Thursday, October 31, 2013

2013 Halloween Movie Roundup: The Greats

Finally, we get down to the good stuff! No, the great stuff. It shouldn’t be surprising that there are far fewer movies on this list than on The Bad and The Middlers lists. In fact, there are only three this year that I found to be truly horrific… in a good way.

American Mary. It’s true that I will watch anything with Katherine Isabelle (also see: Danielle Harris). But this movie is so weird, so seriously creepy, and has such an intriguing and complicated female lead that I immediately knew this movie would join the ranks of my favorite horror movies of all time. Read my full review here.

Evil Dead (2013). Put simply, this remake brings it. It’s fun, it’s scary, it’s exciting, and it pays homage to the original in all the right ways. It’s the only way a remake should be. Oh, and Jane Levy is a fantastic leading lady. Read my full review here.

You’re Next. Dysfunctional family drama meets killers in animal masks. Such a great little gem. Of course, after reading the buzz on this movie and waiting for it for years, I thought it probably would be. But it was still a surprise – the campy tone combined with crazy kills and genuine scares made for a perfect (and in horror, where suspense and camp almost never mix, rare) combination. I can’t wait to see it again.

That's the list, so until next year... happy Halloween everybody!

Friday, October 25, 2013

A Halloween Treat

I have a special Halloween treat for you guys! Corey, my fiance, is a marvelous and talented video producer and editor at our alma mater, and he recently made a short film for a "monster movie" contest. The only stipulations were that it had to be under two minutes, and it had to be shot within the ten days before it was due (Corey actually shot and edited the whole thing in like... three days, after work). Anyway, I think it's really cool and creepy and perfect for Halloween. I hope you like it, and feel free to share!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

2013 Halloween Movie Roundup: The Middlers

As in my previous post, I'm reviewing the most notable (for good or bad reasons) horror movies I saw this year. Click here to see The Bad. Now, moving on to The Middlers! None of these movies are bad – in fact, many of them are very good! They’re just missing that special something that takes a movie from good to truly memorable.

Plus One. Two universes overlap at a party (or… something), and suddenly each of the partygoers has a doppelganger with an apparently identical life. No one knows why it happened or what it means, and the movie uses that as a jumping off point to explore how we react instinctively to the unknown (spoiler: not well). It’s not exactly horror, but it strays into horror territory; it’s not always riveting, but it stumbles onto some compelling ideas. It’s neither here nor there, I suppose, but it’s worth a look.

Maniac. This movie is an unflinching (not to mention bloody) look at a serial killer’s obsessions, as seen through his own eyes. And I mean that literally – the entire film is shot from the serial killer’s POV, designed to make the audience feel complicit in his killings. It’s a highly effective method for making the viewer uncomfortable, but it does little in the way of making the killer sympathetic or understandable. The movie is also more gory and depressing than genuinely suspenseful, which is why it’s not one of my favorites.

V/H/S 2. I seem to be in the minority, but I preferred the first V/H/S horror anthology to this one. This iteration features only four short films, as opposed to six, and only two of them are worthwhile in my opinion. Still, the two that are good are a lot of fun; one in particular really goes for it and is great in a bonkers kind of way. I definitely wouldn’t be averse to more V/H/S anthologies.

Would You Rather. The feel-bad movie of the year. A young woman enters an invitation-only “contest” thrown by a millionaire in order to win money to support her ill brother. Unsurprisingly, the contest turns out to be much more sinister than she anticipated (if you’ve ever played a cutthroat game of Would You Rather in high school, you can imagine where this is going). It’s compulsively watchable in a “what awful thing is going to happen next” way, but there’s not any more to it than that. I watched it because I like Brittany Snow, and she’s just as sympathetic as ever.

World War Z. Okay, I wholly enjoyed this movie. So why isn’t it in the middle of my list, and not the top? Well… it’s a big budget zombie movie, which is both awesome and damning. On the one hand, the set pieces are amazing. On the other, this movie is so Hollywood slick that it’s devoid of a certain amount of heart that I feel goes into lower budget horror movies. It’s hard to explain. It just feels like we spend too much time focusing on Brad Pitt’s pretty face, and not enough time on more important things, like the zombie apocalypse. It also strays too far into action movie territory at times for my taste, and it fizzles out at the end. It was a ton of fun to watch, but it didn’t stay with me long after the credits rolled.

Jug Face. This is a very unique, campfire-tale-like story that centers on a strange, insular community that lives in the woods. Every year they sacrifice one member of the town to “the pit,” a godlike entity that demands blood in return for… not killing everyone, I guess? Anyway, the sacrificial member is determined by the town potter, who channels the needs of the pit by sculpting the face of one of the townspeople onto a jug while in a trance. The “jug face” is then revealed, and the person sacrificed, usually without a fight. Until this year. This is another one that has a strong premise and a lot going for it, but ultimately the filmmakers couldn’t figure out where to go with the story.

Stoker. Ostensibly a re-imagining of Shadow of a Doubt. What I liked most about it was how atmospheric and moody the tone was, and how dreamlike certain sequences were – so much so that at times I wasn’t sure if what I was watching was happening or not. I was more into the style than the substance, however, and the story never gelled into anything more than mildly intriguing for me.

Black Rock. I love survival horror, and this one is full of tension and intensity. Three women go camping on a remote island, encounter three odd but seemingly genial men, and things go awry. Like so many others on this list, the story doesn’t have staying power – you probably won’t remember specific scenes from this movie, and none of the characters particularly stand out – but in the moment, the first time around, it’s a very intense ride. Read my full review here.

The Conjuring. It’s not often that I’m genuinely frightened by a ghost story, but this one did it for me. There are tons of effective jump scares in this movie, and some blood-curdling ghosts, but not quite enough substance for me to latch onto long term. It was loads of fun to watch once, but I doubt I’ll bother seeing it again.

Magic Magic. This might not technically be horror (well, psychological horror, I suppose), but it was such an oddball find that I had to mention it. Juno Temple (an actress I’m loving more and more) plays a young woman, Alicia, who travels to an isolated countryside house in Chile with her cousin and her cousin’s (Chilean) friends. The cousin has to depart suddenly, under mysterious circumstances, leaving Alicia with strangers who tend to speak Spanish more often than English. Alicia begins to experience insomnia, which leads to paranoia, both of which aren’t helped by Brink, one of the menacing friends played hilariously/creepily against type by Michael Cera. Dark humor bumps up against true terror in this Repulsion-esque spiral into madness.

The Purge. Though critics don’t seem to agree with me, I appreciated this futuristic twist to the home invasion movie. If only it had been a bit longer and less slight with the story, it would be one for me to love. Read my full review here.

Carrie (2013). I was surprised by how much I liked this remake. Julianne Moore, Chloe Grace Moretz, and Portia Doubleday all gave standout performances that matched those of Brian DePalma’s characters and simultaneously made them their own. Unfortunately, I can’t say that for the movie itself, which is so similar to the DePalma version that I can’t imagine the filmmakers had any reason for making it other than the dollar signs in their eyes.

Tune in next week (Halloween!) to see my favorite horror movies of the year! And feel free to tell me about your favorite movies of this year in the comments.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

2013 Halloween Movie Roundup: The Bad

For the next three weeks leading up to Halloween, I'm going to review all the notable horror movies I've seen this year, going from worst to best. Hope you enjoy!

Static. A husband and wife, reeling after the death of their young son, find their lives further complicated by the appearance of a mysterious stranger who knows more about the couple than she’ll admit. This is one of those movies with a “twist” ending that’s really just nonsensical garbage. A good twist ending should make you think, in hindsight, “Oh… of course!” This story plods along slowly – the writers clearly didn’t have many ideas beyond the “twist” – until a surprise ending pops out of nowhere. You think it’s just a generic home invasion movie, but it’s actually something even more hackneyed and overdone.

The ABCs of Death. I’m usually a fan of horror anthologies (in fact, another horror anthology will show up elsewhere in my Halloween list), but this one didn’t work for me. At all. As the name suggests, this anthology is made up of 26 horror shorts, one for each letter of the alphabet. I don’t know if the format was too constrictive – making an effective horror film that only lasts a few minutes is certainly a difficult, but not impossible, task – or if the filmmakers weren’t up to snuff, but the majority of the stories are just… not good. Not to mention that almost none of them are scary; most filmmakers seemed to aim for “gross” in lieu of anything legitimately frightening. I think I enjoyed maybe three shorts.

John Dies at the End. I’m probably going to get flack for this, considering the huge fan base the book has cultivated, but I couldn’t get into this movie. In fact, I didn’t even finish it. I know, I know – but I tried! Twice! And I thought I would love it; it has horror, comedy, and super quirky characters, all of which I usually enjoy. But something about it never clicked for me. Maybe it was too much scifi and not enough horror for my taste? Or too all-over-the-place? I guess I’ll never know.

Aftershock. A bunch of not-too-likeable tourists traveling in Chile experience an earthquake while partying in a nightclub, and it turns out that the earthquake was the least of their problems. This is one of those “humans are the real monsters” movies, and I suppose it works to a certain extent. The problem is that pretty much every character is so mean, shallow, or stupid, that it’s difficult to want to sit through a movie watching them do anything, let alone getting tortured and maimed in disturbing and disgusting ways. It’s not the goriest movie I’ve ever seen, and it didn’t offend my (not so) delicate sensibilities, but the meanness of this movie (towards its characters and its audience) made it impossible to enjoy in any way.

Girls Against Boys. I’m all for tough girl/revenge girl/killer girl horrors movies, but this is another one that features a rather tired twist ending. It’s basically a rape revenge movie with a side of crazy thrown in, and while it’s not the worst I’ve seen, it’s not good. Or scary.

The Lords of Salem. I wanted to like this, just like I want so badly to like every Rob Zombie film – because the man has flashes of horror brilliance every now and then that hint at his potential! That’s probably why I own both Halloween I and II; despite being awful movies, you can’t deny that they have their moments. But anyway, despite being visually stunning in more ways than one, there’s no story here, just a lot of pretty pictures and weird ideas strung together in what is ostensibly some sort of modern Salem witch story. Wife Sherri Moon Zombie’s acting doesn’t help, as usual.

Texas Chainsaw 3D. This might be the worst of the worst, because it is so offensively Hollywood-ized. A prequel to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a young woman travels to Texas to look into a house she inherited from a distant aunt (yup, that house). There’s a big reversal of sympathies at the end that could have been compelling in the right hands, but here comes off as ridiculous – mainly because this movie has no heart whatsoever.

Warm Bodies. Okay, this one might actually be the worst to me, because hello? Zombies do not have feelings. That is their main terrifying feature: they kill and eat humans violently and indiscriminately, and you can’t tell them not to because they don’t think. This movie is like the Twilight of zombies (“We don’t drink human blood! We sparkle!”), and I don’t think I could hate it more. Essentially (spoilers that are totally obvious from the trailer, yo), a woman discovers that she can cure zombification with love. Arrggh gag blargh. It’s not even good if you view it as a romantic comedy.

What were your least favorite movies of 2013? Tune in next week for more horror picks!

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Purge - Or, How To Get Rid Of Poor People For Less

Despite being all too brief and a little heavy-handed with the moralizing, The Purge is a suspenseful, fun, and unique twist on the typical home invasion movie.

The film takes place in a not-so-far-off future, where one night a year, all crime – including murder – is legal. The night is, of course, called “The Purge,” and it supposedly allows people the chance to release all their hatred and anger in one night, thus making violent crime nearly nonexistent during the rest of the year. It’s a fantastic premise, and just enough of a tweak to make this movie stand apart from other home invasion movies like The Strangers.

Ethan Hawke plays James, the patriarch of the Sandin family. He is the top seller of home security systems, living in the grandest home in a gated community with his two children, Charlie and Zooey, and his wife, Mary (Lena Headey). Naturally, he believes he has nothing to worry about come Purge night; he locks down the security system and goes to his office to do paperwork, as if it’s any other night. Of course, there are variables. The first is his daughter’s boyfriend (forbidden to date Zooey because he’s too old for her, according to James), who has snuck into the house for Purge night. The second is “the Bloody Stranger,” a man who stumbles into the gated community while being chased by a band of wealthy “hunters” who have chosen him as their target for the night. Charlie, who is already skeptical of the reasoning being the Purge, takes pity on the man and foolishly (but compassionately) lets him into the house. The wealthy hunters aren’t willing to give up on their intended prey, however, and demand that the family send him back out to them – before they break in and kill everyone.

What ensues is a lot of moral flip-flopping that really rams the ethics of the Purge down viewers’ throats. Is the Bloody Stranger’s life worth less than the lives of the Sandin family? Is it fair to sacrifice someone else’s life for one’s own? As I said, it’s all a bit overbearing, and leaves little for the audience to ponder on its own, but it’s full of interesting ideas nonetheless. But for better or worse, many of those questions fall to the wayside as the family fights off the wealthy, ferocious intruders and the movie devolves into a fairly straightforward home invasion flick.

Not that I minded – to the contrary. The home invasion scenes are fraught with suspense, punctuated by bursts of intensity, and complimented by a slick, creepy look. (Is there anything more sinister than a masked murderer? And Rhys Wakefield is marvelous as “the Polite Stranger,” the mannerly but terrifying head of the group of wealthy hunters.) As the film wraps up, we’re left with a Twilight Zone-esque twist that once again pounds the moral of the story into our brains. It’s a bit silly, but still effective.

Overall, I think The Purge could have been better. It’s too dumbed down to be as philosophical as the filmmakers seemed to want it to be. Taken for what it is, though – a home invasion film with a high-minded twist – it’s a fun ride that keeps you on the edge of your seat until the very end.

Final Rating (out of 5):

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

On the Subject of Ruthless Women - American Mary & Black Rock

One of my favorite things about the horror genre is that it gives women a chance to explore our darker
sides. The less than flattering clichés of the Virgin and the Whore still thrive in your standard slasher movie – but those same tropes are played with and torn apart by other, smarter horror films, like Scream or The Cabin in the Woods (where the “dumb blonde” in that case is actually an intelligent brunette wearing doctored, stupefying hair dye).

In any case, the overwhelming majority of horror film stars are women. The “Final Girl” – the last person left standing, having annihilated the killer through strength or, more often, smarts – is almost always female (hence the name). Less often, though not necessarily by much, the killers themselves are also women. Horror has its problems, but a lack of interesting roles for women is not one of them.

I had the pleasure of seeing two female-driven independent horror films last week: American Mary and Black Rock. Both were written and directed by women, and both yielded plenty to chew on regarding the “true nature” of the supposedly sweeter sex.

American Mary is the more interesting and original film of the two. Mary Mason, played by the excellent Katherine Isabelle (of Ginger Snaps fame – this woman knows how to pick her parts), is a talented medical student with a promising future as a surgeon. But after carrying out a desperate gambit for money, coupled with an egregious violation on the part of her professors, Mary finds herself dropping out of med school and into the world of underground surgeries and body modification. She soon becomes known as “Bloody Mary” – an affectionate moniker provided by her many satisfied customers.

It’s an interesting juxtaposition: the internal transformation of Mary, from a bright but meek student to a darkly empowered but corrupt surgeon, and the external transformations of her customers, from “ugly” or ordinary to what they consider beautiful. Even more interesting when you consider specific surgeries, such as one customer who wants to be completely desexualized, “like a Barbie doll,” or another who wants to look exactly like Betty Boop. These women are not aiming for any mainstream ideal of beauty (it’s highly doubtful that a typical man would find these women attractive or desirable); instead, they’re creating their own strange but unique ideals. Mary, who was stripped of control by men in her past, is empowering these women in her own way. In turn, she’s also empowering herself to find success out of the realm of the traditionally male-dominated field of medicine.

Of course, it’s not all nose jobs and rainbows in American Mary. Mary is a severely damaged, even disturbed woman, and some of her actions are clearly immoral (even while they are understandable). The deeper she delves into the underground, the more it affects her, and Isabelle plays Mary’s deadpan-but-damaged demeanor perfectly. You can tell things can’t possibly end well for Mary, but such is life for the tragically flawed antihero. But the point is, it’s refreshing to see a female antihero that we can love, flaws and all. After all, so many male characters are given free license to be both reprehensible and beloved (from Holden Caulfield to Dexter Morgan), while women are rarely given that kind of free reign.

Female antiheroes abound in Black Rock, as well, though the plot and its characters aren't quite as complex. The short version: three friends (Sarah, Abby, and Lou) with a fraught past meet to go camping for the weekend at an old childhood haunt (a small, completely deserted island, of course). While camping – and alternately bickering and reminiscing – they run into three male acquaintances from elementary school. After making the ill-advised decision to invite the men to camp, there is an unpleasant revelation: the men are dishonorable discharges from the army, and they seem less than stable. One thing leads to another leads to attempted rape and accidental murder (Abby hits one of the men in the head with a rock), and suddenly the two remaining men are hunting the women like animals.

The female characters are less than likeable, with character flaws ranging from cheater to whiner to cancer-joke-maker (well, that last one is actually kind of funny, in context). Even the events that lead to the attempted rape force the viewer to question the women’s judgment (although that does not, of course, excuse the men’s actions). Luckily, these weaknesses and imperfections only make the characters, and the movie, all the more interesting and fleshed-out. These women aren’t Victims and Whores; their motivations are more compelling than those token characters’. Although, since the movie runs at a tight one hour and 19 minutes, all of this background is packed into a short period of time. The majority of the movie focuses on the chase.

Again, luckily, that chase is every bit the tense, suspenseful ride you would hope for in a survival thriller like this one. The previously squabbling women quickly undergo a transformation, becoming primal, ferocious predators themselves. The formerly whinging Abby becomes a scrappy, aggressive adversary who isn’t afraid to take a punch if it means getting to say what she really thinks of the men. The female performances are as physical and brutal as one could ask of them. It's not exactly breaking new ground (I Spit on Your Grave, for example, explored similar territory years ago), but it undoubtedly has more slickness and substance than a simple retread of other survival horrors. As in American Mary, the hunted become the hunters, and as disturbing as it is, it’s also at turns fascinating, bracing, and exhilarating.

Because that’s what horror does best, when at its best: it turns the cliché on its head. It finds panic and disgust in the commonplace. It makes civilized people cruel and callous, and explores the darkest fears and desires of humanity. All the better if it allows women to lead those expeditions.

Also published at the Times News.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Review: Evil Dead (Reboot)

Evil Dead is a wild, rollicking ride that should entertain newcomers and satisfy even hardcore fans of the original.

The Evil Dead remake by Fede Alverez had fans of the original skeptical from the start. After all, Raimi’s Evil Dead II, the film this remake is based on, was already a remake itself – of The Evil Dead, also made by Raimi a mere six years earlier. Evil Dead II was basically the same film as its predecessor, only with a slightly higher budget and not much more finesse. In any case, Raimi (somewhat unwittingly) stumbled onto a gold mine with his remake, and Evil Dead II became a campy cult classic with – to put it mildly – a devoted following.

I wouldn’t say that I’m one of those diehard fans, but I certainly do love and appreciate Evil Dead II, and I would have hated to see a remake that was nothing more than an uninspired retread of the original. But I think fans should rest assured: although Evil Dead (2013) clearly pays homage to the original, it is its own savage, terrifying animal. Gone is the absurd humor of Bruce Campbell and his cohorts, replaced with undiluted scares and the occasional touch of biting wit. (And from here on in, I’ll avoid comparing the two films, as I believe this one stands on its own and deserves to be treated as such.)

Mia (Jane Levy) plans on spending the weekend with her friends and brother (Shiloh Fernandez) in a remote cabin in the woods, “playing cold turkey” with her cocaine addiction. When they find a book sealed with barbed wire and the explicit instructions “DON’T READ OUT LOUD” scrawled on the pages, high school teacher Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci), of course, does just that, unleashing an evil spirit that can possess whomever it wants.

Scares abound from the very beginning, many stemming from Jane Levy’s excellent performance, which is at turns sinister, menacing, and downright tormenting. Her transition from worn out drug user to tweaking to demonically possessed would suggest that this is not her first rodeo in the horror show (though it is). On the acting front, Lou Taylor Pucci is similarly good across the board. The other actors take a little more warming up. (Maybe this is just a pet peeve of mine, but I don’t think Shiloh Fernandez is, well… all that great. Just me?) In any case, they all seem to find their stride just as the movie finds its own.

This movie comes at you fast and hard. With the exception of a slight lull after the arresting opening, viewers are given hardly a moment to catch their breath between all the action and each gory set piece. Yes, the movie is gory – punishingly so. From a woman carving out a hunk of her cheek to another slicing her tongue in half with a box cutter, this is probably one of the goriest horror movies I’ve ever seen – and that is really saying something. Strangely enough, though, the gore didn’t bother me nearly as much I thought it would. Maybe that’s because the worst of it was perpetrated against the demon-possessed, people-turned-creatures that hardly looked human enough to sympathize with. Of course I had visceral reactions to things like the tongue-cutting (you can’t un-see that), but I didn’t find it nearly as upsetting as, say, the violence in the 2003 Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake featuring Jessica Biel, where the brutality was wholly human-on-human and far too realistic for my taste.

The sound effects are another source of primal fear: the sound of a knife sawing on flesh, the rush of air from a nail gun, the queasy slip-slipping of a bloody tongue. It’s that nasty sense of anticipation, building our dread before we can even see what’s going on. And as soon as we do, there are more stunning (if repulsive) visuals being thrown at us than we can process. Mixed in are welcome moments of dry humor, making it a nonstop, exhilarating, even fun, spin.

Lastly, fans will be pleased that Evil Dead retains some of the best – or, at least, most notorious – bits from the original. The infamous “tree rape” in particular makes a harrowing appearance that will most likely baffle those who don't know the reference. The movie is also entirely CGI-free, a welcome change for a genre that all too often employs cheesy computer effects. The practical effects are, in my opinion, one of the things that made Raimi’s Evil Dead so endearing, and the practical effects in this remake are simply above and beyond.

All in all, I couldn’t rave more about this movie. It’s not the clever-fest that was last year’s The Cabin in the Woods, and it doesn’t really break any new ground, but it sets out to do exactly what it means to: freak you the hell out. Frankly, that’s all I ask for.

Final Rating (out of 5):