Friday, November 30, 2007

DCD's Best Of Horrorthon 2007


Wouldn't it be great if Octo could link our reviews to our list of movies watched? I was going back through the month of October to refresh my memory for my Best Of list and man, that is a lot of reviews to search through. Honestly I'm surprised he hasn't done this already, slacker. Just because he's got all this new fun stuff in his life: moving, girlfriend, working, making little Octo's... but I digress. Here we go!

1. Favorite - Ju-on. Even though I didn't rate it as high as previous Thoner's, this movie was everything Horrorthon is about. Creepy, unsettling and scary. On a side note my son gave me the biggest scare a couple of weeks ago that made me think of this flick. He was supposed to be in bed and I was in the kitchen doing the dishes, I thought I heard something, but wasn't sure so didn't turn around. Then I had that back of the neck sensation. I turned around and there is Jake, peering around the doorframe silently staring at me. Then he meowed like a cat!
No, not really. But I literally swallowed a scream as I didn't want him to know how much he FREAKED ME OUT!

2. Hidden Gem - Vacancy. Re-reading my review I remembered how tense and edge of your seat this movie was for me. It was a solid scare-fest that I think may not get considered by many because of it's too "slick" look and well known cast.

3. Most Disturbing - Ju-on. I actually went back and upgraded my rating of this flick because I could not get it out of my head for a couple of days after watching it. The fact that the curse could basically effect the entire world eventually, never mind the creepy ghosts, was intense.

4. Scream Queen - Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby. Nobody does sickly, scared and freaked-out quite like the waifish Miss Farrow. Her emotions are amazingly portrayed. A magnificent performance.
Runner-Up - Shauna Macdonald in The Descent. That scene in the "bone room" earns her bragging rights at the very least.

Scream Stud - My main man of Horrorthon - John Cusack! He gets mad props for carrying 1408, and also for the excellent Identity.

5. Worst - I'm going with The Messengers on this one. The preview to this flick made it look really good and scary and pretty much nothing was further from the truth. Slow, meandering and stupid.

6. So Bad It's Good - Beneath Still Waters. The few things that redeemed this flick from "Worst" was that there were a few laughs, and the last 30 minutes or so contained a bunch of violence and nudity. Plus an ending that was I'm sure, supposed to be shocking that instead turned out to be laugh out loud funny.

7. Goriest - Slither. Never mind the exploding woman that we all know and love - or detest. There were a lot of parts of this movie that just totally grossed me out!

8. Most Memorable Death - Juno from The Descent. Even though her death is actually off screen, it starts when Sarah nails her in the leg with that pick-ax and leaves her. You know she is going to go down fighting and her end will not be pretty. Plus she totally deserved it.

9. Best Looking Monster - Kind of a tough one as I didn't really watch any true "monster" flicks. However I choose those slug things from Sliver. Simplicity of design, but very effective. I could not watch those things go down people's throats without gagging. Bleh.

10. Scariest - Ju-on. No question. See above for story on how I equated my son with Creepy Blue Boy.

Yay Horrorthon! Thanks for such a great time everyone!

Jaws


(1975) *****

Let's go back to Sean Brody on his capsized sailboat. He stares in horror into the shark's mouth, as his rescuer, Marge, is shredded between teeth. He stares into those eyes.

Now to Quint, giving his account of the USS Indianapolis events:

"Sometimes that shark he looks right into you, right into your eyes. You know, a thing about a shark, he's got lifeless eyes. Black eyes, like a doll's eyes. When he comes at you, he doesn't seem to be livin'...until he bites you. Those black eyes roll over white and then...Oh, then you hear that terrible high-pitched screamin'."

We hear his story and can't take our eyes off his face. We're so captivated by Robert Shaw here, we could easily forget that Richard Dreyfuss is in the same shot the entire time, his face bearing the same riveted expression as ours.

Dreyfuss himself, is fantastic with his reactions the entire film. When investigating the wound of the first victim (Played by Susan Backlinie, the first one to die in Day of the Animals, remember that?) he peels back the plastic covering her remains and then gasps for a bit before nervously continuing into his recording device, "The torso has been severed mid-thorax. There are no major organs remaining --- May I have a glass of water please?" He continues to dictate the horrific wounds and we never see once see the body. And while we see the occasional severed body part and we see the faces of a few of the victims during attack, we only once see the face and the wound together, and that's when Quint gets devoured at the end. Prior to that the horror is stirred with flashes of the shark and some of the most evocative dialogue ever written for a horror movie.

As I mentioned in my J:TR review, the Jaws series gets tons of mileage out of revealing the shark only in flashes. When we can't see it, it could be anywhere, and anything could turn out to be the shark; the cresting bump of the head of a human swimmer, a screaming teen lurching up laughing on her boyfriend's shoulders. This makes the moment when Alex Kintner, the first public victim, is attacked that much more surreal. We don't see what's attacking him, but we see him, curiously small and distant in the frame (and eerily quiet through the speakers), rising up an unnatural height from the water, and immediately every witness knows that something is happening that should not be.

Even at the heartbreaking conclusion to the scene, when parents stand relieved on the shore, we see Mrs. Kintner step away from the crowd and we stay with her just until the exact moment when it dawns on her that she's the only parent standing there without her child. We cut away just before what must have been a terrible scream.

What makes Jaws special is that it's these moments of horrific emotional intensity which carry the film and not the gore.

When I envisioned the Real Killers and Animals concept for this year's Thon, I considered the the Gacy/Ed Gein/Dahmer/Bundy biopics the centerpiece of the Real Killers side. I wanted the Jaws movies to be the centerpiece of the Animals side. I decided to watch and review them in reverse order because Jaws is a masterpiece and we all know how hard it is to write reviews of masterpieces. This turned out to be a rewarding way of going about it; I finally noticed how good Jaws 2 is, out from under the shadow of the original, and I avoided having to end the whole thing on the relentlessly sour note that is Jaws: The Revenge.

Instead I got to end on this beautiful, perfect film.

Re-Animator

(1985) *****

I snuck this one in just as Horrorthon was expiring. I don't have much of substance to contribute that wasn't already articulated in JSP's review from 2006, back when he was still Summerisle, or Octo's review from this year's Thon. Here are a few things, though, I stopped to consider while watching Re-animator.
--Why don't these scientists ever remember to flick their needles before injecting? Maybe the adverse effects had nothing to do with the serum, itself; Maybe the re-animated corpses were all just reacting badly to the bends.
--I guess it makes sense, when testing a new serum, to run multiple experiments to determine if the glitches are the fault of something other than the serum. Was Herbert West still, by the third film, using version 1.0? I really wouldn't put it past him.
--Wouldn't it have been better, more professional Mad Science if West had at least thought to tie down his subjects before injecting them? Even moreso, shouldn't Dan Cain have thought of this as well, before plugging his dead girlfriend with the stuff at the end of the film?
--I liked that Dr. Halsey retained the memory of how much he loved his daughter Meg. It really obscures the true character of the zombieism going on in this movie. In 28 Days Later, and Dawn of the Dead '04, the zombies are so out of their mind with rage, and in the original Romero flicks, the zombies are just so out of their mind, that there seems to be no mental connection to who the zombies were before they caught the fever -- Bud from Day of the Dead isn't a particularly good example: is he controllable because he's re-connected with his human psyche, or just because he's been well trained?
Here though, there's still a living person buried under all that zombie. Even, probably, in the ones that are on the attack. We don't see this side of them because their children aren't in the room.
I'm glad I exited the Thon watching this one. It's the quintessential Horrorthon movie.

M

(1931) ****1/2

Peter Lorre plays Hans Beckert, the main character in Fritz Lang's first talkie. As it's his first leading role in a feature, Lorre can't really be called a "star." The real star is a city full of terrified people. M is about the reactions of Berlin city officials, residents, business owners, and even organized criminals, when a series of mysterious child murders take place.
Anxiety erupts citywide after the disappearance and murder of Elsie Beckmann. Conjecture is rampant: That man followed the little girl up the stairs -- he must be the killer; That man is offering to walk that little girl home -- he must be the killer; this one's a pickpocket -- he must also be the killer.
Unhappy with being lumped in with a child-killer, even the city's criminal element conspires to suss out the killer and administer their own justice, while the police conduct their own investigation. The criminals nab him first, chasing him through Berlin, tracking him down by the chalk "M" slapped onto his shoulder by one of the pursuants. They finally corner him in an office building and spirit him to an underground trial.
There, Beckert delivers a desperate defense. "I can't escape," He cries, "I have to obey it. I have to run, run...endless streets. I want to escape, to get away! And I'm pursued by ghosts. Ghosts of mothers and of those children...they never leave me. They are always there...always, always, always! Except when I do it, when I...then I can't remember anything."
Especially considering when it was released, M is a bold statement about the power of the mind over behavior. The Nazis hated it, calling it "degenerate;" evidence of the moral bankruptcy of the Jews. Years later though, according to IMDb, it was chosen by the Association of German Cinémathèques as the most important German film of all time. Fritz Lang gets the last laugh.

Cujo

(1983) ***1/2

Cujo is a happy, lovable, romping bundle of muscle and fur. He's doted on by his owner, young Brett Camber and life is sweet. Well, not quite. Billy's father Joe, a mechanic, is sullen and domineering with his son and wife, Charity. The Cambers' gloomy home life is a sharp contrast to Joe's work life, where he's respected and liked by all who bring their cars to him.

Among his customers are the Trentons; Donna, Vic and their five-year old son Tad. The Trentons have their own gloomy home life, now that Donna's been having an affair with Vic's best friend, Steve. It gets gloomier when Vic finds out about it right before he's scheduled to leave town on a business trip.

One day in the middle of all of this, Cujo sticks his head in a rabbit hole. He's bitten on the face by a rabid bat and that's the end of that. Disease slowly eats away at his brain until he's no longer lovable or happy. That the Cambers never have him put down is a tragedy not only because of what Cujo does later, but also because on his way towards going berserk, he's in obvious misery.

Brett and Charity leave on a trip and while Joe's home alone, Cujo mauls him in the garage. Then the dog kills Joe's friend Gary.

Then Donna sputters up the Cambers' long, long driveway in her failing VW, Tad beside her in the passenger seat. When the car dies, they're trapped; Cujo lurks outside, no living person for miles. Not even Vic, who's out of town and furious at the time, knows where they are. There they sit for three days, Tad convulsing with heat prostration and thirst.

It's a sad, and sincerely told story. Dee Wallace is strong as Donna, Ed Lauter is a perfect casting choice for Joe. The Trentons and the Cambers, like Cujo himself, are a tragic example of what happens to us when we lose control of our emotions. This was better than I'd remembered.

Little Z

(2007) *****

This is my excuse for not reviewing more. Jeff infected me with a parasite that has been making me vomit for about seven weeks now. I'm finally feeling better, but October was a bit of a wash, and I often fell asleep next to Jeff on the couch, trash can at my side, just in case. We're now 14 weeks along, and we found out we're having a boy.

The Swarm

(1978) **1/2

The Swarm was directed by Irwin Allen, who had co-directed The Towering Inferno. Hoping to outdo his earlier effort, he threw in everything but the kitchen sink. It's blanketed with star actors, featuring Michael Caine, Henry Fonda, and the infuriatingly bearded Richard Chamberlain. Also, it's got an awesome villain: a terrifying swarm of mutant killer bees. Bees in this colony possess a poison strong enough to kill a human in 4 stings. Worse, the swarm is enormous -- by film's end, it's large enough to completely overwhelm the entire city of Houston.

Michael Caine leads the group assigned the task of taking the swarm down. He's quick to point out the basic conundrum of the bee problem: they need to be taken down in such a way as not to kill any of the world's normal bees, which we need in order to pollinate our crops. It's an insightful plot point. The Swarm seems to pride itself on its clever insights. Kind of ironic considering that the ultimate solution to the bee problem, as it turns out, causes an environmental catastrophe almost as bad as the problem it was meant to solve. If you ask me, I'll tell you what it is. Brace yourself though, it's ridiculous.

Believe it or not there's almost a feature length's worth of good movie to be found here. I did enjoy a side story about a boy who escapes a camp site while his parents are stung to death. He becomes MC's first living model for what happens to people who get stung. They meet in the boy's hospital room and MC spends the first few moments convincing the boy that the gigantic bee he sees floating in the middle of the room is a hallucination (see below).

Unfortunately for me, the 156 minutes I committed to watching this were not a hallucination. There's a feature length's worth of good movie to be found here, but with more than a feature length's worth of wheel-spinning attached to it. It just goes on and fucking on. Just when you think you're nearing the end of the movie, it's like "Christ, there's more movie." It's not simply that The Swarm is too long; it's that the story gets progressively less tidy as the minutes pass by. It opens up boxes simply to dump them on the floor -- to wit, 2 hours into a film is a terrible time to try to introduce a new major character, yet that's when we finally meet Dr. Andrews (Jose Ferrer). He's dead within 10 minutes of his first appearance.

According to IMDb, "Irwin Allen was so disheartened by the amount of money he lost on ‘The Swarm’ that he forbade any of his employees to ever mention it again. He even cut short an interview when a question was asked about it." I don't think Allen had to wait for the box office figures to come back to begin hating his own movie. The last hour makes it pretty clear he didn't care for it even while it was being scripted and shot.

Deep Blue Sea

(1999) ****

When I first moved to Los Angeles, I came here to work with a talent manager whose biggest client at that time was Stellan Skarsgard, who gets his arm chomped off just as things start to go horribly wrong in Deep Blue Sea. I remember that this manager and her assistant went to see the film and thought it was just okay (although they were totally psyched that Stellan, whose biggest film up to that point was Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, was making a huge American flick). So I never bothered with it. But I have to say, of the movies I have managed to stay awake for this Horrorthon, this one did pretty much everything it was supposed to do, and I have few complaints.

The problem all starts when some pesky scientists, fooling around and tampering with mother nature like they always want to do, even though it’s always a bad, bad idea, add some chemical or compound or something or whatever or whatnot to sharks’ brains. Huge mistake. The sharks get smarter and figure out a way to destroy the scientists’ entire underwater laboratory, flooding various parts of it in order to get inside and eat anyone they find. OK, so sharks get inside your place and eat you. That’s pretty scary, really.

The absolute best moment of this movie—and maybe any movie—happens when Samuel L. Jackson, in the role of a business man who is funding this whole enterprise and happens to visit on the bad day when the sharks take over, gives a stirring speech designed to get everybody’s head together, make them stop panicking, and rouse them to glorious, brave action. As the music swells and the other characters begin to buy in to Jackson’s rhetoric, a giant shark comes out of nowhere and eats him head first in about a second. Why can’t more useless monologues end like this? I would love to see the giant shark device used more often in all sorts of genres.

Dragon War

(2007) *

D-War was a mess. About the only positive thing I can say about this film is that I felt totally relaxed about having to pee in the middle of it. When I came back, one of the two tepidly talented, good looking but sadly uncharismatic leads had been thrown into a mental hospital. Somehow, I knew without asking that the reasons for her incarceration just didn’t matter one whit, and I had missed nothing. The movie has great special effects and the dragons look awesome, but that just isn’t enough to make up for the fact the plot makes little sense. There’s a good dragon and a bad dragon, and this dude has to sacrifice a chick, but to the good dragon, you see, not the bad dragon. The history of the dragons’ existence comes to us via a flashback within a flashback—really, it’s almost like a Simpsons parody—that is full of confusing Korean words. At several points during the flashback sequences, one character or another complains, “I don’t understand!” And neither did anyone in the audience.

We saw this flick in a dingy little theater in a sketchy area of Van Nuys. It reminded me of theaters of old and came complete with a “Starcade,” where I soundly beat Octo’s ass at air hockey but then absolutely embarrassed myself on Dance Dance Revolution. And we got this awesome picture taken.

Die, Monster, Die!

(1965) ***

I think this movie should absolutely be remade, with the following changes:

The main characters should have to kill a monster, thus fulfilling the promise in the title. This does not happen in the 1965 version.

The whole thing should be transplanted to a remote island in Polynesia. In the old version, there is just no reason to stay in the British mansion on the moors. The characters aren’t stuck, so the stakes aren’t really very high. Whenever the main guy starts saying, “Let’s get out of here,” his British girlfriend comes up with lame excuses to stay.

There should be way more sex. As Octo pointed out, in the 1965 version, there is tons of time where the two main characters are not looking for monsters or talking to anyone else in the house. They must be doing it in one of the rooms of the mansion. We need to see this.

There should be a much higher body count. The monsters have to get free and kill a lot more people, before the college student and his girlfriend turn around and figure out a way to kill the monsters.

Get rid of the British scientist who somehow doesn’t understand that the rock that fell on his property is not dark magic but a radioactive meteorite. I didn’t realize that Britain in 1965 was such an ignorant backwater full of superstitious idiots. For the radioactive rock thing to really be presented as an evil spirit or whatever, you need to move the whole story to a place where the “scientist” is a local tribe leader or a religious freak.

Octopunk's Best of Horrorthon 2007


1. Favorite: The Hitcher. I've seen this before, but it really impressed me this time. Slick and deadly.

2. Hidden gem award: The Golem. I figured this for a certain amount of quality, but I was unprepared for how often my jaw dropped at the visuals. Runners up would include Carnosaur for being smart when nobody asked it to, and In the Mouth of Madness, which was better than I thought John Carpenter had in him at the time.

3. Most Disturbing: Pulse (Kairo). The Japanese one, not the awful remake. Those plaintive cries for help so bleached of passion they can be called neither "plaintive" nor "cries." Creepy as hell. Personally, I'm glad Hostel II didn't get me as bad as I'd feared.

4. Scream Queen: Raquel Merono as Barbara in Dagon. I know I built a whole subfestival around Kari Wuhrer, but after experiencing it the attraction had kind of run its course. Famke Janssen was a consideration, too, but Raquel is just so damn sexy in that movie.

Scream King (stud): Bruce Campbell in Army of Darkness. I said I'd pick one in that It's time for Best Ofs! post that you all ignored, and I am a man of my word. Today.

5. Worst: Beyond the Wall of Sleep. Saw some bad movies this year, but none as detestable as this. This was the cinematic equivalent of watching monkeys crap in their hand and throw it at you. Actually, I'd rather dodge monkey dung for 84 minutes than watch this again.

6. So Bad It's Good Award: Dragon Wars. Much like its Korean fellow The Host, this had seriously disconnected storytelling going on, but unlike The Host, it was chock full of monster action. Runners up include Mantis in Lace and Zombie Lake, both catching one's attention with lots of naked.

7. Goriest: Hostel Part II: It's usually the zombie flicks that up the gore count, but the only one I watched was Zombie Lake and that didn't rate. Hostel II had the nasty fate of Heather Matarazzo and further badness with power tools. Yucky.

8. Most memorable death: Ray Milland in Frogs. After an hour and a half of watching frogs being on things, they make their move, bursting in on the room in which Ray Milland sits helpless in his wheelchair. The movie cuts between the frogs being on things in the room and back to Ray's face and back and forth and back and forth until Ray keels over from a heart attack. He literally dies because frogs are there.

9. Best-looking monster: Baraki the evil Imoogi from Dragon Wars. Yes, it was a silly movie, but that big honkin' cobra was damn cool to watch. Runners up include the too-sparsely viewed tadpole monster from The Host, the dragons in Reign of Fire and good old Godzilla, blotting out the sky with classic destructive wrath.

10. Scariest: The Japanese Pulse again. It really works on the sometimes-meaningless, sometimes-disturbing dread of trying to find someone and getting their voicemail. What if that kept on happening every time with every person? What if that's what death is like? Brrr.

Okay, folks! It's never too late to do your Best Ofs but if you get 'em in this weekend then they won't be surrounded by the more general off-season news. I'd love to see what you have to say.

The Last Man on Earth

(1964) *****

My last movie! I had to check this one out after JPX's glowing review of it last year. After not much consideration I decided it deserved the same five-star rating he gave it. This one is a winner. It's based on Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend, which was further cinematized in 1971 as The Omega Man starring Charlton Heston. And as you probably know, two weeks from today it's going to be released as yet another movie, finally reverting to the title I Am Legend and starring Will Smith. HandsomeStan worked on it, and you can read about that adventure in his sneak review preview review.

There's going to be a spoily section at the end of this review, but I'll give you a head's up.

Vincent Price plays Dr. Robert Morgan, who is indeed the last man on Earth, as everyone else has been taken by a plague that turns them into vampire zombies. Immune to the airborne plague, he holes up in his house every night and cranks jazz music to drown out the noisy vampires moaning outside. One of them is an old friend of his, who calls him by name: "Morrrgan! Come out, Morgan!" During the day he drives into town to stock up on supplies and scout out the hiding places of the sleeping zombies, pounding stakes into them and then grimly marking off the tiny area of the map he's managed to cover so far. At the film's beginning he's been doing this for three years and the strain of it is showing; he plods around his various tasks disgusted at his lot, yet still clinging to the survival instinct.


Reading JPX's review last year, which featured the photo above, I made the incorrect assumption that the building in the background was where Vince was holed up. But he's acutally living in his house, the same one he lived in when everything was normal. For this to work, the zombies are of a particularly weak variety. They can talk, but they can't push through the boards on the windows or remember how to use a doorknob. At one point our hero is able to fight his way from his car to his house without suffering a single bite.

This reduced threat level would seem to be a detraction, and for that reason I considered knocking off a half star for about ten seconds. But this movie isn't about the real physical dynamics that characterize Night of the Living Dead, it's about the dread emotional weight of being a sole survivor. This is from the 60's when they still resembled the 50's, and the horror is having one's home -- complete with door knocker and picket fence -- turned into a fortress against cold, clawing death in the night.

In a long flashback we see the American Dream crumbling to nothing. As Morgan works to find a cure, fewer and fewer of his coworkers coming in, his daughter succumbs to the plague and he moves too late to recover her body. The army is dumping truckloads of the dead into a flaming pit, and a tired sergeant tells Price "a lot of daughters are in there, including mine."

At this point in the history the dead are simply being burned to avoid the spread of the plague, but there are rumors of the horrifying second stage. Morgan's coworker, who will later be lurching around in his yard calling his name, has holed up in his house and hung garlic on the door. The "vampire" part of the plague is clever: postmortem symptoms are vampire-like but not supernatural: the infected are violently allergic to garlic, sunlight and the sight of their own image. Robbed of the nourishment from Morgan's blood, the vamps feed on the weakest of their own, so Morgan must clear a few corpses out of his yard every morning.

And for the spoiler-wary, here is where I leave you, fellow 'thonners. The information beneath the next picture reveals further plot that you may want to save for later. But I highly recommend this journey into a bleak, ruined version of Home Sweet Home. One of the dourest, most potent flicks I've seen from this era of horror.



SPOILERS A-COMIN'!

SPOILY SPOILERS!

SPOILY McGEE!

The kicker to this story, and the meaning of the novel's title, is that the good Doctor himself has become the monster of this world. It turns out that among the mindless zombie vamps there's a society of infected humans who haven't died, and who keep their symptoms at bay using a serum they've developed. They plan to rebuild civilization, but first intend to corner and do away with this legendary superman who has the ability to walk around in the daytime, sometimes killing living humans while he's staking the vampiric dead.

A great idea, although it strikes me as bizarre that such a societal reversal would take place in only three years. Moreover, Morgan's staking of actual living humans could have been prevented if they'd, I don't know...left a note? "Don't kill me, please, I'm alive."

Again, I found these to be minor plot hiccups completely redeemed by the wonderful pathos of the film's climactic ending. Morgan actually succeeds in curing Ruth Collins, one of the living infected, but that flash of hope is immediately snuffed when her fellow infected show up to kill him. Hounding him to a nearby church, he stands at the altar surrounded by the brave vanguard of this new night society, all dressed in black like some McCarthy-era nightmare cabal. Hit with a spear, he watches the pure blood of the last man on Earth flow from him, and his alienation and resentment unleash themselves. "You're all mutants! You're freaks!" he yells, falling to the floor. But then, as the Ruth cradles his head, his rage is swept away by the tragic sadness of his lonely years, and he laments "they were afraid of me."

I believe that's the real dark heart of this story, not just that the new mutants are the normals, but that our hero's worst enemy, his own isolation, turns out to be a direct result of his survival rituals. The movie ends on a beautiful creepy note, as Ruth silences a small, black-clad child spooked by all the activity. "There there, everything is all right now."

As the last words of this year's Horrorthon, I loved that moment. It's okay now, folks. Horrorthon's over, and everything is going to be fine now. That is, as long as you're a mutant vampire freak in a black turtleneck. The normals? Well, they've got another thing coming.

Army of Darkness

(1992) ****

Every Horrorthon winds up having a few loose ends, or at least they do when you're me and you're trying to watch all of a given series. For example, I'll have to wait until next year to watch the last Hellraiser movie, as my mailman had to stuff so many advertising circulars into my mailbox he accidentally ripped off the address part of the Netflix envelope and just delivered that. The part with the movie in it got separated, and since it had no address on it they mailed it back. Rat farts!

One such loose end from Horrorthon 2005 was Army of Darkness. I managed to review Evil Dead and Evil Dead II as part of my Classics Roundup, but it got a little crazy squeezing all those Freddy and Jason movies in there and I had to make sacrifices. Fortunately, this was one of the envelopes not savaged by my mailman.

After the supreme achievements that are the first two Evil Dead flicks, it's difficult not to be a little disappointed with this one. It's not the same animal. We left our hero Ash stuck in the middle ages, and we rejoin him here not as a revered warrior but as a prisoner. He's tossed into a pit with a couple of demon monsters in it, and watching him take out the fiends with his chainsaw does indeed feel like old times. That feeling doesn't last.

One of Evil Dead II's great achievements is balancing the funny stuff with the genuine horror, and by those standards this movie tips that balance over and never looks back. As Ash sets off on his quest for the Necronomicon (which I hope you all know by now is a Lovecraft reference), things move into a goofy zone with miniature Ashes and double Ash, replete with a lot of Three Stooges eye-poking and sound effects. Yeah, it's not what we ordered.

Nevertheless, the character of Ash as forged in Evil Dead II's hellfire is still the same obnoxious hunka love we're used to. Bruce Campbell owns that role like Anthony Perkins owns Norman Bates, and it's a real hoot watching him jut his chin powers at his backwater allies and demon monsters alike. With his knackered, dependable Oldsmobile and endless supply of one-liners, he channels the moxie of every B-movie hero before him and takes on an army of prop skeletons.

I don't think I'd watched this whole movie since it first came out, and as such was kind of surprised at the level of silly that kicked in when the dead army was on the move. Still, it didn't harsh my buzz like the snickering spiders in Eight Legged Freaks. It's a Sam Raimi movie, after all, and prior to Spider-Man 3 that comes with certain guarantees. The action never fails, and it's good fun watching how well it flows when a lot of it involves skeleton arms being moved by offscreen production assistants. There's one scene in which Bruce Campbell is taking out non-articulated dummies that are just being tossed on him, and he makes every punch work.

And God bless 'em, this movie actually features combat with stop-motion skeletons. So dear to my heart.

So it's not the mad brilliance of the other Evil Dead movies, no. But in its goofier fashion Army of Darkness totally delivers the goods. Ash might get the magic words wrong, but he won't let you down.

Pulse

(1988) *

This movie has nothing to do with the other two of the same title, it just has the same title and I love grouping together movies that have that going on. Because of that goofy OCD habit, I got to augment the Uwe Boll's terrible Alone In The Dark with the hilarious other Alone In The Dark starring Dwight Schultz. This time I wasn't so lucky.

Pulse is about evil electricity. A household-sized batch of evil electricity that gets into the wiring and tries to attack you via the appliances. If you can't think of a way to make the movie worse, I can: have it star Joey Lawrence. He plays a whiny kid who comes to his dad's evilly-electrified house to stay for a while. Of course there are bars on the windows, despite the squeaky-clean neighborhood. Later someone will have to be trapped in the house. As Joey tries to settle in, the evil electricity weaves its ridiculous plots to harm the family.

As scares go, Evil Appliances rank somewhere below Crawling Hand. What can they really do besides turn on or off when they're not supposed to? At one point Dad's in the basement and his circular saw fires up on its own. It's just lying there, but a nearby screw on the table next to it is moved by the vibration and rolls into the blade, which flings the screw into Dad's face. And next to the saw is...another screw! What will happen?

Each of the three members of the family ultimately deal with some potentially lethal threat, and the rest of the movie is stretched thin around these events. Since the threats don't involve handy coincidences like nearby screws, the electricity is granted special non-electric powers. When the stepmom is being scalded by the too-hot shower, for instance, the faucet won't turn off, nor will the shower door open. These aren't special electric doors or anything, just regular ones.

According to imdb this movie made just over 40 thousand dollars at the box office, which is more than it deserved. Watching its made-for-TV quality, it's kind of appalling that this was ever in the theaters at all. The only brief bright spot is the appearance of this guy from Fast Times at Ridgemont High.


He basically plays the same character he did in that movie, except now he's a TV repairman. He shows up and gives this shrugging speech about how he has no understanding of his job but hey, it's cool, baby.

Despite the obvious goof factor going on here, there's no reason to watch this. You can find yourself a better waste of time.

Pulse

(2006) *1/2

Bleck! This movie is a textbook lesson in how to take something cool and make it suck. My god. It really doesn't deserve effort on my part to form whole paragraphs, so I'll just hit the bullet points.

-- In the original, there's the implication that the afterlife is fundamentally flawed. In this one, researchers for a cell phone company researched their way into new, unknown frequencies and that's what opened the door for the ghosts. Not a bad idea in itself, but a bland, over-explained version of the original.

-- Also over-explained, when the phantoms attack you in this movie they get up in your face and suck a ghost version of your face out of your face. This is your Will To Live. Those so effected have blackened veins like a plague, and eventually either kill themselves or get sucked screaming into a shadow.

-- At too soon a point in the story, Kristen Bell notes that people are just not around anymore. The spreading of the threat doesn't sneak in to the movie, it barrels in with horn blasting.

-- In the opening scenes we're struck over the head with the idea that "gosh, cell phones are just everywhere now." Every single extra is texting someone, groups of guys in parking lots will all be talking and laughing while looking at a laptop that one of them has, etc. I know that wireless connections are everywhere now, but it's just unrealistic and stupid.

-- In the original, the detail of the red tape that can seal windows and doors against ghosts is delivered with art and subtlety, in this movie it's delivered in the mail with a big note explaining "this keeps them out somehow."

-- Finally, in the end Kristen Bell and Boone from Lost head into a safe zone with no cell signal, and in a voiceover Kristen observes the irony that "these things designed to bring us together instead brought a terrifying threat." Arrgh! The thematic point of original was the loneliness and solitude that's been largely created by modern communication. I honestly wonder if they referred to the wonderfulness of cell phones in order not to piss off whichever company they were doing product placement for. Dammit.


I suppose it's worth noting that this movie does have Kristen Bell in it, and I think she's a hottie. She and the other actresses wear a lot of different tight shirts, so much so that Julie asked me if this movie was about boobs.

Like I said up top, I think the following is a potentially good idea: strange, hostile beings that exist in electromagnetic spectra who gain access to our world because of the opening of new communication frequencies. But not as a remake of the excellent Kairo! They totally missed the point. What a surprise.

Pulse (Kairo)

(2001) ****

I had intended to check out a bunch of Japanese horror movies and their Western counterparts this year, but this and Godzilla were all I managed. Kairo is an eerie, quiet film that sneaks into your internal scare zones and creeps you the hell out.

The story starts with a trio of students whose computer geek friend commits suicide in a disturbingly offhand way, after just stepping into the next room while one of them is visiting. Even worse, shortly after that he starts calling them on the phone, saying only "help me" over and over, in a tone so flat it might only be the sounds of static. As they investigate what their loner friend had been up to, they discover his obsession with a website inviting users with "would you like to see a ghost?"

Checking out the site reveals a series of webcam clips each only a few seconds long. The content of the clips is slightly varied, but usually always involve a person alone, stuck uncaring in their tiny world. One of the friends investigates the suicide's apartment, momentarily seeing him standing in the very spot he hung himself, but it turns out to just be a black stain on the wall. On his way out of the building he sees an open door that has been sealed with red tape, and investigating within comes face to face with a ghost. There's very little going on special effects-wise in this scene, it's just a little blurry slo-mo and some eerie music, but even though I'd seen this movie before I must admit I was spooked out of my knickers.

Kairo is an exquisite example of hinting but never explaining; somehow the dead have seeped into our world through the internet, although it's possible this was an inevitable result of the afterlife running out of room. The mode of attack varies; some people commit suicide, some are just drawn irrevocably into shadow and disappear, most people just don't show up to work and don't answer their phone. Without notice, the situation expands beyond the characters we know into a city-wide, perhaps global phenomenon, and we realize too late the story we've been following is just one of many.

One character opines that the overcrowded dead wouldn't want to kill us, as that would just make more ghosts. Instead they would "trap us forever in our own loneliness." That is the true essence of this movie, modern people being overwhelmed by their own implacable solitude. Imagine if that cold feeling you have when you keep getting someone's answering machine were actually some kind of threat. It's like invading aliens who use our own pollution against us, but it's far more personal. The horror here is that the afterlife is itself a gulf of crippling loneliness, and the dead have come to visit that hopeless state upon the world early, without the courtesy of waiting for death. That final fate is so dreary that even calls of "help me" are not delivered with any anguish or desperation, only monotone repitition.

That's not to say Kairo is all just drab and depressing like a cliched foreign film; the tone I'm describing is used to create a genuinely potent scare, the kind that doesn't pop out at you but is just frightening to contemplate. It's a think-piece of a movie, sometimes a bit talky, and at two hours is a touch on the long side. But it has a decent amount of scary spectacle, and in the end rates as a very good horror movie. Were I to suggest a five-movie intro to Asian horror, this would be on the list.

Dark City

(1998) ****

I figured since I was watching all the Hellraiser flicks I should watch Dark City, as the charcters of The Strangers so obviously boost the Cenobite design. Derivative as they may be, I like The Strangers better -- they don't have those off-putting, sometimes incongruous body mutilations, and they only wear their bizarre leather outfits when they're at home beneath Dark City.


When they're at work in the streets above, they take on the noir-ish look of the city itself, sporting outfits of deliciously stylish menace.


Better still, they get around by flying -- not Superman style, but standing up in midair, co-opting the unsettling surrealness of Rene Magritte.



I'm bothering with this detailed visual summary because Dark City is so deliberately rich in that regard. Each shot is like a postcard from the era of Film Noir, which can't be beat as a background for a sci-fi story like this one (and which makes Dark City also derivative of Blade Runner, which is naturally awesome). As in both The Crow and I, Robot, director Alex Proyas never quite manages to make his urban settings feel fully fleshed-out and real, but in this movie the pasteboard qualities are perfectly placed.

The city is a fake, created by The Strangers and populated by ignorant abductees. There is no daytime there, and every twelve hours everybody falls asleep so their secret masters can make changes in their grand experiment. The changes are twofold. Selected citizens are imprinted with new identities, complete with new sets of memories injected through a syringe. Meanwhile, the Strangers' collected telekinetic powers (referred to as "Tuning") are focused to grow new buildings and form new streets.

One of the cute details is that The Strangers will manually adjust certain elements of new configurations, which would seem uneccesary given their reality-manipulating powers. I found it quaint and appealing, as in the Watchmen comic when Dr. Manhattan would telekinetically dress himself but still zip up his own fly.


The story involves John Murdoch, who suddenly becomes The Strangers' most important subject when he subconsciously develops the power to Tune himself. When this happens, he throws off his yet-to-be-implanted memories and The Strangers' power over him. Initially this gains him nothing but supreme confusion, made all the more dire as his new identity was to be that of a serial killer, and his new part comes complete with a dead hooker in his hotel room.

On the run from the police and the mysteriously pale bald men in coats, he struggles to piece together what the frak is going on. The nightmare only gets stranger when everyone around him falls asleep, which is unsettling enough before he sees new buildings start to twist and grow out of the ground. This happens twice in the course of his desperate wanderings, and the progression is one of my favorite things about this movie. The first time he just watches in astonishment as everything stops and then changes. The second time there's an actual chase scene through the shifting cityscape. I think that's just brilliant.


Dark City is one of the better simulacra flicks that were coming out in the late 90's, like Truman Show, Existenz and The Matrix. It's got some delightful performances, particuarly that of Richard O'Brien as Mr. Hand. O'Brien is best remembered as Riff Raff the spooky butler in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and his stylish creepiness carries the whole vibe of this movie. Also great is William Hurt as well-meaning detective Frank Bumstead, whose puppydog sad features effortlessly wear the movie's noir trappings.


However, there are some weak links in this flick. Kiefer Sutherland plays the quasi-mad scientist in The Strangers' employ, and while he's essential to the plot, his affected delivery is quite grating. I can't tell if it's his fault or the director's, but the wheezing take on his character tends to knock you out of the movie a bit.

And the big downer is the movie's climax, which doesn't completely disappoint but involves a sharp dip in quality. Don't get me wrong, the movie is fantastic, but it's cooking along like a potential five star movie right up to, and even a minute into, the final confrontation -- then it gets all pear-shaped. It turns into a sloppy mishmash of noise and action that you probably have to watch twice if you want to fully get what happens. It's really too bad.

I suppose I should also point out that JPX's least favorite actress Jennifer Connelly is in this, although her brand of monotone emotional styling actually fits fine with the movie she's in.

Are you looking at my eyebrows?


In closing, I'll point out that I'm not using the word "derivative" as an indictment in this review. I recall when this came out a number of reviews pointed out the movie's obvious influnces, and assumed that doing so discredited the movie itself. I find that blunt equation to be rather juvenile and naive; after a century of moviemaking, finding a completely original idea is next to impossible. But finding new ways to approach familiar concepts is something I believe will always be possible, and that is where our attention should be drawn. Dark City is a perfect example, and well worth your time.

Horrorthon 2007 officially ends today!


That's right, gang, if you have any final submissions/thoughts on Horrorthon 2007 get them posted today. Beginning Monday there will be the usual geek updates on all things cool (and things I just like to make fun of).

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Zombie Lake


(1981) **

The French title of this movie is Le Lac des Morts Vivants, and my own personal title for it is Naked! If I had ever come across this on cable when I was a teenager, I would've taped it, then watched and rewatched it until the magnetic tape itself wore down to some wispy, cobweb-like material. I went back and timed the opening, and the girl starts undressing for the skinny-dipping scene at 58 seconds into the movie -- not even a full minute! After some nude sunbathing (during which the camera slooowly moves along her body in an extended closeup), she brazenly takes down the crudely-drawn "no swimming" sign and dives in.

"Oo weel take issue wiz me? Zis is France, and I am zo naked!"


There follows a long, long scene of swimming, some of it with our new best friend swimming along amongst the many lily pads, and some of it shot with...an underwater camera! If you bother to notice that the underwater footage has clearly been shot miles away in an indoor pool, with only a couple of prop plants tossed in, I smack you on the head! "Why are you counting lily pads?" I say.

Imagining oneself at age fourteen, as this movie inspires one to do, you can easily imagine saying "Man, the only thing that could make this better would be some zombies." And viola! A Nazi zombie pops out of the water and grabs the naked chick, and we get to watch that struggle from underwater, too.

During WWII, you see, the Nazi soldiers were victims of an ambush by the local French Resistance, led by the man who is now the mayor of the nearby village. It's admirable that from the very first disappearance the mayor suspects some supernatural evil lurking beneath the lake -- that is if you bother to notice that the magical naked lake has boring things like villages and mayors anywhere near it. In a flashback, we do see one of the still-living Nazis have steamy barn sex with one of the local girls, and see him meet his newborn daughter the same day of the ambush.

But whatever with all that, because here comes a girl's basketball team! Or badminton, or something. This is the movie that's bold enough to ask "If one skinny-dipping girl is good, then why not nine?" Cue the giggling and the splashing, cue the underwater camera, and, after a couple of minutes, cue the zombies.

Zombie Lake is baddity bad bad bad. It's a bad movie. Bad. The zombie effects are achieved simply with lots of green makeup, which -- oops -- tends to run off when it gets wet. The dvd had no English subtitles, so I had to watch the bad and frankly hilarious dubbing. My favorite line was when the mayor squeaks "We must band togezzer to fight ze mad murderous zombies." Worst of all, ultimately most of the plot is handed over to the little girl with the zombie daddy, who winds up turning on his own to protect her. For this she repays him by luring all the zombies into a barn that the townsfolk set on fire.

For all its badness, this is quite a fun, stupid romp. And while the heaps of nudity don't grip me the way it would when I was fourteen, it's pretty amusingly gratuitous how much there is. Sadly, the naked ends before the movie does; after the zombie rampage interrupts a tryst and an outdoor bath, the plot is turned over to the melodramatic little girl, who eventually beseeches her burning zombie daddy "I won't forget you, don't forget me." Awwww. (Cough.) Uh, any more naked?

I leave you with two minor but notable points: The girl is ten years old, despite every indication that the movie is taking place the year it was made and she should be at least thirty-five. And the sound design of the movie loops the same outdoor woodsy noises on a very short loop; I heard this one particular bird call so many times I wanted to go on a zombie rampage myself and maul a young girl taking a bath in her back yard. Of course I always want to do that.

The Machinist

(2004) ****

Christian Bale plays Trevor Reznik, a machinist working in a perpetually grey, dismal, industrial Los Angeles. He hasn't been able to fall asleep for a year, during which something has been mercilessly gnawing at him, and we join the story as things are about to reach the breaking point. Like Reign of Fire, I had seen this before and enjoyed more this time around.

What immediately grabs you is the amount of weight Bale lost to make this movie. It's quite freakish, making Tom Hanks's Cast Away transformation look like tea and crumpets. I recalled this shot below being particularly creepy the first time I saw it, because the movement makes it clear you're looking at a person but for a moment you can't make out exactly which part. One person comments "if you were any thinner, you wouldn't exist," and the story's problem seems to operate on that fundamental a level. This is a man who has been reduced to haunting himself.



The Machinist is an extrememly potent mood piece, potent like a double expresso. Several times we see Trevor aaaaalmost drift off to sleep, and his dire need to do so is so real you want to tiptoe around saying "shh!" But he continually doesn't manage to do so, and his paranoia increases. As Trevor attempts to navigate the pale, hostile world he lives in, Bale's tense performance is accompanied by theramin-weird music and skillful cinematography that manages to find poetry in the most mundane images.





Although he's well-read, Trevor is not a man of particular wit or style. He's just an average guy who is suffering from a nameless dread. That I was disappointed when I saw this the first time was mostly a function of enjoying the namelessness of that dread. As in Jacob's ladder (also better on the second viewing), the array of possibilities is so vast (is he dead? in Hell? in a coma? insane?), that picking just one of them feels limited. Often a mystery is more interesting than the answer, even if the answer is a good one. Knowing how this ended I found it quite effective, and felt a strength to the story's emotional component that I'd missed the first time around.

As I'm judicious about what's okay to reveal, I really can't tell you anything. You may find this movie to be a bit style-heavy and substance-light for your tastes, but I recommend you find out.

Reign of Fire

(2002) ***1/2

Having gone to the theater to watch Dragon Wars I figured I should give this one another go-round, as well. I was pleasantly surprised at how good it was. When it came out, Reign of Fire was victimized by its own marketing. As I mentioned in my D-War review, Reign of Fire's trailers and poster suggested extended aerial combat between man and beast. I was expecting some kind of Independence Day with dragons, and that's not what this is. But what this is, when I was expecting it, was pretty darn good.

We open in a construction dig in London, being run by former Borg Queen Alice Krige. She shows her young son the inside of a cave they've discovered, not knowing there's a big honkin' dragon in there. It gets out, killing the Borg Queen in the process and somehow spawning an invasion of the vicious beasts all over the planet. It's revealed that these dragons are an unkown species that have lived on Earth for eons, very occasionally emerging from their dormant state to burn and eat everything. They actually eat ash, and once the planet is all but demolished, the surviving dragons become dormant again.

Twenty years later and it looks like the humans might not last that long. Christain Bale, playing the young boy grown up, leads an enclave of collected survivors in Northern Scotland. In the intervening decades the world has been reduced to an endless landscape of black, blasted wasteland beneath a roiling grey sky. The grownups teach the children a new bedtime prayer, all about watching the skies and your own ass. This society is portrayed with a fair amount of depth and thought, making this a pretty darn good "what would happen if..." kind of movie. One of the most touching scenes is a storytime performance for the kiddies: Christain Bale and his friend simultaneously acting out and telling the story of the White Knight vs. the Black Knight. Look familiar?


It's an utterly charming detail, especially when the kids react to the big reveal, which you know they've heard countless times before.

"And the Black Knight said 'No! I am your father!'"


Don't worry though, it's not about the kids.

The plot kicks in gear when an armored column of Americans show up, led by a musclebound Matthew McConaughey. One of the sentries remarks "Eh, the one thing worse than the dragons. Americans." I felt his pain watching McConaughey's jacked-up posturing. It's not that he does a bad job, but the cigar-chompin', superior macho vibe is assholish to the point of distraction. And in a way the attitude is deserved; his unit has done the unthinkable and worked out a strategy for actually killing the dragons, and they may have a plan to get rid of them for good.

I had a great time watching this again. The special effects are not only realistic but also artfully used. The swift, fierce dragons darken the sky like devils from some Gothic time, with the bleak, monochrome landscape providing the perfect background. The sensation of constant fear is palpable, and while McConaughey's annoying and his girl sidekick unnecessary, you've got Christian Bale to bring it home.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Deep Rising

(1998) ***

Okay, now this is the kind of movie I was hoping for when I watched Leviathan. Not overly clever, but it delivers the goods. Stephen Sommers banged this together a year before he wrote and directed The Mummy, and it's possessed of a lot of his typical ups and downs. The downs? No shyness about hackneyed characters, plots, or CG that looks like CG. The ups? No shortage of gunplay, explosions, and monsters. He's like Michael Bay with a tiny bit more vision and a lot less money.

Treat Williams is our the front man in this catalogue of cliches, and his down side is best demonstrated by what is blantantly held up to be his rather pathetic catch phrase: "Now what?" He runs a no-questions-asked boating service and one night transports a pack of shady characters to a brand-new luxury liner out on its first cruise. But when the mercs bust into the main ballroom expecting to push some people around, it's completely empty. We saw it full of partiers in the first scene, so that's weird. The only people left are the boat's owner (Dr. Chilton from Silence of the Lambs) and Famke Janssen, a would-be jewel thief who was locked in the pantry after being caught. Famke Janssen!

After the environmental blundering of Deep Star Six and the God's domain tampering in Leviathan, I was pretty amped that this movie's plot simply involved a random monster attack. Before too long our plucky band are dodging encounters with these toothy tentacle things...


When they hear something that sounds delicious, those toothy sections peel back like flower petals to reveal one of these inside.


And the very first time we see one of these things, somebody shoots it open and a screaming, half-digested guy spills out.


So the rules are established fairly quickly, and then it's a race back to Treat's smaller boat while the luxury liner begins to sink. As I said, the tentacles are not the most convincing CG special effect you've ever seen, but they move fast and furious and you're made to feel that they have considerable weight behind them. After the ridiculous non-efforts of Leviathan to show me a monster, this was a profound relief. And there's a payoff to the fact that you never see the back of one of these things like you might an eel; at the middle of them is a big fat one of these.


Deep Rising hasn't a single line of dialogue you haven't heard before, and it makes dozens of obvious moves. There's a comic relief character who just sucks, sucks, sucks. He's kind of like Booger but with a loathsome squeaky speaking manner that's meant to be funny. And he doesn't die. I'm just preparing you.

On the other hand, the monster is great, the action is steady, and there are a couple of original notions that suggest a dash of smarts. For instance, Famke Janssen realizes their situation, and then she immediately exchanges her evening gown for more practical clothes. Also, Famke Janssen is in this movie! The three star rating is worth it, even just for her smile.

WATCHMEN set photos!




Click here for high-res versions of these excellent backstage Watchmen photos! You will recall that Zack Snyder, the director of 2004 Dawn of the Dead, is "helming" this movie. Look at the Gunga Diner! The Nixon poster! It's all there! It's great to see that the last vestiges of the Tim Burton disease have been excised from cinema and we're finally getting realistic comic book movie adaptations that aren't all FAO Shwartz/Dr. Seuss looking.