Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, October 20, 2016

Halloween 2016: October 19

Don’t Breathe (2016)

Of this past summer’s horror hits, “Don’t Breathe” was the one that most surprised me with its success. I had seen the posters and a few of the ads but wasn’t impressed. Looked like another underachieving studio horror flick, only lacking the PG-13 rating necessary to be a totally disposable bit of mall horror. Then genuinely positive reviews started to roll in and the movie became a sleeper hit. I went from dismissing the film to it being on my radar. Catching it at a kind of seedy, second-run discount theater, I wasn’t too far off with my first impression.

On the economically depressed streets of Detroit, three teenagers – Rocky, her boyfriend Money, and her platonic male best friend Alex – break into homes, selling the stolen goods to a fence. They do this because they have no other options. Word trickles down to the three that a local house contains a large cache of cash, in the six digit range. The home is owned by a blind man, a former war veteran who lost his daughter in a car wreck. They figure it’ll be an easy gig with a big pay-off. They’re wrong, as the blind man is far more dangerous then any of them anticipated.

Director Fede Alvarez’ previous film was the “Evil Dead” remake, which left me cold. That one had some effectively grisly effects but was shockingly vapid, empty in intention and atmosphere. “Don’t Breathe” dials the gore way back but is otherwise similar. The plot takes some admittedly unexpected twist, once the teens discover what’s in the old man’s basement. His intentions with the final girl are twisted, to the point of being tasteless. Yet “Don’t Breathe” seems shockingly unaware of the implications of its own plot. Little time is spent setting up the teens’ desperate situation, of the near poverty they live in. They’re anti-heroes, criminals justified by being up against someone far worst. Yet the script doesn’t bother analyzing the circumstances of why some have to steal to survive. Of course, this is America. An old man murdering teenagers breaking into his home would be hailed as a hero in some corners, a plot inevitably the film barely bothers to address. “Don’t Breathe” rolls serious, real world issues into its story but doesn’t do anything with them.

What “Don’t Breathe” does, instead, is operate as a well oiled jump scare machine. Lots of things leap out of the dark at the protagonists, the build-up earning the film those little spikes of adrenaline. Once the kids are in the house, the movie delights in putting them in increasingly perilous situations. There are several occasions were characters stand still, hoping not to alert the old man. (Seemingly ignoring his ability to smell them.) Except for Rocky’s brutish boyfriend, who makes the worst possible decisions. The blind veteran’s Rottweiler is one of the most tenacious dogs in any horror flick. He chases after Rocky into the crawl space of the house. Later, he pursues the girl as she hides in a car, a sequence that pushes pass the point of absurdity. An effective moment involves a body balancing on a quickly cracking piece of glass. It’s not exactly scary but it functions similarly to a haunted hayride. You’ll get enough boo for your buck.

The cast is uneven. Jane Levy returns from Alvarez’ “Evil Dead.” Levy is a likable, light comedic presence so I wonder why the director continues to cast her in traumatized, indistinct tough girl parts. The script’s attempt to add depth to Rocky – a monologue involving a ladybug – draws way too much attention to herself. When she goes aggro on the old man, in a moment involving a turkey baser, you just feel embarrassed for everyone involved. Dylan Minnette is notably the most reasonable character but Minnette is a bit flat. Which is better then Daniel Zovatto as Money, who is an obnoxious stereotype. Lastly, I really wanted to like Stephen Lang as the blind man. The script presents the character as possibly sympathetic, giving him a tragic backstory. Sadly, Lang’s performance is mostly one-note. He glowers in a preposterous accent, saying his lines in an oddly mannered way. He’s not a very compelling villain, too one-dimensional, and played by a performer making some unusual decisions.

“Don’t Breathe” had a lot of potential. The film had the chance to put the viewer in a morally uncertain place, given the choice of sympathizing with petty criminals or a violent psychopath. Instead, it excuses the teens’ behavior and makes the bad guy a 2D monster. It could’ve commented on life under the poverty line, in the saddest parts of this country. That’s just window dressing to a standard genre story. Alvarez has the ability to create tense set-pieces and build up to good thrills. Yet his scripts are shallow genre exercises, too dour to be dumb fun and only using serious ideas to add artificial depth to their premises. Maybe he’ll finally make a good film next time. [6/10]

The Forest (1982)

Sometimes, you need some goofy, stupid bullshit. Watching “The Forest” takes me back to a very specific period of my life, one I’ve probably talked about ten thousand times in the past. It was post-high school, pre-college. I wasn’t working yet and basically had the whole summer to just mess around and do nothing. So I watched a shit ton of old slasher movies, many of them ripped off dark VHS tapes and posted illegally to the internet. This is how I developed my love of low budget films, of home-made nonsense. Grime-bucket, Z-grade, Bleeding Skull cinema is what I call it. “The Forest” is one such picture, a early eighties slasher flick shot in two weeks for 14,000 dollars. It’s a movie I enjoy more every time I watch it.

The plot of “The Forest,” insomuch that any can be said to exist, is as follows: Two married couples, one on the brink of divorce, make a bet. The men say the women can’t handle the difficulties of camping. To prove them wrong, the two wives journey ahead to the forest without them. Later, the men follow, to catch up. In the dark side of the forest, the four people encounter a murderous, cannibalistic redneck and his two ghost children. Despite multiple warnings, they do not immediately leave. Shenanigans ensue.

My nostalgia for films like “The Forest,” or even my enjoyment of them in general, can be difficult to justify. This is not, by any traditional metric, a good film. The production values are nonexistent. Though the waterfall around which most of the film is set is, admittedly, nice scenery. The acting is awful. The actors playing the ghost children and their mother are amazingly tone death. Gary Kent plays the slashing redneck as a straight-laced guy, speaking in a bored monotone. The two couples both stumble over the frequently circular dialogue. The musical score is terrible, a collection of droning, shrieking synth. The original songs, with titles like “The Dark Side of the Forest” and “On the Road to the Edge of Forever,” are overwrought, to say the least. And yet there’s a warm fuzziness to the shitty video quality. There’s a sense of “kids playing in their backyard” fun to the whole production. It’s clumsy and deeply dumb but these are the reasons I love it.

I’ve heard some call “The Forest” boring. True, it does drag during long stretches. However, the film is also frequently hilarious, completely unintentionally. The appearances of the ghosts are, for no particular reason, proceeded by sounds of bobcat shrieks. The male leads, Steve and Charlie, are very close. They sleep next to each other, often touch one another, and frequently compliment each other on their physiques. Combined with Dean Russell’s bushy porn ‘stache, they can’t help but come off as gay lovers. (Maybe that’s why Charlie’s wife is leaving him.) There are other moments that are strictly ineptly assembled. A fall down a rock results in a broken leg but looks more like a slight stumble. The funniest moment involves the killer’s backstory. He walks in on his wife sleeping with the refrigerator repair man. The fight scene that follows is hysterically, awkwardly assembled. The father attempts to kill the man with more and more unlikely implements.

Honestly, the scenes of overt horror are probably the least effective ones in “The Forest.” The opening stalk and slash scene goes on way too long. The murder scenes are uninspired, as the production had little money for special effects. Instead, “The Forest” is more compelling when it follows its goofball muse. Such as with the ghost kids, who dryly comment on the action and nonchalantly reveal their suicidal nature. The killer’s lair is a cave with a rocking chair and some Dracula candelabras laying around. It looks like something out of an underachieving haunted attraction. The closest the movie comes to genuinely creepy is when the one guy unknowingly eats a piece of his own wife’s flesh. Even then, the effect is undermined by how silly the actor’s reaction is. And also how tasty the roast looks.

Director Don Jones made a few other low budget horror flicks before this one. On the DVD special features, he reveals that he financed this film entirely independently, by putting a second mortgage on his house. The film wasn’t immediately successful and Jones, adding grimly, lost his home. Despite that, “The Forest” has developed a following among fans of the low budget and stupid. It’s a film that makes me laugh and gives me a warm, fuzzy feelings for reasons I can’t entirely articulate. Do you dare to journey to the dark side of the forest as well? [8/10]

Masters of Horror: Imprint

You tell Takashi Miike he can do whatever he wants and you’re going to get some fucked-up shit. The infamous Japanese shock-meister’s “Masters of Horror” episode proved too spicy a meatball for even Showtime. The pay cable network passed on airing “Imprint,” the film not surfacing until its DVD release. Set in 1800s Japan, the story follows American traveler Christopher. During a previous journey to the country, he fell in love with a brothel girl named Komomo. Upon returning to Japan, he finds she has vanished. His search for her comes to a strange brothel located on an isolated island. There, he meets a deformed prostitute who claims to have known Komomo. During the night, she tells an increasingly disturbing story about what happened to the love of the man’s life.

“Imprint” is obsessed with the grotesque. It begins with human deformity, with the prostitute’s warped face and the brothel’s owner, a dwarf with a rotted nostril. A conjoined twin appears as a hand emerging from a head. In time, the prostitute reveals her backstory. She’s the product of incest, she was sexually abused as a child, and her mother was an abortionist. Miike spares no details, repeatedly showing us dead fetuses. The center piece is a grueling torture sequence. Komomo is accused of stealing the madam’s ring. Since her body and face can’t be bruised, the girl’s torture is more sadistic. Her limbs are bound with ropes in painful positions. Her armpits are burned. Needles are driven under her fingernails and gums. It’s frankly unnecessary, considering how disturbing just the sound design is, for Miike to get so graphic. Did we really need to see the bound girl pee herself? Did we really need to see someone reach into a weeping wound and yank their own brains out?

As repulsive as the episode’s content is, Miike’s film is frequently gorgeous. The use of shadow, light, and color is striking. The brothel is a truly otherworldly location. Dream sequences – which include the required Japanese ghost girl with long, black hair – add to the surreal feeling. Once you look pass the self-indulgent gore, “Imprint” emerges as a film about storytelling. The prostitute retells her story three times, the tale growing more unnerving as she draws closer to the truth. By the end, it’s apparent that Christopher and Komomo had secrets of his own. Through this lens, you see a haunting, melancholic film about how we rewrite our own lives, telling events from angles that favor ourselves.

The cast is almost entirely Japanese yet the film is in English, leading to a lot of stiff acting and mangled dialogue. That’s okay. English probably wasn’t their first language. So what’s Billy Drago’s excuse? Drago’s performance is oddly heightened, involving plenty of strangled yelling. In the end, I’m not sure what to think of “Imprint.” It has some interesting elements but the unending, extreme violence repels the viewing. Miike clearly has a point but his focus on brutal torture overwhelms any purpose the story has. [5/10]

Lost Tapes: Poltergeist

“Poltergeist” is another “Lost Tapes” episode that abandons the cryptozoology premise. It’s also the point when I originally gave up on the series. The Colorado based Golden family is experiencing strange events. Their youngest child, ten year old Troy, is seemingly exhibiting telekinetic abilities. They contact a trio of paranormal researchers, filmmakers for cable ghost show, to investigate. While the three believe Troy may be responsible for the unusual incidents, it soon becomes apparent that something more sinister afoot.

For its first half, “Poltergeist” pretends to be about a young boy with telekinesis, which at least makes it distinct from any other found footage ghost story. All pretenses are dropped half-way through and the episode just becomes a standard haunting. Apparently, a guy murdered his family and then himself in the house. This is discovered thanks to a newspaper clipping that was lying around. There are many eye-rolling moments. While Troy lays in bed, a preposterous devil voice whispers his name, before his stuff animal moves and is replaced with a butcher’s knife. Scenes like this makes it clear that “Lost Tapes” was hopelessly ripping off “Paranormal Activity.” The woman in the wheelchair rolls around, one guy bleeds from the eyes, and the main filmmaker sees a bloody reflection of himself. It’s incredibly lame. Can we get back to the Bigfeet and Mothmen now? [3/10]

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