Monday, October 27, 2008

The October Horror Movie Challenge, continued.

From the challenge:

October 20:

293. The Abandoned (2006, directed by Nacho Cerdà), in which a woman returns to the home of her parents in Russia where she meets her long lost twin brother and, it appears, their undead doppelgangers. This is pretty good. It gets the sense of dread right, and it flourishes it with genuinely frightening ghosts and a touch of Lovecraftian "wrong" geometry, then caps it off with a strikingly bleak ending. A bit more visceral than ghost stories tend to be, too, with a pig scene worthy of Clive Barker. Recommended.

October 21-23:


October 24:

294. The Island of Doctor Moreau (1977, directed by Don Taylor). If I ever knew it, I had forgotten that this version of Wells's anti-vivisectionist rant was produced by Sam Arkoff and AIP. That explains a lot of the film's shortcomings, though it doesn't explain the A-list in 1977 cast. I mean, Arkoff and Burt Lancaster are not names one commonly hears in the same breath. I remember when this came out, my horror-loving friends and I were all over the make-up effects for the "Manimals". The effects haven't aged well. At all. Nor has the film, which has an anonymous 70s-era TV Movie feel thanks to lackluster direction. Still, Lancaster makes a surprisingly effective Moreau, though one misses the impishness of Charles Laughton in the role. And the chant of the Sayer of the Law is still iconic. "Are we not men?"

295. Inside (2007, directed by Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury) is a pure, single-minded shocker. Upon my first viewing, I'm not entirely sure if it has anything to say beyond its shocks--it may or may not offer up a helping of existential dread--but it's hard to tell because the movie is so pummellingly brutal an experience. It wants to reduce its audience to a fetal ball in the corner screaming, "Make it stop!" It's very successful. Part of this is because, unlike some other films intended to shock for the sake of shock, this one is no stranger to creeping menace and mounting tension, either. While I don't want to compare this movie to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, it reminds me of that film in so far as I think it is only defensible as a filmmaking tour de force unto itself. This one hurts.

October 25:
296. The Mist (2007, directed by Frank Darabont) is another variant of Night of the Living Dead/Rio Bravo. This time, a collection of characters is trapped in a supermarket while a mist containing hideous monsters from another dimension rolls in. This is a lot better than I expected it to be, given that I've never been much of a fan of the Stephen King story on which it is based. This is a movie for monster-lovers, because this sucker has some jim-dandy creatures. It has interesting actors, too, though most of them are encouraged to over-act outrageously. One exception to this is Toby Jones, who makes the most of a nerdy supermarket clerk with hidden depths. He makes up for Marcia Gay Hardin's trip to religious looney-ville. The film has an agreeably bleak ending, sure to piss off half the audience, but them's the breaks sometimes.

297. Malefique (2002, directed by Eric Valette) plays more than a bit like a play. You have a limited setting (mostly inside a prison cell) with, basically, four characters. There's an element of a gallic theater of the absurd, too. How else to explain the mix of characters: a very butch transsexual, the cannibal little buddy, the wise wife-killing librarian, the corporate criminal. The plot contrivance--a spellbook hidden in their cell by a hundred-year old serial killer--gives this feeling, too. Like most recent French horror, this has an instinct for the thoroughly nasty visceral image. It has a dumb Twilight Zone-y ending, though. Meh.

298. Mortuary (2005, directed by Tobe Hooper). Oh, Tobe! How could you? And just when I was ready to let you back into the canon...Sigh.

Non Horror:

299. After being brutalized by Inside, I put on The Princess Bride (1987, directed by Rob Reiner), which has long been on of my few pieces of cinematic comfort food. It's all in the screenplay with this one, because the direction is kind of dull. Still, I love Wallace Shawn in this movie, and Christopher Guest. Hard to make out most of Andre the Giant and Mandy Patinkin's dialogue, even after all these years.

I'm going down in flames this year. Pesky vacation. Ah, well. Maybe next year.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The October Horror Movie Challenge, 2008 edition.

Like Jason returning in a Friday the 13th sequel, The October Horror Movie Challenge is upon us once again. The object, as usual, is to watch 31 horror movies before midnight chimes on Halloween, with at least 17 movies being movies you've never seen before.

I got off to a flying start after the end of my vacation. I've got some catching-up to do. First-time viewings in blue:

October 6:

282. Black Sabbath (1962, directed by Mario Bava). In which Bava invents Italian horror cinema out of whole cloth. It's like a Basil Gogos painting come to life. Longer review here.

October 7:

283. Snake Woman's Curse (1968, directed by Nobuo Nakagawa). Weird, theatrical Japanese horror movie, with a strong Marxist backbone. Evil land-owner torments peasant family. Peasant family visits a nasty curse upon them once they're all dead. It's creepy in parts. Never really scary, though. Mostly an oddity.

October 12:

284. The Uninvited Guest (2004, directed by Guillem Morales). A brilliant set-up, in which an architect begins to think the man who came in to use his phone and then disappeared is living somewhere in his house. Lots of doubling goes on in this--there's a doppelganger effect--but the ending of the film descends into an incoherent ambiguity. Still, the first hour is razor sharp.

October 15:

285. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936, directed by George King). In which Tod Slaughter devours the scenery as the title character. It's amazing how much Sondheim took from this version of the story. It creaks, though. A lot.

October 16:

286. Feast (2005, directed by John Gulager). This is a minor miracle. Anyone who watched this unfold on Project Greenlight saw a completely dysfunctional production. That anything watchable emerged is surprising. That something genuinely entertaining emerged is astounding. Mind you, this isn't great. It has some fun subverting expectations (and winking at the audience while it does), but it's nothing profound. Another variant of the Night of the Living Dead scenario, which is so popular because it's so cheap to produce. But even so, it has an appealing instinct for the jugular.

October 17:

287. MOH: Homecoming (2005, directed by Joe Dante). A disappointment. I mean, I love that Dante decided that "complete freedom" means freedom to make a political statement, and I love the fact that this is a modern updating of Abel Gance's J'accuse. But the satire isn't sharp enough and it doesn't go far enough over the line to draw any real blood. The real thing is still more horrifying.

288. MOH: Pick Me Up (2005, directed by Larry Cohen). The weird alchemy in this series continues, in which the guys I don't much respect are the ones knocking it out of the park while the heavy hitters are striking out. This time, Larry Cohen makes me choke on every bad thing I've ever said about his movies, because this is sharp, merciless, and scary. Having his cinematic alter-ego, Michael Moriarty, as one of his dueling serial killers is a nice bonus, and even Fairuza Balk's familiar face doesn't save her in the end. Nice.

289. The Dark (2005, directed by John Fawcett). If one turns off the sound and ignores the story, this is a beautiful production. Gorgeous locations on the Isle of Man, terrific actors, superior cinematography. I mean, Sean Bean (yum) and Maria Bello (also yum) alone should make this work, right? Well, not quite. The story itself is pretty bad, and the script sounds like crap even when it comes out of the mouths of these actors. In spite of its Welsh back story, this still seems like it's ripped off from Asia.

October 18:

Nothing. I suck

October 19:

290. Mother Joan of the Angels (1961, directed by Jerzy Kawalerowicz). Not quite a nunsploitation film, and artier than most similar films short of Ken Russell's The Devils (it tells more or less the same story), this still feels vaguely like a Hammer film. I mean the stark visuals are a million miles away from Hammer, but the set-up would be at home in any of their vampire movies. The picture quality on the DVD leaves a LOT to be desired.

291. Do You Like Hitchcock (2005, directed by Dario Argento). Workmanlike made-for-TV giallo and no more. It throws around Hitchcock references with abandon, but it doesn't understand any of them. Dario, I hardly knew ye.

292. Non Horror: The Last Laugh (Der Letzte Mann, 1924, directed by F. W. Murnau) with live music by Rats and People Motion Picture Orchestra, who were fabulous. The movie itself is silent film at its most inventive and sophisticated, even though there's a stark break in the mood near the end. Does it betray it's intent? Maybe. I dunno. Emil Jannings overacts regardless. Not my favorite Murnau, but one can see the seeds of later Murnau (Sunrise, for instance) in this film. It's hard to believe that this is the same filmmaker who made Nosferatu just two years earlier. Its a quantum leap in cinematic sophistication.

Current tally: 10 films, 8 new to me.

God, I'm sucking this year.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008


I was on vacation for a week, and I'm only now getting caught up. Here's what I watched before embarking on the annual October Horror Challenge:

268. Underworld Beauty (1958, directed by Seijun Suzuki) Suzuki at his most generic, but an entertaining genre piece none the less, involving a recently released yakuza who has the diamonds from the heist for which he went to prison. Mix in guilt over the loss of his partner's leg (and later life), his partner's straying younger sister, and the treacherous boss who covets the diamonds, and you have a pretty good blend of elements. Suzuki was pretty good with black and white, in spite of his later color experiments.

269. Transsiberian (2008, directed by Brad Anderson)
270. Tell No One (2006, directed by Guillaume Canet)

The difference between a good thriller and a bad thriller: one goes through the motion of a plot without any real meaning to its characters; one uses plot to dig into the moral and psychological states of its characters. Transsiberian is riveting. Tell No One is exhausting. Transsiberian unfolds without leading the audience by the nose. Tell No One requires a 25 minute exegesis to unravel its story. Tell No One is French, but it seems like a generic Hollywood thriller (it was written by Harlan Coben). The plot hook is pretty good: a man whose wife was murdered seven years ago gets an email indicating that she may, in fact, still be alive, but from there it piles on the twists and turns until it resembles the Gordian knot. It's so busy with plot that it has no time to examine the moral or psychological dimensions of it's lead character. To its credit, it does shed some light on his professional life, in which he seems particularly affable (he's a pediatrician). But the movie never really engages. Transsiberian, on the other hand, is a big ole truckload of menace, emotional and moral conflict, and dark secrets. It's an interesting conflation of Hitchcockian thriller (it occasionally references and resembles The Lady Vanishes), while turning many of the conventions of film noir on their heads. The story follows a missionary couple from China to Moscow on the eponymous train trip. They meet another couple with suspicious circumstances. Characters vanish and reappear, and all the while, there is the feeling of being a stranger in a strange land. Emily Mortimer is superb in the lead, who is led astray by homme fatale Eduardo Noriega. Her character bears a crushing weight of guilt through the movie, and Mortimer makes us feel every ounce of it. Ben Kingsley adds another ethnic character to his portfolio as the cop on the case, who has secrets all his own. It's a superior film.

And a whole bunch of Superman cartoons from the 1940s:

271. Superman: Volcano (1942, directed by Dave Fleischer)
272. Superman: Japoteurs (1942, directed by Seymour Kneitel)
273. Superman: Destruction, Inc.(1942, directed by Izzy Sparber)
274. Superman: Terror on the Midway (1942, directed by Dave Fleischer)
275. Superman: Showdown (1942, directed by Izzy Sparber)
276. Superman: Jungle Drums (1943, directed by Dan Gordon)
277. Superman: Secret Agent (1943, directed by Seymour Kneitel)
278. Superman: Eleventh Hour (1942, directed by Dan Gordon)

I don't have much to say about these except to say that there's a noticeable jump in the quality of the shorts directed by Dave Fleischer. The huge gorilla in "Terror on the Midway" makes one of the best monster entrances in film. Perhaps the most interesting film of this bunch is "Eleventh Hour," in which Clark Kent is in wartime Japan and Superman acts as a saboteur. Most of these shorts act as wartime propaganda, but that doesn't diminish their appeal.

279. Back from Eternity (John Farrow, 1956).

Sort of an ur-version of The Flight of the Phoenix, set in a jungle rather than in a desert. Robert Ryan is good as the pilot. Anita Eckberg provides the eye candy. Rod Steiger chews the scenery. Gene Evans goes crazy. It's not a particularly great film, but it's entertaining. John Farrow was adept at these kinds of entertainments.

280. Once Upon a Honeymoon (Leo McCarey, 1942)

This starts as a screwball comedy. I mean, it's directed by Leo McCarey and stars Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers, so it's screwball all the way, right? But after a screwball comedy set-up, it veers into very dark territory as Grant and Rogers embark on a tour of Europe as Rogers's husband (the always nefarious Walter Slezak) undermines government after government for the Nazis. In truth, it's a mix of elements that doesn't work very well. It's not funny enough to stand as a comedy (like, say, To Be or Not To Be) and the comedy undermines the serious overtones. Still, Grant was at the height of his abilities in this movie, and he shades effortlessly from charming and goofy to dark and serious. It's a tour de force looking for a better movie.

281. Boomerang (Elia Kazan, 1947)

Excellent courtroom drama in which a prosecutor goes against the grain and attempts to prove the man in the dock innocent of shooting a priest in the back of the head. This is one of those docudrama/film noir hybrids that Fox loved so much in the late forties, but there's a guiding political principle under the film, too, provided by director Elia Kazan. Dana Andrews is good in the lead. The supporting cast is a gallery of interesting faces, including Arthur Kennedy, Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, and Jane Wyatt. It's nice to see this title make it to the shelves after Fox bungled its original DVD release.

And then on to the October Horror Movie Challenge.