Monday, May 30, 2011

In The Mouth Of Madness (1994) Getting Lovecrafty

When John Carpenter wants to end the world, he does it in such interesting ways.

In The Thing, he hinted that a parasitic, all-consuming alien life form would spread to the rest of the world unless it was stopped at that lonely Antarctic outpost.  The son of the Anti-God would usher in its unholy father in Prince of Darkness unless several desperate people ended the threat in a run down old church.  However, with In The Mouth of Madness, it's reality itself under assault from the Old Ones made famous in the literary world by H. P. Lovecraft.  And what can one man played by Sam Neill do?

In short:  nothing.

Lovecraft was known for penning tales of unseen horrors, monsters so vile and so primed to crack reality at its seams that to glimpse them would cause instant madness.  The whole Cthulhu mythos?  That was him.  Casting shadows over Innsmouth?  Lovecraft.  The fish people who worship the mad god Dagon?  Yep.  He even had a story called "At The Mountains Of Madness," so it's a pretty fair bet that In The Mouth of Madness is a tip of the cap to his writing genius.

But Lovecraft isn't the only prolific, talented writer showcased in the film.  There are several obvious nods to my own longtime favorite, Stephen King:  the northeast region, the small town, the name of the antagonist author (Sutter Cane = Stephen King).  In truth, the entire film is about fiction, about the written word and its power over reality.  Words guiding us to believe anything, then using that power to fuel...well, in this case, the return of the Old Ones.  And that's not a good thing, dear readers.

See, Sam Neill plays John Trent, insurance investigator extraordinaire. When we first meet him, he's a little on the...nutty side.  He's locked up in an asylum when he's visited by Dr. Wrenn (David Warner), who wants the lowdown on what brought him there.  So John tells him the whole, horrifying story...which begins when he's called in by a publisher (Charlton Heston) to find their missing cash cow, the eccentric mega-superstar writer, Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow), who has a final, blockbuster novel to get into the stores. The name of the book? "In The Mouth of Madness."  After reading some of Cane's horrific novels, John has bad dreams, weird feelings, and a sudden revelation:  the covers of Cane's books can be manipulated into a map of New Hampshire, revealing the location of a fictional town called Hobb's End.  Accompanied by editor Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), John sets out to find Hobb's End.  After a very, he finds it.

Hobb's End is like a ghost town with some eerie little residents, like the strange old lady up at the hotel bearing the name of a real Lovecraft character (Pickman from "Pickman's Model").  Discovering a menacing-looking church on the outskirts of town, John and Linda investigate and find Sutter Cane, that's for sure.

From there, things get really freaky in the little hamlet of Hobb's End.  Linda goes after Cane, but she's helpless against the new, vast power that the Old Ones have granted the author.  Then it's down to John, and his role in what is essentially the end of all that is.  John slowly discovers the truth about Hobb's End, its residents, and Sutter Cane, and give the man credit, he stands up to it the best he can.  But despite his obvious strength, Cane is far, far too powerful.  John is meant to deliver the end of the world, typed just as Cane envisioned it, and there's nothing he can do.

The ending doesn't present any in-your-face world destruction scenes.  In that Carpenter never shows you out-and-out chaos, he's making it even more frightening.  John Trent may be the last sane person on Earth, and we're hanging on to that final unraveling thread with him.  We know something's going on in the world, but just like Lovecraft did in his stories, we don't see it.  The knowing is terrifying enough.

In The Mouth of Madness isn't linear in its storytelling.  Much of the story is a flashback controlled by John's memories.  But there's a bit of meta-storytelling going on here as well.  Sutter Cane goes on and on about controlling reality, and he may be controlling what we see in the movie as well.  During a fun little scene on a bus late in the movie, he proclaims that he "is God now" and asks John, "Did I ever tell you my favorite color is blue?"  When John snaps awake, everything is indeed blue.  But throughout the movie, the color blue shows up, especially in peoples' eyes.  Has Cane not only been controlling what John sees, but what we see as well?  Possibly.  Something to think about.  I love when movies play outside the sandbox, and Carpenter has never been afraid to do that.

What a fun movie In The Mouth of Madness turns out to be.  It's the third in Carpenter's loose Apocalypse Trilogy and it can be argued that it's the most dire of circumstances - certainly it's the most bleak in terms of ultimate endings.  The little nods to Lovecraft and King are a kick to uncover.  Sam Neill does a fantastic job as a true "omega man," part detective, part skeptic, all victim.  Definitely a great closing to the Apocalypse Trilogy, and a great way to spend a movie-watching evening.

In fact, get a hold of all three movies and watch them back-to-back.  It'll put a little sunshine in your day.

Now here, enjoy the trailer:

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Stake Land (2010) Quality Over Quantity

Everyone knows I love me some infection horror, from Dawn Of The Dead to the [REC] series.  I know that technically, vampire movies can be classified as "infection horror."  One bite (or more, depending on the mythos) from a vampire and it's all over, much like a bite from the undead.  Vampire flicks, though, are usually lumped into their own genre, a rich, traditional genre that has its roots in the forever-creepy Nosferatu and has been somewhat co-opted by the Movie-Franchise-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named-But-Has-Sparkly-Bloodsuckers, which dilutes the potent potion with a strong history behind it.

Stake Land made me love the genre all over again.

From the people who brought you the underrated Mulberry Street comes this truly creative and compelling take on a world decimated by a vampiric plague.  Director Jim Mickle and co-writer Nick Damici took a small budget and loads of passion, mixed it up in a big bucket marked "good stuff," and threw it on film as Stake Land.

It goes something like this:  It's a world where vampires have taken over.  Considered a plague, it spreads fast, causing people to become mindless, blood-craving killers.  No one knows how it started, and much like George A. Romero's Dead movies, the origin is left a mystery.  Fine by me, since the origin's not the story here.  We are introduced to Martin (Connor Paolo), a teenage boy preparing to escape with his family.  When he witnesses them all - mother, father, and infant sibling - slaughtered by a vampire, he's saved by one bad-ass vampire killer simply known as Mister (Damici).  Mister takes Martin under his wing as they battle their way towards New Eden, a supposed vampire-free area in Canada.  Along the way, they run afoul of the dangerous, militant religious nutjobs called The Brotherhood, led by Jebedia (Michael Cerveris of Fringe).  See, Mister rescues a nun from what turns out to be Jebedia's son and a buddy, and Mister tends to play for keeps, human or vampire.  The nun, known as Sister (Kelly McGillis of Top Gun), joins them on their journey before they're set upon for the first time by The Brotherhood.  Eventually, Martin and Mister reunite and meet a couple more friends along the way, the pregnant Belle (Danielle Harris of the Halloween films) and former Marine Willy (Sean Nelson).  Sister rejoins them, and it seems like the perfect family unit, heading straight for the border.

But it's never that easy.

Not everyone is safe, not even ones who traditionally are safe in movies like this.  In one of the most well-done and heartbreaking scenes, you're witness to just how far The Brotherhood will go to not only get to Mister, but simply sow terror and fear, something they'd apparently done on a large scale.  It's during a moment of rest, of happiness, in an idyllic militia-protected town that The Brotherhood does the unthinkable, and something entirely original:  they airdrop vampires.  Airdrop.  Vampires.  Yeah, that's right.  Think about it.  A simple night of neighborly goodwill, toe-tapping music, and most of all, rest for our by-now beloved characters.  Then it happens.  It happens and in the short time for the carnage to unfold, you really want to get your hands around the necks of The Brotherhood.  It's chilling, and it breaks your heart.

So who makes it to New Eden?  What happens in the cold hills just miles away from this alleged haven?

I'm not going to spoil it for you.  The ending is ambiguous, as it should be.  No one is truly safe in the reality of Stake Land.  It's an ending that makes sense and even though it is left open to what happens to the remaining characters, it doesn't leave you saying, "Whaaaat?"  It ends, but only the way you believe it ends as the credits roll.

The acting is wonderfully sound.  Only Jebedia is portrayed a little over-the-top, but he's an effective villain nonetheless:  you WANT to hate this religious fanatic.  And you do.  Damici is grizzled and understated, no-nonsense in his role, and much like his character Clutch in Mulberry Street, he's someone for whom you can really cheer.  Paolo is fantastic as Martin, a young boy thrust into becoming a man in the worst possible environment.  He's both tough and awkward, vulnerable and still possessed of great inner strength.  I cannot take away from the others in the group, as Harris is immensely sympathetic as the young mother-to-be and Nelson is solid as the ex-Marine.  McGillis is a real standout, as the nun struggling with traditional faith and the new necessities of the world.

Like all great infection horror works, the characters are the focus, but there is an underlying theme tying them together.  A theme of faith rings both loudly and subtly through the film.  The Brotherhood represents the current state of "mob religion" in the world, people who would use faith as a weapon or an excuse to hate.  Look around.  It's everywhere you look today.  The traveling band of heroes represent the true, inner faith of people who only want to survive and only want to do good for each other and themselves.  The Brotherhood are those loudmouth, ignorant people who demand you think they way they do, like those Westboro nutjobs.  The heroes are that pastor who greets others at the door of his modest church with a friendly "all are welcome."

Also, let me get one thing perfectly straight:  the similarities between Stake Land and the wonderful Zombieland end with the names.  I've heard people say, "oh, so it's Zombieland with vampires."  No.  It is not.  Stake Land  has not a lick of comedy in it.  The world is bleak, it is dying, and it will never be the same.  Don't let the title throw you off in the slightest.  We're talking two different movies here.

Stake Land might be hard to find at the moment.  It's not playing on that many screens, although check your on-demand features with your local cable company.  That's how I saw it.  It's well worth the hunt and it stands head and shoulders above most big-budget horror fare in that it's an honest, passionate, creative movie.  One that actually tells a tried and true story (getting safely from point A to point B) without a hint of stagnation.

Well, I've gushed enough for now.  Go judge for yourself, and I sincerely hope you find it as fulfilling an experience as I did.  If you don't like it...oh, well.  I won't hold it against you.

Until next time, dear readers, don't stay out when the sun goes down.  It might be a little bitey out tonight.

Now enjoy the trailer...

Sunday, May 15, 2011

La Casa Muda (The Silent House) (2010) Bad Things Happen In One Take

From the moment La Casa Muda (a.k.a. The Silent House) begins, the camera eye never blinks.  That was the drawing point in the advertising for the Uruguayan suspense offering:  for 79 minutes, there is one long, continuous take.  The real draw is the tension it creates and ultimately the part it plays in the actual story, a minimalist take on madness, fear, and possibly ghosts...with a twist...all based on a true story that occurred in the 1940's.

Laura (Florencia Colucci) and her father, Wilson (Gustavo Alonso), arrive at a rustic, out-of-the-way cottage owned by family friend Nestor (Abel Tripaldi) with the intention of getting it cleaned up to sell.  Nestor gets them set up, warning them not to go upstairs due to the precarious nature of the stairs.  He leaves them to turn in early as dusk sets in. It isn't long before Laura hears noises upstairs and begs her father to check them out.  There are sounds of a struggle, and Laura is frozen in fear before she carefully explores the old house. Her father returns, bound and bloodied, and Laura is sure there is someone else in the house, stalking and taunting her.  A little girl appears out of the corner of the camera eye several times, but something even more sinister seems to be closing in on Laura.  After a run-in with her mysterious antagonist, Laura runs outside to see the girl for the first time, but also meets a returning Nestor.  Nestor investigates the supposed noises and intrusion, disturbed that Laura went upstairs, but then disappears while he and Laura check out an upstairs room.  Laura loses her source of light and relies on an old Polaroid to take strobe flashes of the room to see where she is, ratcheting up the tension.  The little girl makes an appearance in one flash, as well as someone who appears to be Nestor advancing on Laura.  She escapes the room, and makes a strange discovery in another room:  hundreds of Polaroids showing Nestor, her father, and herself, as well as other young women.  Some seem innocent enough, but others...something a about them.

Laura finds Nestor bound and bloodied soon after, and from here, the movie takes an interesting sharp turn.  The dialogue changes tone, Laura's emotions change, and certain truths come to the forefront.  When it happens, and for the rest of the movie, it's no surprise that the viewer might be confused.  Hell, I was.  But things make sense the more you put the pieces together.  All the clues are there.  I won't give much away, but I can say the following:  what you see for the first 70 minutes or so is not really what you might think it is - it's not as cut and dried as one might believe.  Listen to what Laura says towards the end, pay special attention to the Polaroids during the credits, and wait for the mid-credits epilogue.  Put those clues together and you'll get exactly what happened.  Wow, a movie that makes you do some of the detective work?  Yes, please.

La Casa Muda is full of quiet tension, where every noise counts.  The camera never shies away from Laura, and in that, buries the mystery deeper and deeper.  By the end, you'll ask yourself, "but how can that be?" but if you look at the clues, you'll see.  The dialogue is sometimes so quiet, though, that you'll strain to hear it even though you'll have the benefit of subtitles.  It could be because I saw it on-demand, so it could be Xfinity's problem.  But the camera moves fluidly through the house with Laura, and I imagine a choreographed dance as the cameraman must know exactly where Laura is and is to be through the entire 79 minutes.  I don't imagine that would be very easy, and I wonder how many times they had to start from the beginning to get it just right.  I can just see them getting right to the end, and someone trips..."Aw, crap. OK, cut! From the top!"  That's scary in itself.

It was a good movie, with some fine acting by the few actors involved.  The shots were set up nicely, considering the difficulty of shooting one whole take.  And everyone knows I love the use of low ambient music to create deeper tension.  It's not a perfect movie, but it was well worth the price to pay for on-demand.

But now I don't want to renovate an old cottage.  Or own an old Polaroid.

Check the official trailer:

Sunday, May 1, 2011

28 Days Later (2003) A Little Case Of The Rage

It's become a classic of modern horror arguments:  should zombies be fast or slow?  "Fast" increases the urgency, but "slow" - the more traditional choice - allows for more character development.  Well, this argument as it pertains to Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later can be thrown out the window for one very obvious reason:  the movie isn't about zombies.

In fact, the antagonistic force of nature in 28 Days Later isn't comprised of dead-becoming-undead people at all.  They're still alive, but infected with something called The Rage.  So that argument I mentioned?  Save it for another day because while we're talking about infection horror here, the infected are still technically alive.  The danger, though, is still the same as undead movies:  the infected are going to chase you down and viciously attack you until you're a) dead or b) infected as well.  The disease takes hold quick, and makes you twitch and growl with madness, much like a person suffering the after-effects of a late-night Heineken run and too many burritos.  Not that I would know...ahem.

Despite the fast-moving nature of the infected, there are plenty of moments of character development in the film and that's the balance that helps hold this film higher.  It's a wild, kinetic ride when the action is in full swing, yet subdued and soft during scenes of real human interaction, and quietly tense during moments you know something is about to happen.

Literally 28 days after a militant animal rights group naively sets an infected chimp free, London is an abandoned urban wasteland.  Bicycle courier Jim (Cillian Murphy) awakens from a coma to an empty hospital, and a seemingly empty city.  When he's set upon by a group of infected people, he's rescued by Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley) who fill him in on what's happened.  The infection has apparently spread like wildfire, and London - as well as most of England - has been evacuated.

The trio heads to Jim's house, where he discovers the final, peaceful fate of his parents.  While there, neighbors attack, resulting in an injury to Mark.  Without hesitation, Selena kills Mark, knowing the infection can manifest in minutes.  We never know for sure if the injury would have led to infection or not, but the scene marked the stark new reality of post-infection London. 

Selena and Jim eventually meet up with Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and Hannah (Megan Burns), a father and daughter surviving in the upper floors of an apartment building.  The four of them hit the road, as they're running low on supplies and follow the signal of soldiers broadcasting from near devastated Birmingham.  They find an abandoned outpost, and Frank is infected when a drop of Rage-filled blood gets in his eye.  He is gunned down by the arriving soldiers, who take the others to their base in an old mansion.  They meet Major West (Christopher Eccleston), who welcomes them warmly at first before revealing that he plans on keeping the human race alive by forcing the women into sex with the soldiers, making Jim expendable.   Caught trying to escape, the girls are separated from Jim, who is to be executed the next morning.

The execution doesn't go as planned.  Jim escapes and lures soldiers to the roadblock where they first met.  After taking care of those soldiers, Jim makes his way back to the mansion, sets loose an infected soldier to cause mayhem, and goes about rescuing Selena and Hannah, almost meeting the business end of Selena's machete due to the brutal way in which he kills a soldier.  On the way out, Jim is shot by West and after leaving the Major to the tender mercies of an infected soldier, the girls hurry Jim someplace where they can tend to his wounds, which may or may not be fatal, depending on which ending you prefer.  And yes, there is more than one ending, the happiest one being the default at the end of the theatrical release.

Boyle always has an eye for the stylistic, from Trainspotting to the more recent 127 Hours.  In his films, he manages to reach past the wild or unique circumstances of the characters to get right to the heart of their being.  I remember watching Trainspotting and thinking how much I loved and cared about the characters, even if they had less than redeeming qualities.  The same could be said for 28 Days Later.  Even minor characters have depth to them, and the major characters - you just want them to live.  You just want this makeshift family to get to where they're going.  The acting is as good as expected in a Danny Boyle film, with Murphy and Harris as real standouts.

There are some really great moments in it as well. Jim's awakening and wandering around a beautifully empty London is haunting and sad. Jim's standoff at the roadblock is surrealistically bad-ass. His rescue of and subsequent brush with a machete wielded by Selena is heartbeat-fast tension. There are plenty to choose from, believe me.

Plus, I have to admit.  It's weird looking back on this movie and seeing Doctor Who (Eccleston) face off with The Scarecrow (Murphy) after the death of Mad-Eye Moody (Gleeson).

That's the nerd in me.

28 Days Later is kinetic and solemn at the same time, at the time a new look at infection horror when the genre was really starting to break out again.  It's always worth a look and makes you think twice when you hear about a new strain of the flu making its rounds.  Cover your mouth!  And eyes, nose, ears...