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.