Monday, October 31, 2011

Skew (2011): or, Tale of the Tape

October Horror Movie Challenge, Day 30!

Amateur videographer Simon (Rob Scattergood) embarks on a week-long road trip with his beer-swilling best friend Rich (Richard Olak) and Rich's girlfriend Eva (Amber Lewis) to attend another friend's wedding. Simon's girlfriend L.T. (Taneal Cutting) was also supposed to go, but cancels at the last moment, leaving Simon a third wheel. As the friends travel cross-country, tensions mount due to Simon's obsession with recording everything they see, and also due to his growing romantic obsession with the lovely, bra-poor Eva. Soon triangular tensions are the least of their worries, though, as Simon begins to notice strange images through his viewfinder: a hotel clerk and a gas station attendant both show up with their features strangely skewed on the tape, and later both wind up dead, the victims of seemingly random violence. As the video anomalies become more common, the body count rises, and Simon fears his camera is the instrument of a terrible supernatural curse. Still, he feels strangely compelled to keep filming, putting his friends in greater danger with every push of the "record" button...

I hadn't heard of Skew (2011) before reading a recent review on the excellent site Planet of Terror, but I'm very glad I did--dispite obvious similarities to the Ring/Ringu movies (cursed characters there also show up distorted on video), director Sevé Schelenz manages to make his "reality horror" film something fresh and intriguing. The main genius move is making our point-of-view character a flawed, possibly unreliable narrator--in addition to experiencing the supernatural visions along with him, we also slowly piece together his own neuroses and strange desires, which enhances the film's texture and deepens the resonance of the images we're shown. Schelenz does a great job revealing his character through visuals and interactions with his friends, giving the audience enough to stay interested without seeming unnaturally expository.

The cast helps things a lot too, as Scattergood, Olak, and Lewis have a lot of natural chemistry. Watching their relationships develop and change is often just as interesting as the next creepy set-piece. Which is not to say Schelenz skimps on the creepiness--the skewed faces of innocents and our knowledge of what that means generates some suspense, and Simon's periodic visitations by the ghosts of those who died of the curse are shocking and goosebump-worthy. The director also uses the medium to good effect--scenes where Rich and Eva borrow Simon's camera reveal a lot about them all, and when Simon rewinds and rewatches some of his footage at the end, it adds another possible explanation to the strange happenings. Or maybe not--I found the final image (no spoilers) puzzling, but still got an inexplicable shiver out of it, which is perhaps a testament to how the film gets under your skin.

Thanks again to Planet of Terror for turning me on to this hidden gem. It's streaming on Netflix instant, so if you're looking for a creepy little story for your Halloween viewing, you could do a lot worse. 2.5 thumbs.
"I think this shirt really brings out my eyes."


Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Bat People (1974): or, Echolocation Nation

October Horror Movie Challenge, Day 29!

Scientist Dr. John Beck (Stewart Moss) really loves bats--so much that he's devoted his life and his ski vacation in northern New Mexico to his avid chiropterology. His beautiful wife Cathy (Marianne McAndrew) tries to make the best of things, inviting her hubby for a frolic off the tourist paths in some beautiful caves beneath the mountains. Unfortunately the amorous pair tumble immediately into a hole filled with beetles and are soon after attacked by a very frightening rubber bat replica! After their rescue, Johnny suffers a pair of hilarious seizures, which makes his wife and ski-bum physician Dr. Kipling (Paul Carr, moustache fancier extraordinaire) fear John has contracted the rubber rabies. After a bad reaction to his first rabies treatment, Paul is hospitalized.

The first night, Paul awakens from a dream of murderous bats to find himself transformed, Kafka-esque, into a Man-Bat! Half-man, half-bat, all murdery, Paul offs a nurse and later a dope-smokin', fornicatin' teen...or does he? The doctor believes his transformations and rampages are all in his head, but local cop Sgt. Ward (Michael Pataki, Mad Movie veteran of The Baby and Grave of the Vampire) is not convinced--and the pair of bodies cooling in the morgue don't help Kipling's case either. In a fit of animalistic rage, Paul escapes the hospital, steals an ambulance, and tears out of there like a bat out of hell! (So to speak.) Fleeing back to the cave where his troubles began, Paul descends into either madness or bat-itude, while Cathy and the increasingly unhinged Ward try to track him down. Can they get to him before he kills again?

Spoiler: nope.

A mad mad mad mad movie if ever there was one, The Bat People (1974) is really something special. Sure, director Jerry Jameson's film has pacing problems, and relies too heavily on poorly matched stock footage of bats in nature, but the several things about this flick had me grinning idiot-wise throughout:
  • Any movie gets bonus points from me when it opens with a plaintive, 70s theme song. This one has "Angel of Fear," and it's a stunner.
  • Some of the "attacking bats" shown in closeup are clearly being held by their wingtips directly in front of the camera and are struggling mightily against the injustice. This is both slightly cruel and deeply hilarious.
"I am not an animal! I...oh, wait. Fuck."
  • A late scene where John transforms while making love to his oblivious, orgasming wife is also Naschy-esque (q.v. Curse of the Devil [1973]). 
  • An early bat-creature attack scene is scored with the most incongruously toe-tapping free jazz you can imagine. The Naschy parallels have pretty much got to be intentional at this point (q.v., Vengeance of the Zombies [1973])
  • Stewart Moss's eye-rolling, face-twitching seizures should have won him an award. Also, awesomely named Arthur Space has a show-stealing scene as a philosophical hobo. 
  • There's an odd kneecapping of our sympathy/admiration for the shrewd, no-nonsense Sgt. Kelly when out of nowhere he gets all rapey on Cathy in her hotel room! WTF, lawman?
  • The final "bat-attack" scene, which also explains the plural form of the noun used in the title, is simply fantastic.
I'm not going to say The Bat People is a great film, or even one that most viewers would like--it's stupid, cheap, and takes a while getting to the bat-action (though some would count that as a strength, leaving viewers to ponder whether John is actually transforming or just rabid and hallucinating). But as a fan of all things cheap and cheesy, I thought it was great. If you feel the same, Bat People is a fun time. 2.5 thumbs.

And many thanks to the beautiful and deadly Jenn of Cavalcade of Perversions, whose love for this flick is what caused me to seek it out in the first place!

"Look, I'm getting used to the sweater, but if you say 'Good Grief!' to me one more time, so help me..."


    Saturday, October 29, 2011

    Madhouse (1974): or, Making a Killing in Show Business

    October Horror Movie Challenge, Day 28!

    On New Year's eve, movie star Paul Toombes (Vincent Price) throws a party with three goals: to celebrate the annual changing of the calendar, to premiere the latest in his successful series of horror flicks in which he plays macabre supervillain Dr. Death, and to announce his engagement to his much, much younger lover Ellen (Julie Crosthwaite). Things are spoiled when Paul's former lover Faye (Adrienne Corri, of the previously reviewed sci-fi funfest Moon Zero Two [1969]) interferes with some cutting remarks, and Ellen's old beau, adult film producer Oliver Quayle (Robert Quarry) reveals to Paul that his new fiancee has a history doing the belly-bumpin' boogie for the camera. 

    This news shocks the old man into spurning his soulmate, going upstairs, and collapsing in a depressed heap on the bed. A bit later, a man dressed in a very convincing Dr. Death costume sneaks into Ellen's room and dispatches her, gaining style points for perfectly balancing her head atop her severed neck for Paul to discover later! Paul is accused of Ellen's murder, and sentenced to twelve years in a mental institution.

    When he gets out, he is offered a job by his old friend and screenwriter Herbert Flay (Peter Cushing)--who is also Faye's brother and her sole caregiver after a fiery car accident left her disfigured and insane--reviving the Dr. Death character for a television series. However, as the Hollywood bloodsuckers come out of the woodwork and the temperamental old actor adjusts to modern moviemaking, he suffers further bouts of unconsciousness and wakes up to find more corpses, killed just as Dr. Death would have done. Is Paul a closet psychopath, using his cinematic alter-ego to avenge himself on those he hates? Or is there something more sinister afoot?

    With a real all-star cast of horror heavyweights (in addition to Price, Cushing, and Quarry, we get "special participation" by Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff! Though this participation is limited to archive footage from other films), Madhouse is pretty much guaranteed to please. The plot is a little threadbare and silly (the cocky TV director being pressed like a grape in one of Dr. Death's props is just one example), but Price goes at it gamely as always, and Quarry makes an excellent big Hollywood baddie. Cushing is fun as the milquetoast writer who may know more than he's saying, and Corri steals the show as the former beauty whose tragedy has somehow made her a basement-dwelling, spider-coddling old crone. If nothing else, the Dr. Death makeup is simply wonderful, and will make fans of Price wish he actually had made a few films as the character.

    There's no actual madhouse action to speak of in Madhouse, but the climax is MAD enough without it. Light on gore and scares, but nonetheless a fun matinee-style horror flick. 2 thumbs.

    "The Doctor's on smoke break, baby. Blow."
     (image borrowed from the excellent horror-centric tumblr, Where Beauty and Terror Dance. Check it out!)


    Friday, October 28, 2011

    Spider Forest (2004): or, What Tangled Webs We Weave

    October Horror Movie Challenge, Day 27!

     TV journalist Kang Min (Woo-seong Kam) finds himself inexplicably wandering through a beautiful, creepy forest, and soon happens upon what appears to be an abandoned cabin. Inside, however, he discovers the mangled body of a half-naked man, his face frozen in a rictus of terror. In another bedroom he finds his girlfriend, who was apparently there for a tryst with the dead man. Also mortally wounded, the girl babbles cryptically about "The spiders! The spiders!" before expiring in her wronged lover's arms. Hearing a noise outside, Kang Min chases a shadowy figure into the woods, but gets waylaid with a stout tree branch to the noggin. Concussed and confused, he stumbles onto a nearby road, into a tunnel, and is immediately run down by an SUV! As he bleeds out on the pavement, he sees a blurry, dark figure that seems strangely, impossibly familiar...

    Flashing back, we follow the events that led up to Kang Min's bad end--or do we? In Spider Forest (2004), writer/director Il-gon Song weaves an intricate web out of his protagonist's past, present, and possible futures. At the center of the web is the mysterious Min Su-Jin (Jung Suh), an enigmatic photo developing clerk who tells him the story of the Spider Forest--a place where ghosts who no one loves or remembers haunt the amnesiac living as eight-legged revenants. As the TV journalist spirals toward the truth, he becomes more and more entangled in his own memories, leading to (naturally) a shocking and slightly head-scratching conclusion.

    Some of the commenters on Spider Forest's imdb reviews page compare the style and content here to a David Lynch film, and the comparison is apt. Though the movie has some horror elements--there's a ghost story in there somewhere, and the scene of the double murder is grim, especially later when Kang Min's friend detective Choi (Hyeong-seong Jang) discovers the bodies teeming with baby spiders--but mostly this is a narrative puzzle of a Lynchian stamp, where the viewer is invited to make connections between seemingly disparate events and symbols and interpret the ending on an almost subconscious level. I don't think this flick is quite as inscrutable as much of Lynch's work, but it is tightly constructed and beautifully shot, with some stunning compositions, particularly in the forest itself and the traffic tunnel where Kang Min meets his fate.

    The movie doesn't have a lot of pulse-pounding action, and I would really classify it more as "brain-twisting drama" than horror (but imdb classifies it as horror, so I'm keeping it for the Challenge!)--still, it is a very interesting movie that kept me engaged and intrigued. 2.25 thumbs.

    "I just want to drive a big, long semi down this tunnel, again and again and again! I don't know why..."


    Thursday, October 27, 2011

    The Cabinet of Caligari (1962): or, Crazy, Baby

    October Horror Movie Challenge, Day 27!

    Jane Lindstrom (Glynis Johns), a free-spirited and adventure-seeking young woman, is driving her little sports car through a mountainous stretch of countryside when her tire goes flat, forcing her to seek shelter at the palatial home of enigmatic Dr. Caligari (Dan O'Herlihy). After an extremely odd and disturbingly insinuating conversation, the doctor instructs his assistant Chris (Constance Ford) to prepare a room for their new "guest." As it turns out the Caligari estate is full of guests, each one more eccentric than the last and none of them in a terrible hurry to leave. As Jane's stay stretches from hours to days, she discovers weirdness upon weirdness: the doctor's study has a glass revolving door behind its ordinary wooden one, the gates are locked and electrically charged at night, and the doctor seems inordinately interested in Jane's early sex life.

    Things go from strange to threatening when Jane sees a leering face in the skylight window above her bathtub, and later watches Caligari's henchman David (Lawrence Dobkin) beat lovable elderly nutcase Ruth (the show-stealing Estelle Winwood) to death with a cane! Despite the reassurances of kindly old codger Paul and periodic visitor Mark (Richard Davalos), Jane grows more and more frantic to escape Caligari's sinister clutches--and then a shocking revelation sends her into a tailspin of phantasmagoric madness from which she might well not recover...

    Until director Roger Kay's 1962 flick The Cabinet of Caligari showed up on my "suggested for you" queue, I had no idea the film even existed. (The only other version of the 1920 film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari I knew of was the psychotronic brainfuckler Dr. Caligari, made in 1989 by Stephen Sayadian). I'm glad I gave this one a chance, because Kay (working from a script by Psycho author
    Robert Bloch) delivers a neat update on the German-Expressionist classic, with beautiful black & white cinematography, bizarre and entertaining dialogue, and some truly odd images that will stay in your mind for quite a while.

    The differences between this movie and its inspiration are significant. Here Caligari is a controlling Freudian madman, keeping Jane against her will and taunting her with scarcely glimpsed perversities. Kay and Bloch do away with the somnambulist Cesar and the carnival setting, focusing instead on the implications of the earlier film's ending. But while the majority of the action seems much more "real world" than in Weine's film, the climax in which Jane descends fully into madness is a real stunner. One particular sequence in which Jane sees a baker pulling loaves of bread shaped like infants out of a blazing oven even seems to prefigure David Lynch's Eraserhead in both theme and imagery--in fact, I would not be surprised to learn this film was a direct influence on that one.

    The actors seem to pitch their performances to match the strangeness of the material. O'Herlihy, best known among horror geeks as the sinister Samhain stealer Conal Cochran from Halloween III, delivers his lines with such an odd accent and cadence that he seems almost like an alien from another planet impersonating Bela Lugosi. Glynis Johns's voice sounds like that of a particularly fluffy kitten that wandered into Dr. Moreau's transformation room, and her dreamy, high-pitched delivery never lets you doubt she's not entirely anchored in the real world. And Robert Bloch's dialogue--poetic, unnatural, and just plain weird--somehow manages to fit in perfectly.

    Fans of the silent film by Robert Wiene--indeed any student of horror films worth his or her salt--will not be surprised by the explanation for the strange happenings at Chez Caligari. Nonetheless, The Cabinet of Caligari is a deeply odd and beautifully made film, and one that fans of the classics would do well to rediscover. 3 thumbs. 

    "It will be morning soon. Halloween morning. A very busy day for me."


    Wednesday, October 26, 2011

    Dreamaniac (1986): or, Pour Some Caro On Me

    October Horror Movie Challenge, Day 25!

    Heavy metal musician and songwriter Adam (Thomas Bern) is housesitting for a friend, spending his days smoking cigarettes, ironing his Def Leppard t-shirts, and researching new lyrics in his large library of occult grimoires. It seems that despite having a smokin' hawt, punk rock riot grrrl girlfriend in Pat (80s porn legend Ashlyn Gere, here credited as "Kim McKay"), he still wants more carnal satisfaction--which thanks to his researches soon arrives in the form of small-chested, blood-spattered succubus Lily (Sylvia Summers). As Adam battles his disturbing sex dreams and struggles to find a rhyme for "METULL," Pat and her mousy sister Jodi (Lauren Peterson) prepare for a rockin' house party--the kind of Gathering of Stereotypes that only happens in 80s movies.

    On the guest list are rich snob Francis (Cynthia Crass), who has designs on Jodi's out-of-her-league football player boyfriend Brad (Brad Laughlin); Valley Girls Jan and Rosie (Linda Denise Martin and Lisa Emery); specs-wearing nerd Jamie (Bob Pelham) and skinny Jughead-style glutton Foster (Matthew Phelps). Don't get too attached to any of them though--Lily's crashing the party, and is thirsty for sex and blood, not necessarily in that order.

    "An original made-for-video feature film" produced in 1986, Dreamaniac is cheap, stupid, and a whole lot of fun. This is perhaps the most awkward house party in the history of partying, possibly because each of the attendees is the only representative of his or her clique and would never associate with any of the other partygoers in their natural high school environment. Things heat up as the night wears on, though: either due to the influence of an ancient sex-demon or else good old teenage hormones, sooner or later most of the girls and guys get undressed and do that horizontal bop. Director David DeCoteau (CreepozoidsSorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-RamaThe Brotherhood) is clearly more interested in Man Meat than girlflesh, though, so there are plenty of gratuitous butt-shots for the ladies...and dudes too, for that matter. There's also more than one illustration of why you should never accept a blowjob from a demon, a BDSM scene that leads to a package-jiggling electrocution, a final showdown in which Jodi and Pat must fight their way through the reanimated zombie corpses of their friends to get to Adam and Lily, a decapitation by power drill (wha?), and a "stinger" ending that makes almost as little sense as that of Pieces.

    The acting is all broad, high-school level, as the cast is full of first- (and only- ) time actors. The notable exception is Gere, who perhaps unsurprisingly gives the most natural, engaging performance in the film.The fashions and set design are almost a parody of the movie's own era--watch particularly for Francis' amazing knit sweater and Jan's side-ponytail and skin-tight yellow jumpsuit. Dialogue is bad but in a strangely charming way, and the gore is mostly of the caro-syrup variety. DeCoteau's direction is competent, though he does rely rather heavily on slllloooooowwww pans and tracking shots, especially early on.

    In my youth, when I would load up on VHS rentals every Friday, snatching anything off the shelves that looked even remotely like a horror flick, Dreamaniac would have been just the kind of fun, goofy ride I was looking for. Your enjoyment will depend on how well you like your DTV cheese. For me, 2 thumbs.

    "OK, Jodi--you know the drill."


    Tuesday, October 25, 2011

    Inferno (1980): or, Death is a Mutha

    October Horror Movie Challenge, Day 24!

    Poet and antique book aficionado Rose Elliot (Irene Miracle) finds an enigmatic tome entitled The Three Mothers in her local junk shop in New York. The book is the autobiography of an alchemist-cum-architect named Varelli who claims to have built three houses for the titular creatures--malevolent, mythological beings like the Fates, who poison the air and bring destruction to everyone around them. Unfortunately for her, Rose's apartment building just happens to be the home of Madre Tenebraum, the Mother of Darkness. After exploring the building's flooded basement and discovering proof of the Madre's residence (not to mention a very clingy drowned corpse), Rose decides she needs to call in some help.

    That help is thousands of miles away in Rome, in the form of her brother, musicology student Mark (Leigh McCloskey). Upon receipt of his sister's letter detailing her troubles, Mark begins to experience strange phenomena himself--a mysterious green-eyed woman (Ania Pieroni) sits in on class, causing freak windstorms while stroking her big furry Mark's friend Sara (Eleonora Giorgi) reads Rose's letter and goes to the local library to pick up a copy of The Three Mothers, only to be menaced by a bookbinder, picked up by a sports writer, and then stabbed in the spine by a scar-handed killer. Mark beats it to New York, where in the meantime his sister has been offed by another shadowy figure with the same sinister psoriasis. He befriends weirdo neighbor Elise (Daria Nicolodi) and journeys deep into the bowels of the Mother's abode, which as you might imagine stirs up all kinds of fragrant, freaky shit.

    I've always been lukewarm on the work of Dario Argento--I mean, I appreciate his importance and his vision, but I've never been the raving fan of his stuff that others--notably his corpulence the Duke of DVD--are. Still, even a jaded critic like me has to admit that Inferno (1980) is absolutely stunning stuff. The director's trademark use of color, particularly his strong use of red and blue gels, consistently wows the viewer and lends the whole film a weird, dreamlike beauty. The opening scene with Rose swimming through the flooded subterranean ballroom is simply amazing. Stylistic camera placement and frame composition abound--in a favorite scene of mine, the camera seems to float on a breeze into the lecture hall where Mark is reading his sister's letter. The whole movie is just gorgeous to look at, and proves just how powerful Argento's vision can be. And the gore scenes, particularly the death of Sara's ill-fated pickup, are fantastic.

    Story-wise, this is one of my favorite of Argento's films, perhaps only slightly behind the glorious MADness of Phenomena (1985). The middle of the Three Mothers trilogy, this one cements the supernatural mythology of the series and effectively conveys the vast power of these forgotten goddesses, or demons, or whatever they are. If there's any criticism to bring to bear, it's that at times the movie seems to lose its focus, jumping from Rose to Sara to Mark to Elise without ever settling fully on one protagonist. However, this could as easily be counted a strength of the film, whose real star is Argento's camera and the labyrinthine, expressionist nightmare that is Madre Tenebraum's house.

    In short, wonderful stuff from an artist near the peak of his powers. 3 thumbs.

    Significant Stroking


    Monday, October 24, 2011

    TerrorVision (1986): or, Quite the Dish

    October Horror Movie Challenge, Day 23!

    In the days when "satellite TV" meant having a dish the size of a bisected Volkswagen in your backyard and access to NASA-level array-control technology, Stanley Putterman (the inimitable Gerrit Graham, "Bud the CHUD" and The Phantom of the Paradise's Beef himself ) installs a "Do-It-Yourself 100" dish in the hopes of opening a new world of entertainment possibilities. This meets with the approval of his wife Raquel (Mary Woronov of Eating Raoul, Silent Night Bloody Night, and Chopping Mall), daughter Suzy (Diane Franklin, of the superlatively MAD Amityville II: the Possession) and son Sherman (Chad Allen, Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman). Even military-minded Grandpa (Bert Remsen) is down, excited about the possibilities for monitoring enemy troop movements.

    However, when a sanitation worker from Planet Pluton accidently beams a dangerous piece of garbage--a slavering, amorphous mutant called a "Hungry Monster"-- into the Puttermans' new dish, what started out as a nice night in front of the tube becomes a fight for survival and the future of the human race. As the monster crawls out of the boob tube to munch on its new hosts, the Puttermans' "swinging" guests, and Suzy's punkish boyfriend O.D. (Jon "I'm a Wolfman and I've Got Nards" Gries), Sherman makes desperate calls for help, first to the police and then to late-night horror hostess Medusa (Jennifer Richards). Meanwhile, O.D. and Suzy try to train the beast, which goes well until the Pluton Sanitation Department shows up to try and correct its error. Then things get a little messy...

    Produced by Charles Band and directed by Full Moon Pictures-mainstay Ted Nicolaou, TerrorVision (1986) is an energetic, broad parody of everything 80s that, like many a fine cheese, has only grown more delicious as it ages. Viewers of a certain age will recognize a lot of the period piece details, from Raquel's Jazzercize obsession to Suzy's Cyndi Lauper fashions to Medusa's Elvira-esque show and costumery. Graham is hilarious as always (what an underrated performer this guy is), and Gries steals the show in a role that prefigures Bill and Ted by three years. The effects are goopy, practical, and disgusting, and the monster design is gross but strangely adorable. (In a standout scene, the monster uses its mimicking ability to morph several appendages into a slime-covered orgy involving the Puttermans, their guests, and even Grandpa! Must-see.) The music by Richard Band is as good as you'd expect.

    TerrorVision is nothing but OTT fun from one end to the other. Even those born in the era of dinner plate-sized satellite dishes should find this blast from the past enjoyable. 2.5 thumbs.

    "Don't wait up! I've heard these Noam Chomsky lectures sometimes go long."

    Bonus: The awesomely 80s TerrorVision Theme song!


    Sunday, October 23, 2011

    The Strangers (2008): or, Don't Be Home

    October Horror Movie Challenge, Day 22!

    After a friend's wedding reception, hopeless romantic James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) proposes to his chain-smoking girlfriend Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler). Unfortunately she is just not ready for marriage and shuts him down hard, which turns the elaborate romantic weekend James has planned at his parents' isolated summer cabin a real Olympics of Awkwardness. Soon they have bigger fish to fry, however, as a mysterious girl keeps knocking at their door, at 4 am, asking for "Tamara." Later the knocks become loud bangs, the chimney gets blocked off, and someone not only cuts the phone line, but sneaks in and steals Kristen's recharging cell. As the creepiness and hostilities escalate, James and Kristen find themselves fighting for their lives against a trio of implacable killers whose motivations are as inscrutable as the faces behind their creepy, old-fashioned Halloween masks...

    The Strangers (2008) does exactly what I believe it sets out to do--to unsettle the viewer, ramp up the tension, and send you home determined to buy new deadbolts for all the doors in your house--and does so very efficiently, with very little extra narrative fat. After a Laroquette-ish opening voiceover and a flash-forward "discovery" scene, we're thrown right into Kristen and James's uncomfortable arrival at the cottage, and from there things just get more tense. Tyler is a gifted actress, and brings her talents fully to bear on the role of Kristen, both in her sad, emotionally-troubled opening scenes and in her terrified, fighting for her life scenes at the end. Hoyt is fine as the shell-shocked beau suddenly called upon to protect the woman he loves. It's a testament to their skill as actors and the skill of director Bryan Bertino (working from his own script) that, despite being largely a 2-character piece, the flick kept my interest and never felt boring.

    The trio of Killers are extremely creepy and menacing, at times seeming almost supernatural in their machinations and ability to walk in and out of the house at will, despite James and Kristen's best battening-down efforts. (In fact I was wondering for a while whether they were some kind of supernatural beings, but the ending has little in it to support that idea.) Their nightmare-fuel masks and the sing-song voice of Dollface, the only one who talks (Gemma Ward, I think) are sure to produce shivers. And Bertino's decision never to show their faces--even when they unmask themselves to James and Kristen--hammers home the idea of them as something more than run-of-the-mill psychopaths. They're almost symbols of all senseless violence and murder. When Kristen asks Dollface the usual question--"Why are you doing this to us?"--the killer's answer is chilling: "Because you were home."

    A very creepy and well-made home invasion flick, The Strangers is not the feel-good flick of the year (though its ending is happier than it could have been, in a way), but it's definitely a tension-filled ride. 2.75 thumbs.

    "I'm going to ask you this one more time: WHERE'S THE GODDAMNED BATHROOM?"


    Saturday, October 22, 2011

    The Last Exorcism (2010): or, He Puts on a Hell of a Show

    October Horror Movie Challenge, Day 21!

    Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), former child preacher and the last in a long line of evangelical exorcists, invites a film crew along to document all the hocus pocus that goes on behind the scenes. It seems the good reverend has lost his faith--while he still believes he provides a service for his flock, giving them the mystical experience they psychologically crave, he does not see himself as anything more than a showman and second-tier magician. Picking a letter at random from his pile of requests, Marcus and crew go to rural Louisiana to help Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell), whom her widowed and Bible-obsessed father Louis (Louis Herthum) insists is possessed by the Devil. Marcus gives the yokels the whole show, and seems to cure Nell's ills. But soon the preacher discovers that there might be something to all this exorcism business after all...

    The Last Exorcism (2010) does a lot of things I liked, and does them very well. The set-up of a revivalist preacher documenting his own hokum is taken directly from Marjoe (1972), the fascinating documentary about child-preacher and later B-movie star Marjoe Gortner.* Certain early scenes and even some of the dialogue seem to be direct quotes of that movie. Director Daniel Stamm lets the mystery of what's happening to Nell unfold slowly, rushing directly to the neck-snapping exorcism business, but still dropping enough clues and stingers along the way to keep the viewer engaged--unlike some recent horror flicks. The script by Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland is intelligent and intriguing--and I don't want to spoil the ultimate solution to Nell's troubles, but it was shocking in a way that still made sense with what had come before, and sent me into the end credits with an appreciative smile.

    *And a highly recommended viewing in its own right.

    The acting is great from top to bottom. Fabian plays Cotton Marcus as a charismatic, sardonic but lovable rogue, a man who knows he's full of it but nonetheless genuinely seems to care about the people who come to him for help. Bell's Nell (ha!) is wonderful--all fresh and innocent and giggly at the beginning, throwing her later sinister turn in stark relief. (According to imdb trivia, Bell also did all the amazing, poster-spoiled contortions herself, without the aid of special effects.) Herthum makes a great menacing, possibly not so well-meaning dad, and Caleb Landry Jones (X-Men: First Class's Banshee) gives a nice performance as Nell's brother.

    Put simply, The Last Exorcism is one of the best recent horror films I've seen in a long time. A fresh look at the "possession" subgenre--a stylish, entertaining and even frightening film. 3 thumbs. Recommended.

    On third and short, the Devil shows Blitz.


    Friday, October 21, 2011

    Paranormal Activity 2 (2010): or, Wake Me When It's Haunting

    October Horror Movie Challenge, Day 20!

    In the months before the events of the first movie, new mother Kristi (Sprague Grayden) and husband Daniel (Brian Boland) bring their infant son Hunter home from the hospital to their palatial mini-mansion in the suburbs. All is happy days and lollipops for a while, until one day the couple finds their house completely trashed, apparently by vandals who had the courtesy to lock the doors behind them and not steal anything of value. Being the wealthy, proactive father he is, Daniel has surveillance cameras installed so that they can monitor all nocturnal goings on in the house. But the footage thus captured doesn't reveal bored teenagers emulating their favorite MTV shows--rather, it's g-g-g-ghosts!

    The strange happenings escalate--pots fall from kitchen racks, mobiles spin by themselves over Hunter's crib, the automatic pool cleaner inexplicably removes itself from the pool, and strange knockings are heard. As the frightened young parents try to make sense of things, they discover a dark secret in their family history that will threaten not only their own safety, but spill over into the lives of Kristi's sister Katie (Katie Featherston) and her boyfriend Micah (Micah Sloat)--the protagonists of the first film, whose own subsequent travails are a direct result of what happens here.

    I was a bit lukewarm about Paranormal Activity (2007)--I thought it had some unsettling imagery and well-executed, totally legit scares, but found the main characters annoying and their actions more than a little contrived. I also felt it was a bit too light on explanation for the haunting, and the pacing much too slow. Paranormal Activity 2 (2010) does a bit better on the first count, proposing a Faustian bargain in the sisters' family history in which a first-born son was promised and must now be delivered, since Hunter is the first male in the line for a few generations. However, it does even worse on the second count. There are a few scare scenes in the flick, but you have to sit through more than an hour of fairly boring "found footage" before you get to them--by which point, if you're still awake, you might well wonder if the payoff is worth the wait.

    The acting is okay, and the "reality" filming is done pretty well, but in the end there are few things more boring than watching someone else's home movies, particularly when you don't know or care about the people involved. While a little restraint and deliberate, slow-boil reveals are usually a good thing in a haunted house flick, I felt director Tod Williams went a little overboard here--when you're more than an hour in and the scariest thing that's happened has been a CG shadow disturbing someone's nap, you run the risk of trying your audience's patience.

    Once we actually reach the climax, it's pretty good stuff--nothing we haven't seen before at this point, but well executed nonetheless--and I appreciated the creepy little tie-in to the ending of the last film. But after enduring an hour and fifteen minutes of only occasionally-broken boredom, I felt it was too little, too late. 1 thumb.

    "Screw this, I'm outta here."


    Thursday, October 20, 2011

    Gothic (1987): or, The Young Romantics are TRIPPING BALLS

    October Horror Movie Challenge, Day 19!

    In the summer of 1816, in Sweden at the Villa Diodati, one of the most legendary gatherings of literary heavyweights in history is about to take place. One of England's most famous young poets, Percy Bysshe Shelley (Julian Sands) is to be the guest of one of its most infamous, the Mephistophelean Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne). Shelley is accompanied by his beautiful future wife, Mary Godwin (Natasha Richardson)--not yet Mary Shelley, since the poet is still technically married to his first wife--and Mary's fiery, slightly unhinged stepsister Claire Clairmont (Myriam Cyr). Byron's sole companion is his physician, Dr. Polidori (Timothy Spall), a creepy little man with a more-than-professional interest in Byron's body. Once gathered, the group immediately engages in an orgy of free love, laudanum-fueled licentiousness, and nightmarish visions that will drive them to the brink of MADness, and will also give birth to one of the enduring horror myths of all time.

    Warning: if you're in the mood for a Merchant Ivory-style biopic about the girl who wrote Frankenstein, this is NOT the movie you're looking for.

    I had seen Gothic (1987) before, many years ago, but somehow I had forgotten how relentlessly, jaw-droppingly INSANE this movie is. Director Ken Russell--a man not particularly well-known for his even hand and cool restraint--takes the famous historical event as a springboard into a Phantasmagoria* of frenetic debauchery and borderline-surrealism. Everything is turned up to 11: the dialogue is overblown and operatic--literary references and quotes are dropped repeatedly and with great force. The music (by Thomas "She Blinded Me with SCIENCE" Dolby!) is hyperactive and intrusive, going from 80s synth rock to symphonic tempests to the Diodati Disco.  And the images...dear God, the images!

    *Yes, I know.

    A fish flopping helplessly (and pointlessly) in a stone birdbath. A writhing python draped around a suit of medieval armor. A merkin-jerkin' automaton. A demonic dwarf crouched on Mary's chest. Byron's menstrual vampirism. Claire's constant CRAZYFACE. Mary's visions of her dead baby. And Percy meeting a dream woman who never has to say, "Hey, my eyes are up here."

    None of it makes very much sense, but Russell is clearly not interested in any sort of accurate historical representation--it's all about seeing how many beautiful, nightmarish images he can cram into 90 minutes. Turns out, the answer is "A Metric Shit-Ton."

    The acting here is hard to judge. I said it was operatic, and it's true--there's lots of grand gestures, wild expressions, and screaming on key. Byrne really makes a meal of this diabolic version of Lord Byron, and Richardson is vulnerable and passionate as the future Mary Shelley. Cyr is a force of nature, with her wild black hair, huge, almost Steele-ian eyes, and a sensuality so raw it's almost bleeding. On the down side, Sands seems to have been hired solely for his (admittedly uncanny) resemblance to the actual Percy Shelley--even taking into account the over-the-topness of the script, he is uniformly terrible here.

    Themes of birth, death, creation and destruction form only the thinnest framework for the unstoppable fever dream that is Ken Russell's Gothic--a movie so incredibly insane, if it were a person, you'd have to lock it up in the interest of public safety. This is, of course, the highest of recommendations. 3 thumbs way up!

    This was exactly my facial expression during the entire runtime of Gothic.It will be yours too.


    Wednesday, October 19, 2011

    Short Night of Glass Dolls (1971): or, I Dont Know Who Killed Me

    October Horror Movie Challenge, Day 18!

    In the gorgeous, history-rich city of Prague, the body of American journalist Gregory Moore (Jean Sorel) is found discovered by a crow, and shortly thereafter by a lowly street sweeper. The corpse is taken to the city morgue for storage and autopsy--a bit too soon, as we learn via voice-over/internal monologue that Gregory is in fact alive, and fully conscious of what's happening to him! Paralyzed and on the verge of accidental vivisection, the hapless Yank searches his confused, fragmented memory to reconstruct the events of the previous few days. It all has something to do with his girlfriend Mira (Barbara Bach), whose sudden disappearance led Gregory to investigate a series of similar disappearances, the horrible truth behind which is of course the cause of his predicament. Can he remember it all and regain his motor functions before he's sliced and diced in the operating theater?

    Though it's packaged and presented as a giallo, director Aldo Lado's Short Night of Glass Dolls displays few of the characteristics we normally associate with the cinematic subgenre. (Though in point of fact, the gialli novels from which the genre takes its name had much more varied plots than just the old stalk-and-slash.) Instead of a black-gloved killer practicing baroque psychosexual violence, here we get an almost Poe-like "buried alive" (or "put in the fridge drawer alive") tale, with a conscious man undergoing mental torture as he helplessly awaits his doom. We also get conspiracy theory and sociopolitical allegory, as it turns out the girls of Prague are (spoiler!) being preyed upon by a kinky sex-cult made up of the rich, powerful, and elderly, somehow draining the life essence of the young to extend their lives and enhance their power. One wonders if Stanley Kubrick was a fan of the film.

    Typical of the better giallos, though, is Lado's emphasis on style over plot--the director and cinematographer Giuseppe Ruzzolini deliver some wonderful visuals--a sequence in which Gregory finds himself in a pitch-black room where a white vase of flowers seems to float eerily toward him is a great one, and several shots of quivering chandeliers are also quite beautiful. As for horror, the cult's rituals are stylish and eerie, and there's a rather shocking scene where Gregory hallucinates his girlfriend's corpse in his apartment refrigerator--perhaps a parallel to his own icebox accomodations.

    Short Night of Glass Dolls moves rather slowly, but it's beautiful to look at and has some neat ideas. And if you're particularly horrified by the "don't bury me I'm not dead!" idea, you'll be on the edge of your seat as Gregory sweats out his impending autopsy. (Though the dubbing/voice acting kind of undercuts the tension imo.) Those looking for a stylish, out-of-the-ordinary giallo will not be disappointed. 2.25 thumbs.

    "Well, I guess it's true what they say about post-mortem muscle contractions. Better get a mop, Johnston."


    Tuesday, October 18, 2011

    Burn, Witch, Burn (1962): or, Under the Double Eagle

    October Horror Movie Challenge, Day 17!

    Everything is coming up roses for stuffy-but-suave college professor Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde): his students love him, his peers admire him, and despite his brief tenure at the university where he lectures, he seems a shoo-in for the Chair of the Sociology department--much to the consternation of rival professor Flora Carr (Margaret Johnston). Little does the skeptical scholar realize that his wife Tansy (Janet Blair) has been helping his career along by means of Jamaican voodoo and Olde Englishe Witchcrafte. When he discovers his wife's talismans (talismen?) strewn about the house, however, he decides to put a stop to all this superstitious rubbish by tossing the lot into the fireplace--after which his luck goes into what can charitably be termed a death spiral. One student threatens him with a gun for better grades, another claims the dapper dean violated her in the lecture hall, lorries barrel toward him out of nowhere, and his former friends shun him. Has he angered the Ancient Gods with his disbelief, or is there something more scientifically explainable (but no less sinister) at work?

    Burn, Witch, Burn takes a little while to get going, but the payoff is definitely worth it. Director Sidney Hayers builds the suspense slowly, painting Taylor as an intelligent, over-confident man in love who clearly feels he deserves all the good that has come his way, then yanking that believe out from under him and letting the pieces fall. (It always helps when you're working from a script by speculative fiction superstars Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson, themselves working from a novel by Fritz Leiber Jr.) Blair is excellent as Taylor's slavishly devoted wife, willing to do anything--even make deals with the devil--in order to advance her husband's career. (Think of a darker, more passionate version of Samantha Stevens from TV's Bewitched.) Wyngarde has a face like a Rolls Royce grille and looks simultaneously stuffy and sexy in his waist-high chinos and chest-baring silk shirts, and it's fun to watch his proper facade crumble. Johnston makes a wonderful adversary--petty, but intelligent and ruthless enough to do real damage--and the rest of the British cast is great too.

    The movie plays out a bit like an extended Twilight Zone episode (no coincidence, perhaps, given its script's pedigree), but when it hits the barn-burning climax, it ventures out into another dimension of the MAD. No spoilers, but I definitely wasn't expecting the Final Boss.

    Well acted, with a good script and efficient direction, Burn, Witch, Burn may be a little old fashioned, but I was entertained nonetheless. 2 thumbs.

    Tan, Witch, Tan

    (Image shamlessly lifted from Krell Labs--Where the Future is Being Conquered Today!™)


    Monday, October 17, 2011

    Captive Wild Woman (1943): or, I'm Going Ape for You, Baby

    October Horror Movie Challenge, Day 16!

    Daring circus man and animal trainer Fred Mason (Milburn Stone) returns from a 2-year journey with a cargo hold full of big cats, zebras, and one very intelligent gorilla named Cheela (Ray "Crash" Corrigan in one of his patented and excellent ape suits). Girlfriend Beth Coleman (scream queen extraordinaire Evelyn Ankers) is happy to have him back, and introduces him to mysterious Dr. Sigmund Walters (a never-more-dapper John Carradine), a brilliant glandular specialist who has been treating Beth's friend Dorothy (The Big Sleep's Carmen Sternwood herself, Martha Vickers) for an overabundance of "the sex hormone." Of course Dr. Walters is a scientist of the extremely MAD persuasion, and hopes to use Dorothy's hormones and his own surgical know-how to transform Cheela into a human/ape hybrid, which will be the first of a race of supermen to help him rule the world, blah blah blah.

    He succeeds beyond his wildest expectations, for when the bandages come off Cheela has become the smokin' hawt Acquanetta. However, when the simian sweetie figuratively goes ape for Fred, the strong (sexual) emotions cause a glandular chaos in her system, which results in her going ape literally. As Dr. Walters targets Beth for his next lethal transplant and Fred finds himself at the mercy of a cage full of storm spooked cats, Cheela's animal and human natures fight to decide the fate of all involved.

    They sure don't make 'em like this anymore. Captive Wild Woman is a briskly paced mad science thriller whose one-hour running time is packed with action, thrills, and more than a little post-Code perversity. Director Edward Dmytryk does a nice job juggling the circus and laboratory scenes, and even the lengthy lion-and-tiger-taming sequences (comprised mostly of footage lifted from the 1933 circus flick The Big Cage, according to Tom Weaver's excellent book Universal Horrors) kept me on the edge of my seat. (And would likely be the scariest thing in the movie to a modern, ASPCA-sympathetic viewer.) The half-ape/half-woman makeup by the legendary Jack Pierce is, of course, excellent.

    The cast is full of wonderful genre actors of the era, including Fay Helm, who played alongside Ankers a couple years earlier in 1941's The Wolf Man, as Dr. Walter's ill-fated nurse. Carradine gives a remarkably restrained performance as the mad doctor, and Corrigan's ape-acting is great as always. While Acquanetta was billed as "A New Sensation in Savagery!" she's not really given much to do in her non-speaking role--still, her exotic beauty and big, expressive eyes make a definite impression.

    A fun second-tier Universal flick I'd been meaning to check out for a long time, and am very glad I did. A great Sunday-afternoon popcorn muncher: 2.25 thumbs.

    "Gimme some sugar, baby!"


    Sunday, October 16, 2011

    Hatchet (2006): or, Blood and Gore and Little More

    October Horror Movie Challenge, Day 15!
    A group of stupid tourists in New Orleans for Mardis Gras stupidly take a haunted swamp tour from a stupid tour guide and end up stupidly stuck in the swamp being killed off by a hulking, bloodthirsty killer ghost.

    Okay, maybe that's a little harsh. I'll try again.

    Mopey emo kid Ben (Joel David Moore, whom I was shocked to learn has NOT played Shaggy in a live-action Scooby-Doo flick...yet) and his pal Marcus (Deon Richmond) go to Mardis Gras to help Ben get over being dumped by his long-term girlfriend. Uninterested in boobs and booze--I hate him already--Ben convinces Marcus instead to go on a Haunted Swamp Tour, headed by the Ragin' Asian Cajun Shawn (Parry Shen). Also along for the ride: a would-be pornographer and his two bickering, boob-baring starlets, a stereotypical retired couple from the Midwest, and a silent, brooding local girl with a hidden agenda.

    Of course they get stranded in the swamp and are soon under attack by Victor Crowley (Kane Hodder), a hulking, vengeful revenant who kills any and everybody trespassing in his swamp, in extremely gory and bloody ways. Can our hapless tourists survive a night in the swamp, on the run from gators, snakes, and an unkillable, bloodthirsty ghost?

    When Hatchet came out in 2006, it got a lot of hype from the horror community, and its easy to see why. In addition to some truly spectacular, gut-wrenching gore and a villain who looks like a mashup of Jason (part 2 era), Madman Marz, and the Freak from Funhouse, it also boasted cameos by such 80s and 90s horror icons as Hodder, Robert Englund, and Tony Todd. (Todd in particular has a hilarious bit part as a bitter former tour guide in the French Quarter.)

    I guess I'm just an old fogey, but I couldn't get into this one. While I enjoyed the creature design and the inventive, extremely gory FX (and appreciated even more that they were all practical FX, no CG), I found those scenes consistently undercut by the extremely broad, lowest-common-denominator "comedy" that comprised pretty much all of the plot. The characters are not developed past their one-dimensional sketches--Brian is only ever mopey and heartbroken, Marcus is only ever a wisecracking sidekick, and the Boob girls are only ever ditzy porn stars. Sure, it's nice to see girls baring their boobs and shouting "Woo!" but even that gets old when it's the entirety of a character's personality.

    Also, I understand that the movie is meant an homage to the slashers of the 80s, but it felt really by the numbers to me. "Here's the part where they go off the beaten path and get stranded. Here's the part where they learn the truth about the legend. Here's the part where people get killed. Here's the part where they stop running and fight back." There was no tweaking of the formula, which would be fine, except there were also no engaging characters to keep me interested. Writer/Director
    Adam Green seemed to keep a hard line drawn between the comedy sections and horror sections of the movie, and as a result I felt detached from both.

    I know a lot of people loved this, and Green's personal story is a very inspirational one (look it up) so I don't begrudge him his success. And the practical gore scenes really are something to see, a nice present for fans of the genre starved by the malnutritive properties of CG gore. Maybe it's my age, or my steady diet of 70s exploitation and Italian wackiness, but this just didn't do it for me. I found Hatchet okay, but just okay. 1.5 thumbs.



    Saturday, October 15, 2011

    Dark August (1976): or, Warlock with a Shotgun

    October Horror Movie Challenge, Day 14!

    Gruff,  no-nonsense Noo Yawker Sal Devito (J.J. Barry), reeling from a messy separation and mid-life crisis, has relocated to rural Vermont to start a new life. Things are going pretty well for him--he's set up as a photographer, started building a studio, and fallen in with anorexic blonde artist Jackie (Carolyne Barry), who cares about neither his still-married status nor his chronic shortage of shirt-buttons. However, when Sal accidently runs over the granddaughter of local occultist Old Man McDermitt, the grieving grandfather hexes Sal with all the powers of Hell!

    Dark August starts out extremely well, setting up Sal as man tormented by guilt, not only for the accident, but his failed marriage. Director Martin Goldman does a good job getting Sal's story out visually, dropping hints about his paranoia (he's taken up smoking again, let the housework go, left his loaded shotgun on the bed, that sort of thing) and normal conversations to let the viewer work things out. J.J. Barry is believable and engaging as Sal, and for a while I was really interested in his plight and worried for him.

    Unfortunately, it seems all the old man's hex has the power to do is give Sal periodic panic attacks and cause minor hallucinations that don't do anything. (Though I guess being interrupted by hyperventilation while banging a skinny Vermont artist is pretty evil.) The movie drags as Sal gets more and more upset about this mostly harmless curse, leading to some cool 70s occultism/spiritualism from his friend Theo's girlfriend. But it goes nowhere, even when he visits local witch Adrianna Putnam (Kim Hunter, famous round these parts for being Bad Ronald's mom, around others for being Dr. Zira in the Planet of the Apes series), who munches pumpkin seeds while talking about hexes and evil forces and has a surprising exit in the film's otherwise in-name-only climax.

    The first half of Dark August was pretty great, I though--artfully filmed, well-scripted and paced, believably acted, giving us some cool creepy occult curse action in dribs and drabs. But unfortunately the film never really delivers on its promise of Eeevil Wizardry and demonic dispensation, leaving the audience wishing something--ANYTHING--would happen. And if there's one thing a Mad Movie should never be, it's boring. 1.25 thumbs.

    "Don't mind me. I'm just going to stand here and do nothing for the next 87 minutes."


    Friday, October 14, 2011

    [REC] ² (2009): or, 28 Floors Later

    October Horror Movie Challenge, Day 13!
    An apartment building in the center of a Barcelona has been locked down, sealed off with plastic wrap, and surrounded by police and officials. It seems the people inside have come down with a particularly bad case of the Extreme Ocular Hemorrhage and Homicidal Violence Flu. The virus is extremely contagious, leading the municipal health department to take drastic measures. A SWAT team is sent in, along with the secretive Dr. Owen (living Pixar character Jonathan Mellor) to locate Patient Zero and get a blood sample, which they hope will allow them to find a cure. But when one blood-spitting murder machine gets surprisingly un-murdery after Dr. Owen holds up a crucifix and lays some scripture on his ass, the members of the police party realize there's something much more sinister than just a virus going on...

    Picking up precisely where 2007 hit [REC] left off, [REC] ² is more of the same--but I didn't really mind that much. The demonic possession-as-virus idea is not bad as such explanations go, adding a supernatural layer to the standard 28 Days Later-style infection flick. (Which by now should in fact be its own subgenre.) Once again co-directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza use the first-cameras again, here mounted on the SWAT team's helmets for command and control purposes--to set up some tense "moving through the shadows" shots and frenetic attacks by the infected remnants. The "night vision" shots are back too, and used here to the same good effect. Manuela Velasco also returns in a reprise of her role from the first movie, with a welcome if predictable twist.

    [REC] ² doesn't do anything particularly new, but it does deliver an exciting, bloody, action-packed and sometimes creepy ride. 2 thumbs up.

    "We're out of jelly."


    Thursday, October 13, 2011

    Dead Alive (1992): or, Kicking Arse for the Lord

    October Horror Movie Challenge, Day 12!

    Young Lionel Cosgrove (Timothy Balme) meets cute with Spanish Gypsy babe Paquita (Diana Peñalver) after her second-sighted mother reads romance in her cards. Lionel's own Mum (Elizabeth Moody)--a domineering harpy of a woman--is none too pleased with the new relationship, and spies on the couple to ensure that she remains the only woman in her son's life. When she follows Lionel and Paquita to the zoo and is bitten by the only Sumatran Rat Monkey in captivity, however, Mum picks up a rather nasty zoonitic bug--she runs a fever, bursts into cold sweats, and parts of her body start falling off into her custard. Soon Mum has passed the disease on to several local residents, and Lionel is sent scrambling trying to contain the mess. And what a mess it is...

    Come on, do I really have to summarize this one?

    One of the most over-the-top, silly, and gory movies of all time, Peter Jackson's Dead Alive is a flick that just keeps topping itself. You think it's got as crazy as it's going to get when it introduces the flip-top nurse zombie...then it throws in the famous Kung-Fu Priest (Stuart Devenie), bodies ripped in half, an animated (and strangely adorable) set of roving internal organs, and a skull-bursting Zombie Baby. By the time we get to the famous end party scene (Oh Crikey! It's Lawnmower Deth!), the viewer might rightly believe he's seen it all...but as Lionel warns his girlfriend, "I haven't seen Mum this evening..."

    This is the movie I believe the term "splatstick comedy" was coined for, and imo the one to which it applies most perfectly. Jackson's movie is full of brilliant physical comedy and sight gags that would not be out of place in a Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton one-reeler--only without all the dismemberment and copious bodily fluids. Timothy Balme is a gifted physical comedian of the Charlie Chaplin school, and the way his Lionel goes to greater and greater extremes to maintain some semblance of normalcy while the world literally goes to pieces around him is both hilarious and affecting.

    The special effects are as funny as they are disgusting--from faces being ripped off, legs being stripped to bone, multiple impalements (on grave markers, splintered wood, and memorably a still-blazing light bulb), to of course the show-stopping stop-motion Rat Monkey. Jackson also works in a nod to his touchstone flick King Kong (1931), and the early scenes in Sumatra starkly prefigure the scenes with the savage tribe in the director's 2005 remake.

    For a justly celebrated horror-comedy classic, my rating of Dead Alive is a no-brainer: 3 thumbs way up!

    "♫ FEELINGS! Whoa-whoa-whoa....♫"


    Related Posts with Thumbnails