Monday, October 19, 2015

Shocktober Revisited: Mini-Reviews!

 Sometimes, horror movies get rolled up in other quick reviews, and accordingly can be missed. The following quick takes are from various points over the years, so the quality of the review(s) can vary wildly:

Die, Monster, Die! - Based on H.P. Lovecraft's The Colour Out of Space in the same way that The Haunted Palace is based on The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (loosely), this AIP production has some effective imagery, but finds a way to drag on long enough to make 78 minutes feel like two hours. It's not lacking in atmosphere, and Boris Karloff certainly gives as much as he possibly can (which is saying something, as the actor was in poor enough health that he spends most of the film confined to a wheelchair), but I had trouble remembering much about the film hours after finishing it.

 Lovecraft's town of Arkham, Massachusetts, is relocated to England so that American student Stephen Rinehart (Nick Adams) can travel to the Whitley manor on the outskirts of town. Nobody in Arkham wants to talk to him about the Whitleys, nor will they provide him with any means of transportation, so Rinehart has to walk. It gives us the opportunity to see the desolate lands on the outskirts of the manor, and what looks like a huge crater, surrounded by dead trees that crumble to dust when touched. After dodging a bear trap at the gate, he enters the Whitley manor to find himself unwelcome by its patriarch, Nahum Whitley (Karloff), despite having been invited by Nahum's daughter, Susan (Suzan Farmer).

 Something is obviously very wrong at the Whitley house, and Nahum's wife Letitia begs Stephen to take Susan away (they were students at an unnamed university in the U.S.), against Nahum's objections. Letitia is bedridden and refuses to let anyone see her, and Nahum is opposed to taking her to a doctor in town. Their maid went insane and lurks around the grounds under a black veil, and their butler Merwyn (Terence de Marney) is barely capable of lifting silverware without collapsing. A strange glow is coming from the (locked) greenhouse, and it's rumored that Nahum's father, Corbin Whitley, practiced black magic (because, you know, it kind of makes it sound like it's connected to The Haunted Palace, maybe?), which seems to be confirmed from the artwork scrawled in the cellar of the mansion.

 Unfortunately, for all of the mystery surrounding the Whitleys and what writer Jerry Sohl cobbled together from The Colour Out of Space and more topical concerns (circa 1965) about radiation, Die, Monster, Die! is mostly a movie about wandering around a spooky house with candles until something jumps out. Audiences who bemoan "jump" scares in modern horror films will roll their eyes at no less than three such moments in Die, Monster, Die!, all of which have the bad form to continue well after it's clear they aren't scary. There are some nice images - the matte painting of the meteor crash looks very good, and the "zoo" of deformed creatures / aliens (it's never very clear) in the greenhouse "shed" make an impression, but the pacing of the film drags on endlessly.

 Lovecraft fans will, in all likelihood, not enjoy the explanation given to why the meteorite causes strange and horrible things to happen to the vegetation (SPOILER - it's Uranium) or the way that Die, Monster, Die! devolves into a "we have to fight the monster before we escape," wherein Boris Karloff is replaced by a stuntman wearing a glowing prototype of the "Green Man" outfit under his suit. I honestly can't remember if they even explain what happens to the maid after she tries to attack Stephen and falls down, but it's not the kind of plot point I'm even worried about following up on. While I've seen worse adaptations of Lovecraft stories, I'd be hard pressed to say I've seen one that's more of a slog to get through than this one.

Terminal Invasion - Cranpire's love of this film used to vex me. Admittedly, I'd only seen it in pieces on the Sci-Fi Channel and it looked like their run of the mill crap, just with Bruce Campbell. Now that I've watched the whole thing, I can understand why he enjoys it so much. Kind of.

I'll give credit where credit's due: director Sean S. Cunningham (Friday the 13th) is a more competent director than most of the "Sci-Fi Original" stable of no-names. Terminal Invasion is a cross between Pitch Black and John Carpenter's The Thing, with a small dose of Assault on Precinct 13 thrown in for good measure, and Cunningham rises to the occasion. For what's essentially a ripoff of other sci-fi / horror movies, it's pretty good. There's certainly no fat on this movie, so every scene exists to set up something later.

The story takes place on a snowy night while a small band of travelers are trapped in a charter plane lobby. Campbell is a criminal being transferred who ends up in their midst, along with some nasty alien invaders disguised as humans. You can figure out where it goes from there if you've seen any of the movies above.

What I appreciated about Terminal Invasion is the way it sets up twists in the story based on things you assume to be true at the beginning. While I was pretty sure I knew who was an alien and who wasn't (and was mostly right), there's at least one genuine surprise halfway into the movie. Cunningham uses the limited geography of the terminal to telegraph plot points later, which I find to be rare of Sci-Fi Originals.

That being said, this is still a made for TV movie, and it shows. Most sets are over-lit so that shooting can commence from any angle, so even the dark scenes are pretty bright. The cgi, while used sparingly, is still five or six steps below the early Nasonex commercials. At least twice during Terminal Invasion, the movie "Fades to Commercial", and it looks silly without actual commercials.

However, most of these are acceptable if considered in the context of how Terminal Invasion came to be. The unfortunate cost cutting exercise comes during "attack" scenes involving the aliens. The camera is normally pretty stable, but when the aliens attack there's a postproduction "herky-jerky" effect that just looks dirt cheap.

Still, with expectations set properly, Terminal Invasion is pretty good for what it is, and I'd probably watch it again. Bruce is pretty good despite having to play the "stoic" type for most of the movie. Not many wisecracks to be seen here, but there is some decent gore and Terminal Invasion would be good times with a six pack and your buddies.

Dark Shadows and Frankenweenie - Tim Burton continues along his path of "things you recognize, re-imagined by a director you really used to like" by adapting the long running gothic soap opera Dark Shadows and his own short film, Frankenweenie, but this time it's stop-motion animated and three times as long.

Are you ready for the shocker? I actually liked Dark Shadows more than Frankenweenie. Nobody else did, but Dark Shadows isn't nearly as horrible as I expected it to be, and instead of nonstop jokes about the 1970s, it's a surprisingly atmospheric and violent meditation on family ties. That said, it has too many characters, superfluous cameos that really don't move the plot forward (Alice Cooper, I'm looking at you), and while it's better than I was prepared for, that doesn't mean it's even close to the best Tim Burton is capable of. I suppose after being disappointed by Sweeney Todd, Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Corpse Bride, the idea of a marginally entertaining Tim Burton film was refreshing. That said, everybody else seems to hate it, so be warned.

 Frankenweenie could be better if Burton could figure out how to stretch a 30 minute short film into a full narrative, but he didn't. Basically the structure of the original Frankenweenie has been elongated and stitched together with a clever pastiche of Joe Dante-esque "monsters run amok" - including the best (and possibly only) Bambi Meets Godzilla reference I can remember. Unfortunately, the first forty five minutes drag so much that it's more of a relief than a delight when the reanimated pets wreak havoc all over New Holland. I will say it was nice to (hear) Catherine O'Hara, Martin Short, and Winona Ryder return to the Burton-verse, but ultimately Frankenweenie overstays its welcome before it has the chance to be any fun.

 Zombeavers - I didn't go into Zombeavers expecting it to be any good. This sounds counter-intuitive with what I said earlier in the recaps about trying to avoid bad movies, but I didn't watch Sharknado and this seemed like it might be an acceptable substitute. I mean, it couldn't possibly get better than the poster, or the inherently stupid premise, right? It would quickly get lazy and then I would get bored, like I normally do with Syfy Originals or movies that look like that (*coughTheAsylumreleasescough*).

 So imagine my surprise to discover that Zombeavers is a (slightly) higher budgeted version of a movie like Blood Car or Rise of the Animals. True, this is not a scrappy, home made production - how could it be with a "From the Producers of American Pie, Cabin Fever, and The Ring" on the poster? - but it has the same anarchic spirit of those movies. At times, it's actually as bad as those can be, but what helps Zombeavers (a lot, actually) is that every time you think it's not worth sticking through, something you wouldn't expect either happens or comes out of someone's mouth. Either the film takes a truly unexpected turn - which it does - or one of the characters has a line that evokes a "wait, what?" and you don't mind sticking around.

 I felt like I was in pretty good hands during the prologue, which features Bill Burr and an unrecognizable John Mayer (yep, "Your Body is a Wonderland"'s John Mayer) as drivers hauling around chemical waste and shooting the shit, often in increasingly strange ways. They eventually hit a deer, which leads to a barrel of said chemicals rolling down into a stream and to (dun dun DUUUUNNN) a beaver dam. Because, yes, this is a movie about zombie beavers. Or Zombeavers, if you will. Also, there are three college students: Mary (Rachel Melvin), Zoe (Courtney Palm), and Jenn (Lexi Atkins), who are having a "girls' weekend" in order to forget about Mary's boyfriend Sam (Hutch Dano) cheating on her. But he shows up anyway, with Tommy (Jake Weary) and Buck (Peter Gilroy) in tow, so it becomes a slightly uncomfortable couples weekend. With Zombeavers.

 You might struggle through the "set up" part of the film, and I nearly turned it off while the girls were on the way to the cabin, but some of the lines are so out of left field that I stuck with it. The tone is borderline surreal, from the "is this serious" hunter (Rex Linn) that they run into, to the neighbors near the cabin (Brent Briscoe and Phyllis Katz), who turn out to be way more savvy about kids than you'd expect. And there's a bear, but mostly, it's the Zombeavers. Which look like nothing more than marginally articulated puppets and are hilarious. You see, sometimes a cheap looking monster can elevate a B-Movie from "that was okay" to "that was amazing," and the titular zombified beavers are worth the price of admission. It doesn't hurt that Zombeavers gets even weirder when the "rules of infection" kick in, but the monsters are the stars of the show. Stick around after the credits - which include a song about the movie that puts Richard Cheese to shame - for an even better zombie related pun. If it sets up a sequel, I could be onboard with that, but if not, well played, Jordan Rubin...

 John Dies at the End -This is a faithful adaptation of David Wong's novel by Don Coscarelli (Phantasm, Bubba Ho-Tep), at least for the first half. The film gets to about the halfway point in the book, and then realizes it has thirty minutes to wrap up the rest of the story, so liberties are taken. Honestly, I didn't mind them, because I knew what was being condensed and most of the spirit is kept intact.

 That said, I totally understand why people who haven't read John Dies at the End don't like the movie. There's a sense of context that's missing from the film as it hurtles towards its conclusion that further confuses the comedy / horror tone and probably loses a lot of people. If you haven't read the book, I wouldn't watch the movie at all. You're going to hate it because of how it collapses in the last thirty minutes. If you have read the book, know Coscarelli mostly made sensible changes (not going to Vegas, diminishing Amy's role in the overall story, dropping certain elements of Korrok's plan), and made at least one I don't really understand (changing Molly's name), and two I don't know how I feel about (no Fred Durst and John's band doesn't sound nearly as bad as I thought it would). I dig John Dies at the End, and if it ever happens, I'd watch This Book (Movie?) is Filled with Spiders, although with what they had to do on a low budget here, I can't imagine that ever happening. That's a shame.

 World War Z - One could suppose that if Warm Bodies was a zombie movie for teenage girls, then World War Z is a zombie movie for people who vaguely know the word "zombie" in popular culture. It's not even really a horror movie - more of an action / disaster hybrid with a redesigned third act that inches towards suspense but still ends up like a tamer 28 Days Later. And I watched the "unrated" version, for the record. I can only imagine how toothless World War Z must have been in theaters. Still, it has a scrappy, amiable charm for a big budgeted blockbuster studio "tent pole" movie.

 Based almost not at all on the book of the same name by Max Brooks, World War Z is the story of Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), a retired UN investigator living with his family, until the zombie outbreak begins, that is. Then the Deputy Secretary General Thierry Umutoni (Fana Mokoena) brings him back in to travel around the world and see what caused the outbreak, from South Korea to Israel and eventually to a World Health Organization research center in Ireland. Separated from his family, and with continually dwindling support, Gerry finds that the zombie outbreak is capable of overcoming even the most fortified of cities, and unless they can find a cure, humanity is doomed.

 World War Z is essentially a travelogue designed to show off various big action set pieces, which director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, Quantum of Solace) does fairly well, and which Brad Pitt responds to with a reasonable sense of urgency. The zombies are sometimes people in makeup but are usually great swaths of CGI mayhem, particularly during the siege of Jerusalem. The movie makes an abrupt turn in the section in Ireland, due in large part because the delay in World War Z's release had everything to do with the third act not working, so they scrapped the original ending in Russia and went with a more sparse, claustrophobic ending. It works, although you can see loose threads of plot line in the film as a result - the main example is Matthew Fox's UN soldier who doesn't seem to serve much of a purpose other than to help move Gerry's family around, but who in the original version "takes" his wife and daughter as his own. Now it just seems like an oddly high profile casting choice for a minor role at best. Doctor Who fans already know the prescient casting of Peter Capaldi as the WHO Doctor (that IS how he appears in the credits).

 There's not really much else to say about the movie. I thought it was watchable, if mostly average. The story behind the movie is more interesting than the finished product. The survival bits near the beginning and towards the end are good, but have been done better before. All of the big action sequences are bombastic and if you like explosions and zombies and some degree of violence, the unrated cut is certainly worth your time. It's popcorn fare through and through, which is fine and dandy every now and then, but I can't imagine that I'd be all that enthused for World War Z 2.

The ABCs of Death 2 - is like V/H/S 2 in that it takes everything that worked about the first film, jettisoned most of what didn't, and was more fun to watch. The premise is still the same: twenty six directors each receive a letter from the alphabet, and have free reign to come up with a 2-3 minute short film that conveys a word and, in some form or fashion, death. The ABCs of Death had some interesting entries ("Unearthed" was a good one), but leaned heavily on scatological humor ("F is for Fart" was the tip of the iceberg, it turned out), and then there were the "oh, I didn't need to see that, not ever" letters. Like "Libido" and "Pressure." It turns out there are things you might want to un-see, and several of them are in The ABCs of Death.

The ABCs of Death 2, by comparison, has nothing as traumatic, and I would suspect it would play a lot better with an audience than the first one did. Watching that one at Nevermore, there was a lot of... shall I say, stunned silence as the film went on. There are certainly some "what the hell was that?" parts in the sequel, but nothing you're going to apologize for exposing someone to. The only thing that comes close is the last segment, "Z is for Zygote," which is centered around an already unforgettable image that closes on an even more disturbing note. I know that people don't like "P is for P-P-P-P-Scary!" but I thought it had an unhinged quality, somewhere between the weirder Betty Boop cartoons and Black Lodge-era David Lynch, that worked for me.

 As with the first film, you'll find highlights ("A is for Amateur") and lowlights ("V is for Vacation"), but there's nothing in The ABCs of Death that comes close to 2's "M is for Masticate," a slow motion gross out with a wicked joke at the end. There's also "D is for Deloused," which reminded me a bit of a Brothers Quay short. I'll leave most of the discovery for you, but if you kind of liked the first film, I strongly suspect you'll enjoy this one more.

 Horns - I feel like there's a better movie somewhere in Alexandre Aja's Horns. Maybe it got lost in the editing, or maybe it's just inherent in the adaptation of Joe Hill's novel, but the finished product just don't quite work. It's as though Aja made a bitterly funny, black comedy, and also made a more generic, teen-friendly story of good and evil, and then smashed them together at the worst possible junctures. For the opening twenty minutes of Horns, you're probably going to think the movie is great: it has a wicked mean streak, Daniel Radcliffe is spot on as a guy everyone thinks is a murderer, that embraces the horns he grows and the power that comes with it. The way people react, first telling him their darkest fantasies and then acting on them when he says they should, is often hilarious.

 And then we hit the first of what turn out to be several, lengthy, flashbacks, giving us the backstory of Ig (Radcliffe) and Merrin (Juno Temple), leading up to her death - the one everyone assumes Ig is responsible for. Everyone, including his family - played by James Remar, Kathleen Quinlan, and Joe Anderson - is positive he did it and that he's lying, with the exception of his friend, Lee (Max Minghella). The "whodunit" is pretty easy to work out for yourself, even if Aja, Hill, and screenwriter Keith Bunin throw in a number of red herrings. I bet, without telling you anything else, you can guess who the real killer is. That's not the problem, so much as the flashbacks that put the mystery together. There's a massive tonal shift from black comedy to slightly tragic story of temptation and of good and evil (on a biblical scale), and for some reason, ne'er the twain shall meet in Horns.

 I can understand how it might have worked in Hill's novel - which I haven't yet read, but plan to - but as a film, the structure of the story is at times jarring and disruptive. Maybe there was no way to properly balance the two in a film, because Horns alternates between wicked and bland, between clever and obvious, without ever finding a good middle ground. There are some fantastic moments sprinkled throughout the film, and the cast is game for anything, playing both the best and worst versions of themselves as they encounter "evil" Ig, but Horns gets away from them. It's never quite the movie that it could be, so I'm left feeling ambivalent with the end result.

 The Innkeepers - From Ti West, the director of The House of the Devil, comes another slow burn horror film where tension continues mounting and the sense of dread is palpable. Instead of replicating the horror of the early 1980s, West's "haunted hotel" follow-up is set squarely in the present, and he's just as adept at creeping you out with slow tracking shots, suggested noises, and believable characters you relate to. Sara Paxton's Claire is a young woman without much of a clue what she want to do or be, who becomes way too interested in Luke (Pat Healy)'s hobby: ghost hunting. She's fixated on finding the spirit of Madeline O'Malley, a bride who killed herself in the hotel in the 1890s.

 On the last weekend that the Yankee Padler hotel is open, Luke and Claire trade off shifts, watching over the last remaining hotel tenants - former actress / new age guru Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis) and a mysterious Old Man (George Riddle) - while they hunt for evidence of O'Malley's presence. West doles out the scares slowly but surely, and only towards the very end do things go the way most horror films go. In fact, if there's any fault to be found in The Innkeepers, it's that what comes before and after the climax of the film are undermined ever so slightly by what we know HAS to happen, even if the subtle clues of why it happens don't always add up. Without spoiling too much, I can say that the film is an example of the kind of movie 1408 could have been, one that eschews cheap histrionics and trickery and deliberately ratchets up the "willies" factor.

 Fans of The House of the Devil are going to find a lot to love about The Inkeepers, but if you like your horror fast and relentless, this may seem a little slow for your tastes. For me? Let's just say I had to watch something else after I finished it, because I wasn't going to bed.

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