Saturday, October 31, 2015

Tucker and Dale vs Evil

Have you ever been watching something like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or The Hill Have Eyes and found yourself rooting for the inbred killers because the so-called normal heroes were too stupid and boring? Then Tucker and Dale vs Evil (2010) is the movie for you.

Ah hillbillies. Rednecks. Country folk. Mountain people. Where would the horror genre be without this subculture to exploit? Backwoods people have been preying on clueless city slickers wandering into their clutches for a long time. It's a trope that's found mileage in a number of different movies: Deliverance, Southern Comfort, Wrong Turn, Motel Hell. Even outside of rural America, folks have a habit of running afoul of the locals, including Straw Dogs and Wolf Creek.

Why the popularity of the sub-genre? It's an easily recognizable archetype; the story is obvious and flexible: the clash of the civilized and the savage, a battle between decent, moral people and the monstrous, deranged weirdos. And the thematic arc has potency in this modern age when most people don't get a chance to experience genuine danger: do I have what it takes to fight and survive? Depending to what degree a character responds to a threat, we might discover he or she is really not so civilized after all, that maybe there's still some of that animalistic savage in all of us.

Tucker and Dale vs Evil has a setup that sounds like a typical plot of hillbilly horror. A bunch of college kids go into the woods for a vacation and get into trouble with a pair of rednecks, Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine). Gory deaths ensue. The twist this time is Tucker and Dale, as the title indicates, are the good guys. In fact, they're downright lovable. The college kids, by design, are too bland, too stupid, and, in one case, too psychotic to be the heroes. All they end up doing is stumbling into and causing their own demise.

The film in its own way is a comedy of misunderstanding. For how smart these college kids think they are, they sure don't know how to communicate very well, and because of their snootiness toward  the good ol' boys, they automatically assume the worst of every action taken by Dale and Tucker. One of their friends is drowning and Dale pulls her into the boat? He's kidnapping her obviously. Tucker is using a chainsaw on a log and accidentally hits a bee's nest, forcing him to run in a blind panic? He's attacking!

Dale and Tucker might not be too bright, but they're a good-hearted sort. Tucker just bought a cabin in the woods, and he and Dale are going to fix it up, go fishing, and enjoy some cold beer. That the cabin housed some actual killers 20 years before who left newspaper clippings of their deeds on the wall and apparently hired Leatherface's interior decorator, well, they kind of missed that (they're more impressed by the unexpired coupon for chili dogs).

Comedy and horror go hand in hand. Set up a situation, apply strict logic, and you can't help but react a certain way, either with a scream or laugh. Tucker and Dale vs Evil has these clueless college kids trying to be heroic and failing miserably because they completely misread the situation. The kid running away from a chainsaw-wielding Tucker isn't looking where he's going and ends up impaling himself on a branch. Bloody but funny. The movie continues to escalate because the other kids find the body on the branch and assume it's a warning to them. The movie is bloody and gory, but it's done in a outrageous, comedic style. It's hard to be repulsed when you're giggling.

The movie also has its share of zingers and funny dialogue. Once the bodies start piling up, our heroes become convinced these college kids are part of a suicide pact and are now trying to kill them. Dale wants to call the police, but Tuckers says that won't work. The officer would never believe them if they say to him, "Oh hidy ho officer, we've had a doozy of a day. There we were minding our own business, just doing chores around the house, when kids started killing themselves all over my property." Later, a sheriff's deputy shows up while Tucker and Dale are dragging what's left of one of the kids. I bet you can guess what Tucker tells him. 

The Shining

Stanley Kubrick's 1980 adaptation of Stephen King's The Shining seems to divide horror fans. Many regard it as one of the best horror movies ever made while others regard it as a travesty for the changes Kubrick made to King's text. Me? I'm somewhere in the middle. Kubrick's skill and craftsmanship are as stellar as you're going to see in any movie anywhere, but part of me wishes he retained King's human touch.

The Shining is the story of a writer, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), who becomes the winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel in Colorado. He, his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and young son Danny (Danny Lloyd) will be all by themselves, and Jack, a recovering alcoholic, will have time to write. But the hotel is haunted, and the spirits prey on his mind. Danny knows something is wrong; he has a psychic ability, called "Shining," which the hotel's head chef Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers) told him to use if he ever needed help.

I read The Shining for the first time last year, and while I can see why see why it's an important part of King's bibliography, it's not one of my favorite books of his, so I hold no value for any movie being that faithful to it. If anything, I like many of the changes Kubrick made, stripping most of the extraneous background material, replacing the croquet racket with an ax, among others. There are some changes I don't agree with, but I'll get to those soon enough.

Last night, I was fortunate enough to see The Shining in a theater with an audience, the first time I've ever done so with a Kubrick film, and it was a great experience. The stark, desolate halls of the Overlook Hotel have never appeared so overwhelmingly claustrophobic and twisted. Kubrick loves his wide angle lens and tracking camera, especially when they follow Danny on his Big Wheel, leading to one of the great shocks when he rounds a corner and spots the ghostly twin girls at the end of a hall. There's also the famed Kubric glare, the demented stare of deranged people looking straight at the camera, fitting in a movie about madness. Kubrick's style has often been called cold, and in the case of The Shining, that's a fitting descriptor. The wintry setting of the Colorado mountain pass is just so bleak and isolating, that after a while, the viewer feels trapped alongside the Torrances.

As a ghost story, The Shining is not filled with cheap scares or flashy special effects, nor does Kubrick rely on shadows and bumps in the night. Much of the film is brightly lit in rather normal surroundings. In fact, an argument could be made there aren't any literal ghosts in at all. Sure, there is an occasional phantom image, apparently figures from the hotel's past, but they are witnessed by troubled characters who aren't necessarily in the right state of mind. They could just be hallucinating, imagining, or confused. That ambiguity is a source of great unease throughout the film. Is Jack Torrance ready to explode because of cabin fever and alcoholism or are ghosts playing on those weaknesses to drive him crazy?

But as I said above, I do wish the movie kept the humanity King imbued his novel with. Kubrick strips all sympathy out of the movie. Instead of a flawed but decent man struggling to be a good husband and father, Jack Torrance as played by Nicholson is pretty much deranged from the start, even before going to the hotel. In the car ride up, his body language and face indicate he can't stand Wendy or Danny. This eliminates his tragic arc and leaves him nowhere to go dramatically. Wendy is also too waifish, too much of a pushover and would-be pleaser instead of the resourceful, determined mother of the novel.

I've heard the argument state this family dynamic is perfectly rational and plausible. Families of real-life alcoholics and abusers constantly live in fear that they can explode at any time over anything. That's certainly a fair reading, but I don't think it makes for the most interesting of movies. Nicholson, who always seems demented, especially when he smiles, kept making me think of the Joker as his performance borders onto self-parody while Duvall is too whimpering. By the end, her constant "Isn't this nice?" statements and blubbering make one wish Jack would brain her with the ax already.

The titular shining is given little attention. In the novel, the hotel wanted to add Danny's power to its own, hence why it was using Jack to get him. Here, it's used for some admittedly freaky visions and a call to help to Dick, who's rescue effort ends up being one, big dark joke.

Still, I can't deny the power and effectiveness of the movie. Kubrick's still very much at the top of his game. He might not care for the lives of his characters, but he knows how to put his audience through the emotional wringer. By the end, when the ax-wielding Jack is chasing Danny through the snowy hedge maze of the hotel, it's about as good as horror can get.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Machinist

All right, the movie in which Christian Bale falls deeper and deeper into insanity. No, not American Psycho. The one where he lost a crazy amount of weight to look hauntingly cadaverous? No, not The Fighter. The one where Michael Ironside gives a subtle, nuanced performance? OK, that one doesn't ring a bell.

This is The Machinist (2004). Written by Scott Kosar (who wrote a couple of horror remakes) and directed Brad Anderson (who preceded this with the creepy abandoned asylum movie Session 9), The Machinist tells the story of Trevor Reznik (Bale), an industrial worker who hasn't slept in a year. I'd call him rail-thin, but he's not that big; he's practically a walking skeleton (Bale lost a crazy amount of weight, subsisting on a daily diet of an apple and one can of tuna, so this is no trick of the camera).  Physically, he's wasting away, and his sanity isn't far behind.

Trevor is fairly lonely, isolated. His only connections are hooker Stevie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and waitress Marie (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon). Things start getting weird after he meets the bizarre Ivan (John Sharian) and an accident at the plant occurs involving co-worker Miller (Michael Ironside). Before long, Trevor can't tell what's real or who to trust.

The Machinist could be described as Kafkaesque. It's dark, paranoid, and weird. Trevor becomes convinced someone or some people are out to get him. While the movie is shot in color, Anderson drains a good deal color out of it, so much of this world looks gray and washed out, giving the film an alienating, desolate effect. Only a few items have a strong color, most notably a red car driven by Ivan that Trevor tries to keep up with but can never quite catch. Trevor becomes suspicious someone's been in his apartment when he find post-it notes with a game of hangman on it; ominous, no doubt.

The film also includes some nightmarish imagery: a severed hand spinning on a mechanical turntable, blood flowing out of a freezer, Trevor's decent into a dank tunnel underneath the subway. When Maria's son Nicholas has an epileptic seizure at an amusement park and Trevor runs carrying him, Anderson removes the sound and films in slight slow motion. Trevor calls for help, but of course, no one responds to his cries. Later, things get even wonkier, most notably when someone who is clearly killed returns in a way that is impossible.

I can't discount the craft of The Machinist, but I can't bring myself to get too enthused about it. These descents into madness usually help when they begin with some sense of normalcy, but Trevor's pretty weird from the start and his actions only become increasingly erratic, desperate, and self-destructive, making it hard to empathize with him. There is an explanation to the movie, which I will not divulge, but in retrospect, a good portion of what we witness turns out to have not happened. It's not bad on the level of High Tension, but it's an example of why unreliable perspectives can be troublesome.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A Clockwork Orange

OK, A Clockwork Orange (1971) might not be scary the same way a movie like Halloween is, but as a dystopian satire of crime and punishment and free will, it is, in turn, shocking, graphic, violent, and darkly funny. As played by Malcolm McDowell, main character Alex (I can't refer to him as the hero) is one of the nastiest, cruelest, and most devious of cinematic characters. Plus, he's a popular Halloween costume, so that's enough of a criteria for me to review the movie now.

The story is divided into three parts and is set in a near-future England. The first part shows Alex and his gang raping, pillaging, and fighting and ends with Alex's arrest for murder. Act two follows Alex's time in prison where he undergoes the Ludovico Technique, which basically instills in him a Pavlovian response to violence and sex that causes him to become violently ill. After Alex is "cured," he is released back into society and finds his past victims aren't so forgiving.

Director Stanley Kubrick (adapting the novel by Anthony Burgess) crafts one of the most visually distinctive and iconic films of all time with A Clockwork Orange. The outfits of Alex and his "droogs," the statues of submissive women, the shot of Alex strapped in a chair with his eyes forced open during the Ludovico Technique, and the wide-angle closeups of almost every major character glaring straight on at the camera are among the most memorable of movie images.

Kubrick gives the movie an off-kilter, distorted style, and the result is an alien, almost insane effect, something Terry Gilliam might have created if he wasn't trying to be funny or whimsical. This future Kubrick presents is deranged, from the government all the way down to the street punk Alex, and the way he films the movie reflects that. Kubrick utilizes long takes, slanted camera angles, random inserts (example: Alex imagines himself as a vampire while listening to music), hypnotic electronic music, and leering, menacing figures who stare directly into the camera, overwhelm the frame and seem to threaten the viewer. It makes for uncomfortable viewing, even without all the violence and uncomfortable nudity.

Yet, the film also contains some darkly funny moments and touches. Kubrick choreographs scenes of violence to classical music, and that has a peculiar effect. The film is also sly when Alex, in prison, makes nice with the chaplain by delving into the Bible, but instead of stories of love and redemption, Alex is attracted to the Old Testament stories of war, torture, and orgies. In a perverse but amazing fantasy, he imagines himself as one of Jesus's Roman torturers. Other moments are funny and horrifying, like when Alex reunites with his ex-droogs who have now become police officers.

As expected of a Kubrick film, there's a lot of to talk about, especially when it comes to meaning. It's certainly not out of the realm of plausibility to believe the government would use brainwashing to control its citizens if it could. By surrendering his free will (by volunteering for this behavior modification program), Alex loses the ability to choose, becoming neither good nor bad; he has no soul, as the prison chaplain declares. Alex is ultimately a pawn, used by both the government and anti-government groups to further their agendas. Eliminating violent urges isn't so much a matter of public safety as it is a matter of public control.

A controversial film, A Clockwork Orange raises the question: does it support Alex's antisocial behavior? Does the film glorify violence? I believe, in both cases, the answer is no. Alex is a fiendish and charismatic individual who enjoys "ultra-violence," but Kurbrick lays bare the hypocrisy of the society that created him. His parents offer no parenting, his caseworker tries to molest him, and the police beat him up, multiple times. Criminal thugs are recruited into the police, and even seemingly decent, upstanding citizens enjoy punishing and hurting others. A totalitarian government that keeps its foot on the throat of its people can't be surprised when its criminals are similarly violent.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Last Man on Earth

The Last Man on Earth (1964) is the first adaptation of Richard Matheson's seminal vampire novel I Am Legend. Subsequent adaptations include The Omega Man starring Charlton Heston and the properly titled I Am Legend starring Will Smith. This version stars Vincent Price and is the most faithful to the book, not surprising considering Matheson helped write the script (though he wasn't happy with the results and used the pseudonym Logan Swanson).

This version is the only one to truly convey the original theme of the novel: in a world where there is only one human and everyone else have become vampires, the natural and supernatural have switched places. Man is the creature of the shadows, the boogeyman of lore that frightens the undead majority. While in the book, protagonist Robert Neville accepts this realization with a quiet sadness, a lament over the passing age of humanity, Robert Morgan of the movie rebels against this, defiant to the end against the "freaks" and "mutations," not realizing by default he's the freak and mutant.

Price is an unusual choice, to say the least, for the role of Morgan, a normal man being crushed by the weight of extreme loneliness and despair. His style often lent itself perfectly to suave villains and mad scientists. It takes a little getting used to, but Price plays the role admirably, treating his task as a vampire hunter not as a joyous Van Helsing but as a tired, worn-down man filling time more than anything else. The loss of his family, the drudgery of his routine, the overwhelming sense of isolation, Price plays it seriously. It's not campy or fun as we normally expect from him, but it gets the job done.

The film includes some memorable imagery that would eventually become commonplace in apocalyptic cinema: soldiers in gas masks hauling bodies off trucks and dumping them in fiery pits, pages and pages of calendars with the days crossed off, and vast, wide shots of empty streets, abandoned cars, and the occasional rotting corpse.

The movie also includes several neat details about Morgan's life and how he gets by, including a machine for sharpening stakes, a generator in his garage, and the maps marking all the buildings he's investigated for vampire lairs. After the vampires destroy his car, Morgan amusingly goes to a dealership and takes a station wagon instead of a corvette because it's the closest to a hearse he can find and he needs it to haul bodies. It'd be nice if we didn't have so much voiceover by Morgan explaining we he's doing, but then, I imagine, most people would complain the movie's too quiet.

But - there's always a but - this is still not the sublime I Am Legend horror fans deserve. Yes, Price carries the movie admirably, and there are nice visuals, but overall, it's a cheaply made, rushed through production. The vampires in this movie don't even seem to have fangs and only stumble around in half motion like a bunch a drunks afraid to move lest they fail a sobriety test. The action scenes of Morgan knocking them over are laughably tame, even by the standards of 1964.

The Last Man on Earth does little to even suggest or augment any threat or mystery for these ghouls. It's kind of creepy when Morgan doses off at his wife's tomb and wakes up after dark, but the first appearance of the vampires is horribly perfunctory. They're just kind of there. True, Morgan is used to them, but couldn't the filmmakers have tried to build some mystery and anticipation to their appearances? Compare these stiffs to how George Romero filmed his zombies in Night of the Living Dead and tell me which approach works better. One is inventive despite its low budget, and the other looks cheap.

The movie also makes some weird pacing decisions. Naturally, we get some flashbacks back before the vampire plague hit town, but we didn't need it in a twenty-minute block in the middle of the movie. Occasional fragments referred to throughout the film might have kept things interesting, but by loading the flashbacks into one section, the filmmakers completely kill the narrative's momentum. The movie also rushes through key passages in the book - finding and catching the dog, the encounter with Ruth, etc. - so some of the power is dissipated. The movie doesn't even reach ninety minutes; it could have used more time to space things out and support them.

Vincent Price fans will do well to check out The Last Man on Earth, and those interested in the evolution of movies about the end of the world will find much to enjoy. It's just a shame the story is told in a mostly drab, flat way. I still hope for a truly stellar adaptation of Matheson's work, but last I heard, the plan is to do a prequel to the Will Smith version. Ugh.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Mulberry Street

If Zombeavers was too goofy for you but the concept of zombie critters is appealing, you could do worse than Mulberry Street (2006), which is about zombie rats. After all, beavers are essentially the nicer, more respectable cousins of rats; they both have distinct tails and prominent front teeth. Beavers are inherently kind of goofy looking, so it makes sense their zombies movie would be a silly parody. Rats are inherently dirty and nasty, so it's fitting that their movie would at least aim to be serious and scary and have a deeper thematic meaning.

Mulberry Street centers on a hodgepodge of residents in a New York slum apartment. The place has been bought out for a gentrification project, but on the day the residents receive their eviction notices, a virus spreads through Manhattan, carried by the rats. Once bitten, victims turn into carnivorous, rampaging monsters, complete with pointy teeth, ears, and claws that help them chew through the walls.

This is a zombie movie not set in a suburban mall or the post apocalyptic countryside. Even before the zombies turn up, this part of New York already looks like the Four Horsemen rampaged through it. This is a grim, grimy, filthy, dank setting, a place where disease-carrying rats can easily move and flourish. The rats never kill anyone directly (they never swarm and devour victims like the beavers do), but they are carriers for a deadly disease.

Meanwhile, the country invests in overseas wars at the expense of investing at home, leaving its scarred veterans, represented by Casey (Kim Blair), to return to a dilapidated neighborhood. Yet, the rich and the powerful have no problem forcing people out of their homes for a new development or fleeing when the shit hits the fan (in a funny moment, a radio announcers the mayor will give a press conference from Bermuda, this after the mayor insisted there was no cause for alarm). Would these rats have been able to spread if years of neglect and exploitation hadn't created a perfect breeding ground for them?

While the neighborhood might be skid row, it is just that: a neighborhood. Sure, their living conditions are cruddy, but these characters have each other, and they are a quirky bunch, and they're good, honest folk. There's Clutch (co-writer Nick Damici), a widower and former boxer waiting for the return of his daughter Casey; Coco (Ron Brice), a gay black man who's close enough to Clutch and Casey that he can refer to Casey as "our little girl;" Kay (Bo Corre), a single mother with a teenaged son and who seems to have a thing for Clutch; Ross (Tim House), the hardworking super; and Charlie and Frank, a World War II veteran and his son who have lived in the same apartment for fifty-plus years.

The movie forgoes a conventional, good-looking Hollywood hero or heroine, instead giving us a hodgepodge of characters who skew older, are physically impaired and/or are minorities. It's a nice change of style from so many other movies. It feels more authentic.

Sounds like I'm describing a great movie, right? Well, the material is there, but the execution is iffy. There are some great shots of people being dragged into dark alleyways, and I don't recall another zombie movie that emphasized the sounds of chewing and eating so much (it's pretty disgusting to hear but not in a gratuitous fashion). But man, so much of the movie is visually incomprehensible that I couldn't tell what has happening or whom it was happening to. The camera moves and shakes too much, the editing could be charitably described as over-caffeinated, and sometime's the film is just too plain dark to see anything.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Open Water

The sea. Even today, with all our advances in technology and increased knowledge about how the world works, the ocean can still instill in us a vast, overwhelming sense of awe and terror. Why? There's still so much more about it to discover, and against the mass of the ocean and compared to some of the creatures that live in it, human beings are small and vulnerable. When we enter the ocean, we enter a world we can't control.

And that's what is so good about Open Water (2003); it understands this relationship with the ocean and exploits it. Based on a true story (of course, it is, but that's better than the plot of Open Water 2, which is based off an episode of King of the Hill), Open Water is about a couple, Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel (Daniel Travis), on a vacation in the Caribbean. They go out scuba diving and accidentally get left behind by their tour boat. Left alone in open sea, they must contend with the elements and sharks.

Writer/director Chris Kentis does not load the picture with artificial episodes of action or suspense. If anything, he strips away artifice and convention, making the movie a character study about two people who must confront the inevitable: if they aren't rescued soon, they will die because there is nothing they can do. Yes, there are some hungry sharks, but this isn't Jaws. There are no thrilling scenes of Susan and Daniel heroically fighting the creatures off. Sometimes they see sharks, sometimes the sharks get too close for comfort, sometimes the sharks try to take a bite. They're animals checking weakened, possible prey, not mythical monsters that swallow men whole.

Much of the film consists of Daniel and Susan floating in the water, occasionally putting on their masks to look beneath the waves, and talking. They're scared, out of their element, and prone to panicking or arguing. Sometimes Susan is hysterical, and Daniel tries to calm her down. Other times, Daniel begins ranting and lashing out at the situation, and Susan has to be the reasonable one.

The movie opens by emphasizing their (and by extensions, our) dependency on technology and other people. Kentis shows us shots of their cellphones, they complain about their air conditioner in their hotel room being broken, they go out to eat at a restaurant, and they take a plane and boat ride. As a species, humans are survivors, intelligent enough to control their environment and hunt animals, but individuals humans are weak, slow, and easy pickings without weapons, tools, or other people around.

Filmed on a low budget, Open Water makes up for its lack of funds with a sense of authenticity. Susan and Daniel are really out in the ocean, bobbing up and down, and Kentis keeps his camera close to them, having it rock and up down with them so the viewer feels right there with them. Occasionally, he gives us a long shot of the pair, specks in the vast ocean, highlighting how cut off and vulnerable they are. There's even quality underwater footage that shows us different fish and sharks against the backdrop of vast, dark blue. Also, they apparently used real sharks. The only stylistic misstep comes when a storm hits near the end; the way that scene plays out makes the storm feel more like a dramatic contrivance than an obstacle of nature.

Open Water is not Jaws. It's not very fun, and it's a bleak, nihilistic movie. It defies traditional dramatic structure and payoffs and avoids movie heroics and thrills. Open Water is not for everyone because it's ultimately an uncomfortable movie to watch, but it is an effective, uncompromising movie.

The House by the Cemetery

Another great setup for a classic horror story, another ham-fisted, mostly nonsensical movie from director Lucio Fulci. For the most part, The House by the Cemetery (1981) makes more sense than The Beyond, but it's still filled with its share of baffling creative decisions that left me confused and irritated. Naturally, the film has some nasty gore, memorable imagery, and eerie atmosphere that evokes childhood nightmares, but it's a long haul to get to those.

The House by the Cemetery has a premise similar to that of The Shining. Norman Boyle (Paolo Malco) packs up his wife Lucy (Katherine MacColl) and young son Bob (Giovanni Frezza) and takes them out of New York to an isolated house outside Boston where he will continue the research of his colleague Dr. Peterson, who killed himself after murdering his mistress. Bob doesn't want to go after he's warned away by the spirit of a little girl named Mae (Silvia Collatina). Weird things begin to happen, and it all has to do with the house's history with a notorious 18th century surgeon, Dr. Freudstein (hee, hee, hee, Freudstein).

While watching the movie, I realized my issue with Fulci's style as a director: every point he makes, he makes by bringing it front and center in the frame and lingers on it to make sure we get it. For example, following an incident that leaves Lucy hysterical, the movie moves to the next morning, where she is lying in bed and Norman is sitting in a chair. The scene begins with a closeup shot of pills on a nearby nightstand. OK, we get it; she needed medicine to calm down. Norman and Lucy talk for a bit and hug; he looks over at the pills, and Fulci zooms in on them, as if we didn't already know about them. Maybe if that shot was establishing the pills would still be important, it'd be understandable, but nope, they're never mentioned again or seen.

Fulci's linger style has a tendency to make his characters act in weird ways that only add to the confusion. For example, Norman hears noises late one night and goes to investigate. He finds the babysitter Ann (Ania Pieroni) in the kitchen yanking boards off the cellar door. OK, why is she doing this now? Why is Norman's only reaction to stare at her and she stare back at him? Fulci lingers (there's that word again) on their faces and specifically their eyes as no dialogue is exchanged, and ultimately nothing happens.

Ann is a problematic character because she continues to act as if she's in the know about the secret of the house and the monster in the basement. She acts cold and weird toward the Boyles, and without a word, she cleans up a pool of blood in the kitchen where someone was murdered the night before. Yet, she's revealed to be a complete innocent, unaware of the truth of what's going on. So, finding blood on the floor, cleaning it up, and never mentioning it to your employer is a common responsibility for Boston babysitters? Good to know. That may come in handy some day.

Bob is annoying. I can't really blame the kid playing him, but whoever hired the voice actor to dub him should be shot (or at least have sugar put in their gas tank and receive a wedgie). That voice is so shrill, so whiny, you'll be begging for Bob's demise at the hands of the maggot-infested zombie doctor.

Still, there are some undeniably effective moments in The House by the Cemetery, at least when it focuses on the basement horror. Come on. Who hasn't, as a little kid, been nervous about going down the basement in the dark, afraid of what might be lurking there? At its best, the movie exploits that fear, and Fulci gives a number of creepy shots of the open cellar door, an open portal to total darkness. And of course, like something out of a nightmare, characters find reasons to go downstairs and end up trapped. Even the shots from the killer's point of view as he lumbers from in the basement and up the stairs are pretty cool.

The movie ends with text by Henry James about how no one knows if monsters are children or if children are monsters. I have no clue how that relates to the movie we just watched. If anything, the killer preys on children, so I'm lost.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Fallen

Drawing on elements from Wes Craven's Shocker and William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist III, Fallen (1998), written by Nicholas Kazan and directed by Gregory Hoblit, has a great concept, a stellar cast, and some undeniably creepy and paranoid moments, but it never takes off the way you feel it really could. Take away the supernatural backdrop, and it's just another police procedural from the 90s.

Fallen begins with Detective John Hobbes (Denzel Washington) witnessing the execution of a notorious serial killer he caught, Edgar Reese (Elias Koteas). Soon after, murders begin occurring in the manner in which Reese conducted his, but it soon becomes apparent there's more than meets the eye on this case. Hobbes reaches out to the daughter (Embeth Davidtz) of a long-dead cop and learns Reese was in fact possessed by the spirit of the fallen angel Azezal, who is now traveling from person to person and framing Hobbes for his crimes.

Sorry to spoil that revelation, but Fallen is seventeen years old, and it's really difficult to discuss the movie without going into details. Besides, the demonic nature of the villain was featured prominently in all the advertising and plot summaries I've seen, so most people going into the movie probably already know it.

Other members of this ensemble include John Goodman as Hobbes' partner Jonesy, Donald Sutherland as his superior Lt. Stanton, James Gandolfini as another detective, Gabriel Casseus as Hobbes' brother Art, and other assorted people who have the misfortune of becoming possessed at various points. The performances are all credible and well drawn, grounding the action and making it believable. In their limited time, Koteas and Davidtz are appropriately creepy and nervous, respectively. Sadly, I think they are let down to a degree by Hoblit's direction.

Hoblit directs some stellar sequences. When Hobbes first realizes Azezal can pass from person through a touch, he chases the demon outside, and Azazel mocks him, moving through different people and continuing his discussion uninterrupted. In terms of timing and editing, it's a great sequence that demonstrates and hints at just how powerful Azezal is. Later, Gretta, the police daughter, tries to run away from Azazel in a crowded street, and he keeps catching up to her with a game of tag, never even having to run after her until she jumps in a cab.

But other times, the direction seems flat. The demon point-of-view shots - jaundiced, murky, and slowed down - are initially cool, but they get overused, interrupting the action. Other moments of would-be fright just don't work as well as they should, like when Azazel kills one of his earlier victims in his apartment and when Hobbes brawls one possessed person. Compared to Se7en or The Silence of the Lambs, these moments just feel tame.

A movie like this needs a strong atmosphere, a sense of desolation, despair, and corruption. Like in the classic film noir movies of the 1940s, the film needs a certain seediness to be felt because the hero's very soul is on the line (see Angel Heart for an example). The world is sick, and it's trying to infect him. Hobbes' soul is indeed in peril, but the look and feel of the movie doesn't reflect that well enough; it's too slick, too normal.

The other issue is Washington. I can believe it when the movie says he is too good-hearted and pure for Azezal to possess by touch, and the demon's plan to go after him by messing with his life, destroying his reputation, and attacking the people he loves is great. But, even at his lowest, when he should be falling apart at the seams and losing it, Hobbes still keeps it together. He is too determined when he should be more tormented.

The best moments in the movie belong to Koteas and Davidtz. The opening scene in the prison and execution chamber is ominous as Reese seems giddy about being put to death while acting weird, speaking in unknown languages and saying cryptic messages to Hobbes. Davidtz hints at a truly terrifying scenario about demons and fallen angels on Earth and how they're not supposed to be seen by mortals. Knowing there are supernatural beings walking unseen among us with the goal of destroying civilization is far more unsettling than anything else the movie conveys.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

[Rec]

Alfred Hitchcock is credited with saying, "Drama is life with the dull bits cut out." The problem with [Rec] (2007) is it's a found footage zombie movie with the dull bits left in. If anything, [Rec] is proof that sometimes a horror movie can be too realistic for its own good. That's not because it hits on truths too close to home but because it makes for a thriller that is equally terrifying as it is frustrating and tedious.

We follow the action in [Rec] through the camera of Pablo, a cameraman for a Barcelona news program called "While You're Asleep." We never see Pablo, but we see his host, Angela Vidal (Manuela Velasco), as she and Pablo follow firefighters on a midnight run to an apartment building. Once inside, the firemen and news crew find themselves trapped with all the other residents as zombies infest the building and the police barricade them inside. Angela orders Pablo to keep filming, but the terrible secret of the outbreak reveals a more horrifying truth.

When I say [Rec] seems genuinely filmed by a person really going through that situation, that is both a compliment and detraction. It's gritty, raw, intense, chaotic, and really plants the viewer in the middle of what's going on. There's no music or professionally staged camera setups that would suggest artifice. The downside is the camera never stops moving, and the camera operator rarely holds it steady, except during the quiet, interview pieces between the zombie attacks. After a while, this gets annoying and distracting because when you want to get a good look at look something, the camera prevents you from doing so.

But I can already hear some of you saying: but isn't that the point of the found footage genre? Real life isn't always so clear and easy to see, and when you're presenting a subjective perspective, shouldn't it reflect reality as much as possible? Real-life home movies and news footage rarely capture the whole story, so it's believable some important stuff is missed. Yes, that's all true, but even in a movie depicting ostensibly real events, I do think there needs to be a balance between being real and being dramatically and visually coherent. And it would certainly help if [Rec] didn't drag its feet to get to its cool ending and repeat itself quite a bit.

As I would expect of people going through a zombie infestation, these characters spend a lot of time shouting at each other, becoming hysterical, crying, and making all sorts of LOUD NOISES. These conversations repeat a lot: turn the camera off, keep it running, we have to get out of here, what's going, what's wrong with these people, etc. It would have helped if the characters were better defined and given more to do, but too often, it's a lot of shrill screaming, repeated ultimatums and explanations, and people explaining things to the camera that we've already witnessed. When the zombies attack, the movie is pretty nifty, but there's a lot of dead spots between the action.

The film takes off with its climactic revelation of the origin of the zombie virus, and this is where the movies goes from passable zombie flick to something really terrifying. It's set almost in total darkness as the survivors find themselves locked in a cramped room filled with religious iconography and newspaper clippings. A voice on a tape recorder fills in the requisite back story, and then a horrifying creature appears and the movie concludes with an unforgettable final image. I only wish the rest of the movie was as good as this ending.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Trick 'r Treat

No, this isn't the 1980s movie featuring Gene Simmons and Ozzy Osbourne (playing a televangelist of all things). Trick 'r Treat (2007) is an anthology horror movie in the tradition of Creepshow and Tales from the Crypt from writer/director Michael Dougherty, best known as the screenwriter for the likes of X-Men 2 and Superman Returns. Unlike other anthologies in the genre I can think of, Trick 'r Treat, while presenting several short stories, has them overlap. Characters in one segment appear in others, and the timeline jumps around. In a way, Trick 'r Treat is the Pulp Fiction of the horror genre, both because of its style and because it feels made by and for fans.

The stories of Trick 'r Treat are as follows. A husband and wife return home from a Halloween party, and the wife is not as enthused about the holiday as her husband is. Next, a principal spots a neighborhood kid stealing candy. In the third tale, five kids encounter the legend of the School Bus Massacre. We then follow a virginal young woman on her way to a party as she is stalked by a killer. In the last story, a curmudgeon finds himself under siege in his home by a masked imp.

Trick 'r Treat is built on subverting expectations. It's filled with a lot of unexpected twists and turns, surprises, dramatic ironies, and poetic justice. As in the tradition of many anthologies, these stories are about just desserts, the wicked committing a crime and the supernatural stepping in to right the scales of justice. When bad things happen to bad people, there's a deliciousness because they deserved it.

The movie also is very much about Halloween, what it means in today's society and its origins. We get the usual trick or treating, the parties, the candy, the Jack O'Lanterns, the costumes, and even a shout out to Charlie Brown. The movie goes beyond that, emphasizing the importance of the Halloween rituals and the consequences that come from not obeying them. The traditions which are supposed to protect humanity from the dead and evil spirits have become events of fun and careless cheer. Trick 'r Treat gets its menace by suggesting these threats, though long forgotten, have not vanished. "Tonight is about respecting the dead because this is the one night that the dead and all sorts of other things roam free - and pay us a visit," we're told.

We're first reminded of this when one kid fails to adhere to that timeless advice: always check your candy. And needless to say, when someone shows up at your door in a costume, it's best to give them a treat. The movie has a variety of the creatures and creeps, including ghosts, ghouls, zombies, slashers, and a few surprises I won't reveal, so the movie never gets in a rut rehashing the same type of threat. One consistent link throughout all the stories and whom all the characters have an encounter with is Sam, a masked, child-sized figure who has a few secrets of his own.

Trick 'r Treat is aided by a strong cast clearly having fun. Dylan Baker is the crazed principal, Anna Paquin the young virgin, and Brian Cox the town grump, and they're all great. Even the kids turn in solid, believable performances. The movie strikes a fun balance between terror and humor, and the actors do their part.

The movie also has the joy to bookend with comic panels, a la Creepshow.  Dougherty brings energy and style to his direction, giving us some wonderfully composed and spooky imagery. I especially liked the glowing Jack O'Lanterns in the mist being extinguished in the quarry, and there's a wonderfully creepy werewolf transformation in which they unzip their skin like costumes (that sounds goofy, but trust me, it works). So much of the joy of the movie is how it sets up surprises, and the viewer is still surprised when the payoffs arrive. If you're looking for a Halloween movie, this is as good as you're going to get.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Jacob's Ladder

Before The Sixth Sense, there was Jacob's Ladder (1990). It wasn't the first movie to end on the revelation its hero had been dead the whole time (that honor probably belongs to Carnival of Souls, although Ambrose Bierce's short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" predates that), but it remains regarded as one of the best of its sort, its influence felt in everything from movies like The Sixth Sense to video games like Silent Hill.

It's hard for me to formulate my thoughts on Jacob's Ladder. It is a mind-warp of an experience, jumping in and out of different timelines; blurring the line between fantasy, hallucination, and nightmares; and contemplating on such philosophical topics as life and death, grief, Heaven, and Hell. And it offers up no easy answers; watching the movie is not a comfortable experience. You will feel you've just had a bad acid trip, but it's undeniably effective as a surreal, paranoid thriller, a meeting in the Twilight Zone between Franz Kafka and David Lynch.

Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) had a bad experience in Vietnam. Something happened to himself and his unit, but he doesn't know what. At home, he has a doctorate but settles for works as a postman. Estranged from his wife Sarah (Patricia Kalember) after the death of their youngest son Gabe (Macaulay Culkin), he lives with co-worker Jezzie (Elizabeth Pena). Strange things begin happening. People seem to be following Jacob, his doctor dies in an explosion, and Jacob thinks he's seeing actual demons. Only his chiropractor Louis (Danny Aeillo) offers any solace or protection.

Jacob's Ladder jumps around between three distinct time periods: Jacob's time in Vietnam, his "present" day living arrangement with Jezzie, and another time in which he's still living with Sarah and Gabe still lives, though it's hard to say whether this time is before Gabe's death or whether another timeline in which that never happened. Sometimes there's just out-of-nowhere weirdness, like when Jacob steps off a subway train and catches a glimpse of what looks like a reptilian tail curled between the legs of a sleeping bum. Early on, a car suddenly chases Jacob down an alley and drives off, no explanation or introduction offered. If there's anything Jacob's Ladder excels at, it's keeping the viewer off balance. We can't tell what's real and what's not.

Director Adrian Lyne also films the movie in an off-kilter manner, so it's not only disorienting to follow, it's disorienting to watch. During a party thrown by Jezzie, Jacob grows increasingly frantic and afraid as it looks like a demon is dancing with her. The scene is shot mostly in the dark, lit only by flashing strobe lights, so we can't get a good look at what's happening. Shots become fragmented and jump around. Meanwhile, the angles on Jacob are slanted and off center, and we completely understand why he freaks out. Lyne also works in subtle imagery, like when a subway car passes Jacob, and all the passengers in the window look like they have no faces.

The most frightening sequence occurs after Jacob is taken to the hospital. Strapped down in a gurney, he is wheeled from what initially appears to be a normal medical facility, but as he passes through doors and barriers, the corridors grow increasingly dirty and disturbing: malformed people crawling around above the ceiling, piles of body parts, seriously freaked out patients blooding themselves against windows, and doctors with no eyes. When they get to the operating room, they hold Jacob in place with machinery that looks like torture equipment. Jacob's face is shown in close up and upside down, similar to how his life feels, as the doctors, including Jezzie, drill into his forehead.

There are also moments that are just plain sad, like when Jacob finds a picture of Gabe and cries. More than anything else, Jacob feels alone with hardly anyone to turn to for help, and over the course of the movie, he is betrayed by others, including Jezzie and his Army buddies. Only Louis stands by him; at one point, Jacob says he looks like an angel. It is Louis who offers an explanation of Hell, citing philosopher Meister Eckhart:

"The only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won't let go of life, your memories, your attachments. They burn them all away. But they're not punishing you. They're freeing your soul. So, if you're frightened of dying and you're holding on, you'll see devils tearing your life away. But if you've made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the earth." That's about as accurate of a description of the movie you're going to get.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Lost

Does the title of The Lost (2006) more accurately refer to its spaced-out, going-nowhere characters or does it better describe the story? Based on the novel of the same name by Jack Ketchum, The Lost is touted to be based on a true story. How accurate it is I don't know nor is it particularly important. The movie tries too hard to include too many subplots, too many characters, and too little focus in its two-plus hour running time that even after watching it, it's hard for me to figure out what point it was trying to make.

The Lost begins like it's going to be about amoral youths on a killing spree. One day out on a campground, Ray Pye (Marc Pye) decides on a whim to murder two girls who are staying there and then has his friends Tim (Alex Frost) and Jennifer (Shay Astar) help him cover it up, although one of the girls escapes. Four years later, the surviving girl dies after being in a coma, and police Detective Charlie Schilling (Michael Bowen) still believes Ray is the killer, even though he could never prove it. New girl Katherine (Robin Sydney) arrives in town, and she and Ray hit it off.

The movie has moments of intense violence. Plenty of people get shot and stabbed, and it's quite horrific and bloody.  The climax involves a cruel, sadistic act performed by Ray against a pregnant woman (thankfully, the worst of it occurs off-screen). There's also some unsettling sexual threats (the movie opens with Ray accosting a naked woman and making her very uncomfortable very quickly). By the end, Ray goes on a shooting rampage, kidnapping the prominent women characters, and taking out his anger on everyone, but it's a long haul to get there.

What is The Lost supposed to be about? Ray Pye and his descent into murder and depravity? Well, he's already a murderer when the movie opens, and he doesn't really change much except to do more killing out in the open by the end. The efforts of Schilling to nail Ray? Well, he's gone for long stretches of times that you forget he's in the movie. The same with Tim and Jennifer, who seem equally driven by love for and fear of Ray, but they too get pushed aside until the end when the movie requires they get brought back in. Then there's Katherine, who's set up as this alluring, mysterious girl with a dark past and seems to be leading Ray astray (not that he's not already corrupted) before she abruptly calls things off with him.

Rather than present a cohesive narrative, The Lost feels like a collection of different ideas and scenes, and it doesn't seem to really get anywhere. We start off with one piece, play it out, and then move on to the next, and as a result, dramatic tension doesn't really build. It's a lot of stuff happening, but I can't tell what their significance is or how they relate to each other.

There's so much packed in here that doesn't seem important and relevant to the plot - a cameo by Dee Wallace-Stone as the mother of one of the dead girls, the former partner of Schilling who has since left the police force (I think but it doesn't stop him from helping out at the end) and is now secretly dating the daughter of a colleague, this same daughter who gets a job at the motel owned by Ray's mother. Maybe Ketchum portrayed this better in the book, but I wouldn't know, having not read the book. This adaptation needed to be lean and mean, but it just feels bloated and overlong.

The other problem is Ray himself. The movie begins with a line of text telling us how Ray puts crushed up beer cans in his boot so he can look taller. Yes, he is dangerous and nasty and yes kind of creepy, but I found him mostly lecherous. I'm also not sure why he dresses like a 1950s greaser, with slicked back, dyed hair, a fake mole, makeup, and cowboy boots. He's an odd bird to say the least, but I think a little goes a long way. We spend a lot of time with him without finding much about what makes him tick (apart from rage issues regarding women). He's mostly a punk who threatens vulnerable women.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Severance

English filmmaker Christopher Smith has been establishing himself as one of the most diverse directors working in the genre in recent years. I've already reviewed Black Death, his movie about witch hunters in medieval Europe. His other titles include Creep, about creatures attacking people in the London underground; Triangle, about terrorized yacht passengers; and Get Santa, a family comedy starring Jim Broadbent as the Jolly Old Elf. As a filmmaker, Smith seems determined to avoid repeating himself, choosing projects completely different from his past work.

Severance (2006) is Smith's second feature film, and as expected, it's different from anything else in his filmography. Essentially, it's a parody of all those Backwoods Brutality movies from the 1970s, in which civilized folks found themselves under siege in the wilderness and were forced to descend into violent savagery to survive (it also helps if the villains are inbred hillbillies, the more mutated the better). Examples include Deliverance, The Hills Have Eyes, and Southern Comfort.

Severance works in the same manner as Cabin in the Woods, by sending up the conventions of the genre at the same time it's exploiting them and turning them on their head. The movie has its fair share of blood and guts along with some suspenseful, thrilling moments, but it also has a sly, ironic sense humor and a tongue firmly planted in cheek. The movie also takes a satirical jab at America's military-industrial complex, showing how very easily weapons can be trained on those who profit off them.

There's nothing groundbreaking plot-wise about Severance. A bunch of people go into the woods and get picked off in horribly gruesome ways by a killer or killers. Thankfully, instead of teenagers, the movie gives us employees Palisade Defense, a weapons manufacturer that sells guns and munitions all over the world. These particular employees - including boss Richard (Tim Mcinnerney), American Maggie (Laura Harris, ironically a Canadian in real life), and stoner Steve (Danny Dyer) - are on a sales tour of Eastern Europe when they embark on a team-building exercise in Hungary. They end up lost in the woods, mistake a derelict building for a resort lodge, and before too long, find themselves being hunted by a mysterious foe who knows the area better than they do.

The situation in Severance is mostly played straight. These people are fighting for their lives. The humor comes from their reactions as well as strict logic being played out. Richard tries to maintain a sense of leadership, but since he's a coward and not very good at thinking on his feet, his idea of leadership is to rehash corporate lingo about teamwork, even as the bodies start piling up. Another character gets decapitated, but after earlier insisting to another that a severed head can continue to think for another two or three minutes after being separated from its body, he dies with a smile on his face, knowing he was right.

Some moments are also funny and intense. Gordon (Andy Nyman), the nerdy guy most happy to toe the company line, gets his foot caught in a bear trap. He is understandably upset about this development. As he's screaming, the others try to pull the teeth of the trap apart, so he can slide his leg out, but all they end up doing cutting off his leg by accident. Steve then puts the limb on ice, stuffing it as best he can into a fridge on the group's tour bus. He seems more annoyed that he has to take all the beer out and let it get warm.

The movie also gets some mileage out of its background. These characters work for a company that sells weapons around the world, and now they find these same weapons being used against them. Early on, Jill (Claudie Blakley) hypes her non-lethal land mines that pin people to the ground instead of killing them, and Richard says, without a trace of irony, that American and British government people are on the board of their company and there's no way they'd be involved in anything illegal. These characters treat guns, rockets, ammo, land mines, and other munitions like commodities, but once these weapons are used against them, they learn awfully quickly there's a big difference between selling guns and using them. The real world is a much harsher, more violent place than all those corporate videos would have them believe. It's a trope of the genre - the civilized confronting the savage real world - given a modern, appropriate update.

Severance also has some nice little surprises along the way that might not blow your mind but are amusing. Jill has an encounter with a spider that has an unexpected reaction on her end. Gordon is seen goofing around on the diving board of a dirty pool filled with dead leaves; we never see him fall in, but the next time we see him, he's walking back to his room, soaking wet and miserable. There are even some genuine character moments. Richard gets the chance to redeem himself and be a leader after he makes a false step, and there's Billy (Babou Ceesay), set up as the token black guy but who gets the chance to take charge. The movie also gets a hilarious moment where it looks like it should be over, the survivors walk out of the house and ... I wouldn't dream of spoiling it.

If there's a down side to Severance, it's the fact the threat as revealed is not particularly interesting. The background is kind of cool - insane war criminals from the nut house seeking revenge on the company - but once we see these guys, they're kind of disappointing, grungy-looking soldier types who like extras from a Steven Seagal movie. Learning what we do about them, it seems unlikely the normal characters would have any sort of chance against them in a straight-up fight. At least they get the best credits ever - flamethrower killer, head-squish killer, and knife-in-butt killer.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Pan's Labyrinth

Proof there is always another chance, I missed the chance to see Pan's Labyrinth (2006) during its initial theatrical run, but the following year, a local theatre near my college showed it as part of a film course, so I did get to see it on the big screen. By that point, I had already seen the movie on DVD and knew what to expect; my fellow students, knowing only it was a Spanish-language fantasy movie about a little girl and fairies, never knew what hit them.

Very much a modern cinematic fairy tale, Pan's Labyrinth is not, I repeat not, a children's movie. Between the eyeless monster that eats babies, the fairies that get their heads bitten off, and the looming faun that looks like he belongs on a Dimmu Borgir album cover, this is a dark, intense fairy tale. The film is also arguably not a fantasy movie; all these wonderful and frightening creatures we witness could very well be just the products of the imagination of a little girl desperate to escape the real life horrors of war surrounding her.

Set in 1944 in Spain, Pan's Labyrinth begins as young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) journeys with her mother Carmen (Ariada Gil) to the military outpost of her stepfather, Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez). Carmen is pregnant and nearly full term, but Vidal insists his son be born where his father is. Ofelia has a large collection of books about fairy tales, and shortly after arriving in the woods, she meets the faun (Doug Jones), who tells her she is the reincarnation of a princess from an underground kingdom who escaped long ago, Now, he gives her a series of tasks to prove her royal legacy.

Director Guillermo del Toro's style has often been compared to magical realism, the inclusion of magic and other fantasy elements in otherwise real-world settings. Pan's Labyrinth falls into this category by incorporating real-world elements - the Spanish Civil War, fascist army officers, underground guerillas, doctors using modern medicine, etc. - and mixing in the fantasy - the faun, the fairies, magical spells involving mandrakes, chalk that can draw doors to other realms. Ofelia never questions any of these fantastical elements; she takes them in stride, curious to learn more and to see them but never doubting their existence or demanding a rational explanation for them.

Of course, it could all be in her head. She reads a lot of books that give her ideas, her mother is ill, and she's lonely out in the wilderness as a war rages around her. Why wouldn't she imagine something wondrous lurking in the shadows or living in the woods? No one else sees what she claims to see, dismissing her claims of fairies and whatnot as those of an easily excitable, bookish girl. del Toro avoids answering definitively for much of the movie, although how Ofeila gets out of her room during the climax is not easily explained if it's all in her head.

del Toro does not neglect the real world around Ofelia. While she encounters a terrifying pale being, Ofelia's biggest threat is her stepfather, whom she refuses to call father. Vidal is a sadistic monster who demands total obedience, and he relishes torturing prisoners. His cruelest moment, arguably, is when he tells a stuttering guerrilla if he can count to three without misspeaking, he'll let him go, and naturally, the prisoner fails. What he does to him is kept off screen, but we see the ugly results. One of the first thing we see Vidal do in the movie is beat a man to death with a wine bottle until his face caves in.

Meanwhile, the guerrillas move closer, aided by Carmen's doctor, Ferreiro (Alex Angulo), a good man who doesn't think they have a chance but does what he can, and servant Mercedes (Maribel Verdu), who befriends Ofelia and whose brother leads the partisans. They live in constant fear of being discovered. This material isn't just background filler; it's fully fleshed out. In fact, there are probably more scenes in the real world than the fantasy world.

When I say Pan's Labyrinth is gloomy, I mean that a compliment. It's dark, both in subject matter and look. Ofelia's encounters with the faun occur at night, and he emerges, lumbering from the shadows, and many scenes seem lit only by fireplace. It rains quite a bit, including during a hillside skirmish, and at one point, Ofelia crawls though a muddy tunnel covered in bugs as she confronts a giant toad. The creature designs are not cute or clean but more adult; the faun in particular looks like he's part tree and part goat demon. We can never be particularly sure of his agenda.

Yet, despite the dark nature of the film and the real-world violence it portrays, it's not a depressing experience. It is, as is often said about fantasy films, enchanting and wondrous. Ofelia proves herself to be a worthy heroine, learning life lessons along the way and taking on both real and fantasy monsters and succeeding with her mettle, determination, and quick thinking. The end of the film is bittersweet, but seeing Ofelia join the fairy tales she has long found solace in is uplifting. That is, if you believe she really encountered all of that.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Hocus Pocus

You know, I've watched some pretty warped and scary things this month, what with all the undead ghouls and child murder. I need a break. A nice, pleasant, live-action Disney movie starring Bette Midler should be just the ticket....

Oh my. Hocus Pocus (1993) is a children's movie, right? This tale of three witchy sisters - who prey on children, own a flesh-bound grimoire that's the Necronomicon in all but name, have a zombie slave, and painfully transform a boy into a cat - has more than its fair share of jokes about a 16-year-old boy being a virgin than one would expect from the Mouse, which is to say it has any. Hocus Pocus would be downright terrifying and disturbing given the subject matter if not for the fact it's very silly, giddy even. I can't call it a great movie, but I can't bring myself to dislike it. It's just too much fun.

The plot focuses on the Sanderson sisters: Winifred (Midler), Mary (Kathy Najimy), and Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker), witches who aim to devour the life-force of all children of Salem so they can stay young forever. They're hanged but not before turning young Thackery Binx, the brother of one of their victims, into a black cat. Three-hundred years later, high schooler Max (Omri Katz) unwittingly resurrects the witches on Halloween (a virgin had to light a candle, you see), and now with his sister Dani (Thora Birch), love interest Allison (Vinessa Shaw), and Binx the cat, he has to stop the witches.

Hocus Pocus was one of those movies that came and went in theaters without making too much noise, and some of the critical reviews I've read were very harsh. Somehow, at least among my generation, it's become cherished as a cult favorite. Facebook friends are guaranteed to share quotes and memes, and every October, you can bet ABC Family is going to show the movie a few dozen times. I'm not sure why, but for some reason, this movie struck a chord with children of the 90s. Hell, I even had it taped on a VHS cassette along with The Worst Witch.

Maybe for a lot of us, it was one of our first encounters with macabre material, but it's done for laughs instead of chills. Hocus Pocus has a lot of elements that are almost scary before the film undercuts them. The Sandersons drain the life-force out of Binx's sister in the first five minutes, and her lifeless body is slumped over in a chair, and Mary, trying to hide her from the townspeople, throws a blanket over her. The zombie, Billy Butcherson (played by the always valuable Doug Jones), loses his head twice and shambles after the kids until he cuts the stitches off to open his mouth (long story), tells Winnie what he's waited centuries to say, and joins the good guys.

The witches themselves are very silly. Mary and Sarah aren't the brightest candles at the seance, and Winnie is always lamenting her lot in life for having such idiot sisters. She has no qualms about bossing them around and slapping them when they screw up. Later, when they lose their broomsticks, the sisters resort to mops and vacuum cleaners to soar through the night. The movie also has fun with these 17th century witches not understanding modern Salem: mistaking firefighters for witch hunters, thinking a Clark bar is the "chocolate-covered finger of a man named Clark," and not knowing what a bus is. They even mistake a devilishly costumed Gary Marshall as their master and a hair curler-wearing Penny Marshall as another notorious supernatural woman ("Master's married Medusa!").

That said, there are few creepy moments that linger. Binx is transformed into an immortal cat, cursed to live with his guilt forever (not even getting run over by a bus can kill him. He's flattened like a pancake but returns to form in no time). Near the end, Sarah gets a Pied Piper moment when she sings, luring all the children of Salem to the sisters' house to be drained. There's also a lot of innuendo that probably goes over most kids' heads. I didn't know what a virgin was when I first saw this movie, so all the references to Max being one didn't make sense at the time (even Dani makes fun of him for it, but that's probably because she knows it bothers him rather than knowing what it means). The witches also get their share of suggestive lines, particularly Sarah ("We can hang him on a hook and let me play with him.")

Of course, the real strength of Hocus Pocus is the performances of the three witches. There's just something about playing witches that gives actresses the chance to cut loose and play it broadly, with no concerns for subtly or being sympathetic, and that's the case here. Midler, Najimy, and Parker just play it all to the hilt, clearly having fun being bad and silly, and it's impossible to resist. Winifred is the dominant leader, the focused one who keeps the plot on track; Mary is the child-like one who is always smelling for children, and it's strongly hinted she's enjoyed a few for dinner; and Sarah is the ditz who flirts with every boy and man she comes across. They even get a couple of musical numbers, including a show-stopping version of "I Put a Spell on You" at a costume party, and since they use music to cast spells, it actually makes sense to the plot.

Hocus Pocus is a Halloween movie, about that one day of the year where we can almost believe magic is real, supernatural creatures do exist, and the dead can walk among the living. Sure, witches might appear to try to kidnap and devour children, but hey, they have style and sure know how to party.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Thirst

Sometimes it's the little details you remember the most. Shortly after becoming a vampire, our hero in Thirst (2009) gets his bloody fix from coma patients at the hospital. Thing is, he's not biting their necks; he's sucking their blood through IV tubes, which makes a kind of sense. Why bother puncturing the flesh if they've already got a release valve?

Thirst is another gloriously warped and violent movie from Korean director Park Chan-Wook, arguably one of the best and most idiosyncratic of filmmakers working today. His movies have a way of taking a common storyline - vampires, home invasion, revenge - and presenting them unconventionally and in unexpected ways. Often, his movies have strong elements of black humor and irony. All this accurately describes Thirst.

The movie begins with a good-hearted priest named Father Sang-hyun (Kang-ho Song), who volunteers for a medical experiment that exposes him to a deadly virus, but after a transfusion, he survives where everyone else has died. He makes a complete recovery, becoming thought of as a modern saint. Before long, he discovers he has a terrible thirst for blood and must seek shelter from sunlight. He has become a vampire and so begins his descent into depravity, which includes murder and sex.

Why a vampire would donate his or her own blood for use by a hospital, I have no idea. You'd think vampires would treat blood banks the way criminals treat banks but apparently not in Thirst. Maybe this generous vampire was a prankster. Or maybe the poor creature was lonely. Maybe it was a mistake. It's fun to think about.

Park loads the film with nice visual touches. Sang-hyun convinces his superior at the monastery (a blind man) of his condition by cutting open his chest and having him grip his heart. When Sang-hyun is tempted to bite the neck of a sleepwalking woman, the film shows her arteries just beneath her flesh. When he feeds on the coma patient, the camera tracks the tube from the man's arm, down past the bed until we see Sang-hyeon lying on the floor, his face still bandaged. Later, when Sang-hyun and Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin) begin an affair, a sex scene is preceded by the two of them feeding on each other, one sucking the foot and the other sucking on a wrist; it's a kinky, perverse moment.

Let's be honest: many vampire stories are about sex and its alluring but dangerous thrill. Thirst makes this common subtext more explicit, bringing it to the forefront. Sang-hyun is a repressed, virginal priest who has never known women, but once he becomes a vampire, he finds he can't control any of his "sinful hungers," whether it be for blood or sex. Early on he tries resisting; he gets an erection and tries beating it down with a recorder. Later, the apparent waterlogged ghost of a murder victim gets between Sang-hyuan  and his sexual partner, and they amusingly try to ignore it.

Before long, lust turns to murder. Tae-ju is the wife of Sang-hyun's childhood friend Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun). Kang-woo himself is ill, and his mother Lady Ra (Have-suk Kim) is overbearing and domineering, so Tae-ju tries to convince Sang-hyun to kill her husband and transform her into a vampire (she even fakes physical abuse to further motivate him). This warped love triangle, along with Sang-hyun's increasing corruption as he indulges in his forbidden hungers, makes up the heart of the movie.

Thirst is more than two hours long, and it becomes a bit unwieldy in its last half hour. Once Sang-hyun kills Kang-woo (in an effective scene by taking him out on a boat and dragging him under water, so it mostly happens offscreen) and later learns the truth that he wasn't an abuser, the movie feels like it's over. Sang-hyun kills Tae-ju but decides to resurrect her, and the rest of the movie follows as he tries to keep her in line. She really enjoys being a vampire and killing. The movie reached a dramatic high point but kept going. This material feels more old-hat than the rest of the movie: the reluctant vampire and the relishing killer.

When the movie focuses on the relationship triangle and Sang-hyun's increasingly moral imbalance, Thirst is a wonderful modern vampire tale. It's not for the squeamish, but if you have the stomach for it, it's darkly humorous and twisted. Thirst bring fresh blood to an old genre.