Tuesday, October 17, 2017
I'm of the philosophy that the films that should be remade are the ones with interesting ideas but weak executions. This should make “Flatliners” an ideal candidate for a retelling. Yet, in 2017, it's hard to work up enthusiasm for a reboot of a partially forgotten nineties movie. From the minute it was announced, we knew the kind of tame, PG-13 shenanigans we were getting. Even Ellen Page, absolutely my favorite actress working today, starring in the film didn't get my hopes up. It mostly made me wonder “Why is Ellen Page appearing in schlock like this?” So when the lame trailer dropped, I wasn't surprised. When the critics rushed to write their pithiest “falls flat/dead on arrival/shouldn't have been brought back from the dead” puns, I wasn't surprised. But, hey, it's been a while since I've seen Ellen on the big screen and I had a Regal gift card that I'd been sitting on for a while. Figured I might as well catch this thing during what will likely be its last week in theaters.
Despite some hubbub that 2017's “Flatliners” was actually a stealth sequel to the original, the film is in fact a remake. (That much touted Kiefer Sutherland cameo has him playing a totally different character.) This film follows Courtney Holmes, a young medical student obsessed with death, due to a tragedy in her youth. She lassos four friends into participating in her experiment: Tracking the brain's patterns while being clinically dead, using themselves as test subjects, only to be brought back. At first, the experience is powerfully positive, making the student smarter and vitalized. However, the group soon discovers that unnerving spectres – reminders of their greatest mistakes – have followed them back to the world of the living.
I also found the cast to be likable. And not just Ellen, though she's very good. Page makes the character's high points – sarcastically getting her friends to participate, her peppiness after flatlining – really charming while the darker moments are equally convincing. James Norton's Jamie, who is obviously inspired by Daniel Baldwin's character from the original, manages to be a cad but not an irredeemable sleazeball. He even becomes sympathetic by the end. Kiersey Clemons is cute and fun as Sophia. It's nice to see her break away from her controlling mother. Diego Luna and Nina Dobrev are probably the weaker links in the cast. Luna's serious moments are hard to take seriously while Dobrev is never entirely believable. But, generally speaking, the film's cast is not a problem at all.
Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” forever, uses CGI pretty decently in the early going. The film's vision of the afterlife are genuinely interesting. The image of something squirming under a blanket, eventually revealed to not be there, is effective. However, Oplev eventually leans on CGI too hard. The climax involves a big, swirling storm cloud of computer-generated dust, for one example. The scare tactics the film deploys are lame and worn out. We've got multiple jump scares, usually assisted by pasty-faced ghouls suddenly stepping into frame. Both creepy nursery rhymes and creepy kids put in appearance. Probably the dumbest scare in the movie involves bloody letters suddenly appearing on a morgue door. It's all loud, unimpressive, and warmed over.
Something this “Flatliners” does maintain is the original's sappy streak. There's actually a moral here about self-forgiveness that couldn't be more forced in and unearned. Something that's new is the gratuitous product placement. Nina Dobrev's Mini-Cooper has more hero shots than any of the actual cast members. There's a mild plot twist midway through that did catch me off-guard, though mostly for all the wrong reasons. So, despite some minor moves forward, 2017's “Flatliners' is as exactly mediocre as the original but in a slightly different way. I hope Ellen can find better material than this in the future, as she deserves way better. [5/10]
The ventriloquist dummy has a proud history in the horror genre. Like dolls and mannequins, they have the corpse-like visage of looking alive but not being alive. Yet the dummy has the extra layer of having an intimate connection with a human. Pretty much from the first cinematic depiction of ventriloquism – 1925's “The Great Gabbo,” as far as I can tell – people have assumed a disturbing relationship between the dummy and the performer. One of the most famous evil dummy movies is “Magic.” The film was well received and reasonably successful upon release but, over the years, it has become even more respected.
Corky Withers has trained for years to become a magician. Though his skills are impressive, his inability to remain cool on-stage keeps his career from coming off. His luck changes when he adds Fats, a foul-mouthed ventriloquist dummy, to his act. He's so successful that he's even offered a television special. Before that deal can go through, he has to undergo a mental exam. This scares Corky and he runs off to his childhood home in the Catskill Mountain. There, he reunites with Peggy Ann Snow, his high school crush. The two fall in love, despite Peggy being married. Fats, however, continues to occupy far too much of Corky's mind. The dummy – an extension of Corky's own madness – refuses to let Peg get in the way of their success.
“Magic” was advertised with the tagline “A terrifying love story.” That might seem like a weird way to sell a psychological horror movie but the romance at the story's center is genuinely charming. Ann-Margret's Peggy is not happy with her life. She's trapped in a loveless marriage and has never left her childhood home town. Corky seems to intuitively understand her pain, as he's struggling with dissatisfaction too. The two quickly fall in bed but the warmth between Margret and Hopkins makes this believable. Corky's final gesture of love for Peg – a wooden heart he's whittled – gets me every time. His actions are sweet and selfless, rooted in a pure love. The film wouldn't work at all if the romance wasn't so believable. With it, “Magic” becomes a first rate film.
As I said, “Magic” has developed a cult following over the years. I think the startling trailer has a lot to do with that. The trailer's sole focus is on Fats as he talks and eventually convulses in a disturbing manner. This was shown on daytime TV before parents of traumatized children requested it be removed. At least some of those kids grew up into horror fans. Beyond the really creepy dummy, “Magic” is a fantastically acted and wonderfully orchestrated feature, with some great performances and an effective score. I'm pretty happy that the original one-sheet is now hanging on my wall. [8/10]
For its final episode, “Fear Itself” didn't even bothered to get an arguable Master of Horror to direct. “The Circle” was directed by Eduardo Rodriguez, who had only made shorts up to that point. (He's since made the direct-to-video “Fright Night II,” doing little to help his case.) The series finale focuses on Brian, a hugely successful novelist. What he thought was going to be a quiet night with his wife, Lisa, is disturbed when Brian's agent and several other friends drop by. They're trying to get him over his writer's block. It's Halloween night, so neither are too disturbed when a pair of trick-or-treater's knock on the door. What they bring, a book called “The Circle,” is more unnerving. The monster from Brian's book, an amorphous darkness that infects people, encircles the cabin. Soon, Brian will have to write again if he hopes to survive the night.
I haven't seen any of Rodriguez' shorts, so I have no idea what was so effective about them that Mick Garris invited the guy to work on this show. I will say that “The Circle” is mildly successful as a horror film full of loud noises. There are many sequences of characters, infected by the darkness, leaping out and attacking people. Rodriguez has a decent enough grasp on tension that these moments are mildly effective. “Evil Dead” was a likely inspiration for this story – considering the cabin setting, the infectious evil, and an ominous book figuring into the plot – and Rodriguez captures that spirit a little bit. (The Halloween setting helps too.) The episode is also probably the goriest of “Fear Itself,” as people are impaled and tossed around repeatedly. Rodriguez does rely on CGI too much. The squirming mass of computer generated black tendrils do not impress.
In retrospect, “Fear Itself” was a little better than I remembered it being. Most of the episodes were deeply mediocre but only a few were truly awful. I even managed to like one or two. As a follow-up to “Masters of Horror,” it was a massive disappointment. Not just because the line-up of directors was generally underwhelming – though that was a big reason why – but because this series' goal seemed counter intuitive to that one's. “Masters of Horror” was all about allowing respected elder statesmen of the genre to do whatever they wanted. Moving the show to network television put a leash on that creativity. This is why, I think, “Fear Itself” was such a colossal failure. Even though I enjoyed a few episodes, I can't give this series too high a rating for that reason. [Fear Itself: 5/10]
The Early 70's Horror Trailer (1999)
I have no familiar with the work of director Damon Packard. He's done several features and a few shorts. His movie, “Reflections of Evil,” seems to have a small cult following. I watched his 1999 short film, “The Early 70's Horror Trailer,” because the title popped up on Letterboxd and it seemed like something I would enjoy. So what is “The Early 70's Horror Trailer” about? Exactly what it sounds like. It's a plotless series of images and titles, set to a groovy score, meant to recreate the look and feel of a vintage horror movie trailer. The non-existent movie the trailer is advertising seems to be about young women fleeing some sort of malevolent force, possibly a male killer.
As an act of re-creation, “The Early 70's Horror trailer” is pretty accurate. This does indeed feel like an old trailer. The musical score is excellent, especially the wild and shrieking violins that show up. The swirling, partially transparent titles Packard employ are period accurate. The rough zooms, color tinting, and shaky camera work recall a seventies giallo. A few of the images presented here are interesting. Such as a corpse-like man pointing ominously, a woman covered in blood laying in a bath tub, a witch-like face starring through a dark mirror, or a series of women running through a multi-colored area.
Monday, October 16, 2017
The greatest mystery is the question of what happens to us after death. Whether your an atheist or devout, you've probably wondered what awaits us beyond this life. If the entire foundation of the horror genre is humanity's common fear of the unknown, death is surely the greatest unknown of all. Obviously, this is a topic that has come up many times in horror movies. One film that dealt directly with this premise was “Flatliners.” The movie would become a decent sized hit in 1990, mostly due to being the first Julia Roberts movie released after “Pretty Woman” made her a household name. It's cast full of known names made it a regular presence on cable. I've seen parts of the movie on TV many times over the years but this is the first time I've sat down to watch the whole movie from start to finish.
Medical student Nelson Wright has touched upon a deadly experiment. He will intentionally induced heart failure, leaving the person in a state of death for several minutes, before they are revived. This, he figures, will allow the individual a peak at the afterlife. He uses himself as the first test subject. The result is so impressive that he talks three of his friends – Rachel, Dave, and Joe – into also participating in the experiment. At first, the results are invigorating. However, the group of four quickly begin to experience strange side effects. Figures from their past begin to haunt them, even attacking them. Now, the group must unravel the reasoning behind these events.
The way the flatliners' guilt manifest themselves simply aren't scary either. Rachel briefly sees her dad as a corpse, which is a decent scare. Dave, meanwhile, has the little girl appear and call him names. Joe's conquests – women he recorded having sex with, without their consent, which definitely makes him a sexual predator of some sort – simply appear and say pick-up lines to him. Nelson, meanwhile, is repeatedly beaten up by a small child. If you want to establish your protagonist as worldly and experienced, don't repeatedly show him getting defeated by a little boy. This is the wimpiest attempt at horror I've seen recently. The way the characters resolve their issues, by making peace with their literal and metaphorical ghosts, is incredibly sappy. Joel Schumacher's direction, which is heavy on the cool blue colors and religious iconography, does little to improve their scenes of debatable horror.
the greasier Baldwins, an attribute well used in the role of Joe. Julia Roberts probably gives the best performance in the film, as someone directly confronting her childhood trauma. You do feel for her a bit, as she's put through the emotional wringer. Oliver Platt, a talented actor, is stuck in the role of an over-analytical know-it-all. Considering Platt's character never undergoes the near death experiment, I don't even know why he's in the story.
I get the feeling that “Flatliners” is a horror movie made for people who don't like horror movies very much. The horrors are totally weak and defanged. The presentation is music video pretty. The cast is full of heartthrobs and sex symbols. It's inoffensive and safe, neither of which are good qualities for a horror film to have. It's a decent film to play in the background while you do laundry, which might explain its long life as a schedule filler on cable. James Newton Howard's score is pretty, I'll give it that much. As I said, the premise has a lot of potential. Perhaps a remake will come along that exploits that? Mmmm... [5/10]
The Stone Tape (1972)
I never really know what to expect from classic British sci-fi and horror. I love most of the things Hammer produced. “Ghostwatch” gets scarier every time I watch it. Yet I have never been interested in “Doctor Who.” Nigel Kneale's “Quatermass,” very well respected in certain circles, have always left me cold. So it was with some trepidation that I approached 'The Stone Tape.” The TV film, part of the BBC's long running ghost stories for Christmas series, supposedly traumatized a whole general of kids when it first aired in the early seventies. The premise certainly intrigued. However, the film also came from the pen of Kneale, making me uncertain of what to expect. Time to stop hesitating and just watch the damn thing.
Ryan Electronics is moving into a new facility at Taskerlands, a mansion in the British countryside. The oldest room, in the basement, was built with stones dating back to the Medieval period. Peter Brock, the research team manager, hopes to create some tape recording technology that will impress his boss. Instead, Jill, a computer programmer, discovers a ghost in the basement. As the research team investigate the haunting further, they begin to believe that the ghosts aren't the spectres of the dead. Instead, they float the theory that ghosts are like recordings, made on the ancient stones. Their attempts to exploit this discovery for financial gain does not work out for them.
Quatermass and the Pit” had a subway tunnel uncovering aliens that were the basis for old beliefs in demons. “The Stone Tape” also explores this idea. The film attempts to explain ghosts, one of the oldest of all legends, with then cutting edge science. The story's central concept – that ghosts are past events imprinted on the surrounding environment, like video recorded to a tape – is a tantalizing one. (So tantalizing that it's even been adopted by some real life parapsychologists.) We also learn that the castle was built upon an even older haunted patch of land. So modern horrors are just variances on even older stories. This dynamic, of the ancient and the modern, is present in the basic outline of the story. “The Stone Tape” is all about people filling an old castle with what passed for high-tech computers in 1972.
“The Stone Tape” has the production values you'd expect from the BBC in the seventies. In addition to the bell bottoms and muttonchops, the special effects look pretty cheesy to modern eyes. The film takes place mostly in one location. It's a pretty good location though. The modern hallways of the castle are cold and sterile. The basement, which maintains the original stone, is moldy and aged. It's the perfect place for a haunting. Some of the film's spookier events still provide chills. A ghostly apparition appearing at the top of the stairs is a little overdone. More impressive is a scene where Brock, walking into the stone room, only hears the ghostly screams. A moment where red eyes appear in the darkness is genuinely creepy. The climax, involving green spectres rising up out of the stone, borders on the campy. Yet there's some delightfully spooky about these creaky, old fashion special effects.
Some of the problems I had with “The Stone Tape” I totally anticipated. Like I said, if you're going to watch a movie that was made for British television back in the seventies, keep your expectations in check about special effects. If you overlook that, as well as the inherent dryness of the material, you'll find “The Stone Tape” to be pretty creepy. I can certainly see why kids, watching this back in the seventies, would be so affected by it. The ideas are fascinating and the proceedings are atmospheric. It's no “Ghostwatch” but I'm glad I gave it a look. [7/10]
I've seen every episode of “Fear Itself” before. When the DVD set came out, I bought it to complete my "Masters of Horror" collection. However, upon this rewatch, “Echoes” was the only episode I had absolutely zero memory of. It was directed by Rupert Wainwright, whose dubious horror credits include “Stigmata” and the godawful remake of “The Fog.” “Echoes” follows Stephen, who has just recently bought an old home. His female friend, Karen, is helping him move in. Stephen has romantic feelings for Karen but is too shy to make the first move. After his first night in the house, he begins to experiences memories from a past life. He recalls the life of Maxwell, a gangster who owned the house in the twenties. Maxwell murdered his girlfriend, Zelda. As Stephen digs deeper into the past, he realizes Karen looks a lot like Zelda. And he fears that history will repeat itself.
“Echoes” is very predictable. From the moment the story starts rolling, you know exactly where it will end up. Having said that, the ideas presented here appeal to me. People being caught in an inescapable cycle of events, especially when its connected to their past lives, is a theme I've explored in my own writing. “Echoes” hits every beat you'd expect. Stephen becomes more violent as the events of Maxwell's life start to influence him more. Yet it rolls along at a decent pace. Basing the episode around an unrequited romance is a nice touch, making the tragic outcome of Stephen and Karen's relationship more complex. It helps that the performances are solid. Aaron Stanford is likable and properly freaked out. Camille Guaty is lovely and has a nice energy as Karen/Zelda.
As I've written about many times before, I've been to quite a few horror movie conventions. This is why I became interested in “Conventional,” a ten minute long short, starring and directed by Karen Gillan. Gillan plays Rachel Milligan. Milligan once starred in a slasher film called “Axe Wound 2.” Since then, her career has floundered. Now, in order to make end's meet, she makes regular appearances at conventions. She signs the same old glossies for fans dressed as Stu Mac, the film's axe wielding killer with a pageboy hair cut. She answers the same old questions at Q&As. She repeats the same phrases while pausing for photographs. The repetition, and the sense that her life is falling apart, is starting to get to her.
Usually, nerd conventions are portrayed unfairly in film and television. “Conventional” falls into this trap a little. I've never seen that much identical cosplay at one event. Otherwise, the film accurately captures the atmosphere. The first scene has Rachel signing an autograph for one devoted fan, while another guests has a much longer line. She feigns enthusiasm during the panel, while answering softball questions like “What does horror mean to you?” Gillan wears a ridiculous pair of fake lips in the short, showing that Rachel has had some ill-advised plastic surgery recently. That sense of sad desperation, of putting on a happy face while feeling like a has-been, I've seen that before. I wonder if this is the kind of thing horror convention regulars – your Adrienne Barbeaus and Kristy Swansons – think and feel all the time.
Bloody Disgusting's Babe of the Year,” but mostly it's a brazenly honest portrayal.
“Conventional” isn't just a film about horror movies, as it features a bloody murder in its final minutes. However, that last step almost feels unnecessary. The short is an impressive debut from Gillan. It's darkly funny, intensely sad, and insightful about a corner of nerd culture that can, let's face it, get a little pathetic at times. I'm sure, being a “Doctor Who” graduate, Gillan's been to more than a few conventions. However, considering her continuing role in a major Marvel franchise and the obvious talent she displays as a writer and director, she will probably won't end up like Rachel Mulligan. [8/10]
Sunday, October 15, 2017
Baby Blood (1990)
Pregnancy is considered a miracle by some people. Of course, in a way, it is. The creation is pretty fucking magical when you think about it. It's also kind of horrifying. Humans are born out a sweaty act, arising out fluids being shot everywhere. Then a woman's body is transformed, hormonally and physically, as another creature grows inside them. This thing is then ejected via pain and blood. And that's not even considering the terror and anxiety associated with parenthood. Unsurprisingly, some horror filmmakers have found inspiration in the subject of childbirth. “Baby Blood” is a French film from 1990. I hadn't heard much about until a few years ago, when it started being recommended to me as a grisly, weirdo hidden gem. Immediately, it went onto my Halloween watch-list.
Yanka lives with her abusive boyfriend as part of a traveling circus. They receive a new shipment of animals from Africa. One of the big cats dies that night, something crawling out of its body. The parasite then crawls into Yanka's body while she's sleeping, taking up residence in her womb. The creature begins to grow inside her, Yanka becoming pregnant with the monster. It psychically communicates with her. Yanka's child demands blood, forcing her to go out and kill various men. As the parasite matures, her birth date drawing closer, Yanka and the creature begin to develop a strange relationship, equal parts resentful and warm.
“Baby Blood” is also about the different ways men abuse women. Yanka's boyfriend is abusive. After he catches a man – who later attempts to forcefully kiss her – peeping on her changing, he threatens and beats her. Later, he tracks Yanka down at an apartment and attacks her again. After running off to the city, Yanka encounters other abusive behavior. A truck driver picks up a hitchhiking Yanka but later abandons her on the side of the road A man oogles her wantonly during a quasi-date. After some awkward sex, he proposes to her. Turns out, the guy already has a girlfriend. In the final act, Yanka gets on a bus full of soccer hooligans. They attempt to rape her while the driver just sits back and blames her for what's happening. So the world of “Baby Blood” gives Yanka little reason not to want to murder her male victims. Notably, in the original French version, the parasite has a female voice. In the dub, the voice is male, extending the theme of abusive men even into Yanka's internal life. (In his book, “Horror Films of the 1990s,” John Kenneth Muir claims Gary Oldman provided the parasite's English voice. I can't find any other source for this factoid though.)
“Baby Blood” is certainly a flawed film. The tone ricochets wildly between twisted humor and serious horror, without much cohesion. The ending is abrupt. The acting can be pretty ropy at times, though Emmanuelle Escourrou is very good as Yanka. Some of my problems with the film aren't even the filmmaker's fault. The Region 1 DVD of “Baby Blood” is way out of print and being sold for too much. It's not currently available on any streaming services that I could find. So I ended up watching a version on a pretty sketchy website. Most of the movie was dubbed into English but a few lengthy scenes were in unsubtitled French. Luckily, I was still able to follow the story. Amazingly, a sequel called “Lady Blood” was made 2008. Escourrou returned but director Alain Robak didn't. I have no idea if it lives up to the original, a delightfully gross and entertaining cult classic. [7/10]
If you ask me who Alice Lowe was, I'd probably look at you with mild confusion. If you mentioned her roles in “Hot Fuzz” or “Garth Miringhi's Darkplace,” I'd vaguely know what you were talking about. If you just referred to her as the lady from “Sightseers,” I'd immediately know what you were talking about. She's a hard working British character actress and has been very funny in many things. When Lowe was heavily pregnant, nobody would hire her. So she decided to make her own work. While eight month pregnant, she wrote, directed, and starred in “Prevenge.” That alone is pretty impressive but “Prevenge” also ended up being pretty good.
Lowe plays Ruth. Eight months ago, her boyfriend died in a rock climbing accident. She blames his death on the other people in the climbing party. Her baby blames them as well. The fetus inside Ruth is instructing her to hunt down and murder the people responsible, whispering vague threats at her all hours of the night and day. Ruth doesn't entirely agree with this journey, often arguing with the unborn child inside her. It's October, nearly Halloween, and Ruth's due date is coming soon. Her child is insistent that its revenge must be fulfilled before it is born.
It's also a really funny, extremely dark comedy. Ruth is not an experienced murderer. Her interactions with her potential victims are often very awkward. She haphazardly seduces a guy at a Halloween disco party. After going back to his house, they stumble through some extremely gawky banter, before the guy's senile mom wanders into the room. Even after murdering the man, the elderly woman continues to walk around, confused. At a job interview, the fetus whispers mean-spirited (but darkly funny) comments into Ruth's ear, which she then repeats to the interviewer. One victim is a self-defense trainer, leading to some fisticuffs which then leads to an amusingly terse conversation. Probably my favorite comedic moment involves Ruth making friends with the roommate of one of her targets. After joking around about food, she's then forced to murder the man, which she immediately regrets. This kind of conversational, awkward comedy is very British and won't be to everyone's liking. I can dig it though.
“Prevenge” runs a tight 87 minutes and is highly entertaining for most of that run time. It's clear that Lowe didn't have entirely enough material to fill her film, as a couple of scenes meander a bit. However, it's a promising debut. As a comedy, it made me laugh plenty. As a horror film, it's surprisingly potent. As a showcase for Lowe's abilities, it really impresses. Hey, the film also has a pretty cool synth setting. It also makes full use of its October setting, as the final scene takes place during a Halloween parade. Those two factors are enough to make me really like this one. [7/10]
The Spirit Box
Among the “Masters of Horror” directors, one I most assuredly wouldn't have invited back was Rob Schmit. I liked Schmit's “Wrong Turn” but his “Right to Die” was one of the weakest episodes of the show's second season. Despite this, Schmit would return for “Fear Itself.” “The Spirit Box” follows two teenage girls, Shelby and Becca. While bored on Halloween night, the two decide to make a spirit box. That's a bootleg Ouija board made out of whatever is lying around, which is a pizza box, a cellphone, and some magazines in this case. The two girls seem to contact the spirit of Emily D'Angelo, a classmate who killed herself the previous year. Via the spirit box, Emily tells the girls that she didn't commit suicide. She was murdered. As the girls investigate, they begin to suspect one of their teachers is responsible.
“The Spirit Box” was an early starring role for Anna Kendrick, whose only claim to fame in 2008 would've been the first “Twilight” movie. Kendrick is awfully charming as Shelby, making a likable teenage hero. (Though the script's assertion that Shelby is unpopular with boys is hard to believe, considering she looks like Anna Kendrick.) She has good chemistry with Jessica Parker Kennedy as Becca. Just watching the two of them play off each other, doing goofy teen girl things together, is fun. As a teenage sleuth story, “The Spirit Box” is solid. A scene devoted to Shelby sneaking into the teacher's house is actually somewhat suspenseful. The episode almost plays like an edgier “Nancy Drew” or similar stories, following its girl detectives trying to unravel a mysterious crime. It's kind of fun.
The Birch (2016)
I have no familiarity with the works of directors Ben Franklin and Anthony Melton. Apparently, some of their horror shorts are quite popular, with “Don't Move” garnering something like a following. While looking into their work, the title “The Birch” caught my eye. It was only four minutes long too. Anyway, the short follows a young boy named Shaun. At school, Shaun is ruthlessly bullied by a thug named Kris. At home, he deals with a sickly grandmother. While on her death bed, his grandmother passes him a book, detailing how to summon a spirit from inside the near-by woods. Soon afterwards, Kris chases Shaun into the forest. There, the bully encounters the Birch.
“The Birch” tells a surprisingly complete story, despite only being four minutes long. There's no narration or gratuitous set-up. Instead, Franklin and Melton leap right into the action. By smartly cross-cutting between Shaun's school and home life, they quickly establish the situation. The Birch, the supernatural entity in the woods, is set up with some speedy visuals. We see a book, an odd symbols in its pages, and next Shaun is building that symbol out of twigs. We understand the story's structure very quickly, which is a good thing when you only have four minutes. We learn about the bully's cruelty and long to see him get his comeuppance. At the same time, the short shows how frightened Shaun is by the powers he controls.
Saturday, October 14, 2017
A couple of days ago, I was talking about how many horror films have been adapted into TV shows recently. I was initially skeptical about a lot of these announcements. When they decided to turn “Westworld” into a TV, I was really uncertain. What, were the robots going to go haywire and start killing people every week? Besides, it was already tried, back in the eighties, without much success. Against all odds, the “Westworld” TV show is apparently actually pretty good. I don't know because I've never seen it but the show's success did inspire me to go back and watch the original movie, which I first saw years ago. Besides, what Halloween season is complete without a killer robot or two?
In the near future – 1983 – the Delos Corporation has built a series of incredible theme parks. Medieval World, Roman World, and West World recreate the pop culture versions of their respective time period. The worlds are populated with realistic robots that expertly play their roles. The human visitors, meanwhile, can do whatever they want, murdering and debauch-ing with impunity. John Blane and Peter Martin visit West World, expecting to have the time of their lives. It's pretty fun until the robots begin to act outside their programming. The show is over and the machines become deadly. Now Blane and Martin must survive and escape.
recycle the same premise for “Jurassic Park,” replacing robot cowboys with dinosaurs. Though people argue about that too, I consider “Jurassic Park” pretty unambiguously a horror film. Robots belong to the sci-fi genre but murderous robots, I believe, fall strictly within horror's realm. The way the robotic gunslinger pursues Martin, slowly but always catching up with him, makes “Westworld” a predecessor to the slasher film. (So does the killer's habit of returning briefly from death for one more scare.) So I'll hear no more debate about this. “Westworld” is a horror movie. Case closed.
Crichton is most notorious for being equally fascinated and horrified by what science is capable of. Surprisingly, Crichton left all but the barest crumbs of this fascination behind with “Westworld.” Yes, you wonder at what a creation the park is and are then frightened when it all goes wrong. Yet Westworld is clearly a fantasy world, far outside the realm of possibility in 1973, so that no clear criticism of modern science emerges. Instead, “Westworld” targets something else. The theme parks are a place where violent and sexual fantasies can run amok. (Specifically, macho male fantasies of being cowboys or knights, though I doubt Crichton meant anything by that.) Inevitably, that kind of excess eventually leads to self-destruction. Meanwhile, it's also a film about how historical fact is repackaged to be modern day entertainment. Or how storytellers uses historical settings as an excuse to pack in as much flesh and blood as they want. Honestly, there's a lot to chew on here.
As I said, Yul Brynner's Gunslinger is a prototype for later villains like Michael Myers and the T-800. Like the Terminator, he has his synthetic flesh burned off, revealing the mechanical skeleton underneath. (At one point, Schwarzenegger was attached to star in a remake of “Westworld,” which would've brought this connection full circle.) Brynner's casting is not just a reference to his many western roles. He actually gives a chilling performance. The reflective contact lens emphasize the uncanny appearance and detached quality that had long been Brynner's trademark. His best moment comes when that untouchable aura cracks up. At one point, the Gunslinger realizes he's wander into Medieval Land and doesn't seem to entirely understand what is happening. The other two leads in the film, James Brolin as Blane and Richard Benjamin as Martin, are also pretty good. It's a nice switch how Brolin, playing the more traditionally tough guy, gets killed first, forcing the more intellectual Benjamin to take the lead.
a sequel, though nobody talks about it much, in addition to those TV shows I've already mentioned. (It was also parodied on a pretty great “Simpsons” episode.) Even after “Jurassic Park” mostly overshadowed it, the film is well remembered by a certain strata of movie fan. It's vision of robotics has not aged well. Neither has the notion that people care enough about living in the wild west that they'd pay a thousand dollars to visit it. Crichton was clearly still getting the grip on directing. I like this one anyway. [7/10]
The Lure (2015)
Sometimes you hear a film premise and immediately know you have to see it. “The Lure” was released in its native Poland in 2015 but only began to circulate around English language festivals in 2016. Janus Films, the guys behind the Criterion Collection, gave it a stateside theatrical release earlier this year. So, for a while, I've been hearing about this horror/musical about man-eating mermaids singing in a nightclub. For a long time, I've been fascinated by the mermaid's potential as a horror character, since they're seductive, strange, and ultimately inhuman. The peculiar combination of horror elements and song-and-dance numbers always catches my attention. Oh, and did I mention its set in the eighties, so there's plenty of synth? Yeah, “The Lure” couldn't appeal to me anymore if it was made specifically for me.
A band – composed guitarist Mietek, a female singer, and several other musicians – practice on a beach. The music attracts a pair of mermaid sisters. When their bodies dry up, their fish tails turn into legs. A splash of water returns them to their natural state. (Though they notably lack human sex organs.) The blonde, naive sister is named Golden while her brunette, more adventurous sister is named Silver. They follow the band back to the club and are quickly incorporated into their act. The sisters become a huge hit. However, neither sister can resist their natural instincts to kill humans and eat their hearts.
As a musical, “The Lure” is also really impressive. The songs are uniformly great. “You Were the Beat of My Heart” is a remorseful number disguised as a slinky, catchy come-on. “Take Me in Your Care” is a touching duet between Golden and Mietek, which the film beautifully illustrates as a swim through a murky lake. Maybe the stand-out number in the film is “Abracadabra,” which features the girl dancing through the green-lit club while dressed as Siouxsie Sue, against a thumping electronic beat. Smoczynska's directs the scenes fantastically, such as in the haunting “The Bed,” where Golden sings about gaining legs, or “I Came to the City,” which features the girls dancing through a mall, having discovered the joys of shopping. I don't speak Polish but I still found myself responding to the emotion, power, and melodies of these songs.
“The Lure” is also an adaptation of sorts of Hans Christian Anderson's” The Little Mermaid.” And I don't mean the Disney version. Smoczynska maintains the tragedy at the center of Anderson's story. Golden gives her heart to an Earthly man, giving up her tail and her voice. Ultimately, it doesn't work out and she suffers the same fate Ariel did. Thus, the film ends in tragedy. It's the story of young girls who have their hearts broken and, ultimately, can't find their place in a world they still don't understand. If the film truly is a coming-of-age story, it's about reaching maturity but learning the cost of these things.
I probably should've mentioned this in the last review but, by the time “Chance” came along, “Fear Itself” had been canceled. After “Skin and Bones” aired, the show went on hiatus for NBC's coverage of the 2008 Summer Olympics. After the games ended, “Fear Itself” had disappeared from the schedule. The show was so beneath NBC's notice that they didn't even officially announce its cancellation until a few months later. So the show's remaining five episodes didn't surface until the DVD release. (They were then burned off on other channels like Fearnet and, for some reason, E!)
“Chance” was directed by John Dahl. He's made some good films but his only horror credit of note is “Joy Ride,” which hardly qualifies him for master status. Anyway, the episode follows a guy named – go figure – Chance. He's had some money problems recently, which is girlfriend is very concerned about. After discovering that an antique vase he owns is worth thousands of dollars, he thinks his hard times may be at an end. After meeting with the antiques dealer, Chance learns the vase is much newer than he thought and only worth a fraction of the expected value. The situation becomes tense and Chance accidentally ends up killing the antique shop owner. At this point, a morally corrupt version of Chance emerges from an ancient mirror, seeking to help him out of this problem.
The supernatural element that pushes “Chance” into the horror genre is that mean-spirited doppelganger that seemingly emerges from a magic mirror. This element is not well-explained. The twist ending – because every episode of this show has a dumb twist ending, it seems – suggests Chance had a psychotic break and did everything by himself. Which doesn't explain how the doppelganger can clearly affect things around him. It's a nonsensical narrative device added to an undercooked script, doing nothing to improve or complicated things. Dahl's direction is frequently shaky and unstable, making the episode hard to look at too. [5/10]
This House Has People in It (2016)
After “Too Many Cook's” and “Unedited Footage of a Bear's” meme-eriffic success, Adult Swim realized they were in the surreal horror short business. Alan Resnick, “Bear's” creator, was next allowed to make his most ambitious project yet. “This House Has People in It” is told from the perspective of security cameras set up inside a seemingly normal suburban home. The cameras watch in every room and the short cuts back and forth between them. The young son waits for his birthday party guests to arrive. The grandmother and the infant child watch TV. A plumber works in the basement. Mom and Dad argue in the kitchen about an upcoming vacation. That's when they notice their teenage daughter is laying on the floor, unresponsive. Soon, she begins to sink through the floor. The parents panic, trying to find a way to save their daughter from this bizarre condition. It gets weirder from there.
If one theme unites Adult Swim's trilogy of weirdo horror shorts, it's the perversion of the mundane. After twisting sitcom intros and commercials into weird, disturbing things, the next target is the normal life of a large family. At first, the titular house that has people in it seems normal. This is just a regular family going about their day, right? Then you notice the body laying on the floor. Or the cooking show grandma is watching, which seems to be about eating clay. Or you'll briefly glimpse a bizarre, cartoon animal shape moving outside a window. By the time the short escalates into its unnerving last act, you're already freaked out. This is the fundamentals of horror. First you set up the normalcy of the situation, which then allows you to subvert it in disturbing ways. “This House Has People in It” teaches this lesson very astutely and only in eleven minutes.
By the end, “This House Has People in It” descends into total insanity. The father acts increasingly unhinged as the situation becomes more grave. Smoke fills the house, while grandpa sits in front of the TV, seemingly unaware of what's happening. Kids have a party on the lawn. The baby wanders out of the house, towards God knows what danger. The security cameras cut between the rooms more frantically. As an inevitable, horrible thing happens to the daughter, the cameras seem to loose the signal... Before regaining it long enough for us to see that the girl's condition is apparently contagious. Then you realize the title is also a twisted pun. When the daughter sinks into the floorboards, the house literally had people inside its very structure.
Friday, October 13, 2017
Another candidate for indie horror darling of the year is “Raw.” Like many of these movies, I had heard nothing about it until festival buzz started to build earlier in the year. When the film screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, somebody in the audience supposedly fainted. During a Q&A afterwards, the director claimed any ignorance about this event. So if it was a publicity stunt, it was at least a well orchestrated one. Since then, the French film has picked up many positive reviews. And now, via the power of the internet, I can experience “Raw” myself.
Justine has been raised to be a vegetarian. She arrives at a veterinarian college, meeting her bisexual roommate Adrien and Alexia, her older sister. As part of the hazing ritual, Justine is forced to eat a raw rabbit liver. This seemingly awakens in her an incredible hunger for meat. After Alexia cuts a finger off, during a freak bikini wax accident, Justine attempts to eat the finger. Alexia is shocked at first but soon begins to share her sister's desire for human flesh. In-between finding acceptable ways to eat meat, Justine also begins a relationship with Adrien. Soon, the sisters are fighting over both of these factors.
As a horror picture, “Raw” is quite grisly. It's a film intimately concerns with the sweaty, up-close, nasty details of the human body. After eating the rabbit liver, Justine awakens the next day, covered in an flaking, itchy rash. While visiting the doctor, she has large strips of loose skin removed. Urination and pubic hair also feature in two key scenes. Maybe the most disgusting scene in the film involves Justine vomiting long strands of hair. As for the gore effects, they are realistic and sickening. Every bite and crunch is audible. The tearing of skin and sinew is focused on. Yet it's all in service of “Raw's” story of a girl discovering the world is different from what she expected. The visceral quality of the gore contrasts intensely with Justine's previously meat-free world. There are several lingering shots on the various animals they work with at the academy, that I'm sure have some sort of deeper significance.
“Raw” also concludes with one hell of a final moment, half-way between a sick joke and a shock twist ending. Honestly, all of “Raw” walks that line, peppering its sick and twisted story with a certain degree of dark humor. The film is the feature solo debut of Julia Ducournau. She shows a strong directorial sense. Her use of music is especially good. The film is comparable to “Excision” and “In My Skin,” though not quite as good as either of those. (They'd make one hell of a triple feature though.) I'm not quite sure if this is the horror find of the year but I did really enjoy it. Worth passing out over? Nah. Still pretty good? For sure. [7/10]
Werewolves on Wheels (1971)
“Werewolves on Wheels” is one of those legendary titles I've read about many times over the years. I mean that literally. It's a great title. The quality of the movie is really irrelevant, isn't it? Some B-movie exploitation producers got the novel idea of combining two profitable genres: Biker flicks and horror movies. They cooked up that awesome title, threw together equally salacious poster art, shot the movie as quickly and cheaply as possible, before dumping it on the drive-in and grindhouse circuit. The scheme surely worked. “Werewolves on Wheels” would have been forgotten if it wasn't gifted with such a memorable title.
The Devil's Advocate, a biker gang, ride through the desert. They cause some mischief here and there but mostly just want to have a good time. That good time takes them to a seemingly abandoned church. After crashing there, the Satanic cult that makes the church its home is seriously annoyed with the bikers. As revenge, a curse is placed on their leader. Whenever the moon is full in the sky, he will become a werewolf. The rest of the gang finds this out soon enough, when members of their group start to wind up dead, slashed to death by some sort of beast.
Wikipedia tells me that at least part of “Werewolves on Wheels'” cast was made up of genuine bikers with zero acting experience. This certainly explains some things about the finished film. Director Michael Levesque, who would make one more exploitation flick before primarily focusing on production design for TV, seems to have taken a naturalistic approach. There are long scenes of the bikers driving down the road, dopey hippy rock playing on the soundtrack. There are similarly long scenes of the bikers hanging out around camp fires or screwing around inside a junkyard. Simply put, not much happens in “Werewolves on Wheels.”
As far as biker antics go, “Werewolves on Wheels” delivers the barest of thrills. The Devil's Advocates don't get up to much carnage. In the opening scene, they goof around inside a roadside diner. Later, they harass a gas station owner in a cowboy hat. Otherwise, they mostly mind their own business. This includes watching a naked woman dance around with a snake, pretending to be dogs, pretending to film news broadcast, and arguing about beer, drugs, and tarot cards. If you're looking for weird, drive-in nonsense, the biker stuff is mildly interesting. Watching a group of poorly acted fictional bikers just shoot the shit occupies the viewer... But only for a few minutes. It's gets tedious pretty quickly.
I knew there was no way “Werewolves on Wheels” could live up to its amazing title. But I was hoping the movie would be more entertaining than it ended up being. The film is one of those tedious exploitation flicks that expect a crazy title and premise to carry the whole production. Little effort was expended on the rest of the movie. Occasionally, there's one or two moment that's interesting in a sleazy way. Or as a time capsule of the early seventies. Otherwise, you're going to need some beer (or whatever your recreational substance of choice is) to get through this one. You might be better served leaving “Werewolves on Wheels” as an awesome title and poster and forget about the mediocre movie. [5/10]
Something with Bite
Hey, how about a werewolf double feature? After putting his (immediately kind of mediocre) stamp on the vampire with “The V Word,” Ernest Dickerson would tackle another classic horror archetype with his “Fear Itself” episode, “Something with Bite.” Willbur Orwell is a somewhat forgetful veterinarian. His son is a smart alack, his wife fears the spark has gone out of their relationship, and his employees don't respect him. (Except Mikayla, his assistant, who adores him.) That all changes after Wilbur is bitten by a strange animal brought into the vet's office. His communication with his animal clients improve. His sex life gets a lot better. He starts commanding more respect. Yep, Wilbur is a werewolf now. He's just worried he might be responsible for the gruesome animal murders happening around town.
“Fear Itself” has been pretty serious up to this point. “Something with Bite” is the first fully comedic episode. The script is from famous son/Twitter combatant/occasional screenwriter Max Landis. Dickerson and Landis keep the tone light and humorous. The characters are exaggerated and silly. Mikayla is a stereotypical good girl, right down to the glasses. Wilbur's wife, who the kids today would describe as “thicc,” is a mouthy, passionate black woman. The cop who appears is the expected hard boiled, ball-busting detective. The performances are on this same level. Wendel Pierce, as Wilbur, is affably goofy. “Something with Bite” is so light-hearted that it doesn't even really try for horror. The attacks are mildly gory. Dickerson directs them with gusto but the intent clearly isn't to scare.
cereal boxes. The episode's twist – that a human with a werewolf fetish is actually responsible for the murders – is a decent surprise. Though it only appears at the end, the werewolf effects are also pretty cool. “Something with Bite” is deeply goofy but it's an entertaining hour. I'd certainly watch it again before re-watching Dickerson's “Masters of Horror” contribution. [7/10]
Unedited Footage of a Bear (2014)
After “Too Many Cooks” became an internet phenomenon, the Adult Swim folks realized the weird shorts they showed at four A.M. could do more than just freak out insomniac stoners. A few months later, they premiered “Unedited Footage of a Bear.” The short had an even more meta set-up. Beginning as if it was cell phone footage someone took of a bear and uploaded to Youtube, it quickly fades to an advertisement for an allergies medication called Claridryl. As happens in info-mercials, a mother of two begins to drive her car around a suburban neighborhood. The situation then turns weird, as she drives pass a violent crime scene and is then attacked by a psychotic double of herself.
If “Too Many Cooks” was parodying, and eventually darkly perverting, the visual language of nineties sitcom, “Unedited Footage of a Bear” seeks to do the same with medication commercials. Initially, the Claridryl ad is indistinguishable from the real thing: The blandly smiling lead actress, the drug literally chasing away dark storm clouds, children frolicking in parks, a seemingly idyllic suburban setting. Eventually, hints emerge that something isn't right. The mom – whose name is Donna, we discover – has multiple empty container of Claridryl in her glove box, suggesting she's addicted. The website address and Skip Ad button at the bottom of the screen fades away. Even after “Unedited Footage of a Bear” gets weird, it maintains the continuity of a commercial. Disclaimers about the drug's side effects, which get increasingly nonsensical, continue to flash across the screen.
As with “Too Many Cooks,” “Unedited Footage of a Bear” is probably an act of prankish dadaism that, nevertheless, invites deeper reading. People have been known to have bad reactions even to something as simple as allergy relief medication. The short hints at this, with the growing list of side effects and Donna's apparent addiction. The intense freak-out that makes up most of the short is a deliberate contrast to the sunny perspective the film begins with. So a criticism of the pharmaceutical industry emerges. People are sold happy-go-lucky relief but are often left in the dark about what can go wrong. Or maybe “Unedited Footage of a Bear” was just designed to scare stoners in the middle of the night. Either way, it's extremely successful. [8/10]