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.

Sunday, July 13, 2014


Absentia (2011)

What It's About: Tricia's husband Daniel has been missing for seven years, and she's finally ready to have him declared dead in absentia. Her younger sister Callie, a recovering drug addict, comes to live with her and help her sort through the wreckage and move on with her life. While jogging through a nearby tunnel, Callie has an unsettling encounter with a vagrant, and slowly comes to believe that the tunnel -- or something living in the tunnel -- is behind a series of missing people and pets in her pregnant sister's quiet neighborhood...and may have been responsible for Daniel's disappearance as well.

Why You Should Watch It: Absentia is one of a few low-key, low-budget but well-made horror movies I've found on Netflix over the past couple of years without really looking. It's probably the best of them, actually -- one of those movies I watched on a whim because it was in my top ten recommendations and found surprisingly good. Modern Lovecraftian fiction was fairly annoying back in 2005-2010 or so; it all basically boiled down to "What if Cthulhu was inside The Computer? What if Cthulhu was in The Cell Phone?!" Because modern technology is scary and stuff, especially when you don't understand the first thing about it, as none of these writers apparently did. Lovecraft was (and still is) this jokey pop-culture figure like Nikola Tesla, and post-millennial weird fiction recycled his stories and turned everything he'd written into these "clever" little references that pretty much destroyed any sort of horror the story might otherwise have had. There was a short story a while back called "Pickman's Modem." That title alone is pretty much everything wrong with new Lovecraftian horror.

There's been some good stuff in the last few years, though. The Slender Man is probably the most interesting example of modern weird fiction out there, incorporating modern methods of storytelling such as YouTube and blogging without making the technology the thing that's frightening. True Detective is fine weird fiction by any measure, incorporating Lovecraft's mythos into the story without turning the King in Yellow into a nudge-nudge wink-wink punchline to make sure you know how clever the writer is. Absentia also falls into this sort of "inherently modern without specifically pointing out how modern it is" kind of Lovecraftian horror.

It's basically a monster movie, but it's a monster movie where you only see the monster once or twice, out of focus. The horror comes more from the relatable fear of losing a loved one, of staying in an unfamiliar house, of walking alone at night. Absentia captures like few other movies the strange, lonely, otherworldly atmosphere of the suburban night. That's a thing that's always made me uneasy; walking around in a suburban area -- such as the one where I currently live, or the one where I lived before I moved here, or the one before that -- between midnight and morning, seeing safe, familiar sights made vividly strange in yellow streetlight that casts the deepest shadows and seems to throw everything into sharp focus, is distinctly different from walking in the city at the same time of night. Even during its daylight scenes, the film captures an atmosphere unique to the suburbs -- something I've been interested in tackling with my own writing sometime in the near future. The way shadows fall and lights flicker is a subtle, everyday kind of horror.

On a side note, Mike Flanagan, who wrote/produced/directed Absentia, also more recently directed Oculus, the haunted-mirror movie with Amy Pond and Starbuck. I'll have to look into that as well.

Available On: Netflix.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Re-Introduction! / Messiah of Evil

It took me long enough -- a few years, at least -- but I think it's about time for this blog to rise from its grave and walk around for a bit. New name, new focus, new purpose. I'm in a better state of mind to run it now, and much as I've decided to look at life in general from a new, more positive perspective, so too will this blog be more of what I like and less of what I don't.

Namely, horror movies. I love horror movies. I like to watch them, think about them, talk about them with friends and, in the case of the bad ones, laugh at them. A few people have told me they like my brief movie reviews I sometimes post on Facebook after seeing a new film, and perhaps brevity is the way to go here as well. The fact is, I don't have much to say about movies. I know why I like them, I know what works for me and what doesn't, but long reviews have never been my strong point; much of what there is to say about them is said in conversation, not in long, rambling posts such as I was trying to force myself to write here.

So, here's my format, and I hope you all enjoy it:

Once a week, every week, I'll post a mini-review of a worthwhile horror film that's currently available for streaming, whether through Amazon Prime Video, Netflix or some other service -- but mostly those two, since they're what I have. Nothing too in-depth or long-winded, just two or three paragraphs, along with a trailer (when one is available) and the service where you can find it. Some old, some new, some good, some so-bad-they're-good. I would love to discuss these movies with anyone following this blog. Think of this as a sort of book-of-the-week club, but for horror movies.

It seems appropriate to start with the movie that inspired me to start writing this blog again.

Messiah of Evil (1973)

What It's About: We open with our heroine Arletty in a mental institution following the events of the film. Apparently there's a kind of slow apocalypse happening outside, the nature of which remains generally unclear. Flashback time. Having received a series of disturbing messages from her father, an artist who lives in a small seaside town called Point Dune, she ventures out to the town and finds it largely deserted. She encounters a weird Portuguese-American aristocrat named Thom and his amazing 70s hair and his two female companions, and the four of them decide to investigate the situation. The residents of Point Dune are a creepy bunch, coming out at night with bleeding eyes to pursue and devour the few townspeople who haven't joined them in "the waiting," a nightly ritual where they all stand around on the beach and await the return of the "dark stranger" whose coming will mark the end of the world.

Why You Should Watch It: Messiah of Evil is a really weird one, and obscure enough that I was kind of surprised to see it on Amazon Prime. I first saw the movie over five years ago when my sister picked up one of those "50 Horror Movie" boxed sets you find at Best Buy or Target. It was one of the few gems in the set. The atmosphere is weird. The colors used are surreal. The characters are about as weird as it gets, especially Thom. The plot doesn't make much sense. And it is basically a B-movie, when all is said and done, so the acting -- by turns wooden and over-the-top -- is entertaining for all the wrong reasons, the dialogue is overwrought and pretentious, and there are several moments throughout that always make me laugh. The guy who eats mice and talks about classical music while mispronouncing Wagner. Thom's speech about how he has a castle. The stunt misfire where one of the zombies is supposed to swing down from a skylight but smacks into the ceiling and falls on his ass instead. The weirdest thing about it is that I had the nagging feeling throughout that this could actually have been a good movie in the hands of a more skillful director and with better actors involved. It's thoroughly unsettling throughout, and a few sequences are actually pretty creepy. Still, even when it falls short of what it could have been, it's at least bad enough to be entertaining and surreal enough to be legitimately interesting. It's unique, if nothing else.

Available on: Amazon Prime Video.