Saturday, February 23, 2013
Welcome back to Cap'n Howdy's coverage of the 14th annual Nevermore Film Festival. Today was a lineup I'd been looking forward to - another collection of short films (from North America this time), a partially "found footage" film about ghosts, and the double feature of a classic (Dawn of the Dead) and a newer film that might end up with its own "cult" following down the line (John Dies at the End).
The Cap'n started the day with They're Coming to Get You, Barbra!, a selection of ten north American shorts that ran the gamut from scary to funny to darkly whimsical and bizarre. Here's a brief description of each, with accompanying links (they were actually harder to locate online than their foreign counterparts):
T is for Trash - from what it looks like online, "Trash" began its life as a submission for The ABCs of Death, but I'm glad that Nevermore included it as a short in its own right because it deserves to be seen in its own context. If its possible to call something "a bizarro world take on Boxing Helena," Trash fits that description. When you think you have a rough idea where the story is heading, something very unusual happens, and I have to say I liked it.
Till Death Do Us Part - a clever horror comedy dealing with a couple having cold feet on their wedding day, exacerbated when their exes show up for the ceremony - as zombies. Did I mention the film is set in 1985? It's not a crucial detail, but it adds to the humor a bit.
The Stolen - less of a horror movie and more of a dark fairy tale, one that happens to include fairies. A little girl helps a boy after her brother locks him in a cage, and he promises to grant her wish. The final image, while sudden, is effective and unsettling.
Sandwich Crazy - the first of two short films in the lineup made with the involvement of Hobo with a Shotgun director Jason Eisener, Sandwich Crazy is a twisted Faustian tale about a man with no ambitions, a magic microwave, and talking, bleeding, vegetables. You'll laugh, you'll gag, you'll laugh some more. (Note: the link does not take you to the actual Sandwich Crazy short - I can't find it anywhere online - but another short film that uses some of the same puppets and has a similarly bent sense of humor.)
Blue Hole - "inspired by a true story," this short is about a lake that the Devil lives in, and if he drags a loved one down, the only way to get them back is with a sacrifice. Three couples learn the hard way that not every bargain is one worth making...
Take That - is the story of a veteran with an overbearing wife and a friend who wants to make his evening. When he decides to finish up at work, his buddy calls the service anyway, and our hero gets more than he ever wanted to deal with. I wasn't gaga with this film, but it did at least make an effort to keep the protagonist virtuous.
Torturous - in this twist on "torture porn," a career counselor finds himself in a Hostel-esque room with a "drill" specialist, one not too happy with his job. Can he talk him into a change of career before it's too late? This leans more heavily on the comedy, but there's one impressive gore effect that helps keep the stakes high. The ending is great.
Klagger - I enjoyed this low key film about a surveyor who walks into a building scheduled for demolition only to discover he's not alone, and the other party isn't interested in talking things over. It has a nice twist at the end and some effectively utilized country music to add to the atmosphere.
Game - the second Eisener involved short has the edge over Sandwich Crazy for me, only because it takes your expectations of what kind of film you think you're watching and turns it on its head. It shifts from being a straightforward, fairly stark "killbilly" story into something much stranger. I don't want to spoil it, so I hope at some point the short will be available to watch online.
Lot 66 - returning NC director Robert W. Filion brings us the tale of a man afraid in the dark, alone in his new house. Everything seems to be going well enough until he starts getting messages from a stranger who claims to be wandering around the house... and then the power goes out. It was a little heavy on stylized CGI and the ending reminded me of current events, which contributed to my ambivalence towards the short.
The Casebook of Eddie Brewer, a British film that blurs the line between "found footage" and traditionally narrative horror. Eddie Brewer (Ian Brooker) is a paranormal investigator being followed by a film crew for a special on hauntings, and they join him for two major cases: one involving a mother (Bella Hamblin) and her daughter Lucy (Erin Connolly), who have been experiencing phenomena reminiscent of a poltergeist. Eddie suspects that Lucy's "imaginary" friend, Grimaldi, might be responsible, but to what end?
Eddie is also called into a renovated building being used by the government because of strange sounds coming from a "hole" in the basement, but it becomes clear that the activity isn't limited to that area. Before long, the staff are dealing with an increasingly hostile force, one that has a particular interest in Brewer, and may have something in common with Lucy's "friend."
Unbeknownst to Brewer, the documentary producer (Natalie Wilson) has arranged for skeptic Dr. Susan Kovac (Louise Paris) and a team of paranormal investigators to join him at the end of the investigation. Brewer, who works alone and with outdated equipment, is infuriated, but the confluence of events involving Lucy and a message that Grimaldi sends the investigator leave him no choice but to join the rest for a wild night of paranormal activity.
I was rather impressed with The Casebook of Eddie Brewer, which alternates between the footage being shot by an unseen cameraman (director Andrew Spencer) and a third person, omniscient perspective. Appropriate to the narrative, the bulk of actual "ghost"-related events happen when the documentary camera isn't on, bolstering the case for Kovacs and increasing the doubts of the crew that anything is actually happening, even as it becomes clear to the audience that something horrible is afoot. It takes a moment to adjust because both styles use the same camera, but Spencer is careful to mark points in the film when it's clear which perspective we're watching from.
The way that the two investigations dovetail is also handled in a clever way, if not one that is always clear near the end. When Casebook goes all out, beginning with the arrival of a psychic medium, Spencer manages to keep the various narrative threads and suddenly swollen cast together in a sensible way, and the imagery is chilling without being too outlandish for the limited scope of the story. Of the two feature films I hadn't seen prior to coming into Nevermore, I'd say that The Casebook of Eddie Brewer was my favorite.
I don't want to say much more about Dawn of the Dead because I've written about the film before here in the Blogorium, but I'd like to share something curious that happened when I saw this with a large audience.
Dawn of the Dead is, perhaps, the best "zombie" movie in the sometimes cluttered subgenre, even if I prefer Night of the Living Dead. It's a close first and second, but while I side with the stark simplicity of the first film, Dawn of the Dead is continually rewarding with repeated viewings, as without fail I find something I'd never noticed. And this time it wasn't even the "neglige" zombie (and geez, she must have been cold)* - no, this time I was exposed to a different side of the humor inherent in Dawn of the Dead.
Having seen it in small groups and in academic settings, I was used to what I thought were the bulk of the "jokes" in Dawn of the Dead, many centered around consumerism and the juxtaposition between commercialism and the undead. What surprised me more were the periods when the audience, in unison, reacted to scenes I had always read as somber or bleak with laughter. For example, when Roger and Peter are discussing Fran's pregnancy and the possibility of ending it (while Fran is in another room), the audience began laughing, and laughed even harder when Romero cut to Gaylen Ross' reaction shot as she overhears them. I had never considered the moment funny, but the inherent comedy in that uncomfortable conversation opened my eyes to yet another reading of the film. Perhaps Dawn of the Dead is even more intentionally comedic than I had thought.
You're not going to go wrong watching this movie with a large group of strangers, especially ones not familiar with the gruesome Tom Savini-created special effects. If you can see Dawn of the Dead in a theatre, if that opportunity ever presents itself, I highly recommending doing so.
I wrote about the film briefly during my 2012 recap, and finally had the chance to see it with a crowd equally composed of folks who had and had not read the David Wong-penned novel the film is adapted from. Unfortunately, I didn't get to talk to many people who hadn't read the book after the film ended, but everybody seemed to enjoy the alternately disgusting and hilarious story of two slackers who save the world from an alternate universe's resident demon, Korrok.
What I didn't mention last time was the inspired casting of Paul Giamatti as Arnie and Clancy Brown as Doctor Marconi, who along with Chase Williamson's David and Rob Mayes' John keep the film moving at a brisk pace. I also enjoyed the cameos by Doug Jones, Daniel Roebuck, and especially the Tall Man himself, Angus Scrimm, whose character hints at a set of antagonists dropped from the story during the adaptation from novel to screen. I'm still sad that Fred Durst isn't in the film.
As I mentioned to friends after the film was over, given some of the changes and the relatively low budget of John Dies at the End (he doesn't, by the way. SPOILER), I can't imagine how This Book is Full of Spiders (Seriously, Dude, Don't Touch It!) could ever happen, but I'd welcome it. And I'd watch it. The continued adventures of Dave, John, and Amy in the demonic cesspool that is Undisclosed** are something I look forward to more of, whether on paper or the big screen.
By the way, if you want to see John Dies at the End now, it's available On Demand. If you're thinking of just pirating the film, David Wong has a special warning for you:
This ends my coverage of the Nevermore Film Festival, but if I can cajole some of the good folks I attended with to add reviews of some of the movies I didn't see (Found, Dead Weight, the long-form shorts), I'll put them up some time soon. It was a great time with lots of fans of horror, and I'm looking forward to the 15th anniversary next year!
* Seen easily in the parking lot when Fran is watching Peter and Stephen move trucks in front of the entrances, and again later in the film.
** By the way, it's not "Undisclosed" in the movie - it's identified as Sherwood, Illinois.
Friday, February 22, 2013
Greetings, fright fans! Cap'n Howdy coming to you from the 14th annual Nevermore Film Festival in Durham, where I just spent the last six hours up to my neck in a horror triple feature. As it is the duty of someone who calls himself "Cap'n Howdy" to attend a horror film festival, it seems only fair to report back to you with my findings.
The Cap'n kicked off this year's Nevermore with a film I hadn't seen or heard anything about, The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh, a cross between "haunted house" and "religious fundamentalism" spook show heavy on atmosphere and tension starring Vanessa Redgrave and Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul look-alike Aaron Poole*.
That, and the "game of candles" that his mother forced him to play, assuring him that if she blew out all of the candles before he "believed" that the angel would turn his back on him and the "darkness" would consume him. The lasting psychological damage continues to wear at Leon, and when he discovers his estranged mother bought his entire collection of antiques anonymously, he finds himself alone in a house confronted by his past, by members of the religious movement, and something lurking outside.
Oh, and the angel in Rosalind's "worship" room. The one on a video that does something... unusual.
While I found myself engaged with the story and drawn in to Gudiño's wandering camera and the rather spooky house, and while Pool and Redgrave are more than able to sell the scares as they increase, I can't help but feel like The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh stumbles a bit at the end. For one thing, there are simply too many lingering plot threads or concepts introduced in the film that don't feel developed or at times even addressed. While the reliance on Redgrave to narrate what isn't clear in the story is understandable, it comes at inopportune times in the film (especially at the end) and breaks up the narrative flow. Despite the story arc of Leon, the ending seems to make the case that this is actually Rosalind's story, which muddles the denouement a bit.
It's not enough of a stumble to keep me from recommending the film, but I feel the need to give you the head's up that while The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh builds up a good head of steam, it doesn't quite cross the finish line. Still, in a world of "jump" scares, I'll take a little atmosphere in my ghost story when I can get it.
Following that, I sat down for Wrath of the Foreign Invaders, the collection of short subjects from around the world. It was a mixed bag of mostly good subjects, with a few really impressive standouts:
The Plan - I regret that I can't tell you much about this one, other than it involved head-swapping, brain removal, and some existential musings. The digital presentation began to skip and we missed out on most of the short.
Ocho (8) - this Spanish short, with no dialogue, tells the story of witchcraft (or voodoo), rituals, birthdays, patricide, and quasi-zombies in the vein of Creepshow or Tales from the Crypt. The cast conveys quite a lot without every saying anything, and it's a suitably dark tale with an ending that made me chuckle.
Refuge 115 - a very short film about a group of people hiding during the bombings in 1938 Barcelona, only to discover that this particular tunnel hides something in the darkness, something very keen on taking them one by one.
She's Having a Baby - a tense, sometimes disturbing short about the lengths to which one woman will go to a child of her own - even if the other party has objections.
A Joke of Too Much - an Italian take on "grindhouse" films, complete with a fake trailer at the beginning for "Invasion of the Space Worms." It has some good laughs, some inventive gore, and was fitfully entertaining.
La Dame Blanche (The White Lady) - tells the familiar urban legend of the mysterious hitch-hiker in white, but with a fatalistic twist at the end. This was tied with Ocho as my favorite of the lot until...
We Will Call Him Bobby - it's easy to see why this was awarded the Jury Prize at Nevermore for "Best Short Film," because the tale of a father, his son, and the beast they accidentally hit after fishing is frequently hilarious. The subtitles may give away some of the best lines in advance of the actors saying them, but it mixes comedy and horror with great aplomb.
The rest of them I'm being a bit coy with because part of watching The ABCs of Death is guessing what the letter stands for or being surprised that it wasn't what you expected it to be.
Rather than give you too much more information about the shorts themselves, I'll let you know they come from Ti West (The House of the Devil), Angela Bettis (Roman), Srdjan Spasojevic (A Serbian Film), Jason Eisener (Hobo with a Shotgun), Hélène Cattet (Amer), Yoshihiro Nishimura (Tokyo Gore Police), Xavier Gens (Frontiers), Jon Schnepp (Metalocalypse), Marcel Sarmiento (Deadgirl), Adam Wingard (A Horrible Way to Die), Ben Wheatley (Kill List), Kaare Andrews (Altitude), Nacho Vigalondo (Timecrimes), and Noboru Iguchi (Machine Girl), among others.
That ought to give you some idea how of bizarre or extreme segments can get, and I'm not just talking about the rampant toilet humor. Any semblance of taste or adherence to boundaries are missing from this film. Sensitive folks, be aware that there's some strongly implied animal cruelty, some child abuse, and then there's "X" and "L", which I probably could have done without ever seeing. So just know that there's some rough stuff in The ABCs of Death in addition to the silly and the trivial. I'd recommend it, but know that it might be better to wait for the DVD to come out so you can skip over certain letters. Either way, it's an experience you won't likely forget for a while.
Tune in tomorrow for more coverage of Nevermore, including a double feature of George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead and Don Coscarelli's John Dies at the End. See you then!
* No offense to Mr. Poole, who does a fine job in the film, but the similar features and sounding name are only going to complicate my ability to convince people that it is NOT, in fact, Jesse Pinkman in the movie.
Saturday, February 9, 2013
Dr. No is the first James Bond film, and accordingly the first 007 film to feature Sean Connery as the super-spy for MI6. Of course, there is that 1954 teleplay of Casino Royale with Barry Nelson and Peter Lorre, but good luck finding that. With respect to the James Bond "canon" (read: anything in the 50th Anniversary boxed set from 2012), Dr. No is where it all begins, and while it is a comparatively subdued adventure for 007, Ian Fleming's creation is off to a pretty good start.
It's difficult to view Dr. No separately from the other films in the series, particularly if you are (as I am) familiar with the tropes that came to be identified with subsequent adventures. Trying to remove the mental "checklist" of James Bond cliches while watching his first film is like trying to stay invested in Janet Leigh's story in Psycho, pre-shower - almost impossible. With that in mind, let's get that out of the way for those of you who count Skyfall as your entry point into the series:
- There is no pre-credit action sequence, just the "gun barrel" opening followed by a colorful musical opening.
- There isn't necessarily a "theme song" so much as the Bond theme playing over the credits, followed by an awkward transition to bongo drums and then "Three Blind Mice," which does payoff in the opening of the film.
- M, Moneypenny, and someone who isn't exactly Q but who serves that purpose, briefly appear to give some context to MI6 before Bond is sent to Kingston, Jamaica for his mission.
- There is not Ashton Martin, no gimmicky weapons, and very few quips from 007.
- Bond is introduced playing cards (and winning), seducing the woman he played with, and almost immediately after we first see him, Connery utters the line "Bond, James Bond."
- He likes his martini shaken, not stirred, although the first time anyone mentions it, the drink is "mixed, as you requested, not stirred."
In Kingston, Jamaica, British Intelligence Station agent John Strangways and his secretary are murdered while preparing for routine communication with home. MI6 Agent 007, James Bond (Connery) is sent to Kingston to rendezvous with CIA Agent Felix Leiter (Jack Lord) and discover who killed Strangways and why. Leiter suspects a mysterious figure named Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman) is planning to disrupt U.S. missile tests from the nearby island of Crab Key, where Strangways had been visiting.
No sooner has Bond arrived than attempts on his life are made, from the men responsible for Strangways death, as well as a suspicious geologist who knows more than he's letting on. It's unclear who these men are working for at first, along with a photographer intent on getting Mr. Bond's picture. 007 is adept in a chase and can handle himself in combat, but has a nasty habit of letting important leads slip away from him or, more importantly, in getting himself captured.
It turns out that the first time he's caught with a gun to his back that Felix Leiter is holding it, and that it's part of a misunderstanding, but this James Bond isn't quite as infallible as the one we'll see later on, even before Connery passes the torch to Roger Moore. He's a clever spy, and he covers his tracks, but he also makes dumb mistakes like drinking the coffee Dr. No's servants offer him. For every "cool" trick he uses, Bond tends get himself in trouble. Except, of course, when it comes to the ladies.
Speaking of which, it's worth pointing out that Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress) is almost totally unrelated to the main story of Dr. No. She comes across Bond and Quarrel (John Kitzmiller) by accident on Crab Key. She's visiting the island looking for shells, and just happens to walk onto the same beach where Bond is hiding. There's a half-hearted attempt to connect her to Dr. No's tendency to murder anyone who comes to Crab Key unannounced, but she is, by and large, a bystander who has no connection to the hero or villain.
I was a bit worried when the mysterious "Chinese" scientist, Dr. No, turned out to be played by Canadian Joseph Wiseman, but a quick line explaining that he's "half Chinese, half German" covers up the fact that he doesn't look remotely Chinese. Besides, it's Dr. No's underground Atomic lair and metal hands that are of primary interest to audiences. Dr. No also suggests the existence of SPECTRE, the organization behind most of Bond's early battles, which I suppose the Skyfall set isn't going to know much about. As someone who entered the 007 series with From Russia with Love, it was nice to see the groundwork for the series being laid.
The underground lair, complete with a nuclear reactor and decontamination showers is the closest you're going to get in Dr. No to the James Bond stereotypes lampooned in Austin Powers. Most of the film is Bond searching for clues in Kingston while avoiding assassination attempts. There's a car chase and a half, one fight scene, and a deadly tarantula. This is not to say that Dr. No isn't fun to watch, but if you expect all Bond films to be as bombastic as, well, most of the ones that follow the first film, you might be surprised. Comparatively speaking, Dr. No IS the "stripped down" James Bond film that modern audiences seem to think we're getting with each subsequent Daniel Craig outing.
For my money, I'll take From Russia with Love or Goldfinger over Dr. No as preferred Connery 007 films, but as a starting point, it's easy to understand why audiences wanted to see more of James Bond after the first adventure.
* For those of you who haven't seen Skyfall yet, Bond (Daniel Craig) is introduced to Q (Ben Winshaw) for the "first time" and during their meeting, 007's new "Quartermaster" gives him a Walther PP7 that will only fire when he holds it. Q suggests Bond think of it "less as a random killing machine and more as a personal statement." I won't spoil the end of the film, but I think you'll find it links up with the Connery world of MI6 quite nicely.
Monday, February 4, 2013
Bronson is not the fictionalized story of Charles Bronson, just to get that out of the way. I know that many of you saw the cover (as I did) and thought (as I did not) "I don't remember Charles Bronson being bald or having a curly moustache. I mean, I guess he was tough but this guy looks like he could be Bane from Batman, for crying out loud," or something to that effect. That's a fair reaction, so just so you know, this is not a biopic about The Great Escape or Death Wish any more than the Jason Statham The Mechanic is a faithful remake of The Mechanic and not just a Jason Statham movie with a title you might maybe recognize.
Michael Peterson), who has the distinction of being "Britain's Most Violent Prisoner." As the movie (and the back of the DVD / Blu-Ray) tells us, he has "34 Years in Prison, 30 in Solitary Confinement," with the exception of the 69 days he was not in prison which was when he began bare knuckle boxing under the name "Charles Bronson." Bronson is quick to inform us that he's never killed anyone, although he really likes to get in fights, hold people hostage, and cover himself in grease, paint, or feces before fighting prison officials. All because he held up a post office (and then later stole a ring).
This might be confusing because I swear early in the film that one of the prison officials calls him "Charlie" when he's supposed to be sewing. That would be some time in the 1970s (between 1974, hen he's sent to prison, and when he's sent to an insane asylum), well before he chooses the name "Charles Bronson" which we see happen later in the film. At first I was taken aback but then realized that in a movie that exists in such a heightened state of "reality" that everything we're seeing only exists as Bronson sees it.
You'd think the parts where he's on a theatre stage addressing an audience while wearing a tuxedo and face paint would be a dead giveaway of that, but I made the mistake of taking some of the flashbacks at face value. My mistake.
Anyway, so most of the film is designed to be expressionistic or at the very least to not reflect any reality you or I could point to, although it does seem like the real Charles Bronson (not Mr. Majestyk) does actually have the reputation of doing these ridiculous things. There's a moment when he's explaining one of the mental facilities they sent him to before he was released and what happened there, and instead of recreating it he just stands in front of a screen showing (what I assume to be) actual news footage of the riot he caused. Some times the real thing is more effective than trying to re-enact it.
That said, I don't know how successful Nicholas Winding Refn and Tom Hardy are in conveying this to the audience. A lot of my friends hate Drive (I do not) and if you don't like that then you're really not going to like Bronson. It's way more self consciously "art-y" and has the same affinity for synth-heavy music (example: we learn that it's the 1980s in the movie when the inmates of the asylum are dancing to The Pet Shop Boys' "It's a Sin").
I liked much of what Refn did visually with the film and I thought Tom Hardy was charismatic and creepy and sometimes very awkward as Charles Bronson / Michael Peterson. There's a section of the film where he goes all "Bruce Willis in 12 Monkeys" in the asylum, drooling and shuffling around and generally not accomplishing his goal of "building an empire." I believe Hardy as Bronson when he says prison was his calling and that he believes it's his way of making a name for himself (I mean, they made a movie about him and not about the guy from Death Wish) and it once again steps Tom Hardy away from being Jean-Luc Picard's wimpy clone and towards being a guy who could break Christian Bale in half.
Maybe the problem is that Refn and co-screenwriter Brock Norman Brock don't ever convey that Charles Bronson is actually having the impact he wants to have. Part of this is that we rarely ever see other prisoners when he's in jail (and while he's in solitary for 30 years, he spends plenty of time outside of his cell) and because it's only the world as Bronson sees it, so there's no stepping back and seeing his actual impact on Britain or anything else that merits what we're told ABOUT Charles Bronson. The mistake they make is only showing us Charles Bronson through his eyes and not the eyes of others, with two exceptions near the end that don't bolster his case.
One is the Prison Governor(Johnny Phillips) who tells Bronson he's "pathetic" after the whole "building an empire" spiel, and the other Bronson's art teacher (James Lance), who sees his paintings as a way to make himself famous for "discovering" this imprisoned artist. Bronson thanks him by holding him hostage and painting on his face, then he demands the Governor play music while Charlie strips down, paints himself black, and prepares to fight a losing battle with the guards. I like that Bronson holds hostages even though he doesn't seem to want anything, but neither of these perspectives seem to reinforce what Charles Bronson wants his legacy to be. The real Charles Bronson at least popularized the "sock full of quarters" method of beatings as a viable form of revenge.
So yeah, I guess there are things I liked about Bronson, especially Tom Hardy, but also the movie doesn't quite do its subject justice, or at least adequately convey why it is that Charles Bronson deserves the reputation he has. It gives some anecdotal evidence but I think ultimately I'd have to overturn this verdict and say that the movie version of Michael Peterson is not deserving of the moniker Charles Bronson. I think the real Charles Bronson would agree, even from the grave, where I would still assume he could film Death Wish 6, if he desired. Still, Bronson is worth renting or watching streaming on Netflix. Unless you don't like Drive. If you don't like Drive then maybe you should watch Once Upon a Time in the West. That's on streaming, too.