Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Wishmaster Film Review

The Wishmaster series is well-known, although one of few movies of which I remembered very little. I had watched the original film roughly around the time of its release, and I remembered being generally content with the creepiness and creativity involved in the project.

What surprised me on rewatching was that I did not remember how unintentionally funny the movie truly proves.

The film opens with a long-winded history of the djinn in the context of the film. Evil creatures that prey on humanity, this representation is at least somewhat more accurate to the mythology than newer representations, and the narration as read by Angus Scrimm, from Phantasm fame, is well done if not a little long in tooth. This creeps to a wizard working with eerie materials, a sort of ancient mad scientist. The wizard in the opening is more the alchemist than the occultist, but the set in the opening is creepy enough, with its skull containers. Although there is an odd purple lighting that, while an interesting choice-- purple being a color often associated with magic and, in a more ancient context, royalty-- it serves to actually diminish a lot of the creepiness to the set dressing.

It also doesn't help that a lot of interesting potential for lighting was apparently shrugged off for a more even, flat look. This lighting issue is not as prevalent later on in the film, but here, in the spooky dungeon of the alchemist, it is a sadly missed opportunity.

We then cut to the king-- or whatever, I'm not trying to be historically accurate-- speaking with the Djinn, wishing to see sights unlike any other. Which the djinn proceeds to wreak creative havok on the denizons of the kingdom. Here, once again, an interesting concept is squandered a bit with bland directing. As the extras dash back and forth, we see interesting effects-- one notable one is a man whose skeleton literally tears out from his skin and proceeds to attack others-- but they are filmed in such a haphazard way that they lose a lot of their effect and come out downright comic.

The choreography of that scene was somewhat nice, though, with the citizens dashing to and fro chaotically.

It isn't that the opening is weak per se-- I do quite enjoy some of the weird and wild ways the djinn decides to torture the citizens with, and the intestine-monster that bites the hand of its neighbor made me chuckle. I just felt that the scene felt rushed, as if the filmmakers just wanted to run through the scene instead of trying to plan a careful route through the chaos, and I feel it suffers a bit for this.

"Can I borrow this?"
We then open to quite possibly one of the most unintentionally hilarious scenes I've seen in awhile. We cut to the present, in which Robert Englund (sorry... Raymond Beaumont played by the delightful Robert Englund) is opening what appears to be a bit of a present to himself-- an ancient statue from the same era we just previously left. Ted Raimi, ever the cheeseball, plays his assistant, who lasts long enough to call someone a dumbass and then gets promptly crushed by the statue. The scene plays out more slapstick than horror-- the drunk guy who drops the statue on Raimi cringes comically while Englund actually sighs as if disturbed not by the death but by the inconvenience it causes. While I'm alright with comedy, here it is just so... out of place. There is so much potential-- after all, we are essentially greeted with our first death of the movie-- but again, like the opening, there just seems to be something rushed and it causes some missed notes.

At any rate, we move on and meet some more important characters, namely, Alexandra and Josh. We see the two playing tennis, and although they are somewhat goofy, the love interest almost immediatley set out is endearing.

Although this love interest also quickly leads to one of the most seriously insipid lines of horror: "I don't know," says Josh, examining a gemstone that was given to him by his love-interest, "I'm no gemologist." Keep in mind that Josh is a geophysicist... so... pretty groan worthy there. Also of note is a line that comes up a bit earlier, in which Alexandra's boss, in reference to the gem that Alexandra wants to test, proclaims, "tests? Like what, a physical?"

It's alright... a face-palm is definitely deserved here.

At any rate, the rest of the film seems content to play with this cheese a little further, as there are probably too many such moments to list. However, moving on...

After an accident at the geophysics (gemology) lab, in which the gem Josh is studying explodes after... well, apparently because it damn well feels like it. Apparently poor Josh works at the worst lab I've ever seen when it comes to safety concerns-- the gem manages to essentially create devastation across the lab, with no safe-guards seen (like... for example... fucking sprinklers). Logic aside, we then see one of the more questionable effects-- baby Djinn, who crawls toward a dying Josh.

At this point, I must admit, I got a little lost in this film in two different ways. There comes a point in which insipid or just plain dumb logic becomes entertaining (the "so bad it's good" rule of horror movies), and this... plays with that boundary, although it is unclear whether or not this is intentional. One such break in logic that I just can't wrap my mind around is that Josh releases the djinn, and essentially, since Josh is the first human the djinn sees after many... many years imprisoned in a red gem, why is it then that the djinn feels Alexandra is the only one who can make three wishes? Is it her bloodline? Is it because the djinn thinks she is pretty or something?

It is never explained and this lack of explanation will bug the viewer until the end, in which the credits roll while still offering no good explanation.

"Excuse me, but are any of these faces spiced?"
Anyway, so the djinn has the hots for Alexandra and wants her soul above all else, and also feels that she is the one who can make the three wishes that will set his people free. Even though pretty much EVERYONE the djinn encounters is more than willing to make wishes. Seriously, the djinn is like a kid in a candy store-- everyone he bumps into says casually things like, "man I wish things were easier," or "man, you know what'd be great? A million dollars." I even calculate that he manages two wishes from one chump, who seems more than willing to make a third-- and even stupid enough to do so. Yet for some reason, our wishmaster calls it quits at two (one short of taking over the world) and renews his hunt for Alexandra.

Seriously, she's alright but she's not THAT cute.

The battle with Alexandra is fairly predictable, and I probably couldn't spoil it more than your best guesses could. She does battle with the djinn, wins, but in the end, it is shown that the djinn is not beaten, only put back in his prison, to wait... while cackling evilly.

By all rights, I really actually want to hate the film. It's insipid, poorly directed... but damn fun. The evil cackles as the wishmaster runs amok, his over-inflated dialogue (especially when he encounters Tony Todd, as a bouncer... my god, but if someone took that much of my time yammering on and on about evil crap, I'd just tell him to stop wasting my time, but this is a horror movie, and he has to make a wish so... the dialogue trails... and trails...)... it all actually adds up to...

... a very unintended delight. Sure, some of the effects are horrible-- which when you consider the team involved is actually kind of shocking. But the moments that work just... work. Maybe it's the wicked voice of the wishmaster, or his hypnotic gaze (which actually harkens a bit back to Legosi's dracula, quite possibly unintentionally). Maybe it's the fact that all the characters are so delightfully... stupid. Gemologist? Seriously... But all in all, even though the film offers little scares (except for a few cheap pop-up ones), once again, the whole is not the sum of its parts, and the film just feels like... play. Not my favourite type of horror-- I tend to enjoy things with claws that try to scratch at my sanity-- but it is hard to deny that this film doesn't intend to be fun and playful.

I give it an 80%. Due to its myriad flaws, I cannot really justify higher, but due to the amount of fun the film is, I can't really justify much lower.

Monday, September 17, 2012

A Nightmare on Elm Street (Original; film review)

Nightmare on Elm Street

The new Nightmare on Elm Street is somewhat panned by fans of the series. However, I am probably one of few horror fans who feel that the film isn't as bad as the fans make it out to be, although I still feel it has some serious flaws.  That being said, the original still holds a place in my black little heart, and I recently rewatched the film to see if it stood the test of time.

There... were a few issues I may not have noticed when I was a kid, watching it for the first time.  The film opens up strong, with footage of the infamous glove being made through some basic but eerie blacksmithing. For some reason, this is shown with some... very odd aspect ratios. I'm not sure if that is intended, or if it is a function of my specific DVD, but it serves to limit the view to only the hands as sparks fly and they test the mechanism of Krueger's killing tool.

We then are introduced to the band of teenagers.  Now, normally, I hate films with disposable teens-- as they suffer from severe unoriginality, especially when they are all lined up on the cover-- but here, I was more forgiving, knowing that this was not as much of a cliche at the time of the film.  And the teens are likeable enough, although rather awkward and goofy. This film is notorious as Johnny Depp's first film, and here... he... is plenty awkward. Story goes that the man who would end up playing the new Freddy in the remake was actually the one who auditioned for the role, and Johnny merely accompanied him, but when the producer's daughter (according to the lore) found Johnny Depp 'dreamy', he got the role.

At any rate, the teens proceed to... be... teens, in all their awkward glory.  Of course, once again this is forgiven as being not as much of a cliche at the time of the film, but two proceed to have sex. Johnny's character, Glen, has agreed with his girlfriend to not fool around-- since they are there for their friend, Tina, who has begun to have intense nightmares and is home alone-- so he sits on the sofa, listening to Tina and her boyfriend, the obnoxious Rod (played by Jsu Garcia). If there is anything that made me want to hate the film, it was this character... he's about as pleasant as a punch to the groin, but somehow he manages to woo Tina into a night of passion, to which Glen responds, endearingly, "god, moral sucks." Tina wakes up afterwards to a ticking at the window, and tries to wake up her wonderful boyfriend, Rod, who responds with a snore. That's right, he actually isn't snoring and only RESPONDS to her appeals to wake up by snoring. It actually made me chuckle.

It is here that we start to see the film's effects, which I am actually surprised at how much these practical effects served as a staple of the film. When I saw Freddy coming from the walls again, there was a very specific feel to the effect that brought me immediately back with a smile. And when Tina gets slaughtered, being thrown to the cieling, bloody and screaming as her boyfriend Rod is seen in the same frame still impresses me to this day. The effect of Tina's death by itself is pretty obviously a rotating room, however, we can clearly see Rod on the ground, reaching out to her in the same frame.

There's a... yeah... you should look up...
At any rate, beyond the practical effects, another thing that struck me is how well the film was at being sincerely creepy. From the sets, that belch steam and drip water from every inch, to the minimalist cackle of Robert Englund as Freddy taunts the teens, the film feels sincerely malevolent. Of course, this would be watered down in the many sequels, which would become more comedy than horror, but here, the film does a good job of actually getting under the skin.

That isn't to say that the film is flawless. When I encountered Nancy's mother, Marge (played by Ronee Blakley) I almost laughed. I'm not sure if it is the actress-- who plays the role of the drunken mother with an overwhelming amount of ham-- or the ridiculous lines given to her (one noteable steamer is "what the hell are dreams anyway," which she asks a therapist as she pops a cigarette), or the even more ridiculous amount of hidden booze she has to continuously find, but the character is just atrociously ridiculous.

The rest of the cast behave more believably, for all their goofiness.

At any rate, it doesn't take long for Nancy to realize that her nightmares are being shared with all her teen friends, and she begins to solve this dilemma, when they start being picked off, by taking what are essentially caffeine pills and downing copious amounts of coffee (which she actually hides under her bed). When her boyfriend confronts her about her lack of sleep, she responds, "god I look like I'm 20 years old." Which... again made me chuckle. Considering the actress looks pretty well 20 years old anyway.

Another noteable moment is when Nancy attempts to return to school after her friend's death. She falls asleep and sees her friend in a transparent body bag, covered in blood. Her reaction is one more of those accidentally funny moments we've bumped into a few times in this film: she simply calls out to her friend. "Tina!" Because... you know... the dead body in the bag is going to just shake it off and go out for a skinny dip with the other teens (oh wait... wrong horror franchise).

Another such moment of ... surprisingly delicious silliness is when Nancy confronts her mother about the dreams she is having, and the deaths of her friends: "It's this guy. He's after us in our dreams." OH no! Not ... that... guy!

At any rate, even with these silly moments, the film still feels like the fun creepy film I remember from my childhood. The children skipping rope to their evil little nursery rhyme ("One two, Freddy's coming for you... three four, better shut the door..."... well you know the rest), all these things just feel right and come at the viewer with a nightmarish snarl.

"The fish was thiiiisss bigggg!"
One moment, however, popped me out of the fun of the film for a moment. It comes near the end, when Nancy tries to reach her boyfriend, Glen, who has fallen asleep, much against Nancy's advice. In fact, he ... seems to have a bit of a neurosis that way, as every time she tells him to stay awake, he conks out in record time. At any rate, she receives a call... from Freddy. Now, this wouldn't be an issue if she was asleep too, but at this point, she is fully awake, and even dressed, ready to rush over to help Glen, who she fears is asleep. Freddy calls her and taunts her, telling Nancy that he is her new boyfriend. The logic of the film is that Freddy can only interact with people in their dreams, and to everyone awake he is invisible. However, for one moment, here he seems able to cross over into the waking world. It completely defies the interior logic of the film.

However, it's a small moment, and just as it risked popping me out, the film carried on and never again allowed such ... blatant disregard for its own logic.

All in all, the film seves as everything I remember it to be, and a rightfully iconic moment in horror history. The film isn't heavy in its seriousness-- unlike the remake, which seems intensely humorless-- but the first in the series is also not as ridiculous and tongue-in-cheek as the later films would become. Although this humor is a trademark of the series, I must admit, I dislike humor that comes at the  cost of losing the creepy atmosphere necessary for horror, and I feel the sequels played with this cost dangerously. Here, though, the film tries its best to creep you out, and for the most part succeeds. Freddy popping out of the dark corners of the dream-world with a malicious chuckle serve as truly the stuff of nightmares.

With all this, I have to give the film an 88%. Because of some of the bad acting, and obvious silliness, I hesitate to give it a perfect score, but because of its iconic (and well deserved) place in horror, I cannot give it less. A wonderful watch for the upcoming path to Halloween...

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Silent Hill (Film Review)

Silent Hill is one of those films that is much more than the sum of its parts. Which is a good thing, for some of the parts are admittedly a little clunky. The film has some powerful elements, which, along with an elaborate market campaign at the time of its release, helped it become an icon of horror.

The film opens up abruptly with parents in panic, chasing after their daughter, Sharon (played by Jodelle Ferland ), who stands in some sort of trance above a rather intimidating precipice. The mother, Rose (Radha Mitchell ), catches her before the girl can fall into said precipice, only to hear her shout out “Silent Hill!” repeatedly, like some sort of seizure.

It... doesn't sound good in writing, and it feels even more awkward on the screen. But, the parents reactions to this odd (and convenient) seizure-speak quiets the audience with a cold, “she said it again”, “I know. I heard.”

The film's logic breaks down in the introduction to Silent Hill-- after the trance/seizure, Rose decides enough is enough and decides if the child keeps shouting Silent Hill, well, then the best form of therapy must be to haul her butt to this aforementioned place. The explanation is thinly patched up by Rose's observations that Sharon may have been adopted from the town, but her determination for this road trip seems to just come out of nowhere, especially since the character seems otherwise rational and calm.

She leaves her husband behind-- presumably because she knows he is against the idea even before bringing it up to him-- and takes off to the evil town. After finding out where she is headed through her internet history-- seriously, Rose, if you knew he was against the idea why did you leave such obvious clues?-- and proceeds to cut off her access to their bank cards in the hopes of stopping her.

This leaves her almost trapped in a creepy gas station-- which, as a location, I am beginning to think, is an absolute necessity in a horror movie-- with an equally creepy female cop, Cybil (played by Laurie Holden , who horror fans might recognize from her later work on The Walking Dead). This police officer's motives are very strange, as she creeps around and essentially stalks Rose and Sharon. It is not made clear why she is so interested in the mother and daughter. Has Christopher (Rose's husband, played by the always delightful Sean Bean ) placed a warrant out for her arrest? If so, why? The two seem like a normal couple, and sure, taking off with their daughter might be rather abrupt, but the two otherwise do not seem unloving toward each other.

At any rate, for whatever reason, the film just decides that this cop hates Rose's face.

So, Rose takes off as the cop writes down her license plate, and the movie plods a bit forward. We then get the absolute worst, and most forced, movie logic I've seen in awhile (well, the movie The Tenant notwithstanding): Rose gets pulled over by Cybil, for... whatever reason (maybe her tail-light is out?) and just as Cybil is about to meet her at the window, Rose proceeds to... fucking gun it. Now, this comes at about the same time in most films there would be a knock on the window, and the character attempts to be as innocent as possible, “is there a problem officer?” Nope, not Rose, she isn't having any of that shit, she just takes the fuck off out of there. It is absolutely baffling why Rose comes to the conclusion this is a good idea. Her husband obviously isn't going to press any charges and only wants her back, if it is indeed him that is the reason Cybil is pursuing them. If not, then Cybil probably just wants to tell her that she has a busted light, ten minute stop and then she can proceed safely to Silent Hill.
Nope. Guns it.

And of course, like in real life, hauling ass away from the law doesn't end well. She crashes through a gate to get to Silent Hill, and then almost runs over a little girl on the road. In dodging said little girl, she fish-tails, crashes, and... blacks out.

This is where the movie stops being absolute horse-crap and actually gets started. Let it be said that I was worried the first time I saw this film. The opening is filled with awkward lines, unmotivated behaviour, and just downright lacking in logic. There are perhaps missing scenes that explain everything that baffled me, but as it stands, I just... wash my hands of the first bit of the film described above. Let's just pretend that part doesn't exist, shall we?

"Excuse me, kind strannngger,
can you give me a hand?"
The rest of the film has Rose chasing after Sharon, while catching glimpses of her daughter's evil doppelganger, Alessa. At the same time, Christopher is chasing after the both of them, fearing the worst after learning she is headed to a town that literally still burns underneath its baron surface, after a coal accident many years ago. Rose encounters many obstacles to getting to Sharon, including the iconic Red Pyramid, who is played absolutely wonderfully by Roberto Campanella . This is where the film truly shines, as Christophe Gans went through obvious trouble to get these monsters to look and move in the creepiest fashion he could. It is a testament that some of the best performances in this film involve just how well the creatures move-- the choreography in the film is absolutely breathtaking.

After encountering these tortured souls, Rose learns that Sharon is actually Alessa, a child of... less than stellar history. We learn that her real mother is the tortured Dahlia, Deborah Kara Unger , who we meet basically crawling on the ground, looking like a broken hobo. Deborah Unger's performance here is probably just behind the choreography in my esteem in this film. She plays the broken, twisted Dahlia extremely well, and each frame with her oozes with torture birthed by the love she felt for her daughter.

Shortly after meeting Dahlia, we meet a group of religious zealots who just about think they got this weird world of Silent Hill figured out. And to a certain degree, they do-- at least when it comes to the creatures that roam it, and when they will strike. However, they feel that sacrifices are necessary to keep the dark gods of the town at peace.

Instead of seeing the obvious, which was that the dark gods just love tearing things to shreds.

The final scenes involving this group were absolutely delightful in their carnage-- think Hellraiser with a bit more spectacle. But I've probably said too much already.

"Mommy, can I borrow your intestines?"
The film still has its awkward moments even after the beginning. For example, although an extremely sympathetic character, Christopher's storyline feels very tacked on. It serves its purpose-- namely, to further emphasize how separated poor Rose is from reality-- but in never interacting with the nightmare Rose, Cybil, and Sharon/Alessa encounter, it also, sadly, separates it a bit from being pertinent.

However, I find that Sean Bean carries this extraneous character rather well, which makes it hard to say that it should have been cut.

All in all, Silent Hill is a strong package, and I'm both excited and terrified at the oncoming approach of its sequel. Excited to return to this wonderfully dark town, with creeps and creatures ready at every corner to eviscerate anything that comes their way, and also terrified that the second film does not capture the same magic that Christophe Gans managed to capture-- most notably with the way the creatures look and behave.

But, in speaking of the first Silent Hill, I give the film an 90%. What points I dock are due to the extremely illogical beginning, but the fact that I do not knock off many points speaks to how the poor introduction does not serve to mar the experience as a whole, which remains one of my favourite and most iconic places to visit.

Now, if only they can get the games to return to such wonderful, dark realms...

Friday, September 14, 2012

Dread (Film Review)

Obviously a film about happy
Dread is one of those films that haunts you after you finish watching. Based on the short story by Clive Barker, the film itself adds enough elements so that it is its own beast, while retaining much of the flavor and sadistic concepts that made the short story interesting.

The film opens with the antagonist, Quaid (played wonderfully by Shaun Evans ), staring into the camera, revealing his intentions. “I want your soul to open up for me,” he says, almost non-chalant. However, in his voice is the slight twist of someone who is sincere in his wish, and you get a sense that this character would indeed go out of his way to see even this abstract concept (seeing someone's 'soul') into fruition.

And come to fruition it does.

The film takes a group of students on a search for fear. The study itself is rather vague in its premise-- which is, simply, to record the fears and terrors and to... come to some conclusion about them. The second part is skirted, and there is some talk of it being a 'cure' or some form of therapy, but all this is coming from the antagonist, who, we quickly see painted in pretty vivid colours, is quite emotionally unstable.

What caught my eye about this film is how much it works not by spectacle-- don't let any reviews that talk about this as being a “gorey” movie fool you, there isn't a terrible lot of spectacle-- but by its story. The concepts it brings to the table are much more frightening than anything actually shown, because they make a twisted logical sense to them. This inherently limits the film's potential audience; one simply has to participate in the implications involved in order for the titular emotion to really press through the cracks.

But should one follow along, paying attention to where the film is going thematically as much as visually, it is an interesting ride.

I'm a huge fan of subtlety, and that is this film's greatest strength. There are moments that I thought worked perfectly because of small things, like a character's open-mouthed fear suddenly changing to firm resolve as he carefully closes his mouth. Or, in a more interesting moment, a character's pupil slowly changing, opening up as we watch, in fear and in understanding.

Although I mention that the movie is not a gore-fest, it does support some strong visuals. Where there is carnage, it is done well, realistically enough for what it portrays. Rarely over-the-top, except for in one scene, which, to be fair, is a dream-sequence.

When in doubt, axe it out.
The performances are all strong, but in a way that many people might not appreciate. The two main characters, Quaid and Stephen (the latter played by Jackson Rathbone ) both play students hungry for knowledge rather well. Stephen's character is the loner academic, seduced by Quaid's more chaotic chemistry. The film could be argued to be a love story between these two, although it never is explicit in this regard, but intellectually, it is very much the case that the two are drawn together. Stephen lives vicariously through Quaid, and thus a performance that many people see as “rigid” by Rathbone, I argue actually suits the character perfectly-- he isn't a dangerous or even social beast until he interacts with Quaid, whose non-chalant indifference to everything except the results of his study paint Quaid as a sort of mad scientist, although with a slow, meticulous gaze.

The only weak performance I felt was in the fraudulent participant of their study-- about halfway through the movie, Quaid and Stephen record a woman claiming to have suffered from severe agoraphobia, to the point where she relied completely on her mother for her care. Quaid is immediately disgusted by her, and though we don't immediately see why, he finally (and viciously) confronts her about the validity of her claims.

The lady who plays the agoraphobic suffered from “emotional means loud” syndrome that plagues a lot of amateur actors, and you'll know what I mean when you see her explosive response to Quaid's allegations. It was a quick moment-- she is only a very small role-- but threatened to shatter the suspension of disbelief.

I'd still do her...
However, the rest of the film acts so subtly that this small blemish can easily be overlooked. Speaking of blemishes, I should also mention one of my all-time favourite characters in a long time, the character of Abby, played rather well by Laura Donnelly . She plays a lady suffering from a birth-mark that covers almost literally half her body, including blackening half her face. Although the actress is, even through her makeup, more than a little good looking, she plays the self-conscious girl well, and it is hard not to feel sympathetic to her character. The only thing threatening belief is, as stated, the fact that even under the mounds of makeup it must have taken to paint her birth-mark, she is still very fetching, but again, the film's strengths are in its implications, and one can easily believe that even a beautiful girl would feel self-conscious with such a large birth-mark.

And, without spoiling too much, her reaction to Quaid's cruelty when it comes to this blemish honestly sent chills down my spine.

Again, the film is not perfect-- it does require the audience to actively participate in the concepts intellectually. For example, there is nothing frightening about a bottle of javex, but in the film, seeing it in the context it is put is more than a little disturbing.

For those unable to sympathize or even empathize with the characters, I must admit, the film would be utterly boring, as this is inherently necessary to experience what the story, and the filmmakers, want you to feel.

That being said, I actively participated in the 'study' being put to film; I actually find the concept of studying fear fascinating, and probably quite fruitful intellectually, so I probably enjoyed the characters more because of this. But with this connection, the film was very adept at being chilling.

It must be noted that there were a few changes made to the source material, most notably characters added. However, having read the story prior to watching the film, I can attest that any additions were carefully drawn out and not merely placed gratuitously (which is more than I can say about the nudity, which always suits the story but sometimes seems a little forced, but I digress). By the end, even those familiar with the story will feel that everything fits together and ties well-- not in the 'happy ending' sort of tie together, but in the way everything has its purpose, everything pushes forward to the end no matter how inconsequential it may seem at first.

I'd still do-- egahhh ok maybe not...
This is a highly intelligent film that plays with source material that is already filled with disturbing concepts, and these same concepts are brought out quite well. I also strongly enjoyed the film's sound-scape, which, again, was a subtle but intimidating set of drones and creaks.

Great cinematography, suitable acting-- with one minor exception-- chilling ideas, and bone-crushing sound-scape make for a 90%. I have to dock the film for being a very niched film-- not a lot of people will relate to the academia inherent in the film, and this would probably have turned me off if I wasn't such a nerd to begin with, but for those in its circle, it is a wonderfully chilling, nihilistic joy-ride.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

V/H/S Review

Ah old school...


I was a bit hesitant with V/H/S, not because I didn't think it would be good but rather the opposite. The teasers looked so eerie that I feared my black little heart would be broken if it did not live up to my expectations, especially as Halloween rapidly approaches.

It was an interesting project, to say the least: six short films by up and coming directors in the horror field all play to the medium of VHS-style filming. The wrap around story is fairly simplistic-- a group of anarchists who apparently make money off of selling videos of their destructive behaviour learn of a potentially lucrative job. The job is simple enough-- collect a VHS tape, bring it back, and collect the reward. What the group doesn't know is that the house they collect the tape from-- and the videos they have to rifle through-- all have a sinister underbelly.

The film's cinematography will be familiar to anyone who has been around horror the last decade or so-- which is the film's strength and weakness, depending on the audience. The camera whips around, colours are washed out, and, whether intentional or not, all directors seem to play with distortion in one way or another as either a way to mask edits or, in one case, as a plot device. The reason I say this is the film's strength as well as a weakness is because, as a weakness, this style of cinematography has begun to annoy some fans of the horror genre, who point out that it is a bit too much, and in some cases, can even cause motion sickness. The reason I would actually argue this as the film's strength is because it creates a hyper-realism; the washed out colours, lack of elaborate lighting, and obvious quirks of handheld film-making make the whole movie legitimately feel like found footage.

That is not to say that my suspension of disbelief didn't pop from time to time. The most noteworthy of these instances is the segment titled “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger,” which takes the style of a skype conversation over a computer .This is an interesting idea, but is very much at odds with the fact that we are supposed to be literally watching a VHS tape. While other segments give us a glimpse of devices that are probably (to definitely) not recording on VHS, this was the most far-fetched. It's gratuitous nudity is... well... it is what it is.

"I like you."
Which brings up something I wondered while watching the film as a whole: Many times as I watched, I wondered if the filmmakers discussed their ideas with each other. Ideas either get 'recycled'-- if they did indeed discuss their ideas before executing them-- or come up again and again due to the medium they are filming in, and it would be interesting to learn which one of these two possibilities is the case. For example, as stated, all segments seem to play with the idea of distortion, things being taped over and coming back for a glimpse, or digital artifacting  (as part of the conversion to VHS?). Also, more than one segment played with the idea of amateur video cameras as a voyeuristic device, sometimes playing this angle for slight humour, other times as part of the direct plot.

The other segment not mentioned already, namely “Second Honeymoon”, was a bit of a mixed bag for me. I quite enjoyed getting to know the characters, and again, the concept of video voyeurism comes up, although Ti West, the director, comments on it a bit differently here, and much less exploitative than the other segments. The eerie fortune teller that acts as a precursor to the horrific events was a nice touch, and absolutely worked to heighten the creepiness involved. Also, where the other films comment on voyeurism through nudity, this film offers a very chilling exposition of violence that still feels very voyeuristic, and because of it being violence instead of nudity, the voyeurism is much more disturbing. However, for me, the pacing for this film, which came directly after the high-octane opening, “Amateur Night”, just felt jarringly different than its predecessor. This is less a comment on any weakness of Mr West-- who still remains one of my favourite directors-- and more a comment on its placement in the film as a whole-- there were probably better places to put the film, but in retrospect, “Amateur Night” was a hard act to follow in terms of its hyperactive pacing. After watching the film as a whole, though, I feel that the pacing might have been difficult to progress in any other way than what it did.

The effects, for the most part, are well done, with one possible exception: the segment Tuesday, the 17th, in which a group of teenagers go swimming in the woods. Not all of the effects in this segment are bad-- some of the distortion effects were actually very well done, and some obvious cuts are incredibly well hidden-- but the gore in this one, for the most part, is too clean and digital, especially considering the format it is filmed in. Also, this is probably the segment where we learn the least about the people we watch-- very little is offered in the way of back-story with the exception of the main character, and all other characters feel almost cartoonish, as the only thing they really expose about their character is that they are goofy (or childish, depending on whether or not  you like the characters-- personally I didn't really want to like them, but found their goofiness endearing).

There are some effects that actually had me dropping my jaw, especially considering the format. Without spoiling too much, the first and last segment were the strongest visual showcases, titled “Amateur Night” and “10/31/98” respectively. The effects in these are incredibly well-done and the filmmakers expressed obvious control of their medium, with the effects getting more and more elaborate as their chilling tale careened across the screen.

Although not all of the segments are as strong as the short films they sit beside, overall, V/H/S is a strong example of how powerful creative minds can be even on a relatively shoe-string budget. None of the effects struck me as being necessarily expensive inasmuch as done with intense care and consideration (with the possible exception of the short already mentioned for having weaker visual effects-- although, to be fair to segment-- Tuesday, the 17th-- the effects were not weak by themselves, inasmuch as somewhat lacking compared to the other powerhouse visuals in other segments).

There is one effect I really want to discuss, but cannot without risking spoiling it, but suffice to say, the ending of “Amateur Night” still chills me when I think about it, and I honestly felt, after going to the other segments, that this film should have perhaps been kept until the last, as the imagery in this one absolutely worked above and beyond what its medium should have allowed.

Which speaks of the film as a whole. It is a relatively tired format-- and one that is being abused in the film marketplace to a great extent (Paranormal Activity anyone?) but here, the creativity behind the people involved brings this much higher than the sum of its predictable parts-- and this film is less something that operates on a cliched format, but more an absolute love-song to independent filmmaking.

"Run! I just... you just don't... want to be
here anymore it might smell in a second..."
Forget Paranormal Activity, THIS film is the true successor to The Blair Witch Project, and in many ways, is actually far superior to its obvious inspiration. Perhaps its the fact that all the different styles play well with each other here-- there is no “too many cooks in the kitchen” here, but a surprising synchronicity between different creative teams-- or perhaps it is because the simple but interesting ideas brought out in the scripts gives enough limitation to really focus the creepy aspect of home video, but all in all, the film absolutely shines.


The only reason I don't give the film a perfect 100% is some very minor flaws in the visuals and logic of the film, especially when it comes to the VHS format absolutely being required to be a segment, and some obvious cheats in this regard. Although one could argue that footage has been converted to VHS, I suppose but... really... who would even bother to do so, even for the sake of such a macabre library? Or did I just answer my own question? All in all, this stands as a new personal favourite in the horror anthology format, which is saying a lot as it is my all-time favourite style of filmmaking.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Woman Review

"Hey there."
Now, I'm more of a fan of Lucky McKee's work than I would like to admit. May, while feeling utterly amateurish, had a huge amount of charm even if the pacing sometimes moved at a sloth's pace. I also feel the director has a penchant for films that resist the traditional story-arch, as neither May nor The Woman really have anything in terms of the traditional act structure, or at least clumsily so (there's a beginning, a middle, and an end, but what one would think of as a twist to carry to the next act usually... just... feels a bit at odds with traditional structure).

That's not to say that I find this a weakness-- to take things that are this far off the beaten path of tradition and to make it work and still hit the same beats as a traditional film is actually quite awe-inspiring, especially in The Woman.

The flick immediately starts with wilderness. Calm. Serene. Then, our “woman” clumsily stumbles unto the scene, played brilliantly by Pollyanna McIntosh . I cannot stress this enough-- it could not have been easy getting into the mindset of someone as detached from society (and even reality) as her character (“the woman”) plays, but Miss McIntosh plays this character with subtlety where necessary and aggression where appropriate, and even when she's speaking in a clumsy made-up language-- which brings to mind some early literature on primordial man, such as Frankenstein and works by Rousseau-- the character feels utterly believable as a woman torn from the wilderness.

After we are introduced to the woman-- and here, I cannot help but feel this is a wordplay on how macho men will call each other “the man” though this might be accidental-- we are introduced to a suburban family, seemingly normal. We first see Peggy, played by Lauren Ashley Carter , who is the typical detached teenager. She sits by a pool and is quickly hit on by a local, who, upon rejection, mutters “strumpet” as he swims away.

I thought that was delightfully unrealistic. Who says strumpet anymore? But I digress.

"Honey, get me a beer and shut the hell up."
We are then introduced to Peggy's parents, Chris and Belle (played by Sean Bridgers and Angela Bettis respectively). Chris seems normal enough, although there is just something off about him-- within just a few seconds, he feels rude but in a polite way, as if he would ask you to kindly shove a fork up your own eye for his own entertainment, but walk away before you respond, assuming you will concur with his will. Belle seems a bit cartoonish herself, the mousish but doting and loyal wife. Even though something is a bit 'off' about them, they are both immediately likeable and normal. As an audience member, we feel at home with these people. They seem normal.

As we learn, appearances can be deceiving.

Chris finds the Woman bathing topless in the river. In any other movie, this scene would feel exploitative, but as appealing as Pollyanna is, covered in the dirt and grime of her costume, this feels more like a Natural Geographic documentary than porn-- this is probably also due to her very believable and brutish performance.

In all of Lucky's films I've seen thus far, it seems the director brings you in with the normality of the characters, and then at one point just gives up making them seem normal anymore. It's as if everyone in her world is normal only by appearance, and are all closet monsters. So be it. We see this closet monster start to come out when Chris voyeuristically watches the Woman bathing. Here it might be noted that although we are watching a topless lady in a very vulnerable position, it is completely and utterly odd the way he reacts. He is very visibly aroused by the sight of her.

It is at this point that the film starts to break down from normal everyday life and begins to become an allegory. We quickly learn that Chris is a bit of a control freak. To say the least. And also a huge misogynist, to the point where his charming demeanor can no longer make him sympathetic. Drooling over a wild woman here is a metaphor for the way he treats women-- controlling them, breaking them, “civilizing” them to his will, as if that is what it means to be a woman.

The film goes into even darker territory, but to explain too much would be a bit of a spoiler. Suffice to say, his need to “civilize” this wild woman is where the proverbial feces begins to hit the fan.

Up to this point, and even beyond, all of the actors do an alright job of things. There are a few stiff moments, and the overpopulation of women is a bit noticeable-- it would have been nice to see male characters that were, for example, redeemable, which the script seems determined not to have by even making the local teachers female for the most part-- but this makes sense given the context of the film.

After all, it is a film about women. Well... a woman anyway.

"No, you shut up and get me a beer!
And go smash now."
The cinematography, while never really awe-inspiring nor breathtaking, is solid and never gets in the way. The acting, even with the few stiff moments noted above, is always interesting and nuanced, even from the otherwise stiff Angela Bettis. The visuals and makeup effects are actually superb, especially with the titular character, who absolutely looks how she is probably supposed to smell, if we are to take the comments from the characters seriously.

And, as much as the allegory of women empowerment was slightly forced, I actually felt the thought-provoking aspects of the film was more deep than the other films by the same director I have watched. Here, for every “flaw” in the allegory, one could argue that as the point of the allegory in the first place. For example, though the titular character is dangerous and volatile even to other women, one could argue that she is hostile toward any male influence and is only supportive of the female characters who either express disgust with the masculine influence or are too young to have been influenced by it.

There is, needless to say, a lot to think about and a lot that could be said about the film, and it is fun to watch a film that has such sophistication to it that it can be a source of debate, even within one audience member's reactions (I sometimes found myself hating something about the film, only to think about it further and find that even my averse reaction said something interesting about feminism as a topic of discussion).

What kept me from absolutely loving the film, however, was the atrocious soundtrack. And when I say atrocious I mean you probably have friends that can do just as good if not better out of their garage. I'm not belittling the music-- I'm sure in its own context it is interesting enough-- but just its placement in the film. I found it was absolutely jarring to hear something that could only be described as pop alternative acoustic music drumming in my ear in what are otherwise tense moments. For example, when Chris first spies on the woman, we are treated to what sounds like a comedic “love at first sight” sort of tune, and often times the film's choice of music are at such a disparity with the events on screen as to pop one out of the experience completely.

However, even after being popped out by one of those “your boyfriend doesn't treat you right” acoustic ballads making me roll my eyes (I actually believe I might have almost quoted one of the songs...) the film did a good job of pushing me back in, bringing more interesting elements into the story.

The film is not for everyone-- not by a long shot. Its pacing is all over the place-- not much happens for the first 45 minutes besides our woman being brought home and captured by Chris, and then shortly after, complication after complication seems to push us forward. This sounds like it is a mess-- and by all rights it should be-- but the film is so expertly done that this doesn't feel like the yo-yo of pacing that it might sound like.

I honestly felt riveted almost every moment, and I only say 'almost' due to a few odd timing issues and the awful sound scoring.

Overall, like Lucky's film May, I liked this film more than I was expecting. In fact, I like this film a lot more than I liked May. Lucky seems to have ironed out a few of her more annoying quirks, kept her more interesting ones, and plays with archetypes wonderfully here. Some reviews may argue that her characters here are cartoonish and one-dimensional, but I would easily counter that this makes the allegory all the more accessible. We aren't left to question what she is stating, and are free to talk about the implications of feminism brought out by this film.

98% -- only losing the 2% because whoever did the choice for sound scoring should be smacked.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Lovely Molly (Review)

I had admittedly low expectations when I brought home Lovely Molly. While the credentials of being written and directed by Eduardo S├ínchez, the fellow responsible for The Blair Witch Project might seem impressive to some, in all honesty I felt Eduardo's first film a fluke of timing more than an interesting film in its own right. It did, however, spawn an interesting if-not unsatisfying habit of horror films, the “found footage” film that gave Paranormal Activity a chance to shine.

It must be noted that I absolutely despise Paranormal Activity and its sequels...

So, like I said, I went into Lovely Molly with some pretty low expectations, and I think that is exactly how I could appreciate the film as much as I could.

The film is a pretty basic setup-- Molly (played by newcomer Gretchen Lodge ) marries-- which we see in excruciating detail with her clumsy wedding video. This, I admit, made me worried from the start-- was this going to be another found-footage film? If so, how would it mark itself as original in an over-saturated market, even if it is made by the people essentially responsible for said market? Thankfully, this is just a setup, for after the wedding, we return to comfortable, cozy, traditional cinematography.

Call me a traditionalist but I just ... prefer this style very much.

At any rate, Molly and her new husband (Johnny Lewis ) proceed to christen their marriage in Molly's family home. Now, upon retrospect, after what we learn of Molly and her family, it seems a bit outrageous that she flocks to this home, but I suppose one could argue that an inherited home is cheaper than another one, and the newlyweds would want a place to... christen.

What do you mean we're out of strawberries?!
Rather predictably, things start going wrong for the couple. We learn a bit of the history of Molly's family from her sister, played by Alexandra Holden , and we learn that it wasn't a happy one. This is further hinted at when, after their new alarm system proceeds to freak out, a cop mentions that he was at the house a few times, and that it is a good thing Molly doesn't remember.

We also learn that Molly has a lovely habit of being a bit of a junkie, which as things start to go bad for her, she quickly returns to. Heroin seems like such an obviously dumb choice, both in real life and in film, and here... it's... not much of a better choice than it would be in real life.

This is where the film starts to get a bit of a mixed bag for me. While I enjoyed the ambiguity that the introduction of drugs to the traditional haunting setup brings (“is it real or is it just a trip?”) it often belittles a lot of what we see. For example, there is an early 'scare' scene in which Molly hears some admittedly VERY creepy sounds, runs up to her bedroom, and... drops the camera, which we see... show a door opening. Then closing. While the lack of any effect here could make the argument of “man that heroin is bad for you” compelling, it is, at least with this setup, a less interesting way of thinking about the events.

This element isn't completely a missed note, however. Gretchen Lodge's wonderful acting makes the instability that the drugs bring to the table a hefty one-- and we certainly worry about poor Molly's sanity the more it becomes obvious that she's forsaken the concept of being sober.

Indeed, all of the actors deliver wonderful performances. All are believable in their own special way, with the husband's delightful awkwardness to Molly's eccentricities, to the messed up sister, who is just messed up enough to feel real but not quite enough to be unsympathetic. Even the secondary actors, which are often in these type of films absolutely atrocious, deliver on all the notes they should, and not one actor feels fake ... at all. I am actually thoroughly impressed with the director's ability in this regard. Even when reacting to bumps in the night, or an unseen aggressor in a dark hallway, even in moments where the suspension of disbelief is stretched to a thin membrane, that membrane, thanks to the believable performances, never pops.

This is probably something you want to get used to...
she spends a good portion of the flick naked...
I'm not complaining, just warning!
However, there is something the film brings up which is an issue I have with modern horror. That is, notably, the lack of spectacle. There is a tiny bit of spectacle here-- we do have a traditional horror payoff-- but even that is done with almost too much subtlety, to the point where it barely registers. Where films like Insidious have no qualms about showing you what goes bump in the night, films like Paranormal Activity and its ilk tend to overemphasize the audience's imagination by slowly... calmly pulling up on... NOTHING. To a certain degree, this is an interesting phenomenon-- the lack of spectacle is certainly playing in the low-budget filmmaker's favour for one thing, but also the fact that the audiences adore it speaks to the fact that, be as cynical as you want to be, audiences are still very much interested in watching films that demand something of them, in this case, to imagine what all those eerie sounds must be.

And indeed, Lovely Molly's sound design is... absolutely perfect. Spot-on. I'm not exaggerating when I say that the first time I heard the cloven smacks against the basement floor, with the hefty breathing calling out Molly's name, a bit of goosebumps may have surfaced. It was not necessarily that the moment was truly scary-- although it managed to be, in my opinion-- but that the sounds were just so interestingly realistic.

All the creaking, groaning boards in the house didn't hurt either.

But still, I feel a little bit underwhelmed by the visual side of things. As per the cinematography, everything was shot in a very satisfying way in terms of composition and lighting-- there is even a very notable moment where Molly is hiding in the closet filming, and her husband walks in and turns on the light, making himself an odd silhouette for a moment that is almost intimidating. There are no shots that feel wrong visually, for what they are showing.

However, what they are showing is a little too much reality for my tastes. I thoroughly enjoy horror that takes me to another world, is unafraid to show me monsters.

That isn't to say that there are no interesting visuals in the film. There are. I quite liked the humming as Molly takes the camera into the basement, where we see all kinds of very strange artifacts and symbols. And there is a moment near the end-- which I shall not spoil-- in which a more traditional horror pay-off occurs, which absolutely thrilled me to be honest when I saw it. It hit at a perfect moment in the story.

For all my praise, the film wasn't perfect by any stretch-- I felt some plot twists were a little contrived and forced, especially those around the husband, and I felt the film was also oddly aggressive with its sexual imagery, which could either be a pro or a con depending on your preferences-- but for all constructive purposes, the film delivers everything it promises, even if it doesn't deliver with as much flamboyance and monstrous imagery as the horror fan might like.

I would have to give the film a 90%. In all honesty, I feel like everything the film attempts, it delivers-- even if I felt that the film should have attempted more. The characters we meet are believable and sympathetic (which is very thankful in a genre littered by cartoon characters), the chemistry with the cast is undeniable and very real (sometimes a bit uncomfortably so for those that don't like voyeurism-- again this could be a pro depending on the audience), and the bumps in the night prove very, very threatening indeed.

I still can't give it a perfect rating, because there just wasn't... enough spectacle for my tastes, which was a bit of a let-down especially since the film was not terribly shy on the sexual side. This could be a factor of budget-- the film does wear its budget on its sleeve, and I will never fault a film for its budget, especially in the horror genre-- but I would have been more interested in seeing more of the thing that was going bump in the night rather than just hearing it.

But, I must also admit, that is less a failure of the movie, and more personal preference. The lack of spectacle also, to the film's credit, makes the downward spiral of drugs more visceral, as the insane ramblings of poor Molly cannot be justified by anything she's seen, though perhaps we could forgive her knowing what she's heard.

Highly recommended-- although, on a final note, if I were rating this on a DVD level, I'd fail the special features. I feel they attempted too much to market it as another Blair Witch where what made the film interesting to me was how much it toyed with the audience, knowing they expected a found footage film and then shifting gears. This doesn't match with the tone of the film at all, and I was expecting something more along the lines of interviews with the cast and crew, insightful looks at the mythology separate from the film... pretending like the film is real with pseudo-documentaries would work for a found footage film, but this is not one, so its a bit of a mystery why the special features are what they are.