Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Sweet Home

Holy crap, Mr. Subtlety reminded me that I completely forgot to post about Sweet Home, which we watched with some other folks the same night as The House With Laughing Windows. (I blame alcohol for this oversight). I think that brings my total up to 78, and now I'm officially starting to feel less proud about all of this and more concerned that I might have some sort of mental disorder/compulsion.

A Japanese film crew visits the dilapidated old mansion of a deceased painter in search of his lost artwork. Buried under layers of dust and dirt, they find elaborate, disturbing frescoes painted on the walls hinting at dark, traumatic secrets in the painter's past. Finding the paintings, of course, awakens an evil spirit who controls the shadows, and the crew must fight for their lives and try to escape the mansion.

(Somehow I didn't realize until right now that I watched two movies in one night that involved creepy, old frescoes that also serve as clues to a bizarre mystery; again, blame the booze).

Sweet Home is very much in the vein of Poltergeist; a special effects heavy, 80's horror/adventure roller coaster ride. It's got some touches of Japanese weirdness (like an interlude where one character serenades the others for a while) and some over the top graphic violence and a dark backstory that turn the otherwise tame movie into something not family friendly, but it still has more in common with a Spielberg production than it does something like, I dunno, a Kiyoshi Kurosawa movie.

Which is fuckin' weird, because this is a Kiyoshi Kurosawa movie. That's right, Japan's go-to auteur of slow, atmosphere heavy, ambiguous, narratively obscure art/horror films made a rollicking, somewhat comedic horror/adventure film in the 80's. It was relatively early in his career, so I'm not sure if Kurosawa hadn't yet developed his signature style, or if he didn't yet have the clout to make that kind of movie, or what.

Somewhat surprisingly, he turns out to be rather adept at making this kind of film; it's energetic, packed with nifty visuals and cool effects, and doesn't feel at all like his usual deliberately paced, brooding output. Kurosawa has frequently display serious technical chops in his films, so I guess I shouldn't have found this too surprising, but he never seemed particularly versatile, either. Goes to show that his signature style isn't a sign of a limited skill set, just his favorite way of artistic expression.

Rating: B

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Halloween (and farewell for now)

As I've done before, I finished out October with perhaps my all-time favorite horror movie.

And holy shit, what an October! Not only did I beat my record for most watched horror movies in October (I believe I hit 76 this year... yowza), but I saw a shockingly high number of really damn good ones. Even better, a lot of the best ones were newer films, which helped renew my faith in modern horror cinema.

Now I retreat back into the shadows to take a break from horror movies for a bit and go back to the kind of austere, pretentious, arty-farty shit I neglected throughout October.

See you next October, kids!

The Man Who Changed His Mind

Haha no that's not a terrible title, silly, it's actually a pun. Boris Karloff plays a mad scientist who invents a machine that uses electrical energy to swap the consciousness of two different individuals. When those who do not believe his invention works seek to defund and discredit him, he uses his device in quite unethical ways.

What you have here is a rather enjoyable body-swap movie. The high point is when Karloff's sidekick takes over the body of an enemy, and has to try to pretend to be the man in front of the man's family. I love scenes like this in movies, which when done right are always funny and tense. And you can't help but think "why doesn't anyone realize what's going on?" Except, imagine if it happened to you. If one of your loved ones suddenly started behaving completely different, your first thought probably wouldn't be that they had switched bodies with someone else. Unless they seemed dangerous, you'd probably just go along with it.

Rating: B

The House With Laughing Windows

After travelling to a small town to restore the art work at a church, a man begins unraveling a strange mystery in the deceased artist's past, involving bizarre murders.

At 110 minutes, The House With Laughing Windows is an interminably long giallo almost completely lacking in the elements that usually make the genre entertaining. I'm not just talking about graphic violence and nudity. Forget that stuff. I'm talking about things like style, atmosphere, suspense, action, intrigue. Instead, this film is 90% flatly photographed scenes of a guy walking around town slowly uncovering a not very interesting mystery, while few people die and he never really seems to be in any real danger until the end. I watched a few seriously uneventful movies in October, but this might have been the worst.

The House With Laughing Windows seems to have something of a (minor) cult following, and I think that mainly stems from the last ten minutes or so, when something finally (FINALLY!) happens. The ending is... weird, to say the least, and I'll give it credit for that. I'm just not so sure it's good weird. The solution to the mystery doesn't make a damn lick of sense, and it too abruptly shifts from blandness to weirdness that it lacks the nightmarish feeling I suspect the filmmakers were aiming for.

Rating: D

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Corridor

A young man has a psychotic break, freaks out, and accidentally hurts some of his friends. Years later, while he is in recovery, he and the friends get together at an old cabin in the woods to try to patch things up. In the woods, the men discover a bizarre force-field-like energy that makes them feel strangely good, but also slowly begins feeding off of them and warping their minds.

The Corridor is a slow and thoughtful supernatural horror film, which gains its impact by spending time with the characters for a while before bringing the hammer down. At least the first half of the film is angst-ridden moping; just dudes talking about their feelings, settling old scores, trying to learn to forgive and shit. The emo-ness probably goes on a little longer than necessary, but it's helpful in establishing these characters so that you care when the shit hits the fan. And the payoff is mostly worth it: a good mix of intense emotions and nasty violence.

Sadly, the film stumbles in the finale, where it relies on special effects that it does not have the budget to make work. The "corridor" grows all big and is full of light, like something out of Spielberg, but the lousy CGI makes it look more like a Sci-Fi channel movie. I'm thinking if the filmmakers had held back and left the corridor up to the audience's imagination (as they do for much of the middle section of the film) it would have made for a more effective finale.

Rating: B-

Dark Corners

A young, blond woman (Thora Birch) with a seemingly idyllic life begins have strange, half remembered dreams where she's a brunette (Birch again) in a far more hellish existence. Only, that brunette may be a real person who sometimes dreams that she's the blond. As the blond's life begins taking bizarre, tragic turns, the two realities seem poised to collide, and the question remains: which one is real?

Apologies again, but the details are already beginning to get hazy on this one. Dark Corners has an irresistible premise, but my sense was that it was a little slow to get rolling and not entirely satisfying in how the story plays out. I thought it was weird and neat enough to be watchable, but not anything special.

There's a recently cancelled TV series (Awake) that I've been meaning to check out that has a similar premise, which I'm hoping will make it to DVD soon.

Rating: C+

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Return of the Living Dead

Punks Vs. Zombies!!!

I think what makes Return of the Living Dead such a classic that I have to return to every year or so is that, underneath the comedy and the outlandish special effects and all the goofy fun, is a real darkness and cynicism that give it a little extra punch. There's also at least one truly, deeply disturbing idea at the core of the movie: that death hurts and the zombies do what they do because it somehow dulls the pain. The idea of oblivion is scary enough; to imagine that death could some how be agonizing in a very literal, physical way is an intolerable notion. The film is full of strange, thoughtful subtext that gets under my skin, even when I'm laughing my ass off at its shenanigans.

Rating: A

Forget Me Not

A bunch of extremely obnoxious assholes are terrorized by the ghost of someone they had done something bad to when they were kids. Not only can the ghost kill them, but when they die, they are completely erased from existence.

Just, ugh. Forget Me Not suffers from the most egregious case of Random Asshole Syndrome I can recall seeing, maybe ever. At a bloated 103 minutes, the film is just an endless parade of douchey, underwear model looking motherfuckers bitching at each other for no apparent reason. You will stand up and applaud when they start getting wiped from history.

The idea of the characters being rubbed out from history is potentially interesting, but it's not utilized in any novel ways. It could actually be kind of cool if it impacted the plot more; if, say, Jacob Q. Douchenozzle's erasure from existence caused butterfly effect ripples through time that effected the other characters and elements of the story. Instead the film is just content to be a tedious rehashing of ghost movie cliches, replete with the tragic backstory doled out like a mystery even though you can basically guess the ghost's motivation from the beginning.

Rating: D

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Golem

To fight back at their persecutors, a rabbi builds a giant clay man and brings it to life to protect the Jewish community in his town. Only, can he keep the monster under his control?

A precursor to the cinematic Frankenstein in some ways, The Golem is a nicely atmospheric and entertaining silent, German horror film. While mostly staying literal, there is some crazy German expressionism in effect, with a great use of sets, set design and color tinted film. Although at times it feels a little more like fantasy or adventure, you can see the seeds of horror cinema starting to sprout here, with the expressive use of shadows, and a hulking, unkillable monster. The Golem not only strikes me as a visual inspiration for Boris Karloff's Frankenstein's Monster, but for later hulking serial killers like Jason Vorhees.

Rating: B+

Victim


A young man is abducted by a mad scientist, who subjects him to bizarre physical and psychological tortures. It becomes clear that the madman is preparing him for something heinous... but what?

Although it's not a well made enough movie that I think it would worked on it's own, Victim seriously suffers from the fact that another movie came out around the same time with a very similar premise. If you've seen The Skin I Live In, then that will pull the rug right out from under this one. Victim is not a very good movie, but the premise at the center (which I won't spoil in case you haven't seen Skin) is seriously fucked up and might have had some impact if I had been unprepared. Victim was actually released a few months earlier; I bet the filmmakers fucking hate Almodovar for stealing their thunder. It's actually amazing how close the two concepts are; even the mad scientist's motivation is more or less the same.

Of course, the big difference is that Almodovar is a brilliant filmmaker who uses the profoundly disturbing concept as one small piece of a twisty, turny puzzle that explores the nature of identity, and surface appearance vs. the inner-self. Victim is just a sick joke stretched out to feature length. Props to the filmmakers for really going all the way with a nasty idea, but the final result is surprisingly tedious (especially once you figure out what's going on); there's only really enough material here for a short film.

Rating: C-

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Autopsy

Not going to lie, my memory has already gotten pretty fuzzy on this one. There's a weird rash of suicides that may or may not be caused by sunspots. However, a medical students theorizes that some of the deaths may in fact be murders disguised to look like suicides.

Weird enough not to totally suck, but not weird or interesting enough to really be any good, Autopsy is probably not the best place to start for someone looking for a good giallo. Even at the time I don't think I fully followed the damn mystery, and I'm not sure the premise even makes any sense. I mean, sunspots don't cause suicides, right? That's not a thing. And then some serial killer is also killing people under the guise of the sunspots? Wha...?

Rating: C

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Basket Case 3: The Progeny

The now totally crazy Duane, his mutant brother Belial, and the rest of their gang of freaks take a road trip to a small town, where they run afoul of the overzealous local law enforcement, who are intent on wiping them out. The twist this time is that Belial's girlfriend has given birth to a whole litter of mini-Belials, just as ugly and murderous as their old man.

Frank Henenlotter is a contemporary of folks like Stuart Gordon, Sam Raimi and Dan O'Bannon, who made some ridiculously violent and disgusting horror/comedies that delighted in trying to go as far over-the-top as possible. The difference is, Henelotter never really made a classic. Frankenhooker, Brain Damage and the Basket Case films are all fun in their own ways, but none really add up to much more than an amusing but forgettable experience. I think the problem is most likely that his films aren't very funny; despite the demented imagination and the gruesome/silly special effects on display, Henenlotter tends to rely on corny jokes and deliberately bad performances that make the whole enterprise feel a little dopey and tossed off.

Still, if you like this crap (and I do), Basket Case 3 will deliver. It's got mutant birth, baby Belials, a cadre of goofy freaks, horribly facial mutilation and decapitation, and for the finale Belial dons some sort of low budget, man-sized mecha suit to fight the evil sheriff. You won't laugh much but you will smile a lot.

Rating: B-

Don't Deliver Us From Evil

Loosely inspired by the same true events that were the basis for Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures, Don't Deliver Us From Evil tells the story of two inseparable best friends who decide to dedicate their lives to wickedness. This includes theft, vandalization, animal torture, and seducing grown men only to abruptly reject their advances.

Don't Deliver Us From Evil is not bad, exactly, it just isn't what it's trying to be. I believe it to be an earnest art film trying to explore a bizarre relationship, and maybe some other themes about religion and alienation. It wants to be slow, dreamy, eerie, thoughtful. But it's not, except for the slow part. It has this tawdry vibe to it, frequently showing off the bodies of its jailbait protagonists, that suggests a more prurient appeal to the film that undercuts whatever serious aspirations it had. I'm okay with the sleazy stuff; in fact, I think this would have been a far better movie if it has just embraced the trash and made it a blood and sex fueled romp. As it stands, the filmmakers lacked the necessary talent to make the artsier parts successful.

Mitigating factor: the final scene, where the girls commit public suicide in a very bold manner, has the impact the rest of the film lacks.

Rating: C

Burn, Witch, Burn

A college professor who teaches a class on superstition slowly realizes that his wife is practicing witchcraft; or, at least, believes that she is. She says she does it to protect them from outside forces, but not believing in that hogwash he asks her to stop. Only, when she does, his life begins crumbling down around him.

Burn, Witch, Burn gets off to an amusingly corny start, with an unseen narrator invoking an ancient incantation (or some such nonsense) to protect the audience from any real, evil magic that might be conjured during the film. It's an undignified beginning to what turns out to be a pretty classy, suspense driven film that plays with the tension between the rational and the superstitious. It's an Arkoff/Nicholson production, but not like some of their more lurid, psychedelic later films. It's got a slow burn, psychological vibe more in key with the Val Lewton productions of the 1940's. Very much recommended to folks who enjoy talky, deliberately paced older horror films.

Rating: B

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Dr. Phibes Rises Again

Dr. Phibes pops right back out of where he entombed himself at the end of the first film, with another scheme to revive his dead wife and get revenge on his enemies.

I have a real fondness for these silly films. Dr. Phibes is like a proto, corny, psychedelic version of Jigsaw from the Saw movies, what with his absurd death contraptions and penchant for speechifying. These are corny movies, but good corny movies, based more around the joys of gawking at the ridiculous sets and costumes, chuckling at the grotesque murders, and marveling at just how profoundly Vincent Price can ham it up.

Rating: B

Suspended Animation

A cartoonist crashes his snowmobile outside of the home of two weird, backwoods sisters living in a remote cabin. Of course, they turn out to be sadistic serial killers planning to torture and kill him. Pretty standard stuff, really, but the movie has a few curveballs up its sleeve.

Suspended Animation is a pretty glorious gear-shift movie. I don't want to discuss the plot too much, because I don't want to ruin any surprises, but suffice it to say that it's the kind of horror/thriller that takes an abrupt left turn every 20 minutes or so, and knows how to do it right. Production wise, it unfortunately looks like a mid 90's Canadian TV show, and has some iffy acting here and there. But don't let that scare you off. The story (based on an unpublished novel by the director's wife) is a work of demented inspiration, managing to spin it's way through enough plot for 3 or 4 serial killer movies. The only real letdown is the very end; the final twist is the only predictable, disappointing one.

Rating: B

Moss

A man with an almost cult leader-esque ability to win friends and influence people teams up with a corrupt detective to start something like a backwoods Korean mafia. Years later, after the man's death, his son comes to visit his seemingly sleepy, rural town, only to slowly uncover its violent, sordid history.

First note: sorry for the delay in posts. Life has been intervening. I have about the last week or so's worth of movies to still post, and I will try to get them out ASAP. Still, I'm pretty busy right now so I may be making my posts more terse.

More moody crime drama than full-out horror film, Moss provides further attestation to the fact that South Korea is producing some of the world's most interesting recent genre films. It's an ambitious, complex, multi-character, multi-generational mystery that bounces back and forth between past and present. The story is dense enough that it is hard to follow for the first half hour or so, but like The Wire, you'll eventually catch up to the film's stride.

At nearly 2 hours and 45 minutes, I wish Moss had a better denouement. It's so rich in mystery and possibilities (and doesn't skimp on the thrills, either) that the final revelations feel like a let down. Just goes to show you that it's usually the question and not the answer that makes a mystery compelling.

Props should go out to the actors portraying the villains, who have to play themselves in modern day as well as young men. The old-man make-up is, if not perfect, convincing enough, and the performances deal with a considerable technical challenge without looking like they are breaking a sweat.

Rating: B

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Ghoul

A dying man (Boris Karloff) constructs a tomb in which he is to be buried with an Egyptian diamond, which he believes will help grant him eternal life. After his passing, his heirs come to his estate, the diamond is stolen, and Karloff returns from the dead to seek revenge.

The Ghoul is one of the most baldly atmospheric horror films I've seen from the 1930's. More or less the whole film takes places at night, and every shot is a rich tapestry of deep shadows and eerie, almost abstract swathes of light. They lay it on thick, which is just the way I like it. The damn thing almost looks like it was shot in a pitch black cave with only a few candles for light.

Which is why I was surprised that, after a dark and moody opening, it turns much more into a light-on-its-feet comedic adventure/horror film after the heirs are introduced. And not in a bad way. As much as I would have loved it if the film had tried to really go for something nightmarish, the characters are likable, the banter is witty, the set pieces are fun. The only downside is that Karloff is mostly wasted; after he dies early on, he disappears for awhile, and then comes back as a silent, personality-free hulk with nothing to do but kill. I think they were mainly trying to capitalize on his role as Frankenstein's monster, but he's way more of a cypher here and it might as well have been anyone playing the ghoul.

Rating: B

Horsemen

A widowed detective, growing increasingly alienated from his self-reliant-by-circumstance young sons, becomes tied up in a series of horrific murders. Only, evidence suggests this is not the work of one crazed individual, but rather the doings of a well organized group of 4.

Horsemen is like the umpteenth million post-Silence of the Lambs and Se7en serial killer movie to come out. It's overall story and style is pieced together from countless stock elements; bizarre murders, cryptic clues deliberately left for the police, a serial killer/genius who verbally spars with the protagonist (granted, this role is cast with an actor you wouldn't normally think for the role), shots of desolate, snow covered fields, and a ridiculously convoluted modus operandi for the villains. It's competently done all around, but there's nothing original in the basic outlines of its story or style.

And yet, I kind of really liked Horsemen. Its following shopworn cliches, but it does them right, and gets a strong boost from by a great cast, who are given meatier-than-usual characters for the genre. The cast includes, but is not limited to (I want to leave a few names out because there's a pleasant surprise or two) Dennis Quaid, Ziyi Zhang, Lou Taylor Pucci, Eric Balfour and Peter Stormare. Quaid is the lead, and at first he seems like your standard issue "down on his luck cop," until the movie starts fleshing out more and more what's going on with his sons.

The Horsemen's methods are ridiculous; convoluted to the point of absurdity and ultimately kind of arbitrary (all of the biblical stuff turns out to be a red herring). Yes, but the motivation for the killers' turns out to be surprising, emotional, and fits perfectly in with the film's themes of distant fathers and family members. Anyone who has seen a movie before should be able to guess who the mastermind of the Horsemen is early on, but they might not guess how it all shakes out. Instead of your usual action/suspense climax, the final scenes of Horsemen are surprisingly emotionally raw and heartfelt. It's not often you see a serial killer movie that ends with the hero and the killer trying to find some sort of emotional catharsis together, but that's just what this one does.

Rating: B

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Horror Rises From the Tomb

Hundreds of years ago, an evil wizard and his woman are executed for their heinous crimes. Cut to modern day, where a group of really boring upperclass friends believe they have made contact with the wizard during a seance. The skeptical one decides there is only one way to prove this is a bunch of hogwash: travel to the old mine where the wizard is supposedly buried and look for his body. Right. So of course they accidentally revive the wizard so that he can continue his killing spree.

Horror Rises From the Tomb has everything in place for a fun, trashy 70's Euro-horror experience except one crucial thing: momentum. It's weirdly slow for a film of its ilk. It's not quite Jean Rollin level somnambulant, but the film lacks narrative energy. The story grows crazier and crazier, yet the characters always under-react, everyone slowly stumbles around even when being attacked, the music doesn't pick up much. Even the voice over actors seem bored, delivering their lines mostly in monotone.

Still, it has everything else you could ask for. It looks good, it gets pretty violent, there's some fun low budget special effect, it's pretty weird in places, it's sometimes accidentally funny, and I think pretty much all of the female cast members get naked at some point. It's also surprisingly unpredictable, despite following a pretty standard template. Characters who seem important get killed off early on and vice versa. If I'm not mistaken, the final survivor is a character who isn't even introduced until 20 minutes or so into the film, and doesn't have any dialogue of substance until probably half way in. Yet the whole finale is built around her.

There's also a bizarre detour early in the film that I just don't understand. The protagonists stumble across some locals who chase down and murder a couple of men who they claim are criminals. They shoot one and hang the other, and then take body parts as trophies. The protagonists typically under-react to this, despite how messed up it is, but then it never really amounts to anything in the story. Like an hour later the locals show up again for like 2 minutes, just long enough to get killed by the wizard. Huh?

Rating: B-

The Fifth Cord

An alcoholic, assholish reporter investigates the assault of an upper-class acquaintance for a story (because I guess that's what reporters do?), and begins to uncover a weird, tangled web of, um, something or other. Not sure. Anyways, soon enough there is a killer on the loose, somehow tied to the case, and of course it's up to the reporter to stop him.

Giallos aren't often the most well structured of mysteries, but The Fifth Cord did strike me as particularly hard to follow. I paid attention, but looking back at it, I don't think I could explain what all the conspiracies and secrets and whatnot meant. Especially considering the movie tells us from the beginning that the killer is just a sick fuck who wants to see what it's like to kill; why all the hullaballoo about rich people with dark secrets and underground pornography clubs and all that jazz?

That's okay, though, because it's still a fun and damn good looking movie. It's not as overtly stylish as a lot of giallos were, but it was shot by a DP who went on to shoot, amongst other impressive entries on his resume, Apocalypse Now, Last Tango in Paris and Dick Tracy. Oh, and previously he had done Dario Argento's first film, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage. That kinda makes this a must see for anyone interested in the genre.

I'm not too familiar with star Franco Nero, but I did see him in Hitch-Hike earlier this month. And it's funny, because Nero also played a drunk in that film. He's more likable here (although not much; there's a scene where he slaps his girlfriend around, but then it's totally brushed off), but I wonder if that was a recurring theme in his performances. He's handsome and charismatic, but seems adept at playing unpleasant fuckups. The only other thing I can recall seeing him in is Django, but he's basically just doing an Eastwood impression in that. Might have to check out more of his films.

Rating: B-

The Devil Rides Out

Gentleman, scholar, and all around badass motherfucker Duc du Richelieu (Christopher Lee) finds out an old friend of his is dabbling in satanism. He's not having any of that shit, so he storms his friend's satanist get-together, knocks him the fuck out and abducts him, and proceeds to wage war with the cult. And that's like the first 10 minutes.

Christopher Lee pretty much never got to play the hero, so I can't tell you what a joy it is do see him thoroughly kicking evil's ass in this highly entertaining Hammer production. Although not as lush and sumptuous as most of my favorite Hammer flicks, The Devil Rides Out is one of their most purely entertaining.

Look, we got satanic masses, car chases, hypnotism, ritual sacrifices, an old school goatman devil, demon riders on horses, giant spiders, and that guy who played Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever. This is a movie that wants to give you some bang for your buck. It gets right down to business, and never slows down; it's basically a series of cool set pieces split up by relatively brief dialogue scenes. You want a 60's British horror flick that delivers the goods? You got one.

Rating: B

Friday, October 26, 2012

Not of This Earth

An alien, in the guise of a human, enacts a complicated plan to harvest blood from humankind to save his dying race. Of course, he seems to only harvest from topless women, because it's one of those movies.

There's this concept out there, this cliche, of a certain kind of horror movie. Z-grade trash, cheaply filmed, mostly just an excuse to show off some tits and some gore. Really though, these movies aren't as prevalent as pop culture would like to pretend. Even the most artistically bankrupt Friday the 13th ripoff tends to show at least a little ambition; some attempt to add a scare, or some atmosphere, or some interesting element, or at least come up with a reasonable excuse for why the female characters get naked. Most filmmakers can only be so crass before that realize that movies are hard, and they should try a little.

Most filmmakers aren't Jim Wynorski. I spent an embarrassingly large chunk of my youth watching garbage like Sorority House Massacre II and Hard to Die and Cheerleader Massacre, zero-budget movies that really seem to exist to throw a few titties and some blood up on the screen. They were crass, stupid, and pointless... and maybe slightly kinda fun.

(The one outlier is Chopping Mall, which actually had some real special effects and looked like effort was put into it).

Not of This Earth isn't a good movie, but it's kinda fun in that Wynorskian way, if you set the bar low. Although almost completely lacking in any graphic violence, it marries a goofy 50's B-movie tone to 80's trashiness for a surprisingly watchable final product. It's made in the spirit of fun, and features a feisty Traci Lords performance (one of her first non-porn roles) as the heroine.

The film's biggest miscalculation is to use a montage of images from other Corman-produced movies of the era for the opening credits. It's a bunch of crazy monster and gore special effects, and it gets you expecting something a little more than what you get. (The most elaborate effects in this one are some animated lightning bolts that come out of the villain's eyes). Of course, I guess it wouldn't be a Wynorski film if he didn't steal some footage from another, higher budget film to try to lend his film a false sense of legitimacy.

Rating: C

The Last Wave

An Australian lawyer begins working a mysterious case involving a murder possibly committed by a group of urban-dwelling aborigines. He begins having bizarre, apocalyptic dreams that seem to tie in with the case and the tribe. But what do they mean, and how much to the defendants know about it?

Peter Weir's follow up to the great Picnic at Hanging Rock is a similarly mood heavy drama/horror/art film that pits man up against the unfathomable depths of Mother Nature. Weir once again captures that implacable feeling of existential dread, that we live in a world of terrifying, inexplicable mysteries. Someone should convince this guy to do a Lovecraft adaptation some day.

The Last Wave plays it a little less ambiguous than Picnic, probably for the worse. Although not everything is explained, exactly, there are some answers here, and it maybe steals away a little bit of the impact of the otherwise perfect, inevitable ending. Picnic stays with you long after it's over because it never quite releases its tension; Wave ends spectacularly but definitively, and that sense of resolution will at least help you sleep better at night.

Not that this is a bad film; far from it. It's actually quite awesome. For fans of deliberately paced, imagery driven horror films (with enough skill not to skimp on the story and character development), this is a must see.

Rating: B+

Dead Awake

A depressed young man, still dealing with the loss of a loved one, works at a funeral home. He bets his boss that if he faked his death, no one would show up for his funeral. This sets off a chain of events involving an old flame of his, a whacked out junkie, and some possibly supernatural shenanigans, all tying back to a car accident from years ago.

Although I think ultimately it's more of an everything-is-connected drama, Dead Awake flirts with being a horror film, a supernatural thriller, a mystery, a dark comedy. That's probably for the best; the plot turns out to be so ludicrous that if it was played as straight drama it would likely elicit laughs.

It's not really a successful film, but I admired its ambitiousness, and the solid work of its cast. It's always good to see Nick Stahl turn up in something, a dude who always struck me as one of the most promising actors of his generation but had a career that fizzled out for whatever reason. (It was sad to hear earlier this year that his personal life is kind of a mess; glad to hear he's now in rehab, hopefully getting things back together). He turns in a sympathetic performance that goes along way to making this silliness watchable.

Rating: C+

Paranormal Activity 4

Do I really need to explain? It's basically the same as the last 3 times. Ghostly shit happens, coincidentally all the principles involved happen to be video recording every damn moment of their lives. Blah blah blah. This time we have a creepy kid, and an even more actively murderous Katie. Otherwise: same shit, different sequel.

I'm not going to say I was looking forward to Paranormal Activity 4; I'm just not a fan of these movies. However, part 3 was by far my favorite, and they brought back the same directors, so I thought this would be more along those lines. 3 had a few clever ideas, most notably the oscillating fan camera, so maybe they'd have some cool new ideas for this one.

I guess they have some new ideas, but none of them are any good. The most prevalent one is that the main character and her boyfriend are constantly using Skype, which... big whoop. It doesn't really change anything about the dynamics of the film, except that the "camera" is more stationary, but the film rarely uses that to its advantage. The other new idea is that the family in this film has an XBox Kinect, and when you turn a camera onto night vision mode, you can see the motion sensors as a bunch of glowing dots in the room. I'm not really sure what they were going for except probably a blatant piece of product placement, but it leads to a handful of unmemorable moments where you can see some ghostly figures moving in the dots. It's not a particularly scary or effective special effect.

The one interesting idea in the whole film actually involves the Kinect, where the kids are playing a game and some unseen force briefly starts controlling player 2, using a creepy looking avatar. It kinda works because the avatar is just this blank, stupid face on the screen, but it almost looks like it's peering out at the characters. So of course this turns out to be one brief moment in the film and is never explored again.

The last movie introduced some of the only plot development in the whole series, a weird twist ending where it turned out that Katie's grandmother was a part of some sort of coven of witches, and they were behind the hauntings. I thought maybe they were going to explore this more, but no such luck. Instead we just get a bunch vague stuff about possession, and the family's son being Katie's nephew (which really confused me; didn't she abduct him at the end of the second film? But now he's adopted and living with a new family? And if that's the case, who is the kid living with Katie?) I'm not sure the story is adequately spelled out, and not in an eerily ambiguous way, just in a poorly executed way.

I guess I would say this is marginally better than the terrible part 2. It's slightly less uneventful, and it doesn't botch anything as epically as part 2 did with it's security camera gimmick. (This one uses a similar gimmick, doesn't do anything interesting with it, but at least does a better job framing the individual shots). There's almost nothing to recommend here except, as with some of the other entries in the series, some reasonably likable lead characters. Otherwise, this is more or less a cinematic dead zone.

Rating: D+

Thursday, October 25, 2012

White

A struggling Korean female pop quintet discovers an old, beat up VHS tape with a music video for a catchy but seemingly unknown song called "White." They begin performing the song, which starts to bring them their long sought-after fame. But this is an Asian horror movie, so the song turns out to be cursed, and the members of the group befall terrible, mysterious fates.

Gotta give it up to South Korea, they are doing genre movies better than just about any other country right now. It's like what Italy did with Westerns back in the 60's; they know all the cliches, they don't want to regurgitate the same crap, so they are going to take the format and push it into crazy extremes. White starts with the dumbest possible premise and shoves it as far as it will go stylistically. It's full of bizarre murders, nonsensical plot twists, and cute asian girls singing terrible, catchy pop songs. What more could you want?

As silly as the premise seems, they really milk it for all it's worth. It's one of those backstabbing, dark side of showbiz tales, with a bunch if young starlets turning on each other to try to become the biggest star. It's taken to literal extremes, with girls always getting attacked in way relating to their lifestyle; one even gets smushed by a camera while on reality TV.

I might be making it sound like some raucous parody, but part of the fun is that it takes itself totally seriously. It's outlandish and over-the-top, but the atmosphere and suspense are real, and the main character is fleshed out and genuinely sympathetic. It's a real horror film, just one that's sick of the status quo and wants to take its dumbass premise into unexpected places.

Rating: B

The Hole

A young boarding school student stumbles back onto campus one day, appearing dazed and seriously injured. When questioned by a psychiatrist, she explains that she and some other students planned to spend the weekend in some sort of abandoned bomb shelter, but got locked inside. Only, something about her story just isn't adding up...

The Hole gives us the Rashomon treatment, telling the story in a series of contradictory flashbacks. Based on the premise I was expecting something a little more grueling; one of those "ordeal" horror movies where the characters become increasingly desperate and they slowly starve to death, lose their minds and turn on each other. It provides a little of that during one of the flashbacks, but really the film is structured more as a mystery: what exactly happened in the hole?

Although it doesn't exactly work its way to a great ending, and I'm not sure all the stories make sense (seems like some characters have flashbacks to events that they weren't there for), it weaves a good yarn and has a strong center in Thora Birch, playing a character who slowly reveals some interesting layers as the film goes along. Plus, a very young Keira Knightley is on hand, and flashes her breasts, so that's a nice little cherry on top.

Rating: B-

Queen of Blood

In the futuristic year of 1990, a group of scientists make the first human expedition to Mars to track what they believe might be a distress signal from an alien spacecraft. They discover a strange, green woman and take her back to their ship, only to discover that she has a taste for human blood...

What with it's sparse sets, slightly out of date for the 60's corny sic-fi tone, it's plot involving a sorta space vampire, and its vaguely psychedelic color scheme, Queen of Blood reminded me of Mario Bava's Planet of the Vampires. Whether or not it was a deliberate ripoff I don't know (although apparently it was based around a bunch of purloined footage from a Russain sci-fi movie), but it's probably the slightly more successful film. Bava's film is a little more striking and unique, but Queen feels better pieced together, with a more fleshed out silly, unbelievable, fake-looking sci-fi world, and a more intriguing villain.

It also features some early roles for John Saxon and Dennis Hopper (the latter of which looking particularly young and handsome), which adds a slightly appealing nostalgia/curiosity element that Vampires lacked. Although somewhat slow paced, it builds up to an acceptable second half. It's not very scary or exciting, but the "queen" makes for an offbeat enough villain to lend interest to the suspense scenes. She's got green skin and hair, doesn't speak, and seems to be able to bewitch/hypnotize the crew members, so I guess there's this hazy sexual element to the whole thing that I liked. Anyways, not particularly great or even that good, but has a certain something that I found made it watchable.

Rating: C+

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Naked Fear

A young woman moves to a seedy town in New Mexico for a dancing job, only to find out that "dancing" of course means "stripping." With no money to get home, she finds herself manipulated and taken advantage of by the various creeps she works for. And just when things seem like they couldn't get any worse, she's abducted by a serial killer who likes to drop his victims off naked in the middle of nowhere and hunt them for sport.

Apparently directed by the dude who did Night of the Comet, Naked Fear is a mostly effective thriller with some resonant themes about the treatment of women in our society. Lest my plot description made you worry this was some sort of misogynist piece of garbage, allow me to assure you that it is not. Although the lead actress does have to spend an uncomfortable amount of the film in the nude (not that she's hard on the eyes; far from it), it's definitely a pro-lady story of empowerment, as this oft-abused women has to use her wits to defeat a madman with literally no resources at her disposal.

The whole hunting segment, which takes up an enjoyably large chunk of the film, is reasonably well done and exciting. This is the real meat of the film, but unfortunately the filmmakers decide to burn off too much of its running time with an extraneous subplot about the police sorta kinda investigating the whole matter. The sole purpose of this seems to be to give Joe Mantegna (the only name actor in the cast) some screen time, but it doesn't add anything appreciable to the film. At an hour and forty five minutes, they could have easily excised all this material, and left the movie a more lean, mean thriller.

After a satisfying climax, the film goes on a few beats too long and settles on and ending that, while thematically appropriate, strikes the wrong note. I appreciate that the filmmakers probably wanted to underline the film's ultimately feminist-ish themes, but what they go for is oddly over-the-top and out of left field. A more subdued ending would have been a better fit.

Rating: B-

The Traveler

A mysterious man, seemingly without an identity (or even fingerprints), strolls into a police station one night to confess a murder. Only he won't say who, or when, it happened. Pretty soon it's clear he has some sort of connection to a (possibly innocent) suspect in the murder of a detective's daughter that several of the cops (conveniently all on duty that night, I guess) had tortured and murdered years earlier.

Val Kilmer is too good for us mere mortals. The man is simply great in everything, even half-assed, direct-to-video nonsense like The Traveler. If it's sad that Kilmer's career is at the point where he's showing up in this kind of junk semi-regularly, it's encouraging to see that the man remains undefeated. He's a great choice for this mysterious, avenging angel/harbinger of doom who knows more than he let's on type character, and against all odds Kilmer actually seems like he's trying here and gives a legitimately fun performance.

The rest of the film is not up to Kilmer's performance. It's obvious what's going on almost immediately (Kilmer is the spirit of the man the cops killed, returned to get revenge), but the story is protracted to absurd degrees to stretch this premise out to feature length. There are about, conservative estimate, 800 superfluous flashbacks to his torture/murder peppered throughout the film. I'm not really sure what I am supposed to take from all this except one silly, stupid idea. See, Kilmer uses his supernatural abilities to kill the cops in some sort of "ironic" (I guess?) manner, by using the instrument of torture they used on him against them. But what this means is, bizarrely, each cop did exactly one form of torture to Kilmer years earlier. No one, say, both pulled out one of his teeth and put a plastic bag over his head. Each cop used one, and only one, method of torture on him, and that becomes the manner of their death. This is especially strange because they were all in the same room torturing him at the same time, but I guess they all decided to take turns and stick to just their number one favorite form of torture.

It ends with a twist that, like Dark House before it, is that there is no twist. See it turns out that MAJOR SPOILER FOR A MOVIE I DON'T RECOMMEND YOU BOTHER WATCHING Kilmer actually did kill the detective's daughter. So while the cops' murder and torture of Kilmer wasn't exactly justified, it becomes impossible to sympathize with him. He really was the bad guy all along, and the cops' deaths weren't really any form of karmic justice. So, um, yeah.

Rating: C-

Dark House

See if you can stay with me. A foster mother brutally slaughters all of her charges. Years later, a young woman who witnessed the aftermath is now an acting student, and she and her classmates get a gig doing some sort of haunted house/horror movie thing in the same house the murders occurred in. And it's not just any movie: a state of the art holographic system has been installed in the house which can create all sorts of zany monsters, murderers, ghosts and ghouls. Only it turns out the house is actually haunted by the spirit of the murderer, who somehow possesses the holographic equipment and makes the holograms come to life and murder the actors for real.

I mean, just read that fucking description and tell me if it sounds like a good movie. It's not. About the nicest things I can say about Dark House is that it co-stars Jeffrey Combs (always a plus), and that I frequently laughed during the film. I'm sure it didn't help watching it after a legitimately good haunted house movie, but even if we hadn't I don't know what could have saved such a stupid premise. I mean, why even introduce the holograms at all? We're used to ghosts doing whatever the fuck they want in movies, why not just have the ghosts of the house turn into a bunch of shitty looking monster effects?

Another weird thing is that the film feels the need to throw in about 8 unnecessary twists at the end that don't help explain anything. And some of the twists are that the earlier twists weren't twists. The house is haunted, then it's not, then it is, then holy shit do not watch this movie sober.

Rating: D+

Burnt Offerings

An obnoxious family rents an old, creepy palatial estate from a creepy old couple. The catch, besides the creepiness? There's supposedly an old lady living upstairs that they will never see that they have to leave three meals out for every day. Oh, and also it's probably haunted or some shit.

Burnt Offerings is more or less your standard haunted house movie, which means that it has the usual weaknesses, the story isn't going to be surprising and that whether or not it is successful mostly relies on how much atmosphere and suspense it can generate. Good news is Dan Curtis, director of the not exactly good but still pretty darn fun Trilogy of Terror, manages to squeeze a little juice out of the tired premise. It's got a solid cast (including Oliver Reed, Karen Black, Bette Davis and Burgess Meredith), enough technical assurance to know how to make the house a foreboding presence without going overboard on the German Expressionism (although Davis way overuses the soft focus), and a little bit of a central mystery/what-the-hell-is-going-on element that lends some suspense.

The big flaw is the one that seems to haunt most movies of this ilk: over-reliance on unscary, arbitrary special effects and meaningless supernatural  shenanigans. It's just not scary to see a backyard pool start making big waves and thrashing a little kid around. I submit that the potentially scary thing about ghosts is not whether or not they can physically manipulate reality, but what the ghosts represent psychologically or imply about our own fates. Yet time and again, haunted house movies rely on ghosts knocking over chairs and levitating beds and stupid shit like that. What makes it egregious in Burnt Offerings is that there's a great hook (the ghosts seem to slowly be possessing the members of the house) that frequently is ignored in favor over tired pyrotechnics.

It starts strong, but then wavers for a good while in the middle. Fortunately, Burnt Offerings rallies for a solid ending. The last 5 or 10 minutes sets up a classic "don't go back in the house!" scenario that has some real tension, and climaxes with a creepy payoff that, while not exactly unpredictable, gives the movie the edge it had sometimes lacked.

Rating: B-

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Mummy's Curse

While representatives from a history museum search for the rumored site of an ancient mummy and his bride, the two corpses are revived by an evil cultist.

I guess I thought this was in continuity with The Mummy, but turns out it ain't. It's actually the 4th movie in a different mummy series, starring Lon Chaney Jr. instead of Boris Karloff. It's a reasonably good old horror cheapie; some fun atmosphere, game cast, and its super short. Unlike The Mummy, this mummy actually looks like a stereotypical mummy for the whole film, all old and decrepit and wrapped up in toilet paper and shit. It's not as good of a film, but I appreciate that I actually get to look at a fucking mummy for the whole movie.

Rating: C+

Black Out

Three strangers (Amber Tamblyn, Aiden Gillen, and Armie Hammer) from different walks of life find themselves trapped in an elevator in a nearly empty apartment building after the power goes out. As time passes, they start to lose their shit a little, conflicts arise and secrets are revealed.

Though ultimately saved by its more than capable cast (although Hammer, the world's most absurdly handsome and well put together actor, is oddly miscast as a surly, scruffy punk), Black Out suffers by not quite knowing how to handle/embrace its one location premise. I mean, I get it; it's a tough challenge for a filmmaker. How do you make a thriller set almost entirely in one location without it become stale, slow or repetitive? Problem is, most films ended up going to far in trying to "open up" the action and squander the premise. I mean, this should be a claustrophobic, intimate thriller, but they blow it by jamming in a ton of flashbacks and unnecessary cuts to things going on outside the elevator.

Still, the cast is awesome, and there's a last act twist that, while somewhat predictable, does help up the stakes for the big finale. I had fun watching Black Out, even if I think it mostly failed to live up its potential. The premise and the cast are strong enough to pull you through.

Rating: C+

Twins of Evil

Two sexy, young twins move in with their religious nut bag uncle (Peter Cushing), who spends his free time hunting down innocent women he believes are witches with his congregation and burning them at the stake. Unfortunately, the crazy uncle isn't totally crazy, as the local count is an evil satanist who summons his dead vampire lover from the grave, becomes a vampire himself, and proceeds to seduce one of the twins.

Certainly not one of Hammer's best, but I think it has enough of the requisite fun elements to give you your dollar's worth. It's apparently considered the 3rd part in a thematic trilogy of Hammer films loosely inspired by Carmilla, including the pretty good The Vampire Lovers and the unseen by me Lust for a Vampire. Despite the beauty of the actresses playing the twins, this film is considerably less sexy than Lovers, with only some brief sex and nudity, and I think the film suffers for it. The eroticism is part of what made that film memorable.

One weird thing that didn't quite sit well with me was the Cushing character. He starts off seeming like the obvious villain, an out of control religious zealot responsible for the death of innocents. He's called out for his crimes by the count early on, which makes the count seem like the good guy, but then the count turns out to be the satanist/vampire. And by the end, Cushing has redeemed himself and becomes one of the heroes, helping slay the evil vampires. So I guess his shitty religion is actually good or something? I dunno.

Rating: C+

Excision

Pauline is a peculiar girl. She dreams of becoming a surgeon and doesn't care about anything else. She spends her days alienating and disgusting everyone around her with her off-putting behavior and her one-track mind. And at night, she has bizarre dreams that mix surgery, sexuality, murder and necrophilia.

We've seen a lot of movies about ticking timebomb psychos, where you slowly watch the character unravel until they finally snap, and something awful happens. Excision is proudly in this tradition, but I'm not sure we've ever seen a character like Pauline before. She's not some picked-on, lonely nerd striving for attention who gets the Carrie White treatment. Instead, she's incredibly self-possessed and domineering, forcing her weird personality on everyone else. And if they don't like it, that's their fucking problem. She's bold enough to proposition the high school hunk for sex despite the fact that he has a girlfriend, and then get him to go down on her without warning him she's on her period (it's a turn on for her).

Excision is a wicked dark comedy that slowly turns horrific and tragic. It's buoyed by a great cast (most of them ringers only showing up for a scene or two) that includes Roger Bart, John Waters, Malcolm McDowell, Marlee Matlin and Rise Wise. But the movie lives or dies on the lead performance by AnnaLynne McCord, and it's a stunner. Now, for comparison, this is what Pauline looks like (shown here checking out her bloody tampon), and this is what McCord looks like in real life. Normally I'm not crazy about this kind of stunt, taking a pretty Hollywood starlet and uglying her up instead of casting a more normal looking actress. But McCord is so perfect in the role it doesn't matter; she makes Pauline so peculiar and particular, unpleasant yet real and even occasionally sympathetic. Plus, McCord is kinda fearless in just how little vanity she brings to the role, not afraid to take Pauline to dark and nasty places that would probably scare a lot of other actresses her age off. And casting a hottie in the role actually has a practical purpose, too: in her fucked-up dreams, Pauline sees herself as gorgeous and highly styled, sort of a weird mix of Lady Gaga and Ed Gein.

The other central performance here is by Traci Lords, ironically cast as Pauline's uptight, conservative mother. Their relationship is the centerpiece of the film, as Pauline resents her mother and Lords tries to deal with the fact that not only is Pauline not going to be the perfect daughter she dreamed of, but that her behavior is growing increasingly bizarre. It's a performance that, like the film itself, starts off as parody before developing into something more surprising.

Rating: B

Lisa and the Devil

A sexy, young tourist somehow loses her group and ends up at a mysterious mansion, the home of a blind old woman, her strange son, and a butler that looks oddly like the painting of Satan in the town square.

It's fitting that I watched Lisa and the Devil the day after watching The Old Dark House, since it's sort of like the same film on acid. And even more fitting that I watched it the same night as Messiah of Evil, because it made a perfect counterpoint in showing how dream-like horror is supposed to be done.

I've had an iffy relationship with Mario Bava so far. I mean, you got to respect him. The man had serious stylistic chops. His films set the template for the entire giallo genre, and were a key influence on slasher films. Dario Argento basically jacked his steez for his early films (albiet, vastly improving upon what Bava had done). Black Sabbath is a pretty awesome movie, and I also enjoyed Black Sunday and Blood and Black Lace. But everything else has ranged from mediocre to downright horrible, enough so that you can't help but wonder sometimes about his sterling reputation in the horror canon. I mean, Argento made some shit in his time, but I don't think he ever made anything as worthless as 5 Dolls for an August Moon.

So I'm happy to report that Lisa and the Devil might be a favorite Bava film yet; an ornate, colorful supernatural/slasher/mystery that wows you so much with its style that you hardly notice you've been swept up into a nonsensical story that basically follows dream-logic. It's not scary, exactly, but it's got a lot of effective creepy details. The best might be that Telly Savalas's character carries around this mannequin/dummy guy in several scenes, but sometimes it's played by a mannequin, and sometimes it's being played by a real (unmoving) person. It's an effectively eerie detail that pulls the film into the realm of surrealism.

Rating: B

Friday, October 19, 2012

Tony

A lonely Londoner likes to go out and make friends by bribing junkies to come back to his place to hang out.  Then he kills them so he can prop their bodies up on the couch to watch 80's action movies and porn with him.

In the endless array of cinematic serial killers, this Tony fellow just doesn't stand out enough. It's not a bad portrait of an emotionally stunted, lonely social retard who is compelled to kill. It's just that it's not a very remarkable one, either.

Part of the problem might be the tone. I sense an aura of dark comedy/satire in Tony, but it never fully forms. It paints a miserable picture of lower class London, full of junkies and pushers and predators, without ever seeming to have a point of view on the urban squalor. If the filmmakers had just pushed it a little further, gone a little over the top instead of playing it so close to the chest, broke away a little from the realism, we might have had something here.

Instead, it's a slice of life (albeit, of a strange and unpleasant life) that doesn't have the insight or a well fleshed-out enough world to make it a slice worth tasting. The film introduces an unpleasant weirdo, shows the depths of his awfulness, seems to flirt with making him vaguely sympathetic before abandoning that tack, shows us some lowlifes and I think one sympathetic person (who only has one scene, as I recall), tries to rally for some final act suspense and doesn't achieve it. It's not poorly made (and the acting is quite good) but  it doesn't add up to much, either. I am certainly not one to insist that a movie have a "message" or even a "point," but Tony doesn't have much going on besides a slightly specified take on the same old serial killer cliches.

Rating: C

Messiah of Evil

A woman travels to a small beach town to visit her father, and finds that he has mysteriously disappeared, leaving behind a cryptic, spooky journal. She teams up with some oddball libertine and his two girlfriends, and they uncover the town's shocking (and incomprehensible) secret.

As a fan of strange and surreal horror films, I had been looking forward to Messiah of Evil due to its reputation as a big old creepy slice of WTF. Alas, my friends, this is no Inferno or City of the Living Dead or House. For one, the weirdness isn't really obtained through any powerful imagery (there may be a moment or two, but the film looks ugly and most of its images are banal), more so by its odd, hard to follow plot. Unfortunately, the story doesn't feel incomprehensible in a dream-like way, it feels awkward in the poorly-made low budget horror movie way. Now, I'm fully willing to believe that the filmmakers were going for deliberately surreal, but it just doesn't scan that way. The story is too dull and stiff and follows some pretty obvious horror movie beats. It doesn't lead you along from scene to disconnected scene by way of dream logic like the best of these films.

Bottom line: watch the similar but far superior Dead and Buried instead. You'll thank me in the morning.

Rating: C-

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Old Dark House

Caught in a harsh storm, a group of travelers take shelter in an old mansion, occupied by a very bizarre family with a few dark secrets.

Directed by James Whale, The Old Dark House tops his Frankenstein films for rich, spooky atmosphere and delicious black humor. Whale was great at making scary movies in the spirit of good fun, and this one has such a lovingly exaggerated visual style (shadows galore) and increasingly crazy plot developments that this counts as horror/comedy, but without feeling too zany. Top it off with Boris Karloff as the world's most intimidating butler, and that's some old tymey classic shit I can get behind.

Rating: B

Lovely Molly

After moving into her old family home with her husband, a young recovering drug addict begins displaying some alarming behavior, including strange hallucinations. But is she relapsing, or is there some sort of supernatural explanation?

Bless those Blair Witch guys, they keep trying. They had one monster hit like 15 years ago, but further success did not follow. Blair Witch 2 was a bizarre, awful misfire, and that was that. But they are still out there, plugging away, making ambitious, respectable horror movies that aren't very good.

I want to give props to Lovely Molly for attempting a character driven horror film, but I guess for me the central idea didn't work. Whether or not what Molly is experiencing is real, it still leads to terrible things happening, and what does it matter the answer for why it's happening? I just didn't care about the central mystery, and the movie felt like a slog. Coupled with a lead performance that (by necessity)  has to veer into obnoxious histrionics, I was left with a nicely mounted but empty experience that I found it near impossible to invest in.

Rating: C

Beyond the Black Rainbow

In 1983, a young woman is being kept in some sort of futuristic medical facility, overseen by what has to be the doctor with the world's worst bedside manner. As the doctor increasingly seems to lose his sanity, the woman discovers certain abilities that may help her escape the facility.

It seems that director Panos Cosmatos (son of director George P. Cosmatos) and I have something in common: as children, we spent a lot of time hanging out in video stores, looking at the VHS boxes of the 80's horror and sci-fi movies, pouring over the images, and imagining movies in our heads that the genuine article could never live up to (not that we'd ever even get to see those movies for many years). Beyond the Black Rainbow is extremely evocative of this; not the movies themselves, but rather the bizarre films that ran through our fevered imaginations. I imagine I'm not the only young person out there who can relate to this.

In the interview with Cosmatos that I linked to above, he compares the plot of his film to the music/score; integral, but not the focus, and something he can turn up and down depending on the needs of the scene. What little plot there is in Beyond the Black Rainbow is mostly cryptic anyway, just an excuse to guide the audience on a unique ride through the oversoul of late 70's/early 80's horror and sci-fi.

The film is the most unapologetically psychedelic I've seen in forever, even more so than Enter the Void. It's a film that luxuriates in bold colors (deep blues and greens, stark whites, lush red/oranges), surreal images, slow motion, blurring and focus, minute set details. It's all slathered in a rich synth soundtrack that guides the viewer into a near trance. And Cosmatos is even kind enough to throw in some fucked up monsters as the cherry on top.

If you know me, you should already know how I feel about this one: I loved it. It is consummation of those times I spent marveling at the boxes for movies like Xtro or Return of the Living Dead or Outland and wondering what mysteries lay inside. The irony being, of course, that I would have hated Beyond the Black Rainbow as a child; it's far too slow and obscure. But as an adult, it tapped me back into that primal place of childhood imagination that I hadn't visited in a long time.

Rating: A-

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Open House

A radio psychologist begins receiving bizarre calls from a nutcase who gets his jollies killing real estate agents. No points for guessing that the shrink's girlfriend is a real estate agent herself.

I'm not gonna lie, it's only been a few days and the memory of this one is already getting fuzzy. What I am recalling suggests a competent (the picture quality on Netflix streaming was way better than expected) but basically unremarkable slasher movie. It has the benefit of costarring the great Adrienne Barbeau, always a plus. I seem to remember the killer eating dog food out of the can, I guess that's novel. But it seemed like, after a maybe okay beginning, this one got kind of tedious and dragged itself out on its way to an underwhelming conclusion.

Rating: C-

The Awful Dr. Orloff

A crazed doctor begins kidnapping young women, to take their faces in an effort to repair his daughter's disfigurement, and, hey, wait a minute...

Turns out that Faceless wasn't the first time that Jesus Franco made a ripoff of Eyes Without a Face; he had already done it 20 years earlier, in black and white. The Awful Dr. Orloff makes one major change to the template: instead of a female sidekick, the mad Dr. has a giant deformed weirdo named Morpho doing his dirty work. At one point, Morpho kills someone by biting their neck, so I thought maybe he was supposed to be a vampire and that I was watching the wrong movie. But he's not a vampire, just a big psycho who likes to kill in awkward, difficult ways.

This is the 4th or 5th Franco film I've seen. I'm planning on seeing more, because although not exactly... good, some of his films are kinda interesting and entertaining. He developed this weird style where his camera floats around the scene aimlessly and zooms in and out constantly. It's a fascinating mix of spooky and incompetent that I find occasionally compelling, and then there's usually enough blood and boobs to make it watchable. Orloff is one of his earliest, and much more reigned in than some of the later films I've seen. The black and white photography lends an (unearned) air of class to the film, making this the most respectable Franco film I've seen. And I'm not sure if that's a good thing.

Rating: C+

Copkiller (aka Cop Killers, aka Corrupt, aka Corrupt Lieutenant, aka Order of Death)

A dirty cop (Harvey Keitel) is living it up in his swanky, illegally bankrolled downtown apartment when he's paid an unexpected visit by a weirdo (John "ny Rotten" Lydon) who claims that he's the serial killer targeting cops that everyone has been searching for. So Keitel does the logical thing and beats the shit out of him, ties him up and keeps him prisoner in his bathroom.

Overlong and kinda awkward, but not without its merits, Copkiller is sort of psychological thriller dressed up in crime movie clothes. There's a bunch of lip service paid to the investigation and to Keitel trying to cover up his misdeeds, but mostly the film is about the weird relationship that he and Lydon form. We've all seen a million movies about cops and criminals sharing deep bonds, being two sides of the same coin, etc., but Copkiller adds a subterranean sexual element that makes it feel, if not fresh, then certainly not a big fat cliche.

Keitel is good, as always, but you've seen him play this kind of role in other, better movies. The real surprise here is Lydon, in one of his only acting roles. He's kinda perfect in the role. He's got that sneering swagger that makes him seem dangerous (even though he's not a physical threat). But he's also a little soft and mincing (maybe it's the accent), so you can also believe he might just be some twerp who likes to confess to other peoples' crimes. Doesn't look like Lydon had another film role this large, and that might be for the best. I'm not so sure he's a gifted actor so much as his Johnny Rotten public persona fits this role particularly well.

Rating: B-

The Graves

The Grave sisters go on one last road trip together before one of the two moves away. While traveling, they decide to check out a spooky ghost town. Of course, this is a horror movie, so the town isn't quite as abandoned as it originally appears to be...

Look, any movie that features Tony Todd as a crazy preacher, and Bill Mosely running around with a sickle while wearing a pig nose can't be all bad. I know when I'm being pandered to, and that's some solid pandering right there.

But it's also emblematic of what's wrong with The Graves. The movie is really just a bunch of nerdy, fanboy wish fulfillment crap and not actually a well put together horror movie. This begins, but does not end, with the fact the the Grave sisters are unbelievably sexy, cool, hard partying comic book aficionados. Because you run into those all the time.

Let's just say I wasn't surprised to find out afterward that the director is also a comic book writer.

Rating: C-

Monday, October 15, 2012

Vampyres

In this erotic horror film, two bisexual vampiresses pretend to be hitchhikers, lure the men who pick them up back to the abandoned estate where they live, have sex with them, and kill them. That is, until one day one of the lady vampires opts not to kill her victim, but instead keep him around as her boy toy.

One of the least eventful horror films I have ever seen, Vampyres nonetheless succeeds due to its offbeat atmosphere, its implacable weirdness, its weird sexual imagery, and its genuine eroticism. This is a seriously sexy soft core porn/horror film, sexy enough that I felt uncomfortable watching it with my little brother. Bad idea.

The events of Vampyres barely count as "plot"; my description above pretty much covers 90% of the movie. It feels directionless at times, and what little story there is doesn't make much sense (the vampires' plot involves making their victims' deaths look like car accidents, but they seem to crash them in the same spot every time and the authorities never catch on). Never you mind that, because the film is all about oddball tone and hot sex scenes. It's well made and effective, a perfect mix of tawdry and classy.

With its focus on vampires, eroticism, lavish settings and its dream-like tone, Vampyres sometimes feels like the film Jean Rollin was always trying to make but never had the talent to pull off. I'm not sure I've ever seen a successful mix of artsy horror and porn before this.

Rating: B

Messages Deleted

A screenwriting professor (Matthew Lillard) begins receiving terrifying voicemails from strangers who are apparently about to be murdered. It turns out there is a killer on the loose, using his unproduced screenplay as a template for a murder spree.

Written by Larry Cohen, I suspect that due to the answering machine gimmick of Message Deleted, the film might be intended as the finale of his "phone trilogy," along with Phone Booth and Cellular. Really, though, this is more of a silly meta-commentary on thriller cliches, like an even more on-the-nose version of Scream. Or, as my brother called it, "stupid meta." It's a bunch of silly nonsense, where the killer is obsessed with making the murders seem like the plot of a movie, while Lillard tries to use his knowledge of screenwriting to outguess the killer.

It's goofy and disposable, but I still had a little bit of fun with it. By trying so hard to mess with audience expectations, it becomes weirdly predictable in the way it tries to subvert the cliches, but its enjoyable trying (and mostly succeeding) to outguess where the movie is going.

Rating: C+

Sinister

A one-hit-wonder true crime novelist (Ethan Hawke) tries to revive his flailing career by investigating the unsolved murder of a small town family and the disappearance of their daughter. The catch? He's moved himself, his wife, and their two children into the house of the murdered family. Because that's always a great idea.

It's so refreshing to see mainstream horror movie that gets it, that isn't some slickly polished studio turd, but rather a film that understands the importance of atmosphere and suspense, but also has the resources to hire a major actor and give him a meaty role. This is the kind of film that studio horror should aspire to be.

One interesting touch is that the film has a found footage element to it: Hawke finds copies of the killer's "home movies" in the attic and studies them. They turn out to be footage of the killer's gruesome murders. Even though this footage makes up all of 10 or 15 minutes of the film, tops, it qualifies as the best use of the style in recent years. I think part of what works better about Ethan Hawke watching eerie super 8 footage of murders, compared to shaky cam footage of a bunch of drunk loudmouths getting killed, is the powerless-ness. Most "found footage" movies try to put you in the moment, but Sinister uses it to show you what's already happened, so you know there is nothing you can do to stop it.

The first half is suspenseful and fun enough that the second half can't help but suffer in comparison. We can only watch Ethan Hawke slowly walk down unlit hallways for so long before the audience expects to get some answers, and the answers are never as good as the questions. But even it never lives up to its initial promise, Sinister remains highly watchable and well-made.

Rating: B