Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Loved Ones (2009) Proms Sure Have Changed

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.

I'm not going to go any further with the synopsis because it's really something you'd need to see for yourself.  It's a high-energy downward spiral with incredible acting, a crackling script, and directing that keeps everything going non-stop start to finish.  Byrne has set the bar high for himself, and the acting from Samuel, McLeavy, and John Brumpton (the father) is top-of-the-line.  I don't recall ever cheering so much for a protagonist to escape his predicament like I did for Samuel's Brent.  I mean, escape becomes increasingly impossible as Lola and her pops get increasingly brutal.  McLeavy plays crazy so well, and Samuel does an excellent job with no words for the entire ordeal.

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

Vampires (2010) They Can Be Dysfunctional, Too

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

V/H/S (2012) Modern Campfire Stories

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 never know what you'll see.

Until you do, here's the trailer for V/H/S:

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Kill List (2011) All Kinds Of Crazy

Say you have a job.  You're pretty good at it.  One day, however, there's an incident.  You mess up and get taken down a few pegs.  You move on.  You're not entirely happy, but you move on.  Then someone comes along and wants you to do your old job again, but won't tell you much about it.  You know the money's good but the instructions are weird.  If they ask you to sign in blood, you better start checking your house for weird symbols scratched behind mirrors because things are about to get funky.

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

Exit 7A (2012) Short Film, Sweet Twist

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.

Based on a short story by Asher Ellis, Peters presents the story of good-guy Paul (Ben Watts), on his way to a family gathering one winter day.  Harry (Michael Mooney) calls to tell Paul to get his butt in gear because he's off to work, and the relatives are "restless," especially Uncle Frank, who's not feeling too well.  Paul assures Harry he'll be there, but is distracted by a beautiful and mysterious hitchhiker (Angela Borrello).  Taking the winter air into consideration, as well as his own curiosity, Paul decides to give her a ride.  She's guarded, reserved, and haunting with her hypnotizing blue eyes.  She does, however, let Paul know his intentions:  she's planning on killing someone off of Exit 7A, and wonders just what Paul might do to stop her.

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.