Monday, October 22, 2012

Countdown Day 17: Chernobyl Diaries

I'm getting way behind here. I had some unfortunate news this week that has left me quite uninterested in writing. I'm trying to get myself back up to speed here, and I hope to be caught up by the big day. So I'll be doing a lot of multiple-posts-per-day until then. To begin with, I'll start with my viewing habits over the past week.

On the 16th I only had time for one movie; Chernobyl Diaries, co-written and produced by Oren Pelli, the man behind the Paranormal Activity series. Chernobyl Diaries plays strangely like a found-footage film with found-footage. The character interactions, storybeats, and acting style all seem as if the people involved should be talking directly to the camera. The word this movie most immediately brings to mind is; tiresome. Nothing about this film, beyond the location, seemed inspired or unique in any way. It's another group of carefree twenty-somethings travelling overseas and blithely partying their way through other people's backyards. It's part of the distinctly post-9/11 trend of xenophobic horror. Better not leave the safety of the good ol' USA, kids. Those foreigners, even our allies, only want to rape you, torture you, kill you, or sell you into slavery. I thought this attitude was moderately clever in Hostel, which is the first horror film I noticed it in, but ever since then it's seemed a lazy at best and thoughtlessly racist at worst.
Chernobyl Diaries also has the questionable distinction of basing it's horror on a real-life tragedy. The film follows two groups of tourists as they venture into the city of Prypiat, which lies near Chernobyl and was abandoned during that disaster. This is a real thing; people can take tours of the city now that the radiation levels have subsided, though the tours are probably not as sketchy as the one shown in this film. Some have accused the film of insensitivity, using a real tragedy as a jumping-off point for a mediocre horror film, but I call bullshit on that. The movie sets Chernobyl as it's backdrop and inspiration, but it pretty much ends there. Chernobyl Diaries never delves into the actual disaster enough to be considered exploitative. On top of that, the movie isn't distinctive enough to be offensive. It's not in the least worth getting worked up about.

Chernobyl Diaries is a movie where you know from the outset what the threat is going to be, and you know precisely how each scene is going to end. Everything goes through the motions. The location(not actually Prypiat, but Serbia and Hungary standing in) adds a nice kick to the proceedings, but that can only take it so far without the proper visual skill to carry it home. The camera tends to stick in tight and tries to build claustrophobia, but that seems counter intuitive when your setting is an entire city, abandoned overnight. There are a couple of good moments, including one really good fake-out scare, but the rest of the film feels like a missed opportunity.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Countdown Day 16: Literary Wrap-Up: 20th Century Ghosts

I haven't remarked on it here the last few days, but I did finish Joe Hill's 20th Century Ghosts a few nights ago. Like all anthologies, whatever the medium, the quality is variable, but I was overall pleased with the book. The high points were great, and the low points were few. Overall I think the title story, 20th Century Ghost, is the clear winner of the bunch. I may be biased, because I love melancholic ghost stories, but this one was creepy and sad and sweet in perfect measures. I don't think anything else in the book quite hits all those sweet spots for me, though each story has it's moments. I think the best way to describe the book as a whole is 'heartfelt.' I didn't like all of the stories, but they all at least contained a genuine thread of emotion in them. That's sometimes a problem with horror fiction, and short horror fiction in general, where the stories can often feel like guitar solos without a surrounding song; shock and awe with nothing to ground it or give it context. The stories here can be mysterious, and perhaps come across as incomplete, but I never doubted the emotion behind them.

I mentioned each of the first 8 stories previously over the course of this countdown, so I'll just mention the final 8(or 9, you'll see) here. In The Rundown is interesting, but is one of the possibly incomplete stories I mentioned. It feels like a short scene in the middle of a slasher movie as seen by one of those victims who stumbles into the movie just long enough to get killed. That's not strictly what happens here, but that's the feeling you get; that it's a small microscopic view of a larger story that the author isn't privy to. The Cape, about a man who discovers his baby blanket allows him to fly and uses this to petty, nefarious ends, is when I first started to notice a trick that Joe Hill uses often in his stories, and it started to bug me a bit. He frequently has narrators who are immensely unhinged, mentally and emotionally stunted, and yet can communicate eloquently and poetically about their plight. That's a forgivable sin, because it would be torture to read a 15 page stream of consciousness ramble full of typos, grammatical errors, and sentence fragments. And I can't say it hindered any of the stories, but it was something I noticed and it happened mainly in stories I didn't enjoy as much as the rest.

Last Breath feels very old fashioned, likened to Ray Bradbury in Christopher Golden's introduction, and I think that's apt. About a museum full of empty glass cases containing the last breaths of various people, some of them famous, some not. Dead-Wood is a simple idea, and told well. It's barely over a page long, just a handful of paragraphs, and it isn't even a story really. It's a concept, illustrated in a couple ways, and with a couple of lines at the end to provide the barest hint of a narrative. It's also pretty cool idea, although it's brevity was a wise choice. The Widow's Breakfast is a snapshot story without a real narrative arc, but it illustrates a very particular time and place. It doesn't have much to offer in terms of originality or depth, really, and it seems to be building to something that never happens, and ends rather abruptly. Bobby Conroy Comes Back From The Dead, despite it's title, is one of two stories that don't feature anything even vaguely supernatural(the other was Better Than Home). It's a sweet story, and an interesting setting, but like a lot of short fiction is more about the way it's written than what it's about.

My Father's Mask is a deeply upsetting story, and also completely inexplicable. Everything in it seems to almost make sense, but never does. It's dream logic, and each choice Mr. Hill makes in this story feels familiar and correct, but has no logical consistency. Recapping it would be useless, because I'm not even sure I can accurately tell you what happened in the story. Voluntary Committal closes out the book, and it's the longest story in here. It's also the one that feels the most familiar, if not derivative. It's supernatural elements have been used before in countless tales, and in fact the entire story feels like Joe Hill's take on one particular subplot in his father's book The Tommyknockers. It was, however, the creepiest part of Tommyknockers(and arguably the best thing about that book), and I found it's execution almost as effective here. I'm probably coming off as too harsh on this story, because it was good and took a completely different angle on the idea, so it's not really fair to compare them.

After that, I'll suggest you stick through the Acknowledgements section at the end, because there's another brief story hidden there. Scheherazade's Typewriter, like most of the best ones in this book, is short and a bit sad, and it features a nifty bit of retconning for the entire collection, casting each story in a new light. I remain impressed overall with this collection from Joe Hill, who I had actually avoided due to the Stephen King relation. That seems odd, since I buy every Stephen King book in hardback as they come out, but there's always a stigma that follows when a child enters the same career as their highly successful parent. After this, however, I've added Joe Hill's novel Heart Shaped Box to my bedside pile. That pile is actually pretty tall right now, so it may be awhile still.

Countdown Day 15: Methadone Television

What's this, you ask? Why am I only on day 15 of my countdown when it's clearly the 17th? Well, honestly, I've just been too busy to find the time and energy to post something for the last couple days. It clearly isn't taking me long to write these entries, and I barely even proofread them before posting, but I've had precious little time not at work the last week, and I don't always want to spend that time on the laptop. I guess that defeats the purpose of a marathon, but I'm not getting paid for this so I'm cutting myself some slack.

What day are we on, Sunday? Well, Sunday was another day without movies. I started watching The Innocents, but something came up and when I stopped the playback I also accidentally deleted it from my DVR. So, to at least meet my daily requirements for some supernatural entertainment, I watched the first a few episodes of Eerie, Indiana. The show was a childhood favorite of mine, and features the perfect mix of creepiness and humor while also being completely accessible for my own daughter.We're big fans of the new Disney show Gravity Falls in my house, and that show is a clear descendant of Eerie, Indiana. My daughter immediately caught on to the similarities as soon as the opening credits began, and wanted to keep watching, but I had to get to work after the first 3 episodes. For years the only Eerie, Indiana release was a 'best of' that consisted of those first three episodes, so I've actually seen them quite a few times. Still, it's fun watching old favorites next to someone who's unfamiliar with them, because it allows you to experience it in a fresh light.

That night, after work, I watched the third season premiere of The Walking Dead. I have some major problems with the show, as I've said, but I thought the premiere was a great hour of television. It felt more like the first half of a two-hour episode, because it lacked a beginning-middle-end storyline, but it seemed like an indication that the writers had smoothed over some of the problems with characterization and interpersonal drama. I came to the show not really liking many of the characters, but I didn't hate any of them in this episode. Not even Lori or Andrea(although Andrea didn't have much to do, so we'll see what happens later when she's more active). The show did a pretty good job of stating a maximum of story with minimal dialogue, getting us up to speed on the past 7 or 8 months in one wordless opening sequence.

I'm expecting some of the zombie action to die down over the next few episodes, if only because they seem to have gone all out with gore for this opening hour and might need to dial it back a bit to keep that stuff interesting. And, of course, we've got the long middle stretch of the season where it may turn out that those interpersonal conflicts are just as groan-inducing as always. But, we also have Michonne, who I'm very excited to see in the coming weeks.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Countdown Day 14:

Part of the reason I watch so many movies that one might consider 'bad', and that I myself realize I may not enjoy, is because every once in awhile you come across something unexpected. That was certainly the case with one of Saturday's films.

Lovely Molly has been the victim of an unfortunate marketing campaign, which tries to sell it as a demonic possession film. Just take a look at the DVD cover above; those various runic symbols appear nowhere in the film. The trailer also uses some misleading editing to try and sell the demonic angle, which seems to have resulted in more than a few dissatisfied customers(judging from the people who rent from the video store I work at). In reality, the film owes more the Roman Polanski's Repulsion than The Exorcist or any of it's many acolytes. Lovely Molly is a surprisingly mature and unblinking look at the slow descent into madness and depression as Molly, a child-abuse survivor and recovering heroin addict, moves with her new husband into her childhood home. With her husband away for long stretches of time as a truck driver, she sleepwalks through a janitorial position at the mall and spends her nights terrorized by horrific memories and mysterious, possibly supernatural events at home.

Lovely Molly isn't perfect, but it's grounded by a bravura performance from Gretchen Lodge as Molly, who plays everything with a complete lack of vanity and twitchy despair. The fourth feature from Eduardo Sanchez, one of the two guys behind The Blair Witch Project, Lovely Molly incorporates some of the handheld camera documentary style he utilized in that film, but here it's used only sporadically, as Molly attempts to document her torment and prove it isn't all in her mind. Lovely Molly incorporates this to pretty great effect, and overall it feels like a more assured and measured film than the scattershot intensity of Blair Witch, and it's leagues beyond the bizarre and underwhelming Altered(Sanchez's first post-BWP film).

Later that night, I checked out Kaidan, from Hideo Nakata, director of Ringu 1&2, and Dark Water. An explicit response and rebuke to the modern trends of J-Horror that Nakata helped popularize, Kaidan is a throwback to the traditional Japanese ghost stories of yesteryear. In what could be seen as a nod to Kwaidan, Kaidan opens with a fantastically fake prologue, complete with on-screen narrator and intentionally, noticeably artificial sets(cardboard trees, fake snow). The opening is wonderful, showing how a samurai refused to pay back a debt, and killed the man he owed money to. As he dies, the man curses him, which results in the samurai's death. Years later, the man's son, Shinkichi,  meets the samurai's daughter, Oshiga, and a romance develops. The film quickly falls into a rut as it transitions into a more realistic style, and the romance never becomes very interesting. After an argument leaves the wife with a cut above her eye, she falls ill and eventually dies, but not before cursing her husband in turn, promising that if he ever falls in love with another woman she will kill her.

Kaidan picks up in the last act, as Shinkichi finds himself in a new town, boxed in by the consequences of his wife's curse and believed by the entire town to be a murderer and thief. Unfortunately the film is only fitfully engaging until the final act, and is not a very convincingly told story. Some great moments are scattered throughout, and the film has a pleasing visual style when it comes to the various outdoor night scenes, but the staging is otherwise pretty generic.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Countdown the 13th: The Living Dead

The new season of The Walking Dead premieres tomorrow night, and despite my serious misgivings with the entire show, I'm fairly excited. The show can always be counted on to get off to a terrific start, and even at it's worst it could craft some pretty tense and exciting zombie action. The problem is everything in between. The show has never quite figured out how to make the character interactions interesting over the long haul, and the characters are always doing stupid things, merely as a shortcut to get to a conclusion the writers need to get to. None of them consistently act like people, and their actions rarely feel like something real people would do in a zombie apocalypse. Have you ever noticed how the characters all seem to forget about zombies(or Walkers, in the show's vernacular) whenever there aren't any on screen? They crash around in the woods talking at the top of their voices, and then get surprised by a zombie and remember that maybe they should be quiet when in unfamiliar territory. How many weeks were they at the farm before they decided to put up a fence and board the windows?

But enough about my problems with the show. Last season, for all it's aimlessness, ended on a very exciting note, and I'm genuinely excited about this new season. If nothing else, the show excels at exciting, visceral zombie thrills. So, in the spirit of my excitement, I thought I'd list, in no particular order, a few of my favorite zombie films that you may not have heard of. But, this being the Internet and you probably being a friend of mine, you've most likely seen all of these. This is by no means complete, and others may be added later. For obvious reasons I've decided not to go over the classics for the umpteenth time.

Pontypool: This film is more clever than scary, but it's one of my top two-or-three favorite horror films of the last few years. It's also not technically a zombie film in the same way you might be familiar with. Taking place entirely in a radio station as morning talk-radio host Grant Mazzy(Stephen McHattie in a bravura performance) finds himself at the center of an outbreak with symptoms familiar to most horror fans. Though it's set in one location, and features very little zombie action(it's a rebuke to the 'show, don't tell' rule of filmmaking), it moves at an incredibly brisk pace. It's funny and creepy in just the right measures. Make sure you stick through the credits, as well.

Bio Zombie: Drawing inspiration, as most modern zombie films do, from George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, Bio Zombie adds a distinctly Chinese take on the zombies-in-a-mall motif. It's silly, and scattershot, and moves at a seizure-inducing pace, but it's a nonstop fun ride. It's pretty much style over substance, but the style is entertaining.

The Beyond: Lucio Fulci resides in the personal pantheon of many an adventurous horror fan. Though he's worked in pretty much every genre imaginable, his horror films and liberal use of gore are what people remember. The Beyond would probably be his Citizen Kane; the culmination of every technique he'd tried up to that point. I first saw this film at The Capri here in Anchorage, in a theater that contained only me, my two friends, and one lone guy in the front row. It was a jolly good time, as we laughed uproariously at the horrible dubbed dialogue, the inept direction, the oddball music, and the ridiculously silly gore(to call it unrealistic would be an understatement). I bought it immediately when Anchor Bay released a special edition, and it entered nearly continuous rotation at my house. For over a week I played this movie every night before bed, and sometime during this time period something strange happened. I laughed at it for the first few viewings, but somewhere around number 4 or 5, I started to get creeped out. It's still a ridiculous movie, but it's also oddly hypnotic. It's now become a form of comfort food, something I can put on and then just drift away.

Hell of the Living Dead: Speaking of Italian zombie films. Hell of the Living Dead is described in it's own liner notes as 'the worst zombie movie ever made,' but nothing this much fun could be truly bad. Same thing with Plan 9 From Outer Space always topping those worst movies of all time lists. That film is endlessly entertaining. The worst movie ever made would be dull, not silly. Hell of the Living Dead features everything you'd expect from an Italian zombie movie; ugly, pockmarked makeup for zombies, gratuitous nudity, and unexpected gore in such quantities that it bursts through the limits of reality. In all honesty, it is a pretty bad movie, but it's also compulsively watchable if you have a group of like-minded movie buffs with you.

Dead Heat: Featuring the comic stylings of Treat Williams and Joe Piscopo at the height of his lunkhead bodybuilder phase, Dead Heat is an oddball buddy cop film with zombies. It's ridiculous, it's stupid, it's corny, and Vincent Price seems to be reading his lines through a NyQuil induced haze, but those are actually some of it's strengths. That, and the makeup and practical effects are actually quite impressive, especially one setpiece set in a Chinatown butcher's shop where all of the animals on display for purchase begin to attack our heroes.

Night of the Living Dead(1990): I mention this one only because I think people judge this film too harshly, or at least don't assume it could be any good. A remake of one of the most influential horror films ever made? A film that most people consider to be perfect as it is? Blasphemous. But, in reality, the NOTLD remake is a solid film in it's own right. George Romero scripted and produced this version, partially as an attempt to get money out of a movie that made a lot of other people rich, but never earned him a dime. Very little is changed in the plot of the film, but the characterizations are slightly different. Ben(this time played by Tony Todd) is still the capable, even-headed hero; Harry(Tom Towles) is still the abrasive asshole everyone should have listened to in the beginning(he's clearly the villain, but if everyone had hidden in the basement like he suggested, they would have all lived). The biggest change is Barbara(Patricia Tallman), who Romero altered as a corrective to the hysterical, useless character she was in the original. This Barbara goes through her hysteria, but comes out tougher and more capable. The remake doesn't have the same political bite that the original did, but it's simply an effective, well made zombie film.


Countdown Day 12: The Perils of Politeness

There's a curious trend that has developed in the realm of mid-budget horror movies; politeness. Or, if not quite politeness, at least a desire for respectability. There have been a lot of movies lately that go through the motions of a horror film, but remove from it anything that might offend in an attempt to be viewed as 'legitimate.' Films like The Tall Man, Intruders, and last night's entry The Moth Diaries all look like horror movies, and they certainly have all the signifiers of a horror movie, but they don't actually feel like one. In a low budget horror film, you'll usually see people striving to either shock or offend, or at the very least offer something that distinguishes their film from everything else on the crowded shelves.Whether or not they're successful is another matter, but the attempt is usually there. This often results in films that may not be good, but are at least interesting. In a large budget film, the studios usually know they're trying to appeal to a specific audience, and tailor it largely to them(that is, outside of the current trend towards PG-13). But with mid-budget films like the ones mentioned, they seem to be striving for acceptance from those stuffy critics who normally look down on horror, and it results in bland, uninteresting and forgettable films.

The Moth Diaries, a vampire film set at an all-girl boarding school, seems ripe for the type of grand, sensual, gothic filmmaking that typifies the best films in the subgenre. Bram Stoker's Dracula is a complete mess of a film, with astoundingly bad performances from nearly every actor(they all seem to think they're in a different film), but it's still an incredible experience when watching it, due primarily to the great visual style and gusto and a willingness to revel in the seediness of the story from time to time. The Moth Diaries, unfortunately, decides to drain all of that blood from the veins of the story, and what we're left with is a movie that looks like it should be scary, but never even becomes spooky.

Sarah Bolger plays Rebecca, returning to her boarding school and excited to see her friends again, particularly Lucie(Sarah Gadon), with whom she's formed a special connection. Complicating this is the arrival of the otherworldly and mysterious Ernessa(Lily Cole, who looks like one of those Virgin Madonna statues given life), who seems to exert a weird influence over Lucie. I've just listed the major characters of The Moth Diaries, but the real star of this film is cinematographer Declan Quinn, who wraps the film in warm lush tones and provides much of the gothic aura the rest of the film lacks. The film, if nothing else, looks gorgeous. There are a couple of scenes near the end of the film that stand out, due mainly to how much they contrast with the staidness of everything that came before. The film is completely devoid of anything that may actually startle or scare the audience. It's R rating comes from, I'm assuming, one scene in which you see a woman's breasts, because everything else in the film is strictly PG.

The movie never comes out and says that this trio of girls share the love that dare not speak its name, and in fact it contorts itself greatly to avoid that implication, but it seems pretty clear that's what the original intention was. It's an example of how fearful this film is of seeming prurient, and it extends to the rest of the movie as well, which treats the blood-soaked Vampire myth as bloodlessy as possible. In all fairness, there are two or three scenes that acknowledge the existence of blood and/or sex; a classmate asks Rebecca to stand guard while she hooks up with a boy from a nearby school; Rebecca dreams of this classmate having uncomfortable sex; one of Rebecca's teachers kisses her and moves to unbutton her shirt before she runs off. But these scenes are treated fairly perfunctorily, and the movie rushes to get past them. It's not that I need a lot of sex in my horror films, but it seems dishonest to set your story in such a heated, sealed off environment and then pretend that sex doesn't exist. For a better example of how to incorporate the hormonal changes of youth with a horror film without becoming exploitative, check out the excellent Ginger Snaps, which cleverly marries Werewolf mythology with the female menstrual cycle and the general process of puberty.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Countdown Day 11: Second Diversion

Another day too filled to fit in a full movie. Actually, I could have fit a movie in, but not in one sitting. I had an hour lunch, an hour between jobs, and an hour or so after work before bed. I could have possibly fit in two movies in that time, but I hate watching in segments so I just went with a couple TV shows. Lunch was filled with Alphas, and the next two slots were filled by a couple other SyFy shows tangentially related to horror. It's a bit of a cheat, I know, but it fits the monthly theme.

Face/Off is a reality show about aspiring makeup effects artists, and is currently in its third season. It's the type of reality show I enjoy and don't feel bad about; it's about a group of talented people practicing their craft. Each week the contestants are given a theme, and three days(each day seems about 8-10 hours) to design, sculpt and apply a complete makeup. Sometimes the contestants work in teams, but mostly they work along. Sometimes there are shorter challenges in which they can win small prizes or immunity. The themes are along the lines of 'zombie Alice in Wonderland characters' or 'Superheroes' or, like last nights, Dr. Seuss inspired human makeups. This being a group of generally amateur effects artists with limited experience, the makeups tend towards the horrific or gory no matter what the topic is, though thankfully not in the Seuss episode. In general the show is fun, though it sometimes it falls victim to a tendency to kick off the wrong people, in order to keep more entertainingly obnoxious personalities around. But for the most part, the show is merit-based, and if someone does a good job it will be recognized, and the judges(all professionals still working steadily in the industry on pretty big films) seem to have a knack for intuiting who deserves to be given extra acclaim.

Hot Set is a newer show, and I've only caught a couple episodes, but it hasn't quite made an impact on me. Hosted by Ben Mankiewicz, who gives the show a slight bump in credibility, the show doesn't follow a team from episode to episode, but devotes each single episode to a contest between two production designers. Each production designer is allowed to work with two team-members of their choosing, and a small crew of carpenters. They're given only a handful of days and a $15,000 budget to design and build an entire camera-ready set and buy or rent the props to dress it with. So far the show hasn't featured many interesting personalities, and while it's still fun to see people working on a part of filmmaking we normally don't see, it isn't presented in a very gripping manner. The fact that the contestants don't stick around from episode to episode keeps things moving briskly, but the judges have yet to get comfortable with actually judging anyone. You'll see in their walkthroughs when they talk amongst themselves that they have pretty definite likes and dislikes, but they don't actually share their dislikes with the contestants, or at least they don't put that part on the air. It's nice, but it gives the show a distinct lack of bite.

The biggest problem with the show, though, is the limited time alloted to the contestants. It keeps things exciting, nominally, but it doesn't allow for many impressive sets. The idea is to keep things moving, and show the nail-biting pressure people really operate under in the movie business, but the results never really justify all the sweating. The sets end up looking like modest rooms with interesting decorations. I think giving the contestants a full week, instead of just 4 days(again, limited to 8-10 hours each day), would have improved the results.

Tomorrow; a return to actual, legitimate horror territory with a new vampire flick, and a couple more short stories.