Sunday, October 31, 2010


Although it has its share of contrivances (boy, howdy, does it!), Adam Green's Frozen (2010) turns the screws about as tight as any movie I've seen this month. I'm kind of gobsmacked by this, actually, given that I hated, hated, hated Green's Hatchet and given that when I heard the premise of this movie, concerning a trio of snotty bourgeoisie college kids (played well by Emma Bell, Kevin Zeggers, and Shawn Ashmore, who are better than the characters with which they've been provided) trapped on a ski lift, I wondered about the terror potential of the situation it creates. This turns out to be one of the nastier horror movies I've seen recently, and bully for that. It's always nice to know that one isn't so jaded with horror movies that a really brutal one can't work one over (but good).

Anyway, this concerns three skiers who have wheedled their way onto the lift for one last run down the mountain in such a way that no one knows they're there. When the lift is stopped, they're basically screwed because it's the last run of the week, a bad storm is moving in, and none of them has a cell phone. So, yeah, it's bad, but by the 45 minute mark, I started to wonder how they could milk any more suspense (or, indeed, any actual horror) out of the situation. Silly, me. This one goes for the throat once one of our intrepid skiers jumps from the lift and breaks both his legs. And then the wolves come. And frostbite. The singlemindedness with which this examines its premise makes me rather forgive the contortions it goes through to set up its situation. Most movies start well, then go downhill. This one gets noticeably better as it unfolds.

This movie is unusually good at the gross-out, from compound fractures to the singular effect of a hand freezing to a metal bar. This put its finger on a raw nerve I didn't even realize was exposed. Bravo. But it does more than gross the audience out. Like most good genre pieces, this acts as a crucible to examine its characters. While the characters here aren't particularly interesting, the movie manages to connect with their humanity, which is something I might have though beyond Green (again, on the evidence of Hatchet). The film's best scene, and the one I'll take away from it even more than it's thoroughly nasty grue, finds the female member of our cast wondering who'll take care of her puppy in her absence only to realize that it will starve to death because no one will know that she's missing. This scene doesn't rely on any of the characters' bland backstories for the audience to plug into a shared experience. It works wonders on the movie, because prior to this scene, I didn't much sympathize with our heroes. It also suggests that the director has more to say beyond a desire to make horror movies, and that's an ambition that many genre directors never come to. Good for him.

Current Challenge tally:

Total Viewings: 31

First Time Viewings: 31

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Wolf at the Door

I have to hand it to director Paco Plaza: There's a scene in Werewolf Hunter: The Legend of Romasanta (2004) that gave me the heebie jeebies. And it's a gross-out scene, too. Well, kind of a gross-out. It relies on context rather than viscera--not there there's not viscera aplenty in this movie. I'll come to this in a bit.

The title of this film suggests a werewolf picture. I suppose it delivers on that promise, transformation sequence and all, but it would be disingenuous of me to elaborate on the film without dispelling the notion that this is about the classical werewolf. This is, in fact, a pathological case study mounted in the idiom of the Gothic. It takes place in 1851, when wolves--and something worse than wolves--are plaguing Galicia, Spain. A bounty has been declared on wolves, while the authorities are making uncomfortable discoveries about the condition of the victims. There's a murderer out there who is using the cover of the wolves to commit ghastly crimes.

Did I mention that this is a "true" story? Well, it is.

The culprit in all of this is one Miguel Romasanta, who the film describes as the first serial killer. That's debatable. I'm sure that there are plenty of other candidates for that title, from Procrustes through Elizabeth Bathory. In the film, Romasanta is played by Julian Sands, an actor known for playing high-strung characters. He underplays Romasanta beautifully. Romasanta is a kind of wandering peddler, who makes soap from the rendered fat of his victims. There's a sequence in the first half of the film showing just how he goes about this, and while this sequence didn't squick me out, it feeds the one that did. Romasanta also writes letters for people, a valuable service for an illiterate population and an occupation that gains him entry into the lives of his victims. When the movie catches up to him, he is working his way through the Garcia family, which is all women after their lone male member is killed by a wolf trap. He kills the mute girl, Theresa, and her mother, Maria, then turns his attention to Barbara, who fancies him. Following the soap-making sequence, there's a scene where Romasanta seduces Barbara while she's in her bath. He does this by soaping her up with the soap that he's just made from human fat! This is the scene that got to me, particularly when the hand with the soap went between her legs. Eeww!

Okay, I know that's tame, but the thing about horror is that it's entirely subjective and this sequence put its finger on one of my own raw nerves. Your mileage may vary.

Barbara, played by Elsa Pataky, is the heroine of the piece. Once she discovers what Romasanta is, she becomes the werewolf hunter of the title. To its credit, the movie doesn't turn her into an anachronism or some kind of butch ideal of a heroine, but she is persistent and motivated. The other major characters in the film are Dr. Philips, the alienist; Antonio, Romasanta's partner in crime (who in real life may or may not have been real); and Bastida, the district attorney.

The film itself is gorgeous. Plaza makes the most of his limited means, pouring his budget into evocative locations and beautiful production and costume designs. This is a full-dress Gothic, in spite of the way it spans contemporary psychological theories. this kind of pathological case study may be the way that the Gothic manages to stay relevant. Between this film and Tom Tykwer's Perfume, it has a fair success rate. This is one of the best-looking films from Brian Yuzna's Fantastic Factory; Yuzna was in the right place at the right time when he set up shop. Spain, as much as any other place on the globe, is where the action is in the horror genre. Paco Plaza went on to make [•REC] with Jaume Balaguero, but he demonstrates a fine sensibility of his own in this movie. In addition to the scene I describe above, there are a couple of other moments of horror that are distinctive: First among these is a scene where Romasanta puts out a birds ears shortly before putting out a little girl's eyes. The filmmakers are unsentimental and ruthless about these things, which gives the film a bit of a mean streak. Not that that's a bad thing. On the whole, it's a modest success, but then, it's only modestly ambitious.

Current Challenge tally:

Total Viewings: 30

First Time Viewings: 30

Friday, October 29, 2010

Déjà Vu All Over Again

The Deaths of Ian Stone (2007, directed by Dario Piana) is another entry in the inconsistent After Dark Horror series. The premise finds the title character being killed repeatedly by some amorphous monster only to awaken in a new, slightly different reality. On paper, this sounds vaguely like Groundhog Day; in practice, it plays somewhat differently. This is one of those mind-fucking movies where any discussion of its plot is loaded with spoilers, so if you plan to see this, you are hereby warned.


The movie opens with our hero playing hockey. Right before he scores what would be the winning goal as time runs out, all of the clocks stop and the game is called mere moments before the goal is good. This has him understandably miffed. Later that night, he's attacked and killed by some vaporous apparition with a huge talon for an arm. He wakes in another life, this time as an anonymous office drone who is struggling with his lot in life. Unfortunately for him, he remembers his old life, and this draws the ire of the monsters again, who chase him home to his doting wife, who is more than she seems. This continues on through several more incarnations, but as he traverses life after life, he begins to gather information about what is happening to him and, more significantly, who he is. There are several elements to all of his lives that are constant, including the business with the clocks and two particular women. As his lives wind down, he discovers that he is part of a vampiric race of creatures called "Reapers," that he is a traitor to their kind, and that he alone has figured the trick of killing his fellow monsters. He also discovers the power of love.

Yeah. That last part makes me cringe, too. I mean, I'm as much of a romantic as the next girl, but the way this film approaches the subject of love is kind of cloying, particularly when it indulges in yet another tired Madonna/Whore dichotomy. Can we put a moratorium on this sort of thing, please?

Some elements of this film strike me as a throwback. Our hero, Ian, is played by an American, even though the rest of the movie is set in the UK and all of the other actors are Brits. This makes me nostalgic for all those European horrors of the 1960s trying to weasel into the American marketplace. I'm not entirely sure of the utility of this in the current era, given that the international market is now so much bigger than the American marketplace, and that Mike Vogel, our lead, is kind of anonymous. The familiar face in the cast for an American audience is Jaime Murray, who played Lila on the second season of Dexter. She capitalizes on that character here, and the filmmakers push her villainous persona into the realm of camp late in the movie when they trot her out in a blood red rubber catsuit. Vampirism and fetish have been close cousins for a while now. At least Murray looks good in the outfit. I just called the monsters "vampires" and that's not quite accurate. They're more in line with J. K. Rowling's dementors, so much so that I'm surprised that lawyers aren't talking.

Ian's transformation late in the movie into the kind of monster he's fighting harms the movie, too, given the grotesque appearance of the creatures (this film was co-produced by the late Stan Winston), and the effect it has on the audience's perception of his relationship with his girlfriend. It suddenly becomes kind of icky, an effect I doubt the filmmakers intended.

Still, the movie gets props for creativity. It's not a slasher movie or torture porn, which is nice, and it takes a swing at the monster movie. I like monster movies. It's certainly professional, with a high-gloss polish and pretty good special effects. The After Dark series has foisted far worse on horror fans over the years.

Current Challenge tally:

Total Viewings: 29

First Time Viewings: 29

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Dubious Masters, Part II

I'm not entirely sure of why I'm still bothering to wade through the Masters of Horror. It's just one heartache after another. Oh, there have been bright spots, though there hasn't been anything truly transcendent. Most of them are on the level of John McNaughton's entry, Haeckel's Tale (2006), based on a Clive Barker story. This one is all over the place, riffing on Frankenstein, Night of the Living Dead, and its own perverse appetite for necrophilia. It certainly provides its share of ghastly images, and it's certainly transgressive in its way, but it's also a cheap EC comic knock off.

The story here begins with a man who seeks a necromancer to revive his dead wife. He finds such a person in an old woman in a cabin in upstate New York, but before she'll agree to anything, she tells him the story of one Ernst Haeckel, a scientist pursuing galvanic resurrections a la Victor Frankenstein (his work is specifically cited). After a spectacular failure in front of his peers, he is told of Montesquino, a man who can bring the dead back to life. After witnessing his act, Haeckel concludes that the man is a charlatan, but their paths will cross again. Informed that his father is dying, Haeckel takes to the road, where, one dismal night, he shelters with the Wolfram family, which consists of an old husband and a young and beautiful wife. But this family holds a dark secret, one in which Montesquino's necromancy is shown to be all too real. Haeckel stumbles upon Elise Wolfram, in the throes of passion with her true husband, and then meets his fate at the hands of their terrible child.

The addition of the framing story--not part of Barker's short story--is what transforms this from a moderately nasty gothic into a bad episode of Tales from The Crypt. Regardless of its motivations, whether to soften the blow of the last images of the story or to put the story at a comfortable remove in a non-specified past, matters not. It just doesn't work. It's not helped by some stiff performances; John Polito is simply miscast as Montesquino, and the rest of the cast are strictly anonymous.

Further, director John McNaughton, like many of his cohorts in this series, hasn't come anywhere near his best work here. Although you get stuff that's far nastier than anything in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, you don't get that film's overarching tone or its casual examination of the banality of evil. This is a flaw in doing a contemporary Gothic, no matter how much one tarts it up with sex and grue. This goes for the gross-out on several occasions, but its imagery doesn't resonate at any deep level. Still, it's better than some entries in the series, and it at least shows a willingness to push the envelope even if it fails. That's something that some of the series' other entries could have used. That's something, I guess.

Current Challenge tally:

Total Viewings: 28

First Time Viewings: 28

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Grey Matters

A synopsis of Grey Knight, a 1993 dtv horror movie by George Hickenlooper (fresh off Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse), is tantalizing: a Union expedition marches into Tennesse to investigate atrocities attributed to the Alabama 51st regiment. They take the captured commander of the 51st with them, and a survivor of one of their rampages. Unfortunately for them, the 51st is undead.

Zombie Confederates versus the Union army. Yeah. I'm all for that. The movie is sweetened by a surprisingly good cast, including Adrian Pasdar, Martin Sheen, Corbin Bernsen, Ray Wise, a couple of Arquettes, and Billy Bob Thornton and Cynda Williams (fresh from One False Move). And it's edited by Monte Hellman. Should be good, right? Right?

Unfortunately, these things sometimes go awry, and so it is with Grey Knight. It starts with the voice-over narration by Pasdar, a narration that bears an unfortunate vocal resemblance to Martin Sheen's narration in Apocalypse Now (an association reinforced both by the director's history and by Sheen's presence in this movie). I could almost hear him say "Andersonville. Shit." Pasdar's delivery is flat and monotone, which doesn't serve the movie. Other performances are similarly flat.

On purely stylistic grounds, the sequences with the zombie regiment lack that certain oomph to transport the film into the realm of the sinister. The film shies away from explicit zombie effects and any kind of visceral graphic violence, and the zombie soldiers are mainly delineated by face paint. The exposition for the movie is delivered via clairvoyant visions projected by Cynda Williams's mute slavegirl, which smacks of desperation. So does Pasdar's interview with Corbin Bernsen's imprisoned commander, which is nakedly inspired by The Silence of the Lambs, only without Hannibal Lecter's sinister manners. And, Jesus, when the zombie soldiers expound on how glorious their existence is, it's well nigh unendurable. Ugh.

Mostly, what this film demonstrates is the knife's edge all horror movies have to walk between the sublime and the ridiculous. It squanders its resources.

Current Challenge tally:

Total Viewings: 27

First Time Viewings: 27

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Dreaming God

Dreams of Cthulhu - The Rough Magik Initiative (2004? sources differ, directed by Bob Fugger and Christian Matzke) was originally shot circa 1999 as a pilot for a BBC series. The story follows a shadowy organization called "The Night Scholars," led by the aggressive Mr. Moon, as they investigate a ritual murder in which a mother killed her children as an offering to the dreaming god, Cthulhu. Toward this end, they recruit one Kenneth Warren, a gallery owner and former combat psychologist with considerable psychic trauma from a stint in the Falklands war (though the source of that trauma came from another source). Under the influence of a special drug, he recounts that event, in which he came face to face with the reality of the sleeping god.

This looks more or less like what you might expect a failed BBC pilot might look; it plays like an ur-Torchwood on a much lower budget. It's better than eighties or nineties-era Dr. Who, but it has that feel, the nods to Lovecraft and his vast cosmic horrors not withstanding. It also has a tendency to wander off the point. After starting with the scene where a woman murders her children after reciting a prayer to Cthulhu, it utterly fails to connect it with the main narrative of Warren's ordeal in the Falklands. Presumably, this might have been resolved in future episodes, which is the implication of the final scene documenting all the dreaming cultists The Night Scholars have rounded up. I imagine that a series might have been fun, but lacking one, this standalone doesn't really stand alone, if you know what I mean.

Visually, this makes good use of its shot on video production values, but it seems weirdly de-populated (presumably for budgetary reasons). Maybe it's just me, but video seems antithetical to creating the mood for horror. There's something about film that enhances an ambiance of menace. Maybe it's just familiarity from decades of television. I don't know. In any event, I felt that visual disconnect while watching this. The actors are mostly good, though they tend to overplay things a bit. Certainly, Mr. Moon is a big ball of testiness. It does manage to hint at the horrors of its literary pedigree, too, especially with a grisly tableau late in the film, but this could have dispensed with the Lovecraftian associations to similar effect had it wanted to.

For the most part, this is a mixed bag.

Current Challenge tally:

Total Viewings: 26

First Time Viewings: 26

Monday, October 25, 2010

Path of the Eclipse

A few months ago, some friends and I asked ourselves the question of "where are the Irish horror movies?" The Eclipse (2009, directed by Conor McPherson) seems to be an answer. It's a ghost story and a romance and it's more interested in its characters than it is in providing shocks, but a horror movie it is. Well, maybe it's not exactly a horror movie, so much as it's a haunted movie, and to my mind, that's good enough.

The story here concerns Michael Farr (Ciarán Hinds), a woodworking teacher and failed writer who is tasked with driving a famous horror novelist around during a literary festival. Michael is recently widowed, manfully holding the rest of his family together, and seeing terrifying visions in the still watches of the night. The horror writer is Lena Morrel (Iben Hjejle) who carries baggage of her own to the festival in the form of fellow writer Nicholas Holden (Aidan Quinn), with whom she previously had a short, intense affair. Holden wants to rekindle it; she does not. Michael and Lena strike up a friendship--and a subdued "more"--much to Holden's consternation. It's a nicely observed relationship.

The hauntings that plague Michael might be real, I suppose, or they might be a part of the healing process. Either way, they operate symbolically and give what might be a quaint "small" film a serious kick. In spite of this, the most frightening thing in the movie is a fistfight near the end that seems more like an actual fistfight than any movie fistfight I can remember. The film presents it's various horrors matter of factly, so that when other, less horrifying ghosts appear, the audience, like the characters in the movie, can take them as something they'll have to live with. It's an interesting balance.

The lead actors here all have familiar faces, but they're not exactly famous. Iben Hjejle was John Cusack's girlfriend in High Fidelity, but she seems less of an ideal and more of a person in this movie. Ciarán Hinds memorably portrayed Caesar in HBO's Rome; it's hard to imagine a character more different than Caesar, but Hinds is terrific as the subdued and immeasurably sad Michael. Quinn used to be on the edge of stardom, but seems to have settled into a life of character parts. His character here is kind of a monster, but he's human enough to be pathetic, too. Horror movies rarely have actors this good, but, as I say, horror is only a secondary consideration here.

The filmmakers underplay most of this, content to let the scenery and the light of County Cork do some of the heavy lifting. It's a good way to lull the audience into complacency for when they inject the horror. These scenes are more effective for contrast, even if they're standard "jump" scares. In some ways the horror scenes are unworthy of the movie, but they are necessary to the film's character arc, I guess. It seems odd for me to complain about the intrusion of horror in a movie that is ostensibly a "horror" movie, but this is kind of an odd duck of a movie, neither fish nor fowl. It's good, but it's not what you might be expecting.

Current Challenge tally:

Total Viewings: 25

First Time Viewings: 25

Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes

The way I look at it, I can approach Legion (2010, directed by Scott Charles Stewart) from two directions: as an example of the current state of action/horror filmmaking, or as a film with an agenda. Neither approach does the film any favors. I'll own up to my own prejudices regarding the second approach when I get there.

The film stars Paul Bettany as the archangel, Michael, who has lost his faith in god and comes to Earth to defend the damned human race from his wrath. Once here, he cuts off his wings, raids an armory, and high-tails it for the Nevada desert where he defends a pregnant waitress from an army of angel-possessed people intent on doing her harm. She carries the messiah, it seems. The diner also has a colorful assortment of other characters played by better actors than you would expect, including Dennis Quaid, Kate Walsh, Charles Dutton, and Lucas Black. The basic set-up should be familiar to anyone who has ever seen a zombie movie, because that's essentially what this is, though it adds a big boss at the end in the form of the archangel, Gabriel--he of the horn that sounds the trumps of doom. For the most part this is all sound and fury. There are no real surprises in this movie. It doesn't dare transgress its material into more disturbing implications, in spite of its willingness to throw children other than its messiah into the meat grinder and have an old lady use the word "cunt." It's notion of blasphemy is fairly tame, and fairly ridiculous. And it all boils down to fight scenes in the end, in which its main antagonist is shown to be something of a straw man. I mean, given that this is an Old Testament kind of story, you would expect hosts of angels to be able to pull off more than they do. There's even a ridiculous instance of the "let's all stand in a circle and attack them one by one" fallacy from countless martial arts films, so clearly, the angels aren't the terrifying creatures one expects. As an example of action/horror filmmaking, this is kind of dismal, regardless of its slick production values and stylized cinematography, because at the basic level of writing, it lets too many characters--and indeed its entire premise--off the hook because of the exigencies of the plot. It's a systemic failure.

As far as its agenda goes: If I squint, I can see this as a film in which the central conflict is between fundamentalism and humanism. Gabriel, the film's bad guy, interprets the word of god literally. Michael, the film's good guy, interprets the word of god through the dictates of his own sensibilities, and is willing to give god what he "needs" rather than what he says he wants. I imagine that some fundamentalists had conniptions over this film, but in the end, it wants to reassure the audience that god loves them after all even when he throws a temper tantrum. Nevermind the horror visited on the world outside of the film's little microcosm. There's no doubt that the film is portraying one of those periodic apocalypses promised by the Bible, and it's evidence of a god that is so indifferent to humanity that he'll order it destroyed on a whim.

In the interests of full disclosure, I'm approaching this film from an atheistic point of view. I'm not intractable on the subject. The Bible is occasionally great literature and it's not that I don't respond to themes of good and evil. Hell, I love The Prophecy (1995), which is ten times the film this is while covering some of the same ideas, even if I don't believe any of it. But that film isn't a polemic, and Legion is, so I can't in good conscience give the film a pass. This film postulates a god so horrific that the conclusion at which it arrives is ridiculous. But then again, so does the Old Testament...

Current Challenge tally:

Total Viewings: 24

First Time Viewings: 24

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Stone Cold

It's not without a certain amount of admiration and affection that I suggest that The Mill of the Stone Women (1960, directed by Giorgio Ferroni) reminds me of a Mexican horror movie. I once called Mexican horror movies like The Black Pit of Dr. M or The Curse of the Crying Woman "Blender" movies, in which you take a number of proven stock items, throw them in a blender, and hit "puree." And so it is with this film, even though it doesn't come from Mexico. Italy was good at this sort of thing, too.

This movie is a conflation of Eyes Without a Face and House of Wax. I'd suggest, too, the influence of Mario Bava, but for the fact that this movie was made before Bava made a horror movie in color. Maybe it was something in the water in Italy at the time. In addition to the obvious touchstones, The Mill of the Stone Women includes two different varieties of the insane genius archetype: the mad scientist and the deranged artist. And to top things off, it climaxes in a burning windmill, a la Frankenstein. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Our hero, Hans, arrives in the rural Netherlands to write a monograph on Professor Gregorious Wahl's odd clockwork display of infamous women. Wahl's studio and his display are housed in a windmill (which powers the thing). Wahl's household includes his daughter, Elfie, who suffers from some mysterious ailment, and her physician, the sinister Dr. Bolem. Elfie is a hothouse flower, suffocated by her father and ready to latch on to the first man who comes through the door. Hans is her not unwilling paramour. Unfortunately, Elfie is jealous, too, and when she spies Hans with his girlfriend, Lisolette, she flies into a jealous rage, then falls dead at Hans's feet. Hans flees the scene, but comes to his senses and returns, only to find Elfie missing and all of the evidence of what happened gone. Soon, he's embroiled in the dark secret of the Wahl family, which puts both him and Lisolette in grave danger...

In summary, this all sounds kind of banal; a stock genre piece, if you will. In execution, this plays in the big leagues. Director Giorgio Ferroni had superb production resources to play with, including impressive art design, an unusual setting, and gorgeous Technicolor photography. Even though the print on Mondo Macabro's DVD shows some fading, it's still beautiful. Ferroni is savvy enough with Technicolor to realize that it shows redheaded women to advantage, and he includes one as Professor Wahls class model (and later victim). There are a lot of contrasting rich greens and deep reds: the closest things to what this film looks like are the early color films of Mario Bava, particularly The Whip and the Body. Ferroni further decorates his film with a startlingly beautiful cast. Both Scilla Gabel as Elfie and Dany Carrel as Lisolette command the screen. Gabel once doubled for Sophia Loren, while Carrel was often cast in the kinds of roles that were imagined for Bardot. It's not a bad pedigree. The movie contrasts the two as a classic Madonna/Whore dichotomy. It's a credit to Pierre Brice that he's not blown off the screen by his leading ladies. He's a thoroughly yummy-looking man.

If the film has a flaw, its that it lacks an instinct for the jugular. While Professor Wahl's exhibit is certainly grotesque--especially once the surface is burned away--there are no scenes in this movie comparable to the grotesqueries of Eyes Without a Face or Black Sunday. It's almost chaste (ignoring some very fleeting nudity late in the film). It compensates for this with a genuine sense of weirdness, particularly during a drug-induced freak-out on the part of our hero at the center of the movie. Here, Ferroni milks his production design for all it's worth, while taking full advantage of the unfamiliarity of the film's setting. The result is a movie that shows to advantage the strengths of the high Gothic mode, while effectively papering over it's various weaknesses.

This movie was a longtime victim of shoddy and mutilated editions, so it's nice to see a good version. In fact, the difference between the Mondo Macabro edition and the long-ago Paragon VHS version of the movie where I first saw it is like night and day. It's not even the same movie. In any event, it's a striking movie that deserves to be more widely seen.

Current Challenge tally:

Total Viewings: 23

First Time Viewings: 23

Friday, October 22, 2010

What Big Eyes You Have

Much as I like Netflix's instant watch service, the quality of the video leaves a lot to be desired when the picture is mostly dark. There's an AWFUL lot of pixelation. This colors my experience of the mostly enjoyable Scottish monster movie, Wild Country (2005, directed by Craig Strachan), an unapologetic B-movie with an agreeably cheesy man-in-a-suit monster. Much of the first half of the movie is almost illegible. Some reviews of the film's DVD suggest that it's not much better on disc. In any event, it certainly makes taking screen caps a challenge.

The set-up in this film is pretty simple: a quartet of teenagers (played unusually well by actual teens) goes on a hike in the Scottish highlands only to be stalked by a monster that picks them off one by one. Unusual for this kind of dead teenager movie, the kids don't do anything obviously stupid, nor are they punished for the kind of people they are. They seem like nice kids.

The motivating factor for the film's final girl is a baby given up for adoption at the behest of the local priest (who also sponsors their trip to the country). This rather explains the maternal theme that surfaces when our heroes discover a crying baby in the lair of the beast. The priest also gives a pretty good recounting of the Sawney Bean myth, given that the kids are hiking through "Sawney Bean country." It's a nice association, if not entirely apropos of the monster the film actually has. Still and all, I like it when a horror movie acknowledges its roots. I also like the way it takes potshots at the church, especially at the end, but don't mind me; I'm an irreligious mocker.

This isn't a complicated movie, really. It only runs 72 minutes, so it doesn't really have time for anything but plot. It has an admirable singlemindedness once it gets going. I also like the film's dogged reliance on practical effects, even when that reliance becomes a liability late in the movie. I've put a capture of my favorite of the film's special effects gags at the top. The film's lead, Samantha Shields, is surprisingly good, too, which grounds the film in a sympathy for the characters necessary to pull the whole thing off. It has a nice twist at the end, too, followed by Sam the Sham's "Little Red Riding Hood" over the closing credits (I wouldn't be surprised if the clearance rights for this song consumed the wolf's share of the movie's budget). It's not the best horror movie I've ever seen, but damned if I wasn't grinning at the end of it. Take that however you like.

Current Challenge tally:

Total Viewings: 22

First Time Viewings: 22

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Death Warmed Over

The zombies in George Romero's zombie movies have always been MacGuffins. The real monsters are human beings. This point is emphatically made at the end of Night of the Living Dead when Sheriff McClellan's posse shoots Ben through the head. Romero has spent the running times of five more movies making this same point. Near the end of Survival of the Dead (2009), Romero includes a visual gag that suggests that even he knows that he's flogging a dead horse by now. And so it goes.

The set up for this one finds a band of rogue guardsmen wandering into a Hatfield/McCoy-style feud between families on an island off the coast of Delaware. As with the end of Dawn of the Dead, the survivors are jackals fighting over the bones of the world. The living dead themselves are hardly even a threat in this film, though the movie does include a nod to the director's original intentions for Day of the Dead (and then the never-filmed Twilight of the Dead), in which the dead were to be used as weapons between rival groups of survivors. The movie ends on a final image that suggests that hatred runs too deep in human beings for even the apocalypse to erase. In some ways, this image is a summation that the series has needed; an exclamation point, if you will. Hell, this ending might be worth slogging through all five sequels to get to.

For the most part, this movie depends on the audience liking or, at the very least, identifying with the various human characters and this is where the movie gets itself into trouble. Romero is capable of writing well rounded characters--see for instance, Martin--but he hasn't bothered with it here. This is, perhaps, an indication of the director's ultimate disinterest in making zombie movies anymore or maybe it's just an awkward convention of the form, but most of the characters here are cardboard cutouts. As with certain John Carpenter movies, you can see the director chafing at the bit to make a western here rather than a horror movie (which is odd, given the setting, I guess). Without having anything invested in the characters, the movie misses its opportunity to turn the screws. The viewer just doesn't give much of a damn about what happens to any of them. They're all meat for the grinder. Still, this isn't the first of Romero's zombie movies to have this very same problem.

Mind you, there are zombie gags aplenty, many of them calling to mind Tom Savini's story of how he was hired to do Dawn: Romero asked him to start thinking up as many ways to kill someone as he could. The film's first zombie death tips the filmmakers hand, in which a zombie soldier has his head blown clean off, with his scalp leaping up in the air and coming back down on his now-headless neck. A lot of the zombie death gags are like this one: too cute for their own good. Sometimes, it seems as if the director is feeding the gorehounds among his fans without caring if his violence is connected to the movie. It all seems very casual and not particularly horrific. Given that so much of the violence here is done with computers rather than practical effects, I wonder if there's a visual disconnect at work based on the overuse of CGI in all films of recent vintage. I think there probably is.

That all said, this is very much the slickest and most visually pleasing entry into the series. Its Canadian locations have a nice autumnal look appropriate for the apocalypse. It's a look that does double duty as a Norman Rockwell-ish portrait of Americana, emphasized by the various zombie "characters" wandering about (the mailman, in particular). Romero has better actors than he ever had in Pittsburgh, too, which minimizes the fact that his characters are cutouts somewhat. But slick and visually pleasing can only take you so far. This film has a thousand times the production values of Night of the Living Dead, but that film is a masterpiece and this one is less than a masterpiece. You really never can tell.

Current Challenge tally:

Total Viewings: 21

First Time Viewings: 21

Bad Juju

One of the things I don't miss about blaxploitation horror movies is the opening shots of voodoo ceremonies. It's like clockwork: bongos and wallahs before the credits have even rolled. This appears again during the opening of The House on Skull Mountain (directed by Ron Honthaner), a relative obscurity from 1974. There's a reason it's obscure: it pretty much sucks.

The story here finds the old woman who lives in the house at the top of Skull Mountain--it has a skull carved on it--passing on. She sends out several letters with her priest before she dies and, lo and behold, a group of strangers assembles, presumably for the reading of her will. The will requires them all to stay in the house for a week to inherit, and, sure enough, someone begins to pick them off one by one. There's a voodoo back story here, too, given that the family is descended from a Haitian voodoo King.

There are all kinds of problems with this movie. First: it's clinging to an outmoded model of horror. I mean, The House on Haunted Hill scenario was fine in 1958, but 1974 was the year of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The game had changed radically; this movie is so out of its league that it might as well be playing a different sport all together. The second problem is the performances. I can't remember a movie with more stilted line readings than this one, or more obnoxious characters. I found myself wishing for all of them to die horribly, which is never a good sign. Finally, the filmmaking is downright incompetent. This looks like a TV movie. It's badly over-lit, for one thing. It's got the worst day for night sequences I've ever seen for another. Hell, it doesn't even pay lip service for matching its shots. I mean, just look at this sequence of shots from early in the movie:

Our heroine steps out of her car and looks at the house. It's bright and sunny.

The house on Skull Mountain. Where did all this gloom and fog come from?

No, wait, it's still sunny.

Now it's sunny on Skull Mountain.

That's a relief.

Hold on a second! It's gloomy again. Sheesh. Make up your minds, guys.

As you can see, basic film craft eludes this movie, and it's so overt about it that it sabotages any chance for an audience to take it seriously. It's bad juju all around.

Current Challenge tally:

Total Viewings: 20

First Time Viewings: 20

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The End of the 70s

"It's the end , the end of the 70's.
It's the end , the end of the century."

--The Ramones

It's time for another edition of Netflix Roulette. Today's randomly generated horror movie is 1980's New Year's Evil (directed by Emmett Alston), a crappy slasher film built around a Midnight Special-style rock show whose host is being tormented during her New Year's broadcast by a nut who kills people at the stroke of midnight (one for each time zone). The broadcast itself is allegedly a "New Wave" broadcast, but this movie's vision of punk/new wave is seriously influenced by disco (which, though waning at the time, still had a grip on the styles of the day). The cops put words to the disdain that films had for punk and New Wave at the time, which makes the ultimate conquest of the culture all the funnier. The movie does bring in a ringer in way third rate New Wave band Made in Japan to no good effect. It's a pretty sorry excuse for a soundtrack, and it makes Allan Arkush and Joe Dante seem all the more brilliant for hiring the Ramones for Rock and Roll High School.

Only slightly more problematic is lead actress Roz Kelly (who will forever be linked to Happy Days and Pinky Tuscadero). More than one review has suggested that the role would have been perfect for Leather Tuscadero, Suzie Quatro, but that's just wishful thinking.

The combination of "look" and actors fixes this film at a specific place in time, when punk was still dangerous and when slashers still ruled the cinema. There are still relics of the 1970s throughout, including nods to biker films and urban decay thrillers and teen sexploitation films. All of this would soon be washed away, except for slasher films, though even those are placed in the soon to be extinct drive-in. The movie name checks the Zodiac killer and Son of Sam, too, putting this in the traditions of the 70s-era psycho killer rather than the 80s conception of a serial killer. In some ways, this film can almost be seen as an epitaph for the decade. Except it's not really good enough for that...

As for the plot: well, it's not much. There are some interesting characters, none of whom are explored. The twist at the end has been used before, and better. So watching it for the plot is kind of pointless. The filmmaking? There are continuity errors. Lots of of them. Watching the killer flash a switchblade at his next victim in one shot, for instance, then a reverse to show her reaction, and then cutting to him opening the switchblade to terrorize her is the sort of thing that takes a viewer out of the movie. I'm on record as not much liking slasher movies, but it's not the content of the movies that I don't like, so much as it's the incompetence of them. Hell, this one isn't even particularly gory, so what's the point? I mean, murder scenes are to the slasher film what musical numbers are to musicals. Without them, this is just a bunch of dumb show.

Crap for the most part, but it reminded me of a Blondie bootleg I bought in the 1990s from their London New Year's Eve show at the end of the 1970s. All I could think was, "I think I'd rather be at that Blondie show than watch this garbage." Alas.

Current Challenge tally:

Total Viewings: 19

First Time Viewings: 19