Sunday, June 26, 2011

Cronos (1993) Now That's A Different Take On It

Usually with a vampire movie, you know what you're getting. Fangs, low tolerance to sunlight and garlic, possibly a stake wielded by a vampire hunter.  Sadly, in recent years, some even...sparkle.

In Guillermo Del Toro's 1993 directorial debut Cronos, however, the genre is explored from an entirely different perspective, and it's fresh and very interesting.  You may have heard of Del Toro.  He's a director-writer-producer hailing from Mexico that has put out a few little films like Hellboy, The Orphanage (which he produced), and Pan's Labyrinth, among many others.  He's known for having a unique vision and a flair for atmosphere.  Usually, when I hear his name attached to a project, I'm in...I want to see it.

I've had Cronos on my list for a long time and just felt it was time to move it up so I could see it sooner than later.  I'm glad I did.  What I discovered was an entirely different take on the vampire genre, one with entirely different set of rules, albeit with some of the tried and true cornerstones.  The focus was placed squarely on the desperation of one man to figure out what has happened to him and how it affects his close-knit family.

Antique dealer Jesus (Federico Luppi, a Del Toro regular) stumbles across a strange artifact among the stock that has recently arrived at his store.  Little does he know, this little Cronos Device was created over 400 years previous by a mysterious alchemist...who just died in an accident.  That's some serious Highlander stuff right there.  While handling the Cronos Device, Jesus sets off the mechanism, which injects him with some strange solution from an old insect.  His granddaughter, the adorable Aurora (Tamara Shanath), worries about him but tells no one about his strange find.  Also in pursuit of the device is the sick but devious De La Guardia (Claudio Brook), a dying millionaire who knows all about the Cronos Device and what it can do for him.  He sics his thuggish nephew Angel (Ron Perlman) after the device, first by being nice (yet creepy) then through force.  Jesus is finding out strange things about himself after exposure to the device.  He never grows fangs, but he has a slight craving for blood and a rejuvenated body.  But all for naught as Angel pushes him off of a cliff inside a car, and Jesus is set to be cremated.  But hold on...Jesus isn't done yet.  He crawls out of his own coffin and, hidden by Aurora, plans his final showdown with De La Guardia at the selfish old fart's factory/hospice room.

Like many of Del Toro's films, Cronos just flows.  It doesn't have the smoothness of a, say, Pan's Labyrinth but it was very early in his career, and it was easy to see where he was going with it.  The plot is unique:  sure, it's something of a vampire movie, but it breaks so much with tradition, it really challenges you to place it squarely in that genre without considering its other elements.  It's a beautiful family relationship film as well.  Jesus and Aurora are not only grandfather-granddaughter, they're the best of friends.  They play games in the antique store.  Aurora turns her toy chest into a makeshift coffin for him to sleep in, away from the painful rays of sunlight.  It's also a commentary on religion.  Consider the main character's name - Jesus - and the themes of resurrection throughout the film.  When discussing insects, De La Guardia makes reference to them as being "God's favorite creature," as they can display long life and a sort of resurrection in extreme cases.

The acting is nothing short of great.  Luppi is outstanding as the overwhelmed grandfather trying to do what's right.  As Aurora, Tamara Shanath only says one word of dialogue, but that's all she needs.  She communicates through her eyes, and does it well.  I can't leave out Ron Perlman's toothy, dripping-with-smarmy-evil portrayal of Angel.  You don't trust him from the minute he appears on screen, and his presence adds tension - you know he's going to do something, you're just not sure what.  He's all mouth and eyes, and it's fantastic - even though he's playing a character obsessed with the plastic surgery he's about to have on his nose.

Looking for something different?  Tired of the same old vampire flicks?  Might I recommend Cronos for what ails you?  It's really a neat little film and the launching pad of one of today's finest directors.  It's not a scary film, and the tension is mostly pretty light, but it's a great story, well-acted and well-produced.

Here, enjoy the trailer (which may be a little spoiler-y in my opinion, but good enough):

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Horde (2009) If They Don't Kill Each Other First

You remember those trailers from movies that featured two unlikely allies who must accomplish some goal "if they don't kill each other first"?  My friends and I used to riff on it quite often - "Hey, they're heading down to the bar...if they don't kill each other first."  Pure hilarity, I'm tellin' you.

Well, that whole notion is the basis of the French zombie action film, 2009's The Horde.  Directed by Yannick Dahan and Benjamin Rocher in their feature film debut, the basic plot is pretty straightforward.  In France, a group of cops who refer to themselves as a family unit, decide to take revenge on a Nigerian drug lord who has killed one colleague, and kidnapped another.  They're on an unsanctioned mission of vengeance, quietly storming the high-rise tenement building where the drug lord is based.  The raid doesn't go well, and the police are quickly held at the mercy of the bad guys.  Within minutes, the building is under siege by the titular horde of undead.  It's happening inside, too, as the kidnapped cop revives and attacks after being shot multiple times.  The zombies themselves have the origin characteristics of early Romero undead (don't have to be bitten, just be dead to revive) and the physical attributes of the mad runners of 28 Days Later (they're hungry and fast).  What brought on this undead virus is never revealed.  The important thing is you have two groups of people who couldn't be more different throwing those differences out the window to feed their instinct for survival.  Their goal is to get out of the building and escape the horde, but you know as well as I do, that ain't happening as easy as they think.  The rest of the film is their attempt at escape, with the building, the zombies, and each other as enemies.

While as a whole, the movie rates as "pretty good" in my opinion, it's the parts that make up the sum that stand out to me.  The action drives the relationships, and so the focus is there, unlike most zombie films where characterization is ranked higher.  I would daresay that this is more of an action movie than a horror movie, the way I see it.  There are stretches where scenes drag on a little too long, but the action is fast and furious.  And no, Vin Diesel is not in it.  Getting back to the "parts that make up the sum" thing I mentioned, I wanted to note that there were are scenes and moments that really made those parts enjoyable.

There were a lot of hand-to-hand combat scenes between uninfected and infected.  No martial arts goodness, but some brutal "fighting for my life" kind of fisticuffs.  One hood, Greco (Jo Prestia), finds and completely destroys two zombies using his fists and a small knife.  Completely badass, but only an appetizer for a scene towards the end of the film when heroic cop Ouessem (Jean-Pierre Martins) faces off with a giant-size horde using at first two pistols, then a machete, then his fists in an increasingly-futile battle.  It's riveting and sad and insane at the same time, and really a highlight of the film.

While Ouessem is a great character, for me, the most intriguing character was Adewale, the drug lord.  Eriq Ebouany portrays him with a full spectrum of emotion, from cold killer to protective brother to respectful ally.  He's smart and tough and will do anything to survive, even help his enemies.  His strength is seen on display when his hotheaded brother Bola (Doudou Masta), Greco, and a crazy old soldier they meet named Rene (Yves Pignot) - all hopped up on cocaine - contemplate sexually assaulting a wounded zombie.  While the zombie writhes on the floor and the drugged-up guys stand over her, Adewale's expression is one of horror and anger.  He shoots the zombie in the head, then angrily reminds Bola of their past in Nigeria and hints at something similar that may have happened in their younger lives.

All parts considered, I liked the movie.  The action sequences were very kinetic, the acting was quite good, and I'm going to give points to zombie movies that show a glimpse of the infection's scale in the world.  In this case, it was a dark, panoramic shot of the city burning and it's the punch in the gut to the characters that lets them know, things just got serious.

Until later, my dear readers, remember:  in a zombie apocalypse, we're all in it together.  Except for Fred Phelps and his Westboro nutjobs. I don't want them anywhere near my shelter.

Here, enjoy the trailer:

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Hatchet (2006) Victor Crowley Needs Decaf

Writer/director Adam Green's Hatchet was supposed to be a return to the roots of the modern slasher, a throwback to the early days in the Friday the 13th and Halloween franchises, among others.  Victor Crowley, the monster antagonist, was supposed to join Jason and Michael in the pantheon of memorable killers of curious movie teens.  It's hard to say if that has actually happened.

Hatchet is a divisive movie.  I have horror blog colleagues that absolutely love it, and others that absolutely hate it.  There are several in between, and I think that's where I stand.  I didn't hate it by any means, but it didn't "wow" me either.  However, the attempt at bringing back that old school flavor was not only noticed, but it is to be commended.  Green brings a certain freshness to the genre, not filling the screen with wild colors and big special effects.  It's a low budget he's working with, and therein lies the energy.  And my readers know I love for a film to have energy.

The plot is straight out of the 80's, and honestly, that's not a bad thing.  Ben (Joel David Moore of Grandma's Boy) is a sad sack whose girlfriend just broke up with him.  His friends try to cheer him up with debauchery in New Orleans, but Ben just isn't into it.  He thinks a ghost tour into the bayous might be more his speed, so he's joined by his buddy, Marcus (Deon Richmond of Not Another Teen Movie).  The original tour's guide (Tony Todd in a hilarious cameo) isn't running tours anymore, so he sends them to another guide, Shawn (Perry Shen).  The two friends join a would-be pornographer named Shapiro (Joel Murray of Mad Men), his two willing "stars" Jenna and Misty (Joleigh Fioravanti and Mercedes McNab), the jaunty Permatteos (Richard Riehle and Patrika Darbo), and a mysterious young woman named Marybeth (Tamara Feldman) as they head into the swamp.

There's a local legend about a deformed child who was accidentally killed during a fire caused by local bullies.  Seems Victor Crowley's father tried chopping down the door with a hatchet, and it hit Victor in the head.  But we know Victor is still roaming the woods and not willing to share some of that deep South hospitality.  Marybeth knows this as well, as she is searching for her lost father and brother (Robert Englund of Nightmare on Elm Street and Joshua Leonard of The Blair Witch Project), who met with a bloody end at Victor's hands in the prologue.  Shawn, who's neither a very good tour guide nor a very good boat captain, manages to sink the ship by running it into some rocks.  The tourists are stranded in Victor's woods just a stone's throw from Victor's house.

Let's just say Victor's a stickler for property boundaries.

"Get off my lawn!"

The enormous Victor (Kane Hodder, who has played Jason Voorhees a million times) bursts out of the house and sets about slaughtering the tourists with such over-the-top methods as the "twist top kill" and the "Pez dispenser kill" and the "I-really-hate-your-shoulder-old-man hatchet kill."  Victor is a force of nature:  pure strength and manic energy.  He's not one for stealth.  He just comes in like a Tasmanian Devil on Red Bull and starts ripping and chopping until the final scene. 

And that ending.  Yeah, I can see where it has something in common with the way the original Friday the 13th ended...sort of.  Still, if there wasn't a sequel planned, it was just a little bit too abrupt for my tastes.  Others may like it...hell, some people love it.  That's fine, but I'm just going by my own preferences here.

Hatchet was pretty good, but for me, it wasn't the new savior of retro-flavored slasher flicks.  It was pretty standard, but with a little more flair in terms of dialogue and direction.  To me, those were the strong points.  The snappy dialogue, especially coming from Deon Richmond, infused the movie with some verbal lightning.  Adam Green showed quite a bit of creativity and, yes, energy in his direction. Working extremely well with a low budget, Green is definitely paying homage to the teens-in-the-woods monster slasher.  It's straightforward and unflinching in its gore, which is so wild that you're more amused than disgusted or even scared.  It was fun, but I would hesitate to call it the movie that returned American horror to glory.  And don't think I hated it because I didn't - I thought it was pretty good, but really, that's about it in my humble opinion.

But hey, judge for yourself. All I know is, if I'm ever in New Orleans again, I'm sticking to the craziness on Bourbon Street and staying far away from the bayou ghost tours.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

End Of The Line (2007) Maybe They Should Put Up Billboards

Look at me, being all timely.  Well, sort of.  I mean, that piece of work, the bubbly Harold Camping did recently give another one of his spot-on predictions for the end of the world (two weeks ago as of this writing), and he's got another apocalyptic prediction scheduled for October.  Among the first things I thought of, other than the usual disdain that I feel towards money-grubbing, victim-creating crackpots, was the low-budget horror film End Of The Line, an interesting little apocalyptic flick that I saw a couple years ago.  The hamster wheel began turning in my head, and I thought it would be fun to look at it again in the light of all the Family Radio hullabaloo.

Hullabaloo.  Man, how old am I?

Anyway, End Of The Line was a small 2007 film written and directed by Maurice Devereaux, and it was a darling at several film festivals, including the Toronto Film Festival.  Touching on the subject of religious zeal, mob mentality, and fear of the dark and closed-in spaces, the film has its fans (and detractors) in the horror community.  Regardless, it offers a unique take on survival horror.

Karen (Ilona Elkin) heads home from her job at a psychiatric hospital, taking the local subway.  After meeting Mike (Nicholas Wright), who saves her from a seriously creepy guy named Patrick (Robin Wilcock), she boards a train for the ride home.  The train suddenly stops and several passengers, seemingly religious types from the Voice of Hope Church who wear similar clothes and acting generally nice, all get messages on their beepers.  They produce various sharp objects and begin stabbing other passengers, saying things like "God loves you" and "This is for your own good."  The train turns into an abattoir, with only a few - Karen and Mike included - making it off the train in mostly one piece.  But help isn't coming.  The land and cell phone lines are down, and the TV is showing nothing but bizarre images coming from the enigmatic preacher who heads this bizarre cult.  Apparently, they all believe that the Earth is being besieged by demons, and it is the End Times.  They show their "love" by killing others so that they're "spared" the coming apocalypse.  Karen and the survivors head into the tunnels, but getting away isn't so easy.

Man, the Backstreet Boys got DARK.

 The tunnels are crawling with Voice of Hope members, including kids, creepy guy Patrick, and even a member of the survivor's party, although she wants to rebel and go with the dude who took her virginity on the train.  One of the guys who helps them get out of a break room deep in the tunnels is even a member, despite being new and "not really a believer."  The growing paranoia adds to the tension, and Karen's occasional hallucinations don't help.  When they hole up in a control room, where they tie up Patrick, they get their first glimpse of the reverend on a TV, and the murderous chaos is widespread.  He's calling for Armageddon and a "holy rapture", sound familiar?  Hopefully, Harold Camping hasn't seen this movie.

The survivors, with the exception of the conflicted member and the boy she now loves, move on after hearing the subway workers come under attack.  The scene in which the Hope members descend upon the workers is harrowing and disturbing.  The lengths these people will go to "save" people is horrifying.  Patrick gets loose, and as the pursuing Hope members arrive, the boy and girl are killed.  In the meantime, the survivors have a bloody battle with some more Voice of Hope nutjobs and get away mostly OK, but Mike is hurt badly.  With multiple stab wounds right from the start, this movie just hates poor Mike.

 I LOVE this door!

The survivors split up, but not all of them make it.  Another page beeps for the Voice of Hope members, and they immediately cease their onslaught and take suicide pills.  Still, resident perv Patrick pursues Karen, completely off his rocker.  Karen dispatches Patrick in a most brutal way, and then the movie takes a turn for the weird...or does it?  The ambiguous ending isn't really that ambiguous if you've been paying attention. 

Look and listen during the first few minutes of the movie to pick up on the fact that the movie is not being told in a linear fashion.  While much of the ending is left open for interpretation, there are some helpful hints along the way.  The hallucinations are not coincidental or a throwaway device; they're pretty central to what's happening.  Think muffins.  Yeah, muffins possibly laced with some kind of hallucinogen run throughout the movie, and since we're seeing a lot through Karen's eyes - and she casually eats one early on - we can't always trust what she's seeing.  Are the demons real?  Did Reverend Hope have it right?  Or was he an insane but gifted strategist who plotted the horrible acts of terror?

The performances are quite good, especially from Ilona Elkin as Karen, showing strength and fragility, and Robin Wilcock as Patrick, smarmy and evil, wanting to rape his way to the end of the world.  There is a great deal of gore and scares, mixed with good amounts of tension.  Obviously the budget wasn't very large, but that doesn't matter.  Devereaux works well with what he has, and it's a nice little take on the "end of the world cult lays the nutbar smackdown on the world" subgenre.

It also bears watching since the whole Harold "You Gotta Believe Me This Time" Camping debacle.  A charismatic religious leader creating a following of human lemmings so desperate for spiritual absolution that they're willing to kill because someone tells them to commit murder is comparable to what happens out there in the real world.  How many people base their religion or politics on what someone on TV tells them?  Yeah, a frightening amount.  People who don't think for themselves and blindly follow someone with obvious agendas might be easy targets for jokes, but there's the potential for very dangerous behavior.  End Of The Line shows an extreme, fictional account.  Read the headlines if you want the real chills - or worse yet, the comments sections of any political article.  The looney-tunes in the movie might seem tame compared to what crosses some peoples' minds.

In the meantime, my dear zombie survivors, remember to steer clear of the subways if you see a lot of smiling people all dressed the same.