Archive for the ‘horror’ category

It Follows

March 15, 2015

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It Follows is a slow-burn, reasonably creepy horror film with an unusual premise that promotes subtext to text. Jay (Maika Monroe), a teenage girl, has sex with her boyfriend. Soon afterward, he tells her he has passed some sort of supernatural entity to her. She can only get rid of it by passing it along to someone else via sex. Otherwise, the thing, which changes appearance and can only be seen by its victim, will follow her slowly but implacably until it kills her. Mostly, the movie is a stylistic calling card in which its writer-director, David Robert Mitchell, shows how scrupulously he can ape John Carpenter. The comparison only holds sporadically, though. Parts of It Follows are so determinedly slack, and the performances so unaffected bordering on deadpan, that it seems like a mere exercise, not something that trades on legitimate fear.

Carpenter himself isn’t doing old-school Carpenter style any more, so I understand why this movie has been overpraised. It attempts to look and sound different from the usual contemporary horror. Any and all elements of it that make the viewer shiver — its stark widescreen images, its straight-backed slow-walking fiends, its synth score by Rich Vreeland — are pinched from vintage Carpenter, particularly Halloween. So it’s nothing original cosmetically, though it does play at times like a commentary on the have-sex-and-die motif that many pilloried Halloween for popularizing. The terror here becomes so linked to sex it’s practically venereal.

With the occasionally efficacious help of her lackluster group of friends, Jay hides from the following it, or tries to ward it off. Mitchell doesn’t waste much breath on exposition, or explaining the rules of this thing. It’s invisible to all but the person it’s following, but it can touch anyone and be touched, and it can be hurt, possibly killed. In a less laconic movie, we would’ve gotten a five-minute planning scene about how the teens scheme to electrocute the thing in a swimming pool, but here we just watch them setting up the trap with no preamble. How they know that electrocution might even work is left unspoken. The thing also has no backstory. It’s not getting revenge on anyone; it’s not stalking a long-lost sister or observing a holiday. It just exists and follows and kills.

Is it a metaphor, then, for sexual guilt? As I said, the usual subtext of slasher films here becomes text, so it’s tempting to take it back to subtext, but not much seems to be going on under the hood. Mitchell can set up tense and satisfying sequences, but the thing he hasn’t understood about Carpenter in his prime was the way Carpenter started out low-key, to lull us into a voyeuristic rhythm, and then gradually ratcheted up the suspense. Mitchell goes from a scare scene to a slack scene; the result isn’t a tightening grip of horror or a downward spiral towards confrontation, but an alternating jostle of brake and gas pedal, brake and gas pedal.

The movie begins to feel padded out, and not one but two boys offer to take on Jay’s burden, which might have come across as a witty commentary on horny teenage boys nobly volunteering to take one for the team, but doesn’t. Most of It Follows is humorless except for a fart joke early on and the washed-out dialogue between the kids. (Parents are mainly absent here.) We get quotes from Eliot and Dostoyevsky, but no particular insights into the characters, other than an anecdote about the kids finding porno mags in the woods. The movie unfolds in a universe with little or no adult supervision, and the police can’t help; we might have been encouraged to feel the kids’ frightened isolation and helplessness, but instead we just passively observe them while the Carpenter-copy soundtrack goes bloop and zhoom and other noises. I wish I had better news about It Follows, but really, don’t get your hopes up.

Da Sweet Blood of Jesus

January 11, 2015

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Even when Spike Lee remakes a horror movie, he can’t sell out. For one thing, the “horror movie” he has remade is an artsy 1973 item named Ganja and Hess, a film nearly lost but later restored, and generally known only to die-hard cult-flick fanatics and serious students of African-American cinema. For another, Lee has taken a page from the original film’s writer/director, Bill Gunn, and made the film with a leisurely, unhurried pace, full of ennui … well, it kind of drags, if you want to know. Under the new title Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, Lee’s movie repeats Gunn’s themes of vampirism as addiction and the painful dichotomy of a black man torn between African spirituality and American Christianity. Lee certainly doesn’t schlock things up. But, other than some left-field lesbian flirtation late in the game, he doesn’t add much excitement, either.

As before, the new film follows scholar Dr. Hess Green (Stephen Tyrone Williams) on his journey into blood obsession after his insane assistant stabs him with a cursed ancient weapon. The curse renders Hess immortal but also addicted to blood. He steals blood bags from a hospital; he preys on an AIDS-stricken prostitute, then on a young mother. Eventually the assistant’s ex-wife, Ganja Hightower (Zaraah Abrahams), comes looking for the assistant, and Hess seduces her into the life of the undead. There are minor and major changes — for instance, Lee disregards the climactic note of redemption on which Gunn sealed his movie — but Lee mostly traces Gunn’s template, right down to some dialogue (Gunn receives a 25-year-posthumous cowriting credit here).

I hate to say it, because I’ve always respected Lee’s work even when certain bold attempts have flatlined, but Ganja and Hess will stay with me longer than Da Sweet Blood of Jesus will. As a filmmaker, in terms of technique and talent, Lee has it all over Gunn, but Gunn was serious and passionate about this story in a way that Lee isn’t, quite. Lee is a fan of Ganja and Hess, and he decided to honor it and its maker, but the material itself doesn’t seem to light a fire in his belly. (It was a Kickstarter project, and a lot of it feels like a movie that could be reliably shot on the quick and cheap in Martha’s Vineyard, where Lee lives some of the year.) Gunn’s film, despite or possibly because of its technical ineptitude, packs more DIY charm, and even on Blu-ray it looks chewed up and bruised, adding to its dreamlike effect. Lee’s film looks slicker, but to its detriment; it’s as though someone made a pristine-looking remake of Last House on Dead End Street … or, more to the point, George Romero’s Martin, another idiosyncratic vampire movie that could go on a double bill with Ganja and Hess.

This particular story, with its specific concerns about racial authenticity, is very much of its time. It doesn’t translate very well to 2015, when a young black man’s biggest concern is not losing his African soul but being shot by the cops. Lee’s version spends a lot of time on Ganja and Hess’s tragic love story, which indicates a misreading of what made the story unique in the first place. Stephen Tyrone Williams’ Hess is stoic and bland, lacking the brittle power Duane Jones brought to the role, but Zaraah Abrahams is fun to watch as Ganja, and she gets some heat going with the striking Naté Bova as an old flame of Hess’s. But Gunn had more on his mind and in his heart than Skinemax eroticism; his film was somehow lovable despite being completely uningratiating and stubbornly elliptical, because it felt pure. Ganja and Hess is art; Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is a copy of art, and I don’t know that Gunn would be flattered by it.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

December 14, 2014

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The title sounds like a script direction, or the beginning of a joke: A girl walks home alone at night. The information in those seven words is misleading: the girl in question (Sheila Vand) may walk home alone at night, but she is perfectly safe from harm. The girl is a vampire, and she wanders around a bleak nowhere town looking for blood, and sometimes just for company. Like Jesus, she sits with the disreputable and victimized without judgment. Unlike Jesus, she occasionally feeds on predatory men. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night hasn’t much plot; its young writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour approaches it as a thickly allusive study in disaffected humanity. Here and there it drags, but mostly its deliberate pace and its stark black-and-white aesthetic are hypnotic.

Amirpour treats cinema as a chocolate factory to which she’s been given a gold ticket to take anything off the shelves. The unkind will call it derivative. I find myself not minding this sort of thing as much as I used to. There is so very little true originality possible any more — and originality, when it does appear, is greeted so often with hostility — that I cannot but applaud a filmmaker who uses cinema with love and passion and sincerity, and never mind whether we can sit on the sidelines like nerds and identify her influences. The images unfold inside a wide, wide frame, emphasizing the gulf, the dead air, between characters. The girl meets a young man (Arash Marandi) who’s caught between the needs of his junkie father and the brute who’s supplying the father, and to whom the father owes serious money. The brute takes the young man’s vintage car as payment; he will not own it for long.

The girl lives in a room with a turntable that plays forgotten synth-pop (by the way, I want the soundtrack for this movie) and walls covered with images of Madonna and other signifiers of ’70s and ’80s pop culture. A Girl is Amirpour’s feature debut after a few short films, and it’s customary among rookies to throw everything they love into their first movie, because who knows when you might ever get to share the stuff you adore with an audience at this level again? The setting is a dream Iran (actually Bakersfield, California, shot in Farsi with Iranian expats), populated by townspeople who could already be undead, drifting in search of heroin or ecstasy or other forms of oblivion. Nothing here seems literal; reality drifts like snow. A man curses a photo of his dead wife, then becomes convinced that she has been reincarnated as his son’s cat. A fake vampire hugs a real vampire. There’s not much blood, even when the girl has her ears pierced with a safety pin. Vampirism seems beside the point in a world that appears to drain everyone of life and soul.

The girl, clad in a shroud-like chador and a horizontally striped shirt, is a ready-made hip visual. She even skateboards. A Girl is informed not only by Lynch and Murnau but by graphic novels and music; it reminded me of the just-for-kicks wild fantasias Gilbert Hernandez likes to write and draw, except the wildness is restrained, ascetic, like the underwater-damned sound of Portishead. It’s trippy and poker-faced yet heartfelt; its probably tongue-in-cheek marketing refers to it as “the first Iranian vampire western” — and tonally I can go along with that description — but it’s closer to the dread-ridden romance of Let the Right One In. Aside from a chilling bit in which the girl scares a little boy into being good for the rest of his life, A Girl doesn’t deal much in horror. The vampire girl drifts through the void, flashing her fangs only sporadically, in a shadowy universe where the weary strength of women trumps the frailty of men.

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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.


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