Thursday, October 31, 2013

Inside Outside

Sharni Vinson in You're Next

I think that you can't actually spoil a good movie, but I also know that many people think that spoilers are rude. This is a dilemma when I'm confronted by a movie like You're Next (2011, directed by Adam Wingard), because many of its pleasures are built around surprising the audience and picking it apart to demonstrate how it works is a bit like dissecting the golden goose. The fact that it does work is also a surprise in itself, given that director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett's previous films have sometimes felt like shambolic, kit-bashed affairs, and this one is constructed like a watch.

Note: I'll try to avoid spoiling the film, but I may not completely manage. You've been warned.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Not Constantinople

Gemma Arterton in Byzantium

For a filmmaker who isn't normally thought of as a genre director, Neil Jordan sure does make a lot of horror movies. Byzantium (2013) is his second vampire film, and acts as a kind of distaff companion piece to Interview With the Vampire. Jordan is attracted to the Gothic roots of the horror film, which are on full display in Byzantium, a film that nests flashbacks inside flashbacks, and spirals around its narrative to come at its core elements obliquely. Those core elements are the two great themes of the Gothic: sex and death.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Mix and Match

Shadow (2009)

My friend, Roberta, teaches Italian film, so when she says I need to have more Italian films on my long Halloween slog, I'm inclined to listen to her. Her recommendations were Dellamorte Dellamore (which I've seen several times, including the uncut version she recommended) and Shadow (2009, directed by Federico Zampaglione), of which, I knew nothing. Fortunately, it's on Netflix so into the queue it went. It's been a while since Italy produced any important horror films--the golden age of Italian genre film ended when the government decided to quit funding "entertainments" in favor of more highbrow fare--so I was curious to see what a contemporary horror movie from Italy looks like.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Roll Them Bones

The Living Skeleton

During the golden age of Japanese film, Shôchiku was Japan's Tiffany studio, home to Ozu, Mizoguchi, Naruse, and Kinoshita. It's singularly weird to see their familiar Mount Fuji logo attached to schlocky horror movies. And yet, during the 1960s, horror came to Shôchiku, as the title of Criterion's boxed set of their horror movies announces. The Living Skeleton (Kyûketsu dokuro-sen, 1968, directed by Hiroshi Matsuno) is a fun example, though it's quaint even in the mainstream of Japanese horror. I mean, Japan was already making horror masterpieces like The Face of Another and Kwaidan, so it's not like this film appears in a vacuum. In spite of that, it's strangely forward-looking, anticipating the J-horror boom of the 1990s and John Carpenter's The Fog.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Cold Comfort

Kevin Yeger and Laurence Fishburne in The Colony

I went into The Colony (2013, directed by Jeff Renfroe) completely blind. I knew nothing about it except that is was a science fiction/horror hybrid. I like going into a movie blind, to tell the truth, because it allows that movie to surprise me. That most movies rarely do speaks either to a lack of ambition on the part of filmmakers or to my own jaded familiarity with movie tropes. Regardless, it's up to the film to break through that. The Colony isn't that film. About a third of the way through the film, I realized that I was watching a zombie movie in post-apocalyptic dress. Well, crap, I thought.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Lovecraft a Go-Go

The Dunwich Horror

The Dunwich Horror Lancer Paperback Cover

I first read The Dunwich Horror when I was fourteen, if I recall correctly. A haunter of used bookstores even then, I found the story in an awesome old Lancer paperback with the cover at the right. This wasn't the first Lovecraft I read--I had a collection of some of his lesser prose sketches and Lord Dunsany rip-offs, and those didn't really fire my imagination. This book, on the other hand, with stories like "Pickman's Model," "The Thing on the Doorstep," "The Haunter of the Dark," and the title story--this book kicked my ass hard.

I don't think I saw the movie version for another six years. I never caught it on TV, and finally found it at a mom and pop rental video store next to the door to the porn room. It was next to Jess Franco's Eugenie on the shelf, and a couple of tapes down from Die, Monster, Die, both of which ended up in the stack of tapes I rented along with The Dunwich Horror. Also on that stack was City of the Living Dead and Liquid Sky. I was in for a disappointing weekend. That's cinephilia for you, I guess. The Dunwich Horror (1970, directed by Daniel Haller) never comes anywhere near the weirdness of the short story, mostly because it's a monster movie with out a monster and a movie about sex without any sex and a horror movie without any horror. Looking back at this film from a vantage point in 2013, it seems absurd that the MPAA rated this "R", even in those days before the PG-13. There's a lot about this movie that's baffling.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

That Hellbound Train

Night Train Murders

I took a break from new viewings last night to watch an old favorite. Here's what I wrote about Aldo Lado's Night Train Murders (1975) a decade ago. I don't really have much to add to this.

Synopsis: Lisa and Margaret are on holiday from their school in Munich. They decide to take the train to Lisa's home in Italy. Unfortunately, the train is host to a pair of young hoodlums, Blackie and Curly, on the lam from roughing up Father Christmas in the street and looking for more trouble. Blackie has the swagger; Curly has an arm full of hop. Also on the train is an upper class woman. She looks prim and proper, but the predations of Blackie and Curly unleashes something within her and she is soon their partner in crime, slowly taking control of their activities. Unfortunately for Lisa and Margaret, the trio has fixed on them as their victims. At the upper class woman's behest, Margaret is raped by a passing peeping tom and Curly deflowers Lisa with his knife. The shock kills Lisa, while Margaret flees in terror, out the window of the bathroom and onto the rocks below. The killers stuff Lisa's body out the window of the train and get off at the soonest stop, where the woman seeks medical attention for a laceration she suffered in the commotion. Unbeknownst to them, the doctor is Lisa's father, who discovers exactly who he is treating...

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Second Verse Same as the First

Kurt Russell in Escape from LA

Back when Escape from L.A. (1996, directed by John Carpenter) was in theaters, a friend of mine suggested that John Carpenter, Kurt Russell, and the late Debra Hill had photocopied the screenplay for Escape from New York, whited out all mentions of New York, and penciled "L.A." in its place. Certainly, the scenario is the same, if adapted for the left coast. The two films are similar, too, in so far as they're both films with ideas that exceed the reach of their available resources. This is perhaps an exaggeration. Escape from New York was a far more serious-minded exploitation film than its sequel. Escape from L.A., on the other hand, seems like some kind of demonic parody of the original film, of tough-guy action pictures in general, and of the body politic in 1996.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Another Roadside Massacre

100 Bloody Acres

100 Bloody Acres (2012, directed by Cameron and Colin Cairns) is one of those rural massacre movies that grew up in the American South, only to take root worldwide. This one is set in Australia, where the bush is prone to drive folks a bit looney. The Cairns are completely aware of the cinematic tradition in which they're working, and they're certainly not above throwing in references to other movies, but they don't do it in a lazy, self-referential manner. Instead, they weave it into a running thread of black comedy. There has always been a strain of ghoulish humor in this kind of movie, and this one embraces that with a gusto.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

There's No Time Like the Present

Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller in The Spectacular Now

I normally don't believe the teenagers in most films about teenagers. Hollywood teens aren't like any teens I've ever met, even back when I was one. So it comes as a surprise that I believed the teens in The Spectacular Now (2013, directed by James Ponsoldt) implicitly. There's a level of verisimilitude in this movie that's so unusual for films of its type that it's a shock to see it on screen. Movies are almost never this clear-eyed and candid about what it's like to be a teenager.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Duplication Errors

Come Out and Play

Call it the Psycho dilemma: The danger that, when closely remaking a given film, you will miss some animating ka that gave the earlier film life. Gus Van Sant's Psycho is almost (though not quite) a frame for frame recreation of Hitchcock's film, but there's some spark of life that's missing. It's a film that sits dead on the screen. It's a bit like the kid in Pet Semetary. He looks like the living kid, but he's dead inside, and worse. He's possessed of something rancid and awful. Another such film is last year's Come Out and Play (2012, directed by Makinov), an ill-advised remake of Who Can Kill a Child? In both it's broad outlines and in its particulars, this is the same damned movie. Like Vince Vaughn's Norman Bates and the kid in Pet Semetary, something has been lost and replaced by something...wrong.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Carrion Comfort Food

Cockneys vs. Zombies

After sitting through Cockneys vs. Zombies (2012, directed by Matthias Hoene), I think I'm going to take a long vacation from zombie movies. This one doesn't do anything that Shaun of the Dead didn't do better, even taking into account this film's greater willingness to indulge in over the top gore. I'm sure that teenage gore hounds out there will love this film even though its best gag is a retread of Day of the Dead. I was bored by it.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Dispatches from the Void

Europa Report

As I was saying a couple of days ago, the "found footage" film appears to be here to stay. Here's another example. Europa Report (2013, directed by Sebastián Cordero) is a hardcore science fiction film that uses the form to ratchet up the dread as a crew of intrepid astronauts investigate the possibilities of life on Jupiter's icebound moon, Europa. This is a film that demonstrates the fact that science fiction and horror were born as conjoined twins and were never quite separated into tidy, discreet individuals.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Don't Worry, Be Happy

Luis Tosar in Sleep Tight

Jaume Balaguero is a horror filmmaker who knows the value of cruelty. His films aren't content to just knife the viewer in the small of the back: he likes to twist the knife a couple of times for good measure. Nowhere is this more evident than in the ending of Sleep Tight (2011), which is as nihilistic an image as is possible given that it's a shot of a mother holding her son. It's a brutal movie that manages its brutality with surprisingly little violence. Physical violence, in any case. Emotional violence? Oh, mercy!

Monday, October 14, 2013

War is Hell

Frankenstein's Army

A friend of mine designs role playing games. When I mentioned that I was watching Frankenstein's Army (2013, directed by Richard Raaphorst), she told me that it's a game movie. She compared it to a first person shooter--and it's TOTALLY that--but my own preferences in gaming run to table top wargames, where kitbashed monsters like the beasties that inhabit this movie are incredibly common. So, yeah. It's totally a game movie, on multiple levels. I can't call it a fan film, because it has a level of production value that's well beyond what that phrase entails, but the impulses behind both its form and its aesthetic are both derived from fan culture.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

When the World is Running Down...

Brad Pitt in World War Z

World War Z (2012, directed by Marc Forster), which is a zombie film writ large with nearly limitless resources, gets a lot of things right: it has an awareness of the terror that comes when the machine stops. It has an awareness of what it's like to be adrift in a world where you're surrounded by malign forces around every corner. What it does well is what the best zombie movies have always done well. When it rampages off into new territory, though? That's when it gets itself into trouble.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Grave Men

Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis in Burke and Hare

It's appropriate that Burke and Hare (2010), John Landis's long-delayed return to feature filmmaking should bear the name of Ealing Studios. Ealing, after all, made its name with quirky comedies laced with gallows humor in such films as Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Ladykillers, and they produced at least one genuine masterpiece of a horror film in Dead of Night. Even at their sunniest, Ealing's films often had a whiff of Halloween about them, even if they never really went in for the kinds of shocks Hammer Studios would pioneer a decade later. Hammer's biggest star, Christopher Lee is in this film, and thus acts as a bridge between their traditions, while adding a touch of class and a smidgen of horror movie cred to a film that's a sweet-tempered black comedy at its heart.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

A Chinese Connection

Louis Koo in Drug War

Johnnie To's Drug War (2012) finds the director working in Mainland China for the first time. As such, he's had to make the demands of the mainland marketplace. It's a testament to the director's filmmaking savvy that not only hasn't this hindered his ability to put his trademarked noir sensibility on the screen, it may have intensified it. Still, there are some noticeable differences between this film and his usual crime films.

Note: Here there be spoylers.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

A Round on the House

Russell Covey, Richard Coyle, and Ruth Bradley in Grabbers

The premise of Grabbers (2012, directed by John Wright) is what you would get if Ealing Studios back in the early 1950s had been into monster movies. A meteor containing monsters that eat humans crashes off the coast of Erin Island north of Ireland. Humans who are drunk are toxic to the monsters, so bottoms up! It's like Whiskey Galore crossed with It Came from Beneath The Sea. It's ridiculous, of course, as all mash-ups are. Once you get past that, you begin to see its charm.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

It's Only a Movie, It's Only a Movie...

The Act of Killing

It seems almost obscene for me to be categorizing The Act of Killing (2012, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer) as any kind of genre film, given that its subjects are men who committed mass murder with impunity in the 1966 Indonesian civil war, but the film itself invites the viewer to deal with the horror it's depicting through the lens of film. Its conceit is that the men involved recreate their atrocities on film. The result, as both the global project that is The Act of Killing and the scenes within authored by its subjects is a derangement that you might get if Abbas Kairostami, Alejandro Jodorowski, and John Waters had collaborated on a mondo documentary. This is a tough film to watch.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Disease Vectors

Caleb Landry Jones and Sarah Gadon in Antiviral

It's always hard for children of titanic fathers to step out of the shadows of their legacies. Some children make dramatic breaks--Duncan Jones, for instance, is making movies that don't resemble anything Bowie in the least. Some children carry on the family business: Arlo Guthrie, for instance, or Sophia Coppola. This is the path chosen by Brandon Cronenberg, son of David, whose debut feature, Antiviral (2012) is exactly the sort of psychoplasmic nightmare with which his father once made his name. Like those films, this is intellectual, distant, clinical, and creepy as all get out.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Lost Horizons

Event Horizon

Back when Event Horizon (1997, directed by Paul W.S. Anderson) was first in theaters, a friend of mine came back from a first-night showing and absolutely raged at how stupid it was. Such was his vitriol that I eventually passed on it. I never did catch up to it in the years since. Now I find myself approaching it with apprehension. The premise--which my friend detailed with the loving umbrage of the truly offended--is genuinely silly: The first interstellar spacecraft--equipped with a gravity drive that folds space and allows it to use an extra-dimensional shortcut to bypass the speed limit imposed by relativity--mysteriously vanishes on its first voyage. Seven years later, it reappears in orbit around Neptune, having, literally, gone through hell. Yes, hell. H-E-double toothpicks. As a literal place.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Pit of Despair

The Hole (2009)

For a film that plays squarely in the realm of young adult horror, Joe Dante's The Hole (2009) goes to some very dark places. I mean, this is a movie for people who grew up reading Goosebumps and watched movies like Poltergeist or Arachnophobia or Gremlins (natch) on long autumn Saturdays back when Reagan was president. Had this been made back then, this likely would have had the imprimatur of Amblin and Steven Spielberg. It might even have been directed by Dante himself. But this film is different from the films Dante made in those halcyon days: more introspective, more in touch with psychological horror than with the antic possibilities of cinema. It's more of a horror movie than any of Dante's features since The Howling. That's a long stretch of time.

Friday, October 04, 2013

Damned If You Do

Joséphine de La Baume in Kiss of the Damned

The obvious touchstone for Xan Casavettes's 60s vampire pastiche, Kiss of the Damned (2012) is Jean Rollin, who made vampire movies and other horror movies that straddle the art house and the grindhouse, and most of the writing I've seen about the film makes that connection early and often. What's perhaps under-perceived is the debt this film owes to the surrealists and the symbolists. The roots of the Euro-vampire film, whether lowbrow trash like Jess Franco's Vampyros Lesbos or upscale trash like Roger Vadim's Blood and Roses are not found in Hammer films or Murnau, but are rather derived from Cocteau (particularly L'enfants Terribles, his collaboration with Jean-Pierre Melville), Franju, and Alain Resnais, whose Last Year at Marienbad contains the same kind of dream logic and vaguely erotic ennui that permeates its more sanguinary descendants. Marienbad provides the art-vampire film with one of it's signature performers in Delphine Seyrig, who would later star in Harry Kumel's Daughters of Darkness in a performance that is intended to invoke her work for Resnais. Kiss of the Damned is (self-)aware of this tradition, and isn't coy about cluing the audience into it. In an early scene, for instance, it conflates Viridiana with a vampire movie on late-night television. In another, its heroine meets the object of her desire in a late-night video store that still has VHS tapes on the shelf. It's a funny wink and a nod, though the film is generally deadly serious. This is a film out of its time and it knows it, and its great misfortune is to appear after decades of tragic neurasthenic vampires have crowded the marketplace. But then again, Anne Rice was influenced by Jean Rollin, too.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

In Dreams I Walk With You...

Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger in Nightmare on Elm Street 4

I lost track of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies somewhere in the mid-eighties. I saw the first three in the theater and then never got around to another one until New Nightmare. I'm not really a fan of the series, though I do like the New Nightmare quite a bit--I think it's Wes Craven's best film, actually. In truth, I haven't even thought much about the series in the years since. So the fourth entry, A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Master (1988, directed by Renny Harlin) was terra incognito for me. I'm hazy on which characters are held over from the third movie, but it doesn't matter much. They're all meat for the grinder.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

All Politics is Local

Emraan Hashmi in Shanghai

There are two musical interludes in Dibakar Banerjee's Shanghai (2012). I can't say that they aren't jarring, because they totally are. I mean, I get it. This is an Indian film and hews to the conventions of its cinematic tradition. Bollywood is hard to escape. But, man, there's a serious cognitive dissonance involved. This film is dark and political and gritty, and then suddenly, we're in the middle of a Bollywood musical? In retrospect, the musical numbers actually work in context, but the change in tone is enough to give one whiplash.

An Arm and a Leg

Katharine Isabelle in American Mary

As it flies off the rails in its second half, all I could think while I was watching American Mary (2012, directed by Jen and Sylvia Soska) was, "How could this film NOT fly of the rails?" This is a film that thrives on transgression. It's the rare film that can forge transgression for its own sake into something coherent and satisfying and integrated, and this isn't that film. In spite of that, it's fun film to follow down the rabbit hole.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

A Bird of Ill Omen

Robert Redford and Cliff Robertson in Three Days of the Condor

Three Days of the Condor (directed by Sydney Pollack) was made in 1975, right after the first oil shocks and in the aftermath of Watergate. At the time, its conspiracy theory was thought to be ridiculously far-fetched, indistinguishable from other strains of lefty paranoia. From a vantage point in 2013, it's a movie that seems unusually prescient, with its secret plans to invade the middle east and its shadowy intelligence shenanigans. That parts of the film are set in the World Trade Center underline this with a dread that the filmmakers could never have foreseen.