Monday, November 3, 2014

Killers in the House

You're Next (2011)

What It's About: The Davisons are a big, screwed-up family gathered together for a wedding-anniversary celebration. Naturally, this means some of them are at each other's throats, while others are bringing new faces into the fold, such as Crispin's girlfriend Erin. What the family doesn't know is that they're being watched by a group of animal-masked killers who have already murdered the neighbors and are now preparing to close in on the Davisons' sprawling manor house and turn their reunion into a bloodbath, working their way through the ranks of the clan one at a time, with no phones, no cars and no one nearby to hear them scream for help.

Why You Should Watch It: Well, that's the setup, anyway. Like The Cabin in the Woods, You're Next is a post-Scream movie. It just tackles the "how and why" of the slasher genre from a different angle. In this case, nothing goes right for the killers. This is partly because they're just as human as the people they're trying to murder. The typical "scourge of God" moral pecking order you see in slasher movies means nothing, as they're in it for money, not to punish people for smoking pot or having sex. They indulge in sadistic games. The lack of cell phone reception and the cars that just don't seem to start when you need them to are justified here, as the killers have a signal jammer and sabotaged the vehicles. They have trouble killing a few people, as the human body isn't half as flimsy as is often depicted in horror movies. And they make mistakes. One of the biggest is limiting their field of vision by wearing those creepy masks, which proves fatal in one case.

The other is their failure to account for the fact that quiet, mousy Erin was raised by a crazy survivalist in the Australian outback.

As things go increasingly off the rails for the slashers, they find themselves on the opposite end of the knife (and ax, and crossbow), and by the end of the movie, they're the ones running and hiding from Erin as she sets deadly traps and uses their own weapons against them. Killer and victim switch positions with increasing frequency throughout, and it's unclear who the most frightening person in the movie really is. This is the part that the trailer below doesn't really advertise, and the movie might have done a bit better if it had been marketed as what it is -- horror on the surface, dark comedy lurking just underneath, with Erin and the masked men tearing the "Slasher and Final Girl" dynamic limb from limb.

The dialogue is snappy and the characters likable, so the first twenty minutes or so we spend before the assault begins don't drag or overstay their welcome. Writer-director team Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett have done some fun work lately in the VHS movies, which I'll get around to on here at some point. You're Next may have been a little mismarketed, but it's worth the watch if you have a strong stomach. (Wingard and Barrett's work tends to be pretty damn gory.)

Trivia: Tariq, the killers' first victim, is played by Ti West in a cameo. West is the writer/director of The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers and The Sacrament, all of which I'll review on this blog sooner or later.

Available On: Netflix, Amazon Prime Video.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Am I On Speakerphone?

The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

Note: The Cabin in the Woods is an exceedingly hard movie to review without giving away everything that makes it worth watching. If you haven't seen it, it's best if you know nothing about it. Spoilers follow this section.

What It's About: The Cabin in the Woods is a horror movie. A group of college kids decide to spend the weekend at a cousin's remote mountain cabin. Drinking, sex, all that stuff that gets you killed in horror movies. You pretty much know the characters by now. The asshole jock, the stoner, the hot nerd, the dumb blonde, the one girl who's generally wholesome and, of course, happens to be a virgin. Ignoring the ominous warnings of a creepy old gas station attendant, the five proceed as planned and, by coincidence, discover an old diary in the cabin's junk-filled basement, detailing the exploits of the depraved Buckner family -- residents of the cabin in the late 1800s. After reading some mysterious Latin phrases scrawled in the back of the diary, the friends unknowingly resurrect the Buckners, who attack the cabin and start picking off our heroes one by one.

There are no surprises here.


Beware spoilers below.

What It's Really About: The Cabin in the Woods is a horror movie. A group of college kids decide to spend the weekend at a cousin's remote mountain cabin. Drinking, sex, all that stuff that gets you killed in horror movies. You think you pretty much know the characters by now, but you don't. The jock is a friendly, funny sociology major. The nerd is also a star college football player. The dumb blonde is neither dumb nor naturally blonde. In other words, they're ordinary people with their own quirks, flaws and interests. And they are all, unknowingly, part of a larger operation run from behind the scenes by a mysterious organization whose purpose remains unknown until the end -- whose members are also quite likable, ordinary and, especially in the case of Hadley and Sitterson, the two we see the most of, funny. They're workaday office stiffs and technicians (you know, like the people who make horror movies).

Every cliche, every poor decision is enforced through lockdown procedures, subliminal hints, careful monitoring and mind-altering chemical mists. Even the undead Buckners are resurrected purely by chance. It could just as easily have been demons. Or a killer robot. Or a ghost, or mutants, or an alien creature. Everything is accounted for, catalogued, contained and followed to the letter, but even then, one can't always account for every variable, and the kids have reason enough early on to suspect that something's up when they discover a one-way mirror in one of the bedrooms. They're part of what amounts to an annual human sacrifice, reduced to meetings, paperwork and standard operating procedure. The organization exists, as it turns out, to appease the Ancient Ones, Lovecraftian elder gods who demand a yearly sacrifice of standardized archetypes, according to a specific and unchanging formula (you know, like...well, like you, us, the people who watch horror movies).

As it turns out, Curt doesn't even have a cousin, let alone one who owns a cabin in the woods. It's the opposite of Scooby-Doo. It is all manufactured -- everything except the monsters.

Why You Should Watch It: The Cabin in the Woods is a horror movie -- sort of. It might be better classified as a very gory, superficially scary comedy about horror movies, and it was probably the best film of 2012. It was co-written by Joss Whedon and frequent collaborator Drew Goddard following a discussion in which the two of them lamented the current state of horror in film -- namely the proliferation of torture porn following the success of the first Saw movie (which is a weird cultural phenomenon, because Saw was neither gory nor, strictly speaking, torture porn at all, as the series started as a sort of gimmick-based serial-killer movie along the lines of Seven; The Passion of the Christ is more torture porn than the first two Saw movies). The Cabin in the Woods is described by Whedon as a loving hate-letter to the older horror movies he and Goddard grew up watching. An examination, dissection and critique of all the well-worn elements of the genre that have been pushed aside now that people would rather see someone tortured to death for an hour and a half.

It's a little like Alan Moore's Supreme, in that regard. Supreme was a comic about the history of comics, and it really didn't have much appeal for anyone who hadn't been reading comics for a while. The Cabin in the Woods isn't quite so dependent on prior knowledge of the medium or the genre, but its gags and references run from the obvious (pointing out that is seriously makes no sense at all to think that the wind blew open a trap door in the cabin's living room) to the obscure (the fact that said trap-door scene is a nearly shot-for-shot homage to a scene in Sam Raimi's Evil Dead).

It's kind of post-postmodernist, and in many ways, intentionally or otherwise, seems more an answer to the postmodernism of Wes Craven's Scream, which Craven intended to kill the slasher genre once and for all but succeeded only in a popularizing an overabundance of slightly-more-self-aware-than-usual slasher movies for the next decade or so (which, as killing goes, is kind of like aiming for the other guy's head and shooting yourself in the foot instead), than anything else. If Scream was a horror movie made in response to twenty years of Friday the 13th, The Cabin in the Woods is the answer to fifteen years of Scream. While Scream points out its formula, the formula still stands on its own; it's merely joked about in the process. The Cabin in the Woods' characters are smarter than the average horror protagonist, and while they know something's wrong and try everything they can to remove themselves from the game, the cards are simply stacked against them.

It's also extremely funny. I'm not much of a comedy guy, but it's one of the few movies to make me laugh out loud in a long while. Whedon and Goddard's dialogue is witty, the characters -- even the "evil" ones -- are all likable, and even someone who doesn't enjoy horror movies can appreciate a guy getting killed by a unicorn.

"I just think it would have been cooler with a merman."

Trivia: Madea's Witness Protection has a higher rating than this movie on Amazon Prime Video. Maybe Marty made the right choice in the end after all.

Available On: Netflix, Amazon Prime.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Grave Encounters

Grave Encounters (2011)

What It's About: Some years ago, the crew of the ghost-hunting reality series "Ghost Adventures" "Grave Encounters" vanished while investigating the supposedly haunted Waverly Hills Sanitorium Collingwood Psychiatric Institute. The show's producer eventually decides to make public the footage left behind by Zak Bagans Lance Preston and his group of technicians, cameramen and psychics. (Everybody got killed by ghosts in the asylum.)

"Prepare to have...some Grave Encounters!"

Why You Should Watch It: As a rule, I'm not too fond of found-footage horror movies. On one hand, they're cheap to make and provide an opportunity for skilled amateur filmmakers to break into the business. On the other, they're cheap to make and provide an opportunity for talentless amateur filmmakers to produce poorly-acted, badly-written Blair Witch Project ripoffs that would otherwise have gone unmade. Most found-footage horror defies all common sense. Sure, the characters all act like complete morons, but that's more or less to be expected, because most horror movies would be over in about five minutes if they didn't. What bothers me is that the subgenre is limited by its very format, and characters who should be dropping their cameras and running stubbornly hold onto them up until the very moment they're abducted by aliens or hacked up by a murderer.

So I was fairly surprised at how much I liked Grave Encounters. First of all, it has a pretext for its camera format. Sean Rogerson does a pretty much pitch-perfect Zak Bagans impression as the leader of the "Grave Encounters" crew. The ghosts are actually pretty scary, with their gaping, too-wide mouths and dead white eyes, and they're not so overused that they outstay their welcome. There's also an enjoyable Silent Hill-ness to the whole thing with the asylum shifting its layout into an endless labyrinth of decrepit corridors, random bathtubs of blood and a night that extends on well past the planned twelve-hour lock-in. It's a fun, well-made Halloween-season movie, if not much more.

(Don't bother with the second one, by the way. They do that stupid Blair Witch Project 2 thing, where the first movie was a movie and the sequel is about a film crew going to investigate the disappearance of the people who made the first movie. It's a dumb gimmick that's never worked and likely never will, and makes the original movie lesser in context as it's suddenly an in-universe fictional document.)

Available On: Netflix, Amazon Prime.

Monday, October 6, 2014


Ravenous (1999)

What It’s About: 2nd Lieutenant Boyd is a coward. He knows it, everyone else knows it, and he still gets a medal pinned on him for his “heroic” actions during the Mexican-American war of 1846-1848. After his commanding officer is killed right in front of him, Boyd decides to play possum and winds up tossed in a cart with the rest of the dead. Blood drips into his mouth, and a sudden adrenaline rush enables him to sneak into the enemy headquarters and capture it single-handedly. This, of course, does not absolve him of his initial cowardice, and he and his shiny new medal are reassigned to distant Fort Spencer.

Everyone else is there under similar circumstances, and as such, they’re kind of a useless bunch of people. They just sort of sit around, eat, talk and get stoned, because there’s fuck-all else to do in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Before long an unhinged stranger named Colqhoun stumbles into camp, claiming to be the survivor of a lost wagon train whose scout, Colonel Ives, deliberately led the wagons along a winding route and eventually encouraged the party to engage in cannibalism when the food ran out. Organizing a rescue party, Fort Spencer’s commanding officer, Colonel Hart, Boyd and the others follow Colqhoun out to the location of the stranded wagon train, only to find that they’ve walked right into a trap. And that’s only the first act.

Why You Should Watch It: Ravenous is a very weird little horror-comedy about wendigos, cannibalism and Manifest Destiny, directed by the late Antonia Bird (who’s probably much better known for 1994’s Priest) and starring Guy Pearce, the always-entertaining Robert Carlyle (who I really hope people are able to associate with something other than his turn as Rumpelstiltskin on Once Upon a Time) and Tim Burton mainstay Jeffrey Jones. It came out in 1999, right in the middle of my college career, and flopped pretty hard; it was not, for its time, an expensive movie to make, but it still only recuperated a quarter of its budget. And I can honestly see why it didn’t do well, which is sad because it really isn’t a bad movie at all, just a strange one that had essentially zero mainstream audience appeal, was shown in a very small number of theaters and was terribly mismarketed by Fox -- though it’s since become well-liked as a minor cult classic. The atmosphere is bleak and oppressive, reflecting what actually was a difficult shoot that only grew more troublesome over time due in part to uncooperative weather.

From the start, it’s clear that Ravenous is not meant to be taken entirely seriously. It’s a cannibal horror movie played mostly straight, but it maintains a distinct thread of very dark comedy throughout. From the opening quotes to the first murder scene -- which plays out more like a chase on Benny Hill than anything else, complete with banjo music, yodeling and a near-slapstick leap off a cliff -- it’s laced with satire and a morbid humor regarding the shrinking American frontier and the kind of people who are pushing it back.

There’s a point where Martha, the fort’s Native American medic and general chore-accomplisher, tells Boyd more about the Wendigo myth -- something he’d heard the basics of from George, the other Native American living at Fort Spencer (a scout who mostly spends his time smoking pot with his buddy, “the over-medicated Private Cleaves,” in a nice aversion of the old “Mystical Indian” stereotype). “The Wendigo only takes, and takes, and takes,” Martha tells him. “Never gives.” And it must keep killing to sustain its life; killing is an addiction in service to the beast’s hunger. It’s a statement that’s also clearly intended to apply to Western expansion as much as to the cannibal threat of Colonel Ives, who discusses Manifest Destiny more directly with Boyd in a later scene. American expansionism as a force both consumptive of everything in its path and, obviously, of itself.

“Now isn’t this civilized?” one character remarks as he sits down to eat some human stew.

Available On: Netflix, Amazon Prime.

New Feature Time! (Because I felt like adding a new feature.)

Trivia: The soundtrack was co-composed by Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz.

I’m not posting the trailer for once, because it spoils literally every single twist in the film. You’re better off watching the movie without it.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

State of Emergency

State of Emergency (2011)

What It's About: I really haven't reviewed a zombie movie yet, unless you count Messiah of Evil, which is probably too weird to actually classify as such. State of Emergency is as basic a zombie movie as it gets, though it goes with the "fast, technically-living zombie" popularized by Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later. Here we have our protagonist Jim and his fiancee Emilie stranded on a farm in Montgomery County (not too far off from where I used to live, and it certainly looks like PA, so it was probably actually filmed in Montgomery County) after sirens and neighbors behaving strangely inspire them to hop in the car and skip town for a while, which works fine until the car flips over. Emilie dies in the first couple of scenes, since she took a fatal wound during the crash, and Jim holes up with his sniper rifle to wait out whatever's going on.

The government has declared -- wait for it -- a state of emergency, and a zombie attack leaves Jim pretty well aware of what kind of emergency. He's contacted before long by a group hiding out in the warehouse just across the field. (It's a pretty big tobacco farm, so it's still part of the same property.) Jim makes it over to the warehouse and joins up with the other group -- Scott, his wife Julie, and the bafflingly named Ix, a woman they found hiding in a storm drain. The rest is pretty standard. Zombies wandering the countryside, news of military intervention, etc.

Why You Should Watch It: I'm not totally sure why I like this movie, but I do. I guess you could say it's a low-budget version of The Crazies, but it kind of stands out in a couple of ways. Part of it is that things happen pretty much as I would expect if you're stuck in Montgomery County farmland during the zombie apocalypse. It turns out rural zombie invasions are really boring. Everyone just sits around and talks. Sometimes they go up on the roof, and hey, there' zombie over there in the cornfield. Shoot him? Nah, he's just standing there too. Sometimes an oversight or a medical necessity results in a dangerous situation, but for the most part, not much happens. Oddly enough, I kind of like that. The poster above is not representative of the film. That city in the background? Not in the movie. The overturned car? Also not in the movie -- well, it is, but Jim never stands on it and shoots a bunch of zombies, because that zombie horde is also not in the movie. There are about ten zombies in the entire movie. Not even ten at once, just ten total.

The acting is fairly wooden and the dialogue is sort of boring small talk most of the time. Sure sounds like there's a storm brewing. Yeah, probably gonna rain soon. We'd better get inside. Yeah. (That's not actually from the movie, but you get the idea.) I still can't bring myself to dislike it, because there's something endearingly genuine about the whole thing. The characters are somehow convincing in spite of themselves. It's not a cynical movie, people don't swear every other word, they just hang out on a farm during the most laid-back zombie apocalypse ever. What I like most about this movie is really the ending, because it goes so thoroughly against the grain that it took me entirely off guard. If you're going to watch the movie, don't read the next paragraph, because it'll spoil things for you.

So, about the end of this movie. You know how every zombie movie ever ends. The group fractures from within as interpersonal tensions rise and supplies dwindle. Stupid decisions get people killed, and just when the last few members of the group think they've escaped, the military shows up to shoot all the survivors and cover up the evidence. The plague spreads with no end in sight. It's frankly tiresome. People who make horror movies seem to accept this unspoken rule that the movie must end on the worst note possible for everyone involved, even when it makes no sense, because hey, that's just how horror movies end. So I was pleasantly surprised when State of Emergency defied the precedent set by nearly every zombie movie since Night of the Living Dead. Jim and Scott fight once or twice, but the group never falls apart. Ix turns out to be diabetic...but Jim gets some insulin from a supply drop in time to save her. No one dies. And when the military shows up at the end, there's a bit of a fake-out where you think they're engaged in the usual coverup...but it turns out they shot Jim with a tranquilizer dart. They're there to help, the guy in charge apologizes to Jim for everything he's gone through and offers any assistance he can provide, and it even looks as if the army has the zombie invasion well in hand, because it wasn't worldwide after all, just the result of faulty equipment at a local chemical plant. To top it all off, Jim, who has apparently always been sort of an unhappy loner apart from Emilie, is reunited with Scott, Julie and Ix, and it's clear that he now considers them close friends.

This is my favorite zombie movie ending in quite a while, simply because it's uncharacteristically happy for the genre. I didn't think there was such a thing as a feel-good zombie movie, but if there is, this is it, and it's worth checking out on principle despite its individual elements being somewhat weak.

Available On: Netflix.

Sunday, September 21, 2014


Hellraiser (1987)

What It's About: Hellraiser, adapted by Clive Barker from his novella "The Hellbound Heart," is a movie about a man who's worse than the monsters. Frank Cotton vanishes without a trace after purchasing an antique puzzle box that the seller promises will push him past the most extreme edges of pleasure and pain. To call Frank a sadomasochist would be putting it too lightly. Later, Frank's brother Larry (played by plain, simple Garak from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) moves into his now-vacant house with his second wife, Julia, who had been having an affair with Frank. Larry's daughter Kirsty and Julia pretty much hate each other, so she moves into her own place. Larry cuts himself on a nail as he's moving a bed into the attic, and his blood provides a conduit through which Frank is reborn, skeleton and brainstem first, as a sort of horrifying skinless version of himself. Julia finds him, and since she's also awful, she makes out with Skinless Frank. The two of them set about luring local men to the house and murdering them in the attic so he can steal their flesh and turn back into Non-Skinless Frank, all unbeknownst to poor oblivious Larry.


It turns out Frank solved the puzzle box and was dragged off to hell, or at the very least another dimension that might as well be hell, and he's now living on borrowed time as the Cenobites -- agents of the underworld summoned by the box -- aren't all that happy about his escape. Frank wants to get his skin back so he can run off with Julia before they find him. Good thing the box ends up in Kirsty's possession....

Why You Should Watch It: Hellraiser and Phantasm are my two favorite 1980s horror franchises, and since Netflix no longer has Phantasm available for streaming, I might as well review Hellraiser. Both of those series were advertised in the same breath, and in much the same way, as other gory movies of the decade, like Friday the 13th or A Nightmare on Elm Street, despite being much weirder, much smarter and a lot more interesting and imaginative.

Hellraiser isn't half as weird as Phantasm, but it is a neat study in monsters. The Cenobites, when they finally show up in all their leather-clad extreme-BDSM glory, are clearly the movie's demonic antagonists. They certainly look the part. The thing that makes them so interesting is that...they're not. Frank -- human Frank -- is the real villain, and the Cenobites are merely an interested third party, willing to make a deal with Kirsty in order to recapture her evil uncle.

We'll tear your soul...APAAAAAAAAHHT.

This is why the first two movies are really the only ones worth watching. After that, the Cenobites are basically the main bad guys, and making them the garden-variety-evil central antagonists makes them much less interesting. As their leader (listed in the first film as "Lead Cenobite," with the famous Pinhead moniker being a fan nickname that Clive Barker disliked because it made him sound like an idiot) says, they might be demons or angels, depending on your perspective. Sure, they want to rip off your skin with hooked chains and make a jigsaw puzzle out of your face...but they're pretty sure you'll enjoy it, once you've come around to their way of thinking.

Clive Barker's kind of a strange author. I'm rarely in the mood for his books or movies, but they are absolutely unique, and they have a certain undeniable imaginative quality to them, and he often juxtaposes moments of beauty and genuine emotion against the most horrifying violence and torment. In a way, this makes his work more effective. It makes you feel as if you've earned the peaceful bits of humanity because they've been so deeply submerged in grime. Watching Hellraiser, or reading Barker's novels, is like sticking your arms up to the shoulder in a tar pit and fishing out diamonds. It's also essential viewing if you really want to know what horror is all about and why it can be as fascinating and multifaceted as any of the more "respectable" film genres, or if you're looking to educate yourself in the history of horror cinema.


Available On: Netflix, Amazon Prime.

Sunday, September 14, 2014


Re-Animator (1985)

What It's About: Herbert West is a medical student at Miskatonic University with an obsession: he wants nothing more or less than to conquer death itself. Under the tutelage of the brilliant German scientist Dr. Gruber, West has devised a serum (glowing green, of course) that will reanimate the dead...but the formula isn't quite perfected yet, and it tends to turn corpses into vicious snarling zombies with little to no mental faculties. Fellow Miskatonic U student Dan Cain rents West an apartment, and before long the two of them start collaborating on the quest to finish West's research. Naturally, things don't go as planned. As the oddly cheerful trailer voice-over says, "Once you wake up the dead, you've got a real mess on your hands!"

Why You Should Watch It: H.P. Lovecraft is, as anyone who knows me can tell you, is one of my favorite authors. His short story "Herbert West - Reanimator" is one of his oddest works, and his poorest if you accept the opinion of various Lovecraft scholars. Lovecraft himself was unhappy with it, as it deviated so greatly from his usual style. It was gory exploitation piece, a satirical take on Frankenstein serialized in six parts, each ending on a cliffhanger, and was actually the first Lovecraft story to mention Miskatonic University by name.

In that regard, Re-Animator -- a gory, exploitative horror-comedy -- always seemed to me one of the most faithful adaptations of Lovecraft's work, and it's one of the great cult classics from the 1980s. The movie made quite a few careers, most notably those of director Stuart Gordon and a young Jeffrey Combs, who would collaborate on future Lovecraft adaptations such as Re-Animator's spiritual successor, From Beyond. Gordon seems like the only director other than Guillermo del Toro who actually gets Lovecraft and makes movies based on his stuff out of love for the work instead of a quick paycheck, even if he does tend to skew pretty far from the source material at times.

Re-Animator is pretty much everything horror could be in the 80s. It's campy, disgusting and gleefully offensive whenever possible, with naked zombies running around, evil undead cats, prehensile intestines and exploding eyeballs. West is actually a pretty interesting protagonist in both the story and the movie, and is generally considered Combs' definitive role -- certainly the one that cemented his place in Lovecraftian lore to this day, having played Lovecraft himself in the much-less-enjoyable early-90s anthology movie Necronomicon: Book of the Dead and provided the voice of obvious Lovecraft stand-in H.P. Hatecraft a few years ago in Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated. West should be a hero. His goal is certainly a sympathetic one, if not particularly well-thought-out. His intentions are good, but he's socially awkward, blunt, cold and ultimately willing to commit increasingly vile acts in the name of his obsession.

Really, if you want a good zombie movie with fine practical effects, a healthy dose of camp humor, and a cast that know exactly what sort of movie they're in and ham it up in suitably grand guignol style, you can't do much better than Re-Animator.

Available On: Netflix.

Sunday, September 7, 2014


Pontypool (2008)

What It's About: Pontypool is a kind-of-zombie movie directed by Bruce McDonald and written by Tony Burgess, who also wrote the novel it's based on. Grant Mazzy is a big-city shock jock whose "offend everyone" style of disc jockeying finally gets him exiled to the small town of Pontypool, Ontario, where he takes over as an early-morning radio announcer. On his way to work, he has an unsettling encounter with a distraught woman who vanishes into the early-morning darkness. During his broadcast, Grant and his co-workers, station manager Sydney Briar and technical assistant Laurel-Ann Drummond, receive increasingly bizarre reports concerning isolated incidents of violence which seem to be rapidly expanding into an all-out epidemic.

Why You Should Watch It: This is one of the best zombie movies I've watched in a good long while. It certainly has the most interesting concept, even if it does borrow quite heavily from Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash. (At least it doesn't pretend otherwise, as a copy of the novel is seen prominently on display in one shot.) Stephen McHattie is fantastic as Grant Mazzy -- I'd never seen him in anything before, and because of this movie he's become one of my favorite rarely-seen cult actors -- and the minimalist cast serves the movie well. It's about three characters stuck in a snowbound radio station in the wee hours of the morning, listening to a strange kind of zombie apocalypse overtake the region.

Until it isn't. About two-thirds of the way through, it shifts into a kind of postmodern deconstruction of language and the meaning of words. Unfortunately, this is where it starts to fray at the seams, turning from a smart, tense horror film into a weird zombie siege that's at once less comprehensive and more reliant on standard zombie movie cliches. It's not bad, by any means. The last third just isn't as strong as the first hour or so, though I do give them credit for making Canadian French/English bilingualism a plot point, and the post-credits scene is impressively bizarre. The "plague" is just more frightening when it's audio-only, and given its connection to language, the idea that certain words are infected and can only be cured by destroying their meaning in the mind of the infected person, it's no coincidence. I've heard that originally, it was only going to be audio -- the pre-credits sound wave was to persist through the entire movie. That might've been a bit too far in the other direction. As it is, the movie is fantastic for a while, then just good. Overall, it's better than most, and it's certainly unique.

Available On: Netflix.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Munger Road

We're back after a week's hiatus. Before we get to the movie, I was nominated for the "ice bucket challenge" by a friend of mine from across the pond. You were probably tired of seeing and hearing about it at least two weeks ago. As was I. But the way I've come to see it, if it takes a stupid internet phenomenon to make people aware of a good cause and maybe even donate to it, then so be it, I hope something can be as successful in doing the same for other good causes in the near future. It's dumb and it's a bit too "look-at-me" for my tastes, but as so-called first-world problems go, I think "Damn, my Facebook feed is nothing but this water bucket crap now" is up there near the top of the list. It also reminded me that if I'm going to actively try to have a new, less irritable perspective on life in general and be a happier person, I should also be a more charitable one. So I'm donating to ALSA (after some research into various charities) to help, even in a small way, to fight ALS, also known as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or Lou Gherig's Disease. I encourage all to do the same, even if it's only a few dollars; those add up, and something tells me they won't be getting as many donations next year. And as a bonus, you get to see your humble blog author dump some ice water on his head.

Now, on with the movie.

Munger Road (2011)

What It's About: Munger Road takes place in the smallish city of St. Charles, Illinois, where the annual autumn Scarecrow Festival is about to take place. Since evil is naturally attracted to holidays and town festivals, a van transporting serial child-murderer Shea Gunther breaks down, and it's up to Police Chief Kirkhoven (Bruce Davison, aka Senator Kelly from the first X-Men movie) and the somewhat weird Deputy Hendricks to track him down before news of his escape spreads panic and ruins the festival. Meanwhile, four unlikable college students take a trip out to Munger Road, where local legend has it that ghost children will push your car onto the train tracks if you wait around long enough in the middle of the night. (Ghosts do everything in the middle of the night, because they know it's scarier that way.) Now it's up to Kirkhoven and Hendricks to find the local kids before Gunther finds them first.

Why You Should Watch It: Munger Road isn't an amazing movie. The most it could muster up for critical praise on its poster, as you can see, is a three-star review from Roger Ebert, and that sounds just about right. I'm still reviewing it here because, while it isn't amazing, it's better than a lot of other movies you'll find on Netflix, and it's also one of the three movies that inspired me to start writing this blog again, along with Absentia and The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh. None of these three movies are perfect, but they are all unique and quite watchable.

I have to say that the college kids are pretty much the weakest part of the movie. They fight about stupid crap, their drama is tiresome -- so they're pretty much like real college kids. The more interesting parts of the movie are the ones where we follow Kirkhoven and Hendricks around the suburbs and the fairgrounds while they look for Gunther and run into various denizens of St. Charles. More than anything, it's the sense of place that makes this movie kind of fun. Location generally doesn't matter much unless it's Hollywood or New York or New Orleans, and they usually don't get those right. Munger Road's St. Charles is a creepy, quiet autumn nightscape, with diners, back roads, churches and a network of Underground Railroad tunnels where something or someone might lie in wait for you. I'm not entirely sure how accurate the movie's portrayal of its setting is, but from what I gather, it was filmed there and it's generally spot-on.

Another thing that makes this movie a good deal more tense and spooky is the excellent soundtrack by Wojciech Golczewski. The main theme's actually been stuck in my head off and on ever since I watched the movie last year. Just when I think I've forgotten how it goes, it pops back in. Excellent stuff.

One thing that must be mentioned -- this isn't one for you if you're the kind of person who wants their movies tied up with a bow at the end. Which, to be fair, is probably most people. By the end, you don't know what was supernatural, what was coincidence, what was pure hoax or even where the main plot stands with regard to Gunther and the ghosts on Munger Road. This is because it ends -- I'm not kidding -- with a big "TO BE CONTINUED" just as the two main plot threads come together. I kind of doubt that we'll see a sequel (or maybe "second half" would be more accurate), since this was made three years ago. Still, it's effectively eerie while it lasts, and unanswered questions aren't always a bad thing. You can always write a fanfic about how everything ends up.

Available On: Netflix.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Ben Wheatley Double Feature, Part 2

A Field in England (2013)

What It's About: With a week to go before the Ben Wheatley-directed season premiere of Doctor Who, here's another Wheatley movie review. What is A Field in England? Well, it's a movie about a group of English deserters who flee a battlefield during the English Civil War and encounter an alchemist, who captures them and forces them to dig for treasure in the middle of a giant field. Also, they're tripping on some psychedelic mushrooms they ate in a stew. Also, it's in black and white, and it has a strobe warning at the beginning.

Why You Should Watch It: In case you couldn't tell from the basic plot summary, this is...a unique movie, to say the least. It's basically a historical thriller with a lot of occult mysticism involved, though how much of it is "real" is ambiguous at best. Whitehead, our protagonist and one of the deserters, is an alchemist's apprentice, and clashes with rival alchemist O'Neill -- played by Michael Smiley, who played Gal in Kill List and will also be in one of Wheatley's upcoming Doctor Who episodes -- over some object of significance that he's stolen from Whitehead's master. While the others dig in a pit for the treasure O'Neill insists is buried in the field, the inevitable "wizard battle" between Whitehead and O'Neill basically comes down to Whitehead eating massive quantities of mushrooms and tripping his head off while everyone else still living tries to shoot O'Neill.

It is a very weird film, even harder to classify than Kill List. You're never quite sure what's going on, and it's unclear -- especially toward the end -- what's actually happening and what's hallucination. It's interesting just how much Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump do with so little. There's nothing to the movie other than five guys in 17th-century clothing and a wide-open field, but it manages to be funny and unsettling and frightening despite being entirely minimalistic. There are a lot of weird shots of the characters standing around in tableaus evocative of woodblock prints from that period, more weird shots of them pulling on a rope they find in the middle of the field for some reason, and some more weird shots of an ominous black planet descending from the sky (to which Whitehead expresses concern that "if you do not cease we may be blasted by an ill planet!"), and after Whitehead eats more mushrooms to gain more magic power so he can defeat O'Neill, there's a sequence that explains why they had that strobe warning. And because it's a Ben Wheatley movie, there's plenty of close-up physical trauma and facial destruction thanks to doglock pistols fired at point-blank range.

If there is a message at all, I think it boils down to "Don't eat those mushrooms you found."

Or maybe that if you find your courage, you can be your own master (and wear a cool coat and hat). But also the mushroom thing.

Available On: Amazon Prime.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Ben Wheatley Double Feature, Part 1

Kill List (2011)

What It's About: We’ve only got two weeks to go before Doctor Who returns and we can all start arguing about it again, so I thought hey, why not review a couple of movies by Ben Wheatley, who directed the first two episodes of the new season? Naturally, when I think of people who should be involved in family television, the director/co-writer of two of the mind-screwiest, most unpleasant horror movies in recent memory is the first one that comes to mind.

Kill List, directed by Wheatley and co-written by Wheatley and frequent screenwriting collaborator Amy Jump, has a fairly simple setup. Jay is a hitman who’s been out of work for the last eight months after he and his partner Gal botched a job in Kiev. He’s out of money, tensions are rising between Jay and his wife Shel, and their son Sam is suffering for it. When Gal comes to visit and tells Jay of a new client willing to hire the two of them, Jay has no choice but to accept the offer. Gal is rightfully a bit creeped when the client requires that the contract be signed in Jay’s blood, but Jay doesn’t seem to think much of this, and they get down to business. As they work their way down the list of victims -- a priest, a librarian and an M.P., in addition to a few pro bono killings along the way -- it becomes more and more apparent that something much stranger is going on here than either of them signed up for.

Why You Should Watch It: Kill List is hard to classify. It starts out as a domestic drama, changes into an unglamorous crime thriller -- sort of the opposite of a Guy Ritchie movie -- and finally moves along into supernatural horror without ever contradicting its own atmosphere or tone. I’ve heard it compared often to The Wicker Man, though I suspect that’s just because when mainstream critics review horror movies, they tend to have small reference pools since they don’t like horror, and certain developments toward the end of Kill List make for an easy visual comparison. Thematically, it has much more in common with Angel Heart, which I should review here sometime since it's on Netflix. It’s also shot through with a dark thread of Arthurian legend. King Arthur is a recurring theme, and the story itself was inspired by the trials Arthur’s knights had to undertake in order to prove themselves worthy of a place at the Round Table. Neither, I think, is the fact that the knights of Arthurian myth were essentially a bunch of violent thugs who just happened to be better than average at killing lost on Wheatley.

Kill List is a tense movie, sometimes difficult to watch, often so bleak and humorless that it might alienate some viewers. It’s never sarcastic or witty, never pokes fun at itself or at anything else. None of the characters are “badass,” they’re just violent. Said violence is brief but unflinchingly gruesome and unstylized (one scene in particular will turn even strong stomachs). The soundtrack is suitably droning, the imagery stark and Kubrick-influenced. It’s what critics would call a “slow boil,” as opposed to "a rip-roaring entertainment ride." When it finally does erupt into outright horror at the end, it’s nightmarish (which is to say dream-like) and seriously scary. Definitely not a “fun” movie, but a very well-made one. I actually recommend watching this twice -- there’s a lot of expertly-handled foreshadowing early on that you’ll catch the second time around, and one bit that makes the ending all the more dreadful in retrospect.

Available On: Netflix.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Axe Giant: The Wrath of Paul Bunyan

Axe Giant: The Wrath of Paul Bunyan (2013)

What It Is: Well, it’s a really terrible straight-to-video movie about a bunch of morons at a first-time offenders’ boot camp out in the wilderness. Pretty soon they run into Paul Bunyan, who looks something like a super mutant from Fallout wearing a flannel shirt and starts chopping everyone in half with his axe. Local crazy wilderness guy Joe Estevez gives everyone shelter in his cabin, where he tells them about how Paul Bunyan was a good (giant) kid and kept to himself until a group of settlers killed Babe the Big Blue Ox and ate him, driving Paul Bunyan into a rage and turning him into an axe-wielding slaughterhouse who tolerates no outsiders in his woods. There’s also a subplot of some kind involving Foreman Bill, played by Grizzly Adams, but it’s never particularly clear how his stuff relates to the main story, such as it is, until he and all the gun-toting militia guys who hang out at his bar show up at the end to deal with Bunyan. Then there’s a song called “The Ballad of Paul Bunyan,” which is about Paul Bunyan going nuts and killing a bunch of people with an axe.

Why You Should Watch It: Honestly, if you need someone to tell you why you should watch a direct-to-video horror movie called Axe Giant: The Wrath of Paul Bunyan, you probably shouldn’t watch it at all. The very fact of this movie’s existence makes my life just that little bit happier. There’s so much about this movie that amuses me to no end. That they included Babe the Big Blue Ox at all is delightful, and even better/worse since he’s a really awful CGI blue ox. Paul Bunyan’s size is also never consistent -- he could be anywhere from fifteen to forty feet tall from shot to shot because it’s a terrible green-screen effect -- which actually is consistent with the folk tales, which also never seem to agree on his size, but I don’t think the people who made this movie were thinking about that. The “early 19th-century settlers” look like they shop at TJ Maxx.

The thing is, I’m reasonably certain that the people who made Axe Giant are aware of all this, if only because the alternative is so unlikely. The Wrath of Paul Bunyan is a cut below the Asylum’s movies, and that...actually takes some effort. I think the people behind Axe Giant just run with it anyway, for what it’s worth. It’s not particularly jokey or self-aware, because the premise is ridiculous enough. If the title alone doesn’t at least make you giggle, this is probably not the movie for you. If it does, then the rest of the movie probably will too. For all its awfulness, it’s an enjoyable train wreck. Axe Giant: The Wrath of Paul Bunyan has heart, damn it. It is probably better than Think Like A Man or Grown-Ups 2. That's my endorsement.

Available On: Netflix, Hulu, YouTube. Seriously, it’s on everything except Amazon Prime. The YouTube stream is official. Please, do not pay money to watch Axe Giant: The Wrath of Paul Bunyan. I promise I’ll review something actually good next week.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Hey, You Kids Like Frankenstein?

Frankenstein's Army (2013)

What It's About: Frankenstein's Army is the closest thing to a Wolfenstein movie we'll probably ever see. And if we do ever get one, this will probably still be the better movie. A team of Russian soldiers on a reconnaissance mission in Germany venture further behind enemy lines to rescue a group of POWs being held in a small town. This part of the movie is that thing that always happens in horror movies -- the sort of twenty-minute grace period where we get to know the characters and realize that they're kind of a bunch of dicks, so we needn't feel that bad when they all inevitably end up slaughtered in gruesome fashion. The soldiers spend some time harassing the locals, film some footage for the propaganda movie they're supposed to be making and finally march into town to find the whole place deserted. There's a pile of dead nuns, a bunch of weird machinery and -- OH CRAP, SON, it turns out the Nazis are making cyborg Frankenstein soldiers! And everybody gets killed. That's basically it, and if you're watching a movie called Frankenstein's Army, that is also pretty much what you're here to see anyway, so that's fine.

Why You Should Watch It: The last two movies I reviewed have been at least a bit cerebral, so I thought I'd review one that was just about the polar opposite of cerebral this week. This is a B-movie, make no mistake. It's a goofy, gory, sort of intentionally schlocky 1980s-style mad-science movie in the vein of Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator and From Beyond, and while it's more or less a straight horror movie, it also has tongue at least somewhat in cheek. It's never boring, because some new crazy steampunk Frankenstein shows up every ten minutes or so. There are Frankensteins with drill faces, swords for hands, airplane heads, diving helmet heads, head-crushing heads, seriously any kind of head you can think of, and one that looks kind of like a jukebox holding up a swastika. They heil Hitler, they growl and scream, they actually run after you waving their arms in the air -- when was the last time you saw a movie monster do that? The characters are pretty one-dimensional. Sergei the leader is the least assholish of the bunch, so he's the main character; Vassili is the psycho guy who wants to rape and kill everything; Sacha is the new kid; Dmitri is the cameraman with a secret; and secondary characters generally get killed off about ten minutes after they're introduced.

I like this movie for a few reasons. It's a silly monster-mash, but it's also, particularly toward the end, kind of disturbing in a 1970s Nazi-sploitation movie sort of way, where you feel kind of gross after you're done watching. I actually really like Frankenstein himself a lot, here -- Viktor Frankenstein is played by Karel Roden, who you might (or might not, I guess) remember as Rasputin in Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy, and he's one of the few movie mad scientists I've seen in recent years who actually fits the bill. "Mad scientist," in movie-speak, tends to be synonymous with "unethical scientist," and if anything, they also tend to be cold and detached rather than mad, because everyone in Hollywood knows that being emotional and passionate is better than being smart, and if you're smart, chances are you're also nasty and devoid of basic human morals. Roden's Frankenstein is completely manic, puttering around his laboratory, throwing severed body parts over his shoulder, joking with his creations and his victims alike because he's really a pretty happy guy. He's the sort of mad scientist who will, for example, cut out half of a living Communist's brain and replace it with half of a Nazi brain in an effort to make the two sides understand each other so they can stop fighting. And when it doesn't work, he's the sort of scientist who totally loses interest in the experiment and moves onto something else at the drop of a hat. He's ridiculously energetic, he enjoys his work, and, in a pulpy setting like this, where making a super-soldier consists of replacing a dead guy's head with a propeller and shocking him with electricity, he's also ostensibly a genius.

The movie's also a testament to the power of imagination. Okay, that sounds corny, but it's true. Frankenstein's Army was made on a very low budget, the monster designs are inventive and the effects are fantastic. Not to mention almost entirely practical, which seems to be a dying art in the age of Bay and Lucas stuffing as much shit as possible into a shot and then filling the rest in later with CGI. The best practical effects are still recognizable as practical effects, but one cannot ignore the artistry behind them. I remember an interview with the cast of Joe Cornish's sci-fi action comedy Attack the Block where they said that the monsters were part man-in-a-suit and part animatronic, and their reactions in each scene were far more convincing as a result; the thing that was supposed to be scaring them was right there in front of them. In an effects-based movie, practical effects help draw the scene together and keep it cohesive. Frankenstein's Army is a throwback in that sense -- a tribute to the years where, if you wanted to show an exploding zombie head, you soaked some cauliflower in red dye, put it inside a cast of someone's head and then took a sledgehammer to it. It's a hell of a lot of fun, if you've got the stomach for it.

(An afterthought: If there's one thing I don't like about this, it's that the found-footage format is forced. It adds nothing to the movie, and color film was seriously expensive back then, so they probably wouldn't have sent a bunch of soldiers into a potential combat situation with it. They could just as easily have dropped that aspect of it without any detrimental effect.)

Available On: Netflix.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh

The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh (2012)

What It's About: Leon returns to his childhood home to settle the estate of his estranged mother -- the titular Rosalind Leigh, whose character is established primarily through Vanessa Redgrave's hauntingly melancholy narration -- after her mysterious death. Rosalind was once the leader of an "angel cult," and accordingly her house is crammed full of angelic decorations ranging from the tacky to the unsettling. As he explores the house, strange things begin to happen -- odd visitors in the night, a locked door with no key, an angel statue that seems a bit too lifelike, messages from Rosalind to Leon that seem to have been written after her death, and a menacing, catlike shape in the dark. Having escaped his mother's abusive influence years ago and turned away from her faith, Leon isn't prepared to accept any of this as supernatural, but when the only alternative explanation is the possibility that he's losing his mind, he's in for a rough night.

Why You Should Watch It: I really find this movie kind of fascinating. It's another of those under-the-radar horror movies I came across while browsing Netflix, and while I don't like it as much as I did Absentia, it's still quite interesting. It's definitely one of the slower examples of the genre out there, if you don't mind slow. There's no violence. There's no gore. There's no sex. There's barely anything to it except for a man exploring a creepy house and coming to terms with his relationship with his mother. (Well, I guess there's also a CGI cat-monster, but it's used sparingly and is basically the film's only special effect.) Yet it still manages to be superbly eerie and disturbing. Leon -- played by a West Coast actor named Aaron Poole who, oddly, bears a strong resemblance to an acquaintance of mine named Aaron Poole who I know isn't the same person -- and (posthumously) Rosalind are really the only two characters in the movie. There are some creepy neighbors, and Leon's therapist (and, one assumes from their conversations, his ex-girlfriend), but these are only voices over the phone or outside the door, never seen.

The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh is even more minimalist than Absentia, and it never tells you what it's about. Among other things, it's about religion as a force that drives a wedge between a mother and son rather than bringing them closer together. It's about Rosalind's desperate need to make amends with Leon while simultaneously refusing to admit culpability in his estrangement, making her a complex, flawed and sympathetic character despite the fact that we never even see her until the very end of the film. Speaking of that ending -- the movie leaves off with a final bit of narration from Rosalind that calls into question everything you've seen for the last hour and twenty minutes. It's notoriously indecipherable, and might be interpreted in any number of ways. I'm actually fairly curious to hear what people think of the ending, if you've already seen the movie or choose to watch it based on this review. Leave your comments here if you're so inclined. I have my own theory about the ending, but I don't want to spoil it here for anyone who hasn't watched the film until others get in on the discussion.

Available On: Netflix.