Saturday, October 31, 2009

Halloween is Here!

Hey everybody! Halloween is here, so sit back, relax, and enjoy some horror films today while handing out candy! Me? I'm going with the Evil Dead Trilogy.

Monday, October 26, 2009

TEXAS CHAINSAW 2 Review tomorrow

Hey everyone. The new review needs more editing, so it will be posted tomorrow.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Damn Anchor Bay!

Ok, quick post for a Saturday night. Was out of town today doing some shoping, when I came across a DVD of Werner Herzog's remake of Nosferatu for $6.99. Now, I have wanted to see the film for some time, but I knew that the film was shot in both German AND English at the same time, and that Anchor Bay released both versions as part of the same DVD a while back.

Now, I knew that as a budget version of the disc, it having the special features from the earlier release was unlikely, but I was happy as heck to see at the top of the slip case that it read "THE ENGLISH AND GERMAN VERSIONS OF THE MODERN HORROR MASTERPIECE." That was more than enough to get me to make a purchase.

Then I opened the disc at home.

The DVD has nothing but the English version as the DVD case proper states. I checked the slip case again, and in small print at the bottom, it DOES say it is the English version only. Damn it though, if that is the case, than why the hell at the top of the package does it state BOTH the German and English versions of the film? That is false advertising, pure and simple.

Of course, it is too late to return the DVD now that it is opened. Ofn course, I will watch the English version. But it is crap like this that pisses me off when it comes to Anchor Bay, as great as they have been about releasing old genre classics. There are always fifty billion versions of every title, and multiple versions of the SAME DISCS using different packaging, which leads to crap like the mix up today.

Yes, it is my fault for not reading closely, but at no point should even the implication of the German version being on the DVD have been included on the package.

Anyways, enough grumbling on my part. Working on that review of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 as promised a while back, so look for it early in the week.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Freak Out (Jones 2003)

I remember a long time ago hearing Kevin Smith talk about how when he first was showing Clerks (1994) to potential distributers, that producer James Jacks wanted to buy the film and remake it rather than release the original film, filming in colour and using professional actors. Thankfully, that did not happen, and Jacks would go on to produce Smith’s follow up Mallrats (1995) instead. However, on some level, one can understand Jacks point of view, even if it would have been a bad idea. Nobody will claim that Clerks is the remotely polished on the technical front, and some of the acting outside the main cast (scratch that, INCLUDING the main cast) is amateur. But at the end of it, these flaws not only add to Clerks charm, but give it an aesthetic quality that is oddly memorable and appropriate for the subject matter.

Freak Out, an independent film shot on home video, is a film that I very much look at and feel the same way as James Jacks felt upon seeing Clerks: I would love to see it remade with a budget and access to a solid kit of cinematic tools to play with. Freak Out’s director, writer and star Brad Jones (of Cinema Snob fame) has created a film that is rich with raw potential and ambition that often is outside the grasp of his available resources, but none the less fascinating to watch.

Set in the late 1970s, the film focuses on a teenage high school dropout named Wayne (Nick Forester), who along with two friends makes his way to the home of Dean (Jones himself), in search of a hang out and drugs. Dean however, has a big secret: he is a sadistic murderer who commits his crimes in his basement, and manipulates Wayne and another dropout named Dave (Buford Stowers) into capturing his victims for him. While Dean agrees not to kill or torture Wayne’s friends, as the night goes on, things begin to unravel, and neither Wayne nor his friends may be safe.

While the story of the film might sound like the premise to a modern day horror film, Jones’ film most surprisingly is evocative of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948). Like Rope, the film centers around a party in which the guests are not aware that their host(s) are murdering psychopaths (or perhaps sociopaths in the case of Rope), where much of the tension lies around the threat of the guests not only finding out, but also from the tension that develops between the murders as their separate desires, personalities and possible guilt come into conflict. As such, the film is less a horror film or thriller and more of a character study, as we are brought into Dean’s world as it is “invaded” by the party guests.

Without question, the best element in the film is Brad Jones himself as Dean. While many of the other actors, particularly Sarah Ogg as Rhonda, are wooden or uncomfortable, Jones throws himself into Dean with glee, crafting a villain that manages to dodge many of the serial killer clichĂ©s of the past thirty years to become a twisted, memorable villain. The film never gives an explicit reason for the reason Dean acts, thankfully dodging the wretched moment that plagues many of these films as a killer’s psychosis is the result of a single incident. While the film does unfortunately want to bring the question of Dean’s sexuality into being a possible reason, Joes does work in that it may not be Dean’s sexual orientation is connected to his actions, but instead his reactions to the judgments of others towards his entire lifestyle.

Where Freak Out falters is the result of the lack of resources and occasionally experience, as the film is a first time effort from Jones and his crew. While Jones and crew do their best to make the home video look of the film work, the film rarely is able to overcome the low quality of the source. This is worse on the audio front in many instances though, as dialogue is frequently hard to hear, which is a shame, as Jones writing is often the best element of the film. Another frustrating element to the film was the decision to set it in the late 1970s. While I understand the artistic intent in doing so, the materials needed to successfully pull off a period piece are not present in the final work. Rarely, aside from the soundtrack (which features excellent selections of period music), does the film manage to successfully evoke the 1970s. For the sake of this version, setting it in present day may have assisted in avoiding this issue.

One of the more conflicting aspects of the film is the use of violence, or rather, some of the execution. The first murder committed on screen by Dean is chilling, and effectively shot and edited and a good indicator of just how dark a film this is going to be. However, given the excellent tension developed through the dialogue and the overall situation, the level of graphic violence in the second murder is gratuitous at best, and seems more of an attempt to shock than to unsettle. The implication of what Dean is about to do to his victim is far more chilling than the actual witnessing of the act and its removal from the film would have likely strengthened the scene. Furthermore, witnessing this outburst of violence midway through the film undermines the later horrors of the final scenes, giving the audience too much too much too soon that the final sequence feels milder compared to this earlier scene.

Lastly, the ending of the film is somewhat problematic. Throughout the film, the character of Rhonda is built up as being one of our lead protagonists throughout the film. However, by the time the final scenes arrive, Rhonda has been entirely sidelined from the film, as if she has been forgotten about. While I have noted that I was not taken with Sarah Ogg’s performance, (SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT) her reduction to being a victim in order to bolster Wayne’s position in the narrative is confusing, given the time that has been spent with her as a character up to this point. Furthermore, it is has been her character that has slowly begun to piece together what Dean, Wayne and Dave are involved in a series of unsolved murders, so her absence seems odd at this key point in the narrative. If she is murdered, it is unclear, given the murky image in the final scenes. Should another attempt at the film ever be mounted, the ending would benefit from a rewrite.

On the whole though, Freak Out is a film that is worth seeing for horror fans. It is not perfect, but shows a level of talent that will be interesting to see develop. The film can be found at Jones’ site here, in three parts. For those without a strong stomach though, you might be advised to look at other works on his site instead.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (Harrison 1990)

Ok, at this point, I am going to stop announcing films before I review them. The last film, and this latest one, are not works which I felt there was much to say about. Thankfully, I will be back later this week with a film I have plenty of things to say.

Now, onto the review:

One of the fascinating aspects about shared culture is how elements of it that seem to date and supposedly lose prominence ultimately work their ways into the culture in new forms. Tales from the Darkside: The Movie, a spin off from the cult television anthology series of the same name, is very much about cultural history and how it weaves its way into the supposedly new elements of our culture, utilizing a metafiction framing story for the three tales contained in the film, each story either adapting well known literature, making use of intertextual reference, or drawing upon cultural folklore. In each case, the past works of culture burst into the (then) present, both haunting and, in some ways, saving us through our retelling of these tales.

The film is comprised of three sections: “Lot 249,” based on a story by Arthur Conan Doyle, in which a wronged university student (Steve Buscemi) seeks revenge on those who wronged him with a mummy; “Cat From Hell,” based on a short story by Stephen King, follows an assassin (David Johansen) who is hired by an old man to kill the cat in his home; and an original tale (though the best online research available to me suggests that it might be an update or an old folk tale from Japan) titled “Lover’s Vow” in which an artist is witness to a horrific event, and makes an important promise. These tales are framed by the story of a young boy (Mathew Lawrence) who is reading the stories to a woman named Betty (Deborah Harry) who has locked him in a cage, with the intention of eating him (It occurs to me now that I have seen two films in the past month dealing with the subject of cannibalising the young, with explicit references to the story of Hansel and Gretle. Just what is going on here?).

Central to each tale is the act of reading and telling stories, with the mastery of these narratives being either a key to salvation, or total damnation. This is explored most interestingly in the “Lover’s Vow” in which artist Preston (James Remar) is confronted with a major problem for an artist, when he promises a demon who murders his friend that he will tell nobody about the event at all, in any medium, in exchange for his own life. While the central concept, the temptation to break one’s promise as opposed to keeping it, is hardly new, the filmmakers provide a fresh take on the old theme by utilizing the basic need of expression as the crux of the dilemma. The tale that follows is one that is cruel, and featuring an ending that is strangely touching. Compared to Tales from the Darkside’s predecessors, Creepshow and Creepshow 2, the film manages to save the best tale for last, and it serves the film well.

This is not to say that the first two stories are bad. They simply lack the tense drama of the final segment, prompting ironic detachment as opposed to emotional investment on the part of the viewer. Nothing in these tales is particularly scary as a result of this approach, which is fine of course given that the segements are indeed entertaining. However, given the vast superiority of the final segment, I cannot help but feel it would have served the film better to take a more serious approach to the material in some ways.

On a level of sheer filmmaking, the film is well crafted, if not overly distinctive. John Harrison is a capable director, and manages to pull in some good performances across the board, including an early performance from Julianne Moore, as well as fun work from rockers Deborah Harry and David Johansen (who is about as far removed from Buster Poindexter as he can get in this role). The standout of the cast however is James Remar, who redeems himself for his work in The Quest (to be fair, Jean Claude Van Damme is to blame for that crap) and shows that he has greater range than he usually is allowed to show in his work.

Overall, Tales from the Darkside is not going to be anyone’s favourite film, but is a fun October movie to celebrate the coming of Halloween. If you can find it, check it out.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Update October 13th, 2009

Ok,I WAS going to review The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 as a way to wash away the bad memory of the LAST film, but have something better to go first: TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE: THE MOVIE! Will be back with the review soon! Check out the trailer below:

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Amityville Horror (Rosenberg 1979)

The Amityville Horror is sadly one of those films that somehow have managed to make it into the popular consciousness of North America despite nothing being remotely remarkable or interesting in the film. At its best, The Amityville Horror is a TV movie that somehow found its way to the big screen (upon researching its history, a made for television film was originally what the production was intended to be), with dull production values, acting ranging from bad to decent, and direction that is a poor imitation of William Friedkin and Richard Donner’s work from The Exorcist and The Omen respectively. Its worst sin however is that it is totally devoid of anything remotely worth discussing.

The film is the story of the Lutz family, headed by George (James Brolin) and Kathy (Margot Kidder). Recently married, George has become the stepfather to Kathy’s children, and the family has moved to a new home in Amityville, where a year earlier, an entire family was killed in a homicide. Slowly but surely, odd events start happening to the Lutz, taking its mental toll on George as he drifts into cruelty. Is the house haunted, or is it...ah hell. It’s haunted. Let’s just leave it at that.

The film is based on a book Jay Anson about the supposedly real haunting of the real Lutz family, a story that is often debated as to whether it is a hoax or not. It is this debate that was highly publicized upon the film’s original release, and was resurrected when the film was recently remade. While I cannot comment on this debate, I can say that whatever real life fascination with the story that the public had/has does not manage to save the film in any way.

The first major problem is that similar stories have been told elsewhere, and told better. Stephen King’s original novel version of The Shining mines similar territory, as the supernatural becomes a way in which the very real, very unsettling domestic horrors are able to come to the surface. Whereas King’s novel focuses on exploring the roots of such familial tensions and its relationship with American culture as a whole (Kubrick would take such a different view of the material in his adaptation that it requires a whole different discussion), The Amityville Horror honestly has little to say about the topic. Yes, George’s own unresolved anxieties about his new family surface due to the haunted house, but the film doesn’t seem to have any real point to make about the topic, or question to ask concerning this issue. Is the picture a portrait of the stress of the modern family on one man? Or is it a narrative about the failing of the modern husband and father? The film never manages to settle this issue and results in a muddled mess.

It would have helped if any of the characters were interesting. Unfortunately, the Lutz parents are complete nonentities. James Brolin’s performance as George is as wooden as any other James Brolin performance, making George a completely uninteresting. Brolin is totally incapable of drawing any sympathy to the character, and only manages to come alive when he is in full on sadistic mode. Margot Kidder as Kathy, while at least brining some energy to the performance, is so underwritten that she has little to do other than look concerned and be the target of George’s abuse. We are offered no keys to her psychology, or understanding as to what drives her as a character at all.

The only saving grace in the cast is Rod Steiger, playing a Catholic priest who early on in the film has his own encounter with the demonic house which eventually spirals into a crisis of faith and battle of church politics. While the character is underwritten, Steiger manages to give an excellent performance that is more than the film deserves. The whole subplot, in truth, has little to do with the events of the Lutz family, and seems to go off in its own direction. What is fascinating about this subplot is that it is a flip on The Exorcist: the crisis of faith in this film is the result of the church‘s actions, and not the result of the supernatural force itself. An entire film following this priest and this story would have been far more interesting that the end result.

Honestly, I think that I have exhausted anything I could really say about the film. I’ll be back soon with a review of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Update Oct. 10 2009

Greetings folks! More reviews on the way for two older horror films, from the late 1970s/early 1980s!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Black Sheep (King 2006)

Perhaps October is just the wrong month to watch Black Sheep, Jonathan King’s 2006 sci-fi-horror-comedy. I suggest this because nothing is particularly bad about the film itself, at least that I can easily identify. The film, about genetically altered sheep that go bad, delivers exactly what it promises, and indeed goes the extra step of honestly trying to craft a real emotional core to the story beyond the insane premise. October for me tends to be a month of eerie and unexplainable horror, which the science fiction explanation of the film does not really meld with. So maybe the problem is just me.

Or perhaps, maybe Black Sheep suffers from one tiny problem: it is not distinguished enough from other horror films to make it memorable or unique. Yes, the killer sheep angle has not been done, and it offers for some memorable humour, but really the sheep are a substitute for another form of flesh eating terror, zombies. Indeed, replace sheep with zombies, and not too many alterations would have to be made to the film. Its pro-vegetarian themes could easily be kept, and the theme of abandoning one’s roots would only lose the “black sheep” motif with regards to the main threat of the film.

The film is the story of Henry Oldfield (Nathan Meister), who returns to the family farm in time to sell his share of it to his brother Angus (Peter Feeney), who has made a fortune in investing in agricultural science. Both sons are haunted by the death of their father during their childhood, a farmer who raised sheep. Angus is preparing to turn the area into a breeding ground for his new brand of genetically altered sheep. Things take a turn for the worse when a pair of animal activists, Grant (Oliver Driver) and Experience (Danielle Mason) accidentally release one the failed experiments to create the sheep during a search for evidence, resulting in all hell breaking loose.

All the elements are here for a fun horror romp, but the film never manages to be as fun as it wants to be. The film is never truly terrifying or all that funny, but ends up being passable. The question of course is why it never manages to become more than the sum of its parts, as the direction, acting and effects work are certainly in place.

The best way to understand the downfall of the film is to compare it to the masterpiece of horror comedy from this decade, Shaun of the Dead (Wright 2004). Along with being masterfully scripted and directed, building small details layered into the film into major payoffs, Shaun of the Dead is the success it is because it is willing to go for the throat on an emotional level. At no point does Shaun of the Dead offer its characters easy ways out of their situations, both personal and in terms of the larger zombie threat. Shaun (Simon Pegg) has to come to terms with his needing to grow up and the loss of those he considers family and friends. In part because of this pain that the characters and audience are put through that the humour becomes more potent, as it plays off a very real sense of horror.

Black Sheep, by contrast, all too often allows its characters to dodge harsh situations. People who become weresheep (you read that right) have a way out. Looking like a likeable character is going to die? There is a way out of that. Is there hard, emotional baggage coming to a head with your brother? There is a way out of confronting that. This results in a film that never really embraces the horror, and as a result the comedy and drama suffer.

To the films credit however, the film is an old fashioned special effects fan’s dream. Little CGI is deployed in the film, relying instead upon classic practical effects, provided by WETA, the New Zealand special effects company that long ago surpassed ILM. The gore is of a quality that would make George Romero proud, and there is a transformation sequence that, while not being as great as the werewolf transformation in An American Werewolf in London (Landis 1981), is in the same vein and highly effective.

Furthermore, there are plenty of great jokes that do make an appearance in Black Sheep, and Jonathan King is a capable director that clearly has a great film in him. However, Black Sheep seems more like a lead up to a better effort down the road, the practice before the performance. I can recommend Black Sheep as worth a viewing at least once, but one with which a good dose of keeping expectations in check is in order.

Than again, maybe I just watched it in the wrong month.


Hey folks! Working on a review of Black Sheep (the killer sheep film, not the David Spade film), and will be seeing Zombieland soon to review. So be on the look out!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Brimstone & Treacle (Loncraine 1982)

(Warning: I am not pleased with this review myself. The film is one which begs for more attention and thought, and I only manage to succeed in giving expression to my initial impressions. However, I promised a review today, and ready or not, here it comes)

Brimstone & Treacle is a strange film to view in the month of October. While classified as a thriller or drama, it is perhaps best considered a horror film, one dealing with all too human, and all too unsettling, subject matter.

Of course, such material is standard when dealing with the works of Dennis Potter, writer behind the famed British television series Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective. Potter frequently explores the failings of middle class life through a combination of the surreal, the fantastic, the mundane and the horrific. Sexual frustrations and fears often drive his characters, often in conflict with the supposed cornerstone elements which makeup British culture. Imagine the darkest sides of Alfred Hitchcock without the overt thriller elements and a heavy dose of hopelessness, and you have something that begins to approach the work of Dennis Potter.

Brimstone & Treacle is pure Potter through and through. The film is the story of Tom and Norma Bates (Denholm Elliot and Joan Plowright) a couple whose grown daughter, Patricia (Suzanna Hamilton), has been run over with a truck, leaving her without speech and possibly leaving her mentally absent. It is this latter point upon which the couple disagrees: Tom is convinced that his daughter is gone, and denies any possibility that she may still be conscious of what happens around her. Tom rages God and believes that it is best to give into the hopelessness of life. Norma, devote and left with their daughter all day, holds out hope that she is still capable of not only understanding what is going on, but that one day she will be able to communicate again.

Enter into the film Martin (Sting), a young man who seems to be a simple con artist, allowing his victims to provide him the information he needs to gain their confidence. During a chance meeting with Tom, where Martin claims to be one of his daughter’s old friends, Martin fakes a dizzy spell. After Tom promises to help him, but instead backs out of his promise, an angry Martin comes to Tom’s home and manages to endear himself to Norma by convincing her that he was, at one time, a possible fiancĂ© to their daughter, and manipulates the situation to not only stay a few days, but help their daughter.

What follows from this point on is one of the bleakest films I have seen. In true Potter style, the themes and commentary of the film are well outside the ability to fully comprehend upon one viewing, and will take multiple visits in order to properly digest. However, as with Potter’s best work, the film leaves no real room for catharsis, leavening the viewer uncomfortable and conflicted by what they have witnessed. An enjoyable night out at the cinema the film is not. A perfect piece of art it may be though.

(Note: it is hard to properly discuss the film without spoilers, so beware reading further)

While there is any number of ways in which the film could be analyzed, and any number of elements which could be discussed, I want to pay particular attention to Martin and Patricia. Unlike Tom and Norma, both Martin and Patricia are, to some degree, ciphers. Throughout the film, The audience, from the start of the film to its conclusion, know little about either character, except for the few brief moments in which the audience is allowed into the minds of the characters via a switch from a realist aesthetic to expressionistic sequences, perhaps most notably a sequence in which Martin recites a prayer on behalf of Norma, resulting in a nightmarish storm from Martin’s perspective. Martin and Patricia are not so much characters in and of themselves, but instead windows into the minds of Tom and Norma, the problems between them.

Martin, indeed, is only truly understandable as doppelganger of Tom, personifying Tom’s past sins and sexual desires. Like Tom, Martin is a master manipulator of words and capable of producing false senses of hope, only in this case within Tom’s family. Martin’s predatory sexual nature is also hinted at being a fulfillment of Tom’s own lustful desires: early on, Tom suffers a nightmare in which he relives a sexual indiscretion that had devastating repercussions, only it mutates into a nightmare of Martin and Patricia acting out the scenario. Late in the film, it is revealed that Tom controlled many aspects of his daughter’s life, including the type of underwear (he claims it was simply a father looking out for a daughter’s best interests). The statement draws attention to Martin’s own fetish for Patricia’s garments earlier in the film.

This point is driven home by a typical irony of Potter’s work, in which one is caught not for the sin they perpetrated. Tom’s sexual infidelity, which was the catalyst for Patricia’s accident and has been hidden by Tom, is not his immediate undoing. Tom’s breaking of his promise to Martin results in Martin’s invasion of the home, and results in further devastation to Patricia.

Potter truly twists the knife in the viewer however by suggesting that Martin’s sickening, twisted acts are the fulfillment of everyone’s desires. Martin indeed makes the family whole again, but in “curing” Patricia, has also perhaps ruined the family. It is no mistake that the film ends at this point, leaving the viewer without any significant closer: the viewer is instead left to cope with the horrors they have seen and carry the questions and aftermath with them out of the theatre. The film is, if nothing else, traumatizing.

While I believe I have already made clear the brilliance of Potter’s writing, Brimstone & Treacle is also a showcase for Richard Loncraine’s direction and a quartet of magnificent performances. Loncraine manages to craft a gothic atmosphere that bounces perfectly between realism and surrealism. Meanwhile, the actors manage to deliver perfect performances across the board. The particular stand out is Denholm Elliot. For those who only know him from the Indiana Jones films, this will be a particularly major revelation.

While I highly recommend the film, do not watch it expecting to fun experience. The film is a work of art, one which will plug you into a highly unpleasant place. Be prepared.


Due to an unexpected, last minute addition to my work schedule, the new review will not be up till after midnight tonight. Stay tuned!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

It's October Folks!

Hey everyone! Tis my favorite time of the year: October! Everything gets a little errie, a little dark, and a little festive!

Expect some horror film reviews over the course of the month, but first, either by late tonight of tomorrow, a review of Brimstone & Treacle, a 1982 film written by Dennis Potter and featuring Sting in one of his few film role.