Dog Soldiers (2002)

JUNE 23, 2015


It was only a few months before I started Horror Movie A Day that I saw Dog Soldiers for the first time, and the time-consuming process of keeping the site going meant I never got around to my planned 2nd viewing until now. What was once a potential "Non Canon" review (meaning, a review of a movie I had seen before and remembered a lot about) is now a traditional one, because I honestly couldn't remember much about it at all beyond the basic premise and the fact that I quite liked it. Longtime readers of HMAD know that the list of werewolf movies I enjoy is a pretty short one (basically the ones everyone likes, plus Big Bad Wolf), so when I say one is worth seeing, you know it's true!

(Unlike slasher movies. I really can't be trusted there.)

I think the reason Soldiers works for me as well as it does is the fact that it's not heavy with the werewolf mythology or even on-screen appearances. As Neil Marshall points out on his commentary, it's a movie about soldiers trying to survive, with the werewolves being the antagonist - if it was Nazis the movie would play out more or less the same way (the need for silver would be excised, I suspect). Indeed, one of the weaker moments of the movie is when they start diving into their backstory and explaining their connection to Ryan (Liam Cunningham), the film's obligatory asshole human. Who cares? All it does it take time away from the film's key assets, which include its breakneck pace (it's 104 minutes but feels like 85) and the loving camaraderie among the title characters. I've seen actual war movies that didn't develop such a strong bond among its primary group of heroes, even more impressive when you consider strong male bonds aren't exactly a hallmark of the horror genre.

f Plus it's nice to have a soldier-themed horror movie that's not a psychological thing about their guilt manifesting itself. I like Deathwatch and movies like that, but there are so many in that vein that it's practically a sub-genre. Otherwise, soldiers tend to only pop up in things like Aliens and its many ripoffs, where they're the backups to our real hero, and I think it's a missed opportunity considering an easy criticism of the genre as a whole is that you don't care enough about the characters and/or they don't seem to care about each other. Imagine a good slasher or something where the heroes are a "Band of Brothers" type group? One without ammo and grenades, I assume, or else the movie would be really short. Plus it's funny; I don't know if there's a term for movies that are frequently hilarious but you can't ever refer to them as comedies, but if so this would join Jaws and A Few Good Men alongside of them. Hell, it even has a goddamn Matrix joke that made me laugh instead of groan, something that was barely possible even at the time, let alone 15 years later.

As for the wolves, they're pretty good looking and all practical, thank Christ. The designers were clearly taking cues from Rob Bottin's The Howling's designs for their very tall beasties, but emphasizing the wolf look (in the face I mean), making them less "monstrous", though it's hard to tell given their gigantic size, quick cutting, and the (intentionally) dark cinematography that keeps us from getting too many strong looks at them. The movie has no transformation scene, with Marshall opting for the old-school trick of cutting away to someone's reaction of a transformation as it begins, then cutting back to a new stage already having been applied. On the making-of he defends this choice - they couldn't afford to do a big American Werewolf-style version, and he didn't want to use cheesy CGI morphing, so this was the best option and one that has its roots in the sort of movies that have kept the werewolf genre alive, so you can't really fault the decision.

You CAN fault Marshall's cutting though, which he thankfully never did himself again. There's an early scene where the soldiers are just talking about a soccer match or something and there's something like three cuts per second - it actually started to give me a headache. I don't mind this sort of stuff during frenetic action scenes (as long as it's clear what's going on, unlike say, Taken 3, which featured a car chase I literally could not understand), but when it's just a scene of people talking it makes me feel that the director or the producers or SOMEONE is assuming that we won't be interested and they're trying to make it look like an action scene. It's offensive, really. Later dialogue scenes, like when the last two men standing have their obligatory "One of us has to survive!" chat, it's cut calmly and sanely, so thankfully it's not an issue throughout the whole film, but when it happens so early on it kind of puts me in a "mood".

But that's really my only issue with the movie, which is a pretty good pros to cons ratio. The only other thing worth noting isn't their fault, but is causing so much controversy on the Scream Factory facebook page I figure I should mention it: the transfer. Apparently, the original negative for the film could not be found, so they had to use a pair of 35mm prints (that is, the same prints that a theater would show) to create this new high-def master. That would normally be mostly OK, but Dog Soldiers was shot on Super 16, so the 35mm prints were already blown up and not 100% representative of how the film looked, a problem that was exacerbated when putting together the high-def version for Blu-ray. This is why the new transfer is so grainy, but they also did a new color timing that Marshall signed off on (per his explanation on the SF page, the original version had mixed lighting causing continuity problems, so this was a chance to fix it). The grain I don't mind, but even with my hazy memories of the film I thought the new color looked wrong, and confirmed as much when I watched the bonus features, which used the older transfer (from the DVD) for its clips. Check out the comparison (old color on top, new color on bottom):

I should note that these are from the included DVD version, not the Blu-ray, but the two discs are taken from the same source, obviously. So while you can see that the new transfer has better detail and definition, the color has been shifted "lighter", which looks weird to me. I mean it all comes down to preference, and if Marshall prefers the new one I guess you can't exactly say he's wrong, but FWIW I think I prefer the older color. The brightening seems at odds with the film's exterior atmosphere; there's a part where someone says "It'll be dark soon" and it looks like it's early afternoon. Once they get to the house and lighting continuity was no longer an issue it's more in line with how it looked before; still a shift but nothing I find bothersome (so along with the improved detail it's overall easier to accept):

So like the editing, it's more of a problem with the way the movie starts, not how it ends up, and as Jurassic World is proving with its extraordinary box office run, it's more important to have a strong ending than a strong beginning. As for the extras themselves, they're pretty solid - the hour long retrospective is jampacked with fun info and recollections, such as how Kevin McKidd accidentally broke Sean Pertwee's nose during the bit where he has to knock him out, and also that he shot most of the movie with a broken bone of his one (his rib) due to an accident that occurred right before they started filming. There's also a terrific look at the set design process, with Simon Bowles showing the little model/layout he used (with toy soldier cutouts) to plan the impressive house set - which walls needed to be able to move away for the camera, how the actors could move about, etc. I always love watching that sort of thing, and the 15 minute length is perfect - long enough that it can be informative, but not so long that it starts to get boring. Marshall's fun short film Combat is also included, as is the very odd trailer that focuses on the lone female character. Finally, Marshall's commentary has some repeat info from the retrospective, and he occasionally drops to silence, but it's definitely worth a listen - not only does he explain the transfer issues, but he drops some pretty hilarious trivia, at one point even laughing about a Wikipedia claim that the film's original title was The Last Stand ("no it wasn't"). He also lays to rest the idea of a sequel and briefly explains how such talk originally started, as well as some ideas that were floating around.

Going back to the "It's about survival and werewolves just happen to be the obstacle" idea, Marshall did something similar with his followup, The Descent, of which I've always said would be a pretty scary movie even if the monsters never showed up. I'm not sure if that would work as well here, but it is interesting to see how he improved on this approach with his sophomore effort, when the original was pretty damn good to begin with. It's a bummer he has only made these two full blown horror features so far (he followed Descent with Doomsday, which had some genre elements but was mainly an action movie, and Centurion wasn't even remotely terror-related), though he's getting back into the game now with a piece in an upcoming anthology, and an episode of Hannibal (RIP) as well. I think he's a terrific filmmaker (I quite like all four of his films), and even if it's not a horror movie I can't wait until he makes another feature. Until then, at least I now have his entire filmography on Blu-ray to enjoy! When can I say the same for Carpenter or Craven? HUH? WHEN?!?!?!

What say you?


Jurassic World (2015)

JUNE 11, 2015


There's a moment in Jurassic World where I actually got teleported back to 1993, when 13 year old me was blown away by Spielberg's original film. It's early on, when the younger of two brothers who serves as one of the film's eleven or so main characters opens the window in his hotel room and gets his (and our) first look at the theme park, fully functional and packed with tourists. John Williams' terrific theme swells and the camera gives us a nice hero shot of John Hammond's dream, presumably never realized while he was still alive. I even came close to misting up a bit; it's a super calculated moment, to be sure, but damned if it didn't work exactly as it was intended.

Unfortunately the movie as a whole failed to recapture the spirit and awe of what made Jurassic Park one of the biggest films of all time (and one of my personal favorites, I should mention). This, of course, is nothing new for a JP sequel - even Spielberg himself couldn't get it totally right with 1997's The Lost World, and I came close to fully disliking 2001's Jurassic Park III (it's saved from total disaster by Sam Neill coming back and the pteranodons sequence). All I wanted out of this one was to be better than those, and maybe it is (I'm still debating between it and Lost World), but even if so it barely reaches that low bar, and ranks as yet another bit of evidence that maybe Spielberg should have applied the same good sense he had with ET and Jaws and not made a sequel (or, in the latter's case, simply not gotten himself involved).

It's interesting that all the sequels fail for different reasons, however. Lost World had the highest expectations because Spielberg himself was directing, but his mind was clearly elsewhere (Amistad?) and outside of a few key sequences (like the trailer going over the cliff) it lacked the crackerjack thrills of the original, not to mention the groundbreaking FX (one thing that unifies all the followups, quite incredulously, is that none of them have FX as good as the 1993 original, and they just look worse as time goes on). As for Jurassic Park III, it's easy enough to point a finger at Joe Johnston, who has made exactly two good movies (Honey I Shrunk The Kids and The Rocketeer*). I'm sure there were too many cooks in the kitchen on that one (William H. Macy was vocal, BEFORE release, about the frequent rewrites during shooting), but Johnston has proven time and time again that he has no sense of pacing, never worse than in this movie where he blows his wad with the Spinosaur way too early, gets his best scene somewhere in the middle (and one that he just recycled from a sequence removed from the original film), and skips a climax entirely.

So what's the problem here? It's hard to know if director Colin Trevorrow is to blame since he's only made one other feature and it was a tiny indie comedy/romance (Safety Not Guaranteed, which I saw for no other reason than to enjoy air conditioning during a heat wave and found it pleasant enough); there's just not enough evidence for or against him to really judge. With Spielberg, and even Johnston, we know they can do better, but with him? 20 years down the road we might be wishing his other movies were as good as this. But he IS one of the four credited writers, none of whom are Steven Spielberg or ubiquitous Legendary head Thomas Tull, who probably got their say. Add in the other producers, the fact that the movie has been in development for a decade (meaning uncredited writers), and the increasing problem of FX movies like this (ones with release dates set in stone long before a script is complete) designing their big action scenes first so the CGI wizards can get started, and you can make a safe bet that the problem is that we're watching something like five different movies at once. Some of those movies seem like they'd be really great, others not so much. Jammed together, it just creates a schizophrenic experience; there's no real central character, but as an ensemble it doesn't really work because everyone seems like they're in different movies.

Take the brothers I mentioned earlier. I kept hoping there would be a line explaining that the older one was bipolar or perhaps suffered from Multiple Personality Disorder, and that the younger one was actually mentally challenged, because it would certainly explain their behavior. The younger one is like 12, but acts like a 5 year old in some scenes (he also has weird Rain Man-esque tics that show up on occasion, but like just about everything in this movie, are inconsistent). The older one is a horndog that begins just about all of his early scenes ogling female tourists, but there is no payoff for any of this (hell it's barely even MENTIONED), and he alternates his attitude from scene to scene with no rhyme or reason. At times he's a typical older brother/sullen teenager who hates that he has to hang out with his little brother at this dumb dino park, and others he's super protective and seemingly having more fun than the other one. They also have a bizarre relationship with their aunt's assistant; they seem to hate each other, prompting them to run away when she's not looking and go off on their own, but why they didn't get along with her is anyone's guess. When (spoiler) the assistant is killed later in the film, it seems a death befitting a character we really hate (especially since she's the first female to be killed in the series, interestingly enough), but whatever made her deserve such a fate was clearly part of an earlier script or cut of the movie that also established their antagonistic relationship with her. As it is, her death might actually be her longest scene in the movie; even her introduction is bizarrely discarded, with Trevorrow's camera floating up and away just as the boys meet her, as if she wasn't a character we needed to concern ourselves with.

Then there's Bryce Dallas Howard, as their aunt who also happens to be one of the higher ups at the park. She's a generic workaholic movie character who can't remember her nephew's ages and spends most of her first scene with them looking at her phone and such, so of course she'll have to make amends by saving them. Except she really doesn't; they basically save themselves by fixing an old jeep they find (whatever) and driving back to the park, where they instantly get into trouble again only to be rescued by Chris Pratt's character. Howard eventually does something heroic, but it lacks oomph, and is hampered by the fact that her action is an obvious one (spoilers ahead!). You might notice throughout the movie that the T Rex hasn't shown up, so when their giant super dinosaur, the Indominous Rex, has seemingly gotten the upper hand, it's her idea to set the T Rex loose and lure it to the Indominous to let them fight it out. So even then she's not really doing anything as awesome as Ellie Sattler heading into the jungle and turning all the power back on or even Malcolm's daughter kicking some raptors around - she's just opening a gate.

She's the one that cynically/metaphorically tackles the modern blockbuster movie, though. In one of the movie's few truly interesting ideas, it treats the Indominous as a metaphor for summer blockbusters - created by people jamming things together with no real passion, used to feed a hungry public who demands something bigger and better (apparently, Jurassic World has been open so long that the public is getting bored with mere T Rexes and Raptors). A better movie would have used this concept and ran with it for its entire runtime (in fact, we HAVE that better movie - it's called 22 Jump Street), but here... you guessed it, it gets dropped. Had they wanted to actually SAY anything about the mega-blockbuster problem, it would end smaller, letting real ideas and strong characters save the day. Instead, the movie just gives us a four way dino fight, staged like the mere two way one at the end of the first movie but on a grander, longer scale.

And yet, that part IS kind of fucking awesome, to put it bluntly. Nitpickers like myself are being beat up online by the "So what? It's just a movie!" type arguments (they seem to forget that all movies are "just movies" and most of them aren't this erratic, including the others in this very series, but whatever), and I suspect it's because the climax is so damn enjoyable, with a raptor sitting on top of a T Rex as they battle what's basically a bigger, different colored T Rex. Sending the audience out on a high note is a fine way to help them forget about any issues they may have had getting there (it's the same reason JP3 satisfied almost no one, because it just stops instead of offering a big finish). It lasts just long enough to be epic and not so long that it gets tiresome, and keeps the humans in the frame to appreciate the scale of it. I just wish the movie offered more terrific set-pieces like it, because it really kinda lacks in that department. They're all conceptually fine and provide highlights (like when a dinosaur eating a person is itself eaten by a bigger dinosaur), but the lack of cohesion and random storytelling that the movie suffers from nearly start to finish keeps them at bay. A car chase, a shootout, or even a dinosaur attack on its own is fine, but it becomes GREAT when it's paying off part of a good story or is the next natural step for its hero characters. Jurassic World never manages to hit that mark because everyone is so random and the movie has so many pointless diversions. For example, Pratt and Howard go off to find the kids after their park transportation vehicle (the gyrospheres you've seen in the trailers) gets smashed up in a restricted are (the kids just casually drive it into one - if Jurassic World spares no expense, why can't they invest a few bucks in the same tech that keeps me from taking my Target shopping cart any further than the parking lot?), which should be the sort of thing that drives the plot from here on out. But no! First they have Pratt make a joke about how he's not a tracker and then they track them just fine (why not cut the line? Pratt's character is defined by whatever the scene needs him to do anyway), and on top of that it doesn't even matter since the kids make their way back on their own, making their rescue attempts a total waste of time.

As for Pratt, the movie benefits from the guy's effortless charm and screen presence, but they don't return the favor by giving him anything to do. That big thing of him riding alongside the raptors? He hates the idea, so it's really not a very cool moment in the movie when it happens, because he's basically doing it against his will as opposed to realizing some dream he had. It's actually the idea of Vincent D'Onofrio's character, who has the usual evil science company plan of turning the monsters into a military weapon (the movie jerks off Aliens almost as often as it does Jurassic Park), and is the de facto human villain even though he really doesn't do anything evil. I'm sure there was some version where he caused the chaos to happen in order to justify implementing his idea, but it's more Pratt's fault than his if you think about it (Pratt enters the cage where the Indominous is held, and it uses the same gate he does to escape), and later when Pratt punches him in the face I actually had to sit and wonder why he did, never coming up with a satisfying answer. D'Onofrio is up to shady shit with Dr. Wu (the one returning character), but Pratt had no way of knowing that and knew exactly why things had gotten so bad, so I have no idea why he suddenly took it out on ol Vinny, who despite having a different viewpoint is actually trying to save the human lives that are in danger. The park owner is also more to blame, since he crashes his helicopter in the aviary (which we never see prior to it being partially destroyed) letting all the flying dinos out to wreak havoc, another thing that happened without D'Onofrio's involvement.

I could go on and on, but I think I've provided enough examples of how damn sloppy the movie is, populated by several things that seem like payoffs to moments we never saw. I know that blockbusters are kind of made by committee and have several more writers than are credited, but rarely do you see the seams of that patchwork process as badly as you do here. Make fun of Armageddon all you want (I thought of it since the two films share DP John Schwartzman, and it is known for having several writers), but even its harshest critics can't really claim that the movie has no consistency or sense of structure. If Armageddon was like this movie, Bruce Willis would refuse to go into space and then suit up in the next scene, someone would murder Billy Bob Thornton with Bay treating it like a crowd-pleasing moment, and the asteroid wouldn't be destroyed by the nuke but by, I dunno, the sun punching it out of nowhere. At the end of the day, a movie can be as dumb as it wants with regards to real world logic, as long as it's consistent with itself - and that's where Jurassic World drops the ball. The fun scenes are enough to give it a pass, and it's got some spot on humor (the yokel kid laughing as he rode a baby triceratops was incredible), but the entire two hour runtime plays out in fits and starts, with nearly every scene feeling like something that got added in during post-production instead of a part of an organic whole. Maybe that's part of its half-assed anti-blockbuster joke, but that doesn't make the movie any more compelling.

That said, the audience clapped at the end and it's made like 180 million dollars in 3 days, so what do I know?

What say you?

*I know folks love Captain America, and I am one of them... for its first hour or so. Then it turns into a mess, for the same reasons described above for Jurassic III. And Winter Soldier was infinitely better with different directors, so nyeah.


The Poltergeist of Borley Forest (2013)

JUNE 1, 2015


A friend of mine made a haunted house movie that was pretty well received by those who saw it, and years later he still busts my balls about it because he knows I dislike haunted house movies more often than not and figured I'd hate it. But I actually quite liked it, and since I did I've tried to keep more of an open mind about such fare since. Alas, movies like the Poltergeist remake and now The Poltergeist of Borley Forest are exactly the sort of bland things that made me dislike the sub-genre in the first place. I know these kind of movies CAN work on me even as an adult, but whatever that secret ingredient is that makes me like so few of them is definitely missing here.

To be fair it's more of a typical ghost film than a haunted house one (the original title was "You Will Love Me", I assume it's been retitled due to the timeliness of its DVD release - very Asylum-level thinking, Image), but it's got several tropes of the HH film, and just about every (attempt at a) scare takes place inside the heroine's home, so it's safe to put it alongside the actual Poltergeists and The Haunting in your virtual video store shelves. The key difference is that our heroine, a fairly obnoxious girl named Paige, attracts the poltergeist's attention in the titular woods and it follows her home, where it does most of its thing before a climax that returns to the woods. Perhaps if they spent more time there than in the nondescript suburban home that serves as the primary location, the film would be a little more exciting, or at least less drab to look at.

I'll give them this much - at least they didn't go found footage. There's actually a focus on tech - Paige's confiscated/reclaimed cell phone is a major plot point and two of the male characters spend giant chunks of their screentime looking at computers - so ironically it wouldn't be much of a stretch to think that these kids filmed everything, and it was shot in 2011 when such films were all the rage. But no, it's traditionally shot, at least in a general sense. Part of what undoes the film is the director's obnoxious tendency to shoot scenes by panning or tracking back and forth as the actor talks. It's fine (if ill-fitting) for scenes of someone sitting alone or master shots of a group doing something, but when he does it during a conversation it might cause a headache. With careful planning the approach might work, but the execution just has two closeups being cut to back and forth like a traditional conversation in a movie, but with the camera jarringly moving around and none of the cuts coming off gracefully. It's hard to explain why it doesn't work without actually seeing it, but trust me - it'll drive you nuts too if you bother to watch the movie.

As to whether or not you should do that... I'd advise against it. The plot isn't too bad (especially for a teen-friendly horror film) but the clunky presentation does it no favors, and it's so drawn out (100+ minutes!) that it's likely to easily lose the attention of its target audience long before the story kicks into gear. None of the actors are particularly good (though I enjoyed the guy playing the doctor's seeming attempt at a Malcolm McDowell impression), and again the heroine isn't exactly a character you will instantly fall in love with. She's kind of snooty and childish, and we barely get to know her before she's put in danger, something the movie can't quite recover from. From that point she's either trying to figure out what's going on, or seemingly forgetting about it entirely as she is wooed by a new coworker of her brother's, so there's nothing for us to latch onto. There's a subplot about her friend that was supposed to be with her when she went off alone in the woods and unleashed hell upon herself, but it's kind of a stupid one - she's mad at the friend for not showing up, but how is it her fault that Paige was dumb enough to go into the woods alone in the middle of the night?

At least I think that's why there is strife in this relationship that is never properly established before it becomes strained. At times the movie approaches Beneath the Mississippi-ian levels of bad audio recording, where conversations go by with the mic only really picking up one of the speaking actors, leaving the other one muffled and occasionally indecipherable. Weird echoes abound as well, as if people were recorded in a bathroom, and what I can only assume is an attempt to hide the bad recording with a frequent score is unsuccessful. This is the first feature film from the crew (a group of pals/filmmakers from Florida, named Liberty Lane Productions) after making several shorts - I can forgive the plodding storytelling on growing pains from filmmakers used to telling stories quickly, but not the abhorrent audio production. This is something they should have figured out after the first short, and apparently they still haven't gotten it right after four or five? Unacceptable.

The same problem plagues the behind the scenes video, which focuses on the project's origins and some of its production before randomly stopping, as if they were only halfway through editing the piece and ran out of time or something. At least it shows the fun way they pulled off the ghost above the bed" effect, by having a guy jump from a chair onto the bed and using the frames where he's in mid air to superimpose in slow speed over the footage of the girls in bed screaming. Cool, lo-fi trick that actually produces a kind of effective visual. And thankfully the piece explains that they had no money, were making the movie guerrilla style (cops were called for filming somewhere without permits), etc. Still doesn't explain why they couldn't bother to buy an extra lav mic for scenes with two people, but at least you can tell that they're enthusiastic and well-meaning about their film - the cynicism that permeates many an independent horror film is wholly absent here. It's the sort of thing that makes me wish I liked the movie more, because I see so many ones that are just made by people who want to make a buck and otherwise have no passion for what they're doing. These folks clearly do (or they're better actors than the ones they hired), but passion is just one of the things you need to make a good movie. Better luck next time! Seriously!

What say you?


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