Friday, December 30, 2011

Zombieland (2009) Lively, Drooling, Angry-Eyed Fun

Why have I taken this long to review one of my favorite horror-comedies?  Why ask why?

2009's stellar Zombieland, written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, and directed by Ruben Fleischer, is a slam-bang, energetic romp (always wanted to use that word in a review) through a world devastated by zombies of the "caught a nasty virus and really got messed up with a taste for human flesh" variety.  There's been a long-standing debate as to whether or not this is truly a horror film.  Many maintain it's a comedy instead of horror.  I tend to believe that it is indeed a comedy with horror elements; therefore, I'm comfortable with the genre label of "horror-comedy."

The world has ended and all neurotic Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) wants to do is head home to his family.  A nervous but careful young man, Columbus (not his real name, but where he's from) has survived the zombie apocalypse through his meticulous rules, which include shooting a zombie twice to ensure it's dead (Rule #2), not being a hero (Rule #17), and the all-important keeping up of the cardio (Rule #1). 

Yeah, Rule #3 is pretty important, I'd say.

On his way out of town, he meets tough-guy Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), an expert in zombie-killing who is searching for the last stash of Twinkies, as they represent a simpler, happier time in his life.  The two complete opposites soon run afoul of two grifting sisters, Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), who steal their guns and their ride.  Soon the tables are turned, and despite their differences, the four team up at least to get where they're going:  Pacific Playland, which is supposed to be devoid of zombies.

They stop for an overnight in Los Angeles and stay at Bill Murray's mansion, which leads to some hilarity, in-jokes, and one big misunderstanding.  Tallahassee lets his guard down and we discover just why he hates zombies so much, a truly heartbreaking reveal.  Columbus and Wichita grow a little closer, leading the nervous young man to think he's finally found the family he always wanted with these strangers.  But Wichita and Little Rock bug out, trying to convince themselves they don't need anyone else, and head for Pacific Playland.  Columbus refuses to let them go and gets Tallahassee to join him in tracking the girls down.

At the amusement park, the sisters' night of fun is rudely interrupted by hordes of zombies attracted by the bright lights and now, fresh meat.  They find refuge on the drop tower ride but their time is running short.  Columbus and Tallahassee ride to the rescue, with Columbus overcoming his paralyzing fear of clowns - yes, that means clown zombie - and Tallahassee making a last stand inside a concession booth.  Somehow, through sheer bravery and quite a bit of luck, the four manage to survive.  And yes, Columbus finds the family he so longed for.

Zombieland is just pure fun from beginning to end.  It pops on the screen with four likable characters fueled by excellent performances by Eisenberg, Harrelson, Stone, and Breslin.  So many memorable lines, so many memorable scenes, as well as the funniest cameo put on film in ages.  It's not a long movie, clocking in at around 88 minutes, but it moves along very quickly, never pausing too long on overly serious scenes yet still bringing about depth in each character.  If you're squeamish, the opening scene will be enough to let you know you may be averting your eyes a few times during the movie, but really, it's entirely worth watching.  If the planned sequel is anywhere near as much fun, I'll be happy.

So Zombieland is definitely a comedy with roots in horror, and it not only walks the fine line between the two genres, it puts on a lampshade and boogies down on each side of the line.  So much fun, and definitely belongs in my high pantheon of horror-comedies along with Shaun of the Dead, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, and Evil Dead II:  Dead by Dawn.

Now "nut up or shut up" and see it!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Grave Encounters (2011) This Would Make A Great Haunted House Attraction

You know those haunted house attractions that pop up everywhere during the Halloween season?  Some are hokey, many are extremely creative.  Through my entire viewing of The Vicious Brothers' Grave Encounters, I kept thinking how sweet it would be if they could parlay the film into an actual haunted house one could brave on a crisp autumn evening.  I also kept thinking about how well the filmmakers skewered "reality ghost hunter" series as fame- and ratings-seekers.  Only in Grave Encounters, the question is asked, "what if one of those shows actually finds something?"

Continuing my unofficial "found footage month" here at the Helicopter, Grave Encounters slides right in as an entry in that genre, as nearly the entire film is told through footage that was "found" at an abandoned insane asylum and, as a concerned television executive tells us in the few moments that are not in first-person, "altered in any way."  Although this subgenre is starting to saturate the market just a tad, I'm still interested in it.  Although I had slightly lower expectations for this film, I was pleasantly surprised at how fun it was.

Written and directed by the awesomely-named Vicious Brothers (Colin Minihan and Stuart Ortiz), the film sets us up with premise that a film crew producing the latest episode of a ghost-hunting reality show called - as you may guess - "Grave Encounters."  An executive lets us know in documentary format that the crew has disappeared and what we're about to watch is an edited, yet undoctored account of what happened to them.  We then meet the leader of the team, Lance (Sean Rogerson) who bears an uncanny...hell, an obvious resemblance to that spiked-hair muscle guy on "Ghost Adventures."  His mannerisms in front of the camera had me laughing since I'm so entertained by the antics of the real show, it seemed like a parody-homage.  To investigate the supposedly haunted asylum, he brings his team of camera man T.C. (Merwin Mondesir), occult expert Sasha (Ashleigh Gryzko), tech guy Matt (Juan Riedinger), and psychic Houston (Mackenzie Gray).  Early on, the on-camera facades drop and we see that Lance and his team hardly believe in the paranormal - the whole thing is about ratings and of course, money.  Lance is obsessed with the show being successful, and Houston is hardly a real psychic, just an actor who complains that the overnight taping session might cut into his auditions.  They even pose like a hip paranormal investigation team.  They're ready-made for fame.

But strange things begin to happen over the night, at first nothing overly alarming.  But when Matt goes upstairs to investigate a window that moved during the night, it kicks off something that ranges from mysterious (his disappearance) to the terrifyingly surreal (what the team finds when they finally open the front doors).  Although they're not locked in anymore, they can't leave.  The asylum itself becomes an antagonist.  Maps and directions mean nothing.  Doesn't matter that their clocks say it's daytime...outside the windows, it's still dark.  Horrifying apparitions appear and the party is separated in the pitch black.  One by one, the crew is picked off in chilling ways.  I won't spoil how they go down, but I will say I found T.C.'s fate especially creepy.  Eventually, it's down to just Lance, exhausted and alone.  At the end of his rope, it's as if the asylum allows him to glimpse answers to long-standing questions about the nefarious doctor who likely created the restless spirits before handing him over to his doom.

Unlike Skew, the found footage film I reviewed recently, Grave Encounters isn't deeply layered.  There's no symbolism or puzzles you need to solve, not even a breathtaking final shot to nestle itself in your brain.  Grave Encounters is straightforward and wild, a walk through a haunted house not unlike some of the better Halloween attractions out there.  It's not fancy, but it manages to hold the interest and entertain with no small amount of flair and nods to a slew of urban legends.  Rogerson is excellent as the central character, and his Lance is intense, brash, and slightly unlikeable.  He demands his crew follow him, even when things get insane.  One standout for me was Gray as Houston, the over-dramatic, cowardly psychic.  He's so over-the-top when he's "on camera" for the show, displaying his "powers," but a fame-seeking diva when he's not.  I found him to be both hysterical and interesting by playing both sides of that coin.

Overall, the film is a lot of fun, not nearly as bad as I thought it might be...don't ask me why I thought it would be bad.  I guess I thought I was due for a dud, but I was happy to find I really enjoyed Grave Encounters

So give it a try, and you'll see what I mean:  making this a haunted house tourist attraction would be money in the bank. Charge admission at the door, gift shop on the way out. Money, I tell you.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Skew (2011) The More I Think About This Movie...

...the more I like it.

Skew had me thinking.  Not just during the movie, which is always a positive, but after.  Long after.  It made me think about everything I saw during the course of the film and every line of dialogue.  It especially made me think about a final scene enough that I went back and watched the final few minutes over again.  The final frame froze me in my tracks.  Figuratively, of course. I don't usually pace around the room when I watch movies.

The last found footage/cinema vertite/first person film to make me formulate ideas and theories long after I shut it down was The Last Exorcism, which I enjoyed more after I watched it as well.  My theories may not be right, but it's fun to think them up.  The last shot in Skew is a game-changer.  It made me go back over everything I had just seen and re-think all of it.  It's chilling and exciting at the same time.  Like a goofball fawning over a double rainbow, I felt like laugh-shouting, "What does it MEAN?"

Basically, Skew is a story told from one point of view, first-person-style.  It's deftly written and directed by Sevé Schelenz about three friends on a road trip.  Some movies could tell a story with just that, but Schelenz goes much further.  Simon (Robert Scattergood) wants to document the entire trip to a friend's wedding with his spankin' new camcorder.  Buddies Rich (Richard Olak) and Eva (Amber Lewis) pick him up but there's already tension because Simon has just had a fight with his girlfriend Laura (Taneal Cutting).  Eva goes inside to convince Laura to go anyway, but is given the cold shoulder.  The three head out on the road and after some friendly shenanigans and typical road trip fun, strange things begin to happen.  Hey, you knew they would.  It starts when they hit a coyote on the road, then check in to a local motel.  Simon films the desk clerk and finds his face distorted and twisted.  Later that night, the clerk is found dead and police are everywhere.  But it doesn't stop there.

An entire bus full of tourists winds up dead after being filmed through Simon's lens, and the weirdness is just getting started.  Terrifying things happen.  Tensions flare.  Nerves are stretched thin.  Visions intrude (but only for Simon).  Secrets are confessed, one of which brings friends closer, another which tears them apart.  It all comes to a head, and when the final few minutes finally air, we get some answers and one huge reveal that might give you more questions to ponder.

And my friends, sometimes that ain't all bad.

Sometimes I like being left with a few questions partially answered...or not answered at all.  It's good exercise for the brainpan to be given some slack to dance around the information it's been given, see it from different angles.  Too often, audiences are spoon-fed the answers and soon grow to demand it.  Look at some (some, I say) of the frustration with the TV show, Lost.  Answers were deliberately held back, but there were those who got angry because every little detail wasn't revealed.  But I digress.

Skew wasn't without a couple faults, the way I saw it.  I understand and very much appreciate the importance of a slow build, but there were a few spots where dialogue and non-action felt a touch snail-like.  But I'm definitely willing to look past those slow spots because the acting was very good, very genuine.  It's hard to pick out a single star, and I have to hand it to Scattergood for basically what amounts to voice acting, as it is through his perspective that we see the film.  Olak is a study in a breakdown as he goes from jaunty slacker-ish guy to hard-drinking angry friend on the verge of blowing his top.  Lewis is the voice of reason, the almost angelic one that everyone loves.  She tries so hard to keep the three together with so much going on behind her eyes.  The script is natural and flowing, and the direction is tight, especially during the scenes of mounting tension or utter creepiness.  I'm not alone in looking forward to Schelenz' next body of work.

Give yourself some time and have a gander at Skew.  It's a fine entry in the current "found footage craze," even though it's technically a forerunner, since it was actually filmed in 2005.  It doesn't have the frantic craziness of, say, a [REC], but for genuine creeps and chills, it makes a damn strong case for itself.

Now here, take a look at the trailer if you like. *warning: some language and possible spoiler-ish stuff*

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Atrocious (2010) The Windup, And...Well, The Pitch

I really wanted to love Atrocious.

Honestly.  Instead, I just kind of liked it.  It built itself a nice little foundation.  You know, like in baseball, a really good windup.  Then the pitch just sailed in at a nice velocity, but was a little flat.

I miss baseball already.

Atrocious, the Spanish film written and directed by Fernando Berreda Luna, is a found-footage style film (an increasingly popular subgenre) set in the Spanish countryside concerning a family that has been found horribly murdered.  When the viewer begins the film, it's as if they're part of the investigative team reviewing the evidence.  A jarring sudden rewind flashes some telltale near-subliminal images until it starts at the beginning. 

The Quintanilla family heads to their old country home for the first time in a very long time, and siblings Christian and July intend to film the entire thing for their online paranormal investigation webcast.  They're specifically excited about a local urban legend about the ghost of a girl named Melinda.  Christian insists on filming everything while July joins him in exploring the creepy labyrinth outside the house.  Soon after opening a locked basement, where they find old family artifacts, including an old TV and tons of old VHS tapes (including some Dario Argento selections), things get spooky.  Strange sounds at night seem only a little odd, but then the beloved family dog disappears.  Events take a turn for the frightening when they find the poor thing dead at the bottom of a well in the labyrinth.  The ol' family vacation ain't what it used to be.  The climactic scene finds the youngest brother missing and a frantic mother desperate to find the dark labyrinth.  The father and the family friend are conspicuously absent, but the resulting stumble through the dark with Christian's camera is jarring and ultimately reveals an ending you might not see coming.

I wish the ending hadn't fallen short of what I was expecting (or rather, hoping for), but that's not to say it wasn't decent.  Maybe you, loyal readers, will get more out of it.  The tension leading up through the entire movie was very well played out, to where we didn't really know what would be in front of the camera at any given time.  But I think the movie got caught up in the atmosphere and somewhat, I don't know, lost itself.  I wasn't blown away by the ending, instead saying "oh" out loud.

But I will say this:  the ratcheted-up tension built at a really good pace.  You really do end up wringing your hands over what you think might happen, and that's good by me.  I just wish I hadn't felt so "meh" as it came to a close.  Anyway, judge for yourself. 

It appears that found footage (or first-person, or cinema verite, whichever term you please) is a subgenre here to stay.  I'm mostly good with it, although for every Trollhunter or [REC], there might be a Monster.  Thankfully, Atrocious, for all its faults, isn't lumped in with the latter.  Keep an eye out, fellow zombie apocalypse survivors, as I'll have more found footage film review on the way.

For now, have a gander at the trailer for Atrocious:

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Attack The Block (2011) Aliens Pick The Wrong Block

It always comes back to Spaced.

Longtime readers of my blog know of my love for that British television series, which starred Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Jessica Stevenson, directed by Edgar Wright, and co-produced by Nira Park.  I always seem to find a way to connect it to something...that is when I'm not watching it for the fiftieth time.

Along comes the little British sci-fi/action/horror flick Attack The Block, and sure enough, it stars Frost, is co-produced by Park, and executive produced by Wright.


There was a lot of buzz surrounding Attack The Block, with a lot of voices proclaiming its excellence.  It kind of snuck up on me, so I was quite happy when I realized I could get a hold of it sooner than later.  The premise looked unique enough to catch my eye:  aliens invade an inner city housing project only to meet resistance from the local ruffians.  That may sum it up, but it was definitely a richer experience than just those words.

During Guy Fawkes Night, young nurse Sam is mugged on her way home by a bunch of kids, who are threatening despite their obviously young age.  They're interrupted by a meteor-like object crashing into a nearby car, where they discover a mean little creature that scratches the leader Moses before running off.  The gang finds the creature hiding in a shed and proceeds to beat it to death.  Taking it to the local weed dealer Ron (Frost), they're full of piss and vinegar when Moses gets promoted by the block's head drug dealer Hi-Hatz.  They go out in search of more aliens to beat up on, but run into bigger, meaner, and toothier versions of the one they killed.  Not only that, they get pinched by a couple policeman on a tip from Sam.  Soon, Moses and his gang and Sam are forced to team up as the creatures descend on the block, killing anyone associated with the gang.  Hi-Hatz thinks Moses betrays him, so he sets out after him, too.  The deadly serious Moses steels himself, realizing it's up to him to protect his gang, protect Sam, and defeat the aliens.  There are a few interesting twists and a satisfying ending that redefines heroism within the context of the movie.

Even with the presence of Nick Frost and a funny performance from Luke Treadaway as Brewis, a drug customer who just wants to be seen as cool, Attack The Block isn't really a comedy.  The presence of aliens speaks to a science fiction genre, and the violence and suspense are earmarks of horror.  Like I wrote before, I see it as a sci-fi/action/horror movie with a coming-of-age flavor - it's non-stop with some pretty frightening alien juggernauts that are all black fur and teeth.  Rows and rows of glow-in-the-dark teeth.  The performances are genuine, and the street slang spoken by the kids ends up not distracting the viewer, even if the person watching didn't grow up in South London, where the film takes place.  While there are a few chuckles, they're usually nervous ones as the characters are scared.  When you see these aliens in action, who wouldn't be?

Attack The Block was definitely a fun little film, great for late-night viewing.  Even though the kids are junior criminals, you're guaranteed to root for them as the film progresses.  The monsters are of a simple design, but it absolutely works, as does the reason why they're focusing on the gang.  You could do a lot worse if you need some good entertainment.

Now I'll go watch Spaced again, while you check out the trailer for Attack The Block. Enjoy, and watch the skies...

Dead Set (2008) Reality Shows Need More Zombies

I must admit:  I'm not that big of a fan of most reality shows.  They used to be interesting, like The Real World when it first started out.  Occasionally, there are still some that might catch my eye.  I'm sure through law of averages that at least a few will slip through that really aren't that bad - hell, there are a million of these shows anyway.  In the glut of these things, there are bound to be some OK to decent ones.  But for me, they're mostly not my cup of tea.  Pretty soon, the most mundane events will have drama-soaked reality shows:  "next week, on Watching Paint Dry."  And don't get me started on the "famous for being famous" shows. 

You know what these programs really need?


Lots and lots of zombies.

Thank you, my dear United Kingdom, for granting my wish.  In 2008, Britain's E4 channel aired a five-episode miniseries called Dead Set, and despite the glut of zombie media these days (yes, the irony of my own statements is not lost on me), it offered a hyperkinetic, no-holds-barred take on the living dead genre.  These are zombies of the "spry" variety, sporting characteristics such as colorless eyes and low, dog-like growls.  We can debate the pros and cons of fast and slow zombies all day long, but for me, it's a moot point.  The story is what I want to click, to strike chords with me.  Dead Set definitely struck a chord.

Why the reality show reference?  The whole setting for Dead Set is the Big Brother UK house (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) on a night when one of the contestants is being evicted.  There are blatant nods to the nature of modern reality shows and how rabid the fans are.  You know it's coming:  Big Brother fans in the live audience + a fast-acting zombie plague = wacky fun.

It's eviction night on Big Brother UK, and airheaded Pippa (Kathleen McDermott) is about to take the elimination walk outside with the massive cheering crowds and an interview with host Davina (Davina McCall as herself).  The show itself is in danger of being bumped for news of riots breaking out all over England, riots that include people attacking one another.  Producer Patrick (Andy Nyman), a vain, mean-spirited fellow, cares only about stirring things up in the house and resulting ratings.  Production runner Kelly (Jaime Winstone) juggles her job, her real boyfriend Riq (Riz Ahmed), and flirtations from a co-worker.  In the house itself are a wide variety of personalities:  sassy Angel (Chizzy Akudolu), ladies' man Marky (Warren Brown), sexpot Veronica (Beth Cordingly), lonely older man Joplin (Kevin Eldon), peacemaker Space (Adam Deacon), and wildly flamboyant Grayson (Raj Ghatak).

They have no clue what's about to happen when the show employees who drive Pippa's mother to the festivities come across a bloody accident scene.  When they finally arrive at the show in what I thought was a wonderfully-filmed scene, all hell breaks loose in one of the best "zombies overrunning a location" scenes I've viewed in a while.  After that initial "ka-pow!" the survivors try to assess the situation, but humans being humans, that isn't as easy or as comforting as it sounds.

Patrick and Pippa are trapped together in the green room, and that often-discussed point about bathroom privileges when stranded during a zombie apocalypse are addressed.  While Patrick is often played for dark laughs, he's truly a vile individual.  Riq and another survivor on the outside, Alex (Liz May Brice), discover that the feed of Big Brother is still being broadcast.  Riq sees Kelly and sets out on a quest to save her.  In the house, the contestants don't even know what's happened until Kelly arrives.  Angel's bitten and quarantined to the greenhouse with her best friend Grayson, a male nurse, tending to her.  Joplin has eyes for Veronica, despite being much older and nicknamed "Gollum" for his appearance.  Veronica usually sleeps with Marky, but all bets are off now.

Much like an episode of Big Brother, alliances form and trust breaks down.  All the while, outside the house and the gates, the living dead gather.  One brilliant scene catches them hurrying down a sloped street to gather at the gates, much like they did when alive.  Things really come to a head when the disagreements between Kelly and Patrick take a turn for the tragic and everything just crumbles down around everyone.  As usual, I won't spoil certain moments, including the ending, but let's just say it doesn't end well for a lot of people.  For you symbolism fans, the last shot of the entire series is of an average zombie standing in front of a store TV, staring blankly at what happens on the screen.

Dead Set was good, bleak fun.  If you're looking for laughs or an inspired ending with characters looking off hopefully into the sunset, you've come to the wrong place.  Everything and everyone is fraying at the edges, dark and desperate.  The acting is tremendous with spots of urgency and frustration and a very loose grip on reality.  For me, the two standouts were Andy Nyman as Patrick and Jaime Winstone as Kelly.  Not to diminish the others, but those two really stood out as intense characters with whom you could relate.  Yeah, Patrick was a sociopathic boor, but everything he did fit in his character.  He wanted out, and he didn't care who he had to roll over to get there.  Kelly struggled with an old boyfriend, a new crush, a jealous manager, a jerk of a boss, as well as several frustrating wannabe celebrities all swirling around in a fast-paced zombie apocalypse.  And she ended up becoming a leader on top of all that.

There were some sweet nods to past zombie classics with the phrase "They're coming to get you, Barbara" uttered at one point, and paraphrasing of the great line in Dawn of the Dead about "this place being important to them."  One character even dies much in the same way Rhodes does in Day of the Dead, yelling defiantly at the creatures eating him.  Not to mention, there were some standout scenes that really hit home:  the car full of freshly-turned zombies arriving at the house, the frantic overrunning of the studio, the horde of zombies converging on the fence, and the dark ending where you just say, "Aw, no."

Dead Set might not be easy to find in the United States.  IFC showed the episodes around Halloween, and I caught them on IFC's on-demand channel, where they were available for a very short time.  Amazon has each episode on pay-per-view here.  It's worth the close to $10 you'd have to pay for the whole series ($1.99 per episode).

In the meantime, take a look at the trailer and see if it strikes your fancy.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Shaun Of The Dead (2004) A Slice Of Fried Gold

It's about time I reviewed this.


Shaun of the Dead, the British romantic zombie comedy (or "rom-zom-com"), easily ranks in my top ten of not just horror movies but my top ten in comedies and my all-time top ten.  It is the measuring stick to which I hold any horror-related comedy, the gold standard for "yucks and yuks."  I have no idea why I haven't gotten around to discussing it here but now's the time, and this is the month.  More reviews like this are comings, my "Why Haven't I Reviewed This Earlier?" series, you could say.

Right.  Now, as anyone who reads my blog knows, I like films with energy.  Something that tells me some real effort, some real passion was infused into the making of the film.  Even if the film isn't all that great, I can appreciate the amount of energy it exudes.  Well, this movie has energy in bundles.  Directed by Edgar Wright (who recently brought us Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, and shares writing credits here with star Simon Pegg), the film dashes and leaps, sizzles and pops, shakes you up and buys you a pint before dancing on your table.

Shaun (Pegg) is having a rough day.  His girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) has had enough of his lack of ambition, and breaks up with him at the urging of her two friends Diane (Lucy Davis) and David (Dylan Moran).  He is at odds with his stepfather Philip (Bill Nighy) which makes visits with his beloved mother Barbara (Penelope Wilton) quite uncomfortable.  The presence of his drug-dealing, ne'er-do-well best friend Ed (Nick Frost) angers his roommate Pete (Peter Serafinowicz).  One morning, the end of the world arrives as the recently dead begin rising and dining on the living.  Once they realize what's happened, which takes a while after being severely hung over, Shaun and Ed devise a plan to rescue Barbara and Liz, then hole up until the crisis passes at their beloved pub, The Winchester.  Things obviously don't go to plan.  Philip, already bitten, dies and revives, causing them to ditch the car and go on foot to the surrounded Winchester.  Keep an eye out for when Shaun and his group run into his old friend Yvonne (Jessica Stevenson, the co-creator of Spaced with Wright and Pegg) and her group.  Once at The Winchester, the group falls apart.  Barbara is bitten, Liz and Shaun try to work things out, and David is vocal about his doubt, mostly because he carries a torch for Liz.  However, we witness the confidence Shaun grows when placed in the role of leader.  He rises to the occasion, even when things get bad during the climax of the movie.  Still, without spoiling it for the few who haven't seen it, I will just say the movie ends on a chipper high note with a fitting end theme song.

Shaun of the Dead, to me, is - to quote Pegg's Shaun - a slice of fried gold.  Impeccably paced, with scores of references to classic zombie films peppered throughout, it never stops moving.  Musical cues, nods to zombie film actors (Shaun works for Foree Electric, named after Dawn of the Dead's Ken Foree) lines of dialogue ("We're coming to get you, Barbara!"), and the slow-walking zombies themselves are all part of the love letter to the classics of our culture, especially the films of George A. Romero.  There are so many references, so many of those nods, I can only direct you to IMDB's trivia page for the movie.  The acting is top-notch, with the obvious chemistry between Pegg and Frost as best friends in the movie, as they are in real life.  They even reprise a line from their Spaced series that sums up their relationship with the "thanks, babe" exchange.  The first in the "Cornetto Trilogy" (spot the Cornetto ice cream product), Shaun of the Dead serves as the first motion picture to build on the Spaced legacy.  They are absolutely linked which is one of the reasons I'm mentioning the sitcom so much.  That, and I just love it to bits.

Some time ago, I wrote a review of an episode of my favorite British sitcom, Spaced, during which the lead character Tim (played by Pegg) hallucinates seeing zombies thanks to staying up all night on cheap speed, eating Twiglets, and playing Resident Evil 2.  That hilarious bit during the television show gave Pegg and Wright some of the inspiration for Shaun of the Dead.  That series, and this movie, are huge breaths of fresh air - often imitated, never duplicated.  They're what's right in entertainment.

There have been some wonderful recent additions to the horror-comedy subgenre:  Zombieland and Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil come immediately to mind.  But Shaun of the Dead is my gold standard.  If you haven't seen it, yourself an immense favor.  I can only gush so much about it before telling you go out in the world and give your eyes a treat.

Here, to give you a little...taste...the trailer:

Monday, October 3, 2011

Trollhunter (2010) Norway Has A Giant Pest Problem

You have a problem with cockroaches or ants, maybe mice or termites?  It should be easy to find an exterminator in the yellow pages or online.  You have a problem with trolls knocking down your trees or eating your livestock?  Might be a little more difficult.  But if you live in the more remote regions of Norway, you just might be able to get some help from a troll hunter.  Getting a hold of him, however...that's another story.  You're probably going to have to deal with the enormous pests on your own.  But if you get a camera, you could film it and put it on the big screen, a plot device central to the wacky offering from Norway, Trollhunter (aka Trolljegeren).

I say "wacky" because honestly, this is a film about trolls.  Not dinosaurs, not overgrown Sasquatches, not Blair Witches.  Trolls.  There's the potential there for this to really fall flat on its celluloid face.  And yet it never does.  It maintains a deadpan expression as it presents the possibility of these mythical, semi-humanoid, giant creatures as being real.  It's tongue-in-cheek, yet never becomes a parody of itself.

Filmed in "found footage" style (although written and directed by André Øvredal), a bunch of college filmmakers set out to make a documentary about an area of Norway that is suffering from a rash of bear attacks and get wind of a poacher named Hans (Otto Jespersen).  He's a odd sort of fellow and the film crew grows more intrigued with him, making several attempts to interview him.  One night, they follow him into the deep woods only to be caught in the middle of a troll hunt, leading to a frightening confusion that leaves the students' vehicle destroyed and their leader, Thomas (Glenn Erland Tosterud) bitten.  Hans finally relents and allows the students to follow him as he does his thing, and they're made aware of a deeper conspiracy regarding these mythical creatures.  Hans allows it as he's done doing the government's dirty work, possessing scars that run deep about his role in the co-existence of humans and trolls.  The film crew continues to follow Hans as he hunts down the source of the recent bold migration of various trolls, one gigantic troll that may actually be rabid.

Rabid trolls.  It's actually scary if you think about it.

Trollhunter is alternately serious and straight-faced funny but doesn't make the difference between the two over-wrought.  The trolls themselves are pretty sweet effects, especially as you get towards the end of the film.  The ending has the same problem that most found-footage films have in that it seems like they're not quite sure how to end it and on what note.  It's fine for what it is, but the ending didn't leave me breathless or laughing or wanting more.  Jespersen, the very controversial Norwegian comedian, plays Hans very understated and as I described before, scarred.  He's been through some things you don't expect, and is ready to retire...or something more permanent.

It's a fun movie...not really a game-changer, but something of a blast nonetheless.  I'll tell you, Norway is really making some waves in the horror genre (and with monsters, this can be classified as horror) with this and the energetic zombie film, Dead Snow.  Should be interesting to see what comes out of Scandinavia next.

Until next time, friends, be glad there aren't zombie trolls...yet.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Horseman (2008) How Far Would You Go?

Revenge thrillers are a slippery slope.  If you're making one where the protagonist is simply killing others without much backstory or sympathetic motive, then what separates that character from the serial killers and deranged crazies that serve as antagonists?  Ah, and there's the rub.  The very question of a good revenge thriller is just that:  what separates our hero from the villains he or she is hunting?  In order to remain human or on the "side of the angels," the hero has to have something rooting him or her in reality, something that reminds them that they may be on the path to being monsters, but will never become one.  We hope.

One revenge thriller that really set the bar high was Korea's entry, I Saw The Devil, which I reviewed a couple months ago.  That was an amazing character study on both sides of the fence.  But ranking really high was another great character study in vengeance and violence from Australia, The Horseman.  A relatively quiet film - except for moments of intense screaming, crying, and yelling - it showcases the considerable acting talents of Peter Marshall as the distraught, relentless father-in-mourning as well as the fantastic directing of writer-producer-director Steven Kastrissios.

Christian (Marshall) is a father mourning the loss of his daughter from an overdose of heroin, among several other drugs.  When he discovers that she participated in a low-rent porno film and was left for dead by someone involved, he takes it upon himself to hunt down each and every person connected with the film.  Collecting his tools and hopping in his van, he takes out his vengeance on a variety of people, some who are sorry and some who are not.  Along the way, he meets a young, pregnant runaway, Alice (Caroline Marohasy) who definitely reminds him of his daughter.  Up until then, the guy was a juggernaut with a tool box, but Alice brings him back down to earth, for a short time anyway.  Christian soon discovers that not all of the men are what they seemed, or what he believed.  He also uncovers a web much darker than he ever could have imagined.  Where it looked like Christian was the force of nature, and the scummy filmmakers were the weak villains, tables turn horribly on the father and he has to reach deep down to not only exact vengeance, but survive.

The film is impeccably-paced, with stretches of introspective calm peppered with growing swells of brutal violence.  Marshall is utterly tremendous as Christian, a man we can identify with as he tracks down those responsible for his daughter's death, despite the fact that she sought them out to make a quick buck.  He chooses to see past that, to the little girl he once protected and cared for in his own home.  His role as protector shifts to Alice, played wonderfully by Marohasy.  Marshall brings moments of intense compassion, violence, determination, and even confusion to the role of Christian.  He's tough and wants revenge, yet desires to just be a father again.  When he's weeping at the end of the film, you see what he's feeling, you see why he's crying.  All those pent-up emotions finally break the gate, and it's stunning.

Take a chance on The Horseman if you want a revenge thriller that's a cut - or crowbar smash - above others.  Fine acting, great directing, a haunting score, and the question of just how far would you go?

Until next time, enjoy the official website and this trailer:

In The Helicopter Bay 9-18-11

Trying to nail down a rhythm in my blog-writing, and I think it'll come around once I'm used to my new schedule.  What I need to do is write about non-film horror subjects, like I had always intended.  Well, here are a few tidbits for this beautiful almost-fall day:

*  Speaking of writing blogs, I'd better get my rhythm together because I have decided that I will indeed write a comic book blog.  Its theme and tone will be similar to this humble blog, and I hope to delve into the mythology and symbolism of certain stories as well.

*  I also think I may try expanding into more genre films on this blog as well, such as martial arts films, grindhouse goodies, and whatever I think would be a good fit.

*  Recently, I received a very nice award from Pixie over at Pixie's Horror Galore, the "I Dig Your Blog Award."  It's always nice to be given a little recognition, and so I thank Miss Pixie for this and will place it over in my sidebar.  Now, the award comes with some criteria, but I'm going to go against the grain and modify some of them just a tad.  The first three criteria, I'll keep the same, which were to gratefully accept the award (which I did above), link to the the person who gave it me (which I also did above), and jot down three interesting facts about yourself (which I'll get to in a minute).  I'm going to add a few nice words about Pixie and her blog, and modify the original bestowing of awards on other blogs.

First, let me say that Pixie is a fresh new voice in the horror blogosphere.  Her enthusiasm and love for the horror genre cannot be measured, and that energy comes through in her written voice.  She's very funny and very nice as she engages all of her readers in conversation.  So thank you, Pixie, and keep up the good work!

Three mildly interesting things about me:
  • I lived in Sweden for a year as an exchange student, and can still reach deep down in my subconscious to speak/read the language despite it being AGES ago.  It was one fantastic year.
  • I worked at Walt Disney World in the 90's, first at Magic Kingdom then what is now Hollywood Studios (Disney-MGM back then). Three AMAZING years full of fun, mischief, and friends with whom I still keep in touch.
  • I did play-by-play commentary for numerous wrestling companies throughout the midwest and also in Windsor, Ontario, Canada in the 2000's.  Some of the greatest adventures I ever had came during those road trips.
Now, as far as giving out awards, it's a slippery slope.  I know there are some that don't care for getting awards, especially those that require you to do something, like continue to pass it on.  I know there are some that absolutely love it.  So here's what I'll do:  see that list of blogs over there on the right?  Scroll down, you'll see all of them.  I list them here for a reason.  They're worthy of any award that finds its way to them and therefore if you have a blog listed there, consider yourself a recipient of this award.  I may also let you know in an e-mail or something at some point, and you can decide what to do with it.  If you do post it on your blog, consider it coming from me.  If you don't want to do anything with it, hey, that's why I'm doing it this way.

That being said, if you're reading this, have a really good blog, and think I should include it on my sidebar, then get a hold of me and show it off!

As for me, I'm going to put it on my sidebar and once again, thank Pixie for the award.

*  OK, what else is there today?  The weather here is getting cooler and crisper, and that means my favorite time of year is not far behind.  It's almost October, which will bring Halloween and of course, Chiller Theatre in Parsippany, New Jersey.  I am planning on being there, but won't be set in stone until I actually buy the tickets in advance.  Hopefully, my plans won't change!

Until next time, fellow zombie apocalypse survivors, enjoy the approaching autumn!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Tucker And Dale Vs. Evil (2010) And A Classic Is Born...

I remember reading somewhere - it may have been Stephen King's fantastic dissection of horror, "Danse Macabre" - that horror and comedy were the two most difficult genres to write.  Combining the two is like doubling the difficulty level.  Combining the two successfully takes some real skill.

Over the years, I've placed some horror-comedy hybrids very high in my pantheon of films:  Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, and Evil Dead II:  Dead By Dawn just to name a few (all of which I haven't reviewed...yet).  Easily joining that pantheon of yuks and yucks is the 2010 film Tucker And Dale Vs. Evil.  Not since the most recent of those horror-comedies, Zombieland, have I doubled over laughing quite like I did during the adventures of lovable, misunderstood hillbillies Tucker and Dale.  Snappy dialogue, memorable characters, and an absolutely classic twist of perception and mistaken identity made this film a true party, a blast while watching and over far too soon.

Written and directed with admirable skill and timing by Eli Craig, the film follows the titular Tucker (Alan Tudyk of the Firefly TV series) and Dale (Tyler Labine of the Reaper TV series) as they joyfully travel to their "vacation home," a rundown, deserted house that may or may not have been the home of a serial killer (animal bones and articles about murders adorn the walls).  Tucker is the obvious leader, always admonishing the good-hearted Dale for not standing up for himself and believing that he is good enough to talk to pretty college girls like Ally (Katrina Bowen).  Already spooked by their appearance, the college kids all believe Dale is certifiable when he approaches Ally to strike up a conversation (while holding a scythe, incidentally) and begins laughing nervously.  They nervously leave, led by hotheaded, asthmatic, and somewhat psychotic Chad (Jesse Moss).  The fun really starts after Chad tells a campfire story about murders that had happened in the very woods in which they're camped.  As usual in a horror film, the kids decide to go swimming in a nearby lake...a lake upon which Tucker and Dale happen to be fishing.  Ally sees them and, startled, falls into the lake, hitting her head on a rock.  Dale clumsily, but successfully, rescues her.  However, the college kids think the two buddies are kidnapping her.  Tucker doesn't exactly help things by calling out, "hey, we have your friend!"

What follows is a hilarious and twist-filled love letter to all the tropes of an 80's teen horror movie.  It takes those tropes - kids in the woods, deranged hillbillies, a past history, among others - and turns them completely around.  All Tucker and Dale want to do is make sure Ally is okay and return her to her friends, but Chad is out for blood.  Why he is so gung-ho is one of the many neat surprises in the film.  But the real highlights are the side-splitting misunderstandings that almost make you question those "killer in the woods" horror films so prominent in the 80's.  For example, when Tucker saws into a log filled with bees, he panics, running away with his chainsaw swinging wildly.  What do you think that looks like?  Leatherface, anyone?  It just works so perfectly.

And the characters...this is one of those rare occasions in which I really hope there are sequels.  The take-charge, more pessimistic Tucker is such a great companion to lovable, low self-esteemed Dale, who only wants to fall for Ally, the smart and sweet therapist-in-training.  Chad starts as an egotistical "frat boy" (popped collar and all) who relies on his puffer and bullies his friends, but he ends as a one seriously messed-up young man.  Even the "cannon fodder," if you will, were tropes in themselves, providing some good laughs during their fatal misunderstandings. I even loved Jangers (Weezer), Dale's dog who is just like his owner:  a big, friendly lug.

Writer/director Eli Craig hit one seriously funny home run with his feature film debut.  The film just flows from one event to the next, telling one story while building one just under the surface.  It never lulls, never skimps on the body count yet never overdoes the bloody bits, and definitely never lets up in the laughs and character development department.  It was truly one of the best horror-comedies that I've seen, and a film that I hope is the start of a successful and hilarious franchise.

By all means, see this film.  If you haven't been able to tell until now:  I loved Tucker And Dale Vs. Evil.  Welcome to my list of favorite horror-comedies, you well-meaning, charming hillbillies.

Now here, enjoy the official website and the trailer to prepare you for the fun times:

Saturday, September 3, 2011

In The Helicopter Bay 9-3-11

Well, it has been a while, hasn't it?

Last time I checked in with a blog, I was in the middle of a vacation.  Since then, I've been rather busy, but have been rewarded with a new career after a very long search.  There was also the matter of that pesky Hurricane Irene.  I hope you dear readers who had to put up with that storm came through unscathed.  Real-life terror is far more frightening than what we see played out in fiction.  

Let's move on with this edition of In The Helicopter...

*  In taking an unintentional break from horror, I'm thinking of including more genre films under the banner of this blog.  Hey, it's my baby, I can basically write about what I want, but horror will always be the core genre featured here.  We'll see how that goes, but I'll still stick with the easy-going, drama-free, and friendly tone I've always maintained.

*  Speaking of blogs, I've been tossing around the idea of starting a blog about another strong interest of mine, comic books.  I've been reading them since 1974 and while I realize there are a million comic blogs out there, I'd just want to write a few words about the medium in the same tone as this horror blog.  None of the poison, none of the bitter dismissal of The Simpsons' Comic Book Guy, just a guy who grew up loving the art form writing about it.  Again, we'll see what I do with that.

 The Anti-Monitor?  Do not want.

*  Earlier this evening, I went to see Apollo 18, directed by Gonzago Lopez-Gallego for his first English-language film and produced by Timur Bekmambetov (director of Wanted and Night Watch).  While presented as "found footage," I did recognize one of the actors as Lloyd Owen, who played chaste James in three episodes of one of my favorite British comedies, Coupling.  The film's pace didn't gel well with me, but the performances of the three leads as well as the bleak, claustrophobic feel made it a pretty good movie.  I felt it should have been a different kind of movie, maybe more terrifying - and it could have been done - but it wasn't all that bad in my opinion.  It also made me think of the mixing of horror and science-fiction, and why we don't see more of that out there.

*  I'm also thinking of writing some "horror primers."  The approach:  what if someone who has never seen horror films asks me "give me five good movies to watch and tell me why I should watch them"?  Taking it a step further, what if they want to know five good movies I'd recommend in any given subgenre, like zombie movies or ghost movies?  What I'd like to do is write short paragraphs about each film and why I think they're important to the genre.  Maybe, if I'm lucky enough, I could have some of my horror blog buddies write about what they would recommend for their primer.  Stay tuned.  It might be fun to write.

Well, that's all for now, dear readers.  Back to regular programming for the next blog, and until then, take care of yourselves and make sure your door is barricaded.

Monday, August 8, 2011

I Saw The Devil (2010) Blurring The Lines

When you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you. ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

That's the quote that kept running through my mind as I watched the profoundly disturbing, deeply stirring Korean film I Saw The Devil.  Those words sum up exactly what the film was about.  What makes a monster?  And do you have to become a monster to do battle with one?

Directed by Jee-woon Kim (A Tale of Two Sisters) and starring two brilliant actors in Choi Min-sik (Oldboy) and Lee Byung-hun (The Good, The Bad, The Weird), I Saw The Devil is the story of one man's angry descent into that abyss in order to do battle with a man already entrenched there.  These are two men who excel at what they do:  one, a good man and a secret agent of the country, and the other man, an experienced serial killer with practically no fear.  It takes an innocent woman's death to slam their worlds together and begin the downward spiral.

A young woman awaits help in her car one snowy night when she's approached by Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik), who offers to help her.  She refuses politely, but is brutally attacked anyway.  Kyung-chul takes her to his lair, where he systematically murders and dismembers her.  Her fiance, Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun), is devastated by her death and swears to hunt down the man responsible.  After viciously cutting a path through suspects, he finds clues that point directly at Kyung-chul, and the game, as they say, is afoot.  Soo-hyun thwarts Kyung-chul's attempt to make a young schoolgirl his next victim, beating the living hell out of him, then forcing him to swallow a transmitter.  In a compelling and strange journey, Kyung-chul sets out to get his wounds treated.  By "compelling and strange," I mean his odd and eventually violent taxi ride with two other insane gentlemen.  He threatens the doctor who treats him and begins assaulting the nurse, only to be interrupted by Soo-hyun, who leaves him with a severed Achilles tendon.

Kyung-chul holes up with a buddy from  his circle of psychotic murderers, a cannibal who lives with his complicit girlfriend.  Soo-hyun follows his prey to the house, where he engages in another insane battle with not one but all three nutjobs in the house.  All three are taken to the hospital, and it is here that Soo-hyun's overconfidence and rage - coupled with his underestimation of Kyung-chul's own craftiness - cause his own downward spiral.  The people around Soo-hyun, his friends and colleagues and his fiancee's grieving family, all warn him against pursuing Kyung-chul for reasons other than apprehending him.  And it is here in the hospital that Kyung-chul is given an opportunity to turn the tables on his vengeance-seeking hunter.  The battles of wills begins in earnest here, and never lets up until the undeniably sad conclusion...a battle and conclusion you really need to see for yourself, trust me on this.

The chemistry between Choi Min-sik and Lee Byung-hun is electric and dynamic.  Whether they're on-screen together or in separate scenes, their performances are like dances or a battle.  They're matched up perfectly as villain and hero, and as a duo whose methods become eerily similar.  Soo-hyun has looked in that abyss - a dark canyon in Kyung-chul - and it stared hard and defiant back at him.

Kyung-chul is no ordinary villain.  He is relentless, remorseless, cunning, and a force of nature.  And guess what?  Those exact traits can be applied to Soo-hyun, who is no ordinary hero.  Their motives are different, but both have become monsters.  Director Jee-woon Kim leads the two in a duel for the ages, down and dirty, gritty and bloody, framed with beautiful photography.  All the pieces just fit.

Two moments stick out in my mind as I write this.  Two character moments that simply summed up each man.  One, while Kyung-chul sits with his cannibalistic friend for dinner (during which he refuses to eat the "house special"), the friend cracks a joke about Kyung-chul, who quietly stares down his host.  The friend goes from "oh, come on, I'm just kidding" to fearful for his life to tearful relief.  Kyung-chul's unspoken reputation, which we already know is pretty sick, snowballs to frightening size.

The other moment belongs to Soo-hyun and it comes during the final shots of the film.  When the realization hits him regarding what he has done, how far he has gone to get it done, and the prices he has paid to get it's a punch in the gut to both him and the audience.  His cold, expert expression finally melts and he weeps uncontrollably in the middle of a street.  He knows what he's done and it's too late to go back.  Far too late.

As you may guess, I highly recommend I Saw The Devil.  If you have a weak stomach or have a low tolerance for cinematic brutality, you may want to steer clear.  But the violence isn't gratuitous.  It is an important key to the story.  It is about that abyss and its question to you:  "what would you do?"  It is disturbing and gritty and unflinching.  It is also compelling and exciting and a story very well-told.

Just be sure to remember Nietzsche's words...

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Rammbock: Berlin Undead (2010) Short Movie, Short Review

Clocking in at just over an hour, the German infection horror offering Rammbock: Berlin Undead offers some really good moments in what turned out to be a mostly decent little horror flick sponsored in the United States by the wonderful horror news website Bloody Disgusting.  It's a pretty straightforward story with basic undertones of longing and lingering loyalty.  No frills, as the story takes place in one location, an apartment building in Berlin that falls under attack by victims of a mysterious illness that causes them to become raving, mad-dashing, bitey zombie-ish thingies.

Milquetoast Michael is in Berlin to return keys to his very-recently-ex-girlfriend Gabi, who isn't home when he arrives.  He meets young plumber's assistant Harper just in time to witness the plumber working on Gabi's apartment turn into a frothing-at-the-mouth nutjob with milky eyes.  They get out of that situation, but quickly realize it's not just one rabid dude teeming with infection, but all of Berlin.  They hole up in Gabi's apartment, with Michael worrying about his ex - who hasn't returned his frantic phone calls - and Harper worrying about his family.  From the window, they watch as those in the courtyard are slaughtered, and meet other survivors through their own windows.  Michael sets about finding a way to a man's apartment after the man offers food in trade for some sedatives for his infected wife. This begins an odyssey through the next apartment and into the attic, where Michael finds one thing he's looking for, but it's not what he had hoped.  The rest of the movie is not only the struggle for survival, but Michael's own transformation from a relative wimp pining for his ex-girlfriend to a resourceful hero for those he meets on his journey to escape.  Not going to spoil it here for you, but the movie ends on a bittersweet note.

There's nothing fancy about Rammbock: Berlin Undead.  It tells its story, and tells it better than some vehicles for infection horror.  There's an air of urgency and hopelessness laced throughout, with signs of hope just enough to not make it a total downer.  As anyone who reads this knows, I liked to see the scale of devastation in these movies, even for a glimpse.  The scene where Michael casts his eyes on Berlin from a rooftop, as shown in the American movie poster, sums up the insane odds against anyone surviving the plague.  The infected - not sure if calling them undead is accurate, since we never really know if they die and come back - are of the fast-running, rabid variety, as seen in 28 Days Later and [REC], only with eyes that film over when infection fully occurs.  I found the characters intriguing from the main characters to the brother/sister across the way (a scene where she cries on the balcony is heartbreaking) to the silent tattooed man with what appears to be a bite on his arm.  The man who offered food and his infected wife have a particularly tragic scene.  While Rammbock didn't offer me anything new, it was tried and true, and sometimes that's just fine.

Honestly, it's not all that bad of a way to spend an hour if you're in the mood for some of your basic flash mob zombies.

Until next time, fellow more flights to Berlin for a while.  Let the infection blow over.  Here, enjoy the trailer:

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Insidious (2010) I Blinked And They Switched Movies

You know those dreams where in it, you're on a wild rollercoaster, twists and turns, dips and peaks, the best rollercoaster you've ever been on...and suddenly the dream switches, and you're in a bumper car far too small and you're the only one there not a unicorn driving the cars?

Or is that just me?

That's how I can describe my experience with 2010's Insidious, from the writer Leigh Wannell and director James Wan, the team that brought the world the very original Saw.  I was watching one movie when suddenly it switched to another, and I swear I only blinked.  The first three-fourths of the film was a creepy, atmospheric, and quite excellent haunting story built on the strong acting of Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson.  The last act was, for me anyway, like that unicorn bumper car dream.  It seemed somewhat related to the rest of the movie, but didn't seem to fit.  Suspense and tension seemed to give way to super-powers and demons from the fringe of Hell.  Don't get me wrong:  combining super-powers and demons would make for a sweet movie, but it didn't seem to gel here.  Take those two elements, make two films featuring those traits, and you've got the potential for two outstanding movies.  As it is, Insidious combined the two and made one mostly good movie, in my opinion.

Josh and Renai Lambert (Wilson and Byrne) have moved into a new house, when strange things begin to happen:  weird noises, their oldest son Dalton being afraid of things in the house, and so on.  Dalton falls off a ladder in the attic while exploring and encounters something frightening.  The next morning, he doesn't wake up and even the doctors are puzzled, as all his tests are normal.  He's in a coma, but not any coma they've ever seen.  Three months pass and mysterious events happen again, increasing in intensity until Renai has a horrifying encounter with what can only be described as a ghost.  She insists they move, and they do.  However, the bizarre spirits follow them.  This time, Josh's mom (Barbara Hershey) calls in an old psychic friend Elise (Lin Shaye) to help determine not only why this is happening, but how it relates to Dalton.  Turns out Dalton's got himself a little super-power:  the ability to project his astral self with ease, and he's been lured too far from his physical body, leaving it open for bidding amongst the restless spirits.  I won't spoil how the rest of the movie goes, as secrets are revealed and a showdown with those spirits takes place in a netherworld known as The Further.  Needless to say, it's an abrupt change from the rest of the film, the way I saw it.

Now before anyone assumes I thought the whole thing was a mess, let me say this:  overall, it was not a bad film.  The acting is very good and the chills through the wonderful first three-quarters of the movie are genuine and well-executed.  The clues leading to the climax were placed well, and we're given great examples of foreshadowing and flashback.  The score by Joseph Bishara consists of both traditional music and jarring noises that lend an unsettling air to the proceedings, and "unsettling" is a good thing to shoot for in this style of film.  I pay attention to how the titles look, and I loved the old-school lettering of the title card.

There were some moments that seemed borrowed or meant as a tribute to other movies, such as Poltergeist (which I'm sure the movie has been compared to, and that's not entirely fair to it) and The Haunting.  Something that struck me was the world of The Further.  I was often reminded of the bleak afterworld glimpsed at the end of Lucio Fulci's The Beyond (see my review of that film here), but with a little less light.  A character hurrying through The Further, lantern in hand, and seeing a house shrouded in pale light and fog reminded me a great deal of the video game series, Silent Hill.  These reminders may not have been intentional on the filmmakers' part, but I couldn't help seeing those other images in my mind as I watched.

Insidious was alright, and I urge people who have been wanting to see to go ahead and see it.  This is just one man's opinion, and really, I didn't hate it.  As I always say, judge for yourself.  Maybe you'll like it, maybe you'll hate it.  That's the beauty of individual tastes:  we all like things to different degrees, and it can make for healthy discussion.

Until next time, enjoy the trailer, and don't wander too far if you're good at astral projection.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Dance Of The Dead (2008) A Hell Of A Night

I remember prom.  It was the 80's, so those proms you see in "homage movies"?  Yeah, that wasn't my school.  That's not to say our prom wasn't bad.  It was fun for the most part.  I dressed in a white tux (that came with a swank cane), took a girl named Julie to dinner, then prom.  Nothing crazy, nothing wild.  Nobody threw up on the dance floor, nobody spiked the punch, and nobody was a reanimated corpse hungering for human flesh.

Yes, that is me.  Now BASK in the glory that was my nerd-before-nerd-was-cool 80's self.  At least the cane was swank.

That's essentially what happens in Ghost House Underground's Dance of the Dead, written by Joe Ballarini and directed by Gregg Bishop.  You've got your teen hormones, rivalries, drama, and a horde of undead firing out of the cemetery like rocks from a catapult.  It's a little movie with a modest budget and no "big-name" stars, but that doesn't take away from it in the slightest.  The cast more than holds their own in creating what is a very good zombie movie with healthy doses of comedy, adventure, and romance to round out the flavor.

In a cemetery near a nuclear power plant, the poor caretaker is apparently the only one that knows the radiation is causing the buried dead to come back to life.  He calmly goes about his day, cleaning headstones, trimming hedges, and making sure the dead stay in their coffins.  Meanwhile in the town of Cooas, the teen population is readying for the prom.  The characters go through an assortment of typical teen pre-prom excitement.  Troublemaker Jimmy (Jared Kusnitz) thinks everything is a joke which causes his sweet, prom committee girlfriend Lindsey (Greyson Chadwick) to dump him in favor of smarmy popular guy Mitch (Jeff Adelman).  Jimmy's buddy Stephen (Chandler Darby) aches over asking out cute cheerleader Gwen (Carissa Capobianco), whose date just canceled on her.  Gwen, although very sweet, has eyes for the high school rock star Nash (Blair Redford).  Thrown in the mix, but playing important parts, are adrenaline junkie/bully Kyle (Justin Welborn of The Signal) and the Sci-Fi club, led by John Heder lookalike Jules (Randy McDowell).  All the characters are in place thanks to some nudge-nudge-wink-wink 80's-style montage action and when the Sci-Fi Club heads to the cemetery for some exploring, the action begins.

The dead come to life and literally explode out of their coffins.  Interestingly, the speed of the undead seems to depend on how long they've been buried.  More ragged zombies move slowly, while "fresher" ones zip along with reckless abandon.  Not all of the Sci-Fi clubs make it, and Mitch - who just tried getting a little too forward with Lindsey - loses his head over the whole zombie-rising situation.  They make it to, of all places, a funeral home and hole up there.  While running from the undead, Jimmy meets up with Kyle - who has a gun - and Gwen, who is oblivious to the zombies as she's out for a run with her iPod.  They escape into the sewers after hearing from Lindsey and make their way to the funeral home.

After a battle in the home in which Kyle is killed, Gwen makes a daring run to retrieve the hearse and the gang escapes.  Running into the wild-eyed, militaristic gym teacher, Coach Keel (Mark Oliver), they load up on weapons and plan to rescue whoever is left at the prom.  They pick up Nash and his band along the way, gaining some important intel:  the zombies are affected by sound waves.  They stop and sway to music which provides a shade of hope to the little group of living rebels.

The school is overrun by the time they get there, so Keel goes through with a plan to blow up the school with all the undead in it.  The Sci-Fi Club and Gwen embark on a rescue mission while Jimmy and Lindsey undertake the mission of retrieving the explosives trigger that the Coach dropped in a bowl of potato chips.  Not everything goes as planned, and not everyone makes it out alive, but the school is destroyed while the dialogue afterwards sets up the possibility of a sequel.

Dance of the Dead really is a fun little movie.  It might not be the greatest zombie movie ever made, but it ranks pretty high on my own list.  The actors are having a blast and there's a definite nod to 80's-style teen comedies running through it.  Each character has a distinct personality and interacts well with the other characters in the story.  No one really clunks through a scene with a counterpart.  The movie moves along quickly and sharply, with the main emphasis being on the fun.  Yes, friends die and yes, the town is overrun by flesh-eating zombies, but as the viewer, relatively safe from the zombie plague in his or her home, is enjoying the ride.  There are some great scenes of comedy, especially when Kyle interacts with the "geeks" or dispatches zombies in his own Jackass-inspired way.  There are some heartfelt moments, such as when Jimmy comes into his own and the final fate of Gwen and Stephen (although you could include laughs and gore with their final scene, too).  Whether or not Dance of the Dead is your bag, take a look and judge for yourself.  Personally, I did have fun both times I've seen it, and I'd see it again.

Next time you have a rough night out or lament having a "lame" prom when you were younger, just be glad there wasn't a zombie apocalypse in progress.

Or was there?

Now go on, enjoy the trailer:

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):