Thursday, October 27, 2011

Movie Review Quickies, X (Halloween Edition)

It's a special time: my 200th post! No wait, also Halloween. A time to dress up unlike yourself; indulge the scariest, most macabre, ideas you can. Get a fake (properly-rigged!) noose and make someone think you're dead. Decorate your house with creepy stuff. And watch scary movies, even if you're not very much into them.

If you're a full-time goth, bdsm-fetishist, or taxidermy nut, then I truly pity you: it's just a wilder Monday than usual. In any case, since it's nearly All Hollow's Eve, I'm reviewing 7 horror movies (here are the jump links to each entry) - Freddy vs. Jason, The Ruins, Trick 'r Treat, Leviathan, Resident Evil: Apocalypse, Black Sheep, and Dee Snyder's Strangeland - as well as providing a final set of recommendations for anyone looking for a good scare. Enjoy, please, and feel free to let me know your thoughts.

Freddy vs. Jason
I walked into this because the original Nightmare on Elm Street is one of the greatest things ever put to film. It's so scary, I wouldn't blame anyone for running out of theater and trying to stay up for several nights. It has a great cast - Depp, Englund, Saxon, Langenkampf (I miss saying that name). It even has John Cusack's evil gf from Better Off Dead. Forget (most of) the sequels.

The Friday the 13th series, as I've written before, is a difficult case. Once you understand where it stands in film history, you see why something like that could create 10 sequels. Most of them were odd film "events" - like the occasional James Bond pic over the last 45 years. Their budgets and quality fluctuated even more than Nightmare's. Still, "everyone" knows the names "Freddy Krueger" and "Jason Voorhees." The synergy must've been easy to sell.

2003's Freddy vs. Jason was a bit schizo, smashing together elements from each. At least the starring pair were combined neatly: Freddy can't haunt kids unless "the public" fears him. His town, however, deleted all records that even name him. Krueger decides to bring Jason into town because any supernatural killing machine is sure to make people eventually think Freddy's back. Of course, Jason's a little too good, leaving no survivors for Fred to feed on.

The murders at the start were well-done, the tone was firmly in keeping with each series. The start seemed genuinely fun, inventive, and not dumb. Unfortunately, the film becomes a train wreck, as the film-makers (I mean the studio, too) gradually lose their grip on the subject and do a disservice to each horror icon.

Jason especially gets the shaft. I guess the film-makers felt that a mute monster couldn't be as interesting as a wise-cracking Freddy. While our dear Frederick is nearly as nasty as he was in his first movie appearance, he's not as harsh as in the scary New Nightmare - no one should've gotten anywhere near "Freddy Krueger: The Deadly Punster" as he was in most Nightmare sequels.

The R-rating was a positive sign, but there are cheap attempts at titillation to atone for the fact that there is no nudity. Only a child wants a scary pic to earn its R through nakedness. Horror films cut graphic t&a after '97 - and I'm fine with that. So why'd the filmmakers waste screen time on shower shots? Then again, why not get better actors with a $30Mil budget? Or make them not such bland, "countdown to death" figures.

Other problems suggest that making a smart and clever horror entry, or even a tribute to two genre icons, took a back seat to cheaply creating a franchise from thin air. Why is there no winner in this evil vs. evil fight? Because... there should be a sequel? What sense does that make?

I also can't believe Freddy Krueger could find any fear in Jason to manipulate. JV doesn't really have the emotional or intellectual depth - or physical vulnerability - to be afraid. It's not a horrible concept, but it shows a tourist's knowledge of the terrain. See, everyone knows the hockey mask murderer dude drowned, so let's have Freddy terrify him with... water. The same stuff Voorhees jumps out of or sleeps in most of the time.

Also, why would the film devolve into a brawl where Freddy actually is kinda strong, and uses a mix of karate, WWF, and capoiera? Nancy in the first Elm Street had no problem tussling with Kreuger. Nothing about Freddy - his general size, the fact that he preyed on kids - suggests that he's the type of dude who works out, much less fights like a freaking MMA champ. It's just another thing that was thrown in without thought.

Then again, FvJ was made so stupidly that the thoughtlessness just keeps on comin'. Despite promising a showdown between two of modern horror's most popular creations, the filmmakers don't commit to having one character actually die. Yes, the idiots in charge of Freddy vs. Jason couldn't actually just make a choice and show a fight to the death! That idiotic move undermines the whole movie...

Dumbness breeds yet more dumbness, tho: the end is filled with Rube Goldberg-style deathtrap stuff like in Final Destination, for no good reason. And why keep (the awesome) Robert Englund, but replace 4-time Jason-portrayer Kane Hodder because you want someone 3 inches taller? Ultimately, for everything this flick got right, it got 2-3 things wrong. I'd rather see the two horror icons sue each other in court.

The Ruins
The injuries in The Ruins are excruciating. They make you squirm. Of course, the movie is full of people who are uncharismatic despite their good looks - or the decent ones die early on. As a result your empathy and engagement are very, very low.

The movie is slow often enough, and taking one's time is often a very good thing in film. Still, "slow" doesn't mean "careful" and The Ruins often loudly throws something in your face. Without interesting characters, lots of clever nuance, and an immersive, exciting problem, TR ultimately lacks the actual tone of past B-horror movies...

It's just not very interesting, although there was some effort put into this pic, I suppose. There's also a typical mistake: the villain is so powerful there's no reason it hasn't taken over the whole world, or why the story here (which is just an excuse to pick people off one at a time) wasn't resolved in quite a short time. I won't tell you how it ends, but if there are any survivors, believe me, you won't care.

Trick 'r Treat
This picture lacks a bit of punch, because it's broken down into multiple stories. Regardless, it thrives because (a) it has a surprising and excellent cast (Anna Paquin, Brian Cox, Dylan Baker), (b) it has a very macabre bent that's perfectly-suited to horror stories, and (c) the film is well-edited and beautifully shot, with a script that isn't lifeless or annoying (see Tron 2.0, among others).

The basic idea is that there's this one town in Ohio where Halloween is taken very seriously; also it either contains or attracts the most demented, murderous sort of monsters imaginable. It takes about half an hour - 30 rather tense minutes - before the viewer realizes that anyone and everyone could be a maniacal socio- or psychopath.

For an anthology horror pic, it's just fine. It stands up well, in large part, because it hasn't been done in a very long time (at least not with anything like a decent budget). It also does well because it doesn't skimp on the terror, tension, and cruelty. Above all T 'r T was meant to be seen with a large crowd in a theater at a certain time of year. Although you'll probably enjoy it regardless, your mileage might largely depend on how closely you can recreate those conditions in your own home.

One story centers on a group of attractive women who've come into town to ring in the holiday in rare style. Another tale focuses on a group of kids who relive one of the town's worst urban legends. All the other stories intertwine with those plots and work to create a really thriving-yet-generic backdrop of a small town that could easily host Freddy, Jason, or Mike Meyers; or could produce a beast to kill each of those villains.

There are tons of reasons to watch and enjoy Trick 'r Treat. The cast is probably the biggest highlight, followed by the solid fx/visual budget. The one big missing link is that the entire film has no real "normal" area to use as a backdrop that can soften up the viewer; this makes the ever-rising gore and scares less effective. Also, the story could've used at least one solid "good" character to root for. I thought it would be this one little girl who reminds me of the child-version of a former girlfriend.

T 'r T is a very entertaining and grisly horror film. It's macabre and unrelenting and a bit surprising at several points. However, the amazingly-high proportion of psychotics in the town really start to work against the pic as it goes on. It becomes a nihilistic exercise, like Very Bad Things, that decides it can pull the audience in with what it does, not to whom or why. You need to really feel for the characters to have a great horror film, and Treat becomes less effective at that as it plays out.

Even those criticisms have a balance, tho. This is an anthology picture, so it can't take the time to properly-develop every character. And I imagine I could've enjoyed the hell out of it in the theater. It does seem more trick than treat to me, but I have to wonder if watched over Netflix streaming on a quiet night, it's bound to be fairly luke-warm.

The great irony here (the common use of it, not the actual definition) is that Leviathan is a jumble of other films, much as its monster is a jumble of other creatures. The problem is that it isn't very good, and that the various fine actors here can't elevate the material. Peter Weller does fine work in his job as the "team leader," Amanda Pays is good as the attractive, capable, smart super-woman in danger, and Ernie Hudson is great as the "average" crewman who keeps his priorities in check and tries to deal with the colossal problem at hand.

Unfortunately, the picture moves a little too quickly from one moment to another, and doesn't provide enough interesting material to make this film memorable. Or, rather, it is memorable, but as a failure.

The story: there's a group of under-sea miners who deal with long, dangerous shifts and awkward conditions. The company that employs them gives them tight penalties and bonuses, and so they really have to scrape for every bit of success they can find. Everyone works together, tho one jackass (played by Daniel Stern) really tends to slow things down and raise tensions unnecessarily.

While trying to get one last haul before their monthly quota is calculated, one member stumbles on an a sunken Russian vessel and the various booty within. But one flask of vodka contains more than liquid courage. It changes the drinker's DNA and makes them first die, then turn into a horrible monster of unknown and limitless lethal potential.

So, basically, this picture really works hard to rip off The Thing, Alien, & one other James Cameron movie. In particular, it makes a laughable use of the entire setting of The Abyss. Whereas Cameron's Abyss crew was an interesting bunch whose environment is thoroughly explored before things go south, Leviathan has a fairly average set of interacting "folks." There's no excitement from the get-go, and the pulse barely rises as things start to go screwy.

The mysterious illness is handled well enough, as is the uncertain motivation of the Dr. Thompson, played by Rambo's Richard Crenna. Even the nice support from Stern and Hector Elizondo can't make the movie more engaging, tho. The creature effects are largely retrograde - they try to be as creepy as The Thing, but they don't have as much impact, don't look as good, and aren't used as well.

The mystery of the creature at hand is never fully explored, nor is the generic/requisite betrayal by the company that's exploiting these hard-working people. As the crew arm themselves and get militant, the parallels to Ridley Scott's Alien really start to rise; it's just a shame that the tension doesn't follow suit. And the whole time, you've gotta think that Pays is a rip-off of Weaver's role in Alien, just as Hudson is a rip-off of Yaphet Kotto's character in the same flick; even Krenna's part seems like he's a weird take on Ian Holm's murderous robot.

Leviathan could've been a decent b-movie offering. It takes its time in places, gives it characters time to really put life into their roles, and makes the last third/quarter of the run-time into a constant race for safety. Sadly, the production values, script and story don't really back any of that up. This is, in the end, a fairly boring event that doesn't distinguish itself enough to even count as a guilty pleasure, much less a solid b-offering.

Resident Evil: Apocalypse
I watched this only because I was camped out on my couch with the flu, and thought I was half-dreaming this suck-fest. It's shocking, as the drop in quality from the original film was pretty severe. Whereas RE was competently-shot, with great sets, makeup and fx work, RE:A has none of those strengths. The only weakness shared by both (besides needing stories that make more sense) is they use way too much gun-metal guitar thrashing for every action scene.

So this movie picks up exactly where the first pic left off. Alice (Milla Jovovich) survived an incredible zombie outbreak in an underground science lab, then awakes in a medical testing room, then realizes she's in a totally deserted city. The events of RE:A show us how this city undergoes a full-stage panicky escape and then becomes a playground for the stupidest evil corporation ever.

In essence, a group of cops try to maintain order as a zombie virus overtakes a modest-sized city, while Alice finds an unlikely route that requires her to save a little girl. Although all the players are just more so much meat waiting to be ground, this picture makes a point of moving every character from one set piece to another. That's where this film's failings really shine through.

Why are people hiding in a church full of super-monsters? Why do the monsters hold off their attack until Alice arrives? Why does the evil corporation shoot a valued scientist just to see which one of their two mega-creations can survive a head-to-head fight? Why does everyone even know about the clearly-defined countdown until the city is "cleansed" of the outbreak with nuclear fire?

There's really no reason, except that some idiot thought those plots would make for exciting moments in a really thoughtless and mindless exercise in cheap film-making. It's a shame, because all the escalated threats don't actually make the action more intense. The scenes and effects look more cheap, more derivative, and less logical than anything that happened in the first film - and since part 1 wasn't exactly The Maltese Falcon, this is a real problem.

While RE was a flawed-but-quite-nice attempt at a horror/action film, RE:A really has nothing going for it. It's the sort of picture that dies a thousand deaths as the "story" progresses. It embarrasses itself with virtually every scene, and it has the disgrace to take viewers right down with it.

Black Sheep
I virtually can't review this New Zealand movie without spoiling it to pieces. What I can say is that it involves a young Kiwi making a return trip to his family farm. He's stayed away for a long time, because of various childhood traumas. He's also chosen the worst possible time to return.

Our protagonist doesn't know that there's been some genetic experimentation on his old home. These scientific insanities have produced a "zombie-virus" that's infecting the farm's adorable herd of sheep. This is, without a doubt, one of the most impressive horror films of the last ten years. It's also, without a doubt, the cutest.

Part of what draws me so strongly to BS is the unique, beautiful NZ scenery. I'm also in love with the fact that this horror pic actually provides a real story, with a beginning, middle, and end, as well as engaging action and emotional  development. It has real characters who face real issues and undergo real change. Those last two elements alone put it far above the vast majority of recent American horror.

In many ways, Black Sheep is indebted to the outstanding work of fellow Kiwi Peter Jackson. This is not just because Weta Workshop did the creature effects (tho it does guarantee that you'll love the "terrifying monsters"). I clearly have a film-crush on PJ, and his influence is both clear and beneficial. For one thing, you've got all these loving, majestic shots of the magnificent New Zealand landscape.

For another, the fine amount of blood and guts on display are balanced out by both psychological horror and tension. You will genuinely be concerned for the roles put in peril here, and you will genuinely enjoy all of the jokes employed throughout BS. Or maybe I just love the sight of a man randomly being tackled by what looks like a big, fluffy cloud. I will probably cover this picture in a double-dip, as it definitely deserves the attention.

I think the trailer shows a little too much, but I'll do anything to make you see this

Dee Snyder's Strangeland
This 1998 horror flick easily counts as the scariest film Dee Snyder has ever done. Yes, it tops his cameo in Pee Wee's Big Adventure. Strangeland was a guaranteed lock with fans of death (among other) metal, as well as piercing and tattoo fetishists; as I watched it, I could only think, "holy crap, this will be their The Wicker Man." It's popularity then, is not surprising.

Strangeland begins with the biggest fear of any parent: that their teenage child will go out without telling anyone where they're going, then get kidnapped by Captain Howdy, a depraved psychopath. Here, Genevieve (Linda Cardellini) is nabbed along with her friend while looking for attention and a cool party. Her father (Mike Gage) is a cop, and he does his best to find his little girl.

One of the best things to be said about this film is that it's ambitious, and not predictable horror/thriller garbage. By the halfway mark, the villain (Dee Snyder) has been captured, and it's a great shock to see a movie whose budget, genre, and storyline often don't offer more. What happens after the initial resolution?

The bad guy is sent to a mental institution, and seems to be making a good recovery. He makes the mistake of staying in the same town, and is hounded by locals and police. One particular, extremely "ornery" neighbor is played by Robert Englund; when his daughter is out late one night, he decides that Howdy must be responsible.

In an amazing moment of film irony, Englund is responsible for a group of townies murdering a dangerous man who preyed on children; nice reversal. Gage, as a cop, victim, and parent, has been stalking Howdy to see that he's stopped his murderous ways. But the lawman lets the townspeople make off with their victim instead of standing up for the law. This all sets up the second half of the film, where the bad guy doesn't quite die, his rehabilitation is completely undone, and he goes about exacting his revenge.

This picture has a lot of nudity and disturbing images. Howdy, throughout the film, does worse than emotionally torture his captives. He has sex with these chained up unfortunates, and keeps them chained up, inserting catheter tubes where necessary. He also subjects them to all the things he's done to himself: massive, deeply personal, piercings.

The strengths of Strangeland are that it has a clearly-defined villain with "a reason" and an ethos. He is genuinely scary, coming off as a sort of super-powered, evil meth-head. Everybody who's been around insane people knows that the mad have strength. Howdy's sense of charisma and physical endurance are not overdone here, and that's for the best.

And the film does create a lot of tension, both in the lead's race to save his daughter, and the danger presented toward every potential victim. It's aided by the fact that both the cops and the crook are neither omnipotent nor all-knowing. The baddie is like a non-demonic Freddy Krueger, and he really gets under your skin.

The final strong point to this movie is that it deals a little more deeply with certain issues. For one, Howdy is found insane then released after psychiatric treatment. How much "punishment" is enough, and how fairly are the mentally ill supposed to be treated? How twisty does this issue become once there's a body count?

Better still, look back at Elm Street: we're lead to believe that the town called down its supernatural punishment by taking justice into their own hands. This nifty idea is never explored much in any of the 8 pictures in that franchise. Here, we're confronted with the basic problem that a cop is not supposed to let a released convict get lynched; the karmic payback is a little bigger, but the issue remains the same, and it's actually confronted here.

All these things taken together, Strangeland is a demented and disturbing trip through a world that's as devoted to body modification as XXX was devoted to extreme sports. I don't know that it's for the large viewing audience, but if you want to watch a scary picture that has a complete story with decent dialogue and plots, this will satisfy curious (or seriously sick) people. I can only recommend it half-heartedly, then, as saying "I loved this movie" is like saying "I really enjoyed Schindler's List." I think you get my point.

My Extra Halloween Movie Recommendations:
If you're looking for good Halloween rentals, I suggest A Nightmare on Elm Street, as well as Wes Craven's New Nightmare. I also suggest Dead Alive (aka Brain Dead outside of the US), Evil Dead 2, John Carpenter's The Thing, Aliens, Misery, and 28 Days Later. Prince of Darkness (also by Carpenter) has an incredibly creepy atmosphere, tho it may not have good enough actors and effects for you.

If you're looking for something more recent, Pan's Labyrinth is a perfect rental for the season. Want a macabre atmosphere? Try 1408, and don't forget that you might enjoy Trick 'r Treat more than I did. Scream and Final Destination are also strongly suggested, but only the first film in each series. Tell Me Something is a fine foreign thriller, while Blade (again, part 1 only, please) is a neat comic-book actioner with horror elements. And if you're looking for something that's gruesome yet funnier than my other selections, try The Lost Boys, Tromeo and Juliet, or Bad Taste.

Above all, check out Black Sheep sometime soon, and look over my Friday the 13th MRQ when you get a chance. [UPDATE] My friend Chia-Yi reminds me that I foolishly left off Ringu (the original The Ring); it definitely belongs on any good Halloween-time viewing list. When I realized I'd left out vital bits of Asian horror, the first thing that came to my mind was a magnificent Korean pic, The Host; it's a must-see. [END UPDATE] And that's it for this wrap-up.

Happy All Hallow's Eve, everyone! And to pagans: Happy Samhain! I hope you all enjoy this awesome, non-religious holiday! Let me know your thoughts about this set of reviews and/or my recommendations. I'm sure there are plenty of good suggestions that I left out...

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