Friday, April 5, 2013

EVIL DEAD (2013)

Fede Alvarez’s 2013 Evil Dead is probably closest to Zack Snyder’s 2004 Dawn Of The Dead remake in style and execution. Both films take a cherished low-budget classic and, while sticking fairly close to the setups of their predecessors, they cycle in new characters and ramp up the action/blood/intensity for a faster, meanier, gorier approach. In our current heyday of PG-13 horror and toothless, unimaginative spook-em-ups, the commitment these filmmakers show to bloody mayhem is welcome, but the new model Evil Dead, like Snyder’s Dawn before it, still only manages to be occasionally diverting, but ultimately disposable. In both cases, there’s no substitute for the cheapo charm of the original. Evil Dead 2013 (which was produced by Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell) starts off with an intriguing but confusing prologue—intriguing, because it hints at a broader mythology for this version of the story, but confusing because it never bothers to deliver on it. We see the fiery conclusion of one girl’s demonic possession, taking place in the basement of the series’ now-familiar cabin in the woods. Then, some time later, a group of five friends arrive at the cabin—not for a weekend of hard partying in the usual horror-film tradition, but so that drug-addicted Mia (Jane Levy) can dry out in the company of her concerned pals. The gang decides that, no matter what she says or does, Mia will not be allowed to leave the woods until the weekend is over and she’s gone completely cold turkey. This promising angle, which ensures that the kids actually have a good reason to stay in the cabin when things get weird, is ditched all too quickly since Mia is the first to fall under the spell of what lurks within the woods (an evil unleashed when one of the gang finds a creepy book bound up in barb wire and, of course, proceeds to read from it). At first, Mia’s increasingly crazed behaviour is dismissed as symptoms of drug withdrawal, but it isn’t long before the demonic infection spreads to the others, leading to an outbreak of self-mutilation, trash-talking, and all manner of goo and glop spewing out of character’s faces. You have to admire how the new Evil Dead gleefully goes for the gross-out (largely achieved through practical effects rather than CGI, always a plus. Apparently several cuts were made to ensure an R rating, but even so, this has got to be the bloodiest horror flick to get a wide release in quite some time. That being said, beyond the troubled family history between Mia and her brother David (Shiloh Fernandez), the characters are so thinly drawn that it’s hard to get emotionally involved when they all start cutting each other into bloody chunks. I kept forgetting that one character, Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore), was even in the movie. I can’t imagine that her character had much description in the screenplay beyond “blonde hair/David’s girlfriend”, if her total lack of personality traits of any kind is any indication. The standout in the cast, by way of default, is Lou Taylor Pucci’s Eric, if only because hipster fashion has come around again to the point that his now-weirdly-contemporary plaid shirt, long hair, and Chief Brody-sized eyeglasses make him look like…the victim in an early 1980s horror movie, appropriately enough. But beyond the rehab angle and the demonic, candle-headed boss beast in the demonic tome (who, sadly, never appears beyond the blood-printed page), Evil Dead doesn’t bring enough new to the table. The evil spirits are given a face this time, in the form of the ghoulish girl from the prologue, but this has the weird effect of making the threat seem smaller rather than bigger (if you can defeat the evil by chopping it into pieces with a chainsaw, it’s really not all that insurmountable, is it?). One can only assume that the mythology teased out by screenwriters Alvarez, Rodo Sayagues, and Diablo Cody is dropped in to tantalize viewers back for an inevitable sequel, which is exactly the kind of breadcrumb-dropping storytelling cheat that made Prometheus such a stinker last year. Far too much of genre filmmaking these days is about luring viewers in with the promise of something new, and then, in the wake of a pile of unanswered questions, winkingly suggesting that you hang in there for Part II. Commendable for its carnage, but forgettable due to its flimsiness, Evil Dead 2013 feels regrettably incomplete and, as such, as unnecessary as most other horror remakes. Give me Sam Raimi chasing Bruce Campbell around the forest with a camera any day of the week.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Curse Of The Werewolf-Themed 45s!

My folks had my girlfriend Hillary and I out for Easter dinner yesterday, and they graciously allowed me to rummage through their old collection of 45 RPM records and take whichever ones caught my eye. Y'see, they don't have a working record player anymore, and we're reasonably new to the whole vinyl collecting craze, so I guess they figured all these singles would have a better home with us than where they were--in a big pile underneath the china hutch. Needless to say, it was a real treasure trove of campy singles that probably hadn't been spun in about thirty years, like the theme to The Greatest American Hero (or, if you prefer, George Costanza's answering machine greeting), and "General Hospi-tale", a late disco/early rap novelty song designed to cash in on the Luke & Laura-era General Hospital craze of 1981. There were also some cool finds that didn't mean much to me as a kid but are favourites now, like Helen Reddy's "Delta Dawn" (AKA the song that plays at the end of the little-seen but terrific Patton Oswalt movie Big Fan), and The Monkees' "Goin' Down" (which was featured in a great meth-making montage on the last season of Breaking Bad). But strangest of all, there seemed to be a recurring strain of lycanthropy-themed cuts in there too...or maybe that's just my werewolf-obsessed brain connecting the dots. You be the judge. First of all, there was the above number. Most people know the Five Man Electrical Band as the act behind the counterculture anthem "Signs", but to me, they will always be the guys who, for whatever reason, recorded this chilling tale of shapeshifting and sheep slaughter. Okay, maybe not quite chilling, but as a kid, I was pretty fascinated with the idea that anyone would record a pop song about such a terrifying subject. From the ominous opening ("Mama said/there's something weird 'bout Billy...") to the shrill, screamy chorus ("Is it any wonder we hate to see the sun go dooooown..."), the song is like a cool little horror movie in miniature. For the record, I still like it better than "Signs". And then there was this. It's no secret that An American Werewolf In London is one of my all-time favourite horror flicks, and I'm sure that at some point I must have become aware that its star, David Naughton, was a pop singer. But I must have repressed that memory, because this sure came as a shock to me. It's a pretty silly, but not entirely un-catchy, disco number, but I feel like the future David Kessler must have known that pop stardom wasn't in the cards. Considering that the B-side is the forgettable reprise "Still Makin' It", I think he had a pretty good idea of his inevitable one-hit wonder status. And finally, not really a werewolf song, but its inclusion in An American Werewolf In London makes for a nice little trilogy here. Nearly twenty years ago, I created a minicomic about a werewolf that took its name from this song, and, my love for CCR aside, I'll always have a soft spot for this song because of it. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm gonna go fire up the record player and listen to Jeannie C. Riley sing "Harper Valley PTA" one more time.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Last Exorcism And Then Some, Apparently

The current found-footage horror craze began in 1999 with the still-effective The Blair Witch Project, a movie that ditched its videotaped format for a more traditional narrative with its first (and mercifully, only) sequel, the dreadful Book Of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. One of the more moderately successful found-footage knockoffs, 2010's The Last Exorcism, loses the shaky, handheld camera for its sequel as well. The cinematic conceit of a camera crew capturing an exorcism as it's being performed on a naive, demon-possessed farm girl was the chief obstacle to the original Last Exorcism being a better film, I thought. A potentially interesting third-act twist gave way to a hasty, unfulfilling wrap-up, since the story reached a point where no one in their right mind would still be holding a camera or a boom mike--they'd be running for their lives instead. The Last Exorcism Part II (a title only slightly less laughable than, say, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer) may have jettisoned one overused trend, but it replaces it with an even more annoying one. Like last month's Dark Skies, this is another movie that features eighty or so minutes of frustratingly vague buildup, followed by ten minutes of confusing, mostly offscreen mayhem, followed quickly by the end credits...and, presumably, another installment to come. The movie opens somewhat promisingly as Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell) mysteriously appears in a New Orleans couple's home, dirty, dishevelled, and with no memory of what happened to her in the first film. I can relate--I haven't seen it since it was first released, and other than a Rosemary's Baby-style twist about a cult that wanted the baby she had inside her, it's kind of a blur, and the new film doesn't do a lot to explain it either. Anyway, Nell winds up in a home for troubled girls, where she is set up with a job cleaning rooms in a hotel. The shy, repressed young girl begins to open up and make friends, first with the other girls in the home and later with a co-worker (Spencer Treat Clark--Bruce Willis' kid from Unbreakable, all grown up). However, it's not long before Nell starts being tormented by weird phone calls, the ghost of her father, and out-of-focus figures lurking in the background, and her new life starts to unravel when clips of her exorcism are found by her housemates on YouTube (begging the annoyingly unanswered question--who exactly uploaded the footage?). The demon Abalam is not done with her yet, it seems, and a mysterious (and frankly, pretty incompetent) organization of do-gooders takes one last stab at purging Nell of her infernal suitor. William Friedkin's classic original The Exorcist turns 40 this year, and the fact that people are still ripping it off today is a testament to that film's power. Even though the idea of a loved one suddenly acting like a hostile, dangerous stranger is a scary idea, none of the annual knockoffs really ever seem to bring much new to the table. The original Last Exorcism at least tried to meld it with the found-footage trend, but the sequel doesn't even have that going for it. Ashley Bell, with her strangely old/young features, is effective and sympathetic, but the first film also had Patrick Fabian as the charming, funny priest who tries to save her. No one else in this film leaves much of an impression, and Bell can only do so much on her own. Director Ed Gass-Donnelly gives it his best shot, with lots of attempts to convey a creepy, paranoiac atmosphere during brightly-lit afternoon scenes, but he falls back too much on the ol' "made ya jump" combination of two or three frames of something scary undercut by a loud noise. As in the first movie, Nell has a weird fondness for red Doc Martens, but I'm not quite sure what they're supposed to be a symbol for. Tempation? Materialism? An out-of-place reference to The Wizard Of Oz? Once again, producer Eli Roth proves himself to be a canny capitalist, making this movie on the cheap for a quick turnaround on his investment (the movie already made its budget back on a still-lackluster opening weekend of $7 million), but too many mediocre movies like this with his name on them can only hurt his legacy as a horror icon. I've still got high hopes for Roth's upcoming Netflix series Hemlock Grove (debuting this April), but I hope and pray that this Exorcism truly is his last.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Dark Skies (2013)

In the sleepy slump period between the end of Oscar Season and the beginning of Summer Blockbuster Season, you can always count on at least one demon possession thriller hitting the multiplexes. March already has one such release--the Eli Roth-produced Last Exorcism Part II--but writer-director Scott Stewart's new alien abduction flick Dark Skies could just as easily fall into this same category. The sinister alien invaders who torment the film's family might as well just be demons from hell, given their penchant for ominous tomfoolery and nightly visitations. The result is a fairly shameless cross between Poltergeist and Signs (PolterSigns?) with a healthy dash of the Paranormal Activity franchise thrown in for good measure. The Barrett family--realtor mom Lacy (Keri Russell), out-of-work architect dad Daniel (Josh Hamilton), teenaged Jesse (Dakota Goyo), and youngest son Sam (Kadan Rockett)--are an average family that finds itself at the mercy of all sorts of creepy goings-on, both in the daytime and after dark. Sam starts spacing out weirdly, shrieking in a high-pitched squeal, publicly wetting himself, and exhibiting weird bruises on his body. Lacy witnesses a mass avian suicide of Birdemic proportions and starts smacking her head into a window. Daniel sleepwalks out into the yard in the middle of the night, and Lacy finds him making an "O" face while staring off into nothing. And Jesse experiences strange electrical disturbances, like streetlights inexplicably going out one by one as he bikes home. Objects are piled up mysteriously in the kitchen Poltergeist-style, and all the family photos in the living room go missing. While Daniel sets up an expensive new home-security system (that keeps being mysteriously triggered by nobody, seemingly) and a series of surveillance cameras that go all staticky whenever anything spooky happens, Lacy becomes obsessed with online accounts of alien visitations. She and Daniel meet with a UFO conspiracy nut (J.K. Simmons) who tells them that their youngest son may be targeted for abduction. The Barretts batten down the hatches for a final showdown, not realizing that the alien invaders may in fact have a different target in mind. Dark Skies does its best to tap into certain societal anxieties that would provide an interesting spine to a better story; the family's money woes and Daniel's job search take up a lot of screen time, as does a subplot about the bad influence of an older boy Jesse hangs out with, not to mention the fact that the suspicious bruises on Sam's torso make the Barrett parents into neighbourhood pariahs. However, all these subplots really do is try and divert attention away from the fact that Dark Skies doesn't have an original idea in its head. Why else would the filmmakers spend so much screen time on Daniel's largely unsuccessful job hunt, only to have him find employment late in the second act and never bring it up again? Why devote so many scenes to Jesse and his oafish pal getting into trouble when they ultimately have no real bearing on the larger plot? Former VFX artist Scott Stewart sets the scene nicely--Dark Skies is a well-shot, confidently directed film--but most of the running time is devoted to trying to make us care about the characters, all of which is worthless without a satisfactory predicament to put them in. The film's Big Twist is incredibly obvious, and a brief postscript shows the remaining family members putting the pieces together three months too late to do anything about it. Dark Skies wants you to look to the skies in fear, but it'll most likely have you looking at your watch.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Every Witch Way But Loose: HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS Review

When the logo for Will Ferrell and Adam MacKay’s Gary Sanchez Productions comes up before the opening sequence of Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, it’s easy to believe you’re about to see a new high-concept comedy. After all, why would the creators of Anchorman and Talladega Nights be dipping their toes into the current fairy-tale craze, if not to spoof it? The elements of humour that do creep into the next ninety or so minutes are the most successful, as it turns out. But when this horror/steampunk/action mashup slides into familiar summer blockbuster territory, the going gets tedious and you start wishing that more of the movie was played for laughs.
In a prologue, we are shown the familiar origin of fairytale foundlings Hansel and Gretel. At the urging of their mother, the two tykes are led into the deep, dark forest and abandoned by their dad. Wandering through the woods, the kids soon find a house made out of candy, and are abducted by the carnivorous witch within. A daring, nick-of-time breakout ensues, in which we learn that Gretel is mysteriously immune to the witch’s dark magic, and the children free themselves by stuffing their captor inside her own stove and burning her alive. Having developed a taste for witch-snuffing, the two grow up to become bounty hunters played by Jeremy Renner (The Avengers, The Bourne Legacy) and Gemma Arterton (Quantum Of Solace, Clash Of The Titans) with a massive arsenal and a specialty in dispatching spell-casting, broom-riding uglies (the opening credits montage shows their development in the form of woodcut-newspaper headlines, the first of many anachronistic touches). Asked to help find the witches responsible for a rash of child abductions—represented by woodcut illustrations attached to the sides of milk bottles!—the siblings run afoul of a slinky sorceress (Famke Janssen) with a plan to make her kind indestructible by sacrificing a dozen kids and ushering in a new age of darkness. Along the way, H and G make friends with a nice witch (Ingrid Bolso Berdal), make enemies with a local sheriff (Fargo’s Peter Stormare), and make use of crossbows, a gatling gun, and a couple of new allies, in the form of a medieval fanboy (Thomas Mann) and a hulking troll named Edward.
Dead Snow director Tommy Wirkola, who also wrote the script, doesn’t skimp on the gore or the profanity here, but his action scenes are an impossible-to-follow barrage of quick cuts and CGI effects. The tone is all over the place, bouncing from a welcome comedic feel to straight-faced badassery without skipping a beat. The recent obsession with fairy tale-themed stories—no doubt due to their household-name familiarity and their public-domain status—is well overdue for a tweaking, but Wirkola never fully commits to it. Hansel & Gretel’s release was delayed for several months, possibly as a result of frantic re-editing to find a proper tone, and the final result is, perhaps inevitably, schizophrenic. Renner and Arterton are adequate, but neither of them brings anything particularly memorable to the movie, and why would they? Despite a yearning for their true origins, and a pointless subplot about Renner’s proto-Diabetes (caused by his witchy abductor making him eat too much candy—seriously!), their characters are barely sketched in. The movie earns points for its refreshing violence and profanity, and the sheer craziness of its finale, which reenacts the closing gatling-gun massacre of The Wild Bunch (only with a bunch of stuntwomen in monster makeup instead of Mexicans), but it’s not enough. The movie contains one startlingly cool special effect in the form of the troll Edward—portrayed by Derek Mears (Jason Voorhees in Freddy Vs. Jason), the lumbering behemoth is achieved through a combination of an oversized prosthetic costume and an animatronic face that conveys a lot more emotion than you’d expect. It’s the kind of old-fashioned practical effect that movies like Hansel & Gretel could use more of. Sadly, though, most of the movies skews towards generic CGI and even more generic action, which leaves the film’s end-credits promise of a continuing franchise about as appealing a proposition as a mouldering, rancid gingerbread house.

Friday, January 18, 2013

MAMA Said Knock You Out

The films of Guillermo Del Toro trade in a very specific type of fairytale dread. Whether it’s the insectile horror of Cronos and Mimic, the wartime fantasia of The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, or the heroic monsters of Hellboy and its sequel, The Golden Army, Del Toro takes a weirdly childlike approach to things that go bump in the night. And even though he only produced Mama—it was directed by Andres Muschietti, who co-wrote it with his sister Barbara—the film has Del Toro’s stamp all over it, even beginning with a title card that reads “Once Upon A Time”.
In a prologue, an investment banker (Game Of Thrones’ Nicolaj Coster-Waldau) murders his colleagues and his wife, then flees with his young daughters Lilly and Victoria down a snowy mountain highway. The car crashes, and, wandering through the forest, the family finds a creepy, deserted shack. A murder-suicide seems imminent, but is prevented by the arrival of an out-of-focus something that dispatches dad and befriends the girls. Fast forward five years later, where we learn the banker’s twin brother Lucas has never given up the search for his nieces. A pair of hunters find the girls living like animals in the wilderness. The girls claim that they survived with the help of a supernatural guardian they call “Mama”, and a psychiatrist allows their uncle to take them home. Lucas’ wife Annabel (Jessica Chastain, nearly unrecognizable with close-cropped hair, tattoos, and heavy eye makeup), has no interest in raising a pair of feral girls…particularly once it becomes apparent that their not-quite-imaginary friend has followed them home.
Mama was adapted from a short film by the Muschiettis, and the strain in adapting a two-and-a-half minute short to feature length is visible. It’s a slow-moving film, with plenty of lingering shots of half-open doors and lonely hallways. Sometimes, this approach works; Mama is one of those rare films that can find the quiet eeriness in a big house in the middle of the afternoon. There’s a scene early on where the girls’ bedroom is visible in the foreground, and Annabel can be seen doing laundry at the end of the hall. It looks as though the girls are playing with each other—Lilly is seen tugging at one end of a blanket—but then, Victoria appears at the end of the hall near the laundry room. Who is tugging on the other end of that blanket? we wonder, as Annabel unknowingly goes about her business. But any momentum gained by these early scenes is slowed down by a dull subplot where the psychiatrist (Daniel Kash, a dead ringer for Tony Shalhoub) tries to piece together the backstory behind the mysterious ghostly figure. When “Mama" does finally make her startling full appearance, it’s a hackles-raising tour de force—the spectral, spider-limbed hag has a head full of hair that always appears to be floating as though in water, and can race across a room like a sped-up video image (the unbroken shot that precedes her entrance is impressive; the entire scene is pretty much a remake of the original short film). But the movie quickly falls apart in the third act, as it becomes worn down by a series of unlikely coincidences and sloppy last-second voiceovers designed to smooth over the bumpy plot. The PG-13 rated film opts for chills over gore, which is fine, but after awhile the logy pacing will make you sleepy. Strong performances from Chastain, Coster-Waldau, and especially Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelisse (as Victoria and Lilly, respectively), combined with a handful of effective scares keep Mama from becoming a complete snooze, but that kind of faint praise is probably not the fairytale outcome Del Toro and the Muschiettis were hoping for.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Zombies Need Love Too, Apparently: WARM BODIES Advance Review

One of the reasons I quit watching AMC’s The Walking Dead—other than the fact that it was terrible and I hated about 95 % of the characters—was that it was so damn depressing. I don’t think anybody on the show or watching the show ever has any delusions that the series’ zombie epidemic is ever going to end or be cured, so the protagonists simply muddle through from one possible safehouse to the next, losing more and more series regulars along the way to increasingly gruesome fates. Making things worse, unlike a zombie movie where, no matter how bad things get, it’ll all be over in about two hours or less, The Walking Dead has the potential to run for years (and with its blockbuster ratings, it probably will). Granted, the zombie genre is not exactly the most hopeful or uplifting category of movie anyway, which is why the new teen-oriented romantic horror-comedy Warm Bodies is such a pleasant surprise; it may be the most optimistic movie ever made about a zombie apocalypse.
When the movie begins, civilization has already collapsed under the endless assault of flesh-eating ghouls. The surviving humans have walled themselves up inside heavily armed compounds, where they desperately seek a cure for the epidemic. Outside the walls, the zombies shuffle through their un-lives, seeking live flesh and brains to feed on. We are treated to the inner monologue—who knew zombies had such a thing?—of one such zombie, a young, hoodie-wearing slacker named R (About A Boy’s Nicholas Hoult, whose spiky black hair and angular features make him look like an anime character come to life). Shuffling around an airport all day, every day, R (the only letter he still remembers of his real name) fills us in on the details of zombie existence. He and all the other relatively fresh corpses, like his best friend M (Rob Corddry), all seem to have faint memories of their actual lives, but are trapped in a gruesomely monotonous existence. Some of them continue to reenact their old day jobs as though they were malfunctioning robots. Others give up any pretense of their old humanity and become “boneys”--skinless, eyeless ghouls possessed of a relentless hunger. One day, R and his zombie pals come across a group of human survivors raiding a pharmacy, and he finds himself strangely drawn to one of them, Julie (Teresa Palmer). The fact that R has just munched on the brains of her boyfriend (21 Jump Street’s Dave Franco, little brother of James) might have something to do with it; we’re told that eating brains gives zombies a taste of the victims’ life, thoughts, and feelings, and is the closest the living dead get to experiencing actual life again. Whatever the reason, R feels compelled to rescue Julie, helping her to pose as a zombie to escape the massacre, and taking her back to his lair inside an airplane wreck. As the two grow closer, R feels his heart actually beginning to beat again, a contagious phenomenon that eventually spreads to M and the other airport-dwelling zombies. Unfortunately, Julie’s dad is the hard-charging leader of the human resistance (John Malkovich, either reining it in or phoning it in, you decide), and he’s determined to wipe out all the zombies whether they have skin or heartbeats or not.
Warm Bodies actually manages to, pardon the term, lend some rejuvenation to a rapidly-decaying genre. It mixes and matches elements from various existing zombie movies (these guys eat both flesh and brains, not exclusively one or the other), while coming up with some new tropes of its own. It may also be the first zombie movie yet where, not only does a human have to pose as a zombie (as in Shaun Of The Dead, probably the closest other film in tone to Warm Bodies), but where a zombie is forced to try and pass for a human. There’s a suggestion early on in the film that the zombie apocalypse came about when people stopped having any kind of meaningful interaction with each other (R briefly remembers a world of the living where everyone always had their eyes cast downward towards their mobile devices, laptops, and tablets), which is a fun, original idea. Warm Bodies further posits that the epidemic might be reversed if both the humans and the zombies can learn to feel again. Based on the book by Isaac Marion and directed by Jonathan Levine (50/50, The Wackness), Warm Bodies is probably most ideally suited to fourteen-or-fifteen-year-olds (Hoult is, after all, the dreamiest walking corpse ever to hit the screen, and Palmer bears a striking and probably-not-accidental resemblance to a blonde Kristen Stewart), but feels far less like a cynical Hey Kids, Zombies! cash grab than that might suggest. It could maybe stand to be a bit funnier, but Warm Bodies has a lot more heart and brains than you might expect.