Archive for the ‘horror’ category

The Purge: Anarchy

July 21, 2014


The disappointing thing about the Purge movies is that the marketing makes them look spookier and more radical than they turn out to be. The first one, from last year, used a promising if unoriginal premise — every year in futuristic America, there’s a 12-hour window of officially ignored criminality — as the backdrop for a standard home-invasion thriller. Now The Purge: Anarchy employs the same concept as wallpaper for an action-thriller that swipes alternately from The Warriors and Escape from New York but lacks the style of either.

As the annual Purge is about to kick off, we meet a variety of civilians preparing for the long night. The mother-daughter duo Eva (Carmen Ejogo) and Cali (Zoe Soul) plan to hole up in their apartment. The troubled young couple Shane (Zach Gifford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez) are on their way to her sister’s house. A mystery man (Frank Grillo) arms himself and goes out into the chaos. Eventually all these people wind up under the protection of Mystery Man, whose name, Wikipedia informs me, is Leo, even though I don’t think I heard it mentioned in the film.

Somewhere in there is a revolutionary faction opposed to the Purge, but aside from serving as a deus ex machina (both Purge movies are full of last-minute rescues) they don’t amount to much. More is made here of the Purge essentially being an elitist culling of the 99%, with the rich paying to kidnap or hunt the poor for fun. But the politics of this is callow compared to two other recent dystopian thrillers, Snowpiercer and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

The action, on the rare occasions that you can make out what’s happening, is uninspired; the putatively ghastly sight of prowling killers in ironically innocent masks is muted when we find out what they’re really up to. Random cruelty, to me, is scarier than conspiracy theories, which arise from the human need to impose order where there is none. There’s certainly order in the universe of The Purge, which makes the conflict comprehensible and dull and politically questionable even if you’re on the side of the 99%.

By virtue of getting out and about, and having a more varied cast than Ethan Hawke and his family, The Purge: Anarchy packs marginally more entertainment value than its predecessor. Ultimately, though, it’s boring to watch and to think about, and sadly, these movies are meant to be thought about. But they’re overtly political in a way that reminds me of a high-school kid who’s just discovered radicalism. The writer/director of both films is James DeMonaco, who may for all I know have a shelf full of Noam Chomsky, but one of the executive producers is Transformers perpetrator Michael Bay, whose low-budget horror-flick shingle Platinum Dunes is behind the films. Bay is decidedly a one-percenter, and I would reflexively distrust anything supposedly radical with his name on it. These movies are like something that would be shown to the poor folks of Panem in The Hunger Games to pacify them, keep them from actually doing anything.

The Quiet Ones

April 27, 2014

20140427-190654.jpgWho are the quiet ones in The Quiet Ones? It can’t be the ghost or demon that seems to be afflicting a 19-year-old girl, because it raises high old noisy hell. This is another spook movie, like The Conjuring, that would wither on the vine if it were a silent film. Anyway, the question is never satisfactorily answered, though someone refers to “the quiet ones” in passing in a scene that feels pasted on. I wondered if the title was actually an homage to Albert Brooks’ great line: “George Bush says he hears the quiet people others don’t. I have a friend in Los Angeles who hears the quiet people others don’t, and he has to take a lot of medication for it.”

Medication won’t work on Jane Harper (Olivia Cooke), the aforementioned girl, who often manifests alarming phenomena like fire and jarring sound effects. Brute therapy is required, at least according to Oxford professor Coupland (Jared Harris), who seems to have devoted his life to “curing” Jane. Coupland believes that any supposedly paranormal activity can be explained scientifically — to be specific, he contends such events arise from the squirming and repressed demons of the unconscious mind. Coupland evidently isn’t up on other science-flavored handwaving of things that go bump in the night, like, say, quantum physics, but we get the sense that he’s the kind of academic that treats every problem as a nail because he only has a hammer. A broken leg, to Coupland, would clearly be rooted in Oedipal issues.

Anyway, Coupland treats Jane with such densely scientific methods as keeping her awake by blaring Slade’s “Cum On Feel the Noize” into her room (the year is 1974, so it isn’t the Quiet Riot cover) and encouraging her to deposit her unwelcome visitor “Evey” into a baby doll. Lacking a sense of humor about this sort of thing, Oxford University ixnays Coupland’s funding, whereupon he takes Jane and his small crew of assistants — including cameraman Brian (Sam Claflin), through whose old-school analog lens we see some of the proceedings — to a remote country house. There, Jane’s problem gets worse, and louder. Sexual tension is front and center, what with the lone female assistant (Erin Richards) dallying with both Coupland and another assistant (Rory Fleck-Byrne), and Jane flashing a nonplussed Brian in her tub (surprising to see nipples, however fleetingly, in a PG-13 movie these days — but then this is a Hammer film, and many a naughty British boy back in the ’50s enjoyed his first cleavage at Hammer horror flicks).

The movie is confusing. Coupland seems to want to “exorcise” Jane’s problem via science, though someone else says he’s trying to create a poltergeist — in effect, unleashing Jane’s psychological demon onto the world? I guess? And what then? Coupland doesn’t have any proton packs. It seems as though Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis thought more seriously about this than this Oxford professor ever does. The movie is based loosely, and by “based loosely” I mean “someone heard about it and thought it would make a cool movie if it were made stupider,” on an actual experiment in Toronto, wherein a team of curious folk sought to make a poltergeist emerge from their group unconscious. It seemed to work a little, too — while fishing for evidence, they got a couple of tugs on their line. Interesting stuff — if only the movie were interested in it.

Instead we get the prerequisite booga-booga, often visualized incoherently via grainy footage. There’s a great deal of burning and screaming and loud sound effects, and overkill use of adrenaline shots, until finally Jane is tossing fireballs around and it all ends on a goofy note that inspired one young gentleman in the audience to exclaim “What the heck?”, or a more vulgar variation thereof. People complain about talkers in movie theaters, but the more honest and outspoken of them can brighten an otherwise dull afternoon.

Dario Argento’s Dracula

November 3, 2013

3.-ASIA-ARGENTO-AS-THE-UNDEAD-LUCY-IN-ARGENTOS-DRACULA-3DMost of the people shaking their heads sadly over Dario Argento’s Dracula don’t seem to know what he’s up to. Anyone who’s seen Euro-horror of the ’60s and ’70s, particularly by Jean Rollin or Jesús Franco, or Blood for Dracula or Flesh for Frankenstein or even some of the classic Hammer films, will go into this affectionate homage with a receptive state of mind. Argento’s Dracula does reflect some of the foibles of the above movies — it has its cheesy parts, its dull stretches, its incomprehensible moments. But then that’s Argento, too. The world-renowned maestro of such works as Suspiria and Profondo Rosso pretty much always left logic bleeding in the dust. He cares more about mood, music, the crescendo of violence, the rich sanguinary history of art. He’s going to make Dracula and amuse himself doing it and he doesn’t give a damn whether you think it’s the 2013 definition of cool.

Shot whenever possible in and around crumbling Italian castles and villages, Dracula has a distinct European whiff that can’t be faked or built, especially not on the $7 million budget Argento had. The relatively tiny piggy bank also shows in the never-convincing computer effects — Dracula (Thomas Kretschmann) turns into a wolf, an owl, a swarm of flies, and, in the movie’s height of nuttiness, a man-sized praying mantis. But no gritty verisimilitude is established here in the first place — it’s not as though any sane viewer is going to say “Man, I was totally convinced by this movie’s stark realism until the praying mantis showed up” — and if sketchy special effects send you packing, you’re going to miss out on half a thousand fun films from every era of horror cinema. The effects here (partially handled by longtime Argento collaborator Sergio Stivaletti, joining an old-school crew including cinematographer Luciano Tovoli and composer Claudio Simonetti) are pretty obviously consciously, winkingly artificial.

Argento and his three co-screenwriters more or less glance at Bram Stoker’s novel, toss it aside and make shit up. Jonathan Harker (Unax Ugalde) is now a librarian, summoned to catalog the tomes lining the walls of Castle Dracula. Lucy Westenra is now Lucy Kisslinger (Asia Argento), the mayor’s daughter and best friend of Harker’s beloved, Mina (Marta Gastini). There’s also Tania (Miriam Giovanelli), a fair-haired local maiden who becomes a bride of Dracula and gets her kit off whenever feasible; Renfield (Giovanni Franzoni) is now in blood thrall to Tania. Since this Renfield is too weird to do Dracula’s bidding effectively, Dracula also has a bald, beefy bruiser named Zoran (Giuseppe Lo Console), who resembles Pawn Stars’ Rick Harrison and lumbers around ax-murdering those who threaten to expose the Master.

And then Dr. Van Helsing shows up; this character has traditionally been an occasion for juicy overacting from the likes of Laurence Olivier and Anthony Hopkins, so perverse Argento has Rutger Hauer play Van Helsing as if awakened from a deep nap before each take. Hauer’s compelling anyway, though, making bullets out of garlic and silver, or dispatching an enemy with laughable abruptness (the victim’s eye pops out in gnarly 3D, for those lucky enough to see Dracula in the format). I can’t really judge most of the acting, which has that charming dubbed quality familiar from many afternoons wasted in front of tax-shelter horror. I can say that Thomas Kretschmann (currently playing Van Helsing, ironically, on NBC’s Dracula) brings a certain old-world delicacy to his seduction scenes and a persuasive brutality to his violent scenes, and that Asia Argento seems finally fulfilled as a hissing vampire with her head on fire.

I’d say you need to have seen enough clunky horror movies to enjoy Argento’s goofing around here. It’s Dracula; he’s going to take it deadly seriously? (That’s the pitfall of the NBC series so far, methinks.) It’s colorful and tacky and eccentric, with elements smuggled in from Stoker’s “Dracula’s Guest.” And there’s the damn praying mantis, which I think is the firm dividing line here. If you can’t cackle and appreciate that, this Dracula does not have your name written all over it. I just sat back and said “Why the hell not.” And that’s not only a useful approach to Argento’s party, it’s possibly also the film’s artistic credo. A seemingly pointless shot of Dracula pacing around his castle and growling, looking like an outtake of the actor trying to get into character? Why the hell not. A long-distance shot of a tiny Dracula scaling the wall of his castle and hissing at the camera? Why the hell not. Argento hasn’t been this playful in years, and neither has Dracula.

Carrie (2013)

October 20, 2013

Chloe-Moretz-in-Carrie-2013-Movie-Image4As the legend has it, Stephen King’s Carrie almost didn’t see the light of day. King wrote the infamous opening (“Plug it up! Plug it up!”), hated it, and circular-filed it; his wife Tabitha salvaged the pages from the trash, read them, and encouraged King to see the story through. “It bit hard,” wrote Harlan Ellison, who observed that the manuscript got passed around to various female Doubleday employees, all of whom were knocked back. It’s primal stuff, essentially King’s unintentional rewrite of Judy Blume (Are You There Satan? It’s Me, Carrie). The story runs thick with blood of all kinds: menstrual, porcine, finally redrum. It also runs hot — it’s a fever-dream novel, slick with the sweat of sickness, dread, rage.

Brian De Palma’s 1976 film version saw the story’s melodramatic potential and pumped it up into a perverse black comedy. The new version, directed by Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry), takes the material rather more seriously. Here and there, it feels closer in tone to King’s emotionally heavy novel than De Palma’s abracadabra show did. That doesn’t mean it’s the better film, nor is it an across-the-board worse film. The story has been transplanted to today, so that when poor Carrie White (Chloë Grace Moretz) receives her chthonic humiliation in the girls’ shower room, her chief tormentor captures it on her phone camera and uploads it to YouTube. This nod to cyberbullying can’t truly take hold, though, because Carrie doesn’t have the internet — or much else — at home. What she does have is the ultimate religious-nut mother (Julianne Moore), who in this telling came close to killing newborn Carrie with her seamstress’ scissors and enjoys scarifying her own flesh with other tools of the sewing trade.

Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie, as oppressed daughter and lunatic mother in the ’76 film, sank their teeth into the purple material; Spacek underplayed touchingly, Laurie camped it up to the rafters. Moretz and Moore come across more like the unhappy people you might actually meet — their scenes in their dreary home are borderline depressing. Moretz’ casting has been criticized because she isn’t nerdy-looking, but then neither was Rebecca Sedwick, driven to suicide last month after almost a year of cyberbullying. (Really, none of the actresses who’ve played Carrie — including Angela Bettis in a 2002 TV version — have exactly matched King’s description of her as “a frog among swans.”) Moretz’ Carrie is ostracized because of her social awkwardness and her strange aura of religious punitiveness — she’s more like an Amish girl plopped down into a typical suburban high school.

Kimberly Peirce brings out the story’s complex web of mixed feelings between females, who resent, pity or fear each other. The males in the film, as in the book and in De Palma’s version, exist only to do the girls’ bidding. One of the girls, Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde), feels guilty about her limited role in Carrie’s humiliation and prompts her boyfriend Tommy Ross (Ansel Elgort) to ask Carrie to the prom. The ringleader of the tormentors, Chris Hargensen (Portia Doubleday), enlists her boyfriend to assist in the shockingly cruel climactic prank involving that famous bucket of pig’s blood. Originally written when feminism was really starting to take hold in America, Carrie hasn’t much optimism about the higher morality of girls and women. Nor should it: it’s a horror story, not designed to be comforting. A few, like Sue or the conscientious gym teacher Miss Desjardin (Judy Greer), feel compassion for Carrie. But they’re not enough.

Which leads us to the climax. De Palma filmed it as a gleeful revenge of the nerd, a cascading grand finale breaking out split-screen images of cathartic force. Peirce doesn’t split the screen, though she does make use of computer effects unimaginable back in 1976. Rather than standing disturbingly stock still like Sissy Spacek, Moretz poses and gestures like an ancient witch-woman (the blood smears spilling down her face like tribal marks complete the effect) while everyone who laughed at her goes spinning into glass doors or catches fire or is trampled to death under fabulous prom-night heels. The final exchange between Carrie and Chris is painfully, almost sadistically drawn out. Peirce knows she can’t go whole-hog whoo-hoo over high-school carnage the way De Palma did, not in the era of Columbine and Sandy Hook. She holds back a bit. So what could’ve been a newly relevant reheating of old material — showing what bullying does to victims and to bullies — comes across as a missed opportunity. Still, since most of Carrie has always been a drama working up to a horror-film climax, and since that drama is sensitively directed and powerfully acted, the new version passes muster as a different take that will not, in most people’s hearts, replace De Palma’s. Let them co-exist.

You’re Next

August 25, 2013

xsharni-vinson-youre-next.jpg.pagespeed.ic.96791YOdvaA lethal disease sometimes afflicts horror filmmakers. I call it “explainitis.” This disease has been known to erode mystique, decay plots, and dilute true terror. In the best home-invasion movie of recent years, The Strangers, the killers were asked “Why are you doing this to us?” Their response: “Because you were home.” That’s really all you need; any motive more explicit tends to drag shadowy demons into the withering sunlight of logic, and you might as well be watching Murder, She Wrote. (This is why David Lynch, who is not officially a “horror director,” has birthed some of the most frightening moments ever committed to film: he deals in mystery, dream logic. Nothing is scarier than the incomprehensible.)

You’re Next, a horror/siege thriller greeted in some quarters as if it were the second coming of Sam Peckinpah, has a raging case of explainitis. It trucks along efficiently until we have to stop and learn why this is all happening. We begin with a random couple murdered by people wearing animal masks. Then the story proper gets underway, as four thirtyish people, accompanied by their significant others, head to their wealthy parents’ house to celebrate their wedding anniversary. One of the parents is played by genre stalwart Barbara Crampton, making this the second thriller of the year (following Would You Rather, with Jeffrey Combs) in which a veteran of The Re-Animator presides over a dinner gathering that promptly turns brutal. Someone is outside with a crossbow. The whole family, except the unlucky one who happened to be at the window when the first arrow came through, convenes hurriedly in another room, and the cat-and-mouse game begins.

The family is dysfunctional, which means many scenes of bickering before the slaughter commences. One of their number, the Australian girlfriend of one of the sons, turns out to be quite competent at deflecting murderous intentions; Sharni Vinson, who plays her, is probably already being groomed as the next scream queen in a genre that’s been lacking one since Neve Campbell screamed her last, though if Vinson is lucky she’ll move on. She does a great deal of damage to the killers, who become oddly humanized through their pain and frustration. You’re Next flirts with being a meta-horror movie, which can be a way of making a routine slasher flick while making fun of routine slasher flicks. The engine, however, runs like a routine slasher flick.

For a small segment of the audience, the movie will play as a wink to fans of recent indie cinema: one of the sons is played by mumblecore director Joe Swanberg, while retro-horror director Ti West appears as the boyfriend of the family’s sole daughter. The film’s director, Adam Wingard, has collaborated with Swanberg on various projects and contributed, along with West and Swanberg, to the horror anthology V/H/S. None of this meant much to the uninitiated around me in the theater, many of whom were audibly exasperated with Wingard’s over-reliance on shaky-cam even when it isn’t called for (such as a simple shot of a family portrait on the wall). Wingard can set up a decent jump scare, even if none of them really made me jump. There’s some gratifyingly nasty dark comedy. It’s not a dud, but one way or another you’ve seen most of it before.

So is You’re Next really an artsy sheep in wolf’s clothing — i.e., a snide, deadpan send-up of home-invasion thrillers? It’s certainly not being marketed as such, which might explain my audience’s underwhelmed response to it. The motive, when it’s revealed, raises unfortunate questions and reduces the terror to a twisty gimmick that excludes our identification with the victims: Unless you’re one of these specific people, you’re not next — it’s not going to happen to you (not the way it does in this movie, anyway). The family’s patriarch is a retired national-defense worker, so I thought he might have been getting a political comeuppance, but no such luck. The movie is certainly more entertaining than The Purge from two months ago, though at least that film’s premise was more promising (even if it was squandered). If you combined the sci-fi elements of The Purge with the visceral violence and bleak humor (not to mention the crowd-pleasing Sharni Vinson character) of this film, you’d probably have a terrific siege thriller. But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (either version) killed this genre and spat on its grave.

The Conjuring

July 20, 2013

the-conjuring-10580-p-1363956340-645-75According to the demonologists in The Conjuring, there are three stages of demonic activity: infestation, oppression, and possession. I don’t know about the other two, but the sound design of the movie is oppressive beyond belief — this goddamn thing is louder than Pacific Rim. The soundtrack rumbles and moans ominously, doors creak open at the volume of the earth cracking open, doors slam shut with the impact of a bank vault falling five stories. Once, a few framed family photos crash to the floor with such aural aggression that they could wake up people in the next county, though most of the household sleeps through it. And that’s all before the main event begins, with the shrieking and the howling and the Latin-shouting and the deep-bass Dolbying.

Most of the power of The Conjuring derives from its use, or overuse, of sound and shadow and menacing mood. The director, James Wan (who issued the surprisingly lucrative demon flick Insidious two years ago), seems interested lately in spooking audiences the old-fashioned way; the movie is rated R, though there’s no sex/nudity, scant swearing that I can remember, and pretty much no blood except for a cop who gets bitten on the cheek. Indeed, this was a big story in the online film-geek press some months back: it seems that The Conjuring is simply too scary for a PG-13 rating. The MPAA’s official decree as it appears in ads is that the R indicates “sequences of disturbing violence and terror,” which I guess is true, if by “disturbing violence and terror” they mean “the same jump scares you’ve seen in a hundred PG-13 ghost/demon horror flicks, only really loud.”

The movie is allegedly drawn from the real-life attempts of the paranormal-crusader couple Ed (demonologist) and Lorraine (psychic) Warren, played here by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, to contend with otherworldly bullies making home life hell for a Rhode Island family in 1971. The demon appears to be the shade of a “witch” who hanged herself from a tree in the front yard centuries ago, and has since amused herself by making mothers kill their children. To this end, the demon targets Carolyn Perron, played by Lili Taylor in her first major-release haunted-house film since 1999’s The Haunting remake; at least The Conjuring is better, and I’m always tickled to see a one-time indie-film goddess like Taylor in a summer creepshow for the masses, though she spends most of the climax in a burlap bag. Even The Haunting didn’t treat her so disrespectfully.

Ron Livingston, looking like a cross between Kyle Chandler and Paul LeMat, is the lumpily amiable and useless husband, and the family is rounded out by five daughters I could never tell apart, except for the youngest, who’s always talking to a little-boy ghost via the mirror in a music box. The movie runs for a while on minor portents gradually ratcheting up, sometimes cutting away to show the Warrens at home with their daughter, who, fortunately for her always-on-call ghostbuster parents, has a nanny to look after her. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga make a pleasant and intriguing team — I might sit for a TV show about the Warrens if they reprised the roles. The Warrens seem admirably cool in the face of demonic hissy fits — they’ve seen it all, though Lorraine is haunted by something she saw during an exorcism. What was it? “I don’t know and I won’t ask,” says Ed, and the movie — to its credit, or perhaps saving something for a sequel — is equally taciturn about it.

I don’t know much about the actual Perron case, other than that weird stuff happened and the family lived in the house for ten years. As the movie has it, they’re there for maybe a few months or even weeks, and it all builds to a climax in which a scissors-wielding Lili Taylor chases a little girl through a hidden passage in the walls. This, I am reasonably sure, did not actually happen. I also cannot comment on whether the thing that truly saved the family was not the power of Christ but the memory of a really nice day at the beach. In some ways, The Conjuring, set in the ’70s, seems to have been made in the ’70s; all it needs at the end is a heartwarming freeze-frame of the happy, no-longer-demonized family. But the score cheeses things up quite enough as it is, leading to a final onscreen quote from Ed (dead these seven years now) admonishing us to believe in God and Satan. Wait, and here I thought all you need is love and a family beach photo.

World War Z

June 22, 2013

world-war-z-portable-20-755x420First of all, zombies don’t run, despite the “Z” in the title of World War Z. The movie’s fast-moving antagonists move en masse and bite people, but they don’t eat people — they’re content simply to spread their pathogen via saliva. That’s the second way the villains in World War Z-for-zombies aren’t zombies. Third, they “turn” within ten seconds or so, and blood-borne pathogens don’t work that way. The biters are sometimes called “the undead,” and a scientist in the movie says that efforts to kill them with lethal viruses failed “because dead people don’t get sick.” But the reason that earlier, more traditional film zombies moved so slowly and clumsily was a little thing called rigor mortis. If you’re bookin’ it down city streets and up the stairs of tall buildings, you’re not dead; you may be something else, like the rage-infected people in 28 Days Later or the depraved sadists in Garth Ennis’ Crossed comic-book series, but you’re not dead. To say otherwise ignores physiological realities like blood circulation.

So, whatever they are, the folks in World War Z are causing mayhem all over the world, and it’s Brad Pitt to the rescue. Pitt is Gerry Lane, a former UN investigator who quit to spend more time with his wife (Mirielle Enos) and two darling little daughters. Then the epidemic hits, and the UN pulls Gerry back in. Why? Because he has experience in the field, and because he Knows How to Do All the Things. This is fortunate, because on the very first mission the UN sends Gerry on, the accompanying virologist accidentally kills himself with his own gun before he even gets off the plane. At least I think that’s what happens; the director, Marc Forster, is widely loathed among James Bond buffs for his incoherent handling of the action in Quantum of Solace, and World War Z is Exhibit B in the case against Forster directing anything more strenuous than My Dinner with Andre.

World War Z is based glancingly on a novel by Max Brooks (son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft), generally admired for its attention to the geopolitical fallout of a real-world zombie apocalypse. As far as I can see, the movie uses the marketable title and practically nothing else; there is no Gerry Lane in the book, at least no character who survives multiple conflagrations by the skin of his teeth, including an airplane crash. (The airplane, happily enough, goes down within presumed walking distance of the WHO Center that Gerry had wanted to reach.) The only way a proper World War Z movie could have been made was as a satirical mockumentary, for a fraction of the eventual price (two hundred million dollars). It seems as though, as soon as Brad Pitt got involved, the movie became about a hero who manages to get in and out of every pandemic hot spot and somehow figures out how to save humanity from the biters.

The big money moments involve hordes of biters — sorry, I’m still not allowing them the dignity of the “zombie” label — literally piling up to scale a massive wall in Jerusalem. But quantity doesn’t necessarily equal quality. A later scene in which Gerry and some associates sneak past some biters at the WHO Center achieves more suspense with, say, two or three biters. Meanwhile, safe in a Navy ship out in the ocean, Gerry’s wife sits and waits by the phone. Sometimes it rings and she answers it. Once, she takes the initiative and calls Gerry, at the worst possible time, when he and some associates are trying to sneak past some biters in South Korea. You have to be quiet around biters, you see, because “they’re drawn to sound.” Oh, I see. Completely unlike all those earless deaf zombies who wouldn’t bother you if you were leading a brass-band parade in all those George Romero movies.

Other than almost getting Gerry killed (and mercifully sending us all home early) and handing the phone over to Gerry’s UN superior at one point, the wife is useless. Mirielle Enos (who resembles Jessica Chastain enough to qualify this movie as some sort of weird Tree of Life sequel) may have been an impeccable actress in TV things like Big Love and The Killing, but you wouldn’t see that from what she’s allowed to express here. Pitt has more going on with Daniella Kertesz as a tough Israeli soldier, who reminded me a bit of Jenette Goldstein’s hardcore Marine Vasquez in Aliens, only without the dialogue or the humor. Come to think of it, Aliens remains the gold standard of humans-vs.-monsters war movies, and World War Z reaches for that here and there, and generally falls on its face. The action is unscannable spinach, the characters are dull, and the climax is the very pinnacle of anti-climax, making World War Z seem like a terribly expensive prequel to the real movie that exists past the end credits.

Maniac (2013)

June 7, 2013

horror-movie-reviews-maniacMy response to a remake of 1980’s Maniac substituting puppy-eyed Elijah Wood for slimy man-mountain Joe Spinell was, at first, a hearty “Whaaa?” Then I thought it over, and the idea sounded more and more intriguing. If you’re going for a fresh approach to the notoriously vicious grindhouse-horror landmark, you don’t try to compete with Spinell; you cast against him as aggressively as possible. Ergo, Elijah Wood.

Spinell’s Frank Zito, a tormented mama’s boy who scalped women and planted the tattered skullflesh on mannequins in his grubby apartment, left big and probably smelly shoes to fill. The recasting works from one perspective: Elijah Wood can more plausibly lure victims into a false sense of security — aww, lookit that face, he couldn’t hurt a fly! — than Spinell could. Well, Norman Bates didn’t look as if he could hurt a fly either, so that angle’s been done. Which leaves us with the question of whether Wood is plausible as someone who can do what we see his character do in this film. Emotionally, his Frank is as chaotic and filled with misogynistic loathing as his forebear. Physically … I don’t know, he just doesn’t look to have the upper-arm strength to be peeling off scalps with the ease with which he does it. Wood commits himself fully, but the performance seems to be a thoroughgoing, conscious effort to break away from Frodo and all his other good-boy roles. He was creepier, wordlessly, in Sin City, really.

Leave it to the French to conclude that a remake of a quintessentially American (and steadfastly ’70s New York) fleapit horror flick is not only possible but necessary. This Maniac was produced by Alexandre Aja (High Tension), co-written by Aja and Grégory Levasseur (who’s worked on all of Aja’s films), and directed by Aja associate Franck Khalfoun. What these gentlemen bring to the party that original director William Lustig didn’t is a certain cold Gallic pizzazz, which sometimes presents as pretension. The major stylistic difference is that almost the entire movie is filmed from Frank’s (often splintered) perspective, which I guess is a way to pull us into complicity with ghastly murders. At times it’s like a feature-length reiteration of the opening scene in John Carpenter’s Halloween, or maybe Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void crossed with American Psycho.

The you-are-the-killer viewpoint works best in quieter moments, when Frank meets and develops an interest in Anna (Nora Arnezeder), a photographer who likes to take pictures of mannequins. At one point, when the couple attend a screening of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the camera stays stuck on Anna’s lovely face until she turns to Frank (us) and says “Stop staring! You’re missing the movie.” Some similar moments are effective, as when people react to Frank/us as if he/we were gawking at them uncomfortably. There’s enough male-gaze stuff in the movie to keep film theorists contentedly scribbling for years.

Overall, though, the camera eye doesn’t do much for the plot, and in any case it’s applied inconsistently, sometimes leaping out of Frank’s POV right when that POV threatens to disturb us the most — when he’s killing. There’s a protracted murder in a parking lot, and another in a snobby lady’s penthouse, in which the camera moves off to show us Frank and what he’s doing. What it reads like, more than anything, is an excuse to show off the explicit, excruciating gore effects by the legendary KNB team. (Aside: gorehounds will want to seek out the uncut 89-minute version for all the undiminished scalpings, stabbings, and meat-cleaver-to-face action. There’s an 87-minute cut out there that more or less renders it R-rated, and nobody wants an R-rated Maniac.)

The milieu has moved from grimy ’70s NYC to shiny millennial L.A., and, for me, the most disturbing moments seem to capture the City of Angels as a city of demons, or at least a city that turns its back on demons. During the parking-lot murder, Frank’s gaze tilts up to the L.A. skyline at night, with windows glittering in the dark background, full of people oblivious to (or indifferent to) the carnage down below. It’s a fine cold moment, echoed later when Frank, before carving up the snobby lady, stares out at the lights of the city. We wonder if there are similar scenes playing out elsewhere in Los Angeles. Maniac also uses sound to put us in an unsettled mood. The soundscape, with a score credited to someone named “Rob” (no relation), deals in the sort of menacing, rumbling, unearthly ruckus associated with Thomas Bangalter’s work for Gaspar Noe. It’s like being inside someone’s upset stomach — lots of low-register brown-note amplified-heartbeat stuff. It’s effective but occasionally overdone.

Ultimately, though, the flashy style outclasses the plot and the dime-store psychology imported directly from the simpler 1980 film. Frank is still nursing some sort of homicidal fixation on his promiscuous (or possibly straight-up whorish) mother, and he talks to the gory mannequins in his apartment as if they were disloyal girlfriends. He sees his mother in the women he kills, a motive which at this point strikes me as either faithfully retro or significantly played-out. Like a lot of the crimson-soaked French new-wave horror, this Maniac is more of an exercise in style than a genuine expression of insanity. Oddly, too, considering how approachable this Frank appears to be as opposed to Spinell’s Frank, Spinell actually made us feel that meeting the photographer (Caroline Munro) might turn him around from his psychotic extracurriculars, seeking solace in art. We don’t especially feel that way about Wood’s characterization. We just seem to be marking time along with Frank until he goes after Anna. A climactic bit involving a car crash falls into the so-abrupt-it’s-funny category but doesn’t seem meant to be taken that way.

It’s a nice try (very likely the only time “nice” will be used as a descriptive vis-a-vis this thing). These French fear-makers want to bring us back the unapologetic shock-horror and splatter of the old days, but they can’t help wedding it all to avant-garde techniques and sensibilities that end up distancing us from such mundane things as tension and suspense. This Maniac isn’t a hollow travesty — it was obviously made by folks who respect the original, and it’s nobody’s idea of a surefire big hit — but it feels pointless just the same, a gimmicky and sometimes labored retelling of a story that, it turns out, really only worked 33 years ago with an actor who looked like an Easter Island statue slathered in pizza grease.

Evil Dead (2013)

April 7, 2013

Evli-Dead_03If you ever wondered what the Evil Dead movies might have been like without the central wit and charisma of their star Bruce Campbell, the answer now awaits you at a theater near you. The new Evil Dead remake certainly doesn’t skimp on the gore; tons of the stuff spatter, pool, mist, spurt, bead up and roll off. Much has also been made of the majority of the effects being realized “practically” — that is, with old-school latex and Karo syrup, not computer-generated flesh and blood. Such things, I suppose, are to be honored in this era of hermetically-sealed fantasy film, when you know that most of what you see is not only fake but doesn’t exist in real space. The drenched and sticky actors in Evil Dead would no doubt tell you it all existed in real space, all right.

What’s missing, first and foremost, is the incomparable real-guy presence of Bruce Campbell, who in the original three Evil Dead films directed by Sam Raimi came close to defining himself as the Buster Keaton of splatstick. Raimi never tired of tormenting Campbell by making him do one grotesque, painful thing after another, because Raimi knew that Campbell, at least in his youthful prime, was fun to watch being bashed around — not because we disliked him but because he looked as though he could shrug it off. In the new Evil Dead, there is no Campbell analogue, no character named Ash; the closest the film comes is a frail-looking recovering addict named Mia (Jane Levy), who spends a good chunk of the movie locked in the basement of a cabin, possessed by a demon who makes her do things like split her tongue in half with a knife. Despite this, later on, after the demon has vacated her, she can speak perfectly well.

The plot is similar. Five college-age people come to a cabin in the woods. I use those last four words advisedly, because if you have seen last year’s The Cabin in the Woods, this film will seem kind of late to the party. The trip to the cabin, it seems, is a last-ditch effort of sorts to rehab Mia. Accompanying her is her brother David (Shiloh Fernandez), his girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore), and her friends Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) and Olivia (Jessica Lucas), a registered nurse. Olivia apparently has lots of detox meds and tranquilizers to use on Mia, leading me to imagine a scene back at the hospital where a pharmacist yells “What happened to all our detox meds and tranquilizers?”

A mysterious book is discovered in the basement. Eric, being a horror-movie character and therefore staggeringly stupid, reads aloud from the book and unleashes demons, one of which promptly infests Mia, who in turn corrupts Olivia, and we’re off to the races. The movie hits the beats that Evil Dead fans will expect and perhaps be bored by. A character’s hand is possessed, requiring its removal by way of an electric carving knife. A nail gun, a shotgun and a chainsaw all get a bow on stage. What’s missing, to go further, is not only Campbell but the spirit of play and prankishness that he represented. The new director, Fede Alvarez, is no Sam Raimi, and that’s not to say he’s a bad filmmaker; he could be a fine one, given the right material. But Raimi made these films with energy and gutbucket humor, whereas Alvarez goes about his work grimly, as though the Evil Dead films were works of the utmost gravity.

Yes, yes, this is probably supposed to be a new re-imagining of Evil Dead, not slavishly following in Raimi’s footsteps. I would just as soon see Alvarez directing something fresh, and I would rather not see Raimi, Campbell and co-producer Rob Tapert lending their imprimatur to this remake as producers, thus smudging their own names and leaving a bad aftertaste on the original franchise. The main disappointment of the new Evil Dead is that it simply isn’t very fun. The original films, particularly the two sequels, were essentially comedies, and Evil Dead II achieved a level of grisly pop art. The new film seems as though it might be interesting for a while, using demonic possession as a metaphor for drug addiction (and nobody believing the hysterical and withdrawal-scourged Mia when she starts seeing the evil dead), but soon that gets buried in arterial spray and close-ups of someone pulling a hypodermic needle out of his face. To top it off, this thing is too slick. It’s beautifully lighted, and it cost $17 million and looks it. The first Evil Dead cost about $400,000, and Raimi had to invent camera rigs to get some of the insane shots he wanted. No invention here.

The Last Exorcism Part II

March 3, 2013

The-Last-Exorcism-Part-II-Image-2Not to quote myself, but when I wrote about The Last Exorcism a few years back I led with “Exorcism movies shouldn’t be rated PG-13, because demons shouldn’t be rated PG-13.” That goes double for exorcism movies about a demon that’s in love with its host body. The Last Exorcism made a lot of money, and so we now behold The Last Exorcism Part II, which should by rights be nasty and filthy, since it involves a demon trying to seduce a teenage girl into welcoming it inside her forever. Back in the ’70s, the era of drive-ins and wonderfully loose morals, this sort of thing would’ve barnstormed theaters with a hard R rating and scandalized everyone except the steadfast trash-movie fans who cheerfully chugged it down. Instead we get this pallid, waifish film with a safe PG-13, which allows for no nastiness, no filthiness, and one lonely F-bomb. I remember when demon flicks used to be dangerous and shocking. Get off my lawn.

This sequel is a conscious break from the original — it’s not a found-footage movie, but a “real” movie, in which the first film’s possessed victim, Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell), has escaped from the demonic cult idiotically revealed in the original’s climax. Nell goes to stay at a New Orleans halfway house with other wayward girls, and her demon, “Abalam,” is still very much with her. She meets a shy boy (Spencer Treat Clark) at her new job cleaning motel rooms — by the way, we see more footage of Nell vacuuming motel rugs than really deserves to be in a horror movie, unless the filmmakers are exclusively playing to the zuigerphobes in the audience.

You see enough horror movies and you’ve seen the four or five basic ways an unimaginative director tries to scare you, or at least startle you. In some respects film language is still in its infancy, but there are nevertheless many effective ways to disturb, disorient or otherwise freak out an audience, and The Last Exorcism Part II doesn’t come within a country mile of any of them. We get the standard jump scares, the standard looming shadow in the background, the standard weird voices. Ashley Bell is a good actress — she was vivid in the first film — but here she mostly shuffles around as Nell tries to be a Good Girl and can never get anyone to believe that Abalam is messing with her again, at least until the time-honored Magical Negro (Tarra Riggs), complete with a voodoo-woman head wrap, says she can help Nell, recruiting two of the most inept exorcists I’ve seen since The Devil Inside. She also briefly calls on Baron Samedi, evoking unhelpful memories of the far more entertaining 1974 flick Sugar Hill — this movie sure could’ve used a spectral dude in a top hat, grinning and chomping a cigar and bellowing “What is in it for me?” — but, no, the Baron presumably finds Nell boring and stays out of it. Pity.

There’s an interesting idea here — Abalam loves Nell and wants to be with her — but soon enough the idea coughs up blood, points its toes skyward, and is forgotten about. For this conceit to work, we would have to see that Nell is actually, y’know, being seduced, but we just see the standard ooga-booga stuff. A demon that presents as an angel, as a being you don’t want to get rid of, is a lot scarier than a demon that rattles windows, says creepy things, and generally comes off like a pervy stalker. For its other trick, Abalam apparently makes Nell have quite the hot dreams, prompting her to moan and stroke her face. Well, what turns Nell on? What could lure this chaste girl over to the dark side? Um, something, I guess — it’s a PG-13 movie, so we never find out. There’s no tension if Nell doesn’t want what the demon is offering. Haven’t these filmmakers ever heard of the first temptation? A demon will come to you as everything you ever wanted; scaring you away from it is just bad business for a demon.

I have to assume the filmmakers are big fans of the climactic scenes in the first two Paranormal Activity movies wherein nice-looking Katie Featherston went on destructive rampages. Here — spoiler alert — nice-looking Ashley Bell goes on such a rampage, and I would advise you, in a few months, to hit up a Redbox, take home this movie for a dollar, and skip forward to the last few minutes, particularly a shot in which Nell drives merrily around town while stuff on the street — including a fire truck — bursts into flames all around her. Good times. If you don’t want to spend the buck, it’ll probably turn up on YouTube titled “The Best Part of The Last Exorcism Part II.” It’s the best part in more ways than one, since the end credits appear within seconds and we get to go the hell home.


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