Horror doubleheader

THE WOMAN

Here’s a film that will make you appreciate your family. A rural psychotic husband/father takes in a feral woman from the woods and tries to civilize her. In the process he alienates his wife and daughter, but forms a strange bond with his son.

I would have given the film higher marks if it didn’t go into self-destruct mode in the last twenty minutes. The film is quiet and restrained for the majority of its running time before it goes completely crazy. Usually I like crazy in my films, especially when they test my patience the way this did. It’s got a two hour running time and honestly this would have been a much more effective short film had the director condensed its best elements. The stuff at the end just nullifies everything that preceded it. It makes watching this movie feel like a waste of time.

But hey – it happens. Sometimes when you make movies about abducted feral women you have to fly off the handle a little. Spoilers the rest of the way.

I was buying the idea of this crazy father trying to “civilize” the woman – until the discovery that he’s also got a feral daughter in his barn. That is what plummets the whole movie into irrelevancy. Because the whole family is involved with that one – not just the father. And we know so little of the backstory to it, that it’s pointless having it in there. You might as well keep a giant monster in your barn. It will have identical implications for your story. All that says to me is, this whole family is sick and they have bigger issues than just a sociopath for a father.

For awhile you think that’s where the story is headed. How will they deal with this crazy father figure ruling the roost? But if everyone is to blame for keeping a family member in the barn, then which member of this family can we identify  with? They have a little 5-7 year old girl who’s just about as innocent as they get, so there is some hope for the future of this family. But it’s not looking good.

On top of it all, it’s just not fun watching abusive families in movies. Especially when the outcome is so uncertain, as it is here. The son is in alliance with the father. He’s as sick as his old man. The older daughter is as spineless as her mother. It’s all so sad and hopeless. I was surprised by the tone of this film – I anticipated something more entertaining. It just became a big downer of a movie.

TUCKER AND DALE VS EVIL

A good antidote to the sad tone of The Woman are the two best characters in horror to come around in a long time: Tucker and Dale!

This movie meshes funny characters with a great concept to create a gory and wildly entertaining time in the woods. I feel like this is the movie that’s been missing from the horror genre. Even though it is a comedy with horror movie conventions, even down to a climactic third act chase. This is a real clever spin on the genre, where the “killers” are actually just bumbling hillbillies who are mistaken to be more dangerous than they are. Brilliant concept! This is funnier than Scary Movie, more intelligent with its gags, and bloodier too. So why isn’t this a major release?

It’s not a perfect movie by any means. But this is the first feature from Eli Craig. It’s still competently made, the comedic timing is perfect, and the casting was excellent. So I am pretty confused why it didn’t get more love in theaters. I suppose like with many movies it will find its audience on video and on demand. I have no doubts about that. This is just too good to pass up. See it immediately.

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How to break an egg

MICHAEL BAY’S A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET

I’ve heard that any aspiring chef would do well to learn how to cook an egg first. Master the egg, and then you can move on to bigger and more complicated dishes. But no so fast there, amateur chefs in the making: you can screw up an egg too, if you don’t know what you’re doing.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that making A Nightmare on Elm Street is the equivalent to cooking a good egg. It isn’t that complicated to get it right, but you can easily screw it up. And like any egg, you can make it in different ways. Over easy, scrambled, soft boiled, hard boiled. According to http://panlasangpinoy.com/2011/02/25/10-ways-to-cook-an-egg/ there are 10 ways to cook an egg. There have been 8 movies about having nightmares on that fabled Elm Street, if you include Freddy Vs Jason, so this makes number 9. They all have various differences, and some (like part 2) don’t even follow the rules laid out by Wes Craven in the original. So there is still one more Elm Street movie you can make that’s different from the other ones already in the canon.

I think what’s interesting about the Nightmare series, which you can say for a lot of horror franchises especially Friday the 13th, is that no single film is the “standard” by which to measure the series by. Part one has Freddy at his most dream-like, usually hunkered in the shadows of an alleyway or in the boiler room. But that isn’t exactly the Freddy we came to know. His personality didn’t open up until part 4, where we began to see the wise cracking version of Wes Craven’s creation. I think Freddy’s Dead is where everything sort of came together, combining his flair for humor with his flair for toying with his victims. You could argue that the series went in the wrong direction, but I don’t think so. I think if we continued to have straight scares without any humor to them, we would have never known just how talented Robert Englund really was. It’s his charm and his personality that puts life into Freddy, and gives him iconic power. Wes successfully pulled that plug in New Nightmare, by making Freddy more archaic. And I guess that was the admission Platinum Dunes needed to argue that the role of Freddy could still work without Englund’s weight behind it.

I didn’t see this remake in theaters, because I was discouraged by the negative press it received, and by every Platinum Dunes and Michael Bay release that came before it. It’s just an amazing traincar of failed remake after failed remake, pulled forward by our nostalgia and our fondness for the movies we grew up watching as kids. We had no idea the tracks were laid down years ago. It just took a couple incompetent doofuses to put it to use (Brad Fuller and the other guy).

NOES wasn’t a killer at the box office, but it did pull in an average return the first weekend, about what they expected. It made its money back in a few days. And then it was followed by a steep drop off in sales which you could argue made the production  a waste of time for everybody involved. The diehard Freddy fans came out to see it, but no one else was really interested. And now these Platinum douches are finally learning that it’s not enough just to appeal to the hardcore base. Their next film is supposed to be “original”.

I am sure Brad and Andrew actually admire the NOES films. I saw hints of it visually. You can pick any scene and usually find an earlier incarnation of it in the series. Some are obvious, like the tub or Nancy’s bedroom, and some are less obvious, like the diner in the opening, or the swimming practice at the pool. But the feeling we get is that we’ve seen it all before, which is why the remake doesn’t work.

I’m not saying it isn’t a justified remake. Like I said, you can cook an egg 10 times and they can all taste delicious in their own special way. For instance, this egg has some interesting differences that the previous films do not have.

Pedophilia.

There is some ambiguity about whether Freddy was a pedophile but it’s no spoiler to say that instead of maybe being a pedophile he just was. Then some angry parents burned him into oblivion.

Now, the myth has circled around Freddy since the first film. He’s always had that rabid, sexual pervert quality, but it was really a relationship based around his yearning for Nancy. She might have been underage, but it was still a legitimate contest of strength. Nancy could overpower Freddy if she wanted. The screenwriters follow that thread here, but go one step further. They decide there is one thing worse than being killed in your dream. It’s being molested in it! By a guy with knives on his hand. There’s a scene where Freddy lies on top of Nancy in her dream, and doesn’t make much of an effort to kill her. He seems more interested in undressing her. There is another scene where Freddy kills a guy, but in the dream he tells him the brain doesn’t die for 7 minutes. So they have 6 minutes “left to play.”

That was a clever spin on things. Of course we don’t see what kinds of games he plays, something much worse than cards or Monopoly is my guess. There are always hints of sexual perverse things that could happen between Freddy and his victims. It’s all very dark, and very serious business.

Like we learn Freddy used to be the gardener at a preschool and he’d take kids to his “secret place”. What he did with the kids we cannot say, except that these are all memories the kids of Springfield have suppressed and which their parents tried to keep secret. But once Freddy comes back…so do the secrets. Of course if you question why Freddy waited until they were teenagers to have another go at them, and bring back all these painful memories, you would have to ask the screenwriters that one. It’s a leap in logic I don’t have an answer for.

The goose chase-then murder structure was pretty rigidly followed the entire series, so it’s a welcome shift to see Freddy using the power of sexual tension in his dreams, rather than just going for the kill.

So I liked those little changes.

The biggest change though, and the one I liked the least, was moving Jackie Earle Haley into real estate occupied by Robert Englund. This is not a character you can change out like a new pair of clothes when the old pair gets too old. We got an imitation of Freddy but the character was obsolete. Not a big surprise to anyone who saw even the first hint of what this remake looked like from the trailers, but it’s worth stating the facts of the case:

Englund brought something permanent to the role you cannot cover up with different makeup. And failing to see that is why we can call Andrew Form and his buddy the Platinum douches.

P.S. One of my favorite touches to this was the search engine name they used in place of “Google”, called “DigiBlast”. Instead of a button that says “Search” it says “Blast off!” It made me like this movie just a little bit more than it should have.

W35 cr6v3n kills his franchise

SCRE4M


Why was Wes Craven talking about more Scream sequels, when Scream 4 was such an obvious final nail in the coffin of his beloved horror franchise?

Another trilogy is planned. Nothing from the ending suggested a direction this could go. Nothing in the film itself suggested there was new life in the series. It was a retread, almost as bad as a remake would have been. But usually with remakes, there is some notable difference in the visual quality. Look at the Texas Chainsaw remakes. They have that gold plated, over produced sheen to them. Those movies have a “glimmer” about them, shiny and neat.

I always liked the look of the Scream movies. It was almost like a TV show, something you would see on CW (or back when they came out, WB). The killings and general grim storylines were a fun contrast to the commercial look. It’s as if they kept the fun, sunny style of “Clueless”, kept a few of its dullard characters around, and then proceeded to dispatch them in gruesome violent ways. It was a formula that succeeded.

Writer Kevin Williamson is largely responsible for bridging old school horror films from the 80s into the 90s, and the same is attempted again by bridging the 90s into the 10s. Scream is very much a 90s franchise. The noughts are reserved for Japanese horror, home invasion horror, and horror remakes. But nothing in the years between Scream 3 and Scream 4 has indicated that the franchise deserves to be revisited. The trailers had Ghostface talking about remakes, and how since it’s a new decade, there are new rules.

But the new rules aren’t very obvious. If you just watched the trailer, there’s no “aha!” moment where you feel totally compelled to dip a toe back into the murky waters of the franchise. Sure, we have cell phones. We have facebook and twitter. Add it all up, and what does it mean?

After seeing this film my suspicions were confirmed: nobody really has any idea.

Lets start with one of the weirdest details of the film. The characters still use land lines.

Second weird detail. Everyone still lives in the suburbs! How simple is it to move Ghostface to New York, like they did with Jason? Does moving Ghostface into an urban setting change the film? Absolutely not. It keeps in the tradition of following the same pattern of every slasher film every made. And since this film isn’t trying to “reinvent” slasher films, common sense tells me to move Ghostface. So if it’s a new decade, and there are new rules, the easiest way to sell that concept is to get Ghostface the fuck out of Woodsboro.

Keeping it there meant the writers got lazy with the premise. One of the survivors returns to Woodsboro on a book tour. Killings resume.

I had a lot of issue with it, because it seemed so obvious. Even the actors who reprised their roles seemed to phone it in, implying they thought it was too obvious as well. It leaves a stale, dull taste in everybody’s mouth. Especially for the audience.

So already the film had an uphill battle. The only way to make things less dull was to spice up the killings, which was my third problem with the film. Most of the killings were done with a knife, and CGI was used this time around. Wes Craven said they would look more real. And he was right about that – the stabbings look more real. But as a result of looking more real, they are harder to enjoy. I like blood and guts as much as the next guy, but stabbings seem to have more real world weight associated with them. People get stabbed in real life all the time. There’s nothing really too fun about it. Watching someone get stabbed in the movie is kind of a downer. I never really thought the killings were too fun in the earlier movies, either. The elaborate design leading up to the killings were great, and the opening scene of Scream is a perfect example of that. But there’s nothing nearly as inventive in this film. It’s safe to say there is gore here that is just gratuitous, without the enjoyment factor typically associated with that kind of violence.

What they meant by “new rules” was actually “new, younger cast”. They are pivotal to the success of the film, especially the third act which I actually enjoyed the most. That’s because we get removed from the “original cast” and stay on the “new cast” a little, and get a feel for their character dynamics for the first time in the film. Just think about that. We don’t really know who these brats are until the last, oh, twenty minutes. That makes the finale fun, and I think the script does a decent job of bringing the younger cast and the older cast together at the end.

But this film says nothing about new rules, and the new decade. The writers don’t know. Craven doesn’t know. Which explains why there is absolutely no direction for this “second trilogy” to take.

My advice? Take Ghostface to Manhattan.

Better left buried

HATCHET

The tagline for this horror film by Adam Green is, “Old School American Horror”. So there are tits all over the place, tons of gory scenes, and cameos by Freddy Krueger, Jason Vorhees and the Candyman.

I guess this is like what Pepsi is doing now with their Pepsi Throwback sodas, using real sugar instead of that “unhealthy” corn syrup. Instead of CGI effects, Adam Green wanted to go back to the practical days of horror, using makeup and prosthesis to tear off people’s limbs. Overall it’s a pretty decent look. Most of the film is shot at night, in the woods, and that deters from some of the fun – but there’s a reason the old school horror works better than the new school horror. As consumers, we want real stuff. Not the artificial crap.

But even if you say your movie is “old school”, that’s not entirely possible. You aren’t really old school unless you’re completely sincere with your audience. If you’re winking at them, you can’t be that old school. It’s the problem horror films have today – specifically slashers. The audience is several steps ahead already, so winking at them constantly alleviates some of the crushing burden you have as a filmmaker to deliver the goods.

“Hatchet” is not the most creative, or original slasher film. But it tries to have fun, almost to a point where it’s vigourous about it. Saying this was boring could be the worst criticism against the film. The dialogue is what keeps it going. The cast they put together – the band of “survivors” that get knocked off  – is mildly entertaining to watch. None of it is scary, or suspenseful. That is the major issue with the film, since it’s hard to call something a horror film when it’s just trying to make you laugh. Every time Victor Crowley shows up, it’s like watching an oversized kid terrorize a bunch of grown ups. I appreciated the backstory to his character, where we get the flashback to his crappy childhood, and eventually, the cause of his “death”. But things like Victor never really die. They live on as legends, like Jason, Freddy, and the Candyman.

It’s what’s so interesting about slasher movies. They start with a legend. A campfire tale. Something is buried. Or sitting at the bottom of a lake. And then it comes to life, so the legend can live on.

“Hatchet” doesn’t re-invigorate the genre. But it is a successful franchise in its own right. It spawned a sequel and a third one is coming. Viewed together as a trilogy it is one big tip of the hat to the slashers we grew up on. But it feels more like a fan of those movies made his movie to commemorate those movies. Will Adam Green make 7 more sequels, just to pay homage to the fact those movies spawned that many too? It’s the only reason I could see him making more sequels.

Bending the conventions

THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL

This weekend I wasn’t feeling very social. And since my girlfriend was, it gave me a chance to nestle in with Ti West’s horror film from 2009. I’ve been hearing about his newest film “The Innkeepers” which played at SXSW, so I wanted to educate myself.

This film is a great example of how to keep a genre fresh. Not easy to do…especially in horror. But because the audience knows the conventions, it’s easy to break them, and play with them. Some audiences thought Ti’s style was too slow, and called it a “slow burn” horror movie. I don’t know where the term slow burn comes from, but it’s useless, and describes nothing.

Most horror films have no trouble appeasing audiences. They want kills, dammit. And so kills they will get. But most stories never build up the kills. They’re like pornos. Suspense doesn’t exist. Only the money shots matter.

Ti is saying the kills don’t matter. In fact, his last ten minutes are not the strongest part of the film – they’re by comparison the weakest. I don’t recall my enjoyment coming from the kills. They came from the build up. Why is “The Shining” my favorite horror movie? It’s not because Jack shoves an axe into Holloran’s chest.

As with any suspenseful film, just because nothing happens doesn’t mean it’s not working. I’ve read comments like “She just walks around the house for 90 minutes.” Actually, the more accurate observation would be, she doesn’t know the dangers lurking in the house, and the one outside. But we do.

That’s what Ebert is referring to when he says the suspense is Hitchcockian. Here’s the two people sitting and arguing. Not interesting. But let’s put a bomb under their table, and what do we get?

This film gets equal praise and criticism for its retro throwback to 80s films. The lead actress resembles Margo Kidder (Black Christmas). The freeze frame titles are in a lot of 70s and 80s opening credits sequences. But these aren’t abused for kitsch, the way they are in Tarantino’s “Death Proof”. As a result, this is the stronger film.

As I write my own horror film, I will always think about the way West used suspense here, and the way he bent the conventions of the genre to his advantage.

Four tales of horror

NIGHTMARES

As Halloween nears the corner, I want to talk about some horror films.

“Nightmares” is not really horror, and it’s not a film per se. It’s an anthology of kind-of-scary twenty minute shorts, about the same length and level of intensity as episodes you’d find on “Are You Afraid of the Dark?”

This makes sense, because originally it was intended for television, until TV execs felt it was a little too intense for families, so they made it into a movie. That was around the time of other horror anthologies making their way into theaters like “Creepshow”, and “Tales from the Darkside”, so it was poised for some success.

Of course, this isn’t available on DVD or Netflix streaming, so I’m not sure how successful it was. I saw a 35mm print and it looked really good. Either they struck a new print or the one circulating hasn’t seen much action. I’m going with the latter.

What I love about horror anthologies, and why I think they work best around Halloween, is because each different story is like a piece of candy. You get a little something different, and if you don’t like it there’s usually something  you will.

This anthology worked really well for me. I thought all of the stories were predictable but still interesting. They were shot in the 80s, so they look really bright – the last one looked straight out of a cereal commercial – and it gave me a nice, comfy nostalgic feeling. In fact, two of the stories I really loved.

“Terror in Topanga”

The first tale is “Terror in  Topanga” and it’ s about a mother who goes out late one night for cigarettes while there’s a killer running loose in the neighborhood. There is definitely an anti-smoking angle to it that I thought was funny; cigarettes will kill you, and so will a murderer on the loose. But there’s a saying that you should always double up your vices, and that’s what the lead heroin does.

Of the four tales, this seemed the most predictable. It is based on the urban legend of a killer hiding in the backseat of a car. After she gets her cigarettes from a convenience store, she realizes she’s out of gas. What’s funny about this is Topanga Canyon which the story is based on is not a very long stretch of road. It’s located in the L.A. hills, essentially the same layout as Mulholland Drive where it is sequestered by lots of trees and canyon cliffs.  For her to run out of gas and feel pressed to get more was a bit of a stretch. I don’t think it’s longer than 10 miles, if memory serves me right. But it’s that necessary plot point which eventually reveals the killer.

There is a fun creepy role by William Sanderson as a gas station attendant. He played JF Sebastian in “Blade Runner”.

“The Battle of Bishop”

This was the first short I fell in love with almost immediately. It stars Emilio Estevez in a role before he was in “Repo Man”. He plays a video game wiz who hustles people at the arcades. Instead of a pool shark he’s a video game shark. And there’s one game he hasn’t quite beaten yet. It’s called the Bishop of Battle. He stays late at the arcade to try and beat it, but eventually gets kicked out. When he goes home, his parents are furious he isn’t studying. The game has taken over his life, and it’s about to get even more literal than that.

He sneaks out in the middle of the night to finish what he started at the arcade. Once he makes it to level 13, which he heard only one person successfully accomplished- things get weird.  Tron weird.

This short combines two things lots of nerds like: punk rock music and video games. With the 80’s vibe in full effect here, this is one of the tales that took on a cult status of its own. It’s even available to view on Youtube…for those who dare.

“The Benediction”

The third story in the anthology is about a priest (Lance Henriksen) who has given up his faith in God and sets out on a drive through the desert to find himself and think things over.

But all is not right on the road. A menacing truck keeps showing up, driving him off the road at first and progressively getting more and more violent. It is a cat and mouse chase, baring a lot of similarity to Spielberg’s “Duel”, with an added religious element that gave it some originality. It is intercut between the chase and the priest’s past dealings with the Lord where his faith was tested. Now, he faces the ultimate test.

It has one of the greatest endings I’ve seen in an anthology. It’s the epitome of balls to the wall, and I believe without it this would have been unremarkable. But with the ending…it’s something special.

“Night of the Rat”

This was the final story in the anthology, and the second one I really loved. It tells the story of a family that’s being terrorized by sounds in the night. The camera floats down into their basement once in awhile where we get a peak of the source – but whatever it is, it’s not furry, it’s not friendly, and it’s a lot bigger than a normal rat.

Eventually it’s revealed. I hope I’m not giving much away by saying it’s a giant rat. The tension that builds up to its discovery is fun. The family is torn apart. Mom believes something’s really wrong, dad wants nothing to do with it. An exterminator is even called out and he has to get on the phone with mom after he leaves so he can tell her that he thinks it’s a demonic rat that loves children and the legend of this creature goes back as far as the 1600’s.

They photographed a real rat for this, and then scanned it in so it looked like a giant mutant rat next to a normal human being. It was a cool effect, and I thought they did a pretty good job of integrating it with live action. It was cheesy but I’m sure they had a limited budget. Then again this was the 80’s.

The best anthologies are the ones where you can come back to them and re-visit them. I would put “Creepshow” in that category, the newer “Trick R Treat” and I would also include “Nightmares”.

Hopefully this one comes out on Blu Ray someday. For now, I leave you with the trailer:

A look at what the South has been up to lately

TRASH HUMPERS

I hope the southern states never hire Harmony Korine to direct their tourism advertisements. Here is a filmmaker who has gone to enormous lengths promoting their most unhealthy, vile side. There is a reason this isn’t called Trash Humpers: Cancun. The setting that seemed to make the most sense for a project like this is Nashville, Tennessee.

Freddy Krueger famously once said: Every town has an Elm Street. But if every town had Trash Humpers, that would be the real nightmare. In addition to the obvious fact this film is about people in old man masks who hump trash, peer into people’s windows at night with flashlights, and vandalize the most destitute parts of the city, they aren’t even the most troubling people walking around. For all we know they’re just passing through.

The real trash humpers are the residents they encounter, folks who are about as authentically disturbing as it gets. We meet a little boy around 10 years old. He shows the Trash Humpers how to suffocate a baby doll with plastic wrap. He does it with gusto and real attitude. Then he shows how to brain the doll using a hammer, laughing the whole time. Another guy we meet lies on his bed, explaining his exercise routine. When he’s on his back, he lifts his neck up for 40 seconds, then brings it back down. He flips over on his stomach, and with his head over the edge of the bed holds it up for 40 seconds, then brings it back down. I guess it’s a more modest version of the P90X work out. From the belly he’s got it doesn’t appear to help much.

There’s other people like this who exist in their own reality, young and old. That’s why this isn’t just about people in masks humping mail boxes and garbage bins. This movie is also about the pitiful, sad lives of the people in the South. And I think Harmony’s intent is to catalog that area. Harmony Korine is to the south as Charles Darwin was to the Galapagos Islands. It’s a strange, inviting place for him. It’s given him a name and it is a territory that will be associated with his legacy.

I remember seeing Harmony’s “Gummo” and having a similar experience, raising similar questions in my mind. Where did he find these people? How did they get here? What decisions did they make that brought them to live in these conditions?

In spite of how artistically barren it is watching dumpsters getting raped and tree branches being orally serviced, sometimes art is just about who gets there first. You have to give credit to Harmony for bringing elements of Texas Chainsaw Massacre to the suburbs, and filming it on VHS.

The only moment we encounter any form of real ideology for the Trash Humpers occurs during a drive at night through the suburbs. The driver, who always wears a Confederate flag t-shirt, speaks to the camera about how he can smell and feel the sad lives the people around him lead and how trapped in their existence they are. When they’re all dead and buried, the Trash Humpers will just be getting their second wind.

It’s a reassuring thought. Especially when you consider that this might just be the beginning. Maybe we’ll see Trash Humper halloween costumes, or teenager misfit types who dress up as Trash Humpers and film themselves throughout America, haunting its most destitute, creepiest cities. Then it evolves into a movement. They form a political party. They try to raise hell wearing Confederate flags and spewing racist propaganda. Etc. But probably not. This isn’t a film that seems like it could inspire much of anything. The tone of the film is too elegiac, sad, mournful. With all the mayhem the Trash Humpers commit inside desolate homes, beating up TVs, humping bins, they affect nothing. They seem to sleep under highways, taking up space in wastelands where nobody cares, nobody really sees them.

In other words, they’re perfectly harmless. Right?