Saturday, October 7, 2017
Halloween 2017: October 6
The Belko Experiment (2017)
Consider the career of James Gunn. He began as a supporting player in the Troma factory. He, somehow, parlayed that into a successful career as a screenwriter on big-ish movies like “Scooby-Doo” and the “Dawn of the Dead” remake. He used this as a springboard to direct two amazing, idiosyncratic movies. “Slither” and “Super” immediately attracted cult followings but didn't make much money at the box office. At that point, Gunn was plucked out of the weird movie underground to direct a massive Marvel superhero flick. And then he made an equally huge sequel. Somewhere in there, Gunn wrote a brutal horror/comedy screenplay called “The Belko Experiment.” While Gunn was initially attached to direct “The Belko Experiment,” he eventually passed the script onto Greg McLean instead.
In rural Columbia stands an office building for the Belko Corporation. What Belko makes, and what its employees do, is unimportant. Aside from some new security guards outside, it seems like a normal day. Mike flirts with Leandra, his girlfriend. She avoids creepy come-ons from executive Wendell while COO Barry tries to keep everyone motivated. The normal day is interrupted when steel barriers seal the doors and windows. A voice, from the sound system, instructs the employees to begin killing each other. If they fail to do this, many more of them will die, via explosive implants all the employees had inserted inside them when they got the job. Blood soon begins to flow, the Belko employees forced to take part in a sadistic experiment.
Matched with the heavier thematic concerns are some extremely intense sequences of gore. The most disturbing of which occur with the most distance. After casually deciding who will live and who will die, Barry lines people up against the wall. He executives them, one by one, the gunshots splattering blood like clockwork. These are not the sole source of exploding heads. The first time one of the cranial implants go off, the audience in shocked. As it happens repeatedly, the carnage almost takes on a comedic element. Yet, whenever things get too funny, “The Belko Experiment” snaps us back with another cruel moment. Such as a supporting character being senselessly killed. Or a woman having her neck brutally snapped. Or an axe reducing a man's head to bloody pulp. McLean's strength for creating disturbing, explicit gore comes back in a big way following the tame “The Darkness.”
Further proof that “The Belko Experiment” is as much Gunn's film as McLean's is the cast. Several of Gunn's regular players appear. His brother, Sean, hilariously plays the aforementioned stoner. Michael Rooker appears as a burly mechanic. Amusingly, Rooker – who frequently plays psychos and tough guys – ends up exiting the film before the violence really starts. Gregg Henry also has a key role, revealed near the end. It's nice to see these guys again but the other players leave bigger impressions. Tony Goldwyn is really frightening as Barry, playing a character who becomes a mass-murderer all too quickly for reasons that chillingly make sense to him. John Gallagher Jr. is convincing as Mike, the film's anti-hero, who does what he can to stick to his morals. John C. McGinley, meanwhile, plays up his unhinged elements as Wendell, who ends up taking too much glee in the mayhem he participates in.
Battle Royale,” which I'm sure Gunn was aware of. Like that film, it's easy to imagine yourself in the fictional scenario, wondering how you would react. Maybe that's why “The Belko Experiment” ends up being so disturbing. The film's carnage is graphic, over-the-top, and sometimes even absurd. It's also seems far too plausible. This unnerving combination of tones makes “The Belko Experiment” an uneasy watch. It's certainly not a crowd-pleasing horror picture, which might explain its modest box office takes. The marriage of McLean and Gunn may be a distressing one but it's certainly not a movie that I'll forget anytime soon. [7/10]
The Curse of the Cat People (1944)
Val Lewton was fond of creating vague connections between his films. The psychologist from “Cat People” is a main character in “The 7th Victim.” The island from “I Walked with a Zombie” is referenced in “The Ghost Ship.” Yet the producer only ever made one direct sequel... Sort of. Due to the huge success of “Cat People,” Lewton's RKO overlords demanded a sequel. Lewton kept some of the characters but otherwise wrote a film heavily inspired by his own childhood – more of a melancholy drama with light fantasy elements then a proper horror movie – that pointedly did not feature any actual cat people. RKO still insisted on marketing it as a horror film, leading to poor box office. Like all of Lewton's production, over time, “The Curse of the Cat People's” reputation has grown. Many considered it the producer's best work. In 2010, the Moving Arts Film Journal even ranked in one of the greatest films ever made.
Quite a few years have passed since the events of “Cat People.” Oliver married Alice. Not long afterwards, they welcomed their daughter Amy into the world. Now Amy is six years old. Oliver is concerned about Amy having so few friends, that she spends too much time in her own head. Secretly, he fears that Amy has inherited something from Irena, the cat woman he once loved. After befriending an eccentric old woman, and receiving a magical wishing ring, Amy begins to have visions of Irena. The ghostly figure becomes her secret friend and the two spend a lot of time together. However, danger lurks in the town, in the form of the old woman's jealous daughter.
It's also a world of loneliness and, occasionally, fear. The same special qualities that allow Amy to see Irena also alienates her from other people. Including her father. Oliver's concern for his daughter is parental and sincere but ultimately misguided. His insistence that she spends less time daydreaming ends up pushing his daughter further into her fantasy world. “Curse of the Cat People” is set in Tarrytown, near-by where Val Lewton actually grew up. Befitting the setting, Ms. Farren tells Amy the story of the Headless Horseman. Though she's fine at the time, Amy's dreams are haunted by the tale. Later, while crossing a snowy bridge, she believes she hears the Horseman behind her, forcing the girl to hid. This preludes a frightening encounter with the old woman's daughter, whose resentment to the little girl quickly veers towards the deadly. And yet the child's ability to forgive and love unconditionally is what ends up saving Amy's lives in the last act.
“Curse of the Cat People” is probably not the most seasonally appropriate viewing for the Six Weeks of Halloween. The film begins during autumn but most of the second half is set during the winter. A key scene occurs on Christmas, Amy handing out gifts around the tree. Then again, “Curse of the Cat People” isn't really a horror movie either. The film is haunting in an entirely different sort of way, playing out as a touching and eerie story about the secret inner world children inhabit. Beautifully acted and directed by Robert Wise, who replaced Gunther von Fritsch after eighteen days, the film is easily my favorite of the pictures Val Lewton produced. [9/10]
The third episode of “Fear Itself,” “Family Man,” is directed by Ronny Yu. Yu may not exactly be a master of horror but he did make the wildly entertaining “Bride of Chucky” and “Freddy vs. Jason,” which counts for something. The episode follows Dennis Mahoney, a hard-working, church-going father of two beloved by his wife and kids. On the way to work one morning, his car is struck. Dennis is in the emergency room at the same time as Richard Brautigan. Brautigan is a vicious serial killer, notorious for murdering whole families. Somehow, while in the hospital, Dennis and Richard's souls switch bodies. Now, the innocent Dennis is in the body of a killer recently arrested for a brutal crime. The killer, meanwhile, is at home with Mahoney's family.
A horror spin on the body swap premise is an interesting idea. “Family Man” actually explores the premise more fully than expected. Upon awaking in Mahoney's body, Brautigan doesn't immediately get back to his old tricks. He tries to play the role of the devoted father, to live a good life. It's interesting to see a totally amoral serial killer attempting to go straight, as it were. Mahoney, while in the killer's body, begins to pick up on some of Brautigan's cruelty and tolerance for pain. The suggestion that environment plays a large role in how each man acts is one worth exploring. Naturally, the family man's homicidal rage begins to show itself but the build-up is decent. Colin Ferguson and Clifton Collins Jr. are both very good in the two roles. It's especially entertaining to see Ferguson, usually cast in cuddlier parts, play a man barely concealing his murderous desires.
A reason a lot of genre television leaves me cold is the problem of extending a story over twenty-six hours that could easily be told in half that time. Considering “Wolf Creek's” first season was only six episodes long, I was hoping it wouldn't have this problem. However, the second episode, “Kutyukutyu,” seems to be about delaying the inevitable confrontation between Eve and Mick Taylor for as long as possible. By following leads, the girl comes to the titular town. She immediately backends a cop, who discovers some pot in the van left there by the previous owner. While in prison, she meets Johnny, an unsavory fellow who may know something about the man she seeks. After escaping prison, Eve tracks her cellmate down. She only manages to risk her own life further. Meanwhile, in the outback, Mick bides his time.
Granted, some of the adventures Eve has on the road are kind of entertaining. She acquires a dog, a yellow mutt leaping into her van and refusing to leave. After being accosted by some sleazeballs at a gas station, she's rescued by another woman, a Maori truck driver. I especially like the scene of those two talking. When the driver asks Eve why she's hunting this man, the girl doesn't answer but the older woman understands perfectly. I like Johnny's ascertain that, since Eve and Taylor Swift are both Americans, they both must be able to sing well. I guess all nationalities are equally stereotyped abroad. Some of the other scenes are less compelling. Eve meeting back up with the detective in charge of her case, running from the small town cops, or being chased by Sullivan and his goons feel like narrative wheel-spinning. Lucy Fry remains a compelling performer but I hope the series doesn't waste too much more time.
Speaking of kind of funny: This episode also contains a cute reference to McLean's “Rogue” in the form of a newspaper headline. “Wolf Creek” is still holding my attention but hopefully the next four episodes are a little more active. [6/10]