Iced (1988)

FEBRUARY 23, 2016


I rented Iced when I was 14 years old, and I'm pretty sure it was the first movie I ever hated. I had seen some movies I didn't care for as much (even then I knew The New Blood was a lesser Friday entry), but this one actually made me angry, partly because as a budding skier I was so excited about a ski-based slasher movie. I had visions of a chase where the victim couldn't run because they were in those awful (leg-saving) ski boots, and then fumed that the movie never bothered to have anything like that. Why was I coming up with better ideas than this "real movie" that I had rented? I was still in 8th grade for Christ's sake!

Watching again now*, my opinion didn't change. I mostly wondered how I even managed to get through it in 1994, coming to the conclusion that since I rented it with my own money (and probably didn't have anything else new to watch) I was hellbent on seeing it through to its conclusion. To be fair, the last 10 minutes are the only interesting scenes in the entire movie, as we get the "twist" reveal that slightly apes My Bloody Valentine's switcheroo (far less successful) and one of the most ludicrous final jumps in slasher history. They're not GOOD, mind you, but there's a slight whiff of batshit craziness that, had the movie offered all along (or at least before the point any sane person would have given up hope on the movie), it would probably be better received today. In fact, I suspect the only reason the movie has two defenders (that I know of, are you a third?) is because their memories are formed by the final moments, not the interminable 80 minutes that precede them.

What's incredible is how it can't even get the basics right. It's one of those slashers where someone dies accidentally in the opening scene and x number of years later (four here, I believe) the prankers are all punished for their crime by being offed one by one, but the guy who dies (OR DID HE?) went off by himself and got himself killed while skiing. None of the others were there and most of them didn't even know he was going out there, so there's really no sense of justification that a Terror Train or Prom Night offers you - their hands are clean! The twist makes a little more sense out of it (albeit in a clumsy and ridiculous way), but if we're using My Bloody Valentine as a comparison - Harry Warden had a beef with the general idea of Valentine's Day, so if there was no twist and it was Harry all along, that'd be fine, and he didn't need any reason to specifically target these "kids". Here, it's presented as the dead guy coming back to off them all for his accident (he even has broken ski glasses for POV shots), so you spend the whole movie thinking that the killer is an emo crybaby instead of a formidable antagonist. The reveal that it's not him but his friend doesn't help - it's STILL blaming a bunch of folks who were inside and didn't really care one way or another about the guy.

But even if all that stuff was airtight, the movie would still be a chore to sit through, as he only kills one of the group in the first hour or so, and then wipes out four more in a span of like five minutes. Until then, we watch these mostly terrible actors go through the reunion motions, making the film as much of a half-assed Big Chill ripoff as a half-assed slasher. We hear about old dates at the drive-in, work issues, enough romantic hangups for like three movies, etc. To be fair, this DOES give the characters some more dimension than slasher victims are usually afforded, but when the dialogue and acting is this bad you want them to just spare themselves the embarrassment and simply move on to getting themselves killed. Indeed, there's even a bit where one guy is talking about an old drive-in date at some monster movie, saying it's the sort of horror movie no one cares about unless someone is naked or dying, and I had to laugh at the lack of self-awareness. Unless it was intentionally mocking itself, but if so - was it really worth making such a bad movie just to make a joke about how it's a bad movie? I can't imagine a scenario where that would make sense.

The editor does the movie no favors, either. There's a scene early on with Debra De Liso (one of two Slumber Party Massacre vets; the other one has a smaller role and also wrote this stupid thing), her husband, and their single friend driving up to the ski lodge, and it's almost like they went out of their way to ensure no audience member could possibly believe that the single girl in the backseat was ever in the car at the same time as the others. No master shot of them all, completely different lighting on her in the back than the two in the front... even the audio changes a bit, as if she was added to the scene months later. One guy has either fantasies or premonitions of the girl he wants (she's not interested) having sex with others, and later on he apparently rapes her but it's unclear if this is just another of his fantasies (she doesn't seem too bothered by it if it happened, as the next time we see her she's freely disrobing and taking a nice hot sauna bath. And then gets killed). The killer seemingly teleports during a crucial moment in the climax, and none of the kills are worth a damn - the most inspired is an icicle (this is pre-Die Hard 2, remember) but they do one of those ironic cutaways to someone tossing an ice cube into a glass just before the money shot.

There's also a curious lack of skiing. The minimal footage we do see is pretty bad (the skiers seem to be going about 2 mph when we see close-ups of their feet "racing" by), but once they arrive they pretty much just stay inside the lodge and yammer on and on. The one death in the first hour is of the obligatory guy who gets killed along the way so that the others can wonder where he is (and also, when strange things start happening, assume he's the one behind them), and after that there's barely even an OPPORTUNITY for a kill scene since they're all hellbent on sticking together. Sometimes the girls go off together and leave the guys elsewhere, and I think there's one scene of a couple in their room as they unpack, but otherwise they're all accounted for and obnoxiously huddled together. Split up, dammit! I want to see you all get killed!

Nothing else works, either. The music has a vague Manfredini-esque quality to it during the climactic "chase" but like the killing itself, it's too little, too late. Otherwise it often sounds like what a bad comedy might play on the soundtrack to introduce a Chinese restaurant scene. Gore is minimal (I couldn't find the trailer so the clip below is of all the kills in their entirety if you don't believe me), and they even manage to screw up the cool "broken glasses" POV by showing the glasses totally intact when we see the killer in full view. The only reason I'm not listing this thing as "crap" is because it's worth seeing for how to NOT go about making your slasher movie, seeing as it gets just about everything totally wrong (beyond the basic concept, which is fine). It's a shame that on paper, the idea of reteaming some Slumber vets in a whodunit slasher (and given a rather novel location, to boot) would seem to produce slasher gold, but Iced is so dull and shoddy that it doesn't even qualify as "so bad it's good" entertainment. 14 year-old me may have been wrong on a couple of things (that was the same year I first saw, and thoroughly disliked, Halloween III) but he was dead on with this one, and I apologize to my younger self for the bit of doubt I extended by giving it another chance.

What say you?

P.S. I was partially inspired to watch again because I took a few shots at the movie over the years and again in Horror Movie A Day: The Book, so I kinda figured I owed it to myself and you guys to actually have a review up, same as I did for (fellow punching bag) Dark Ride in the early days. If I come across any others like that maybe I'll give them a look - should I give Shredder another try?

*On Youtube, which is technically a bootleg, but as I've explained before - when a movie has never come to DVD (let alone Blu-ray) and can only be seen by buying a used VHS tape, my money's not going to the filmmakers anyway (unless the filmmaker happens to be VHSCollector23 or whoever is selling it on ebay), so Youtube views are, I think, acceptable. There is literally no way to purchase the movie through a channel that would provide income for the film's makers or distributors, so it's either Youtube or lining the pockets of some guy who wants 70 bucks for it (seriously). If whoever owns Iced ever gets off their ass and releases it on a new format, I'll buy a copy to make up for it, promise. Then I'll throw it away, also promise.


The Witch (2015)

FEBRUARY 18, 2016


Of all the independently produced horror movies to be granted a wide release after being acquired out of a festival (Sundance, in this case), there is none less likely to become a huge hit than The Witch. And even if I'm wrong (which would be great), that will just mean more people hating it because it's not the kind of typical horror movie they expect to see at their multiplex. The trailers aren't misleading in any way, but I'm sure there will be a healthy percentage of ticket buyers who expect more scares, more gore, more of the title character, etc. - and will be angry that the film is actually thought-provoking, deeply unsettling, and (not saying this as a bad thing) slow-paced, drawing you into its narrative with carefully laid out plot developments. It is the sort of movie that you can expect to see "Worst movie ever!" type "reviews" from people who are used to live-tweeting Sharknado movies instead of paying attention, and fans like myself will certainly be accused of "overhyping" it.

(NOTE - at this point I should note that this review is mostly a month old, based on my press screening in January. I never had time to complete the review due to finishing up the HMAD book, so I went again over the weekend to a normal AMC multiplex for a refresher. And now as I go back to the review, I'd like to marvel, however sadly, at how right I was in the above paragraph, written four weeks ago and left unchanged today. Obviously I know I was not wrong, though an $8m opening weekend for something like this is FANTASTIC and kudos to A24 for taking a chance on such a film.)

Oh, and it's in English, but not the modern kind - writer/director Robert Eggers used old texts and court transcripts to make sure he offered an authentic 17th century voice to his script, making some lines a bit hard to grasp (thick accents don't help) if you're not giving the film your undivided attention, which it richly deserves. Given how I've ended every review on this site (for reasons I can't even recall) I was delighted to hear "What say you?" a few times, but that's probably also the easiest line to mentally translate into what's being asked - during heavy arguments it's likely you'll miss some of the particulars if you let your mind wander a bit. During a low-key scene I actually considered (as a joke) the idea of dubbing the film into a more familiar version of English for the eventual Blu-ray. It would, I think be the only bit of levity you'd find on the disc unless the commentary is uncharacteristically rambunctious.

Because that's the other thing - this is a dark movie. I knew I was going to be in for some trouble just from the trailer, when a young woman playing peek-a-boo with a baby (her little brother, as I discovered in the film - not her son as I originally assumed) is horrified to open her eyes and see that the little guy had been snatched by an unseen presence. I don't like to spoil new movies but to fellow parents I should warn you that he doesn't come back, and his fate can only charitably be described as vague - we are spared any killing blow, but there's enough aftermath to more than make up for it, including the naked witch scattering his remains around as she collects his blood. It's pretty traumatizing, and it's only 15 minutes into the movie - with worse things to come. In the first scene, our protagonist family of seven (two parents, the four older children, and the baby) are driven out of town for being TOO religious (by Puritans! It'd be like someone being considered too conservative for Fox News, or me accusing someone of being way too into Shocker), and once they arrive at their home well outside of the civilized area, they're the only ones we see besides the title character (in brief moments). So with the cast limited to a family and an R rating for graphic violence, you don't need much of an imagination to know that the baby gets off easily in the grand scheme of things.

But again, this isn't a movie about kill scenes or jump scares. These startling moments of violence are meant to be as shocking to the characters as they are to the viewer, and thus there isn't usually much buildup or "traditional" scariness about them. Instead, Eggers devotes his energy into getting under your skin the old fashioned way - long shots, ominous music, and careful editing that delivers the shocks as quick buttons to long buildups. In fact, this movie could have easily been made in the 70s, as it would sit rather comfortably next to occult-driven movies like Satan's Skin and of course The Wicker Man, albeit not as batshit as either of those (for modern films, it reminded me more than once of Sauna, which shares more than the gloomy look). The unsettling tone is established before they even get to the house - you can go in completely blind to this movie and before a single "horror" thing happens (the baby being snatched is the first) you'll probably know you're watching a horror movie, just from how uneasy Eggers is able to make the audience feel with just a few scenes (mostly exposition to explain why they're leaving town).

Another thing setting it apart from most modern horror movies is that the acting is award-worthy across the board. The parents are familiar faces (both from Game of Thrones, in fact - Kate Dickie was Lysa*, and Ralph Ineson played Dagmer Cleftjaw), but the four children were totally new to me, and they were all terrific. Anya Taylor-Joy plays Thomasin, the oldest daughter (the one playing peek-a-boo) who the family starts to suspect is a witch and is thus to blame for all of their bad luck as of late. She's in just about every scene and has to toe a rather tough line (IS she a witch?), but she sells it 100% and pulls off her character's horrible late-film ordeals with ease. But possibly even better is Harvey Scrimshaw as Caleb, the 2nd oldest child who is currently questioning how strong his faith is, worried that his baby brother has gone to Hell since he (like everyone, per their beliefs) was born in sin and never got the chance to atone. Both of them are so good at handling the heavy dialect and just general LOOK of this bygone era that if I didn't know better I'd swear they had teleported from the 1600s and placed as is in front of the camera. Not that the parents were any less authentic, but since I recognized them from other films/shows they couldn't quite escape that disconnect - when they were on-screen I was reminded that I was seeing a (very good) movie, whereas when focus stayed on the older children I was able to get totally immersed in that time and place.

Indeed, I wasn't surprised at all to discover Eggers was primarily a production designer before switching to directing (he has done some shorts, but this is his first feature), as well as a costume designer - he worked on YellowBrickRoad, in fact, making him the go-to guy for creepy New England horror (YellowBrickRoad was shot in New Hampshire; Ontario subbed in here but apart from Canadian horror staple Julian Richings' brief appearance as the judge who orders them out of town, you'd never know it was anywhere but some gloomy New England farmland). Nothing felt out of place, and he and his crew kept things to a minimum inside and out. Sometimes you see a period movie (not just horror) where they pack in old timey props in every nook and cranny of the set as if to hammer home the fact that this was a long time ago, but here they were smart enough to know less is more. And apart from the brief excursions to the woods (and the opening), pretty much the entire movie is set inside their house, so they could (should?) easily pack up the whole prop department and turn this into a stage production.

Then again, if told on stage they'd likely have to drop Black Phillip, the goat that is much loved by the younger children (I know I haven't talked about them, but that's for a reason - I want you to remain blind to their storyline). If the movie has any lightness, it's the unavoidable fact that goats are kind of funny to look at, especially when they're not doing anything in particular and yet they're getting closeups and given silly names like "Black Phillip". I can only pray that a few months after release, when we've all seen it and enjoyed it untainted by anything, some bright spark does a mod to that Goat Simulator game and makes it about good ol' Phil. I would maybe even try to play it again (good lord, that game is terrible - I don't know how people can possibly enjoy it even on an ironic level).

One final thing I want to say without spoiling specifics - you know all of those Return of the King jokes about how many endings it has? This movie has not one but two points where you think it might end and you'd be OK with it, but keeps going and makes things even more satisfying. I loved that! It's almost disappointing when credits come up and you realize Eggers wasn't going to take it a step even further, but I guess I shouldn't be greedy. Needless to say, if you thought the movie lacked what you came for, the last 15 seconds or so should, if nothing else, send you on your way smiling.

I originally ended this review with a plea to see the film theatrically, but after doing just that (and now that it's a success anyway) I would actually rather you, intelligent reader, waits to see the film at home on VOD or Blu-ray, unless you are somehow guaranteed of seeing it in a theater with absolutely no one else around. I have never in my life witnessed such an awful group of people seeing a movie as I did this past Saturday, and I saw plenty of tweets and FB posts that echoed mine. Because the movie is genuinely good and not filled with jump scares, audiences are quick to turn on it, if the language didn't turn them off even sooner. I saw at least four couples walk out in the first half hour, each just as if not more distracting than a cell phone going off (which also happened) or some asshole MST3k-ing the damn thing (ditto). Add in the guy next to me who inexplicably brought his 4-5ish daughter along and had to keep assuring her that it was almost over (he also pulled his cell phone out several times, and after realizing he wasn't going to listen to my requests to put it away, I moved up a row. He kicked my chair in response. Because I'm the bad guy here.) and you have pretty much every moviegoer sin in the world at one screening. Had I not seen the movie already I would have been too distracted to enjoy it or even follow the damn plot (again, thickly accented olde English), and I'd hate for that to happen to you. Dumb people will ruin too many experiences of seeing this terrific film, so it is with a heavy heart that I ask you to wait until you know that the only one to blame for distractions is yourself if you keep your cell handy while watching from the couch. Let the movie whisk you away to its setting, and let it get under your skin the way so few modern genre films ever manage (mostly because they rarely try). If you hate it, that's fine - but at least give it the respect of a proper viewing, one you're sadly not likely to find anywhere that has Star Wars playing in the adjacent screen (yep, I also heard lightsabers and explosions during the quieter scenes, of which there were many). Sigh.

What say you?

*Curiously, there's a horrifying breastfeeding scene involving her character. Weird niche this actress has.


Horror Movie A Day: The Book (2016)

FEBRUARY 16, 2016


As a champion of physical media, I must say, there's something kinda great about the fact that up until last week I was still tinkering with Horror Movie A Day: The Book and today people are reading it (or at least buying it and going back to playing whatever game they play on their Kindle instead of reading. For me it's Final Fantasy III). I assume when an author puts their last touch on a book and sends it off for printing, there are several months before people can read it, so at least in this one regard, I'm very happy about the modern preference for digital media. You can read the book on a device and use that same device to call me an asshole for recommending Rise of the Dead! That's so neat!

I'm also happy that such media is cheap. When the book is printed, it will probably be 35 bucks. That's not an easy purchase to make; even I'd balk at it and I wrote the damn thing. But the Kindle version is a mere $4.95, which is the exact amount of money I spent on a Frappucino yesterday that took 30 seconds to make and was gone in a half hour. For the same price, you'll get 800 pages' worth of recommendations, all pulled from the 6+ years that I was watching movies every day. And they're not just the original reviews you all read for free - I only included an excerpt to give context. Otherwise, each entry (366 of em!) are given nice informative headers with the director's name and all that, a synopsis (something I usually didn't bother with), and an update to the review where I reflect on how I feel about the movie now. Some of the movies actually got negative reviews at the time, and now they've grown on me. So you can see me argue with myself!

And they're a very carefully selected group of movies. As explained here before, it's a year's worth of recommendations, grouped by theme. A month of Asian horror! A month's worth of slasher movies! One month is devoted to monsters, and another offers you a movie from a different country every day. They're all dated (today's movie is Forget Me Not, in fact), if you want a recommendation, but you can also just e-flip to whatever sub-genre interests you and see what gems you might have missed. Or you can just read it front to back if you want. Even though it's a "guide" book like Ebert and Maltin would do (albeit just horror), I took a lot of time to make sure it "flowed" and could just be read as any other book. Basically, I wanted it to work for however you wanted to use it, and retain the spirit of the site, which was always about discovering gems and talking about horror in general. Using a particular title to launch into a larger point about horror trends (found footage, possession movies, etc.), a particular filmmaker, or even non-horror topics like video games is something you'll see quite often in the book, so even if you have no interest in a particular movie based on my "pitch", it should hopefully still be fun to read its respective entry.

On that note, I want to stress again that it's mostly new material. For years people asked me to collect the reviews for a book, but I had no interest in that. They're still here for free, so I'm not going to ask anyone to pay to read them again in a different order (even if it'd still have some value of having all the bad movies weeded out). They're all linked within the new review in the book, so you can see the whole thing if you like, but you get your money's worth just in the writing, and that's not even counting the intros, the foreword by Todd Farmer, and the great artwork that adorns each chapter. I've included the one for March (Killer Kid month) below, which is by Jacopo Tenani who did a lot of the HMAD screening posters. If there's a better value for $4.95 on the Kindle store, please let me know. Seriously. I want to know how I could have made it better.

Now, I know a lot of you wanted the physical version. Believe me, no one wants to see it in print more than me, but alas that's not gonna happen unless the e-book sells well enough for the overlords (that'd be the great folks at Drafthouse) to justify the cost. It won't be a small book due to the length, and they don't have the money or presumably the space to be sitting on a bunch of unsold copies. So without downright begging, I just ask you keep that in mind if your instinct is to scoff at a digital version. I promise, PROMISE that I will do something to make it up to the folks who bought the ebook and will "have" to buy it again later, either with a coupon for the same amount off, or a bonus chapter for previous owners, or even both. Otherwise, if Drafthouse thinks it will be a waste of money to do it, I'll have to self-publish it, in which case it'll take a lot longer. If you don't own an actual Kindle, they have a free reading app for just about every device. If you just don't want to read on a device at all, I totally understand - but please send the link out to your friends who might be fine with it, hahaha.

Regular readers know how long it took me to get this thing done. I started working on it almost as soon as I quit daily horror viewing on April 1st, 2013, and I literally just finished it last week. In that time I've conceived a child who is turning 2 years old in 12 weeks, lost both of my coworkers to layoffs (certainly didn't help speed things along), and finally finished the Mass Effect series. In the real world we lost Wes Craven, David Bowie, Gunnar Hansen, Robin Williams, Harold Ramis, and (apart from Wes most personally upsetting to me) Roger Ebert, who actually name-checked HMAD in a review once. Ebert was the first critic who made me understand movie reviewing didn't have to have an exact formula or format. He used "I" and and talked about things beyond the movie, and that was obviously a big thing about my own reviews. So even though he wasn't exactly flattering in his mention of me/the site, it was a huge deal to me to know he briefly knew of my existence. But back on point, this took a long damn time, and I hope you guys like it. (And if you REALLY like it, leave a 4-star review on Amazon. Not all 5's. You'll look like plants!)

If you don't like it, that's fine. I just want to urge you all to read the intros so you know exactly what kind of book it is. It's NOT the best horror movies of all time or even the best ones I watched for the site. You won't find Halloween or The Exorcist recommended within - I dug deeper and highlighted movies that maybe aren't perfect but were MEMORABLE, and that was an important thing to me as I spent the better part of a decade doing this every day. Better a movie have a few flaws but try to do something unique than a technically flawless one I can't remember two days later. You're not going to like every movie in the book. But you haven't SEEN every movie in the book already, and that's what's important to me. I wanted to champion the movies that helped me keep going while I was doing the site every day, and make sure you knew that they were out there.

I also wanted to once again try to convince you to watch Cathy's Curse.

Thanks for reading!

P.S. There's currently a minor glitch (one that's being fixed) where the book automatically opens up to the intro by Todd Farmer. Todd is great and I understand wanting to read something by a professional writer instead of my nonsense, but please flip back two pages to read the Special Thanks. A lot of great people volunteered their time to help me get this thing finished and I want to make sure you are aware of their contributions - unlike the site itself, this wasn't a one-man show. If you already have the book, you should be able to update it soon, I believe Amazon will send out an email when the updated one is ready to download. For everyone else don't let it stop you from buying, it's literally the only thing that changed. However, if you notice anything else amiss, or (god forbid, with THREE editors) a typo, just leave a comment or shoot an email to let me know for a future update. THANK YOU SO MUCH!


Zombie Fight Club (2014)

FEBRUARY 9, 2016


All those Jason Takes Manhattan haters who whine about how limited his time is in the Big Apple better steer clear of Zombie Fight Club, which not only confines its titular club to the film's final half hour, but doesn't even establish such a thing until that point. The segment actually feels like a rushed sequel to the first hour of the film rather than its organic 3rd act (unlike JTM, which at least sets up the Manhattan carnage during the opening credits and puts Jason on a boat heading there); in fact it even has on-screen text at the hour mark explaining where the world stands now, as a film might at its very beginning - I honestly can't recall ever seeing such a thing at what's technically the end of act two.

Even funnier, the first hour rips off a different movie: The Raid. Our hero (Andy On) is one of a group of cops who enter an apartment complex intending to steal a cash stash from some drug dealers, only to get trapped there when all zombie hell breaks loose. There are other characters (the drug dealers, some partying idiots, an old man/asskicker stolen directly from The Horde, etc.), but he's clearly the main focus in this loose ensemble, and the action scenes revolving around him definitely recall Gareth Evans' exhilarating action opus. Eventually he meets up with some of the other characters (he's the only honest cop out of the lot, so his crooked partners get their just desserts in due time) and escapes, and it feels like the movie is over - at which point its built-in sequel starts up. It's the most jarring switch this side of Riding with Death (look it up), and the segment is almost over by the time you finally readjust to its new, flimsily established scenario.

It's also not as good as the first hour. It's no masterpiece; in fact it skirts close to being just plain bad, but there's a crazy energy to the proceedings that I couldn't help but admire. The zombies follow no discernible rules - one even turns into a full blown monster, with a chest cavity forming a giant mouth that eats another character (it's the chest/belly version of From Dusk Till Dawn's infamous/unrated-only vagina kill), and whether they retain motor skills depends on the director's whims at the moment, I guess. The human characters aren't much different; I'm not sure how the nebbish father who sees his daughter killed by one of the crooked cops ends up turning into a Governor-esque big shot during the "Fight Club" segment, but by that point I had stopped questioning the movie's tenuous grasp on what you or I might refer to as coherence.

Again, it's the energy that really kept me entertained. Most of the blood is digital, but considering the amount of it that is sprayed I'm not sure even a Hollywood studio production could afford all the Karo syrup that would be required to do it practically. On is a formidable fighter, so while he uses guns and other weapons on occasion, most of the time he just darts around and flat out punches zombies hard enough in the head to send the red stuff flying, which never got old to me. It's almost like watching a classic Jackie Chan "scramble and fight" sequence at times, as he never stops moving and improvising, but makes sure to off some poor walker every few seconds as well. Who cares about the bad digital blood when you have such a great special effect in the form of a human being? He doesn't get as much to do in the Fight Club sequence, oddly enough - there's a Gladiator-esque tournament (every scene in this movie is lifted from another one, pretty much) and a terrific fight against another human in/around a bus (with zombies surrounding them), but otherwise he really gets his best moments in the apartment building.

Those who hope to see a female equivalent better run as far as they can in the opposite direction; one survives but goes through hell to get there (including a very sad moment where she's so hungry that she barely seems to notice that she's being raped when she spies some bread on the table she's been bent over), and she's hardly the only one to get victimized over the course of the film. It's more than a bit misogynist (not that men get off any better), and mostly unnecessary. There's a quick bit where it seems like director Joe Chien might even the odds and have On sexually assaulted by a dominatrix prison guard (one who has already forced herself on a female prisoner), but a. he starts practically asking her to take him and b. when she doesn't, she sends in a rather rotund woman to presumably pick up where she left off, much to his dismay. It's too stupid to be offensive to me, but every day I see people getting outraged about everything and anything (the one to beat this week: people calling for Rob Lowe's head because he tweeted about a millionaire football player acting like a jerk), so your mileage may vary.

The disc only has one real bonus feature besides the trailer: a behind the scenes piece that spends a full third of its time simply recapping the cast (most of whom aren't even involved in the footage that follows it). It's fun to see a few brief glimpses at the (equally few) practical action beats, like a car driving off a 2nd story parking garage and crashing below, but it's so short (under three minutes) that it's barely worth the time it takes to access the "bonus" menu and select it. I'd much rather see a full on look at On running through one of his big stunt scenes, or even a showcase for how the massive amounts of digital effects were put together. I'd particularly love to see whoever had to add glowing orange embers to seemingly every other shot in the film, which along with its blue/orange tint for the exterior scenes, makes the movie resemble an adaptation of a modern movie poster.

I don't know if I've ever explained "OWN COLLECTION" on the source when it comes to movies I don't particularly like. I don't blind buy these things; I often get sent full retail discs (not screener copies in generic plastic holders) from the various distributors that have found my address over the years, and I do my best to watch all of the horror ones I get (they're not all horror - I inexplicably get a number of family movies that seemed directed to black audiences, and it delights me every time before I put them in a pile for trade-ins). But nowadays, if I didn't specifically ask for them I treat them as "if I have time" affairs, keeping them for a week or two past their release date and if I still haven't gotten to them, putting them in the garage with all of the other movies I would like to see but probably never will (damn my Powerball loss!). However, with my resumed commitment to updating HMAD regularly (1-2x a week, minimum), you guys will get to see more of these little random ones, as I'll be forcing myself to make time for the movies that will otherwise end up in my garage next to my son's old carseat and a bunch of my wife's work junk.

Rest assured, it won't be *staying* in my collection now that I've seen it, because I'm pretty selective with what I keep these days (mostly due to shelf space), but I'm mostly glad I gave it a shot. Even with its appallingly haphazard storytelling, it's worth watching to enjoy On's considerable prowess with the punching/kicking that you really don't get to see often enough in zombie fare, and as a Horde fan I was surprised/charmed to see it get ripped off so blindly. If this was just a straight (meaning: serious) zombie ripoff of The Raid, instead of a exploitative cartoon, it'd probably be everyone's favorite movie of the year. Alas, it's definitely not going to be for everyone, though at least it hits the ground running - you'll know whether or not you're in that group pretty quickly. If you hate the first five minutes, it won't improve in your eyes - abandon ship and leave it for those who can stomach its foibles on the strength of its sheer ridiculousness.

What say you?


Pride And Prejudice And Zombies (2016)

FEBRUARY 4, 2016


I wasn't expecting Pride And Prejudice And Zombies to be any good. I can count the number of good PG-13 Screen Gems horror movies on one hand with fingers left over, and I am just not a fan of mash-ups in general - adding things you like into other things you like is fine for ice cream sundaes, but otherwise it's just not appealing to me to see Yoda driving around on the Ecto-1 or whatever other dumb shit people post on the internet. And yet, the script/concept is actually not too bad for the most part - it's not played for laughs (thankfully) and the zombies are surprisingly used sparingly (and more or less utilized as a version of the plague). No, it's actually the flat direction and horrendous editing that does the movie in, leaving it watchable, even fun at times, but rarely as engaging as it could have been.

I debated over whether or not to read up on the original Austen story before seeing the movie, because (brace yourselves) I've never read it, nor have I seen any of the straight adaptations that have sprung up over the years (and given my mash-up opposition it should go without saying I never read Seth Grahame-Smith's novel, either). Ultimately I decided not do any such prep, as I feared knowing the ins and outs of the story would put me in a position of being ahead of its characters but also rolling my eyes at how they kept shoehorning zombies into familiar scenes. Luckily, as it turns out that wasn't even the case anyway - long stretches go by without any undead action, and from what I understand the movie actually reigned in a lot of the book's silliness - ninjas and cannibals apparently played a major part, but there's nothing like that here. There are a few instances where I might have grinned at how they "zombified" one of the Austen book's scenes, like when a character got sick from the rain in the original (and here is injured when her musket backfires as she tries to kill a zombie), but for the most part I think I would have liked the movie less if I knew the source material in any detail (I knew it involved a love triangle and that's about it).

Because really, that stuff was fine, and was certainly more interesting than anything involving zombies. Lily James is as wonderful to watch in fetching period dresses as she is kicking ass, and I've never heard of Sam Riley (Mr. Darcy) before, but his voice alone made me wish I was English, and (I say this meaning no disrespect) it was great to have a regular looking guy as the lead in a Screen Gems horror movie, as they tend to cast the most CW-y looking motherfuckers on the planet for these things (his friend, Mr. Bingley, more than makes up for that "gap", as he looks like he was assembled in a Chace Crawford factory). Their unusual romance was fun to see unfold (as was my realization that Austen's source novel is probably to blame for every "they hate each other then they love each other" narrative in rom-com history), as it was dictated by so many external factors beyond the obligatory "wrong foot" first meeting. Fear not, the "Pride" and "Prejudice" of the title is still very much a factor in the narrative, and despite my initial assumptions, never really got overshadowed by the zombie action.

In fact most of the zombie stuff is front-loaded; we meet Mr. Darcy as he kills one (that POV of a head being twisted off that they used in the trailer), and James and her sisters are introduced only moments before they too get to show off their zombie-killing prowess (their dad, Charles Dance, cares more about their ability to fight than taking on the usual womanly roles of the day - namely getting married and producing heirs). Then they all go to a party and zombies show up there too! It seemed at first like they just took the source story and added "then zombies show up and ruin everything" to every scene, but after the first reel it dips back into a sped up version of Austen's story, with minimal zombie interference until the 3rd act. Most of their appearances in between are fleeting, like when the girls (who look nothing alike, for the record - it's like they went out of their way to find girls who could never conceivably come from the same genes) travel to a neighboring town and come across a downed carriage on the way - its inhabitant is a zombie, they kill her and move on with the romance/social class stuff. This sort of approach does result in one terrific jump moment (even I got legit startled, which almost never happens), but will likely frustrate anyone who showed up hoping for a full blown zombie epic with some period romance stuff thrown in as flavor.

If anything, it's really the other way around, at least until the climax, which leaves Austen behind for a while (unless the Wiki I read skipped over the rescue scene and bridge explosion). At this point it starts feeling more like a period zombie movie, but it's rushed through, and by that point I was far more invested in seeing if Liz would end up with Mr. Darcy anyway. There's some half-baked nonsense about four zombie horsemen that never really pays off (the book has two sequels, so maybe they're hoping there will be a film series - there's certainly a sequel setup in the closing credits), and I like that the zombies talk until they eat brains (at which point they become typical moaning undead), but it doesn't add up to a compelling undead story. Perhaps they felt shoehorned by the original text and trying to stick to it? Whatever the reason, perhaps streamlining some of the original elements (for starters, there are five sisters, but two of them serve no purpose) would have given them more time to flesh out the zombie elements, making them feel a little more organic to the original story that they were aping. I mean, it's a fully developed story to begin with, and the zombies don't seem to be replacing anything in the original narrative (like evil soldiers or something), so adding another story on top of one that they're not doing much to reduce and trying to cram it into 108 minutes doesn't seem like the sanest plan.

And that's what makes it so frustrating, because the movie would actually work really well if director Burr Steers and his editor gave it any life (no zombie puns, damn you). They're smart enough not to overload the movie with action (and in turn, more CGI gore), but nothing ever really excites when it should, and one or both of them seem to actively oppose standard coverage. There are several scenes where it feels like we should be seeing James' reaction to something, only for them to not show her at all (including a major moment with Mr. Darcy near the end), and scenes often come and go with zero finesse or grace. I thought perhaps the movie was way too long and it got hacked up, but there's nothing in the trailer that's missing from the feature, which is the usual sign of such re-editing. But then again, the IMDb trivia talks of a 'long take' sequence that was cut after preview screenings, so obviously there was SOME reworking, which might explain the breathless opening credit sequence, where Dance narrates the history of the zombie plague over an animated scene, all of which feels like a quick way to recap what was probably excised original material featuring the actors. But Steers also can't seem to get a handle on action scenes either; the PG-13 doesn't seem to be a major factor (that startling moment I mention involves a zombie's head being blown apart) and even the one on one fights between humans lack a pulse. It's just all very much on rails, with editing that draws attention to either the movie's hollowed out presentation (there are at least two scenes where a character suddenly appears in a different spot than they were in the previous shot, as if there was a middle to the scene that got hacked out) or the editor/director's incompetence. So you can't help but wonder if the zombie element was even necessary; everyone looks the part and could probably become someone's favorite version of a particular character - but the polarizing "hook" will keep those would-be fans at bay, and then the zombie stuff doesn't really deliver. No one's satisfied!

Wherever the blame should lie, it doesn't change the fact that adding zombies to a Jane Austen story is the least of the movie's problems. It's been in development for ages (Natalie Portman was originally going to star; she gets a producer credit alongside about twenty others) with several directors having come and gone, both inspired (David O. Russell? Lord and Miller?) and "this could have been awesome" (Neil Marshall, David Slade). Instead we get a guy whose last two movies were Zac Efron vehicles (and wrote the classic How To Lose A Guy In Ten Days!), with zero action/horror on his resume, so I have to wonder if Sony just gave up trying to find someone suitable and just grabbed a yes man from a list, knowing that with all the producers involved they needed someone who'd follow directions instead of being all "auteur" about it. So as a result, it's about as good as you'd expect from someone whose last directorial gig was an episode of The New Normal. However, it's better than you'd expect from the one-joke premise, and as Super Bowl counter-programming, I'm not sure there's ever been a more fitting concept than combining horror with a "chick flick". Normally we'd be seeing separate movies offering these things (a standard female-driven movie from one studio, some crappy horror movie from another), so on a fiscal level it's a genius move. Just a shame that it doesn't work as well as it apparently could have. Maybe I'll read the book and see if it improves things. Ninjas are cool, I guess.

What say you?

P.S. Lena Headey's role is so brief that it should have gone unbilled, and true to form, in the one scene she shares with her Game of Thrones dad, Steers can't be bothered to show both of them in the frame at the same time. As for Matt Smith... let's just say my interest in seeing what Doctor Who was about after Lego Dimensions has been greatly reduced. He's only in the movie for like 15 minutes - as a supporting character! - and he drove me insane, so how the hell am I supposed to watch hours of this guy as the hero? And no, it's not because his character shares a name with my son (William Collins), he was annoying me before I even realized that.


Howl (2015)

FEBRUARY 1, 2016


I've said it plenty of times before, but I don't know if I have regular readers anymore so I'll repeat: if you stick a bunch of strangers together in one location and force them to band together to fight off a common enemy, chances are I'll like it (bonus points if the group includes cops/prisoners). And with The Descent being my favorite horror movie of the '00s (or second to Inside, depends on my mood), it's probably pointless to explain that I enjoyed Howl, which reunites Descent's star (Shauna MacDonald) with its FX creator for a story about, you guessed it, a bunch of strangers stuck in one spot (a disabled train) and forced to band together to fight off a common enemy, in this case werewolves. A B-movie to be sure, but a GOOD B-movie. A B+ movie, if you will.

The aforementioned FX guru, Paul Hyett, made his directorial debut on The Seasoning House, which wasn't really my cup of tea (it focused on a group of woman who were forced to be prostitutes for soldiers, some of them very awful people) but I admired that he went against tradition for his debut, making a movie that centered on character and narrative instead of creatures and other effects. For his followup, he split the difference, directing a story that allowed him to put his considerable FX backdrop (he did all of Neil Marshall's films, Attack the Block, etc.) to good use without losing sight of the characters. Over 90 rather fast-paced minutes, we get to care about the folks on board the doomed train (it hits a deer and they're unable to get it going again due to damage caused by...SOMETHING!), and by focusing more on the chase/evasion parts than the kills for the first 65-70 minutes, it's harder to peg who will live or die (or, at least, the order in which it will happen).

If anything I was kind of disappointed that (spoiler) just about everyone dies. For so much of the movie, Hyett seems more interested in letting the characters bounce off each other and prove their merit (or dickishness) than offing them one by one, with casualties being rare compared to "defend yourself against the monster and get away" types. Hell, even when they all get off the train and try to make it back to town only to get scared back, no one dies - and that's actually a perfectly good place to off someone! Nothing can keep someone from wanting to try to go back outside like seeing one of their fellow passengers get torn to shreds, so the fact that Hyett (and screenwriters Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler) lets them all survive that sequence was rather refreshing. Not to mention more suspenseful; I was so sure someone would die that when hero Ed Speleers was taking time to get back on the train, I wondered if they would pull a Psycho and let him be the first* to go to hammer home the "no one is safe" idea.

Well, they don't do that. Speleers gets back on the train, but one of the other passengers is injured in the scuffle and starts getting sick, so you can probably figure out what's going to happen there. Interestingly, the werewolves are much more man-like than I've usually seen - the injured passenger transforms but it's not the usual "look", with lots of hair and a wolf head and all that. No, it's almost exactly dead center between man and beast, almost like a hairy caveman more than anything else. It's... OK, it's kind of a silly looking design, if I'm being perfectly honest, but I love the attempt at doing something different (and of course, the fact that it's practical), so as long as you don't look too closely at the face (for some reason it made me think of Garbage Pail Kids) it should satisfy anyone looking for some basic creature action. Hyett doesn't blow his wad early - the first couple of attacks are POV-driven, or in one of the movie's best death scenes, from inside the train as the monster outside attempts to pull a passenger through the mostly closed door. Jaws it is not, but most of these things barely top Jaws: The Revenge, so keep your expectations grounded and you'll easily recognize that the movie is doing more right than wrong.

Same goes for the logic. We're told that the nearest station is only a couple miles away, but that might as well be a thousand to the ill-prepared passengers. They're all coming home from work, so it's late, they're tired, and most importantly they have no supplies or anything to defend themselves. Even making a run for it while the werewolf is distracted with bait (one of the elderly passengers; at least, that's what the resident dickhead character keeps suggesting) isn't a sound plan, as (spoiler, though revealed early) he's got buddies out there. So even though no one dies when they first try to make a run for it (before they even know there's anything out there beyond the dead deer), you get why they stay inside for the rest of the movie, and of course there's no cell signal in the spot they've stopped, because come on, it's a horror movie. At this point saying aloud that there isn't a signal where everyone is located is no more necessary than pointing out that a monster has claws. It's just understood.

The ensemble cast is pretty good; Speleers should probably be a bigger star but the failure of Eragon (his first movie, and the central point of the marketing due to his handsome looks) has kept him off the A-list, and now he's probably losing parts to the kid from Kingsman. But he's got the chops and is a notch or two above who we can usually expect from a Syfy-level movie like this (budget-wise, I mean, not quality). MacDonald is a lot of fun as a kind of bitchy career woman, and Elliot Cowan is a great asshole; you ALMOST like the guy at times, because he makes no apologies for his alpha male bullshit and philandering ways. Late in the movie we learn that MacDonald's character actually had an interview to work for him, but when he suggested continuing the application process at his apartment (the one he keeps separate from his wife and children), she left. Normally this would end the scene, with our asshole character put in his place, but instead he doubles down, explaining why he acts like this (in short, he's tired of female execs being trained/counted on and then leaving for months after they have a child, so he wants to know that a woman wants the job badly enough to stoop to his cutthroat level), and you can't help but respect his honesty. You know he'll get his just desserts eventually, so why not let him be as slimy as possible? It's kind of refreshing.

The Blu has about a half hour's worth of behind the scenes material, nothing too interesting or revealing, but I like that they spend time on the coloring/grading process, an oft-overlooked part of the movie's creation (and in some movies' case, a process that's never done at all). Hyett and his FX team also go into some basic detail about the creature design, going deeper into the "half-man" look and offering some amusing behind the scenes footage that shows the full creatures terrorizing the cast while wearing bright green boots (the design has some CGI embellishments). They're OK, basically; if you loved the movie you'll enjoy the extra look at its creation, for sure, but it's hardly essential viewing. Mostly, I'm just happy they offered that much, as the physical disc market continues to dwindle and even big movies have next to nothing included on them (the Poltergeist remake, for example, had not one bit of production-related material on it) it's actually something of a surprise to see anything but the trailer on the "bonus material" section of the Blu menu.

Hyett has another movie in the can already, a period piece that sounds like it's about witchcraft, so that will hopefully be another minor gem from this increasingly dependable filmmaker. There aren't a lot of FX guys who go on to make solid movies, but he's two for two (Seasoning House IS a good movie, but falls into that Serbian Film/Dear Zachary (not horror) category of movies that just bum me out way too much to want to see again), and I like that he's exploring different sub-genres each time out. Maybe he'll rope in ALL of the Descent cast (the cast's chemistry is an oft-underrated aspect of that movie) for a slasher someday! A man can dream...

What say you?

*Sean Pertwee is actually the first to die, as the train's conductor who goes out to investigate what he hit. But I don't think he even speaks an on-screen line before getting offed, so he barely counts as a character. Also, don't watch the movie if you're excited to see Pertwee take on werewolves again, because it's a very poor attempt at stunt casting. Obviously the nameless conductor is going to die. They needed to pull an "Eric Dane in Feast" move with Pertwee to really mess with the audience's expectations.


The Plague of the Zombies (1966)

JANUARY 29, 2016


Hammer knew their strengths (or at least, knew the box office) and thus didn't step outside their comfort zone too much when it came to horror sub-genres. Their first real ghost movie, for example, was 2012's The Woman in Black - nearly fifty years after their heyday. And if I can trust what I've read online, The Plague of the Zombies is their only zombie movie, which shocks me since it was so influential on Night of the Living Dead, you'd think that, during their waning era in the '70s, they'd want to cash in on the trend that they helped pave the way for by trying it again. Whether it would have made any difference in the downturn that led to their 30+ year absence from the horror genre, I'm not sure - but they certainly proved here that they could pull off zombies as well as vampires or mad scientists.

Indeed, the film has a vague Frankenstein-esque feel at time, particularly Frankenstein Created Woman, as it also has a scene where a girl is terrorized by local thugs and shares that film's teacher/student relationship between the two male leads. However it should be noted this one came first, so maybe they were just borrowing elements for Frankenstein instead of Plague using familiar/successful material to fall back on as they waded into new territory with the undead. And it's not like they had a lot of movies to draw from in that area - in the 34 years since White Zombie, there had only been a couple dozen other zombie films, many of them not likely to have influenced anyone on anything, ever (Voodoo Island or Voodoo Man, anyone?) and several of them only technically falling under the description, like the sci-fi/action serial Zombies of the Stratosphere, which had drone-like aliens but no walking undead.

All that is a long-winded way of explaining why I can forgive them for the movie's only real blunder, but it's kind of an obnoxious one - the half-assed attempts at a mystery for the villain. We know who it is - he's the only suspect, the zombies are usually seen around his house, he takes the heroine's blood after she cuts herself on a wine glass... but for some reason he wears this tribal mask even during scenes where only his own men are around, so there's no need to be hiding his identity. And even when it's taken off during the climax the director drags it out for another few seconds, obscuring his face (via POV of a woozy character) before finally revealing that it's... the guy you knew was the bad guy as soon as he was mentioned. So why hide it? I mean, I'm sure there was some history of the mask being used in these voodoo rituals, but the way it's used in the film it feels like they're trying to conceal a mystery. Plus, the guy playing the villain, John Carson, is a delight and I wish the movie included him more - he's in relatively few scenes overall, in fact, mask or not.

Instead it's mostly André Morell's show, as the well-to-do doctor who travels to this little town (along with his daughter) to help out one of his former students, Peter, who is the town's doctor. The area has had a number of mysterious deaths and Carson's character, the local squire, won't let their bodies be autopsied, so Morell and Peter investigate together, and you can probably figure out what's going on just from what I've already explained (and the title). This first hour or so works best; there are more exteriors than in most Hammer movies, giving it an even richer atmosphere than their brand is already known for, and the zombie scenes are actually kind of terrifying if you remember that this was a relatively foreign idea back then. Peter's wife is one of the victims and we get to see her rise from her grave after reanimating - this had to be one of the first examples of such a scene that wasn't a vampire, so the lack of fangs (and vague romanticism that comes with vampire territory) gives it a much creepier vibe. I also enjoyed the bit where Morell sticks up for Peter at the pub, as he's being harassed by the surviving family members of "plague" victims for not doing his job properly, at which point Morell strolls in, explains that he was his best student, then buys all the jerks a round (there's one extra who's WAY over enthusiastic about his sudden reevaluating of the other man's worth) to take the high road.

But the climax isn't as engaging, sadly. There's a fire, because of course there is, and we get Carson and his guys trying to outrun the zombies, while Morell, his daughter, and Peter make their escape from the inferno - you know exactly how it will play out, and there are no other stakes in play, so once Carson is finally unmasked (removing the last bit of hope that maybe they were going to pull a twist on us and reveal Peter was the villain all along or something) there's really nothing left to latch on to beyond "Will it cut to credits as soon as they escape the fire, or will director John Gilling give them a reaction shot or two first?" Well, I wouldn't dare spoil that for you, so you'll just have to see for yourself - just don't be surprised if you start missing the earlier tone of the movie, where you were kind of sure what was going on but enjoying the process of Morell figuring it out. There's a great bit where him and Peter are digging up a grave only for a constable to interrupt and try to arrest them for grave-robbing, then back down when he sees that the grave is empty (turns out his son died from it earlier in the year, so now he's on their side and wants to get to the bottom of what's happening). I'm used to the police always being a hindrance to our well-meaning (but occasionally shady) heroes in these things, so it was nice to see a uniformed officer as an ally for a change. Also, it's funny, because I'm finally used to pre-Romero zombies having a certain look to them, and the ones here are closer in appearance to post-Romero zombies (almost like the Fulci ones, really), throwing me off yet again.

Speaking of what I'm used to in these movies - I could have sworn I actually saw it back in 1998 when I grabbed a few of the Hammer VHS films (one of which, Dracula: Prince of Darkness, I finally watched for this site - 15 years after buying the damn tape), but absolutely nothing rang a bell. In fact the only strong memory I had involved two males next to a river, and there's nothing like that here. So either I watched something else (besides Dracula, the others - per my memory - were Quatermass and the Pit, Rasputin, and this) or dreamed up my own movie after dozing off during it, which is sadly likely. But I still vividly remember seeing their plastic clamshell cases in the little dorm room bookshelf I had next to my bed, next to my (also clamshell) copy of Casablanca that I picked up around the same time. This was when DVD was starting to really explode (and before I had a player), so VHS copies were on sale a little more often as the stores wanted to clear space, and I was bulking up my collection. Then I ended up getting a DVD player that spring and so a lot of these impulse buys never got watched. I definitely watched Casablanca in that dorm room though. Good movie.

I wish I kept the VHS so I'd know for sure, and also because it might actually look better. As this was one of those old Anchor Bay DVDs that's no longer in print (kinda surprised Netflix still had it - maybe I'll just keep it forever), the transfer kind of blows, as it occasionally looks like it has that motion smoothing garbage on or something. And the extras aren't anything worth having - just an episode of "World of Hammer" or whatever it's called (the clip show narrated by Oliver Reed) and the typically overblown/hilarious trailer ("DRUMS!") that gives away most of the scares and part of the ending. Again, if someone could put together a boxed set with a lot of the Hammer one-offs like this (meaning: not the Frankenstein/Dracula films - they should get their own dedicated and COMPLETE sets), I'd pay handsomely for it. I want a library of Hammer films for my own entertainment and also for my son when he's older (they're perfect for when he's old enough for some minor bloodshed but not ready for splatterfests), but these out of print discs with transfers that weren't even good enough for their original retail cost aren't going to cut it. This would be a great entry point for him, in fact - it's close enough to the now-standard version of a zombie movie (meaning, Romero-esque) but without excess gore or even a nihilistic tone - a zombie movie where all of the heroes survive! The only one older than this that I'd really want him to see sooner than later is The Earth Dies Screaming (and maybe White Zombie, if he's OK with the more important black & white films i.e. the Universal Monsters). But either way, I just want more worthy releases for these films - I have only a few scattered movies and that number doesn't even include most of my favorites. Let's get whatever rights issues solved before 2021, 2022, please?

What say you?


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