Rumpelstiltskin (1995)

FEBRUARY 29, 2012

GENRE: MONSTER
SOURCE: DVD (ONLINE RENTAL)

Since today doesn’t really exist, I decided to watch a movie that shouldn’t. Rumpelstiltskin is from Mark Jones, the writer/director of Leprechaun, and like that movie it tries to balance horror and humor in a wholly ridiculous concept. But it’s not quite as “successful”; there is some fun to be had, but it’s very lackluster in the horror/action department, and ol’ Rumpy doesn’t have the same appeal as Warwick Davis’ creation. The most interesting thing about it is that it actually got a minor theatrical release… I sure do miss the 90s sometimes.

Oddly enough it’s kind of a Terminator ripoff, with the little demon in the Arnold role as he chases a woman because he wants to kill her baby, who he thinks belongs to him after the mother makes a wish, or something. Missed a few of the plot points I think; the quality of the DVD was sub-budget pack, so some of the audio was hard to make out and I had no interest in trying to decipher it. Anyway, it’s basically a long chase as she makes her way out of her Encino neighborhood (which I recognized instantly!) and out into the same damn hills/cliffs that we’ve seen in a million other horror/action movies. Along the way she is joined by some loud mouthed asshole from the radio, sort of a cross between Andrew Dice Clay and Jerry Springer I guess. I’ll give you a dollar if you’re surprised that he softens over the course of the movie and eventually helps save the day. And by help I mean he actually saves the day; the heroine is curiously absent for most of the climax, which I’d suggest was a bit misogynist but it would be giving the filmmakers too much credit. It was probably written the other way but maybe the girl didn’t know how to drive a tractor and they didn’t have her stunt double that night.

Like Terminator, there’s also a police station massacre, which is a decent enough set piece. In fact there are a few decent scenes throughout; I particularly liked the goofy chase scene in which Rumpelstiltskin drives an 18 wheeler after the asshole guy, who is in a tiny little dune buggy. The visual is hilarious, and it’s got some pretty decent stunts and crashes for a low budget film, and unlike the mom I believed that this guy could die, so it all works (less successful: Rumpelstiltskin’s A-Team reference, which doesn’t even make sense in context). The problem is that there’s no real plot – the entire last hour of the movie is just a long chase scene where you know the outcome. There are no other real protagonists of note, and the few other people we see are obvious goners from the start, like the biker dude that gives Rumpelstiltskin some shit. You can pretty much watch the movie on fast forward – most of the dialogue boils down to “He’s here!” or “Run/Go!” and such. A prologue tells us everything we need to know about the title character, and there is no lamer weakness in a movie than a monster who can be undone by straw or someone knowing his name.

As for Rumpelstiltskin himself, eh. Actor Max GrodĂ©nchik is no Warwick Davis – he doesn’t seem as into it as the latter was in the Leprechaun films. The makeup is decent, but time hasn’t been kind as now he just looks like a biker variant of a troll from the bank in the Harry Potter movies. Most of his one-liners are just nonsense, and many seem like they were thrown in to look good in a trailer. At one point they just cut to him saying “This ain’t no fairy tale…” even though nobody is in earshot nor was anyone discussing fairy tales. “This ain’t no hockey game…” would make as much sense. Plus, not for nothing, but he’s not really in the wrong here – his deal is that he gets a baby in exchange for a wish, and people keep trying to fuck him over. So I can’t help but feel a little sorry for the bastard, especially when there’s like 3 scenes of the hunchbacked and crippled thing trying to outrun something faster/stronger than him.

The main problem is that Jones can’t seem to decide whether to take this serious or just have fun with it. It’s got a fair number of downer plot points: the heroine’s husband is gunned down in the first 10 minutes, her best friend is killed a bit later, the monster wants to kill a baby, etc. But, you know, it’s a little hunchback demon in a leather jacket making A-Team references. Not saying the movie can’t be scary and funny, but it seems Leprechaun was a more successful blend of the two. And with most stuff happening off-screen, it starts to feel like a porno where all the sex scenes have been cut out – sure, there’s some semblance of a plot, but it doesn’t really offer anything that you came to see. Probably why there are six Leprechaun movies and only one Rumpelstiltskin.

What say you?

P.S. The end credits have the best disclaimer in the history of movies. It’s almost worth watching the flick to see it; I hope someday I can put something as wonderfully odd in one of my title sequences.

PLEASE, GO ON...

Subspecies II: Bloodstone (1993)

FEBRUARY 28, 2012

GENRE: VAMPIRE
SOURCE: STREAMING (NETFLIX INSTANT)

I have already forgotten everything that happened in Subspecies, so it was a bit disorienting when Subspecies II: Bloodstone picked up right where it left off, because I couldn’t quite recall who anyone was or who was on who’s side. It didn’t help that the heroine was replaced in between movies, which will allow me to make one comparison between these movies and the Hatchet series. Just the one though!

Anyway, I THINK it’s a little better. Not GOOD, but I was actually kind of interested in the shenanigans this time around, and even got a bit bummed when a character was killed. The makeup and FX are improved, and it’s not as terribly overlit as the original either. When the vampires go outside, it’s dark out, not late afternoon, and when a vamp starts to emerge from a crypt and sees the sun rising, it makes visual sense that she cannot proceed. It’s the little things, like not having a goddamn vampire walk around in direct sunlight, that can really help a silly little vampire movie.

It’s still awkwardly structured though, carrying over a major problem of the original. This time, new heroine Rebecca (sister of the main girl, who is now a vampire) comes to Romania to find her sister, which is the sort of plot you’ve seen in a million movies. But those movies don’t usually break up this plot to show the sister doing her thing, as this one does, which severely limits the suspense that these plots can provide when done correctly. I should be in the same position as Rebecca, wondering what happened to her, if she’s hurt or worse, if I’ll ever see her again, etc. Instead, I know perfectly well what she’s up to, putting the audience far ahead of the heroine we should be identifying with. Once they finally meet up (a bit past the halfway point) it gets a little better, because we’re finally just as informed as Rebecca.

It’s also shocking low on violence; these vampires seemingly don’t need to feed as often as most of their movie brethren. The villain Radu spends most of the movie just talking to his mother (a Mummy), letting Anders Hove give his best bad Marlon Brando impression pretty much every 5 minutes or so. Most of the scares are shadow based – people run and then we see a shadow of Radu or the Mummy in the background. As with the original, it’s painfully short on action – it’s almost like they forgot that by shooting in Romania they had extra money to put toward things like FX and violence.

Then again, maybe they were saving it for part 3, which was shot back to back with this one. OR, another theory – this is just the stretched out version of the first half of one script, with Subspecies III forming the 2nd half. As you might expect given what I’ve said so far, it’s a bit of a snoozer, and part of that is due to the fact that scenes drag on forever (such as Michelle boarding a train in the first reel). I won’t know for sure until I watch part 3 (hopefully with the ability to remember this one), but I’d be willing to bet that a good editor could make a pretty fun/exciting 1:45 or so minute movie from these two (this one is 86 minutes with credits; it could probably be around 50, 55 tops).

It’s just amusing to watch these now; I avoided most of them as a kid because they were too cheap and dull compared to the good stuff I regularly digested (the big franchises, big budget Hollywood stuff like The Blob or The Fly, etc), but now they’re pretty classy and respectable compared to the shit Full Moon churns out now. Most of their modern films are shot in cheap, overused Los Angeles locales and sport FX that would be embarrassing in these 20 year old films. I’ll take Romania and a bad miniature composite over the Linda Vista and PS1 level CGI any day of the week!

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

Curse Of The Fly (1965)

FEBRUARY 27, 2012

GENRE: MAD SCIENTIST, MONSTER
SOURCE: DVD (ONLINE RENTAL)

Much like fellow Curse (Of The Cat People), Curse Of The Fly is sort of lacking in the title monsters; there are failed experiments and mutations (more than any previous Fly film, in fact), but not a single damn fly. Of course, the odds that this shit could happen AGAIN are pretty slim, so I guess it’s good that they went with logic over popular demand. Then again, the deck was stacked against them from the start – no Vincent Price, relocated production (London instead of the FOX lot), etc – this must have been a damn tough sell back in 1965.

Luckily, it’s not too bad. It’s got a sort of Island Of Lost Souls vibe to it, as the original scientist’s son (although not the one from Return; not sure where the hell he was in the previous two films, but whatever) has kept all of the poor victims from his failed experiments in cages, and they’re scary but not really the villains of the movie. There’s even a romance at the center of it all, and lots of fun talk about how science is built around breaking a few eggs to make omelets (so to speak). In other words, it’s a little more interesting than another rehash of “I know we can make this work! Ah, shit, it didn’t.”

I also like that this one actually has teleportation, though the kinks haven’t been worked out just yet. Our characters travel between Montreal and London with some frequency, thought they suffer radiation burns and age more rapidly – still better than turning inside out or being melded with a bug, I’d argue. They’ve redesigned the pods as well – now they lay down in enclosed glass “coffins” of a sort, which I guess makes it easier to spot wayward insects. In fact it just makes me kind of bummed that the series never progressed (in either incarnation) long enough to see a world where the teleporters WERE used for the things they claim they’ll be able to do (send help to disaster areas in an instant, teleport food to the hungry, etc), only to discover long-term side effects 20 years or so into their common use (i.e. fly-people). That would be a pretty awesome movie, I think.

Back on track, it simply works more as a horror film than the first sequel. There are some pretty great suspense bits, particularly around the halfway point where the heroine first discovers the caged “mutants” while wandering around her new home. And later there’s a creepy reveal of a woman with a half melted face (and even more messed up arm), which is much more unnerving than a guy wearing a three piece suit and a giant fly head. Sure, Price is missed, but Brian Donlevy is a decent enough replacement, and Carole Gray is a knockout.

It IS a bit slow though. There’s very little action (even of the human on human variety), and since it’s only tangentially related to the first films (the only returning character is the cop from the first movie, played by a new actor) it’s sort of like starting over, which means they can’t speed things along like a normal sequel could. We have to meet everyone, get their back-stories, set up the new storyline, etc. The romantic scenes probably take more screen-time than anything involving failed teleporter victims. It all pays off, but by this point in mid 60s, horror films tended to be a little more exciting (and in color); this one almost feels like an early 50s film at times.

Apparently this one never hit VHS or Laserdisc; its inclusion in the boxed set (from 2006 I believe) was its first ever home video release. I actually didn’t even know a 3rd film existed until then, so it’s a minor shame that it was sort of “lost” for so long. It’s not a masterpiece by any means, but it’s a more interesting and scarier follow-up to the first film than Return, and the British sensibility gives it some much needed flavor. I also suspect Cronenberg had seen it; this one has a rather depressing finale, much like his film (the original Fly’s finale was more goofy than tragic). In short, I’d watch it again!

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

Rabies (2010)

FEBRUARY 26, 2012

GENRE: SLASHER, SURVIVAL
SOURCE: DVD (OWN COLLECTION)

I love how the one or two movies I miss at Screamfest every year usually turn out to be pretty awesome and then I get all bummed out that I missed my chance to see them on the big screen. But I remind myself that it’s rare I find something as good as Rabies (Israeli: Kalevet) when it comes to the “new on DVD” portion of Horror Movie A Day, so I guess it’s nice to have these little surprises to sustain me until festival season rolls around again and I am (hopefully/ideally) overloaded with quality entries.

Rabies is the first horror film of this type to come out of Israel, something I would have loved to have learned more about on the DVD extras, but alas, there aren’t any (just the trailer). I don’t know enough about their world to know WHY they haven’t been making slasher movies, but I hope this isn’t an anomaly – if subsequent Israeli horror films are this good, I’d say they’ll be a fine source of imported horror.

What makes this even more interesting is that it’s actually quite original, which is unusual for these “first horror” films. Take Hell’s Ground (the first Pakistan gore film) for example – it’s a fun movie, but it’s basically a nonstop series of “homages” to Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, etc. It also lacked cohesion, jumping from one sub-genre to the next without any real buildup or apparent reason to do so. Thus, I sort of expected the same here; an interesting but not particularly original full length tribute to slasher movies like Friday the 13th and such.

But that’s not the case. It starts off like one; we meet a girl who has fallen into a hunter’s trap, and her brother is attacked off-screen. Then we’re introduced to our heroes, a car full of kids who take a wrong turn and began paying less attention to the road as they argue about the map and such. In other words – it’s like every damn horror movie you’ve ever seen, albeit in a language you’re probably not familiar with. However, that’s the beauty of Rabies – it lulls you into thinking that you know how everything is going to end up, only to turn it on its head.

Thus, I won’t go into any further plot explanation, other than to hint that it’s more Fargo than Friday, but still very rooted in the horror genre. The twists and turns that the movie takes are impossible to predict too far out; even when I started getting a handle on how writer/directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado were planning on carrying out their film, I was still going “Oh no, shit!” every few minutes. And they deftly blend their horror with some well-placed humor (of the dark variety) and even some minor pathos near the end; they are just as good as keeping you guessing with your emotions as they are with the plot itself. No small feat, that.

In fact I only had two concerns related to the film. One is the rather brutal killing of a dog early on; in the grand scheme of things it fits (it borders on ironic, in fact), but it’s still hard to take and put me off of the movie for a while – they hadn’t quite hooked me in yet at this point. Luckily the rest of the film made up for it, but not every viewer is as dedicated to finishing a film as I am, and they might lose some folks at the 20 minute mark or so before they have a chance to show what the film is really about.

The other I don’t know who to point the blame at: the subtitles. First of all they don’t default to “on”, which is odd for a Region 1 disc for a foreign film, so be sure to go into the menu and turn them on before you hit play as there is some dialogue right off the bat (I watched for a minute or so assuming we weren’t SUPPOSED to understand it). There are also a few moments where the subs don’t come on when people are talking, and in one instance they are seemingly telling us things that the characters can’t decipher for themselves. A character is trying to relay crucial information through a busted jaw, and we can read it clearly – but the character he is speaking too is clearly unable to understand him (which has decidedly violent results). The subs should have said “(indecipherable)” or something; otherwise it just makes the other character look like a bloodthirsty asshole.

Yep, that’s it. Wonky subtitle issues that are probably beyond the filmmakers’ control anyway, and the death of a dog that takes another hour or so to resonate (and thus it might not even dawn on viewers). And that might have just been upsetting me more because my own pet (a cat) is having health problems - Halloween features the death of TWO dogs (albeit not in as brutal a manner; one's just mentioned, in fact) and I have no problem with that movie, obviously. Those are my only issues with a modern horror film from first time filmmakers. In other words, go buy the DVD at once. I would be honestly shocked if this didn’t end up in my top 10 list for the year.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

Tale Of The Mummy (1998)

FEBRUARY 25, 2012

GENRE: MONSTER, SUPERNATURAL
SOURCE: BLU-RAY (OWN COLLECTION)

At the time of Universal's big budget, largely horror-free version of The Mummy in 1999, there were other projects in development that would be more up our alley, including one from Clive Barker. Instead of that, we got Tale Of The Mummy, a Dimension/Miramax production directed by Highlander's Russell Mulcahy, which I find interesting since the Dimension-ized Highlander sequels were the ones he wasn't involved with. Over the years I hadn't heard many positive remarks about the film, and I had sort of forgotten about it until I got sent the new Blu-ray to review.

Well I'll be damned - it's actually pretty fun. Coming in at the standard Dimension length of 88 minutes, the action never stops for too long, and I usually enjoy the "bad guy takes particular body parts from victims in order to recreate someone/something" plot that this follows, as our "resurrected" mummy (named Talos) needs the organs from folks who were reincarnated from his body over the years (luckily, they're all in London!). In a fun twist, not everyone is reincarnated as a human, giving the film one of horror's few (relatively) justified dog killings. Oddly, Mulcahy's next film also had one of these plots; the Seven ripoff Resurrection had a guy putting body parts together to make Christ.

It's also chock full of familiar faces of every variety, making it more interesting in this department than it was at the time. You get a few genre vets (Christopher Lee, Shelly Duvall) mixed with fun character actors like Jon Polito, Michael Lerner, and Sean Pertwee, and even a bona fide Bond legend (Honor Blackman). But there are also early turns by Gerard Butler and Jack Davenport (watch Smash, by the way! It's pretty damn good.), which turned out to be beneficial for the former, as it's probably how he secured the title role in Dimension's Dracula 2000. All of this helps make up for the unfortunate fact that the two leads are the dullest in the cast; Louise Lombard is nice enough to look at but has very little presence (very much a "Wes Craven presents" kind of heroine), and Jason Scott Lee has a very limited range which is not utilized here - he doesn't fight anyone! Instead he just delivers lots of exposition and even engages in the most out of nowhere romantic subplot I've seen in a while. Can't help but wonder how much more interesting this stuff would have been if he and Davenport switched roles, especially since the movie never bothers to take advantage of Lee's considerable prowess as an ass-kicker.

But again, it moves along nicely, so it's not too big of a deal. Davenport and Lee are the cops trying to figure out who is behind these killings in which organs are removed, giving the film a sort of serial killer vibe in the early scenes, albeit one with big cheesy FX scenes, which are hit and miss in terms of how good they look. Some probably looked terrible even back when the movie was first released (particularly Talos' final form, which is pure PS1 cut-scene style), but others are pretty good and unique - anyone who was ever disappointed with the lack of a "bandage" Mummy in the original Universal film or whatever will be happy to know that the wraps play an important part in many of the kill scenes, wrapping around folks or acting like tentacles. Kind of goofy, sure, but I can't recall seeing that in any other Mummy film (can anyone correct me?). And there's a practical half-formed Mummy in the 3rd act that looks pretty awesome, so there's something.

Mulcahy also tones down his usual music video style, which was a relief as it can get a bit tiresome (not to mention help date his films). He still tosses in some lens flare and flash, but nowhere near as excessive as in Resurrection or the Highlanders. He also gets good mileage out of the London setting, which sticks out in particular nowadays after seeing the terrible London sequence in the 2nd Mummy film, a scene that probably cost more than this entire film. The opening flashback sequence (featuring Lee) is also fun as it recalls the older films (desert, archaeological digs, etc), paying homage to their predecessors before modernizing it, something that the Brendan Fraser films also lacked as those retained the 1920s period. In a way it's kind of like Dracula 2000 in that regard, although in some ways more successful since it lacks that movie's goofy "Judas" twist and excessive plugs for Virgin Megastore (also, no pop stars in this one).

Back to the 88 minute runtime for a second - as is customary for a Dimension film, there is a longer cut out there that runs 20-25 minutes longer. Movie Censorship has a pretty detailed account of the cut stuff, which is mostly character-based (shocking, I know), including a lot of potentially fun banter between Lee and Davenport and a scene or two that would have softened the randomness of Lee and Lombard's romance. Some of the mystery involving what Talos was up to also would have been a little more clear with this information, though it's hardly an incoherent mess like Halloween 6 or other movies that Dimension hacked to pieces.

Sadly, nothing on the site suggests that the ending was fleshed out any more in the longer cut, which is a surprise since I was pretty convinced it was reworked, given how confusing it is. I honestly have no idea what happens in the last 2-3 minutes in the movie; I THINK we find out that one character was working with Talos all along, and Lee was one of the unknowing organ holders all along, but it's very clunky at best (and there's no real fight against Talos either). It doesn't help that the sound mix is pretty far from demo quality; the action scenes were too loud and the dialogue too low at my normal volume setting (and no subtitles are available). Picture quality was better than I've seen on other Echo Bridge blu-rays, however (and at the right 2.35:1 aspect ratio, woo!). They even made a menu and included the trailer, so maybe they took the criticism of their first batch of high def releases to heart.

As I said on Twitter, it's not a movie you need to hunt down or move to the top of your queue, but in the realm of DTV Dimension releases, it's a lot more enjoyable and "classy" than anyone could have expected, and again it's fun to see such an eclectic cast (almost every person in the movie is recognizable). I'll take it over either of the modern Mummy sequels, that's for sure (haven't watched the original in a decade but I recall it being a pretty fun Indiana Jones style adventure, plus a very fetching Rachel Weisz before she turned into a "serious", joyless actress).

What say you?


PLEASE, GO ON...

Killjoy (2000)

FEBRUARY 24, 2012

GENRE: REVENGE, SLASHER
SOURCE: DVD (OWN COLLECTION)

Life is great sometimes. Driving home, I realized I didn't have any suitable rentals waiting for me at home (between mailings), and thus I'd have to use Netflix Instant on my Xbox to find today's movie, which was bad because it might result in me playing Skyrim instead of editing. And then sitting at my door, like a little gift from the gods of horror movies, a package from Echo Bridge, which included Killjoy, a 72 minute killer clown movie. All problems solved! I could watch the very short film and have more time for editing, without Skyrim tempting me!

(Full disclosure: after the movie I edited for 2 hrs and then played Skyrim for four. Take that, Draugr scum. )

Since most killer clown movies tend to suck (not Killer Klown movies, however), AND this was from Full Moon, my expectations were pretty low, but I must say the movie is fun in a "so bad it's good" way, unlike most FM productions which are just plain bad due to being so damn boring. It wastes no time in offing our tragic hero who will be resurrected as Killjoy, the wisecracking demonic clown, and then the movie goes another step further - he wipes out all three of the guys he seeks revenge against in the first 37 minutes! I wouldn't say it's particularly great writing by any stretch of the imagination, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that A. the movie couldn't be considered too slow and B. I actually didn't know how the second half would play out (I wouldn't put it past Band to run the end credits for the remaining 35 minutes).

The second half is more like a weird Dream Warriors riff, oddly enough. After a visit from a homeless dude who sums up the plot thus far, showing us things we just saw in the exact same context as originally presented, the girl that Killjoy loved as a human, her friend, and her boyfriend are sucked into Killjoy's dreamworld, where they battle the clown as well as the zombie/demon figures of the three guys he already killed. I was a bit baffled by this plot point - why would the folks he murdered suddenly be on his side? But hey, it was keeping the movie from being too boring, so points for effort.

Throughout the film Killjoy offers wonderfully terrible puns and jokes in his attempt to be Freddy Krueger or Chucky, many of them "street" based like "Shut the fuck up before I smoke yo punk ass!" and "THAT's how you bust caps, mutha fucka!". The latter is particularly memorable; one of the bad guys fires about 20 times from his six shooter pistol, and Killjoy absorbs them and shoots them back from his mouth. Then they cut to the guy being shot over and over, represented by some half-hearted attempts from the actor to look like a guy being riddled with bullets as well as a charmingly awful digital effect in which red spots (blood?) appear for a second and then disappear before another one pops on/off in a different spot on his chest. Aw, Killjoy, you're cute.

It's also got a bunch of howler lines from the non Killjoy characters. Our heroine tells her boyfriend that she still thinks about her ex (the main bad guy) even though they've been broken up for a year, explaining that "he took my virginity, I can't just stop having feelings for him." Her friend not once but TWICE says "It's FINALLY over!" with regards to Killjoy being stopped (he "dies" like three times), even though their association with him only lasted about 20 minutes or so in the movie. The boyfriend offers similar sentiment, sighing that "It feels good to laugh again..." during a post-killing-Killjoy celebration (he says "Let's get something to eat!" and it cuts to them having drinks at a nightclub). I'm sorry that your half hour ordeal in which you fairly quickly took down a wisecracking clown kept you from laughing that night, buddy.

Another surprise: the clown makeup is actually pretty good. For whatever reason, we most often see Killjoy in closeup so you can't get a good grasp on the rest of his appearance, but his face is pretty demonic and creepy. Again, this is a Band production, so I was half-expecting the guy to be wearing a mask from the Halloween store. They clearly spent the entire FX budget on him, however - pretty much everything happens off-screen (even the simple gunshot that kills him as a human) and there's no real gore to speak of, just some random "dead" makeup on the three guys when they reappear. The CGI is pretty terrible as well, but that is a given considering who/what we're working with here. The "I'll SMOKE you" bit is kind of inspired though, and a notch or two higher in quality than the other VFX shots.

So I think I can just chalk this up to one of those "I guess I was in the mood" entries, where I might be tearing it apart on any other day. The IMDb board for the film is filled with vitriol (the "Worst movie ever!" type threads offer little rebuttal), and I'm sure any readers that have seen it are probably baffled that this can almost be read as a positive review. But it's the right type of bad movie, and again, it's so short that it barely takes up more time than another lousy episode of Supernatural's 7th season (funnily enough, a recent killer clown type story was pretty much the only good episode of this season). I should also point out that all three Killjoy films are on the same side of the disc (there's even a "Play All" function! Perfect for parties!) so look for the reviews of the sequels soon.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

Silent House (2011)

FEBRUARY 23, 2012

GENRE: THRILLER
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (PRESS SCREENING)

If I judged it purely on its technical merits, Silent House would be a shoe-in for the year’s best horror film – even the creative choices that left me a bit cold (more on those in a bit, obviously) in a weird way just made the film’s unusual approach all the more impressive. It’s not the first realtime movie by any means, but it is the first horror film I can think of (besides the original, which I still haven't seen) that unfolds entirely in one seamless take, thus preventing its filmmakers from pretty much every trick in the book (i.e. cutting away to a scary thing, cutting back to their reaction). But unlike Rope (Hitchcock’s similarly one-take thriller) it’s not slowly paced either – heroine Elizabeth Olsen starts getting terrorized after about 15 minutes, and it never stops laying on the trauma from there.

Another difference from Rope is that moves around. Olsen travels in and out of the house, and even in and out of a car, all without noticeable edits (I believe I read there are 13 cuts in the film; I only caught 3 or 4), not to mention all of her travels within the three story house. If one considers the lighting and other technical nightmares doing a film like this would cause, it’s nothing short of miraculous that they managed to pull it off as well as they have. It’s also one of the rare films that justifies the choice for digital photography – I don’t know of a 35mm camera in the world that could be used in this way even without taking the limited reel allowance (10 minutes) under consideration. The low lighting and jerky camera causes some problems that might not have been an issue with superior 35mm film (particularly the dining table scare – I have no idea what scares her because it’s too murky to make out), but for the most part - this is how digital should be used in feature films: to accomplish what would be impossible otherwise.

Back to the film’s fast pacing, I should note that it’s not a “torture” flick – I believe the total damage to Olsen’s body consists of a scraped wrist and a few other minor bumps and bruises, and pretty much every other bit of violence in the film occurs off-screen. No, it’s very much in the vein of older scare films, where the intensity and fear of the unknown make the movie scary, not people tied to chairs and screaming. I don’t know if it’s intentional, but there’s a moment early on where we see a bag full of tools –I figured it was foreshadowing later acts of violence, but I don’t think it ever comes into play, and if it was intentional misdirection, I applaud them. Thus, for the most part, it works like gangbusters as an exercise on how to milk a very simple idea (in this case, a girl trapped in her house with a killer or killers) for the maximum amount of scares and suspense, not unlike Halloween.

Unfortunately, whether it’s because of movies like The Strangers or just plain silliness, the screenwriters can’t be satisfied with that simplicity, and what was (should be?) an enjoyable home invasion movie eventually moves into another sub-genre's territory, at which point the movie kind of lost me. Unfortunately I can’t go into it without spoiling things (I will reveal a similar movie in inviso-text so it doesn't catch your eye), so skip the next two paragraphs if you’d like to keep the film’s twist a total surprise.

Before I start speaking against it, I will say this: the twist doesn’t come as completely out of nowhere as some might think. There are clues both overt (a very spooky encounter with an old friend, a locked box that she is unable to open, etc) and more subtle (her uncle’s way of greeting her in his first appearance) that are sprinkled throughout the film, and thus when it becomes the main focus of the final 20 minutes, you can’t accuse them of pulling it out of their ass when (AGAIN, SPOILER!) we discover that the “killers” are in her head and SHE is the one that killed her father and uncle. However, due to the film’s one-shot approach, there’s no easy way of showing the audience how this “works”. In High Tension, we got to see the surveillance footage and such in order to let it make a little more sense, but there is zero way to show us how she was able to kill her dad when we were watching her the entire time (she wasn’t even on the same floor as her was when he was attacked).

Plus, you know, F U! Didn’t they learn from that movie that audiences don’t like to be told that the bulk of the movie was a cheat? I’m fine with a good twist, but it’s got to be sound and pay off what we’ve actually seen in the movie (again: Sixth Sense does this perfectly). Even something like Usual Suspects works, because it’s not that what he’s telling us didn’t happen – it just had a different context than what we were led to believe. Here, there’s no “let me show you how it worked” scene – the twist comes, she finishes off her enemies, and then it ends. Apparently the film originally had some text explanation at the end when it showed at Sundance (with a different ending, though from what I understand it was along the same lines), I can’t help but wonder if that would have helped – anyone see it? Sadly the reviews I’ve found aren’t as willing to get into spoilers as I am!

My only other concern is a minor one. Elizabeth Olsen is a terrific actress and I bow to her for acting in a movie where she’s not only on-screen but nearly hyper-ventilating the entire time (and doing so in 10-15 minute takes). However, her cries sound more like laughs, which severely deflates the tension on more than one occasion (my audience started laughing along with her). I wish they could have dubbed in some more appropriate shrieks - I believe Blow Out perfectly explained how a scream can make or break a horror film.

It’s a shame that the ending wrecks a lot of the movie’s greatness; the few reviews I’ve looked at suggest no one is a fan of how it ends, and thus it’s going to be hard to earn good word of mouth, especially with the ad campaign promising that it’s based on a true story and such. And those reviews, like mine, come from a place of appreciating the technical merits of the film. Those who don’t give a shit about how hard it is to make a movie in a single shot (director Chris Kentis claims some people have told him that they didn’t even notice) aren’t likely to be as forgiving – they’re just going to remember being pissed off by a goofy, under-explained twist. And die hard horror fans might be angry for another reason: it took 7 years after Open Water for Kentis and co-director/screenwriter Laura Lau to make another movie, and it’s a remake with a lame twist that they didn’t bother to “fix” for their version? What the hell, guys?

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

Santeria (2005)

FEBRUARY 22, 2012

GENRE: POSSESSION, RELIGIOUS
SOURCE: DVD (STORE RENTAL)

It may be amusing to me on a personal level, but when I find more to say about a movie’s IMDb page and opening/end credits sequences than the actual narrative, it sure sucks having to write a review. Santeria is allegedly based on a true story, but I couldn’t find any record of the events actually happening, which is a shame because I could have burned another paragraph talking about the real case and how it would most likely be far more interesting than the film.

I’ll give writer/director/producer/editor Benny Mathews credit for one thing – he goes all out trying to sell this as a true story, even spoiling the end in the movie’s opening scene, which tells us who dies (and how) in the events that the movie builds up to. If this was a major true life story (say, the Ted Bundy case), this sort of thing is fine: “Ted Bundy killed 20 women in the 70s, this is his story” or whatever would almost be an expected way to start off such a thing. But then it’s not actually true, it’s a bit silly to be so up front for any other reason besides “Maybe it’ll help fool someone” (which I guess it did; I took the time to Google the case for a while trying to find info on the real events).

Likewise, at the end of the movie, we learn the fates of all the characters who didn’t die on-screen: one guy succumbed to cancer, another was decapitated in a car crash, etc. This fake event sure affected a lot of fake people! Sadly, it’s the creepiest bit in the entire movie; true or not, there’s always something that kind of unnerves me about these text based epilogues. I think it’s due to my overdose on Unsolved Mysteries when I was like 9 or 10 (as I write this I am thinking about that silhouetted figure in the opening sequence and getting mad chills up my back); those sort of unexplained tragic circumstances (usually detailed over a freeze-frame) just unsettle me.

In fact the movie LOOKS like an Unsolved Mysteries recreation; it looks cheap as hell (it was shot on film but poorly transferred and/or posted), and the movie feels like the longest Cliff’s Notes account of a pretty simple story. Scenes come and go at a headache inducing rate, with nothing given a chance to register or sink in before the next scene has already began. A character will show up somewhere and say “I need to talk to you”, and then Mathews cuts to other characters in the middle of a conversation, and then it will cut again to a third character in the middle of an unmotivated panic attack. Maybe if Robert Stack was narrating in between it would be easier to digest, but without him or anything else linking everything in a cohesive way, the movie becomes a giant mess.

And again, we know what it’s building to, so there’s not a lot of suspense or thrills. People love to joke “Why watch Titanic? The boat sinks!” but the movie works because you get to know a bunch of (fictional) folks and care about them, and THEN the iceberg hits, giving the movie the suspense it might otherwise lack if it was just retelling a historical account without any fictional characters. Here, there’s no one to latch on to; the closest I came to caring about anyone was the Brother Neil character, a cheesy TV preacher who is interested in the case of the young man who keeps seeing the Virgin Mary (if there’s any “truth” to the movie’s story, I guess it could be considered a very loose modern version of the Lady of Fatima story). And that was only because he was played by Kevin Rankin, who was the awesome Herc on Friday Night Lights. Everyone else in the movie, forget it – I probably wouldn’t be able to pick them out of a lineup in a couple days.

The commentary explains most of the movie’s problems almost instantly – Mathews’ first cut lasted 165 minutes (it runs 82 now, including the credits that first cut probably lacked). When you cut half a movie out, yeah, it’s going to be pretty tough to penetrate. Even Terrence Malick* - arguably one of the greatest filmmakers of all time – can’t cut that much out of a movie and make it easy to follow, and Mathews is no Malick. It’s possible that he explains why he cut it SO short (certainly 2:45 is too long, but 2 hours is acceptable – Emily Rose was that long and it didn’t hurt it any), but his commentary put me to sleep three times (including at my desk at work) so I can’t be bothered to hunt for further explanation/defense. He seems to think the movie works just as well now, so I’m guessing he didn’t feel the need to explain much about his decision anyway. From what I DID hear, he talks about the Fatima case, the amateur actors, losing an actress after a freaky incident, etc. He also sounds like he’s 15 years old, which I wish was true because it would explain the short attention span thinking that resulted in a potentially interesting take on the religious possession genre becoming an interminable clutter of mismatched scenes (and color timing), bookended with typo-ridden on-screen explanations (“Sitings” instead of “Sightings” is my favorite). A few deleted scenes are also included, but they’re mostly the sort of thing that wouldn’t even warrant inclusion on one of those exhaustive 4 disc sets for a movie, let alone be all that represents nearly 90 minutes of lost movie.

The only other extra is the trailer, which added to my amusement concerning the movie’s release date. The IMDb lists this as a 2011 movie, which I knew couldn’t be right because it was released on DVD in 2006 (the Blockbuster sticker has the release date on it, and I know I’ve been passing it up for years during HMAD “hunts”). The trailer says that the movie takes place in 2005, yet the film itself is set in 1998 (it’s actually a plot point, because 666 times 3 is 1998). And the movie itself has a copyright date of 2002. IMDB got the 2011 date from Australia, where it was just released – I would love to hear the story of its 5+ year struggle to reach the land down under. As with most of the above, it’d probably be more interesting than the movie itself.

Oh well. It’s still better than the Sublime song, I’ll give it that much.

What say you?

*Oddly, the film was shot in Houston, Texas, which was also one of the locations for Malick’s similarly fragmented Tree Of Life. That is pretty much where the similarities end, however.

PLEASE, GO ON...

Inkubus (2011)

FEBRUARY 21, 2012

GENRE: SERIAL KILLER, SUPERNATURAL
SOURCE: DVD (STORE RENTAL)

Lots of filmmakers like to blame their budget for the movie’s lapses, and a lot of time the problems with the movie have nothing to do with bad FX, inappropriate sets, etc. More often than not, the movie sucks because the script was terrible, the direction bland, and other things that can sink a movie with all the money in the world behind it (see, or don’t, Pirates of the Caribbean 4). But if anyone involved with Inkubus claims the low budget is the reason that their movie is underwhelming, I will believe them 100%.

See, it doesn’t lack for cool ideas or fun actors in the key roles; Robert Englund plays the title character, who strolls into a police station with a severed head and claims to be an ancient demon that may have been behind several historical unsolved murders (Black Dahlia, Jack The Ripper, etc). It’s pretty clear that he can’t be restrained and is hanging out in their cell on his own free will – all he wants is to talk to the cop (William Forsythe) who almost killed him 13 years before, and is just amusing himself by staying there, talking to head detective Joey Fatone.

Wait, what? The guy from N’Sync as a cop? Yep, that’s what we get here. Fatone is also listed as one of the film’s several hundred producers; in fact, one just needs to read the credits to get a good idea of how this movie came together. Someone had money, some other guys had some experience making movies, and everyone came together with a master plan to make a cheap horror movie that they could sell for lots of money because they managed to get an icon as their villain. That’s why the rest of the roles are miscast with known actors (Jonathan Silverman as an anonymous uniformed officer is a particularly baffling choice) or played by cousins of the filmmakers, who credit themselves over and over (“Produced by Chad Verdi” appears at least three times in the 80 minute film). Like Exit 33, it’s quite obviously a pretty cynical production.

Unlike Exit 33, however, it’s at least kind of fun. Englund can’t ever phone in a performance, and he’s quite lively here, clearly relishing the rarity of playing a horror villain without several pounds of latex weighing him down. Like his fellow “magic villain” buddy Warlock, he fucks with his victims on a psychological level before killing them (the deaths are gorier than I expected as well), and in these scenes the movie’s other issues don’t seem as big of a deal. Forsythe is a bit bored, and growls pretty much every line, but Englund picks up the slack admirably. And hell, even Fatone isn’t that bad; if you weren’t aware of his boy band past before the movie, you probably wouldn’t suspect it after seeing him here.

However the movie just never stops feeling cheap, which is a constant distraction. It was shot with a consumer grade DSLR camera, and while I’ve certainly seen worse digital images, it never looks like a real movie, either. The movie is also far too bright, like they dropped a maxed out “brightness/contrast” filter over the entire film before exporting to DVD. It’s also a bit too sloppy at times, killing would-be scare scenes. There’s a bit where a guy isn’t sure if he’s talking to Englund or another character, and the editor intercuts between footage of them both saying the same lines, but the main character keeps changing position in between the cuts, which ruins the effect they are trying to achieve. The FX are pretty good for the most part, however, and non-discerning audiences won’t care about that other stuff anyway, so that’s a “win” for them.

There’s also a puzzlingly pointless, strange scene where a cop checks the lotto numbers. They set it up early on, that a bunch of cops pool their money to buy a ticket, and he’s watching it very intently, so it should have a payoff, right? Instead, he just demonstrates a shockingly poor understanding of how the lottery works; he matches all but one number (they rattle off at least 5) and says that it’s the difference between $200,000 and a free ticket. Um, what kind of lottery system would only give a free ticket if you matched 5 of the 6 numbers? I even looked it up; in Rhode Island, even if he only matched four of the six numbers he’d get 200 bucks, regardless of the jackpot. You’d think someone that was so into it would know better. Just a waste of screentime in all aspects.

Another issue is the abrupt climax. The movie is only about 69 minutes long without credits, which is OK if that’s the plan, but this one feels a bit shaved. It’s a flashback movie, with Fatone telling the story from a mental institute – his stories of magic serial killers and demon babies aren’t believed by the shrink, needless to say. These sort of scenarios usually build to something, like Sam Neill finishing his story and then escaping from the now deserted hospital in Carpenter’s In The Mouth Of Madness, but this one just ends with Fatone still ranting about the demons as the shrink is (spoiler!) revealed to be the Inkubus in a blink or miss moment. It feels like there should be another beat to it, instead of just ending like it was the cliffhanger for the pilot episode about a guy trapped in a mental institute run by his arch enemy. It also feels like they actually WANTED to build toward a twist, that Fatone just snapped after his wife died, and then chickened out, using a quick last minute effect to tell us that the shrink is the Inkubus without any other follow through.

The disc offers no insight into the production, or deleted scenes that might explain the condensed running time – our main menu has but two options: Play and Chapters. Not even any audio options; Spanish speaking audiences or the hearing impaired are just as shit out of luck as anyone wondering why this movie makes several attempts to blind its audience with its garish cinematography, or if they were actually trying to rip off the movie The Traveler or if it’s just coincidence, or if these same issues will plague Infected, another horror film en route from many of the same cast and crew. I wish them well.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

Retreat (2011)

FEBRUARY 20, 2012

GENRE: THRILLER
SOURCE: DVD (OWN COLLECTION)

I was sent Retreat to review, and probably should have gotten to it sooner (it hits stores tomorrow), because it’s about a couple on the verge of breaking up and today is the 10 year anniversary of when I began seeing my now wife (awww). Most folks would assume I’d take the day off from HMAD-ing, or at least opt for something light, maybe even romantic (The Eclipse!), but no. I go with the umpteenth movie about a couple who repairs their broken bond after dealing with a psycho.

Anyway, it’s a pretty good “one-time” thriller. Our couple is holed up on an island, trying to sort shit out, when their generator goes out and their calls for help go unanswered. Then Jamie Bell shows up, bloodied and packing a gun, telling them that a virus has broken out on the mainland and that they need to seal up the house to keep it (or anyone else) from getting in. Is he crazy, or telling the truth? Is he dangerous or does he truly want to protect them? Like a lot of thrillers in this vein, not knowing the answers is what makes the movie work; once everything’s in place it becomes a little more routine.

But kudos to first time writer/director Carl Tibbetts for keeping me guessing for a while; I was never too sure one way or the other for more than a couple minutes before I started leaning in the other direction. He cleverly uses a minimalist approach to tell his story – there are only four people in the movie (one only seen in a couple of brief moments in the first reel), so when Bell tells his story, the lack of visual proof fits with the movie’s style, as it almost unfolds like a play. The house is huge but we seemingly don’t see a lot of it, with most of the scenes taking place in the main room, the kitchen, or the bedroom, much like a play would introduce a fairly large location (a train station or something) and confine our characters to one small chunk of it. Thus, it doesn’t seem odd that his story isn’t aided by flashbacks, which would often be the case for such things (as a director would welcome the change of scenery). He totally commits to the single location and compact cast. Kudos!

It also makes good use of Bell, who hasn’t gotten many opportunities to play a “villain” like this. I tend to think of him as a sort of “in over his head” nervous guy (King Kong, the recent Man On A Ledge), but he is legitimately scary here, further demonstrating his range – here’s hoping his agent is looking out for him as a character actor instead of just trying to recreate Billy Elliott. On the flipside, Cillian Murphy is a guy who tends to play more villainous roles in genre films (the Scarecrow in Batman Begins, Red Eye), or at least an antagonist of a sort (In Time), so it’s nice to see him in the hero position again. If it was a conscious choice to reverse their “usual” roles, it was a good one.

Thandie Newton is the heroine, and she’s fine. I’ve never been able to get much of an impression of her as an actress, other than the fact that she’s seemingly ageless. Like many thriller heroines of late, she’s pretty grating as a character; constantly snipping at her husband, doing rather dumb things in a panic, etc. I guess this is supposed to make us cheer when she finally gets her shit together near the end, but it’s getting tiresome to have to “grow to like” our lead characters. Can’t they just be normal people with problems that we can relate to, instead of obnoxious jerks? Ideally, my wife would be sitting there explaining why Cillian was the bad guy or whatever, but she was calling her expletives after like a half hour. You lost the female vote, Thandie!

But I’m used to that by now, so it’s not that big of a deal. My only real issue is one I’ve had with other “is he or isn’t he?” type movies, which is that in order to keep both options plausible, there’s not a lot of wiggle room for the movie to DO anything. Our characters can’t go outside, because if there IS a virus then they’ll get sick and the movie’s over. Plus that would mean he’s not crazy/a villain, so he won’t be playing mind games or trying to get Cillian out of the way to keep Thandie for himself (Dead Calm style). But if he IS the villain, he can’t out himself too early, because there’s not much to work with in an enclosed house with only two other people. Dead Calm had the two boats, after all. Thus, like I said, for the most part it’s only worth watching once, because the movie lives or dies on the lack of knowing the answers – there aren’t any great scare scenes to revisit, or a complicated plot to work out with multiple viewings.

Thus, Sony should have offered a little more meat on this DVD’s bones to warrant a purchase, because the 15 minute making of doesn’t quite elevate it above rental. It’s typical fluff, talking about the cast and finding the location and such. Only the reveal that David Tennant was originally cast (I could have sworn they said Cillian was cast in his place, but IMDb pegs him as being in the Bell role) is out of the ordinary. Tibbetts also says he was inspired by the same Polanski movies every single director ever name-checks, which tickled me enough to joke on Twitter about how I want to make movies just so I can offer inane blurbs on DVD making of pieces, like “This was my love letter to Jim Gillespie” or “I was going for a Joe Chapelle vibe here”. Seriously, modern genre directors – obviously Polanski’s films are great and huge influences, but you gotta stop making that your only frame of reference. I never once thought of him or his movies while I was watching Retreat, yet if you watch the making of first, you’d swear the movie was going to come across as a remake of Repulsion or Rosemary’s Baby. Oddly, it’s more like Hitchcock (Shadow of a Doubt or Rear Window) than any Polanski I’ve seen, but I don’t think he mentions Hitch once.

With such a minimal cast, fans of any of the three actors will be pleased with this one, as they all get a lot to do and plenty of screen time. Thriller fans will also enjoy the fun mystery at its core, and that it’s from a first time writer/director (he doesn’t even have a short listed on his IMDb page!) makes it all the more impressive. Just don’t expect to be a movie you pull off the shelf too often.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

Warlock III: The End Of Innocence (1999)

FEBRUARY 19, 2012

GENRE: SUPERNATURAL
SOURCE: STREAMING (NETFLIX INSTANT)

I can’t imagine how the folks who defended the original Warlock (of which I was not a fan) felt about Warlock III: The End Of Innocence (what?), which makes the original look like the Citizen Kane of horror movies in comparison. After a while I spent most of my time watching this thing wondering what was more offensive: its total lack of concern for the two films that came before it, or the fact that it was so unforgivably dull.

It’s also poorly cast, which is a shame when you consider that Bruce Payne or Ashley Laurence in a horror film should be a good thing, and thus together should be nothing short of a home run. While Payne is a decent physical match for Julian Sands, he plays the character in a very different way, coming across more like an aristocratic vampire or something, biding his time while chatting up his would-be victims instead of using his damn powers to kill them all and accomplish whatever it is he seeks in this movie (I couldn’t detect a motive beyond “he wants the house they’re in”). There is no attempt to explain his resurrection from the basement of an old house when he was killed in the middle of the forest (in another country!) in the last film, and it’s almost amusing how far he’s fallen with regards to his master plan; in the first film he wanted to rule the world, now he just wants some real estate? Maybe he realized that he was thinking too big and had to take baby steps if he ever wanted to be a successful villain.

Even if you ignore that, it’s just dull as dirt. Warlock once again fucks with people to get what he wants, but he does so in an incredibly inert (and visually tedious) way. Like one guy is afraid he’ll end up like his father… so Warlock makes him look like his father, meaning he ages rapidly, via some lousy makeup effects. Another guy cares about his music, so Warlock turns him deaf. I mean, seriously? This is what you’re offering? A guy going deaf? How did anyone think this was an interesting or scary idea for a sequel in an FX friendly franchise?

At least his demeanor matches his laughably boring plans, as he goes about this non-quest as nonchalantly as I’ve ever seen a villain perform. At one point he even brings one of the guys a sandwich, which is almost charming in a really stupid way. Even in the climax he’s barely even trying; his plans to sacrifice Laurence are undone when she is able to easily undo the knot he tied around her wrist. So he’s an all-powerful warlock, but he can’t double knot a rope. Fine.

Plus, like most low budget horror films of the 90s, it’s blandly shot and drastically overlit, with even the “scary” scenes looking like daytime soap operas. The techno music redefines “ill-fitting”, and there isn’t a single moment in the film that one might consider “eye-popping” or even “visually interesting”, unless you count the terrible CGI effect that blesses the movie’s one cool kill, when he shatters a girl that he turned into glass. Hell, they can’t even get the damn house right – once they get there they never leave, but by the end I still couldn’t tell you the layout, and there’s not much to look at inside either. I suspect the production company found an old estate that had been cleared out and was for sale in a slow market, and convinced the owners to let them shoot their shitty Warlock sequel there on the cheap.

At least it killed this thoroughly unmemorable franchise for good, though I’m sure someone is trying to reboot the damn thing. My advice? Cast Paul Rudd as the Warlock and let him do whatever the hell he wants. He’s got experience with runes and Druids and such, so it’s not too far from his comfort zone.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

Terror Trap (2011)

FEBRUARY 18, 2012

GENRE: BREAKDOWN, SURVIVAL
SOURCE: STREAMING (NETFLIX INSTANT)

You know, at least the Asylum mockbusters are up front with what they're ripping off, using only slight variations on the movie's title and even copying the poster design on occasion. Plus, they're usually ripping off giant blockbusters like Transformers or War Of The Worlds, and often doing their version before they have access to more than the trailer for the real deal, so it's just kind of cute. Terror Trap, on the other hand, is a beat for beat ripoff of Vacancy, an under-appreciated film with a title that doesn't sound anything like theirs. I wonder how many people will rent this and be upset that it's a shameless ripoff of that film and not Tourist Trap.

Of course, most people haven't seen Vacancy, so maybe writer/director Dan Garcia (who produced the legendarily awful Carnivorous) is banking on that to hide his film's blatant theft of not only its concept, but even its character dynamic! Our hero couple is traveling on a dark road and endlessly yelling at each other over every minor issue (and once again the male is slightly more tolerable than the female), and then car issues (an accident instead of a breakdown, to be fair) force them to check in at a seedy motel. Before long they realize that the place is the "set" for snuff films, with the murders carried out by a few guys in masks. And wouldn't you know it, the ordeal allows the couple to get over whatever bullshit was driving them toward divorce and (spoiler) walk away happily ever after! Yay! They even copy the "Call 911 only for the bad guy to intercept the call" scene practically verbatim.

Now, horror is pretty much built around copying what came before, so there's nothing wrong with swiping a concept as long as you make it your own. The problem with Terror Trap is that Mr. Garcia fails to make it his own in any meaningful way. The differences from Vacancy are minor and not often for the better. For example - the biggest change is that the motel folk aren't making tapes of the snuff films to sell to random weirdos - they charge folks to come by, crowd around a monitor that we never see (in fact I'm pretty sure we never even see a camera filming them, so I have no idea how this works) and watch the events as they unfold. Now, this could have been interesting if the voyeurs had any stakes or control ("For 100 bucks we'll do 'em quick, for 200 we'll make them suffer first!" or something), or were maybe betting on the outcome. But no, they just stand around watching an invisible monitor, presumably seeing the same near-escapes and dull "attacks" that we are. One guy mentions how long it's taking, but otherwise there seems to be no indication that this is an unusual "episode" of the show or whatever. In other words, the only reason this seems to be in the movie at all is to give it some semblance of a difference from Vacancy.

Another issue is that even the world's biggest fans of Vacancy seem to agree that the ending was a cop out, yet Garcia not only doesn't take the opportunity to satisfy them by killing one of the couple off, but he can't even bother to inflict any harm on them whatsoever! The hero (JAG's David James Elliott) gets a towel wrapped around his throat for about 10 seconds, and they both get a couple of minor scrapes and bruises, but otherwise they walk away perfectly fine. As I've said in pretty much every review of these kind of movies, if these guys have been doing this for so long and seemingly never had a problem, why are our heroes so successful in getting away when all they do are basic survival things like "run away" or "block the door"? There's some backstory about their military background (he was in it, her grandmother was apparently a 5 star general), but these two dolts can't even figure out that maybe grabbing the knife that was thrown at their heads might be a good idea. Basically, considering how idiotic they are at times and yet still manage to get away relatively unharmed, I have no choice but to believe that all of the motel crew's previous victims were in fact mentally disabled children.

It's also rife with confusing sub-plots and unresolved issues. At one point we see a room filled with kidnapped girls, but their fates are left to the imagination (unless I just missed it; by around the one hour mark I started finding more "cat and mouse" excitement in the most literal way: watching my cat play with his little toy mouse). The ending drags way longer than it should, spending time at a funeral scene of the movie's first victim with the promise that the motel crew will continue doing their thing (some random dude offers the grieving mother a room at the place), before villain Michael Madsen talks to some dude for a while before blowing up his truck. Your guess is as good as mine as to what any of this has to do with anything, only to reinforce that a. the movie, which had slow credits over black, still needed padding to make its meager 85 minute runtime, and b. our damn villains get away at the end, preventing the movie from having something as exciting as a "climactic showdown". Hell, the movie's other main villain (Jeff Fahey - the only reason this movie isn't in the Crap bin) is taken down by one of his alleged partners, not our heroes. It's like the movie purposely goes out of its way to ensure a total lack of viewer satisfaction.

It's also poorly made; they clearly spent all of the money on the cast (and I'm sure the producers pocketed plenty of dough as well). The cinematography in particular is incredibly awful; I often have to watch home movies to find so many blown out shots and dull framing. Little is done to make any of the rooms look different, so there's zero visual flair to the film either - most of the 2nd half of the film just finds our heroes running back and forth between identical rooms or the parking lot. Riveting. The action is also poorly staged; there's a funny bit where one of the killers (who have cool masks, admittedly) somersaults from a balcony down toward our heroes as he makes his way toward them, but otherwise it's one of those chase movies where the villains seemingly disappear the second our heroes round a corner or open/close a door. With four guys it should be pretty easy for them to overcome any obstacle that the heroes put in their path, yet they barely even seem to try busting down a door (or just breaking one of the giant windows). There's a second floor to the motel, which could have been used wisely for some chases, but I don't think the heroes ever even notice it. Again, Garcia has a perfect opportunity to improve on or at least differentiate his film from Vacancy, and can't be bothered.

But Michael Madsen blows up a truck! Vacancy didn't even HAVE Michael Madsen, let alone trucksplosion. Way to go, Terror Trap!

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

Skew (2011)

FEBRUARY 17, 2012

GENRE: MOCKUMENTARY, SUPERNATURAL (?)
SOURCE: STREAMING (NETFLIX INSTANT)

My buddy AJ is possibly the only person I know who is more of a smartass than I am, so I am pretty sure he was joking when he said he didn't realize that "Found Footage" films (a genre which he despises) were supposed to be as believable as possible (i.e. no famous actors, and if the story involves them running around it should be shot with a compact, consumer quality camera). To me, they only work if I'm not being distracted by "Hollywood" style elements, and thus for a while, Skew is one of the most successful attempts at this sort of thing in quite some time.

For starters it's full frame, which automatically sets it ahead of most. Usually they just say that the character is a wedding videographer or something to justify why they have this expensive, high def camera that shoots perfect 1.78:1 images, but our hero in Skew is just a college aged kid, and thus he's using something from Best Buy, producing images that look just like the ones I got when I'd record a vacation with my girlfriend or a road trip to eat a giant hamburger. And it's also "edited" like the raw video I'd end up with; random shots out of the car window, quick bits that are the result of the camera being turned on accidentally and shut back off instantly, half-conversations, etc.

It's not until later in the film where writer/director Sevé Schelenz betrays this reality and frequently begins showing us rewound footage. Until then, it had a very personalized aspect to it, putting you in the eyes of one character (Simon, the camera's owner whose face we never see) and rarely allowing the others to use it. A bit deep, but one could surmise that the intent was to put you in Simon's shoes, something that is very unique for this genre, which often has multiple camera operators, or a tripod filming part of the action (Paranormal Activity being the most famous example of the latter). There's also usually a fiction that tells you at the top of the film that the movie was assembled from several tapes to give an account of what happened. Here, it might as well be unfolding in real time for a while; recording these events as they happened, but then Schelenz shifts the approach and begins rewinding key moments and such, putting us in the role of an outside party who is watching the tape at some later date (which makes me wonder why he didn't fast forward over the more boring bits).

Another thing in the movie's favor was the lack of recognizable actors (according to the IMDb trivia, Schelenz tried getting Bruce Greenwood for a role - this baffles me). Maybe it's because Chronicle (undoubtedly the worst attempt at this sort of approach in history - not a bad movie though) was still fresh in my mind, but I bought these three as a real group of friends, not a few actors that were tossed together. And again, I wasn't being distracted by the sudden appearance of an actor I knew from elsewhere or anything else that screamed "fake" to me. Considering the rather silly idea of rewinding (and the bit about Greenwood), I can't help but wonder if this was intentional or if the things that worked about Schelenz's film were happy accidents. Maybe he wanted famous actors in this age group for the leads and couldn't get them. Maybe he wanted to use a high def camera and couldn't afford it. Either way, on a technical level, it "works" in a way that very few of these films have managed; one could put this on a VHS tape and tell a friend it was real, and they might be fooled for a while.

As for why the film ends so abruptly and without really explaining much, I have no theory (spoilers ahead!). The hook of the movie is that everyone (and everyTHING! RIP Mr. Roadside Deer) Simon points his camera at ends up dying a short time later, and his attempts at warning his two companions are unsuccessful because they are just sick of his constant filming and general weird attitude. It's also pretty obvious in the first ten minutes that he is crushing on the female of the group (Eva, the other guy's girlfriend, who seems to return the feelings for one brief moment), so there's extra tension from that. Like the Final Destination films with regards to why the main characters are given premonitions, Skew doesn't bother to explain how Simon got this "power", and the explanation for why he is able to film the other two (because he cares about them) is weak. One of the three also disappears without explanation, which is just obnoxious because by then the movie's almost over. In Blair Witch, Josh's disappearance was basically the 3rd act motivator, but here the character is called out for a couple times, then the others are distracted by an argument, and the person is never mentioned again (the film's poster also has a "they were never seen again" disclaimer, which doesn't make sense as one of them is still very much alive at the end).

And then Schelenz really blows the "reality" of the film, rewinding all the way to the beginning of the story and then a few minutes beyond that, showing us an incident that occurred between Simon and his girlfriend before the other two showed up. Not only is it annoying from the "found footage" perspective (and even kind of a cheat), but by then we've already figured out what happened between the two of them before the movie began (they had a fight/broke up due to Simon's feelings for Eva), so it's anticlimactic as well. Then we finally see his face for the first time (without the camera in front of it, which is either important or a major goof, as we are told early on that the camera doesn't have a flip out view-screen), and the movie ends. One COULD theorize that (spoiler?) the entire "supernatural curse" thing was his imagination and that he was killing everyone himself (off camera), though that seems to be stretching it, and besides for every incident he COULD have caused himself, there's one that couldn't (a bus crash, for example). Either way, I either missed something major or simply don't understand the point of building an ending around this scene - it doesn't tell us anything new, just clarifies what anyone with half a brain could have figured out by now.

Unless, it IS supposed to suggest that there never was a camera, which would render huge chunks of the movie impossible. There are at least four scenes where one of the others grabs the camera (usually when Simon is sleeping), which would be a bit hard to explain if it wasn't there to begin with. They also pretty much never stop telling him to shut the camera off, and even if you want to theorize that they were just humoring their mentally disturbed friend, it doesn't explain how/why other characters can see it (a cop tells him "This isn't for your home movies, kid!" when he films a murder scene). And if he was just pretending to film sometimes and other times not, there needs to be more of an explanation at the end for how it "worked". There is a bit at the end that proves he is indeed delusional (a scene starts with him leaving a message to his girlfriend, but when the tape is rewound we can see he picks up the phone without ever dialing anything), but I can't buy the "no camera" theory based on what is presented in the film, even if it is a pretty crazy/admirable idea.

Still, it mostly works, and is more satisfying than many in the genre. As I am sort of a junkie for these movies, I admired how Schelenz was able to get around the usual "why are they still filming" problem without the movie getting too slow, and again, it's easier to buy into this movie's attempt at reality than at least 90% of the found footage films out there. If the 2005 date we see in the movie is reflective of the time of the film's production, I'm even more impressed because that would mean it was shot before pretty much any title you can think of save Blair Witch, though I can't for the life of me understand why it would have taken 6+ years to see release (NOTE - I have since been told that the film was self-financed and thus it took this long to complete the FX and such). Even if you hate these movies you might find something to enjoy here; there's very little shaki-cam, the character is motivated to keep shooting, and the acting is above average. The overly ambiguous ending is its only major flaw, but it can lead to spirited discussion, so even that's not the end of the world.

What say you?


PLEASE, GO ON...

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