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

The Innkeepers

On the last weekend that it wil be open, the two remaining employees of the Yankee Pedlar Hotel (Sara Paxton and Pat Healy) decide to see if they can find any proof of the ghost that supposedly haunts its halls.

You can read my more detailed thoughts on The Innkeepers here, but I would like to say that this is a film that has improved on my second viewing. I love Ti West's House of the Devil dearly, but I need to get off my high horse and admit that although his follow up film may night quite be as great, it's still great in it's own right. No, it's not scary in the same sense that House of the Devil was, but it is richly atmospheric, funny, beautifully shot, and thematically more resonant  Although it doesn't hold the same place in my heart, it is in many ways the more accomplished film.

I think what I really appreciated this time was, despite how funny the film can be, there is a potent sense of melancholy in the film that sticks with you. It's about two lovable but flawed people stuck in a dead end job in a dead end town who reflect on their regrets. And somehow this parlays itself into a deeper story of spiritual unrest, and builds up to an appropriately muted but sad ending that you don't really see coming.

Rating: A-

The Hidden Face

A conductor, whose long term girlfriends has vanished after leaving a cryptic video telling him she was leaving him, decides to get back on the horse after 2 months of trying to find her. He falls for a local bartender, and she eventually moves into his large estate. Only, the woman begins noticing strange things when she's alone... the water in the sink vibrates, she hears weird noises in the drains, and the shower randomly changes temperature. Could the house be haunted?

The Hidden Face is a devious, twisty-turny thriller than only slowly reveals itself as such. Although it creates a palpable sense of mystery, for a while it seems as if the film isn't a thriller at all. It slows down, becomes a romance, goes on an extended flashback to show us the conductor's previous relationship. When the other shoes drops and we finally discover what's actually been going on the whole time, it's a pretty ingenious bit of misdirection that ups the stakes. The rest of the film becomes increasingly intense, constantly toying with your emotions and keeping you guessing how everything is going to turn out.

I'm being vague, and that's because it's best not to know too much. The film is slightly Almodvarian in its willingness to take some abrupt left turns, and in its use of extended flashback, although it is far more straightforward than any of Almodovar's films. This is an accomplished and exciting thriller, and I'm looking forward to more from director Andres Baiz.

Rating: B+

Tombs of the Blind Dead

The old ruins of a castle hold a terrible secret: blind, undead Templar knights that rise from their graves to feast on the blood of those who trespass. And they ride horses. Zombies on horses.

I first saw Tombs of the Blind Dead I think 5 years ago, at an all-day Halloween horror movie marathon and party. We drank zombies all day and watched horror movies. I got so plastered I chased one party goer around the apartment with a knife as a "joke" that I'm pretty sure terrified the poor guy. It was a great day, but my memories of the movies are fuzzy, and I seem to recall not liking this one very much.

Well, turns out Tombs of the Blind Dead is better than I remembered. But not much. It's a mostly uneventful film with a handful of memorable sequences sporadically doled out. It's the kind of film that really requires on atmosphere to carry it, but the atmosphere (while not negligible) is just not thick enough. I will say, the very ending is kinda good: the heroine escapes the knights and gets on a train passing by. Only, instead of her getting away safely, the knights show up and kill everyone on board, and then ride the train into town, presumably to kill more. Pretty funny.

Anyways, this is the first in a four part series, and I will definitely watch part 2 at least.

Rating: C

Stigmata

A young woman with a ridiculous wardrobe (Patricia Arquette) is being tortured by some unseen force, giving her the wounds of Christ. The Catholic church sends in their top hoax debunking priest (Gabrielle Byrne) to see if what's happening is the real deal.

Not having been raised Catholic (or with any religion, for that matter), I just never got the obsession with Catholic-themed supernatural horror movies. I guess I'm just not steeped enough in Catholic mythology to enjoy whatever deeper themes these kinds of movies are trying to evoke. But even someone into these types of films will be disappointed that Stigmata ditches any of its more compelling implications (like, the idea that maybe what's happening to Arquette is something divine, since she is receiving Christ's wounds) in order to be just another of the umpteen million Exorcist ripoffs. That it's all done in that best forgotten late 90's music video, rapid editing, wooshy camera, crossfading nonsense style just makes it all the worse.

Apparently Billy Corgan cowrote the score. That seems like a great idea, but the score turned out to be mostly forgettable.

Also, seriously, you won't believe the outfits Arquette wears in this movie. I don't think anyone in the 90's ever dressed that ridiculously.

Rating: D

Shutter

A Thai photographer begins finding inexplicable images in his photos, following a hit and run incident he and his girlfriend were involved in. Could the ghost of the young woman they hit be haunting him?

I had my fingers crossed that, as far as Asian horror goes, Shutter would be more Kiyoshi Kurosawa than Pang Brothers. Turns out it's something of an odd mix, but heavily leaning Pang: slow, quiet buildups to ridiculously overwrought, hyperactively edited, booming soundtrack, cinematic blunt force trauma payoffs. That kind of crap can sometimes be fun, but it gets old fast.

Shutter is particularly dull and generic, stringing together a bunch of Asian ghost movie cliches (including the pale female ghost with long black hair) as it unravels a particularly uninteresting "mystery." The film becomes increasingly silly as it goes along (despite becoming ever more self-serious), to the point where I was just kinda staring at the screen by the end, mouth agape, hardly believing what I was watching. I mean, I guess this is a first, but I've never seen one of these movies end where it turns out SPOILERS that the ghost has been sitting on the main character's shoulders for the whole movie and I guess it gives him back problems or something and he ends up in a mental hospital, mournfully sitting hunched over in bed with a ghost on his back. Just, wow.

Rating: D

Frightmare

A young British woman is keeping a secret from her bloodthristy little half-sister: their father and 'lil sis's psychotic birth mother have just gotten out of the mental asylum. Big sis and dad are trying to take care of mom, but she may be slipping back to her old ways: cannibalism!

Frightmare is a twisted little oddity, a darkly humorous and character driven horror film that builds up to some agreeably effed up shit. Part of the fun is that, although the story isn't very complex, it's structured as almost a mystery; we're not sure at first how these characters are relate to each other and where exactly the story is heading. The film has a crafty narrative strategy of deliberately withholding information from the audience so it can lead them along by slowly doling it out. The story is surprisingly compelling considering all it comes down to is that a crazy old cannibal lady likes drilling holes in people's heads.

The one weird thing I noticed was the film's anti-psychiatry message. The film begins with the old couple being sentenced to go to a mental institution, and not to be released until they are definitively deemed safe to return to society. Cut to 15 years later, they are getting out, no more sane than when they went in: the system has failed. One of the main characters turns out to be a psychiatrist, and the character is shown to be a fatuous know it all, one who completely misreads the situation and stupidly puts himself into a dangerous situation. So fine, the filmmakers don't like shrinks (maybe they are Scientologists?), but then the movie doesn't seem to offer any alternate solution. If modern psychology can't help these nutcases, then what should have been done instead?

Rating: B-

Hitch-Hike

An obnoxious alcoholic and his long-suffering wife pick up a hitchhiker while driving through the middle of nowhere. Naturally, the hitchhiker turns out to be a bankrobber on the lam, who takes them hostage, forces them to drive him to Mexico, and is making bedroom eyes at the wife.

Hitch-Hike starts with a standard issue premise, but throws in enough unique wrinkles that you're never quite sure where it's going. It's a nice mix of crime, thriller and horror, with maybe a dash of western thrown in for good measure. I tend to prefer my Italian thrillers to be a little more stylish than this, which tries to go for a more gritty feel. There's 0% giallo in this one's DNA, so don't go in expecting anything too strange.

The performances are solid, and the story takes a few unexpected twists. At least one major character is dead much earlier than you'd expect. The final act veers into a completely new direction, with a dark ending. It's a little jarring at first, until you think back to the beginning of the film and realized it had been well set-up.

It's a solid little thriller for a low budget Italian movie pretending to be American, light on logic but helped by clever ideas and good lead performances.

Rating: B-

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Hunger

An ancient but beautiful vampire (Catherine Deneuve) begins seducing her new lover/companion/familiar (Susan Sarandon), after her former one (David Bowie) rapidly ages and is no longer of use to her.

The Hunger, despite having vampires and ghouls and violence and special effects, barely seems to qualify as a horror film for most of its length. Instead, it's more of a dreamy, pseudo-arthouse oddity, unfortunately directed by a man (Tony Scott) whose gifts were better suited to the blockbuster. It has effective scenes (notably the sex scene between Sarandon and Deneuve, and the nightmarish finale which is the only part that feels at all horror-ish), but most of it is slow and unstructured, skipping around between shots and scenes willy nilly, not really building up any steam as it goes along.

Thematically, the film is a mess, too. The first half of the film is about Bowie growing old and being discarded by Deneuve (she locks her former lovers in caskets, for some reason, instead of letting them die, where I guess they live forever in agony), and the focus seems to be on their twisted love story. The second half, about the seduction of Sarandon, suddenly seems to shift into an addiction story, with vampirism being a metaphor for the addiction, and I guess Deneuve being the pusher and Sarandon the junkie. Eventually the two halves come together, but not in any meaningful way, and the ending does not feel like it is adequately set up by what came before.

The Hunger is moderately interesting for its oddness, but it's atmosphere isn't strong enough to overcome the turgid, unfocused story. Scott is too much of a showoff to convey this kind of eerie melancholy, and the end result is mostly limp.

Rating: C

Red Lights

Two hotshot college professors (Sigourney Weaver and Cillian Murphy) are the go-to debunkers of bogus supernatural phenomenon. When not teaching what appears to be an awesome class on the subject, they spend their time going around exposing charlatans; you know, phony psychics and people pretending their house is haunted and the such. One day, a former celebrity psychic (Robert DeNiro) whose supposed powers were never disproven comes out of retirement . Can our intrepid heroes take him down a notch? Could he be the real deal? What's up with all this strange, unexplainable shit suddenly happen to our heroes? And why does Weaver seem so reluctant to take on DeNiro?

I'm not going to lie, this movie catered to some of my interests, so I was on board right away. The first act or so is basically just mind porn for atheists and skeptics: Weaver and Murphy go around exposing frauds, explaining their tricks, and authoritatively asserting the fact that all this supernatural mumbo jumbo is a bunch of horseshit. I could have watched a whole movie about that. Hell, I could watch a TV series about these characters. So score another point for Rodrigo Cortes, who also directed the awesome Ryan-Reynolds-in-a-coffin movie Buried.

I suspect that Red Lights might seem slow to some audiences. Although the stakes do get raised significantly as the movie goes along, many folks might not see why it's such a big deal they disprove this psychic. Religious and superstitious folks might even take offense at the attitudes and actions of Weaver and Murphy's characters. Personally, I was emotionally invested, not just because of my own biases, but because of the strength of the performances, and the way the characters are developed to explain why this conflict becomes so important.

Which isn't to say that this movie is all talking and character development and no action. There is danger, a little bit of violence, death, intrigue, unexplainable phenomena and horror movie imagery. It's just that more of the entertainment comes from exploring the tension between the rational and irrational. The profs explaining how con men do their tricks. The weird things that start happening to Murphy (like birds flying into windows right at him) and whether or not that have a logical explanation. A viruoso sequence, presented as a documentary, where scientists examine DeNiro's supposed abilities.

The thing about a lot of these horror movies where a skeptic tries to disprove some sort of supernatural event is that the skeptic is almost always wrong. The ghosts will turn out to be real, or best case scenario the movie leaves it ambiguous, because who really knows the truth, right? (Ugh). Movies are so shy about ever coming down on the side of the skeptics; it never turns out that it was just a con all along. I don't want to spoil Red Lights, but it's one of the few movies I've seen that really, seriously weighs the skeptical argument and gets you on their side. As you watch it, you will actually believe that there is a good chance that DeNiro will turn out to be a phony.

Of course, you realize then that the movie can only end one of two ways: either DeNiro is a fake and psychics don't exist, or he is the real deal and they do. If he's for real, then that's kind of a disappointing because the heroes were wrong the whole time. If he's not, that's cool but it's not much of a surprise and might feel a little anticlimactic. Amazingly, Red Lights manages to find a third option that I never considered, one which blew my mind a little. Not everyone is going to like it, but if you're willing to follow this movie where it goes, it's an enormously surprising and satisfying ending that, I think, plays fair by its own rules.

Rating: B+

Quick Note

To those of you who watched Blood and Donuts with me earlier this week, I'm not blogging about it. Why? Because I don't remember a damn thing about it. Sorry.




11-11-11: The Prophecy

A bitter atheist tries to convince his preacher brother that weird, tragic coincidences in their lives keep revolving around the number 11. With November 11, 2011 just around the corner (timely!), he's convinced something monumentally terrible is about to happen.

I kind of have a soft spot for Darren Lynn Bousman, who represents much of what I hate about modern horror, yet does it in a way I find charming. Saws 2 though 4, despite their overbearing self-seriousness, are hilarious and endlessly re-watchable, thanks in no small part to Bousman's slick, overwrought, bombastic visual style. His remake of Mother's Day, while overstuffed and ungainly in places, is actually a pretty effective thriller that dials back on the razzmatazz a bit and relies more on the characters to drive the plot. (And it's way better than the terrible original). So I figured, what the hell, I can give 11-11-11 a shot even though it's PG-13 and there's hardly a chance it could be any good.

And it's not very good, but at least it could have been worse. Bousman is (at least until the finale) dialed back again here, just opting for your standard issue desaturated color palette to achieve his patented "designer gloom" without going overboard on the editing. It's not particularly violent or even eventful, and I think Bousman is legitimately trying to make something a little more thoughtful, maybe even make a statement about the nature of religion. Which is all well and good, but I don't know that he's the guy for the job, especially when he's working with a silly story that seems to recycle a premise from that Jim Carrey movie nobody saw.

I do like the ending, a little bit, which ties everything together with a ridiculous twist that seems to be the film's sole reason to exist. It made the movie almost seem more clever and thoughtful in retrospect.

Bousman tries for some playfulness by sneaking some 11s into some of the shots, but they are all pretty obvious, usually just appearing on clocks and such. If I had made this film, I would have taken this conceit and gone hog wild with it. I would have sneaked eleven 11s into every scene. Nay, every shot. One character would wear a football jersey with the number 11 on it for the whole movie. It would show up in graffitti on every wall. Every sentence would have exactly 11 words deliberately placed in it. When two characters sit down to talk, there would be 11 items on the table. I'd frame shots between two bars on a railing so they look like giant 11s. It would be amazing.

Rating: C-

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Gate

Left home alone for the weekend, a scrappy kid, his best friend and his older sister find themselves in over their heads when a sinkhole in the backyard turns out to be the gate to hell.

What a trip. The Gate was the kind of movie that was always on HBO when I was a kid, that I ended up watching many times, often in scattered bits and pieces. I loved it at the time, and still had fond memories of it 20 years later. But if you had asked me if it was actually a good movie, I would have shrugged and said probably not, I just liked it when I was a kid. After all, I enjoyed a lot of crap back then.

Turns out, it holds up. In fact, being older and having a more knowledgable/critical eye towards film, I may even like it more now that I am able to appreciate the craft. The Gate is one of those high spirited, 80's special effects-o-ramas, pitched somewhere between Poltergeist and The Goonies. The overall tone is fun and adventure-y, but like the best horror aimed at children it doesn't fully hold back and allows some real darkness, intensity and weirdness. Kids movies often pussyfoot around scary stuff, but I've always believed that most kids like being scared. When you're young, the world is a big and mysterious place that you can't fully wrap your brain around, and movies like The Gate tap into those feelings and help you process them. Most kids don't end up loving horror movies the same way I do, but I suspect the reason movies like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory continue to endure is because kids respond to the darkness in them.

The director also did the pretty fun I, Madman, but I think his colorful, playful style is not as well suited to more adult-oriented fare. I, Madman was supposed to feel more like an old Lovecraft story or something, but ended up coming off more like a comic book. The comic book vibe is perfect for The Gate, which presents a world that, while full of dark and scary monsters, is also one where the good guys (with the help of a little pluck) will make it out okay in the end.

Rating: B

Almost forgot: check out Mr. Subtlety's take here.

The Reeds

A group of friends go boating through a swampy area, only to be attacked by vicious, man-eating reeds. No, I'm sorry, that's just what I hoped it was about. Actually, they find themselves facing off against some mysterious force, creepy teenagers hiding in the brush, an old man with a shotgun, hallucinations, evil doubles of themselves, and more.

After an unpromising start, The Reeds turns into a pretty entertaining mindfuck; it's basically a series of strange events, teases, plot twists and other weirdness thrown at you to keep you guessing where it's going. I'm not sure I could pass a test on what happened (MAJOR SPOILERS: there are ghosts forever reliving their deaths trying to end the cycle, but also a looping timeline the heroes get caught in that causes them to interact with themselves, but also it all starts over again at the end, so maybe it's Hell or something? I dunno), but it was a reasonable amount of fun as it goes along. I wouldn't say it's particularly scary (they are in danger I guess, but why exactly? And huh?) but it coasts on weirdness alone, with enough plot and villains to fill four horror movies about a group of young people on a boat getting attacked by something evil.

Rating: B-

The Final

A group of nerds, ceaselessly humiliated by their more popular peers, finally snap and decide to get horrible revenge. The nerds drug all their tormentors at a Halloween party, tie them up, and subject them to vicious tortures that the nerds have deemed karmically appropriate.

I don't want to waste too much time on this turd, but the whole thing is a major miscalculation. It's not poorly made from a technical standpoint, but it's just a series of bad, self-defeating ideas. I guess the premise has potential (bullying seems to have become the social cause du jour), but the filmmakers blow it pretty badly.

Mistake number one is the set up. The film works hard to establish the nerds as sympathetic, and to make the bullies as awful as possible. The audience is subjected to 20 or 30 minutes of horrible, detestable, entitled pricks picking on a bunch of losers to make sure we hate and like all the right people. So we're on board for some revenge, but what the nerds do is so terrible that they cease to be sympathetic. And not in a "woah, this movie toying with my sympathies" sort of way. To do that, we'd have to see the nerds start out with a more relatable form of revenge and maybe slowly start doing worse things. Instead, right off the bat, they are doing terrible things and immediately lose your sympathy. So it's basically another hour of watching unsympathetic characters horribly torture other unsympathetic characters. Not very involving.

It also leads to some mixed messaging that leaves a bad taste in the mouth. The movie seems to simultaneously imply that the nerds are doing a bad thing but also maybe the bullies deserved it and maybe the nerds are more sympathetic even though their actions are ultimately far worse.

The other glaring mistake is that the nerds, wearing a bunch of stupid costumes, just aren't scary or intimidating at all, especially their obnoxious, speechifying ringleader. This could potentially be a good idea that these kids are so nerdy that their idea of being scary just comes across as pathetic, but I don't think that's what the film is going for. I think the filmmakers just designed a bunch of stupid costumes and cast an obnoxious twerp in the lead role.

There is plenty of other stupid shit to go around. The movie has a wraparound structure that seems entirely unnecessary. The nerds show up to the party in costume, then change costumes after drugging everyone, then later on they show them their faces anyway. And there's a scene that pays homage to the end of Audition by doing an extremely poor recreation of it.

Rating: D-

The Shrine

A plucky (read: kinda bitchy) reporter shirks an assignment to instead investigate the disappearance of some tourists in a small Polish town, dragging along her photographer boyfriend and an intern. After discovering a bizarre shrine hidden in the mist, the townspeople turn on them, seemingly intent on making them part of a sacrificial ritual.

Poor Aaron Ashmore, twin brother of Shawn Ashmore. Equally as handsome, equally as talented, and yet somehow Shawn landed the X-Men movies and will forever be the more famous twin. Both brothers now show up in a lot of horror movies, but Shawn's been in some legit pretty good ones (Frozen, The Ruins), whereas Aaron seems to turn up in Haylie Duff vehicles (Fear Island) and movies based around Val Kilmer cameos (The Thaw).

I like both Ashmores, I like when good actors do horror movies, and Aaron was pretty good in a memorable recurring role on the great Veronica Mars, so I'm always rooting for the guy. And I'm happy to say The Shrine has been the best horror film I've seen him in. He's well cast here, as an actor who makes a solid leading man but often shows up as second banana. Here, he starts out seeming like the second banana until... well, without giving much away, he ends up being the most proactive character during the last act.
 
In fact, I'd actually like to apologize to the makers of The Shrine right now, because a while back I tried watching it and gave up after the first half hour or so. It seemed slow and awkward and predictable and the protagonist wasn't very likable, and I was tired, so I quit. Since then, I think I may have even recommend to others that they not watch it. But it turns out that it gets a lot better as it goes along, it's not very predictable, and the unlikable heroine might actually be an asset. I'm sorry I doubted you, guys.

What it comes down to is a movie that makes you think it's The Wicker Man before taking a clever final act twist that messes a bit with who exactly you're supposed to be identifying with. The twist isn't exactly original, but it's well executed and a lot ballsier than I would have expected from the more generic opening.

There are some well handled chase and escape scenes, and the sacrificial ritual is appropriately icky and suspenseful. But the best scene is a nifty one where Ashmore, on the defensive, hears the sounds of a horrible slaughter happening in the room next to him, and later has to walk through. The movie has it both ways by making you imagine what terrible things are happening, then showing you the disgusting aftermath anyway.

Rating: B-