The Stand (1994)

MAY 31, 2009


When The Stand came out on DVD, it got some decent press, due to the fact that it was the first DVD 18 (dual layer on both sides), which allowed the entire movie to fit on one disc. But I am willing to bet that I am one of the few that took advantage of this by actually watching the entire goddamn thing in one sitting (well, between parts 2 and 3 I took a shower), as opposed to over a period of like a month, which is what I did when I was 14. As I had since forgotten everything about it, and that’s no way to watch a movie anyway, I figured it qualified for HMAD.

Another thing that helped my lack of memory is the fact that I have yet to read the book, and the movie makes a pretty good argument that doing that would have been a far better use of my six hours. The film starts off strong, but the 2nd half is plagued from a story that is seemingly moving too fast yet at the same time seems to be stuck in neutral. Characters are literally introduced on their death bed, and other events, such as Stu Redman meeting Mother Abigail, are skipped entirely (I don’t think Gary Sinise ever shares a scene with Ruby Dee). While it’s technically preferable to have King adapt his own novel, in this case I think it would have been better if someone else tackled it. Maybe it was just the result of having to cut things that were shot, but it seems more likely that his close attachment to the novel left him unable to discern how a new audience could follow the material.

Take, for example, the character of Lloyd Henreid. He’s a pretty interesting character, and he’s played by Miguel Ferrer, which is even better. But the movie seemingly skips an entire chunk of his character arc; he’s suddenly a bit remorseful about siding with Flagg, yet feels compelled to stick by him for rescuing him from starvation. And it’s never clear why Flagg puts him in such a prominent role in the first place; all we know about him is that he’s a petty criminal. His storyline, and several others, always give me the impression that “in the book it makes sense”. Like the first two Harry Potter films, I suspect that the filmmaker was merely filming the book instead of making a movie.

If I may, I’d like to compare this film with It (which I have read). Yes, the movie version isn’t as compelling and skips entire chunks of the original novel. BUT, and this is far more important, it never FELT like it was missing things. It told a complete, coherent story. Not the case here. As the film went on, I found myself growing more and more confused as to why characters were behaving in certain ways, to the point where I considered grabbing the book off the shelf and reading along to fill in whatever gaps the movie was leaving. Characters also disappear for long stretches, to the extent that when the movie gets around to them again, you’ve forgotten what they were up to the last time you saw them. Granted, It had a smaller cast, but it also only had half the time, and it never felt rushed or left its characters by the wayside.

Then again, maybe it’s just the simple matter that Tommy Lee Wallace (who directed/adapted It) has proven himself to be a better filmmaker than Mick Garris. I liked Garris’ version of The Shining (it’s better than Kubrick’s from a “coherent story” point of view, if only in that regard), but his movies generally suffer from awkward pacing and a lack of any sort of discernible passion for the material. One exception would be Riding The Bullet, which is his strongest film and unlike his others, found him having to make a feature out of a short story instead of a massive book. Maybe he should stick to short stories, if he must work only within the world of Stephen King, which seems to be the case (he’s currently attached to Bag of Bones, which actually MIGHT work as a two hour film as the book could have used some tightening anyway).

Also, the “end of the world” cutaways don’t really make a lot of sense in this movie. Even in the final section, Garris still keeps cutting to corpses laying around, doing whatever they were doing when they died. Some make sense, such as a guy sitting at his breakfast table or even driving. Others, however, are wholly illogical when you consider how the super flu works. It doesn’t kill you instantly; you get the flu and slowly die. So why would people die in the car wash or at work? At the point where they finally died, they’d be pretty sick, so you’d think getting their car cleaned would be the last thing on their mind. And these shots make up the bulk of the “horror” as the narrative grinds to a halt (whether this is true of the book or not I dunno, but nothing fucking happens from the moment Nick dies at the end of part 3 until the climax at the end of part 4), so it’s a bit distracting when half of it doesn’t even make any sense.

One thing the movie definitely delivers is a strong cast. Gary Sinise disappears for long stretches, but he’s still a much higher caliber than we usually get for a lead in a Stephen King TV miniseries (which are often plucked from Wings). And Rob Lowe is surprisingly strong as Nick. Matt Frewer also appears, in the first of a trilogy of “end of the world” scenario films in which he plays a role under heavy makeup (the others being Watchmen and Dawn of the Dead 04). The minor roles are more often than not played by recognizable character actors (or directors - John Landis and Sam Raimi both pop up), so you get a Sam Anderson or Troy Evans in a few scenes as well. Speaking of Anderson, both he and Sherman Howard are in this film, which is worth noting as they played the pair of “yuppie drug dealers” in I Come In Peace (which was directed by Craig Baxley, who has helmed a number of King TV projects himself).

There’s also a guy that I could have sworn was Michael Moriarty, but was actually a guy named Robert Knott. Sorry about that, Mr. Knott.

And despite the 2nd half flaws, it’s still a decent movie. At six hours, I was expecting to get pretty antsy, but the first half flew by and there was enough good stuff in the 2nd half to keep my interest, not to mention a pretty terrific score by ‘Snuffy’ Walden I also love the idea that the final battle for the fate of mankind would occur in Las Vegas. And it made me want to read the book, so that’s good. Speaking of, I actually own both the original and the revised/uncut version from a few years ago - which one is better? Does the added material slow the book down or make it better? I sure as hell ain’t gonna read both.

The DVD has a commentary, but you can be damn sure I’m not going to listen to it; it was hard enough to set aside the time to watch the movie once. There are also some production notes, a few stills, and a featurette, nothing special (though the featurette is worth a look if only to see Rob Lowe inexplicably made to look like Dennis Miller). The movie aired before the rise of HD programming, so the full-frame presentation is fine, but the audio is terrible. Whenever there is a loud sudden noise, the audio dips out for a while. Weak.

So there you have it, a six hour movie that suffers from rushed storytelling. Maybe they should have just done a “Season-long Miniseries”, like with Kingdom Hospital, which would have allowed more time for character development and a finale that didn’t feel so abrupt. M-O-O-N, that spells missed opportunity!

What say you?

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Piranha II: The Spawning (1981)

MAY 30, 2009


As part of my attempt to wash the stink of Terminator: Salvation out of my mind, I re-watched the original film (long gone are the days where a new sequel would be prefaced by my re-watching all of the series’ films up to that point), which in turn got me in the mood to revisit some of James Cameron’s films. Good timing too, because the Aero in Santa Monica was showing Aliens and The Abyss (theatrical versions though, blah). So today I figured I’d finally sit down with Piranha II: The Spawning, which I had never seen (mainly because I still haven’t seen the original, but I discovered that it was a "name only" sequel so I made an exception).

Piranha II is of course a well-documented oddity in Cameron’s career. In addition to being his only feature film that doesn’t begin with the letter T or A, it features none of his trademarks (other than Lance Henriksen, who for a change has his name spelled correctly on the box art but incorrectly on the film itself), has tasteless nudity and bloody gore (re-watching Terminator I was surprised to see how many of Arnold’s kills were off-screen), and essentially kind of sucks. How much of the film he actually directed is a mystery, but everyone agrees that it’s not “his” film in any way shape or form.

However, some things are worth noting. For example, the relationship between Lance and his estranged wife (Tricia O'Neil, who resembles a piece of leather in many scenes) is identical to that of Bud and Lindsay in The Abyss. Hell, it even has the same sort of “reveal” that the two are married after they squabble in front of others. And it has a lot of the underwater photography that has become almost a requirement for his later films (Abyss, True Lies, Titanic, and then his documentaries in the 2000s). So even if these things weren’t his idea, they certainly stuck with him.

As for the movie itself, it’s what I call a “Bev-ready” movie, meaning that I would rather watch it at the New Bev with a bunch of drunks than at home by myself. There are a lot of gory kills and pointless nudity to cheer over, but it’s also too slow (after the opening kill, the fish don’t even appear for another 35 minutes or so) and lacking any real tension. Lance is kept out of the big finale, flying a helicopter around while the wife and her new boyfriend do the real cool stuff (i.e. blowing up a shipwreck where the fish have nested). Since Lance is often killed in movies, it would have been far more exciting to put him down there, instead of the wife/mother (surely a survivor) and the boyfriend who is partly responsible for the piranhas’ existence (a goner).

Also, where the original is a Jaws parody of sorts (from what I understand), this one’s just a straight up ripoff. We get the opening scene with two young lovers (though at least the guy gets killed too), a big annual event with lots of swimmers in danger, a guy who doesn’t want to close the beaches, etc. Plus Lance kind of resembles Roy Scheider at times, and the 3rd act rescue of his son (trapped on a boat) is taken from Jaws 2. Then again, the setting is a resort, which got stolen in Jaws 3, so I guess it evens out. Still, considering the antagonist (flying man-eating fish), more fun could have been had in the proceedings. There are occasional light moments with the supporting cast, but the action and the story are played totally straight.

Unsurprisingly, the DVD has no extra features whatsoever. Still, that didn’t stop Sony from trying to claim otherwise; the back of the DVD has a big box labeled “Special Features” which includes things like “Audio: English” and “Full Screen Presentation”. There are also Thai subtitles, in case some guy in Thailand has a region 1 player and wants to be just as confused as to why a film called Piranha II doesn’t have any piranhas (they are genetically modified grunion).

What say you?

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The Children (1980)

MAY 29, 2008


I hate to be so mean to Harry Manfredini, but he really brings it upon himself. Within 5 seconds of the introduction of his score for The Children (aka The Children Of Ravensback), I knew it was his music. How? Because, as always, it’s identical to his score for Friday the 13th. But unlike Hills Have Eyes 2 or whatever, this movie came out within weeks of F13, which means he was already being pretty lazy. Plus, the score is practically stolen from Bernard Herrmann to begin with, so he’s endlessly recycling a recycled score. Come on man.

At least the movie works without constantly being reminded of Crystal Lake. Like Crash! or some other low budget horror movies, it’s essentially a moebius strip film, where the same two scenes more or less repeat in succession for the bulk of the running time. Here, we have the sheriff investigating the disappearance of about a half dozen kids from a school bus alternating with scenes of those children, who have been turned into zombies of a sort, killing people by hugging them. I wish I saw this back to back with The Horsemen, as the two carry polar opposite messages (in this case, DON’T hug your children or they will kill you).

Eventually though, the sheriff does his job and figures out what is going on, and then the film kicks it up a notch. And by that I mean we see kids getting shot. But since they are zombies, shooting them in the chest does little besides make me laugh. No, the only way to stop them is to cut their hands off (!!!). There’s a hilarious shot during the epilogue of a bunch of their bodies lying on the ground with disembodied hands laying around. In short, the movie’s kind of awesome.

Speaking of the epilogue, maybe they just ran out of money or something, but it’s really disconnected and weak. We know there’s a final scare coming, and that part sort of works, but it comes after like a five minute sequence of shots of the house, the yard, etc, while the two heroes talk about the female’s impending childbirth. That or they had to make a 90 minute run time for some reason and needed to drag things out (the end credits run a bit slow as well). It doesn’t really hurt the movie overall, but its still pretty awkward.

Something occurred to me a few moments before said epilogue: killer kid movies rarely feature other kids being killed. As the zombie children murder half the town (all adults) I didn’t think anything of it, but I was rather shocked when a kid of about 4 years old is killed by his zombie brother (in a scene that seems inspired by Salem’s Lot). Even when they are the villains of the film and killing folks left and right, it’s still a taboo to have them killed. I actually wonder if that’s why they can only be killed by chopping off their hands, as opposed to the heads. But this was 1980, and I don’t think even today the world is ready for the awesome sight of zombie children being beheaded making up the “heroics” of a movie.

The movie was shot in Massachusetts, a fact that is unceremoniously dropped into the narrative during a news broadcast late in the film. Not that it really matters, but I would have liked to have known right from the start so I try to see if I could spot any locations I recognized. Oddly enough, there’s a prominent bridge in the movie that I actually thought was the one from Funny Farm, which was shot in Vermont (if you’re a geography wizard, you’d know that those two states border each other, something I only know because I lived there).

As I watched this on Instant View, I have no access to the extra features, but since the DVD is distributed by Troma, I’m guessing most of them having fuck all to do with the movie anyway. Still, if I see it cheap enough (doubtful, it's apparently out of print), I’ll totally buy it. Good stuff.

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Eyes Without A Face (1960)

MAY 28, 2009


Sometimes I like a movie but don’t really have much to say about it. Such is the case with Eyes Without A Face (French: Les Yeux Sans Visage), a solid little movie in the vein of The Ape, albeit much classier since its French. But luckily, in this case, the film’s trivia from Wikipedia and IMDb gave me enough to make up the traditional 5 or 6 paragrapher that HMAD readers expect (and sometimes demand).

For example, despite my near encyclopedic knowledge of Halloween, I never knew that Carpenter cited this film as one of the inspirations for Michael’s pale mask. In this movie, our heroine has lost her face due to a car accident (that or she’s addicted to the knife), so while her mad scientist father makes her a new one using the faces of unwilling donors, she wears this creepy white mask to cover her Uncle Frank-ness. It’s so creepy, you almost wish that she was the villain, as she would be one of the most memorable movie killers ever.

Another thing I learned was that the film was paired with The Manster and curiously retitled The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus, a character that does not appear in the film (with that in mind, perhaps Eyes/Faustus should have been paired with the Doctor X less Revenge of Doctor X, which is strangely similar to Manster to boot). As a viewer of more than a couple of puzzling double features at the New Bev (Bachelor’s Party with Pieces?), I can sympathize with a crowd who went to see The Manster and then had to sit through a weird French movie afterwards. What a tonal mindfuck.

This part I just want to re-quote. Apparently, when the film showed at a film festival in Edinburgh, seven people fainted. When he heard about it, director Georges Franju said “Now I know why Scotsmen wear skirts.” OH, SNAP!

One thing I noticed on my own (and verified with the wiki page) is that the film obviously had an influence on John Woo. Any facial transplant scenario will obviously bring Face/Off to mind, but there is also a clumsy metaphor involving white doves! Sadly, the similarities end there; this film has not a single shootout, nor does anyone have cool sunglasses.

Not all of my thoughts on the film are based on a webpage I could have read without even watching the film, however. I did take notes. One is “music”. This refers to Maurice Jarre’s score, which sounds like circus music. I know Jarre is a legendary composer, and the score by itself is fine, but it doesn’t really fit the mood of the film. I hear circus music, and I expect clowns and maybe a ring of fire. Not a bunch of French folks yapping.

I also wrote down “subs”, because I liked how intelligent the subtitle guy thought we were. Unlike most movies, simple common words like "Hello", "Yes", etc are not subtitled, because we all know what they are in French ("Bonjour", "Oui"). Not constantly having distracting text on the screen allows you to enjoy the actual, unblemished image more often, so this was much appreciated.

Another thing I dug about the movie was how it sort of pulled a Psycho on us. After more or less figuring out what the doctor is up to, we meet a new girl whose face he and his faithful assistant plan to take. So you probably think that the movie will be about this girl finding out the truth and then escaping, but nope, she’s a goner. As the movie plays, you realize that it’s ultimately about the doctor and his daughter, not their victims.

Apparently, the film was also edited during its initial release, and only appeared uncut a few years ago. The “Janus” logo at the top of the film would have me believe that the DVD is from Criterion, so if that’s the case I recommend you rent it at once! I would say “buy”, but since Criterion overcharges for their DVDs, this wouldn’t be a sound investment as you’re not likely to watch it more than once. Save that money for Criterion’s Armageddon DVD.

What say you?

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The Horsemen (2009)

MAY 27, 2009


I feel bad for Dennis Quaid. He’s a great actor, and like Bruce Willis or Kurt Russell, has aged gracefully and is capable of tackling a variety of roles. But the guy can’t catch a break when it comes to the box office. Looking at his stats, he’s only had three hit movies this decade, out of about a dozen or so. And now The Horsemen, which should have been a minor hit just based on the pedigree (Platinum Dunes, who is batting pretty damn close to a thousand at the box office), didn’t even get a wide release. After shelving it for nearly two years, Lionsgate Midnight Meat Trained it into 5 theaters this past winter, and now its hitting DVD with zero fanfare.

Well, suffice to say that while it certainly deserved better (all movies deserve a chance to be seen; the goddamn thing didn’t even play in Los Angeles!), it’s no revelatory gem either. Of the 4 or 5 movies Lionsgate royally fucked over in the past year, it’s the weakest (though ironically, also the most "commercial"). Apparently, there were some reshoots (and at least one re-cast role - Neil McDonough was replaced with Chelcie Ross, two actors that couldn't be less alike), and they show, but what really sinks the movie is how generic it is for the first hour, only to suddenly pull out all the stops with a finale that means well but unfortunately comes off as laughable.

NOTE - Spoilers will follow, including the killer’s identity and motive.

See, the first hour is your standard 90’s serial killer movie (think Seven or Bone Collector) mixed with the overused “Cop is so devoted to his job he neglects his children” plot. In the first twenty minutes, Quaid’s character goes through every one of the “bad movie parent” clichés: he forgets to buy milk, shows up late to pick one of the kids up from school, and even does the whole ‘Hey kids lets go to the game uh oh my phone is ringing which means we’re not going to the game’ thing. I can only assume a scene where the kid has to forge his dad’s signature on a field trip form was lost in the re-editing process. And while Quaid is as good an actor as any, no one can overcome how painfully generic these scenes are. That, mixed with yet another biblically themed serial killer (don’t any of these guys just kill for fun anymore?), will give you the impression that you’re watching some sort of karaoke version of a real movie.

And then all of a sudden we get a decent twist, and for a second I thought the generic-ness was about to pay off. However, it just goes completely off the rails when you discover that the killer is... his older son. While running around his house looking for the younger kid, Quaid runs into the son's room and finds that its covered with all of the plans, evidence of the murders, etc. And his motive? Quaid didn’t pay any attention to him for too long. So we actually have a serial killer movie where the killer says “You haven’t been in my room for three years!” and the cop tries to get the killer to stop by promising to take him to a ball game or whatever. Amazing. Hell, I will ignore the idiotic plot hole of the concept (OK, Quaid’s a shitty dad, but neither the babysitter or the little brother went into his room for three years either?) because the message - pay attention to your kids - is a sound one, but this is not the way to go about it.

Also, you know, I can’t stand emo kids, and that’s all the killers (four horsemen) are here. Here are their motives: One was touched by her stepdaddy, another is gay and his big brother (Eric Balfour!) doesn’t accept him, and our main guy doesn’t get to hang out with his dad enough. The fourth one is killed off-screen and we never see him alive. Let’s assume he writes bad poetry. So we have this hard R movie that’s essentially masquerading as an after school special. Families, watch The Horsemen together and then discuss ways in which you could bond better (for starters, watch better movies than The Horsemen).

And it’s a shame, because the movie wastes a good cast. Ross is always welcome (he also popped up in Drag Me To Hell), and Peter Stormare shows up long enough for you to say “Hey, this movie sure was re-edited, otherwise they wouldn’t have hired Stormare to play two nearly wordless scenes." And Patrick Fugit plays one of the horsemen, who also doesn’t have enough screen time to warrant an actor of his stature.

So in a way I feel kind of bad knocking on the movie, as the re-editing is so painfully obvious (if the IMDb is correct, at least 20 minutes are missing). Maybe these ideas worked better when given time to grow, but as I said, the character stuff is overly generic, so I somewhat doubt it would improve. And it functions OK enough as a serial killer thriller, with at least one disturbing scene to spruce things up a bit. I also dug the snowy setting; the city is never named (it was shot in Canada, of course, but I think it’s supposed to be an East Coast US city like Philly or Boston) but that works in its favor. There’s a great bit where Quaid is driving out to an isolated area to investigate a crime scene, plowing through stop signs on icy roadways with no one around.

The film was directed by Jonas Akerlund, who has directed several great music videos (and an inordinate number of clips for Roxette) such as "Beautiful Day" for U2 and a few for Smashing Pumpkins. Saddled with this script (and probably reshoots forced upon him) it’s kind of hard to judge him as a feature film director, but I can say that the film doesn’t have that music video feel; no quick edits, pointlessly “flashy” and “stylish” shots, etc. He does have a fondness for rack focus close-ups, but that’s a Platinum Dunes staple. Like The Hitcher’s Dave Meyers, I hope he gets another chance to helm a feature.

So it’s kind of ironic, the Dunes’ first original film suffers from being too late to the game. In 1994 this would have been considered a minor classic, but now with so many other, better serial killer films (hell, even Quaid’s own Switchback, which also suffered post production troubles, was more compelling), it needs to do a lot more than present a fairly unique motive to stick out, not to mention have that motive be something a little less unintentionally silly. Maybe in 20 years they can do a remake.

What say you?

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Till Death Do We Scare (1982)

MAY 26, 2009


As I near the 1,000 review mark (!!!), I become more and more appreciative of obscure movies like Till Death Do We Scare (Cantonese: Xiao Sheng Pa Pa), because it’s getting harder to find movies that haven’t been tainted by praise (or damnation) or spoiled from the glut of existing reviews (pity the poor sod who sees Psycho for the first time nowadays, probably knowing perfectly well about the film’s two big twists). But of course, on the downside, if I only reviewed obscure movies, the site would likely lose a lot of readers. All about balance!

And Till Death... definitely fits the “obscure” category. The IMDb page has but one user comment, no external reviews, and a ghost town for a message board. Without a Sammo Hung to draw folks in it’s likely this movie will never reach its full awareness potential (though director Chia Yung Liu also made films like Game of Death, so it’s got a shot),. And that’s a bit of a shame, because it deserves to be seen, if only for its unparalleled levels of batshittedness.

To say the film seems made up as they went along is almost too kind; I’ve seen improv troupe performances with more traditional narrative. It starts off reasonably coherent enough: three men who died on their respective wedding days (to the same woman) come back as ghosts to try to find her a new love that will keep her happy. But their methods prove to be a bit baffling, some involve scaring the guy out of his mind by stretching their faces around. And then after a while, the movie changes gears entirely, as a minor character (the would-be new husband’s buddy) suddenly takes on the lead role, the three ghosts turn into umbrellas, and the guy has to travel to Ghost Island to put a pearl in the mouth of the Master Ghost. Or something.

Honestly, if you walked out of the room (or took a BC-style quick snooze) at the right moment, you would return and swear you were watching a different movie entirely. What was once a silly romance becomes a slapsticky adventure in a matter of seconds, and from then it gets even weirder: plot elements include a town made out of cardboard (even the cars), a giant vampire, a 30ish boy scout (possibly a ghost himself), and a quick bit where the new hero guy gets arrested for yelling at some cops, only to be released 10 seconds later before this particular subplot added any real significance to the story.

There’s also a photo of Marlon Brando. I won’t even try to explain that one.

Of course, that’s not to say I didn’t like the movie; on the contrary, I had a blast. I loved the kitchen sink approach and “Sure, why not” leaps of logic (how they even come to pick the guy that they do for their mutual love is beyond me - they just show up where he is performing a live radio show). I don’t think a single minute went by where I didn’t have a big smile on my face, or laughing and asking “What?” to the screen. I mean, within the first five minutes, a man has swallowed a bird, a priest has proposed to a woman as he performs her marriage to another man, and a hitman, seemingly operating under the Rube Goldberg manual, has taken a shot that sets off a chain of events involving ice sculptures and serving trays that ultimately finds someone being run over by a tractor. How can you NOT love this movie?

The 3rd act shift was a bit problematic for me though. While the new plot was not without its charms (I loved the paper car, which they operate Flintstones style), I missed the three ghosts, and wanted to stick with their story, increasingly bizarre as it might have been. Also, the “two buddies travel to a mysterious island” story deserves its own film (well, it sort of has one: Raw Force), not 20-25 minutes’ worth of another movie. It’s like the filmmakers wanted to make both movies, could only afford one, and opted to merely split the difference.

The weirdest thing about the movie, however, is that the effects are by Tom Savini. He clearly wasn’t giving it his full attention, as the creatures are obviously leftovers from other productions (Creepshow in particular), but it sort of adds to the bizarre charm. And it’s funny to see all these unreadable credits and then have “Tom Savini” tossed in there. They’re mostly confined to the film’s final 10 minutes, but fans should definitely check the film out, if for nothing else but to see his creations in a wholly unlikely scenario (sort of like KNB winning an Oscar for a goddamn Narnia movie).

Is there a DVD? No idea. If so it’s not on Amazon, so I’ve done all I can to find out. And as I mentioned earlier, the film is wholly obscure (this very review is the 3rd match you’ll find on Google, after its IMDb page and the Youtube clip I have posted below in lieu of a trailer, which I could not find), so finding it at Best Buy isn’t too likely either. But as always, if you find yourself in the vicinity of a screening or bootleg, by all means check it out. I am becoming a big fan of these special Grindhouse events, and I hope they continue (tonight’s crowd was much bigger than the last one, which is a good sign). And it was good timing, because I’ve had trouble following the last couple movies I saw, so now I have prime examples of how and how NOT to make a successfully incoherent movie. DO: Till Death Do We Scare. DON’T: Necessary Evil.

What say you?

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Necessary Evil (2008)

MAY 25, 2009


I think Aliens was the first film I saw with Lance Henriksen, so it’s safe to say that I’ve been a fan of the guy for over twenty years. As far as I’m concerned, he’s a hell of a lot better than 90% of the material he has to work with, and while he’s not getting any younger, I still hold out hope that James Cameron or someone will give him one last meaty role in a worthy film. For now though, I will continue having to say “The only good thing about this movie (in this case, Necessary Evil) is Lance Henriksen”.

So it’s with some sadness that I have to point out that he also personifies a lot of what is wrong with this movie. For starters, he narrates the entire first ten minutes, and a lot of what comes after. Granted, he’s got a great voice, but in this case, the narration seems awkward, because it seems to have been an after-thought, a “necessary evil”, if you will, to help explain some of the muddled (at best) storyline.

If I had to guess, I would say that the script for the film required a budget far greater than what was given (just under one million, according to the IMDb), and rather than wait until the funds were available, or rewrite the film to suit it, director Peter Eaton simply filmed whatever he could afford to, and had Lance record some narration to fill in some of the plot gaps. But if that’s true, then either there’s a limit to what Lance can do, or he severely under-estimated how goddamn incoherent this movie is.

Let me try to describe the plot, based on how I understood it (for lack of a better word). Lance is a doctor trying to develop some new drug named Reficul (first invented by Alucard in the town of Nilbog?). To do this, he needs a town populated with folks under his watchful eye, some soldiers, a monster, and Danny Trejo. The drug, a neon green liquid that is injected much like heroin, gives people green eyes and a Darth-Vader style power to choke people with their mind. His attempts are thwarted by two folks: a cop whose daughter disappeared 15 years ago, and a reporter who is out to take down the FDA. But - plot twist! - the reporter girl has had her memories replaced, and the people she thinks are her parents are really the parents of someone else, who...

OK, I give up. I don’t have a goddamn clue what the hell this movie is about, and I even went back and rewatched some scenes that I assumed were “key”. Is the monster real, or a hallucination? The monster is linked to another guy, who claims to be the reporter’s dad. But is it really him, or is it the cop, who says his daughter was kidnapped 15 years before? Ah, who cares.

Hurting this movie more than the unparalleled incoherency are the woeful performances of the two leads (the non-Lance ones; Trejo’s role is little more than a cameo). Eric Feldman is the least convincing cop I’ve seen in a movie (even the two guys in Suburban Sasquatch were more believable), and Kathryn Fiore’s performance (as the reporter) is shrill and hysterical at all times. Watching someone have a conversation with her is akin to watching someone try to reason with a drunken sorority girl. I’ve never seen either one of them in a movie before, so I can’t tell if their terrible performances are the result of not having a clue what their dialogue was supposed to mean, or if they are merely bad actors. I’m feeling generous, so I’ll go with the former. Either way, it’s a shame to see Lance having to share the scene with these two; you can almost see him thinking “Wasn’t I just in a movie with Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen?”

The other crippling flaw is how cheap the movie looks. It’s shot like a soap opera and looks worse. The “best” example of this is the “police station”, which looks more like a high school administration office. Except it isn’t, because it’s obviously a set as you can see where the walls end (so if it’s NOT a set, then it’s merely the world’s most poorly constructed high school administration office). We also have a “Professor Colbert” (which is what it says on his desk; I guess he has no first name) using the “Interrweb” (their typo, not mine), and when he searches for a guy’s name he instantly gets a video that provides him with the answers he was looking for.

There’s also a scene where someone says “Would you rather have a million dollars, or double a penny (and double that, and so on) every day for a month?” He points out that at the end of the month you’d have 1.3 billion pennies. Well, his math is wrong (it’s 1.073 billion, and that’s in a full 31 day month; if we’re in February you’d only end up with a little over 100 million pennies, which is chump change), but he fails to point out the crucial flaw in this scenario - after like 8 or 9 days you’re going to die of tetanus from touching all of those filthy pennies. Then again, maybe that’s what Lance’s character was trying to prevent with his new drug. It makes about as much sense as anything else in this movie.

So here we go, another movie that has no reason to exist. The director didn’t have the money or resources to pull it off, but went ahead and made it anyway. Because there is apparently a need for incoherent medical horror movies with Lance Henriksen that someone had to fill, and by golly he wasn’t going to sit idly by and let someone else have the glory. Well, grats. Your movie sucks, but no one else can claim they did it first.

What say you?

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Habit (1996)

MAY 24, 2009


Those of you who follow me on Twitter know that I usually will post which movie I am going to watch that day (if nothing else, I hope it cuts down on the “Wait, you really watch a movie every day?” questions). 9 times out of 10, they earn no response, but when I posted today that I was going to watch Larry Fessenden’s Habit, two fellow journalists were quick to reply. One was ComingSoon’s Ed Douglas, who pointed out that the female lead was a good friend of his (why can’t any of MY good female friends play naked vampires with lesbian tendencies in horror movies??), and the other was RobG from IconsofFright, who threatened to hit me if I didn’t like the movie.

Well luckily for Rob (and Ed’s friend), I did like the movie. The editor in me couldn’t help but bemoan the occasional slack pace (it’s 115 minutes long but 90-95 would have sufficed), but it was still a refreshingly low key (and VERY indie) take on the traditional “guy’s new girlfriend turns out to be a vampire” story. Oddly, the moments that were the least successful were the ones that were full-on vampire scenes. An odd scene where the lovers (Larry himself plays the lead) run from wolves before the vampire girl stops them with her hand and a snarl seems completely out of place, and even though its established that Larry’s character likes to cook, why he would have a giant bag of garlic hanging from the ceiling remains a mystery.

Far more successful is the relative mysteriousness of it all. Whether it’s from a lack of the budget or (more likely) a design choice, the full extent of her powers is never really established. She seems to appear out of thin air, but maybe she’s just quiet (we don’t actually SEE her appear out of thin air, in other words). For a large section of the film, we’re not even sure if she’s real at all, as she doesn’t interact with the other characters and only seems to show up when Larry is alone.

I also liked the non-glamorous depiction of New York. Like Mulberry Street (a film in which Fessenden appears), our characters are working class schmoes, and their apartments are hardly palaces. Most NY set films revolve around wealthy folks (or tourists), not the guys who serve your food or run the audio for your band’s gig. I suck at NY geography, so I don’t know which neighborhood it all takes place in (judging by the number of pretentious artists, I would assume Williamsburg), but its much more interesting than the umpteenth Riverside Drive building-set movie where Liz Lemon and 4000 other fictional New Yorkers seem to reside. There’s a great bit where they ride a ferris wheel that is sandwiched between two buildings... there’s something strange and alluring about the idea of looking out your window and seeing a carnival ride inches away.

Also, I kind of like the balls on Larry. He writes a movie for himself to star in which he is constantly fucking the shit out of a hot vampire woman. I should do that.

The DVD has a lot of extras, but they are somewhat obscured by the simple listing of “Making Habit” on the main menu. I was expecting a quick all-encompassing featurette, but there are about a dozen pieces running a few minutes each, each one tackling a different part of the production as Fessenden narrates. Good stuff, and of definite use to no-budget indie filmmakers planning on shooting their own film in a big city. And it’s not all film-school stuff; one of the lengthiest actually just details the similarities between Habit and "Dracula" and other vampire lore. The trailer and a music video (the film has a great soundtrack as well) are also included in this section.

The DVD also contains “the world’s most baffling chapter stops!” I’ve seen DVDs where they merely place a chapter every 10 minutes or whatever, but these have no rhyme or reason. Chapter 2 comes in around 12 minutes (and in the middle of a scene, as are most of the others), Chapter 3 is at 18, but then Chapter 4 is around the 50 minute mark. Huh? It’s like they just dragged a few markers around the timeline in DVDStudio Pro and called it a day.

This makes the 2nd of Fessenden’s films that I have seen. The other was The Last Winter, which started OK enough but completely fell apart in its third act (which is where this film’s weaknesses lie as well, though nowhere near as crippling). Fans of his - with my feelings in mind, which of his films should I check out next?

What say you?

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Return Of The Boogeyman (1994)

MAY 23, 2009


Since before I even saw the original Boogey Man, I had heard about the sequel that used a lot of footage from the original and generally sucked to boot. But since I kind of dug the first one, I wanted to see it anyway. Unfortunately, Return Of The Boogeyman is actually the THIRD film in the series; there is actually a straight up Boogeyman 2. Apparently, the thing I watched (Return) recycles footage from both 1 AND 2, which might explain why I hadn't the slightest goddamn clue what I was watching throughout most of the runtime.

Now, not having seen 2, I don't know which is footage from it and which is the new stuff. Someone on the IMDb - surely a place where no one ever exaggerates or simply makes shit up - claims that Return only has about seven minutes of new footage. If that's true, I assume its the bookends of the film, which involve the pantyhose wearing man running around on the beach while the extras pay him little mind, and then the ending where our "heroine" (so named because she is in the movie more than the other characters) gets into her car and sees the guy in her rearview mirror.

If THAT is true, and if I also take out the footage from the first movie that I can definitely place, then I guess Boogeyman 2 is about a band or group of filmmakers that live in or want to investigate the place where the murders from the first film occurred. Or something. There's also a beach house, and a psychiatrist....

Seriously, this movie is fucking appalling. Recycling footage or not, there is no excuse for it to be so goddamn incoherent, not to mention wildly inconsistent in terms of film stock. Some scenes are blue filtered, others look fine, sometimes they give the footage from the 1st movie a "flashback" look, sometimes not... even the shit in my Decrepit Crypt pack shows more professionalism.

The weirdest thing about the footage is that they apparently didn't get the rights to the audio? Because it's all but completely muted, while the girl who is telling the story (if its supposed to be the same girl that's in the scenes we are re-seeing, her name is different) just narrates exactly what we see. Also, it makes the movie look just as bad as this one. Nice work.

There is only one moment in the entire film where I was entertained. It's at the very end (the one nice thing I can say about this movie, it's short), when all the footage has been used up. Our "heroine" has seemingly rid herself of her fears by talking about things that she wasn't around to see, and then says "Now I must try on my stockings." Apparently, that was the fear she was trying to overcome; the killer in her nightmares wore pantyhose on his head, and it has kept her from being able to dress appropriately. Amazing.

And of course, now I have no choice but to see Boogeyman 2 just to ease my mind as to how all of this fucking crap fits together. Fuck you, Ulli Lommel (and listed director Deland Nuse; I guess Lommel only "directed" the footage from the other movies this time around).

What say you?

And now, Horror Movie A Day and Happy Hour Comics would like to present the newest in an ongoing series of HMAD-inspired comic strips. I hope you enjoy!! (Click to enlarge)

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Ringu 0: Bâsudei (2000)

MAY 22. 2009


When I heard about the prequel Ringu 0: Bâsudei (The Birthday), I was intrigued, because I assumed it would be about the creation of the tape and how it got out in the first place. But no, it’s actually about how the girl in the well got there. So what I want is Ringu 0.5, or Ringu 0 Two. Call me when that one comes out.

Like Gin Gwai 2 or The Wig, it’s less a horror movie and more a sad character study about a lonely girl who already had enough problems before some ghosts or whatever entered her life. I think if I were to watch it again, knowing it wasn’t about the tape or with a lot of horror, maybe I would like it more, but it's a pretty big maybe.

One thing that certainly wouldn’t change is that it’s simply not as compelling a story as Ringu or the other films I mentioned earlier. Sure, we feel a bit bad for the girl, but we know her fate (non-spoiler - she ends up in a well), and the new story (which surrounds the production of a play) hardly picks up the slack. This time around, everyone involved with the play is being haunted by the ghost, but only like two of them die during the movie proper, only to overload the finale with a bunch of kills at once. Again, while the intent may be to focus more on character than scares, it’s still an awkward way to structure what is, in the end, a horror story. And if they want to focus on character, why not focus more (or, at all) on Sadako’s father, who is the one that kills her? His story is far more interesting (and under-developed), but yet he hardly appears in the film at all.

They also miss the opportunity to use the story to tell a mystery that Sadako would be incorrectly blamed for, which would make both this film and the films that “follow” it all the more heartbreaking. Instead, we get some weird nonsense about how Sadako has been split into two beings or something.

Another botched element is the fact that it’s supposed to be 30 years ago. Maybe a native resident can say otherwise, but to my eyes, it doesn’t look any older than the period that the other two films occur, unless you count the male lead’s sort of 70s hair. It’s easy enough to set this up via old cars, outdated electronics, etc, but the movie doesn’t have anything like that. And with everyone having nightmares of the video, it gets kind of hard to distinguish this as a prequel at all, let alone one that took place decades before.

One thing I liked; I can’t read the credits to be sure, but the score seems to be lifted or at least heavily inspired by Charles Ives’ "Unanswered Question", which is one of my favorite classical pieces (it was used in Thin Red Line as well). In fact, a lot of these J-horror films have terrific scores, and I wish there was some way of obtaining them without going into the expensive bootleg market (most of which would be written in their native language and thus I’d have no idea if I was buying the right thing or not anyway).

So I dunno... it’s nice to see a film that’s not about jump scares and long haired ghosts coming out of electronic devices, but what we get instead just wasn’t all that interesting to me. A prequel should give you a new understanding of the already existing films (even the Star Wars prequels, for all their faults, at least give you a new way of looking at Darth Vader), but this film doesn’t do that. If not for the final couple minutes, one would probably not even know it was a Ringu film at all.

What say you?

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Salem's Lot (1979)

MAY 21, 2009


I’m a big Stephen King fan, and despite almost constant disappointment, I’m always game to see what Tobe Hooper’s up to. So why haven’t I watched Salem’s Lot until now? Hell, the main reason I finally rented it is just so I can watch the sequel, which stars my beloved Michael Moriarty. Also, I watch a Horror Movie A Day.

Anyway, it’s not that great of a movie. The production value is above what one would expect from a TV movie (this is back in the 70s, when a TV movie could easily be mistaken for a real movie), and the acting is good. The main problem is that they were perhaps a bit TOO faithful to the book, resulting in a fairly mechanical film. There’s little narrative flow for large sections of the film, we just see things happen because they were in the book. Someone will drive by another character, and that will be the entire scene. In the book, this was probably accompanied by some interior monologue, but on film, it’s just a guy driving by another guy. Then the scene will quickly cut to another one with little narrative consequence.

They also spend far too much time on the subplots before getting to the goddamn vampires. Like, fine, Crockett is sleeping with Cully’s wife. Do we need like 20 minutes’ worth of scenes about it? And that’s actually a deviation from the book! In the book she was just fucking around with some random dude. Now it’s Crockett, which has some benefit to the plot (he sends Cully out to get Straker's package, thus getting him out of town for a few hours so he can nail the wife), but we don’t need so much setup for a globally understood issue.

Now, I have seen the other adaptation, the TNT one from 2004. Strangely, I saw it in a theater (projected on a DVD! It was like all three mediums colliding), and I have to say it was a more successful version. It wasn’t as faithful to the novel, but it gelled better than this film does, and actually delivered some nice scares (it also got into Mears’ obsession with the house, which this version brings up early on and then more or less drops).

One thing they didn’t change which this one DID is the fact that Barlowis supposed to be a human-looking vampire. Here, he looks like the Hari-Krishna zombie from Dawn of the Dead dressed up as Nosferatu. It’s an odd choice, because a. the makeup sucks and therefore he just looks goofy instead of scary, and b. it makes Straker seem like he’s in charge, when in reality he’s more like the Renfield of the story. Luckily, James Mason (as Straker) delivers a wonderful performance (“Chow.”), which helps even things out a bit.

I can’t remember, but is the novel bookended by scenes in Guatemala? Seemed new to me. Either way, on film it doesn’t work, and the time should have been spent on a better resolution to the Susan Norton subplot, rather than have Mears randomly kill her in some other country two years later, without any buildup.

One thing I did like is the cast. David Soul was great as Mears (better than Rob Lowe, that’s for sure), as was Lance Kerwin as Mark (who has a Dracula model much like the one I just built!). And the supporting roles are filled with familiar faces, such as Fred Willard as Crockett and George Dzundza as Cully. Father Callahan kind of gets short-changed though; I think he has like three scenes. That’s no way to treat a character who will eventually travel into another series and cause everyone to hate Stephen King!

Oh, the film casts both Geoffrey Lewis and Elisha Cook Jr, which is good because it finally proves to me that they are not the same guy. Though... now that I think about it, they never share a scene....

So I dunno, it’s got some good stuff, but it’s just overlong and weightless. King has said that the edited version (which chops over an hour out!) is actually better, as it improves the pace and such. I don’t doubt it, but I also doubt I’ll take the time to watch it anytime soon (is that cut even available anymore?). Oh well, can’t win em all. And in Hooper’s case, it seems you can’t win any unless Leatherface or Steven Spielberg are involved.

What say you?

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Bundy: A Legacy Of Evil (2008)

MAY 20, 2009


Having already watched Ted Bundy, I wasn’t really expecting much out of Bundy: A Legacy Of Evil. I knew the story, read one of the books, plus I had seen the ORIGINAL Bundy film, Deliberate Stranger, when I was a kid. But surprisingly, Bundy is actually above average in the land of DTV serial killer movies, with a great lead performance from Corin Nemec to boot.

Now, I can’t recall enough about Mark Harmon’s performance to judge, or compare to Nemec’s, but I do know this: only one of these men have been voted the "Sexiest Man Alive". And the guy in Ted Bundy played him as a complete loon. Nemec, I think, perfectly nails the balance. He’s a handsome fella, but he’s a bit off, like he’s afraid to speak or trying too hard to fit in. This, as I understand from the book I read, is what Ted was like, and it’s nice to see it depicted accurately. Kane Hodder also delivers a surprisingly strong performance, though his role (a sympathetic warden) should have been thread throughout the film instead of just bookending it.

Another surprise was how non-violent the film was. There is very little on-screen violence, with only one of Ted’s attacks depicting the physical violence on the victim’s person. The others settle for Ted swinging away, but not showing the contact. Also, the “Good Samaritan” type of kills (when Ted would kill a girl who offered to help him with his books or his sailboat) are presented in a montage, again with almost zero on-screen violence. It’s refreshing.

However, the film as a whole carries the strange stigma of being inaccessible to those who aren’t familiar with the Bundy story. If you had never heard of the guy or what he did, this movie would be the last place I would start. Even Ted Bundy, with its nonsensical anachronisms and borderline comedic tone, painted a better overall picture of the guy and his crimes. Very little here seems made up or changed (though I don’t recall anything about Ted kidnapping a woman and bringing her to a deserted shack, where he would psychologically torture her), but it’s presented in a very loose manner. Here’s the time Ted escaped from jail; here’s Ted working with the future governor; here’s Ted killing the girls at the sorority, etc. I knew how all this stuff fit together, but the writer/director should not expect everyone in the audience to know those things. As a result, I’m not entirely sure what the overall point of the film is. Am I supposed to feel bad for Ted? Some scenes suggest I should. But then they also include the (true) part of Ted’s trial where he made a cop describe the murder scene in graphic detail for his own amusement, which would kill anyone’s sympathy, I would think.

But here’s the kicker. The film’s final shot faded away, and I said “OK, well, maybe once I know who wrote and/or directed this, my questions will be answered.” And then it appeared: “Written and Directed by Michael Feifer.” Feifer? The arch-nemesis of Horror Movie A Day? The man behind three of what I consider to be among the all-time worst horror films I’ve had to review? Yep, same guy. So if anything, this didn’t help at all, because now not only do I have questions about the film’s intent, I also wonder if this guy (who has several other serial killer movies on his resume) actually does have an ounce or two of talent in his body. Was this movie a fluke, or did I happen to watch his three worst movies? Or are Nemec, Hodder, the DP, the production designer (the 70s wardrobe is spot on, though they kind of botch it during a San Francisco scene, as all the extras are in modern clothing), and the composer (I LOVED the music in this movie) all so good that the lack of filmmaker talent has no effect on their respective duty? It is a mystery.

(The DVD will include Feifer’s commentary, but my screener did not have it. Maybe that some answers.)

So if you have more than a general understanding of the Ted Bundy story, this is definitely recommended. Nemec delivers a terrific performance that should not be missed. Unfortunately, if you only know Bundy by his name alone, then that performance won’t mean too much beyond “Hey, Parker Lewis can act!” (incidentally, this is Nemec’s second serial killer role - he also played Richard Speck in Chicago Massacre. Also, he played Stephen in I Know My First Name Is Stephen and appeared in another DTV movie about the Boston Strangler. Big true crime buff, I guess).

What say you?

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Drag Me To Hell (2009)

MAY 19, 2009


Back in 2007, I was at some party for the LA Film Festival, and Sam Raimi was there to present the winner of some Spider-Man 3 contest with a prize (a film scholarship, if memory serves). Afterwards, he spent a good hour making his way from point A to point B (a distance of about 30 feet) as every 20-30ish male in the room mobbed him. By the time he got close enough to me, I had already had a couple of beers, which puts me in the perfect mood to meet an icon: I’m loose enough to not clam up and stammer, but not drunk and making a fool out of myself (as I did with another icon later that year). I shook his hand, told him that I was honored to meet him, and then leaned in closer and said “Please go back to horror.” (had I already seen Spider-Man 3, I probably would have been less polite with my request). So really, I think I will take all the credit for Drag Me To Hell, because he did as I asked.

And he knocked it out of the f-ing park, if you ask me. He hasn’t made a legitimate horror film since Evil Dead 2 (no, Army of Darkness fans, your beloved film is not a horror movie. Nor is it particularly enjoyable to watch, thanks to your incessant quoting of it over the past 17 years), but he hasn’t lost his ability to fully entertain while combining slapstick-y violence with bodily fluids and monsters. Bruce Campbell might not be around, but this is more of a sequel to Evil Dead 2’s spirit than AOD ever was, and hopefully, it will go on to be the first "summer blockbuster" horror film since 1999 (Blair Witch Project and Sixth Sense).

Now, let’s get something out of the way quick: yes, it’s a PG-13 movie. Does it matter in the slightest? Well, let’s see: a little kid is killed in the first 5 minutes, half of a bank gets sprayed in blood, our heroine gets every green/black/red substance ever created for a horror movie in her mouth (and a few body parts as well), and an old woman gets her eye stapled. So... no, it doesn’t. Stop fucking whining about it. Christ, Army of Darkness would have been a PG-13 if Bruce Campbell didn’t swear so much. It’s one thing to make a PG-13 sequel to an R rated franchise like they did with Terminator; it’s another to make an intentionally fun summer rollercoaster movie with monsters and ghosts (and lots of trademark Raimi-style abuse of his actors) and get the same rating.

What’s great about the movie (even more so when you take the rating into consideration) is that there are almost zero false alarm scares. When Alison Lohman sees something by her window or hears a noise, it’s the witch (or a force acting on her behalf), not a bird or a bunch of metal hangers or a goddamn mail delivery. Not only does this keep the audience from rolling their eyes and getting annoyed, but it keeps the pace up to an overly impressive degree. Thinking back, I can’t think of a single time where the movie dragged (heh), which is even more impressive when you consider that there isn’t a particularly high body count and most of the horror/violence is directed at Lohman, who you know won’t be dying anytime soon. It’s not like Evil Dead where you have 4 other people besides Bruce for the monsters to fuck with, Lohman is the only target. Her boyfriend (Justin Long), co-workers, etc are never placed in any direct danger throughout the film.

So it’s with some remorse that I must admit Lohman’s performance is uneven. The entire movie rides on her shoulders, and she’s fine for the most part, but there are key moments that fall a bit flat due to her bizarre decision to channel original star Ellen Page at times. For the record, I think the movie would be insufferable with that talentless bore in the lead (she dropped out supposedly for scheduling conflicts, but she has no movie coming out. I suspect she realized that being tossed around and getting puked on would be too far outside her range of playing her unlikable self in every movie). But it seems like there are a few “ironic” lines that were added to the script to accommodate Page’s razor-thin range, and that Lohman figured she’d say them exactly as Page would. It’s really odd. Other times she simply doesn’t react at all to the nuttiness around her. It’s not too damaging, and she’s terrific in some of the scenes (the car fight, for example), but it’s a shame that someone who really would have dove 100% into the role wasn’t hired instead (Anna Faris would have been a godsend).

But that’s about the only bad thing I have to say about the movie. Otherwise, it delivers on every level that I hoped it would, and surprisingly lives up to the hype that has been surrounding it since the entire horror community seemingly snuck into the test screening for it a few months ago (I was stuck at work and couldn’t go). Raimi fans will be pleased to know that the Oldsmobile and Ted Raimi make appearances (Ted’s is nearly impossible to detect though), and his usual gonzo camerawork is on full display. Whereas the Spider-Man films (and obviously, his more dramatic work like Simple Plan and For Love of The Game) had to settle for mere glimpses of his style, this is 100% unmistakably a Raimi film, making even Quick and the Dead look subtle in comparison. Some have balked at the use of CGI over practicals, but other than a quick shot of a possessed farm animal and some gags involving things going inside of people’s mouths/nostrils/etc (by the way - like yesterday’s Grace, this movie features a fly going into someone’s nose), it all looked great to me (and the farm animal part is so funny I wouldn’t care if it was drawn with a crayon).

In the end, it’s a blast from start to finish. I can’t recall the last major studio horror movie that left me cheering and laughing and smiling the whole way through, without a shred of irony. Hell, even Shaun of the Dead got sappy near the end. There are some minor plot contrivances (does everyone carry a plain white envelope with them at all times?), but they don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. And I LOVE that in a month with hundreds of millions being spent on underwhelming spectacle (Wolverine) or dull adaptations (Angels & Demons), Sam Raimi comes along with a comparatively small and ORIGINAL movie, beating them at their own game by doing the whole “summer movie” thing completely right for a fraction of the cost.

What say you?

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Grace (2009)

MAY 18, 2009


As I near 1000 reviews for Horror Movie A Day (!!!), I find myself trying to think of films that truly disturbed or unnerved me. Very few come to mind, and some, like Last House In The Woods, merely made me gag or momentarily queasy. Others, such as Martyrs, just made me feel a bit apologetic, as the neighbors could probably hear the sound of a woman screaming for nearly 40 minutes straight. Really, there are only two that I can think of that truly left me uncomfortable, giving me that whole “still thinking about it the next day” reaction I always hear about but rarely experience. One is Dread, which I just saw last week, and now we have Grace, which is another film that seems designed to make carnivores rethink their ways, amongst other things.

As Grace is not out yet, I have no desire to spoil any of the film beyond what you may know from reading about it on horror sites. It’s about a woman named Madeline (played by Jordan Ladd, carrying the film and doing a pretty damn good job if I do say so my damn self) who is in a car crash near the end of her pregnancy, which kills her husband and her unborn child. However, she decides to carry the fetus to term, against the wishes of pretty much everyone else in her life. And when the baby (Grace) is born, Madeline’s seemingly insane desire proves to be the right call, as Grace suddenly returns to life. But something’s wrong with her eating habits...

And that’s all I’d like to say for now. Unlike most horror films, this is the type of movie that demands a “the less you know the better” approach. Furthermore, I urge you NOT to watch the trailer that is currently online, as it gives away more than I would have liked even for a regular movie. I can understand why they would want to entice viewers by showing them some “highlights”, but this is not a slasher movie. Its success stems from the subtle storytelling, the realistic approach, and the unnerving tone that the film conveys almost from the start, with occasional jolts of surprising violence that should be as shocking to the audience as they are to the characters. The trailer, in my opinion, severely dulls the effectiveness of those moments.

Luckily for writer/director Paul Solet, the film as a whole still works as intended. This is not a crowd-pleasing, applaud at the ending type movie. There is only a single moment of levity in the entire film, and even that is only “funny” if you recognize the person saying the line. And like I said earlier, it sticks with you. The movie seems to be making a slight dig at vegetarianism, but at the same time, it doesn’t exactly glorify the act of getting meat from a butcher shop. Hell, I made myself a roast beef sandwich the next morning, and had to pause for a moment to consider whether I should just have some soup instead. Speaking of food, it’s amazing how Solet and his DP (Zoran Popovic) managed to make me feel uneasy just from someone eating a salad, and that’s before Grace is born. Closeups of shredded lettuce and other ingredients managed to make me as uncomfortable as the occasional bloodshed, and I don’t think I’ll ever touch another glass of soy milk.

The film is a feature version of a short film that Solet did a few years ago. I have never seen the short, but I think I can spot the things that were added to help pad the film out to a feature length. However, unlike some films (Sam’s Lake comes to mind), I never got the impression that they were reaching to get to an 80 minute runtime; if anything, these scenes (mostly revolving around Madeline’s mother-in-law) just help extend the uneasy feeling the Madeline/Grace scenes provide. Slightly less successful is a subplot about Madeline’s midwife, with whom she had a lesbian affair with in college. The woman is clearly still in love with Madeline, and dreams of going off together with her and the baby. It’s not damaging in any way, but it’s also slightly underdeveloped, and the two characters are kept apart for a large chunk of the film that keeps the subplot’s resolution from having as much of an impact as it could if they had another scene or two together. However, the upside to that is that by not stopping to discuss their relationship history, the film never really eases up on the tension.

Now, as you might have figured out by now, I am not a woman. I will more than likely never be pregnant, so in a way it’s even more impressive how upsetting the various scenes that revolve around motherhood were (it’s worth noting that the two folks who reportedly fainted during the film’s Sundance premiere were both dudes). Show me a guy getting his head cut off or intestines pulled out, and I’m fine. Show me a woman leaking blood from a troubled pregnancy, and I need to look at the floor for a while. The difference is, of course, that Madeline’s troubles are realistically depicted, and Solet never goes for cheap shock value (this ain’t It’s Alive). And the film never betrays that realistic tone; even though the plot may seem slightly outlandish, it always feels 100% real, which is damn near unheard of in a horror movie, even those based on true stories.

Plus, the movie is just damned sad. Grace is Madeline’s 3rd attempt at having a child, and I’m sure she would have preferred a normal pregnancy, and that her husband be alive to watch the child grow. It’s strange to think, but despite the fact that 99.999999% of horror movies have someone die (damn you Poltergeist!), it’s rare that any of them really deal with grief. And we are spared melodrama; Ladd doesn’t curl up with her husband’s favorite sweater or stare longingly at their wedding photo or any of that Lifetime movie nonsense. But Ladd conveys the loss all the same, as does the mother-in-law, who grieves in a wholly different and rather icky way.

And what the hell? This is the 2nd film in a row that depicted a nipple in the most horrifying state possible. After teeth, any sort of infliction on a nipple causes me serious discomfort. And unlike Big Man Japan, it’s not played for laughs here, so I don’t care for this coincidence. If tomorrow’s Drag Me To Hell has any nipple-based horror, I am quitting Horror Movie A Day for good.

In short, no, this movie won’t be for everyone. It’s slightly depressing, it’s not built around spectacle or jump scares, and it’s unnerving to the point where I wanted to ask if we could pause it for a while (I suspect DVD viewers will find themselves taking “breathers”, something a captive theatergoer cannot do). It’s - shock - a horror film for intelligent adults, and kudos to Solet, producer Adam Green, and everyone else for NOT taking the easy route by pooling their talent and resources only to make a typical horror film, as others would. Anchor Bay will be distributing the film, and I hope to hell it gets a release at least as big as Hatchet’s, if not larger. Movies like this could help change their image from “the guys who put out Evil Dead DVDs” to “the guys who release really great horror movies that the big studios never would”.

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