Blu-Ray Review: The Town That Dreaded Sundown

MAY 22, 2013


It's a (very minor) shame Rolling Thunder doesn't hit shelves until next week, because it would have been really weird/cool to see it come out the same day as The Town That Dreaded Sundown (both from Shout Factory), as I saw the films together back in 2007 at the New Beverly as part of a festival Quentin had programmed to celebrate the release of Grindhouse. As both films were long sought after DVD titles (neither of them ever hit legitimate release on the format), it's a testament to both the service that Shout (and their Scream Factory sub-label) is performing for film fans, as well as their impeccable taste in titles (QT loves The Burning too, for what it's worth).

Of this week's Scream Factory releases, Sundown would be my pick if you could only afford one. Even Burning's biggest fans have to admit that there isn't much there that they couldn't see in other camp slashers, but there's nothing quite like Charles B. Pierce's account of the still unsolved murders that plagued the town of Texarkana in the late 1940s. If I had to narrow it down, I'd describe it as a feature length Unsolved Mysteries recreation, thanks to the frequent, grave narration and largely truthful recreations of the murders - basically everything except Robert Stack's trenchcoat and the prompt to call 1-800-876-5353. But Pierce clearly wanted to make something a little more exploitative for the drive-in audience, and thus stages the murders like bonafide slasher scenes, embellishing when necessary (sorry folks; the killer never used a trombone to kill anyone - though a saxophone was taken from one victim) and actually making them pretty effective setpieces.

See, the first attack doesn't actually kill either victim, and thus unless you've seen the trailer (which explains each attack and its outcome), it's not a foregone conclusion that anyone will die. So while it follows the pattern of many serial killer films and doesn't introduce any victim until they're about to be attacked (as opposed to a slasher, where we know everyone more often than not), they ARE quite suspenseful; the final one in particular, with the killer stalking none other than Dawn "Mary Ann" Wells, is a terrific nailbiter (and even a pretty solid bloodspray effect - keep in mind this predates any major slasher save the rather bloodless Black Christmas), and the trombone sequence, while not surprisingly made up, is still pretty effectively unnerving. There are four major attacks in the film, plus a (completely fictional) chase at the end to give the movie SOME sort of climax - it's a fine balance between the facts and typical entertainment.

However, Pierce can't be satisfied with this, and also tosses in some very jarring attempts at humor, mostly centered around a dimwitted deputy that seems to all but prove that he saw Black Christmas, as "Sparkplug" is a completely fictional character that is almost exactly like Sergeant Nash in that film. The character in Christmas worked; not only was there humor to be found elsewhere (the house mother, the Santa at the party, etc), but it wasn't a true story - it's one thing to add some theatrics to the kill scenes, but it's another to treat the events as a joke. When Sparkplug drives his car with the other two cops (played by Ben Johnson and Andrew Prine) into a swamp during a chase with a potential suspect for the murderer, it's just plain awkward. Oh, and he's played by Pierce himself, which just makes it feel self-serving on top of everything else.

Thus, I am guessing Sparkplug won't be around in the upcoming remake, though maybe NONE of these people will - early word suggests it's a meta-remake/sequel hybrid, with a young girl being targeted by a killer during an annual viewing of the movie itself? And trying to solve the original murders at the same time? It sounds a bit too up its own ass for my tastes, BUT it's not like they don't have precedent of sorts - THIS movie ends with the killer attending a screening of a movie based on the murders (also called The Town That Dreaded Sundown), after all. So it'll be like a Stab/Scream thing, I guess? Ryan Murphy is producing, and while I've hated that guy's work throughout his career, I did find myself quite charmed by the first season of American Horror Story (haven't seen the 2nd season yet), so maybe he can pull off something admirable here. I think we can safely assume that the real Phantom Killer will never be "caught" - the murders were in 1947 and he was said to be 30-40 years old, which means if he's still alive he won't be for long (best case scenario - he's 96 years old right now), but maybe some digging or a forthcoming relative can shed some light on the topic - new movies tend to bring folks out of the woodwork.

Shout made a good call when it came time to record their standard commentary track - rather than get Prine or someone to talk over the whole film (Pierce himself passed away a few years ago), they have gotten an expert on the case to fill in some details and updates. His name is Jim Presley, and he grew up in the area and seems to be the world's biggest expert on it (there's a new book on the case - which seems to be the first - and he is mentioned frequently by the author), so he's loaded with great info and even a few updates (one guy has a theory that the Phantom was also the Zodiac killer - the two cases ARE fairly similar, for what it's worth). The moderator doesn't add much, and by his own admission this isn't Presley's kind of movie, so if you don't have much interest in the case and just want to know about the movie itself, stick with the three new interviews. Prine, Wells, and DP James Roberson all offer up the standard Red Shirt interviews where they talk about each other in succession and then offer their final thoughts while plopped in front of a green-screen and equipped with a lav mic that no one tried to hide - maybe it's because I'm watching a dozen of these a month, but can they break up their template a bit? Anyway, of the three Prine's is by far the most entertaining, as he recounts getting drunk with Johnson and having to shoot the climax while very hung over ("I'm told we had a wonderful time the night before!"), and even explains how he wrote the ending himself because Pierce's script didn't really have one. Roberson also tells a cute story about how the woman who became his wife told him how much the film scared her when they met, and Wells talks of her unsuccessful attempt to talk to the woman she was portraying. I kind of miss when they'd combine all this stuff into one longer retrospective piece (like Halloween II and III), but at least it's easier to find the time for them in 5-10 min segments I guess. A text essay about the real case and film's legacy is also included.

You also get a DVD copy of The Evictors, which if memory serves is the best possible way to sell it - for free inside the case of a superior film. Though my buddy Dick says it's one of his favorite horror films, so maybe I should give it another look. No extras on that one, but you also get a DVD of all the Sundown material (and the movie, duh), so it's a pretty nice package for a movie that was inexplicably ignored during DVD's 10 year reign as the superior home viewing format (though it was worth the wait - the transfer is from an occasionally battered print but it looks phenomenal otherwise). It's a shame Pierce never got to offer his thoughts in detail on it (Johnson's been dead since before DVD even existed, and many of the people involved with the case - such as the person Prine played - were already dead when they made the movie in 1976). I'd be curious to read the book (it just came out last week - why the sudden fascination with this case?), and yay - since I don't do this every day anymore I'll actually have time to do so!

What say you?


Black Rock (2012)

MAY 21, 2013


I don't know why I felt compelled to make an old-school "HMAD Today is..." tweet for Black Rock; even though I've updated a few times since "retiring" I haven't used that opener once, even when I knew I'd be reviewing the film (Evil Dead, Lords of Salem, etc.). So it's somewhat ironic that it's the sort of bland, mercenary horror movie that I grew so tired of that I wanted to quit in the first place - if not for so many movies like this, it's possible I might still be going at it every day for a little while longer.

And thus, I wasn't even going to bother reviewing it until I read this interview with its director/star Katie Aselton, where she dismissed horror in general and specifically name-checked The Descent by saying she wanted her movie to be what Descent wasn't. I'm sorry, but it's bad form enough to throw another "little" movie under the bus (if you want to make fun of Dark Knight Rises, go ahead), but of all the movies to reference, why The Descent? I'm not alone in considering it one of the best horror films of the past decade (hell, we can almost get to 20 years before it starts having heavy competition), so it's a really baffling movie to use when making a "I did it better" argument. Hilariously, while several movies came to mind while watching this chore, Descent was NOT one of them, but now that I think about it, it's a great example to use to illustrate how badly Ms. Aselton (and her husband Mark Duplass, who wrote the script based on her, ahem, "original story").

In The Descent (if I'm spoiling it, you're a bad person - stop reading my drivel and go watch it right now), our heroine finds out that one of her pals was sleeping with her husband, something that may have actually caused his death (he was distracted while driving; presumably he was either regretting or daydreaming about the affair). And thus she gets the ultimate revenge for it (and for the accidental death of another friend), leaving her to die in the cave and providing a distraction to escape (if she did, of course). There's a similar backstory here; Aselton's character Abbie still harbors a grudge against Lake Bell's Lou (short for Louise), who slept with Aselton's then boyfriend six years before, and of course they will have to work past their issues if they're going to survive and blah blah. But there's no payoff to it - Abbie finally lets it go, and Lou doesn't do much to make up for her transgression. Worse, every bad thing in the movie happens because Abbie was actively trying to cheat on her husband with one of the trio of hunters they come across, so there's absolutely nothing to learn from it beyond "Don't cheat", which we don't need a derivative horror movie to teach us.

And it makes her character a rather puzzling one - should we feel bad for her, or not? She got cheated on, now she's cheating on her own husband (not the same guy, mind you), and that's what leads to all of the death that will follow. She drunkenly lures one of the also drunk guys out into the woods and asks him if he wants to have fun, and then changes her mind when he starts getting going. A near-rape ensues, but she kills him with a rock before he actually does anything (I assume? The blocking and lighting throughout the film leave much to be desired, though it's ultimately the least of its problems), but for the sake of argument let's say he's actually forcing himself inside of her when she kills him - fine. But his two buddies then terrorize all three of them... after she AGAIN (and sober, now) instigates them by calling one a pussy and spitting on his face! This results in them killing one of the other two girls and nearly killing the other, leaving Abbie relatively unscathed despite literally every single thing in the movie being her fault. Yes, the guy should back off when she says no after saying yes, I don't argue that - but it's her irrational behavior AFTER that that really does the damage to the group, and she walks away without a shred of comeuppance or even regret. The right way to pay off the stuff about hating Bell's character for so long is to sacrifice herself to save her after getting her nearly killed, but it comes closer to the other way around.

So it's thematically a mess, but does it deliver as a straightforward Deliverance/Mother's Day ripoff? No; if anything it's even more lackluster in that department. Every single thing you expect would happen does indeed happen, without even a shred of originality or surprise - I even correctly guessed (SPOILER) that Kate Bosworth's character would be killed, because she was the most innocent and had been playing peacekeeper between the other two for the entire first act. Someone on the IMDb board had the idea that the movie was actually about a psychotic woman killing these guys for no reason (sort of like a serious take on the Tucker and Dale twist), which would have been interesting - but alas, it just hits every expected mark, making its scant 80 minute runtime feel like double that because at no point will you find yourself seeing something you haven't already seen a dozen times. And I'll leave it to you to decide which is preferable; the off-screen murder of one redneck or the grade-school level effect on the slit throat of the other.

Speaking of them, rarely has a movie of this sort offered such a weak villain team - the leader (and most sane one, presumably) is the would-be rapist, leaving his two buddies - neither of whom have barely spoken yet - to take over as our primary antagonists. I honestly can't even remember their names anymore and it's only been 12 hours since I saw the film, and the extent of their backstory is "they were in the war so they're crazy". But that just adds to the sneaking suspicion I got while I watched the film (which that AV Club interview confirmed), that Aselton and/or Duplass hated the genre, or at least had zero affinity for it. The one-note villains, the pointless nudity, generic plot - all of these are the sort of things that you'd see from someone who didn't understand how the genre worked, and worse, assumed that they DID. "Give them what they want" is the attitude, without even the slightest notion that we want the same things out of a horror film that you can find in a drama (interesting story, sympathetic or identifiable characters, an intriguing antagonist, etc). Yes, there are a lot of crap horror films (even worse than this) made by people who just see it as a way to make money, but there's a difference between a couple of rich dentists in Iowa somewhere trying to cash in on a trend and acclaimed, prolific filmmakers shrugging one out for whatever reason (this was a Kickstarter film; my pal/boss Devin has a theory that they slapped together a sell-able horror movie (the script was written in 18 hours) as a means of raising the dough to buy themselves a new camera). Those guys may be hurting the genre, but they're not actively insulting it and its fans as these two are.

It's really disappointing to see something this lazy from a female director; there should be more of them working in the genre, and if nothing else they should be able to provide a different perspective on its traditions - not stick to them so rigidly that the movie never manages to have its own identity. In short, if you think the genre is beneath you, feel free to ignore it. No one will miss you or your condescending addition to the world of horror.

What say you?


Blu-Ray Review: The Burning

MAY 18, 2013


If you follow me on Twitter but do NOT follow my good friend AJ Bowen (@LenHamhock), you miss out on some amazing ball-busting, as while we share a love of Armageddon and a few other select films, we tend to DISAGREE quite often, especially on slasher movies. So when I tweeted that my attempt to enjoy The Burning more on a second viewing was not a successful one, he tossed out a mocking tweet (not @ me) in response, leading to a loving "fight" where he made his case for the flick. That happens at least once a week, so please follow him to ensure you don't miss out on Twitter-comedy gold (caveat: following him means you'll occasionally be told that the Fright Night remake is superior to the original, so proceed with caution).

I certainly get why AJ and many others dig the film, but I am also willing to bet that a vast majority of them saw it as a kid, maybe as one of their first slasher movies, and thus have a heaping dose of nostalgia aiding their good feelings toward it. And in a way I'm jealous, I really WANT to like this one, but I was too late to the game (I only saw it for the first time in the early days of HMAD), and just can't help but see it as a rather dull, largely personality-free slasher that doesn't do anything better than any of its peers. It's not BAD (though everything between the shower prank and that first on-site kill is pretty interminable), but by 2007 I had seen 75% of the other slashers released in that glory year of 1981, and I could make a case for why just about all of them were better. So it was akin to eating your 100th Big Mac when the bun was a bit too dry and they didn't put enough special sauce on it - it fell just short of hitting the "average" mark, and thus I can't help but feel a bit disappointed.

The biggest issue for me is, sadly, what should be its biggest asset - Cropsy. He's a shockingly underdeveloped slasher right from the start; a bunch of kids we don't know tell us that some guy is "a real jerk" and thus play a prank to "get back" at him, and we just have to take their word for it. Being a slasher movie, the prank goes wrong and Cropsy ends up horribly burned, landing in a hospital for years until breaking free one night. At this point he does what anyone would do - seeks out the nearest hooker and kills her, in a rather sleazy sequence that feels taken out of Don't Answer The Phone or Maniac and really doesn't fit the movie at all (I was not surprised to discover that this sequence was added at the insistence of the Weinsteins, who "demanded something happen every 10 minutes", according to director Tony Maylam*). Then he heads off to camp, where he proceeds to dick around doing nothing for 40 minutes, and hinges a good chunk of his plan on hiding in a loose canoe, hoping that the people he left stranded down river would build a raft and come across him.

Now I'll venture into spoiler territory for a 32 year old film. At the very end, we discover that our male hero was actually one of the kids who played a prank on him at the beginning. Since it's a different camp I'm not sure if this was just a coincidence for Cropsy or if he had supernatural tracking powers, but either way this leaves two big questions. One, why did he go after THIS guy, who wasn't even the one that put the candle in his shack that caused his disfigurement? And two, what about the others? Why single out one of them? Another odd thing, the kids pranking him at the beginning are all male, yet the bulk of Cropsy's victims in the movie are female (including not one but TWO scenes where a couple splits up and he goes after the female first). It's ostensibly a revenge slasher, but it's unforgivably random on that front - they would have been better off a. not trying to pull a "twist" that our hero was one of the kids, and/or b. giving him a real tragic opening sequence that would help make him a little more sympathetic (see: Terror Train).

And for whatever reason, we only really see him once, at the very end of the film, so it's a slasher without an actual slasher. Doing the POV thing is fine for a whodunit (a la Friday the 13th, which has its own issues), but with so few kills it's puzzling that he has such a poorly defined appearance. The legend goes that Tom Savini chose to work on this film instead of Friday Part 2 (which is a shaky story since they didn't shoot at the same time - seems he could have done both if he wanted), but even Friday 2, with its inferior makeup, gave Jason a presence. It's almost like they wrote it as a sort of whodunit ("Oh shit, it's the guy from the beginning! He survived!") but forgot to change the rest of the script when they added those hospital scenes that tell us who it is.

That said, it does get one thing right - the kids are pretty likable. I don't agree that the ones in Friday the 13th are the types you're "waiting" to be killed (someone says this on the bonus features, I can't remember who though - might have even been Savini), but apart from the asshole bully Glaser, they're all charming and get along, making it no surprise that this has the record for most appearances by future stars: Holly Hunter, Jason Alexander, and Fisher Stevens all made their debuts here, and even some of the others, while not huge stars, have enjoyed lengthy careers and are recognizable (such as Ned Eisenberg, who plays a long running recurring character on Special Victims Unit). Sure, they're probably too old to be playing the characters they're portraying (the one playing Alfred the nerd was like 24), but it's not as silly as My Bloody Valentine, with a bunch of 30 year olds being called "Kids" every other scene.

However, many agree they got a lot more than that right, and they should be more than satisfied with this new special edition (and first Blu-ray appearance) from Scream Factory. MGM put out a special edition a couple years ago, and all of those extras (commentary with Maylam moderated by Alan Jones, interview with Savini, and some behind the scenes video from the production) are carried over, and then some. Once again Shout has neglected to list all of the bonus features on the back, which is puzzling as anyone who already owns the MGM edition would see no need to upgrade beyond having the Blu-ray transfer (which is terrific, as is always the case with them). There's a new commentary by actresses Shelley Bruce and Bonnie Deroski, which can be a bit dull as neither of them was a huge part of the movie and the moderator (missed the name) just asks basic questions like "Did anything funny happen on set?" (in contrast, Jones is so entertaining as a moderator on his I almost wish he was solo). They also ditch the track with like 5 minutes left of the movie, which is a bit odd - perhaps they should have just done select scenes (i.e. the ones they're actually in?) or at least gotten a moderator that could add his own insight.

But the other new features are terrific; there's an interview with editor Jack Sholder that's pretty revealing, as he's not afraid to dish a little dirt, unlike Maylam (Maylam says the Weinsteins were tough but he enjoyed working with them; Sholder explains that they locked the director out of the editing room at one point), and also admits that the film isn't that great (he also explains why the "build up" to the raft scene is more like "needless padding" - the Weinsteins insisted on adding more back and forth shots between the raft and canoe). There's also a new interview with actress Leah Ayres, the would-be Final Girl who actually sits the climax out (one of the more peculiar things about the movie, especially considering the time it was released). Some of the anecdotes are repeated, but she looks back fondly on the film (and still looks great for anyone who may have crushed on her in their youth), which is nice to see/hear, especially after hearing the director point out that Hunter and the others have taken it off their resumes. And Cropsy himself, Lou David, also provides a new interview, which is somewhat sweet - he recalls how he had to go off to play him right after his son was born and how it bummed him out, and also admits he's not the one doing the killings (Savini or Maylam himself would play the hands in the kill scenes), making him more trustworthy than some of the guys who claim they played Jason when in reality they were only there for a few shots (as David was, basically). A very oddly formatted copy of the script (as a PDF) and some advertising material rounds things out, pretty standard there. And as always, if you don't like the new box art Shout has created for the release, the original is on the flipside for your convenience.

And that's the great thing about this line - even when I don't like the movie much, I'm still happy to have it in my collection, because they put a lot of effort into giving these junky movies the best possible presentation possible, putting the studio releases to shame. It's plain to see that they have the fans' best interests in mind by bringing over the old extras (take a note, Anchor Bay) and creating enough new ones to make swallowing that double-dip a lot easier. I almost wish they took a cue from Criterion and gave them all numbers - it'd make it that much harder to skip over one. Plus, maybe I'll give it a shot again in another 6 years. Everyone that yelled at me on Twitter (not just AJ) can't be wrong, right?

What say you?

*They missed the 20, 30, and 40 minute marks, unfortunately.


Maniac (2012)

MAY 11, 2013


If you're not going to do your own thing with a remake, the least you can do is fix the problems of the original, which is what Franck Khalfoun and Alex Aja have done with Maniac, their update of Bill Lustig's 1980 original. Lustig serves as producer here, and as with many a remake with original players involved, there are some slightly jarring nods to the source material (a subway chase - come on, its set in LA this time! No one uses the subway!), but I walked away fairly impressed with how they barely changed much at all with regards to the story but yet still made a different - and superior - film.

The biggest change is perspective; the entire movie (save for a few shots) unfolds from the POV of the killer, this time played by Elijah Wood. It's NOT found footage, I must stress (thank Christ), but literally just from his point of view, like the opening scene of Halloween but for 90 minutes. Of course, you don't hire Wood for voiceovers only, so this means at least once per seen we get a shot of the killer (named Frank again, a bit odd since it's basically the name of the director too) looking into a mirror. The shots aren't technically perfect - you'll see Wood moving his head around in the mirror but the camera will remain still (or vice versa), and some are kind of obnoxiously implemented (dude likes to look at his reflection a LOT), but many work in a fluid, seamless way - I particularly liked when he is in a girl's bed and she's got a mirror on the ceiling. The only times it breaks from this approach is when he's killing someone; I'm not sure if they're trying to say he has an out of body experience when killing or merely wanted to give us a better view (and screenshots, for those who pepper their reviews with such things), but either way is forgivable, and it never stops being unsettling seeing Wood's face as he's choking or stabbing someone. Leo Biederman, no!

That's another thing I liked - Wood is nothing like Joe Spinell, so even when the film is getting pretty similar (the freakout climax is almost identical), it's easy to take it as its own thing. So many remakes opt for look-alikes, and I don't get the point - shouldn't they be looking to find ways to keep us from thinking about a different movie? All due respect to Mr. Spinell, he was just a sort of slobby looking dude, and much older than Wood (Spinell was pushing 50 at the time of Maniac's production; Wood is 30 and can still pass for like 20). So when Wood talks to a young girl, she's intrigued (in one case, she's more into him than he is in her), giving the film a different, more unnerving dynamic, replacing the original's sleaze with something much creepier and intense.

(Speaking of reminding us of other movies - I laughed along with everyone else, but it's a BIT too on the nose to have a would-be victim play "Goodbye Horses" before Frank strikes, though 2 points for crediting it as from Married To The Mob instead of Silence of the Lambs, even if the latter is the one everyone will be thinking of, for sure.)

Another beneficial modification is that they introduce the "girlfriend" a lot sooner. Their relationship is different too; rather than have him just be some guy she took a picture of, she's interested in his mannequins (he restores them for a living), but what's important is that it's not a random plot point for the 3rd act to give the movie some semblance of tension, as in the original. He meets her before the end of the first reel, in fact, and she's a constant presence throughout until the inevitable tragic consequences of their friendship near the film's ending. Anna is played by Nora Arnezeder, who is an endlessly appealing and alluring screen presence - you'll be thankful that all her scenes are pretty much closeups of her face since they're all from the POV of the guy she's talking to, and as a result, the finale is much more suspenseful and upsetting than the original's. Nothing against Caroline Munro, but her character was so awkwardly introduced and never given much time to grow, so it wasn't really much different from the various anonymous girls Frank had been killing throughout the film.

But honestly, they could have used the same script and I think it would be the superior film simply due to the incredible score by Rob (yep, just Rob). If I had to describe it, I'd put it as a mix between the most synth-y Carpenter scores and the slower John Murphy cues from Sunshine, but why settle for that? It's on iTunes and Spotify; even if you don't want to see the movie I highly recommend checking out - I've been reading/writing to it all day. I've been bemoaning the lack of memorable/great scores in modern horror movies for quite some time now, so anything that bucks that trend makes me very happy indeed. "Horses" is one of the few songs (and not on the soundtrack release), another plus as that can date a film or just cause unnecessary distractions.

My only major complaint is that it gets a touch repetitive; apart from Anna there are no other recurring characters, and each kill results in Frank hallucinating memories of his mother (America Olivo, who was in No One Lives as well - she features in back to back post-HMAD reviews!) and being taunted by the "ghosts" of his victims. At one point he watches a news report about the serial killer, but Anna knows nothing about it - did he hallucinate that too or is she just ignorant? And either way, where ARE the cops? He seems to center all of his killings in the downtown LA area (which is not large) and he was connected to at least two victims through a dating website - it shouldn't have been hard for the cops to at least question him. As a result it's kind of hard to tell what parts of the movie are just in his head and which are real (something they could have used the POV effect for to differentiate if they wanted to make it clearer), and takes away from the otherwise strong attempts at realism.

IFC midnights is putting this one out soon; my guess is that it'll be a NY and LA only kind of thing unless it does terrific business at that time, but even if that happens don't expect to see it in your multiplex. It definitely earns its R rating thanks to the (practical!) KNB gore and overall disturbing tone, which will keep it from hitting AMCs and the like despite Frodo being the star. It's a shame though - the POV aesthetic makes it a perfect big screen endeavor (IMAX would be AMAZING!), but it'll probably find most of its audience on VOD and blu-ray. And (sigh) it's ANOTHER remake with Aja's name on it - does he simply not WANT to try original properties anymore? His only other original production since High Tension was P2 (also directed by Khalfoun) - did that film's failure scare him away from unproven commodities, or what? Come on man! Not that any of the movies are bad (well, Mirrors...) but your filmography is starting to resemble any random horror fan's top ten list from the 70s/80s.

What say you?


No One Lives (2012)

MAY 9, 2013


Since slashers are my favorite horror sub-genre, it's no surprise that I've seen more of them than any other specific sub-genre (I know the genre tags will tell you "Supernatural" is the highest, but that's such a much broader spectrum)... which also means I've seen too many that don't try to do anything new. Thus, whenever someone thinks outside the box a bit, I'm always an easy sell, be it a documentary approach (Behind the Mask) or simply existing in the world where all those other slashers exist (Scream). So I was pretty stoked when I realized that No One Lives was not merely a gory revenge movie like the trailers suggested, but something that seemed to be a sort of "What if?" sequel to a slasher movie we never saw.

(To explain means spoilers, so if you haven't heard the specifics of the movie's premise - which are revealed by the end of the first act, I should stress - stop reading!)

As a news report tells us, some time ago, 14 teens were killed during a graduation party by an unknown murderer, with one girl's body missing/presumed dead - i.e. the plot of any number of slasher movies that ended with the survivor seemingly about to be done in by the not-dead killer. But what if the guy didn't want to kill her? What if he wanted to keep her as his own, imparting his slasher wisdom on her (it's a good theory for whatever the hell Jason was doing with the Amanda Righetti character in the Friday the 13th remake)? That's pretty much the scenario of No One Lives; our murderer is on the run with both his would-be victim (locked in his mini Uhaul) and his actual girlfriend, and along the way they run afoul of a typical band of assholes you'd find in a rape-revenge movie (or a less mutant-tastic Texas Chainsaw ripoff). The killer (named Driver and played by Luke Evans) loses his prize to these folks, and spends the rest of the movie wiping them out (as per the title!) in order to get her back.

Normally I don't like these "no one to root for" movies, but the premise was so wacky I was kind of in love with it, especially when it's revealed that the kidnap victim (Adelaide Clemens; the Michelle Williams lookalike from Silent Hill 3D) is no saint herself. At first she seems somewhat concerned for the gang of thugs, but within minutes she seems content to let Driver wipe them all out and then worry about him later (after all, it's clear HE means her no real harm), and flashbacks reveal he's taught her how to fight. So you have this bizarre three way fight where everyone's kind of a dick, allowing for some unusual suspense - it's not a question of "Who should I root for?" it's more "By whose hand will it be most satisfying to see this person die?" It's only like 80 minutes long and the movie doesn't waste a lot of time getting to the point where Driver and his girls are run off the road by one of the thugs, so there's not a lot of time to question the morality of anything you're seeing provided you're on board with the film's inherent mean-spirited/gonzo spirit in the first place.

It's also sufficiently gory, with many creative kills - I particularly liked the crucifixion by shower curtain and clipboard decapitation. Someone complained that too many kills were off-screen, but being that this was probably NOT a big budget production, I was satisfied with how many we DID see, especially since they were largely practical FX. You hear these stories about how the filmmakers "didn't have time" to spray a little blood on the wall or something - well these folks found a way to have their handsome star completely covered in blood from head to foot for a few shots, so it's almost like they, I dunno, planned in the time to do things right? Crazy idea, but I swear it works! Lot of stunt work too, which is fun to see - this is, for the most part, nowhere near as visually stylized as director Ryƻhei Kitamura's other films (basically just a couple of impressive, standalone shots) but he more or less makes up for it with the inventive stunt work, like when a guy is yanked from a porch by an arrow on a wire, which triggers a shotgun blast along the way. There's also a hilarious, out of nowhere and rather brutal catfight in which the two ladies (the girl from Howling Reborn and America Olivo, who was actually IN the Friday remake I mentioned earlier) toss each other into walls and through glass coffee tables without hesitation.

Now, I'm not going to suggest this is some classic - it's a WWE movie after all, so you get some bad acting from a wrestler (though they have definitely made the right call to cast actual actors in the leads of their last few movies and put their guys in supporting, thankless roles) and a LOT of meatheaded dialogue. I laughed, but if I hear anything stupider than "If I wanted to hear from an asshole, I'd rip you a new one!" this year I might have to quit moviegoing, and there are an alarming number of murders that no one seems to notice, as well - a family is killed in the first few minutes and the cops never seem to notice despite everything seemingly taking place in a 10 mile radius. And Driver seems to have no problem using his hands, but didn't he have to break his own thumb to get out of the cuffs at the end of act 1? In short, it's best not to think about any of it too much and just have fun.

In fact I'd liken it favorably to See No Evil, which I think was the first WWE production and their only other entry in the slasher genre (The Call sort of fits, but it's more of a thriller and as I said in my review, it's the slasher stuff that kind of ruins it). Like that film, No One Lives is definitely aiming at the part of your brain that tends to enjoy really terrible people being murdered by other really terrible people (Silent Night, Deadly Night is of course the granddaddy of such fare), and quite frankly you don't get to see enough of that sort of thing in a movie theater. Sure, the place was practically empty (of the 5 other people in the theater for this 10pm showing, I knew 3 of them), but if it can actually fill a screening at any point, I'm sure it will be glorious if everyone's in the right mindset for it. It's crass and "awesome", and does the aforementioned movies proud. And it's got a built-in prequel in case they want to franchise the thing, so good on them.

What say you?


Aftershock (2012)

APRIL 30, 2013


It's a shame that Hemlock Grove was such a disaster (well, creatively - if folks are actually signing up for Netflix to see it, I guess it's a success), because since he's not overly interested in directing anymore (yeah he's got Green Inferno coming, but it's his first directorial effort in six years and he doesn't even pretend to want to do Thanksgiving anymore), I'm all for Eli Roth using his clout in the horror genre to trying other things (TV shows, producing smaller efforts that could use the attention his name brings to them, etc). Except for Hemlock, I've liked just about everything he's done so far (can we even count Last Exorcism 2? He couldn't possibly have had much input on something so shockingly dull and "safe"), and for the most park Aftershock fits that bill - it's an ambitious attempt to blend the disaster movie and a survival horror film in the vein of his Hostels, and when it works, it does so quite well.

Unfortunately Roth gave himself one of the lead roles as Gringo, the American who is visiting his friend in Chile when everything goes to hell. He doesn't speak the language and is clearly a boring individual (he tries to explain a merger while dancing with a Russian model), so it probably would have been wiser to cast pretty much anyone BUT himself. Maybe it's supposed to be funny to see Eli Roth striking out with the ladies, but he's not exactly the best actor in the world, so it's impossible to separate the persona from the character - I was almost surprised to see that his character was billed as "Gringo" rather than "Himself" in the end credits. On the other hand, like just about everyone in the movie, he doesn't exactly walk away without a scratch, so if you've ever wanted to see Eli Roth get seriously injured, Aftershock has got you covered (as someone who blew a weekend on Hemlock Grove, I found one moment quite cathartic).

More problematic than his self-casting, however, are the odd tonal shifts that occur once the quake finally occurs at around the 40 minute mark. Like any good disaster film, we spend a lot of time getting to know the characters before the tragedy hits (Poseidon is a rare exception, though the box office returns suggest it won't be something anyone attempts again), but when folks start getting picked off, it's played for laughs via Final Destination style splatter kills. I mean, sure, some assholes in the crowd probably laughed when Leo bit the dust in Titanic, but we're not SUPPOSED to be cheering and laughing at his or anyone else's demise, unlike here where the deaths are almost all engineered as "shock" kills akin to Amanda Detmer getting hit by a bus in the first Destination. And despite the long setup, I can't think of anyone that I was really sad to see go; they each have their own little moments and personal dramas (two of them have kids! One had an abortion!), but after a while it's clear that they were approaching their script not unlike a slasher film, complete with the obvious Final Girl (who doesn't drink and wants her younger sister to be more responsible, like her!). A good disaster film offers up a big ensemble so that we're not sure who will live or die, become a hero or villain, etc - but we just focus on these six friends the entire time; any other characters that pop up are pretty much killed instantly (like an elderly cleaning lady who shows them how to get out of the club and is, natch, suddenly hit by a vehicle for her trouble). I'm all for mean-spirited carnage, but it only works when they take that approach for the entire movie, instead of splitting the difference between that and attempts to make this as a real dramatic thriller (including a rape scene, because of course there is).

However, if you look past the tonal issues and Roth's distracting performance, it's a solid bit of "true" survival horror. The low budget doesn't allow for any huge destruction setpieces - even though it was shot in the same area as the actual devastating Chilean earthquake from a few years back, the journey and devastation are relatively compact. The initial quake occurs inside the nightclub (no exterior shots for scope), and subsequent aftershocks are depicted via a shaking camera and stone pillars falling over. There's a big sequence set on an elevating cable car that snaps loose, but otherwise it's refreshingly free of "disaster porn" sequences like 2012 or whatever - for better or worse, they keep it focused on these six characters and their attempts to get to safety before the threatened tsunami wipes everyone out. This can make some of the danger feel a bit generic - particularly when a gang of thugs begins tracking them down - but the tsunami warning alarm and continued aftershocks never let the viewer forget that just because they're on their feet doesn't mean they're safe. A lot of the movies this is trying to fit in with often get so bogged down with the more traditional horror elements that it's easy to forget that the monster/shark/mutant hillbilly isn't the only thing they have to worry about, but as with something like The Descent, it could have eschewed the "living" threat entirely and still felt pretty scary, letting Mother Nature itself be the slasher (indeed, the human villains are the ones that throw it off - old ladies being smooshed by trucks are funny, but gang rape? Not so much.)

Also, everyone besides Eli is pretty solid and believable - I didn't recognize any of them, making it easier to buy them as their thinly drawn characters. Pollo was easily the best of the lot - as the spoiled rich guy who gets them into the clubs and tries to buy his way out of situations, he had the most interesting arc of all of them, though the character who had an abortion gets to endure one of the silliest "gets past her tragedy" metaphors in history - she finds herself in a tunnel known for being filled of fetuses that were the product of illicit hookups between local nuns and priests. There are also some decent minor suspense scenes of the "What would *I* do in this situation?" variety, like when two of our group stumble across a fireman who is trapped in his truck - he pleads for their help but they are trying to find something to save their own trapped friend. And like any good disaster film, some of the danger comes not from psychos who are taking advantage of the situation, but from scared innocent people who merely want to protect their own. The lack of a true ensemble may make it easy to pick who lives and dies, but Roth and co-writer/director Nicholas Lopez manage to find ways to make up for it with these bits, and even though the final "human enemy" is ridiculous (with the real antagonists given a rather abrupt sendoff), the casual approach to murdering everyone in sight actually made the final battle more suspenseful than the average slasher - would she REALLY be a "final" girl or get offed like everyone else?

I forget what I did instead when the film screened at Fantastic Fest last year, but I remember friends coming out and saying they hated it, and it's not hard to see why. The tonal shifts and occasional unpleasantness, plus the long setup, could make for a very grueling experience. But my love of mean spirited splatter (the Final Destinations, Silent Night Deadly Night, See No Evil, etc) and for the disaster film - which has been largely in a state of moratorium for a while now - provided me with enough entertainment to give it a pass. I'd probably never bother watching it again, but I've certainly seen worse examples of all the different kinds of movies it was trying to be; an amusing mess is still amusing.

What say you?


Fortress (1992)

MAY 4, 2013


When I was a kid and Fortress came out for rental, I thought for sure it was a direct to video movie - it certainly never came to my theater, and therefore it had to be a non-theatrical release, right? Stupid young BC. So it's kind of ironic that it's actually the biggest theatrical success Stuart Gordon ever found here in the US; its nearly 7 million take is actually more than all of his other films combined here, which is so depressing to me. He's been one of the most consistent and interesting filmmakers of that "Masters" club, but his unusual ideas and independent roots will probably forever keep him from the mainstream success his peers enjoyed.

Indeed, Fortress is probably his most accessible film (and no, it's not really horror in the slightest, but with the amount of gore, the minor killer robot angle, and Gordon himself, I figure it's OK to review here - better than nothing, right?), which isn't much of a surprise when you consider that it was originally meant to star Arnold Schwarzenegger himself. Apparently, his longtime stunt double was the big zombie dude in Re-Animator, and showed the film to Arnold, who loved it. And because he was the kind of star who could choose a director, he recommended Gordon, and convinced the producers to keep him on after he left the project. Obviously most of the budget went with him, as Christopher Lambert wasn't exactly the huge star Arnold was (though bless Hollywood for trying - he had a pretty lengthy run as a theatrical star even though I don't think any of the movies he made after Greystoke ever made more than 15 million), but Gordon knew how to put a lot on the screen, making him kind of the perfect guy for the job in this situation.

Gordon gives it some of his usual touch - namely the casting of Jeffrey Combs as one of the "hero" prisoners and Caroline Purdy-Gordon as the voice of the supercomputer - but otherwise it's a pretty traditional action/sci-fi flick that were a dime a dozen during that period. It's 2017, and overpopulation has resulted in a nationwide law that forbids folks from having a second child, and Lambert and his wife are sent to prison when it's discovered that they are indeed pregnant again. They skip over the nitty gritty of the situation - their first child was a miscarriage, so if this is just about overpopulation why can't they have another? - but it's better than the usual "he was framed/acting in self defense" sort of thing that plagues 99% of the heroes in prison movies. We don't get to learn too much about the (four!) guys he shares a cell with; Combs was a bank robber but otherwise I don't think we hear why they were sent there, which I guess makes it OK when most of them die in the process of escaping.

The escape of course is just the third act, with the first hour setting up the "in the future" situation and the plight of Lambert's wife, who is in the same prison and also the object of desire for the sadistic warden, played by the great Kurtwood Smith. Obviously it's hard not to think of Robocop with him around, as both films have excessive gore not common in action films as well as a satirical edge (not nearly as prominent here as in Robocop, however), but oh well - he's still a lot of fun here, and good enough an actor to make gibberish dialogue like "Accelerate strike drone reaction time!" sound awesome. Plus it gets pretty weird at times; he's fond of watching prisoners' sex-driven dreams (Zed the supercomputer can broadcast them to his monitor, somehow), and he tortures Lambert by putting him in one of those gyroscope things for three days. The future!

It's also got one of the grosser ideas in prison movie history - they are all equipped with "Intestinators", which are silver balls forced into their stomach. An all purpose behavior modifier and tracking device, Zed can target them and give anyone acting out (or minding their own business) severe intestinal pain, and if they go outside the designated areas they will explode and kill them instantly. During a fight with Vernon Wells, playing the standard giant prison rapist dude (who has his sights set on none other than Clifton Collins Jr!), Lambert obtains the intestinator completely intact after the guy is blown away by traditional weaponry, and thus enlists Combs' character to figure out how they work and how they can be removed. The resulting setpiece (which we only see in full once, sadly) is a great little sequence that requires nothing but some minor prosthetics (to show the metal ball jutting out of the chest when being pulled with a magnet) and the actors making pained faces (or dribbling out puke) - a lot more exciting than the rather standard "blast the robot guards with a giant machine gun" action that makes up most of the final reel.

Oddly enough, I watched the movie a few days after seeing Pitch Black at the New Beverly (I should have "Non Canon'd" that one, now that I think about it), and according to IMDb, this movie was an influence on the pretty awesome Butcher Bay prequel game, with a very similar prison design. It's been nearly a decade since I played that game, so I'll have to take their word for it (or finally play the Xbox port I bought 3-4 years ago), but I definitely enjoy the coincidence. And while I don't remember much, I know that I definitely do NOT need to revisit Fortress 2: Re-Entry, which took place on a space prison and replaced Gordon with Geoff Murphy, best known for Young Guns II and Under Siege 2 (sequel king!) - any space prison itch I have will be scratched with Lockout, thank you very much.

Echo Bridge brings Fortress to Blu-ray for the first time, which I know because they put "For the first time on Blu-ray!" in an ugly gold circle on the cover, which will annoy you even more when you watch the disc and realize that it's no better than a DVD transfer. I mean, it's a fine transfer on that level (and I've seen worse on some of their other discs), but it's hardly reference material, and it's not the complete cut of the film; all the gore is intact but there are a few minor character bits trimmed here and there. It's nothing important, but it's not like EB is going out of their way to deliver the ultimate releases of these movies, nor will they bother to double dip, so we'll have to wait until the rights change hands again to get a top notch, complete transfer of the film. Or bonus material - this is as barebones as a disc can get - no trailer, no subs, not even a choice between 2.0 and 5.1 audio tracks, though I should note that it IS the first time the film has been offered in its proper aspect ratio here in the States, and at 5.99 you can't exactly accuse them of overpricing it. A "get what you pay for" affair to be sure, but the movie mostly held up in my eyes and is a solid entry in every category (Gordon's filmography, Christopher Lambert movies, prison flicks), so in that respect it's kind of a steal.

What say you?


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