Monday, December 24, 2012
You see Santa Claus everywhere this time of year. The old guy's fixture in malls, town squares, television shows...hey, I've even played the joyful old elf. The modern version tends to be a gentle soul but what if he wasn't always that way? Much like many legends, what if Santa had a darker past?
Directed by Jalmari Helander, the Finnish film Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale explores the older, scarier version of Santa seen in European legends. I mean, hey, the Dutch version is a good guy, but he also beats naughty kids with a willow stick. He also arrives by a steamboat from Spain, so you can also see Santa's a little different wherever you go. I saved watching this film until this time of year, but hoped it wouldn't be too dark or mean-spirited; I just haven't been in that kind of mood lately. What I got was a beautifully-filmed, fun little movie with a smart protagonist and an interesting twist on the Kris Kringle mythos.
An American-funded excavation on a lonely mountain near a small Finnish village uncovers something strange: a layer of sawdust surrounding a larger area buried deep within the hill. It's not a natural mountain after all, they figure. It's a burial mound. Young Pietari and his older friend Jusso overhear the conversation, and it shakes Pietari. He researches the Santa Claus myth to discover a belief in a monstrous creature that punishes naughty children in pretty un-holiday-ish ways. This is what he thinks is there, but no one believes him. When the highly-anticipated reindeer harvest - the main way the town earns its revenue - yields only a handful of animals, an investigation quickly turns up over 400 slaughtered and eaten reindeer. Pietari's dad, Rauno, joins the others in believing it was a pack of wolves being forced onto their land by the mountain excavation - which has recently gone oddly silent. Pietatri knows what's up. The kid's pretty smart and he recalls a local legend of "Santa" being captured and buried by a local tribe ages ago.
Shortly, Rauno captures a strange, naked old man in one of his traps and, thinking him dead, prepares to get rid of the body. Oddly, the old man is still alive and soon recovers from his wounds. Pietari sees him and proclaims that this is the Santa Claus that's been buried in the mountain. But things are, shall we say, less than festive. Kids have disappeared from the village, as well as heating elements like ranges and hair dryers. The old man bites off a villager's ear and is in the possession of items from the now-abandoned excavation, including a radio. Hoping to swap "Santa" for the money lost from the slaughtered reindeer, Rauno concocts a plan that just might work...except the exchange reveals that not everything is as it seems, and that's when the snow hits the fan.
Nope, not going to tell you how it ends. Things get even weirder, and young Pietari demonstrates why he's the smartest, bravest kid in the room. It's a bizarre tale, to be sure, but it's actually short on scares. That's not a bad thing - it's meant to be more of a Christmas-time adventure, really. The countryside of Finland is a character unto itself, gorgeous mountains and snow-blanketed land are featured pretty prominently. The characters are fairly basic, but again, not a bad thing. The true focus of the movie is idealistic and smart Pietari. We see most of everything through his eyes, including his strained relationship with his father and his belief in the old legends. He believes he's naughty because of clipping a hole in a fence (that he thinks let in wolves) but he's truly the top of the nice list.
So if you want something a little more bizarre, yet not totally nihilistic, for your holiday horror viewing, you might have fun with this truly twisted Christmas tale that will make you think twice about making fun of that Santa you see in the mall.
Until next time, everyone, have a wonderful holiday and be sure to treat each other well!
Now watch the hilarious, tongue-firmly-in-cheek trailer!
Sunday, December 2, 2012
A few years ago, I went back to the house in which I grew up. It had literally been 20 years since I set foot in there, and the people who live there now were kind enough to let me come in and take some pictures - they knew my family anyway, so that made it easier. If there were ghosts in that house on the lake, they were friendly and welcoming.
Let's just say that the homecoming Molly receives in Lovely Molly isn't exactly friendly and welcoming.
Directed by one of the co-creators of The Blair Witch Project, Eduardo Sanchéz (who also shares writing duties with Jamie Nash), Lovely Molly is one of those quietly terrifying films that stick with you after you've watched it, as you try to decipher the code left by the filmmakers. Not everything is clear-cut, and yet the answers are there, depending on how you see them. While the movie isn't perfect, the underlying story and the incredible acting help make it one to at least check out.
Newlyweds Molly (Gretchen Lodge) and Tim (Johnny Lewis, shortly before his death) move into Molly's childhood home, not far from her more grounded sister Hannah (Alexandra Holden). It's a spooky old place, and former heroin addict Molly has a rough go of staying there alone while Tim out on the road as a truck driver. One night, Molly hears crying coming from a lonely closet. We never see what she sees, but from there, it's all downhill for poor Molly. Her behavior becomes increasingly strange. She gets back on the "horse," so to speak. She swears to her sister that their father is still alive and once again assaulting her, although no one ever sees him. Film evidence shows nothing and Molly retreats into a drug-addled, fugue state that sees her wandering at night, having problems at work, and making lewd advances on the local pastor. Oh, and something about a deer. You'll see. Things spiral out of control until the odd, subjective ending.
The film is undeniably creepy, with many of the scares coming during night scenes and when Molly is alone. Is Molly being haunted by her evil father from beyond the grave? You will have to decide as the end credits roll. There are multiple interpretations, and a good deal of them make perfect sense. The acting is tremendous, with Lodge as the focal point. With little film experience, she masterfully conveys happiness, familiarity, rage, fear, and something quite spooky all within the runtime. Holden is great as her sister, and Lewis shows just how much talent was wasted with his sad, short life. The answers to the film are not all there, but it still stands as a pretty decent outing - despite one sort-of "what-the" scene. I won't spoil it, but I did say "what the?" out loud during it.
So you want to visit your childhood home? Just make sure it doesn't involve creepy sounds and horse imagery...unless you lived on a ranch. Even still...
Here, enjoy the trailer:
Sunday, November 11, 2012
The 2012 American horror film Chernobyl Diaries attempts to answer that for us. Directed by Bradley Parker and written by Carey Van Dyke and Oren Peli (one of the creators of the Paranormal Activity franchise), it tells what could have been a great "what if" story. For me, though, it fell a little short - it provided some decent quick thrills and really great atmosphere, but in the end, I just didn't feel it. I love the abandoned city setting but couldn't latch onto anything the movie offered.
The premise is good and simple: Chris (former pop star Jesse McCartney), his girlfriend Natalie (Olivia Taylor Dudley), and their friend Amanda (Devin Kelley) meet up with Chris' wilder and more affluent brother Paul (Jonathan Sadowski) in the Ukraine before heading to Moscow, where Chris wants to propose to Natalie. Paul talks the gang into taking a day tour to the ghost city of Pripyat, and they are joined by former Spetnaz tour guide Yuri (Dimitri Diatchenko) and another couple, Zoe (Ingrid Bolso Berdal) and Michael (Nathan Phillips). The day goes well until they return to the van, which has been rendered inoperable. Night falls, and since the woods are filled with hungry wolves, dogs, and bears, the group stays in the van until strange noises sound in the night. Things go from bad to really bad when Yuri and Chris head out to investigate, and only Chris comes back sporting a spanking new bleeding leg. Oh, and Yuri's gone. The group is determined to leave, but is met with severe disappointment at every turn. And by "disappointment," I mean a pack of wild dogs, no radios, nightfall, and something worse on two legs. The next night brings the group up against something that has been stalking them from the get-go and things go from really bad to "why did we agree to do this damn tour?"
Like I said, I loved the setting. It was, to me, the best part of the film. Pripyat is eerie and quiet, historically tragic and intensely interesting. The idea of something lurking in the dark among all those empty buildings is very appealing to me. However, I didn't feel a connection to any of the characters, even with the odds they were up against. Paul, tortured over what he feels is his responsibility, came pretty close as he aches over what his brother is going through. I really liked Yuri, too. You get a sense he's pretty bad-ass, and isn't the stereotypical "gonna take advantage of these silly Americans" sort of Eastern European character. He genuinely just wants to show them a good time.
In Chernobyl Diaries, sadly nothing really popped or crackled for me, and while it had a few chills and spills, it didn't really do much for me although it was a decent shot at the "from bad to worse" theme. Not a bad film, but it could've been much, much more.
So, dear readers, if you get the chance to explore Pripyat - which apparently one can do with the right connections and the understanding of a short visit to the irradiated ex-city - make sure the van you're in works and that in case it doesn't, you bring some doggies treats for distraction.
Check out the trailer:
Sunday, October 21, 2012
When I saw the original Grave Encounters, I had low expectations. I hoped I would like it, but I wasn't going to be shocked if I didn't. Turns out I did like it. It both paid homage to and made fun of the slew of paranormal investigation shows all over our televisions. Now when I learned of a sequel, I set the bar a little higher. It might be another round of some fun found-footage shenanigans. Did it exceed expectations again?
The answer comes in two halves: First half (maybe two-thirds) of the movie was creative and intriguing metafiction. After that, though, it was like the train ran right off the rails.
To recap the first film as briefly as I can, and in case you don't want to click over to my review of it, a team of paranormal investigators enter an old asylum to film an episode of their show, Grave Encounters. As the viewer, we watch the final hours of the team as they fall to the terrifying power of an evil location. Jump forward a year (nine years in the film series), and we have a new film written by original creators The Vicious Brothers and directed by John Poliquin. We have a whole new group of
Yeah, that graffiti should be a HUGE red flag, there, buddy.
After film student Alex Wright (not the old WCW wrestler) posts a scathing review of the original Grave Encounters, he begins receiving e-mails and videos from someone known only as "deathawaits6." Much to the concern of his friends, he becomes obsessed with the original hospital (the name of which is bleeped out). So much so, that he eventually uncovers evidence that the original cast did indeed disappear and makes meticulous plans to make the ultimate documentary. Alex convinces the others to head to the location and meet "deathawaits6," who promises to provide all the information they need. As with the first film, and as you may well have guessed, things don't go very well once they're inside. The film students are menaced in frightening, hyperactive ways along with a new twist on the first movie's "the place won't let us leave" atmosphere. When the kids end up in an underground hallway - the same one set at the end of the first film - Grave Encounters 2 becomes like a speeding car hitting a patch of ice on a wintry highway. The rest of the film - which I promise I won't spoil in case you'd like to watch it - careens off in a whole different direction that frankly didn't catch my fancy.
I really like metafiction - stories about stories - and the first part of Grave Encounters 2 was a clever example of the self-aware quality of the difficult genre. Even the little things, such as video bloggers in the beginning completely trashing the first movie, were quite funny and gave the audience a little nod-and-wink. When the pace and the story took off in the strange direction it did, I felt somewhat disappointed. It was like they added elements that weren't really needed - elements that actually would have worked much better if left to our imagination, in my little opinion.
If the film had maintained the air of just-out-of-sight mystery along with frequent kinetic thrills, I would have liked it even more. Definitely not the worst I've ever seen, but I really hoped for more.
Until next time, my dear readers, have a look at the trailer and try to not to get curious if some anonymous person sends you videos, inviting you to check their "awesome" asylum...
Sunday, September 30, 2012
I remember prom. It was senior year, 1985, northern Michigan. I wore a white tux and went with a friend of mine out to dinner, some nice dancing, and that was pretty much it. Nothing spectacular and nothing dramatic. Just a plain old good time. She didn't kidnap me and inject bleach into my voice box or anything. I'm pretty sure of that.
The prom featured in Sean Byrne's 2009 horror trip The Loved Ones is a far cry from the one I remember, and a far cry from those cheesy 80's coming-of-age raunchy teen comedy versions of proms. This one is disturbing, insane, and white-knuckle-inducing. Although it was released in Australia in 2009, it's finally been distributed on our shores, and it was well worth the wait. Sure, the high school prom has figured heavily into horror over the years, in films like Prom Night and Carrie. But The Loved Ones turns it on its ear somewhat and gives the setting a fresh new take.
Brent (Xavier Samuel) is having a rough year, to say the least. His father died in a horrible accident when Brent swerved to avoid hitting someone in the middle of the road (an incident that is more important than you think). His mother blames him - in a roundabout way - and spends each day in a depressed haze. The only bright spot, other than his goofy best friend, is his girlfriend, Holly (Victoria Thaine). She's good to him, and truly loves the morose kid. Brent seems popular, because he's also asked to prom by shy, demure Lola (Robin McLeavy). He politely declines, and she seems hurt. While on a walk and a climb, Brent just wants to clear his muddled mind. It's here that his world changes...well, significantly.
Waking up from a chloroform nap, Brent finds himself tied to a chair while Lola and her deranged, wild-eyed father recreate their own twisted prom. And believe me, "twisted" is a severe, severe understatement. Turns out Lola isn't so demure after all. She wants a perfect prom, and she will do anything to get it. Her father, in turn, will do anything for his baby girl. Brent, muted by a shot of bleach to the voice box, is thrust deeper and deeper into a depraved, sadistic night that involves sharp objects, power tools, and pure desperation.
The Loved Ones had a lot of build-up amongst the horror community, and it's well-deserved. If you have the stomach for it, it's a film any horror fan shouldn't miss and one of the better ones I've had the pleasure to review this year. And, oh, the music...chilling...brrr....
So, enjoy your prom, and just be glad you didn't have to spend it with Lola and her family. You'd have to hide the bleach and the power drill...
Thursday, September 27, 2012
I'm not big on vampires. It's not that I don't see their value in the history of horror film and literature. I like a lot of vampire mythos. I think it's because they've been unjustly thrust into a new segment of pop culture. You know what I'm talking about. It involves sparkling and brooding, and it shall not be mentioned here. I prefer the horrifying portrayals of the bloodsuckers like Salem's Lot or 30 Days of Night or the fangless biters in Near Dark. Hey...maybe I am big on vampires after all.
While I love for my vampires to be scary, if they can be presented as funny in the same vein...ha! Vein! Get it? Anyway, if they can be presented as scary and funny, that would intrigue me. A film falling in that category comes to our shores from Belgium, as writer/director Vincent Lannoo brings us Vampires (not to be confused with the 1998 John Carpenter film of the same name).
Filmed in "faux documentary" style, Vampires is the apparent third attempt by a documentary filmmaker to record the daily lives of affluent vampire families in Belgium. The first two film crews didn't quite make it, but an understanding allows the director to settle in with a friendly albeit dysfunctional vampire family. They're the average vampire family with a bit of money and prestige. They enjoy meals provided by their "meat," a runaway former prostitute who willingly offers her blood for their dinner. They have a couple older vampires who live in the basement, disgraced by their lack of children. There are strict rules for vampire families, including the "children equal prestige" rule. Thanks to these rules, vampires exist - albeit with some disdain - alongside humans, several of whom aid in their fanged neighbors. Georges, the head of the family, is married to the flighty Bertha with which he has two children - who are likely not actual relatives. Sampson, the older brother, is rebellious and impetuous. He's also getting down and dirty with the community leader's wife, a huge taboo despite the fact that otherwise, vampires can pretty much do the squelchy with anyone they wish. And I do mean anyone. The daughter, Grace, longs to live and die as a human to the point of wearing pink, having a human boyfriend, and practicing suicide so that she can even pretend to feel like she's dying.
The documentary crew follows the nightly life of the vampire family, and their normal is quite literally the flip side of our normal, despite the common ground of family dysfunction. Things grow complicated when Sampson is caught messing around with the wife of the leader (who himself is an old vampire soul in a 12-year-old body). Facing execution by sunlight, Sampson arranges for his family to flee to Canada, which they view as below their station. As they adjust to their new life, some enjoy it more than others. Georges is miserable and Sampson loves singing songs for money and dating a Canadian human. The most intriguing and most poignant storyline involves Grace, as she falls "ill." Her final fate is both silent and quite moving.
I wasn't expecting a darkly funny film with its own mythology - the "rules" - but I found myself enjoying Vampires quite a bit. The actors playing the toothy family pull off the myriad of personalities with skill, behaving and sounding a lot like a typical family. Only with more bloodshed. There are genuinely funny scenes, such as when Sampson gushes about his new life in Canada. Some horrific scenes as well, such as when the vampire society has a "dinner party." And as I mentioned, the most poignant and heartfelt scene involves young Grace as her fate is revealed.
Sure, I'm not someone who's much into vampires - I seem to be more of a zombie/ghost/possession kind of horror fan. But I'm open to anything good. I thought Vampires was good. The only real issue I had with the film was how abruptly it ended, as if the filmmakers had a deadline they realized with twenty minutes to go and decided to trim about fifteen minutes from that. Other than that, the comedy and horror mix subtly and it plays like an informative documentary about family life. Or un-life.
Until next time, dear readers, just be careful if you're backpacking in Europe and someone invites you to their brownstone for a bite. The old joke might come true...
Sunday, September 23, 2012
Sometimes I find old VHS tapes hiding in storage bins. I'll pop them in and the worst I may think is, "damn, my hair was blonder in 1993." Nothing too scary. No ghosts, no demons, no knife-wielding maniacs.
The same can't be said for the doomed characters in the collaborative found footage release, V/H/S.
Found footage films seem to be all the rage these days. Personally, I like the subgenre, but like the modern zombie film, it could suffer from burnout. Still, there is a lot to enjoy until that happens. It seemed like a dream lineup when it was announced that several independent horror directors would combine to create a found footage anthology, sort of a Blair Witch Project meets Creepshow. Modern campfire stories, if you will. While I found V/H/S to be extremely intriguing, I was left wanting more, almost as if there was a big piece missing.
The movie itself consists of a framing story by A Horrible Way To Die director Adam Wingard called "Tape 56" and provides the reason for how we're able to see each chapter. The wraparound story follows a group of opportunistic Internet bad boys who make money filming themselves performing general acts of maliciousness (destroying an empty house, terrorizing innocent women, etc.). They're hired to break into a house and find a mysterious VHS tape. Upon entering they find hundreds of tapes, blank TV's, and a dead man sitting in a chair. As strange things happen around them, various members of the team put in random tapes, giving us each story.
The first chapter, called "Amateur Night," is by one of the directors of The Signal, David Bruckner (specifically, he directed the first part of that film). It tells the story of a group of dudes documenting their night of luring women to their motel room through the use of a spy cam on one of the guys' glasses. Things take a turn for the strange when an odd girl with a limited vocabulary ("I like you") tags along and gets caught in the motel room with drunk, sex-starved guys. This is very much like a modern campfire story, maybe a cautionary tale from inebriated college dudes who see themselves as ladies' men. Yeah, let's just say it didn't work out well for these guys.
The second chapter, from Ti West (The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers), is called "Second Honeymoon." Here, we find a young couple out on the road, enjoying what appears to be the said second honeymoon. It starts out innocently enough, but there seems to be a third person enjoying the trip as well, someone who scoops up the video camera and takes a few shots of the sleeping couple. I love West's work but I felt there could have been more to this entry. Still, there's the basis for an intriguing story that would've worked even better over a longer length of time. After all, West is the modern master of "slow burn storytelling."
Chapter three comes from Glenn McQuaid, director of the wonderful I Sell The Dead, and it was, to me anyway, the most intriguing chapter of the anthology, entitled "Tuesday the 17th." A young woman brings her friends to a secluded wooded area for what they think is a weekend of partying. Turns out this young lady has been here before, and is hell-bent on catching a weird killer (dubbed "The Glitch") who seemingly cannot be filmed. Strange and off-putting, the idea of a killer that can somehow appear only as a series of glitchy shapes on film is very creative. I wouldn't mind seeing more of this mythos.
"The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Younger" is the chapter offered by Silver Bullets director Joe Swanberg (and co-writer Simon Barrett). A young woman relates her frightening nighttime experiences by Skype (which somehow ended up on a VHS tape) to a friendly young man she knows. There seems to be an attraction as she grows increasingly scared of ghostly people appearing in her apartment. There's a puzzling twist to the story, yet it retains some intrigue.
Finally, we're privy to "10/31/98" from the directing team known as Radio Silence. Four guys, excited to attend a Halloween party, arrive to find an empty house full of shadows and strange voices. Exploring the house, they find a party of a different sort in the attic and insanity follows. As far as environment goes, I really enjoyed this setting - even when there was stark, bright light, the house's interior was confining and uninviting.
V/H/S was incredibly interesting and had some very intriguing ideas. Giving voice to independent directors and writers is really great - this movie did play in theaters and has a chance to reach a wider audience than most smaller horror films. While I felt like more time could have been devoted to some stories, the thought-provoking aftertaste of "Tuesday the 17th" and "10/31/98" gives attention to the possibility that these stories could work as full-length films. I got the sense that the filmmakers were having a good time with the experience, and even though I had hoped for a little more, I'm happy with the fact that we could see more from these talented artists.
Now...I dare you to go through your old VHS tapes. See the one that's not labeled? Yeah, go ahead and put that one in...you never know what you'll see.
Until you do, here's the trailer for V/H/S:
Sunday, September 16, 2012
Right there, you've got the setup for the wonderfully weird British horror offering, Kill List.
Written by Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump, and directed by Wheatley, this moody and suspenseful flick isn't your run-of-the-mill best-buds-road-trip-from-hell fare. Yeah, there's the actual "kill list," as you'd expect when two mercenary hit men are involved. But there's so much more.
Jay (Neil Maskell) is a retired mercenary whose last job, in Kiev, didn't go so well. It haunts him as he tries to live a normal life with his wife, Shel (MyAnna Buring) and son, Sam (Harry Simpson). He has his best friend and fellow mercenary, Gal (Michael Smiley a.k.a. Tyres from Spaced), over for dinner. Gal brings his new girlfriend, the friendly and somewhat odd Fiona (Emma Fryer), along and the dinner goes from good times to big-time tension in a matter minutes before turning back to drunken friendliness. Fiona draws a strange symbol behind a mirror in the bathroom, then goes about her business. Jay and Shel argue...a lot. Money's tight, and that's part of what's straining Jay and Shel's marriage. Then Gal brings the offer of a job to Jay, and they learn they must eliminate the people named on a list. Simple enough, right? Not so fast. Why is there a priest on their list? Why isn't he scared? Why does the pornographer say he knows Jay before they off him? And what happens during the stakeout of the third name on the list? The film delves into something completely unexpected, yet consistent with the signs. The ending, which I won't spoil here, isn't anything you may have guessed.
While the ending is a true mystery, the whole film will make you think for days after it's over. The buildup of tension is tremendous, as the viewer just doesn't really know what lies ahead on Jay and Gal's road. It's increasingly violent, mysterious, and strange as it goes. The acting is outstanding as Maskell, Smiley, and Buring pick up the film and run with it like a precious rugby ball. They're tense and you can practically feel it through the screen - the list is as much a mystery to them as it is to us. Wheatley provides taut direction and unflinching framing of this descent into something maddening.
There are definitely some real shocks in this movie. It will mess with your mind, and you'll thank it politely. Then you'll twist your brain around trying to figure out the symbolism of everything you just saw.
Just remember that if someone approaches you with a strange "list" of some kind, start sprinting the other way.
Even if all they want is a gallon of milk and some bread. You never know!
Now, here's the trailer for you to enjoy...
Monday, September 3, 2012
The old adage says, "Less is more." Learning my writing chops over the years, I was told that time and time again (and I'm still guilty of the occasional wordiness). It's the same in film - there's a time and place for glitz and show, but unless you've got a basically good, solid story, it's just that: glitz and show.
In watching Hammer and Saw Films' short film Exit 7A, writer-director William Peters told a lot of story in very little time. Really, that's the point of a good short film: to get its point across in a limited duration. There's no need for "glitz and show," as the film does exactly what it needs to do: tell a great story. Peters and his crew accomplish that in a way that reminds me - despite my seemingly general comparison - of an episode of Twilight Zone or Outer Limits. Like those programs, it's a straightforward mystery in which you know the answer, but it's not thrust in your face like an over-sharing kid showing off a half-melted ice cream cone. It's subtle, telling a story rather than trying to impress you with insane visuals, and it opens up a possible universe of related stories.
I'm not going to spoil it, but it plays out with intensity, and a nice little twist. Peters does a great job in packaging a really good near-homage to the gore-less, character-driven subtle mysteries on which the horror genre is built. While Mooney provides a solid supporting base and Watts is really good, capable, and believable lead, Borrello really stood out to me as she carried an air of confident mystery around her in playing off of Watts' Paul. The film also looks great - the cinematography and framing show just how alone Paul is with the hitchhiker, despite the openness of the landscape.
According to Peters, Exit 7A will continue making the festival circuits before being officially released later this fall on the Hammer and Saw Films website. I asked Peters if Exit 7A could end up being part of a horror anthology, to which he replied, "The thought of Exit 7A being a part of an anthology has definitely crossed my mind. I think an indie horror anthology show would be awesome - something I would definitely support."
Hey, I like anthologies, so I'd be all for it as well!
Until next time, passengers, you can check out the official Exit 7A website here and take a look at the trailer below:
Exit 7A - Trailer from Hammer & Saw Films on Vimeo.
Thursday, August 9, 2012
I'll go on record right now and say that the Spanish horror franchise of [REC] films is one of the best series of horror films, in my humble, little opinion. I'm sure there are differing opinions, but this is mine. I love [REC] and [REC2] like I love cake. They're both heaping helpings of visceral tension with a claustrophobic, scared-of-the-dark atmosphere as the icing on top. While the franchise is essentially going to be a trilogy, it has a sort of "middle episode" that strays from the usual formula of darkened hallways, scarce lighting, and outright terror. [REC3]: Genesis is definitely a departure from the other two films, especially in tone. While it is a little jarring, that isn't necessarily a bad thing.
Paco Plaza, who co-directed the first two films with Jaume Balagueró, takes the solo helm for this film which, unlike the first two, takes place over a longer period of time. We begin in the afternoon and end the following morning, whereas the others were in real time. There are two huge differences that will either be applauded or derided: one, the use of the first-person camera is not all the way through the entire film, and two, the tone strays from the franchise in that it employs much more humor. Don't get me wrong: it's still full of gore, frights, and outright creepiness. But it's also funny in many parts.
The movie begins with a wedding, and we're introduced to many of the characters, mostly family and close friends of the bride, Clara (Leticia Dolera) and Koldo (Diego Martín). They're a beautiful couple (who look a little like a young Shelley Duvall and Jason Segal), getting married in a beautiful church in a beautiful part of Spain. You just know this idyllic event is going to be ruined by bitey demon-things at some point, and you would not be wrong. In fact, there's a clue early on that tells you who is going to be the first to be all bitey. It's just a sweet wedding and reception (and I love the touch of a DVD menu of the wedding starting the film - trust me, you have to see it, it's quite funny). But when a dear uncle exhibits strange behavior - which gets really strange - all hell breaks loose. The infection that spreads in the [REC] films is fast-acting and truly evil, in every sense of the word. The survivors have to scramble and in the chaos, Clara and Koldo are separated. The driving force of the film kicks in here: Clara and Koldo's love and desire to be together versus the evil demonic infection. What happens after that is all-out grindhouse-y fun with some really clever moments (that I can't really spoil), even if it does stray from the already-successful formula.
A fun, strange, and still-terrifying film from a country that produces some great horror films, [REC]3: Genesis isn't the same animal as its predecessors, but it's still good and still has that sense of hopeless doom...with one small glimmer of hope, but I'll let you figure that one out for yourselves.
Until next time, chopper passengers, here's the trailer:
Tuesday, July 24, 2012
Sometimes, just a well-placed shadow and a dark room can be just enough to get your heart racing.
Yeah, I know gore makes the headlines but a good suspenseful, creepy atmosphere can reach further into your soul and run it through a blender. And most recently for me, The Pact was that blender.
Written and directed by Nicholas McCarthy, this sweet little thriller doesn't employ colorful special effects or a cast of pretty semi-teens to get its point across. Instead, it draws you into a confined space and deftly hides things until it decides to show them to you in some pretty unique ways. Seriously. There are a couple moments when you might say, "That was different."
On the heels of her mother's death, Nichole (Agnes Bruckner) argues via phone with her estranged younger sister Annie (Caity Lotz) before saying good-night to her little daughter, Eva (Dakota Bright), who is staying with her cousin, Liz (Kathleen Rose Perkins). There...right there, you've got the family unit, which is an underlying theme of the entire film. Nichole disappears while investigating a strange noise in her late mother's home. When she doesn't check in, Annie meets Liz and Eva there to prepare for the funeral, sure that former drug addict Nichole will eventually turn up. During the night, weird noises ring out and the lights flicker as Liz disappears while Annie and Eva escape the chaotic house. Annie goes to the police, and the only one who will believe her is Detective Creek (Casper Van Dien). They investigate the house together, and find that there's more to it than meets the eye. While Annie sees strange, terrifying apparitions, and witnesses a strange freakout by a local psychic (Haley Hudson), she and Creek begin piecing together the mystery of the house and what happened to Nichole and Liz.
The answer came out of left field, yet made perfect sense. As is my practice, I'm not going to spoil it here, but I can tell you that you may not see the resolution coming.
The Pact, despite the minimalist title, really delivered for me. McCarthy's plot and direction, with its genuinely interesting and surprising twists, was well-paced and well-choroegraphed. Like I said, things happen and they may catch you off-guard. Some will have you nodding in agreement and others will have your jaw being scraped off the floor. The effects are bare-bones, but this isn't an effects-driven film. The effects that are employed are pretty jarring. You'll never look at Google Maps (or a film version of it) the same way again. Shadows and space are used to their utmost, guaranteeing at least one instance of the viewer peering through their hands in fear. Give me a shadowy atmosphere over computerized gore any day.
The acting is top-notch. In her short time on-screen, Brucker sets the story's table with a solid performance as Nichole. Van Dien has come a long way from Starship Troopers (which I really dug) - he's older and definitely more sure of himself as an actor, and his character wasn't a cardboard cutout of a sympathetic, grizzled police detective. I really enjoyed Hudson's blind psychic Stevie: rather vacant yet insightful, a wisp of a girl uncovering something very sinister. Living up to her billing as lead, Caity Lotz turned in a stellar performance. Her Annie is afraid yet strong and determined, her will to find her sister and cousin - and solve an old mystery - beating out her fear of the unknown surrounding her. And boy, does it surround her.
The Pact is available on some on-demand services, so check around and see if you can find it. It's worth it.
Now check out the trailer:
Sunday, July 1, 2012
I actually stopped myself from making a "Who was phone?" reference in the title. I should treat myself to a cookie.
The Caller is a neat little bit of Rod Serling-esque horror and suspense that creates a seriously interesting "how is she going to get out of this?" atmosphere. There's nostalgia surrounding the trusty old rotary phone. I remember the smooth whir of the dial as it spun, the restriction in movement thanks to the curly wire that always needed to be untangled, the bell ringer...I'm not that old, but I was a kid in the 70's and grew up into the 80's. Portable phones still weighed as much as a set of small dumbbells.
Written by Sergio Casci and directed by Matthew Parkhill, The Caller tells the increasingly-tense story of Mary Kee (Rachelle Lefevre), a new tenant in a quaint old Puerto Rican apartment building. She's also a grad student trying to get away from her abusive ex-husband, Steven (Ed Quinn), and developing a relationship with John (Stephen Moyer of True Blood), a professor at the college. In her apartment is an old rotary phone that soon starts receiving wrong number calls from a lonely woman named Rose (Lorna Raver of Drag Me To Hell). At first it seems innocent, but then Rose becomes obsessive, especially after she implies that she's killed her husband. What really creeps Mary out is the fact that Rose claims to be calling from the past. And like the frightening Steven, Rose isn't willing to let Mary go. That brings me back to the original question, "how will she get out of this?" If she's really in the past, then she can affect Mary, but Mary can do nothing. But really, you'd have to see how it turns out, because I'm not spoiling it here.
While the very end of the movie wasn't what I'd hoped for, the fact remains that the rest of the movie is a fine study in suspense and tension. Mary is in a hugely frustrating situation: she can't just change her number or even move because if Rose is truly stationed in the past, and she can affect events that affect Mary. On top of that, she's got Steven continuing his abuse even after a restraining order is in place. Mary has two allies in John and the apartment building's caretaker, George (Luis Guzman), but are they enough? It's a valid question.
The Caller could easily have been written by Rod Serling or been an episode of Outer Limits as its premise is simple, but relies on the viewer's feelings of frustration for Mary because she's in a seriously helpless place. It's moody and tense with great onscreen acting by Lefevre and chilling voice work by Raver. I mean, Rose sounds like a sweet old woman at certain times, but boy, does that evil creep into her voice when she's angry. Honestly, I didn't want to answer my phone for a few days after this movie - even though I don't have a rotary phone, and there's nothing scary about my cell's generic ring tone.
Here's the trailer for you to enjoy:
Tuesday, June 26, 2012
Let's get this out of the way right now: Daniel Radcliffe played Harry Potter.
Thanks to his growing up in those eight fine films, it will always be hard for him to not be seen as the teen wizard. But let's get another thing straight right away...
Daniel Radcliffe is an excellent actor.
Despite great performances from a solid cast, 2012's remake of The Woman In Black is basically a one-man show, featuring Radcliffe delivering a convincing turn as troubled young lawyer Arthur Kipps. Written by Jane Goldman and directed by James Watkins, The Woman In Black is not only a film from Hammer Film Productions, it marks a return to the gothic, bump-in-the-night spooky visual tale of which Hammer was once the relentless factory. A good, popcorn-at-midnight flick with plenty of mood settings and jump-scares, The Woman In Black isn't the greatest haunted house film ever made, but it's definitely not a bad entry into a genre I would like to see make a bigger comeback.
Based on Susan Hill's 1983 novel, the 2012 film version features Radcliffe as the aforementioned sad sack Kipps, who is a widower with a young son (played by Misha Handley, Radcliffe's real-life godson) and a decidedly less-than-stellar assignment: rifle through the paperwork to sell an old mansion. The mansion happens to have the appealing name of Eel Marsh House, and is the center of a local legend in the small town where it sits. The superstitious townsfolk aren't exactly welcoming to Kipps and maybe they have a point. The children of the town have been dying with frightening frequency in the most gruesome of ways. They believe the ghost residing in Eel Marsh House is at fault, and Kipps is only smacking the hornets' nest.
Kipps struggles with the mystery as well as the harrowing experiences he has at Eel Marsh House, including visions of a dark apparition that also seems to appear just before children commit suicide. He delves into the story with the help of the only person in town who treats him with any kindness, a local businessman named Sam (Cirián Hinds), who also lost a child to the ghostly woman. Kipps finds out what motivates the ghost and it becomes a race against time and the elements to try and satisfy the dead.
See, no spoilers and no Harry Potter references.
The Woman In Black is a solid thriller with beautiful atmosphere for gothic horror fans and sudden frights for fans of "boo!" sort of moments. The photography and direction make everything look great, and the acting - especially from Radcliffe and Hinds - is excellent. The ending might leave you saying, "Oh, really?" but that's really just a minor thing compared to the quality leading up to that. It's definitely a good one to turn on late at night when you're really feeling like an atmospheric, tense little viewing. Good, midnight fun.
And that makes it a successful film.
Oh, yeah, one more thing: the toys. Brrr...you'll see what I mean.
Here's the trailer:
Thursday, June 14, 2012
How is it that horror monster icons like Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, and the like always seem to be in the right place at the right time? How is it they always seem to come back for more, no matter what the frightened protagonists hurl at them? Is it luck, or could it be magic?
According to the literally-insanely-creative Behind The Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, it's all in the preparation.
Written by David J. Stieve and director Scott Glosserman, Behind The Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is a half-mockumentary, half-actual horror film revealing the lengths the charismatic Vernon (played masterfully by Nathan Baesel) will go in order to establish himself as one of those icons alongside his idols, Voorhees, Krueger, and Myers. There's nothing inherently supernatural about Vernon, but the ways he goes about creating his own legend are like viral marketing gone mad. He's smart, determined, funny, often friendly, and just a little bit psychotic. OK, maybe a lot psychotic.
Taylor, Doug, and Todd (Angela Goethals, Ben Pace, and Britain Spellings respectively) are a reporter and cameramen filming a documentary about an aspiring serial killer in the vein of the aforementioned horror legends, one Leslie Vernon (Baesel). It's an "alternate universe" of sorts, where the horror icons are a real and reluctantly-accepted aspect of the world. Vernon is excited; he's been planning his debut for years. Everything is timed and mapped down to the tiniest detail. He's in top physical shape with incredible mental discipline. He's got a backstory, he's got his virgin "final girl," and he's even got a mentor (Scott Wilson, The Walking Dead's Herschel) and an "Ahab," Dr. Halloran (Robert Englund). Everything's in place as Vernon stalks his prey, basically herding her and her friends into a late-night outing to his "legendary" house. Taylor and her crew follow along, playing neutral parties to what will essentially be night of murder. When the night comes, things begin well enough, but Taylor has misgivings. And from there, events spin out of control...or do they? A mockumentary turns into a straight-up horror film - a metatextual transition - as Vernon pursues his dream and his final girl in the climax of this entirely creative little flick. I won't give the bloody details, but let's just say everything happens for a reason.
Behind The Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is sparkling fun, a nod to horror fans everywhere and a different viewpoint "behind the mask," as it were. It's like a magician revealing the trade secrets, but still managing to pull off one hell of a trick. Baesal and Goethals are magnificent as the leads, who display a tension and respect for each other, all while creating an air of believability. Englund is especially fun as the Donald Pleasance/Dr. Loomis pastiche and Vernon's "Ahab," the force of good that relentlessly chases the force of evil. The film also marks the final appearance of Zelda Rubenstein, she of Poltergeist fame, as she plays the doomed librarian who relates the tale of Leslie Vernon to the intended "final girl."
The film is funny, energetic, and somewhat disturbing - I mean, you'll really start to like Vernon until you realize, "wait a damn minute, he's aspiring to kill a buttload of people." But that's the fun of the film: it takes itself seriously just enough to allow some guilty fun to creep in before turning the whole thing on its ear. But most of all, it's a creative idea enhanced by great writing, directing, and definitely the acting.
So sit back and witness the rise of a new horror icon who may or may not have everything perfectly planned out...and remember to break out the windows on the ground floor. You'll see.
Now, enjoy the trailer, won't you? (WARNING: Slightly not-safe-for-work, but not too bad.)
Thursday, June 7, 2012
While I wouldn't exactly call Lynne Ramsay's 2011 thriller We Need To Talk About Kevin a horror film, there are plenty of aspects about it that are truly horrific, not the least of which is its main premise: a helpless mother deals with a son that is psychopathic right out of the womb. Based on Lionel Shriver's 2003 novel, the film takes a winding path towards an incident that is slowly peeled back, onion-skin style. We, the audience, get clues as to what's going on, but we don't get the full story until near the end. By that time, though, you'll pretty much guess how the movie will pan out, and it will leave you feeling uneasy and sad.
Eva (Tilda Swinton) gives birth to little Kevin, who doesn't seem to bond well with his mother. She's not exactly Mother of the Year, though, as she is constantly impatient with the odd child. As an infant, he never stops crying when she's around, but clams up when held by his father, Franklin (John C. Reilly). At one point during a walk in the city, she pauses for a long while near a jackhammer just to drown out Kevin's constant bawling. When Kevin gets older, he's a constant challenge, and that's putting it nicely. He refuses to potty train, and soils his diapers on purpose to tick off Eva. Fed up, she wrongly throws him against a wall, breaking his arm. Kevin doesn't tattle on her, but already his manipulative nature kicks in and he lords the incident over Eva. Eva and Franklin have another baby - unplanned, as the cracks in the marriage continue to widen - but the little girl, Celia, is sweet and every bit the cute kid Kevin isn't. "Inspired" by a story read to him by Eva, Kevin takes a keen interest in archery, becoming quite adept at it as he grows into a teenager (played with cool evil by Ezra Miller).
Even years on, Kevin harbors a psychotic disdain for his mother. Eva feels helpless, as no one, even Franklin, will believe what kind of darkness inhabits Kevin. Just how dark that abyss in him is grows evident throughout the flashbacks and flash-forwards: Kevin is imprisoned for something that doesn't come to light until the final act. Let's just say you don't put a bow and arrows in the hands of an ultra-intelligent, sociopathic teenager with Mommy issues. The movie slides into this final act with no hint of "surprises" or "twists"...you know what's about to happen, and just like Eva, there's nothing you can do about it.
Make no mistake: We Need To Talk About Kevin is not a feel-good movie. I would say those seeking a hip-hip-hooray movie (or moms-to-be, for that matter) try something a little less bleak. But still, this is a fine piece of filmmaking that is a study in the building of dread over a ninety-minute span of time.
Next review, I'm writing about something a little less dreary!
Now here's the trailer, which is pretty intense itself:
Friday, May 25, 2012
And here's yet another in my unofficial "Why Haven't I Reviewed This Yet?" series.
I mean, seriously: John Carpenter is one of my favorite directors of all time, and probably my favorite director during the 80's along with Steven Spielberg and Richard Donner. I've already reviewed Prince of Darkness and In The Mouth of Madness here, as well as Big Trouble In Little China as a guest on another blog. It should be a foregone conclusion that I'd review Carpenter's first entry in his "Apocalypse Trilogy" from 1982, The Thing. Hell, I should've reviewed this one before reviewing the not-so-bad 2011 prequel...um...The Thing. Yeah, I know, that's a lot of linkage there.
Carpenter's The Thing was a juggernaut in the VHS era. I can't begin to tell you how often I rented/borrowed it. It had that "oh, man, you gotta SEE it" vibe years after it came out. Its reputation preceded it when I first settled in to watch it in 1984 (the turnaround for movies was a little slower back then, plus I'd spent a year in Sweden as an exchange student, limiting my renting abilities). Plate of beefy nachos in hand, I was enthralled and filled with adrenaline. This movie was going to GROSS (according to my friends) and filled with groundbreaking practical effects by the legendary Rob Bottin (with significant input by another legend, Stan Winston), it definitely filled that quota.
Now imagine this friendly fellow hanging from your ceiling as you fall asleep. You're welcome.
U.S. Outpost #31 is a research facility in the sunny locale of Antartica. A lone dog, chased by a pair of frantic Norwegian men, seeks refuge and as a result of crazy desperation and a language barrier, its pursuers are killed. You just know the dog is hiding something, and if you translate what one of the Norwegian men shouts, you get much of the plot right there. Strange things begin happening when the the dog reveals its true nature, assimilating several dogs before apparently being stopped. R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) leads an expedition to the Norwegian outpost, finding evidence that something had ravaged the researchers there. And hey, if you watch the 2011 prequel, you get to see how it all happened.
Back at the camp, Blair (Wilford Brimley) deduces that the creature can assimilate other living beings. That's when the paranoia really kicks in. Who can trust whom? Things (slight pun intended) get really crazy from here on out, and if you haven't seen the film, what are you waiting for? You've got a creature that is comprised of individual creatures in a conglomerate building possessing a modified hive mind. It can be separate creatures, but with one purpose and drive. MacReady and his colleagues go from guys who work together to guys who don't know who's going to assimilate them at a moment's notice.
You get to see a guy suddenly grow a mouth on his belly while trying to be revived. You see a blood test like no other - hey, even the blood is a freakin' "Thing." You see guys who you think are just fine change into bloodthirsty alien demons while tied to a couch. You just don't know who is who, right down to the final frames. One of the biggest mysteries of Carpenter's film is the ending. Are we seeing who we think we're seeing? The answer is given somewhat in the prequel, if you know where to look, but even that is up to interpretation.
Carpenter used a classic novella ("Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell Jr.) and the classic 1951 sci-fi film (The Thing From Another World from directors Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks) as inspiration and stirred them up with the earmarks of a closed-room mystery to create what has become a true cult classic. The Antarctic itself stands as the "closed room," with escape not an easy option. Hell, it's practically impossible with the weather and terrain. Then add to that the fact that if anyone actually leaves, he may be carrying the Thing with him. The creature can appear as anyone, so there's your "it can be anyone" trait that the classic whodunnits and closed-room mysteries have.
Kurt Russell is a standout among intense performances, adding another to his list of great tough-guy heroes that he portrayed during the 80's like Snake Plissken and Jack Burton. He's steady and reliable, but still paranoid enough that he isn't superhuman. He makes mistakes just like anyone else, as Clark (Richard Masur) finds out.
The Thing is a classic, with tight direction from Carpenter and a moody soundtrack from Ennio Morricone. It is, as my subtitle suggests, a classic from a classic - similar but different enough to stand well on its own. If you've never seen it, take it in the way I did when I first saw it: full of anticipation with a plate full of beef nachos. And hey, if you can fully recreate my experience by seeing it on VHS, I tip my Phillies cap to you.
Now here, please enjoy the trailer: