Monday, October 23, 2017

DEATHGASM

The following exchange between two teenage metalheads occurs after they kill one's father, who was possessed by a demon.

"Y'know, it's weird, but I think he would have wanted to go out like this."
"His eyes ripped out, face grinded off, and then head mounted under a car engine?"
"Totally. For whom the bell tolls, old man."

These metalheads - Brody (Milo Cawthorne) and Zakk (James Blake) - later fight off Brody's aunt and uncle, who are also possessed. They need weapons, and in the bedroom of the holier-than-thou Christian aunt and uncle, who think heavy metal is an abomination, Brody and Zakk find some sex toys. 

You know, every movie should strive to show you something you've never seen before. I have never in my life seen a couple of headbangers use dildos to fight off demons. Now I have. On that front, DEATHGASM (2015) must be considered a success.

DEATHGASM ("All spelt in capitals. Lower case is for pussies.") is Evil Dead 2 for the kids who grew up on Beavis and Butthead, loved Metalocalypse, and played Brutal Legend until their fingers bled. It's a balls-to-the-wall splatter comedy celebrating heavy metal, dismemberment, mutilation, the spilling of all sorts of bodily fluids not meant to be spilled, teen angst, and dick jokes. Lots and lots of dick jokes.

Do I really need to say anymore? Between the dialogue I've included and the content I described, you're either already giggling yourself silly or shaking your head and wondering why I can't review something normal and more in line with your tastes, like a Hugh Grant movie (then again, have you seen Cloud Atlas?).

Brody is the new kid in a small New Zealand town. He's a metalhead, and soon, he and Zakk have formed a band with a couple of nerdy friends (one loves Dungeons & Dragons, the other was once suspended for violating the school CPR dummy). Through a series of circumstances, they come into possession of some music that once played summons bloodthirsty demons that possess almost everyone around them, and it looks like this could be the end of the world. Brutal.

There's also a budding romance with Medina (Kimberley Crossman), a nice girl who begins the movie dating Brody's cousin but drops him when she sees what a jerk he is. She sees Brody's sweet nature underneath all that corpse paint. Brody loans her some heavy metal albums, to show her why he gravitates to the genre (on a side note, Anal Cunt has to be the last band I would use to try to impress a pretty girl, but that's me).

DEATHGASM plants its flag more in the black and hardcore realm of heavy metal. Keep your ears peeled for the likes of Emperor, Elm Street, Axeslasher, and Bulletbelt on the soundtrack, although there are shoutouts to Judas Priest, King Diamond, and Metallica. Zakk shoves a chainsaw through the.. posterior of a bad guy and follows up by quipping, "Metal up your ass!" which was the original title of Metallica's debut album before record company pressure forced them to change it.

Will non-metalheads enjoy it? Only if they enjoy blood and gore, and based on my experience, there is plenty of overlap between the two audiences.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Town That Dreaded Sundown

The Return of the Living Dead postulated that Night of the Living Dead, the movie to which it is an unofficial sequel, was based on a true case. The characters reference the movie and discover, to their misfortune, not everything in it was accurate.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014) does something similar. It opens with a narrator explaining a series of murders by a serial killer known as the "Phantom Killer" in the 1940s inspired a 1974 movie called The Town That Dreaded Sundown. Every year, on Halloween, the town of Texarkana, where the killings took place, holds a screening of the film at the local drive-in.

Point of fact, there is a real movie from 1974 called The Town That Dreaded Sundown, the cast includes Ben Johnson and Dawn Wells, and we see clips of it throughout this new version. In this movie, the Texas Ranger (Anthony Anderson) called in to investigate the new batch of murders occurring in the present-day watches the original to gain insight on the killer and where or how he might strike next.  

Later, our heroine, Jami (Addison Timlin) visits the (fictional) son of the original's director. The son claims he knows who the killer is based on his father's research, but he lives on a houseboat in the middle of farmland nowhere near any body of water (He also claims his father could have been the next Orson Welles if he had gone to California). 

I'm not sure if this is meta, post-modern, a sequel, or what, but it's an interesting take instead of a straight redux. I have not seen the original, and in fact, I did not even know it existed before watching this version. As a standalone movie, the new Town That Dread Sundown offers a lot of nice touches that shake up the slasher formula, a good cast, and an intriguing mystery for a while, but it doesn't emerge as strongly as it could have.

The Phantom Killer is striking again, some 60 years or so after his original reign of terror. Jami can only stand by helplessly as the killer murders her date Corey (Spencer Treat Clark), but for some reason, he spares her, telling her she must make the town "remember Mary." Jami, traumatized, digs into the history of the original killings with help from Nick (Travis Tope).

Meanwhile, there's no shortage of suspects to keep the viewer guessing. Is it one of the local deputies (Gary Cole and Ed Lauter)? Maybe it's the evangelist preacher Rev. Cartwright (Edward Hermann), who might be a holier-than-thou Bible thumper but is not wrong when he states a movie about the town's tragedy is in poor taste.

The Phantom Killer wears a pillow case over his head, not unlike Jason Voorhies in Friday the 13th Part 2, but he carries himself differently than other slashers. For one, he talks, not the strong silent type of Michael Myers, and he talks in a direct way, not like the jokester Freddy Krueger. He also doesn't have qualms about using firearms and bows and arrows. At one point, he even takes up a sniper's position to pick off targets.

The explanation at the end for why the killings have resumed and what the phantom's motivations are is a letdown to say the least. Throughout the movie, there is an attempt to ascribe the supernatural to him, that he is a force of reckoning to punish Texarkana for its sins, but the reality is disappointingly mundane.

The movie doesn't do as much as it could have with some of its ideas, such as the notion that Texarkana straddles the Texas-Arkansas border, resulting in two sheriffs, two mayors, etc. Meanwhile, "Lone Wolf" Morales, the Texas Ranger, ultimately plays next to no part in the movie, and his watching the original to find out what will happen next amounts to little.

Still, I'm grateful for the small touches that make this a better than average slasher. The town is actually shown grieving for the victims, including at a funeral for one, and there's a commemoration at the school for others. The law enforcement officers don't have their heads completely up their asses as they usually do in these movies, and there are some nice characterizations (the first doomed couple includes a marine returning from deployment and his girlfriend was planning to propose to him). And I did wince when one victim, trying to get away, leaps down from a second-floor window and snaps her ankle, the bone going through the skin.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a solid effort. I watched it through, curious about where it was going and how the mystery would be solved. It's a modern-day slasher made with some effort and care, even if the payoff leaves something to be desired.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Them

Them (2006), a French-Romanian horror thriller, opens with the claim that it's based on a true story, but then again, aren't they all?

For the past three Octobers, I've planned to review Them as part of my 31 days of horror, but for whatever reason, I never got around to it before now. I first saw it while I was in college and liked it, even mentioning it in my review of The Strangers, which features a similar plot but I said "feels safer and more polished [than Them]." 

So why did I keep putting off revisiting Them? I want to say it's because I found Them so frightening and disturbing that I couldn't bear the thought of watching it again. However, it's more accurate to say it didn't leave as much of an impression on me as I thought it did. Every time I had the opportunity to watch it again, another movie sounded more appealing.

Which is not to say Them is a bad movie. It's a lean, mean thrill machine, but maybe it's too lean?

Clementine (Olivia Bonamy), a French school teacher in Romania, lives in a country house with her lover Lucas, a writer (Michael Cohen). One night, a group of hooded intruders invade their home and terrorize them. That's the entire plot.

Except for a brief prologue involving a doomed mother and her teenaged daughter and an early scene involving another teacher, there are no other characters, no motivations, no backstories, no developments, no twists, etc. Only 76 minutes long, Them carves itself down to the bone.

Generally, I prefer my villains, especially in horror thrillers, to have some mystery and ambiguity. I prefer Freddy Krueger in the shadows than out in the open making puns, or at least find him scarier that way, when he is suggested instead of shown.

But Them, I feel, goes too far in the other direction. It feels less like a bare-boned story than a barely sketched out scenario. There's tension but no drama, if that makes sense. All action, no character. Some reviews have compared Them to the likes of Deliverance or Straw Dogs, movies about "civilized" characters descending into savagery as they struggled to survive. But those movies had characters undergoing physical and emotional change, shocked at what they discover about themselves; Clementine and Lucas only react to danger.

The Strangers is a more polished and slick example of this material from the Hollywood machine, but I will say it has one advantage over Them: the look of its villains. Those masks are really creepy, they stand out, and we never see their faces.

The villains of Them don't have as distinct of a look, and while we do see one's face near the end, they otherwise don't appear as anything other than vague, half-glimpsed shadows. The revelation of who are they are and why they're doing this, for me anyway, undercuts their threat upon second viewing (though admittedly it leads to a chilling final image). I didn't buy them as dangerous anymore, even though they kill people, and their reaction (or lack thereof) to when some of their own die raises all sorts of questions the movie refuses to answer about who they are.

Directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud shoot the movie digitally and employ a lot of handheld camera takes, giving the movie an unsteady and uneasy feeling. As Clem and Lucas run for their lives, the camera follows after them, and we're right along with them. Despite the lack of characterization, they are a likable enough pair we don't anything bad to happen to.

In the moment, Them is an effective exercise in fear. Afterward, when I try to think about it, I'm no longer haunted.

Friday, October 20, 2017

What We Do in the Shadows

Throughout the running length of What We Do in the Shadows (2014), I kept laughing and nodding my head, thinking, "Yep, that is something vampires would have to deal with if they were real."

If Trick 'r Treat is the genre's answer to Pulp Fiction and The Cabin in the Woods is its take on The Princess Bride, then What We Do in the Shadows gives us horror's version of This is Spinal Tap, and it is hysterical. It's a mockumentary, but instead of following meathead rock stars, it features a group of centuries-old vampires, who are nowhere near as dumb as Nigel and company (they probably wouldn't have survived so long otherwise), but they're are just as quirky and fussy.

There are four of them to start with, and they live in modern-day Wellington, New Zealand: Viago (Taika Waititi), an 18th century dandy who nags the others about keeping the flat clean; Vladislav (Jemaine Clement), a once-feared and powerful tyrant living in shame since his defeat at the hands of his enemy "The Beast;" Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), the bad boy of the group; and Petyr (Ben Fransham), who doesn't speak and looks like Count Orlock.

The unseen documentary crew follows them around as these undead friends go about their lives, try to enter clubs (they need the bouncer to invite them), squabble about flat responsibilities (Deacon has not cleaned the dishes in five years), and feed (Viago places newspapers and towels on the floor and couch but still makes a mess when he bites his victim's main artery).

The tranquility of their home is disturbed when Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) is recruited into the fold, and he brings along Stu (Stuart Rutherford), his human best friend, but Stu's pretty cool, so the others don't mind. Nick and Stu are able to show the others modern technology, including the internet, online dating (to find new meals), text messaging, and perhaps most important of all to such vain creatures who can't see their reflections in mirrors but still need to dress fabulously, selfies.

What We Do in the Shadows, which was written and directed by Waititi and Clement, works as a hilarious deadpan comedy. It doesn't try to be silly; it presents situations in a straight-faced manner and lets logic work it course. For example, newly vampirized Nick loves being able to fly but still struggles to get through a window. Deacon has his human familiar Jackie (Jackie van Beek) procure virgins for him, but come dinner time, it's hard to know ahead of time who has remained chaste.

The latter also leads to a couple of hilarious lines. Deacon says he thinks they drink virgin's blood because it sounds cool. Vlad says, "I think of it like this. If you are going to eat a sandwich, you would just enjoy it more if you knew no one had fucked it."

Yes, there are a few violent, bloody parts and some pining over lost love, but overall, What We Do in the Shadows is a charming and funny movie. I like how Viago admits they got their "worm trick" from The Lost Boys. It's lovely to consider these vampires have been around for centuries, but they're still open to new ideas.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Def by Temptation

Horror movies can be scary. Horror movies can be funny. Some can tread the line between scary and funny, moving back and forth between scares and laughs or pushing the frights to such a level they become hysterical.

The problem with Def by Temptation (1990) is I can't tell whether it's trying to be funny or scary. Many of the "scares," for lack of a better word, when the vampiric succubus attacks her victims or otherwise exerts her demonic nature, play on a level - from the staging to the performances to the production values - that makes me think of a Saturday Night Live sketch or one of Tyler Perry's Madea movies.

Def by Temptation was written and directed by James Bond III, who also stars as an aspiring minister named Joel. Joel is unsure what he wants and decides to "take a break," visiting his brother K (Kadeem Harrison), an actor in New York City. There, Joel draws the attention of a mysterious woman (Cynthia Bond), who has been seducing and killing men at a local bar. Now, she has her sights on corrupting the pure and innocent Joel.

Bond is unfortunately his own biggest liability. As a writer and director, he has some interesting ideas (plus the support of skilled cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, who became an accomplished director in his own right), but as an actor, he lacks presence and charisma. He looks like he's all of about 12 years old, and he just doesn't convince, coming off as stiff and awkward, especially when he has to share scenes with the likes of Harrison, who acts circles around him.

Other recognizable names include Samuel L. Jackson as Joel's preacher father, imposing and authoritative for all of his two minutes of screen time, and Bill Nunn as a barfly who uses implausible lies to hit on women before we learn his secret. I'll also praise Cynthia Bond as the vampire, who plays evil with relish and is quite memorable.

There are some occasionally cool moments. The first victim - a bartender who tells a one-night stand over the phone while he's working to get an abortion - discovers the monstrous nature of his latest conquest and runs for his life. He's completely naked and vulnerable, and the camera chases after him with a cool wide angle shot, suggesting how he will not be able to get away. He's in her domain.

Another scene reminded me of Videodrome. The vampire's power is extensive, and she can control things from great distances. Thus, she's able to use a television to devour another character. The laughing Ronald Regan puppet on top of the TV is meant to be satirical, I guess, but it is creepy.

But other scenes of would-be horror are staged poorly or otherwise undercut by characters that are supposed to be funny but aren't. Bond wants to hammer home that sin is wrong, and fornication is a sin, and it's the Friday the 13th dynamic that sex leads to death except nowhere as subtle. Yes, I just described Friday the 13th as more subtle.

There was so much I just didn't buy. The vampire seduces men from the same bar and sits in the same spot when you'd think she'd want to be safer by mixing up her hunting ground. The big climatic confrontation between Joel and the vampire starts off as well. Then, Joel's grandmother turns up to save the day.

Remember what I said about Madea?

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

What Dreams May Come

The title comes from Shakespeare's most famous soliloquy, in the middle of Hamlet's "To be or not to be" speech.

To die, to sleep.
To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil


Hamlet, who is contemplating suicide, compares death to sleep but notes that we don't know what experiences or "dreams" we will encounter. Will it be frightening? Will it be wonderful? Will it be liberating? Will it be nothing?

Adapted from the novel by Richard Matheson and directed by Vincent Ward, What Dreams May Come (1998) concerns a dead man (Robin Williams) who descends from Heaven into the depths of Hell to find the soul of his beloved wife (Annabella Sciorra), who in her grief and despair killed herself.

Let's address the elephant in the room. What Dreams May Come is a difficult movie to watch. It deals with grief, pain, and loss in bleak and at times nightmarish visuals, and when you consider that Robin Williams ended his own life in 2014, it casts a further pall over the film. For some viewers, that might be too painful, so I can't recommend this to everyone.

What Dreams May Come works as a bold, dramatic, and stunning representation of the after-life. We bask in the warm glow of a Heaven depicted as a rich tapestry of colors, nature, and paintings, and we plunge into the dark nebula of anguish and toil that makes up Hell. Ward, like his fellow New Zealander Peter Jackson would do with The Lord of the Rings, creates an entire fantasy world not unlike Middle-Earth, rich in detail, awe-inspiring, and huge.

The advantage Ward has over Jackson is he's dealing in a world beyond time and space, and he lets his imagination run wild, not bound by having to be realistic or plausible. Entire landscapes swirl and change shapes paths from one realm to another don't have to follow a logical pattern from point A to point B, and the laws of physics and nature can be defied. It moves and flows the way a dream would, sometimes in pleasant way, sometimes in a painful way.

What Dreams May Come is filled with sights (accompanied by a wonderfully tender musical score by Michael Kamen) we have never seen before on a such a grand scale. When Chris, the Robin Williams character, awakens in Heaven, he learns his mind shapes what he sees, and in his mind, Heaven is the beautiful home he and his wife Annie planned to grow old in. In fact, she painted it on Earth, and the painting has been brought to life. It's even made up of paint.

The film takes on the Expressionist idea that internal, emotional states reflect on the external environment. Hell is not a realm of fire and brimstone but eternal self-agony of its occupants own making. A river is filled with corpses that try to drag down others and drown them in their misery, a road is paved with the faces of people who continue to rationalize their misdeeds (the road to Hell is paved with good intentions), and a family home becomes a barren, colorless, decrepit shack at the center of an inverted cathedral.

None of these special effects would mean much if the movie didn't have a strong emotional core. Williams gives one of his best and most underrated performances, toning down his tendency for comedy and improv and going for sincerity, and the rest of the cast is strong, too, including Cuba Gooding Jr. as the one who explains the rules of Heaven and Max von Sydow as the guide who leads the trip to Hell.

At its heart, What Dreams May Come is a very human story. one that contains moments of heartbreak and tragedy but also moments of redemption, forgiveness, and the power of love. Death is painful, loss hurts, but love is stronger and hope conquers fear and regret.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Cub

I wasn't sure what to expect from Cub (2014), a Belgian horror effort also known as Welp from director Jonas Govaerts. The film's poster - featuring what appears to be a feral child in a crude, wooden mask - suggests any number of possibilities, and even after watching it, I'm still at something of a loss trying to explain it.

The plot's relatively simple. In Belgium, a bunch of scouts (referred to as Cubs) along with their troop leaders go camping in the woods. The troop leaders tell them the story of a werewolf boy named Kai, and Sam (Maurice Luijten), an impressionable young boy bullied by the others, becomes convinced Kai is real.

Is there something really out there in the woods, growling at night and baying at the moon, sneaking into the scouts' camp while they sleep, or, due to his dark and troubled past and his poor treatment at the hands of his fellow scouts and even the adults, is Sam beginning to snap?

Allow me to answer in my best Fred Fredburger voice. Yes.

Cub, I guess, is positioned somewhere among coming-of-age tale, a boy's-own adventure, a monster movie, savage cinema in the tradition of Severance or Straw Dogs, an update of Lord of the Flies, a descent into madness, a slasher, and a youth angst and alienation movie.

To its credit, Cub manages to balance all these different tropes and angles into a coherent and intriguing whole, for most of its length anyway. I think it falls apart by the end with it climatic revelations and developments that don't feel as believable or fresh as the earlier passages. By the time we get to chases through the woods and underground lairs, it feels like "movie action" has taken over, replacing raw, dangerous ambiguity with on-the-nose thematic observations. 

It's grim, dark, violent, and weird. Neither children nor animals are spared awful fates, and in fact, children commit some of the more heinous acts in the film. The movie is not terribly gory (or at least not as graphic as it could have been), though it has its share of blood, but the fact that it involves children makes it all the more unsettling.

I laughed a couple of times. Sometimes, it was at the observations of how these young boys behave in a situation with lax adult supervision that ring with some truth. Another instance occurs in the first couple of a minutes when someone runs for their life toward what they think is a car's headlights on the road; I laughed in stunned admiration at the ingenuity of the hunter's trap.

Cub doesn't pull its punches. It's nihilistic, offering no hope or even much of an explanation in the face of shocking human evil (though, like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a decent portion of the backstory can be inferred even if it's not outright explained). It aims to shock and succeeds.

The final shots of the movie at first glance might seem unlikely, but in their own way, they make some sense. Sam, for the first time in his life it seems, has a father figure.