Superstition (1982)

APRIL 25, 2016


Like all good Americans, I have a friend's HBO Go password so I can watch Game of Thrones on his dime, but I feel guilty about it, so I don't usually use it for much else (Silicon Valley is about the only exception). But it's not just guilt, I don't have time to add any more shows on my plate, and their movie selection is usually pretty much just stuff I already saw in theaters (or avoided for a reason, like Divergent 2). But some mild insomnia the other night (yes, after Thrones) made me decide to look through their horror section just out of curiosity, and I wasn't surprised to see a rather unexciting group of options - until I happened to notice Superstition tossed in there between Spaceballs (?) and Thirteen Ghosts. HBO's own writeup noted the film's obscurity, and I myself only vaguely recalled the title from somewhere, so I naturally hit play to see what I'd been missing.

As it turns out, what I was missing was a film that almost 100% HAD to be an influence on Witchery and Ghosthouse, the Italian "Evil Dead" sequels that I just saw last year for the first time. It's got an almost identical witch-driven backstory to the former and a present day plot that unfolds much like the latter, complete with the red herring handyman who probably knows the secrets the house holds. Now, neither of these are particularly rare plots, but the film even FEELS like an Italian production more often than not - even the score takes on a Goblin-y flair in the more exciting moments near the end. I mean, it's not like Italian producers were shy about copying American horror films, so the odds are at least pretty good that someone involved with those productions (which shared a number of producers and even a minor character) saw the film and found it ripe for "re-imagining". Indeed, per the IMDb it was actually released in Italy long before it bowed in its native US, for reasons I couldn't discover.

And like those movies, it's an enjoyable flick that you probably will have good memories of *overall* but find it difficult to remember too many specifics down the road. The structure is kind of the culprit for that - the movie falls into that Shocker/It's A Wonderful Life thing where it's easiest to describe something that's really just the third act. In this case it's the family that moves into the house - we don't even really meet them until like the 40 minute mark or something, and for a while we're still spending time with the film's hero (a priest who lives elsewhere) and the cop who is working with him to solve the murders that occurred in the film's (far too drawn out) opening sequence. So when the angry witch starts offing them, it's hard to get really worked up about it as we don't identify with them as our main characters, since the script kind of treated them as afterthoughts.

Then again, if this was some sort of Amityville/Poltergeist kinda deal where you were with the hero family from the start and really got to know them, the movie would be a lot less fun, because (spoiler) they all die! Mom, dad, the older teen sisters, and even the younger son, played by Billy Jayne from Bloody Birthday (my boy Curtis!). Even with their half-assed introduction into the narrative, I was still pretty shocked to see them all go - I figured maybe one sister would get offed and the others would be scared away, but nope! Even the one who seemingly does get away turns up dead later, and pretty much everyone else in the movie dies too. It's even got an inverse Hammer ending; whereas those films ended the second the bad guy was vanquished, this one fades to black after the hero is dragged to his death. It never really feels too grim or anything, but it's still rather surprising to see how bloodthirsty the screenwriter was. Also surprising, in a funnier kind of way, was that more than once I had flashbacks to the 1978 movie The Evil with Andrew Prine, only to discover that both films were written by the same guy (Galen Thompson). Alas, his career of writing horror movies about people going into dilapidated houses and getting killed was short-lived - after taking the rest of the '80s off he came back as what seems like Chuck Norris' go-to writer, penning Sidekicks, The Hitman, and some of the Walker, Texas Ranger stuff. I THINK Scream Factory technically has the rights to The Evil as it was a Shout! Factory release back in 2010 (before Scream Factory existed) and it's still in print, so maybe they can upgrade it to Blu and pair it with this.

It was during this look at the film's Wiki to find out more about its release that I discovered the reason I knew the title in the back of my mind somewhere: it's on the infamous Video Nasty list, though it wasn't one of the more notorious 72 "Section 2" films. No, it belonged to a longer list comprised of 80 films that were deemed "less obscene" and thus subsequent to lesser charges. It's in good company; due to the British censors' rather insane selection process it's considered on the same level as Dawn of the Dead and Mark of the Devil, films also deemed "less obscene" than the likes of The Burning and The Funhouse. Insane, right? Anyway, at least it earns some of its notoriety in terms of its gore FX - there's a pretty gnarly bandsaw kill early on, and one of the daughters gets her head spiked to the floor. Not every kill is gory (and some are off-screen), but they make it count on those and a few others, so while I don't see why it was singled out when other movies like Halloween II and Slumber Party Massacre were ignored, it's not as insane of an inclusion as say, Final Exam, which was often criticized for its LACK of blood and the like (nudity-free, too). Oh you wacky Brits!

Another odd thing is that the movie gives us a lengthy flashback to the witch (and her persecutor, who looked kind of like Willem Dafoe) at a rather late stage in the film, time when we should be getting fully invested in the present day action instead of what happened 300 years ago. I mean, it's not like they withheld the information to hide a twist or anything, and the backstory had already been more or less explained away, so why we need to see it all go down just feels like padding more than anything else - it could/should have been the prologue instead of the random, slasher-esque sequence where the two random guys get killed. Someone else dies not long after the family moves in, so if that stuff happened earlier there would still be a reason to get the police involved from the start - it's like the screenwriter wasn't sure what kind of movie he was writing at first and once he figured it out, never went back and made everything flush. Granted, it makes the movie a little harder to pin down (the slasher-y feel was certainly a perk to me), but also harder to really invest yourself in the way you do with Amityville or even a regular slasher.

The movie is also known as The Witch, a title that now belongs to another, even if it's more fitting (there's not a lot of superstition going on here - that should be the name of a movie with a lot of black cats, broken mirrors, and spilled salt). I don't know if it ever really got a theatrical release in the US (IMDB just says "January" - not any specific date, and unsurprisingly BoxOfficeMojo had no listing for it), but I assume it just didn't really "fit" anywhere (too supernatural to play with the slashers that were popular when it was made, and not showy enough to compete with the likes of Nightmare on Elm Street when it was finally released here) and died quickly after a regional release. Luckily, some of the film's producers bounced back - among them are Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna, who'd go on to form Carolco and produce things like T2 and a lot of Stallone's movies. I can only assume that their involvement is the reason the film is now out of print, as it was released by Anchor Bay a while back but the rest of the Carolco library seems to be at Lionsgate now - it might be in some weird limbo with no one really caring. And the Gate barely seems interested in their big horror properties these days (that Saw boxed set - ugh!) so even if they got it in the package I can't see them bothering to dig it out of their virtual mothballs to give it a nice release. Then again, HBO certainly didn't beg to have it, so there's gotta be someone out there making sure it's being seen by modern audiences, so perhaps a new disc isn't a total pipe dream. Not that I'd rush out and buy it, but it's such an odd little movie to come out of that time period that I think more folks should give it a look, if only out of curiosity. Here's hoping!

What say you?


Zoombies (2016)

APRIL 21, 2016


I'm not sure *when* it happened exactly, as it was probably a gradual thing, but somewhere along the line The Asylum actually figured out how to make their movies enjoyable. Sure, every now and then they would luck into a movie that didn't make me wish I was dead, like Mega Piranha and the (legitimately fun) Zombie Apocalypse, but everything I've seen of late has been at least watchable, often rather amusing. And I can't believe that it's just coincidence and I just HAPPEN to be seeing the "best" of the lot - I truly think movies like Zoombies are what they're often producing; the rule, not the exception (I saw another called Night of the Wild that was a killer dog flick - also pretty fun for what it was). I'm sure they still churn out some stinkers, but it seems the days of Monster and Paranormal Entity are behind them, thankfully.

They've also shied away from straight up mockbusters, opting for something inspired by a big budget movie but not copying it right down to the title. So while this movie is clearly taking cues from Jurassic World (our business-savvy heroine is trying to keep her zoo fresh, she has a kid with her, etc, etc.) and the original Park (it's not open yet), it's not about dinosaurs - it's a traditional zoo with standard animals, except that they've all turned into zombie like predators due to some experiment gone awry. So instead of getting variety via dinosaur types (a T-Rex attack, then a raptor chase, etc.) we get setpieces with different animals entirely - monkeys, giraffes, an ape, birds, even elephants get in on the action, usually with one big sequence of their own. This actually creates a pretty fun smorgasbord of dangers and tasks - the bigger animals are of course dangerous anyway (zombie or not, watch out for a stampeding elephant), and the otherwise harmless birds pose the biggest threat of all as they can fly to populated areas and infect the rest of the world.

It's also got a better script than Jurassic World, though that bar isn't exactly a high one. The characters are all cliches, but at least they behave consistently from scene to scene and never really act like they're brain-damaged in order to advance the plot, like the JW ones did (i.e. walking into a pen with a monster dinosaur to look for it, rather than check the tracker it supposedly has). Things pay off, such as the tough animal control lady who berates an intern for not knowing how to shoot, and later he's able to fire the same comeback (something like "then you better learn quick!") to her when she confesses a weakness, a far cry from World's baffling decision to spend a giant chunk of its first act on the older brother's obsession with girls when it in no way influences anything on what happens to them later. And the interior logic more or less works - it's B-movie nonsense, of course, but I can't recall an instance where I literally yelled "WHAT?" at the screen as I did during what would become the 3rd highest grossing movie of all time (for a few months anyway, Star Wars knocked it down a peg. It's still about 9000 spots too high).

Of course, a better script probably means little to people who just want to see carnage, and on that front it delivers - as long as you accept that the FX are gonna be bad. I mean, I've seen worse, and in movies with far less of them to boot, but they're still a long way from looking good ("decent" would even be stretching it for a few). But there's an energy to the scenes themselves and the movie as a whole that makes them easier to deal with - sure, two giraffes tearing a guy apart isn't going to win the animators any awards, but consider the fact that it's TWO GIRAFFES TEARING A GUY APART! Bad FX tend to really sting when you can think of all the times you've seen it done right, but it's not like I've ever seen a photo-real shot of two giraffes tearing a guy apart, so it's fine. I mean, the movie is called Zoombies and the Asylum likes to put their name in big block letters at the top of the film - I was not expecting Oscar-level work here, and if anything incredible FX would almost be a detriment - it might be less fun in a way.

That said, it actually DOES offer one creepy/kinda scary bit, which I wasn't expecting. First there's a parrot who keeps repeating his victim's final words over and over, and then we see an eagle (I think? Some bird like that) who has made a nest out of a victim's intestines - and she's still alive to relay this information ("it's nesting in meeeeee!"). It was almost kind of disturbing, and certainly not what I was expecting to see at any point in this movie. I'd even go so far as to say that it didn't really belong in this particular movie, but I think part of the reason it played like that is because the bird FX, for whatever reason, were better than those of the larger animals. Strangely, the absolute worst FX shot in the entire movie was animal-free - it was a sequence where some characters finally use the zipline that had been foreshadowed twice already, shot by clearly just putting the actors on a harness and not even actually dangling them in front of the green-screen. If you look at their arms they're not even being stretched, so the director didn't even bother having them hang and just let them stand on something while they said their lines in front of the green backdrop that would be (poorly) added in later. I almost had to laugh that they somehow managed to take the only part of the movie that they could have possibly shot for real and make it look faker than any of the fantastical nonsense around it (you can also hilariously see through actress Kim Nielsen's striking light blue eyes during a commercial for the zoo, as they got filtered out along with the colored screen behind her).

Another thing I enjoyed is that the main building for the zoo was the same shooting location from Dead Heat and Brain Dead (and other movies), which prompted me to finally look into its actual location as I knew it had to be Los Angeles somewhere. And by look into I mean emailed my friend Jared, who did the legwork while I just tweeted nonsense or whatever it was I did until he got back to me. Oddly enough, while I figured it was in one of the more isolated areas of the county (like Santa Clarita, where they shoot almost every low budget horror movie), it was actually in Van Nuys - and I had driven past it on my way to work that morning! I mean it's far enough off the road that I probably wouldn't be able to see it from my car window anyway, but I don't usually drive that way in the morning, it just happened that the traffic patterns elsewhere had Waze send me on that road (which happens maybe 1 in 20 morning commutes). And I had no idea I'd be watching Zoombies today either, so it was just the lamest and least consequential form of fate in human history.

Oh, and the guy who ignores his friends' pleas and puts himself in grave danger to save an endangered animals gets killed by said endangered animal, which is the kind of mean-spirited outcome I really like. But if mean-spiritedness ain't your thing, it's also worth noting that the movie offers two heroines; Nielsen's Bryce Dallas Howard stand-in plus the head guard (the Chris Pratt, I guess?), and neither of them have heels on as far as I know.

Look, I'm not saying you need to track this down or put it on your must-watch list or anything, but all things considered, I found it to be a pretty harmless and enjoyable little slice of B-movie nirvana. Everyone involved (well, maybe not all of the actors) knew exactly what kind of movie they were making and were smart enough to know that simply offering amazing shots for a trailer isn't going to win anyone over (looking at you, Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus). The characters were largely likable (even the obligatory bitchy girl had an appealing moment or two) and despite their probably very limited budget, they delivered - in their own way - exactly what I wanted from the concept of "zoo animals turn into zombies" (indeed, even my half-jokey tweet demanded zombie elephants and monkeys - and they offered both!), as opposed to their many, many films that barely live up to the title let alone the concept. You don't even need to "turn your brain off" to enjoy the movie - you just have to meet it on its own terms.

What say you?


Murder In The Dark (2013)

APRIL 20, 2016


One of the reasons I really hate the shift toward streaming over physical media is how it will limit our access to bonus features like commentaries and deleted scenes, as those things aren't usually part of the package (Netflix, on very rare occasions, will offer them, but I don't think I've ever seen them on a cable on demand service). Clearly, the filmmakers behind Murder In The Dark also lament that folks might not have access to their behind the scenes material, so they've offered it during the end credits in the same manner you might see outtakes or a music video or something. I don't think I've ever seen anyone take that approach, and as a bonus features (and credits!) aficionado I have to give them props for their novel idea.

Unfortunately, the sad truth is that if they DIDN'T include this material, we'd never know why the movie wasn't particularly involving (and also likely why it was never scary). As it turns out, this movie was not traditionally written or shot - the filmmakers opted for a Blair Witch-esque improvised "script" where they'd give each actor an idea/motivation that none of the others were privy to, and then let the cameras roll as the actors more or less made it up as they went along, with the notes to guide them. It wasn't SHOT like Blair Witch, thankfully - there's a lot of hand-held and shaky tracking shots, but it's not a POV movie - though it shares that very loose, unstructured approach. And, unfortunately, is also guilty of almost everything happening off-screen.

Now, in Blair (or any other found footage type movie), things happening off-screen is fine, even preferable if you consider the logic - why would someone stand there and film their friend being murdered? But this is ostensibly a slasher movie, and it gets fairly tiresome to keep finding bodies while being denied the chase/kill itself. As it employs a whodunit approach, there's at least some justification for having to keep things vague (finding a body of someone killed at an unknown/offscreen time allows everyone to remain a suspect), but that doesn't change the fact that without those scenes the movie itself offers little more than an endless (and ultimately grating) string of scenes where our protagonists find the dead body of one of their friends and then spend the next few minutes angrily accusing one another of being the culprit. Variations of "Empty your pockets!" or "Take off your shirt!" (to see blood or other marks of a struggle) come up pretty often - it's good we learn eventually that it was all improvised.

Of course, that doesn't make the movie any easier to enjoy in the moment. It's watchable enough, and in retrospect I can assign it some more respect and consider it an interesting approach (as opposed to a woefully generic slasher), but shouldn't the movie be compelling on its own? What if I didn't watch the credits? I'd be oblivious to the only notable thing about it, unless you count the pretty wacky twist where the over protective dad to an 18 year old turns out to be not her dad, but a guy she's having an affair with. I mean, that's pretty novel with or without thinking about the possibility that it was something the actor(s) made up on the spot (if it was supplied by the filmmakers we can almost guarantee that they didn't know about that reveal too far in advance), but that's one exception in an 80 minute movie. Besides, the movie spends very little time on character development before the first person turns up dead (in a scene with the one instance where finding a dead body works in the movie's favor), so I must say I don't really have much investment on how they really relate to each other. I mean if Armageddon sprang that twist on me right before Bruce Willis went into space ("By the way, Affleck, Liv Tyler isn't my daughter - she's my girlfriend and you're cuckolding me you asshole") that'd be incredible, but here it's like "Oh, OK. Fine."

On the plus side, the movie has a damn good setting for this sort of thing - a crumbling Italian ghost town, giving it an almost Anthropophagus feeling at times and impressively milked by the filmmakers. There's a healthy balance between day and night scenes, too, allowing them to show off the free production value throughout the film instead of cramming it all in the beginning before it gets dark and they might as well be on a sound-stage. The cast is multi-national (no "token" anyone - there's basically 1-2 of each!) and they're all introduced more or less at the same time, making it harder to guess who will die first and/or who will be the "Final Girl". And that goes for the killer too - I admit I didn't guess who it was (in fact the person I had pegged turned out to be the lone survivor! It'd be like guessing Alicia Witt was the killer in Urban Legend), but again - these aren't characters we have any real attachment to. There's an obvious appeal to getting things going early, but unfortunately the trade off is that the audience won't care as much about the endgame as they might for a film that gave us 20 minutes or so to really get to know/love these folks. The movie had a standard opening scene kill, so I don't know why they felt the need to rush to get to the scares again.

If you're wondering what the title refers to (it sounds like an Agatha Christie title, no?), it's a game where someone is assigned to be the killer (via secret draw - whoever picks the marked paper out of the bag is "it") and everyone walks around shaking hands, with the killer wiping a finger against the other person's hand to "kill" them - the goal is to figure out who the killer is before everyone is dead. Seems like a perfectly fun party game for 12 year olds, not sure why these college-aged kids (and one's "dad") are doing it, but the hook is that the real killer starts offing everyone off in the order they were killed in the game. It's no better/worse than any other "game turns deadly" setup you've seen, but for the gimmick to work they have to spend quite a while on the game - and in retrospect it's kind of obnoxious. We get to see these "kill" scenes but everything else is off-screen? WEAK.

The movie was an After Dark release; I didn't keep tabs on their last fest (released via Fox instead of the usual Lionsgate) but I assume it was part of that pack. The series has never been known for its outstanding and classic horror movies, obviously (though there are a handful of really solid ones), so I wouldn't say I was really "disappointed" with the movie - it was more or less what I expected, in that it didn't make me angry or anything but didn't really draw me in, either. It was "fine", and I'll forget everything about it in a few days - except for the fact that the most interesting part of the movie was a behind the scenes video playing alongside the end credits. As one of the biggest champions of supplementary material for our films, I feel it's my duty to also stress that they should never be a requirement for the audience to take anything away from their experience.

What say you?


Shark Lake (2015)

APRIL 13, 2016


A few years ago, Dolph Lundgren said he was retiring from acting (no jokes), and like everyone who isn't Sean Connery or Gene Hackman, he didn't really mean it - he was back making movies within a few months if memory serves. But to his credit, he has taken on more diverse projects over the past couple years; he still does the usual "CIA operative finds himself a target" kinda DTV nonsense like all of his peers, but in between those ones he'll pop up in something like Shark Lake, which is a Lake Placid-y (but humorless) approach to a shark movie, setting a couple of them free in a lake where they don't belong. We have the local officer, a shark hunter, and a scientist to give it that proper Jaws ripoff flair (though the cop is a woman!) - but Dolph isn't playing the hunter or the scientist (which would be amazing in the latter case), he's playing... a dad trying to reconnect with his daughter?

In the movie's far too rushed prologue, some cops investigate Dolph's house, which is filled with exotic animals and his 3 year old daughter, alone in bed as Dolph races away in his truck, presumably to avoid getting arrested for animal smuggling. He gets caught anyway and goes to jail, and now five years later he's out - and the daughter is now with Meredith, the officer who found her. Since animal smuggling isn't really the worst thing a man can go to jail for, we're not too worried that Dolph's gonna be the bad guy or anything, but we DO learn that it's his fault that the sharks are in the lake, because he set one free instead of forking it over to the local tycoon/mob/whatever "heavy" that ordered it. This subplot is nowhere near as ridiculous/fun as it sounds, I assure you, and seemingly only exists to give Dolph an excuse to fight some dudes every now and then since he can't really kick the sharks all that often.

Nor does it take up much of the movie. Dolph gets top billing, of course, but there are long stretches without his character (sometimes they just cut to him driving his boat or something just to remind us that he's there), and we spend most of our time with the adoptive mother/only cop who seems interested in killing the shark. She's the first to suspect shark, she's the only one that goes out to find it, etc. There's a funny subplot early on where they think a bear attacked someone (it was real close to the shore), so they kill a bear and are having this press conference about their victory when someone in the background gets their leg bitten off by the shark (good call to have the press conference with the lake behind them!), but the movie's title kind of prevents this from ever being an acceptable ruse. Still, it beats the usual "We got *a* shark, not *the* shark" stuff, giving the movie slightly more personality than the usual Jaws clone - and there's no close the beaches equivalent subplot, either.

But there IS a Matt Hooper! I find Hooper tends to be the least ripped-off character of the three, but this movie almost singlehandedly balances the boards on that one, as the only real difference is a. he flirts with "Brody" and b. dies, though even that can be construed as a book reference. He's even got the glasses and is supposed to leave town to study something else! The actual Matt Hooper showing up in Piranha 3Dfelt less inspired by Spielberg's version of the character than this guy. As for the "Quint" guy, it's a typically cheesy/fake Steve Irwin wannabe guy who wants to catch the shark for his laughably low-rent (but supposedly successful) reality show, which apparently has a crew of one. He gets offed earlier than expected, which was a minor surprise but also kind of a foregone conclusion when you realize that the movie didn't hire Dolph Lundgren to mope about his daughter in non-shark scenes - eventually he's gotta take over as the movie's tough guy.

When it finally gets to this stuff, it's fine. I like that Dolph has no ill-will toward Meredith, saving her life a couple times and quickly reuniting her with the little girl (he even refers to her as "your daughter", which is nice), and their faceoff with the shark is set in the dead of night so it's dark enough not to see how bad the CGI is, but getting there takes way too long. I just mentioned the CGI, and it's not limited to the attacks, which can be expected since no one can bother doing prosthetics anymore. No, we get hilariously bad underwater footage with the shark hunter and his cameraman clearly superimposed into it, off-scale and not even moving naturally across the footage - it reminded me of that insanely terrible shot from Jaws 3D where the shark crashes into the control room. That there isn't even any sharks in some of these shots just makes it look all the worse, and there are still frame establishing shots and other cheapo blemishes that made me wonder if it was really worth blowing the entire budget on Dolph. Clearly they coulda gotten a lesser name (Jeff Speakman?) to handle this stuff and put that dough toward making the other parts of the movie at least halfway respectable, no?

For the most part, the only really interesting thing about the movie to me was how rather unlikable the heroine was. She's mean to the Hooper guy, and she's totally disrespectful to her boss - he even comments that she's the only one who calls him by his first name instead of "Sheriff" (or chief, or whatever he was). I think she even dismisses her own mother at one point, and doesn't seem to care much that their dog got chomped (insanely bad scene by the way, featuring kids who are delighted by setting off dud fireworks). And she won't let the kid see her dad, which seems rather extreme considering he wasn't a violent murderer or whatever - he just wanted to help some local rich folks own snakes or alligators (he also got paroled, it's not like he escaped or anything). I mean I'm all for more female heroines, but ultimately I don't care what sex/color/race/etc they are, I want to actually LIKE them in these things, at least more than I do the damn sharks. I was far more endeared by the random old people who get sharked early on (the one the other cops think is the work of a bear). The husband is panning for gold in the lake while his wife goes to get her iPad so she can take pictures for her friend in some sort of weird passive aggressive way (they go on and on about how jealous the lady will be because her lake isn't as nice or something?), and he's sadly killed off before we can enjoy any more of their batty old people yammering. That other lady is never going to know how clear Lake Tahoe is, and that's the real tragedy of the film.

Somehow, this ISN'T a Syfy original; I couldn't find exactly how it was first released but the IMDB lists a US release date of October 2nd of 2015, which was a Friday. That usually means theatrical (new DVDs come out on Tuesdays), but it also says "internet" next to it, so maybe it was straight to VOD? At any rate, it's an OK enough time-killer for the non-discerning, though the promise of "Dolph Lundgren vs sharks!" is only technically (and very briefly) realized, with too many 3rd rate FX and lazy Jaws swipes to deal with along the way. With more odd touches like that old couple this could be elevated into must-see weirdo entertainment, but for the most part it's as bland as it is derivative, and even Dolph in a horror movie isn't that novel anymore - he also joined Scott Adkins against a monster in Legendary, and fought zombies in something called Battle of the Damned (he's also got Don't Kill It on the way, which has the most promise of them all as it's been described as Indiana Jones meets Evil Dead). We can all do better, folks.

What say you?


Village of the Damned (1960)

APRIL 11, 2016


Since it was bought at a Big Lots, which I only go to on Black Friday, I would put it in November of 2012 that I picked up Village of the Damned and its sequel on a cheap double feature disc, for the sole purpose of watching it for Horror Movie A Day before the site ended a few months later. And tonight, in April of 2016, over three years after the site ended, I finally opened it and watched it, for no other reason than to strengthen my defense of John Carpenter's unfairly maligned remake, which hits blu-ray today from Scream Factory (you can read my thoughts on that one at BMD). Since JC's film has always been kind of raked over the coals (even by the filmmaker himself), I figured the original had to be a minor masterpiece, at least within the sub-genre, so imagine my surprise to discover that it's... pretty good?

I mean, it's a perfectly enjoyable movie and all, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't think Carpenter's improved on it a little, or, at the very least, certainly didn't do to it what Rupert Wainwright did to him a decade later. I prefer the 1995 version's completely robotic, in-sync army of children to this film's slightly less tight-knit group, and since Carpenter's film was in color (which existed at the time this one was made, so it's a legit point of comparison) his choice to have the children appear in "black and white" (with their bleached hair and ugly gray attire) set them apart in a way this film doesn't quite convey as well. Also, despite Carpenter's penchant for cynicism, his film is actually warmer and more humane, with more of the townsfolk in their element before the blackout that spawns the pregnancies - in this one, it occurs in the first two minutes (!), after we've only met a single character.

But seeing his film first (I don't usually watch the remakes first, but come on - I was 15 when Carpenter's came out!) gave me appreciation for both in a weird way, as it was fun realizing how he had "remixed" certain elements of the film while retaining some of its iconography, however random. Like, he reprised the idea of a character who was overseas when his wife got pregnant (and thus clearly isn't the father) and both films even have that character looking distressed as someone attempts to take their picture, but in Carpenter's film he's the one that accidentally almost runs one of the kids over and is mind-controlled to his fiery vehicular death as a result. Here, it's that character's brother, and then he tries to take his revenge by shooting them, only for the children to force him to use the gun on himself - the way Mark Hamill's unrelated character is offed in the 1995 version. If you're a fan who can keep an open mind with remakes (i.e. not get angry at the slightest deviations), it must have been fun to see Carpenter sticking to the material but changing the specifics to keep it fresh for them.

One thing I wasn't expecting here was the heavy military presence. Nearly all of the primary characters are in or very connected to the local military, which is another way to say that there aren't nearly as many female characters here - odd considering that it's about a bunch of recently born babies (most of the moms we only see once, in fact). Not that a film focusing on how the men deal with their "children" being so off wouldn't be intriguing and possibly even more interesting (at least for dads in the audience), but this isn't that movie - they talk a lot about the other colonies, perform their tests, etc., but don't really seem like "dads" in the slightest (in fact, like the moms, we barely see many of them anyway). Hero George Sanders says something to the effect of "I know it's her child... but I don't know that it's MINE" (which his wife overhears; harsh, dude), but that and the guy who thinks his wife two-timed him are pretty much the extent of the film's exploration of paternal psychology. There's a five minute scene of Sanders showing his brother-in-law how the kids share a brain, by letting one solve a puzzle box and then giving it to the other kids (who can now solve it instantly), but only 10 seconds about how conflicted they are as parents.

But: 'splosions! In addition to the car wreck, Michael Gwynn (the aforementioned brother-in-law) basically kills some poor pilot by telling him to fly into the infected area and "just pull back up if you feel strange", which of course the guy can't do since it knocks him out instantly and he steers his plane directly into the ground. And the ending is pretty much identical, with the hero bringing a bomb into the school and using the image of a brick wall to keep the children from knowing what he's up to. The movie is only 77 minutes, so considering its age it's kind of relatively action-packed once you add in the other dangerous moments spurned on by the evil kids. However, as with Carpenter's, there's a lot more going on that we never really see, including the other areas where a bunch of babies were born simultaneously, various "accidents" around town, etc. I tweeted earlier that I think this story (meaning the original novel by John Wyndham) would be well-suited for a season-long mini-series, which would allow us to see those other areas (think Game of Thrones' multi-national production with characters who never have/presumably will share scenes) and flesh out some of the elements that the two movies didn't have time for, i.e. what parents must go through when they realize that their child is an evil alien. In both versions this gets skipped over, basically; there's a flash forward to the point where the parents are already kind of resigned to their fate, leaving that middle part up to our imagination. Given the differences in cultures, it would be interesting to see a variety of nations dealing with this problem (i.e. cultures where the fathers don't play any real part in a child's birth/raising anyway) as long as it stayed within the confines of those small infected areas.

Because that low-key approach is key to the film's success, ultimately. There isn't much of an attempt to find out the hows and whys, no one goes into outer space or whatever to find the aliens that sent these children down, or anything like that - it's a fantastical concept with a very (occasionally TOO) narrow focus, not unlike the recent 10 Cloverfield Lane. I mean, yeah, I want to see the other colonies, but only for the smaller, more personal differences they might offer - I have no interest in ever seeing the children wiping out humanity (or, god help us, a goddamn prequel about the aliens coming up with this plan in the first place), or even other genre type settings at all. I just want to see the look on the dad's face when he's rocking what he thinks is his baby to sleep only to realize it has glowing eyes - and how that affects his baby-rocking routine the following evening. Maybe it's just my hyperactive dad gene talking, but to me that's kind of a fascinating thing to explore, and for years I assumed Carpenter's film had trimmed some of that stuff down in favor of more horror-y set-pieces (like Buck Flower's death, a sequence with no counterpart in the original). I'm actually kinda stunned that if anything, his had more of it.

The disc has Children of the Damned as well; I ASSUME it won't take me over three years to get to that one but with me who really knows. I have been told that it actually does explore the other colonies a bit (my friend Jared described it as "United Nations of the Damned") so that's certainly intriguing enough to keep it in mind. As for Village itself, I enjoyed it, but again, the frequent jabs at Carpenter's version had me thinking he had somehow desecrated a classic - the irony is that the original is the equivalent of his, in that it's a pretty good movie that could be better.

What say you?


The Hallow (2015)

APRIL 4, 2016


When I was putting the HMAD book together, I was kind of sad to discover that I saw only a handful of Irish horror films throughout those six years. I mean, obviously some countries were better represented than others (Britain, Italy, and various Asian countries obviously simply MAKE more horror movies than, say, Uzbekistan), but it seems I could have found more than a dozen entries from my home country (well, primary - I'm a mutt when it comes to nationalities). So I was delighted when The Hallow began and the eleven thousand production companies and director name (Corin Hardy) tipped me off that this was one of those rare entries, with the added bonus of the movie being really damn good as well.

It's also an entry in another rare sub-genre: eco-horror. Our hero works for a logging company, marking the trees that need to be cut down (presumably so they can be used for paper needed to print indulgent books about horror movies), and thus brings all of the bad things upon himself when a group of wood-dwelling creatures strike back at him for invading their land. It's not a movie you'd expect to see this sort of gray area - usually when a man is forced to defend himself, his wife, and a little baby against scary creatures, we're kind of on his side 100%. Here, it's a little different; obviously we don't want him or his family to die, but it's not hard to see where the creatures are coming from. Plus, they're all warned off by the other people in the town, including their neighbor whose own daughter was lost to the things in the woods, so when the inevitable happens it's hard to feel TOO bad for them.

But Hardy takes an interesting approach to this sort of material, presenting it as a sort of hybrid of home invasion movie and body horror, as the father (played by Joseph Mawle, who plays Benjen Stark on Game of Thrones) is hit with some strange muddy goo and starts to turn into one of the creatures, wrestling with his sanity as he switches between the one protecting his family and the one putting them in the most immediate harm. His wife is played by Bojana Novakovic (Devil), and she gets the tough job of not knowing whether to fight off her husband to protect her child, or keep him around to help defend her against the creatures - again, it's a movie that doesn't make it easy for you in the audience to say "This person is doing exactly the right thing here", and Hardy keeps that sort of uneasiness going right down to the last scene. I won't spoil the specifics, but Mawle makes a decision that he is *sure* he is right about - but then he (and we, all along) starts to wonder if it was just his new monstrous side getting the better of his judgment. With most modern horror movies you can probably provide a pretty accurate plot rundown within the first 10 minutes, so it's great to see one that keeps you unsure until its closing moments.

Of course, I can skip all that sort of stuff and just convince you to watch it on the strength of its dedication to practical creature work. There is a wonderful hesitance to using CGI in the film, primarily used for some embellishments and one shot designed to look like stop-motion (I guess he was vetoed on actually doing it that way so he just had the CGI wizards make it LOOK like it was done by hand, sort of like The Lego Movie). And unlike a lot of recent "Yay they used practical!" movies, it actually looks really fucking good! Sometimes the team is admirably devoted to practical work and end up with a creature(s) that look silly (Hypothermia comes to mind), but that's not the case here - they look like The Descent monsters cosplaying at a Pan's Labyrinth convention. Hardy uses them sparingly as well; I mentioned home invasion movies earlier, and there's a not-overly successful attempt to suggest their neighbor (another Thrones veteran, Michael "Roose Bolton" McElhatton) is trying to scare them off, so in order for that to work Hardy can't just let the cat out of the bag too soon. I'd say it's about 45 minutes in that we get our first real look at them, but even from that point he keeps them from being overexposed.

I used that word for a reason - they are creatures that are not too fond of the light, so they stick to the shadows and darkness, to the extent that you're likely to not even notice them in a few shots. I highly recommend checking out Hardy's commentary as he is quick to point out the shots that their presence is a little more subtle, and I was kind of blown away at how many times I missed seeing them*, walking away liking the movie even more. As with CGI, I'm just so used to being treated like an idiot (with loud musical stings and the like) for every scare that it's actually kind of sad that part of what I like about a movie is that they don't think I'm an idiot and will take the time to do things a little more effectively, not concerned with jolting you away from looking at your cell phone. And it's not like Hardy is doing himself a disservice by hiding his creatures - there are still plenty of moments you obviously won't miss, and I like that he has an appreciation for a few well-placed crowd-pleasing moments (Mawle takes one's head off with a quick blow - I woulda loved to have seen that with a crowd at one of the film's many festival appearances).

His commentary is only one of several bonus features on the disc; a lot of these Scream Factory/IFC teamups come up pretty short in that department, but in addition to his must-listen track there's a 50 minute making of that covers the entire production. Hardy dominates the talking head portions, to the extent that I actually forgot he had others with him (the editor, a couple of the actors, etc.), but otherwise it's a well-rounded look at what was a very thought-out and well-made film. Hardy's dedication to the creatures and their mythology is further explored in the other pieces, including a trio of much shorter making-of features that recycle some of the same soundbites while focusing on a different area (the story, the FX, the design). If you don't have time for the full doc, these three will give you a pretty decent Cliff's Notes on the production. In-depth looks at the creature designs and some of the material generated to flesh out the monsters (there's an old book with woodcuts and such that plays a role in the film) are also offered, definitely worth the few minutes it takes for them to play out. Some of his storyboards and the trailer are also included, so all in you're talking about over three hours' worth of material.

The film won the Empire Award for Best Horror, an achievement previously bestowed on the likes of Let The Right One In, The Babadook, The Conjuring, and, yes, The Descent - it's a pretty consistently well-earned award (the WEAKEST movie to win it in the past 10 years is probably The Last Exorcism - and I liked that a lot). I usually don't give a rat's ass about this sort of thing, but this is the sort of movie that can easily slip under the radar here, especially since IFC Midnight's track record is spotty and Scream Factory always has a zillion other releases every month. I can't imagine a scenario where this wouldn't be in my top 10 for the year (if I made one, which I'd only do if forced at gunpoint), and I'm glad Hardy won't be wasting his time with a useless goddamn Crow remake (he's the latest filmmaker to be attached and then drop out). Let's hope he follows this up with something else that's familiar yet original - and most importantly pretty great.

What say you?

*This may have been intensified by my recent discovery that someone took the time to submit a particular appearance of the gator in Alligator as "trivia" - it's a shot of Robert Forster and Perry Lang looking at a map, and there's no way in hell anyone could miss "Ramon" behind them. There's subtlety, and then there's "you're literally blind if you didn't see that".


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