Tuesday, September 29, 2009

C.H.U.D. (1984)

After reviewing C.H.U.D. last year I was afraid to re-visit any of my cherished kid movies for a while...what would happen if it turns out ICE PIRATES with Robert Urich isn't as good either?! #9 in the 3/4 done Hail Horror 4 prelude.


C.H.U.D. is a great example of how time can play tricks on the mind. I hadn't seen the film since I was a kid, maybe 15, 16 years old. All I could remember was the unbelievably awesome acronym: Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers. Which pretty much said it all, really. The only other thing I recalled was really bad, tongue-in-cheek kind of humor.

I couldn't have been more wrong.

Not about it being bad; C.H.U.D. is pretty awful. But its awfulness stems from its absolute earnestness around the plot. This is a damn serious movie, despite how tacky and cheesy it is at times. And it gets even weirder when you see such stars as Daniel Stern, John Heard, and even a brief appearance by John Goodman, who can't hide his charm even when he's playing a loser cop at a diner for less than a minute of screen time.

For those of you that blocked it out of your minds, C.H.U.D. is about a group of missing persons in the city, mostly homeless people called "undergrounders," who live in the sewer systems. When a cop's wife also goes missing, he begins an investigation involving the head of a soup kitchen (Stern, in full afro mode) and a photographer (Heard) who had made a name for himself shooting a series of photo essays on the homeless. They eventually learn that a bill to move toxic waste through the city was being appealed , and in the meantime the waste has been just sitting there, underground. Slowly the Undergrounders have been turning into vicious radioactive monsters who are no longer content to remain underground. C.H.U.D. is the name given to the creatures in a classified file on the beasts.

There are som gross-out moments, mostly focusing on bodies ripped in half and one scene where a clogged shower drain suddely shoots out a geyser of blood that rivals A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET's classic Johnny Depp death scene. But the C.H.U.D.'s are very much Man-in-Suit types: you can envision where the zippers are. I read one review where they likened the creatures to Sloth in THE GOONIES, which isn't really too far off the mark. Their eyes glow like big orange bulbs, they jump out and pose menacingly before killing you, and in one bizarre case they stretch their necks out in some weird, phallic pose that's outright laughable:

Stern and Heard are both pretty decent considering what they're up against - Heard in particular tries to wring everything he can out of his scenes with his pregnant girlfriend. But that's not enough for a movie tries too hard to send multiple social messages instead of just being scary good fun.

In the end you get strangled dogs, decapitated homeless people, and lots of hands coming out of man hole covers. You find out that C.H.U.D. in fact stands for something other than Cannibalisitic Humanoid Underground Dwellers, but you won't care because in the end that's what it HAS to stand for; it's the best thing about the movie.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Hatchet (2007)

A couple notes concerning my review of HATCHET, #8 in the prelude to Hail Horror 4. It was written in response to a film request from a friend of mine, and was viewed (and reviewed) while more than a little intoxicated. I decided not to revise it, as that would possibly entail me having to re-watch the film again. Writer/Director Adam Green is currently being hailed as one of the rising stars of horror, and I have to admit that his collection of shorts done with Joe Lynch (WRONG TURN 2) for this year's FrightFest are wickedly funny, so it's possible I just wasn't in the mood for this kind of thing when I saw it.

Or maybe not. It could just suck.
NOTE: I should mention that in hindsight the character of the swamp guide was so ridiculous he made me laugh. So factor that in when you decide whether or not to see HATCHET.

This one's for Sean, who loaded up his Netflix queue with horror films he was interested in and told me to take my pick. So before I talk about 2007's HATCHET, directed by Adam Green, here is a personal message to Sean:

"Hi Sean! Hope you're doing well - Jack misses you, so stop by soon! Oh, and by the way - you have some fantastic horror films in your queue. At a glance I can whole-heatedly recommend films like ROGUE, DANCE OF THE DEAD (obviously) BASKET CASE (which I hope to review next week), the original BLACK CHRISTMAS, and GINGER SNAPS, which I adore. Please, PLEASE consider these options very carefully before taking a look at HATCHET. You've been warned..."

Why do I say that? Because the poster's tag line of "Old Fashioned American Horror" roughly translates to "low-budget 80's throwaway that stars someone who looks and acts roughly like the dude who stars in that show Chuck". And while I can understand the film as a sort of reaction to the glut of PG-13 stuff that passes itself off as "horror" nowadays, HATCHET relies on simple devices like silly music and purposeful overacting for humor that feels more tired than funny. And the horror, when it does come, is pretty much like everything else you've seen in the mid 80's, just not as scary. Or good.

In short: a motley crew of tourists take an illegal nighttime cruise in the swamps of New Orleans where they're terrorized by Victor Crowley, a deformed giant who was supposedly killed as a child when, after a childhood prank burns down his home, his father mistakenly slams a hatchet in his face trying to save him by breaking the door down. You have your lanky hero, a pair of porno starlets and their sleazy director, the hot loner chick who will eventually have a tender moment with said hero, and the obligatory black sidekick who's main role is to scream and toss off unfunny one-liners. That's it. People get picked off one by one in gore-infested ways until only one remains.

Or maybe not, because every horror movie nowadays needs that little "jump" at the end that was probably the first thing thought of by the screenwriter. And I'll admit that the ending to HATCHET is sly and kind of cool, but definitely not worth sitting through 90 minutes to get to. Very brief cameos by genre vets Robert "Freddy Krueger" Englund and Tony "Candyman" Todd bring a little life but are in for too short a time to make any difference. Huge gaps in internal logic pervade every decision made in the film, the power of Victor Crowley is inconsistent and although the gore is pretty impressive for such a low-budget movie, the murder scenes are shot in an over-the-top in a way that borders on the ridiculous.

Maybe drunk with a bunch of friends who don't care about anything other than tits and blood (both are offered in copious amounts) is the way to watch HATCHET. It doesn't have any of the terror that the movies it prides itself on being a part of (e.g. FRIDAY THE 13th, etc..) have, so what promises to be a refreshing change from the typical instead finds itself barely retreading water from 25 years instead of 5.


Re-Cycle (2006)

Business travel got the better of me, so pardon the lack of reviews over the past few days. I'll get a few up today, starting with this horror/fantasy from the Pang Brothers, who brought us THE EYE a few years back. #7 in our ramp-up to Hail Horror 4.
In a weird, unsuccessful way the Pang Brothers are kind of hot in Hollywood right now. Having made a name for themselves in Asia with films like THE EYE and BANGKOK DANGEROUS, they made their US directing debut with the poorly received THE MESSENGERS, which tried to mix elements of the traditional "J-Horror" with a more Midwestern, American vibe. Both THE EYE and, more recently, BANGKOK DANGEROUS, have been given Hollywood makeovers, with the latter being adapted by the brothers themselves.

Surprise: the films tanked, and yet we still get a Region 1 release of their 2006 horror/fantasy film RE-CYCLE. Reuniting them with their EYE star Angelica Lee, I saw some incredible stills a few years ago but despaired of it ever coming around this neck of the woods. Although guilty of a few abrupt shifts in tone and editing, and some obvious CGI, RE-CYCLE turns out to be an interesting mix of ideas, taking the ghostly scares from horror and borrowing heavily from fantasy fare like THE WIZARD OF OZ and THE NEVERENDING STORY, layering fantastical images one upon the other.

Lee plays Ting-yin, a successful novelist whose new book, Re-Cycle, is a supernatural departure from her usual love stories. She begins to concoct her tale: a young woman with long hair being haunted, but writer's block and personal complications cause her to throw away her notes in frustration. Soon after she begins to notice strange things in her apartment: long strands of hair left on the counter, and movement out of the corner of her eye. The Pang Brothers shoot everything with an alarming clarity, often using extreme close-ups of everyday objects to emphasize the tension in the scene. They do well with the ghostly images as well: in one tense scene Ting-yin puts her head down to listen to odd noises emanating from her answering machine. When she picks her head back up, a blurry ghost head pick up its head a second later.

She later meets with an old lover who abandoned her years ago for another woman he got pregnant. Upset at the encounter and still freaked out over the disturbances in her apartment Ting-yin becomes lost, transported to a nightmarish world where everything deserted and abandoned winds up, and is being pursued by the remnants of the very character she tossed aside in the trash.

There are plenty of scare of the "jump" variety in RE-CYCLE, but the real fun comes in the Gilliam-esque (not really a word, but you know what I mean) images and scenery the Pang Brothers create. Seemingly right out of films like BARON MUNCHAUSIN and BRAZIL, we're treated to a basement straight of some urban version of Dante's Inferno, where evil things stutter and scream in darkened spaces, a building constructed entirely of books, a land of broken toys, and a decrepit amusement park impossibly situated between two apartment buildings:

An old man and a young girl aid her in her quest to return to the real world, and to tell you who these people are would be to spoil a large part of the movie. There's also a very disturbing section of the film where a significant abandonment issue is addressed, and we see that the implications of this episode have consequences that color the rest of the movie. Upon RE-CYCLE's release there was a lot of controversy around the film, many saying it was a thinly-veiled jab at abortion rights. But I think that's giving the film more of a reach than was intended - it feels much more like a narrative ploy to tie everything together into an obligatory "shock" ending. Which works, even if it's constructed out of ideas and images that are best taken as the stuff of dream and night terror rather than any tangible sense of reality.

From a purely visual perspective I enjoyed RE-CYCLE. There were more than couple nice scares (again, it was the "loud noise and jump" variety but that's okay) and there's plenty of eye-candy on display - Color and its conspicuous absence are used masterfully throughout the movie and everyone does a fine acting job. If you enjoy your horror or fantasy with a healthy dose of the industrial, give RE-CYCLE a try. There's more than enough there to keep you entertained.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Dance of the Dead (2008)

I really like DANCE OF THE DEAD. If there is a spiritual successor to Fred Drekker and NIGHT OF THE CREEPS, this is it. #6 in the ramp-up for Hail Horror 4.
DANCE OF THE DEAD is one of a number of low-budget horror films published under Lionsgate Film's Ghost House Underground banner, similar to the 8 Films to Die For series from After Dark Films. What you usually get with these films is a bunch of amateur, less-than-worthwhile DTV movies and maybe, just maybe, a little jewel in the rough.

Maybe it's because it hit all my teenage geek buttons, but DANCE OF THE DEAD is a fast-paced, offbeat and funny take on high school movies and zombie movies. All the beats from both genres are present and accounted for, but what moves them from simple cliche to something more is the amount of fun charm and sincerity the film offers from its (for once) age-appropriate stars, loads of ridiculous gore, and a writer/director team that knows it's all in good fun.

Is there really a need to explain what's going on in the movie? You can probably figure it out just by looking at the poster: the dead start coming back to life just in time to ruin a small town's prom, and it's up to the losers, cheerleaders, and rockers to band together and save everyone. Not a lot is made of the cause of the zombie's arrival - you just assume that it's due to the ominous nuclear power plant that's stationed right next to the town:

It's silly and that's what makes it work. Writer Joe Ballerini wrote the script while in college, and describes it as a "rock-n-roll zombie film" in the vein of things like EVIL DEAD, MONSTER SQUAD and GOONIES rather than the traditional George A. Romero zombie films. So zombies literally launch out of their graves and land at a dead run, most of the adults can't do anything, and rock and roll has the power to save the day. Again, literally. At one point zombies are about to kill a garage band who didn't get picked to play the prom and, as they back up in terror accidentally hit their instruments. The sound causes the zombies to stop, and in order to save their lives they play for 5 hours until the main heroes come to their rescue.

All the actors do a fantastic job of really playing kids. Jared Kusnitz plays Jimmy Dunn, the smart-ass loafer who finds his purpose bashing zombies and proving to his girlfriend who's Student Council VP that he's worth her time. His friend Kevin is part of the sci-fi club, and his awkward attempts to ask cheerleader Gwen to the prom with his geek friends egging him on is so dead-on it's hilarious. But the big surprise to me was that the redneck bully who (of course) turns out to be a descent guy is played by Justin Welborn, who starred in the last film I reviewed, THE SIGNAL. Here he's obviously not your average teenager, but his older look plays really well - I think we all had that guy in school who was at least 6 years older and had failed so many times it was like having your uncle in you classroom. The supporting charcaters making up the sci-fi club and the rock band are also fantastic, and play the types so well it was like 1990 all over again back in my high school.

Don't go into DANCE OF THE DEAD looking for logic. Things don't make a lot of sense, the kids throw away lines like Catskill comedians, and there's that whole rock music stopping zombies thing. But that's also what makes DANCE OF THE DEAD such a fun movie. Definitely the type of thing I'd recommend watching with a bunch of friends and a couple beers. You won't be disappointed. There's shades of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, EVIL DEAD 2, and every 90's High School starring Jennifer Love Hewitt or someone like her. See it. You'll laugh, and you'll cheer. And if you're anything like me, you'll probably sing along to "Shadows of the Night" and admit that you would gone into the bathroom with Gwen too at that age, just like Kevin did. And when what happened to him happens to you, you'll agree it was totally worth it.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Signal (2007)

THE SIGNAL is a surprising little slice of indie horror that tries its hand at a different structure than we're used to in mainstream horror, and a great fifth entry in the prelude to Hail Horror 4.
Do films like THE SIGNAL count as being part of the "Zombie Craze" that's infected (heh!) movie studios and publishing houses over the past few years? A lot of people thought we were stretching it by allowing 20 DAYS LATER and its sequel through the door (I loved both, by the way), but here we have something else, a strange cousin to Stephen King's Cell, which was about a signal emitted from everyone's cell phone that turned all who hear into into blood-crazed lunatics. King played the novel as a laugh, albeit a cautionary one; THE SIGNAL, an experiment in collaborative film making by three writer/directors, takes a similar road with similar results.

THE SIGNAL is divided into three acts or transmissions, all centering around a mysterious signal emitted via electronic devices. Phones, radios, television... all carry a virus that turns the listener or the watcher into a cold, rational killer. And there's the hook that bypasses this from a simple 28 DAYS LATER clone and into something that walks out into a new direction - all the blood-crazed killers are perfectly aware of what they're doing - they just think it's the exact right thing to do.

The intro is a take on the schlock 70's-80's grindhouse movie - bold, bright credits and a movie-within-the-movie of two bloodied women attempted to flee from a killer in the woods. But spliced into the sequence is the signal, which draws us into the movie proper, where Mya (deliciously cute Anessa Ramsey) and Ben (maybe not as cute to me, but I'll cop to "charismatic" Justin Welborn) are cuddling after a post-coital affair. Having to return to a husband she no longer loves, he begs her to run away with him: meet him tomorrow night, New Year's Eve, at Terminal 13 at the Terminus (apropos city name) train station. He shyly gives her a mix CD, and she leaves. They both notice that the phones don't work, and the television seems to be on the fritz. Thinking nothing of it, Mya heads home.

Immediately THE SIGNAL does a fantastic job of laying the foreboding in. People wander aimlessly in the halls of Mya's apartment building, and the violence, when it finally erupts, does so after a chilling build-up where we being to suspect that, had May's husband Lewis not been triggered by the signal, he still would potentially be an insane bastard. Transmission 1 involves Mya's escape from the apartment building, and her eventual decision to try and meet up with Ben at the train station. The budget is small, but this section wrings every ounce of tension it can out of the better-than-average acting, snappy editing, and brief substitutions of logic for the sublime. Venturing out of a neighbor's apartment she's hidden out in, Mya puts on her headphones, plays Ben's mix and determinedly walks down a corridor strewn with dead bodies and blood. It's frankly ridiculous, but the way it's filmed and the way the music evokes the mood she's trying to savor, that of her night with Ben, works like a charm.

Transmission 2, ostensibly still following the story, takes a HUGE left-hand turn, becoming a black comedy, with the focus on "comedy." And it's actually really damn funny. Mya's husband Lewis takes center stage as he attempts to track her down. He crosses paths with a perky woman trying to throw a New Year's party and her landlord. Bodies begin to pile up, and as things become more and more out of hand the more I found myself laughing. This is both THE SIGNAL'S triumph and it's burden. I would love to have see a movie comprised of the first and third act. I would loved to have seen a movie comprised of just the second act. But with the abrupt shift in gears THE SIGNAL has to really fight to get the steam it built back in time for Transmission 3.

The original mood and thread of the story is picked up again in Transmission 3. Situations come to a head, we learn that the signal may or may not be able to be controlled and even channeled, and things end on a happy note. Or maybe not. Because THE SIGNAL uses flashbacks and flash-forwards like Lost on steroids. The operative word is on "flash" - the brief flashes of time sometimes are readily apparent as past or future, and sometimes things a a little harder to piece out. And by firmly focusing on a very small group of people and how they handle their situation rather than throw meaningless theories as to the nature of the signal (they do that, but it's more of a passing thought than a significant aspect of the movie), the people behind THE SIGNAL get a lot more things right than they do wrong.

You can watch THE SIGNAL just for the solid horror story and get a lot out of it. Or, you can choose to read into things a bit more (is the signal sending the violent impulses or is it just amplifying our natural tendencies?), but either way THE SIGNAL is a shining example of what horror can do without catering to a the lowest denominator or kow-towing to the ratings board. If you're into horror or apocalyptic movies, definitely check it out.

* No screen-grabs this time: I watched this on my laptop courtesy of Netflix Instant Browsing. Hooray!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Kairo (2001)

#4 in Celluloid Moon's ramp-up to Hail Horror 4 is a personal favorite of mine, a paranoid, disturbing classic from Kiyoshi Kurasawa. If you haven't seen KAIRO, get out there and rectify the situation ASAP - it's great.
After what feels like 100 Hollywood remakes of what's commonly referred to as "J-Horror" or Asian Horror (despite not all coming from Japan), typically starring hot young actors straight from the CW (or WB back in the day, y'all), you'd be forgiven for forgetting what was so fresh and unique about the genre in the first place. Part of the problem is due to the (mostly) low-quality remakes (I know a lot of people will argue for THE RING, but for my money it was "meh"), but another stems from the immediate glut of copycat films that appeared from all over Asia after the success of films like RINGU and JU-ON: THE GRUDGE.

So to remind myself exactly why films had the impact they did, I went back to one of the ones that started it all: 2001's KAIRO, also known as PULSE (and remade as such in Hollywood in 2006). Directed with careful skill and a palpable sense of dread by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, KAIRO moves beyond its trappings of balletic, long haired ghosts and timid heroines to become an an apocalyptic nightmare stemming from our disconnection from one another concurrently with the rise of technology. And because of its refusal to explain itself, its insistence on moving at its own measured, ominous pace, it stands as one of the truly terrifying examples of the genre.

Although the plot of KAIRO is relatively simple, its presentation is complex. In a nutshell, ghosts are somehow using the Internet to escape their purgatory and come back to Earth. Witnesses to this exodus are driven into severe depressions, eventually turning to suicide or simply fading away, leaving an eerie black stain near their final throes. One explanation given for this is the limited space in Hell or wherever the dead are, so they're spilling over into our world. Even those who succumb to the ghosts' presence and die are doomed to linger in the corners of our world. None if this is made definitive in KAIRO: the point is to scare you, and Kurosawa does that in spades, using the sounds of dial-up as birthing pangs for the spirits, as well as pictures that imply something dreadful, even though no one's ever sure what exactly the pictures are showing:

As more and more people come into contact with the spirits and die, the city starts to empty out, and the dread continues to ratchet up. Kurosawa makes a habit of emphasizing our distance from one another by filming many scenes through some kind of barrier - a transparent tarp, a computer screen, a series of window frames. Most of his locations are cold and industrial, lacking any warmth or sense of life. Even the rooftop plant store where the main characters work is completely overshadowed by the gray skies and cold concrete. The only real flash flash of color comes from the red construction tape that begins to mysteriously show up, sealing off windows and door frames. Someone has discovered that the red tape will seal the spirits in and prevent them from spreading. Woe to the unwary person who crosses that portal:

Another great trick in Kurosawa's bag is the use of reflections and screens to cast a pall of despair and mystery over the events. Unclear forms are seen on blank television screens. Computer monitors shows choppy video of unknown entities shambling back and forth in a daze, oftentimes parts of them fading as if there's a hiccup in the video. One of the most effective examples of this comes in the beginning of KAIRO: a news broadcast about a message in a bottle that was discovered after being at sea for 10 years suddenly freezes. The top of the newscaster's head is cleanly missing like a tear in the video...except that we can see the wall behind his head:

As the city becomes less and less populated - a "ghost town" in every sense of the word, we discover that the phenomena is not localized to Japan - the entire world is suffering from a massive influx of the dead. Human connection, the contact between people supposedly made so easy by the advent of the Internet has now become the conduit for the acknowledgment of our our further isolation. The people touched by the ghosts slowly have this realization eat them from the inside - at one point one of the victims, not yet dead, starts to groan and gesture. And what is at first mistaken for the onset of the victim's transformation into the hideous black stain is, in fact, a startled cry for connection, even if it comes too late.

Beset with nightmarish scenes and shots that refuse to offer solace, with an outlook for our society that's bleak in the best of circumstances, KAIRO is a tremendous horror film that isn't content to just frighten us. Using a poetry of visuals it dares to reflect a very possible future in our world of LCD screens and not as a ghost, but as someone yearning for contact.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Phenomena (1985)

I remember the ads for the butchered American version of this film when I was a kid, and was always fascinated. Seeing the unedited version now is a welcome hoot. Enjoy the fourth entry in the prelude to Hail Horror 4:
Dario Argento is one of those filmmakers you can't help but run across if you're looking at horror. A disciple of Hitchcock and one of the people to bring the giallo genre to a much wider audience, his films are a classic example of perspective. To his advocates they're surreal nightmares, relying more on dream logic than anything resembling reality. To his detractors his work is derivative, dated, poorly acted, and otherwise nonsensical. But I think that's not giving the man his due: Argento's carved out a very specific niche for himself and, with limited ways and means constantly manages to churn out arresting visuals and ideas.

My first memory of PHENOMENA was its initial release in the 80's as CREEPERS. Shortened by almost 30 minutes, it was lambasted for not making any sense, although it did introduce many male audience members to the lovely attributes of Jennifer Connelly. The plot may be thin and slightly silly, but it's only the hook on which Argento's visuals are hung. The film opens with a young Danish girl missing her tour bus and going for help to a house on the hillside. Something's amiss: chains bolted to the wall start snapping as if some feral beast is struggles to break free. Well, break free it does, and the chain wind up wrapped around the tourist's throat. An enormous pair of scissors drop to floor, and it's one of Argento's signature shots:

A little stabbing and decapitating, and she dead, her severed head found almost nine months later. The time of death is determined by the cycle of insects that feed off the remains, the "Eight Squadrons of Death," as detailed by Donald Pleasence, who keeps a monkey. More on this later. This dialog with some police gives us our first taste of insects, and then we slingshot to Connelly, playing a young girl named Jennifer (ah ha!) going to stay at a Swiss academy/boarding school while her famous father is away. A car ride with a bee demonstrates a peculiar bond with the insect world. But the powers don't stop there. Her first night at the academy she experiences a strange vision and, in a somnambulist state, visits an old house where she witnesses a murder. Earlier the murdered girl is seen being pursued by the unknown killer, and Argento makes the odd choice of scoring the scene to Iron Maiden's "Flash of the Blade" thereby cementing my love for the movie. One of the signature shots of any Argento movie are the super-clear close-ups of the items of death. Before we saw the scissors; this time we're treated to the assembly of a surgical spear, which is used to dispatch the girl in another grisly manner.

Things continue to get screwy from here. Jennifer runs away from the scene, is hit by a car and then, as they drive away with her, attempt to molest her. She refuses, and they push her out of the car.

Yeah. At this point I was saying "WTF?" too.

Well have no fear, because it gets stranger. Jennifer meets up with Donald Pleasence's doctor again, and he and his monkey make her feel right at home. The monkey even takes her up an elevator system to get her a warm coat. When she returns to the academy, she's taken for crazy and is forced to submit to an EKG.

At this point logic has pretty much flown the coop, but everything is so interesting that you forgive the lapses in sanity and questionable motivations. The dialog is corny but oftentimes imbued with a hokey humor that's infectious. When the frigid headmistress admonishes her girls, "What about Shakespeare? What about Richard Wagner?" one girl screams back "Richard GERE!"

When Jennifer's roommate is pursued, the dreams begin again. The camera rushes through a white, oddly geometric corridor, meant to signify Jennifer's descent into the dream state. She wakes herself up, though not in time to save her friend Sophie (and not in time to put any clothes, opting for some seriously sexy lingerie). A lightning bug comes and guides her along to a prog-rockin' soundtrack courtesy of Argento stalwarts Goblin. A clue is discovered, and another arresting image: a close-up of Jennifer's hand reaching through the brush to pick up a piece of cloth:

Throughout PHENOMENA shots are over lit, colors are over- or under-utilized, sounds jumps up out of nowhere. Even if the story is sedate, the way it's filmed is exciting and sprightly. The camera moves everywhere, and all of this is put to use when Jennifer is later tormented by her fellow classmates, only to pull an awesome CARRIE moment. Calmly saying "I love you. I love ALL of you," she summons all the insects to her, and the following scene of the hording over the building is a pretty classic moment. She's comforted afterwards by Pleasence, who gives her a magical insect, telling her to use it as a magic wand and find the bodies of the dead girls.

So finally the two plot pieces connect, although why it's the role of a young girl to go after the killer is a question best left to the side. The last half our or so drags a bit - there's no doubt some judicious cutting and editing would have made PHENOMENA an even better movie than it is. Suckered into going home with the killer (killers?) the climax is again scored to Iron Maiden, which is really disconcerting to the movie but entertaining if you happen to be, well, me. Hidden passageways are found, a game of pole fishing is attempted (and failed), the thing that was chained in the beginning puts in an appearance, and a maggot-filled pool of dismembered body parts definitely ensure that things remain creepy and twisted in a way only Argento can really pull off.

Oh, there's also a creepy kid-in-the-corner thing a la BLAIR WITCH that is 100% Grade A Freaky. The insects show to put things right, and then things become even more crazy. And remember the monkey? Oh yeah, he's back, and he is pissed that Donald Pleasence is dead! Although not as famous as his giallo films like DEEP RED or TENEBRE, or his supernatural masterpiece SUSPIRIA, PHENOMENA has more than its share of charm an excitement. Does it make sense? Not really. Does it need to? Not really. Not when it's bat-shit crazy and so much fun to watch. You'll never think of Jennifer Connelly the same again.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Howling (1981)

#2 in our "gearing up for Hail Horror 4" reviews, this one courtesy of wicked Joe Dante, who has a new film, THE HOLE, coming out soon.
NOTE: Unfortunately this review's pretty spoiler-heavy...you've been warned.

When your film's co-written by indie icon John Sayles (who did quite a lot of genre writing for Roger Corman, among others in his early days), you know you're not going to get a straight-up werewolf film. And THE HOWLING is anything but that. You get your horror, but you also get a healthy dose of quasi-psychology/media satire/new age to go along with it, in a movie that (at least to my mind) sits as one of the more unique werewolf films made in recent history.

Genre vet Dee Wallace (CUJO, E.T.) plays Karen White, a television journalist who's been in contact with suspected serial killer Eddie Quist. The beginning of the movie works as a brilliantly styled horror film in itself, providing most of the THE HOWLING's predatory horror while simultaneously setting the stage for what's to come. Quist lures Karen, who's wearing a bug for the police, to a shady adult shop and attempts to kill her while simultaneously forcing her to watch violent porn. He won't let her look at him until he says, and when she does he's obscured by the bright light of the movie projector bulb. But it's obvious there's something not quite right with Eddie, and before he can kill her cops come in and shoot him dead. Director Joe Dante paints everything in the hues of the neon that marks the neighborhood, and the striking imagery of the porn, the mark of a Smiley Face to show Karen the way, and finally the glimpse of Quist, silhouetted by the projector bulb as he caresses Karen is outstanding, illuminating the entire sequence in a garish nightmare lighting that makes the terror more palpable, even as the colors appear more outlandish.

After the "death" of Eddie Quist, Karen begins to suffer from a sort of post traumatic stress and together with her husnband Bill (Christopher Stone) takes a leave from the station to visit the Colony, a "healing retreat" run by Dr. George Waggner, played by Patrick McNee with a knowing smile. And here's where the story picks up and heads to Wacky Town. Turns out the Colony is more than just an experiment in communal healing, it's also the home for a werewolf collective, and Dr. Waggner's true "experiment" is an attempt to have his kind live together on the outskirts of humanity's habitats. As Karen and Bill deal with life, love, and lust in the Colony, her friends Terry and Chris investigate Eddie Quist. They check out his body in morgue, only to find that he's mysteriously disappeared. Pictures of wolves and wolf-men adorn his shabby apartment. A picture of a lake turns out to match a location up in the Colony, and things start to come together.

Although the film is loosely based on the 1977 novel of the same name by Gary Brandner, Dante and Salyes really go out on a limb to provide a werewolf movie that provides a little more substance that what we've seen before. 1981 seems like the year for intelligent werewolf movies, as THE HOWLING sits alongside both WOLFEN and AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, which came out the same year. But while WOLFEN looks toward spirituality and evolution for its substance, and AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON speaks on a host of different topics (and is, not to mention, hilarious), THE HOWLING firmly rests in the balance, or lack thereof, between man's civilized nature versus his more animal, primal side. That it does this in an early 80s mainstream horror flick is no small feat, and is just indicative of the types of things Dante and Sayles would both go off to do separately later on in their careers.

Much is made of the practical effects for the transformations, courtesy of Rob Bottin, who would later trump himself with the excellent John Carpenter re-make of THE THING. Looking at it now, I was reminded of the effects Bottin employed for Dante in his segment of TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE, especially in still #2, where Quist's face takes on that maniacal grin:

Once fully transformed, the werewolves are suitably (ha!) impressive, standing on two legs with long, wolfish snouts as opposed to the Lon Chaney WOLF MAN look. But not everything is bladders and rubber masks. In one scene, as Karen's husband (having previously been bitten) is seduced by a sexy tooth-necklace she-wolf, their love-making induces a transformation, and as we see them by fire and moonlight we're treated to an animated sequence that means well, implying that Bill's (and ours) animal side takes over during sex, but ultimately now looks a little silly. It's just age, I guess - there are a lot of similar effect from older films (FORBIDDEN PLANET comes to mind) that I accept and believe fully, but in light of the great effect work Bottin does elsewhere in the film, this sequence is a bit rough.

Later on things at the Colony come to an inevitable head, as our heroes fight the entire Colony for their survival. We even get a little stop-motion for a few frames that doesn't detract from the film the way the animated sequence did. But Dante serves up his tastiest morsel at the end of the film, and it's a bit of mindfuck for me. With almost everyone dead, Karen and Chris (Terrie's boyfriend) escape, only Karen is bitten at the last minute. Desperate to inform the world of the existence of the beasts, she makes the decision to show the world by transforming ON AIR. It's a great moment, one that stuck in my head for years the first time I saw it. Time, however, plays a bit of a game with your head after so many hears, and I was surprised to find myself laughing when the big reveal happens:

Yes. Dee Wallace transforms into my grandmother's Lhasa Apso. It's one of those moments that you pray won't spoil the sense of dread and surprise THE HOWLING has been building towards all this time, but seeing it now, it's hard not to look and wonder what the reasoning was behind making Wallace look unlike any other werewolf we've seen up to this point.

Nothing, however, can spoil all the greatness THE HOWLING has to offer. I don't think it's Dante's best work by a long-shot, and I can't even say it's the best werewolf movie to come out in 1981 (that honor going to - surprise - AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON). But the ideas behind the movie, the great lighting and tension Dante sets up, especially in the fantastic opening sequence (something that on hindsight isn't really maintained to the same level of excellence throughout the rest of the film), and the effects by Rob Bottin all go a long way toward including this on any Midnight Movie marathon with your friends.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Nosferatu (1922)

As we gear up for Hail Horror 4, I'll be posting the reviews from last year's batch (which originally ran on Geek Monkey). Our first entry is the silent vampire masterpiece from F.W. Murnau:
Although it's considered a "cornerstone of the horror film" it's safe to say that in the early part of the 21st Century the silent classic NOSFERATU by F.W. Murnau probably isn't going to frighten anyone. Or will it? It's been over 80 years since its release, and as an artifact of an earlier time it's beautiful, full of the surreal moments and haunting images that have become legendary for their impact on movies, but scary?

Loosely based on Bram Stoker's classic Dracula (but changed for legal reasons after a battle with the estate of Mr. Stoker) NOSFERATU is the story of young Hutter, who must travel to Transylvania to secure housing for the mysterious Count Orlok in Wisborg, conveniently located across the street from Hutter and his worried bride. He must, as he tells his wife, "travel over the the land of phantoms." Orlok is of course our vampire, our demon of the night, the reason the first paragraph ends in a question instead of a statement is the visceral fear Orlok still manages to illicit after all this time. To this day there's still simply nothing like the indelible image of Max Schreck as the evil blood-sucking freak:

Visually the film is stunning. There is a poetry to Murnau's choice of angles and color tints, moving from golden amber to sickening greens and blues. One of the benefits of silent films was the increased ability of camera movement and placement, and more often than not Murnau chooses what feels like the only angle in which many of the shots could have been done. After a bit of a slow start he also moves the film right along, using a lot of location shooting for realism, which juxtaposes nicely with the surreal, nightmarish moments. Consider our first solid indication of the creature Orlok is, as Hutter stumbles upon his daytime resting place:

Yes, the film belongs to Schreck's titular demon, but the rest of the cast does a fine job as well. Gustav Von Wangenheim has some good scenes as Hutter, particularly when he's trying to escape from Orlok's castle. Hutter's wife, Ellen (played by Greta Schroder) is dazzling, conveying the madness and draw she feels without the benefit of words. There's a wonderful sequence where we see her sleepwalk, her dreams haunted by the vampire while simultaneously Orlok is approaching Hutter for a late night snack. But the focus is Schreck's Orlok, and all the stops are brought out to emphasize the fantastical elements of the creature. The camera stands transfixed as it (and we) watch Orlok single-handedly load coffins of earth onto a horse-drawn carriage (a scene echoed in homage in Don Coscarelli's PHANTASM), placing a final, empty coffin on top, which he promptly crawls into. Some nice stop-motion camera work shows the coffin lid rising up and placing itself in firmly on top and the carriage speeds off for the docks and, ultimately, Hutter's home of Wisborg.

Death pervades the movie - we see (in red tint) a Venus Fly Trap eat an unsuspecting fly. Spiders devour insects caught in their web. Blood and death are constantly remarked upon in conversation. The intertitles play an important part of the film, as do the "narrated" pieces of text from the pages of a diary that has knowledge of the events of NOSFERATU. Echoes of the pieces we commonly associate with the various Dracula movies and books are here, too: the crazy Renfield character, here portrayed by Hutter's employer, a crazed rental agent who suffers over arcane runes and finally winds up in a mental institution screaming "Blood is Life! Blood is Life!" The sleeping in coffins, the rats, the unexplained bites on the neck. Even the arrival of the vampire by ship, and the grisly fate of the ship's crew:

Those not familiar with silent film (or any films from further back then, say, 1960), might easily chalk NOSFERATU down as a "quaint" just because of the time it was made. Don't - it's a mistake to think that Murnau and crew weren't experts in what they were doing - the whole of the film is filled with incredible moments of dream and nightmare, masterfully manipulated with some judicious quick editing, super-imposing images on top of one another, and a wonderful orchestral score by Hans Erdmann. It may not come across as what we would today define as "scary" but as a tone poem of mood NOSFERATU is a masterpiece, combing all the necessary elements of storytelling to depict a nightmare tale of fear and dread, and in its character of Orlok, Nosferatu, ushers in perhaps the most terrifying image of the Vampire to date.

NOTE: There are dozens of versions of NOSFERATU on the shelves, many priced at bargain deals. Most are 3rd and 4th generation VHS and television copies dubbed onto disc. If you're looking for a clean, pristine version of the film, you could do a lot worse than the excellent KINO Ultimate DVD Edition, which features a completely restored version of the film along with the original score newly orchestrated in 5.1 surround sound, numerous documentaries and galleries, as well as the ability to watch the film with the original German intertitles or brand new English intertitles which are seamlessly integrated into the film. It's a little more money at $24.99, but well worth the price.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Prepare For...Hail Horror Year 4!

The skies are beginning to darken, and the fog has settled on the ground. Everything is colder, shades of black and red, and what light there is comes not from the sun, but from eyes that burn with an unnatural glow behind every tree, eyes that look up between the clouds to a moon whose full face betrays a howling laughter as it see what's creeping up behind you...


That's right, October's a few weeks away, which means I'm diving back into the horror pool, watching dozens of horror films both old and new, and failing (as is now Hail Horror Tradition) to review at least half of them. Last year I finally came to the conclusion that any goal I was going to set for myself simply wasn't going to happen - and that realization freed me to have a lot more fun during the month.

Funny thing about last year's marathon, though - it didn't get posted here.

So in order to set the tone and gets things ramped up for the slew of GOOD, BAD, and GREAT titles I have lined up to talk about this year, I'll be posting last year's reviews every couple days. To take a line from NBC's great re-run marketing strategy, "If you haven't read 'em...they're new to you!"

And as always, if you have any requests, let me know! I'm always on the lookout for a great recommendation. Two guidelines:
  1. It can't be a movie I've already reviewed.
  2. It has to be readily available - either at the local theater, store, rental house, or Netflix. I'm not adverse to spending a few bucks to see, rent, or purchase a film, but I'm not going to shell out $39.99 for an obscure Asian import with no subtitles.
For those curious, here's where we left off after the first two three years (click the title to read ):


This Must be an Alternate Dimension...

...How else to explain the fact that I was named-checked by Carrie Rickey, film critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, in the same sentence as Glenn Kenny, an amazing writer and film critic, and someone I've been reading for years?

I'm sure there are a lot of reasons why my name was listed that have nothing to do with my skills (or lack thereof) as a writer: my submission was posted early on in the blog-a-thon, I was the only one who wrote a negative review of a Brian De Palma film, I have a short name that's easy to spell...

You know what? Doesn't matter...I'm pleased as punch, both to have my name listed in the article, but more importantly to have been part of such a great series of articles for Cinema Viewfinder's Brian De Palma Blog-a-thon. Special shout of thank to Tony, whose name should really have been up there.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

"Wild" Things

The New York Times scored some great new pics of Spike Jonze's forthcoming adaptation of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. Check them out here.

I love the above image of Max. This is definitely my most anticipated film of the rest of 2009.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

De Palma Blog-a-thon: Revisiting Mission to Mars

My contribution to Tony's Brian De Palma Blog-a-thon is up over at Cinema Viewfinder. It's a little lightweight compared to the other (excellent) articles up, but I'm still happy with it.

The entire article is re-posted below:

Has there been a Brian De Palma film that tries harder to distance itself from being a "Brian De Palma film" than Mission to Mars? Along with The Bonfire of the Vanities (both, coincidentally, rank at the bottom of De Palma's filmography over at Rotten Tomatoes, with 24% favorable), it seems the least fitted to the themes and styles he's experimented with throughout his career. It also has the dubious personal honor of being one of only two films (the other being Francis Ford Coppola's unfairly maligned Bram Stoker's Dracula) that caused my wife to exclaim mid-film, "This was one of the stupidest movies I've ever seen."

That was nine years ago, when the film was released, and was the moment in time that instigated me to re-visit the film with as part of Cinema Viewfinder's De Palma Blog-A-Thon.

For the uninitiated, Mission to Mars is about a manned mission to the Red Planet (led by Don Cheadle, who's probably the best thing in the movie) that goes south when the team is seemingly attacked by a mysterious presence that results in the exposure of an enormous, alien face carved out of the rock. A crack team comprised of Tim Robbins, Jerry O'Connell, Connie Nielsen and Gary Sinise (who was originally slated to lead the mission until the death of his wife caused him to be taken off the mission), attempt to rescue the mission but wind up crashing on Mars, where they find Cheadle miraculously alive, and discover the mystery behind the stone face and the beings who carved it.

I only recently discovered that Mission to Mars was in part based on a Disney attraction and, in hindsight, makes the overall visual style of the film more understandable, if not better. It opens with a signature De Palma sequence—a single crane shot that slowly weaves its way through a barbecue party for Cheadle and his crew. The camera leisurely weaves its way through the main players, setting up the same tired group stereotyping: the laid back leader and his awesome wife who's almost but not quite as as capable as he is; the wise-cracking stud/comic relief; only cutting away when we get to Gary Sinise—the hot shot damaged hero.

These slow, continuous takes appear throughout Mission to Mars, and it's hard not to be impressed by some of the moments De Palma wrings out of the story. The space station monitoring the mission is introduced in a sequence that echoes the opening shot, tracking down corridors and following the walls until arriving at the command center. Some of the effects shots are particularly good—De Palma wisely backs away from the action, letting the moments unfurl methodically, as when the face's "security system" makes its appearance:

A later scene, inside the stone face, is reminiscent of Kubrick in its pristine, clinical presentation:

But nothing can overcome a script that relies too heavily on tired cliches and superfluous exposition. Plot points are telegraphed miles in advance (did anyone doubt the whole "candy DNA" gag would be important later on?); exposition is crammed into every scene; and even the effective set pieces, such as when the rescue team are forced to abandon their ship and try to manually latch onto to an orbiting satellite before burning up in Mars' atmosphere, are ruined with corny dialogue and over-used exclamations.

All of which is a shame because under all the silliness is an attempt to make an interesting science fiction film, as opposed to a sci-fi popcorn movie. Maybe not GREAT science fiction, but at least something that tries to stand out against what was popular at the time (the similarly dismal Red Planet came out the same year). Mission to Mars fails.

I have to wonder why, seeing it again, what was it in the story or the concept that caused Disney/Touchstone to reach out and say, "You know who'd be a good choice for this? Brian De Palma," and then bury what De Palma is known for doing in a rote, bland movie that was entirely typical of everything else that was out there.

Randoms ("borrowed" from Matt Dessem's wonderful Criterion Contraption)
  • For a science fiction film, there are dozens of odd choices and inaccuracies that pull you out of the film. Movement on the planet feels decidedly ordinary - there is no discernible gravitational difference between Mars and Earth. In the space station, zero gravity asserts itself only when it's needed to provide moments like the candy DNA strand or the dance between Robbins and Nielsen.
  • The oddest choice, the one that pulled me completely out of the film, was the decision to have everyone's voices sound perfectly normal when inside their spacesuits. It sounds like they're all in a room talking together. Quite possibly the best radio reception to ever be used in space.
  • Gary Sinise wears A LOT of eye shadow in this film. It's kind of disturbing.
  • Although parenthood has tempered her vitriol, my wife still hates Mission to Mars, feeling it's actively trying to make her dumber. Note to self: DO NOT ask her to re-visit Bram Stoker's Dracula with you.
Just when you think you're doing something original (like who the heck wants to talk about Mission to Mars?), you find later that someone has indeed done it, and done it better. There's a great article over at Reverse Shot that essentially makes the same points, albeit with more flair and better overall writing ability.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

De Palma Blog-a-thon is ON!

Tony over at Cinema Viewfinder officially launched his De Palma Blog-a-thon. There are two great articles up already, one exploring the De Palma oeuvre and one focusing in on RAISING CAIN. I have one piece submitted (on MISSION TO MARS) which should rear its head in the next couple of days, and there's a possibility I may jump in with a second piece (on BLOW OUT), time permitting. All great stuff - check it out.