OCTOBER 30, 2013
Any hope that the remake of Carrie would overcome the odds and manage to convince me it had a creative reason to exist was erased literally the second the film began, as the first credit appeared and I recognized the "Trajan" font that has become synonymous with generic studio horror over the past decade. Sure, they used it in the ads as well, but the fact that they went all in and put it in the movie practically shouted at me, loud and clear, "This is another reason why people will hate on remakes, sorry." And you might think I'm being ridiculous to lose all hope in a movie because of its damn font, but since the next 90 minutes did nothing but confirm I was right, over and over again, maybe you can give me the benefit of the doubt, eh?
Indeed, the most fascinating thing about the movie was how bland and mechanical it was. Director Kimberly Peirce and screenwriter Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa repeatedly said over the past year or so (the movie was delayed 6 months for reasons still unknown, unless it was the obvious: "It's not very good so let's put it out at Halloween when people will see anything genre-related.") that they weren't remaking Brian De Palma's film but going back to the original text, which is all I can hope for with such things. As I've explained a million times before, I don't consider Carpenter's The Thing to be a remake any more than I do Coppola's Dracula - it's a new take on written material, with anything in common from a previous movie more coincidental than anything. But there's no way in hell you could believe that here; every single thing that De Palma and his screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen changed from Stephen King's novel has been magically changed again here - even the things that didn't quite work when they did it in 1976 (SPOILER: Mrs. White once again dies in a Christ-pose courtesy of a dozen or so telekinetically thrown knives). This is probably why Cohen once again has screenwriting credit even though he didn't work on the film - this is not common for remakes even of movies that AREN'T adapted from books or whatever (the only times I can recall it happening are The Hitcher and The Omen remakes), so the fact that he's still getting credited for HIS adaption is pretty telling.
In fact, the only things that I can see that were taken from the book and NOT in De Palma's (if they were in the 2002 TV movie, I don't know - still haven't seen it) are superfluous. One is the fact that Sue Snell is pregnant, a "plot point" that amounts to exactly one line of dialogue and one moment of morning sickness for which we are led to believe her guilt was to blame. Another I wouldn't even have noticed if not for the fact that De Palma's version "spoke" to me - the gym teacher's name has been reverted back to Desjardin after De Palma/Cohen switched it to the much cooler name of "Collins". And that's pretty much it - there isn't a single thing from the book that we didn't get to see in 1976. It truly baffles me that with the bigger budget and advances in FX that they couldn't think of anything of note to do differently during the TK sequences, especially with CGI at their disposal to pull off things that would have been impossible then. The non-destruction of the town is a huge puzzle - in the book, Carrie destroys the entire city, pretty much, but this movie, as with the original, limits her carnage to the school and a bit of the surrounding area (a few minor explosions from sewer holes and a sinkhole on one street), plus her house.
I also didn't get why they didn't use the book's framing device, which had it all in flashback. Not only would it have been proof that they were truly going from King's text, but it also would have been more modern - the "start at the end" thing is a pretty common trope these days (too common, if you ask me), but often it's not very justified; it just tells us who lives and spoils part of its own ending more often than not. But some random survivor (not difficult; apart from the people I've already mentioned, no one has much of a character here - there isn't even a "Norma" type standin among the girls) telling the tale, over shots of a completely decimated town - that would actually WORK. But no, apart from a scene of Mrs. White giving birth (the most significant "from the book!" element), the movie begins and ends exactly the same, failing to make use of its source material at every turn. Even when things seem like they might be a bit different, Peirce and Sacasa hold back - the girls are playing volleyball in the pool this time, and thus I thought they'd have Carrie have her period there, letting the blood mix with the blue water for a disturbing visual, but no. They go into the shower room (in 2013? That even still happen anywhere?) and things proceed as you'd expect.
So is it any good? Let's assume that I'm the target audience, i.e. teenagers who haven't seen the original (or read the book, but come on, does that need to be clarified in this day and age?). In that case, yeah, it's fine I guess. At the risk of sounding pervy, I don't understand the point of giving the role of Carrie to the most attractive girl in the cast, but Chloe Moretz does a fine job of earning our sympathies, while also fumbling about awkwardly enough for us to understand why the boys wouldn't at least give her a second look (she's less effective in the 3rd act; I don't think ANYONE can pull off moving their arms around REALLY HARD to show telekinesis - probably why they didn't have Sissy Spacek do it). And the rest of the girls are sufficiently horrible without going too overboard into cartoon villainy (though Chris' boyfriend, played by some guy with nowhere near the charisma of John Travolta, comes close), with bonus points for casting Hart "Ellis" Bochner as Chris' dad - a fine shorthand for an audience to understand she comes from an entitled upbringing. The less said about Julianne Moore, however, the better - her over-the-top scenery chewing most definitely will not earn her an Oscar nomination (a Razzie might not be out of the question), though it makes Judy Greer (as Desjardin) shine even brighter by comparison; if there's any reason for a fan of the original to see this, it might be her.
But a younger audience might be just as confused as I was as to how old-fashioned it was. Apart from the "plug it up!" scene being filmed with a camera phone, it's a bizarrely outdated film - the same character with the iPhone at one point even runs home to check her email, as if it wasn't something she can do with her portable device. And when Sue has to make her mad dash to the prom to stop Carrie from being humiliated, she does so by driving, looking around for a way to get into the school, etc - rather than just text her boyfriend the news. Fuck, I'm sick to death of found footage, but there's a way to do the finale that way that would have actually worked on a narrative level (and again, would have been a good way to update the novel's flashback structure), and yet it goes curiously unexplored. It's not uncommon to wonder why a not-great movie didn't do this or that when you're removed from it, but wondering AS IT'S HAPPENING is a sure sign of a film that has completely failed to engage the audience. Hell, I'm not exactly an expert on De Palma's film (I've only seen it twice) or the novel (read once, at least a decade ago), so considering my poor memory I should have been able to more or less "forget" how everything turned out, but the movie's insistence on sticking to the previous film just kept giving me deja vu. Hell even with The Omen (a closer copy) there were a couple of "re-surprise" moments, but I never once got that here. Only the occasional line (like a rather funny one about Tim Tebow) let me know that they HAD indeed written some semblance of a new script. So it's got one up on Psycho '98, I'll give it that much, but to me a good remake should interest viewers new and old - this one almost goes out of its way to alienate the latter.
And then they twist the knife one last time, offering up a ridiculous shot of a tombstone cracking (via not-very-good CGI) to close the film in place of one of the all time great final scares in horror history. But in a way it's kind of perfect; the film starts on something new and ends on something the same only worse, precisely mirroring the likely intentions of Peirce and her cast. It wouldn't surprise me if the studio demanded something "safer" (while still - admirably - R-rated), and certainly the recent (re)wave of school shootings probably didn't help the movie any, but I didn't pay 8 bucks (matinee!) for their initial ideas. With so many paths they could have chosen, they took the least effective one at every turn, and the film's less-than-stellar box office performance - without a single competitor in a year that horror has been doing quite well - proves that their non-risk didn't pay off. Next time do it right or don't do it at all.
What say you?
Oh, No... Let's Go CRAZY!
As always, the show will be at the New Beverly Cinema, located at 7165 Beverly Blvd, Los Angeles, 90036 (two blocks west of La Brea). Street parking is easy to find (just check the signs as there are some permit zones) and tickets are a mere 8 bucks at the door or in advance via BrownPaperTickets. The screening will be on Saturday, October 26th at 11:59 pm, and yes I'll have some DVDs to give away for easy trivia questions. Working on special guests, but since a couple folks have already asked: Mr. Rudd is a no-go - we DID ask him, and he replied within like 30 minutes, but alas it's his kid's birthday that weekend and thus he will be celebrating (he lives in New York so it wasn't really likely anyway, but the fact that he replied so quickly proves it wasn't a waste of time to try!). Also, if you want to make a full night of it, on a separate bill the Bev is having a fine double feature of He Knows You're Alone and (previous HMAD show) Psycho II that night, also 8 bucks for the pair. For less than 20 bucks you can see three fun horror flicks on glorious 35mm in one evening! Not bad at all.
*I was hoping to do H4 for its 25th anniversary, but 1, 4, and 5 are tied up due to the Screenvision screenings, sadly.
OCTOBER 18, 2013
Hey look - I didn't even do full reviews of every movie I saw when I was doing this shit full time. You think this year will be any different? HELL NO. Read on for capsule reviews of the films I saw at Screamfest that I didn't think enough much of, or simply didn't have the time, to write up full HMAD-y rambles. And in one case I couldn't because it boasted end credits by yours truly!
My pick for the weakest film of the fest (which was thankfully short on found footage movies; the only other one was Delivery and that one's good), this one had the ingredients for a fine traditionally shot creeper - a great location (an actual glacier!), a lovely leading lady (Anna Gunndís Guðmundsdóttir), and a Thing like cast of blue collar scientist types who get wiped out by SOMETHING that is disturbed during their work. But as with Apollo 18, they opt to go the POV route and kill the suspense and momentum of the narrative. And (also like A18), there are only two characters, so it's deathly dull as well since nothing of note can happen to either of them for quite a while. Bonus points for the ending, which (spoiler) switches to traditional filmmaking in order to explain how the footage got back to civilization, but it's too little too late - they should have done that at the halfway point, allowing for a speedier than usual FF sequence and then a real finale.
This is the one I worked on! But as always, I never got to see it before making my credits, so I had no idea if it would be something I'd be embarrassed to be associated with, however tenuously. Luckily, that wasn't the case - this was a damned entertaining blend of film noir and supernatural/psychological horror. Angel Heart would be a good point of reference (and not just because they share a New Orleans locale), so if you dug that film you should find a lot to like here - including sex scenes that would make the MPAA blush (we were seeing an unrated version; no word on how the censors will feel about certain activities). Kudos to Adam Geirasch and Jace Anderson on their best film yet, and look for this one next year (it's already been picked up for distribution!).
The plot synopsis includes "Held prisoner in a house full of antique toys, she must overcome her deranged captors or become a living doll", which led me to believe that the other dolls were former humans and she'd literally become one of them. But no, there's nothing supernatural about it, and the dolls don't really factor into anything beyond some mildly creepy set dressing. So once I realized it was much more straightforward, I had fun with this blend of Misery and The Baby, with our heroine being held against her will by a deranged woman and her fully grown "baby" daughter, who suffers from some sort of mental handicap that basically has her acting feral. It's a bit TOO simplistic; the movie mostly revolves around her attempts to escape (which we know she won't do until the movie's over, if that) and her boyfriend's attempts to find her. A potentially exciting subplot involving her best friend (who has been sleeping with said boyfriend) coming to pick her up and being taken as well is dealt with far too quickly, and the end is a bit abrupt, but it's an admirably gonzo slice of Spanish horror. Since most of their films are a bit more subdued, it's nice to see them have a little more fun.
THE SEASONING HOUSE
There were three movies with rape as a plot point in this year's festival; I allowed myself one. Nothing personal against such fare, but it's a long, busy month and I can only do about 1/3 of the things I'd like to (not even counting all the usual things I have to skip: I haven't turned my Xbox on in weeks, or been to Harmontown, etc). So why spend some of that limited time watching something that will just depress me? But the solid cast (Sean Pertwee, Kevin Howarth, Anna Walton) prompted me to give it a look, and while it certainly didn't change my mind about such movies, at least MOST of the depravity was left off-screen, and had a unique hook at its center: our heroine is deaf and thus couldn't often even HEAR her fellow captors' pleas for help (the title refers to a house where young girls are drugged and rented out to soldiers to do with as they please), and unlike the others isn't chained up and is free to go about the house - something that comes in handy when she turns the tables on the antagonists in the 3rd act. As these things go I've certainly seen worse, and it's based on a true story (for real!), so it's got more merit than the usual I Spit On Your Grave wannabes, but I couldn't wait for it be over so I could go look at a puppy or something.
Part of why I was so annoyed by all of the shorts with full film crews (100 or more people, in some cases) is because this feature length movie had about 20 total people on both sides of the camera. Hell, there was even a short with a shockingly similar storyline (and also shot in upstate New York) that supposedly needed like double the manpower to pull it off. Thus, I walked away more impressed by this; it's not the most exciting movie ever made, but I liked how small scale and personal it was, going for drama more than overt horror and usually succeeding. I was also impressed with the makeup; it's about a Stand-like virus that has wiped out most of the country, with one of our two heroes getting infected early on (the movie is about his decline as his partner tries to keep him alive), allowing us to see the various stages of the disease. First it's just some boils on the face, but by the end they look like a botched experiment from The Fly (his foot in particular was an icky highlight), also impressive in light of that short which didn't offer much insight into what was killing everyone.
GOLDBERG & EISENBERG
Not really horror, but a unique take on a revenge film, where a man (Eisenberg) suddenly fixates on another (Goldberg) and lashes out when the gestures of friendship are not returned. So it's basically the 2nd half of Cable Guy stretched to a feature, with things getting darker and heading into Coen Brothers territory (a fair point of reference since they are special thanked as "Gods" in the end credits along with Tarantino and a few others). It can be a bit repetitious, but it's a great "go in blind" movie as you're never sure where it's heading, and both actors are terrific; offering a steady anti-chemistry and straddling the line between sympathetic and hateful (yes, both of them). Director Oren Carmi also offers a few great long takes (including one in a cramped apartment where the blocking keeps teasing the expected moment where an unconscious character springs back into action), and as he explained in the Q&A after it's not exactly easy to get funding in Israel for such dark material, so kudos to him for taking a tough project and making it even more of a challenge. This just start its festival run, so it probably won't be out for a while - keep an eye out if you like your movies dark and JUST off-kilter enough to stand out but not so much that it turns into a farce.
And sadly that's all I saw besides the films I reviewed in full (The Dead 2, Torment, Demon's Rook, and Beneath). It's ironic; I was all excited about Screamfest being closer this year, but because of so many other things going on I ended up missing more movies than usual. I have screeners for a couple of others, but I'm bummed I missed seeing films like Haunter and 308 (Cannon Fodder was one I purposely skipped - life's too short for another zombie movie with wall to wall terrible digital blood, as seen in its trailer). I also didn't see as many shorts as I would have liked, though of the three blocks I DID attend I found this year's crop to be rather underwhelming; the best was The Banishing, which took a haunting tale and spun it into darker, BC-approved territory (I also loved that it featured a girl who instantly googled "Banishing spells" when her little sister began claiming there was a ghost talking to her). I also quite liked The Barista (which began with a riff on Unbreakable and went to a much funnier place), Dembanger (which detailed the reasons why you shouldn't accept random Facebook requests), and Skypemare, which has a pretty self-explanatory title and featured the lovely Cerina Vincent. And while I didn't care much about the plot, the stop-motion Butterflies was a marvel to look at - not sure if I just didn't hit the right blocks, but even more disappointing than the underwhelming entries was the lack of variety - it was the only animated one I saw.
So, overall, not the most memorable fest, but at least it only had one stinker (and even that was at least competent and mildly entertaining at times), and I loved the new locale as it offered free parking if you were lucky (not a chance in its last three venues) and affordable concessions (ditto - I'm usually broke by week's end). Plus there were a lot of foreign films which is always a plus, and things ran completely smooth; apart from the opening night movie (a given) nothing started late or had to get pulled/replaced. And you can't argue about the eating options: the hot dog place, Chipotle, a wings place, Panda Express, a pie shop (!), and Starbucks were all within a block. That's good quick-eating. Please bring it back to the Noho Laemmle next year!
What say you?
Chilling Visions: 5 Senses of Fear (2013) d. Various (USA)
The multi-headed anthology film, where a disparate group of filmmakers ally forces (or at least throw their respective hats into the same ring), continues to gain steam and **thisclose** to being a legitimate subgenre unto itself. Three...Extremes, Chillerama, the V/H/S films, The Theatre Bizarre, Little Deaths, The ABCs of Death and so on. However, I can’t say I’ve been really impressed by most of these, since many simply feel like a two-hour short-film festival with little unifying rhyme or reason. On the one hand, I’m happy these artists are reaching a broader audience than they might just shilling their short on YouTube, Vimeo, et al., but at the same time, my nostalgic heart pines for a time when the portmanteau format was utilized with a bit more cohesiveness and forethought, where a unifying vision ran through the proceedings. Even if the stories themselves were uneven, they at least felt like they were of the same universe. Happily, Chilling Visions (originally produced for and aired on the Chiller network this May, and now available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory) is that rare beast where all involved are pulling in the same direction even as they utilize the “divide and conquer” method of filmmaking.
The five short films – each relating to a different sense – that make up Visions, despite ranging dramatically in tone, are all cut from the same narrative cloth with linking elements popping up from previous segments. Not only does this provide a higher level of watchability, it indicates a true sense of collaboration and forethought, especially since the shorts were all penned by their individual directors. This is probably the most rewarding aspect, and one that I hope we see more of in future anthologies of this ilk. There is a sense of purpose uniting Nick Everhart (“Smell”), Miko Hughes (“See”), Emily Hagins (“Touch”), Eric England (“Taste”) and the creative duo Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton (“Listen”), and while the final result is not revolutionary, it’s certainly enjoyable Halloween fare.
Everhart’s lead-off segment is probably the weakest of the bunch – a lame fable that doesn’t seem to have much of a moral except “Don’t accept gifts from strangers.” Here, Corey Scott Rutledge is woken up by mysterious Mary Poppins-like saleslady Danae Nason, offering him a change of scent-ery thanks to a pheromone-altering spritzer. Well, the stuff works like gangbusters, turning the former office drone into a sex/power magnet with only the mild side effects of leaving behind inky black sores covering the entirety of his body. Fair trade, right?
Everhart doesn’t seem to have much on his mind except ooze and goo, but if you can muscle through, things do get better with Hughes' (yes, Gage from Pet Sematary) directorial debut. “See” concerns optometrist Ted Yudain who has developed a procedure by which he can capture his patients’ memories in droplet form and then administer to himself, literally seeing the world through their eyes. When he finds out that his favorite patient Debra Jans is being abused by psycho boyfriend Lowell Byers, Yudain sets out to teach the thug a painful lesson. Though the twist ending hardly approaches Twilight Zone heights, it’s an amusing enough yarn that goes down easy.
Hagins, who dazzled the world as a 12-year-old when she wrote/directed her first feature Pathogen and has continued to grow and deepen as an artist, is probably the highest profile name on board. She lives up to her early promise with a sensitive and well-crafted piece about blind Caleb Barwick seeking help after his parents are injured in a car wreck. The resourceful lad finds an abandoned community inhabited by a dangerous individual (one who might be familiar to sharp-eyed viewers) and must use his wits to survive the encounter.
In addition to be skillfully acted and produced, it is in “Touch” that we start sensing the connective tissue between the stories, and Madison County’s Eric England bring it into sharper focus with his slight but splattery segment, “Taste.” Cocky young hacker Doug Roland is brought to the mysterious Watershed Corporation to be recruited by sexy exec Symba Smith; when he expresses doubts over being a team player, he is introduced to a piece of Saw-type machinery wielded by the shapely headhunter. The story itself isn’t much of a narrative achievement, but it surprisingly imbues the preceding episodes with a bit more weight thanks to clues dropped herein.
The stage is then set for the final story, “Listen,” which one suspects was originally produced as a standalone piece by Holland and Mitton (nearly all the technical credits are different than the other stories). Documentarians Lance Kramer and Joe Varca are developing a piece about a killer tune – as in when it is played in its entirety, people die. The found footage format is a tired device and the clumsily pixilated breaks in editing don’t do it any favors, but the mood and central conceit are so strong (like their 2010 feature YellowBrickRoad) and the stark imagery so terrifyingly straight-faced that it easily takes the top spot of the quintet and leaves a very satisfying impression of the whole.
Scream Factory’s Blu-ray release doesn’t contain much in the way of extras – just a single deleted scene from “Smell” and a couple trailers/teasers – which is too bad since one imagines that the making-of process would be a fairly interesting one to shed light on. The films were all shot in only four days, back-to-back, with only three days between each shoot. According to the movie’s trivia page on IMDb, the first segment, "Smell," was actually filming in a Connecticut hotel room during Hurricane Sandy while most of the state was out of power, and many people were evacuating their homes. To me, that’s an interesting story – it’s too bad either Chiller or Scream Factory (or both) thought otherwise. Even so, it’s a worthwhile slice of made-for-cable fright, and among the best of Chiller’s recent output.
Chilling Visions: 5 Senses of Fear is available now from Shout! Factory and can be purchased HERE.
--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine
Synopsis: Spencer is fixated on keeping everything in its exact, specific place. His obsession is so extreme it has cut him off from the outside world and is now threatening his five-year relationship with his girlfriend, Samantha. After Samantha walks out on a romantic dinner he has prepared, he soon becomes a victim of his own obsessive behavior when random objects around his condo mysteriously shift out of place when he's not looking.
Oh, No... Let's Go CRAZY!
Nothing Left to Fear (2013) d. Anthony Leonardi III (USA)
When a new pastor (James Tupper) arrives with his wife (Anne Heche) andfamily at the dust blown borders of Stull, Kansas to head up the local congregation, he finds himself unwittingly caught up in a mysterious Wicker Man-type conspiracy with specific designs for his two daughters, Rebecca (Rebekah Brandes) and Mary (Jennifer Stone) Unfortunately, despite screenwriter Jonathan W.C. Mills’ attempts to do something different with the “insiders/outsiders” tropes, the enterprise is submarined by director Anthony Leonardi III’s misdirection of his ensemble and misguided overuse of humdrum swirling black CGI tendrils.
On the behind-the-scenes segment of Anchor Bay’s recent DVD/Blu-ray combo, there is a universal chorus of approval for Mills’ script, so it’s sad that whatever was so magical on the page is lost in translation. For starters, the performances range from blah to bland and back to blah. Heche headlines, though she’s given nothing to do except good naturedly smile, smirk and smart aleck as Christian Suzy Homemaker.
Similarly, Tupper is so vanilla he ought to come with his own wafer cone. Brandes and Stone as our two sisters are spunky and spirited enough, but they are thinly drawn and soon become nothing more than cogs in the wheel. Veteran Clancy Brown brings his trademark gravitas to the mix as Stull’s retiring minister, but it’s all too apparent all too soon that his intentions are far from godly. But the worst offender is Ethan Peck, whose leaden dull line deliveries nearly put me to sleep every time he opened his well chiseled jaw.
This is a case where the bells and whistles destroy the decent campfire tale at the core. Oddly enough, Stone chatters on about how much she enjoyed the fact that f/x house Spectral Motion would be employing practical effects, but the swirling clouds of CGI tarn and “sweetened” menace surrounding her supplant the tactile impact. Leonardi clearly doesn’t understand what makes horror work, only how to play at it.
Boo scares, odd looks and jump cuts abound, but these mechanical by-the-numbers tactics result in nothing more than an efficient but forgettable made-for-cable movie, as blandly nondescript as its snoozy title. For the record, the unmemorable score is by Nicholas O’Toole and Guns n’ Roses’ Slash, who also co-produced.
Nothing Left to Fear is available now for purchase from Anchor Bay Entertainment.
OCTOBER 13, 2013
I recently read an article about people who accidentally leave their babies in the car, how they're not bad people or whatever, but victims of a strange tic in the way that our brains work when working through a routine. One likened it to driving to work (it's the most easily identifiable example) - you can get in your car and get all the way to work without actively thinking about any of it, because you've done it so many times. And that's part of the problem I had with horror movies after a while and also part of why I quit doing this every day: there were too many of those "drive to work" movies, where I could watch the whole thing and retain absolutely nothing about the experience, making writing a review next to impossible. Happily, there are movies like The Demon's Rook that, while imperfect, at least know enough to make an impression.
The coolest thing about the movie is how damn WEIRD it is, and also how it seems to be that way by careful(ish) design and not just a bunch of dudes making shit up as they go along and throwing things in at random. On the surface, it's not particularly complicated or unique: a guy comes back to his hometown and must battle an evil demon that has been wiping out the town - could be any random Stephen King novel, right? But when you add in the specifics, it truly forges its own identity, and the script by Akom Tidwell and James Sizemore (who also directs, stars, and performs a half dozen other crew positions) adds flavor at every turn - a mouse running over a piano, a kid asking a demon for pancakes, a guy performing an impromptu hoe-down with his friends because he's so excited about getting married... all these things keep the movie from ever being the slightest bit boring, a HUGE achievement when you consider it runs 105 minutes (longest movie I saw at the festival) and is the first film from just about everyone involved.
But the weird thing is, it's not very funny. In fact, no matter how ostensibly goofy the narrative gets at times, everyone plays it straight, never going for laughs or (worse) campy "so bad it's good" attitude. They're all fully committed to this odd little tale, and that's what makes it work as well as it does - nothing can kill a low budget movie like this quicker than everyone thinking they're comic geniuses, or having the attitude that if they laugh at themselves on camera, the audience will too. This also allowed me to forgive some of its missteps, such as seemingly going out of their way to find a kid who looked absolutely nothing like Sizemore to play his younger self, or curiously having nearly every character be an artist of some sort (there's like 9 scenes of people drawing before being distracted by demon carnage in some form or another).
Another thing I really appreciated was the FX work (also by Sizemore, who taught himself). Not only is it all practical (I will never, ever, EVER get tired of seeing an actor get squirted with real blood - and in this day and age, it's even more admirable and awesome), but there's an impressive variety to all of the demons, including the tree-like head demon villain and the one sort-of good one, who looks a bit like the freak from The Funhouse. It's like an indie Nightbreed - every demon/monster gets its own unique design even if they're not featured very prominently.
In fact, my only real gripe was the ending, which was more of a downer than it needed to be, and abrupt to boot. I understand that this was one of those productions where cast members would constantly drop out and the movie was shot entirely on weekends over a long period, so perhaps something happened and they had to come up with a new ending or something, but either way it just feels tacked on and unnecessarily grim. At 105 minutes I don't think it needed to be LONGER, but if that's what they indeed wanted to go with, I wish it could have all ended at the big massacre that we know has been coming throughout the film (we keep seeing posters for a big concert - no horror movie has such an event unless something big and violent is going to happen there). That sequence ends and then we go to the next morning, with some shuffling about before the action kicks in again, briefly, before just ending like a Hammer movie. Throughout the movie I was impressed by the first-timer's better than average direction and editing, so it's a bummer that it gets kind of clunky in its final moments.
On the other hand, they did such a great job of telling their story visually that we (meaning me and the folks I watched it with) didn't even realize that the theater had fucked up and cropped out a small portion of the top and bottom of the frame - including the subtitles for the demon language. There's a 10 minute sequence at the halfway point, where hero Roscoe reveals how he was taken by the demons, taught their ways, and managed to escape - all of which told in the gibberish demon language. We could always tell what was happening, and assumed that it was a creative decision to keep the audience from understanding exactly what was being said the whole time. It wasn't until the end credits that we realized the framing was off, as there was a still frame credit for all of the executive producers and the title "executive producers" was missing. So we got to see a scope version of the movie thanks to the Laemmle Noho 7 staff not understanding how to frame things properly (this is why being a projectionist isn't something just anyone should be doing without proper training). Luckily, the film showed twice and they got it right the other time, so it was just our crowd that got this unusual version, one that just sort of added to the weirdness (thanks to one of the producers I got to see the subtitled version later - it was mostly gibberish even in English, so if you were also at that screening, it wasn't exactly a huge revelation).
In short, this is the sort of indie horror I wish I saw more often - it's not trying to fit into any particular hot sub-genre (it feels a bit zombie movie-ish at times, but it's a very small element), it's competently (and CONFIDENTLY) made, and doesn't try to make up for its shortcomings with horrible attempts at humor. It may run a little long, but ultimately I'd rather watch something like this for 9 straight hours before enduring another 80 minute Saw or Paranormal Activity wannabe.
What say you?
Hidden in the Woods (2012) d. Patricio Valladares (Chile)
An assault on the senses and the soul, one whose curtain-raiser features a father raping his daughter, then dropping the ensuing infant into a bucket nine months later and feeding it raw meat. Exploitation nightmare logic holds sway over cohesive storytelling, presenting a dark fable where destitute chainsaw-wielding psychopaths outrun and outgun gun-toting police officers, where runaway waifs turn cannibal, where one’s shattered brachioradialis (aka the forearm bone) becomes a lethal weapon, where everyone’s dark side is their only side....
Shot in less than two weeks for under $100K, director Patricio Valladares co-wrote the “based on true events” script for this hometown shocker with Andrea Cavaletto. (Apparently, he told the Chilean Film Board that he was working on a “domestic drama” in order to get funding, then went off to work his sleazy magic unsupervised.) While there’s little denying Valladares’ power of savage visual imagery and social commentary, he occasionally sabotages himself by breaking his own brutal spell as he stretches our suspension of disbelief to its limits; every time our synapses choke on the narrative action’s implausibility, it’s an unfortunate reminder that we’re just watching a movie. The results are raw, rough, rude, ridiculous and raucous, which you will either find enjoyably batshit crazy, hauntingly traumatic, outrageously sadistic, hilariously over the top, or a combination of all of the above.
Regardless of your final estimation, Hidden in the Woods is an experience you’ll not soon forget. Michael Biehn and his lovely wife/business partner Jennifer Blanc certainly thought so; they snapped up the English language remake rights immediately after its world premiere at Fantasia 2012, and are entrenched in post-production as of this writing. Valladares is again at the helm, with Biehn starring alongside Blanc, William Forsythe, and Electra Avellan (aka one half of the Crazy Babysitter Twins).
Artsploitation’s recent DVD release comes complete with a behind-the-scenes featurette that, while relatively random in its ordering and selection of footage, provides a portrait of Valladares as a centered and focused young man who maintains a low-key atmosphere even on his broiling hot locations sets. Frequently laughing or smiling while splashing fake blood around or directing his actors to scream louder, the writer/director sets the rebellious yet fun-loving tone that is the mark of any solid independent filmmaker. There is also a short interview with him from the Fantasia film festival just days after the remake deal had gone down, and you can see that he’s still not quite believing his good fortune.
There is also included a marvelous 8-page booklet, highlighted by Travis Crawford’s enthusiastic and intelligent essay about the film’s tumultuous reception at London Frightfest, and the fierce controversy that ensued. It’s a wonderful look at how subjective everyone’s experience can be with regards to such outrageous material, and a fine addition to the superb Artsploitation package.
Hidden in the Woods is now available for purchase from Artsploitation Films and can be ordered HERE.
--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine
The House on Straw Hill (aka Exposé aka Trauma) (1976) d. James Kenelm Clarke (UK)
A curiously dubbed Udo Kier plays a high-strung novelist working out the sophomore jitters in his country hideaway (when he’s not donning rubber gloves to do the horizontal mambo with bouncy playmate Fiona Richmond, that is), with Linda Hayden as the typist hired to take dictation. One of the infamous “video nasties” banned in Britain in the ’80s, writer/director James Kenelm Clarke presents a hallucinatory and twisted portrait of sex and violence, and while his presentation has a decided confidence of conviction, his narrative is absolute loopy claptrap...which is not necessarily a bad thing.
When Hayden isn’t wildly masturbating in the other room – which is often – she’s being raped in a field by two passing bicyclists, smarting off to the housekeeper, or luring Richmond into Sapphic embraces (though one gets the impression that Lady Fiona – she of the impossibly fake torpedoes and enormous jawline – could be seduced by a bowl of frosted flakes. She’s kinda, y’know, easy).
Meanwhile, people around the house keep getting messily bumped off. If you’re a stickler for logical storytelling, prepare to be frustrated. But if you’re just showing up for the naughty bits, you shouldn’t be disappointed.
As stated in a disclaimer prior to the feature, Severin Films has assembled its recent DVD/BR combo from three different sources. Apparently, the original elements had suffered severe water damage; as such there are pronounced flaws in the presentation, most noticeably in the form of flickering brightness levels, but these are very minor distractions considering the lurid subject matter unspooling before us. One can only imagine the effort required, and the final results are to be congratulated.
The supplemental features are equally impressive, beginning with the extraordinarily articulate and chatty audio commentary with writer/director Clarke and producer Brian Smedley-Aston, who also handled the second-unit photography and additional (uncredited) editing duties. A quick glance at these two artists’ film credits should have horror fans sitting up a little straighter in their seats; Smedley-Aston not only served as editor for The Shuttered Room, Squirm and Blue Sunshine, he produced Jose Ramon Larraz’s acclaimed 1975 feature Vampyres for which Clarke provided the musical score. (Witness the “I am a Vampyre” t-shirt on one of the bicyclists.)
In addition to the theatrical trailer, there is a lovely 2003 interview featurette with Hayden, “An Angel for Satan,” in which she pleasantly discusses her early sexy beginnings (Baby Love) on to her Hammer and Tigon features (Taste the Blood of Dracula, Blood on Satan’s Claw) and other genre efforts (Madhouse, Old Dracula). She still expresses great regret over having done House on Straw Hill, although her persistent claims of the filmmakers utilizing inserts and body doubles are as puzzling as ever since it’s clearly her face attached to her body.
It may have been ill-advised action on her part (though I’m certainly not complaining), but it’s undeniably her action and no one else’s. Smedley-Aston and Clarke theorize that much of Hayden's ill will toward the completed film may have been arisen due to the distributor's selling it as an erotic thriller (retitled Exposé) starring Richmond!
But perhaps the most enlightening extra is the bonus disc containing David Gregory’s exemplary examination of the BBCC Video Nasty crackdown, Ban the Sadist Videos!, a two-part documentary which delves deep into the societal and political environment that led to one of the most notorious incidents of censorship in recent memory. Though it’s composed largely of talking heads and close-ups of newspaper headlines, it’s a thrilling look at a dark era not too far in our collective rear-view mirrors, where the small-minded few held sway over the many. Those who forget the past, my friends, are doomed to repeat it....
House on Straw Hill is now available from Severin Films and can be purchased HERE.
I Spit on Your Grave 2 (2013) d. Monroe, Steven R. (USA)
I was a relatively inexperienced exploitation viewer when I first encountered the original 1978 I Spit on Your Grave. As a result, I couldn’t feel the full impact of the beast since the shoddy camerawork, lackluster performances, and middling makeup effects kept me at a distance. I understood that this was a terrible situation that our main character Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton) was in, but the execution of the story itself couldn’t get past the filter of my Hollywood-honed sensibilities. Later, as I consumed more alternative and rough-edged efforts, I revisited the film and was not only more affected, but more impressed by what writer/director Meir Zarchi had been able to capture. Like the child who shies away from the bitterness of coffee yet later grows to appreciate a double expresso, my tastes have either sharpened or dulled (depending on your opinion) to see past the flaws wrought by meager funds and limited experience. I now see I Spit on Your Grave (aka Day of the Woman) as a vital piece of exploitation cinema, a brave, fearless and underrated examination of the reality of rape and the fantasy of revenge.
As with nearly every significant genre title of the 70s and 80s, ISOYG was eventually fitted for the inevitable remake slot in 2010. Expectations could not have been lower, knowing that they couldn’t possibly go “there” in the way that the 1978 original had, and this would either be a watered down version or it would wallow in the unpleasantness of the act a la Irreversible (a brilliant film, but no need for a repeat visit to that well). However, much to my surprise, director Steven R. Monroe and screenwriter Stuart Morse managed to ably straddle the line, pulling off a well-acted, skillfully shot thriller that didn’t pull any punches but also didn’t keep slugging after viewers had gone numb.
There were a few quibbles, such as Morse’s inexplicable decision to make a “mystery” of who was exacting the revenge killings of the rapists, distancing us from Jennifer (now played by Sarah Butler) in so doing, and the extravagance of her Saw-like torture devices that – while appropriately nasty – almost took us out of the film as we thought, “How’d she rig that thing up?” For the most part, though, I was mightily impressed and earmarked Monroe as a director to watch, since it was clear from his C.V. that he was a red-blooded horror guy working his way up the ranks.
This brings us up to speed for my recent viewing of I Spit on Your Grave 2. Expectations were dialed in: I knew this would be another rape/revenge film (by now, I’ve seen a few). I knew that Monroe, also helming the sequel, could deliver the goods with restraint. I knew that the lead, Jemma Dallender, was an actress of substance, having seen her work earlier this year in the bizarre UK hoodie-horror flick, Community. I also knew that the film was already amassing a huge amount of hate and invective for even existing, that “rape is not entertainment.” I hadn’t remembered such an uproar the first time around, except that the Hollywood suits were once again desecrating another “classic,” but it did strike me as odd that they would be either continuing the story or that they would do another rape/revenge scenario under the guise of a sequel.
After the first 15 minutes, I started to understand the cause for all the cybernoise. ISOYG2 is an insulting film, to women, to men, and to moviegoers with half a brain. I don’t know who this picture was made for (and it apparently has a few fans already), but I’m decidedly not among them. Even at the most prurient level, this isn’t entertainment. It’s too stupid, too squalid, too sadistic and too ridiculous to even masquerade as a cautionary tale. It’s filled with such unbelievable and unpleasant characters – including the victim herself – such that we connect to no one. Yes, we see our unfortunate aspiring model Katie (Dallender) invaded and tortured and raped, but she’s a plot device rather than a human being. Yes, we see ugly thuggish brutes receiving comeuppance for their transgressions, but it’s all without substance. Yes, as a horror fan, I expect to be delivered the nasty goods, but with a subject as real and topical as rape, I expect it to be handled with more intelligence and sensitivity than a simple decapitation or Achilles tendon slice.
I could detail the various off-putting logistical elements (this wafer-thin waif is supposed to be a Missouri farm girl, the Eurothug rapists are straight out of Central Casting, the character posing as Katie’s advocate is clearly in on the scheme, Katie’s revenge schemes are shockingly improbably considering her surroundings – where is she getting the equipment, drugs, etc.) that Monroe and screenwriters Thomas Fenton and Neil Elman employ, but I’ve already wasted more time than the film deserves. The sexual torture sequences are in the worst possible taste, only topped by Katie’s transformation into a one-liner spouting harpy doling out perfunctory acts of vengeance. There is one nice story twist/reveal about 30 minutes in that I appreciated, one that I’ll preserve (even though many of my peers have already revealed it in their reviews) as it’s about the only redeeming feature of the 106-minute ordeal. Let’s hope someone appropriates it for a more deserving film someday.
The Anchor Bay DVD/Blu-Ray combo pack doesn’t bring much to the table in the way of extras, with only a few deleted scenes provided for supplementary materials. And whoever designed that “girl power” cover art deserves a swift kick in the cookies. Blech.
I Spit on Your Grave is available now for purchase from Anchor Bay Entertainment.
Welcome them with a scream! Thank you!
Oh, No... Let's Go CRAZY!
List of the newest HBA Members:
A - Ashes and Rashes
C - Cinema of Horror
C - CYoungMedia
H - Horror Movie Project
H - The Horror Blog
H - The Horror Newsstand
K - Kevin Lucia
M - The Manchester Morgue
M - Mom's Secret Horrors
N - The Nerdcronomicon
P - Pickled Cinema
P - Play With Death
R - Ravenous Reads
S - The Single Bullet Theory
W - Whispers from the Abyss
Y - Yesteryear Horror
Z - ZombiecideDK
OCTOBER 11, 2013
This morning I looked at BoxOfficeMojo and discovered that You're Next still hadn't even hit the 20m mark, which is so depressing since it was originally projected to make almost that much in its first weekend (and certainly deserved to). I still don't understand why the public rejected the movie, but I DO know that if it was a hit, movies like Torment would be able to get better deals for distribution than they might now, as it's in the same "home invasion" sub-genre and even has some similar elements (including killers wearing animal masks). Hopefully it will still find its way out there, as I found it to be a solid entry in the growing "folks terrorize people in their own home" series of films.
The first forty minutes or so work best; it's not long after our hero family (a man, his son, and his new wife Sarah, played by Katharine Isabelle) arrive at their vacation home that they realize someone has been in there: dirty dishes in the sink and in the bedrooms, a hole in the basement door, and - worst of all - one of the kid's stuffed animals has been taken. Assuming it to be burglars that have since moved on (and receiving no real help from the local police, embodied by Stephen McHattie, in case you weren't sure that this was a Canadian production), they go to bed... only to discover that their son is missing in the middle of the night.
From then on it's almost a realtime account of the two parents running around trying to find their son while dodging their attackers, who kill the cop, injure Sarah, and quite disturbingly have cut the heads off the kid's giant stuffed animals to make into masks. There are some terrific setpieces throughout this portion of the film, with director Jordan Barker (returning to Screamfest after his enjoyable ghost thriller The Marsh played there in 2006) doing Carpenter proud with some fine use of widescreen and background gags - I particularly loved when a barely visible light turned out in the background behind our hero, letting us (but not him) know the killers were still around. And he milks every second of the more suspense driven parts, with Isabelle or Robin Dunne (the husband) making their way down a hallway, not sure if the killer or killers are waiting to jump out of a room or from a closet behind them. And we know they're brutal killers from the opening scene where they kill a neighbor family (another thing that might bring You're Next to mind; I couldn't find if this was shot before or after YN began making its festival rounds), so there isn't much of a "safe" feeling for anyone but the kid - and he's MIA!
The Strangers may also come to mind, but here's where the film differs greatly from that one - the killers have a motive and explain why they are targeting this guy. It's not a terrible concept, but unfortunately the villain speaks with a voice not unlike Bane's from The Dark Knight Rises, and thus it's almost impossible to keep up that level of tension when I keep having the instinct to burst out laughing. I'm sure the thinking was that it would be creepy and unsettling, but it's just kind of goofy, and I'm of the opinion that these particular movies are scarier without any motive (YN being an exception since it was also more of a fun approach to such things), so the final 20 minutes or so aren't as strong as what came before. But it's got an appropriately grim ending and an admirably left-field twist (one that also registers as more goofy than creepy, to be fair), and it's only like 75 minutes without credits, and thus is never boring.
I also enjoyed seeing Isabelle in a likable, "normal" role, since her biggest genre turns so far have been Ginger Snaps and American Mary, both of which had her playing not particularly sympathetic characters. She's a lovely woman and a solid actress, and I was worried she'd only do horror movies that were in line with those, which would get tiresome. Good to see she's not "above" more traditional "final girl" type of roles, and also that she's playing her age instead of following the lead of some of her peers and trying to keep passing for college students when they're in their 30s (the irony being she'd have no trouble passing for someone ten years younger). And it's always good to see McHattie; he is used well in his two scenes and is pretty much the only other person in the movie besides the family and their pursuers, so it's good that they got an icon of sorts.
In short, it's not a game-changer, but it gets the job done and only has a few minor missteps. Sure, I'd rather a movie with a better 2nd half than the first, so you go out on a high note, but it's not like Mute Witness where you might as well shut the damn thing off once the truly suspenseful/scary part is over with and the movie has to get bogged down with its plot. And I liked it a lot more than any of the shorts in the following block, which only produced one I really enjoyed (Dembanger, about the drawbacks of accepting random friend requests on Facebook). There's this new trend where short films are just basically pitches for feature films, and are equally underdeveloped (as they are saving a lot of the narrative for the feature) and too damn long, and I'm getting kind of sick of it. I also tend to dislike guests of a short who are rude when the other ones are playing, such as the folks for Thirteen, which was also the weakest of the lot to boot. This is part of why I'd rather they didn't do a block and just attached them to the features, but oh well. I also enjoyed Woodland Heights, tho it too could have been a bit shorter. Hopefully the programmers just assumed Friday night would be tough and just sacrificed the weakest ones of the bunch in order to save the really good ones for the other nights, though that wasn't the case last year - Friday night's two short blocks in 2012 were among the all time best I've ever seen. Either way: MAKE SHORTER SHORTS. I didn't love ABCs of Death but at least I knew nothing would be more than 5-6 minutes; I saw one in the Screamfest program guide that runs just under a half hour - that's not a short film, that's an episode of a TV show!
What say you?
The Living and the Dead (2006) d. Simon Rumley (UK)
A gut-wrenching exploration of mental illness, social status, age and mortality, writer/director Simon Rumley’s macabre microbudget masterpiece attacks viewers with staccato visuals and a driving soundscape serving its terrifying high-concept narrative.
Determined to prove his worth to his stiff Brit father (Roger Lloyd Pack), a mentally challenged young man (Leo Bill) barricades his terminally ill mother (Kate Fahy) and himself within their once-beautiful-now-lying-derelict royal manor house, desperate to care for/cure her ills despite his obvious inability to do so.
Anchored by three amazing central performances, Rumley’s frenetic cinematic style recalls that of Darren Aronofsky’s nightmarish Requiem for a Dream, an apt comparison considering that both films contain undeniably horrifying imagery and scenarios, yet skirt the fringe of the genre proper. Highly recommended.