sequels, it represents a step down in quality by virtue of the fact that it loses some of the original's freshness, but I'd venture to guess that if you liked that one, you'll like this one. Until the bonkers finale, it doesn't seem as much of a nonstop special effects extravaganza. In fact, much of the middle of the film involves the heroes fighting the same, unconvincing-looking (but still awesome) monster over and over again in various scenarios. But what it may or may not have lacked in budget, it makes up for in imagination, as the seemingly defeated monster keeps coming back with more outlandish attacks, usually coming back with fewer limbs each time.

Another note: the love story here is a little odd. As I mentioned above, the female lead is played by the same actress who played the deceased romantic interest in the original. She's not supposed to be the same character or a reincarnation, she's just a woman who looks exactly like the other woman. It's never really explained, and somehow she still ends up falling in love with Ning even though you'd think maybe she'd find it creepy that he likes her because she looks like his dead girlfriend. I don't know, just a weird detail, I thought.

Grade: B