Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Zack Clopton's 2011 Movie Retrospective

“I am on a drug, it's called ‘Charlie Sheen.’ It's not available because if you try it you will die. Your face will melt off and your children will weep over your…


Am I the only one that thought 2011 was kind of a mediocre year? Occupy Wall Street tried to bring attention to financial corruption and mostly got maced in the face for their efforts. The Republican Party desperately tried to find a presidential hopeful that wasn’t a complete joke. Japan tried to make their earthquake devastated, radioactive situation look slightly less horrible then it was. Casey Anthony tried to convince everyone she didn’t murder her kids. Jerry Sandusky tried to not look like a child rapist. The governments of the world tried to bring up the plummeting unemployment rate and stop the encroaching financial collapse. Over all, there was a whole lot of trying and not a whole lot of succeeding. With the exception of putting down some Middle Eastern boogeymen, despite Charlie Sheen’s yells to the contrary, 2011 was less “The Year of Winning,” and more “The Year of Failure.”

But you know who didn’t fail?: Me, at watching movies! I saw 79 new releases this year, which is pretty impressive considering I was unemployed throughout most of the year! When even a respected stalwart like Roger Ebert can't keep a movie-review show on the air, my chances of becoming a real, honest-to-God movie critic are probably pretty slim. But whatever, it’s New Years and I'm saying hooray for me! I kept up my average rate of new movies seen.

It was a quietly good year for film. All year, as I worked on complying the list below, I kept thinking to myself, “2011 wasn’t a very good year for film.” The general output struck me as mostly mediocre. But as I was putting the final touches on this article, I realized, not only was there a lot of good movies released this year, I enjoyed a fair number of them immensely. More then a few indies came out of nowhere and surprised me with just how dang good they are. So, in the final tally, I suppose 2011 turned out a little better then I expected. At least on the filmic side of things.

Enough belly-aching. Here’s THE LIST, presented, as always, from absolute favorite to least favorite. See you on the other side, Hypothetical Person That Might Read This List in it’s Entirety.


1. Captain America: The First Avenger
To compare something to “Raiders of the Lost Ark” must seem like a tall order, but “Captain America” does it. The perfectly casted Chris Evans leads us into exciting, funny, fast-paced retro-war action, along with a great ensemble cast, amazing special effects, and a bitter-sweet finale. The most briskly entertaining film of the year.

2. The Woman
Not an exploitation movie, but rather a movie about exploitation. Lucky McKee mixes feminist themes, perverse satire, and uncompromising horror, before adding a truly impressive cast. A fever pitch is reached in the last fifteen minutes with a shocking, unexpected twist. The most viscerally horrifying movie of the year but when it shocks, it’s for a reason.

3. Terri
You know a movie’s good when you really want to see its characters succeed and be happy. In the “high school dramedy about misfits” genre, it’s easy to screw up, but this movie never makes a dishonest move or aims for emotions that are unearned. It’s a gentle, thoughtful, character-oriented film that observes as much as it acts.

4. Super
Follows its own weird muse, tonal-consistency be damned. A superhero comedy for the first seventy minutes later becomes about contrasting real violence with comic book violence. The amazing cast includes a sad-sack-becomes-petty-badass Rainn Wilson, a boner-producing psycho Ellen Page in spandex, and hilariously villainous Kevin Bacon. This sure-to-be-cult-classic puts a unique stamp on a worn-out concept.

5. Submarine
Immediately establishes itself as a prime coming-of-age flick. The lead character and his internal monologue are hilarious and, more then that, brutally honest about adolescence. The French New Wave-inspired direction gives the witty script, A-grade actors, and the bittersweet tone that much more edge.

6. I Saw the Devil
Uncompromisingly brutal, this Korean revenge film features some of the most shocking, thrilling, and stylishly directed sequences of the year. The rivalry of cruelty between the stoic faced badass protagonist and the corrosively sleazy serial killer escalates to an incredibly intense final confrontation. A very unpleasant, but rewarding, study of the nature of evil.

7. Attack the Block
Introduces you to a group of street thugs and immediately makes you root for them. This extremely clever genre hybrid features a great ensemble cast, including a break-out lead performance by John Boyega, lovable characters, original creature designs, and more then one stand-out sequence. A must-see for sci-fi or horror fans.

8. X-Men: First Class
Easily the best X-Men movie yet. Dropping Wolverine etc allows this to be the first truly ensemble X-film. Matthew Vaughn continues to be a top action director and uses CGI extremely well, but never looses track of the human element, thanks to the mostly fantastic cast, especially Michael Fassbender. The story and pacing are also a lot tighter then previous franchise outings.


9. Midnight in Paris
Sure, the modern day supporting characters are shrill and annoying but the 1920 sequences are charming and enchanting. As Owen Wilson falls in love with Marion Cotlliard and the time period, so does the audience. But the movie also makes the point that everyone is nostalgic for an era they weren’t alive for.

10. Hugo
A love letter to classic cinema, a fable about film preservation, and a visually spectacular 3D ride. There’s a great ensemble cast here and more then one fantastic, thrilling sequence. Scorsese doesn’t manage to completely avoid kid’s movies clichés though.

11. Thor
Second-best Marvel movie since the original "Iron Man." The cast really makes it worth while. Hemsworth is grand and has a sweet romance with Portman. Their relationship is the heart of the movie. This is a surprisingly funny, sometimes campy superhero epic that does the small moments just as well as the big action effects moments.

12. Hobo with a Shotgun
Authentically retro, insanely over-the-top, endlessly violent, this would be unbearably ugly if it wasn't for a few things: The cartoonish style and Rutger Hauer, who instills the title role with a weird sincerity. As a fan of eighties vigilante movies, this is perhaps the ultimate eighties vigilante movie.

13. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark
Sally is a child character in a horror movie that is developed and actually interesting. The movie never goes for the cheap jump scares, instead focusing on building atmosphere. Far from a perfect film, it relies too much on the admittedly very good CGI effects, but when most horror films are content to simply shock, it goes for real scares, rooted in deep childhood fears.

14. Bellflower
The yellow, grungy picture captures the “Mad Max”-obsessed, perpetually drunk world of our protagonists. Despite the flamethrowers, drunken brawls, and cricket eating, the first half is a sweet love story. Then it gets really dark. The increasingly disjointed last act pushes the “a break-up is like the end of the world” metaphor too far, but I found this indie moody and exciting.

15. Another Earth
Stirring sci-fi allegory about guilt, forgiveness, and catharsis. Brit Marling gives a fantastic lead performance and carries you through a genuine emotional journey, helped along by the wobbling, moody score. The movie is quiet and never slips into histrionics or over-the-top theatrics. The shaky, handheld direction is my only quam about this one.


16. Hanna
The movie that makes a ninety pound teenage girl throwing around grown men believable. The insanely catchy score propels the intense action scenes (The container park fight might be one of the best action scenes in recent memory), while the strong lead makes the heart scenes well worth the emotional investment.

17. The Tree of Life
Deeply personal, hugely ambitious, visually gorgeous, subtly moving, meandering, borderline ponderous, the film attempts to find where an individual human life fits into the vastness of the universe. It’s a singular piece of art, all be it a self-absorbed, overly long one.

18. Drive
Art house actioneer that is as tense and stoic as Ryan Gosling’s stone-faced protagonists. The car chase and motel shootout are thrilling, shocking sequences. The movie is driven along by the pulsating synth score, artful direction, strong leading man, and a top-notch supporting cast. I’ll admit to not digging the ambiguous ending and found all the CGI blood distracting.

19. Melancholia
Lars van Tier makes movie that delve fully into deep, dark, suicidal depression. This apocalyptic tale is captivating and strangely lyrical. Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg both give full, go-for-broke performances. It’s like a very dark dream, full of dread and anxiety.

20. Black Death
Starts out as a grimy, violent medieval thriller before turning into an equally bloody treaty on religious intolerance, and not just the kind you’re expecting. Fierce action scenes, intense direction, and a great performances from Sean Bean and Carice van Houten makes this one an easy recommendation for those who can handle some darkness in their costume dramas.

21. Martha Marcy May Marlene
A psychological drama shot with the starkness of a horror film. The scenes in the cult are chilly, disturbing, and full of creeping dread that something bad is going to happen very soon. Elizabeth Olsen is very good as the emotionally fragile title character and I like that the movie shows her family as less then understanding or helpful.

22. Meek’s Cutoff
Excellent performances from Michele Williams and Bruce Greenwood prop up a story where ultimately not a whole lot happens. Director Kelly Reichardt is very good at capturing isolation and despair among the wide, quiet wilderness, though I wish it was in service of a story a little more exciting.

23. The Adjustment Bureau
Smart, surreal, sci-fi that asks some interesting questions about fate. Great acting from everyone, genuine chemistry between Damon and Blunt, and a thrilling last act makes this so good, you don’t even mind the syrupy “love conquers all” ending or the blatant exposition.

24. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Is this smart sci-fi, or just faking it? Either way, the character-oriented script gets the audience to sympathize with a CGI chimp. The deliberate pacing builds up to an impressive, climatic set-piece that makes the ridiculous premise believable and also works as exciting action. A foundation for a new “Apes” franchise that I’m okay with.

25. Immortals
Director Tarsem creates some breathtaking visuals, as expected, such as Poseidon diving into the ocean or a literal war in the heavens. Finally, the Greek Gods are shown as real head exploding badasses. While there’s nothing spectacular about the story or cast, this is an agreeable popcorn muncher and easily beats “300” or “Clash of the Titans” at their own game.

26. Winnie the Pooh
Playful and unabashedly sweet, this is even more of a throw-back then Disney’s last few animated features. The incredibly laidback tone calls to mind a little boy playing with his toys on a lazy afternoon. It isn’t out to redefine the medium but is daring in its own quiet way. The movie opens with a fantastic short, “The Ballad of Nessie,” that almost outshines the main feature.

27. The Muppets
Mostly gets it right. While the overly self-referral style and romantic subplot don’t really work, the Muppets are more or less the same lovable characters they’ve always been. Chris Cooper is hilarious as the villain and the movie does have some fantastic songs in it.

28. Tabloid
Fascinating right from the first frame. Joyce McKinney is a total nut, but a really interesting one. I personally like how the movie shows her obsessions transitioning from a Mormon in chains to a cloned dog. Once again, just by letting his subjects talk, Errol Morris has made a captivating documentary.

29. Final Destination 5
Features cartoonish characters, which worried me, but then the fantastic kills kick in. The dark humor’s back, as our expectations of the on-coming violence are subverted. The mythology is played with. Death isn’t even the primary threat in the last act! There’s a fun twist ending too. The goriest, funniest, most cringe-inducing, and most entertaining of the series since part 2.

30. Tucker and Dale vs. Evil
Tries to do for hillbilly horror what “Shaun of the Dead” did for zombies, and mostly succeeds. Alan Tudyk and Taylor Labine are almost as funny a skinny guy/fat guy duo as Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. The movie hilariously parodies and subverts the genre’s conventions, even if it’s “victims” are paper-thin caricatures.

31. Burke and Hare
A nicely morbid comedy that gets a lot of mileage out of its excellent cast. Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis, and Isla Fisher are delightful as the central trio. Some gleefully anachronistic liberties are taken with the story and Burke and Hare are reimagined as mostly pure-hearted rascals, even if the movie doesn’t back away from all the murder and grave robbing.

32. Kaboom
Gregg Araki is back to making movies about beautiful young people sleeping around and having apocalyptic adventures. The difference between this and his earlier work is the crisp visuals, whip-smart dialogue, and frenetic pacing. The endless boning of the first half is a lot more fun then the conspiracy theory madness of the second half, but I can still dig it.

33. Cave of Forgotten Dreams
More then once, Werner Herzog lets his camera stare at the oldest cave paintings in the world. The ethereal score and Herzog’s typically idiosyncratic narration provide the appropriate amount of awe. Honestly, any time the movie ventures out of the cave for some interviews it feels like padding, though Herzog catches his subjects at their most relaxed and conversational.

34. Super 8
An attempt to replicate ‘70s Spielberg but with a bunch of random lens-flares thrown in. The movie does a good job of balancing sentimentality, personality, special effects, and thrills, with a number of suspenseful sequences and a talented young cast. Yeah, the alien’s another hairless monkey crab, but it’s good to known old fashion monster movies can still get made.

35. Your Highness
Sure, it leans on the dick, pot, and gay jokes a little too hard, but Danny McBride acting like a hilarious asshole, especially when supported by such a gung-ho cast, is never not funny. Even without all the juvenilia, you’ve got a pretty satisfying fantasy romp here.

36. TrollHunter
Aside from Hans the Troll Hunter, none of the characters are very interesting and the movie’s episodic plot doesn’t do it any favors. But its trolls are fully realized creations, the found-footage style actually works, and the effects are great. You can tell a lot of thought went into this.

37. Source Code
Works well as a thriller, but a clueless protagonist, unnecessarily vilified supporting character, and romantic subplot slow down the dynamite premise. The story ends before the last act, which seems dumb, but the movie uses the extra time to resolve emotional loose ends, which does work. Then the damn thing won’t end. A successful film that could have used some tightening up.

38. Rango
A surprisingly smart flick that cracks jokes about Joseph Campbell, Hunter S. Thompson, method acting, Clint Eastwood, spaghetti westerns, and other stuff your kids won’t understand. The visual style is impressive but the movie drags a bit in the middle. It knows the formula and follows it, but not without adding endearing quirkiness, strong characters, and gorgeous visuals.

39. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
Parts of this extremely slow Taiwanese fantasy are lyrical, surreal, creepy, or even oddly funny. There are moments that feel like a peaceful dream. But that doesn’t change the fact that the film is largely inscrutable and it’s reliance on static shots and long takes might test the patience of even willing art cinema fans.

40. Scream 4
Self-referral slashers seem quaint in the age of found-footage and torture porn. Kevin Williamson barely bothered updating his franchise for today’s youth. The new kids are half-way decent, the old ones each get a moment, there’s some okay gore, but the fun “who-dun-it?” aspect keeps the audience involved. It’s too bad Sydney lives.

41. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tide
Better then parts 2 and 3. Depp actually seems to have some fun and the supporting cast is solid. There’s also a handful of clever fantasy concepts sprinkled about. The story is still a little more convoluted then it needed to be and there’s about three extra endings too many.

42. Paul
Nick and Simon try to bring that emotional depth to their latest tale of bro-love and geekiness, but can’t quite hit it out of the park. The movie starts slow but gets funnier as it goes, even if there’s too much story and Paul is just as likely to annoy as to endear. There are a few hilarious surprises and the whole package is wrapped up in lovable-sci-fi-nerd sweetness.


43. The Ward
Ultimately, I liked the characters. Yes, there’s an over-reliance on jump scares, an unforgivably dumb twist ending, and there’s not much classic Carpenter style. But a decent atmosphere is built, there’s a handful of good horror sequence, and the ensemble works well together.

44. Green Lantern
Frustratingly, there are great scenes here, like all of the Oa sequences and most of the final battle. But the script is heavy on exposition, dragging Earth-bound moments, shaky pacing, an uneven cast, weak villains, and a few moments of CGI silliness. (Like the green race-car.) I’d still like to see a sequel just to see more of Mark Strong as Sinestro, who is excellent.

45. The Mechanic
Jason Statham starring in a Charles Bronson remake is appropriate, since he’s pretty much the only action star who still makes low-shin, brainless-but-not-too-stupid, bloody action flicks. This one has got at least two badass one-on-one brawls. The story’s pretty much nonsense and Ben Foster is more annoying then interesting.

46. Hellraiser: Revelations
The new Pinhead sucks, the movie is overly derivative of the original, and it ends abruptly. But I admire this sequel for returning the franchise to its roots and for capturing some proper “Hellraiser” atmosphere on what was obviously a very low budget.

47. The Skin I Live In
Odd, psycho-sexual thriller about gender politics, identity, and passion maybe? Unnecessary story digressions and a flashback-heavy second half truncates the pacing. A plot reveal near the end takes this in a distracting, peculiar direction. Two great lead actors, a good score, and there’s obviously stuff going on here, but it didn’t come together wholly for me.

48. Red State
Kevin Smith has Michael Parks and John Goodman in his corner, both fine performers. The script is jumbled as to what it wants to be and the political commentary is obvious. The movie is still kind of works, despite a number of problems.

49. Insidious
Legitimately creepy moments co-exist with jump scares and an asinine twist ending. Pros include spooky dream sequence, intense séance, intimidating villain, and deliberate pace. Cons include bombastic score, fistfights with jittery goth-zombies, sudden pasty-faced ghouls, and a questionable use of Tiny Tim. It’s not always successful but at least tries to be scary.

50. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II
Should I even bother reviewing this? I’m so completely outside of the Harry Potter fandom these days. For what it’s worth, there a number of thrilling sequences, the special effects are uniformly good, and it’s wraps things up in fairly satisfactory manner. I maintain that this franchise became inaccessible to non-hardcores in these last few films.

51. Sucker Punch
It’s just Snyder piling on the geeky shit that gives him a boner. (Of course, all of those things give me a boner too.) The action isn’t as mind-blowing as he thinks it is either. A midway twist actually got me to care and imbued the end with some pathos, but it doesn’t prevent this from being a self-serious, humorless, nerd-pandering fantasy that spoils its own twist ending.

52. The Green Hornet
Seth Rogan is a terrible superhero. The characters, almost all of them, are aggressively unsympathetic. (And not in a fun way.) When the movie tries to do the superhero thing straight, it comes off as mean-spirited and uncertain. Despite problems, the movie is still really funny and has some clever ideas. Chalk this one up as a case of too many cooks in the kitchen.

53. Chillerama
Go-for-broke in its crassness, crudeness, and vulgarity, this juvenile horror parody isn’t without its moments, especially the “Hitler Makes a Jewish Frankenstein” story. Tim Sullivan’s gay werewolf short seems to last forever and the very long shit joke at the end is awful, but I did kind the reference-filled framing device and goofy giant killer sperm opener.

54. Creature
Plays out like a decent eighties-style slasher/monster movie hybrid. Lots of nudity. Pretty decent cast. Creature effects could be better but I liked the design. The hero of the movie has almost as high a body count as the monster and the story takes some unexpected turns. The movie started to drag in the last twenty minutes and the ending goes on too long.

55. Cars 2:
“Pixar doesn’t make bad movies?” I wouldn’t call this bad, but just shy of mediocre. The visuals are beautiful and the spy action/race scenes are exciting. But this one leans far too much on Larry the Cable Guy, sends a problematic message about accepting asshole friends, and a generally silly plot. The proceeding ten-minute “Toy Story” short easily outraces the feature.


56. Stake Land
Just because a movie doesn’t resonate with me, doesn’t mean it’s bad. I understand this. This critically acclaimed film seemed to me to feature all the zombie movie clichés we’re sick of, just with vampires instead; an overly episodic plot, dull characters, and a sudden ending.

57. Griff the Invisible
The latest in the “real-life superhero” genre, this one focusing solely on fantasy and wish-fulfillment. It starts out decently but soon the clichés take over: a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, forced quirk, contrived drama existing solely for story’s sake, schmaltzy romance, and a bad indie-pop soundtrack.

58. Restless
Henry Hopper is awful as the guy who falls for a cancer-ridden Manic Pixie Dream Girl, played by the usually better Mia Wachowski. The good moments in the film are solely from the solid cinematography and don’t have much to do with the overly precious, tin-earred script. A serious topic like death is treated as just another step in the quirky indie-romance guidebook.

59. Fright Night
Despite turning lovable characters into unlikable douchebags for most of the movie, some ugly CGI effects, obnoxious 3D eye-gouging, and more then one annoying shock moment, I didn’t completely hate this remake. After everyone stopped acting like dicks, the characters won me over, there’s some well-done scenes, and a pretty solid last act. Still miles beneath the original.

60. Red Riding Hood
I want to like Amanda Seyfried but I’m beginning to think she just isn’t much of an actress. Like its star, this movie is pretty looking but the standard story of werewolves, witch-hunting, and teenage love triangles doesn’t offer anything new. At least it’s not as maudlin as the “Twilight” movies it blatantly emulates.

61. The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence)
Everything about this is calculated to repel. It presents a world devoid of hope and filled with nothing but depravity. Martin is perhaps the most unappealing protagonist ever. The only visible goal here is to disgust, which it succeeds at so, mission accomplished? Having said that, Tom Six has a talent for mood setting and grimy monochrome visuals. The energy level’s high enough and the movie short enough that it never becomes boring, just disgusting.

62. Drive Angry
In a market flooded with over-the-top throwbacks to eighties exploitation cheese, this doesn’t stand out. It fakes the attitude but doesn’t have the gusto to back it up. Nic Cage in sleepy action mode and an obnoxious Amber Heard don’t help any. A deadpan William Fichtner doing his best Christopher Walken impersonation almost saves the whole picture. Almost.

63. We Are What We Are
Frustrating thriller about an inner-city tribe of modern cannibals. It never reveals a reason for the rituals, focusing instead on the family members. This would be fine if the characters weren’t annoying. The movie has potential but chooses to be vague about its most interesting aspects.

64. Conan the Barbarian
Jason Momoa sure isn't Schwarzenegger. The movie could just as easily be a big budget "Deathstalker" remake. It delivers on the blood, barbarian action, gratuitous nudity, random Morgan Freeman, and features a decent supporting cast, save for a tone-deaf Rose McGowen. And it still can’t manage to be entertaining for its full runtime.

65. Dylan Dog: Dead of Night
Another cult property adapted into a mediocre flick. Combining detective tropes with the supernatural is overused. It feels very bland and non-cinematic. Brandon Routh is terrible in the lead role. The whole movie has a been-there, done-that feeling to it.

66. Tetsuo: The Bullet Man
When you have a non-English speaking director directing English-speaking actors, expect bad performances. For a “Tetsuo” movie, this feels disconcertingly like a normal sci-fi/action film. Yes, there are a few moments of surreal body-horror, industrial music driven intensity, and bloody action, but this is lacking many of the elements that made the original “Tetsuo” a classic.

67. The Last Lovecraft: The Relic of Cthulhu
The “nerds vs. C’thulhu-cultists” story is sort of clever. The movie is never laugh-out hilarious, but is consistently amusing throughout, even with the overreliance on crude humor, gay jokes, and geek stereotypes. It feels like a half-baked TV pilot, but not necessarily a completely bad one.

68. Columbiana
Equals parts “Le Femme Nikita” and “Leon: The Professional,” and not as good as either of them. There’s some decent action scenes here but the disconcertingly thin Zoe Saldana doesn’t look strong enough to beat up a man or carry a sniper rifle, much less the whole movie.

69. Rubber
Stiflingly meta, this works best when playing up the absurdity of its psychic killer tire premise. Most of the movie is focused on criticizing filmmaking and film-watching in agonizing obvious ways. If nothing else, it does successfully get you to relate to a tire. So there’s that.

70. The Violent Kind
Begins as a white trash biker flick before becoming a routine demonic possession film. Then some not-zombies appear and Tiffany Sheepis vomits up sparks. And then psychobilly sadists walk in and it becomes a home invasion movie. There’s more weirdness and genre-shifting before it’s over. The movie isn’t good but you keep watching just to see what it’ll mutate into next.

71. The Beaver
Despite a premise that would play best as high comedy, this is instead a straight-faced family drama. The most interesting parts are skipped over in montage. Following an unintentionally(?) hilarious fist fight between man and beaver puppet, the movie falls into obvious, turgid, sentimental melodrama. Mel Gibson’s racist rants were more entertaining and less heavy-handed.

72. Battle: Los Angles
This “on the ground, as it happens” alien invasion flick is sporadically thrilling, with above-average special effects. The characters are indistinct and more then a few war movie clichés are trotted out. There’s no reason to get involved here. The pro-war/pro-military tone is brain dead enough to turn me off.

73. F
Some decent atmosphere and a good main performance doesn’t make up for the thin story. The threat of the murderous hoodies doesn’t really register, there’s no intensity or thrills, and the movie certainly doesn’t earn its ambiguous ending. This British import gets a C-.


74. Husk
Out of the handful of killer scarecrow movies, few of them are good. Spoiler alert: This isn’t one of those few. Completely mediocre, this piles on the cheap jump-scares, annoying characters doing dramatic things just for story’s sake, shoddy plotting, and general boredom.

75. ChromeSkull: Laid to Rest 2
The first “Laid to Rest” was a plotless exercise in ultraviolent slasher killing. This sequel at least has a story. It’s a self-serious, tedious story with no relatable or interesting characters and a fetishistic obsession with latex, fake blood, and gory dismemberment. It exists only to top itself.

76. Tekken
Admittedly, I don’t know much about the “Tekken” video games, but I’m pretty sure they don’t involve dystopian corporatocracies, fights isolated to one location, gun battles, or butt cleavage. Despite some decent fight scenes, this movie is astoundingly brain-dead.

77. Seconds Apart
Psychic twins are a decent start but this doesn’t do anything but aggravate. Shaky-cam nightmares, annoying unoriginal characters, boring performances (When the 7 Up Yours guy is the best actor in your movie, you’ve got problems), crass gross-out moments, and asinine, pointless twist ending… All the AfterDark elements of suck are present and accounted for.


78. King of Fighters
Why spend the money buying the rights to a semi-popular game series and then make a movie that has nothing to do with those games? The fighting here is pretty poor, the acting is atrocious, and the story is incoherent. And Mai is nowhere near hot enough.

79. The Resident
The movie starts with the ridiculous concept of somebody being romantically obsessed with Hilary “Horse-Face” Swank. It gets more insulting from there. This is a contemptibly routine thriller that follows every expected step, right to the boring, jump-scare laden end. The characters are uniformly thin, even with Jeffrey Dean Morgan and an underused Christopher Lee in the cast.


As always, thank you graciously for reading. My annual list of Most Anticipated Films of 2012 will be up soon. More articles, Director Report Cards, and general ranting and ravings are coming soon. Until then, I sent out hope and prayers to everyone that 2012 will be a better year then the one that proceeded it. Let's hope where all still around come this time next year.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Recent Watches: 12/14/11

I promised myself that this new Recent Watches feature wouldn’t become a year-round version of my Halloween Horror-a-thon write-ups. But, as the end of the year approaches, my obsessive-compulsive need to see every new horror movie of note that comes out during the year is catching up with me. So, when other people spend the month watching seasonal favorites about rednosed reindeer and magical snowman, I’m watching movies about monsters, madmen, and murderers. Oh well.

I love the original "Fright Night." It's my all-time favorite vampire movie, pretty much. So I went in to the recent remake really expecting to hate it. The characters seem overly hipped out and the cast included Anton Yelchin and Colin Farrell, two actors I've never liked. I figured this was just an example of a studio trying to cash in on the vampire craze and whatever name recognition they figured an underseen cult classic from the mid-eighties had.

And it's mostly all of those things for the first thirty minutes or so. In the original, Charlie was a huge nerd with a shitty car, a best friend who hated him, seemingly no other friends, and a girlfriend that looked like a boy. 2011’s Charlie has six-pack abs, hangs out with a bunch of collar popping would-be frat boys, and a rail-thin girlfriend who's hot in a really uninteresting way. Even his mom, originally frumpy and clueless, has been all sexed up, recast as a cleavage barring Toni Collette. Everyone has pretty much been transformed into huge douchebags, Charlie in particularly. Peter Vincent has been turned into an embarrassingly shrill "Celebrities are vapid assholes!" cliche. (And he has a Columbiana girlfriend who is even more annoying and unnecessary.) And, yeah, Evil Ed was pretty much always annoying and creepy, but any of the pathos, layers or humor Stephen Geoffreys brought to the part are lost here, even more so when he does become a full-on vampire. Christopher Mintz-Plasse, otherwise known as McLovin forever, plays him as a nasally dweeb who, despite getting bullied a lot, is a bit of a bully himself, essentially blackmailing Charlie into being his friend.

The movie has some ugly CGI effects, a lot of forced 3D "Comin' right atcha'!" nonsense, and more then a few obnoxious jump scare shock scenes. There's also a vulgar, crass streak running through things that makes the movie even more unlikable. There's almost no humor here at all. All the gay subtext is gone. Jerry is pretty much an irredeemable creep, where in the original he was at least funny. There's no romance to him. He's a straight-up monster vampire... Which would might have been refreshing in this Glitterpire era if the movie wasn't working so hard to make me not like it at this point. Colin Farrell plays the part as a charmless sexual predator.

But, a little over halfway in, something happens. The characters stop being such unlikable dicks all the time and some pretty decent, maybe even suspenseful, sequences roll through. I like the way the movie doesn't wait until the end of the second act to really ramp up the action. That's like the only one visible improvement over the original. The entire car chase/road fight sequence is pretty good, as is Evil Ed's assault on Peter Vincent's penthouse. While I laughed at the idea of Charlie marching into Jerry's house with armor and a crossbow when I saw it in the trailer, it actually kind of works in the movie itself. Charlie Brewster actually becomes a fairly effective badass. The entire last act of the movie is pretty solid, truthfully. Even Peter Vincent 2011, despite being saddled with a sudden tragic origin story, actually becomes funny and likable. (Solely due to David Tennet, I suspect. Not a "Dr. Who" fan but the guy is charming.) The movie even resists the stupid jump scare twist ending, thank god. (Though there is a bizarre acoustic version of "99 Problems" playing over the credits for some reason.) They even keep the iconic design of Vampire Amy more or less the same. So I didn't completely hate "Fright Night" 2011 by the end, despite itself. I'm not saying I liked it though. The original is a campy, hilarious, but still occasionally scary celebration of nerddom, outcasts, and faith in one's self and one's beliefs. The remake is overly hip, sneeringly cynical, and frequently annoying. It’s not charming, horror comfort food.

And some of the horror movies I watched aren’t new. “The Dead Hate the Living!” is a fairly obscure outcast from Full Moon Productions misbegotten shot-on-video late nineties days. It’s a zombie movie from the days before zombie movies were cool again. The film is really, really cheap. There’s only really three or four zombies in the whole movie. The blood we see is of the overly bright, corn-syrupy variety. Near the end of the movie, some really bad digital effects, like straight out of After Effects bad, are trotted out. The movie also has terrible pacing. When you’re struggling to keep your eyes open during supposedly exciting scenes of zombie sieges and living dead dismemberment, you know things are bad. There are some cool ideas here, like a body getting pulled away by the entrails, or real life horrors being dismissed as movie special effects, but the totally listless pacing and cutting prevent any of that from really working.

Despite these glaring problems, the movie is kind of likable. The film is often criticized for its overly referral tone. Lucio Fulci’s “The Beyond” is named-dropped, referenced, and flat-out stolen from countless times. The characters are horror fanboys and often talk about their favorite zombie movies, directors, and stars, even while being attacked. Yeah, it’s winking and obvious, but still sort of funny. More over, the characters are likable. The performances, while definitely amateur, are still kind of fun. If nothing else, the actors are very sincere and heartfelt. There aren’t any recognizable faces aside from the late, real-life giant Matthew McGrory. The make-up, though obviously limited, is pretty decent too. I particularly like the zombie design with no lips whatsoever. I wouldn’t call “The Dead Hate the Living” essential or even good, but it’s not without interesting moments.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Recent Watches: 21/2/11

Welcome to a new feature where I talk about some of the movies I’ve seen recently. It’s a strictly non-stress feature. I’ll post them whenever I want and talk about whatever movie I want (as long as it’s still recent in my brain) for as long as I want. It’s primarily a feature strictly to keep this damn blog active.

It’s no secret that I’m a pretty big fan of the Muppets. I remember watching the original TV show in reruns on Nickelodeon in the early nineties. And while I loved the show as a kid, it has really been the movies that have kept my interest alive. The first film, with its fantastic Paul Williams songs, has always been a favorite of mine. After not having a new Muppet movie in theaters since the somewhat dubious “Muppets from Space,” Jim Henson’s fuzzy felt creations have returned to the big-screen… Somewhat successfully.

First off, the good stuff: “The Muppets” is pretty funny. While I’m not one-hundred percent happy with it, Jason Segal is clearly a fan of the characters and gets things more right then wrong. If nothing else, the dude is a fully committed comic actor and goes for broke several times throughout. The movie has a number of pretty funny sequences, including Jack Black getting his head shrunk to a barber shop quartet version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or how very easy it was to convince Rowf the Dog to join back up with the old group. That old comic stalwart of a bunch of smaller people climbing inside of a single suit and trying to be a whole person is marched out again, to some success. The film’s heart is in the right place, and despite Frank Oz’s objections and the lack of his signature voice, all of the Muppets players are more or less in character. Honestly, Piggy is the only character that kind of gets the short stick. (I was honestly really worried at first about the whole Gonzo being a plunger mogul thing but the movie deals with that pretty quickly.) The movie was definitely made by fans, as there’s a lot of references to classic Muppet lore and more then a few obscure characters put in appearances. (I honestly don’t think Uncle Deadly’s had this much screen time since the original series.) The line-up of celeb cameos, a mainstay of the film series, is pretty weak in this one, but there are a few happy surprises, including two “Community” cast members and a surprise appearance from a golden age film legend. (And my arch-enemy.) The movie also does the Vertigo shot with a felt puppet, which I thought was pretty impressive.

The best thing about the film is its music. Bret McKenzie of “Flight of the Conchords” fame wrote the music and it’s pretty fantastic. “Life’s a Happy Song” is a clever, funny, insanely catchy number that’s worthy to be a classic. The entire “Man or Muppet” sequence is a pretty hilarious parody of the overwrought plot-changing musical number in addition to being a successful take on that cliché. “The Rainbow Connection,” one of my all-time faves and, in my opinion, one of the best film songs of all time, gets a stirring rendition here as well. The film was directed by James Bobin, the same guy who did many episodes of the “Flight of the Conchords,” and more then a few of the musical numbers here are reminiscent of that show. “Me Party” in particular feels very much like something world's number-three folk-comedy duo would have busted out during season one. Chris Cooper is hilarious, probably the most entertaining actor in the film, and his villainous song is probably the comic high-light of the picture, especially since it takes a particularly hacky comedy concept and completely makes it work. I also like the way he says “Maniacal Laughter” instead of actually laughing.

And, now, the stuff I wasn’t so happy about. Despite the movie’s heart being so much in the right place, it… Kind of misses the point. The Muppets have always had a degree of fourth wall breaking humor to them. I mean, in the first movie, Kermit and Fozie do read the film’s actual script to advance the plot. But I feel the meta approach to the script was kind of unnecessary. All the talk about how the world has forgotten the Muppets is kind of forced, seeing as how it’s not like the characters have been entirely absent from the pop culture biosphere. If anything, thanks to the internet, appreciation for the Muppets seems to have actually risen in recent years. No reason is given for why the Muppets broke up in the first place. It seems like an unlikely plot development.

And, like I said, I mostly like Jason Segal and Walter. Walter is far from the irritating forced new addition to the canon I feared he might be. Though his big plot-saving move at the end of the story, otherwise known as the Deus Ex Muppet-ina, pretty much comes out of nowhere and has zero foreshadowing. However, you can’t escape the fact that the movie spends a lot of time focusing on these new additions when it could be dealing with Kermit or Fonzie… You know, the characters we actually care about and came to see. Gonzo, my personal favorite, doesn’t get much screen time at all. Other faves like Sam the Eagle or Statler and Waldorf aren’t given much to do. And, honestly, the whole thing about Animal undergoing anger management and not drumming chains up one of the funniest characters and prevents him from doing his main shtick. (Pepe the Prawn is thankfully given very limited screen time.) Amy Addams gives it her all but the love story subplot is a drag and was completely unneeded. I overall found the movie’s referencal tone to be a little much.

The non-original musical cues, which include “Back in Black,” Gary Numan’s “Cars,” and, ugh, Starship are completely uninspired. (Really, that was the only song they could find with the word “Build” in its title?) Original songs would have been a preferable option. The nadir of this nostalgia heavy take is probably the character of Eighties Robot, who is pretty much one long walking “Old things sure are old!” joke. Wait, scratch that, the inexplicable kung-fu fight scene is the nadir.

Segal and his director where obviously more influenced by the actual TV show then the movies. This becomes apparent in the third act when we finally get to the theater saving telethon. While none of the acts, like the chicken clucking rendition of “Fu…,” uh, “Forget You,” are bad, they do hinder the movie’s pacing. Overall, there’s a lot of talk here about keeping the dream alive and all that. But I think, if the movie really wanted to show that the ethics and messages behind Jim Henson’s critters were still relevant, maybe it should have just, you know, made a Muppet movie, instead of being really meta and clever about everything.

Having said all of that, I am glad the film has been relatively successful, both critically and financially, if for no other reason then it means more Muppet products in the future. There’s all ready been a new sitcom announced and that’s hopefully the first of many.

I’ve definitely ranted on way more about this then I intended too. I had expected this to be a multi-review entry but I don’t want it to run long. So, more reviews coming soon. Promise.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Lo, changes!

So, I don't know if anybody noticed... I seriously don't know if anybody noticed, but, over the last month, I've gone back and changed up the blog a bit. It was a long overdue overhaul, in my opinion.

First off, I added a sidebar with links for all the completed report cards, director or otherwise. That's another long overdue addition, honestly. I've also added sidebars for my yearly retrospectives and my Halloween write-ups. Those three features, I feel, form the foundations and heart of Film Thoughts. Depending on how next Feburary goes, I might add a sidebar for my Oscar coverage as well. I've also thrown in an updated list of potential future report cards and a label cloud, because why the hell not?

As for those early report cards, they're rough. I personally don't think my skills as a reviewer became any good until around the Star Trek report card. But I've kept those around for historical value and for those with any interest.

Beyond that, I've gone through and spell-checked everything and updated labels. I've boosted the font size for all articles. I've also went through and fixed all the HTML and formatting fuck-ups, some of which were just damn shameful. Over all, the goal here was to make Film Thoughts a more readier, appealing, and accessible blog.

Moving to the future, I've got a number of nearly completed report cards that will be posted soon. I've also decided on a few new features in order to keep the blog alive in-between report cards. This new material is forthcoming and soon. I PROMISE!!!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Halloween 2011: October 31 - HALLOWEEN

Halloween day was mostly spent with an all-day horror movie marathon. We got snow in my area recently, if you can friggin' believe that, so most of my weekend plans ended up being canceled. So JD and I didn't make it to the "Rocky Horror" experience this year. Maybe next year.

I tried to make the most of the situation, by dressing up in my "All the Big Summer Movies of 2011" costume, carved pumpkins, and handed out candy to the few trick r' treaters we got. (Three groups for a total of 9 kids.) Over all, the day was kind of lackluster.

House of 1000 Corpses (2003)
Rob Zombie is probably the most divisive figure in the horror fan community in recent memory, but, if I remember correctly, “House of 1000 Corpses” was fairly well liked, at least by fans, upon premiere. The film had a protracted post-production and, if it had been released in 2001 as originally planned, before the turn of the century horror revival really started, it probably would have been even better received.

It’s a conflicted film and I’m tempted to say it’s not very good. Honestly, the movie is a lot like being inside the “Dragula” video for 88 minutes. (The movie even features the song-title-lending “Munsters” episode.) The stock footage, the psychedelic imagery, and the constant cutaway sequences certainly feels more like a Rob Zombie music video then the 1970s grindhouse fare the movie aspires to. This style has a twin effect of making the movie schizophrenic and borderline incoherent while also establishing an appropriately nightmarish tone early on. It’s distracting at first but, once we get to the titular house, it actually starts to work in the film’s favor. The Firefly family exists in its own exceedingly twisted world and this movie is willing to take you there. The movie is the product of a mind that has seemingly consumed nothing but old horror movies, southern hick culture, and drugs his entire life. If it was a better movie, I’d say it’s the apotheosis of low-culture, trash cinema.

Rob Zombie’s white-trash obsession and often vulgar, abrasive dialogue makes his films most definitely not for everyone, but it’s hard to deny he can create memorable, distinct characters. (Or at least a few. More on that in a minute.) We meet Sid Haig’s Captain Spaulding in the first scene, a character both hilarious and disgusting. It’s not surprising that Haig, who gives a very funny, energetic performance, would go on to become something of a genre mainstay after this film. If he hadn’t all ready been in movies for over thirty years, I’d say this was a star-making turn. Sherri Moon can be just as divisive a figure to the fans as her husband is, because of her perceived questionable talent and Rob’s insistence in sticking her in everything. The character of Baby is pretty much the movie in a capsule: Psychopathic, sadistic, existing in her own weird horror universe, annoying, but arguably unique. Bill Moseley’s Otis is undeniably the brightest star of the film. Moseley made Chop Top a lovable fan favorite and, while Otis is nowhere near as manic or funny as that character, Moseley brings the same level of charisma and gusto to an exceedingly more cruel, sadistic character. A delightfully trashy Karen Black rounds out the film’s psycho ensemble. (For the record, my favorite character in the movie is actually giant, silent, comparatively benign Tiny.)

And thus we come to one of the main problems with Rob Zombie’s skills as a screenwriter. While he can write a great psychopath, his normal people come off as much less likable and well rounded. Jerry, the bearded one, is kind of an abrasive asshole and seems to do nothing but force his friends into more danger as the movie continues. Rainn Wilson’s character is clueless and any likable attributes he has are because of the performer, not the script. The two girls are indistinct from one another and defined solely by their relationships with their men. When the hard ass Tom Towles cop is the most interesting non-murderous character in your movie, you’ve got problems. So basically the middle section is about enjoying the mayhem, torture, and depravity the psychopaths inflict on these victims. Honestly, horror fans do that all the time in films like this but the torture and murder here is just grimy, explicit, and unlikable enough that this becomes a somewhat queasy, uncomfortable experience. (The rape, torture, and necrophilia performed upon the cheerleaders are the hardest bits to swallow.) Despite heavily referencing and featuring the Universal Monsters films, this as about as far removed from the benign horrors of those films as you can get. Having said that, the middle part of the film is probably the best, solely due the great cast. The movie sort of falls apart in the last act too, partially because the focus is shifted back to our victims, but primarily because the movie slips totally into incoherence. Why do the Fireflies have zombies in a cave system under their house? What’s the point of the weird, backwards tape they play? Why are their old guys in bunny suits wandering the caves? Are we to believe the Fireflies have really been killing and torturing people for that long, totally undetected? (The real reasons the old guys are there is to get our final girl out of her own bunny suit.) And while Dr. Satan is cool looking, his collection of retarded weirdoes makes for something of an anticlimactic final reveal. The movie descends totally into standard, slasher-chase stuff at the end before the obvious twist. Honestly, when your psychos are your movies main selling point, removing them from the story at the end leads to a weak end.

Despite these reservations, the movie does have some fantastic elements. The entire “I Remember You” sequence, in which our villains gun people down to the strings of an old country song, is pretty great. (But I sort of always love musical juxtaposition.) And the set design of the film is particularly notable. Rob Zombie’s past as a designer really shows here. I love how the Fireflies home is decorated totally with old monster movie posters, scrawled children’s drawings, and kitschy Halloween decorations. And also bones and chickens and scarecrows and shit. And while cut-aways to color-reversed redneck rants about a rapin’ skunk ape and a random, old, violent black man ranting incoherently about Heaven and Hell add nothing to the story, they’re certainly interesting. And that’s “House of 1000 Corpses” in a nutshell, more or less. It’s not surprising the film had a cult following, even before the sequel and action figures. (6.5/10)

The Car (1977)
I legitimately like this movie a great deal. Yes, the premise, essentially “Jaws” in the desert with a phantom car instead of a shark, is hokey. But the movie has likable characters, a laidback setting, some genuine thrills, and a unique main threat in its favor. Of course, I’m somewhat partial to car chase movies in general and killer car movies in particular.

Which is weird, because it’s not like I’m a motorhead or anything. Car culture kind of mystifies me, to be honest. I think why the killer car is such a good horror threat is because you’re way more likely to be killed by a car then you are by a vampire or werewolf or what have you. The titular Car in this film is a fantastic creation. First off, it just looks cool. Designed by the same guy who made the Batmobile and the Munsters Koach, the Car is specifically designed to make an everyday object look as threatening and sinister as possible. Its squat cab emphasizes the face of the car. The prominent headlights, wide grill, and angled hood gives the Car a glaring, grinning face, perfect to commit murder. Beyond being an excellent design, the Car just does cool shit, like flip onto its side and roll over two oncoming police cruisers. And if it’s possible, the vehicle is even driven in an expressive, personality filled way. Just look at the scene where, after being denied access to its victims because they’ve fled onto holy ground, the Car does donuts in frustration. Or the way he pushes and manipulates other vehicles around. This is why, despite being ridiculous, the Car works as a horror movie monster.

Another reason why I think I like the film so much is because it’s small Utah town setting is so appealing. Very quickly and early on, the town is established as a comfortable little town. Our cast of characters are equally lovable. James Brolin is the pillar of the community, a noble, family man of a sheriff that’s extremely ethical but far from unfaultable. Kathleen Lloyd is especially likable as Brolin’s girlfriend and the local school teacher. She’s got two great scenes: When she’s found that one of her teenage male students has drawn a picture of her naked and the older, heavier, teacher’s response to it, and when she mocks, taunts, and yells at the Car from a safe distance. Lloyd is such a delightful presence that when she exits the film, it registers as a real shock. Ronny Cox has a great role as the Barney Fife of a deputy. Other quirky characters in the film include a French Horn playing hitchhiker, a drunken wife-beating asshole who still gets off some funny lines, and an American Indian deputy who doesn’t take any nonsense off of anyone. Also, an old woman yells “Cat poo!” (Or “Tadpole,” so says the DVD subtitles. Hmm…)

Most surprising of all, the movie actually has some real thrills in it. As mentioned above, spoiler alert!, Kathleen Lloyd doesn’t make it out of the movie. The scene is set up during a stormy dark night. She stands in her kitchen, talking on the phone, getting increasingly panicked, worried about the Car. And THEN, two bright headlights appear in her window, slowly getting closer and closer, until that hellish horn honking breaks the night…! Other notable horror moments in “The Car” includes the vehicles first appearance, where it pushes two bicyclists off a bridge, and when the Car appears in Brolin’s garage and attempts to asphyxiate the man with fumes.

So, whatever. Opinions differ but “The Car” is a goodie in my book. I think as long as you accept and get over the innate ridiculousness of the premise, you’ll enjoy it as well. (7.5/10)

Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965)
I love a good horror anthology. Amicus Production, the rival to Hammer Studios, got a lot of the same stars Hammer had but, in order to distinguish itself from that iconic studio’s output, it focused on and specialized in the anthology format. “Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors” was actually the first anthology film they ever did. It’s… Not as good as I remember.

The set-up is classic Amicus. Five guys get on a train car together, among them Christopher Lee and Donald Sutherland, and are soon joined by a strange man calling himself Dr. Shriek (Back when that name was associated with the German word for terror, not a CGI cartoon ogre.), played by a nicely ominous Peter Cushing. Using his deck of tarot cards, Dr. Terror proceeds to predict each of their futures, all of the predictions ending in violent death via supernatural creature.

The first three stories are a major drag. The opening sequence features an old house, an entombed werewolf, a family curse, and a kind of cool twist ending that’s sort of predictable. But the segment spends most of its time on set-up and only gets really good in the last few minutes. Following that is a story about murderous creeping vines. This story has a lot of droll scientific information in it, takes place mostly on one set, and has a seriously anticlimactic conclusion. The third story has the fun premise of a pop song writer stealing the melody to a voodoo ritual song. But it goes on way too long. Far too much of the segment is devoted to musical performances. It’s actually the longest story in the film and feels every minute of it. It does have a somewhat spooky walk down a darkened street and a decent conclusion.

The movie doesn’t actually start to get good until the last two stories. The fourth story stars Christopher Lee as a wonderfully catty and bitchy art critic and co-stars Michael Gough as the painter who is destroyed by the bad reviews. When Gough looses a hand in a car accident, it’s not hard to figure out what happens next. Seeing two Hammer all-stars like Lee and Gough face off, especially when given juicy material like this to play with, is the main treat here. Once the disembodied hand comes calling for Lee, the movie makes the ridiculous threat work by just making the damn thing indestructible. The last story, in which Donald Sutherland is convinced by his doctor that his new wife must be a vampire, has an obvious twist ending you see coming immediately but the good performances and a decent horror mood makes it worth watching.

The framing device then concludes in a very memorable, darkly amusing way. (The same ending that Amicus would continue to use in many of their other horror anthology films.) Honestly, because of that ending, the cast, and the last two stories, I always remember “Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors” being a lot better then it actually is. The fact that the film has never been released on DVD and I watched it on my well worn, very dark VHS didn’t help any. While it’s the first one made, the best place to start if you want to get into Amicus horror is “Asylum” or “Tales from the Crypt,” two of the best films the company would make. (5/10)

Curse of the Fly (1965)
A very strange sequel. There’s no fly monster in this movie. The curse of the title refers to the Delambre family’s bad luck with teleporters. The movie also seems to heavily retcon the events of the first two films, letting Andre get out of the mishap of the first film unharmed and changing Philippe to Henri. (And into a huge asshole.) The fly DNA being mixed into the family bloodstream has caused Henri’s son to have accelerated aging and he must take a shot to prevent a sudden on-set of death. None of this information is given to us until well into the film itself. The movie starts with a scene of a woman in her underwear escaping from a mental institution in slow-motion. (While a slow paced, romantic version of the “Fly” theme plays.) Though Martin Delambre, his dad, and the teleportation technology enters the story soon afterward (After the crazy woman falls in love with Martin), the movie is mostly about this girl, a concert pianist recovering from a nervous breakdown. Either somebody had an unrelated screenplay he decided to latch to a sort-of-popular franchise, or somebody decided to take this series in a vastly new direction. Or they couldn’t afford a fly monster? Either way, “Curse of the Fly” is an odd film and definitely a product of the sixties.

If you’re thinking, “None of that sounds like a horror movie,” wait, there’s more. Martin and Henri have been experimenting with cross-Atlantic teleportation… And they have the stable full of mutants to prove it, among them Martin’s ex-wife. (Ex in the sense that he’s ignoring her now that she’s a mutant. They’re still technically married and this is a plot point.) While turning humans into deformed mutants and then treating them like animals is pretty evil, Henri insist they keep it up, “in the name of science.” Patricia, that’s escaped mental patient girl, is keeping her own secret from Martin and folks, making “Curse of the Fly” partially a film about secrets and how they can eat away at otherwise healthy relationships. An aged blind Inspector Charas from the first movie (though played by a different actor) shows up briefly as well, just to tell us some back story.

It’s not a bad film. Carol Grey gives a good performance as the increasingly panicked woman and all of the strange, divergent plotlines build nicely to the ending. The film has some atmospheric black-and-white cinematography. The radiation deformed mutants are an early example of body-horror and an interesting addition to the story. (The name Martin and the presence of creatures like that makes me think this film was an influence on “The Fly II.”) The lack of Vincent Price does hurt the film and it’s easy to see how the part of Henri was originally imagined as Price’s character. He probably would have done a better job then Brian Donlevy, who can't seem to combine the character’s nice and insane attributes. The movie was a British production and directed by Don Sharp of “Kiss of the Vampire” fame. It’s not really good enough to be a hidden gem and instead is more or less an odd curio for “Fly” fans. (6/10)

The Descent (2006)
It’s weird that after a huge hit like this, that Neil Marshall would kind of disappear. Was “Doomsday” really that big of a bomb? I haven’t seen “Centurions” but it didn’t look very interesting. “The Descent” remains as effective now as it was upon release. What’s really exciting about the film is that this is a monster movie that didn’t need any monsters at all. If this had just been a movie about a group of girls lost in a perilous, unexplored cave system it would have been just as good and probably just as exciting. There’s a solid hour of claustrophobic suspense before the Crawlers even show up. The scenes of Sarah getting stuck in the collapsing cave or the sequence of Holly falling and shattering her leg are particularly harrowing.

But once the monsters do show up, the film really ramps up into frenzied terror. One of the things I've always admired about “The Descent” is that, despite being shot on sets, it feels like it was shot in a real cavern. Never once do you feel like the characters are in a false environment. The darkness and red light of flares makes it clear that our protagonists are not in their own world. This puts them at a definite disadvantage to begin with and, when the Crawlers appear, it becomes clear just how defenseless they can be. Why I don’t think they’re super original designs, the gray, shrieking, skittering Crawlers are effectively creepy horror movie monsters. The movie makes it clear that anybody who faces these things unprepared is going to meet a nasty end. After establishing the creatures as a threat, the movie then delights in putting our characters in constant peril from them. More then once, someone has to keep absolutely still and quiet while a monster sniffs around them. It’s an old trick but it works, and never better then here.

Another thing that’s so strong about this film is that there’s nothing simple about it. Our characters are not unambiguously the good guys. The Crawlers are obviously wild animals, defending their territory. They’re no more evil then a grizzly bear. Towards the end, as our heroines tear the monsters apart with picks and their bare hands, the film doesn’t shy away from suggesting that the humans in the story can be just as vicious as their attackers. From the Crawlers’ point of view, this could be a movie about strange invaders coming into their area and wrecking havoc. There’s a lot of deceit and distrust among the girls as well. I’ve always thought what Sarah does to Juno at the end of the film was kind of a dick move but the film makes it clear that Juno isn’t exactly a good person.

The cast is strong, even if only about four of the girls get any real decent development. Sam and Rebecca are mostly Crew Members 5 and 6, to be honest. The boisterous, adrenalin junky Holly has always been my favorite character. The movie seems to intentionally design her as the most fun character, since Sarah’s in morning, Juno’s somewhat duplicitous, and Beth is mostly the mediator between the rest of the group. But because this is a horror movie, a particularly uncompromising one, the most likable character is the one who bites it first. (Pun.) Holly essentially fills the same role Burt Reynolds did in “Deliverance,” the person you’d think would be the most help and the big hero in the story who actually ends up becoming useless fairly early on. Shauna MacDonald and Natalie Mendoza also give very good performances as Sarah and Juno. These are the two characters that really shape the world of the film after all and drive the plot forward.

I also love that the movie is unapologetically symbolic. Sarah blames her self for the death of her husband and child and has never really recovered from the grief. When she climbs down into the cave, she’s really climbing down into her own psyche, a frightening, dark place full of demons. The “Apocalypse Now” sequence of her emerging from a pool of blood a stronger, more dangerous person is rife with feminine symbolism. By bathing in the blood, a classic symbol of primal femininity, she’s gotten in touch with her own inner wild mama bear. (The fact that she immediately kills a female Crawler after this scene isn’t an accident.) And it’s only then that she’s able to leave the cave and move on pass her own psychosis… At least in the American ending. In the original ending, she doesn’t make it out of the literal cave or the cave of her own making, as some people never do. While I like the character enough to want to see her live, I can’t deny that the intended ending is the stronger thematic one. (9/10)

A Night at the Movies: The Horrors of Stephen King (2011)
Basically “Danse Macabre: The TV Special.” While I’m not exactly a huge Stephen King fan, the guy is knowledgeable about the genre he works in. (And should really only talk about his own genre. His “Entertainment Weekly” column was often excruciatingly tin-earred.) To listen to him chat about his favorite horror films or his opinion on the facets of the genre in general is basically like just sitting down with another fan and chatting with them. The way he compares the “I Was a Teenage…” series of the fifties with the modern “Twilight” fad is an interesting thought and I generally agree with his assessment of the vampire genre. I also find myself agreeing with his disinterest with the “gore-for-gore’s sake” spectacle that rules the genre today, even if I think it’s perfectly all right to relate too and route for the killers and psychos in movies. The anecdotes about him first seeing “Carrie” in an urban theater full of large black men or watching “Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers” as a child only to have the showing interrupted by the news of Sputnik’s launch are anecdotes he’s told before. But they’re good stories and ones well worth hearing again.

What’s really fun about this special is hearing King’s opinions on the adaptations of his own work. It’s good to know he holds “Cujo” and “Christine” in such high regard, two adaptations I’ve always thought were underrated. His frankness about his dislike of Kubrick’s “The Shining” and his performance in “Creepshow” are interesting and refreshing. Despite his massive fame, King has always come off as a generally laidback sort of person. While wholly inessential, “The Horrors of Stephen King” is a fun little feature. Turner Classics Movies is good at this kind of thing. (7/10)

The Innocents (1963)
When you’re a nerd, wither it be a horror, movie, comic book, or anime nerd, you probably find yourself sitting down and making up a mental list, if not an actual list, of all the stuff you consider essential to the genre. It’s either a list of all the stuff you need to see but haven’t seen yet or a list of all the stuff you think you have to see before you can call yourself a proper fan. In my on-going journey through the horror genre that I’ve been on for about twelve years now, there aren’t too many essential films left that I haven’t seen all ready. Lots of obscurities or hidden gems, sure, but not too many have-to-sees. “The Innocents” is one such film that has escaped my sights until tonight.

I watched this at 2 in the morning and it’s getting super late, so I don’t have a super lot to say about this one. I also think I need to re-watch it to absorb all the layers and subtleties there. But I can tell this is an excellent film. Deborah Kerr gives a wonderful performance as a repressed woman who, by trying to save a pair of children from a perceived threat, actually says more about her own conflicted faith and repressed sexuality. Martin Stephens, who would go on to play the exact opposite side of the “horror movie kid” scale in the original “Village of the Damned,” gives maybe one of the best performances from a young child I’ve ever seen. His character is an old soul, somebody very young who seems to know quite a bit, and Stephens himself seems like one as well.

The film starts out slowly, introducing us to this world and its characters. However, there’s a distinct point when it really begins to work. Miss Giddens see an apparition of a man atop the manor tower. She rushes inside and looks up the center of a spiral staircase. This is the first example of such rich, atmospheric direction and soon after we find ourselves in a house full of shadows, full of whispering voices and spectral faces. We have stepped over into the world of the unknown. There are severally extremely creepy moments here. The scene of Kerr discovering an old photograph in the cobweb ridden attic is followed up with a man’s face appearing in a window and then coming closer, the music building. Kerr quickly becomes more and more frenzied as the film goes on, convinced of her own theories. Even up to the end, the movie is ambiguous about wither or not there really are ghosts at work her or if Kerr is just delusional. The film keeps piling on strangeness and unnerving behavior before building up to the incredibly intense finale. (They put an innocent little turtle in peril, a moment that I won’t deny totally got me.) Once the tension in that moment subsides, the movie immediately builds it up again for the real finale. It’s an ending liable to leave you with just as many answers as questions, but that’s what’s great about it. If any story should be mysterious and ambiguous, it’s a ghost story. (Or a story about the dark recesses of the repressed mind, depending on how you look at it.) The movie explores the secret world of children and, in an unsettling move, suggests a child corrupted by the sexual advances of an adult. The scene of Martin Stephens kissing Deborah Kerr deeply on the lips is just as unsettling as any of the ghost moments. Because the film gets the audience to sympathize with Kerr’s potentially dubious world so much, simple scenes like a kid dancing alone by the lake or riding a horse become raked with tension.

“The Innocents” is, overall, a hugely successful mood piece. The shadowy atmosphere, provided by future Hammer and Amicus director Freddie Francis, is extraordinary and the movie makes great use of music and sound design. I really should have seen this one sooner. With this and “The Haunting,” 1961 was a good year for ghost stories. (9/10)

So in total, this Halloween I watched 88 movies and television episodes and wrote reviews for 79 of them. I was hoping this would be a substantial improvement over last year but, nope, not really. Last year I wrote 84 reviews. I guess, considering all of this year's reviews were much, much longer, that is an actual improvement. (I've probably doubled my yearly word total just this October.) And I did attend my first horror con this past fall. I suppose Halloween 2011 was a major improvement in that sense. But I definitely had a lot less fun this October in comparison to last year.

Oh, well. Better luck next year, I guess. More updates coming soon. And I mean it this time.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Halloween 2011: October 30

Island of Lost Souls (1932)
This is pretty much the DVD release of the year for me. As you know, I’m a classic horror aficionado, particularly of the Universal cycle. While “Island of Lost Souls” was actually a Paramount production, Universal owns it and it was released as a part of the Universal Monsters video series in the early nineties. The film is widely regarded as a classic of the genre but its been unavailable for a long time. It’s never gotten a DVD release and TV airings are rare. I had hoped for a long time that “Island of Lost Souls” would be shuffled onto one of the classic horror sets Universal was releasing almost ever year there for a while and figured that would be the best release we’d ever get. So when Criterion announced that the film was coming out, I got pretty excited. I was eagerly counting down the days for its release. So much so that when Amazon said it wouldn’t be at my house until November 2, after the end of my Halloween viewing, I was pretty disappointed. Luckily it arrived in time.

So, anyway, this movie’s a masterpiece. Have you ever seen a film so good that it makes you kind of mad that you haven’t seen it before? There are a couple big differences between golden age Paramount horror and Universal that I’ve noticed. As I pointed out earlier, Paramount’s cinematography is generally more expressive then the stagey, silent film style Universal had. The movie has a lot more dollying and some very creative staging, including a fantastic shot seen entirely in the reflection of a lake. But the movie stands besides the Universal films because of its wonderful use of shadows. In at least two scenes, fleeing characters shadows are cast on the wall behind them, looming large. Early fog filled boat sequences also recall the Universal films of the same era. Over all, the titular island is a deeply atmospheric place. The print restoration is incredible. On DVD, the film practically looks brand new.

Secondly, Paramount’s pre-code output was very daring, pushing the envelope on sex and especially violence. “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” featured sexuality and sexual sadism as a major theme and “Island of Lost Souls” follows suit. A major subplot involves Dr. Moreau’s intention to mate Parker with the seductive Lota the Panther Woman, his most perfect creation. Parker nearly goes through with it too, charmed by Lota's raw animal sensuality, before realizing that this attractive young lady isn’t exactly human. As soon as Parker’s fiancé Ruth arrives on the island, the Beast-Men eye her hungrily and it’s not long, with a little prodding from Dr. Moreau, before one of the animal men attempts to have his way with her. And the movie’s hideously violent. As in the book, there's a preoccupation with vivisection here. A scene where Dr. Moreau calmly uncovers a recently performed-on animal man, still bloody and screaming, is particularly unflinching. It’s not really the level of violence that makes the movie unsettling so much as it’s the stifling mood of cruelty that hangs over the entire film. “Island of Lost Souls” is a movie practically about the politics of cruelty, of control, and oppression. When Dr. Moreau’s creations inevitably revolt and destroy him, it’s not shown so much as evil being overthrown, as the cycle of violence starting over again. The movie ends in flames and deafening screams of agony. “Island of the Lost Souls” is one of the most oppressively nihilistic horror films of the 1930s.

Charles Loughton is unsettlingly good as Dr. Moreau. He rules over his island with an iron fist. He considers himself a god to his animal-men creations. Though relatively soft-spoken, Loughton’s Moreau is always plotting. You can see the evil wheels turning in his head. But what’s really frightening about the character and the performance is that Moreau is completely self-justified in his sadism. When our shipwrecked sailor claims his vivisection of live creatures is cruel, he waves him off. “Don’t bother me with such petty horrors.” This is a man that can justify anything in the name of science. As portrayed here, Dr. Moreau might be the most devious and sadistic of any of the golden age horror villains. (Rivaled perhaps only by Lionel Atwill in the similarly grisly “Murders in the Zoo.”) Kathleen Burke, though naturalistic and untrained, suits her role of the Panther Woman extremely well. Bela Lugosi, as the Sayer of the Law and the eventual leader of the Animal-Men, gives a tortured, passionate performance. I’ll say it’s a better performance then his Dracula.

The Beast Men are fantastic creations. Though the make-ups, composed mostly of hair glued to face, is primitive, it’s incredibly effective. The low-key make-up is actually one of the things that work very well for the film, since it makes it seem plausible. Unlike the Universal monster movies that featured supernatural, fantastical creatures, “Island of the Lost Souls” has creatures that seem oddly possible. So not only is the film grisly, disturbing, and actively concerned with hot button concepts of bestially, evolution, misintegration, racism, fascism, torture, sadism, and cruelty, but it seems like it can actually happen too. Now that the film’s finally been released on DVD, perhaps this classic can be rediscovered by a new generation of classic horror fans and film watchers. (9/10)

Slither (2006)
Pretty much the closest thing we have to a modern “Evil Dead 2.” This is a horror-comedy that is just massively entertaining. It’s a shame the film bombed. It should have transformed Nathan Fillian into a modern matinee idol. At the very least, he could have so easily been the new Bruce Campbell. Instead, he’s doing some cop show… Sigh. The movie seemed to have stunted James Gunn’s career some as well, since it took the admittedly excellent “Super” a long time to get made. In an alternate time line, “Slither” was a big hit and James Gunn has since pleased us all with many more funny, twisted, endlessly entertaining pictures.

The movie has got crazy worm things, acid-spitting space zombies, great gore effects, a woman growing up into a giant ball of flesh and then exploding, and mixes body horror, sci-fi, redneck, zombie, and eighties creature feature tropes extremely well. The creature effects are phenomenal and Grant Grant, in his slug form, is one of the best monster designs in recent memory. And there’s some fantastically quotable dialogue here. (Even the DVD special features are highly quotable. “I’m Bill Pardy,” indeed.) But there’s more here then just all that and Nathan Fillian mugging it up. The central love story(?) between Starla and Grant Grant provides the movie with a heart. Despite being a marriage of convenience for her, Grant is crazy about her and she really does feel something for him. Michael Rooker really does give a good performance. I especially like the scene where he has to pull himself away from her, holding back his evil alien tentacles' need to impregnate her with his space seed.

I don’t really have a lot to say about “Slither.” The movie more or less speaks for itself. It’s a great flick for horror fans. (9/10)
Them! (1954)
Ah, the movie that kicked off the giant bug craze of the fifties. And I’d argue that’s its more or less the only really good one, at least out of the stuff I’ve seen. (“Tarantula” isn’t bad though.) I’ve always dug this film since I was a little kid. While the giant ants may very well be scientific impossibilities, they are honestly pretty real looking. They’re pretty effective special effects. I think, in a weird way, the film predicted the sci-fi special effects action extravaganza that flood the theaters every summer. The scene of a cop taking a machine gun to one of the giant ants feels a lot like the 1954 equivalent of Michael Bay. Despite lying more over to the sci-fi/action side of the horror scale, the film still has it’s effective horror moments. The little girl screaming out the film’s title is a pretty memorable scene, as is the ants attack on the police outpost. Good stuff.

The movie plays a lot like a mystery throughout its run time. James Arness, Joan Weldon, and Edmund “Santa Claus” Gwenn form kind of a central power trio, as they follow leads and clues, trying to find the latest ant colony. I especially like the scene of three spelunking down into the ant colony, stepping over the dead giant ants. Weldon ordering everyone to get out of the colony immediately is a good moment. The final military invasion of the new ant colony, formed in the city sewer systems, is an intense sequence and nicely plays up the cramp quarters.

What has really made the movie endure and elevates it above the copy-cats that would follow are the numerous quirky elements in the film. Edmund Gwenn plays his scientist as a knowledgeable but somewhat absent minded man. The scene of him fumbling CB terminology is cute and funny. Future Davey Crocket Fess Parker has a memorable small role as a fighter pilot claiming adamantly he’s not insane. Even more entertaining is the very active, and very funny, drunk that provides the final clue needed to find the ants. Overall, the film is intelligent, witty, funny, and also a bit scary. (8/10)