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)
Final Destination 5
The "Final Destination" franchise settles into its comfortable shock horror rhythm in this latest outing. Notable is the film's proficient use of 3D--the best such example of any 3D movie so far this year. Debut director Steven Quale and his production team break the window with a purpose and regularity that puts other "3D" movies to shame.
As with its previous installments, the unfolding body-count of accident victims is predicted in a complex opening sequence of Rube Goldberg-styled outrageous disaster. Here, the Grim Reaper’s youthful targets are co-workers at a paper production company going on a work-related retreat. Needless to say, not much "team-building" is in store for the core group. A crumbling suspension bridge--not unlike San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge--sends our doomed twentysomethings fleeing their bus only to meet with gruesome deaths of blood-spattering, body-piercing, eyeball-popping variety. In keeping with the franchise's constant recipe, the sequence is a premonition envisioned by one member of the party who attempts to "cheat" death by sounding the alarm just before the actual calamity strikes. Sam (Nicholas D'Agosto) is the brief crystal-ball-reader. Sam's newly ex-girlfriend Molly (Emma Bell) is also aboard. Naturally, Sam does everything he can to save Molly. Since the condemned will die in the order that Sam predicted, he and Molly are far down the list.
There’s irony in how entertaining this 11-year-old horror franchise as compared with the torture-porn stylings of lesser efforts, such as the “Saw” films. The filmmakers and actors here all seem to be having a blast. If you start to become award of the inherent dangers constantly hanging over your head and hiding under your feet after seeing “Final Destination 5” then the filmmakers have done their job. Even if that doesn’t happen, at least you’ll get to experience a 3D movie that properly exploits the process.
Rated R. 95 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Don't Be Afraid of the Dark
Producer/co-writer Guillermo del Toro, the visionary filmmaker responsible for "Pan's Labyrinth," performs the neat trick of adapting the original 1973 television horror movie "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" into a tastefully suspenseful work of kid-friendly art, directed by newcomer Troy Nixey. In spite of some glaring plot inconsistencies regarding such matters as regional location and creature voices, "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" is sure to scare the heebeejeebies out of willing 12-year-old audiences. It's surprising that the MPAA gave the film an R rating considering that, to this critic's eye, the movie is ideally suited to preteen and teenaged viewers.
Bailee Madison ("Bridge to Terabithia") plays Sally, the ten-year-old daughter of hotshot architect Alex Hurst (Guy Pearce). Alex invites Sally away from his ex-wife to come stay with him and his new girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) at Blackwood Manor, a Gothic New England mansion he's busy restoring. The spooky house holds secrets from its original owner, an artist whose son's death drove him homicidally insane. Things go bump in the night (and in the day) after Sally goes poking around where she shouldn't, namely the basement. Bailee Madison's compulsive knowing smirk of approval slyly admits her character's playful attitude toward the ominous danger that threatens her. Naturally no one believes her stories about whispering little monsters that haunt her and commit acts of vandalism. There's very little blood in this horror movie built on suspense--think "The Others." "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" is a nuanced horror movie modulated to incur just the right quality of nightmare. You might want to sleep with the light on for a few nights after seeing it.
Rated R. 100 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
John Carpenter, the man responsible for reinventing the horror genre in 1978 with "Halloween," retains his trademark ability to wrench suspense. Unfortunately, his dated sense of character and narrative development has diminished considerably over the years. Screenwriters Shawn and Michael Rasmussen are of little use in this department. So it goes that Carpenter's first film since "Ghosts of Mars" in 2001 comes off as a naively pleasant but rambling exploration in old-school horror. You'd have to be a pretty inexperienced audience member to catch a chill up your spine.
Amber Heard holds her own as Kristen, a koo-koo-in-the-cabeza abduction victim consigned to North Bend Psychiatric Hospital, a '60s-era mental institution, after she burns down the farmhouse where she was once victimized. Under the supervision of electroshock-therapy proponent Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris), Amber takes her place among four fellow female crazies of classic horror character archetypes. A gray-skinned ghost-girl lurks the ward at night intent on killing the lunatic inmates one by one. The sane-seeming Kristen figures out that she must escape the hospital at any cost if she is to survive. A cruel nurse and a not-so-cruel orderly don't present as much menace as the filmmakers imagine. We never experience a sufficient level of dread or danger. Auditory sound queues signal knee-jerk shocks that never go beyond the ears.
Cinematographer Yaron Orbach's widescreen camera work invigorates the limp storyline. Nevertheless, bland production and lighting design elements give the film the look of a cheap soap opera. "The Ward" is a mediocre horror movie that needed a couple of major rewrites to be ready for modern audiences. Not even John Carpenter can shine this turd.
Rated R. 88 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
Tales of Terror - Classic Film Pick
Roger Corman's status as a reliable creator of pulpy low-budget horror movies was firmly established by 1962, when he made "Tales of Terror." In the years since 1955 Corman already had 15 successful films under his belt, such as "It Conquered the World," "A Bucket of Blood," and "The Little Shop of Horrors." Culling together three Edgar Allen Poe short stories to form an anthology movie packed with eerie music and comic book graphics, Corman took advantage of Vincent Price's hammy acting style to inject a campy sense of humor into each gothic half-hour segment.
Poe's "Morella" finds Price's morbidly depressed patriarch holding court over a large seaside mansion filled with cobwebs, blood-red candles, and the mummified corpse of his wife Morella, who lies in her bed. An unexpected visitation by his disenfranchised daughter Leonora (Maggie Pierce) brings up the subject of her participation in her mother's death during childbirth. Word of Leonora's terminal illness softens her father's feelings toward her, but doesn't prevent her mother's ghost from possessing her.
Poe's more famous short story "The Black Cat" is the standout of the trio thanks to Peter Lorre's self-possessed performance as Montresor Herringbone, an alcoholic husband who makes the mistake of bringing home his newfound drinking buddy, professional wine-taster Fortunato Luchresi (Vincent Price). Herringbone's abused wife Annabelle (Joyce Jameson) finds romantic favor with Fortunato, who takes a particular liking to her little black cat. Herringbone sees red when he discovers the lovers' plan to run off together. He concocts a plan to kill the couple and wall up their corpses in his basement. If only it weren't for Herringbone's dementia, which has him seeing weird creatures, he might be able to keep his secret.
"The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" closes out this trilogy of goofy terror. Valedmar (played by Price) is a wealthy old coot with a young wife named Helene (Debra Paget). Sensing his fast approaching death, Valdemar employs Mr. Carmichael (Basil Rathbone) a "mesmerist" who is to trick death by hypnotizing Valdemar at the second of his death, thereby keeping his body in a state of suspended animation. Naturally, it is Valdemor's young wife whom Mr. Carmichael is really after…if only it weren't for Valdemor's pre-arranged marriage between his physician Dr. James (David Frankham) and Helene. "Tales of Terror" is a perfect introduction to Roger Corman's storied career that gave so many actors and directors their start.