Wednesday, October 23, 2013


In this sequel to 2012's beloved incoherent eye-sore of a found-footage horror movie anthology: a dude gets a camera implanted in his eye and begins to see ghosts; a cyclist wearing a helmet cam (for some reason) gets turned into a zombie; a news crew goes to interview the weirdo leader of a cult and gets way more compelling footage than they asked for; a group of kids must deal with an alien invasion. Oh, and in the wraparound some dude and a lady looking for a missing kid watch some VHS tapes on a computer (?) and then some stupid, inexplicable shit happens.

Huzzah! I am happy to report that V/H/S/2 finally gives us 1 (one) good segment, so the series isn't a complete waste. The story about the cult (co-directed by The Raid: Redemption's Gareth Evans and that guy who did the masturbation/murder tournament segment in The ABCs of Death) is, unlike the other tales, a coherent and satisfying story with a clear and entertaining set-up and pay-off, which actually uses its 1st person camera gimmick effectively. Fuckin' A.

The other segments I would say are, in general, better than their counterparts in the original. But not by much. They display a little more attention to, like, basic film competency and visual coherency, and a lot less fetishism for static and skips and pops and bloops and shit like that. Still, eventually they all turn into the same kind of ugly looking, hard to follow blurfest that makes you wonder why anyone thought this was a good idea in the first place. Most disappointing is Jason Eisener's segment; after his awesome and ridiculous segment in ABCs of Death I thought perhaps he was better suited to short film, but his ugly and anticlimactic tale had me rethinking that.

Rating: C-


After a small, mountainside town in Chile is hit by a devastating earthquake (soon to be followed by a tsunami), a group of survivors (including several American and European tourists who don't speak the language) band together to try to get out of town alive. Unfortunately, they have more than just nature to contend with, as the streets have become flooded with looters, rioters and gang members in the wake of the disaster.

After a too-long setup of our various protagonists partying around Chile (luckily they are less douchey and obnoxious than characters in these kinds of movies usually are; the film even plays like an acceptable low-key comedy for a while), Aftershock kicks into high gear once the earthquake hits and becomes one of the more crazy and effective thrillers of recent years. Eli Roth (cast here as a more likable version of his usual "bro" persona) is credited as a co-writer and producer on the project (it was directed by Nicolas Lopez, a Chilean filmmaker I am not familiar with) and his sensibility is apparent here. Aftershock shares some DNA with Cabin Fever and the Hostel films, with its over-the-top dark humor, its mix of good fun with disturbing violence, its desire to undercut certain cliches of the genre, and its complete lack of pity for its ill-fated characters.

The biggest problem with Aftershock is a slight misjudgement of tone. The film overall, even when it tries to play the disaster aftermath as realistic and disturbing, is good, high energy fun. Shit hits the fan, the characters have to scramble to stay alive, and after that it is basically nonstop action. The problem is occasionally the film becomes a shade too dark and sabotages the fun, especially when it introduces (SPOILER) some gratuitous rape. Aftershock just isn't a serious enough film to subject a character to a fate that rough and deal with it properly. It's a few moments like that where the film slides from grisly but entertaining thrills to a grim nihilism it doesn't really earn.

Still, it's well-made, well-acted, easy on the eyes, has some real laughs and thrills, contains some very effective set pieces and ends on exactly the right note. Those looking for a slightly subversive disaster/thriller would do well with Aftershock.

Rating: B

The Hand

A famous comic book artist (Michael Caine), whose marriage is falling apart, loses his drawing hand in a grisly car accident. Things do not go smoothly as he tries to adjust to his new disability and to put his life back together, and more and more his suppressed anger starts boiling up. And soon enough it appears that his lost appendage, never found, may somehow still be alive, acting out his repressed desires.

An early Oliver Stone film, The Hand is a classically styled psychological thriller with a bit of an old-fashioned monster movie twist. The is before Oliver Stone began developing into a manic film stylist, so visually speaking it's fairly reserved, especially for a horror movie. But don't worry, it's still Oliver Stone, so the film isn't exactly staid, either; in fact the story revolves around the kind of absurd, psycho-sexual hysteria that's been popular in thrillers since at least Psycho.

Weirdly enough, the film's slow burn mix of psychological thriller and horror reminds me more of George Romero than anything else; Romero's earlier Martin had a similar vibe, and his later films Monkey Shines, The Dark Half and Bruiser all deal with the physical manifestation of one's repressed desires in the form of a monster much the same way. I think it's a solid and satisfying hook for a horror movie; the idea that the monster or the darkness is part of ourselves that we try not to acknowledge. The Hand does this well with a central metaphor that is, if you'll forgive the pun, not too heavy-handed. The only problem is (in one of the film's obvious references to Psycho) its insistence on overexplaning everything that happens in pseudo-psychological terms, when leaving it ambiguous, unexplained or purely supernatural might have been preferable. Then again, the final scene puts a spin on this as well.

The film hinges on Michael Caine's performance, and I think it works in part because of his and Stone's unwillingness to soften the character or make him too sympathetic. Caine's character starts off mildly unpleasant and gets worse after the accident; he tries to use his disability to keep his estranged wife with him against her wishes, engages in a seriously inappropriate relationship with a student, harbors resentment against his business associates even though he goes along with their plans, and more or less blames everyone else for his problems. He's not overtly an asshole most of the time, more like passive-aggressive and self-centered... until things get aggressive-aggressive. I was worried early on in the film that we were supposed to like his character and not notice the way he treats people, but by the end it's clear that this violence and anger was always a part of him, and it's only the accident that's brought it all out.

Rating: B

The Skull

So some weirdo phrenologist dude just up and decides to dig up the corpse of the Marquis de Sade one night, steals only the head, strips the flesh off it with chemicals, and... proceeds to immediately be possessed by the skull and kill himself. Nice one, jackass. Many years later, Peter Cushing is a rare items collector who decides to (illegally) purchase the skull despite the fact that it was stolen from his friend (Christopher Lee) who has also warned him of the skull's danger. Soon enough, mystery is afoot and Cushing finds himself under the spell of the skull.

Building from what I frankly thought was a stupid premise, because let's face it we all know this is going to end with a cheesy-looking flying skull, The Skull manages to be entertaining, atmospheric and even a little classy, after a fashion. An Amicus production directed by one of British horror's best and brightest, Freddie Francis, it manages to admirably delay any silly special effects involving a floating skull for as long as possible, instead drawing out the buildup and suspense and playing a bit more on the psychological and mystery elements of the story.

The best stuff involves Cushing slowly coming under the influence of the skull, including a tense & bizarre dream sequence that comes unexpectedly in the middle of the film. In fact, as fun as The Skull is overall, more of this would have been appreciated. More dream sequences, more Cushing losing his shit, maybe even more ambiguity as to exactly what the skull is doing or whether or not it's doing anything at all.

And, you know, the skull floats around at the end if you like that sort of thing.

Rating: B

Friday, October 11, 2013

Chinese Ghost Story 3

After what I believe is a brief flashback to the first Chinese Ghost Story, we suddenly skip ahead 100 years to a new cast of characters involved in a similar story. This time, a young monk (the reliable Tony Cheung), ill-suited to his station in life, must face-off against the fearsome Tree Demon and his legion of sexy lady demons, while starting to fall in love with one of the demons himself.

Before going in I had assumed that Chinese Ghost Story 3 would be a direct sequel to the first 2 films. Instead, it's a loose sequel that's closer to a remake of the original. Again we have a tale of a young man fighting demons and falling in love with one who may be redeemable, with a funny twist: this time the hero is a monk and has taken a vow of chastity. So his romance with the demon is awkward and filled with a lot of humor about his virginal demeanor and his futile attempts to protect his chastity. I've noticed that HK movies can be playfully irreverant about Buddhism; it's hard to imagine a mainstream American movie trying to mine the same kind of humor out of, say, a priest being tempted to sleep with a woman.

As much as I would have liked to have seen a continuation of the previous films (it'd be nice to hang out with those characters again), I can't complain with the final product. Like the others, it's an eye-popping, imaginative, energetic and action-packed comedy/fantasy/horror/adventure filled with crazy monsters, absurd kung fu, crazy colorful flowing costumes, likable performances and a solid screwball-comedy-meets-ghost-story plot. Director Ching Sui-tung is not quit on my list of favorite HK directors (although I love Duel to the Death), but he is one of the most flamboyant, and everything I've seen of his is at least worthwhile, and usually better than that.

Rating: B

Baby Blood

Some sort of ancient but unborn (despite clearly having the form of some little parasite thing) beast from the beginning of time impregnates an abused lion tamer's wife with, um, himself. Pretty soon he's forcing mommy to kill and drink blood in order to feed him and facilitate his birth.

You can chalk this oddball French horror(?)/comedy(?) up as one big WTF. It's a horror movie pitched at a broad, hysterical frequency yet doesn't seem to contain any humor or wit or satire. It's about a pregnant woman with a killer fetus yet contains no interesting childbirth or motherhood imagery or themes. I think there is something going on in regards to it being a story about an abused woman becoming empowered (most or all of her victims are men who mistreat women), but she's so unsympathetic that you're never onboard, and her fetus seems to be male and is forcing her to do his bidding so there's not even an effective revenge motif going on. Every now and then there will be a weird stylisitic flourish (like the camera going inside the heroine's body, floating through her veins and into her heart) for no discernable reason. If I had to compare it to another movie, it would be like if Zulawski's Posession was awkward, tone-deaf and terrible.

Even the novelty of its inexplicableness wears off early on, and the result is alienating and tedious. So far, this has been the biggest turkey of the month.

Rating: D

Hatchet 3

Starting right where part 2 left off, adorable and tiny scream queen Danielle Harris finishes off Jason-esque mass murderer Victor Crowley, then brings his scalp to the sheriff's office to prove he's dead. This gets her promptly arrested (in retrospect she probably should have just gone home), but the investigators digging through the previous evening's bloodbath unsurprisingly find that Crowley is back from the dead (yet again).

The original Hatchet's biggest problem was its bold claim advertising itself as "Old School American Horror." Which was a bunch of horseshit. When a film's opening credits involves the camera whipping around in fast forward to terrible industrial music to show you a bunch of crazy partying 20-somethings, it's pretty clear the film is going to have little in common with classic 70's and 80's slasher cinema outside of superficial details. No, instead it was an unserious, ironic horror/comedy that existed mainly as a delivery vehicle for outlandishly, hilariously disgusting gore.

Once you get past the false advertising, though, that's not a bad thing. The first 2 Hatchet films are dumb, unpretentious fun; a perfectly acceptable way to see some boobies and viscera while sharing drinks with a few acquaintances. And I'm happy to say that Hatchet 3 is exactly as good as the first two, and provides exactly what you'd expect. In fact, they are all more or less indistinguishable from each other.

The only real element of curiosity here is that parts 1 & 2 writer/director Adam Green only wrote and produced this time out, handing the directorial reins to series cameraman BJ McDonnell. Green made the excellent Frozen, but otherwise hasn't really distinguished himself as a filmmaker. And it holds true here because honestly I could not tell any way in which Hatchet 3 looked or felt different from its predecessors. I don't mean to say that McDonnell fails to put a unique stamp on the series so much as Green's template for the series is pretty generic and easily replicable.

That said, so what? With the Hatchet movies, you get a couple of laughs, some awesomely ridiculous deaths, and a reasonably likable cast. Some of us are just the kind of people who want to see Kane Hodder rip out Derek Mears's spine and skull through his stomach, and we'll be happy.

Rating: B-

Tormented (in the hypothetical 3rd dimension)

After a little boy kills a wounded rabbit as an act of mercy, he and his mute, older sister are drawn into some weird nightmare world, possibly of their own making. What proceeds is, I think, maybe the first bunny themed horror movie I've ever seen.

As a noted hater of Shimizu Takashi's Ju-on: The Grude and his contemptable American remake, I'm happy to report that I finally enjoyed one of his movies. Tormented has some of the same flaws as those other movies (a distinct lack of subtlety, silly ideas treated as scary, some obnoxiously over-the-top filmic pyrotechnics) but enough cool stuff going on to mitigate.

First and foremost, this is one of the best looking horror movies I've seen in ages. Shot in 3D by the great Christopher Doyle, Tormented is a real eye-popper, flat-out one of the most visually impressive uses of 3D I've seen. Shimizu and Doyle find all sorts crazy images that look great in 3D, not least of all their brilliant use of an elaborate childrens' pop-up book. Doyle is obviously a master visual craftsman, and he actually seems to understand the visual possibilities of the much-maligned medium. Many shots in the film are packed with multiple visual planes of detail, giving a sort of "deep focus" effect where you can actually focus on different depths in the frame.

I also appreciated that the film was willing to just go for it in the weirdness department. The film is almost exclusively based around silly, unscary ideas, but Shimizu throws caution (and logic and quality control) to the wind and unashamedly makes an incredibly dumb but dead serious film. So you get lots and lots of horror scenes based on a person in an adorable but anthropmorphic rabbit suit, two scenes involving a stuffed bunny coming out of a movie screen for no reason, a quaint fairgrounds type place that I guess is supposed to be sinister, and some of the most stunningly asisine plot twists ever. But unlike The Grudge this stupidness is all part of the fun. Instead of a tedious slog through a bunch of rote boo-scares, this is more like a surreal and trippy galavant through a bunch of ridiculous but awesome imagery.

I don't have much faith in Shimizu as a story teller, but Tormented suggests that I slept on him as a visual stylist and an entertainer. I only watched this because it was one of the few 3D horror movies Netflix was streaming, but now I'd be on board with watching something else of Shimizu's.

Rating: B

The Possession

A young girl picks up some weird looking box covered in Hebrew symbols at a yard sale. Unfortunately, this turns out to be a "dyybuk box," and soon enough the girl is possessed by a Jewish demon, leaving her family to desperately try to find a way to save her.

Essentially a vaguely Jew-y riff on The Exorcist, it's only been a fewThe Possession and I can't work up much to say about it except that it wasn't bad, and as far as mainstream, PG-13 horror movies go you could do a lot worse. Outside the Jewish stuff (which is really just some lipstick they slapped on this pig) it's exactly like every other one of these movies you've seen: creepy kids, CGI bugs, arbitrary special effects, levitating objects, etc etc. What slightly distinguishes the film is A) a very good cast being given to play reasonably fleshed-out characters that you actually kinda care about, and B) solid production credits resulting in a movie that, if not scary, looks nice and makes the set pieces pop out a bit.
days since I've watched

I can't muster much enthusiasm here; The Possession is more professional and competant than, you know, good or memorable. Though in a day and age where a lot of mainstream horror movies can't even aspire to that modest level of accomplishment, maybe that is something of a real compliment.

Rating: C+

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Come Out and Play

In this chilling adaptation of the beloved Offspring song, we see the horror of gang violence on the streets of.... wait, no, that's not right. This is the 2nd adaptation of the novel El juego de los ninos, filmed previously in the 70's as Who Can Kill a Child? (unfortunately not yet the concept for what would be the best game show ever). An American couple vacation in Spain take a motorboat out to a small island village, only to find that all the adults seem to be missing, and the children are acting very bizarrely...

I saw Who Can Kill a Child? several years ago, and although my memory has grown vague, my recollection is that I was not a fan. It was overlong and lacking in atmosphere, with waaaaaaay too slow of a build up to the premise that you already understood before you started the movie (killer kids). Come Out and Play is a better film, but it almost has the opposite problem. It's a half an hour shorter and does a much better job of delivering a spooky and atmospheric slow build up, but it kind of blows it when the action starts in the 2nd half. Director Makinov (yes, just one name) has a good eye for framing, the right sense of pace and gets strong performances from his actors (especially the long underappreciated, radiant Vinessa Shaw), but does not know how to stage an action sequence or maintain energy. After a strong build the movie slowly fizzles out and meanders, with way too much hand wringing before our protagonists finally answer the question the 70's film poses (the husband can, when pushed). By the time they finally fight back against the kids instead of running and hiding, the energy is gone and seeing the wholesale slaughter of children is neither horrifying nor funny. And then it ends on the most painfully obvious "ironic" note possible.

There is one pretty good idea during the disappointing final act. It is pretty creepy and disturbing when SPOILER Shaw is killed from the inside by her own unborn child. What a fucking way to go.

I love killer kid movies (because I hate children), but they all suffer the same problem: children are neither scary nor a credible physical threat. Yes, some of these kids brandish knives (and, eventually, a gun), but most of the time I was wondering why the husband wasn't just punching them in the throat or running them over with the car they found. Stop being so tentative about this, dude, these kids are killers. People are such pussies when it comes to children.

Still, a strong opening and good performances throughout keep this one from sinking, and I'm glad I watched it.

Rating: B-

The Cat and the Canary

In this silent horror/comedy/mystery, the family of an eccentric millionaire gathers at his creepy old estate on the 20th anniversary of his passing to find out who will inherit his fortune. An heir is named, but soon the family is being bumped off one-by-one by a maniac known as "the Cat," most likely a family member trying to get the fortune for themself.

Paul Leni's The Cat and the Canary is a hell of a lot of fun, an old-fashioned "bump in the night" type horror tale that mixes bonkers German expressionism-esque visuals with goofy, screwball comedy. Clearly influential on the whole "old dark house" genre of horror films, it gets a lot of mileage from it's deliberately over-the-top style, providing constant matting/visual overlays, gothic set design, exaggerated shadows, stylized performances and more. It's one of the only silent films I've seen that uses the expressionist style for fun and humorous purposes rather than dark, soul crushing misery.

The film feels very ahead of its time, although maybe that's just because I don't give 1920's filmmakers and audiences enough credit for how genre-savvy they could be. It was released in 1927 but already has a perfect understanding of the visual and narrative tropes of horror cinema, and then playfully tweaks and exaggerates them for comic and satirical effect. I try to work in at least one silent movie every October, but this might be the first one I've seen that is just a flat out good time; a knowing, winking take on a film genre that maybe wasn't as much in its infancy as I always assumed.

Rating: B

My Soul to Take

I've already written about Wes Craven's My Soul to Take here, and I'm not sure I have much to add to my intitial drunken impressions. Except that this time (I believe my 3rd viewing) I liked it even more than I remembered.

Craven is (excepting maybe George Romero) the most inconsistant horror director to make some all-time classics. Not only inconsistant in terms of making good and bad movies; his films are inconsitant on the level of technical comptency they achieve, with some of his movies looking downright inept. One of the things in My Soul to Take's favor is that this is one of Craven's better made movies; it looks nice and has more than a fair share of clever shots. That makes the movie feel, to me, less so-bad-its-good and more a combination bad and good in interesting ways.

It seems ludicrous to me that Craven was totally serious about this ridiculous movie, although who knows? The dialogue in particular (a funny mix of witty and [intentionally?] overwritten) clearly tries to be humorous much of the time, which suggests to me that the movie is intended in good fun. And, damn it, I have a lot of fun every time I watch this one.

Rating: B+

The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires

The famed Dr. Van Helsing (the always great Peter Cushing, playing this role for the umpteenth time) teams up with a martial artist (the also always great David Chiang, doing a good job pretending to speak English) to take on the 7 Golden Vampires, vicious Chinese ghouls resurrected by Dracula who have been terrorizing Chiang's ancestral village for ages.

Here we are, back with this year's YVIAHMMAOIHTNQ, this time entitled "In Space, No One Can Hear Your Vice is a Horror Movie Marathon and Only I have the Netflix Queue."  I look forward to watching a shit ton of horror movie yet again, and blogging about them... for about a week or so, then I'm really going to get sick of writing. But worry not, I shall press on.

I decided to start this year's marathon with Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, a co-production between Hammer and the Shaw Brothers that attempts to mix gothic horror with kung-fu, as it worked as a perfect transition to this month's festivities. The past few months I've been on something of a Honk Kong movie kick (some might say infatuation), with a particular focus on kung-fu cinema. This in particular means I've watched a lot of Shaw Brothers movies as of late.

I was also excited because the film, while credited solely to British horror stalwart Roy Ward Baker, apparently had scenes directed by the late, great Chang Cheh, essentially the quintissential kung fu director. It appears Baker's action scenes weren't up to snuff, so the Shaws insisted on bringing in Chang to punch up the violence. I've grown to be a huge fan of Chang's over the past few months. The man directed or co-directed nearly a hundred movies in his life (most in a 15-20 year period), and I have seen some 30+ of them. And the amazing thing is: all of them were at least good, pretty much all of them were very good, and probably close to a third were flat out great.

I don't think this really counts, since his contributions were minimal, but this would technically be the first Chang film that I just did not like. Although the Shaw Brothers would have been thriving in the mid 70's, shitting out like a million movies per year, Hammer was in it's waning days, and much of this production feels a bit half-assed. I'm not sure if it was the budget, unfamiliarity with shooting in Hong Kong, or what, but director Baker manages to evoke little of the gothic atmosphere and classiness of the classic Hammer productions. The film is talky and slow despite having nearly no plot, and save Cushing and Chiang the cast isn't very interesting. Chang's action doesn't clash as awkwardly with Baker's style as I might have thought, but from a man who directed some of the best action scenes of all time it's clear that he didn't bring his A-game. There's a nice moment or two, maybe, but mostly it consists of shots of uninspired choreography cut with awkward reaction shots of the British cast not doing cool things.

The vampires themselves, though cheap looking, kind of have a cool design to them, and I liked their weird blood-draining chamber where they tie-up their victims. Other than that, the only part of the film I'd actively praise is that Cushing and Chiang have a genuine chemistry together, and I would have liked to have seen them team up in an actually good movie. Cushing was a weird looking dude probably best remembered for creepy and villanous roles, but I always liked him best in good guy mode, where he could disply his not-inconsiderable charm.

Whatever juice the filmmakers were hoping to get from the culture clash premise isn't enough to get the motor running. They fail to capitalize on using the Chinese architecture and landscape to create any mood or atmosphere, any use of Chinese folklore to add mystery and exoticness to the monsters is superficial, and the fun few ideas (like that Chinese vampires would be vulernable to a Buddha statue the same way European vampires are to a crucifix) don't pay off in any meaningful or entertaining way. In fact, the film is so uninspired and Euro-centric, despite it's location, that the lead villain is actually Dracula (not played by Christopher Lee, who had the good sense not to get involved). Instead we get a particularly dull Hammer film shot on cheap sets and ugly locations (half the movie seems to take place in an empty plain), with mediocre kung-fu scenes randomly inserted.

Rating: C-