Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Dead Alive (aka Braindead) (1992) Early Peter Jackson Insanity

A Sumatran rat-monkey.  A domineering mother-monster.  A kung-fu priest.  A delinquent's entrails that have a life of their own.  A cheery demon baby.  A lawnmower shield.

All this and lots more is what you'll find in one of Peter Jackson's early films, the energetic cult classic known as Dead Alive here on our side of the world, and Braindead everywhere else.  You may know Jackson as the high-powered director behind the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies of recent years.  He's won Academy Awards, produced several huge hits, and is generally one of the most well-known directors in the modern era.  But before all that, Jackson cut his teeth on wacky, blood-splattered craziness like this movie, or his first feature film, Bad Taste.  This was the first Peter Jackson movie I ever saw, and it remains near and dear to my heart.

Taking place in Jackson's native New Zealand during the 50's, the story follows sad-sack mama's boy Lionel (Timothy Balme) as he balances falling for a local gypsy girl, Paquita (Diana PeƱalver), and following his mean mom's wishes and commands.  When mommy dearest is bitten by a Sumatran rat-monkey and dies, things get a little bit crazy.  Old Vera reanimates as a blood-crazed zombie, turning a gang of ne'er-do-wells and her own nurse into ghouls like her.  Even the local priest, who put the beatdown on the zombie gang while delivering one of the best lines of dialogue ever ("I kick ass for the LORD!"), is eventually turned as well.  Poor Lionel has to keep the monsters hidden in his basement and deal with his lecherous Uncle Les, who wants the house for himself.  Before long, Les throws a rockin' party and Lionel tries to sever ties with his mother by using what he thinks is poison to kill her once and for all.  Unfortunately, the poison turns out to be what equates to super-steroids for animals and the zombie outbreak is seriously on.  The party degenerates into one of THE most gory, insane, and manic sequences in the history of film.  Seriously, Dead Alive is still considered one of the goriest movies ever made.

Still, the gore is played for laughs, and after a while, it becomes less "gore" and more "slapstick."  All those weird things I mentioned in the beginning are there.  What happens when two infected zombies have "relations"?  A demon baby that Lionel actually takes for a day out in a way to return to normalcy. 

Balme's Lionel is a hero who grows through the movie, and it's not hard to cheer for the guy.  Paquita gives him enough confidence to cut the umbilical cord...among a few other things.  The movie is absolutely in-your-face, wild, and energetic with kinetic camera angles, quick editing, and a narrative that never slows down.

Dead Alive is a favorite among horror fans, always thought of with a smile or a chuckle.  It's definitely horror, but the comedy shines through alongside its darker genre cousin seamlessly.  If you have a weak stomach, yeah, you might have a little trouble with things like Lionel's lawnmower shield among many other things.  But the movie's hilarious and drive-in-style fun, as well as being a bit of a history lesson about one of the world's top directors.

Until next time, don't visit the Sumatran rat-monkey at your local zoo...

Monday, September 8, 2014

Stitches (2012) A Party Clown's Revenge

I like it when a movie surprises me.

Sometimes late at night, I roll through Netflix and see what's out in the ether.  Stumbling across this oddball British-Irish horror comedy about an undead clown seeking revenge on a kid after being killed at a birthday party, I really wasn't expecting much.  But strangely enough, I ended up pleasantly surprised by the gory slapstick intentional cheese-fest that was Stitches.

Director Conor McMahon seems to be following the Peter Jackson path of starting off a career by turning grant money into bloody splashes of manic-comic theater.  You see a little inspiration from Jackson's early offerings like Bad Taste and Dead Alive, where over-the-top gore leans more toward the humorous.  Stitches doesn't take itself too seriously, offering up a wild premise, stereotypical-and-we-know-it characters, and circus-themed dispatching of those characters.

So it goes like this:  Stitches (comedian Ross Noble in his film debut) is a local clown hired to perform at young Tom's birthday party.  Tom isn't such a bad kid, but his friends range from somewhat to extremely obnoxious.  They taunt Stitches who, admittedly, isn't a very good clown.  The taunting takes a tragic turn when an accident the kids cause leaves Stitches with a huge kitchen knife through his eye into his skull.  The night of Stitches' funeral, Tom stumbles across a strange ritual as clowns honor their comrade.  Years later, it's Tom's (Tommy Knight of The Sarah Jane Adventures) 17th birthday, and he has a pretty understandable fear of clowns.  He's anxious and rather wimpy but his friends want to throw him a blowout, even though he's unsure.  The party includes all his friends from the original party, as well as his longtime crush, Kate (Gemma Leigh Devereux).  Before too long, though, an unwanted party guest makes his grand return:  Stitches, resurrected by some strange magic the clown cult instilled.  Stitches arrives and takes out each of the teenage partygoers from years before in sickeningly creative and often hilarious ways.  Brain scoop, balloon pump, umbrella - so weird, yet so Peter Jackson-ish.  It's then up to Tom and Kate to figure out a way to send Stitches back to Hell - or wherever undead clowns go.

Stitches is a rousing debut for Noble, who nails it in his first film.  He's snappy and slovenly, spouting 80's-style one-liners usually associated with supernatural killers.  "He had to...head off." "Now that' for thought."  Stitches is a killer clown, to be sure, and we've seen many of those, good ones and not-so-good.  But obviously, this film doesn't take things too seriously and just wants to tell a funny, wildly splattered tale of redemption for one kid and the ability to make intestine balloon animals for one not-quite-dead clown.

So make sure you treat that clown at a kid's party right.  Put away those knives and don't let your kids be obnoxious.

Until next time, here's the trailer:

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Den (2013) Always Look Both Ways When Crossing The Internet

You know how the Internet is a place where good people can get in touch with other good people and talk about good, innocent things and respect each others' opinions and lives?

I know, I know, but bear with me...

Well, 2013's The Den features the complete opposite side of that dream Internet.  In fact, if you want to teach a lesson about being safe online, this would practically be a documentary.  With the wackiness of sites like Chatroulette and Omegle, you just never know what you're going to get in the online box of cyber-chocolate.  The Den says, "okay, let's show you what happens when you pierce the dark underbelly.  Hire a maid because things are about to get messed up."

It's a pretty straightforward story at first:  doctorate student Elizabeth (Melanie Papalia) sets up an account on a website called The Den in order to study how humans interact when given freedom online.  The results are predictably unpredictable.  Along with friendly people, she meets oddballs, wannabes, and perverts.  One girl, who won't turn on her camera, sends her cryptic messages as well as threats to her friend who is sharing the computer one day.  Strange things happen on Elizabeth's computer as it become clear that she's been hacked, although she doesn't see it at first.  It's when she witnesses the apparent murder of the formerly camera-less girl that things take a swan dive into the crazy pool.  From there, it becomes a fascinating and frustrating mystery for Elizabeth to solve...if she should.

Did I mention the entire movie is filmed as video feeds from various sources like Elizabeth's computer or surveillance cameras?

It's an interesting and intense take on the rapidly-filling-to-capacity found footage genre.  It moves along quickly and with enough of a variety of video sources to keep the narrative fresh.  Director Zachary Donahue, who also wrote the film, turns in a fine example of thinking a little outside the box and didn't go the "we're making a documentary" route.  Papalia is outstanding as a curious then utterly frightened Elizabeth, bringing range and charisma to the role.  Essentially, she is quite often a one-woman show who's only required to react to what she sees on a screen in many scenes.  In an era when so many people are exposed on the web - figuratively and literally - this is an urban legend of our time.  What if you're being watched?  What if things are happening without your knowledge?  What if?

It's a crazy movie.  I remember thinking, "That was messed up" as the credits rolled.  Truth be told, "messed" wasn't the actual word I used, but modesty prevails.  After a spate of so-so films that I haven't reviewed yet, The Den was rather refreshing.

Like a day on Facebook with no political ranting.

Surf safe, everyone - until next time, here's the trailer:

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Some Mini-Reviews Since Time Flew By

Yeesh, I had no idea it had been that long since I'd posted anything.  I've got to stop getting distracted by shiny objects.

Let's get caught up with some "mini-reviews," shall we?

Almost Human (2013) - Definitely a shoestring budget and an attempt to recreate the magic of 80's VHS horror and slasher flicks.  It tells the story of what happens when a UFO abductee returns years later and has gone from kindly bearded fellow to homicidal maniac with some new alien body parts.  Good effort but the execution fell a bit short.  Any intrigue melted away and it needed more story.  Nice practical effects, though.

Red State (2011) - Kevin Smith takes an effective journey into non-comedy with a suspense thriller about sees some local boys run afoul of the town's crazy church/cult leader that oddly seems like the funeral-protesting wack-a-doos in real life.  Not as talky as a lot of Smith's other offerings, and don't look for a cameo by Jay and Silent Bob.  Tense storytelling and good performances, especially from Michael Parks as the frustratingly smug leader.

Haunter (2013) - A pleasant surprise, this haunted house mystery sees the story told from the ghost's point of view, much like the awesome I Am A Ghost.  In this case, Abagail Breslin turns in a great performance as the ghost of a murdered girl who comes to the realization that she's dead and tries to awaken her family to the fact as well as prevent an evil spirit from his eternal murder spree.  Good tension and a good story.

Jug Face (2013) - This one really started off on the right foot but didn't go as far as I hoped.  It's the story of a young girl who's part of a backwoods community that worships a pit that has healing properties but also demands a sacrifice.   The likeness of who is to be sacrificed is carved onto a clay jug, but when the girl hides hers, the pit expresses its displeasure.  Fine acting and a creepy vibe made it good but the story felt like it lost steam.

Frankenstein's Army (2013) - A crazy Dutch-American-Czech production set in World War II that follows a group of weary Russian soldiers who follow a distress signal to a small town.  What they find there is insanity as the descendent of Victor Frankenstein says "the hell with it" and sets his insane creations on Ally and Axis alike.  The monster design is tremendous and there's no shortage of blood and guts as the movie descends more and more into utter madness.  I dug it because it wanted to be nuts and it got its wish.

My Bloody Valentine (1981) - Remade just a few years ago, this cult classic came from the old school of matching psychotic killers with holidays.  The residents of a town relive an old nightmare that took place on February 14 when grisly murders pile up as the day grows closer.  Add to that the Eternally Doomed Teen Party and you know the body count rises.  Good 80's wackiness and a murder mystery to boot.

Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013) - While I felt the first one went off the rails a bit, yet still told an intriguing story, I felt the second chapter was a little stronger.  The poor Lambert family is back and just when they think they dodged an astral bullet, it's the father who becomes the center of a spiritual attack.  Just the right amount of ghostly and strange, I enjoyed it like I usually enjoy seeing Rose Byrne.

+1 (2013) - An interesting take on a sci-fi standard of what duplicates would do if they met.  A meteor crashes, causing a nearby party to experience a little glitch in the matrix.  Time splits and people meet themselves from a few seconds behind.  An interesting story set on a strange premise with decent performances.  Not a bad choice if you like being weirded out by time and space.

Hellbenders (2012) - With a good cast and a premise that borders on sacrilege, this movie was more fun than it had a right to be.  The Augustine Interfaith Order of Hellbound Saints are a ragtag group of badasses who also happen to be priests of various faiths that sin on purpose on orders of The Pope so that if a demon possesses them during an exorcism, they can kill themselves and drag the demon to Hell.  Good guys who do bad things to prevent the really bad things.  In this flick, they have to stop a runaway Norse demon from pulling Hell up around the world.  Funny and with a touch of honor, the cast is headed by the reliable Clifton Collins Jr. and Clancy Brown.

Willow Creek (2013) - Oh, Willow Creek, how I wanted to like you.  A good director in Bobcat Goldthwait and some really suspenseful moments still added up to a movie that was a hair below "OK."  It's a found footage style movie about a couple setting out to make a documentary about the Patterson Bigfoot sighting and getting much more than they bargained for.  Admittedly, the tent scene is suspense at its best, but the ending left me feeling like the whole thing was meant to be a tongue-in-cheek joke.  Maybe it was, but I was hoping for a little more.

OK, that should just about do it for now.  I gotta stop taking so long between reviews.  Maybe some caffeine would help.

Until next time!

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Sacrament (2013) Ripples of Jonestown

If you know the story of Jonestown, then you'll know the story of Ti West's intense The Sacrament.

For those who have no idea about the real-life horror that was Jonestown, here it is in a nutshell:  in 1978 paranoid cult leader Jim Jones creates a "utopia" in Guyana (with armed guards and restrictions on leaving), and when he feels threatened, he murders investigators and coerces his own followers to commit mass suicide.  Over 900 people - men, women, children - died whether they wanted to or not.  It's a chilling chapter in world history that should never be repeated.

Director Ti West is a modern master of suspense.  His horror films tend to be disturbing on a less visceral level because he has mastered the slow build, as he demonstrated with The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers. You know what's going to happen in the case of The Sacrament, but you're powerless to stop it from taking place.  It's a modern retelling of the actual incident, told through the lens of the found footage genre as a documentary piece for the edgy Vice news series.

Vice documentary makers Sam and Jake (horror superstars A. J. Bowen and Joe Swanberg) decide it would be a great story to accompany their friend and photographer Patrick (Kentucker Audley) to Eden Parish, a secluded commune in an unnamed country.  His sister, Caroline (Amy Seimetz), a recovering drug addict, has beckoned him to come and visit, to see how her life has turned around.  From the moment the three gentlemen arrive, they're dubious.  The tour guides have guns and seem suspicious of outsiders.  Caroline meets them at the gate, and everything seems better on the inside.  People are happy and thankful, hardworking and making no bones about their love for the commune's founder, known only as "Father" (Gene Jones).  An interview is arranged with Father, and the congregation is excited.  Well, most of them anyway.  One mother and her daughter don't exactly seem as crazy about the place as others, but show definite fear.  Sam's interview with Father is reserved, strange, and a little off-putting.  It's clear to Sam and his colleagues that they're being manipulated.  The congregation holds a party for the guys, but things don't seem right:  the woman and her child plead to be taken out of the commune, Patrick disappears with two girls who were basically commanded to initiate a little orgy with him, Caroline has her own dark side.  Of course, at the center of it all:  Father.  After a tense night, everything unravels in the morning as the guys decide they need to leave and Sam wants to take some of the congregation with him.  Everything seriously unravels in a Jonestown sort of way.

It's a familiar story, but West has made this movie his own.  Sure, we know the story before we hit "play," but it's how West tells it.  He paces the tension so expertly, and is complemented by his friends and cohorts Bowen and Swanberg - a lot of same-thinking people helped make this movie.  Tying the film together is Jones' performance as the charismatic "holy man" with a pleasant Southern drawl and a grandfatherly chuckle.  He's disarming and creepy all at once, playing a new version of Jim Jones with reserved dread.  The hold he has on these people - using religion as a whip - is frightening and yet something seen all too much in the real world. Thrown in great performances by Audley, Seimetz, and several members of the congregation who came off as real, desperate people.

It's not an easy movie to watch.  The plot is rooted in real life with no ghosts or demons, except for the ones that haunt people every day.  Chilling and well-crafted, be prepared to watch a palette-cleanser afterwards - and that's a compliment!

Meanwhile, here's the trailer:

Monday, April 28, 2014

Banshee Chapter (2013) Modern Lovecraftian Hijincks

A couple things that creep me out are Lovecraftian-style stories and number stations.  You know, number stations...those mysterious shortwave signals of people talking or reciting numbers or other repeated gibberish?  Creepy.

And stories in the vein of H. P. Lovecraft, in which unspeakable horrors always lay just on the outskirts of perception, waiting to scrap through into our world and drive us mad?  Also creepy.

In the sort-of found footage flick Banshee Chapter, you get all that and more.  Like Ted Levine as a Hunter S. Thompson pastiche.

Written and directed by Blair Erickson, this part found footage, part regular point-of-view movie takes both of those tropes above and tries out a new spin on the Lovecraft story From Beyond (also a fun 80's cult film).  Author James and his pal Renny are in the midst of researching for a book that will delve into the mind-altering drug experiments that the U.S. Government allegedly inflicted on citizens.  James claims that he has a sample of the drug they were given and gets on with his own experiment.  The moment he drinks the sample, strange things start happening, including shadows outside the windows and a mysterious broadcast emanating from the radio.  Renny follows James to investigate, but is suddenly faced by a horrifically-changed James before his camera blacks out.  James' girlfriend, investigative reporter Anne (Katia Winter), makes it her mission to find out what happened to James and Renny, who even though he survived his encounter has now disappeared.  Anne tracks down eccentric author Thomas Blackburn (Levine), who says he has evidence and proof that could lead her to James' whereabouts.  At his desert getaway, Thomas and chemist Callie, take the drug and insist that Anne has taken it as well.  Strange noises and shadows fall over the house and Callie is changed in a similar way to James before she disappears.  Anne and Thomas track down Callie, which eventually leads them to a remote outpost in the desert - seemingly the source of the strange broadcasts.  Of course, what they find in there isn't exactly the truth they wanted.  And that's where I'll stop the synopsis because, you know, spoilers.

Balancing creepiness with occasional jump scares, Banshee Chapter finds itself in the upper echelon of found footage movies, in my opinion.  It features a compelling story with incredibly tense moments and fine acting from Winter and Levine.  There are moments where the scares are right in your face, and others where they're on the outskirts of your perception - much like a Lovecraft story.  Moments like Renny running into James and Thomas' disturbing seizure in the car added to the mystery and urgency of the story.

I've always been a little fascinated with strange signals coming through on shortwave radio, but after seeing this movie, I'm not so sure I want to uncover more about these number stations.  Unless they're broadcasting winning lotto numbers, then hey, I'm all ears.

Until next time, here's this movie's trailer:

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014) Weird Neighbors and Eye Hairs

Yep, the Paranormal Activity train just keeps rolling along.

Usually when sequels go on and on, the quality of a product lessens.  I suppose that's true of the Paranormal Activity series, as I honestly found this installment to be the least scary.  That's not to say it was bad.  It held my interest and added some new wrinkles to the mythology.  It relied less on the atmospheric build to jump scares and more on strengthening the underlying story.

In this story written and directed by Christopher B. Landon, the action takes place in 2012 as bright young high school student Jesse and his friends Marisol and Hector get into all sorts of summer mischief with a camcorder in the urban Los Angeles neighborhood of Oxnard.  Jesse and Hector live in a nice little apartment complex where everyone knows everyone, except for one woman named Anna, whom they all label as being a witch.  When Jesse and Hector catch some weird goings-on in Anna's apartment on tape, they're even more sure - the woman paints some strange symbol on a young woman's torso.  Not only that, one of their esteemed classmates was seen storming out of Anna's apartment.

One night, after seeing their classmate fleeing in the night, Jesse and his friends discover that Anna was murdered.  Of course, they don't leave well enough alone and figure it would be a good idea to check out her apartment.  Surely nothing bad will happen.  They find a run-down, messy apartment but nothing too far out of the ordinary.  But then strange things begin happening to Jesse:  bad dreams, bite marks on his arm, occasional bouts of invulnerability, EYE HAIRS. After discovering a basement in Anna's apartment, the weird meter gets turned up to 11 as Jesse encounters ghostly women (including young versions of previous movies' characters) and a mysterious figure that charges him.  When he finally emerges, he's just a little...different.  Darker.  Meaner.  More likely to laugh at people falling down.  It's now up to Hector and Marisol to cleanse their friend, but you know that's not going to go as planned.  No sitcom freeze-frame laugh as the credits roll.  They seek the diverse help of the survivor of the second film, and the gangbanger brother of the kid who killed Anna as they travel to a house that should be familiar to those who have seen every installment.  From there, it boils down to a confrontation with the residents of the house...sort of.  There's also a run-in with poor, doomed Jesse and a bit of a visit to the early days of the franchise.

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones didn't have the creeping threat that the other movies had.  It expanded the mythology by showing there's a wider conspiracy, and the viewer is privy to some actual supernatural methods employed by the coven that we all know.  Nothing about the movie is really bad, but nothing really jumped out at me.  The ending was interesting, and of course, there are more questions to answer - which leads to more movies.  Although this installment was the least successful, this franchise is a consistent money-maker so there are sure to be more movies and more layers to the story.

And I'm sure I'll watch them.

Meanwhile, take a peek at the trailer: