Archive for the ‘horror’ category

Horns

October 19, 2014

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It’s rare, but some humans do grow horns. They’re called cutaneous horns, are made of the same stuff fingernails are composed of, and are usually harmless. The sufferers of this malady have enjoyed two heroes at the movies this year: Maleficent, of course, and now Ignatius Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe), the tormented protagonist of Horns. Ignatius, or Ig for short, faces a dilemma similar to that which befell Ben Affleck in Gone Girl: Ig’s girlfriend, Merrin Williams (Juno Temple), was raped and murdered, and everyone thinks Ig did it. As if to solidify everyone’s suspicion, Ig wakes up one hungover morning with the beginnings of horns on his forehead. These horns make people want to burden Ig with confessions of their darkest desires. If this might work to make Merrin’s real killer spill the beans, so much the better.

In his continuing successful effort to break away from a childhood spent as Harry Potter, Radcliffe swears and drinks and smokes and fornicates; Ig is not most people’s idea of a spotless hero even without the horns. Radcliffe brings out a harrowed decency in Ig, though, such that we don’t question his innocence even if we haven’t read the source material — Joe Hill’s 2010 novel, of which the movie is a considerably streamlined (but author-approved) variant. The evil here has its roots in adolescent triumphs and traumas, an area familiar to Hill’s father, one Stephen King.

Because of this story’s very human foundation for supernatural chills, it may be the best work of the French director Alexandre Aja, who previously has amused himself in the grindhouse section of the video store (he made Haute Tension, remade The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha, and produced the Maniac remake). Aja’s work has been impressively bloody, but the blood was cold, hip, self-aware, concerned primarily with technical efficiency. Horns draws out a heretofore unseen compassion in Aja, who dials the grue way down and focuses on the terrific cast he’s hired. For instance, James Remar and Kathleen Quinlan turn up as Ig’s outwardly supportive but secretly doubting parents, and David Morse stops by for another of his affecting portraits of stoic anguish as Merrin’s grieving father, who thinks Ig killed her.

Ig isn’t so sure himself, at times, that he didn’t do it. In a world where a man can sprout horns and make others tell him their least lovely stories, who’s to say Ig didn’t kill Merrin — after all, the last he saw of her was when he was about to propose to her and she coolly broke up with him — and compel himself to forget it? Or what if he’s in Hell already? Well, he more or less is there mentally, anyway. Ultimately, Horns works out not as a grindingly literal demon show but as a metaphor for survivor’s guilt. If David Cronenberg’s The Brood was, as Cronenberg said, his bent version of Kramer Vs. Kramer, then Horns may be Joe Hill’s warped take on Moonlight Mile, that undeservedly forgotten Jake Gyllenhaal vehicle in which he deals with his girlfriend’s death. Straight-up horror can deal with mundane human dramas more cleanly and sharply than even pulp like Gone Girl can. This month is the best time of year to reiterate that.

Dracula Untold

October 11, 2014

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Before seeing Dracula Untold, you’d do well to take everything you know about Bram Stoker’s iconic character and throw it out the highest window. While you’re at it, chuck whatever you know about Vlad Tepes, the Wallachian prince whose exploits have long been thought, erroneously, to have inspired Stoker’s Dracula. For good measure, forget everything you know about Caligula, although he’s credited here simply as “Master Vampire.” Yes, Vlad the Impaler (Luke Evans), ruler of Transylvania (ugh), was turned into a vampire by undead Caligula (Charles Dance). As an origin story, this is slightly less loony than the one offered by Dracula 2000, which posited that Dracula was actually Judas Iscariot.

Over and over again we get sympathetic humanist rewrites of Dracula, who as conceived by Stoker was just straight-up evil walking, a symbol of Victorian English mores threatened by Slavic depravity. Dracula Untold gives us Vlad the Impaler as a generally nice guy — the Impaler! Nice guy! — who loves his wife and his young son, and who only impales his defeated foes to scare off the Turks, whose army far outnumbers Vlad’s. The Turks demand a thousand Transylvanian boys for service in their army, so Vlad heads off to a cave, where Caligula the old-ass vampire hangs out waiting for someone to take over for him. Caligula rather generously allows Vlad a three-day trial period as a vampire. “Try it out for a while,” Caligula says in the funnier, more interesting movie in my head. “See how you like it.”

Vlad likes it. He can become a cloud of bats that destroy a bunch of Turks. He can remotely conduct another cloud of bats to destroy more Turks, at one point making them into a giant fist. The only problems are that he needs blood, and that sunlight and silver aren’t good for him. So essentially Dracula has been refashioned as a supernatural superhero, one who might be part of Universal’s proposed “shared universe” of monsters. It’s as bloodless as a superhero movie, too; this film about the king of vampires boasts less gore than a typical Vampire Diaries episode, and the combat scenes are likewise dry and dull. First-time feature director Gary Shore, who has a background in commercials, apes Peter Jackson’s sweeping battlefield camerawork without Jackson’s sense of strategy, timing, or drama. It’s just a bunch of nonexistent people getting knocked over by nonexistent bats.

Dracula Untold isn’t openly offensive, so I mainly let it wash over me in a wave of blandness until it was done. It doesn’t risk anything; it has no camp, no humor, little in the way of sex. It seems to have been made to appease an imaginary audience of mocking teenagers, who will find nothing here to fuel their fun. It had the odd effect of making me look back on a previous Universal monster mash, the miserable Van Helsing, with a degree of fondness; its Dracula was played with efflorescent wit by Richard Roxburgh, who knew how to do it — play with the accent as though it were taffy, and be more arch than a roomful of drag queens. Luke Evans favors us with that time-honored trope the humble great warrior, and fights his bloodlust even when his own wife offers her neck. The untold Dracula here is a really boring guy who runs into a vampiric Roman emperor and becomes a really boring vampire. Based on what the movie has to tell us, I’d rather have seen Caligula Untold.

The Purge: Anarchy

July 21, 2014

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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.


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