Monday, October 22, 2012
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
Thursday, October 11, 2012
First up was 'Werewolf, which was apparently meant as a spin-off of the Benicio Del Toro-starring Wolfman from a couple years ago. That film's failure to perform well with critics and audiences meant that this film had all references to The Wolfman scrubbed, and was dumped into the DTV market. There is literally nothing in this film to justify watching it, whether you want a good movie, or an enjoyably bad one. The actors make the film feel like you're watching the porn version of a werewolf film, but without any sex. It's either wooden and stilted, or embarrassingly hammy, without ever reaching the enjoyably ridiculous heights of, say The Room. The story is fairly obvious by the time all the major characters have been introduced(the team of werewolf hunters using curiously anachronistic weapons; the young man who yearns to join their ranks; the aristocratic girl he lusts after; the village doctor), and holds no surprises for anyone who might notice how odd it is that the one recognizable actor(Stephen Rea) simply hangs out in the background looking drunk and disgusted for the first hour or so of the movie. The effects would look bad in an amateur youtube video, with the size of the completely digital werewolf visibly changing if the filmmakers need the monster to enter a door that's too small.
Really, the entirety of 'Werewolf...' doesn't even seem like an attempt to wring money out of the dead-end Wolfman franchise. It feels like someone got this ball rolling, and then everyone just lost interest and shrugged, saying 'oh well, I guess I'm not really doing anything else this weekend.' For proof of this, you need only look at the film's imdb page, in which no one could even be bothered to fill out character names for many of the most important cast members.
The Barrens benefited greatly from following such a collossall waste of time, in that it could only look good in comparison. Really, it's no great movie itself, but it at least has teeth to it, and a desire to scare the audience. The story is about a family on a camping trip in the Jersey Pine Barrens(in reality, Canada) to scatter the ashes of head-of-household Stephen Moyer's dad, who used to take him camping there often. At the same time, Moyer seems to be losing his grip on reality(minor spoiler alert: it turns out he probably has rabies), and he begins to believe the family is being stalked by the Jersey Devil. The film actually gains a good head of steam after awhile, but it takes a long time to get there, and the film tries to force a lot of foreboding out of some pretty mundane shit in the early going. The main problem with the film, though, is that it tries to keep the audience guessing about whether the Devil is real, or just a product of Moyer's rabies delirium, and yet it repeatedly answers definitively which one of those options is correct. There's no real tension in this struggle, which makes up a big bulk of the dramatic focus in this movie. Still, the film is attempting to create atmosphere, and actually succeeds fitfully.
The final film of the night was The Raven, starring John Cusack(giving it his all, but badly miscast) as Edgar Allan Poe. The film purports to explain the mystery of Poe's last days; he was missing for 3 days, and when found he was babbling incoherently. In reality, Poe was probably off on an epic bender(he was often drunk or stoned), but the movie purports that it was all in the aftermath of Poe's help in capturing a diabolical serial killer using methods derived from his tales. It's a pretty standard modern serial killer setup; the killer seems to be working as a performance artist, to impress one person and lead them along to a predetermined end. It's a pretty mediocre example of that style, too, but could have been improved if they had removed the Poe angle altogether, or just done a bit of research(any research) into Poe's life or his writings.
The killer's second victim in this film is on Rufus W. Griswold, a literary critic and rival of Edgar Allan Poe's. Now, this Griswold was a real person, and the rivalry between he and Poe was a real thing. The barbs they traded in competing newspapers was quite a big story in it's time. It's part of how Poe made his name. The problem is that in reality Griswold outlived Poe by 8 years, and even wrote a pretty slanderous memoir of Poe with the sole intention of dragging his name through the mud. This may seem a minor quibble in a fictional film already taking liberties with the laws of reality, but it isn't the only instance of this. Later in the film Poe is working with the police trying to figure out the killer's clues. One seems to be the mysterious involvement of a sailor, and since every other clue has been related to one of Poe's tales or poems, the detective asks Poe if he's ever written a tale about a sailor, to which Poe replies no, he never has.
Really? What about Descent into the Maelstrom? MS. Found in a Bottle? The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantuckett? The Thousand-and-second Tale of Scheherazade(about Sinbad, a sailor)? Not to mention the sailors that just show up as supporting characters in other tales, like the one in Murders in the Rue Morgue? Keep in mind, Poe has written all of these before the movie is supposed to take place. It's no spoiler to say that he dies after this film(the opening title and scene tell you this), and so by the time this film starts, Poe has written everything he ever would write. That's it. No more. Why bother making your film about the last couple weeks in the life of Edgar Allan Poe if you aren't going to do even the most cursory research into his life or his written works?
Tuesday, October 09, 2012
Alphas is on it's second season at the moment(I should note that I'm a few episodes behind; I catch up here and there on DVR), and I've been watching it from the first episode. It was pretty much a pleasant diversion in it's first season, and it's been steadily improving over the course of it's second. The obvious comparison for Alphas would be Heroes, as both shows deal with the real-world ramifications of super-powered individuals, but the comparison is inapt in a couple of ways. First off, the superpowers in Alphas all make a logical sense. In Heroes, the powers were basically magic, no matter what the show liked to say about genetic mutations. In Alphas, all of the powers are basically heightened functions already present in the brain. The powers are still over-the-top sci-fi conceits, but they're still consistently grounded in the real world. One character just has really good hand-eye coordination, another has extremely acute senses(she can see almost to the microscopic level), and another can control the amount of adrenaline pumped through his heart to become briefly very strong. Some of the other abilities become a bit more unrealistic, but they're generally along those lines.
Another small detail that enhances the show; we don't have to see the normal 'getting the team together' sequence that usually starts these types of shows. The group is already a fully functional team by the time the show starts, and they have interpersonal conflicts that should ring true to anyone who's worked in a group. Every episode there are at least a couple moments where team-members sit around the office and talk about everyday workplace shit, like who ate whose food out of the fridge, or how to get a good parking spot at a crime scene.
Alphas has, in it's second season, become more serialized than it's first, with a continuing threat and a villain that's always lurking at the edges, but it still allows each episode to work on it's own terms. This sounds like a small thing, but it's hard to get that balance between case-of-the-week and mythology shows. Each episode is both self contained(the story begins and ends, and wouldn't be too confusing to a newcomer), but also advances personal conflicts and the over-arching storyline. The show hasn't quite become classic, must-watch television, but it's certainly one of the better shows on the air now. If the show improves at the rate it has been, and it's ratings don't kill it this season, it soon will be.
The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake was the movie of the day, and it's a bit of a disappointment. Not that the movie is the worst thing ever, but it had so much more potential than it actually achieved. Briefly, the film concerns a pair of brothers suffering under a family curse. One of their ancestors led the massacre of a small South American village in the 1700s, and now the brothers are being stalked by the two sole survivors(kept alive for 200 years by this same curse). The ideas in this film are pretty strong, and the internal logic of how the magic works is pretty cool; the last surviving brother at one point threatens suicide, because if he takes his own life the curse can never be completed and the two men trying to carry out the curse will never be able to rest in peace. But the execution was incredibly mediocre, from the fake, floppy knives to the stilted line readings to the listless direction. It easily could have been a pretty good movie, but it didn't quite seem like anyones heart was in it.
I also read two more stories from 20th Century Ghosts. Better Than Home was in no way supernatural, and was actually a pretty melancholic, sweet story about a boy remembering his father. The second, The Black Phone, was recognizably a horror story, and was pretty decently disturbing. Unfortunately, it ended abruptly on the kind of line you'd expect to hear Stallone or Schwarzeneggar saying after they killed someone in one of their movies. I can't decide if he was just blind to how it sounded at the end of a story that, up to that point, was pretty damn grim, or if he was just taking the long way to a stupid joke. Either way, it deflated the story pretty suddenly.
Sunday, October 07, 2012
First up was Xtro, which is a very bad movie, but also very disturbing in an odd way. When the alien first arrives on Earth, the effect isn't very convincing on it's own, but the few quick glimpses we get are appropriately chilling. The story never begins to make much sense, but in a way that's a positive, as it's just disturbingly random and seedy. It is an ugly little film, and probably not worth my time on a rewatch, but I'm glad I've seen it, if only because now I can say I've seen 3 films where a woman gives birth to a full grown adult. Although this was the only one that showed the man biting through his own umbilical cord. It's the little details that make the film. In the end Xtro was awful, but in a way that might have enhanced the actual experience of watching it. If it had been done with a little more talent, or a bigger budget, it probably wouldn't have been nearly as memorable.
Up next was Skeeter, about giant mosquitoes terrorizing a small desert town. Skeeter has a level of smooth professionalism that often seems missing from a lot of these low budget films, and a cast that's a veritable who's who of 'hey! It's that guy!' character actors(Charles Napier, William Sanderson, Michael J. Pollard, and George Flower). It, again, wasn't very memorable, but it was an almost comforting relic of a bygone era in DTV horror films.
And the fourth movie, I Married a Witch, wasn't a horror film at all, but a cute romantic fantasy comedy starring Veronica Lake and Fredrich March. March plays the latest in a line of men who have been cursed to be unlucky in love by a witch who was burned at the stake. When the witch is suddenly freed from her soul's prison, she takes the form of Veronica Lake in order to get March to fall in love with her and ruin his career and home life. Complications of the comedic sort ensue. It's not a very sharp film, but it's fun and worth seeking out.
Tomorrow I should have some more news about that project I teased out yesterday, along with my usual updates.
As for last night, I only snuck in one movie between my two jobs. The Reptile, a 1966 film from Hammer studios. The film was pretty by-the-numbers for Hammer horror, despite having a genuinely surprising monster reveal. At least, it was surprising for me, since I saw the film on TCM and therefore hadn't been shown any of the DVD artwork which gives you a pretty explicit look at the monster.
Oh, and I just can't wait to talk about it. Here's a pic that pretty clearly shows what I was up to tonight. How's that for exciting?
Saturday, October 06, 2012
My horror progress after the video.
Last night Amber and I finished out the first season of Tales From The Crypt with a three episode run. The first two episodes, Only Sin Deep and Lover Come Hack To Me are not my favorites. They both come across a bit dull, with a lot less of the campy visual flair that the series usually has. The edge goes to Only Sin Deep, though, while Lover Come Hack... never quite justifies it's existence. It's a great twist without a very good setup. The season ends strongly, though, with the taxidermy-themed Collection Completed, which is pretty much an example of the series firing on all cylinders. The visual style makes good use of it's limited budget, the writing is funny and disturbing in equal measures, delivered by a trio of top-notch character actors. Every line that M. Emmet Walsh delivers made me laugh, and I've seen this episode many times.
The story I read, still from 20th Century Ghosts, was Abraham's Boys. It had previously been published in a compilation of stories about Van Helsing, and concerned his children as they grew up in America of the early 20th century. It was good, I liked it, though I think it might be time I varied my routine. Possibly I'll pull out some of Clive Barker's Books of Blood for the next story or two.
Friday, October 05, 2012
It's that trend that had me rooting so badly for a fourth Scream film, if only so we could have had the tagline 'In space, no one can hear you... Scream 4!' Eventually we got a Scream 4 that was every bit as ludicrous as a spacebound slasher film would have been, but the moment had past. And all we had in consolation was the tenth Friday the 13th film, which broke the trend once and for all.
So, last night I tried to make up ground on my horror ingesting routine, but I was only able to squeeze in one Tales From The Crypt episode and one short story. Dig That Cat... He's Real Gone continues the strong run of episodes that make up the bulk of the short first season. Richard Donner's direction gets a bit hyperactive at times, but it's still a solidly written and acted piece, even on what must be the 6th or 7th time I've seen the episode.
The short story I read, once again from Joe Hill, was You Will Hear The Locust Sing, another riff on Kafka's Metamorphosis filtered through a slight atmosphere of 1950s atomic fear. It was well written, but the subject matter felt a little familiar and an atmosphere of unpleasantness hung over the entire story. It held none of the surprises that abounded in the previous stories, but I'm still excited to make it through the rest of the book.
Wednesday, October 03, 2012
The director of The Tall Man, Pascal Laugier, had previously helmed the notorious Martyrs, one of the most well known of the recent wave of French Extreme Horror. Martyrs is a type of horror I'm not a big fan of, full of degradation and torture and sexual violence, but at least addressed those topics in a way that raised questions about why people are drawn to that style of entertainment. The audience was implicated in the violence as much as the perpetrators on screen. Likewise, the story of The Tall Man centered around a small, isolated community in the Pacific Northwest that is known primarily for the high poverty rate and large amount of child abductions, attributed to an urban legend known as The Tall Man. The film had all the hallmarks of a horror film, but really only classified as a thriller. The film concerns Jessica Biel as a woman whose child is abducted, and begins a frantic race through the woods and backroads to try and get him back. It's directed with a nice visual style, although the stylized lighting and camera movements can make it all look slightly fake at times(although there was only ever one moment where I was certain I was looking at CGI).
About halfway through the film Amber asked me a question and my only response was 'I have no idea what the fuck is going on in this film.' That's not a complaint. I actually enjoyed this film for the most part, though I'm still trying to decide how I feel about the last act of the film, and would have some reservations recommending it.
The story I read last night(still from 20th Century Ghosts) was entitled Pop Art. It's not a spooky tale at all. It's almost like a Roald Dahl book, or a story for more adventurous children. It hinges on one truly ridiculous conceit, and then just assumes the reader will accept this one change to the reality we all know. It was good, but not really keeping with the theme of the month. I'll have to make up for it tonight with some Tales From The Crypt and a true ghost story.
Tuesday, October 02, 2012
There was no time for a movie last night, so I watched the first two episodes of Tales From The Crypt. I've not seen a lot of the HBO series, but I've seen the first batch of episodes at least a half dozen times, so the surprises were no longer to be found, but it was still a comforting experience.
I'm currently reading 2oth Century Ghosts, a collection of short stories by Joe Hill. I've read one story before bed each of the last two nights, and it's been wonderful so far. The first night(actually just after midnight, so technically the 1st of October) I read Best New Horror, which was a fun, nasty little jolt of exhilarating creepiness. And last night I continued on with the title story, 20th Century Ghost, about the ghost of a young woman who haunts an old theater. Ghost stories are, by nature, melancholic, and I'm a sucker for stories that embrace that aspect. There's something innately heartbreaking and lonely about a spirit stuck reliving some momentous aspect of it's life. Like a 37 year old still wearing his high school letterman jacket. It may be the fact that I'm really excited for Halloween this year, or that I'm reading these short stories in bed past midnight, when all the lights are off, except the lamp by my bed, and everyone but me is asleep, but 20th Century Ghost really hit me pretty hard. Not scary, but a little bit wistful, and a little bit creepy. I read the final few paragraphs multiple times, and it literally gave me chills.
Monday, October 01, 2012
Yes, Halloween is coming, and I intend to revel in all things scary.
Throughout the month I'll be posting updates daily about all of the horror I'm ingesting, be it music, movies, books or... other. First up today, with a brief respite between my two jobs, is a quick glance at what I'll be going through this month. I present you with, my nightstand:
This is my reading list for the month. A nightly dose of short stories and horror history. Some old favorites(obviously well loved, by the condition of their spines), and some new acquisitions. First up is 20th Century Ghosts, a short story collection from Joe Hill, son of one Stephen King. I read the first story, Best New Horror, just after midnight last night. And it was a great way to start. I was thinking of alternating books, one story at a time, but this one grabbed me and I may have to just burn through this one in a few quick bursts.
Updates to come.
Friday, February 03, 2012
You'll see down below a simple list of the movies I watched in February, but before I start I want to go over the grading system I use. The system is pretty simple, but also intentionally vague. These are subjective grades, as I don't care at all about influencing someone's desire to watch a movie based on what score I give it. If you see that I've graded I Saw The Devil fairly highly, it doesn't mean you would enjoy it if you normally enjoy Nicholas Sparks romances. The numbers mean, basically, the following:
5- I loved it. It blew me away. Something I'll definitely be watching multiple times.
4- I really enjoyed it. This may one day be elevated to 5. The movie more or less achieved everything it set out to do.
3- I liked it well enough. I won't be recommending this to most people, but I don't have anything really negative to say.
2- A mild dislike. Almost neutral. I didn't outright dislike the movie but it didn't do anything for me.
1- Awful, not worth my time.
Now, since I generally feel that every movie I watch is 'worth my time', in that I feel it's instructive to see the chaff as well as the wheat if your seriously going to study films. So you'll notice that not many films have 2s and 1s, and actually quite a few have 3s and 4s. Probably more than you personally would rate. As I said earlier; it's subjective.
So here, in the order in which I watched them during the month, are all 29 of the films I saw in January. That number seems shockingly low to me, especially for a month so long and cold, but then I do have two jobs now, and it's getting harder to squeeze a movie in there. Plus, this list excludes television movies or series that I have seen over the last month. The titles in bold are films that I had previously seen.
Bigger Than Life(1956) 
The Cave(2005) 
Quarantine 2(2011) 
Don't Be Afraid of the Dark(2011) 
Take Shelter(2011) 
Grave of the Fireflies(1988) 
Apollo 18(2011) 
Paradise Lost 2: Revelations(2000) 
Buckaroo Banzai(1984) 
Dark Star(1974) 
I Saw the Devil(2010) 
Fear[s] of the Dark(2007) 
Dead of Night(1945) 
Waking Sleeping Beauty(2009) 
The Tempest(2010) 
Shotgun Stories(2007) 
Grand Illusion(1937) 
Rio Bravo(1959) 
The Thing(2011) 
Dream House(2011) 
That's a pretty good cross-section of the types of movies I watch, while definitely leaning a bit more towards the current stuff than might be normal. That makes sense, though, since the big movies from last year are in the midst of trickling onto DVD. However, in that small list, you see a little bit of everything. Current blockbusters, documentaries, low budget indies, foreign classics, trashy horror films, fifties melodramas, comedies, Asian action films, a Shakespeare adaptation, and at least one animated film.
By far the movie I enjoyed most last month was Drive, which may end up being my favorite film of 2011. Tree of Life was a phenomenal experience, and a spiritual movie that, as an atheist, I found easy to empathize with. But as far as immediate, visceral movie-watching experiences go, nothing beat Drive last month(again, look for a 2011 roundup nearer the end of the month). From the opening monologue from Ryan Gosling(on a cellphone, talking to a client), to the incredibly fluid driving sequences and the throwback soundtrack, Drive struck a chord and sucked me in for it's entire running time.Apollo 18, Quarantine 2, and The Cave were obviously the worst of what I saw last month, with Apollo 18 being particularly bad. I'm normally a moderate fan of found footage films-I'm not yet sick of the genre and love it when it's done well(Cloverfield!)- but Apollo 18 fails on just about every count. The film is edited to within an inch of it's life, with far too many cuts to maintain any sort of tension within a scene, and they cheat with the whole 'found footage' concept a few times. More than once the characters were in situations where it was established that only one camera existed, and the angle would change. Cameras that were stationary would pan to the side. It was a generally slipshod affair. The Cave and Quarantine 2 were similarly pretty awful, with Quarantine 2 deciding to go the route of Blair Witch 2 by turning a found footage zombie story into a more standard(and not surprisingly, less interesting) narrative. Found footage style horror films mask a lot of the budgetary restraints most horror films have, and without that distraction, the cheapness and shoddiness of Quarantine 2 were all too easy to spot.
Not nearly the worst film, but probably the most disappointing of the month was Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. It wasn't a bad film, and in fact if I had seen this film as a child I might have really dug it, but it wasn't a very scary film. Normally I wouldn't judge a film for not being what I expected, but I will in this case. The film is rated R, and yet there's no language, no nudity, and very little in the way of blood or violence. The MPAA says it's rated R for "pervasive scariness", and Guillermo Del Toro(who was the film's producer) frequently bragged about how terrifying it was. The film as it stands is something I'd feel completely comfortable allowing my 8 year old daughter to watch. Scariness aside, it's also not very unique or engaging, though to no fault of the cast, or the little girl at the center of the film.The Tempest, Julie Taymor's latest mash-up of cinematic and theatrical styles, finds her returning to the works of William Shakespeare, which bodes well for any fans of her excellent adaptation of Titus Andronicus. Like everything Taymor has ever done, The Tempest is a mix of the incredibly awesome, and the incredibly silly, but it leans a little too much to the incredibly silly. Helen Mirren is as awesome as you'd think in the Prospero role(in the film it's Prospera, since the genders are switched in this role), and some of Taymor's usual eye-popping visual gimmickry is exceptional, but she remains a bit too slavish to Shakespeare's words, and when she can't come up with anything visually exciting to spruce things up the direction gets a little aimless and draggy. I'm not saying Shakespeare's words NEED sprucing up, just that against sight of Ben Wishaw(as Ariel) in Crow makeup, shouting at David Strathairn, Alan Cumming and Chris Cooper, the endless scenes of Russell Brand and Alfred Molina wandering and drinking start to seem pretty weak.
Two of the biggest surprises last month were the films Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, both from writer/director Jeff Nichols and star Michael Shannon. Of the two, Take Shelter is the more high concept and a little more technically adept in it's story of a husband and father who can't tell if his apocalyptic dreams are visions or the onset of the same mental illness that put his mother in the hospital. But Shotgun Stories, for it's roughness and budgetary restraints, cuts a bit closer to the bone with it's story of a blood feud between two groups of half-brothers following the death of their father. The unifying factor in both films is an attention to details in it's characters lives and homes, and a dedication to treating subject matter that could easily devolve into melodramatic histrionics with level headed, clear eyed simplicity. Both films showcase talents on the rise, both behind and in front of the camera.