Friday, April 27, 2012

Absentia (2011) Avoiding Tunnels Now

 Oh, those thin little pedestrian tunnels.

Took this picture back in Traverse City, Michigan.  I did not disappear when I walked through it.  That time, anyway.
Not those nice, spacious traffic tunnels that are so safe...oh, wait.  There was that scene in 28 Days Later. Hm.  Well, anyway, the claustrophobic elements of the pedestrian tunnels make them a tad more unnerving.  Add to that a history of Lovecraft-esque colonies of creatures lurking in the walls of the tunnel - and reality - and you have a combination that will make you not want to enter one, day or night, muggers be damned.  This is the scenario presented by writer/director Mike Flanagan in his small but moody film, Absentia.

The winner of a number of film festival awards in 2011, Absentia operates on a small budget with an enormous amount of spirit and atmosphere.  Special effects are minimal, and yet that minimalism only adds to the bigger picture.  I invoked the name Lovecraft earlier.  H. P. Lovecraft penned chilling stories where the ghastly, mind-destroying creatures on the edges of reality weren't revealed in full.  It was the idea of their existence that was terrifying.  We never see a full-on shot of what lies underneath reality in Absentia, but your imagination can fill it in.

Tricia (Courtney Bell) is at a crossroads.  She has moved on in her life after the disappearance of her husband, dating a police detective (Dave Levine) and carrying his child.  Yet she still posts notices right up until she finally decides to have her missing hubby declared "dead in absentia."  Her sister, Callie (Katie Parker), a struggling drug addict and free spirit, arrives to provide moral support.  Tricia begins seeing disturbing apparitions of the missing Daniel (Morgan Peter Brown) while Callie finds herself trying to help an apparently homeless and very frightened man (Doug Jones) in a pedestrian tunnel near Tricia's house.  Things get weirder, especially when Daniel shows up, looking tortured and nearly catatonic.  Where he's been is a mystery, and that unravels as the movie builds towards its inevitable, sad conclusion which I won't spoil here.

You're only given a glimpse of what Daniel has been through, and like a Lovecraft story, the idea of it is scarier than actually seeing it.  Besides the creepiness of the atmosphere surrounding that ominous tunnel, what struck me most was the stellar acting by the two leads, Bell and Parker.  Their scenes together are seamless - you really believe they're sisters.  Individually, their performances are natural and utterly believable.  While Levine, Brown, and the always-a-standout Jones turn in fine performances, it's the team of Bell and Parker that really draw the viewer in.  They don't seem like actors playing a part - they seem real.

Absentia is a small film but is making big waves.  If you want some low-key creepiness chilling you as you ponder what moves beyond the veil of the barely-hanging-on reality around us...yeah, you'll want to avoid pedestrian tunnels after you watch it.

Until next time, dear readers, here's the trailer:

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Cabin In The Woods (2012) Can't Even Begin To Tell You

You ever have this happen?  A friend says, "Hey, let's go to this little party at this place I know."  You agree.  Sounds like it might be fun, little party with some low-key people who are wonderful hosts.  Maybe a game of Pictionary. You get there, and it's all-out, record-breaking, lampshade-wearing, fireball-spitting mayhem and you look at your friend and laugh out over the blaring Motorhead, "OH MY GOD WHAT IS HAPPENING?"  And you're loving every minute of it.

That party is The Cabin In The Woods.

Written by Drew Goddard and producer Joss Whedon, and directed by Goddard, is this film that takes a genre and its modern tropes, and turns it on its ear.  Not out of spite, mind you, but out of respect.  When you see it, and you step back and take a look at the big picture - and I mean really step back so you can consider everything - you can easily see what it's really about.  And it is good.

I honestly can't even get too far into the plot without giving anything away.  Seriously.  It's a wild, wacky story.  I can tell you this much:  five college kids head to the titular cabin in the woods for a weekend of revelry.  You've got your sweet smart girl (Kristen Connelly), your smart guy (Jesse Williams), your jock (Chris Hemsworth of Thor), your party girl (Anna Hutchinson), and your stoner (Fran Kranz).  You know, the "usual" tropes.  Or are they?  Things get weird, but in many, many more ways than one.  To tell you any more than that would be spoiling it, and the movie's still too fresh.  You need to discover its secrets on your own.

While the film centers on the horror genre, there are plenty of laughs to go around.  Kranz as the perpetually high Marty gets the lion's share of those moments, but there are definitely others.  And wow, that third act is incredibly, utterly insane.  So much wonderful mayhem.

Like that party you went to.

As of this writing, The Cabin In The Woods is playing in theaters everywhere, having just opened a few days ago.  It's not what you might think.  It's even more fun.  There's a bit of a message if you know where to look but you might be having too much of a blast watching what's happening on the screen.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Hell of the Living Dead (1980) A Nostalgic Mess

Hell of the Living Dead.

Night of The Zombies.


Zombie Inferno.

Zombi 4.

These are just some of the titles this wild mess has gone under, like a sneaky con-man sliding from alias to alias.  I can almost envision this movie sitting in a dark corner, cackling over its latest grift, looking all disheveled and wild-eyed.  It not only lifted things like incidental music - which I'll get to later - and documentary footage, but it may also steal your soul.

And yet there's an odd, nostalgic feeling to this strange movie.  As funny-awful as this movie is, there is a sense of carefree abandon about the experience.  At the time, it was certainly the goriest picture I had ever seen in my then-sixteen years.  My summers in the 80's were usually pretty fun and free-wheeling, what with no Internet and massive video games to keep me inside all the time.  Time spent indoors was either with reading, watching baseball, or watching movies I rented or borrowed.  I can remember friends of mine lending Hell of the Living Dead to me in 1984, recorded on VHS off of a movie channel which I couldn't get living in the woods.  I recall thinking to myself that I was ever quizzed on what the plot was, I'd be stumped.  But one could get extra credit in the "gratuitous cheesy gore" section of the test.

Ah, enough metaphors.

You want to know a clue that this movie is up to something?  It's co-written and co-directed by Claudio Fragasso.  You may remember him from my reviews of Troll 2 and Best Worst Movie as the director and co-writer of that vegetarian goblin cult classic.  When you see Troll 2 and you listen to his rants in Best Worst Movie, then things fall into place about Hell of the Living Dead.  It all makes sense.  Well, sort of.

Rrrrgh - I want my ICE CREAM!

Hell of the Living Dead seemed doomed from the start.  Like now, zombies were a hot commodity back in the 70's, with George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead (released as Zombi in Italy under Dario Argento) and Lucio Fulci's Zombi 2 splattering screens in the latter part of that decade.  Italy became a breeding ground for quick, inexpensive zombie flicks, and Hell of the Living Dead was barely given a budget.  Not to mention, much of the footage shot by director Bruno Mattei (credited as Vincent Dawn) was apparently not up to snuff, so they pieced together a mish-mash of already-shot footage and clips from a documentary about native rituals.  Then there's the issue with the music.  When you pop in Hell of the Living Dead, you may see that the soundtrack is by none other than Goblin, the same group that provided the now-legendary score to the original Dawn of the Dead.  After a few minutes, you'll soon realize that not only is Goblin doing the's the exact same soundtrack as Dawn of the Dead.  They didn't even bother to get new music.  Hell, Goblin apparently didn't even allow it, but hey, what's a little legal trouble to a juggernaut like this movie?

Despite what I said before, there is a plot.  An accident at a chemical plant in New Guinea lets loose a contagion that causes living things to become sadistic, flesh-eating automatons.  It also causes their faces to take on a weird shade, but that's neither here nor there.  After foiling a terrorist takeover of an embassy, a crack military unit is sent to New Guinea to find out why communications with the chemical plant have been lost.  The unit is comprised of stock characters:  the hunky hero guy, the almost-hunky guy, the crazy guy, and the goofy guy.  They meet up in a seemingly-abandoned settlement with some people trying to escape the land:  the half-tough/half-screamy woman reporter, her half-brave/half-nauseous cameraman, and a family of three with a sick child.  The settlement is a wash, as the family is slaughtered by an infected priest and their now-bitey child.  The other six take off further into the jungle, offering the reporter an excuse to suddenly remove her shirt and claim she can communicate with the indigenous people.  The dead rise at the village, so the crew must bug out again, finally stopping at a plantation in the middle of nowhere.

Why, oh, why did I wander near a window?

The plantation offers very little in the way of answers, but a whole lot in the way of infected, gore-hungry former residents.  The team's Goofy Guy is killed - wearing a dress, no less - and the team fights their way out, finally heading for the chemical plant.  Once there, they discover that the chemical was meant to be used as Third World population control, but it got out of hand.  Cameraman, Almost-Hunky Guy, and Crazy Guy are all killed before Reporter Girl and Hunky Guy meet their grisly fate in the bowels of the plant.  The epilogue shows a young couple on the toothy end of some zombies in a metropolitan city.  Dun-dun-DUUUN!

Wow, what a journey.

The expression that says, "Dude, I told you."

Let's see:  the acting is fairly average to over-the-top, thanks to the Crazy Guy.  The dubbing is tremendously awful, and the movie is such a scattershot affair that your brain will stop trying to figure it out after about ten minutes.  Possibly sooner than that.  There are plenty of chuckles and winces whenever you see the gore, and there is a lot of it.  Lacking the gritty realism of Tom Savini's special effects work, it appears as though they effects team had a ton of raw meat and, by the power of Greyskull, they were going to use it.  The ending gore is so blatantly insane, it's laughable yet memorable.  Tongue!  Eyes!  Everything!

I also love the lack of basic reasoning that takes place in the film.  Once the team figures out that to stop the creatures, they must be shot in the head, they continue to waste ammo by spraying them in every area below the head.  "They just won't stop!"

Hell of the Living Dead is just not a good movie.  And yet, somehow I've seen it four or five times.  It's like I forget how painful it is, rent it, and say to myself, "oh, yeah, now I remember."  A cult film?  One could argue that it is.  There are plenty of people who do like it.  I'm nostalgic about how I first saw it - that lazy, sunny summer day back in '84 - but beyond that, I don't think I could ever own it, ever see it being the beloved center of attention like Troll 2.

If you don't mind a meandering film with plot holes the size of Florida sinkholes that's worthy of a Mystery Science Theater 3000 or RiffTrax treatment, this is your film.  Don't take it seriously, and you may be able to have some fun with it.  It will never go down as a serious classic of the genre, yet it somehow gets noticed.  In a roundabout way, it did that one thing - getting noticed - right.

Until next time, dear readers, beware of chemical leaks. They might cause bad movies.