Saturday, October 31, 2015

South Of The Border

Happy Halloween! This may not have been the treat you were expecting from a horror blog, but despite my postponed horror ambitions, I had to get something out for you guys. I love you all. Have a spooky day!

Year: 2015
Director: Dennis Villeneuve
Cast: Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro
Run Time: 2 hours 1 minute
MPAA Rating: R

When Sergio took me to see Sicario, he said it was this year’s Gone Girl (in that it took him by surprise and earned his #1 slot for the year). He had no idea how right he was. Sicario is this year’s Gone Girl, because it has received unanimous adulation from critics and audiences alike, yet – while I recognize its skill and quality – I personally can’t seem to get purchase on it.

Though my bladder survived Sicario, so it already comes off better in my esteem.

Here’s the sitch: Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is a by-the-book FBI operative fighting the war on drugs. After a mission that succeeded in its goals but ended in tragedy, she is asked to join a special task force helmed by the too-casual Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). She agrees out of a sense of duty and a personal drive to end drug trafficking from across the Mexican border, but when she discovers that one of the team members is Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), a grizzled former prosecutor for a Colombian cartel, she’s not so sure.

She quickly discovers that the team’s methods are more than a little shady, involving illicit border crossing, public shootouts, and plain old torture. Thus begins her journey of being righteously indignant while watching bad things happen around her and eventually to her. Does she change? Sort of.

Does she bang Jon Bernthal? I wish.

While Sicario’s political agenda is clear, I can’t help but feel as if I’m bing kept at arm’s distance from the characters. Yes, it exposes the realities of when bad people do bad things to one another and good people get caught in the middle. The film shines when it depicts loss of innocence, on either side of the border. But the questions the film really wants us to ask just aren’t present beneath the boilerplate Badass with a Vendetta material.

It just feels like an action picture with a slightly elevated scope of geopolitical context, which is totally fine. Benicio del Toro successfully portrays a man emptied out by crimes of greed and vice, but as a character he functions more like The Shape from Halloween – an archetypical figure of pure symbolic force. There’s not exactly an opening to climb on into his psyche. And Emily Blunt (who, by the way, between this and Edge of Tomorrow, needs to star in every action flick from now on) skillfully portrays the heartbreak of a woman who has always played it safe discovering how dangerous the world can be. But she too is a cypher, and as skilled a Blunt is, she can’t break through the flatness of the page to construct a character who is genuinely worth caring about beyond her natural charisma.

But you know what genre works perfectly with flat, overfamiliar characters? Action! Sicario’s intense sequences might not all be guns-a-blazing high octane material, but they’re brutal and real, refusing to allow the catharsis of film violence and shoving your face right in the muck. The film opens on one such scene, and they never do lose their impact even as they get pared down to more intimate levels as the plot progresses.

Think of it as a reverse Mad Max.

Although many elements aren’t quite there for me personally, the one pristine banner I can stand behind is the cinematography. A climactic sequence is captured with real thermal and night vision cameras, alternating seamlessly between traditional and guerrilla shooting techniques to create an expansive visual universe that underscores the gritty realism of the plot. Sicario is also populated with cold, detached aerial shots that glide across city and desert alike as though it were John Carpenter’s barren tundra from The Thing.

You know what? I think Sicario is just trying to be a John Carpenter movie. Deliberate pacing, a buried political agenda, stunning yet chilly camerawork…

All it’s missing is the sense of fun.

Sicario is an intriguing piece, that’s for certain. It attempts to a – and clearly does – reach an audience with a harrowing emotional journey, yet the characters it puts through its paces are clean Etch-a-Sketches, ready to be twirled according to the personality and political temperament of whoever happens to be watching. It’s a beautiful vase, a sleek but empty vessel ready to be filled with your own thoughts and feelings. There ain’t nothing wrong with that. I just feel like that prevents certain Brennans from wholly accessing the film.

Check it out if you’re so inclined and/or want a very good reason never to do drugs. It’s like an anti-tourism commercial for Juarez. Directed by John Carpenter.

TL;DR: Sicario is a slick but empty action thriller with a massive political agenda.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 848

Friday, October 30, 2015

A Quick Note

Due to illness and a deranged schedule, the epic conclusions to both my Halloween retrospective and Cardboard Science crossover have been postponed. But don't cry for me, Argentina, you'll get them by mid-November! 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

You Can't Kill The Boogeyman

Year: 2007
Director: Rob Zombie
Cast: Scout Taylor-Compton, Malcolm McDowell, Tyler Mane
Run Time: 1 hour 49 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Steady breathing helped me through Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers. During Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, I bit the bullet so hard that I blew off my lower jaw. But if there’s a franchise film waiting for me that is somehow more unendurably agonizing than Rob Zombie’s 2007 remake of Halloween, I’d rather slit my own throat with a steak knife like Kellan Lutz in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2010 than put it in my eyes.

I actually tried to approach this one with an open mind, considering that I knew it was inevitable in my marathon and that my opinion may have changed in the six years since I saw this film. Guess what? It didn’t. It makes me physically ill to think about the fact that I own this film, curse my completionist compulsions. Well, might as well get this review over with, so I never have to think about this film ever again.

Let the healing process begin.

Halloween tells the sordid tale of masked murderer Michael Myers (Tyler Mane) and his pursuit of Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton) and her friends Annie (Danielle Harris, who played seven-year-old Jamie Lloyd in Halloween 4 and 5) and Lynda (Kristina Klebe) one fateful Halloween night in Haddonfield, Illinois. Oh, but first let’s give that faceless cypher of pure evil a backstory – because we saw Halloween but didn’t actually understand it. Could it even be possible that Dr. Loomis didn’t monologue hard enough on that topic?

Cue 45 minutes of pointless shrieking and bloodshed, where young Michael Myers (Daeg Faerch) deals with his stripper mom, his abusive stepdad, his skanky sister, and school bullies while trying to care for his baby sister Laurie. Yep, of all the things to grab from the Halloween sequels, they picked that little nugget. Why not just throw in Paul Rudd and the Cult of Thorn for good measure? I could accept this meaningless diversion as a new, if unappealing, take on an iconic character except for the fact that, halfway through, the film abruptly slams into a Cliff’s Notes speedthrough of John Carpenter’s Halloween.

Laurie Strode’s greatest hits play out, careening from scene to scene with exact shot matching and dialogue quotations. This crude summation of the source material completely undermines the opening sequence. It’s difficult to imply that your serial killer has a dark backstory when you’re carbon copying a story that requires none at all. The film’s absurd sympathy for its central psychopath utterly obliterates the character of Dr. Loomis (Malcolm McDowell), who is yoked to the psychological damage perspective of the material yet forced to contort into the Donald Pleasance mold of frantic harbinger of doom. It’s an embarrassing mess too keen on paying grubby homage to the original to properly tend to its own machinations.

I guess it’s too much to ask that one of these marathons end on a high note.

To say that this film tarnishes the legacy of the original is to merely scratch the surface of its film-disintegrating flaws. Rob Zombie extends every sequence to a punishing length, attempting to drive his points home via sheer quantity. This is a relatively streamlined slasher tale that takes 110 grueling minutes to tell, all because Zombie can’t throttle his self-indulgent excess. Halloween is a monument to the director’s inflated ego, and I didn’t even watch the extended cut, many scenes of which are actually necessary to understand the chopped-up storyline, but which sours the pot with an unnecessary, ugly rape sequence. Also, it’s not like I’m champing at the bit to spend more time with this flick. It’s sweltering this far up Rob Zombie’s ass.

The experience of watching Halloween is just brutal. Not in a Last House on the Left “show me violence to abhor violence” way, but in a pointlessly mean attempt at shoving the series over the top. Michael’s relentless pounding (he traffics in Costco kills – you might only need one stab or head slam, but you’re gonna get twenty) pushes and pushes until it’s just a dull, monotonous roar that ceases to be unsettling or even recognizable as distinct action. Of course, this is a damn sight preferable to the actual roar of noise that accompanies the film, a ceaseless cacophony of demented shouting, sirens, screaming, screeching, and thumping that will takes twelve Advils and a lifetime of therapy to forget.

It’s – quite literally in some cases – overkill.

Of course, this all plays into Rob Zombie’s deranged redneck aesthetic. In his world, every human being is either a lewd, angry lowlife or a lewd, shrieking harpy. His M.O. seems to be “do exactly the same thing as before, only more vulgar.” We get a wholly arbitrary scene of Michael’s mom stripping, implied incest, a sweatily extended topless sequence of almost every female character (including Danielle Harris, who is definitely not seven years old anymore), and a heaping pile of F-bombs thrown at innocuous scenes – including the “grave is missing” and “get me a beer” sequences, inexplicably. 

Some lines seem to be constructed entirely by spinning  wheel of vulgarities, like the sublimely nonsensical [NSFW “That’s some deep-ass serious faggoty-ass shit.”] Even virginal Laurie is a shrill wretch who likes to joke about molestation and mock her babysittee Tommy Doyal (who is also a little turd, though his screen time is far shorter). They even manage to muck up offscreen sweetheart Ben Traemer. It’s heartbreaking.

Unfortunately, Zombie’s attempt to create a Tobe Hooper-esque atmosphere of cultural depravity merely fosters an environment where the evil of Michael Myers utterly fails to stand out. Among this leering, lecherous bunch, Michael is about as provocative as Mr. Bean. And with Laurie off pretending to bang Annie in front of some third graders, there’s no force of good to root for either. Halloween is completely rudderless.

It’s downright repugnant, but worst of all, it’s graceless. I could handle a nasty flick with dirty intentions, but the thing isn’t even made particularly well at most levels. The script is a bludgeoning tool, slamming the audience with exposition like Laurie telling Tommy, “I’m your babysitter.” The documentary-like shooting style only surfaces when it will most wrench you out of the movie (sometimes obscuring entire scenes behind irrelevant foreground objects). And it has the sheer gall to drag Carpenter’s score into this mess, lifting entire tracks in a futile attempt to polish the turd. 

The film’s wretched devotion to the original even forces the young actresses to use corded phones, which are about as foreign to 2007 as the cotton gin. I don’t know which is worse, the blatant copying or the tactless additions. Every second you watch this movie without turning it off, the devil’s fist grips your soul a little tighter.

They even disembowel “Mr. Sandman” when you least expect it. RIP.

OK, now’s the time where my shriveled heart grows three sizes and I scrape up some reluctant praise. Occasionally, Zombie will compose a shot that doesn’t repel the eye – including my favorite, a frozen-in-time shot of the paramedics arriving at the Myers house. Though of course it is deflated by a finale that sees young Michael turn directly to the camera like he’s Kevin Spacey in House of Cards. And I must admit there’s some pretty decent acting going on. 

Taylor-Compton has enough charisma to garner a modicum of sympathy for her plight (though she isn’t even in the same dimension as Jamie Lee Curtis), Danielle Harris throws herself full tilt into the physicality of her role so well that she earned an unscripted survival for her character, and Malcolm McDowell does what he can to keep the Loomis character from totally splitting in two, and delivers one of the film’s funniest lines with an excellent, off-the-cuff earnestness. Of course, he butchers the iconic Boogeyman line. Though let it be know that I blame absolutely none of the actors for any deficiencies in bringing this putrid, inhuman script to life.

OK, I’m calming down. The one unequivocally good element of the film is Michael Myers’ design and stature. Tyler Mane is a staggering hulk of a man and his sheer size provides intimidation that the scrip can only reach in its wet dreams. Honestly, the scariest thing about the film is that Mane is actually that size in real life. 

I’d hate to have been on his high school basketball team. 

And the mask itself is a pretty slick design, with an edgy decayed look that actually helps me understand what Rob Zombie was attempting to accomplish when he set out on his project. Then there's the rest of the film, which just makes me want to rage vomit. 

So there you have it, Michael Myers has been pulled into the modern age, however unsuccessfully it may be. I’d be celebrating the end of another successful marathon, but of course this puddle of donkey milk was so lucrative, they went ahead and asked Rob Zombie to shoot a sequel.

Scratch what I said. Pure evil is real.

Killer: Michael Myers (Tyler Mane)
Final Girl: Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton)
Best Kill: About five seconds in, the spirit of John Carpenter’s Halloween is eviscerated.
Sign of the Times: Awful remakes were pretty much the cinematic currency of the mid to late 2000’s.
Scariest Moment: Right when it seems to end, you realize there’s 20 minutes left.
Weirdest Moment: Michael performs his first murder in a KISS T-shirt.
Champion Dialogue: “I got a Taco Deluxe Supreme talkin’ back at me, so I’m gonna be a while.”
Body Count: (Before reading this number, remember that high body counts are usually a sign of desperation and that the original Halloween boasts a measly 5) 21, not including 2 bloody attempted murders.
  1. Wesley is beaten to death with a tree branch.
  2. Ronnie gets his throat slit.
  3. Steven is beaten to death with a bat.
  4. Judith is stabbed in the gut and slashed to death.
  5. Nurse has her throat slashed.
  6. Mrs. Myers shoots herself.
  7. Security Guard #1 is smashed with a chain.
  8. Security Guard #2 is smashed with a chain.
  9. Security Guard #3 has his head smashed into a wall.
  10. Security Guard #4 is shot.
  11. Security Guard #5 has her throat slit.
  12. Gloria has her throat slit.
  13. Ismael is downed and has a TV slammed onto his head.
  14. Joe Grizzly is stabbed in the gut.
  15. Bob is pinned to a wall through the chest.
  16. Lynda is strangled.
  17. Mr. Strode is punched in the face with a knife.
  18. Mrs. Strode has her neck snapped.
  19. Paul is stabbed to death.
  20. Cop #1 is stabbed in the back.
  21. Cop #2 is stabbed to death.
TL;DR: Halloween is a vicious, inept film that destroys every last bit of goodwill the franchise had left, which wasn't much to begin with.
Rating: 2/10
Word Count: 1818
Reviews In This Series
Halloween (Carpenter, 1978)
Halloween II (Rosenthal, 1981)
Halloween III: Season of the Witch (Wallace, 1982)
Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (Little, 1988)
Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (Othenin-Girard, 1989)
Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (Chappelle, 1995)
Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (Miner, 1998)
Halloween: Resurrection (Rosenthal, 2002)
Halloween (Zombie, 2007)
Halloween II (Zombie, 2009)

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Cardboard Science: Insane In The Membrane

Year: 1957
Director: Nathan Hertz
Cast: John Agar, Joyce Meadows, Robert Fuller
Run Time: 1 hour 11 minutes
MPAA Rating: N/A

Welcome back to our second annual crossover with Hunter Allen over at Kinemalogue! It’s time for our second 50’s sci-fi flick, and either I’m building up a tolerance or Hunter picked titles with more Brennan-y appeal this time around (I’m still nursing wounds from Invaders From Mars). Our newest foray into the vast thicker of B-movies is 1957’s The Brain From Planet Arous, a schlock spectacle of otherworldly proportions.

Pun always intended.

Here’s the skinny: Steve March (John Agar) is one of America’s leading nuclear scientists, because the movie would have its 50’s sci-fi license revoked if the A-bomb wasn’t in there somewhere. When he and his sex-on-a-stick partner Dan (noted Western actor Robert Fuller) make a trip to investigate the high levels of radiation at the nearby Mystery Mountain (which was apparently named by the guys who wrote Lone Ranger radio serials), they encounter a giant floating brain named Gor (Dale Tate). Two guesses as to what planet he’s form.

Gor possesses Steve’s body via a clumsy superimposition effect that jerks the projection back and forth until it lines up properly. He’s hellbent on using his magical explodey powers and superior intelligence to take over the world and force Earthlings to build a fleet of ships to launch an attack on his home planet, the name of which slips my mind. However, once he meets Steve’s fiancée Sally (Joyce Meadows), he falls instantly in love and gets distracted attempting to tonguelessly kiss her as hard as the Hayes Code would allow.

I guess you could say he’s from Planet AROUSED.

Sally and her father John (Thomas B. Henry) investigate Steve’s sudden fit of tumescence and come across Zol (also Dale Tate), an Arousian policeman (would that be the Thought Police? Buh dum chh), who’s on a quest to capture Gor. He inhabits the body of their dog George (and I will hug him and pet him and squeeze him), and together they team up to find out Gor’s plan while keeping watch on him. He can only be destroyed when he leaves his host body to gather oxygen, which he only does once every 24 hours.

i.e. About as often as the budget allows.

The plot has two modes: “Sally fretfully fakes love for ‘Steve’ while he cackles and drops hints about his evil plans,” and “Gor explodes some stuff in the Santa Clarita desert and makes demands of the UN.” This back and forth gets a tad dull but at 70 brisk minutes of content that’s about as racy as Basic Instinct for 1957 audiences, it more than makes up for its redundant repetition.

The Brain From Planet Arous boasts all the hallmarks of a cheesy 50’s crapfest. Gor immediately outlines his evil plans to Steve, so thoroughly that he would have used a PowerPoint if he could. The acting is stilted and overly indicating. And the special effects are charmingly cheap, like an action film made by the kids in your English class. Hair dryer radar guns, perfectly healthy looking “charred” corpses, and big ol’ brain models wobbling around on strings abound in the film. At least the overly simple ending lacks the absurd abstraction of the antimatter nonsense of The Giant Claw. However, depending on your outlook, this can either go in the pro or con column.

We obviously know where Hunter stands, and I’ve been trained to love DIY filmmaking by my abysmal slashers, so for me at least, I enjoy the cut of Brain’s jib. The only truly distressing element is the film’s insistence on showing every detail of the characters slowly traipsing through the desert and tripping over rocks, papering it over with blibbering string music designed to make you feel like something is actually happening.

Spoiler Alert: It’s not.

I can forgive a bit of padding if it’s in service to a film this utterly bizarre. The eerie calmness with which our protagonists accept the idea of a giant floating brain is just the tip of the iceberg. For one, the dialogue is still astoundingly clever Much like The Giant Claw before it, the screenwriters have an inherent skill for banter hat they can’t seem to shut off, even if their plots fly mightily off the rails. The fact that any part of this movie was accomplished with skill leads to the sneaking suspicion that maybe other people on set also had talent.

I know it’s a ridiculous notion, but I can’t help but find that certain scenes lend credence to it. A shot of Steve’s distorted face through a water cooler is one such moment, a visual triumph that’s far out of the movie’s apparent league. It obfuscates reality, creates a sense of unease, and – in short – succeeds where the giant rubber brains intrinsically fail. And the film does have one cool effect: Whenever Gor activates his power, Steve’s eyes become glassy marbles of evil. It’s a very low fi, Village of the Damned trick, but that’s exactly why it works so well even to this day. It might just be a pair of contacts, but there’s something so ontologically wrong with that look that it short-circuits your wiring.

Once you get into this mindset, you start considering the possibility that maybe the brain movie people were actually using their own brains as well as the ones they borrowed from the neighbor kid’s model maker kit. This approach works wonders, unearthing a glittering deposit of potential subtext While TBFPA’s approach to nuclear woes isn’t as cut and dry as, say, Them!, there are several veins of more personal horror to mine.

There’s the obvious parallel between Gor and egotistical, powerful leaders who claim to have the “power of pure intellect,” but use it to coldly strike people down for the greater good. But his possession of Steve’s body and mental faculties creates a Jekyll and Hyde/Wolf Man scenario. Gor acts as Steve’s ravenous id, pushing the civilized man into the pursuit of money, power, and sex. In the buttoned-up 50’s, these primitive drives were especially discouraged, and Steve’s main struggle is for control over the desires that threaten to rule his genteel body.

On the flip side, from Sally’s perspective, this could represent women’s fears of the changing societal and sexual mores as America slipped implacably into the 60’s. Sally is hardly a strong character, whimpering and weeping every chance she gets, but she gets some of the most screen time and her triumph lies in asserting the roles of a clean cut, heteronormative suburban couple. Think about it.

Well, either that or producers had two weeks and some brain puppets and decided to make a movie.

The brilliant thing about The Brain From Planet Arous isn’t its intelligence, but the fact that there could be more beneath the surface. It works on an analytical level and it works – to a point – on a structural level, so either way you choose to take it, it delivers. How come assembly line filmmaking seemed to work so well back then, and today we’re stuck with a half dozen Transformers movies? The world is a scary place.

That which is indistinguishable from magic:
  • Yeah, definitely follow that berserk Geiger counter into that cave without a protective suit on. You’ll be fine.
  • Steve’s high tech radio turns off immediately after delivering relevant information.
The morality of the past, in the future!:
  • India and China are the only non-white countries that exist, according to Gor.
  • Sally’s dearest, most desperate wish is to receive a dishwasher for her birthday.
  • At one point, Sally legitimately calls Steve “Master.” If this film got into the hands of Tumblr, we’d have an all-out war on our hands.
  • Sally’s conviction that another brain was inhabiting the body of their dog is written off as “you and your imagination,” despite the fact that Steve has literally every reason to believe that body-hopping brains exist.
Sensawunda:
  • In the opening scene, Dan reads a book titled “Science Fiction.” In case you weren’t sure what movie you were watching.
  • Robert Fuller’s plunging neckline might be the most revealing outfit in cinema history up to that point.
  • Lead actor John Agar would cap off his career with yet another instantly dated nuclear flick, the magnetic late 80’s treasure Miracle Mile.
  • That poster is honestly the single best design I've seen in my entire life.
TL;DR: The Brain From Planet Arous is a short and sweet camp picture with an occasional burst of talent.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1435
Reviews In This Series
The Giant Claw (Popcorn Culture - Sears, 1957)
The Brain from Planet Arous (Popcorn Culture - Hertz, 1957)
It Came from Beneath the Sea (Popcorn Culture - Gordon, 1955)
Terror Train (Kinemalogue - Spottiswoode, 1980)
The House on Sorority Row (Kinemalogue - Rosman, 1983)
Killer Party (Kinemalogue - Fruet, 1986)

Friday, October 23, 2015

Tricks and Treats

Year: 2015
Run Time: 1 hour 32 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

I was very excited to see Tales of Halloween, a holiday anthology film that features a very unique group of indie directors and actors, many of whom I personally know. I learned a very important lesson from this screening: Don’t write reviews where your friends can read them.

Don’t get me wrong, the film isn’t awful, but the relative quality of each segment makes for some wild swings across either end of the spectrum. At the end of the day, it’s a fun flick with a real sense of community (cemented in by bucketloads of cameos and lots of crossover performers that highlight the fact that every story takes place in the same town) made for the most microscopic of budgets, so it can be forgiven  few flaws. There’s a patch in the middle that is a rough trudge to get through, but it comes out sparkly clean by the time the substantial credits roll.

What follows is a review of each individual segment in order, capped off by a ranking of the worst to the best.

Sweet Tooth


Director: Dave Parker
Cast: Daniel DiMaggio, Madison Iseman, Hunter Smit

A vengeful ghost pursues those who don't save him any Halloween candy.

Sweet Tooth is an excellent place to begin any proper Halloween anthology. It’s intrinsically focused on the childlike perception of the holiday as a night of sweet candy joy laced with spooky figures lurking in the shadows. It also introduces a compelling local legend, a boogeyman used to scare kids away from overindulging on treats. Sweet Tooth is simple, compact, and bloody, just right for a night of cinematic trick or treating.

Fun-Size Treat: One of the candies is called a Carpenter Bar, which is a sly reference to the Halloween auteur but probably doesn’t taste very good.

The Night Billy Raised Hell


Director: Darren Lynn Bousman
Cast: Barry Bostwick, Marcus Eckert, Christophe Zajac-Denek

A young kid attempts to egg an elderly neighbor's house and learns what a real Halloween prank is.

The Night Billy Raised Hell is an organic but regrettable follow-up to Sweet Tooth. It carries on that short’s sense of glib spooky fun with a stellar twist attached, but it’s over marinated in humor There are several reasonably diverting twists on Halloween pranks that escalate to absurd levels, but the short is marred by some truly unfortunate sound design. As the lead actor hams around like a Keystone stooge, wacky effects accompany his every move like he’s on one of those awful wacky radio shows. It’s an immensely frustrating, over-the-top approach to what could have been a taut, reasonably silly piece.

Fun-Size Treat: The final coda as the segment cuts to black is by far the best-timed punch line of the whole film.

Trick


Director: Adam Gierasch
Cast: John F. Beach, Tiffany Shepis, Trent Haaga

A group of drunk and stoned adults is beset by homicidal trick or treaters.

Here’s where things really start to backslide. Trick starts off strong with some deft Steadicam work and impeccable timing, but it swiftly degenerates into a nonsensical twist ending. The twist is bad enough, but it is introduced in a manner so ham-handed that it’s like an entire supermarket meat department topples over your head. This segment is the one where you really start to notice how the actors are indicating more than truly performing heir roles. This works for the basic, sketch-like nature of the film, which needs to set up each story ASAP, but makes the weaker entries even more unbearable to watch.

Fun-Size Treat: A friend of mine’s daughter is a trick or treater in this one, and she’s the most adorable punkin you’ve ever seen.

The Weak and the Wicked


Director: Paul Solet
Cast: Keir Gilchrist, Grace Phipps, Booboo Stewart

A young teen seeks revenge on the hoodlums that wreak havoc in the streets.

This teenybopper revenge tale is a right mess. I have literally zero bead on what the tone is supposed to be. The baddies are intended to be archetypes, but the flit from cliché to cliché without piecing any of it together. Are they dirt biking bullies? Anarchical hood rats? Straight-up sociopaths? Their motivations are obliterated by a startlingly weak reveal that undermines comprehension and ruins any catharsis that may have come out of the story.

Fun-Size Treat: The lead actor, Keir Gilchrist, will forever live in my heart thanks to United States of Tara.

Grim Grinning Ghost


Director: Axelle Carolyn
Cast: Alex Essoe, Lin Shaye, Barbara Crampton

A frightened woman thinks she's being stalked by a ghost who kills those who see her face.

This one’s a return to form following two incredibly weak entries. It’s not complex or particularly striking, but it’s eerie and enjoyable with some fun cameos (though I do feel that Barbara Crampton is cruelly wasted here). This segment has the strongest visual sense of the first half of the anthology, making smart use of shadow, silhouette, and encroaching fog to drive home the sense of being followed. The dialogue is a bit oversimplified (“Sh*t. Sh*t. Sh*t!”), but there’s excellent use of a song and the story clips by at a steady pace. Nothing to complain about here.

Fun-Size Treat: Lin Shaye!

Ding Dong


Director: Lucky McKee
Cast: Marc Senter, Pollyanna McIntosh, Lilly Von Woodenshoe

A barren woman forces her husband to act out a twisted Hansel and Gretel delusion while handing out candy.

Oh man. I almost didn’t make it through this one. The gender politics alone are execrable (a woman doesn’t have a baby, so she becomes a shrieking demonic harpy), but this entire segment is right next door to unwatchable. The wacky sound effects are back, this time accompanying an infuriatingly frequent shot of the lady adjusting her boobs before opening the door to children (why?), the scene frequently cuts to faux avant-garde shots of a four-armed demon lady (why??), and the acting brings to mind the bat guano shrieking of the John Waters-esque aunt from Sleepaway Camp. It’s a shrill, unappetizing descent into madness. Nestled within the various segments in this film, coming across Ding Dong is like the classic Charlie Brown scene: “I got a jumbo candy bar!” “I got a regular candy bar!” “I got a rock.”

Fun-Size Treat: The husband, who looks like he’s 14 years old, is too squeamish to say the word “vasectomy.” Maybe he IS 14.

This Means War


Director: John Skipp & Andrew Kasch
Cast: Dana Gould, James Duval

A polite, orderly neighbor attempts to shut down the raucous party across the street.

An overly simple story that goes absolutely nowhere, at least This Means War feels like a coherent anthology piece, albeit a slightly weak one. There’s a frankly astonishing amount of air guitar, which I’m pretty sure no human being had actually done since 1997, but other than that, this one slides in one ear and out the other.

Fun-Size Treat: The phrase “monster up” is used at though it’s slang that we’re actually supposed to know.

Friday the 31st


Director: Mike Mendez
Cast: Amanda Moyer, Jennifer Wenger, Nick Principe

A slasher villain is visited by a trick or treating alien.

If you survived the gauntlet that is the middle third of this anthology, you earned the bliss that is the next three segments. Friday the 31st is the weakest of the trifecta, but it’s a zany, gooey genre exercise with the world’s most adorable Claymation alien. The pure enthusiasm of this pieces even excuses the extremely silly Monty Python-esque effects, though I do wish that the climactic battle didn’t feel like such a turn-based, unvaried hack ‘n slash.

Fun-Size Treat: “Twick or Tweet!”

The Ransom of Rusty Rex


Director: Ryan Schifrin
Cast: Ben Woolf, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Sam Witwer

Two criminals attempt to kidnap a millionaire's son for ransom, but get more than they bargained for.

Now that’s what I’m talking about! With a classic anthology reversal setup, this segment is witty, exciting, and packed with Halloween cheer, propelled by two of the strongest performances of the entire film (American Horror Story’s Ben Woolf – may he rest in peace – and the lead kidnapper), The Ransom of Rusty Rex is quippy, over-the-top fun!

Fun-Size Treat: The millionaire is played by John Landis, director extraordinaire of An American Werewolf in London, The Blues Brothers, and Animal House.

Bad Seed


Director: Neil Marshall
Cast: Kristina Klebe, Pat Healy, Greg McLean

An evil jack-o-lantern stalks the streets, devouring those it comes across.

I suppose I intrinsically trust the director of The Descent, only one of my favorite horror flicks of all time, but I have good reason to. This segment is a great end piece to leave the film on a high note. With references to every other segment, Bad Seed simultaneously wraps everything up while telling its own outrageous story. The pumpkin monster is perfectly realized, and the gags produced from the detective’s pursuit of the monster are some of the best in the entire film. And their ending is a pitch perfect final note for both the Twilight Zone-y piece and Tales of Halloween as a whole.

Fun-Size Treat: Axelle Carolyn, Neil Marshall’s wife (and producer of Tales of Halloween/director of Grim Grinning Ghost) is shown being dragged away by cops in the police station.

Official Ranking:

#10 Ding Dong
#9 The Weak and the Wicked
#8 Trick
#7 This Means War
#6 The Night Billy Raised Hell
#5 Friday the 31st
#4 Grim Grinning Ghost
#3 Sweet Tooth
#2 Bad Seed
#1 The Ransom of Rusty Rex

Only the top six are worth watching, but that’s honestly a decent track record for this type of anthology.

TL;DR: Tales of Halloween is an uneven, but enjoyable ode to the October holiday season.
Rating: 6/10, quite literally in this case.
Word Count: 1639

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Dangertainment

Year: 2002
Director: Rick Rosenthal
Cast: Busta Rhymes, Bianca Kajlich, Jamie Lee Curtis
Run Time: 1 hour 34 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

It’s been a wild and rocky ride through the world of Haddonfield’s Finest, but here in the safe haven of 2002, we arrive at the final Halloween picture (Rob Zombie? Never heard of him). Though the back half of the franchise pretty much stinks like Michael Myers’ jumpsuit (He might have the scratch to spruce up his mask every time, but has anyone ever seen him launder his Lucky Murder Overalls?). Halloween H20 was a beautiful fresh start for the series, leaving the air clear for a follow-up to glide smoothly in.

Of course, that’s not what happened. This is one of my franchise marathons, after all. Things can always get worse. Halloween: Resurrection cannonballed in, gnarled and spitting, after four long years of radio silence. It’s far from the worst of the franchise (I lied – I’ve heard of Rob Zombie and those remakes are trundling down the trash chute right at us), but it’s a massive step down from the oasis of H20 in the barren Halloween desert.

Please take a moment to pay respect to that killer pun.

Halloween: Resurrection took one look at the calendar and thought, “What can I do to make sure that nobody ever forgets I was made in 2002?” The answer is this: The plot centers around Freddie Harris (Busta Rhymes), the host of a spooktacular reality TV web series known as Dangertainment. This Halloween, he will be sending a host of sexy college students with webcams into the notorious Myers house to see if they can find evidence of the serial killer’s upbringing. The film’s understanding of psychology begins and ends at a single paragraph clipped from a Carl Jung book, so an intimately detailed portrait it ain’t.

The Meat he packs into the house includes Jen (Katee Sackhoff of Oculus), a fame whore with the energy of a rabid chipmunk; Rudy (Sean Patrick Thomas), a chef in training who thinks that Michael’s rage stems from a poor diet – who invited this guy?; Sara (Bianca Kajlich), a good student who is in an online relationship with Deckard (Ryan Merriman of Final Destination 3 and The Ring Two), a freshman who sneaks away from a party to watch her show; Jim (Luke Kirby), a horny music major; Donna (Daisy McCrackin), a pretentious asshole who thinks she’s smarter than everyone else because she read that Jung paragraph; and Bill (Thomas Ian Nicholas, Kevin from American Pie), who might actually be hornier than his hapless Pie character,

Naturally, Michael Myers (Brad Loree) arrives for his close-up, fresh from finally offing Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis, who wanted to make sure that she wouldn’t be asked back for any more sequels). His one mission in life complete, he does what any recent retiree would do – immediately attempt to recapture the glory days.

I suppose a model train set is out of the question.

Halloween: Resurrection is the cinematic equivalent of the absurdly confident freshman who just took a PSYCH 101 class and gleefully analyses their friends from on high. It’s clearly an attempt to dredge up some latent themes from the original Halloween about how the boogeyman represents the darkness inside all of us. However, this topic loses some of its luster when addressed by annoying clods who correct each other’s grammar, scoff at phallic imagery before being penetrated by sharp objects, and have the sheer pedantic audacity to call Michael Myers the “great white shark of our unconscious.”

However, I have been forever inoculated against annoying characters thanks to Tina from Halloween 5. Though Resurrection’s slate of characters is universally obnoxious, they’re hardly more obnoxious than all of us under 30 were back in 2002. The real beauty (if you can call it that) of Halloween: Resurrection is that it’s an unabashed time capsule of the strangest, most embarrassing trends and behaviors of the new millennium. Many film fans find dated movies to be abhorrent, but my secret joy lies in exploring the unearthed rends of a decade not too far removed from our own, yet as distant from the context of 2015 as Mars.

Thus, in my eyes, Halloween: resurrection is a totally adequate stupid slasher. There’s no part of the film that could conceivably be called “good,” but nearly every minute is a haphazard good time.

Kind of like a Ryan Murphy show.

OK, we all know Halloween: Resurrection is crappy. But as a self-professed kinda sorta fan, I feel that it is my duty to start with some positive comments before we rummage through the barrel of well-worm mockery. First and foremost, the mask is actually sort of decent. Or, at least it’s kept in shadow enough that it’s given the opportunity to be creepy. It’s the best Michael Myers couture since Halloween II, at any rate. My favorite element of the mask is that, when it emerges from the darkness, it looks angry. Now obviously that flies in the face of the idea that he is a faceless force of evil, but I feel like on this side of the Thorn trilogy, we’re a smidge past the point of fussing over subtextual minutiae.

And one should never underestimate the value of an evenly parsed-out platter of Meat. We meet our core three one at a time before we’re dumped in with the rest, so we’re given a moment to breathe and get a bead on who’s who. I don’t particularly want to get to know any of these paper-thin archetypes from Aristotle’s thesis on Irritating Drama, but I appreciate the fact that we’re given the opportunity.

Finally, as dated as the film’s premise and technology might be, it has some fun with it. Director Rick Rosenthal (returning from Halloween II, having helmed the classic The Birds II: Land’s End in the meantime) still doesn’t quite know how to frame a shot when he’s not quoting John Carpenter (as a matter of fact, he doesn’t quite know how to frame a shot when he is quoting John carpenter), but there are some clever editing moments involving the POV of the webcams, especially when they’re attached to teen corpses or rolling down the stairs on a severed head. 

Plus, the presence of Deckard and an increasing crowd of partygoers watching the show allows us to be a part of the game, getting real time audience reactions as the horror ensues. This all culminates in a sequence where Deckard must act as Sara’s eyes because only he can see where Michael is hiding in the house thanks to the cameras. It’s not exactly fraught with tension, but it squeezes some blood from the stone that the franchise had become.

Oh, and there’s a handful of pretty cool kill sequences that are baroquely gooey in the classic slasher tradition, including a blood tracheotomy that hearkens back to 1960’s Peeping Tom.

Rosenthal’s motto is “If it ain’t broke, steal it.”

I do recognize that a film that requires this much defending isn’t exactly Wizard of Oz, but Halloween: Resurrection is just fun. Spectacularly dumb fun, but fun just the same. There’s a lot to hate in the film and many scores of people have found it, but at least for me it’s all part of the ineffable experience. Sure, the actual webcam footage is pixelated enough to abrade your corneas, the Final Girl is next to useless, and a climactic scene involves young Rudy throwing fennel in Michael’s eyes. But it wants so badly to entertain and I for one feel that it does.

Resurrection’s piece de resistance (and an accurate gauge of if this movie is for you) is without a doubt Busta Rhymes. He is far from a good actor, but his singularly arresting energy is far more compelling than the herd of halter tops that surround him. His performance style follows two steps incessantly and unfailingly: 1) Cock head at a physically impossible angle that makes people fear for your health, and 2) Just keep talking until you get to something that feels like the line you were supposed to say.

His copious monologuing puts even the loquacious Dr. Loomis to shame. And although Donald Pleasance has chewed up mountains majesty of purple dialogue, I’m not sure even he would relish calling Michael Myers a “killer shark with baggy-ass overalls.” Busta just lets loose and goes for it, performing every act with supreme commitment, whether it be wooing Tyra Banks (who is in this, did I mention that?), kung fu kicking the Boogeyman, or merely sitting on his couch at home. His performance is pure, magnetic lunacy, a perfect centerpiece for this unflappably deranged sequel.

Whatever. I like Halloween: Resurrection. Sue me.

Killer: Michael Myers (Brad Loree)
Final Girl: Sara (Bianca Kajlich)
Best Kill: Jim’s head is crushed and he cries tears of blood.
Sign of the Times: Deckard meets Sarah through a Yahoo! Chat room and they keep in contact using their Palm pilots.
Scariest Moment: Sara has to climb down the stairs over Bill’s dead body.
Weirdest Moment: Busta Rhymes does kung fu alone in his apartment.


Champion Dialogue: "Screwing a music major would be tantamount to lesbianism.”
Body Count: 10; not including the decapitated “paramedic” shown in H20 flashback footage.
  1. Security Guard is decapitated.
  2. Willy has his throat slit.
  3. Laurie Strode is stabbed in the back and falls to her death.
  4. Charlie is stabbed in the throat with a tripod.
  5. Bill is stabbed in the head.
  6. Donna is impaled on an iron spike.
  7. Jen is decapitated.
  8. Jim has his head crushed. 
  9. Rudy is triple stabbed and pinned to a door.
  10. Nora is stabbed and hung offscreen.
TL;DR: Halloween: Resurrection is an immensely stupid but vastly entertaining time capsule.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1634
Reviews In This Series
Halloween (Carpenter, 1978)
Halloween II (Rosenthal, 1981)
Halloween: Resurrection (Rosenthal, 2002)
Halloween (Zombie, 2007)
Halloween II (Zombie, 2009)

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Clay Achin'

Year: 2015
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston
Run Time: 1 hour 59 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Guillermo del Toro is such a visionary that his name is spoken with hushed tones in optometry circles. His Spanish language films are characterized by a lush etherealism that starkly contrasts with the frequent brutality of the “real” world. The genre he creates in his films like the widely renowned Pan’s Labyrinth and the tremendously underrated The Devil’s Backbone is utterly distinct and can only be described as horror fantasy.

And then he made Pacific Rim. Now, I’m not saying that del Toro’s American films are bad, but they certainly lack that ineffable quality that defines his foreign works. However, this Halloween saw a near perfect marriage of the disparate halves of his career: the gothic ghost romance Crimson Peak combines the best of his Spanish aesthetic and the narrative paucity of his Hollywood flicks.

Generic ghost stories are real. This much I know.

In Crimson Peak, Edith “Not Peter” Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is a young American writer. She’s penning a novel that’s not a ghost story, but a “story with ghosts,” a dangerous portent for the thrill-seeking teenyboppers in the audience. She falls madly in love with Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a mysterious stranger who came to her father in search of funding for an invention of his, to be used to plumb the depths of the red clay mine beneath his English manor. 

After her father’s untimely death by murder, she marries Sharpe and is whisked off to live with him in England, along with his hawkish and brooding sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), much to the consternation of her suitor, Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam, again cruelly forced to adopt a stilted American accent despite the fact that three-quarters of the film tajes place in his native Britain).

The Sharpe manor, Allerdale Hall, is in a startling state of disrepair (much like the Sharpes’ finances). The entire property is sinking into the clay mine, and liquefied red clay bleeds from the walls as leaves and debris cascade continuously from the holes in the ceiling. Pretty much immediately, Edith begins seeing CGI ghosts who warn her of a terrible secret hidden within the house.

[SPOILERS] It doesn’t NOT have something to do with Tom Hiddleston’s bare ass.

If you tossed Jane Eyre, The Haunting, The Devil’s Backbone, Flowers in the Attic, and The Turn of the Screw into a blender, you’d come up with a story that is almost, but not quite, entirely like Crimson Peak. It’s fundamentally predictable, so much so that the dialogue could have been “lorem ipsum, etc…” and be just as effective. It’s just a heap of thinly veiled metaphors delivered in Masterpiece Theatre accents slathered liberally over a routine gothic mystery.

Crimson Peak is just a pile of gently steaming boilerplate. That is, if you’re watching it with your eyes closed. The narrative might be peaky odds and ends, but the storybook environment and pure stylistic enthusiasm blast through the picture like a mighty geyser. After less than a minute, you feel like you’re watching the film while strapped into one of those Clockwork Orange viewing devices, unable and unwilling to peel your eyes away from the screen for even a moment. Handfuls of popcorn are missing your mouth completely and about sixty percent of your fact is slick with misapplied Chapstick, but to look away for even a second would be tantamount to rank betrayal, like Eve biting into the apple.

Crimson Peak is much like 2013’s Stoker in that it takes a well-worn family drama and transforms it into a sumptuous visual feast. And Mia Wasikowska is there. It has its imperfections, like some CGI-laden ghosties that probably have beers after work with the pixelated monstrosity from Mama, wacky transitions that might have impressed at the Johnson Family Annual New Year’s Slideshow Barbecue 1998, and an obnoxious font that announces locations with the garish lettering of a local mini-mart, though thee are but the pettiest of complaints.

Except for that ghost thing. More on that later.

The audacious style of Allerdale Hall and its ensigns is like an architect enduring a bad comedown from his first acid trip. There is beauty and splendor in the manor’s decrepitude, pulling designs, colors, and shapes from a dark place far beyond the human imagination. The walls are slimy, shimmering visions of flowing red clay, a bloody brilliant element that gives the house sickly life and informs the color scheme of every set. Red never dominates a scene, but it punctuates every moment with vivid splashes of color. And the constantly fluttering stream of leaves and snow through the Hall’s blasted-out ceiling completes the property’s impression of constant, surreal, gorgeous motion.

Equally sumptuous is Crimson Peak’s sound design, which begs to be heard in theatrical surround sound. The sense of Allerdale Hall as a living, all-encompassing space owes a great deal to the efforts of its audio technicians, who create a richly textured portrayal of not only what’s in the house, but where it is at all times.

And let me tell you, if I come across this place in real life, I would not be included on that list of what’s inside. Woe to their local milkman.

Guillermo del Toro’s brutal realism also makes its way to Crimson Peak in some gruesome sequences that achieve the difficult ideal of hyperreal fantasy. There are no over-the-top head rippings or de-limbings at play here. Every gory moment is an intimate, personal horror that gets under your skin and flays you from the inside out.

It’s just pity the story containing all these stunning elements is so milquetoast. I wouldn’t say that what Crimson Peak needs is more ghostly action (del Toro has conclusively proven in Devil’s Backbone that he is capable of deftly handling a ghost story where the spooky supernatural presence is far fro villainous.), but there is a certain lack of luster to Edith’s visitations. This is frustrated even more by the fact that the phantasms could be lifted from the plot entirely without making the slightest mark on the film.

Plus, the ghosts themselves, while boasting stupefying designs, are rendered silly by too much FX processing. The buildup to any haunting (when actual physical objects are being manipulated) are far more intense than the cut-and-paste apparitions that follow. The ghosts are far from the only thing to be afraid of, so this isn’t a film-busting flaw, but it’s hard not to feel slightly disappointed by the ghosts’ lukewarm portrayal.

Boo Hoo Hoo…

Speaking of portrayals, Jessica Chastain swallows her role whole, swooping around the manor like a majestic heron. The rest of the cast is also suitable, though a wonky accent yet again unmoors Charlie Hunnam. Oh, when will producers stop being cruel to him?

At the end of the day, Crimson Peak is a film worth experiencing. Is it for teen Halloweeners looking to get their hearts thumped? Certainly not. Is it for haunted house fans looking for their next great classic? Unfortunately, no. but is fit for people who deeply, truly love the art of cinema? That answer would be an emphatic yes.

TL;DR: Crimson Peak is a gothic romance that values style over substance.
Rating: 8/10
Should I Spend Money On This? Don't go in expecting intense scares, but if you see it you absolutely must do so in the theater.
Word Count: 1245