Die, Monster, Die! (1965)

DECEMBER 28, 2013


It's a shame actor Nick Adams just sort of looks like an asshole, because it made Die, Monster, Die! harder to get on board with at the beginning, when his character is trying to find a ride to the Witley House. After a cab refuses to drive him there, he starts asking to rent a car or a bike, but still explains where he's going even though he should have already figured out that the town hated the place and wouldn't help him out. So why does he keep saying that's where he's going? Just say you're going for a leisurely drive, man! It makes him come across as a moron as well as a guy you'd probably want to smack, so it's not until Karloff shows up that you can start getting into the movie.

And you can get into it even more if you haven't seen House Of Usher, since it's pretty much the same scenario: a guy comes to a spooky, giant house seeking his fiance, only for her relative (also played by a horror icon) to try to keep him out and send him away. There's even a wall of portraits, where a character explains who everyone is and lets us know that there's seemingly a curse on the family, hence why they've become hermits and why the town fears them. Luckily, it starts taking its own path (though it still ends in a fire), and isn't vague with the source of the family's problems.

Well, not AS vague, I should say. Whereas Usher leaves it up to you to decide if Usher was crazy or correct, this one lets you know what it is: a green rock from a meteor that they've cut up and used in their greenhouse to grow giant tomatoes and also some weird creatures that just sort of sit there waving back and forth ("Jim Henson's Cthulhu", is what I'd say if I was writing for MST3k). As to WHY the rock had such a varied number of effects (it also turns people into glowing monsters), I can only assume that it makes more sense in the short story, but then again it's a Lovecraft story so maybe not, as being perfectly clear wasn't exactly his thing.

That said, based on what little I know of his story (titled "The Colour Out Of Space") from its Wiki page, it sounds like one of the more film-ready entries in his bibliography, with a team of scientists and a full family at the house (a farm in the story) to provide the action - it sounds like it could have been molded into a Quatermass sequel, actually. The film, on the other hand, just offers a three character piece for the most part, unless you count Karloff's wife who spends the movie behind a sheet in her bedroom, plus drops the scientific angle down to almost nothing. The story was adapted again in 1987 as The Curse, and was much more faithful from what I understand - I'll give it a look someday. Here, it's clear that AIP wanted it to fit the mold of their successful Corman/Poe cycle (which included The Haunted Palace, which took Poe's title but used a Lovecraft story for its narrative), so the farm had to go. Incidentally, first time director Daniel Haller was the production designer on most of those Corman movies, so it's no surprise that it looks so similar. All stately manors, all the time!

But it's still kind of fun. Karloff is always great to watch, and does a fine job playing a character who isn't exactly the hero but not an outright villain either; sort of like Usher but more sympathetic (being in a wheelchair helps!). The various makeup FX for the "cursed" family members are also effective for their day, particularly the glowing super-monster guy during the climax, though I'm sure the full reveal of Karloff's wife caused a few nightmares to any kids who snuck in during its run (which was with Bava's Planet of the Vampires! Moviegoing was so much more awesome in the 50s and 60s). And while Haller is certainly no Corman in the directorial department (it's not much of a surprise he only did a few other features before settling into the world of episodic television; his last credit of note was directing a few episodes of Matlock), he delivers some nice atmosphere at the beginning when Adams is making his way to the house, and the fire sequence is impressive.

He also shot it in 2.35 (again, like the Corman films), which makes a peculiar effect of the film all the more noticeable. Whenever there's a lengthy tracking shot, the left and right sides of the frame are noticeably squeezed; the objects become thinner as they pan on or off the screen (it's most obvious during a cemetery scene around 2/3s of the way through). I'm not sure if it's the transfer or the type of lens that they used, but it's very distracting, and since there's nothing really that requires the wider image, I almost wish it was just 1.85 like most movies of the day so it wouldn't be an issue. I looked on Youtube to see if it was on any of the clips, but the only one I found was presented at the wrong aspect ratio anyway, and the trailer didn't have any of the shots where it'd be noticeable.

Speaking of the trailer, which is the only bonus feature on Scream Factory's new Blu (not even a scene selection! Come on guys), it's one for the ages. Not only does it spoil most of the movies kills and reveals (including the villain's death), but it neglects to include any sort of information about the film - no title, no "Coming Soon" or "AIP Presents"... not even a "Starring Karloff!". Just completely blank. Maybe that's why it spoils so many of the film's surprises? Figures the audience won't know what's being spoiled? Weird.

This is the sort of movie you'd expect to find on a budget pack rather than a stand-alone Blu-ray (one with a pretty good transfer to boot), and it's not memorable enough to really justify a solo release. But maybe Scream can repackage it with other Karloff films and do a nice boxed set like they did with Vincent Price last fall - these are the sort of movies that are great to throw on around Halloween time and just enjoy the simplicity and low-key charm of this era's genre output. I remember a couple years ago, Nic Cage tried getting a studio interested in funding a film that would be in this vein (with Corman attached to boot!) but none of them would bite. Perhaps now, with the success of (heavily 70s inspired) The Conjuring and the Hammer entry The Woman In Black, he can try again? I'd be all for it. Even when they're not great, they're harmless, the sort of thing we can show our kids and enjoy ourselves.

What say you?


Sorority House Massacre II (1990)

DECEMBER 19, 2013


Supposedly, Sorority House Massacre II was written and directed in a mere ten days, and thus the easy joke to make would be to wonder what they did with the other nine. It's stiff, poorly acted across the board, and features what has to be a record for kill scenes that play out entirely with shadows and cheapo bladder devices being used to shoot blood all over the wall. But, damn my eyes, I couldn't help but enjoy the shitty little thing. Maybe it's just because I haven't been exposed to as much rubbish in 2013 as I was from 2007-2012? I only get 1-2 movies a week to watch for my Netflix gig, and while they are almost always shitty horror movies (if I was a grading man, this would be a C at best and it was one of the better ones I've seen on their dime), that's still a huge reduction in how often I am exposing myself to "worst movie ever made" material (per IMDb message board users). So, like McDonald's or old man whiskey, I know it's terrible for me, but you gotta indulge every now and then.

I can't recall much about the first film (I couldn't even remember SEEING it until I looked up my own review), but I DO know Slumber Party Massacre pretty well, which left me equally amused and baffled when a character in this movie told Slumber's story via flashback as if it were the events of the first Sorority House Massacre. He also gives Slumber more plot than it actually had, giving a name to its previously unidentified killer (Hokstedter, which wasn't the name of the killer in SHM1, for the record) and claiming that this house that the sorority girls are inhabiting was the scene of his crimes. That we SEE the house in the Slumber footage and it looks absolutely nothing like the one they are in now is something we should probably ignore, I guess.

This character is named Orville Ketchum, and he's played by the lecherous, abusive stepdad from Freddy's Dead - which makes him the only recognizable actor in the movie, pretty much. The movie wants us to think that he's the killer, but with all of the kills occurring off-screen, you know it can't be that easy. Plus, there's a Ouija board sequence in the first act, so you can be assured that the answer is more supernatural based than the first film (of either series, I guess it's fruitless to try to separate them at this point). There's some half-hearted attempt at a twist, but with everything off-screen and Hokstedter's ghost apparently jumping around bodies like Horace Pinker, it doesn't have much of an impact.

However, if you enjoy looking at a variety of breasts, or are just an adolescent young man, the movie will be fondly remembered for years. Just about every female in the cast disrobes, with some of it being more gratuitous than the intentionally over-the-top shower scene in Slumber. There's a wonderful bit where they all run out in the rain in their underwear (no one wears actual clothes after the first 20 minutes or so) and stand around getting soaked while they argue their next move, allowing them to have see through nighties for the rest of the picture.

Needless to say, the movie was directed by Jim Wynorski.

I was also ironically charmed with the movie's ancient stock footage for the storm; I'd have to dig out my copy to be sure but I'd place a small bet on that it was from The Terror (this being a Corman production as well). One of the girls even comments that the raging storm makes her feel like she's in "one of those old horror movies", and I couldn't help but wonder if the film might have been elevated to "genuinely kind of good" had they embraced the spoofy elements more often and went all out. With the notoriously cheap Corman and Wynorski at the helm, it's hard to tell if the fact that they're using another, more famous franchise's footage to flesh out its backstory is supposed to be a joke (sort of like when Airplane spoofs Saturday Night Fever or From Here To Eternity in its flashbacks) or just them trying to save a few bucks and hope that no one noticed or cared.

Another inadvertent benefit of the movie being so cheap and made so quickly is that it's impossible to gauge who the Final Girl is, because the girls only separate when they're going off to die or shower (actually in the latter, one comes in before the other is finished, but there's sadly no "action" to sleaze it up a bit). Otherwise, they're constantly grouped together and framed in master shots, making them rather indistinguishable. Your best bet at placing any sort of stock in one over the other will be based entirely on how attracted you are to them (sadly, the gal I liked was one of the first to go), as they have no specific character traits; even basic things like "the bitchy one" are hard to pin down (though some have random European accents). So when they start getting offed, there's no sense that any one of them is safer than the others, a rarity for even the best slashers.

Incidentally, Netflix also assigned me Cheerleader Massacre 2, which had many of the same problems and also a penchant for laughably gratuitous nudity. However, I did NOT see that original film, so maybe its bizarre combination of slasher (like Cheerleader Camp, it involves a cheerleading competition where many of the participants and various horny male hanger-ons get offed) and killer robot (!) tropes are familiar to its fans. All I know for sure is that it sets up a sequel that I won't be watching unless Netflix forces me to, though I admired the high body count and oft-ridiculous kills - if they weren't all done via low-rent CGI I might have had more fun with it.

The era of this particular brand of slasher has long since passed (hell, even by the time the original came out the slasher era was pretty much over). Post-Scream (which is 17 years old this week! I FEEL OLD.) you have to either do it straight (like Cold Prey) or constantly remind your audience that you're in on the joke, which gets tiresome more often than not. Cheerleader was made in 2009, and I couldn't help but wonder if the killer robot nonsense was an attempt to modernize an old script that they forgot to make when it would have been relevant. As for Sorority, it was made in 1990, when this sort of thing was only being churned out for the hardcore fans looking for something new at the video store - Hollywood productions (or even acquisitions) were a thing of the past. The odds of me finding a slasher from that period that I really like are slim to none, but I'm happy that there are still some I missed as a young lad that can provide some basic entertainment to 33 year old me.

What say you?



I never like skipping a month for HMAD screenings, but that just makes their triumphant returns all the more special! After sitting out November, we are back on Saturday, December 28th with a 35mm revival screening (likely the first) of the 1999 Arnold Schwarzenegger vs. The Devil epic End Of Days! Directed by Peter Hyams, this is sort of an anomaly in Arnold's career, as at times it skews closer to films like Seven than his shoot em up classics. It's certainly the only one I'd ever do for a HMAD screening (though I could probably be swayed to do Total Recall).

And like HMAD, Arnold decided to make End of Days his comeback vehicle, after taking off over 2 years due to heart surgery. It was a bit of a curious choice for a big return, since it was so unlike most of what he had done before - if you've seen the movie you know it's hardly him at his most indestructible. You'd think he'd pick a movie that had him kicking ALLLLL the asses, but he gets beat up pretty good, nearly gets killed in his first action moment, and, well, he cries. And he also gets the movie stolen away from him by his co-stars; this was the beginning of a still going period where Arnold would be surrounded by a great cast of actors who you otherwise wouldn't expect to see in an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle. Rod Steiger plays a priest who knows what's going on, Gabriel Byrne plays the Devil (with Udo Kier (!) as his eyes and ears on Earth), and Byrne's fellow "Usual Suspect" Kevin Pollak plays Arnold's partner.

Pollak actually gets all the great one-liners in the movie, too (though Arnold's "I want you... to go TO HELL!" is pretty great), which is why I'm stoked to announce that (schedule permitting) the actor will be joining us for pre-movie Q&A! He's been in a few of my favorite movies (Usual Suspects, A Few Good Men, 3000 Miles to Graceland) and is, I believe, the first actor that has played a (fictional) President that I've had for one of my Q&As, so that's pretty damn great. Plus I'll have the usual stack of DVDs to give away for easy trivia, and, as long as the theater lets me, I'll be making Jericho Cane's legendary breakfast smoothies (ingredients include coffee, pepto-bismol, and cold pizza) and passing out samples, so it will be a damned awesome time for all the folks that are like me and stuck in LA for the holidays.

As always, tickets are a mere 8 bucks at the door, or online via BrownPaperTickets. The Q&A with Mr. Pollak will be BEFORE the movie so get there on time! The New Beverly is located at 7165 Beverly Blvd in Los Angeles, 90036. Parking can be found on Beverly or on the side streets (Formosa is the best bet; just watch out for the odd permit-restricted areas!), and the theater now takes credit cards if you forget to go to the ATM. End of Days runs a bit longer than most of my midnight shows (just a hair under 2 hrs) so we will be trying to start as close to on time as possible - please be there for the 11:59pm start time! See you there!

P.S. As always, feel free to steal the poster and blog, tweet, Facebook, etc to help get the word out for the screening! Thanks in advance!


The Conspiracy (2012)

DECEMBER 8, 2013


I recently felt guilty about all my "enough found footage!" ranting on Twitter, as I have a few friends with FF movies on the way (two of them I even did credits for!) and it comes off like I'm telling you to avoid them. But that's not true; the fact remains that I will champion the hell out of the GOOD ones, but that people who have no idea what they're doing need to stop clogging the sub-genre with their nonsense, making everyone sick of them as a whole. It's like Rock Band/Guitar Hero; there's nothing wrong with their last games, but there were so many crappy ripoffs and unnecessary spinoff games (Guitar Hero: Van Halen?) that everyone just checked out as a whole. Thankfully, there will still be movies like The Conspiracy, which avoids ghosts and creepy asylums in favor of something a little more interesting.

Indeed, for a while it's not even in the neighborhood of horror; it depicts a pair of guys (Aaron and Jim) who are doing a documentary on Terrance, a conspiracy theorist that is the kind of guy who shouts "9/11 was an inside job!" at passerby from the park and has an apartment wall covered with newspaper clippings that explain how everything is connected. In other words, it's a documentary SOMEONE MIGHT ACTUALLY WANT TO WATCH, unlike about 90% of found footage horror films that start out this way. Anyway, one day Terrance disappears without a trace, and while Jim is happy to just wash his hands of the whole thing, Aaron digs into his disappearance and discovers that the guy might have been on to something, with several signs pointing to a mysterious "Tarsus Group", which is sort of like the Masons crossed with the UN.

Needless to say, the group is pretty sinister, and the last half hour of the film is creepier than most traditionally shot horror movies of late, as our heroes worm their way into a Tarsus group meeting that's not dissimilar to the cult sequence in Eyes Wide Shut. And the first person camera actually adds to it, as both of them are wearing button cams that provide awkward angles on the proceedings while also handily avoiding the "Why are you still filming?" issue. Plus, the documentary aspect means everyone's face has been blurred out, adding to its unsettling nature (though I had to laugh as even though he was blurred out I still recognized Patron Saint of Canadian Horror Julian Richings as one of the group's higher ups).

In fact this stuff works so well that I can forgive some of writer/director Christopher MacBride's missteps with the logic of the camera in the pre-cult scenes. It SEEMS as if they only have one cameraman with them (before they "get too deep" and do the camerawork themselves), but conversations get back and forth cutting, meaning there has to be a second guy shooting. Even when they are tailing a Tarsus member, there are cuts back and forth, making me wonder why they even had ONE extra body with them, let alone the two that would have to be there for the incident to have been shot as depicted. I know it sounds like a nitpicky thing, but it's really not - the whole point of these movies (besides to cash in on a trend) is to give us a character's POV on the proceedings, so if they are constantly switching perspectives, it's leaving the audience at bay. And either way, their cameraman is a non entity, another thing that bugs me - it makes sense for him to be quiet when they're shooting parts of the documentary, but when he keeps shooting after they've finished for the day and are just sort of hanging out, why is he sitting there like a mute? Shouldn't he be "off the clock" and acting like a human being?

But otherwise, I was impressed by how well it was structured, completely turning around at the 30 minute mark or so and then switching again when they crash the meeting. If not for the recognizable actors (Aaron is played by Aaron Poole, from Rosalind Leigh) I could believe that this was an actual blend of reality and fiction, not unlike JT Petty's S&Man. Terrance is spouting off about real world things and namechecking actual politicians, and getting into the nitty gritty about foreign policy and such, which went over my head just as any real conspiracy theorist's rants would. I don't know how much time they spent developing the backstories and such, but I assure you if I just started watching this completely blind (i.e. not knowing it was a horror film) and didn't recognize Poole, I'd be totally duped into believing it was a real thing, at least until they go to the Tarsus lodge. But by then I'm on board and sympathetic toward the characters, so it worked as it should - by the time it became a horror movie, I was invested into the "reality" part of it. Not an easy thing to pull off, and it's a shame more FF films feel the need to make sure we know it's a genre film right off the bat.

It's also got a downer ending that doesn't leave any plot holes. 9 times out of 10 I am left wondering who found this footage (Apollo 18 remains the champ), and with this sort of thing I'd also have to wonder why these all powerful people didn't have it destroyed, but here there's a narrative explanation for its "return". And it's not because it's got a happy ending with everyone surviving - it's actually pretty grim and disturbing, and the fact that there probably IS some variation on the Tarsus group in reality (not THIS far-reaching, I hope) gives it an edge that even the best "ghosts in the mental hospital" faux doc could never manage. It should be hitting DVD soon (it's been released on disc in other countries, and Amazon has it on their streaming service), so keep an eye out for it. Ti West's terrific The Sacrament covers similar territory (in that it fully/realistically establishes its documentary subject before turning scary), but that won't be out for a while - this is a perfect appetizer if you've been waiting for that one.

What say you?


Dawn Of The Dead (1978)

NOVEMBER 28, 2013


The first time I ever watched Dawn of the Dead was on Thanksgiving (in 1994, if memory serves), and for the next few years I made it a tradition. The irony is that when I was 14 I didn't even pick up on the satire re: consumerism, and when I got my car a couple years later I would join the rest of the folks on Black Friday shopping the following day - the very sort of thing the movie was commenting on, which has only become more apt as the day (which now stretches into Thanksgiving itself) becomes more and more insane. It's pretty easy to find screencaps of Romero's movie placed next to shots of Black Friday shopping, in fact.

So it's kind of ironic that by the time I caught on to the movie's subtext, the tradition was waning. I added End of Days to my Thanksgiving tradition, and when life got too busy for both (a girlfriend (now wife) meant two family gatherings), I went with Arnold for my sole tradition, since that one had a challenge built into it (staying awake for the whole thing, post-dinner). And then during HMAD's "golden" era I had to use that time in the morning for a new movie anyway. So when I quit the daily aspect, I was stoked that I'd be able to revive the tradition - even if it's just this one time, it was a delight to wake up and sit on the couch in my pajamas with my favorite zombie movie, like I did as a kid.

...I have weird bouts of nostalgia.

BUT, I did opt to mix it up a bit. After querying folks on Twitter, I realized that I had never actually seen the European cut (sometimes referred to as the "Argento cut") of the film. My copy growing up was the theatrical, and when I got Anchor Bay's DVD, I only watched the extended version. Not sure why I thought I had seen the European version, but I was tipped off when I learned that version had ALL Goblin music, and none of the library stuff - I knew for sure I had never seen it without that goofy theme at the end (which is now used - albeit in chicken cluck form - for Robot Chicken's end credits). So it was a bit of a mix of old and new, making it ripe for a HMAD entry (which have been lacking thanks to my Twilight Zone column, and again I apologize).

So what's the verdict on this one? Well, it's certainly not BAD - the worst editor in the world could probably still make a good movie out of the footage Romero and his team created. But I certainly wouldn't recommend this version to someone who was a complete virgin to the film, as the changes aren't necessarily for the better and some of Argento's edits render things slightly confusing without the context of footage you had seen in the other cut(s). For example, when Roger and Peter move the trucks to block the doors, he omits the entire first sequence, which goes off without a hitch and fully explains what they're actually doing - it starts with Roger already getting a bit cocky and Peter telling him to calm down. So not only is it unclear as to why he is so excited, it's a bit vague as to what they're actually DOING, and thus when they move the second (now first) truck, it kind of makes them look incompetent as well, since everything goes wrong there.

Another bizarre edit comes early on, when they're in the chopper. As they pass over Johnston, the sequence with the rednecks plays out pretty much the same way, but it omits Stephen's line "Those rednecks are probably enjoying the whole thing." So now the movie just cuts in a lengthy sequence of previously unseen (and never to be seen again) characters shooting at zombies and discussing their ammo over coffee, with zero explanation or setup. I mean, it was always kind of an extraneous sequence anyway, but it sticks out even more here - I suspect they just left it in because it's got some zombie kills. Indeed, the most obvious thing about this version (and Argento's intent with it) is that it's faster paced; many of the shorter character beats have been omitted, leaving all of the action more or less intact (it's been a while since I've watched it, but I'm pretty sure the biker attack at the end goes on even longer). Without all those quiet moments, the movie is long past its halfway point before they even "settle in" at the mall, and then it goes right into "We have to leave" mode.

But if you ARE hip to the original version (or the longer (too long?) extended cut), then it's all good. I love the library music cues, but few would argue that having more Goblin is a bad thing, and Romero's version DOES get a bit lax at times (as most of his films do). And it doesn't omit anything you love, though I think they trim even MORE out of the dock scene - I'd have to go back and check, but even though Joe Pilato only showed up in the longer version, didn't the guy asking for cigarettes still appear in the theatrical? Speaking of smoking, I still love how much the pregnant Frannie smokes (and drinks); they talk about aborting it but it seems like she's well on her way to killing the kid on her own. Ah, the 70s! And while some say that this version omits the humor, there's still plenty of it - Peter and Stephen posing for the bank camera, Frannie "shooting" Stephen with the hair dryer, etc. Hell it even keeps in the stupid biker guy that is obsessed with checking his blood pressure during a zombie attack, as well as the pie in the face gags.

And what's important is that the SCOPE of the film has been left intact. It hits the ground running (few films, sequel or otherwise, have managed to convey such chaos and doom in their opening sequence) and rarely lets up as the characters make their way to the mall, stopping to off some zombie kids and (in Peter and Roger's case) take down a zombie-infested highrise. I quite like the remake, but there's so little buildup to them getting to the mall, and they more or less have it secured much quicker as well. Some of my favorite scenes in this Dawn are when they're just trying to find their way in, or going on a supply run for just a couple of things, BEFORE they decide that they can pretty much just live there. Even with this faster version, it still gives us time to know our four heroes and make sure we understand that securing this giant mall isn't something they can do in a couple hours (as always, it's impossible to tell how much time passes from the moment they arrive to the time where Roger dies, but it seems at least a week or so).

The effects also hold up; I'll never shine to the "melted pink crayon" look of the blood, but the bites and headsplosions all look great, and I couldn't help but wonder if Tom Savini ever watches Walking Dead and feels insulted that his former protege (Greg Nicotero) is relying on horrible digital blood/impact shots on the show. I know it's TV and they have to move a bit quicker, but certainly Nicotero and his team (otherwise the best in the business, as far as I'm concerned) can be doing better work than this, and have to feel at least slightly embarrassed to see their stuff stacked up against superior work from 35 years ago. And Romero/Savini didn't exactly have all the time in the world either - all of the mall stuff was shot during closing hours, so they had to start late at night and be out of there early - hardly the most luxurious shooting arrangements. Maybe making it look so bad helps them get past the AMC censors?

So, in conclusion: I think this "Dawn of the Dead" movie is a keeper. If you're reading this site and haven't seen it yet, I'm not sure what the hell the problem is, but certainly any one of the 11,000 Anchor Bay releases are available at your local used DVD store. Again, if you haven't seen it yet, either version of the US cut is where you should start, but for fans who have also neglected to check this version out - it's definitely worth a look, but don't be surprised if you go back to your preferred one the next time you take a trip to Monroeville Mall.

What say you?

P.S. The viewing inspired me to load up Dead Rising for the first time in over 6 years and wander around slicing up zombies. Forgot how damn tough that game was, especially if you get captured by those cult assholes.


The Battery (2012)

NOVEMBER 16, 2013


I'm about to shower a lot of praise on The Battery, but if you're a longtime reader or just know me personally, here's the most significant: I was happy to leave a Halloween convention early in order to see the film. That's pretty big; you know I live and breathe Halloween, and I could have even hosted another panel if I stuck around (incidentally, the scheduled moderator was at the same screening), but after raves from my friend AJ (and a positive review from Evan at Badass) I knew I'd regret missing the chance to watch the film with a crowd, and so off I went, missing some Hallo-fun (and a party) to sit in a folding chair and watch a projected Blu-ray... and I loved every minute of it.

If anything I should be pissed; a while back I wrote out an idea for a stripped down zombie movie that was closer to Cast Away than to Dawn of the Dead, and if I were to ever get it made (yeah, right) the first review would probably say "Rips off The Battery". But that's fine, writer/director/star Jeremy Gardner probably did it better than I would (well, I wouldn't have starred or directed, but you know what I mean), because he has the patience to stick to character instead of going for zombie action whenever things might get "slow" in the traditional sense. With only two people in the movie for the most part (the film has opening credits that spoil that won't always be the case - I wish they had gone without opening titles so it would have been more of a surprise when someone else shows up), it's not like much action SHOULD happen - after all there's little chance either of them will be offed until the movie's almost over (if then), so it wouldn't be very suspenseful to have them trying to outrun a horde of zombies.

And yes, they're zombies. The good (read: slow) kind, and the characters know what zombies are and will use the word when appropriate. It's one of many things that makes this feel like a much more realistic film than most z-territory; they're not oblivious to what the things could be (when the film opens, headshots seem to have been figured out, if not already known off the bat), nor are they in a hyper-realized version of the world and quoting Romero (or Wright/Pegg) to (over)sell the idea that this is not a "movie" universe. Nope, it goes down exactly as it might if you or I were among the last of the living and rarely facing immediate threat from the undead. The backstory of how the zombies came to be isn't explained, but it seems that the zombie numbers aren't much greater than that of the human race - it's not until the end that we see more than 1-2 at a time.

As a result, this allows for a lot of "hanging out". The two characters, Ben (Gardner) and Mickey (Adam Cronheim) are a pair of baseball players who are just sort of roaming around Connecticut in their station wagon, stopping for supplies when necessary but otherwise never setting up a home base. We learn that they were shacked up in a house but became surrounded by zombies and trapped for days, and thus now they approach it like they are sharks: if they stop moving, they'll die. This allows the scenery to change up a lot, but also works as a throwaway explanation for why they're not in danger all that often, giving them a chance to play catch, go apple picking, or just hang out drinking beers and (in Mickey's case) listening to a Discman. There's a truly hilarious bit where Ben pretends to be a zombie creeping up on the plugged-in (and thus deaf) Mickey that serves as a perfect example as the kind of character-based humor that the film excels at, something that's often missing entirely from most modern zombie films, which are usually more concerned with new ways of killing the damn things than making sure we care about the guy holding the makeshift hammer or whatever the hell.

This low-key approach makes the 3rd act stuff work even better than it would if it came at the end of a typical NOTLD wannabe (mild spoilers ahead!). Rather than the usual "Characters find key to salvation, have to overcome insurmountable odds to secure it" or "There's a boat/chopper/jet/whatever waiting and we have until x o clock to get there!" run n gun finale, the two heroes find themselves trapped in their car, surrounded on all sides by zombies with the keys somewhere in the bushes outside. For a while, the sequence plays as the rest of the film does - they just sort of hang out, passing the time until the zombies leave or they simply die from thirst or starvation, with the undead (lightly) banging the windows 24 hours a day (they're in there for a few days). Finally, one character decides to make another attempt at finding the keys, and rather than go with him for what would probably be an exciting little action sequence, we stay on the one who remained in the car. I might be wrong but I think it's one long 7-8 minute shot as he waits for his friend to return, agonizing over every sound, desperate to find something to occupy his mind... it's an astonishingly great scene.

So how can you see this film? Well, being an indie without traditional distribution as of yet (something that baffles me; it's been on the festival circuit for about a year now), you can actually buy a digital download of it for a mere 5 bucks from the director himself. You can, and should, do that HERE. I've paid more than that to rent a film on demand, so to OWN it and watch however times you like even after a stupid 24 hour window has expired is a pretty great deal for any movie, let alone one as good as this. Big thanks to Elric and the Jumpcut Cafe for hosting the screening, and to AJ for giving it a loving intro despite being sick. I am truly impressed, and eagerly wait Gardner's next film.

What say you?


The Brotherhood of Satan (1971)

OCTOBER 30, 2013


Due to travel, work, and other engagements, I only managed to make it to my good friend Phil Blankenship's month-long United States of Horror series twice this past month. Once was for Carnival of Souls, which I thought I had already reviewed here but never did (and now I'd need to watch again to do it right, so oh well), and the other was for The Brotherhood of Satan, which I had never even heard of and went knowing perfectly well I'd fall asleep thanks to a long, nap-free work day. Sure enough, I was dozing before the first reel had even finished, and kept going in and out throughout, but Youtube/Crackle came to the rescue, offering up a seemingly legal stream on Youtube (it had ad breaks, and Crackle's legit - right?) that allowed me to rewatch what I missed (and get a better sense of what was happening in the scenes I didn't).

But of course, you can't take that as a critique of the movie's quality; it IS a bit slow but it's a fine entry in the 70's Satanic Horror sub-genre, offering up some great kills, loads of creepiness, and a grim ending that left me even more impressed. Also, somewhat hilariously, it's kind of a ripoff of Manos, with a couple and their daughter driving through the Southwest and ending up the victims of a devil cult led by a dude with silly wardrobe (and, again, grim ending). Obviously, it's SLIGHTLY better than that masterpiece, since the filmmakers knew what they were doing and had crazy fancy things like sync sound and a couple of professional actors at their disposal. Obviously Rosemary's Baby was the other big influence (OK, Manos was probably coincidental), as nearly all supernaturally-tinged movies of this era would be until The Exorcist came along and allowed greedy producers to mix and match as they saw fit.

The supernatural element is a rather original one, and I'm pretty sure is unique to this film save for maybe a couple moments in Dolls - the folks are killed by giant sized versions of toys. So a kid's GI Joe-ish tank turns full-sized and crushes a car full of randoms, a figurine of a knight on a horse is suddenly big enough to really lop off a guy's head, etc. Due to budgetary limitations we don't actually see how this process completely works, but we get the gist and it's pretty clever, as is the overall plot, which takes a while to start becoming clear. At first it's the standard "hero ends up in weird town, isn't welcome, tries to escape, gets stuck there..." type movie, but with all these weird toy scenes and other oddities serving to intrigue while letting us know that it's not the usual gang of inbred cannibals or whatever (of course, it's 1971, so there was no Texas Chainsaw to rip off yet, but you know what I mean). I won't spoil it other than to say Tommy Wirkola must have seen the film, as he seemingly lifted one of its plot points in Witch Hunters.

Adding to the creepiness is the very matter-of-fact approach director Bernard McEveety takes with the material. He adds a bit of flair to the kill scenes and lets his actors go into camp-mode on those occasions, but otherwise everyone is unsettlingly down-to-earth about their devil business. The leader, played by Strother Martin, is almost TOO gentle with his deliveries (he reminded me a bit of James Karen, in fact - not exactly the scariest guy in the world), though on the flipside it makes his dialogue easier to digest - if he was shouting that sort of gibberish in a scary voice the movie would completely derail. But on that note, it had a very specific rhythm and pattern to it, leading me to believe that it was indeed actual Satanic text being spoken and not just made-up movie nonsense. We see a few "church" scenes and it all seemed very genuine to me, as if I could match it up to the equivalent portions of a Catholic mass. "Oh, this is a sermon. This is like their Communion. This is like the part where we all shake hands and say 'Peace be to you'..." I'm sure that no part of the Church of Satan involves turning Tonka Trucks into deadly weapons, but they almost definitely at least STARTED with legitimate text.

I do wish the pace was tightened JUST a bit. Shooting things so matter of factly may add some creepiness to the scenes where folks casually murder one another, but it robs the film of any real tension otherwise. Messiah Of Evil came to mind (70s, cult, town, uh... saw it at Cinefamily...), and I couldn't help but think of that film's standout sequences and how they'd stick with you when they were over, keeping you tense until the next one - this doesn't really have anything much like that. The father also becomes sort of a bystander in his own movie after awhile, robbing us of our surrogate for chunks at a time. It gives the film a loose feel that some might like, but considering how it ends up I can't help but think it'd be an even stronger film if it kept the dad front and center more often.

Otherwise, I quite enjoyed it, and am surprised it's relatively obscure - even my devil/witch movie obsessed friend Sam Zimmerman hadn't seen it. But this had a benefit - due to never being played, the print was IMMACULATE; seriously one of the best 35mm prints I've seen at a revival. It's not unlikely that this movie would end up on a budget set someday (if it's not already) and that would be how I saw it for the first time; all scratched up on some cropped transfer from a VHS tape or something. So thanks, Phil!

What say you?


Where The Hell Are You, BC?

My sincere apologies for the lack of updates in the past couple weeks (only one in the past 3!); not only was I busy with the usual Halloween-y activities around town, but then I went on a vacation (my first real one in 8 years) and also started a new column at Badass where I'm finally going through and watching all of The Twilight Zone. So, HMADs have been harder to make time for, which sucks because even though I "quit" I still don't want the site to become abandoned, and DO still intend to update 2-3 times a week for as long as I can.

So hopefully I can make good on that intention very soon; Grabbers is on Instant and that's one I've been wanting to see for a while, and of course there's always more Scream Factory stuff hitting. And, if all goes to plan, I'm going to revive my old tradition of watching Dawn of the Dead every Thanksgiving, and if so I'll finally write up a "non canon" review of that (spoiler: I love it). In the meantime, feel free to check out my appearance on the awesome RocketJump podcast, as I spend a good amount of time talking HMAD history and am surprised to discover that the host of the show worked on Bear, and even reads part of my review! I also took part in the same company's Futures podcast, which was a little more random in nature but equally as enjoyable for me to participate. Was truly honored to be on (the previous episode's guests were Key and Peele!), though I would prefer you LISTEN instead of watch since I'm all fidgety and such.

Reviews soon! I swear!


Carrie (2013)

OCTOBER 30, 2013


Any hope that the remake of Carrie would overcome the odds and manage to convince me it had a creative reason to exist was erased literally the second the film began, as the first credit appeared and I recognized the "Trajan" font that has become synonymous with generic studio horror over the past decade. Sure, they used it in the ads as well, but the fact that they went all in and put it in the movie practically shouted at me, loud and clear, "This is another reason why people will hate on remakes, sorry." And you might think I'm being ridiculous to lose all hope in a movie because of its damn font, but since the next 90 minutes did nothing but confirm I was right, over and over again, maybe you can give me the benefit of the doubt, eh?

Indeed, the most fascinating thing about the movie was how bland and mechanical it was. Director Kimberly Peirce and screenwriter Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa repeatedly said over the past year or so (the movie was delayed 6 months for reasons still unknown, unless it was the obvious: "It's not very good so let's put it out at Halloween when people will see anything genre-related.") that they weren't remaking Brian De Palma's film but going back to the original text, which is all I can hope for with such things. As I've explained a million times before, I don't consider Carpenter's The Thing to be a remake any more than I do Coppola's Dracula - it's a new take on written material, with anything in common from a previous movie more coincidental than anything. But there's no way in hell you could believe that here; every single thing that De Palma and his screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen changed from Stephen King's novel has been magically changed again here - even the things that didn't quite work when they did it in 1976 (SPOILER: Mrs. White once again dies in a Christ-pose courtesy of a dozen or so telekinetically thrown knives). This is probably why Cohen once again has screenwriting credit even though he didn't work on the film - this is not common for remakes even of movies that AREN'T adapted from books or whatever (the only times I can recall it happening are The Hitcher and The Omen remakes), so the fact that he's still getting credited for HIS adaption is pretty telling.

In fact, the only things that I can see that were taken from the book and NOT in De Palma's (if they were in the 2002 TV movie, I don't know - still haven't seen it) are superfluous. One is the fact that Sue Snell is pregnant, a "plot point" that amounts to exactly one line of dialogue and one moment of morning sickness for which we are led to believe her guilt was to blame. Another I wouldn't even have noticed if not for the fact that De Palma's version "spoke" to me - the gym teacher's name has been reverted back to Desjardin after De Palma/Cohen switched it to the much cooler name of "Collins". And that's pretty much it - there isn't a single thing from the book that we didn't get to see in 1976. It truly baffles me that with the bigger budget and advances in FX that they couldn't think of anything of note to do differently during the TK sequences, especially with CGI at their disposal to pull off things that would have been impossible then. The non-destruction of the town is a huge puzzle - in the book, Carrie destroys the entire city, pretty much, but this movie, as with the original, limits her carnage to the school and a bit of the surrounding area (a few minor explosions from sewer holes and a sinkhole on one street), plus her house.

I also didn't get why they didn't use the book's framing device, which had it all in flashback. Not only would it have been proof that they were truly going from King's text, but it also would have been more modern - the "start at the end" thing is a pretty common trope these days (too common, if you ask me), but often it's not very justified; it just tells us who lives and spoils part of its own ending more often than not. But some random survivor (not difficult; apart from the people I've already mentioned, no one has much of a character here - there isn't even a "Norma" type standin among the girls) telling the tale, over shots of a completely decimated town - that would actually WORK. But no, apart from a scene of Mrs. White giving birth (the most significant "from the book!" element), the movie begins and ends exactly the same, failing to make use of its source material at every turn. Even when things seem like they might be a bit different, Peirce and Sacasa hold back - the girls are playing volleyball in the pool this time, and thus I thought they'd have Carrie have her period there, letting the blood mix with the blue water for a disturbing visual, but no. They go into the shower room (in 2013? That even still happen anywhere?) and things proceed as you'd expect.

So is it any good? Let's assume that I'm the target audience, i.e. teenagers who haven't seen the original (or read the book, but come on, does that need to be clarified in this day and age?). In that case, yeah, it's fine I guess. At the risk of sounding pervy, I don't understand the point of giving the role of Carrie to the most attractive girl in the cast, but Chloe Moretz does a fine job of earning our sympathies, while also fumbling about awkwardly enough for us to understand why the boys wouldn't at least give her a second look (she's less effective in the 3rd act; I don't think ANYONE can pull off moving their arms around REALLY HARD to show telekinesis - probably why they didn't have Sissy Spacek do it). And the rest of the girls are sufficiently horrible without going too overboard into cartoon villainy (though Chris' boyfriend, played by some guy with nowhere near the charisma of John Travolta, comes close), with bonus points for casting Hart "Ellis" Bochner as Chris' dad - a fine shorthand for an audience to understand she comes from an entitled upbringing. The less said about Julianne Moore, however, the better - her over-the-top scenery chewing most definitely will not earn her an Oscar nomination (a Razzie might not be out of the question), though it makes Judy Greer (as Desjardin) shine even brighter by comparison; if there's any reason for a fan of the original to see this, it might be her.

But a younger audience might be just as confused as I was as to how old-fashioned it was. Apart from the "plug it up!" scene being filmed with a camera phone, it's a bizarrely outdated film - the same character with the iPhone at one point even runs home to check her email, as if it wasn't something she can do with her portable device. And when Sue has to make her mad dash to the prom to stop Carrie from being humiliated, she does so by driving, looking around for a way to get into the school, etc - rather than just text her boyfriend the news. Fuck, I'm sick to death of found footage, but there's a way to do the finale that way that would have actually worked on a narrative level (and again, would have been a good way to update the novel's flashback structure), and yet it goes curiously unexplored. It's not uncommon to wonder why a not-great movie didn't do this or that when you're removed from it, but wondering AS IT'S HAPPENING is a sure sign of a film that has completely failed to engage the audience. Hell, I'm not exactly an expert on De Palma's film (I've only seen it twice) or the novel (read once, at least a decade ago), so considering my poor memory I should have been able to more or less "forget" how everything turned out, but the movie's insistence on sticking to the previous film just kept giving me deja vu. Hell even with The Omen (a closer copy) there were a couple of "re-surprise" moments, but I never once got that here. Only the occasional line (like a rather funny one about Tim Tebow) let me know that they HAD indeed written some semblance of a new script. So it's got one up on Psycho '98, I'll give it that much, but to me a good remake should interest viewers new and old - this one almost goes out of its way to alienate the latter.

And then they twist the knife one last time, offering up a ridiculous shot of a tombstone cracking (via not-very-good CGI) to close the film in place of one of the all time great final scares in horror history. But in a way it's kind of perfect; the film starts on something new and ends on something the same only worse, precisely mirroring the likely intentions of Peirce and her cast. It wouldn't surprise me if the studio demanded something "safer" (while still - admirably - R-rated), and certainly the recent (re)wave of school shootings probably didn't help the movie any, but I didn't pay 8 bucks (matinee!) for their initial ideas. With so many paths they could have chosen, they took the least effective one at every turn, and the film's less-than-stellar box office performance - without a single competitor in a year that horror has been doing quite well - proves that their non-risk didn't pay off. Next time do it right or don't do it at all.

What say you?


HMAD Screening: Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers

UPDATE! Not only will screenwriter Dan Farrands be joining us for a Q&A, but he will be bringing a very special treat - a 35mm print of the legendary "Producer's Cut"! To hell with blurry bootlegs! BE THERE!!!

Keeping tradition (I co-hosted Halloween III in 2011 and did Halloween II last year), this October's HMAD show at the New Beverly will be an entry in my favorite franchise, and this year we're going with Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, which was the last in the series to be released in the fall instead of the summer, and also the last in the original timeline. H20 would of course reboot the series and retcon 4-6 out of existence (H3 of course is in its own world anyway), and then Rob Zombie came along to remake it all together.

It's also, sadly, the last appearance of Donald Pleasence, who died shortly after the film had its principal production, but BEFORE it had some reshoots and re-edits. As a result, he's unfortunately not in the film as much as the previous entries, making those moments all the more special - the actor originally said he'd do 19 of the films before quitting, but these would be the last nutty lines we'd ever hear out of the true Dr. Sam Loomis. Luckily, in his absence we have a very young Paul Rudd (only his second or third film, in fact) and the lovely Marianne Hagan as the film's leads, and great character actor Mitchell Ryan as Dr. Wynn, a colleague of Loomis' who plays a major role (I'm gonna pretend some folks haven't seen it yet).

Also, and this is the reason I chose the film over H20*, it's got a TON of Halloween atmosphere, perhaps even more than the original offered. The streets of Haddonfield are completely drenched in decorations and trick r treaters (even in the daytime), and the big party has terrific seasonal production design as well. Plus, it's the best mask of any of the sequels, in my opinion, another thing elevating it above its more financially successful followup. The high body count should also make for a fun midnight show - I want a big cheer when that asshole John Strode gets his! And who doesn't love the Brother Cane song from the credits?

As always, the show will be at the New Beverly Cinema, located at 7165 Beverly Blvd, Los Angeles, 90036 (two blocks west of La Brea). Street parking is easy to find (just check the signs as there are some permit zones) and tickets are a mere 8 bucks at the door or in advance via BrownPaperTickets. The screening will be on Saturday, October 26th at 11:59 pm, and yes I'll have some DVDs to give away for easy trivia questions. Working on special guests, but since a couple folks have already asked: Mr. Rudd is a no-go - we DID ask him, and he replied within like 30 minutes, but alas it's his kid's birthday that weekend and thus he will be celebrating (he lives in New York so it wasn't really likely anyway, but the fact that he replied so quickly proves it wasn't a waste of time to try!). Also, if you want to make a full night of it, on a separate bill the Bev is having a fine double feature of He Knows You're Alone and (previous HMAD show) Psycho II that night, also 8 bucks for the pair. For less than 20 bucks you can see three fun horror flicks on glorious 35mm in one evening! Not bad at all.

Finally, enjoy the poster from Jacopo Tenani, who did this in the midst of putting together a Suspiria-themed gallery! Very cool of him, and once again it makes me sad I can't find a place to print small runs of these for a price that would make sense, as I'd love to have them for myself and a few folks have asked. This is one I would definitely love to have as it's more striking than any key art ever created by Dimension for the film. Oh well. But at least we can enjoy it on our monitors, and I'll see you at the movie!

*I was hoping to do H4 for its 25th anniversary, but 1, 4, and 5 are tied up due to the Screenvision screenings, sadly.


Screamfest: And All The Rest (2013)

OCTOBER 18, 2013


Hey look - I didn't even do full reviews of every movie I saw when I was doing this shit full time. You think this year will be any different? HELL NO. Read on for capsule reviews of the films I saw at Screamfest that I didn't think enough much of, or simply didn't have the time, to write up full HMAD-y rambles. And in one case I couldn't because it boasted end credits by yours truly!

My pick for the weakest film of the fest (which was thankfully short on found footage movies; the only other one was Delivery and that one's good), this one had the ingredients for a fine traditionally shot creeper - a great location (an actual glacier!), a lovely leading lady (Anna Gunndís Guðmundsdóttir), and a Thing like cast of blue collar scientist types who get wiped out by SOMETHING that is disturbed during their work. But as with Apollo 18, they opt to go the POV route and kill the suspense and momentum of the narrative. And (also like A18), there are only two characters, so it's deathly dull as well since nothing of note can happen to either of them for quite a while. Bonus points for the ending, which (spoiler) switches to traditional filmmaking in order to explain how the footage got back to civilization, but it's too little too late - they should have done that at the halfway point, allowing for a speedier than usual FF sequence and then a real finale.

This is the one I worked on! But as always, I never got to see it before making my credits, so I had no idea if it would be something I'd be embarrassed to be associated with, however tenuously. Luckily, that wasn't the case - this was a damned entertaining blend of film noir and supernatural/psychological horror. Angel Heart would be a good point of reference (and not just because they share a New Orleans locale), so if you dug that film you should find a lot to like here - including sex scenes that would make the MPAA blush (we were seeing an unrated version; no word on how the censors will feel about certain activities). Kudos to Adam Geirasch and Jace Anderson on their best film yet, and look for this one next year (it's already been picked up for distribution!).

The plot synopsis includes "Held prisoner in a house full of antique toys, she must overcome her deranged captors or become a living doll", which led me to believe that the other dolls were former humans and she'd literally become one of them. But no, there's nothing supernatural about it, and the dolls don't really factor into anything beyond some mildly creepy set dressing. So once I realized it was much more straightforward, I had fun with this blend of Misery and The Baby, with our heroine being held against her will by a deranged woman and her fully grown "baby" daughter, who suffers from some sort of mental handicap that basically has her acting feral. It's a bit TOO simplistic; the movie mostly revolves around her attempts to escape (which we know she won't do until the movie's over, if that) and her boyfriend's attempts to find her. A potentially exciting subplot involving her best friend (who has been sleeping with said boyfriend) coming to pick her up and being taken as well is dealt with far too quickly, and the end is a bit abrupt, but it's an admirably gonzo slice of Spanish horror. Since most of their films are a bit more subdued, it's nice to see them have a little more fun.

There were three movies with rape as a plot point in this year's festival; I allowed myself one. Nothing personal against such fare, but it's a long, busy month and I can only do about 1/3 of the things I'd like to (not even counting all the usual things I have to skip: I haven't turned my Xbox on in weeks, or been to Harmontown, etc). So why spend some of that limited time watching something that will just depress me? But the solid cast (Sean Pertwee, Kevin Howarth, Anna Walton) prompted me to give it a look, and while it certainly didn't change my mind about such movies, at least MOST of the depravity was left off-screen, and had a unique hook at its center: our heroine is deaf and thus couldn't often even HEAR her fellow captors' pleas for help (the title refers to a house where young girls are drugged and rented out to soldiers to do with as they please), and unlike the others isn't chained up and is free to go about the house - something that comes in handy when she turns the tables on the antagonists in the 3rd act. As these things go I've certainly seen worse, and it's based on a true story (for real!), so it's got more merit than the usual I Spit On Your Grave wannabes, but I couldn't wait for it be over so I could go look at a puppy or something.

Part of why I was so annoyed by all of the shorts with full film crews (100 or more people, in some cases) is because this feature length movie had about 20 total people on both sides of the camera. Hell, there was even a short with a shockingly similar storyline (and also shot in upstate New York) that supposedly needed like double the manpower to pull it off. Thus, I walked away more impressed by this; it's not the most exciting movie ever made, but I liked how small scale and personal it was, going for drama more than overt horror and usually succeeding. I was also impressed with the makeup; it's about a Stand-like virus that has wiped out most of the country, with one of our two heroes getting infected early on (the movie is about his decline as his partner tries to keep him alive), allowing us to see the various stages of the disease. First it's just some boils on the face, but by the end they look like a botched experiment from The Fly (his foot in particular was an icky highlight), also impressive in light of that short which didn't offer much insight into what was killing everyone.

Not really horror, but a unique take on a revenge film, where a man (Eisenberg) suddenly fixates on another (Goldberg) and lashes out when the gestures of friendship are not returned. So it's basically the 2nd half of Cable Guy stretched to a feature, with things getting darker and heading into Coen Brothers territory (a fair point of reference since they are special thanked as "Gods" in the end credits along with Tarantino and a few others). It can be a bit repetitious, but it's a great "go in blind" movie as you're never sure where it's heading, and both actors are terrific; offering a steady anti-chemistry and straddling the line between sympathetic and hateful (yes, both of them). Director Oren Carmi also offers a few great long takes (including one in a cramped apartment where the blocking keeps teasing the expected moment where an unconscious character springs back into action), and as he explained in the Q&A after it's not exactly easy to get funding in Israel for such dark material, so kudos to him for taking a tough project and making it even more of a challenge. This just start its festival run, so it probably won't be out for a while - keep an eye out if you like your movies dark and JUST off-kilter enough to stand out but not so much that it turns into a farce.

And sadly that's all I saw besides the films I reviewed in full (The Dead 2, Torment, Demon's Rook, and Beneath). It's ironic; I was all excited about Screamfest being closer this year, but because of so many other things going on I ended up missing more movies than usual. I have screeners for a couple of others, but I'm bummed I missed seeing films like Haunter and 308 (Cannon Fodder was one I purposely skipped - life's too short for another zombie movie with wall to wall terrible digital blood, as seen in its trailer). I also didn't see as many shorts as I would have liked, though of the three blocks I DID attend I found this year's crop to be rather underwhelming; the best was The Banishing, which took a haunting tale and spun it into darker, BC-approved territory (I also loved that it featured a girl who instantly googled "Banishing spells" when her little sister began claiming there was a ghost talking to her). I also quite liked The Barista (which began with a riff on Unbreakable and went to a much funnier place), Dembanger (which detailed the reasons why you shouldn't accept random Facebook requests), and Skypemare, which has a pretty self-explanatory title and featured the lovely Cerina Vincent. And while I didn't care much about the plot, the stop-motion Butterflies was a marvel to look at - not sure if I just didn't hit the right blocks, but even more disappointing than the underwhelming entries was the lack of variety - it was the only animated one I saw.

So, overall, not the most memorable fest, but at least it only had one stinker (and even that was at least competent and mildly entertaining at times), and I loved the new locale as it offered free parking if you were lucky (not a chance in its last three venues) and affordable concessions (ditto - I'm usually broke by week's end). Plus there were a lot of foreign films which is always a plus, and things ran completely smooth; apart from the opening night movie (a given) nothing started late or had to get pulled/replaced. And you can't argue about the eating options: the hot dog place, Chipotle, a wings place, Panda Express, a pie shop (!), and Starbucks were all within a block. That's good quick-eating. Please bring it back to the Noho Laemmle next year!

What say you?


The Demon's Rook (2013)

OCTOBER 13, 2013


I recently read an article about people who accidentally leave their babies in the car, how they're not bad people or whatever, but victims of a strange tic in the way that our brains work when working through a routine. One likened it to driving to work (it's the most easily identifiable example) - you can get in your car and get all the way to work without actively thinking about any of it, because you've done it so many times. And that's part of the problem I had with horror movies after a while and also part of why I quit doing this every day: there were too many of those "drive to work" movies, where I could watch the whole thing and retain absolutely nothing about the experience, making writing a review next to impossible. Happily, there are movies like The Demon's Rook that, while imperfect, at least know enough to make an impression.

The coolest thing about the movie is how damn WEIRD it is, and also how it seems to be that way by careful(ish) design and not just a bunch of dudes making shit up as they go along and throwing things in at random. On the surface, it's not particularly complicated or unique: a guy comes back to his hometown and must battle an evil demon that has been wiping out the town - could be any random Stephen King novel, right? But when you add in the specifics, it truly forges its own identity, and the script by Akom Tidwell and James Sizemore (who also directs, stars, and performs a half dozen other crew positions) adds flavor at every turn - a mouse running over a piano, a kid asking a demon for pancakes, a guy performing an impromptu hoe-down with his friends because he's so excited about getting married... all these things keep the movie from ever being the slightest bit boring, a HUGE achievement when you consider it runs 105 minutes (longest movie I saw at the festival) and is the first film from just about everyone involved.

But the weird thing is, it's not very funny. In fact, no matter how ostensibly goofy the narrative gets at times, everyone plays it straight, never going for laughs or (worse) campy "so bad it's good" attitude. They're all fully committed to this odd little tale, and that's what makes it work as well as it does - nothing can kill a low budget movie like this quicker than everyone thinking they're comic geniuses, or having the attitude that if they laugh at themselves on camera, the audience will too. This also allowed me to forgive some of its missteps, such as seemingly going out of their way to find a kid who looked absolutely nothing like Sizemore to play his younger self, or curiously having nearly every character be an artist of some sort (there's like 9 scenes of people drawing before being distracted by demon carnage in some form or another).

Another thing I really appreciated was the FX work (also by Sizemore, who taught himself). Not only is it all practical (I will never, ever, EVER get tired of seeing an actor get squirted with real blood - and in this day and age, it's even more admirable and awesome), but there's an impressive variety to all of the demons, including the tree-like head demon villain and the one sort-of good one, who looks a bit like the freak from The Funhouse. It's like an indie Nightbreed - every demon/monster gets its own unique design even if they're not featured very prominently.

In fact, my only real gripe was the ending, which was more of a downer than it needed to be, and abrupt to boot. I understand that this was one of those productions where cast members would constantly drop out and the movie was shot entirely on weekends over a long period, so perhaps something happened and they had to come up with a new ending or something, but either way it just feels tacked on and unnecessarily grim. At 105 minutes I don't think it needed to be LONGER, but if that's what they indeed wanted to go with, I wish it could have all ended at the big massacre that we know has been coming throughout the film (we keep seeing posters for a big concert - no horror movie has such an event unless something big and violent is going to happen there). That sequence ends and then we go to the next morning, with some shuffling about before the action kicks in again, briefly, before just ending like a Hammer movie. Throughout the movie I was impressed by the first-timer's better than average direction and editing, so it's a bummer that it gets kind of clunky in its final moments.

On the other hand, they did such a great job of telling their story visually that we (meaning me and the folks I watched it with) didn't even realize that the theater had fucked up and cropped out a small portion of the top and bottom of the frame - including the subtitles for the demon language. There's a 10 minute sequence at the halfway point, where hero Roscoe reveals how he was taken by the demons, taught their ways, and managed to escape - all of which told in the gibberish demon language. We could always tell what was happening, and assumed that it was a creative decision to keep the audience from understanding exactly what was being said the whole time. It wasn't until the end credits that we realized the framing was off, as there was a still frame credit for all of the executive producers and the title "executive producers" was missing. So we got to see a scope version of the movie thanks to the Laemmle Noho 7 staff not understanding how to frame things properly (this is why being a projectionist isn't something just anyone should be doing without proper training). Luckily, the film showed twice and they got it right the other time, so it was just our crowd that got this unusual version, one that just sort of added to the weirdness (thanks to one of the producers I got to see the subtitled version later - it was mostly gibberish even in English, so if you were also at that screening, it wasn't exactly a huge revelation).

In short, this is the sort of indie horror I wish I saw more often - it's not trying to fit into any particular hot sub-genre (it feels a bit zombie movie-ish at times, but it's a very small element), it's competently (and CONFIDENTLY) made, and doesn't try to make up for its shortcomings with horrible attempts at humor. It may run a little long, but ultimately I'd rather watch something like this for 9 straight hours before enduring another 80 minute Saw or Paranormal Activity wannabe.

What say you?


Torment (2013)

OCTOBER 11, 2013


This morning I looked at BoxOfficeMojo and discovered that You're Next still hadn't even hit the 20m mark, which is so depressing since it was originally projected to make almost that much in its first weekend (and certainly deserved to). I still don't understand why the public rejected the movie, but I DO know that if it was a hit, movies like Torment would be able to get better deals for distribution than they might now, as it's in the same "home invasion" sub-genre and even has some similar elements (including killers wearing animal masks). Hopefully it will still find its way out there, as I found it to be a solid entry in the growing "folks terrorize people in their own home" series of films.

The first forty minutes or so work best; it's not long after our hero family (a man, his son, and his new wife Sarah, played by Katharine Isabelle) arrive at their vacation home that they realize someone has been in there: dirty dishes in the sink and in the bedrooms, a hole in the basement door, and - worst of all - one of the kid's stuffed animals has been taken. Assuming it to be burglars that have since moved on (and receiving no real help from the local police, embodied by Stephen McHattie, in case you weren't sure that this was a Canadian production), they go to bed... only to discover that their son is missing in the middle of the night.

From then on it's almost a realtime account of the two parents running around trying to find their son while dodging their attackers, who kill the cop, injure Sarah, and quite disturbingly have cut the heads off the kid's giant stuffed animals to make into masks. There are some terrific setpieces throughout this portion of the film, with director Jordan Barker (returning to Screamfest after his enjoyable ghost thriller The Marsh played there in 2006) doing Carpenter proud with some fine use of widescreen and background gags - I particularly loved when a barely visible light turned out in the background behind our hero, letting us (but not him) know the killers were still around. And he milks every second of the more suspense driven parts, with Isabelle or Robin Dunne (the husband) making their way down a hallway, not sure if the killer or killers are waiting to jump out of a room or from a closet behind them. And we know they're brutal killers from the opening scene where they kill a neighbor family (another thing that might bring You're Next to mind; I couldn't find if this was shot before or after YN began making its festival rounds), so there isn't much of a "safe" feeling for anyone but the kid - and he's MIA!

The Strangers may also come to mind, but here's where the film differs greatly from that one - the killers have a motive and explain why they are targeting this guy. It's not a terrible concept, but unfortunately the villain speaks with a voice not unlike Bane's from The Dark Knight Rises, and thus it's almost impossible to keep up that level of tension when I keep having the instinct to burst out laughing. I'm sure the thinking was that it would be creepy and unsettling, but it's just kind of goofy, and I'm of the opinion that these particular movies are scarier without any motive (YN being an exception since it was also more of a fun approach to such things), so the final 20 minutes or so aren't as strong as what came before. But it's got an appropriately grim ending and an admirably left-field twist (one that also registers as more goofy than creepy, to be fair), and it's only like 75 minutes without credits, and thus is never boring.

I also enjoyed seeing Isabelle in a likable, "normal" role, since her biggest genre turns so far have been Ginger Snaps and American Mary, both of which had her playing not particularly sympathetic characters. She's a lovely woman and a solid actress, and I was worried she'd only do horror movies that were in line with those, which would get tiresome. Good to see she's not "above" more traditional "final girl" type of roles, and also that she's playing her age instead of following the lead of some of her peers and trying to keep passing for college students when they're in their 30s (the irony being she'd have no trouble passing for someone ten years younger). And it's always good to see McHattie; he is used well in his two scenes and is pretty much the only other person in the movie besides the family and their pursuers, so it's good that they got an icon of sorts.

In short, it's not a game-changer, but it gets the job done and only has a few minor missteps. Sure, I'd rather a movie with a better 2nd half than the first, so you go out on a high note, but it's not like Mute Witness where you might as well shut the damn thing off once the truly suspenseful/scary part is over with and the movie has to get bogged down with its plot. And I liked it a lot more than any of the shorts in the following block, which only produced one I really enjoyed (Dembanger, about the drawbacks of accepting random friend requests on Facebook). There's this new trend where short films are just basically pitches for feature films, and are equally underdeveloped (as they are saving a lot of the narrative for the feature) and too damn long, and I'm getting kind of sick of it. I also tend to dislike guests of a short who are rude when the other ones are playing, such as the folks for Thirteen, which was also the weakest of the lot to boot. This is part of why I'd rather they didn't do a block and just attached them to the features, but oh well. I also enjoyed Woodland Heights, tho it too could have been a bit shorter. Hopefully the programmers just assumed Friday night would be tough and just sacrificed the weakest ones of the bunch in order to save the really good ones for the other nights, though that wasn't the case last year - Friday night's two short blocks in 2012 were among the all time best I've ever seen. Either way: MAKE SHORTER SHORTS. I didn't love ABCs of Death but at least I knew nothing would be more than 5-6 minutes; I saw one in the Screamfest program guide that runs just under a half hour - that's not a short film, that's an episode of a TV show!

What say you?


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