Aside from one truly inspired comic scenario involving Bill Murray, "Zombieland" is a flat horror spoof that wears out its welcome well before its abysmal third act gets started. In his role as "Columbus," one of the last surviving humans, Jesse Eisenberg further brands his casting type as Michael Cera's ("Youth in Revolt") main competition for the nerdy-teen-virgin leading guys that are in high demand these days (skip "Splinterheads"). Director Ruben Fleischer slathers on screenwriters Rhett Reese's and Paul Wernick's presentational voice-over narration from Columbus's perspective as a loner with a list of some 30 odd rules that have kept him alive--rules like, beware of bathrooms, always buckle up, and always shoot a zombie a second time in the head (a "Double tap") to ensure that he's really dead. Far from the canny social satire of George A. Romero's "Night of the Living Dead," and from the zany zombie movie homage of "Shaun of the Dead" (2004), "Zombieland" exists only to show zombies getting shot in the head, run over with SUVs, and generally murdered in fast and bloody ways. Columbus teams up with Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a zombie-killing pro, and the duo go on a zombie killing spree while meeting up with their duplicitous female rivals Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin). Watching a 12-year-old Abigail Breslin killing zombies with semi-automatic weapons doesn't do much for me, but I'm sure there are many audiences that will remark, "cool." Gratuitous violence never seemed so cheap.
Rated R. 81 mins. (C-) (Two Stars)
Antichrist - at the 47th New York Film Festival
Von Trier's use of color and texture is out of this world. A rugged landscape of gnarled tree roots, distorted physical reality, and a perpetual downfall of water, acorns, and blood. Yes, there's blood and pornography, but more important is the musical inertia of violence of film. With brilliant use of black-and-white photography, von Trier inserts color scenes and flashback sequences to add rhythmic cues that deepen the psychological and physical breakdown of his characters. And Dafoe and Gainsbourg are so loyal and trusting of their director that they're commit to their roles is staggering in its fearlessness. As a showcase of brilliant performances, the film does great justice to Dafoe's and Gainsbourg's abilities to sink their teeth deep into complex characters. "Antichrist" is a demanding film that pushes its dark ideas and exaggerated situations through a dialectic of guided precepts. As with Alfred Hitchcock, Lars von Trier works with a direct cinematic language that allows the audience to trust in his mastery of filmic art and ability to gross them out but not break them. Indeed, Lars von Trier is a master filmmaker. His exploration into the genre of horror is a film far scarier than any Hollywood movie. As with all of von Triers' films, there's some Dogme for the audience to chew on.
Rated R. 101 mins. (C) (Two Stars)
Worse even that its insipid script (co-written by Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger) is Elliot Greenberg's editing of a meandering slasher pic notable only for the number of nubile bare breasts that it manages to fit into nearly every other scene. Ostensibly based on Mark Rosman's 1983 slasher effort "The House on Sorority Row," the movie sets up a batch of wrongheaded sorority chics hosting a blow-out party that clearly answers the difference between a sorority house and a circus--one is a cunning array of stunts. The clique hatch a complex scheme to punk frat boy Garrett (Matt O'Leary) making bedroom moves on Megan (Audriuna Partridge) after giving her a ruffie. Megan barfs foam and seems to die, resulting in clique leader Jessica (Leah Pipes) taking Megan, Garrett, and her gang to an abandoned mine shaft to prolong Garrett's freak-out from thinking that he's killed Megan. In his panic, Garrett does indeed retire Megan with a tire iron. The sworn-to-secrecy chicks drop Megan's body down a well and go back to living a 24/7 party until a black shrouded figure starts knocking off related kids and adults alike eight months later. I wish I could say that there was one redeeming reason to see this movie, but there isn't.
Rated R. 101 mins. (D) (One Star)
Writer/director Rob Zombie's one-note blood bath is a juvenile experiment in gore for gore's sake. It remains a mystery how such an incompetent writer could ever sell the kind of monotonous drivel that "Halloween II" represents, much less get a budget to direct it. Audiences looking for any kind of story will be sorely disappointed with Zombie's barely mapped out narrative wherein plenty of characters with little to no personality are savagely murdered by a giant--we're talking 6'5"--serial killer with a grave mommy complex. Malcolm McDowell slums it as Dr. Samuel Loomis, an exploitation author whose Halloween-timed launch of his latest book, about the notorious Mike Myers, attracts all kind of threats and humiliations for his troubles. Even the film's visual style is a hackneyed affair, full of dumb set designs and gaudy lighting compositions that flatten out all would-be suspense. Zombie doesn't know subtext from a submarine, or suspense from surprise. It's as if the studio (Dimension) let some testosterone-boiling 15-year-old boy with a case of Red Bull in his belly make a slapdash gore fest where a woman in white with a white horse is meant to represent the psychological underpinning of a mute killer in a William Shatner mask. Shame, Rob Zombie, shame.
Rated R. 105 mins. (F) (Zero Stars)
Korean director Park Chan-wook drops the ball with a monotonous vampire picture very loosely inspired by Emile Zola's 1867 novel "Therese Raquin." Song Kang-ho ("The Host") plays Sang-hyun, a much loved small town priest who volunteers to be a guinea pig for a secret vaccine that could help stop a deadly epidemic. However, a batch of infected blood turns him into a vampire whose skin erupts with huge boils unless he drinks the blood that he requires on a regular basis. Sang-hyun becomes an especially horny priest, and he falls into a raucous affair with Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin), the younger wife of an immature, and perhaps impotent, friend. Just when things should get interesting, the movie slips into a permanent lull that drags across two fairly agonizing acts leading up to a pat climax of limited reward. Far from Park Chan-wook's more interesting efforts (such as "Oldboy") "Thirst" lacks an appropriate atmosphere and tempo to compete with last year's great deconstructionistvampire movie "Let the Right One In."
Rated R. 133 mins. (C-) (Two Stars)
I Sell the Dead
Newbie filmmaker Glenn McQuaid strikes a deliberate "Twilight Zone" chord with animation-shifting chapter breaks to separate sections of a 19th century story set in foggy Ireland where two grave robbers, Arthur Blake and Willie Grimes (played by Dominic Monaghan and Larry Fessenden), ply their gruesome trade. After Willie's decapitating punishment for his crimes, the incarcerated Arthur is questioned by Father Duffy (played by Ron Perlman), who uses whiskey to loosen Arthur's lips about his less savory experiences with the dead and undead under Willie's tutelage. Vampire and alien corpses disrupt the gothic atmosphere that serves as a good-hearted homage to the Hammer films of the '50s and '60s. The episodic storytelling is jaggedly cut and pasted together, but there's infections fun to be had in the salty humor and slapstick horror that McQuaid and his expressive actors slather on with knowing winks. Many pints of beer and blood flow freely in this old school horror reverie.
Not Rated. 85 mins. (B-) (Three Stars)
A warped imagining of every sexually deranged, 21st century teenaged boy's wet nightmare, "Deadgirl" follows a cutting-edge story idea severely dulled by a third act failure that wipes out all curiosity about its horrific subject matter. Ostracized high school stoners Rickie (Shiloh Fernandez) and JT (Noah Segan) are a good-cop-bad-cop duo that ditch class to go snooping around a disused asylum where they discover a deceased nude girl chained to a gurney inside a locked room. Surprises come when the lass turns out to be some kind of sex zombie incapable of being killed, but plenty able to soak up every bit of semen the boys pump into her fairly grotesque body. JT becomes so obsessed with their necro sex slave that he sets up shop in the cold damp environment, but loses his authority when a couple of school bullies make their way into the lair and incite an especially vicious response from the feral dead girl who doesn't take so kindly to their brand of group sex. Part S&M torture porn, and part would-be zombie thriller, "Deadgirl" is an audacious movie by a couple of newcomer directors (Gadi Harel and Marcel Sarmiento) who never get around to bringing their premise full circle. Clearly inspired by "Andy Warhol's Frankenstein" (1973), "Deadgirl" is dirty little video nasty that doesn't begin to approach Warhol's superior production that was directed by Paul Morrissey.
Rated R. 101 mins. (D+) (One Star)
Quite probably the worst film of 2009, "The Collector" (no relation to the great John Fowles novel) is director/co-writer Marcus Dunstan's gratuitous attempt at torture porn after writing the scripts for the fourth and fifth installments of the "Saw" horror franchise. Arkin (played by Josh Stewart) is a building contractor with his eye on the contents of a safe in the home of a wealthy client. In the interest of paying off a looming debt to his ex-wife, Arkin breaks into the home while the family is away on vacation, only to discover that he has walked into a booby-trapped chamber of horrors. How it is that a killer installed a complex design of deadly blades on pulleys and gears in the few hours since Arkin last left the house is of little interest to a filmmaker concerned only with abusing his audience with gut wrenching scenes of human suffering and blood spewing violence. The storytelling on display is beneath remedial. Dunstan clearly didn't get the memo that "torture porn" is so 2007. The filmmaker's refusal to even bother with a cogent ending shows a contempt for his audience that is unforgivable. "The Collector" is an open-handed insult to fans of the horror genre.
(Liddell Entertainment) Rated R. 88 mins. (F) (Zero Stars)
"Orphan" is a persuasive addition to the subgenre of bad-seed-horror films like "The Omen" where a creepy little kid wreaks havoc and murder on the lives of ill-equipped adults. The real child of hell here is nine-year-old Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a charming orphan of Russian descent whose induction into the wealthy family of John and Kate Coleman (Peter Sarsgaard and Vera Farmiga) allows for more than a few shocks of tragic violence and some very uncomfortable familial manipulation. Kate's recent miscarriage of a daughter inspires the couple to bring an adopted girl to join their 10-year-old son Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) and their hearing-impaired six-year-old daughter Max (Aryana Engineer). Kate is a recovering alcoholic whose drinking almost cost Max's life near their well appointed lakeside house. Despite Esther's polite demeanor and undeniable artistic gifts--she paints expressive pictures and makes up captivating stories to go along with them--a spate of bizarre events makes Kate suspect that Esther is a source of trouble. Director Jaume Collet-Serra redeems himself after his disastrous "House of Wax" with a genuinely scary movie ramped up by a truly inspired plot twist.
(Warner Brothers) Rated R. 120 mins. (B+) (Four Stars)
Upstart Norwegian filmmaker Tommy Wirkola goes for gory glory in a Nazi zombie slasher pic that steals liberally from the Sam Raimi cannon of horror. Trouble comes when a group of medical students go for a snowmobile vacation in a remote mountain cabin that happens to be located on the grave site of hundreds of Nazi soldiers waiting for an opportunity to awaken and take back the gold trinkets they stole from local villagers more than a half century ago. There's plenty of toilet humor and gross-out visuals as our doomed group of victims do battle with an unending stream of zombies whose, make-up is the best thing in the movie. For young gore-hungry audiences who haven't seen "The Evil Dead" (one and two), "Dead Snow" could work as a stomach-churning thrill ride, but for more experienced viewers, you're much better off sticking with a master of the genre like Sam Raimi, whose "Drag Me to Hell" achieves everything the "Dead Snow" filmmakers attempted to do, and more.
Rated R. 90 mins. (C) (Two Stars)
Hemmed in by theatrically bound staging, "Pontypool" is an overly inflated zombie flick that makes overtures to a weighty theme of social consciousness that the screenwriters are ill-prepared to fulfill. The talky action takes place within the cinderblock walls of a lonely AM radio station, in the snowy town of Pontypool, Ontario, where Stephen McHattie's grizzled radio announcer Grant Mazzy employs every baiting trick to keep listeners tuned in. Panicked reports of violent mob attacks around the epicenter of town instill fear in Grant, his show's producer Sydney (Lisa Houle), and her assistant Laurel Ann (Georgina Reilly) as they attempt to unravel the mystery closing in on them. The tone goes all horror camp when the viral implications of certain repeated words seem to point to the cause of the zombie infestation. What might have worked as an Off-Broadway play flails as a movie.
Rated R. 96 mins. (C-) (Two Stars)
Drag Me to Hell
Co-written with his brother Ivan, Sam Raimi crafts an enormously enjoyable house of cinematic horrors that is at turns funny, campy, shocking, and scary. The ever-engaging Alison Lohman plays Christine, a bank loan officer angling for an assistant manager position. Attempting to impress her boss with her ability to make "tough choices," Christine denies a loan extension to an old Hungarian gypsy named Mrs. Ganush (wonderfully played by Lorna Raver). The decision causes Mrs. Ganush to place a terrible curse on Christine that promises to drag her to hell at the end of three days. With the help of her attentive boyfriend Clay (Justin Long), and a knowledgeable psychic (played by Dileep Rao), Christine tries to get rid of the curse that causes all sorts of terrifying events and bodily harm. Sam Raimi uses everything in his bag of cinematic tricks to create a fast paced "Night Gallery"/"Twilight Zone"-styled horror movie that continuously goes much further than any expectations might prepare you for. "Drag Me to Hell" is the most fun I've had at the movies in years. It's destined to be a cult classic for all eternity.
Rated PG-13. 99 mins. (A+) (Five Stars)
The Tenant (Classic Film Pick)
Polanski’s intense 1976 psychological thriller stars the director
himself as Trelkovsky, a troubled file clerk who takes over the former
apartment of a young female suicide victim named Simone Choule who
jumped from its Parisian windows. Trelkovsky comes to believe that his
cruel nagging neighbors were to blame for the woman’s suicide, and are
now using their same bizarre methods to extract a similar response from
him. Enigmatic performances from Isabelle Adjani as a chic friend of
the deceased, and from Polanski as a man losing his sanity, contribute
greatly to the film's unusual layers of suspense that coincide with the
director's keen eye for Paris locations, and brilliant visual
compositions. Known as the last of
Polanski’s apartment trilogy, following “Repulsion” and “Rosemary’s
Baby,” “The Tenant” contains one of the most outrageous double climaxes
ever committed to celluloid. Nightmares will follow.
Not Rated. 120 mins. (A+) (Five Stars)
William Friedkin ratchets up suspense and terror to an almost unbearable level with his adaptation of Tracy Letts’ award-winning 2004 Off-Broadway play "Bug," about a couple of outsiders consumed by paranoia. The psycho-satiric dramatic material is like a Sam Shepherd play amped up on a steroid and amphetamine cocktail that Friedkin mixes with cunning potency. Without the benefit of make-up, Ashley Judd chews scenery and spits it out as Agnes, an ordinary lower class loser holed up in a desert motel room where she’s a sitting duck for her abusive ex-husband Jerry (Harry Connick Jr.), recently released after two years in prison. Emotionally damaged by the disappearance of her young son some years ago, lonely Agnes welcomes the live-in romantic attention of Peter, a self professed Iraq war veteran (circa 1990) (magnificently played by Michael Shannon in the role he created onstage in London and New York). Between earsplitting hovering helicopters and threatening visits from Jerry, Peter discovers "bugs" he calls aphids that he believes were planted under his skin as part of a military medical experiment. It isn’t long before the tiny mechanized insects also invade Agnes’ physiology, and the couple descends into a bizarre reality consumed with a panic-stricken fear scratching at them from their insides out. Sure, it’s a film based on a play, but this little movie kicks like a "Motherbug."
Rated R. 101 mins. (B+) (Four Stars)
"Dead Kids" was the original title for director Michael Laughlin's '80s new wave inspired homage to '50 B-Movie horror flicks. New Zealand stands in for a small Illinois town where a demented, and deceased, college psychology professor is performing experiments on local high school kids that lead to an epidemic of knife inflicted murders. The town's sheriff (Michael Murphy) has more than his family at stake to solve the mystery and stop the horror. "Strange Behavior" is a crucial link between slasher films like "Halloween" and later "who-drank-the-kool-aid" teen thrillers. "Strange Behavior" is a campy B-horror movie with some very funny moments.
Rated R. 99 mins. (B) (Three Stars)
The Fly (Classic Film Pick)
Add David Cronenberg's 1986 version of "The Fly" to the short list of successful remakes in the history of the movies. Cronenberg hit the height of his Hollywood success with a bold update of director Kurt Neumann's 1958 original that starred the great Vincent Price, who famously became spider bait in the film's celebrated final scene. From its ingenious pre-CGI special effects and spellbinding production design, to Jeff Goldblum’s sensational performance, “The Fly” is a masterpiece of cinematic horror that escalates to a a white heat of tension. Scientist Seth Brundle (Goldblum) works on a teleportation device when he isn’t courting Geena Davis. Calamity strikes when a common house fly accidentally gets trapped in the teleporter with Seth during an experiment and he becomes fused with the insect. Cronenberg weaves surprise and suspense into a taught tapestry of overpowering emotion and shocking nightmare reality. Gory, gooey, and great, right through to the last frame, this is one horror movie you'll never forget.
The Haunting in Connecticut
This structurally defective horror movie never pays off on the carefully planted "Boo" scares detonate at a regular rate over the course of its underdeveloped story. In order to be closer to the hospital where their teenaged son Matt (Kyle Gallner) is undergoing cancer treatment, Sara (Virginia Madsen) and Peter Campbell (Martin Donovan) rent a bargain Victorian house in Connecticut with room enough for their two other children and a visiting niece. As it turns out the troubled property is a former funeral home that was inhabited by a kooky family of corpse-collecting, séance-leading weirdoes whose son Johan (Erik Berg) could make ghostly ectoplasm spew from the orifices of himself and others. Afterthought subplots about Peter's battle with alcoholism, and a cancer-suffering Reverend champion (poorly acted by Elias Koteas) lead the movie to its slapdash conclusion. Only Kyle Gallner's gothic performance, as the death's-door-victim who sees more than just ghosts, gives the movie any weight.
(Lionsgate) Rated PG-13. 92 mins. (C-) (Two Stars)
The Last House on the Left (2009)
By definition, any update of Wes Craven's "Last House on the Left" is sure to be a schlock fest. Greek director Dennis Iliadis uses every trick in the book to ramp up suspense and deliver shout-at-the-screen shocks from Adam Alleca's and Carl Ellsworth's straight-forward script about violent retribution for crimes committed. When the Collingwood family of three go for a holiday at their lakeside house, swim champ daughter Mari (Sara Paxton) takes the family car into town to visit her feisty gal pal Paige (Martha Maclsaac). The promise of good marijuana lures the pair into the clutches of evil-doers that includes a prison escapee, his teenage son, a femme fatal, and a spitting-mad murderer. Audiences familiar with Craven's original know there will be an especially nasty rape scene--here constructed as a kind of group sex be-in. Payback comes from Mari's mom (Monica Potter) and pop (Tony Goldwyn) when the gang that brutalized their daughter shows up at the family lake house in need of medical treatment and shelter. As an exploitation B-horror movie, this latest addition to the genre is heads and shoulders above anything Rob Zombie has ever done.
Rated R. 109 mins. (B-) (Three Stars)
Psycho (Classic Film Pick)
Alfred Hitchcock should be credited with making the first slasher film for the ground-breaking narrative template he created for "Psycho." Regardless of how many times you've seen it, "Psycho" is a compulsively watchable horror thriller that builds layers of exponential suspense with every scene. Famously made on a shoestring budget, with a television production crew, "Psycho" is a horror movie that gains claustrophobic momentum from its desolate "Bates" motel location where Janet Leigh's Marion Crane makes her last stop. Anthony Perkins gives a career-topping performance as the motel owner with a nasty mommy complex, based on real-life psychotic Ed Gein. The 1960 film found Alfred Hitchcock working at the height of his powers. The famous shower scene is still studied by film students for Hitchcock's brilliant use of montage. "Psycho" is everything a horror movie should be, creepy, sexy, dark, and terribly shocking. In a word, perfect. Rated R. 109 mins. (A+) (Five Stars)
Nosferatu (Classic Film Pick)
Herzog's 1979 homage to F.W. Murnau's 1922 silent film is an
appropriately chilling telling of the Gothic tale derived from Bram
Stoker's Dracula. Klaus Kinski delivers a spot-on performance that may
be finest of his career as the bloodthirsty vampire Count Dracula who
takes advantage of a real estate broker (played by Bruno Ganz).
Isabelle Adjani brings her immutable beauty to bear as the broker's
fearful wife fated to suffer Dracula’s bite. The movie is filled with
delightfully scary touches and recreated camera angles from Murnau's
(A+) (Five Stars)