The most shocking aspect of this homage horror movie based on Sam Raimi’s campy 1981 cult classic is its utter lack of wit or humor for which the original is famous. For a movie that’s nothing if not a bloodbath, “Evil Dead” is as dry as the Sahara. That Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell share producing credits seems to speak more to economic concerns rather than any regard for artistic merit. "The Evil Dead" felt like a well thought-out prank for its audience to share in; "Evil Dead" feels like an eversion therapy punishment for some undeclared sin against the State — drug use perhaps? Written as is — by Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues — there is no place for the iconic B-movie sensibilities that Bruce Campbell brought to his character in the 1981 version.
Although it stays fairly true to the skeleton plot outline of the original, “Evil Dead” lacks panache. Where the imaginative special effects of Raimi's movie elicited smiles, there is no such pleasure to be had here. Gone is any remnant of the slapstick humor that filled the film's far superior inspiration. There's no character to root for. You just keep looking at your watch, waiting for everyone to finally die, die, die.
The irony is that “Evil Dead” adheres to modern day horror clichés adhered to by the likes of hipsters such as Rob Zombie. It's as unoriginal as they come. Sure, there are plenty of gory displays of dismemberment and flesh-puncturing episodes, but without a sense of fun and excitement “Evil Dead” is a morose throwaway exploitation flick. A few Exorcist-inspired lines of twisted demonic dialogue is as close as “Evil Dead” comes to delivering the cheap and goofy thrills that fans of the first movie will come to see. Don't come looking here for fun; you won't have any.
Rated R. 91 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
An irredeemable exploitation horror movie that overplays its subjective POV conceit, “Maniac” will leave viewers cold. A by-committee screenplay — contributed to by Alexandre Aja (“High Tension”) — updates William Lustig’s ‘80s era cult classic of the same title.
The movie hooks its audience with a shocking preliminary knife murder, and subsequent scalping, as seen through the eyes of Elijah Woods’s serial killer Frank. From a shock value standpoint, the sequence does the trick. Elijah Wood is every bit as creepy as his malevolent killer in “Sin City.”
A childhood of abuse by his prostitute mother has left some very deep scars on Frank’s warped psychology. These days, Frank restores old mannequins — some of which he cuddles up with in bed after using a staple gun to attach the freshly severed scalps of his recent female victims. Flies are a problem; no amount of bug spray helps.
Director Franck Khalfoun uses some flashy filmic techniques, but nothing to rival Gaspar Noé’s mind-boggling subjective camera work on “Irreversible” or “Enter the Void” — two films that clearly informed “Maniac.”
Some audiences will likely wonder at the entertainment value of being implicated in a litany of grotesque murders of young women by an anti-hero protagonist. There’s something to be said for filmmakers bending the rules of dramaturgy, but some of those laws are not meant to be broken. Without an empathetic character to shepherd the viewer through its stomach-turning episodes, the story has nowhere to go. Creepy, gory, and dark, “Maniac” seems more like a how-to guide for would-be serial killers than a scary movie to take a date.
Not Rated. 100 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
Eddie The Sleepwalking Cannibal
Fine-tuning the nuances of cannibals, rather than zombies, proves modestly rewarding in a dark little comedy that owes more to Roger Corman’s “Bucket of Blood” than to “Dawn of the Dead.” Co-writer/director Boris Rodriguez compensates for his film’s low-budget constraints with a well-contained script and a more than capable cast. Thure Lindhardt (“Flame and Citron”) makes for an appropriately conflicted protagonist as Lars, a once-successful painter reduced to teaching at a struggling Canadian art school. Upon his arrival, Lars takes it on the chin when he is entrusted to host and care for Eddie (Dylan Smith), a sleepwalking mute and permanent student at the school. The husky Eddie murders small animals during his nightly nocturnal outings. No amount of snow or cold can prevent the underwear-clad Eddie from hunting for blood. As it turns out, such carnage is just what Lars needs to fuel his inspiration on canvas. Artistic fulfillment coincides with romance. Lars’s newfound mojo acts as an aphrodisiac to his comely co-worker Lesley (Georgina Reilly). Lars points Eddie in a homicidal direction in order to stimulate his own fetishistic need for seeing gore that will inform his ability to make marketable paintings. However lightweight in its construction, “Eddie the Sleepwalking Cannibal” is an enjoyable little horror romp—if you don’t expect too much.
Not Rated. 90 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Freaky Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Frightening
Guillermo del Toro — the director of such minor masterpieces as “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” — weakens his sphere of influence by producing a sorely underdeveloped horror movie that manufactures scares from the crudest of tropes. Sound effect shocks produce most of the film’s artificial jolts of fright. Del Toro endorses newcomer co-writer/director Andrés Muschietti’s efforts to engender audience gasps from a soulless computer-generated monster that make’s the Hulk look lifelike by comparison.
The set-up is topical. A suburban father of two little girls returns home after murdering his two business partners. A bullet for wifey sends the crazed man driving like a maniac on icy roads with his kidnapped daughters pleading for mercy from the back seat. The film’s money-sequence comes when the car spins out of control, eventually sending it off the side of a snowy cliff into a steep ravine. The cinematography on display is exceptional. The film never again hits such a heart-pounding crescendo.
Still able to walk, daddy carries his youngest girl Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse) deep into the woods. His older daughter Victoria (Megan Charpentier) follows them into a disused cabin where some one or some spooky thing lurks. Once inside the remote residence, the man makes a fire in the fireplace using a freshly broken chair for firewood. We can sense what’s coming next. In his hand he holds the pistol he has used to ruin his life. He doesn’t know that he shares the space with a witchlike exterminating angel with wall crawling abilities. She is Mama. She will rescue the girls and raise them as her own.
Cut to several years later. The homicidal man’s brother Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Walldau) has kept up a vigil to locate his nieces. Suspension of disbelief becomes harder to sustain. How could the girls have gone missing for so long? Wouldn’t the authorities have sent out search teams during the crisis? Here’s the kicker. The monster-raised girls crawl and jump around like spiders on acid. Their verbal skills are minimal.
Lucas and his Goth rock bass-playing girlfriend Annabel (played by an unrecognizable Jessica Chastain in dyed hair and heavy eyeliner) battle for custody in spite of the fact that neither seems to possess much maternal or paternal instinct. They live in a glorified man cave. Musical gear and big rusty signs adorn their bedroom. Lucas’s nasty sister seems better suited to take on the challenge of adapting the wild children to the demands of civilized behavior. However, a ghost-in-the-machine plot device arrives via clinical psychologist Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash), who offers up a research-provided suburban house where the young couple can raise the girls under his supervision. The green-skinned, alien-faced Mama follows the girls to their new residence to set up shop. Her insect-mind intentions are unclear.
Although the story is set in Richmond, Virginia, the movie never gives so much as a glimpse of that historic town’s iconic personality. The filmmakers could have at least taken a spin down Monument Avenue for crying out loud. A conscious lack of narrative distinction permeates every aspect of the story. Clunky desaturated flashback sequences attempt to tell Mama’s tale of persecution that led her to jump from a cliff while holding onto her infant child. Any empathy the audience might share with the jealous creature is blunted by its grotesque appearance and penchant for unwarranted violence against whosoever comes near the girls.
At best, “Mama” is a subpar PG-rated monster movie. At worst, it represents a desperate grasp for relevance by a once-inspired filmmaker [Guillermo del Toro] relegated to producing entry-level films for far less talented auteurs.
Rated PG-13. 100 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
The Bay — THE NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2012
VIDEO ESSAYS: LINCOLN — SKYFALL — THE BAY — THE FIREMEN'S BALL
Leave it to master-filmmaker Barry Levinson (“Diner”) to show just what is possible with the found-footage horror trope. Levinson uses the genre’s intrinsic mixed medium formats to his strength. Every direct-to-camera monologue or cell-phone-filmed grotesque discovery carries a palpable sense of real-life dread. The audience becomes complicit in the fast-moving drama.
A plague comes to the small Chesapeake Bay town of Claridge, Maryland, which sits near a chicken factory that constantly pumps out toxic sewage into its waters. A big fish die-off rots an entire shorline. The Bay is full of “marine dead zones” being inspected by a pair of intrepid oceanographers. Their footage reveals the tongue-eating isopod that’s attacking the area’s fish — tongue first.
Hundreds of July 4th merrymakers are stricken with a lesion-boiling reaction to a flesh-eating bacteria. Corpses pile up as we get a novelistic vantage point on seductive narrative strands that weave the fact-based storyline together. A talented cast of "non-actors" plays perfectly to Levinson's cinema vérité-styled atmosphere. If anything, the effect of the movie is hyper-real.
Much more so than “Contagion,” “The Bay” connects with our communal-subconscious regarding devastating “natural” disasters. At a time in history when Mother Nature is rejecting mankind for its Industrial Revolution, “The Bay” comes across as prescient. Hopefully, none of its audience will ever experience the kind of suffering the characters do in “The Bay.” They will however, be left to wonder about it.
Rated R. 84 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
Tim Burton’s 3D stop-motion animated reductionist homage to the Golden Era of horror films — namely the Universal films of the ‘30s — is beautiful thing. If that means including a few nods to Japan’s “Godzilla” films of the ‘50s so much the better to charm baby boomers who share Burton’s fond childhood memories of good old fashioned monster movies. The sound effects alone are a study in polished perfection. Every squeak, thunderbolt strike, and dog bark rings like a perfectly tuned bell. As with all of Tim Burton’s films, his painstaking attention to every detail of narrative and visual realization is always present. Based on a live-action half-hour short film Burton made in 1984, there’s an extra amount of filmmaking-love on display in “Frankenweenie” that makes the experience of watching it a truly special treat for the viewer.
The film’s shimmering black-and-white rendering is so immaculate and crisp that it takes your breath away. Burton pokes fun at his own mastery of stop-motion animation with an intro film-within-a-film that announces his young gothic protagonist Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) as a budding filmmaker of horror movies. Victor screens his Godzilla-inspired home movie for his ‘50s era parents in the family living room. To his folk’s delight, Victor’s dog Sparky has a prominent role as the hero that destroys a winged monster that attacks the film’s cardboard town. At the end, the 8mm film stock burns against the projector lens. No worries; Victor can “fix” it.
Some woolly dinner table “advice” from Victor’s well-meaning dad (voiced by Martin Short) regarding Victor’s solitary habits leads the scrawny tow-headed lad to play baseball on a neighborhood team. Surprisingly, Victor has some power in his bat. Yet the glory of his first would-be homerun is ruined by the untimely death of Sparky who gets hit by a car after running for the ball.
At school, Victor’s Vincent Price-lookalike science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (wonderfully voiced by Martin Landau) gives the class a lesson in the power of electric current to animate a dead frog. Predisposed to scientific experimentation, Victor takes the cue to dig up Sparky and attempt to reanimate his pointy-nosed bull terrier with the use of some kites on a stormy night from the comfort of his attic laboratory. Victor can’t keep Sparky’s sudden return to the land of the living a secret from his nosey classmate Edgar, who promptly spills the beans to a couple of other copycat pals determined to ignite life in a their own deceased, or at least inanimate, creatures. A bag of “Sea-Monkeys” explodes into an army of especially creepy little villains after coming to life in a swimming pool. Among the pandemonium that ensues is the comical transformation of a black female poodle into a bride-of-Frankenstein-styled pup after she and the appropriately named Sparky rub noses.
Looking back at Burton’s flawed 1984 version of “Frankenweenie” is informative for the many layers of corrective narrative tissue the auteur has added with the help of his longtime script collaborator John August (“Big Fish” - 2003). Burton tosses in subtle references from his own filmography. A dash of “Corpse Bride” here, a pinch of “Edward Scissorhands” there, and a dose of “Mars Attacks!” gels neatly with details drawn from James Whale’s 1931 “Frankenstein." Tim Burton seems to be actively inviting adolescent audience members to pursue their own imaginative filmmaking projects. There’s a lot to appreciate in this tastefully punchy animated horror comedy. Repeated viewings are in order. “Frankenweenie” is poised to be the next best Halloween classic for kids.
Rated PG. 87 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
If you are looking to stream movies online then why not look into great services such as Netflix and LOVEFiLM. These allow you to stream through a range of devices including games consoles and the iPad. There is a range of categories to pick from including lots of animated movies which are suitable for both the kids and adults.
Put “The Possession” on the short-list for one of the worst films of 2012. This hackneyed knock-off of William Friedkin’s 1973 masterpiece “The Exorcist,” indulges in direct scene references — witness a nighttime parking lot scene where the streetlight comes down just as it did outside the house in “The Exorcist.” There’s even a medial exam sequence patterned after the CAT scan that Linda Blair’s Regan underwent in Friedkin’s film.
The movie goes laughably afield in supplanting the “Exorcist’s” Catholic underpinnings with a Jewish-themed exorcism of a Jewish demon called a Dybbuk. Jeffrey Dean Morgan gives a one-note performance as Clyde, a recently divorced family man torn between coaching a college basketball team and spending visitation time with his two preteen daughters. The filmmakers go so far as to name Clyde’s demonically chosen daughter “Emily” — think “The Possession of Emily Rose.”
Rachel O’Toole’s production designs are the stuff of student filmmaking. The film’s lighting designs are nonexistent. A florescent lit climax looks like the production ran out of money before shooting finished.
Little Emily (Natasha Calis) — here’s a name you’ll never hear again — picks out an inscribed Pandora’s-styled box while shopping at a yard sale with dad. Although the box is clearly meant to stay sealed, Emily finds a way to let its freaky little bald female demon out. A swarm of moths that overtake Emily’s room are a clue to her bizarre behavior that follows. She stabs daddy in the hand with a fork, and smacks the stuffing out of a class bully. Bad Emily. Her right eyeball has a tendency to roll up inside her head. The makeup department goes Gothic in giving Emily a porcelain completion and dark circles under her eyes to show that she is truly off the reservation.
Neglected subplots — such as the guy Clyde’s ex-wife Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick) is currently dating — crumble like so many stale cookies. If it weren’t for its exaggerated music cues, there would be no suspense, much less surprise, in an infuriatingly derivative horror movie as fractured as the glasses that Emily smashes at her mother’s bare feet. “The Possession” is truly an unwatchable film that pretends to be a horror movie.
Rated PG-13. mins. (F) (Zero Stars - out of five/no halves)
Made in 2009, “The Revenant” finally finds its way to the big screen with a resounding thud. Special effects artist D. Kerry Prior (“The Abyss”) turns writer-director for this ill-conceived horror movie, which excels solely on the strength of its special effects and impressive make-up designs. A convincing talking decapitated head provides one of the film’s finer moments. Insufficient narrative preparation gives way to an Iraq war soldier — Bart (David Anders) — who rises from the dead after his body is returned to his hometown of Los Angeles. Looking worse for wear, Bart seeks assistance from his best friend Joey (Chris Wylde). Joey deduces that Bart has been turned into a “revenant,” aka a vampiric zombie if you will. Many audiences won’t.
Lacking any sense of the “Shaun of the Dead”-style humor to which this movie ostensibly aspires, the story goes through a series of hackneyed gyrations wherein Bart and Joey get into confrontations with criminals. Of course, crime busting isn’t really what the duo is really up to. They’re just looking for a steady supply of blood to keep Bart “alive.”
The filmmakers finally play their trump card in the third act, when they let the special effects go wild. Even that winning hand gets diminished by a truncated dystopian coda that lamely attempts to slap a momentous chord on all that has come before.
Rated R. 110 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)Tweet
“The Awakening” is an old-fashioned haunted house story with a couple of neat twists. Rebecca Hall’s bewitching portrayal of Florence Cathcart, an early 20th century ghost-busting novelist working in post World War I England, gives debut director/co-writer Nick Murphy plenty to work with. In keeping with such suspense-teetering thrillers as “The Devil’s Backbone” and “The Others,” chills and spills come as much from a ghostly atmosphere of uncluttered spaces as from sudden shocks of paranormal activity.
Florence garners fans with her novels, and enemies by assisting police in busting up phony moneymaking séance rings around London, circa 1921. At a time when nearly all of England’s population has lost relatives in the war, people are desperate for any kind of contact with the dead — however hokey that connection might be. A visit from private boys’ academy headmaster Robert Mallory (Dominic West) invites Elizabeth to investigate the rural Rookford School for evidence of a young male ghost who has been busy terrorizing its students and faculty. A young student recently died there. As well, a murder occurred on the estate several decades ago. Mallory carries battle scars from the war, which cause him to stammer and limp. Nonetheless, he has a romantic connection with Elizabeth, whose professional approach to her work doesn’t hinder her emotional availability. An especially curious scene finds Florence spying on Mallory as he tends to an unhealed wound on his leg after a bath. Florence and Mallory each have secrets that need airing out.
Hall’s ghost hunter is one sexy creature. Cinematographer Eduard Grau (“A Single Man”) balances the film’s potentially suffocating drab color-scheme with vibrant compositions that keep the eye moving. His teasing depiction of windswept Gothic isolation is the stuff of an alluring horror-fantasy.
Imelda Staunton spices up the Gothic drama as the school’s personable doyenne Maud. A fan of Elizabeth’s books, Maud is a supportive foil for Elizabeth against the school’s creeping horror, which also comes in the very physical form of a threatening groundskeeper named Joseph (Joseph Mawle).
The narrative isn’t without a few cobwebs. The malevolent groundskeeper comes across as a gratuitous device used to rev up suspense late in the story. The one-dimensional character isn’t awarded any kind of inner-life to bring meaning to his violent actions.
Although the all-boy student body is away on vacation, one boy — Tom Hill (well played by newcomer Isaac Hempstead Wright) stays behind. Florence and Tom strike up a friendship upon which the plot twists. The story finds itself playing catch-up when the proceedings are brought to a close with a barrage of backstory exposition designed to tie the narrative up with a neat bow.
Still, the ensemble performances go a long way toward masking the script’s less persuasive aspects. “The Awakening” is all about mood and tone. Peepholes, poison, and long dim hallways with ghosts at the end of them never get old.
Rated R. 107 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Heavy on suspense but light on story or character development “The Pact” is a throwaway low-budget horror movie. Writer-director Nicholas McCarthy expands on his short film of the same title, but doesn’t magnify the material nearly enough. The film’s strongest asset Agnes Bruckner (“Blue Car”) gets lost in the shuffle as Nicole, a young mother returning to her Los Angeles childhood home to attend the funeral of her detested mother. Nicole’s butch sister Annie (Caity Lotz) arrives by motorcycle with a chip on her shoulder that promptly gets knocked off by a ghost that’s busy bumping around inside the family house. A disappearance sends Annie on a fact-finding mission that leads to evidence of a serial killer connection to her mother’s relationship to the home. Caity Lotz gives a credible performance that carries the film, but Casper Van Dien’s portrayal of an LAPD detective is laughably awful. It seems the actor best known for his part in “Starship Troopers” has forgotten how to act. Drab monochrome lighting and production designs don’t do the film any favors. “The Pact” is a horror movie with training wheels. It’s for audiences who have never seen one before and don’t want to be too scared./span>
Not Rated. 91 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
The Silence of the Lambs — CLASSIC FILM PICK
Ed Gein's legacy of a body-flaying serial killer, which also provided Hitchcock’s “Psycho” with its inspiration, gave novelist Thomas Harris the unsavory elements he used to build “The Silence of the Lambs.” The fact that director Jonathan Demme turned Ted Tally’s screenplay adaptation into a masterpiece of film horror reflects an array of ingenious choices: fully developed characters, exquisitely fulfilled by the actors in each of their roles. The unusual storyline boasts two sets of opposing protagonists and antagonists.
Jodie Foster’s character, FBI trainee Clarice Starling, makes for a highly empathetic central character. Headstrong yet engaged in a constant battle of insecurity, Clarice isn’t about to squander the opportunity to track down a serial killer known as “Buffalo Bill” when Agent Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, assigns her to interview convicted serial murderer Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins, in an iconic role).
“Hannibal the Cannibal” is the ultimate anti-hero. A hyper-intelligent former psychiatrist and highly skilled painter, Dr. Lecter has been laying in wait for a visit from someone like Clarice, whom he can mentally dissect and manipulate. Lecter knows his chance to kill will come again. The audience knows it too. However, unlike our disgust at Buffalo Bill’s crimes, which targets overweight women whom he murders for their skin, we secretly want to see the charmingly malevolent Dr. Lecter in action. Hannibal’s alternately cheerful or crass demeanor has a knowing wink about it that Anthony Hopkins milks for every drop of diabolical ingenuity available. The bizarre mentor/apprentice relationship that develops between Clarice and her criminally insane subject makes for a compelling mix of visceral —almost sexual — tension and dark humor. For all of her naiveté, Clarice is perfectly capable of matching wits with the demented doctor, even though it takes her some practice to get it right.
Anthony Heald’s Dr. Frederick Chilton is a petty bureaucrat whose ambitious political goals put him at odds with Clarice. His character presents a different type of villain. Even Clarice’s trusted FBI mentor Jack Crawford fails to come through when Clarice most desperately needs assistance. She is always on her own.
“The Silence of the Lambs” is indisputably dynamic in every technical detail. Jonathan Demme uses high camera angles to create chilling visual compositions. The film constantly seems to change direction. A tense subjective sequence seen through Buffalo Bill’s night-vision goggles ramps up the suspense with an organic filmmaking technique that puts the audience temporarily inside the mind of the killer. For a few brief moments we, know the fear of the would-be victim and her lurking attacker. The effect is petrifying.
Winner of five Academy Awards, “The Silence of the Lambs” is the only horror film to ever sweep the Oscars.
The Cabin in the Woods
Back in 2005 Renny Harlin directed a winning little slice-'em-and-dice-'em slasher flick that upped the stakes on James Mangold’s “Identity” (2003), itself an average addition to the subgenre. I mention this because, for all the unwarranted praise being slathered on “The Cabin in the Woods,” each of those efforts represent much better movies.
Much like the mechanically operated environment of “The Hunger Games,” the setting for “The Cabin in the Woods” is a remote-controlled “killing floor” where a group of youthful characters do battle for their lives. A stereotyped psychotic serial killer even shows up for an ill-defined cameo. As with “The Truman Show” (1998), there isn’t a sufficient amount of context and background to allow for a satisfying story to be told.
Joss Whedon and co-writer/director Drew Goddard go lazy-style from their days spent writing for television’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and paste together five pigeonholed characters. We have the letter-jacket-wearing jock Curt (Chris Hemsworth), along with air-headed sorority chic Jules (Anna Hutchinson), an African American nice-guy (Jesse Williams), and a requisite white-boy stoner who has just a pinch more common sense than anyone else.
As knee-jerk practitioners of the quick-cut editing techniques that plague modern filmmaking, the filmmakers here are too insecure about their under-developed narrative to ever allow the movie to breathe. The movie is never scary. Neither is there ever a hint of sustained suspense. A viewing of something like Francis Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now Redux” could go a long way toward providing a teachable lesson in this regard. A little "Rosemary's Baby" wouuldn't hurt while you're there.
Our predictable group of slasher-fodder experiences time-honored hints of looming violence from a redneck tobacco-chewing gas station attendant who points them in the direction of their vacation destination — a cabin by a lake. Once at the remote cabin, the narrative floor drops out, exposing the college kids to a bunch of zombies on the prowl for blood. That’s right, blood. Yawn. A lurking monster waits patiently for his less than necessary third-act appearance. Naturally, there’s some untold corporate or government entity behind the whole bloodbath. Like “The Hunger Games,” “Cabin in the Woods” is a high-concept story whose writers know nothing of the rigor required to fulfill the political objectives of dystopian films.
The would-be social satire opens with a couple of white-coated military industrial complex administrators goofing around in the secluded privacy of a colossal facility that serves as the headquarters from which all activity in and around the cabin is controlled. Jokes make for an inappropriately casual atmosphere. The clinically dressed employees are in fact homicidal torturers whose cloaked actions will exact excruciating deaths for the young people on the mean-end of their meticulously designed killing machine.
Before you waste your time and money on this cinematic mongrel, check out “Mindhunters.” It’s not a perfect slasher picture either, but it’s a damn sight better than “The Cabin in the Woods.” As for deconstructing the genre — as many easily excitable bloggers are wont to pretend occurs here — Eli Craig peed on that tree in 2010 with "Tucker and Dale vs Evil."
Rated R. 95 mins. (D+) (One Star - out of five/no halves)
CAN YOU HANDLE THE TRUTH?
By Cole Smithey
It kills me when otherwise knowledgeable and savvy critics such as Matt Singer and Devin Farachi fall into naïve traps about things such as spoilers. Read any Roger Ebert film review, and you’ll get a good idea of what a film is about. A few specific plot elements will be discussed because that’s the only way for a reader to get a grasp of a film’s narrative terrain. It’s the nature of the beast. If you are a moviegoer who doesn’t want to have a critic’s ideas or revelations influencing your experience, don’t read any reviews before seeing a movie. Duh. Wait until after.
That’s not to say, however, that a critic should necessarily give away a key surprise a filmmaker builds into his or her story. Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” — the original "slasher" film — is a good example. If the film came out today, you couldn’t — as a critic — reveal the narrative twist that comes late in the story. Hitchcock cleverly planted the twist to send audiences out of the theater shocked by what they had learned.
However, a film like “The Cabin in the Woods” announces its plot twist in the opening scene. As such, there is no “shocking surprise” for an audience, or critic, to contend with. There is merely a set-up, one that, in this case is not very well illuminated during the course of the movie. Nonetheless, it does present the entire groundwork for the story. To pretend otherwise is pure denial. The film wants to serve as a piece of social satire, but it fails so miserably in that regard, that no one seems to notice.
There is a dumbing down of film criticism occurring via the hive mind of aggregate culture that favors arcane commercial concepts such as RottenTomatoes’ “Fresh Certification.” Are you, as a critic or an audience member, really going to fall for that nonsense?
Any critic who complains in a review about how “hard,” “impossible,” or “unfair” it is to write about a movie is clearly not cut out for the job. It is so sad to read essentially the same review over and over again from so many “critics.” There’s a stupefying similarity between reviews of “Cabin in the Woods” coming from critics ranging from Ann Hornaday (The Washington Post), to Ian Buckwalter (NPR), to Andrew O’Hehir (Salon), and the list goes on. At least those critics don’t resort the strictly amateur maneuver of quoting from the film’s press materials as Michael Phillips (the Chicago Tribune) chooses to do.
But go ahead and believe the hype about “The Cabin in the Woods.” You are only setting yourself up for disappointment. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Spoiler alert: "Silent House" is a truly disturbing psychological thriller that taunts and challenges its audience. Reminiscent of the nightmare sequences in Roman Polanski's "Repulsion," this surreal story is rooted in the sexual abuse of Sarah Murphy (Elizabeth Olsen), a young woman who returns with her father and uncle to an abandoned summerhouse where she spent painful vacations as a little girl. The film is a showcase for Elizabeth Olsen, who admirably carries every darkly lit scene with an increasing sense of panic-stricken terror. Behind “Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene” and “Silent House,” horror has a new It Girl, and her name is Elizabeth Olsen.
Based on the Uruguayan film “La Casa Muda,” "Silent House" is a study in atmospheric displacement. Co-directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau (“Open Water”) maintain a suffocating claustrophobic atmosphere inside the lakeside home. Cinematographer Igor Martinovic does a virtuosic job of tracking through the dark creaking house to chase down demons that pursue Sarah’s mind and body with unrelenting malevolence. This is some bad juju.
Sarah’s dad John (Adam Trese) and uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens) need to clean up their derelict house in order to enable a quick sale. But something is not quite right about John and Peter. A strange sibling tension brews between the brothers. Sarah is none too pleased when Sophia (Julia Taylor Ross), a local girl, appears on the doorstep to remind Sarah about their childhood friendship—a camaraderie Sarah doesn’t remember, or doesn’t want to remember.
Squatters have left marks on the property. The size of the house is more mansion than cottage. Toxic mold infests the walls. Every window is boarded up with plywood on both sides. Inside is pitch black. Peter goes on a run to the hardware store, leaving Sarah with her dad inside the locked home to wander around with flashlights. She’s supposed to be packing up any belongings she wants to keep. Dad is supposed to be tending to repairs. However, these are no conditions for getting things done, unless escape is high on the list.
The filmmakers do an excellent job of putting the audience inside the unreliable mindset of a girl grappling with terrible memories that greet her in the guise of an unraveling reality. Time seems to fold back on itself as things go from weird to bad to worse. Blood is spilled. You’re frequently drawn to the screen to study glimpses of supernatural phenomena. You wonder at the source of the evil just as you realize you are taking in more subtle filmic information than you fully comprehend. As with all great haunted house movies (see “The Others”) “Silent House” relies on tone, mood, sound, and lighting effects. The effect is transformative. Be prepared for chills and shocks in a well-crafted horror movie that may inspire nightmares for many nights to come.
Rated R. 88 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Freaks - Classic Film Pick
In spite of the tremendous success he enjoyed with "Dracula" in 1931, Tod Browning's directorial career was effectively ruined after he made "Freaks" the following year. Informed by Browning's youthful experiences working as a performer with a traveling circus, "Freaks" broke cinematic ground by being the first film to feature performers with deformities. It was banned in Britain for over 30 years. “Freaks” only enjoyed theatrical success thanks to its rediscovery in the early ‘60s by cult horror film aficionados whose appreciation enabled it to be discovered again in the ‘70s during the Midnight Movie craze.
This Pre-Code movie is set amid a circus sideshow traveling through France. The story turns on a romantic drama that plays out between Hans (Harry Earles), an engaged midget, and a cunning trapeze artist named Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) whose warped sense of humor is matched by her twisted morals. Although Hans dearly loves his similarly-sized fiancée Frieda (Daisy Earles), he can't help falling in love with the full-sized Cleopatra when she seems to reciprocate his politely expressed affection. Little does Hans realize that Cleopatra is in league with the circus strongman Hercules (Henry Victor) to separate him from his from his vast inheritance.
After significant cuts by censors Browning tacked on an opening scene with a circus sideshow exhibit where a master of ceremonies introduces a curious group of spectators to a deformed woman in a cage that resembles a large baby crib. He calls the unseen woman the “Feathered Hen.” Not until the film’s end will a payoff scene allow the movie audience to see what the circus crowd find so shocking.
Although severely criticized at the time of its release as an "exploitation" film, "Freaks" takes every opportunity to humanize its characters. The story presents its group of human oddities-- a hermaphrodite, several microcephalics, conjoined twins, and several limbless characters--as performers whose real-life existence was hardly if ever addressed in the media. The real horrors in the story come at the hands of the "normal" people who attempt to take advantage of an oppressed group of people, who live by their own strict ethical code of conduct.
As happened to Michael Powell, whose brilliant filmmaking career came to an abrupt end decades later with “Peeping Tom,” “Freaks” is a unique horror film that was ahead of its time. It’s a testament to Tod Browning’s vision that even with 26 minutes removed by censors before its release “Freaks” stands up as a fully realized horror movie unlike any other.
Cannibal Holocaust - Classic Film Pick
In 1980, long before horror films like "The Blair Witch Project" or "Paranormal Activity" took up the "found-footage" trope, screenwriter Gianfranco Clerici and director Ruggero Deodato wrote the book on the subject with an exploitation horror film with a subtle name: "Cannibal Holocaust." Deodato proved himself a master of guerilla marketing by having his actors sign contracts agreeing not to appear in any type of media, to support rumors that "Cannibal Holocaust" was a snuff film for which the performers had actually perished. The filmmaker's ploy worked a little too well. Aside from grossing $2 million in the first 10 days of its release, the film was confiscated by Italian police in Milan. Deodato was arrested on obscenity charges, later amended to include an indictment for murder. Deodato avoided a life sentence after he proved the death sequences in the film were staged. Still, nothing could prevent censors in dozens of countries from banning the film outright. It took another three years before an edited version could be released in Italy. Years later the original uncut version was finally made available.
The genus for the narrative grew out of a conversation Deodato had with his son about news coverage of the Red Brigades in Italy at the height of the leftist group's kidnappings and bank robberies. Deodato believed that some of the stories had been staged by media outlets to fulfill their agenda of editorial history-shaping.
So it follows in the film that NYU professor Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman) is part of a rescue team that discovers reels of lost footage taken by a group of four New York journalists searching for cannibal tribes in the Amazon basin—also referred to in the film as the "Green Inferno." The ragtag group of hippie reporters consist of a director (Carl Gabriel Yorke), his girlfriend assistant (Francesca Ciardi), and two cameramen.
The rescue team’s discovery of a bug-infested human corpse precedes the film's first onscreen killing of an animal--a coatimundi that serves as the team's first jungle meal. Over the course of the film Deodato revels in the brutal murders of seven animals, including a monkey, pig, and giant tortoise. The gruesome animal deaths inform the tortures and murders of people that occur so that the viewer is immersed in an atmosphere of gory jungle hell.
The story frequently returns to New York, where researchers carry on a cheesy objectifying discussion of the found footage and what it says about contrasting morals between civilized and uncivilized societies. Indeed, every terrible act of sexual and violent transgression committed by the Amazon cannibal natives is matched by the "professional" journalists who similarly stage the murderous acts they collect on film. Apart from being a truly disturbing film, "Cannibal Holocaust" serves up a cold plate of scathing social commentary. That it does so with a self-reflexive end run that encompasses the whole narrative context is a stroke of genius. However insane that genius might be, it perfectly mirrors the horrors of the extermination of indigenous cultures.
Paranormal Activity 3
A fresh competitor for the title of "most-boring-horror-movie-ever," "Paranormal Activity 3" is a student film gone wrong. It is definitely one of the worst movie’s of the year. Sticking to the obsolete found-footage formula of its two predecessors, this prequel story to the franchise’s first two films starts out with the discovery of some VHS tapes by the adult versions of sisters Katie and Kristi, who appear as tikes when the tapes are played for us—the snoozing audience. A date and time-code stamp is forever present in the lower right-hand corner as inexplicable jump-cuts interrupt the surveillance-camera footage of a haunted family home in Carlsbad, San Diego. Daddy Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith) is a wedding videographer who talks his wife Julie (Lauren Bittner) into letting him film them having sex. A ghost attack upsets the fun. Dennis is inspired to place surveillance cameras around the house to capture on tape whatever weird occurrences are going on. A ghost named Toby is Kristi’s not-so-imaginary pal of late.
Co-directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman won critical acclaim with their film "Catfish," but all that critical goodwill seems misplaced in light of their lazy efforts here. That so many newbie critics and callow audiences are falling over themselves about how “scary” they imagine "Paranormal Activity 3" is, speaks to a dearth of respectable horror movies. You're more likely to get indigestion than a nightmare from watching "Paranormal Activity 3." To pretend that this pathetic effort even holds a candle to a masterpiece of horror like William Friedkin's "The Exorcist" is pure folly of the most irresponsible kind. "Paranormal Activity 3" looks like it was shot for 20 bucks on a script that cost half as much. My cat could make a scarier movie. But then again my cat is a pretty scary little animal, unlike the helium-balloon-under-a-white-sheet ghost shown in "PA3."
Rated R. 84 mins. (F) (Zero Stars - out of five/no halves)
Debut director Matthijs van Heijningen’s update of the previously twice-made "Thing" horror movies is a completely respectable effort in spite of everything you’ve heard or read otherwise. Critics and audience members pretending that John Carpenter's 1982 version is better, or scarier, than Heijningen's film are in for a painful revelation if they ever take the time to actually compare the films in close succession. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is a comely improvement over Kurt Russell as the story's protagonist. Winstead plays do-it-all paleontologist Dr. Kate Lloyd. Kate gets the call-up to travel to Antarctica after a determined Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) discovers an alien monster frozen in the ice. As with the Carpenter version, this gruesome looking Thing has the ability to infect the DNA of humans to explode spleens-a-go-go with a tentacled fury that is not something to look at on a full stomach. Winstead carries her character's sexy-librarian-hotness with cool restraint. She has no problem getting down and dirty with a flame-thrower when the time comes. The redoubtable Joel Edgerton ("Warrior") does his part to destroy the multiplying thing as helicopter pilot Braxton Carter. Better paced than Carpenter’s film and just as gory, this one has a much better double climax. Even with its plot holes this is an enjoyable monster movie that gets the job done. If you’re a fan of the genre, ignore the negative reviews and go have a blast at the cinema with this well-made picture that features an ass-kicking chic who can really go nine rounds with your worst nightmare.
Rated R. 102 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence)
John Waters introduced a dog-poo-eating Divine as "the Filthiest Person Alive" in "Pink Flamingos" (1972). John Waters introduced a dog-poo-eating Divine as "the Filthiest Person Alive" in "Pink Flamingos" (1972). In 1975 Pier Paolo Pasolini merged the Marquis de Sade's "120 Days of Sodom" with the three descending levels of Dante Alighieri's "Inferno" in "Salo" for a terse satire about the world's implosion of force-fed consumerist debauchery after World War II. Eating society's shit served as the shocking height of bourgeoisie aspirations in “Salo.” It was Pasolini’s last film before he was brutally murdered on a remote beach on the outskirts of Rome.
It would be another 39 years before Tom Six would take the literal and metaphorical implications of eating shit to its most personal if asexual dimensions with a nasty little horror film entitled "The Human Centipede (First Sequence)" in 2009. Promise for the sequel was already writ large in Six's mind when he created the diabolical thriller that united three barely clad human beings ass-to-mouth as part of an evil German doctor's clinical experiment/fantasy. With its scat-sex element buried neatly inside a torture-porn horror thriller built on clichés of the genre, Six alluded to a brief if disturbing social commentary about issues of racist and nationalist ideas without hitting the nail on the head. The front of the human chain was a Japanese man. The back of the body-train included two nubile American girls. The film was set in Germany after all.
The follow-up is much harder to read. Set in London, and clearly filmed on a considerably lower budget than the first film, the sequel is a self-referential bird-flip at the powers that postured toward banning "The Human Centipede 2" sight unseen. Cheap, raw, disgusting, and yet cleverly tipping its nightmare hat toward the kind of Halloween spook-house-movie that fans of the genre expect, the black-and-white sequel climaxes with a symphony of farting and diarrhea as it passes through ten people linked in an rough-hewn human chain by a sexually-abused man-child misfit named Martin. The bug-eyed geek works alone as an attendant in an underground London car garage where he continuously watches a DVD of "The Human Centipede" on his laptop. Martin treasures a carefully maintained "Human Centipede (First Sequence)" scrapbook which features things like a headshot of Ashlynn Yennie who appeared in the film. A telling comic sub-plot involves Martin's successful attempts at "auditioning" actors from the first film under the conceit that Quentin Tarantino is directing the sequel.
Anyone who has read Jonathan Swift will recognize the latent satire that bleeds and seeps from the story even if it seems written with notably less rigor than Swift applied to his work. Still, Tom Six's sequel isn't as lazy as, say, a typical Gus Van Sant movie. There is a certain Brechtian theory at play, however fortunate or unintentional it might be on Six’s part. The filmmaker toys with the idea of “what is seen cannot be unseen.” Victims are killed only to be revived so they can suffer greater tortures than their brutal death. Emotional detachment comes with the territory.
“The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence)" is a cinematic provocation in line with banned films such as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Nekromantik.” It is meant as a right-to-passage movie for young audiences to marvel at, and endure without vomiting if possible. The movie doesn’t aspire to be anything more than a very uncomfortable cinematic experience. To that end it succeeds with flying colors. The viewer’s defense mechanisms flinch to laugh at brutal acts it cannot logically fathom. Will this movie give nightmares to more than a few of the audiences who manage to last through it? You bet. Will it give ideas to sick-fuck prison guards at Guantánamo about new ways to torture their prisoners? If they’re anything like Martin, the film will probably have that unintended effect as well. Does that mean “The Human Centipede 2” should be banned? I don’t’ think so.
Rated R. 96 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Inept plotting, a lack of pacing, and a criminal neglect of its primary antagonist--a promisingly diabolical vampire played by Colin Farrell--are a few of the nails that seal the lid on director Craig Gillespie's wayward remake of Tom Holland’s original 1985 “Fright Night.” There's an unspoken rule that states, the only reason to remake a film is to improve on the original. Crazy as that sounds, it can be done. David Cronenberg's remake of "The Fly" is a case in point. It was only a matter of time before the usually terrific Anton Yelchin got his turn to suck, and boy does he struggle here. Yelchin can't tell an objective from a super objective as high school nerd Charley. Charley has wised up enough to dis his douchebag childhood pal Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) in favor of hanging out with his steady girlfriend Amy (Imogen Poots). Las Vegas is the updated setting where Charley lives with his single mom Jane (Toni Collette). Collette adds some spark, as does Farrell, but not near enough to make an impact on a horror movie with no suspense and even less of a sense of humor. Sure, there’s some nifty special effects to make you feel like you’re getting your money’s worth, but the narrative barely has any shape, tone, or sense of urgency. As for character development, well you’d get more of that from a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
Rated R. 101 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
Everything about "Creature" screams B-movie. To that end this gritty little video nasty pulls out every low-budget stop toward sexing up and grossing out its audience. Using many of the exact same clichés as the currently running cheese-fest "Shark Night 3D," director Fred Andrews manages to at least have more fun along the way. There's something to be said for a dirty little horror movie that exists entirely to give pubescent teenagers something to blab about between gasps and groans. If you have to ask what "Creature" is about, you're probably not film's target audience. The remote back country of Louisiana hides a community with its share of secret history. A few generations ago a giant crocodile did a number on the wrong man’s incestuous mate. Our prototypical cave man took out his vengeful aggression in a fairly disgusting but transformative way. Now, the locals must feed the half-man-half-gator monster. Enter a half-dozen twentysomething brawny and bitchy tourists to provide some barely clad fodder for said hungry creature. Topless chicks--check; intimidating yokels at the gas station--check; would-be lesbians fooling around--check, lots of bloody mayhem--check. "Creature" should have gone straight to video. Since it's playing on a few big screens at least "Shark Night" could get some competition.
Rated R. 93 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
Shark Night 3D
You know you're in trouble from the start when director David R. Ellis ("Snakes on a Plane") resorts to fast-forwarding though opening sequences so that scenery and actors move at hyper speed. It's a cinematic cliché used by amateur filmmakers searching for something to say. Any temptation to associate "Shark Night 3D" with last year's R-rated guilty pleasure "Piranha 3D" is thwarted via "Shark Night's" lesser PG-13 rating. The movie falls into the predictable pattern of every other slasher flick with our group of nubile twentysomething college kids running into confrontation at a small-town gas station where a couple of local hicks make their baleful intentions known. Dennis (Chris Carmack) wears an impressive scar under his right eye as a testament to the volatile relationship he had three years ago with college squad leader Sara (Sara Paxton). Dennis's pal Red (Joshua Leonard) is several cards short of a full deck. Once at Sara's lakeshore house our party animals indulge in some hotdog water skiing that costs a member of the group a limb to a very fast swimming shark. A gigantic hammerhead swimming in the saltwater bayou is to blame. Attempts at getting said victim to a hospital meet with mixed signals from Dennis and Red as the only people around to assist in the desperate situation. Donal Logue plays Greg, the area's slacker Sheriff who takes his job about as seriously as he does his air-drumming hobby. For a shark horror movie, there are hardly any of the shocks or sustained suspense audiences expect from the genre. Most lacking is any sense of humor or style in a film that aspires to mediocrity and achieves it all too easily.
Rated PG-13. 91 mins. (D+) (One Star - out of five/no halves)