Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Cap'n Howdy's 2015 Recap(ish): Preamble and Worst of List

 As you might have noticed, the lights have been dim at the Blogorium for most of this year. While the Cap'n is still watching movies regularly, it's increasingly apparent to me that I just don't have the desire or drive to keep writing and posting reviews, even sporadically. There are nearly a dozen half finished posts that may never see the light of day, and it's very unlikely that coverage of 2015's Summer Fest or Horror Fest will be appearing any time soon. At a certain point, you have to admit you just don't have it in you anymore, and I'm nearly there. Not being a Twitter kind of guy, I'm not really sure how to spread the word about movies worth seeing or worth avoiding, but unless inspiration strikes (or it's Shocktober), I can't promise you'll see much more from Cap'n Howdy moving forward.

 To be honest, I debated even doing the recap this year, because it's far more time consuming than you'd think - if I'm going to talk about a movie, it's important to me not to just have one or two pithy lines and move on, which was what I used to do and has rendered old posts unreadable - but there are enough films from 2015 that are worth mentioning in one way or the other that it is worth doing at least one more time. Most of them weren't reviewed in the first place, or I hit a wall with the original review (Avengers: Age of Ultron is a great example, as I mentioned in the Ant-Man review). This year I'm going to try to hit a happy medium between "Quick Review" and "too short". To be honest, some of the movies at the bottom of the list just don't deserve much coverage, and I'd like to avoid another six or seven part "middle" section. In years past, that can take weeks to finish, which is why these usually show up in the middle of January.

 Let's start at the bottom and work our way up, but it won't take so long this year. I promise. I thought I had seen quite a few new releases in 2015, until I watched a few recap videos and realized, no, not so much. There hasn't been much that scraped the bottom of the barrel, but when it did... who nelly.

 88 - Is it telling that I honestly can't remember much about 88? I saw it early in the year, primarily because you don't see many starring vehicles for Katharine Isabelle (Ginger Snaps, American Mary), but this Memento-esque crime thriller / action / mystery is too disjointed for its own good. It haphazardly jumps back and forward in time, piecing together the mystery of how  (Isabelle) lost her memory, her finger, and ended up on the wrong side of some gangsters. The conceit is that she entered a "fugue state" and can't remember what happened, so we're slowly introduced to information in the form of flashbacks, presented out of order to deliberately lead us in one direction, only to pull the rug out. Isabelle is pretty good, as is Christopher Lloyd, playing against type as a sleazy strip club owner / possible drug kingpin, but in the end, it's mostly not worth remembering.

 Unfriended - The review from Shocktober tells you pretty much everything you need to know about this movie, which had Horror Fest-ers regretting their "Choose Your Own Trappening".

 Knock Knock - I really considered putting both of Eli Roth's movies on this list, but The Green Inferno is at least viscerally engaging, save for the inexplicable (and jarring) tonal shifts. But more on The Green Inferno later. Knock Knock, on the other hand, was a slog from start to finish, a dumbed down, millennial-ized take on Michael Haeneke's Funny Games by way of Hard Candy without a single character to care about. I don't care who you're supposed to sympathize with in Knock Knock:  Evan (Keanu Reeves) or Genesis and Bel - the two girls / women who he cheats on his family with and then tie him up and play "games" - it doesn't matter. All three main characters are horrible people and aren't worth spending 100 minutes with. Seriously. I was tired of Knock Knock halfway through, and it only got worse as it went along, playing with implications of pedophilia and entrapment and casual murder or whatever we're meant to take from the accident that kills his wife's assistant and then is framed to look like  killed him. Who cares. There's no tension in Knock Knock, no flair, and Reeves in particular does nothing to elevate his character beyond "guy who deserves something for what he does but behaves like he doesn't" even if you consider the "punishment" the ladies dispense disproportionate. In fact, who cares? It's making me angry even thinking about this movie again. Moving along...

 Fantastic Four - While the review covers most of what I would say, the ultimate problem with Josh Trank / 20th Century Fox's mangled hybrid of a movie is that it isn't even bad enough to be worth seeing. It's a movie with interesting ideas that are underdeveloped or simply abandoned halfway through, and then it's just a generic comic book movie. You might have been led to believe it was worth checking out, but you're just going to be disappointed that you wasted your time.

 and now for this year's Best of the Worst... or Worst of the Worst (take your pick)

 Terminator Genisys - While I'll go ahead and link the half-review from Summer Fest, I don't feel like that quite does justice to just what a mess Terminator Genisys is. It's misguided, corporate thinking at is very worst: a story designed to reboot the Terminator series (again) using actors who are currently hot with the "target audience" (?) - Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones), Matt Smith (Doctor Who), J.K. Simmons (Whiplash), Jai Courtney (Oh, who am I kidding?) - with a director known more for Game of Thrones (Alan Taylor) than the fact that he made the Thor sequel everybody but me seems to hate. Arnold Schwarzenegger is given the most dialogue a terminator has ever needed to spout, plus a few of the lamest "gags" in the series - and we're talking about a post "talk to the hand" series here - and still walks away most unscathed. Well, "upgraded". I guess you make your lead a T-1000 at the end (SPOILERS BECAUSE, WELL, WHO CARES?) so that he can conveniently morph into another actor when Arnold asks for too much money or just doesn't want to do another one. And oh yeah, despite how terrible Genisys was, the braintrust responsible for this mess are planning on keeping that "trilogy" idea alive.

 Let me tell you folks, I am surely interested in seeing who sent "Pops" back to the 1970s to protect Sarah Connor, or who sent the T-1000 to kill young Sarah and also conveniently programmed it to know exactly when and where Kyle Reese would be arriving just in case it failed to kill Sarah Connor and then not find her at all for the better part of a decade. I'm quite keen to see more of Matt Smith as the embodiment of Skynet (now Genisys), and let's not fool ourselves, the inevitable return of Evil John Connor as the T-Whatever. Foiled by magnets! How do they work? I guess we'll also see more of J.K. Simmons as "Academy Award Winner Who Snow Dogs-ed His Way Into This Movie and Does Nothing" in the presumable sequels, set in 2017, because Terminator and Terminator 2 no longer happened in this timeline. Actually, none of the Terminator movies are still canon, save for Salvation. Take that, fanboys! The last Terminator movie that failed to kick start a new trilogy is the only Terminator movie that wasn't retconned but Genisys, and that's only assuming that Kyle and Sarah somehow fail to prevent Judgment Day and then travel back to 1984 to have John Connor.... so actually, okay, Salvation is probably out, too. Sorry, Sam Worthington. You were Jai Courtney'ed out of existence.

 Genisys is a movie that's so stupid and poorly constructed that not only does it feel the need to undo the entire Terminator series in an effort to "reboot", it also has to explain it to you every step of the way by excessive monologue-ing. It might have helped if Emilia Clarke or Jai Courtney had an ounce of charisma in their performances as Sarah and Kyle, but they don't. They also have no chemistry at all, and maybe we should be grateful that they can never give birth to the future leader of the resistance. At least Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty) seems to have fun as the Evil John Connornator, so his long, stupid explanations of the new timeline are slightly less boring than listening to Clarke and Courtney bicker incessantly. Clarke and Schwarzenegger are the best parts of the movie, and credit to Simmons, who has nothing to do in the film but gives 110% selling this stupid bullshit. Yeah, I'm reduced to profanity, because that's what Genisys is. Bullshit. I'm going to prescribe to the Back to the Future Part II "alternate timeline" theory and just pretend that Doc Brown and Marty can undo this clusterfuck of a movie and we can go back to a world where James Cameron isn't shamelessly shilling for this garbage. At least until Terminator Mastyr Systim and Terminator Drymcast come out. Did I mention that the producers want "audience input" in making the sequels better? Because they don't know what they're doing with the Terminator films?

 Here's some input: hire someone who can write a good script, then hire a director who can make a good movie. Maybe change the cast based on the best possible actors instead of who's "hot" right now. I know, I know: thinking in "quadrants" and pandering to Chinese audiences is going to make those suggestions literally impossible, but Terminator Genisys makes my brain hurt. Quantum Magnetics. 'Nuff Said.

 That's it. I saw five terrible movies this year. Well, five terrible movies made this year, anyway. There were some other ones, but not from 2015, and the next step up doesn't even come close to how useless these five were. But we'll get to those soon enough. Hopefully I won't have to re-edit this and put The Force Awakens on it... but I did live through The Phantom Menace. And then Attack of the Clones. And then Revenge of the Sith. There are no guarantees anymore...

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Shocktober Review: Deathgasm

 Deathgasm is far and away the best discovery of Shocktober movie coverage. It's a scrappy, low budget film from New Zealand that wears the influence of early Peter Jackson on its blood-soaked sleeves. It's the second film I've seen this year about a metal band that uses cursed music to bring demons to Earth - the first was MegaMuerte - but of the two I think I'm giving Deathgasm the edge. MegaMuerte gets a lot of points for creativity, and for bringing back puppet monsters, but Deathgasm has such an infectious sense of fun, of not caring about who might be offended, that I can't wait to share it with friends.

 Brodie (Milo Cawthorne) is a young metalhead who finds himself dumped in Greypoint, New Zealand with his fundamentalist Uncle Albert (Colin Moy) and Aunt Mary (Jodie Rimmer) after his mother has an unfortunate incident involving methamphetamines and a mall Santa. Transplanted to a small town that sees him as a total outsider, Brodie is tormented by his cousin David (Nick Hoskins-Smith) at school, but strikes up an unlikely friendship with Dion (Sam Berkley) and Giles (Daniel Cresswell), two Dungeons and Dragons fans who share a similar "outcast" status. Things brighten up for him when he meets Zakk (James Blake) while browsing the metal section at the local music store / fortune teller. Zakk and Brodie share a love of raising hell, listening to brutal metal, and when they break into the legendary Rikki Daggers (Stephen Ure)'s place to try to steal one of the 666 existing copies of HaxanSword's first album, the boys end up with crudely handwritten sheet music instead. Since they're forming a band that Zakk has determined will be called Deathgasm*, it only makes sense to play the music, right?

Well, maybe they should have boned up on their Latin first, because with a title like "Vocavitique Rex Daemonia Virtutem Fortuna Hymnus Nigrum"**, they probably should have considered translating it first. Brodie eventually does, and it says "Summoning the King of Demons, A Black Hymn for Gaining Power and Fortune" (or, The Black Hymn for short), but they decide to play it anyway. That's after the first attempt, when Uncle Albert begins vomiting blood and the boys nearly pass out. The second time, everyone in Greypoint begins vomiting blood, and the boys do pass out. When they wake up, half of the town have become minions of the King of Demons, also known as The Blind One or Aelos (I think - you don't hear the name clearly). Summoning The Blind One is exactly what a nearby cult was looking for, which is why its leader, Aeon (Andrew Laing) sent Vadin (Tim Foley) to kill Rikki Daggers and steal the music. He failed, so he loses his head and bleeds all over Aeon's custom rug, much to his displeasure. His second-in-command, Shanna (Delaney Tabron), doesn't seem to notice, for reasons that are better for you to find out yourself.

 Brodie has problems beyond raising The Blind One, as David's less conventionally metal-oriented girlfriend, Medina (Kimberly Crossman) takes a shining to him. That doesn't sit well with David, but it gets even more complicated when Zakk inserts himself into their relationship, promising to act as an intermediary when Brodie ends up on the wrong side of a beating. Dion later refers to Zakk as "chaotic neutral", which is probably appropriate, since he intentionally misleads Brodie about Medina and then meets up with her, explaining that Brodie's not interested. It's not the last time that Zakk conveniently removes critical information, but he also comes back to help at a crucial point. The son of a mechanic, Zakk really doesn't seem to care about anybody but himself, so he alternates between good and evil throughout the film. It may be a nerdy descriptor, but Dion's mostly right.

 Deathgasm is, not surprisingly, a very violent movie, one where swords, daggers, chainsaws, axes, Incredible Hulk gloves, twenty sided dice, and musical instruments are used to provide maximum gore as our unlikely heroes try to stop the mess they started. Its sense of humor is, to put it mildly, juvenile, but frankly I don't find that to be very surprising. Writer / Director Jason Lei Howden had been working on visual effects for The Hobbit films, and Deathgasm is very much in the spirit of early Peter Jackson. May I remind you that "I kick ass for the Lord" is still one of the most quoted lines from Dead Alive. With that in mind, it should hardly come as a surprise that Brodie and Zakk battle the possessed Albert and Mary in what amounts to a dildo fight. They are, after all, teenage metalheads, and on the off chance you've never met one, this is fairly representative of their sense of humor and level of maturity. Your mileage may vary as to whether you want to watch an entire movie loaded with dick jokes, rampant profanity, and crude humor, but I find it in keeping with the scrappy, low-brow comedy of Bad Taste or Meet the Feebles. In that respect, it's also similar to MegaMuerte, which has roughly the same plot up to a point, but that film pushes into more twisted directions, including necrophilia. Deathgasm has what is perhaps the only time I've heard someone say the name of the band Anal Cunt out loud in a movie. So, pick your poison?

 I'm not quite convinced that the subplot with the cult is necessary - it actually tends to distract from the main story. Aeon is in what amounts to two scenes before (SPOILER) he's murdered by Shanna, who hopes to become the vessel of The Blind One, and she (BIGGER SPOILER) is subsequently murdered by Zakk who, in true "chaotic neutral" fashion (EVEN BIGGER SPOILER) becomes the embodiment of Aelos. I mean, who didn't see that coming, though? The point is that you could excise the cult subplot, just have Brodie / Deathgasm play The Black Hymn, and have roughly the same story without cutting away from them for characters who barely figure into the film. I guess it does give you an extra beheading plus gratuitous nudity, which in retrospect there's less of than you think there would be in a movie called Deathgasm.

 Other than that, I had a great time watching Deathgasm, perhaps even more so than MegaMuerte. Its tongue-in-cheek, don't-give-a-shit attitude and inventive use of gore (seriously, why did it take this long to use car buffer to tear someone's face off?) make for an infectious sense of fun. As long as you don't mind low-brow humor, and to be honest, I don't when used as earnestly as it is in Deathgasm. Sure, it can be dumb, and clearly I've seen a movie with almost the exact same premise earlier this year, but Deathgasm is highly entertaining. It's one of several New Zealand horror comedies I've seen lately (Housebound, What We Do in the Shadows) that find just the right tonal balance. Also, it's quite gory, and a lot of it looked to be practical, which is sadly lacking in horror these days. If Peter Jackson isn't going to be New Zealand's goremeister anymore, I'm glad that a new generation are picking up the mantle and running wild with it.

* In one of many instances of characters breaking the fourth wall, Zakk literally grabs the camera to keep it from panning back and forth between him and Brodie and insists that his band name is what they're going with.
** Forgive any misspellings, I'm transcribing as closely as I can to the handwritten words on the sheet.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Shocktober Revisited: Mortuary

I've long wanted to check out Mortuary because of its fantastic trailer. It doesn't tell you much of anything, features no footage from the film, but is short, memorable, and promises a properly spooky film:

 Going into the film, I wasn't sure what to expect based on the trailer, but I guess it wasn't roller skating or people quacking like ducks. The trailer may be misleading (okay, it's blatantly misleading about the actual film), but Mortuary actually has plenty going for it in its own right.

 After Christy (Mary McDonough)'s father , Dr. Parson (Danny Rogers) dies in a pool related "accident," she's prone to nightmares and spells of sleepwalking. Her boyfriend Greg (David Wallace) and his pal Josh (Denis Mandel) are dropping by the warehouse of a mortuary Josh used to work for, when they discover the mortician, Harry Andrews (Christopher George) holding a seance with a woman that appears to be Christy's mother (Linda Day George). The guys are separated, and just as Josh finds what appears to be the body of Mrs. Andrews, he's killed by a mysterious figure in a cape. Greg arrives in time to see someone speeding off in his van, and he and Christy set off to discover what happened to her father, Josh, and what the behind all of these clandestine activities. Is Christy losing her mind? Are Mrs. Parson and Mr. Andrews scheming behind her back? And who is the stranger terrorizing them in the night?

 Mortuary is a pretty straight forward mystery with some clever twists and turns. After a slasher-like set up, the film shifts between Greg's attempts to find Josh and Christy's delicate grip on reality. Is she really being followed at night, or are they part of her walking nightmares? Did Josh really leave to join the Navy (okay, no; we see him die), or is Mr. Andrews colluding with the Sheriff (Bill Conklin) to railroad Greg? And what about Paul Andrews (Bill Paxton), Harry's well-meaning, if slightly loopy son? He has a crush on Christy, but his innocent flirtation and awkward social stylings don't seem to be doing him any favors.

 Even if you've already figured out who the killer is (and it won't be hard about an hour in when they pretty much tell you), Mortuary finds other ways to misdirect you and keep you invested in the mystery for 87 minutes. Just when you think you have it figured out, a revelation shifts your perspective on motives and leads you in a different direction, which I always appreciate. It offsets the slow chase scenes and overlong game of cat-and-mouse towards the end. At the risk of spoiling too much, I'll say the ending is an interesting variation on Psycho, but with a final shot that you might not see coming, even though they set it up briefly.

 I'd like to highlight a young Bill Paxton, who nearly steals the show as the awkward Paul Andrews, a guy who doesn't know much about other people but is an ace around the dead. He's endearing, a little off-putting, and just "off" enough to keep you watching, even when the pace gets a bit sluggish.

 Was I a little disappointed that Mortuary isn't at all like its trailer? Well, yeah. It wasn't the movie I was hoping to see; the one I was promised. On the other hand, Mortuary is still a fun movie from the early 1980s with a more sophisticated plot than many of its contemporaries. The gore is sparing, the body count not high, and the gratudity is pretty limited for 1983, but what is there makes sense in the story. While not exactly what I wanted, I'm happy to say that Mortuary still delivers in its own way.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Shocktober Review: Spring

 When the reviews included phrases like "Linklater's Before Sunrise by way of H.P. Lovecraft," Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead's Spring had my attention. It's the sort of combination that doesn't seem like it should work, and for all intents and purposes really shouldn't, but Spring finds a happy medium between those two disparate elements, along with strong undercurrents of early Cronenberg-ian "body horror". It doesn't always gel, and things get just a bit dicey towards the end, when some debatable moments of black comedy enter the narrative, but overall I was quite impressed with the end result.

 Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci) just lost his mother, and after the funeral he's drinking with a friend when some guy and his girlfriend decide they want to start something. Evan snaps and gets into a fight, the kind that brings both the guy and the police to his doorstep in the next few hours. Taking a friend up on an offer to leave the country for cheap, Evan takes his passport, a backpack, and heads to Europe while things cool down. He doesn't speak any other languages, only has the money from his inheritance to his name, and knows nobody, but a chance encounter with two British tourists in a hostel takes him to a small coastal town in Italy. Within hours of being there, he's propositioned by Louise (Nadia Hilker), a beautiful student / local, but Evan is a bit more traditional. Instead of hooking up with her, he tells her they can meet somewhere later, but Louise ignores him and leaves. It's a very small town, so their paths cross again, and they strike up conversation. Before long, he's smitten by the worldly young woman, but she has a secret, one that may or may not be linked to mysterious animal - and eventually, tourist - disappearances...

 In a number of ways, Spring is similar in structure to Linklater's Before films: there is quite a bit of walking and talking about life, love, and your place in the world, and there's an obvious parallel about young love (kind of). What I found interesting was that while it's reminiscent of Before Sunrise, both Evan and Louise as characters are more similar to where Jesse and Celine are in Before Sunset. From the outset, we're dealing with damaged characters, who are nursing their own, deeply private, wounds from life, and are accordingly hesitant to share them with each other. It's not until late into the film that Evan actually tells Louise why he's in Italy - she assumes he's just some visitor looking to leave when the holiday season ends - and that's after we have a better idea what's affecting her. I'm being deliberately vague about Louise's condition (and her history) in part because part of what elevates Spring is that you don't know what's going on for much of the film. Besides, I think evoking Lovecraft and Cronenberg should give you some idea what could be happening.

 Spring deviates sharply from the Before trilogy by stretching Evan's courtship of Louise over several weeks, and while it focuses mostly on the two characters, that does mean he has to find somewhere to stay. I'm a bit torn about how helpful Angelo (Francesco Carnelutti) is to the overall narrative of Spring - the elderly widower who takes Evan on as a worker on his farm does help the younger protagonist grow and develop, and it provides a necessary bump late in the film to get him on the road with Louise, but at times Angelo's presence can feel like a distraction from the main storyline. The decision to include this third character helps expand the world of the film, but does take away the laser-like focus Linklater used to such great effect in Before Sunrise. If you're willing to stick it out with Spring, you'll understand why Hilker portrays Louise as distant and brooding as she becomes after she and Evan have sex, but it's an abrupt shift midway through the film. I will say that her demeanor is softened a bit by the mystery of how horror elements figure into the film.

 Then again, if you accept in earnest that two deeply damaged characters are coming together, albeit with great hesitation, the back and forth of their relationship is understandable. Evan is a bit too earnest in his repeated attempts to get Louise to open up, but she has very good reasons. Once it becomes clear why (again, no direct SPOILERS), Spring takes a turn, which leads to an ending some feel was underwhelming, although I found it quite appropriate considering the intimate nature of the story Benson and Moorhead are telling. What I found odd was a sudden insertion of black comedy into the proceedings, particularly when Evan and Louise stop in a church for her to take the last of her "medicine". I will admit that I laughed, but in retrospect, the reaction of objective characters observing Evan and Louise felt a bit out of place. It's a good joke, but I don't know if it's one that needed to be in Spring.

 At any rate, Spring comes highly recommended, minor quibbles aside. The body horror element can be quite horrifying indeed, and the sustained mystery of what Louise is (or is becoming) has an intriguing reveal. The subsequent conversations between our two protagonists poses some interesting questions about the nature of being, love, mortality, and identity, most of which play out in intriguing ways. Pucci and (particularly) Hilker are riveting, and the Italian coastline provides some fantastic eye candy. The effects are used sparingly early in the film, but their increased presence - particularly when Evan arrives during a very bad night at Louise's apartment - never disrupts the naturalistic aesthetic of Spring. If you like your horror with a little romance, or vice versa, there's plenty to take away from the film, and for once the combination of "blank meets blank" is accurate without Spring ever feeling derivative. Quite a feat for Benson and Moorhead, who I hadn't realized directed one of the segments in V/H/S Viral. Unfortunately, it's only one I half-liked (the skaters who go to Mexico on the Day of the Dead), but Spring more than makes up for that.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Shocktober Revisited: Galaxy of Terror

 In my continued efforts to turn left when you're expecting me to go right, I have opted to review Galaxy of Terror (aka Planet of Horrors and Mindwarp: An Infinity of Terror) instead of Ben-Hur. It is true that I watched them back-to-back, and just like you got a write up for Lockout instead of The Cabin in the Woods, we're going to focus on the much schlockier part of a double feature again. The good news is that you don't have to be drunk to enjoy Galaxy of Terror, a Roger Corman produced flick that's just barely different enough from Alien to not be a ripoff.

 The funny thing is that the presence of James Cameron as production designer and second unit director actually lends credibility to the case that Aliens is a ripoff of Galaxy of Terror. It's not a case many people are making, but I'll explain what I mean in a bit. Corman commissioned Mark Siegler and Bruce D. Clark to create a movie about a mysterious planet where something sinister (alien perhaps?) has wiped out an expeditionary crew and is now preying on the rescue team. It's not exactly Alien, but if you were to say "give me a movie that's like Alien but isn't Alien," you might end up with Galaxy of Terror.

 When he loses contact with the last ship sent to the planet Morganthus, the Planet Master (SPOILER HIDDEN) informs Commander Ilvar (Bernard Behrens) that the Quest will be dispatched to discover if there are any survivors. The Planet Master assembles a hand-picked team to land or Morganthus: Captain Trantor (Grace Zabriskie), the lone survivor of an older disaster, Baelon (Zalman King), her first officer, Cabren (Edward Albert), Alluma (Erin Moran), a pyschic, Dameia (Taaffe  O'Connell) and Ranger (Robert Englund), engineers, scientists, and medics for the team. Also along for the ride are Quuhod (Sid Haig), a weapons expert who specializes in crystal throwing stars, Cos (Jack Blessing), a rookie, and Kore (Ray Walston), the cook. They find what remains of the crew on Morganthus, as well as a mysterious pyramid that hides their deepest fears inside...

 So the first thing I think I should mention is the cast. If you were reading the synopsis and saying, "Wow! He's in this? She's in this? Holy cats, they're all in one movie?" the answer is yes. It's a who's who of "Hey, I know that actor / actress," including people who would become Freddy Kreuger, Captain Spaulding, Sarah Palmer, and the creator of The Red Shoe Diaries. Or, maybe they'd already been Joanie Cunningham, My Favorite Martian, one of Blansky's Beauties, or uh, Eddie "Green Acres" Albert's son. It's an eclectic cast for a film that's best remembered for a woman having sex with a giant meal-worm.

 Actually, for a film made with very little money (somewhere between 700,000 and 1 million dollars), it has a ton of production value, a pretty good story, some interesting (and gruesome) death scenes, and despite the Giger-esque pyramid design, some neat designs. While Cameron was heavily involved in the look of Galaxy of Terror, I don't want to overshadow other Corman team members: Robert and Dennis Skotak, Alec Gillis, Al Apone, R. Christopher Biggs, Brian Chin, Ron Lizorty, Randall Frakes, Tom Campbell, and Rick Moore. It's interesting that some of the people involved in Galaxy of Terror would go on to work on effects for Aliens, because while Morganthus is supposed to be reminiscent of Ridley Scott's "alien" landscape, it looks much more like Cameron's vision of LV-426 from the 1986 sequel.

 Watching Galaxy of Terror, all of the exterior scenes, either mixed with models, rear projection, or both, is eerily reminiscent of the film Cameron would make five years later. While the interior of the Quest looks like a budget-modified version of the Nostromo and the pyramid has designs "inspired" by H.R. Giger (and, at times, Forbidden Planet and The Black Hole), the exteriors of Morganthus are going to seem more like a dry run for the "game over" scene in Aliens. It's not necessarily a bad thing, but it is an amusing parallel considering that Galaxy of Terror was conceived as a way to cash in on the success of Ridley Scott's Alien.

 Now, it is fair to mention that this is a movie where a giant maggot strips down Taaffe O'Connell, lubes her up, and then has sex with her (and they both seem to be enjoying it). It's a movie undercut by comical sound effects (especially during Bernard Behrens' death scene) and even though the story is more interesting that just being stalked by an alien, the ending is abrupt and anticlimactic. There's a character that, despite clearly still being alive, just disappears before the final confrontation, never to be heard from again. This is, make no mistake, still an exploitation picture, so most of the more intriguing concepts from Siegler and Clark tend to get swept aside for gore and (sporadic) nudity. Corman famously shot most of the "rape" scene because Clark refused to, and both director and writer objected to its presence in the film. In the end, it's such a bizarre scene that I had a hard time being disturbed by it, something I was expecting coming into the picture.

 Galaxy of Terror is a gory, schlocky, occasionally impressive slice of exploitation best enjoyed late at night, after a few beers (well, maybe you do need to be a little drunk) in the company of friends who don't mind their science fiction / horror on the cheap side. It's the kind of movie I'd imagine people who would come to Cap'n Howdy's Blogorium would watch, because why not? Between this and Lockout, it's not even a discussion. Bring on the space monsters!

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Shocktober Revisited: Fright Night (2011)

Tonight I'll be taking a look at the 2011 remake of Fright Night, a film I've been looking forward too. That's odd, because I don't usually look forward to remakes, but the combination of an intriguing cast and a vampire-versed screenwriter had me on board. Was it a story worth revisiting? Let's see...

 Charley Brewster (Anton Yelchin) is a geeky teenager in the outskirts of Las Vegas trying to maintain a relationship with Amy (Imogen Poots), a girl he'd have had no shot with a year prior. It comes at the expense of his life-long friendship with "Evil" Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who has been desperately trying to get Charley's attention. Students have been going missing, and Ed is convinced that Brewster's next-door neighbor, Jerry Dandridge (Colin Farrell) is actually a vampire. Charley is eventually convinced, but it comes too late to help his friends, his mother Jane (Toni Collette), or even Amy. He turns to illusionist Peter Vincent (David Tennant) for help, but it may be too late to stop Jerry from destroying everything important to Charley...

 In the interest of full disclosure, I did not sit down and rewatch Fright Night in preparation for this remake. I have seen Fright Night several times (boy, that sounds defensive, right?), starting in high school and periodically on TV, and I really wanted to show it during a few Summer Fests but could never fit it in. However, I didn't feel like it was necessary to come in to the new Fright Night with the original fresh in my mind. There are a number of changes made between the 1985 version and the 2011 version - some superficial, some significant - and I was intrigued enough by the cast, as well as screenwriter Marti Noxon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) that it seemed like a leap of faith worth taking.

 Strangely, the superficial changes are the ones that aren't so much of a problem: changing Peter Vincent from a horror show host to a Criss Angel-esque illusionist doesn't impact his role in the third act, although it complicates it in the same way a major change to the narrative does. Evil Ed's role in the film is basically the same, although Noxon adds an interesting narrative shift where Charley has outgrown Ed's obsessive nature, to the point that he now has to blackmail Brewster into investigating Jerry. The transplanting of the film to Las Vegas (actually Albuquerque, New Mexico) helps overcome some logistical issues - the neighborhood is sparsely populated with people who often sleep all day and work all night, cell phone reception is terrible, and a vampire like Jerry could easily sustain himself without drawing attention.

 While most of the changes to this version of Fright Night work pretty well, some of them hamper the story with respect to pacing. For example, there's no good reason for Charley to seek out Peter Vincent the magician - his website makes some superficial claims about Vincent being a "vampire expert," but it's not as though Brewster couldn't do most of the work on his own. In fact, he has, as a scene in the school library with Amy makes clear - Vincent only confirms his research. Beyond that, Peter Vincent's motivation for helping Charley and Amy comes waaaaay too late in the film and seems to exist to give Jerry and Peter something to talk about in the basement. Even the reason Vincent's show is called "Fright Night" seems perfunctory.

 It's a similar problem that Fright Night suffers from early in the film - everybody knows Jerry is a vampire, and Colin Farrell is playing him as the slightly creepy guy who toys with his prey, so getting Charley on board takes longer than it needs to. To illustrate the point, both films have a scene where Charley and Amy are about to have sex, but Charley is more interested in Jerry than his girlfriend. In the original, this happens at the beginning of the film, setting up that Brewster is already suspicious. In the remake, it happens at least half an hour into the film, after we've seen Jerry turn Ed into a vampire.

 Pacing and motivation issues didn't actually affect my enjoyment of the film, though; there's still plenty that Fright Night has going for it. The cast is uniformly ideal for their roles, with Colin Farrell being the standout as Jerry Dandridge, a vampire who clearly doesn't feel threatened by Brewster, Ed, Charley's mother, Amy, or Peter Vincent. He's cocky, dangerous, and slightly off-putting - there are weird touches with Jerry that elicited uncomfortable laughter from the audience. Anton Yelchin has an interesting line to walk as a geek who is trying not to be geeky, and Imogen Poots' Amy is a character that shifts from mostly inconsequential to very important as the story progresses.Toni Collette's Jane Brewster doesn't have much to do outside of the chase sequence which is, for all intents and purposes, the centerpiece of this Fright Night.

 Much has been made of David Tennant's Peter Vincent; I've heard people say he's making fun of Russell Brand, that he's too "over the top," and that this Vincent isn't as compelling as Roddy McDowall's. To the last complaint, it is true that Peter Vincent's role in the story feels less significant because he doesn't mean the same thing to Charley that host Peter Vincent did. To those who throw the Russel Brand comparison out there, aside from a British accent, lack of shirt, and what turns out to be a wig, the argument is superficial. He's playing a variation of the "David Tennant" tenth Doctor from Doctor Who. If you haven't ever seen the show, I guess it might be easy not to catch that, but he's much closer to the Doctor in Fright Night than to Criss Angel or Russell Brand. I actually enjoyed Tennant's profane, guarded Vincent - he's not trying to outdo McDowall, or even draw comparisons, and whether he needs to be in Jerry's house with Charley or not, Tennant is a welcome presence at the end of the film.

 A note on the 3-D: I opted to see Fright Night in 2 dimensions, in part for cost but also because an already dark movie made dimmer by glasses didn't seem that enticing to me. There are a handful of silly "at the camera" shots, and it seems clear that the car chase, where the camera circles around inside of the car (similar to Spielberg's War of the Worlds) is meant to be seen with "depth." That said, it really didn't make much of a difference, so I recommend seeing the film without the gimmickry, otherwise you might not be able to make out important sections of the story.

 In summary, Fright Night is an entertaining, if imperfect, re-telling of the other Fright Night, which I have not seen very recently. It's different enough not to bother purists and certainly has enough going for it that I easily recommend the film to anyone looking for a horror movie in the dog days of summer. When I get around to Horror Fest: The Remake (and it is going to happen in the next three years), Fright Night is going to play, and not on the "shitty but kind of funny" night like, well, Shit Coffin. It's somewhere between Piranha and The Hills Have Eyes as remakes go, but let's be honest here, that's not bad company to be in, is it?

Monday, October 26, 2015

Shocktober Review: We are Still Here

 Sometimes the tricky thing about your reaction to a movie is timing. For example, if I had chosen to watch We are Still Here before I watched Spring - a movie I'll be reviewing in a few days - I feel like the response to the film would be more favorable than it is. Which is not to say that We are Still Here isn't a good horror movie. It is, but at the time I was still quite impressed with Spring, and by comparison We are Still Here felt a little more, not to be unkind, but run of the mill. It's a ghost story that gets a little too busy towards the end, one that starts out strongly and crescendos into a grand guignol finale without really feeling like it needed to. I've seen a number of really positive reviews for it lately, as well as talking to people who liked it a lot more than I did, and maybe I'm just not giving We are Still Here a fair shake. Well, I'll make my case and let you decide - it still comes recommended and I'm certainly open to revisiting the film.

  Anne and Paul Sacchetti (Barbara Crampton and Andrew Sensenig) are moving into a quiet country home outside of Aylesbury, Massachusetts. Still raw from the death of their son Bobby, Anne is convinced that the house is possessed by his spirit. There are unexplainable events early on, like a photo that he never liked being turned over in the night, or a presence in the basement that takes his baseball mitt. Paul doesn't give it much credence, instead attributing her reaction to grief, and is more concerned when he discovers why this house was so inexpensive. When their only neighbors, Dave and Cat McCabe (Monte Markham and Connie Neer) drop in late one night, they explain that the house once belonged to an undertaker who stole bodies and sold them, before he was forced out of Aylesbury. Paul doesn't put much stock in it, but when a repairman (Marvin Patterson) is seriously injured trying to fix the unreasonably hot basement, the Sacchettis become more concerned that there might be more going on than just a broken furnace.

 Anne invites Jacob and May Lewis (Larry Fessenden and Lisa Marie) to the house, along with their son Harry (Michael Patrick), who was Bobby's roommate in college. Harry and his girlfriend Daniela (Kelsey Dakota) are arriving later, but Anne is hoping that May will be able to contact the spirit in their house and determine if it's Bobby or not. Despite his good natured appearance, Dave McCabe seems to know more than he's letting on, and Cat tries to warn them to leave the house before they make a hasty exit, mid-cocktails. Paul isn't particularly fond of Jacob and May - they're too "new age" and he doesn't approve of Jacob's fondness for marijuana, but he's willing to go along with it if Anne can find some closure.

 If We are Still Here was limited to what was in the house, I might have found it more admirable in its focus. Setting the film in 1979 - although it's really not clear that's the case until well into the film - is an interesting decision on the part of writer / director Ted Geoghegan. It only really settles one question, which is why Harry and Daniela don't make an effort to find their parents or the Sacchettis once they arrive. They find a note and decide to stay at the house, which of course ends as one might expect in this film. Without cellphones, it's obvious why May and Jacob don't investigate much into their non-arrival, but beyond that the film seems to be a throwback mostly for aesthetic purposes. It's not unlike The House of the Devil, but in the ensuing years, making films set in the late seventies or early eighties is suddenly "in vogue." I'm not really holding it against We are Still Here, but at this point I'm not convinced that it services the story in any way.

 To say much more about the plot means going into SPOILER territory, so consider yourselves warned. I can't really get into the (mostly minor) issues I have with We are Still Here without discussing the spiritual activity, and the other part of the film, so SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT. You have been warned.

 So, it turns out that it's not Bobby's spirit, but that of the Dagmars, the undertaker's family who weren't so much run out of town as burned alive in their home by the townsfolk. The Dagmars aren't even really behind the evil, because the house was built over an ancient evil that requires a sacrifice every thirty years or all of Aylesbury will fall into a state of plague. We learn this when Jacob decides to hold a séance without May (she's in town with Anne) and he's possessed by the spirit of Dagmar, which leads to one of the most distracting performances from Larry Fessenden I've seen. From the moment I first saw him in We are Still Here, I wondered why Fessenden was making a conscious effort to physically resemble Jack Nicholson in The Shining. It turns out that's because once he's possessed by the house, Fessenden goes full on Jack Torrance for the remainder of his time in the film, and I'm not convinced that's for the best. He's reasonably subdued earlier in the film, as is the almost unrecognizable Lisa Marie, who I hadn't seen since Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow. But once Fessenden's resemblance to a famous horror performance becomes a channeling of Nicholson, it began to chip away at the film.

 More of an issue is that not only does the house require a sacrifice, but the whole town knows it, and when our central protagonists are in Aylesbury proper, everyone other than the duplicitous Dave McCabe is so hostile towards them that it's impossible not to know something conspiratorial is shaping up. Still, I didn't expect an all-out assault on the house by the townspeople in the climax of the film, which turns We are Still Here from people vs ghosts to people vs people vs ghosts. It's not hard to guess how things are going to play out as a result, but I'm still a little iffy on the confrontation between Dave and Dagmar. What gets lost, mostly, is the significance of the house, and instead the focus shifts to whether the Dagmars (who I thought were supposed to be representing the spirits that require a sacrifice) have some sort of agency to punish the townsfolk for something I thought they wanted - to become part of the house. The whole sequence unnecessarily complicates the lore of the narrative, so while the extra (some might say excessive) gore is appreciated, I think We are Still Here would have worked just as well without the histrionics.

 And yet, for the first 2/3rds of the film (at least up until the first séance), I enjoyed the atmosphere of We are Still Here. It loses steam in towards the end, but the slow build up and mystery about what's going on (admittedly spoiled by any synopsis you can find online, including IMDB) is worth investing time in. Crampton, Sensenig, and Lisa Marie are quite good, and Monte Markham seems to be having a great time as the duplicitous McCabe. His scene in downtown Aylesbury with Lisa Marie and Barbara Crampton later in the film is great, and even when things fall apart at the end, he almost holds it together. Since you can see it just about anywhere at a very reasonable price (to rent or own), it's hard to not recommend it, with the caveat that I really only enjoyed the setup. Not so much the payoff. Sometime in the near future, I'll give We are Still Here a second chance, without the unfair comparison to a film I found much more satisfying, and perhaps I'll come around. This has been a good year for horror films flying under the radar, and for that alone, We are Still Here is worth your time.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Shocktober Revisited: Cabin Fever

 editor's note: while the Cap'n is waiting to watch The Green Inferno or Knock Knock, here's a look back at Eli Roth's first film.

Today the Cap'n will be looking back at a more recent film I have an interesting history with, Eli Roth's Cabin Fever. As the film was partially shot in North Carolina (Mocksville, Danbury, Winston-Salem, and High Point), there was a big to-do made of its release in 2003 at The Carousel in Greensboro: the lobby was covered with camping-related paraphernalia, the insides of the candy displays tainted with bloodstains, and production stills and press information were abundant. I remember this because I saw the film with a soon-to-be roommate in a packed auditorium of gorehounds looking for their horror fix.

And they got it, in abundance: Cabin Fever is, whatever else it may strive to be, an effective and mostly disgusting horror film. In that respect, I recall being impressed with Roth's first feature length film. As I wrote in a 2003 recap:

Cabin Fever - Eli Roth learned a thing or two from Evil Dead. That's crucial to understanding the marketing behind this low budget gem. Cabin Fever is atypical of horror movies, and that bugs a lot of horror fans, but this isn't quite a scare fest. It's a genre bender, pitting the cast of a Teen Sex Comedy in a Cabin in the Woods Horror Movie. While it has problems (the movie doesn't know where to end and stumbles a bit in the final act), it's nevertheless a nice first film to build a career of off, and they marketed the shit out of this movie (when i went to see it, great steps were made to replicate set pieces, "authentic" paraphernalia, etc.) plus it doesn't look as cheap as it was to make, and there are some wonderful nods to past cheapie thrillers.

My compatriot hated the movie. In fact, he still hates the movie, for reasons I can't fault him for. After talking about Cabin Fever several times, I almost totally flipped on the mixed-to-positive review and decided that the film's weaknesses overcame its strengths. I convinced myself that the Peter Jackson blurb on the poster (and subsequent DVD and Blu-Ray releases) was hyperbolic, and that the film's seriously uneven tone rendered the whole experience moot.

But that wasn't the end for me; for whatever reason, I couldn't shake Cabin Fever, couldn't totally sell myself on the write-off, even if there are serious problems with the movie (which I promise I will actually get to in a moment). So I picked up a used rental copy from Hollywood Video (or Blockbuster, I can't recall), and watched it again. I had the same mixed reaction, and ended up selling the movie when money got tight. But then I'd see it used again somewhere when things weren't so rough. Friends began poking fun at me, asking why I'd keep buying "something you hated"? I didn't have a good answer, so I watched Cabin Fever again last night, for the first time in three or four years.

The damnedest thing is that for 90% of the film, Eli Roth made a really good horror film. Yes, it has lots of little nods to The Evil Dead, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Burning, and Friday the 13th, but beyond that Roth has the essentials down pat in constructing a solid horror film. He sets up the stakes well, isolates the characters, provides semi-credible reasons why the college students partying in the cabin might have trouble finding help nearby, ratchets up the gore in a disturbing way, and sets the characters against each other without ever feeling forced.

What doesn't work, the other 10% (with one exception), happens either before they're introduced to the virus or after they try to get back to town. Everything in between the set-up and the closing works fine, save for the introduction of Deputy Winston (Giuseppe Andrews), a moment so atypical of the rest of the film, so reminiscent of Twin Peaks (not coincidentally, as Roth worked for David Lynch prior to Cabin Fever) right down to the specially written Angelo Badalamenti theme, that it grinds the horror to a halt.

The rest of the major issues come at critical points in setting up or resolving characters, which is why Cabin Fever leaves many with a bad taste in their mouths. I will provide a handy list, which is vaguely spoiler, although at this point in the review I'm taking it on faith you've already seen the film:

- Bert (James DeBello) and the "squirrel shooting" scene.
- The harmonica guy.
- The really fake deer.
- The lines "because they're gay," "don't be gay," and "what are you, retarded?"
- The "pancakes" kid, his dad, and the strangely effeminate store owner.
- Actually, just about everything that happens at the General Store.
- Marcy (Cerina Vincent)'s opening speech about college.
- A misleading racist joke at the beginning of the film that has a payoff at the end that, at best, feels disingenuous.

I'm torn about Grim, Eli Roth's stoner interloper that shows up right after Bert, Marcy, Paul (Rider Strong), Jeff (Joey Kern), and Karen (Jordan Ladd) show up at the cabin. On the one hand, there's nothing really funny about his stupid dog joke or the fact that he really only exists so that there's one more body for Paul to find. His dog, Doctor Mambo, could have been anybody's around the lake and the threat would be just as credible. On the other hand, I did laugh at how stupid the dog joke is (sorry, I won't spoil that one for you), and it makes up for the random and sort of pointless "bowling alley" story that Paul tells at the campfire.

The problem is that the tone of everything listed above is so incongruous with the rest of the film, so decidedly quirky, that it disrupts the horror, and not in a good way. I'm all for breaking the tension with a well placed joke (Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson do it masterfully), but the "jokes" in Cabin Fever aren't so much funny as they are really strange. They don't seem to belong in the same universe as the horror film we're watching, and their presence while audiences settle and and right before they leave do undermine the rest of the movie, which is, again, really good.

I am aware that the Blu-Ray of Cabin Fever is a director's cut, one that apparently smooths over the jagged edges of the film, and having watched it again and (mostly) enjoyed the experience, I think I'll look into that cut. While I can't find any fault in the criticisms of the Cabin Fever I saw then and again tonight, there is enough of a pretty damn good horror movie inside to keep me from dismissing it again.

Oh, by the way: while it's not apparently on the Blu-Ray, the DVD has an extra called "Chick Vision" that raises a pair of silhouetted hands over the screen during "scary" parts, and it's actually kind of fun in small doses. I don't know that I could watch the whole film that way, but it might be fun for parties.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Shocktober Revisited: The V/H/S Series

 editor's note: the following reviews originally appeared during coverage for Horror Fests VII and VIII, along with the 2014 Year End Recap.

 We decided to kick off Horror Fest with something I've been wanting to see for a while now, the "found footage" anthology film V/H/S. Normally the Cap'n isn't a fan of the "found footage" genre - the only two I've really enjoyed were The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield - but I thought the premise sounded interesting and one of the directors involved was Ti West. As you know, as a fan of The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, I'm on board with anything West has a hand in directing. Also, the Cap'n is a sucker for anthologies.

 The film is broken up into five segments, with a wrap around story that actually advances as the film goes on (which isn't often the case in anthology films):

 "Tape 56" - from director Adam Wingard (A Horrible Way to Die), a group of hooligans who like to videotape themselves exposing women and vandalizing property are hired to break into an old man's house and steal a videocassette. The only problem is that once they get there, the old man is dead and they don't know which tape to steal, so they watch the following stories:

 "Amateur Night" - from director Dave Bruckner (The Signal), three friends head out for a night of drunken sex with camera glasses in tow, but when they bring the wrong girl back to their motel room, the party takes a dark and twisted direction.

 "Second Honeymoon" - from Ti West (The Roost), a couple is sightseeing in Colorado and Arizona when a strange woman begins following them around, and eventually visiting them in their motel room, while they sleep...

 "Tuesday the 17th" - from Glenn McQuaid (I Sell the Dead), a young woman brings her friends up to a lake she visited last year, but her plans may not be as innocent as partying and smoking pot...

 "The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily when She was Younger" - from Joe Swanberg (LOL), Emily and her husband are separated while he's in medical school, but she's having trouble dealing with noises in her apartment and a strange bump on her arm...

 "10/31/98" - from Radio Silence (Mountain Devil Prank Fails Horribly), a guy dressed as a nannycam bear and his friends arrive at the wrong house for a Halloween party, and instead find something more disturbing in the attic. When they intervene, they realize what they stopped wasn't the worst thing that could happen on Halloween...

 I'd heard positive and negative reactions to V/H/S, and I guess I can understand both. People prone to motion sickness from "found footage" movies may as well steer clear, as you'll be ill from the opening shots and it's not going to get any better. The ways that the stories use videotaped footage are, for the most part, clever, although I'd love to hear anybody's explanation of who would videotape a Skype conversation using a camcorder so that the wraparound story characters could watch it. But, if you're willing to overlook certain logical inconsistencies, I guess that for the most part they work.

 The "video glasses" in "Amateur Night" are probably the most successful because they limit our perspective in such a way that the ending is a surprise and it generally explains the age-old "why don't they just turn the camera off" question. This also works in "Second Honeymoon" and "10/31/98"'s favor, and "Tuesday the 17th" relies on keeping the camera rolling to reveal the killer. It's really just the Skype gimmick in "The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She was Younger" that strains logic.

 Like most anthologies, there are a mixture of good segments, weaker sections, and one or two really impressive moments that help others to stand out. The ending of "The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily" manages to elevate the story beyond a retread of Paranormal Activity territory. The fact that the characters in "Tape 56" are all loathsome assholes is overcome with the slow realization that watching these tapes are causing them to disappear one by one (although the reason isn't necessarily clear until the end), and great makeup effects and a gonzo ending help "Amateur Night" overcome its otherwise uninteresting protagonists. It will also make you second guess any girl who ever tells you "I like you" after a few drinks...

 I suppose that while I didn't necessarily like how lopsided "Tuesday the 17th" was in setting up the story before becoming an all out gorefest, the way the killer is handled was inventive and made the best use of the "videotaped" gimmick.

 Of all of the segments, "10/31/98" was probably my favorite, which is appropriate as they save it for last, after even "Tape 56" reaches its conclusion. When things move from suggested creepiness to all out special effects bonanza (handled really well considering it needed to be integrated with camcorder level video images), the segment earns the aimless first section, and the conclusion is satisfying and appropriately dark.

 Oddly, while West's "Second Honeymoon" suffers from the least motion-sickness inducing camerawork, it may be the most abrupt story conclusion and compared to the other entries is possibly the least satisfying. The "home invasion" elements are quite creepy, and West builds tension in appropriately slow pace, dropping hints about what's coming, but even more so than in The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, the conclusion is too rushed to be satisfying. I understand what he was trying to do, but the twist comes about so quickly and ends immediately afterward, leaving little time to digest what just happened. It doesn't seem unfair that the guy watching that tape says "what the hell was that?" when it ends.

 Is V/H/S going to be for everybody? Probably not. It is a better-than-average anthology movie, which I count as a plus, and as I said mostly makes the best of the "found footage" gimmick, but not all of the segments are good enough to sustain the runtime, even if some of their conceits help keep audiences engaged. I can't really say that it transcends either the "found footage" or anthology subgenre, and it's going to make some of you feel very queasy well before "Amateur Night" kicks into high gear, so consider this a conditional recommendation.


V/H/S 2 is a marked improvement on just about every aspect of V/H/S, and this is coming from someone who enjoyed the first film. It’s a weird point of cognitive dissonance for me, because I love anthology films but mostly hate “found footage” films, so V/H/S had to overcome its conceit with interesting segments and succeeded half of the time (I largely prefer the first and last entries in the film – the bat-creature and the haunted house). That said, it was too long, stretched the “frame” story too far, and is something I “liked” more than really “enjoyed.” I haven’t seen it again since last year and don’t know that I will any time soon.
 On the other hand, I've already seen the second film twice this year; V/H/S 2 drops the segments, cuts down on the length, and provides a more satisfying overall experience, which is critical for any anthology. The “frame” story, “Tape 49” is more focused and streamlined while still loosely tying in to the first film, and three out of the four “tapes” are winners, with the other one an inspired effort. Let’s take a look at how the film breaks down:
 “Tape 49” – from Simon Barrett (the writer of You’re Next), follows a dubious private investigator and his assistant as they break into the house of a missing college student, only to find a familiar setup involving VCRs and TVs in the living room. A laptop video from the missing student suggests that playing the tapes “in the right order” will change you, and they seem to be having an odd effect on the investigator’s assistant.

“Phase I Clinical Trials” – Adam Wingard (The ABCs of Death) directs and stars as an accident victim who receives an experimental artificial eye which is, for research purposes, filming everything. Things seem to be going well until he notices strange goings-on in his house, and a stranger turns up to warn him that the longer he can see dead people, the more they can interact with him. How does she know? Her cochlear implant has the same effect, and it may already be too late for both of them…
“A Ride in the Park” – from Eduardo Sánchez and Gregg Hale (The Blair Witch Project), a biker has plans for a nice ride through the woods when he runs into a familiar horror monster, and thanks to his helmet camera, takes us on a first-person journey through the “eyes” of the undead.
“Safe Haven” – from Gareth Evans (The Raid: Redemption) and Timo Tjahjanto (The ABCs of Death), a documentary crew is allowed access to the compound of a cult promising “Paradise on Earth.” Little do they realize that their spy cameras will do more than expose what’s going on behind closed doors – their arrival signals the beginning of the end…
“Alien Abduction Slumber Party” – from Jason Eisener (Hobo with a Shotgun) comes, well, exactly what it promises. Teenagers put up with their obnoxious preteen brothers and friends, until invaders from another world decide they want everybody, including the dog.
 The “frame” story benefits from stripping down the main characters to two (there were too many people in the first film) and keeps the in-between segments shorter and to the point. While you might miss it the first time, there are quite a few references to the first film and the “mythology” behind why somebody would collect these tapes. I would imagine this will expand as the series goes on (it’s hard to see why there wouldn’t be more), so it doesn’t feel intrusive and people who hadn’t seen the first V/H/S didn’t feel lost in the meantime.
 Every one of the entries is an improvement over the first film, not simply because they’re shorter (“Safe Haven” is the longest of the four and deservedly so). While it’s still hard to argue why anybody would transfer this footage tape, let alone circulate bootlegged copies, there’s nothing as credibility straining as the “Skype” segment from V/H/S. “A Ride in the Park” manages to take the overdone (if still wildly popular) zombie story and present it from a perspective you haven’t seen before and mixes in other camera angles in a fairly clever way. “Phase I Clinical Trials” makes good use of a limited perspective “first person” camera and builds some tension with creepy imagery.
 If there’s a weak link in the lot, it’s probably “Alien Abduction Slumber Party”, and mostly because it comes after the truly fantastic “Safe Haven.” Evans and Tjahjanto’s tour-de-force is an almost impossible act to follow, and “Slumber Party” is good, even when you consider that Eisener breaks three cardinal rules of movie-making (don’t work with children, don’t work with animals, and don’t kill either if you do). His novel use of the camera attached to the dog makes the frenetic chases near the end more interesting and explains the “why are they still filming this?” problem inherent to “found footage.”
 The undisputed winner is “Safe Haven,” for reasons I don’t want to spoil for people who haven’t seen V/H/S 2, because you should see the film if for no other reason than this segment. It’s an ominous buildup that turns into a rollercoaster of “holy shit!” with a perfect final line that’ll make you chuckle. I didn’t even realize I’d missed the last line until the second time I saw it, which caps off an already impressive exercise in ratcheting up the stakes for a film crew in far over their heads. The rest of V/H/S 2 is icing on the cake, which is not to diminish Eisener’s effort or the conclusion to “Tape 49,” which is more satisfying than the end of V/H/S.
Before we watched V/H/S 2, the Cap’n screened “Incubator,” a short I saw last year at Nevermore, and “One Last Dive,” another short from Eisener that shows just how much you can do with one minute. While I enjoy Hobo with a Shotgun to a degree, Jason Eisener has to this point really impressed the Cap’n with the short films he’s directed, edited, and produced. Not to bag on his feature length endeavor, but he really knows how to pack a punch in a short film.

Remember how V/H/S was too long and only had a few good segments, but the frame story was fairly interesting even though why would you tape a Skype conversation and put it on a tape? And then V/H/S 2 was a marked improvement in every way, because it was shorter and the vignettes were more concise and creepier, even if the frame story was kind of a mess? I guess when the time came to make V/H/S Viral - which might as well be "3" based on the end of the movie - everyone involved from the producers to the writers and directors forgot that.

 The wrap around story makes almost no sense until the very end, and aside from an amusing cookout gone wrong, there's nothing but gore for gore's sake until the mysterious van that causes people go turn violent is shoehorned into the V/H/S mythos (such as it is). If clips from the first two films weren't crammed in as cutaways, you wouldn't even know it was supposed to be part of the same series. The "tapes" are abandoned completely, leaving us with a combination documentary / found footage story of a magician whose cape gives him real powers, a trip into another dimension that, initially, looks like ours but really, really isn't, and twenty minutes with the most obnoxious skaters you're likely to meet, who are eventually killed by zombies or eaten by a demon the zombies are summoning.

 Of the segments, the second one - "Parallel Monsters" - by Nacho Vigalondo (Timecrimes) is the only one worth watching. That said, it's so over the top that you're liable to start laughing at the "reveal" of how the alternate universe is structured. The Day of the Dead / Skater video only gets remotely interesting near the end, when it's clear they can't kill the cult members in Tijuana. Everything else is an absolute waste of time, and I worry that trying to turn the series from a Videodrome-like vibe to a "viral video" ending (think The Signal or Pontypool, but much worse) isn't going to serve V/H/S well.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Shocktober Review: Unfriended

 So let's get this out of the way at the outset: yes, Unfriended looks like a terrible movie. A social media-only "found footage" horror film about a ghost that haunts people through their computers. That's it. That's the entire movie. I'm not going to pretend that it's anything other than a bad idea, with obnoxious teenagers yelling at each other, cursing, and (thankfully) being killed off one by one. When I saw the trailer for the first time - in front of It Follows, which has to be one of the worst ideas a studio programmer could think of - my friend leaned over and said "you have one new movie for next year's Bad Movie Night". I can't pretend that Unfriended is in any way a horror movie that's worth your time. And yet, it wasn't as unwatchable as I expected. It's not good, but it was kind of fun, and a little better put together than I'd expected.

 I'm going to tell you right now that I didn't care enough about the characters to remember their names. They're all horrible human beings, broken roughly into the stereotypes of The Girlfriend (Shelley Hennig), The Boyfriend (Moses Storm), The Drug Dealer (Will Peltz), The Slut (Renee Olstead), and The Fat Kid Who Is Inexplicably Making Salsa in His Bedroom (Jacob Wysocki). I think there's also The Girl Who Gets Pulled into the Chat That No One Likes (Courtney Halverson), so someone can die before the other idiots we don't like. They're all having a Skype Chat, along with a mysterious person who is a (SPOILER) g-g-g-ghost! Specifically the ghost of Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman), who killed herself after a video of her drunk and passed out and maybe soiled herself or having her period was leaked online. I wonder if one of these assholes did it?

 Tell you what, SPOILERS from here on out. Unfriended is not the kind of movie I feel deserves to maintain a mystery. Of course they were complicit and of course that's why her ghost is cyber-haunting them. There's even a website that Boyfriend sends the main character about how you don't want to be haunted online. Laura forces all of them to kill themselves in thankfully brutal ways (oh, he's making salsa so he can put his hand in the blender!), and let's be honest, they deserve it. Look, the Cap'n is something of a fuddy duddy who still write a blog and can sometimes construct complete sentences. So yeah, internet and texting slang is not my thing. I won't turn this into a "all Millennials suck" thing, but can we address the central premise of Unfriended here?

 I guess this is supposed to be the horror equivalent of "cyberbullying going wrong" because not only does the video of Laura passed out leak, but so does her suicide video, which some piece of shit not only filmed with their cellphone, but also put online. Maybe that's how she cyberhaunts them, I neither know nor care. (Did you know the original title was Cybernatural? I am not making that up) I'd like to address the reaction to the first video, which we see in pieces throughout Unfriended. It starts with the suicide video, because, why wouldn't it? But the video itself, uploaded to YouTube, is okay, drunken and embarrassing. It's a mean thing to do because teenagers are horrible and should be murdered by cyberghosts but most of them grow up to be crushed by life and are therefore less rotten. Not all, but most. Still, the reaction to the "Laura Barns" video on YouTube is, shall we say, excessive.

 "OMG Kill Urself" seems to be the primary comment she got, which is really a big leap to make for a video of being passed out and soiled / bloody. Sure, it's not the best way to look online, but to leap to "you should kill yourself because ha ha look at that just go ahead and commit suicide" stretches the already tenuous credibility of Unfriended. And yeah, I realize I'm talking about a movie called Unfriended which takes place entirely on Girlfriend's computer screen and has Facebook and YouTube and Spotify and Skype and who knows what else I'm forgetting. Yes, I realize the premise is inherently ridiculous, but do teenagers really leap to "Kill Urself" as the only viable option to being ridiculed online? If there was going to be a "straw that broke the camel's back" in the verisimilitude of Unfriendm that would be it. I can't believe I just typed that sentence.

 But here we are, and that's just one of the dumb things these morons do prior to being killed off one by one. My other favorite example is when Girlfriend makes her whole screen visible to everyone else and never turns that function off, but continues having private messages with Boyfriend. I mean, she makes a big point of "sharing" the screen and then never turns it off. They can all see what you're typing, idiot. Of course, so can the audience. I'm not really sure how being a ghost on the web translates into being able to cut off the power in their houses, or to plant a webcam in someone's ventilation, but whatever. At a certain point you just go with it.

 I know I said that Unfriended wasn't as terrible as I thought it would be, and even as mean as mean this review is turning out, I'll give director Leo Gabriadze (Unfriended 2*) and writer Nelson Greaves (Sleepy Hollow) some credit. They do manage to set everything up early on, from the ways that characters are going to die to flat out telling you who was responsible for the video when Girlfriend tries to report Laura's Facebook page (gee, I wonder who shot the video?). When Girlfriend goes on ChatRoulette to get help (no, really), it's a pretty funny reflection of how hard it would be to get someone to take you seriously. I suppose the game of "Never Have I Ever" that's the climax of the film has what passes for tension in Unfriended. The very end of the movie - which is the only time the camera isn't focused on a computer screen - is arguably one of the better "jump scares" I've seen in modern horror. It at least reinforces the idea that we've been watching the entire movie from first person perspective. So, uh, good job?

 Let's be honest here: Unfriended is not the kind of horror movie you're going to watch seriously. I can't fathom having seen this in a crowded theater without everybody erupting into laughter. Its "R" rating means that the entire target audience for this film couldn't go see it, which is both good and bad. Good that there's an R rated horror movie, but bad that it's this. I can't imagine a room full of adults wanting to subject themselves to Unfriended without copious amounts of alcohol and or drugs (drugs are bad, kids, mkay?), so it's not really clear who this was for. Now that it's on video, I would expect a lot of people are watching it ironically, which might be the best way to watch it. I'm not going to pretend it's a "guilty pleasure" because I didn't really like it. I doubt I would ever watch it again, but I guess it wasn't awful. Just bad in a kind of fun way. That said there are so many better options for "so bad it's good" out there that Unfriended should be reserved for one of those "oh, that's all that's left on Redbox / Netflix that we haven't seen" weekends. Make sure you have plenty to drink.

 * Yes, I just looked this up, and because I don't know what Lucky Trouble is (Milla Jovovich is in it), I will announce to you at the tail end of this review that somehow Unfriended is already on its way to having a sequel. So, uh, thanks, me.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Shocktober Revisited: Rosemary's Baby

 editor's note: this review originally appeared in the Horror Fest VIII coverage.

Rosemary’s Baby may be based on the novel by Ira Levin (Son of Rosemary) and be produced by William Castle (The Tingler) directed by Roman Polanski (I can only imagine what’s going to happen now that I’ve mentioned his name again on this blog), but it’s really the story of a book. And not just any book, because while Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) has a lot of books, including the conspicuously placed copy of Yes, I Can: The Story of Sammy Davis Jr.*, the most important one appears about an hour into the film.
 Of course, I speak of All of Them Witches.

 Oh sure, the title is an anagram (although not the one Rosemary figures out – for the record, you can make “Hell a Cometh Swift from the title), but for whatever reason, it became the running joke of the rest of the movie. There was a lengthy discussion about follow-up books like Some More of Them Witches, The Rest of Them Witches, That Should Cover Every Last One of Them Witches This Time, and the legally obligated retraction book Not All of Them Was Witches After All, and many a chuckle was had.
I realize that it’s probably disrespectful to Rosemary’s Baby to talk about it this way when I’ve never properly written about the film here before, but sometimes when you’ve seen a movie enough times and you’re with a crowd of people who have as well, instead of focusing on the actual story you begin to fixate on silly details or make jokes. While I often try to give a film its proper perspective on the Blogorium, much of what constitutes a Horror Fest recap is trying to convey the atmosphere surrounding the screening as well.
 For the record, I was not the first person to make a tasteless John Lennon joke about the Dakota Building. I made the second, and it was in reference to an audience member being unhappy that nothing bad happens to Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes) at the end of the film. I responded that she needn’t worry, because “there’s a guy outside waiting for phonies.”
 There were many jokes and references to Cassavetes films (as actor and as director), to Planet of the Apes, Harold and Maude, Midnight Run, The Wolf Man, and to Frank Sinatra, Robert Evans, William Castle, and any number of other ridiculous observations, like what was playing at Radio City Music Hall with Fred MacMurray (our theory – Walt Disney’s The Shaggy Dog: The Musical, or Son of Flubber: The Musical).
 (This is a total side note, but since I mentioned John Carpenter’s references in Prince of Darkness, it’s worth pointing out that at the beginning of In the Mouth of Madness,  John Glover’s character’s name is Dr. Saperstein, a slight variation on the name of Ralph Bellamy’s character in Rosemary’s Baby.)
 All joking aside (and it’s really the big point at the fest where the audience participation took over, which the Cap’n fully endorses as long as you can still enjoy the movie), Rosemary’s Baby is a great horror movie. It’s so well constructed and so limited to one character’s perspective that even though you know what’s happening to Rosemary and you desperately want her to get away from the Castevets and the conspiracy in The Bramford, you understand why she’s confused and can’t leave. The world is set against poor Rosemary from the outset, in arguably more insidious ways than even Suzy Bannion faces in Suspiria (it turns out witches, Satan, and issues with pregnancy emerged as the consistent themes this Horror Fest).
 Her husband is distant and verbally abusive, especially after he gets close with Roman and Minnie Castevet (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer), her doctor recommends doing nothing when she feels pain during pregnancy, and then her old doctor (Charles Grodin), hands her over to the enemy when she comes to him for help. Her only real ally in the film, Hutch (Maurice Evans), is the victim of witchcraft – as is Guy’s original agent – and the first friend she makes in The Bramford plunges to her death not long after they meet. All the while, Polanski keeps us tightly locked in on Rosemary (although not quite as uncomfortably framed as Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion) as we slowly move towards June of 1966, when her baby is due. I shouldn’t need to spell that out for you, and it’s not as blatantly stated in the film, but if you do the math from when conception happened to when the baby should be due, it only makes sense.
 The use of dream sequences and somewhat ambiguous dream logic (another recurring motif this fest) helps disorient the audience early in the film, so that even forty five years later, it’s not abundantly clear what Rosemary is imagining and what we’re actually seeing when plans are set in motion. The ending still gets me, despite the presence of one of the worst Asian stereotypes since Mickey Rooney’s unfortunate appearance in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. “What have you done to his eyes, you maniacs!” and, eventually, “You’re rocking him too hard.” It’s unsettling, but inevitable.
 If we jest during Rosemary’s Baby, it’s only because we like it so. Also, All of Them Witches would want it that way. Hail Satan!

* Now, it’s entirely up to you whether Yes, I Can is there because of the Rat Pack connection or just as another subtle hint about the Satanism to come.  In the interest of full disclosure, we leaned towards the former.