Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Fright Flashback: James Gunn

For our Scream 101 episode about this film, click here.

Welcome to Fright Flashback, where every week until the end of summer we will revisit an older horror film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to an upcoming new release. This week we are anticipating Guardians of the Galaxy, the new Marvel feature that was written and directed by James Gunn. Having never seen one of his films, I decided it was best to explore one of his early horror efforts, Slither.

Year: 2006
Director: James Gunn
Cast: Elizabeth Banks, Nathan Fillion, Michael Rooker
Run Time: 1 hour 35 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

It's a mystery how some movies just fail to get by in popular culture. If Slither had been made but a couple years later than it did, it would be all over the place thanks to its cast of now well-known faces. I mean, how can you put Elizabeth Banks, Nathan Fillion, Merle from The Walking Dead and Pam from The Office in the same film and not have it make a splash?

The world is a strange and confusing place and I'm not sure I want to live here anymore.

You know what? Never mind. I guess I could stay here a little longer.

Combining the zany comedy of an Evil Dead movie with the B-horror sensibilities of 50's classics like The Blob and the growing fervor of the Zombie Renaissance, Slither is a delightful and creative mishmash of genres. It doesn't breathe new life into them, but rather leaps deftly between them to create something cannily nostalgic and intelligently campy in glittering combination.

Slither tells the story of Starla Grant (Elizabeth Banks), a small town schoolteacher in the South. When, unbeknownst to her, her husband Grant (Michael Rooker) is infected by a creature in a mysterious meteor in the woods during an illicit tryst, he begins to act very strangely. It turns out that "for better or for worse" does not include being taken over by an alien parasite that uses worm-like minions to turn all the townspeople into shambling zombies, so Starla must team up with the lovelorn Chief Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion) to eradicate the alien menace before it is too late and humanity is devoured.

Part of the fun of being tossed into a zombie-type movie is guessing how exactly the disease works this time around. Sure, the whole idea of what a "zombie" is is pretty much set in stone, but the genesis and pathology can range all over the map. Is the disease an ancient one or a new creation? Does it make people rise from the grave or merely infect the newly deceased? Is everyone infected or just those who are bitten? There are hundreds of different factors that go into the specificity of the thing and Gunn's complex mythology blows them all out of the water.

The bathwater, that is.

Slither isn't the best horror movie I've seen (which would be [REC]), nor is it the best zombie movie I've seen (which would be [REC]). Heck, it's not even the best zombie comedy movie I've ever seen (which would probably have to be Shaun of the Dead or Dead Snow). But it's got a lot of pizazz and squelchy charm that makes it about as far from a chore as a low-budget zombie movie could ever possibly be with its stellar wit and brisk pace.

While the genre trappings mostly remain intact (save for some terrific reversals and subversions in the finale), the humor is as fresh as it gets and provides Slither with a timeless edge that will keep you tickled even if the whole "worm snakes want inside my mouth" thing isn't your cup of tea. Comedy depends on the element of surprise, so I will refrain from shoving a laundry list of the best lines down your throats. I gotta leave room for the worms anyway.

Just pretend it's licorice.

Luckily for Slither and unluckily for its audience, the effects are top notch. The movie is unafraid to throw plenty of twisting, slimy goodness at the screen for as long as possible. Very influenced by the psychosexual works of the late H. R. Giger and the excesses of the Stuart Gordon era, it depicts the invasion of the human body by an alien force in excruciating detail.

This may turn off some viewers, but makes it a must-see for the horror faithful. Slither's monsters are all slime and gore, pulled from the deepest darkest recesses of the mind. And in a world so inundated with self-indulgent CGI monstrosities, it is a relief to see practical effects brought to the screen in the modern era. This relief is so profound that it includes even the outrageously bad deer puppet that stinks up a third act scene.

But the effects are one hundred percent convincing everywhere they need to be and keep Slither firmly in a hilariously disgusting camp. There's also some terrific B-movie foreshadowing where innocuous details play an important part in survival, a keen use of shadow and light in creating an effective environment, and a fearlessness that is uncommon in today's studio horror.

It's perhaps a little too cheesy and a little too bereft of thematic import to be a new classic, but especially when compared to the other horror of the year, even the entire decade, Slither is well worth your time. You deserve a good laugh. And where else are you going to see Elizabeth Banks murdering a zombie with a spike? Something tells me Pitch Perfect 2 isn't going to cut it for the gorehounds.

If you're a fan, check it out! If you're not, you might just like it anyway. Check it out!

TL;DR: Slither is filled to the brim with wonderfully slimy effects and sharp humor.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 963

Monday, July 28, 2014

Right Ingredients, Wrong Recipe

Year: 2014
Director: Jon Favreau
Cast: Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo, Sofía Vergara
Run Time: 1 hour 54 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

All the online reviews for Chef are populated with unbearably awful cooking puns. I swore never to stoop so low, but the film is way too overbaked for me to avoid their siren call.

I'mma give it to you straight, guys. Chef is roughly three times as long as the amount of time it takes to make a tray of Nestlé Toll House cookies. It would be a much better choice devouring all 180 of those cookies in a row than watching Chef especially considering that it would still be less saccharine than the movie itself.

Indie comedy or Disney Channel original series? You decide!

Chef opens with its title. White on a black background. No frills. The title itself isn't even all that interesting. This lack of imagination permeates the film down to the last frame. I imagine that the plot (which involves an estranged workaholic dad struggling to reenergize his career while connecting with his estranged wife and son) would seem fresh and new if you'd spent the last twenty years inside a test tube (I would have made a "born yesterday" joke, but these plot beats could be sensed even from the womb), but it fails to amuse, especially in the wake of the far superior Begin Again.

In brief. Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) was once a promising young chef, but has been brown-beaten by Riva (Dustin Hoffman), the owner of his restaurant, to simply make the old favorites over and over again. His feelings of being trapped creatively are exacerbated by the food critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) when he trashes Chef Casper's cooking on his blog.

While Casper struggles to regain his dignity, he ignores the transparent neediness of his son Percy (Emjay Anthony) and generally blows him off during the few moments Percy is not with his mother Inez (Sofía Vergara), who is filthy rich and has no definable job, yet remains the most solidly three-dimensional woman in a script dominated by males written by a man (Jon Favreau himself) who evidently has lost any and all perspective on how the female mind works. 

And a question. Has Jon Favreau ever not had money? The script would seem to indicate that he can't conceive of a world in which poverty might be an issue. In one memorable but certainly not unique scene, the ostensibly broke and maxed-out Casper offers to take his kid to Disney World. As if! Bill Gates himself could only afford about three tickets to that place.

As evidenced by Jon Favreau's wife, Chef does not exist in a universe that operates by the same internal logic as our own.

When he quits his job after butting heads with Riva and accidentally starting a flame war with Ramsey, ending up becoming a phenomenon on Twitter, Carl must struggle to earn back his dignity and status by... borrowing his wife's money and starting an instantly successful food truck. Remember what I said about this script coming from a place of upper-class privilege? The stakes in this film are so low that they wouldn't even pose a threat to the most thin-skinned of vampires.

And that's just but one tonal issue within this supernaturally inept screenplay. The idea of a food truck is bluntly introduced in the first scene (before his job is even on the line) in a piece of dialogue so clumsy and forced that it barrels into your ears like an actual truck. The gags are endless, Carl is shown working day and night but never actually sleeping, conversations go in circles and hit the same points over and over (a single line repeats the same word upwards of three times), side characters teleport across the country to blindly serve the protagonist, and Scarlett Johansson is wasted in a role that involves practically reaching orgasm while watching an overweight man cook pasta.

I mean I've heard of food porn, but this is just overkill.

And that's not all. Either the editing is jarring or the characters have taken some Hogwarts Online™ courses in apparition. Glaring continuity errors spice up some of the blander moments, alarmingly ugly rack focus is brought out to unnecessarily spruce up otherwise normal scenes, and some scenes make you wonder if they only ever got one take and were forced to stick with it.

If I were them, I would have done as many takes as possible while eating that barbecue.

To be fair, this movie isn't all bad. In fact it's not bad at all. It's a frothy fun bit of food porn-infused pop entertainment. But it's so self-indulgent and routine that it's hard to avoid noticing all the manifold flaws in the craftsmanship. Perhaps three duties was a tad too much for director-star-writer Mr. Favreau, who is spread too thin to excel at a single one of them.

However, the man surrounds himself with capable actors. John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale operate at a pitch perfect level as a sort of Greek chorus of support staff. Their energy is only brought down when they are forced to interact with Chef Casper, who sinks their chemistry like a stone. Vergara and Johansson work magic with supremely limited roles. And Robert Downey, Jr. injects Chef with a much-needed energy boost at the halfway point.

Perhaps the most remarkable element of the film and one of the only things that recommends it in any major way is its handling of technology. I've made my fair share of complaints and theories about the "texts on the screen" effects of films like The Fault in Our Stars, but Chef brings that trope to its inevitable next level.

Chef Casper's tweets appear onscreen, but in an organic three-dimensional manner that allows them to interact with their environment. They appear differently when viewed from different angles and are even occasionally blocked by other objects. And when they are sent, the text boxes turn into little birds and fly off, perfectly integrating the sound, design, and permanence of a tweet.

It's a tad unfortunate that the best thing about the film is its tweeting, but it's enough to keep the bloated and messy thing afloat. I can't recommend it with quite the fervor that it appears to have been receiving, but Chef is a decent enough diversion featuring a couple solid performances as long as its sybaritic star stays out of the way.

TL;DR: Chef really isn't very good, but it features a unique view of technology and several memorable performances.
Rating: 5/10
Should I Spend Money On This? No, but you won't regret choosing it on a lazy RedBox night a couple months from now.
Word Count: 1127

Friday, July 25, 2014

Census Bloodbath: Hella Kinesis

Year: 1988
Director: John Carl Buechler
Cast: Lar Park-Lincoln, Terry Kiser, Kane Hodder
Run Time: 1 hour 28 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

1988 was not a very good year to be a Jason-style slasher. The MPAA was patrolling the subgenre like a dystopian police state and the interest was beginning to shift. After 8 years of being inundated with the slasher formula, both within and without the horror genre (here's looking at you, Terminator) it was only natural that audiences would be hungry for something else. To rub salt in the wound, the only big slashers at the time were in the more supernatural vein of the still-strong Nightmare franchise.

In fact, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master would prove to be the most profitable slasher film of the entire decade. So here was Paramount, trapped within an outdated yet set-in-stone formula that just wasn't pulling in the numbers it used to. They couldn't change Jason or his MO. They'd done that once before and were eaten alive by rabid fanboys (rumor has it that 28 Days Later... is actually based upon the true story of a New Beginning test screening). But what they could do was switch out a Final Girl.

No audience alarm bells would go off. They were used to different survivors every time. And the one repeat offender, Tommy Jarvis, was played by a different actor in each iteration. So this was by no means unprecedented. But the Final Girl that they decided on for Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood would provide this campy (pun intended) franchise with its most memorable heroine yet... Carrie.

OK, no they didn't get the rights to Stephen King (although I would sell my own teeth to see Jason hacking his way through the Torrance family at the Overlook Hotel). But Final Girl Tina Shepard is blessed with telekinetic powers, one of a mere two elements that bolsters what would otherwise be an alarmingly subpar entry in the franchise.

Her hair is not one of those elements.

The film begins an indeterminate amount of time after the handsomest Tommy Jarvis chains Jason to a boulder at the bottom of Crystal Lake (which is recapped in the most efficient opening sequence yet with narration by an uncredited Walt Gorney aka Crazy Ralph). Young Tina Shepard runs away from her abusive father and takes a boat out into Crystal Lake. He runs out trying to stop her, but she uses her nascent powers to destroy the dock and drown him in the lake.

An indeterminate amount of time after that, the teenage Tina (Lar Park-Lincoln) has been institutionalized for her trauma. She is returning to that lakeside house for the first time since that unhappy day, accompanied by her mother (Susan Blu) and the transparently, mustache-twirlingly evil Dr. Crews (Terry Kiser, who played an even more famous corpse in Weekend at Bernie's). Tina only wants to get better but Dr. Crews seems a little too keen on harnessing her telekinetic power.

So we have a New Beginning style plot with a time jump and a teen trying to get over her childhood trauma which is quickly married to a Final Chapter plot thanks to the kids next door. Of course there's kids next door. Jason's a hungry boy, he hasn't killed anyone for a good 20 years at this point (by the way, the multiple time jumps involved in the film's chronology make this very 1988 film set somewhere north of 2001).

Anyway, it's time to Meet the Meat. It's Michael's (William Butler) birthday and all his friends have gathered to surprise him and celebrate. Although an unfortunate run-in with a tent spike prevents him from showing up, a little mysterious vanishing won't stop no Crystal Lake teens, not when there's booze and sex to be had.

Crammed into the lakeside house are Russell (Larry Cox), the rich nephew of the man who owns the house; Sandra (Heidi Kozak of Slumber Party Massacre II), his girlfriend and wallet enthusiast; Melissa (Susan Jennifer Sullivan), the mean slut* who ends up being one of the only people who doesn't have sex in the entire film; Eddie (Jeff Bennett), a militantly nerdy sci-fi writer; Maddy (Diana Barrows), the shy nerdy girl; Robin (Elizabeth Kaitan from Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2), Maddy's hot friend who recently lost a vicious battle with a hair straightener; David (Jon Renfield), that annoying stoner at every party who won't shut up about weed; Nick (Kevin Spirtas of The Hills Have Eyes Part II), the hunky lad who didn't want to be there in the first place and has eyes for Tina; and Ben (Craig Thomas) and Kate (Diane Almeida), the Token Black Couple who randomly teleport into the film a third of the way through, confess their love for each other, and die in a van.

*For the record, my use of the word slut is not meant to be derogatory, but merely as a character archetype from this kind of genre.

Jason's only mad because he wasn't invited.

So, Jason. In a desperate attempt to resurrect her father from the lake floor, Tina accidentally awakens Mr. Voorhees (Kane Hodder in the first of four consecutive performances) and sends him on his newest killing spree. This scene, and any scene with either Kane Hodder or Tina's powers frequently rank among the best in the franchise, the former providing the film with a truly menacing villain and the former bringing a loopy energy to the affair as Tina tosses TVs around the room and sets things on fire.

Alas, the rest of the film is dull and unexceptional. It's all very typical Friday the 13th fodder. A random couple is introduced early on solely to boost the body count, the twenty minutes before the finale is an endless string of loosely connected death vignettes, girls doff their tops and form the beast with two backs with any dude who happens to be around and breathing (in one memorable sequence, no less than three couples are mid-coitus simultaneously), it's all very been-here stabbed-that.

Although this is generally true of every film in the franchise, The New Blood was absolutely massacred by the MPAA and not in the good way. Typically in a Friday film, the most consistently high quality element (and the part that maintained audience interest) was the gore. Now whatever your moral qualms about that fact may be, that doesn't change the fact that these kill sequences were pretty much the only reasons people watched Jason's misadventures in the first place.

This film is all about cutting away before anything happens or showing the teensiest glimpse of blood in such a brief flash that it almost feels like subliminal messaging. This is especially draconian in the deaths of Melissa and Dr. Crews, who deserved so much worse than what they got for being such consistently monstrous people throughout the entire story. It's watery thin stuff, the gore, and really highlights the franchise's failures at doing just about anything else.

The acting is atrocious, the pacing is plodding, and the entire second act involves Jason teleporting around the lakeside, magically acquiring and losing various implements (including, memorably, a massive tree-trimming buzz saw) as the script demands it. Luckily for this film in desperate need of a savior, it had one hiding behind a hockey mask.

The best way to enter any room.

Kane Hodder has a massive reputation in the horror community not only for being the only person to portray the iconic killer more than once, but for being just the darn best actor ever to wield the machete. It may seem like a simple role, but telegraphing emotion from behind a mask and layers of makeup is a challenging ordeal. Most of the stunt men hired to play the big guy would just settle for walking around quickly and hoping that it looks menacing.

But Kane's Jason is a just plain angry undead serial killer. His performance is full of little tics and reactions that combine with his tremendous bulk to create a truly intimidating Jason for the first time in the character's career. It's a real shame he was saddled with four of the worst movies in the franchise, but Kane's performance is enough to keep the entire franchise going as a continuously rewarding experience even as it sent Jason further and further down the Rabbit Hole.

In addition, Jason has never looked better. Although nothing else in the TV movie-esque sparse production design quite matches the skill of his realization, you can tell special effects designer turned director John Carl Buechler was proud of his creation. In fact, his mostly pedestrian directing only truly comes alive when it's time to show off the intricate details of the costume, including the bits of spine poking out of the half-rotted shirt and the propellor damage that carves away the bottom quarter of the mask.

Everything good about the film can be understood by the terrific finale, in which all the special effects and startling camera tricks (and presumably all the budget) rear their heads as Jason and Tina duke it out across two houses a forest, and the lake. In perhaps one of the best Final Girl sequences ever put to celluloid, Tina truly proves herself as a match for Jason and even a startlingly daft ending can't put a damper on the effects-filled wonderland that forms the closing 20 minutes of The New Blood.

So in the end, it's all worth it, but at the cost of nearly everything that's come before. I still highly recommend The New Blood for any slasher enthusiast, but the fact remains that despite its highs, the lows are too damaging to really consider this a good film, even by the low standards of the Friday the 13th franchise.

Killer: Jason Voorhees (Kane Hodder)
Final Girl: Tina Shepard (Lar Park-Lincoln)
Best Kill: Most of them are meek and bloodless, but Kate getting stabbed in the eye with a party horn is some good slasher fun.
Sign of the Times: Take your pick. There's Tina's mom's feathered hair helmet,

Eddie's stylish military jacket/mullet combo,

Nick's sleeve allergy,

or how about Russell's costume, which indicates that the costume designers had only the most rudimentary notion of the term "preppy" and decided to smother their weaknesses with extra pastels.

Scariest Moment: Jason corners Tina in her living room.
Weirdest Moment: Nick has his cousin's picture in his wallet.
Champion Dialogue: "You know what I like about you? You hardly sweat at all. You wanna get high?"
Body Count: 16
  1. John Shepard is drowned in the lake.
  2. Jane gets a tent spike in the neck.
  3. Michael gets a tent spike thrown through his back.
  4. Dan is punched through the chest.
  5. Judy is slammed against a tree in her sleeping bag. 
  6. Russell gets an axe in the face.
  7. Sandra is pulled underwater.
  8. Maddy is scythed in the neck.
  9. Ben has his head crushed.
  10. Kate gets a party horn in the eye. 
  11. David is stabbed in the stomach and then beheaded offscreen.
  12. Eddie is sliced in the neck with a machete.
  13. Robin is thrown through a window.
  14. Amanda Shepard is impaled through the chest from behind with a brush hook.
  15. Dr. Crews is sliced in the stomach with a tree-trimming saw.
  16. Melissa is axed in the face. 
TL;DR: Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood can be dull and goreless, but is saved by a gonzo finale and the mold-breaking performance of its villain.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1927
Reviews In This Series
Friday the 13th (Cunningham, 1980)
Friday the 13th Part 2 (Miner, 1981)
Friday the 13th Part 3: 3D (Miner, 1982)
Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (Zito, 1984)
Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (Steinmann, 1985)
Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (McLoughlin, 1986)
Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (Buechler, 1988)
Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (Hedden, 1989)
Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (Marcus, 1993)
Jason X (Isaac, 2001)
Freddy vs. Jason (Yu, 2003)
Friday the 13th (Nispel, 2009)

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Shannon Speaks: Cinema du Weird

Having bored friends is great for providing content. Today my good friend Shannon returns after the glowing success of her first Popcorn Culture feature with a piece about weirdness on film.

Let’s be honest: most people value their time and decide to spend it only watching fun, entertaining, insightful films. And then there’s Brennan, who gets an equal kick out of wasting, I mean investing, his time in any movie, almost purposefully being drawn to especially bad ones. I mentioned in my last submission to Brennan’s glorious blog that Brennan and I have watched some pretty strange movies together… some of which were his fault and some of which were not. Still, I thought that I should write another post and this time feature some of these movies that put the horrible in horror. Here are the five weirdest movies I have ever watched with Brennan, enjoy!

[EN: I do not endorse that ALL of these movies are horrible. Disclaimer: The opinions represented in this post do not necessarily reflect those of the blog author.]

The Five Weirdest Movies Brennan Has Made Me Watch

#5 Pieces (1982, dir. Juan Picquer Simón)

Brennan is always better at explaining this than I am, but essentially this movie is the Tacatá of movies, because like the club hit (and one of Brennan's and my favorite jams), it is a movie performed in one language but made by men from a different country who really have no need or business making a movie in a different, non-native language. It would be like if Brennan and I deciding to accomplish both our film homework and our Spanish homework in one project. Basically, it just sucks. So the dialogue in this movie is horrible, or amazing, depending on how you look at it.

[EN: Amazing is how I look at it. Pieces is one of the more electrifying bad movies with gonzo performances and a bonkers final shot. You can look forward to seeing it soon in Census Bloodbath!]

#4 Suspiria (1977, dir. Dario Argento)

Brennan and I watched this when I arrived home after a weekend Ultimate Frisbee tournament, and I was spent. So naturally I fell dead asleep in the middle of this horror classic. But even the fifteen minutes (give or take) that I saw of the movie was enough to dub this one of the weirdest movies. All I remember is ballet, (which is weird enough) and a girl getting thrown out of a window into a room full of needles. Why does a ballet academy have a room chock-full of needles? I would find that kind of need-less, wouldn’t you? (har har). But then again, when you have a ballet studio run by witches, I feel like needles would be the least of their worries.

[EN: Oh Shannon, your puns are worse than my dad's. This is the one film on this list that I view as an artistic masterwork. You can check out my review here.]

#3 The Wizard of Gore (1970, dir. Herschell Gordon Lewis)

I was really excited to see this movie! Brennan got it off of Netflix as a gift watch for me because he knew that I love the 2009 indie hit Juno, in which the main characters have a rather heated discussion comparing Dario Argento movies (Suspiria, see above) to Herschel Gordon Lewis movies, specifically The Wizard of Gore. As it was said in Juno, The Wizard of Gore did indeed have “buckets of goo.” However, it also had a thin plot and lots of loooooooong monologues by the Wizard himself. Instead of a heart, or a brain, or courage, this Wizard only awarded major gaping saw wounds in his “volunteers.” The adaptation is equally weird, but I think more entertaining, and not as slow.

[EN: You're welcome Shannon for showing you all the Juno films. Check out my review of Wizard of Gore here and its remake here.]

#2 Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966, dir. Harold P. Warren)

The camera could only take 27 seconds of film at a time. That should be enough to put this on the list, but you may as well add the overall weirdness of the plot and the strange Dracula-esque dude who collects wives like polygamy was going out of style. The ending of Manos is unfortunately amazing, which makes me kind of sad that I put this on the list, but then again this movie is indeed really freaking weird, so here it will stay.

[EN: Not for nothing is Manos the most popular episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. If you don't know what that show is, click here and thank me later.]

#1 Bubba Ho-Tep (2002, dir. Don Coscarelli)

Elvis is alive. John F. Kennedy was turned black by the government in an effort to keep him protected from another assassination attempt. They are room neighbors in a nursing home, where a cursed bug thing is killing old people. All of that was fine, but the fact that Bubba (Elvis) talked about how sad he was that his *ahem* “richard” no longer worked and was rather graphic in describing what was wrong with it just made the rest of the movie abhorrent. I DETEST THIS STUPID MOVIE. I WANT THOSE TWO HOURS OF MY LIFE BACK.

[EN: I would like to add that, in addition to the attention lavished upon Elvis' dick, a campy premise is played absolutely straight in the most stultifying manner possible. But Roger Ebert loved it so what do I know? Check out my review here.]

BONUS: Another Gay Sequel: Gays Gone Wild! (2008, dir. Todd Stephens)

Brennan and I, in our first semester of college, got really into the American Pie series, binge-watching them all. After we finished the very heterosexual American Pies, we decided to compare it to the gay parody series called Another Gay Movie. The first movie was okay, making cheap jokes at the stereotypes of gay males and even the one lesbian in the film, but overall it was ridiculous and still fun. However, Brennan and I popped in the sequel to the already bad movie and watched it for less than five minutes before taking it out of the DVD player.

It just couldn’t be done. Keep in mind that Brennan and I sat through all the horrible movies listed above and pretty much enjoyed them (other than Bubba Ho-Tep), so the context should speak volumes about how gosh-darn horrible Another Gay Sequel was. You want a real, terrifying horror? Think about the fact that some people actually were able to sit through the entire movie. Now that’s scary.

[EN: There is no scientific evidence available that anybody has seen this film through to completion, not even the filmmakers. It might even close with 45 minutes of blackness. The world will never know.]

Word Count: 1140

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Pond Scum

Year: 1972
Director: George McCowan
Cast: Ray Milland, Sam Elliott, Joan Van Ark
Run Time: 1 hour 31 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

Every holiday I try to watch a horror movie with some thematic connection to the celebration. This is plenty easy when Christmas rolls around, but although horror films do cover a wide array of occasions (from New Year's Evil to Bloody Birthday to Prom Night), there is a pronounced lack of coverage for Independence Day. Sure, there's the late 90's Lustig film Uncle Sam, but I've already seen that. So my pick for this year's Fourth of July was a more tangential film - American Gothic

Little did I know I could have picked Frogs. Sergio would not have been happy with my decision (whatever, he sleeps through all my movies anyway), but it does fit the holiday. Taking place on a Floridian island during the Fourth of July, the 1972 nature-run-amok film Frogs promises loads of amphibian fun. 

It does not deliver.

There is more going on in this still than in the movie itself.

First off, there is a shockingly pronounced lack of frogs in this film. Oh sure, there's plenty of random stock footage shots of frogs hanging out that jam themselves into the film every 20 seconds or so like that one friend at a sleepover who won't shut up when it's 5 AM and you're all trying to sleep. But the primary malevolent force in the film is a grab bag of indigenous (and an assortment of geographically dubious) insects and reptiles.

But I have plenty of grievances to air about that, we can hear those later. First, the plot. Rich patriarch Jason Crockett (Ray Milland) is having his annual birthday party/Fourth of July/family reunion event at his island mansion. The entire family has gathered to celebrate the occasion. They are soon joined by Pickett Smith (Sam Elliott, who could probably have called this a skeleton in his closet were it not for The Golden Compass), an ecological reporter who is investigating the pollution around the area.

As is wont to happen in these types of films, the family is soon beset by a siege of wild animals, presumably exacting revenge for tainting their ecosystem. It's really a great set-up: A large family providing a massive pool of victims, a chintzy premise that promises B-movie fun, and a lead actor that has since risen to stardom.

From a canoe to a corral. 'Tis the circle of life.

If only the film weren't so unearthly dull. Content to be a crappy soap opera for the bulk of its run time, Frogs spends what feels like the course of several hours establishing its characters' relationships and interpersonal dramas. This would normally be a great achievement, but with characters so wanly interchangeable (a good vision test - attempt to differentiate between the three nearly identical balding WASPy brothers) and scenes so static (characters are arranged in dreary tableaux rather than "blocked" in any way), it's enough to make you want to pull out your own eyelashes in a desperate attempt to wish the film away.

And just when the animals start ramping up to wreak their havoc, Frogs undoes itself even more. Of course the kill scenes were never going to be good works of cinema, but they are too sedate to really earn the attentions of any but the most avid B-film watchers. If it's not fun to watch even in an ironic way, your killer frog movie missed out on a major step of the process.

There's a great scene where lizards use their knowledge of chemistry to manufacture a poison gas, but beyond that glint of kookiness, there's not much bite. People mostly just stumble through the forest and shoot themselves in the foot (in one case, quite literally). Let me ask you a question. If you saw a rattlesnake in a clearing, would your first move be to fall directly toward it?

If your answer was no, you are not a character in this film. Congratulations. You have a brain stem.

There are plenty of scenes that, on paper, sound like dynamite viewing. There's a photo shoot with a Foxy Brown-style girlfriend. Frogs somehow take out the phone line then fix it and make a menacing call to the house. Sam Elliott rips his shirt off at the drop of a hat. A man in a wheelchair throws himself into a pile of frogs and dies just cuz it seemed like the thing to do at the time. But there's a supreme lack of effort involved that imbues every scene with a slack lethargy and prevents the more fun plot points from being truly accessible as such.

Although if I could access this outfit I would.

It is of interest as a time capsule of the singular decade of the 70's and one of the first known ecological horror films (a supremely underpopulated genre, the most recent of which is Barry Levinson's found footage gem The Bay), but the shoddy production values sink it into the muck.

Many of the achingly overpresent stock footage shots of various reptiles are blurry with water on the lens, or have the feel of some hapless tourist being jostled while trying to get a shot of the local fauna. The music sounds like the dying wheezes of a kazoo, and more scenes are spent talking about schedules and dividends than screaming in terror.

Also the frogs do absolutely nothing until the last two minutes of the movie and that is unforgivable. Sure, commit whatever reptilian shenanigans you must, but don't sell me a title and not see it through. I'm pretty sure that's one of the Seven Deadly sins.

At least Frogs has the kind of important theme that one can expect from a sharp B-movie, proving that it's at least a little smarter than the average bear, but this is the grizzly sort of bear, not the koala. I'd rather run screaming into the woods than wrap my arms around it.

TL;DR: Frogs is tedious, but it has a good environmental theme and a couple decent B-movie frills.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 1027

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A Day Late, An Hour Short

Year: 2002
Director: Stephen Daldry
Cast: Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Nicole Kidman
Run Time: 1 hour 54 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Everybody remember Sergio? He wrote this article last week about films that (bar a couple) I basically never would have seen or reviewed if not for his considerable influence over my free time. Although he neglected to mention The Hours (presumably to maintain a low Meryl Streep count and avoid tipping the scales), this is the film he chose for his most recent entry in my dramatic cinema education.

But for all the good and interesting things contained in The Hours, it also represents a lot of the elements of the genre that make it so hard for me to access. It is abstract to a fault and it ushers powerful moments across the screen to provoke a response, but never actually imbues them with power in a cinematic context. Save for one moment, the film is more or less as effective as cinema as Stephen Daldry actually reading the bestselling novel upon which the movie is based out loud.

The performances are great, the writing is effective, but the staging is wan. Stephen Daldry simply isn't a director. Over his 16-year career he has directed but four feature films, lately having dedicated himself to producing Paralympic telecasts. This is an actors' movie for sure, perhaps even an editors' movie. But the lack of a keen directorial presence prevents the film from fully blossoming into an audience's movie.

If you like the story, it'll keep you occupied. But the transition from page to screen is simple and without affect.

Much like this functional scarf/sweater combination.

The Hours tells the story of three women separated by time but linked by a single work of literature. Virginia Woolf (an unrecognizable Nicole Kidman in a prosthetic nose) writes her novel in 1923 Richmond, England. In 1951 LA, Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), a milquetoast housewife, struggles with her place in the world while reading the novel. And in 2001 New York City, Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep) plans a party for her longtime friend Richard (Ed Harris), an AIDS-suffering poet who has long drawn comparisons between Miss Vaughan and the title character of the novel.

In each timeline, the film explores the events of one single day and how that day shaped the lives and outlooks of these three women, as viewed through the filter of the story of Mrs. Dalloway. I would highly suggest reading this novel before viewing the movie, as I'm certain it enhances the experience. Unfortunately I did not, providing yet another disconnect between myself and the screen. The novel is explained somewhat in the context of the film, but it does not actively reach out to guide viewers in the right direction.

This can unfortunately make the film seem a bit chilly at times, especially in the Virginia Woolf segments, none of which would be entirely compelling without the saving grace of Kidman's sharp-edged performance.

Some edges are sharper than others.

Luckily the film is provided three incredibly talented actresses (Ed Harris is also terrific, though he is neither an actress nor a frequently seen character). Meryl Streep delivers a breathtaking scene in what only amounts to be the middle of her character arc, paving the way for even more terrific character development. Julianne Moore is the least riveting of the three, but this is by choice, considering the inherent weakness of her character's resolve. As the film continues on, her performance gains more and more traction.

The Hours should thank its lucky stars for these indelible performances, because without them the film would have sank like a stone in the luggage racks of the Titanic. What it does receive, thanks to multilayered characters that act outside of the confines of the dialogue itself, is a sense of gravity. The themes present in each of the separate storylines get pulled into orbit around these three women and form a cohesive whole.

(That was a darn layered gravity pun right there. Stop for a minute and appreciate that.)

There's also some highly interesting lesbian subplots that don't quite coalesce into a coherent thread, but maintain a sense of oneness among the characters and provide a delightful entry point for LGBT analysis that very few drama films can claim.

So while depression dramas can't typically be described as anything other than depressing, The Hours can thank its lead actresses for being capable of ultimately leaving the audience with feelings of fulfillment. It would have been a lot better in the hands of a man or a woman who knew how to visually tell a story beyond just pointing a camera at people saying stuff, but it's an all-the-more compelling platform for a trio of magnetic performances.

TL;DR: The Hours isn't a cinematic masterpiece, but the acting talent pulls it all together.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 815

Monday, July 21, 2014

Purge, Actually

Year: 2014
Director: James DeMonaco
Cast: Frank Grillo, Carmen Ejogo, Zach Gilford
Run Time: 1 hour 43 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

The Purge is a special franchise for Popcorn Culture. The hyper-political hypo-budget Blumhouse production was the first movie ever reviewed on the pages of this here blog and this rushed-into-production sequel marks it as the first franchise to ever be covered here in totum as it is released. I am looking forward to continuing on for many more years to follow other blossoming horror franchises as they appear (Oculus, I'm looking at you). 

This is a special moment for me personally, considering my love for bloated franchise fare. Nothing pleases me more than desperate horror series - the backflips and contortions of plot that they commit for the sake of continuity never cease to delight me. But I've missed out on all the notable examples. Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th were unfortunately produced before I existed. And I got into Saw and Paranormal Activity too late to follow them from the beginning.

So we have The Purge, a franchise with the potential to be either very promising or very disheartening and I don't know which to be more excited for. But for the moment we are facing The Purge: Anarchy, a sequel that is by no means perfect, but improves upon the original film in every single way, and that's literally all we can ask of it.

That and ham-fisted political allegory.

The beauty of The Purge as a franchise is that there are an almost limitless number of genres that can be explored while remaining utterly faithful to the central conceit. Where the first was a clunky home invasion pic, Anarchy is tense survival horror. The concept is so elastic, future installments could be slashers, mafia yarns, torture porn, rape-revenge, anthology, action-adventure, or even bullet-peppered romance. It's brilliant, really, and whatever qualms one may have with the Purge concept itself, it's undeniably capable of producing years' worth of popcorn horror cinema.

I mean, that's all it really is when it comes down to it. The politics are brave and the world-building is capable, but the Purge franchise is first and foremost a fuel-soaked summer blockbuster, tense quasi-horror with a sense of action movie fun about it.

The story immediately announces its scope (the first film had a massive opening weekend but dropped hard like a Skrillex song thanks to terrible word of mouth regarding its lack of interest in the concept) with three distinct storylines that will eventually intertwine. 

The first, and most consistent, is the story of Eva Sanchez (Carmen Ejogo) and her daughter Cali (Zoë Soul), two women struggling to make a life in LA. When their apartment complex in the projects is attacked during Purge Night (which I guess I haven't totally covered in this synopsis - this is a twelve hour period every year where all crime, including murder, is legal - this supposedly cuts crime rates during the rest of the year and is treated as a a national holiday by the New Founding Fathers), they become the targets for a mysteriously dedicated group of killers.

Also in attendance is the unnamed (or so I think - the IMDb synopsis would disagree with me, but I'm not about to start anything with mep1019. He comments on more slasher message boards than I do) Sergeant (Frank Grillo, who is an inspiration to us all at a very hunky 51 years old), a dark and mysterious man who is armed to the teeth with both weaponry and a woefully obvious backstory that narcissistically positions itself as a late film reveal.

The third storyline is that of Shane (Zach Gilford of Devil's Due) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez, his real life wife), a married couple going through a separation who are caught outside during the Purge due to circumstances outside of their control. The people who are in control, though, are patiently hunting them across the streets of LA.

With a face like that, I'D chase him all around LA too. (This is not a screenshot from the film, though I dearly wish it was.)

So these three disparate groups end up coming together for what is essentially a feature length tour of the world of the Purge. It's riddled with flaws, there's no doubt about that, but the picture it paints is a wonderful extension of the one only briefly glimpsed in the original film. The most important element of this franchise is the world-building and the Purge itself is tremendously well-integrated into the production design and dialogue. There is never any doubt that this is a world that has lived with the Purge for years and a country of people who may have different reactions to it, but accept its presence as an annual occurrence.

Where it begins to go wrong is at the story level and especially the performance level. The main group is largely adequate and Grillo and Ejogo provide a solid core for the film (we do lose Grillo a bit toward the end - he's much better as a mysterious badass than the shift he experiences in the third act), but many of the secondary characters just plain aren't up to snuff. Especially egregious is Michael K. Williams as Carmelo, the leader of a resistance faction. He is saddled with the worst of the "let's explain the film's politics in terms that a third grade mollusk could understand" dialogue and as such never comes off as anything more than a dollar store Samuel L. Jackson knock-off.

The dialogue claims many victims throughout the film, perhaps more so than the Purge itself. Thanks to the intricacies of the concept, it never needs to rise above the level of adequate to still be a thrilling movie, but some of the more pernicious examples bore straight into your brain and shatter the "suspension of disbelief" lobe. I won't belabor my point and list these examples, especially because many of them are at least bad-good enough to get a good laugh. But this is a film where people emerge from a car for the sole purpose of demanding a car from somebody else, so you know there's gonna be some issues here.

Sexy issues.

One last grievance is the special effects, which generally settle in as the film gets going, but occasionally look like somebody forgot to render them. An early gunshot wound in particular would feel more at home in an arcade game from 1997. But presumably much of the SFX budget got suctioned off into the multitude of sets and actors and empty cityscapes that The Purge: Anarchy requires and I can't bring myself to complain about that being the priority,

Because it really does its job well of allowing the film to be a rough, tense ride through a city of violence with a harrowing sense of urgency. Widening the scope truly was the answer to improving The Purge and with that done, it can (hopefully) open the floodgates to some legitimately marvelous filmmaking later in the franchise (If The Purge 3 isn't announced within the next week, I will eat my foot).

And it's not like this film isn't already an improvement at the technical level. Although Anarchy and the first film were both directed by James DeMonaco, he really gets into a groove this time. Where the last film's editing and sense of geography was wildly chimerical, here we always have a sense of who is where and why we should be worried about them. The action finale could have been staged better, but for the most part the locations make sense and provide an exciting 100 minutes of adrenaline-fueled entertainment.

Taken by itself, this film probably won't be remembered as a classic of the form over a decade from now, but it's a sequel that did its job - pushing and prodding the original story into something more expansive and vastly improved.

TL;DR: The Purge: Anarchy is a great sequel that surpasses the original film with an expanded scope and more excitement.
Rating: 8/10
Should I Spend Money On This? I'd say yes. It definitely beats the other big blockbuster this weekend. I'd pick a tense LA action film over watching Cameron Diaz's mummy seduce Jason Segel any day.
Word Count: 1379
Reviews In This Series
The Purge (DeMonaco, 2013)
The Purge: Anarchy (DeMonaco, 2014)
The Purge: Election Year (DeMonaco, 2016)
The First Purge (McMurray, 2018)

Friday, July 18, 2014

I Got 99 Problems And They're All Legs

Year: 2010
Director: Tom Six
Cast: Dieter Laser, Ashley C. Williams, Ashlynn Yennie
Run Time: 1 hour 32 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

So, The Human Centipede. Those of you who want to leave now, please do so. Unfortunately, I cannot. Because of my ongoing Saw project, I've felt a need to catch up on other notable horror of the 2000's, which means a long slog through a lot of torture porn knockoffs and remakes. It's tough being me.

But for better or for worse (SPOILER: It's for worse), German director/writer Tom Six's gross-out medical film made it just about as mainstream as any designed-for-cult-status movie can get. The Human Centipede is one of those films that makes you feel like you need a Purell bath afterward, which isn't in and of itself a bad thing. There are great (if haphazard) films that accomplish the same feeling, films like The Last House on the Left and Maniac.

The difference is that those films actively pursued creating unsavory feelings in the audience to make a point about the nature of violence or expose the grubby capabilities of human nature. Yes, The Human Centipede is intended to shock, but for no other purpose than to create a vile sense of "fun," which is patently does not have, mostly for reasons that are unintentional so the filmmakers can not lay claim to them.

I shall attempt to come at this film from a fair and unbiased perspective that delves a little deeper than the knee-jerk reaction to immediately throw the film into the garbage disposal. Because the film doesn't deserve that kind of notoriety. Whatever the mainstream audience might have heard or how the (presumably miniscule) cult audience might feel, The Human Centipede is not an effective gross-out movie. It is much too boring and asinine for that.

There's no way I'm Googling screenshots for this movie. I'm writing this review on my lunch break at work. So here's a kitten. You're welcome.

The plot kicks off with two American tourists named Jenny (Ashlynn Yennie) and Lindsay (Ashley C. Williams) as they get lost on their way to a club in Germany. They end up in the one-story home (how many one-story homes are truly scary? Think about it.) of one mad Dr. Heiter (Dieter Laser), who drugs them and takes them into his secret basement, which is full of medical supplies that will be put to mysterious use.

Maybe not so mysterious. You know what's going to happen. I know what's going to happen. And the characters know what's going to happen, thanks to Dr. Heiter's helpful presentation on an overhead projector (one which rivals Urban Legend's Motive Powerpoint for pushing the envelope on the already ludicrous trope of Villain Explains It All). Presumably this is done so the audience can gasp in shock and awe at the movie's brag that it is "100% medically accurate."

I would assert that it's 100% medically incoherent, but nobody has asked me, have they?

This kitten would have asked me.

The plot is as bare as a girl in a Carl's Jr. commercial, so I won't dive too deep into it. The tourists are caught, sewn butt to mouth with a Japanese man named Katsuro (Akihiro Kitamura) to form a human... sexipede I guess, if you count the legs, and the police investigate their disappearance. After the surgery scene, which is somewhat grotesque, but much more demure than one would assume going in, the victims mostly just moan while Dr. Heiter does strange things and pretends they're a dog.

The biggest issue (among many) with The Human Centipede is the depravity. Specifically, it doesn't really go for it in terms of pushing the envelope of gross-out scares. It's noncommittally depraved, if you will. I'm not saying a full-tilt gorenography film would be better, but it would be much less useless and actually worthy of its reputation.

As it stands, the film is shockingly shy on gore, instead relying on implication and nonexistent atmosphere. Relying on traditional filmmaking techniques to tell its story rather than special effects is a great way to approach a film, but in this case is brutally punishing, considering Tom Six's utter lack of skill for the craft.

He probably doesn't even KNOW any kittens.

The writing is atrocious ("The Japanese possess unbelievable strength when backed into a corner!"), the story is stultifying, and the actors are staggeringly awful. The best comparison I could come up with for the girls' performances was (I'm sorry) that of a helpful mother acting in her child's homemade movie. Not that I welcome the comparison, but after watching Williams and Yennie mug knowingly to the camera time and time again, it's impossible to deny.

And Dieter Laser is just on a different level entirely. While I do appreciate the fervor with which he threw himself into his character - hammy villains are always the best in films of this caliber - he seems to have studied English Dialect at the Tommy Wiseau School of the Arts. His delivery is stilted in English and German, and his face has all the immobile sternness of an ancient oak. But at least he is actively trying and for that he is the most commanding presence in the cast.

There are but a few moments of genuine good in the film, one of them being an effective jump scare, so you can tell the relative caliber of the "good"right away. There is a small amount of visual flair present in a pool scene and there is enough thematic material present in the script to write a mock essay about God complexes and the nature of humanity. It is not effective, but there's definitely enough evidence to back up a parodic approach to the material.

Although I would rather be approaching this marshmallow kitten.

But all in all, The Human Centipede is an especially egregious Idiot Plot married to a genre I have no particular fondness for. Literally every story beat in the film could lead to the end of the conflict if the people populating it weren't such miserable half-wits. There's the ever present failure to double tap the killer when he's cornered, a girl who gulps down an obviously drugged glass of water after deciding to leave the residence of the obviously creepy man who just told her he didn't like human beings, and the fact that apparently the girls thought their nightclub was in the forest.

The film is just such a tremendous waste of time and doesn't even have the dubious thrills of twisted gore to buoy itself as a cult classic of cinematic indecency.

TL;DR: The Human Centipede is a boring waste of everyone's time.
Rating: 2/10
Word Count: 1121