Saturday, October 17, 2009

Dubious Masters

So far, I've been keeping up with the October Challenge fairly well, though I've been lagging when it comes to blogging about it. I'm not doing poorly, really, but if I let myself fall behind, I'm pretty much screwed. So far, that hasn't happened. That's the good news. The bad news is that I'm not really pulling ahead, either. Part of this is the limited supply of movies I haven't seen before. Part of this is real-world demands on my time. Damn that pesky job and mortgage. Ah, well. Anyway, here's a recap of where I am since I left off.

*****

I suppose that, since it was his idea in the first place, Mick Garris had a right to direct an installment of the Masters of Horror. His long association with Stephen King does not grant him the status of "master" merely by association, and I don't think he's ever really knocked anything out of the park. His second season entry, Valerie on the Stairs (2006), sidesteps this complaint fairly neatly by adapting a story by Clive Barker, who has a much more legitimate claim to the title of "master of horror." Unfortunately, this isn't one of the better outings for either Garris or Barker. The story revolves around a writer who is accepted into an apartment building for unpublished (ie: "failed") writers. The complex is haunted by a beautiful woman and some kind of demon, which it becomes obvious are the fevered inventions of the other writers in the building. This is a hard one because Barker doesn't really translate to the screen particularly well. His prose emphasizes visionary scenes over storytelling, and unless the director is some kind of visionary himself, this is bound to strain the audience's credulity to the breaking point. Garris is NOT a visionary, and this is filmed in a flat, television style that torpedoes any kind of mood. The result is fairly ridiculous.

John Landis might have a better claim than Garris on the title "master of horror", but it's debatable. His two major horror films aren't anything like his best films, the horror community's fondness for An American Werewolf in London not withstanding. When he's on his game, Landis IS a pretty good filmmaker, though, and a lot of the beats of comedy filmmaking translate to horror. Especially if the production in question is conceived as a horror comedy to start with. Deer Woman (2005) is just such an animal. This installment finds Detective Brian Benben on the trail of some kind of Native American deer spirit who manifests as a beautiful woman in order to seduce men and trample them to death. The filmmakers are perfectly aware of how ridiculous their own premise is, and they incorporate this into a scene in which the nature of the deer woman is explained by a worker in a reservation casino. On the whole, it's intermittently funny, but rarely scary. Cinthia Moura, who plays the title role, is smoking, though.

I picked up the DVD double of Amicus's Tales from the Crypt (1972) and Vault of Horror (1973, directed by Roy Ward Baker) from a bargain bin a couple of weeks ago, I've written at length about Tales from the Crypt in the past, so if you want my thoughts on that film, you can see it here. I'd never seen Vault of Horror before, though I knew it by reputation. For the most part, it's more of the same, though it's more of the same if you discard the first film's rising quality. The stories in this film are all more or less on the level of the first couple of stories in Tales from the Crypt. In other words, the weaker stories. These are all variants of the "heel gets his come-uppence," and they're directed with indifference by Roy Ward Baker. There are some interesting performances--particularly Glynis Johns's put-upon housewife in the second segment--and there's some interesting casting--real life brother and sister Daniel and Anna Massey in the first segment--but beyond the cast, there's not much to recommend, and worse, the film itself has been neutered to the point of mutilation. The censor's scissors are blatantly obvious in the first segment, where a shot of Daniel Massey with a tap in his neck for the benefit of a town full of vampires has been removed, with a freeze-frame of the shot with a blacked out area over the tap substituted. Given that this film could have used the nastiness to punch things up, this has to count as a murdered movie.

*****

I didn't have a lot of interest in Underworld: The Rise of the Lycans (2009, directed by Patrick Tatopoulos). I didn't like the first film at all, and I skipped the second film, given that it was from more or less the same cast and crew. Further, the first film is one of the films that suggests the Kate Beckinsale rule, which states that if Kate Beckinsale appears in your movie in a leather corset, your movie probably sucks. Beckinsale is absent for the prequel save for a shot at the end, and in her place we have Rhona Mitra, an actress who has already proven adept at holding the screen in B-movie genre fare. She certainly has more screen presence than her predecessor. This film is pretty much a wank fest for goths and LARPers, telling the origin of the war between vampires and werewolves. It turns the tables on the first film by painting the Lycans as the oppressed heroes and the vampires as the villains, and in doing so, it improves things immensely. Vampires SHOULD be the bad guys.



I should note that I LOVE werewolves, but I'm almost always disappointed by them. A movie that gets the werewolves right can get away with a lot of sins. This movie has pretty cool werewolves. While they won't displace the werewolves in The Howling in my affections (because Rob Bottin's transformation effects are still better than any CGI I've ever seen), these come pretty close to matching the werewolves of my imagination. For this alone, Underworld 3 is surprisingly not bad.

*****

1988's Evil Dead Trap (directed by Toshiharu Ikeda) predates the Japanese horror boom of the late 1990s by about ten years, but it has certain elements in common with it. Principally, it's in touch with the unease generated by technology. It's among the first Japanese films to put the ghost in the machine. But from there, the similarities become few and far between. This film is not a slow-burn horror movie; it's a gore-fest. It's first hour is a fairly merciless slasher movie, while its second jumps the rails with a grisly, bio-horror finale. I have to admit that the structure of the film gave me pause. After the first hour, our killer has knocked off everyone but our final girl, causing me to speculate on the wisdom of leaving her to her own devices for another forty minutes, but the movie itself is bifurcated, like two separate movies in one.



In any event, the story such as it is follows the crew of a late-night TV news program following the breadcrumbs of a video that appears to be a snuff film. Whoever made the video went to great pains to demonstrate how to find the scene of the crime, which should have been a warning to our heroes, but plausibility isn't one of this film's strong points. Once on site, the mostly female crew is killed off in sundry creative ways. The final murder in the first half of the film is a baroque trap that foreshadows the Saw movies. The second half of the movie is as aggressive as the first, but considerably more ridiculous, and slightly less cruel. And the very ending is vivid, but utterly laughable.



Director Ikeda isn't afraid of showing his influences. He steals the maggot scene from Suspiria outright, for one example, and the Goblin-ish score further tips his hand. There are also echoes of Cronenberg in the movie's videodromic dread, as well as hints of Larry Cohen and Frank Hellenlotter, of all people. It's fun picking out the influences, but when all is said and done, there's no new ground broken in this film. As film, though, Evil Dead Trap has some of the feel of the Hong Kong films from the same period. It's energetic and outrageous, which means it IS entertaining. I just don't know if it's all that good.





Current tally:

14 Films

11 First-time viewings.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Scenes from the Apocalypse

Of all of the idiot children of Night of the Living Dead, I think Zombieland (2009, directed by Ruben Fleischer) might be the farthest from the source. Where Night of the Living Dead's apocalypse demolished all of our social constructs concerning race, gender, and family, Zombieland spends its brief 80 minute running time reasserting those very constructs (well, most of them--the racial content of NotLD is conspicuous by its absence). The heroes of Zombieland were solitary loners to start with, and wind up constructing their own version of "family" by the end of the movie. Where NotLD was radical, Zombieland is essentially conservative. And by constructing the movie in part as a "how-to" guide to surviving the zombie apocalypse ("Rule #1: Cardio"), the filmmakers put the film at a certain remove from the horror genre, converting it into cultural object rather than an art object, if you catch my drift.

That all said--and really, who wants to know all of that, eh?--I had a great ol' time at Zombieland. It's funny. It's not scary, but it uses the tropes of the horror genre to great effect. The film provides a metaphor for what it actually is by setting the end of the movie at an amusement park. It's a ride, and not a bad one, really, and it's populated by an interesting band of misfits, mixed and matched. Jesse Eisenberg's nerdy hero wouldn't seem like a perfect foil for Woody Harrelson's bad-ass, but it works. Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin are fine as sisters working the short con. None of the principles is asked to explore a wide range of emotions, really, but the movie is set far enough into the zombie apocalypse that that makes a certain kind of sense.

*****

1976's Who Can Kill a Child? (directed by Narciso Ibáñez Serrador) presents an all together more disturbing vision of the apocalypse, in which a British couple expecting their first child vacation on a Spanish island where all of the adults appear to have been killed by the island's children. The moral dilemma is framed by the film's title. Could anyone kill a child if it was kill or be killed? For the most part, this is built in the vein of Children of the Corn and Village of the Damned, but it takes its premise to a far bleaker conclusion than either of those films.

The film starts with grave newsreel footage of the varied atrocities committed during the 20th Century, most of which disproportionately killed children, then follows it within the background of the main narrative with hints of a world spinning truly into chaos. Our heroes, played by Lewis Fiander and Prunella Ransome, are a blissfully unaware of the dire omens surrounding them, from the bodies washing up on the beach to the collapse of Thailand in a civil war. They almost seem like a pointed indictment of an indifferent bourgeoisie.

The island setting is ominous and, unusual for a horror movie, splashed in bright sunlight. This is one of those sunlit horror movies that acts as existential dreamscape and it's very creepy. Even creepier is the behavior of the children on this island. Their new way of "playing" seems completely natural, whether it's beating at a corpse hung up like a piñata or, more ominously, "willing" other children to join their games. The most disturbing instance of this passes without a hint of what's going on, until near the end of the movie, as a smiling girl feels the pregnant belly of our heroine. Later, in a scene of sublime nastiness, her unborn child attempts to kill her.

The title of the film is asked explicitly in the course of the movie. "Who can kill a child?" The movie corners it's protagonists into confronting this dilemma head on, and once there is an answer, the movie turns bracingly nihilistic.

This is one of the best horror movies of the 1970s.

*****

What Have You Done to Solange? (1972, directed by Massimo Dallamano) also asks a question in its title, one that holds the key to the giallo mystery it presents. Someone is killing the students at a prestigious British girls' school, and the main suspect is the foreign gym teacher. He's having an affair with one of his students, who in turn is having seemingly psychic visions of the murders. When the student in question is murdered herself, our hero finds himself compelled to get to the heart of the matter on his own. It's a pretty straightforward plot, that plays fair with the audience once the title question begins to be asked by our hero.

What sets this apart from some other giallos from the same period is its approach to violence. There's very little overt gore in this film, but the nature of the crimes and how they are filmed make them very disturbing none the less. Is this the first movie in which the killer prefers to murder women by stabbing them in their vaginas? I think it might be. This became a common trope in some of the more outrageous giallos that followed, but this film actually makes something of the image beyond the phallic violence the knife usually signifies. It's a stand in for a particularly nasty flashback scene in which one character is submitted to an involuntary back-alley abortion.

For the most part, this is one of the better giallos, but I'm beginning to wonder if there is actually a giallo that benefits from a strong central performance. Fabio Testi's Enrico, our hero, is a complete stiff, regardless of his sinister, Richard Chamberlain-ish good looks. Karin Baal fares better as his frigid wife, and Christina Galbo is okay as Elizabeth, the girl he wants to woo. But, let's face it, these aren't actor's movies, and even if they were, the practice of dubbing everything would torpedo any good performances that managed to escape. On an up note, this has an Ennio Morricone score, though it's one of his minor works.





Current tally:

9 Films

7 First-time viewings.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Deja Vu All Over Again

What Quarantine (2008, directed by John Erick Dowdle) reminds me of is Gus Van Sant's remake of Psycho. It's essentially the same damn movie as its forbearer, but in playing the notes, it somehow misses the music. It's interesting watching this movie so soon after watching [•REC], because it makes identifying what went wrong so much easier. I really do want to emphasize that this is the SAME movie. Same plot, same ending (more or less--there is one significant change), even the same shot set-ups for the most part. And yet it winds up running eleven minutes longer. Go figure.

As I see it, Quarantine makes two mistakes. First, it has a recognizable cast. Worse, Jennifer Carpenter as the lead is miscast. This mitigates the documentary "this is real" vibe that the original item had. Second, it injects a sexual tension in its early going that makes it seem more like a movie than a television news piece. This just doesn't work.

Quarantine does have a larger budget than the original, and it shows this giving the audiences more glimpses of the containment outside the building. There are also more inmates in the building, which means there are more zombies in the end. These two elements intersect when snipers take out one of the victims who gets too close to one of the windows.

Okay, I take it back. The movie this reminds me of isn't Psycho, it's the remake of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Like that movie Quarantine is presented with a primal original that's low on cliches. The filmmakers will have none of that, of course, and like the drunks at Platinum Dunes, they've poured everything they can think of back into it.

I'm much more sanguine about Splinter (2008, directed by Toby Wilkins). This is another film that's assembled from familiar elements, but that's the nature of genre, I guess. You pick and choose from the same pool of ideas. The story follows two couples, one a couple of criminals on the lam who have taken the other couple--a young scientist and his girlfriend--hostage. The movie strands these characters in a remote gas station besieged by the victims of some kind of parasite that spreads itself as splinters. It's an interesting monster, actually, recalling the vines in The Ruins and the alien in The Thing. The monster provides an excuse for some fairly inventive gore effects. The monster acts as a contagion, too, in the tradition of Romero's zombies. So, for the most part, this is familiar stuff.

What isn't familiar is the design of the monster. That's fun to watch. And unlike Quarantine, it doesn't obviously indulge in cliches (besides its borrowed genre elements, I suppose). The characters are interesting. The scientist is a nicely non-traditional hero, though he takes a back seat to his tough girlfriend and the fleeing convict. Its fun watching them trying to find a way out of their predicament because none of them is obviously stupid. The film also has an agreeably unfamiliar setting. Filmed in Oklahoma, it doesn't LOOK like most films of its ilk.

All in all, it's an efficient, brutal genre film, well-executed.



Current Tally:

6 films

5 first time viewings

Monday, October 05, 2009

No Exit

Jaume Balaguero's entry in the 6 Films to Keep You Awake series strikes me as the genesis of [•REC]. As in that film, To Let (2006) centers on another apartment building in which our characters are trapped with the monster--in this case, a psychotic building manager--and cannot escape. The film is kind of a droll send up for anyone who has ever felt trapped in a crappy apartment. Be that as it may, there aren't any laughs in this. It's deadly serious.

Our heroes, are Mario and Clara, who are shortly going to be out of a home. Rather than move in with Mario's parents, they follow an apartment ad of mysterious provenance to a remote and foreboding apartment building managed by the psychotic Portera, whose dedication to maintaining her tenants has driven her mad. The bulk of the film is a brutal cat and mouse game between Clara and Portera, and the film is fortunate in its casting, both Macarena Gomez and Nuria González give committed performances in bruising roles. Gomez, in particular, seems doomed to comparisons to Barbara Steele, to whom she bears an uncanny resemblance (see also, Dagon).

Balaguero is a firm believer in the "bad to worse" method of storytelling (sometimes at the expense of credibility, but still), and he categorically repudiates the idea of letting the audience off the hook at the end. He's a brute force kind of director, though he's capable of surprising subtlety given the pile-driver nature of his films. He also believes in narrative economy. Again, like [•REC], this is brief. It hits the viewer suddenly, like a staple to the forehead, and lets the effect linger by not taking things further.



This was made for television, but it looks like a feature film. It has a wonderful sense of dreariness and a kind of waterlogged dread. It's also agreeably violent. It features one of the best, and most credible scenes of horror committed by a trash disposer, for instance, and the blood sprays all over the place. Blood in copious quantities.

Again, this series kicks the holy crap out of The Masters of Horror, which looks like small beer in comparison.



I can only imagine the shock that Christopher Lee's first appearance on screen in Hammer's The Curse of Frankenstein (directed by Terence Fisher) must have caused in 1957, especially in the face of the enduring memory of Karloff's creature from the Universal horrors. Lee's creature looks like a walking industrial accident victim, bringing home the fact that this is a monster cobbled together from the bits and pieces of corpses (a visual association the Karloff monster never really made). Allegedly, Lee's appearance put most of the crew off having lunch with the actor when he was in make-up. In this, and other ways, it's a thankless role.

The movie really belongs to Peter Cushing, and his version of Dr. Frankenstein is ALSO a shocking departure from the Universal horrors. Hammer was always a very conservative studio, and they pass a stern moral judgement on the good doctor for meddling in the affairs of God. Cushing's doctor is evil. No getting around it. He's a philanderer and a murderer in addition to his little science project. Cushing handles it with aplomb. It's the role he would have been forever known for if it weren't for that Star Wars nonsense.

This is a weird version of the story, though. Hammer reduces it to what is basically a chamber drama with four characters (five if you count The Creature). It's downright intimate. This is partially a function of the studio's notorious penny pinching, and it hurts the film a bit, I think. The sets aren't as lush as they could be, and it really emphasizes the genius of Daniel Haller's work for Roger Corman in the Poe pictures, because he had much less to work with, and ends up with productions that still look much, much larger than Hammer's. But I digress.

Watching this after a weekend with [•REC] and To Let was interesting, because it shows up either how fast and how propulsive horror movies have become or how leisurely they used to be. They're barely in the same idiom.




Current tally:
4 movies
3 first time viewings

Saturday, October 03, 2009

The Pain in Spain

I've had to give up buying expensive import DVDs over the last couple of years, so I'm considerably behind the wave of hype surrounding Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza's [•REC] (2007). I also missed the American remake, Quarantine when it was in theaters, but the original item rampages off in directions I can't imagine an American film ever going.


Basically, you have The Blair Witch/Cannibal Holocaust set-up. A camera crew--in this film, a TV news crew filming a documentary about local firefighters--thrown into a horror situation. The situation here is a zombie outbreak in an apartment building. We see the movie in the first person through the lens of the news camera. The conceit of the movie is carried through to the end: there is no score and the actors are reacting to things they haven't anticipated because none of them was given a complete script. This film pulls a pretty neat inversion of the Rio Bravo/Night of the Living Dead scenario, because instead of being barricaded inside a farm house or a shopping mall with the living dead laying siege from the outside, this film quarantines its characters inside with the zombies. This simple reversal is good for squeezing some new thrills from a tired scenario. It also manages to draw an explicit connection between Romero's zombie films and The Crazies, with its clean-suited storm troopers, a very threatening image in [•REC].

Up until the end, this is more or less old wine in a new skin, but then something interesting happens. Our heroine and her erstwhile cameraman retreat to the unused penthouse and discover one of those convenient expositional walls of newspaper clippings. While this in itself is a pretty blatant cliche`, what it does to the movie is not. Is the zombie outbreak the result of a virus? Or something much, much darker. The end of the movie argues for the latter. What we have here is something very similar to what co-director Jaume Balaguero attempted in Darkness (a film that I liked, but few others did). He's set up a set of expectations, and then pulled away the curtain to reveal something else. And here, the movie has some level of cognitive disconnect, because it's really NOT organic, but it's executed during a portion of the movie that is as pile-driver scary as anything I've seen in recent cinema. If I start to think too heavily about what the ending of the film actually means, I think the whole thing might start to unravel. The technical conceit of the movie creates an experience that is always in the moment, which creates an exhilarating "ride" movie, a pretty good one, but it teeters dangerously on the brink of ridiculousness if the audience is given time to think. Still, there's no shame in this. [•REC] joins films like The Descent and Haute Tension as a contemporary horror film that gets by on the force of its film making rather than the brilliance of its screenplay.


Still and all, the run and gun style employed here does tend to obscure some of the film's other technical accomplishments. We never get a good look at the little girl in the film once she turns zombie, which is a shame, because, as the supplemental material on the DVD shows, she's pretty damned creepy:


*****

Alex de la Iglesia is one of the directors who contributed to the 6 Films to Keep You Awake anthology series for Spanish television. The series was Spain's answer to The Masters of Horror in the US, but based on Iglesia's entry, and on Jaume Balaguero's entry (about which I'll write in my next post), the Spaniards kicked the holy crap out of the Americans.

The Baby's Room (2006), Iglesia's entry, is one of those epistemological haunted house movies where reality becomes suspect. The director approaches this in a fairly classical way, though there is an infringing influence of Asian horror and it's ghosts in the machine. You have a young couple who have just bought a palatial home at a suspiciously low prices. They hear odd voices on their baby monitor, and, when they place a camera in the baby's room, the husband begins seeing a man sitting next to the baby's crib.

Somewhere in the middle of Stephen King's Dance Macabre, King suggests that haunted houses are really the pool of Narcissus, where haunted people gaze and lose themselves in the reflection they see. They are often stories of doppelgangers. He might very well have been talking about this film, because it establishes the house as a reflecting pool before the credits roll. Literally, as it so happens:

Horrible things glimpsed in mirrors is recurring motif in this kind of film, and lo and behold, this film indulges that element, too.

But Iglesia is too smart a filmmaker to just throw these images in without thinking hard about them. He winks at the audience at one point by throwing in the old "horrible thing under the bed" trope as a clever insert. Significantly, this isn't treated jokingly, and the director wrings the maximum amount of mood out of it.

The interesting thing about haunted house movies in this era is that ever since The Amityville Horror and The Shining, it's usually the male partner who cracks, whether it's James Brolin dreaming about planting an ax in his wife's forehead or Jack Nicholson attempting to do the same. There's an underlying unease in these kinds of movies about the role of men as breadwinners among the bourgeoisie--and owning a house is the ultimate in bourgeois status, after all. This spills into other aspects of the male social role. The Baby's Room takes its deteriorating psyche into the work life of its hero. Oddly, it ignores his sex life.

In any event, it's a pretty classical haunted house movie, but it's an expertly made one that generates that wonderful sense of frission in the back of the head at key moments. What more can one ask of a horror movie?




Current tally:
2 movies
2 first time viewings

Thursday, October 01, 2009

The October Challenge, 2009


Longtime readers probably know that I participate in The October Horror Movie Challenge every year. This event originally started on the IMDB horror boards, but it's spread a bit beyond that now. Today is the first day of October, so it's "Game On" for this year.

The premise is simple enough. Watch 31 horror movies (or more) by midnight on Halloween. 16 of them have to be movies that you've never seen before. I usually keep a running tally with mini reviews as I proceed. This year, I thought it might be fun to invite other people to participate in this as a kind of blogothon. To this end, I've made the graphic at the head of this post. Feel free to use it on your own blog, or make your own. If you're participating, put a link in the comments and I'll update this as a kind of directory over the course of the month.

Anyway, the game is afoot. I need to get to work, myself.

Enjoy.