Closed For The Season (2010)

JANUARY 31, 2012


Like the killer clown slasher movie, horror movies set in amusement parks tend to suck more often than not, and sadly Closed For The Season does little to reverse the trend. It’s certainly better than Dark Ride or whatever, but the inconceivable length (a few minutes under two hours), purposely convoluted plot, and two leads who aren’t engaging enough to warrant looking past the other blemishes ultimately kills whatever goodwill a “Better than Dark Ride” claim can provide.

At 90 minutes I could be more forgiving, because at its core IS a fairly unique story, which is something that should be lauded (especially nowadays). Our heroes are trapped in an abandoned amusement park, forced by the movie’s strange villain (a carny played by the great Joe Unger – someone needs to cast this guy as John Hawkes’ dad in one of his 195 yearly awards bait type flicks) to relive the memories – most of them painful/scary – of the folks who had passed through the park over the years. Why he would do this, I have no idea, but it’s better than the usual slasher or whatever in terms of inventiveness. Also, director Jay Woelfel lucked out with a terrific location, an actual abandoned amusement park that has been left to rot for the past 30 years.

And he must know how good of a location it is, because I am sure at some point that someone told him that another horror movie called Deadwood Park was shot there as well. Amazingly, my biggest problem with THAT movie (which also blended nostalgia with ghosts) was that it was too damn long, so this is one of those things that only doing Horror Movie A Day can make happen: I’ve now seen two bloated horror movies shot in Chippewa Park, which is at least one more than any normal person should endure. Sadly, even though Deadwood was actually a few minutes longer (!) it’s actually the better of the two, so make that your one experience with this overrun fun park.

As with that film, the production value afforded by the one of a kind locale adds immensely to the proceedings; there’s something incredibly eerie about seeing coasters and tilt-a-whirl type rides with trees and brush growing between the rails and tracks – it’s the sort of thing that even the best set designers in the world couldn’t accurately recreate and get that creepy, almost kind of sad look that these things provide “as is”. Or, “as was”; since this movie’s production I understand the park has finally been demolished properly in order to make way for new developments. It’s the movie’s best asset for sure.

Thus, the fact that it’s gone is kind of infuriating – no one will ever be able to put it to truly good use for a movie. Instead, its last hurrah was used up in this convoluted nonsense. Few horror movies can be accused of being full of themselves, but that’s exactly the problem here. It seems Woelfel was incapable of reigning in his ideas and instead just put them all into one movie, which would be a problem even on a big budget movie (see: Transformers sequels), but is even more problematic when you’re dealing with an action-lite affair with only three characters. Poor Unger has to wear more costumes in this film than the Dean on Community wears in an entire season, and worse, occasionally has to provide important exposition while dressed as a sea monster or one of his many clowns.

It also drags out every plot point to an insane degree. When Unger demands they beat him at a carnival game, not only does it take forever (it’s one of those “break the plate” deals), but it just keeps going! After our male hero beats him the game, the female then has to have her own “test”, a dunk tank scene that is equally overlong and dull. Add in the constant dream sequences and hallucinations, and you have a movie that probably could have been 75 minutes long if Woelfel could have focused while writing and/or wasn’t such a baby in editing. Doesn’t matter how much time and effort you put into shooting something – if your story is becoming muddled or drawn out, it HAS to go. It’s why it’s never a good idea for a director to be his own editor (as he is here); in fact I was amazed to discover some deleted scenes among the film’s many extra features. This movie could have been LONGER? Christ.

Also, call me crazy, but a movie about two characters experiencing things that happened to other people just isn’t that interesting after a while. Yeah, it’s sad that someone got killed on a ride and someone else was sexually assaulted in the park, and numerous other things, but if you step back and look at it as a whole, the movie is about two people doing and experiencing absolutely nothing for real. It reminded me of that awful movie The Babysitter with Alicia Silverstone, where the entire thing is just people briefly fantasizing about getting closer to her when in reality they’re just standing there staring. That’s basically what happens here – most of the movie is a dull illusion.

I will give it props about one thing – the ending wasn’t what I expected. I was positive we were building toward a “they’ve been dead the whole time” finale, but that wasn’t quite it. It wasn’t much BETTER, but at least I was sort of fooled, which is always a plus regardless of the other circumstances. And even though the CGI roller coaster scenes look awful, it kind of “fit” to me – they weren’t really happening, so the crude “un-reality” look was appropriate (sort of like the bit in Speed Racer where the background is made up of his childish drawings). In other words, this movie doesn’t fail because it doesn’t have any good ideas – it fails because it doesn’t know what to do with them.

If you dug the movie though, this DVD will delight you to no end. It will take you nearly four hours to go through everything, starting with a full length commentary on the 2 hour movie. Woelfel is by himself here, and he admits some of the movie doesn’t quite work as well as he wanted to and even mocks its endlessness on occasion, but he’s also kind of boring. His obsession with scenes that were shot in two locations will drive anyone up a wall after a half hour or so – no one cares that an insert shot was shot in LA! I swear, at least 10% of the track is him going “OK so this was Ohio, this was California, California… now back to Ohio for that shot, and then cutaway was back in California!” And his soft voice over two hours of mostly dull film is almost like a challenge to the viewer: I dare you not to doze off as he drones on about CGI shadows and where they found the “Octoberfest” sign seen in the background of one scene.

The rest of the stuff is a little more enticing; 45 minutes’ worth of making of footage (broken up into “Webisodes”) will provide some insight into the real location and techie stuff like sound design, and then there are 20 minutes of deleted scenes that you can watch with or without commentary. None of them really felt much different than anything that was seen in the endless movie, so if you loved every minute of it – there’s more! Interestingly, he doesn’t say much about why he cut them, opting to just ramble on about the location and nitpicking about the color timing, same as he did on the feature. The only one of real interest is the last one, which would have been near the end of the film and explained how she really ended up in the park in the first place, but only someone who truly cared about the movie doing anything but finally ending by that point would have been annoyed by this dangling plot thread. Then there’s a pair of trailers (1st is better, not sure if the order is swapped or they just made their film look more amateurish on their 2nd wave of marketing) as well as two separate video tours of the abandoned park grounds, which will mostly just make you wish someone had thought to make a found footage movie in this eerie, unique location. Oh well.

Again, I like seeing original horror stories, especially in the indie world where most seem to just be trying to cash in on the current trends in an attempt to get noticed. But you gotta do that original idea justice with a tight script and strong characters, neither of which are offered here. Nice try, but I can’t recommend this one unless you’re a big fan of Unger, since he’s the best thing about it.

What say you?


Faces In The Crowd (2011)

JANUARY 30, 2012


I had passed by Faces In The Crowd a few times, assuming it was just some DTV thriller. But I had an extra rental tonight and picked it up, seeing if was something that I could watch over the weekend when I had a little more free time. There are certainly worse ways to spend a couple hours than looking at Milla Jovovich, and I spied Sarah Wayne Callies’ name on there as well! Bonus “Hot nurse from Prison Break”! And then I saw it labeled as a “horror/thriller” on the DVD, and saw that it was about a serial killer, so hurrah!

Not too surprisingly, it’s a BIT of a stretch to call it horror. It’s about a serial killer, but he drops his MO in favor of trying to drive Milla crazy after she witnesses one of his killings, which puts it more into generic thriller territory – especially when she starts falling for the cop that is assigned to protect her. The hook is that her encounter with the killer leaves her with Prosopagnosia, a rare disorder that prevents her from being able to remember faces. Not just HIS face, all faces – her best friends, her boyfriend, even her dad look like strangers to her, and they even change from minute to minute. Sort of like those masks in A Scanner Darkly, basically – but she can “fight” it by focusing on something particular on their face. Hero cop Julian McMahon, for example, sports a goatee and thus she is able to keep track of what he looks like.

Thus, the most interesting thing about the movie is seeing how director Julien Magnat depicts this to the audience. Every character (besides Milla) is played by several people – her boyfriend is played by over a dozen credited actors, for example. As a result, the other actors – such as Callies – barely appear, as we only see her once before the accident but then after, apart from a couple of shots, she is always being played by other women (with her awful haircut being the only thing to ground us). In fact I kind of wish Magnat had opted for a similar approach to Memoirs Of An Invisible Man, where they set up a gag with him being invisible, but then show Chevy normally so we could follow along/see our name actor as much as possible. But either Magnat doesn’t trust us or was using this motif as a clever way to keep the budget down by hiring recognizable folks for what couldn’t have been more than 2 days of work, because even when the scene isn’t necessarily playing on Milla’s problem with identifying them, they still don’t return to the original actor or actress, which makes it a bit harder to get worked up when they get killed off. The face changing keeps us from being attached to them, and in fact one corpse is even yet another new face (the credits list “Dead _____” or something like that).

However, it DOES get the point across. The casting folks did a great job of finding people that looked close enough alike to momentarily disorient us as well as Milla, which helps sell this very tricky and personal problem to the viewing audience. I was a bit baffled that she’d continue to lash out and hit someone because she didn’t recognize their face even after a few weeks of dealing with this – you’d think she’d be used to it by now – but otherwise it’s one of the better on-screen depictions of a strange neurological issue. Memento is the undisputed champ of such things, but in this area anyway, Crowd measures up.

Sadly, it’s nowhere nearly as successful in telling its mystery story. Even with the face changing gimmick, it’s pretty obvious who the killer is, and the movie’s feeble attempts at red herrings (i.e. her boyfriend) are wholly unsuccessful. And it’s not even a case of “you’ve seen too many movies” – the movie doesn’t bother to offer any potential suspects besides her boyfriend and the actual killer! And the boyfriend is cleared at around the 70 minute mark, so until the final chase we’re just kind of waiting for the movie to get around to telling us what we already know. The killer uses her disorder to his advantage, which leads to some fun scenes, but if she was just plain ol’ blind there would be almost no point to the movie at all. To compare to Memento again, the gimmick was a major selling point, but it was still a compelling mystery/thriller on a basic level. This lacks that intrigue, and the fact that he drops his usual type of killing and focuses on cleaning up this particular mess doesn’t help either. If she was an INTENDED victim who he discovered had this problem and decided to have a little fun with her first, then it might be unique/interesting, but a generic “no witnesses!” approach does the movie no favors.

It’s also kind of awkward on all levels. Almost none of the characters have much of a chemistry (with the exception of Callies and Jovovich, who sadly only have like 4 minutes of screentime together); McMahon in particular seems uncomfortable playing the tough but romantic hero cop. The editing is also wonky; perhaps it’s intentional to give it more of that uneasy feeling, but I don’t think so. Like there’s a bit at a bar where McMahon walks over to Milla, pulls out a stool, and sits next to her – we see this in three shots from angles that aren’t much different from one another, and McMahon appears to be in a different position in relation to her with each cut. There are also subplots that have no payoff, such as the fact that her shrink is deaf and thus needs to read lips. And Milla’s dad comes to visit and then leaves again just as quickly, despite the fact that keeping him around might actually be a fun potential red herring.

Nothing is as weird as the back of the DVD though, which lists “Bonus Material” under “Special Features”, as if the two meant completely different things. As it turns out, the “Bonus Material” is merely a trio of brief featurettes covering the film’s cast, FX, and story. Why they were split into three segments is unknown, especially since it’s CLEARLY meant to be one piece as only the third one has credits for the director/editor/producers. They’re not too bad as these things go, though I had to laugh when they showcased the film’s amateurish green-screen compositing during car scenes. “They added in the background later!” a producer tells us, over a shot with a background that might as well have been drawn in with MS Paint.

If you’re in the mood for a Lifetime-ish take on a serial killer movie with an unusual hook, this should scratch the itch – but you gotta admit: that’s a very specific mood. With a better mystery at its core and some better casting decisions this could have been really cool. Instead it’s just decent; something Milla junkies can watch while they wait for the next Resident Evil movie.

What say you?


Twice Told Tales (1963)

JANUARY 29, 2012


Not even a two hour runtime could keep me from being excited about Twice Told Tales, another anthology in which Vincent Price stars in every segment, but with stories based on Nathaniel Hawthorne instead of Poe. Since the Poe stuff tended to get a bit similar as time went on, I figured this would be a refreshing change of pace. And it’s pretty good, but a couple of things weigh it down, so that length ultimately DID start to get to me a bit, especially since the third segment was the weakest.

In fact it goes in order; the first story was my favorite, the 2nd was pretty good, and then the 3rd was kind of dull. Interestingly, the first was the least horrific of them all, depicting a sort of standard “Fountain of Youth” story in which things don’t turn out that well for everyone. There are only three people in the segment, and thus Price rarely leaves the frame (another reason it was my favorite). I was impressed with the old age makeup given to him and Sebastian Cabot (though his colored beard was a bit silly looking); in fact since I didn’t look at the date I was actually a bit surprised how aged he was – I knew they had done SOMETHING but not to what extent (and they did a pretty good job of guessing what he’d look like in 20 years). It’s also the only tale that benefits from the film’s rather bland style; director Sidney Salkow was from TV, and it shows – even for an early 60s film it’s rather static and “small”, a far cry from the lush colors and lavish sets of the Corman/Poe pictures. It’s also at the 1.66:1 ratio, unlike those films which were all 2.35 scope if memory serves. As it was clearly trying to emulate those other films (Tales Of Terror most obviously), the difference sticks out – you’ll never forget that this isn’t Corman. I sort of love the irony there – “It looks cheap compared to Roger Corman movies!” – but at least in this first story, where only three characters spend the entire time in one of two tiny rooms, it fits.

The second story is almost as good, and possibly would be the best if it was fleshed out a bit more. Price plays a scientist who has treated his daughter with a rare toxin that prevents her from touching anyone (they will die if she does), because his wife left him for another man and this is how he chose to deal with it. Of course, she falls in love with someone, and the young man gets too close and discovers the secret. Needless to say, things don’t work out too well for anyone, including a poor little lizard that gets offed when she is asked to prove that she has the deadly touch. Here’s where the film’s limited visual flair starts to hurt – the garden that houses the deadly plant is colorful, but fake looking, and too small to boot. For a plant that can kill anyone who touches it, it’s just sitting there in the middle of a yard – it seems like it would be difficult NOT to touch it if you wanted to get across. However, I did enjoy the rather tragic approach; and Price is pretty great at toeing the line between a mad scientist villain and a rather sad man who seemingly did really love his daughter but had a messed up way of showing it (fans of Repo might enjoy this one; it mirrors Nathan and Shilo’s relationship in some ways).

But then the third sort of drags the whole thing down. It’s based on Hawthorne’s novel “The House Of Seven Gables” (the other two were based on short stories from a collection of the same name), and even though it’s the longest of the three it still feels a bit rushed and underdeveloped. The whole thing is about a curse imposed by the house’s original owner, but he/his story barely appear in the proceedings, severely limiting the mystery angle. Too much of it is given over to our heroine (Beverly Garland) wandering around the house or hearing noises, and Price only really gets to cut loose in the film’ final 5 minutes or so. The story – an old house, inheritance, curses – also feels the most like one of his Poe films, which doesn’t help the feeling that this could have been done better. Oddly, Price actually starred in the first full length film based on the novel (as a different character); I’m curious if that one is more successful.

The FX are pretty fun. The first story has the always enjoyable “fade in/out to show aging or decomposing” effect, and it’s above average in its depiction, and the second has some fun “acid touch” moments. And the third makes up for its sluggish pace with the finale – bleeding walls, a scythe to the head (!), and a wacky skeleton arm that chokes Price. I assume it’s the same arm that we see in what passes for the movie’s wraparound segments, which is just a skeleton arm turning pages in a book as Price (as a narrator, not one of his characters) reads some text and basically plays us out. As wrap-arounds go, it’s pretty much one of the lamest, but the movie is long enough – anything more in depth would just be torture. Even Creepshow wasn’t this long and that had five segments AND a real wraparound story!

MGM’s DVD is nothing to write blog paragraphs about; the image is often over-compressed, and it’s non-anamorphic to boot. It’s annoying enough on any movie, but for 1.66 films it’s twice as obnoxious because most HDTVs can’t zoom in properly – you either have to watch it “windowboxed” (black bars on all four sides) or zoom in and crop the top and bottom. The trailer is the only supplement, and it’s a lousy one since it spoils the end of “Gables” along with most of the other “action” highlights. I’d say “it’s a good thing that they don’t do this anymore” but a very high profile, much loved movie that’s in theaters now had a trailer more or less built around the film’s closing moments (I won’t spoil it by saying the film’s title, but if you know what I’m talking about – I hope you stayed through the credits for a little bit of a bonus “epilogue”). Curious if anyone ever actually cares about such things though (oddly enough, before said film the same actor was in a trailer for another movie and that spot actually spoiled his death!), perhaps without the context it doesn’t register as a major spoiler? Eh, who cares.

Anyway, back to this movie: Starts off good but declines; I'd recommend watching in chunks.

What say you?


Kuroneko (1968)

JANUARY 28, 2012


The most common misconception about Criterion releases is that they are supposed to be the "best" movies of all time, which people continue to claim despite the fact that neither Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Gone With The Wind, The Godfather, Shawshank Redemption, or Dr. Giggles have been given the treatment. No, Criterion releases films that are significant in their genre or the whole of filmmaking, which is why Armageddon is part of the collection: name a better example of "dumb, big, and loud" summer blockbuster movie-making. So I was excited for Kuroneko (translated to The Black Cat), because I don't see too many Asian horror films from before the 90s, and with Criterion behind it I figured it would be quite memorable and exciting.

Well, I can only guess that at the time it was pretty amazing. It's not a bad movie by any means, but it's not particularly involving, either. There are potentially exciting plot points in the film, but everything is drawn out and under-developed, as if it was a campfire tale of sorts that got stretched out to feature length without much further development of the story.

The basic plot is this: a woman and her daughter-in-law are raped and killed by a traveling group of Samurai in the opening sequence, and then some time later their ghosts are seen killing any Samurai that crosses their path. So it's sort of like a rape-revenge tale but without specific victims. I couldn't even tell if the guys they kill were part of the original group, but since they have vowed to take down ALL Samurai, it doesn't really matter to the movie's plot. I (the viewer), however, DO have a problem with this - it instantly turns the victims into villains. At least if they were seeking revenge on their specific attackers it would work, even at the eventual point where the line between victim and attacker becomes a bit blurred (a staple in these sort of things). Here that line is crossed pretty much in the 2nd scene - for all we know these Samurai were perfectly decent men. At least Paul Kersey was still taking on thugs and lowlifes if not necessarily the ones who killed his wife, you know?

Plus it drove me nuts that the movie hinges on our hero (who isn't even introduced until the movie's nearly half over) not recognizing his own mother or wife. He sees the resemblance, but it's not until he's banging the wife that it finally sinks in. And he fails to recognize his mother not once but TWICE during the movie's narrative. Once he understands that it's them, certain plot points result in his mother turning against him, and near the end of the film she shows up saying that she's a witch of some sort. Her face isn't that much different, but he again doesn't realize that it's his mom until a particular defect on her person is revealed. Come on, man! Or at least, come on, makeup man! Make her look different enough to fool the audience as well.

That said, I do dig the basic idea of a guy being ordered to investigate/kill the "monster" that's been killing his brethren only to discover it's the ghosts of his mother and his wife. Because of their code of honor and all that, it's not a simple "I can't do it, I know them" type situation - he is sworn to kill them. Additionally, they themselves are sworn to kill HIM, as he is a Samurai and they have vowed to take them all down. LAYERS, man. But again, this stuff is so drawn out, and partially based on our acceptance that a guy can't recognize his own family (even when their cat shows up he's like "Ah, I had a cat that looked like that with my wife who looked exactly like you. Weird!"), that it never felt as compelling as it should. The passage of time was also an issue; years go by in between their murder and the appearance of their ghosts, but we only discover that later.

Beautiful looking film, however. The scope widescreen image mixed with true black & white photography just looks gorgeous, and director Kaneto Shindô finds a lot of wonderfully striking shots: snow fall on the forest setting, the long opening shot of our band of evil Samurai making their way through the woods (and their matter of fact exit later), and others all made me glad I was watching this on Blu-ray. The bits of violence were also surprisingly graphic for their day, with the ghosts tearing at the victims' jugulars. The story may have been a bit too loose for my liking, but I never felt the need to take my eyes off the screen, either.

As this was a rental I cannot judge the merit of the booklet that comes along with the retail version, which has essays and the like that would probably help me understand its significance a little bit better. On the disc we get an interview with Tadao Sato, a Japanese critic that DID help clarify some things for me, such as the fact that Shindo was pretty much the only one at that time who would dare paint the noble Samurai in a negative light. I also liked that ghost movies were a staple of the Japanese summer movie season, particularly after this last summer in which not a single horror film was released wide from May to July (unless you count Priest, which was more of an action movie). He also provides some info on the actors and Shindo himself, and seems like a pretty jovial, well-versed guy (he also discusses cat psychology, which was fitting as my beloved Butters was sitting on the couch with me, purring happily). There's also an hour long interview with Shindo himself; I tried watching it but as it was about his whole career including story details I gave up; this is the first of his films that I've seen and didn't feel like having the others spoiled. Plus I just got other stuff to do; I had mixed feelings about the movie, no use sitting around for an hour trying to learn more about it.

I'd love to hear some takes on this one though, perhaps with someone more familiar with 1960s Japanese horror films - is this one of the better ones, in your opinion? Is there a title you think would make a better "entry point" for a n00b like me? And do they all involve cats?

What say you?


The Wicker Tree (2010)

JANUARY 27, 2012


Of all the movies to get a surprise theatrical release, The Wicker Tree has to be in the top 5. Maybe in the UK it'd be a draw, but a pseudo-sequel to a nearly 40 year old British cult film that is probably best known here for inspiring a crazy Nic Cage movie is hardly the sort of movie that can be expected to bring in a crowd at a time when even first class, A-grade entertainment like The Grey can't even sell out a prime showing on opening night. Even if the movie was good!

Because, sadly, it's not. It's pretty damn bad, in fact. But really, how can anything related to Wicker Man just be "OK" at this point? The original is a terrific low-key movie, combining an intriguing mystery with a "guy gets caught up in an insane cult" plot, and adding songs and other assorted weirdness. It's not something I pull off the shelf too often, but it's the sort of movie I encourage folks to check out when they seek something a little different. And the remake is infamous; obviously everyone has seen the clips of Nic Cage running around in a bear suit and what not, but it's actually kind of nutty from start to finish, and (IMO) a lot better than anyone gives it credit for.

So when the original film's writer/director Robin Hardy said he was making a spiritual successor to Wicker Man, I got excited. However, a lot of false starts got me worried that maybe this "franchise" should be left alone - and I was right. The elements are there for an intriguing movie - a pair of young lovers, one of whom is a Carrie Underwood-ish country sensation prone to spreading the word of God and promoting chastity with her boyfriend, travel to a strange Scottish countryside town in order to "remind" the citizens about the importance of Jesus and angels and all that. Of course, the town has their own religion and plan to use these two for their own purposes. So it's similar to Man, but different enough to be its own thing and theoretically have some fun with the concept. After all, who's to say that one religion is better than the others? And maybe not now, but certainly many people have been killed in the name of Christianity, so you can't even say the Scots are "wrong" because they're into sacrifice - they just haven't caught up with everyone else.

Unfortunately THAT movie doesn't exist. Instead, we just get an endless series of loosely connected scenes in which our heroes do their thing while the townsfolk either humors them or makes shifty eyes in the background. There's no mystery of any sort, and nothing to even build suspense. Hell, there's no indication that we're even in a genre film until the final reel, so you can't even really call this a slow burn. It's just THERE, and when the cult elements finally kick in they're just as indifferently presented as everything else (and the film's most vicious act occurs off-screen to boot). And if you've seen either version of The Wicker Man you should know that happy endings aren't their style, something Hardy doesn't bother to use to his advantage - a more clever filmmaker would have used our expectations against us and done something different. Instead, he SEEMS to be mixing things up, only to randomly turn it back around and do the exact same thing. Yeah, good one.

It almost seems like Hardy had the wrong idea of what people liked about the original film. If the songs, irreverent humor, and nudity were the only things about the original you enjoyed, then you're the ideal audience for Wicker Tree - the film is overloaded with all. There's a subplot about a woman trying to convince her lover to do it 7 times in one night (one scene even has subtitles for some reason - the movie is in English), which never quite has any real bearing on anything (based on the Wikipedia synopsis I suspect this subplot made more sense in the source novel) but offers plenty of actress Honeysuckle Weeks in the nude. There are at least a dozen songs, often coming right after the other, none memorable in any way. And the film is overloaded with attempts at all types of humor; black (an argument breaks out over a missing bowl of human eyes), absurdist (the aforementioned sex scenes, plus a guy who only speaks in lines from "The Raven"), and even pop culture - head villain Graham McTavish actually makes a Simpsons reference at one point.

Hardy also assumes Christopher Lee is essential to the proceedings. While his name certainly adds some interest, his 30 seconds of screentime in the film may eventually be used in the dictionary to provide an example of "extraneous". Out of nowhere, McTavish has a flashback to when he was a kid and was painting a picture of a bridge, which catches Lee's attention. They have a brief conversation and then it cuts back to present day, without any further insight to the character or plot really gained from the excursion. He has a portrait of Lee on the wall - that should have been the extent of his "cameo", instead of this insultingly pointless bit of fan-wankery.

And again, most troubling - it's simply not interesting. Our heroes are bland, boring people played by not very good actors, and the villains barely try to hide the fact that they plan on doing SOMETHING bad to them, so it's basically just a long wait until the night of their sacrifice so we can see if they'll succeed. Worse, the heroes never seem to suspect anything is amiss, which just makes them look like idiots and also keeps the movie from having anything one could consider suspenseful or interesting. One character randomly seems to be trying to help them near the end, but there's no build up to it nor is there any follow-through on the subplot - she just kind of looks worried in a few shots but doesn't really do anything to help. Riveting!

Oh and the digital photography was a mess at times, but why complain about that anymore? No one's listening. 35mm is on its way out because of laziness, and in 20 years everyone will be wondering why "old" movies look so shitty when stored/projected on technology that didn't exist at the time they were made. Good job, everyone. Ironically though, Anchor Bay (or someone) struck prints of this movie, which is awesome. It's a lousy film and only worthy of theatrical release in the sense that ALL "real" movies deserve the treatment, but I like that the "little guy" is actually trying to keep 35mm alive in its own way. I'd rather the damn thing was SHOT that way in the first place, but I'll take what I can get.

Mr. Hardy once said about the 2006 remake: "It was a complete failure. There was nothing enchanting. No fun. They just didn't get it." Interesting, because I could levy this exact same argument about his own "re-imagining". I wouldn't exactly fight someone who claimed that the Cage movie was terrible, but I'd be very curious to hear how they could possibly say this was any better. The one thing you couldn't say about either version was that it was "boring" - this one can barely be described as anything but.

What say you?


The House On Skull Mountain (1974)

JANUARY 26, 2012


Thanks to my endless supply of “being nice”, my IMDb page boasts like 10 credits, almost all of which are in different areas. “Producing” an EPK, editing a documentary, doing some titles, even a few acting gigs. With one exception, I wasn’t paid for any of them, which is part of why you don’t see more than 2 credits in any area: I get sick of doing something for free, but will offer my services in a different area just for the experience. Anyway, Ron Honthaner, director of The House On Skull Mountain, has a similar page - couple acting credits, some sound editing, regular editing, production manager/producer on Gunsmoke (which seems to be his claim to fame), etc. So it’s no surprise that this is his sole directing credit – dude seemingly couldn’t pick an area to excel and just kept bouncing around the industry doing whatever the hell he could, I guess. His final credit was an editor on some action flick from the late 80s – not sure if he died or just finally gave up.

But based on Skull Mountain, I don’t think there was any tremendous loss to the horror genre that he never directed another film (though he fared better than screenwriter Mildred Pares, who has not one other credit to her name in any field). The film is dull, and padded with nonsense like two characters who just met going off into the city to look at antique clocks (set to a weepy ballad no less) – but I could forgive that if any of it was the least bit suspenseful. It’s basically one of those 30s/40s horror style movies where a bunch of distant relatives join up at a big ol’ house to hear about their inheritance, and then they start getting knocked off (or just out) one by one by someone who clearly is after a bigger share. Unfortunately, Pares and Honthaner didn’t really bother to take into consideration that those movies were of a different era and many were made under the Hayes Code, which is why they are mostly so damn boring. Thus, their 1974 version is just as weak, but nowhere near as forgivable.

To be fair they do add some new elements; mainly, the fact that this is a lite Blaxploitation effort, and also has heavy voodoo elements. And while that does add some novelty (as does the Georgia setting, though the opening driving scene was clearly Los Angeles), it doesn’t really matter much in the end. Our lone white character is also the hero, vastly reducing its merit in the sub-genre when compared to say, Sugar Hill (another voodoo movie of infinitely more entertainment value), and the voodoo element is comprised mainly of scenes of our villain chanting in odd closeup angles while stabbing voodoo dolls or lighting sticks on fire.

At least, until the final 20 minutes. Our hero suddenly discovers a hidden passageway that leads to a full cult of worshipers, dancing around and sacrificing a woman tied to a pole and all that good stuff. Then we get a blandly choreographed machete fight, which leads to more voodoo (including a minor zombie scene) before our villain gets pushed out of a window. That’s it. There are only two other kills in the movie, neither of them particularly interesting, though one was a minor surprise since the character (The Jeffersons’ Mike Evans) seemed to be set up as more of a hero or at least someone who’d stick around for a while (sort of the Luke/Russ Tamblyn character in the quartet). The other just gets bit by a snake, which is, as you may have guessed, not nearly exciting or even scary enough to justify the lack of anything happening in the rest of the movie. The damn antiquing scene gets more screen time than the horror stuff!

It’s also depressingly simple. We know who our villain is after about 20 minutes, so there’s no element of surprise like in those other movies. At first I figured maybe the guy doing the voodoo was actually trying to PROTECT our heroes from an unseen/unidentified third party, which would have made for a fun little twist, but no, it’s made abundantly clear that he’s the one behind it all. So it’s one of those movies where you spend the entire movie waiting for the other characters to catch up to you, on top of its other faults.

Honthaner also apparently thinks we’re stupid. There’s a cool little bit where he tries to make a skull face out of a mirror, some bottles, and the person’s head (and her angled reflection), which might have been a fun little Easter Egg for those who noticed it – it’s not like it has any bearing on anything, and had he framed it slightly better or just let the shot linger on for a few seconds more I’m sure folks would have seen the illusion. But pretty much as soon as the elements are lined up (it springs from a zoom out shot), he super-imposes an actual skull face over it, before even the most analytical mind could have possibly noticed the gag.

I was talking to my buddy Sam Zimmerman from "Fangoria" right after I watched, because he was interested in seeing it (I think I talked him out of it). He himself had just watched Let’s Scare Jessica To Death, a better movie to be sure but also one where the concept sounded a lot more interesting than the movie itself ended up being. We then discussed how THESE are the films that should be getting remade, not the movies that were perfectly good the first time around. Both have great titles (even if Skull’s is a bit "Three Investigators"-ish), and that seems to be the only thing any of these modern remake goons seem to care about (which is why the Prom Night remake has zero to do with the original’s story/characters in even a passing sense). And they could be fixed cheaply; they didn’t fail because of terrible special FX or fake looking sets or whatever – they just needed better scripts. Plenty of hungry writers around town – let’s do this!

Or just try to come up with new ideas. Either or.

What say you?


Hands Of The Ripper (1971)

JANUARY 25, 2012


Regardless of how I feel about each title, one thing I can say about all of the Hammer films that I’ve seen is that they’re not particularly sad in any way. I mean, sure, every now and then someone you like dies, but they never build toward what I’d call a tragic ending the way that Hands Of The Ripper does. I won’t spoil it, but I was surprised to get genuinely bummed out by its events, and thus it elevated the film from good to borderline great.

The cool thing about the movie is that it’s a Jack The Ripper story without Jack. Our heroine is actually the daughter of the killer, and the movie takes place about 15-20 years after his reign of terror. Due to a childhood incident with him that we see in the opening sequence, as well as a séance scene (I think?), the now grown daughter becomes possessed anytime someone flashes a reflected light in her eyes, taking on Jack’s MO and killing the “flasher”. The séance part I wasn’t sure about; it seemed like the lady running it was a phony, but something must have happened to set all this off, right? Otherwise we’d have to believe that no one ever flashed a light at her until now, and then it happens pretty much every day – otherwise she’d have killed more folks than her dad by now, right? I should note that there’s another thing that sets her off, but it’s presented as a sort of surprise – however, it’s equally if not more common an act she might encounter.

See, my problem with most Jack movies is that they get bogged down in trying to make their theory work, which is silly because (uh, spoiler) in real life he was never caught, so no matter what they come up with, it’s still just a movie – one that lacked an element of surprise because of the other problem with most Jack films. That would be the fact that many focus on possible suspects and cops, and never the victims. Every now and then some hooker we’ve never seen or heard of before is killed, with scenes built around typical cat and mouse ideas that are worthless – we know their fate already! But here, dealing entirely with fiction, they are free to create characters we care about a bit – the protagonist’s maid, the girl’s adopted mother, etc. So it becomes a bit of a mix between character study and something closer to slasher than typical serial killer tale. And as a bonus, by drawing on a famous tale (there’s even a hooker victim!), we’re sort of grounded in this world without the need for too much setup – it’s almost like a sequel in some respects. The kills start pretty early and we get 5-6 of them in the 85 minute movie: not too shabby at all.

It’s also well-acted across the board. Eric Porter (who reminds me a bit of pre-douche Kevin Spacey) is terrific as the conflicted Dr. Pritchard, who seeks to learn what causes someone to kill, which is why he takes an interest and then protects Anna once he sees that she is behind one of the recent murders (and understands that it’s not her fault). But he’s also a widower who dresses her up in his wife’s old clothes and lets her stay in his wife’s old room, so it’s got a bit of a sad, pseudo-psycho thing going on too – is he trying to help this girl, or replace his wife? I also enjoyed Keith Bell’s turn as Pritchard’s son, who is about to be married to a blind girl (something Pritchard seems to be opposed to), mainly because his makeup and hairstyle made him look like Edgar Allan Poe.

Angharad Rees is also quite good (and equally fetching) as Anna, who pulls off the tough act of being the film’s killer but also its sympathetic center. It’s a shame she didn’t make more features; most of her work seemed to be in TV and her last credit was in 1998 when she was still in her 40s! Retired too young if you ask me, unless she just wasn’t into acting, in which case I hope she’s well. She also gets to have the most fun in the movie – the kills are surprisingly graphic. Needles in the eye, a woman gets impaled and hung on a door… and the makeup is pretty decent as well. There’s also a terrific bit where a character uses a doorknob to “hook” the handle of a sword in order to pull it out after they’ve been stabbed – awesome!

Plus it delivers the usual Hammer style: colorful cinematography, excellent period recreation, lots of terrific mustaches… in some ways it’s one of the more unique Hammer films (female “villain”, the aforementioned tragic tone, etc), but it feels very much in line with their more famous titles, i.e. the Draculas and Frankensteins. In fact, a subplot about Pritchard blackmailing a guy to help him with his experiment is right out of Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, and the director is Peter Sasdy, who also helmed a couple of the Dracula sequels. And that’s probably why I dug it so much – it was a perfect blend of what I’d expect from a Hammer title, and what I DON’T.

Also: no Heather Graham. Important to any movie, really, but particularly beneficial to the ones about Jack The Ripper.

What say you?


The Eternal Evil Of Asia (1995)

JANUARY 24, 2012


According to Grindhouse programmer Brian Quinn, The Eternal Evil Of Asia (Hong Kong: Nan yang shi da xie shu) was programmed second so I could make it to the New Beverly in time (after work) to count it for my HMAD. I don’t like to think I influence anyone’s decisions in any meaningful way about anything, but even if just a ruse to get me to come it was nice to hear. And it worked! I coffeed up and put off satisfying my Skyrim fix until after the movie (which resulted in me staying up until 4 am). Everybody wins.

Luckily the movie was worth the efforts; like most of the Hong Kong horror films he programs every other month or so, it’s a wonderfully batshit multi-genre effort that shifts gears and tone so often you might suspect that a few scenes were missing that would explain how it went from almost charmingly sweet to totally sleazy in between scenes. Eternal Evil is actually a rape-revenge film of sorts, but with an unabashedly silly approach that prompted my buddy Dan to remark that the film was the first to have a “slapstick rape” scene. Spoilers ahead!!!

Now, obviously this might strike many as insanely offensive, and I do not argue. While we usually laugh at the rampant misogyny, casual murders, and other “taboo” things that these films usually feature, the rape stuff is a bit out of place. Luckily they do as much as they can to “soften” the act – for starters, the rapist and his victim aren’t even in the same room. Our villain is a wizard who has suddenly taken a liking to the girlfriend of one of his intended victims, and the climax of the film is just him standing in a small room, completely naked and thrusting away, using his magic powers to “ghost rape” the girl who is miles away, hanging on a chandelier. Every now and then they use a CGI outline to show the ghost (it kind of looks like “Not Me” or “Ida Know” from "The Family Circus"), but most of the time the act is completely mimed (somewhat impressively so, to give the actors a weird compliment). Also, the girl is kind of allowing it, because the secret to stopping him lies in the moment of his orgasm, so once he lets it fly (again, he’s just thrusting at nothing!) she is able to overpower him. So that’s good. Still – weird way to end your otherwise “fun” horror comedy (there’s also a shorter, more “traditional” rape scene that is thankfully brief and mostly incoherent). I should note that this was part of a group of "Category III" films, which is their version of X-Rated, so they had to have SOMETHING to justify the restricted rating, but the goofy tone of the film was more like a PG-13 thing, which is what made it so awkward.

Another criticism I could direct at it is probably a waste of time, because it assumes that they care about theme or full circle storytelling or anything, but whatever. As we learn in a lengthy flashback, the reason this wizard is killing our protagonists one by one is because they “killed” his sister. However this is not really the case – what happened was, he prepared a love potion to make one of the guys fall in love with her, because that’s the sort of thing that wizards do for their little sisters. Unfortunately the spell is received not by her would-be lover but by his three pals. So they all fall in love with her at the same time, and (per the spell’s “rules”) she falls for them equally, and thus they engage in a fairly routine fourway where she doesn’t seem to be too upset about the whole thing. It’s only when the spell wears off that she gets freaked out, and when they try to explain, she accidentally falls and dies. Thus, it’s really HIS fault that all this shit happened (and hers, for requesting it in the first place), but this never really dawns on him. A better script would find a way to play with his misguided, unnecessary “revenge”. But instead we just get, well, “slapstick rape”.

Otherwise it’s pretty cool. I just spoiled the hell out of it but I like that they kept the back-story to themselves for a while, making it a bit of a mystery for a while. And the kills are wonderfully gonzo – the movie starts with one guy thinking everyone he sees is a zombie and ends up slaughtering his family/neighbors before falling to his death. I know that doesn’t SOUND particularly funny, but it’s shot in a very early Raimi/Jackson-esque way (weirdly angled close-ups, zooms, etc), with lots of splatter and a charmingly sarcastic little kid tossed into the mix. The scene also keeps trashing Cup O’Noodles for some reason, which is just amusing. Then there’s a great “cannibal” bit and other assorted silliness.

The best, however, has to be the scene somewhere in the middle of the movie where a guy makes a particularly common insult and is then cursed by taking on the shape of this particular insult. I won’t spoil it, but it’s nothing short of amazing, and it even builds – a sight gag on top of the sight gag. It’s actually one of several instances in the movie where you will be subjected to the writer’s fascination with the private areas of males and females – we’re given a lengthy discussion on the best way to fondle a scrotum, a girl questions if a vampire would use her used tampons to make tea (WTF?), and not all of the ghost sex is non-consensual – our hero gets ghost head during one scene set to an awesome/cheesy sax riff.

Plus it has the always fun translation errors, including one that literally changed the point of what was being said when they changed a “can’t” to a “can” (I forget the exact context). However the best was during the aforementioned guy who fell to his death. Our hero calls his girlfriend and breaks the news to her, and after a few somewhat amusingly confused lines, he busts out this classic: “His body was stabbed to death by 7 fluorescent lamps.” The movie also begins with a mostly useless prologue where they explain ghosts/enchanting (which gets explained over and over during the movie), featuring a little ghost kid watching a movie while the narrator tells us “Don’t offend him or take him to toilet”. And if reading subtitles aren’t your thing, you can always enjoy the awesome, geek-friendly mid-90s movie posters on display in the heroine’s beauty salon – Die Hard 3, Pulp Fiction, and… er, A Walk In The Clouds.

Mostly what I was impressed with was that it went on very few tangents. If you think of the movie as being about the rise and fall of a well-meaning wizard (like Anakin in the prequel trilogy!), everything is more or less related to that. Even the sillier bits like the heroine being teased by her friend about not knowing how to give a good hand job sort of fits in, given how she has to use her body to defeat the guy at the end. Most of these Hong Kong movies discard plot threads and start new ones throughout the entire runtime, so that they’re not even recognizable as the same film by the time they finish, so I have to give this one props for at least telling an easily summarized story. Had they reigned in the rapey-ness of the third act it would probably be my favorite of the bunch.

Luckily, for once you can judge for yourself; while most of these movies are so obscure that they don’t even have basics like “cast” listed on their IMDb page, this one is actually available on Netflix Instant! And it’s got the same subtitles that we had, so you can enjoy all of the same crazy errors, with the added bonus of rewinding to make sure you actually read it right. Of course, watching in this manner won’t be nearly as enjoyable as seeing it with a good crowd, but at least you’ll know for sure I’m not making the movie up (something I could probably get away with at this point).

What say you?


A Darker Reality (2008)

JANUARY 23, 2012


Whatever the complete opposite of surprised is, that’s what I was when I discovered that A Darker Reality had been sitting on the shelf for a while. An ugly, dull, poorly constructed film that more than once reminded me of gems like Chain Letter and Curse Of The Zodiac, I only wonder why they ever bothered releasing it at all, now? Even at the time it was produced (in 2008) the torture genre was bottoming out, and none of the actors involved have made it big since – who at Phase 4 thought the time was finally right for this junk?

If there was anything remotely worth appreciating about this thing (besides a few decent practical FX), it’s that they split the time evenly between the killer (Daniel Baldwin), his would-be victims (a bunch of annoying girls, many of whom are possibly not actually actresses!), and the cops tasked with finding him. This of course makes the movie more of a mess, but since everyone is either an idiot or hateful, that means the viewer is never stuck with one of them for too long at a time. Suffer through a few minutes of the victims shrieking and telling each other to shut up, and you’re rewarded with the most laughably inept police investigation subplot in movie history!

Let’s talk about them. Despite a victim toll nearing 100, it seems only two cops are assigned to this case: a Michael Biehn-ish detective and a mega-hot forensic psychologist who almost exclusively wears workout clothes. Her character also only works from home, a silly character trait that I suspect was added to allow them to film all of her scenes quickly (the only other place we see her is at the hospital). Their investigation amounts to little more than going through files and talking to either an escaped victim of “The Ghost” and a guy that’s in jail for killing some children, and yet they’re able to determine his location (“Pico and Olympic” – a non-existent intersection, for the record) fairly quickly. You’d think a guy who killed even a tenth as many people would have been caught by now if this was all it took.

The movie also swipes from Silence of the Lambs, Seven, Saw… all movies you’d rather be watching, of course. Baldwin’s voice is sadly almost indistinguishable from his brother Alec, so his attempts at sounding scary (read: swearing a lot) just remind me of when ol’ Al left voicemails for his daughter calling her a selfish little pig. And when one of your sadistic serial killer’s first big scenes is of him getting off via auto-erotic asphyxiation, it’s a bit hard to take him seriously, let alone be scared of him. I just kept wondering if the ghost of Keith Carradine would appear and warn him to stop. So when the movie isn’t ripping off better movies it’s merely reminding me of a variety of TMZ articles, basically.

Honestly I’d go on but the movie has already passed out of my memory bank. The only thing I distinctly remember is the awful ending, which is either setting up a sequel or is just the result of this production not having the money to finish it (it’s also ripping off a scene from Eye See You, for the record). Anyway, it’s not worth the effort trying to recall anything else.

The DVD offers a few deleted/extended scenes, mostly character bits with our hero cops. It’s nothing that could have helped the film – knowing more about their characters' back-stories wouldn’t have helped the fact that their investigation seemed less authentic than a few kids playing cops and robbers in their backyard. But that’s it for extras, and thus there is no mention of the fact that this is a pseudo remake of an experimental film from 2006 that is simply called Dark Reality (this was originally called Dark Reality 2). From what I can understand even its own filmmakers hate that one; curious what they have to say here. I PRAY that this is an actual improvement, but I can guarantee I will never bother to find out for sure.

What say you?


The Tenant (2010)

JANUARY 22, 2012


As previously mentioned, I hate repeating myself under any circumstances, but it drives me even more nuts when I have to repeat something that is IN WRITING. However, I do understand that I tweet a lot, and some folks like to follow over a thousand people for whatever reason to boot, so when I tweet something about the movie I said I was watching 2 posts ago and someone goes “What movie are you talking about?” I have to accept that maybe it’s too much of a hassle for them to investigate. So it’s kind of ironic that I actually DID put the name of The Tenant into my brief reaction, because then of course someone assumed I was talking about the Polanski one. Thus, had I not bothered trying to clarify, maybe I wouldn’t have had to clarify.

But the weird thing is, my post was pretty specific to this movie – it’s not like I said “The Tenant was kind of lame, but I’ve seen worse” or something; I specifically addressed the movie’s odd structure (Polanski’s film is fairly straight-forward) and admirably crass handling of its hearing impaired characters, something I cannot recall in the other Tenant. So maybe folks can’t even read the whole tweet, I don’t know.

Anyway, the mad scientist and slasher hybrid is pretty rare, so it’s worth noting that the two never really blend into one movie. The first half of the movie is essentially an overlong prologue depicting how the hulking brute slasher in the 2nd half came into existence. There’s very little “horror” in this setup (which is probably why a present day, pre-credits kill scene of no bearing on anything was added); we just watch a well-meaning but obsessed doctor (who looks like Rip Torn) conduct questionable tests on his pregnant wife (as well as Michael Berryman, second-billed for a single scene role). But she’s having twins, so one baby comes out fine while the other is a hideous freak. There’s a lot of stuff about their failing marriage and money issues, plus the Berryman scene goes on forever – it’s basically the most fleshed out, overlong version of the five or ten minute intro that would accompany something like The Burning or whatever: “Once upon a time THIS happened – now let’s get to our slasher story.”

Thus, by the time the slasher plot kicks in around the 45 minute mark or so, there isn’t much time for characterization or suspense-building. All of a sudden we meet a vanful of hearing impaired teens (young ones, like around 14), two older (college-age) counselors, their boss who looks a LOT like the mother in the first half (hmm…) and J LaRose as the hilariously crass van driver, an ex-con who repeatedly refers to the kids as “dummies” and has negative things to say about pretty much anything. Where they were going in the middle of the night in a huge rainstorm is none of our business, but the movie wastes no further time getting them into the now abandoned asylum where the now adult mutant boy is prowling around.

In a way it’s kind of remarkable how many clichés they run through in order to get to the point quickly: their tire blows out AND they’re out of gas, which is why they don’t just sit in the van to wait (it’s cold). Then they run through the “no signal” scene with their cell phones, with the exception of one that has a signal long enough to call a phone that was dropped in the rain, and then it promptly dies from a low battery. The only thing they forgot was getting lost, but I guess that would make the rather silly coincidence of the connection our heroine has to the asylum that they broke down in front of even stupider. On the contrary, she actually knows quite a bit about it, yet doesn’t piece together the connection until she finds some photos and files.

But, you know, whatever. I don’t ask for tight, surprising plotting from these things, and I was already kind of amused by the fact that they spent so much time explaining the killer’s origin. Once LaRose showed up and started spewing venomous insults at kids who couldn’t even hear him it entered See No Evil/Silent Night, Deadly Night territory, so you know I’m on board with that. Plus, the kids get killed! I figured MAYBE one of them would be offed to raise the stakes, but they’re only there for about five minutes before our killer pulls two of them through a wall and annihilates them. In fact, to give it an actual (not backhanded) compliment, they do a fine job of killing the folks you figured would be OK and vice versa (with the exception of the heroine, obviously). Of course, part of that is due to the fact that we barely learn any of their names (the whole “deaf” angle has no real point other than I guess to explain why most of them don’t have phones), but there are still some surprises with regards to the more “fleshed out” characters, i.e. the ones we can tell apart.

I’m less forgiving of the terribly directed/edited action scenes, however. That scene I mentioned where he pulls the girls through the wall? The heroes just look at the hole and then briskly walk into another room saying things like “We have to find them!”, as if there WASN’T a man sized hole in the wall that clearly led to where the girls might be, assuming they were still alive after they just wasted time walking in the wrong direction. There are a number of scenes where people seem to have no reaction to what is going on around them, as if the actors weren’t aware they were in the frame, and one character is CLEARLY dead at one point only to be alive and kicking a few minutes later.

But that just adds to my theory that the film was produced at two different times, as none of the actors in the mad scientist scenes ever interact with the ones in the slasher segment. Whether they didn’t have enough for one segment and decided to add the other, or they just simply didn’t know what they were doing, I don’t know – but the movie definitely suffers from a disconnect, both in the two-part structure and within those segments. The mad scientist parts are kind of sloppy too; the other patients in the asylum look to be more important at one point, only to be forgotten a few moments later. There’s a deleted scene on the DVD that I cannot for the life of me understand how it would have ever fit into the movie, and it’s interesting that all of them are from the movie’s first half. Was the slasher stuff a total “oh shit the movie’s too short let’s come up with something else!” affair?

Nothing on the making of suggests as much, as the director talks about the actors for a bit before they spend an inordinate time on sound editing, including the “reveal” that all of the dialogue in the “van in the rain” scene was looped, something I had written in my notes (“ADR?”) as I watched the movie. Nice try though. There’s also a blooper reel, but as is common with these low-budget horror movies, most of the bloopers aren’t distinguishable in any way – no obvious flubbed lines or even a boom mic dropping into the frame. But if The Tenant is your favorite movie ever you’ll probably enjoy spending a few more minutes with these beloved characters.

With some polish and a slightly less awkward structure, this could have been a minor gem. I appreciate the humanizing of the monster (to a degree), and utilizing practical FX will always earn my respect, but it never quite comes together in a satisfying way, and the tone/point of the first half doesn’t quite fit with that of the second. Nice, weird try.

What say you?

P.S. Enough with “Moonlight Sonata”! Thing’s getting more play than “Mockingbird” in horror movies as of late. Give Beethoven a break, huh? Try some Ives.


We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011)

JANUARY 21, 2012


Much like The Skin I Live In, I got interested in We Need To Talk About Kevin when I started seeing it near the top of several "Best of 2011" lists. The thing was, these were horror-centric lists, and until that point I knew nothing about the movie except for its cast. Forgive my ignorance, but if I hear about a critically adored movie with Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly, I'm going to assume it's awards bait and thus nothing I'd ever be interested in seeing (life's too short to watch a movie that exists primarily to win awards). So I looked into it, and discovered it was actually a killer kid movie! Sold!

Now, this is not a killer kid movie in the traditional sense. There's nothing exploitative or "fun" about it, like Orphan or Good Son; in fact unless I'm mistaken (inverse spoiler) there isn't a single moment of actual on-screen violence - even an attack on a dozen innocent eggs is left to our imagination. The closest thing I would compare it to in the genre would be Joshua, which interestingly enough was the current subject of a documentary that I was editing (about under-seen horror movies) prior to leaving for the theater*. Like that film, we stay with a parent more often than not, with the kid's evil behavior kept ambiguous, even though there is no doubt that he's got some severe issues.

But while Joshua stuck with the dad more often than not, Kevin is all about mom (Swinton), who appears in all but one (brief) scene in the film. And she is terrific, nailing the nearly impossible task of playing a mother who is torn between her unconditional love for her child and the fact that he has torn her entire life asunder. The story unfolds via flashbacks, jumping back and forth between the present day, where Swinton is working as a receptionist at a travel agency and living in a tiny house by the railroad, and the past, where we see Kevin at different stages in his life, building toward a truly devastating tragedy where Kevin's disturbing behavior can no longer be chalked up to her suspicions.

As with most killer kid films, one parent is oblivious, so it's a stroke of genius to cast John C. Reilly, who excels at playing guys that are innocently ignorant of their surroundings (his turn in The Good Girl was similar - he's not an idiot, he's just a bit under-equipped for these particular situations). Practically from birth, Kevin has had a unique ability to be a perfect angel around his dad, while he just has it in for his mother and never cooperates with even the simplest things. There's only a single moment in the entire film where he shows her any affection, which cleverly hides a bit of foreshadowing in the process, because it's such a warm and yet shocking surprise.

One thing that I really appreciated about the film was how much the outside world was kept out of it, particularly in the flashback scenes. In the present day, we see Swinton being harassed by neighbors and locals, and we don't yet know why, but otherwise she keeps to herself - there's a heartbreaking moment where she lies to her mother (over the phone) about having people over for Christmas dinner, before sitting alone with a sandwich instead. But in the past, we barely ever leave the house that they live in, and there aren't any outside characters of note. No shrinks, no friends (of anyone). The minimal scenes dealing with their jobs are handled via phone calls, and apart from a brief scene with a doctor (Kevin breaks his arm at home) it's not until the third act that we ever see Kevin sharing the screen with other human beings besides his family. Whether this was intentional or not, I am unsure - but I have to assume so. This was based on a book, and in that there was a best friend character as well as some other students at school that he had particular interactions with, but that has all been excised entirely here.

And yes, it's scary. Not in the jumpy sense (though there IS one of those, oddly enough), but in the unnerving, getting under your skin kind of way, it's one of the most terrifying movies in years. Right off the bat director Lynne Ramsay makes the audience feel uncomfortable, with off-kilter closeups, heightened audio editing (you'll hear every crunch as Kevin mashes some Fruity Pebbles into dust), and just an overall sense that something awful has happened - just in the first five minutes! The non-chronological structure also allows for some terrific "when is it going to happen?" plot threads - I don't want to spoil things, but one character sports a horrific injury in the first few minutes, but it's about 90 minutes into the movie by the time we know how it occurred. So every object that COULD cause such an injury gets a bit of a murmur whenever it shows up on-screen, which is even more fun when it turns out to be a misdirection. "Ohhhh, that's how - oh wait, nope..." It's like the serious, upsetting version of the running gag from Hot Tub Time Machine regarding Crispin Glover's missing arm.

There's actually a lot of misdirection in the film, though one bit doesn't quite come across as successful as the others. At one point in the flashback scenes Swinton and Reilly discuss a certain family matter (I'm trying to be as spoiler-free as possible since it's still in VERY limited release) that would seemingly explain her situation in the present day scenes, however it doesn't really work as there's a fairly useless scene a few minutes later that resolves the issue. I think without this bit, a devastating scene later on would have even MORE of an impact; I almost wonder if the "useless" scene was inserted so the audience wouldn't go into hysterics at the other one - the useless one kind of prepares us for it! I know this makes almost no sense but when you see the movie you'll hopefully get what I mean, even if you don't necessarily agree.

There's a certain real life tragedy (actually a few, though one is the "go-to" version to name-check) that is echoed in the film, one that other films have used as the basis for something far less effective - I think this is the first that has put the parent as the focus in this particular way. While Swinton's character may have her faults as a mother, anyone can plainly see that what Kevin does is in no way the result of bad parenting or a "broken home" (she's not a stripper, is what I'm saying), yet she has to live with everyone assuming that she is (the book apparently had more of this element - I think the movie made the right call to strip it down to the bare minimum and keep it more personal). It's devastating on many levels, and the fact that it's wrapped in a psychological thriller of sorts makes it a must-see film whether you're just into horror or not. Easily one of the best films of 2011; I will forever kick myself for choosing to watch the (mostly bad) short films at Fantastic Fest while this terrific film was playing in the next room. Don't make my mistake - see it (LEGALLY!) when the opportunity arises.

What say you?

*In that doc someone compared Joshua's score to the one in There Will Be Blood, which was by Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead... who also composed this film. WEIRD.


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