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Thursday, October 25, 2018

Halloween 2018: October 24

The Wicker Man (1973)

Over the last two years, I've suddenly heard the term “folk horror” a lot. This particular classification is hard to define but it usually involves a rural setting, pagan rituals, and folkloric beliefs. The folk horror film that towers over all others is Robin Hardy's “The Wicker Man.” One of the crowning cult classics of seventies horror, its following has only grown over the years. Legends of its infamously lost original cut added to this reputation. Some even consider it among the greatest horror films ever made. Despite this notoriety, I have always been somewhat underwhelmed with “The Wicker Man.” But Halloween is almost here and I haven't seen Christopher Lee yet this season, so I decided now was a good time to revisit this landmark film.

British police sergeant Neil Howie is investigating the disappearance of Rowan Morrison, a young girl. A resident of Summerisle, Rowan has been missing for several months. As he delves deeper, Howie is given contradictory information. The girl is alive, the girl is dead, the girl never existed. Moreover, the sergeant is disgusted by the islanders' pagan religion, which is taught in their schools and celebrated in public. As a devout Christian, he finds their magical rituals and wanton sexuality disturbing. As Howie investigates further, he believes a conspiracy is afoot. He's right but not quite in the way he thinks.

When I first saw “The Wicker Man,” I was surprised that this film is considered a great horror movie. I have a very elastic definition of horror but I didn't find the film suspenseful, thrilling, grotesque, and only a little macabre. Re-watching it in 2018, I still think it's barely a horror movie. If anything, “The Wicker Man” is a comedy. Watching Howie respond to the islander's beliefs, going from bewilderment to annoyance to outright disgust, is pretty amusing. The Summerisle folks also behave in a very exaggerated manner. They decorate with topiary penises. They have orgies in graveyards. The druggist sells dried-up foreskins. Every song or rhyme they speak is an obvious double entendre. If “The Wicker Man” isn't a comedy about a cripplingly virginal Christian fuddy-duddy stuck on the horniest island in the world, what else is it?

Those pagan songs and dances take up a lot of time. Sometimes, these moments are effective. I'm not going to argue about the greatness of that last act. Howie disguising himself in a parade, watching different people pass through a pentagram made of swords, generates some tension. But there's so much singing and dancing, you guys. Yes, the landlord's daughter attempting to seduce Howie is an erotic and enticing sequence. Yet the previous shanty in the pub? The guy singing as the kids dance around the maypole? The naked women leaping over the fire, performing another song? Each one of these scenes brings the pace to a screeching halt. And there's just so many of them.

Admittedly, part of why “The Wicker Man” doesn't work for me is not the movie's fault. The twist ending is brilliant. It upends expectations, with the sudden realization that Howie has been the prey all along. That he is the virgin sacrifice and that the entire plot has been a ploy to bring him here. This ending is also the only thing everyone knows about the film. It's on the friggin' poster, for goodness' sake. “The Wicker Man” may be a brilliant thriller. Most of those thrills are deflated when you know where everything is going. The film is definitely among the rank of movies where the twist endings are well known. Unlike “Psycho,” “Citizen Kane,” or “Planet of the Apes,” the movie's potency is deeply effected by its conclusion being common knowledge.

Having said all that, the cast is brilliant. Edward Woodward is the perfect comedic foil to Summerisle's free-lovin' pagans. His incredulity at everything happening around him is pitch perfect. The way he descends into weeping and blubbering at the end is especially inspired. Christopher Lee gives perhaps his greatest performance as Lord Summerisle. The confrontation between Lee and Woodward is the film's best scene. Woodward preaches Christian values and Lee dismisses them with a cocked grin. Lee's commanding voice and presence is also perfectly utilized in the part. Eckland is certainly expertly deployed in her few scenes, as is Ingrid Pitt.

There are definitely things about “The Wicker Man” that I admire. The cast, mostly. A few key scenes. The design of the titular entity, which is rightfully iconic. It's a movie that should really work for me but, for a handful of reasons, doesn't quite get there. But no mind. The film's cult adherents are welcomed to it. That allegiance has inspired a number of interesting tie-ins. There was a spiritual sequel, the merit of which people debate, as well as a stage adaptation. The more off-beat additions include a pretty good Iron Maiden song and, of all things, a roller coaster. There was also that remake, which is a dreadful movie but a hilarious Youtube compilation video. [7/10]

The Cured (2017)

In the past, I've bemoaned the current state of Ellen Page's career. I don't think she's actually been in a movie more than a dozen people have seen since “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” Mostly, she's been headlining artsy-fartsy fair and none of it exceptionally good. (With an occasional studio role in something like “Flatliners,” which is even worse.) Nevertheless, I've watched my way through each of her new films because my love is that great. When “The Cured” was announced, originally under the equally generic title of “The Third Wave,” I was not impressed. Zombie movies are totally dried up and the film's flip on things didn't sound compelling. But, I secretly hoped, maybe a flashy indie genre effort would perk up Ellen's career? No luck. “The Cured” is pretty much exactly what I thought it would be.

So here's the twist. In “The Cured,” the zombie outbreak happened in the past. Something called the Maze Virus turned people into infectious, rabid murderers. Ireland was especially badly hit by the incident. That's in the past though. A cure has been developed, turning 75% of the infected back into normal humans. The cured, however, remember everything they did as zombies and face persecution from both the government and the public. (And there's the question of what to do with the resistant zombies.) Senan is one such cured. After being released, he goes to live with his sister-in-law and nephew. Senan doesn't tell her that, while infected, he killer his brother/her husband. Soon, Senan is entangled with a militant group of cured, looking to stand up to oppression.

From the minute George Romero put pen to paper, the zombie movie has been a conduit for social commentary. “The Cured” is obviously making a political statement. The cured are an oppressed minority, attacked by a public that considers them monsters and a government that considers them baggage. This connects the former zombies to any number of persecuted social groups, from LGBT to non-white races. (The scientist working on the cure is gay, making the former interpretation unavoidable) Yet this metaphor is quickly muddled. Conor was part of the same zombie pack as Senan. Now, he's leading the militant cured. Eventually, this group releases the remaining zombies and cause chaos, Conor emerging as an obvious villain. So, wait, the government and the public was right to be prejudiced? “The Cured” tries to have it both way, making its zombies both victims and villains. This makes its political stance wishy-washy and meaningless.

As a horror movie, “The Cured” doesn't raise many goosebumps. The Irish setting is overcast and rainy, creating an immensely dour atmosphere. The weight of the story is so heavy, that any personality or heart is quickly squeezed out. Not helping matters is David Freyne's direction, making his feature debut here. When the zombies are finally unleashed at the end, Freyne turns up the shaky-cam. The result feels like warmed over “28 Days Later,” with scenes of sprinting infected chasing people through a dreary city. The infected's tendency to tackle people suddenly border on the comedic. The only moments that generate any tension at all do not feature the zombies. A sequence devoted to Abby attempting to escape the Cured's compound, eventually sneaking through a window, is mildly suspenseful. So is a scene where Conor confronts her on a park bench. It seems people are a lot scarier than these ghouls.

Unsurprisingly, “The Cured” is mostly worth seeing because of Ellen. Her performance is a highlight of the film. When Senan reveals that he killed her husband as a zombie, her subsequent freak-out is heartbreaking. Her attempts to rescue her child in the last act nicely mix desperation and frustration. She even gets in a few action beats, taking out a few zombies with an ax or a pistol. The rest of the cast is a more mixed bag. Tom Vaughn-Lawlor plays Conor, nicely coming off as sympathetic in the early scenes before growing more sinister as the film goes on. Sadly, Sam Keeley is an aggressively maudlin bore as Senan.

Do we need any further proof that the zombie fad is burned out? “The Cured” is what passes for a reinvention of the subgenre at this point. It's a ponderous film, deeply self-assured of its own importance. It's also incredibly dour, treating its subject matter as if it's the most serious business in the world. There's one or two interesting moments and the cast is okay. The whole is not really worth sitting through for these few-and-far-between bright spots. Well, it is better than the “Flatliners” remake, I'll give it that much, but hopefully Miss Page's future forays into the horror genre are a lot better. [5/10]

Dinosaurs: Little Boy Boo

Dinosaurs” is another TV show that I loved as a kid. While many of the episodes still make me laugh, not every element of this series has aged that well. Yes, the screeching, catchphrase-spewing Baby Sinclair is kind of annoying. “Little Boy Boo,” the series' proper Halloween episode (though not its sole spooky episode), is one of the episodes heavily focused on the show's loudest and most marketable character. How can a sitcom set in prehistoric times discuss the topic of Halloween? Ah, let me explain.

“Little Boy Boo” begins with Sinclair parents, Earl and Fran, leaving to watch their teenage daughter, Charlene, perform in the school play. Older brother Robbie opts to stay home and babysit Baby. When the youngest Sinclair pretends to choke on a cookie, Robbie decides to get a little revenge. He tells Baby a scary story about being bitten by a caveman and transforming into a were-man. After properly terrifying the infant with the tale, Robbie has to make it up to his little brother. He agrees to give the Baby candy. Since they don't have any, he goes door-to-door through the neighbor, asking the neighbors for something sweet. In case you didn't get the joke, the annoyed neighbor clarifies that this is October 31st. “Little Boy Boo” depicts the prehistoric origins of Halloween.

The high-pitched antics of Baby Sinclair can be a bit hard to swallow through adult eyes. (Or, rather, ears.) The episode ends with a music video starring the infant, which I highly recommend skipping. Despite featuring lots of the screaming baby, “Little Boy Boo” is still a pretty amusing episode. Robbie's scary story references “Thriller” and largely bases its plot off “The Wolfman.” The old gypsy woman and the pentagram on the palm are even maintained. Classic horror references like that are always fun. The episode gets a few laughs when Baby's words directly interact with Robbie's fictional events, such as when he goes back and rewrites events. The were-caveman angle is very silly, it must be said, but I still had some fun with this. [7/10]

Alexia (2013)

Social media being an ever-present aspect of our modern lives, it's not surprising that a few horror films have been inspired by the phenomena. “Alexia,” an Argentian short from 2013, is largely set on a website similar to but legally distinct from Facebook. Franco broke up with her girlfriend, Alexia, and she killed herself afterwards. It's been a year. The social media website reminds Franco that it's his dead ex's birthday, prompting him to look at the dedications on her wall and sulk. That's when he gets a private message from Melina, his new girlfriend. After accepting an invitation to hang, his computer starts to freak out. It seems Alexia's spirit is not happy to see him move on.

The idea behind “Alexia” is potent. Social media has made it difficult to escape the spectre of failed relationships, as even the most well-adjusted person is tempted to spy on their exes' pages from time to time. Furthermore, being reminded of people who have actually died by the cold and heartless website algorithms is a very real phenomenon. Either of these ideas would've been a strong foundation to build a horror film upon. Sadly, “Alexia” goes for the easiest option. Its scares are generated by spooky faces or hands leaping out at the protagonist. The scariest Alexia's ghost can do at first is glitch up Franco's screen. The conclusion is seriously lame, the scary attack coming at the exact moment you expect. This one seems fairly well liked and popular – it has over a million views on Youtube – but it left me cold. [5/10]

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