My Week(s) in Movies — Halloween Edition! (10/3–10/31)
TRICK ’R TREAT* — A surprisingly fun and satisfying anthology film from one of Bryan Singer’s frequent collaborators. Deliberately in the vein of vintage anthology horror comics — like the Tales from the Crypt comics which inspired the series — which themselves were sometimes depictions of the more terrifying urban legends. While not based on any specific urban legends of which I’m aware, the film’s vignettes are each evocative of the kind of uncanny tales that give you the classic “thrills and chills.”
Writer-director Michael Dougherty is hardly shy about his influences: the film’s opening titles are designed as a montage of horror comic covers and panels depicting scenes from the film, and one of the vignettes is specifically about an urban legend come to life. But he managed to nail the tone of those stories wonderfully, so these elements feel appropriate rather than highlighting the disparity between what he was trying to do and what he accomplished.
The tone might be a little jarring for those without a grounding in classic urban myths, combining a sense of humor which could strike some as mean-spirited with a vicious edge to the horror.1 But horror film enthusiasts will find this a nice return to pre-torture porn horror aesthetics of the 70s and 80s.
For reasons unknown to anyone but Warner Bros. and the filmmakers (though there are some plausible theories), the studio decided to bury this film rather than release it, and while completed in 2007 it only released to video and Netflix in late 2009. So you quite possibly haven’t heard of it (it’s pretty underground) and if you have, it may seem to have the stink of cheap direct-to-video horror on it. But don’t let it put you off. It’s sick, twisted fun done with flair, and like I said about PUMPKINHEAD back at the beginning of the year, it’s a shame the film’s ever-present Sam hasn’t become an icon of the Halloween movie season. I would love it if a new TRICK ‘R TREAT anthology came out every year, rather than a new PARANORMAL ACTIVITY or, previously, SAW film. But alas, it seems this is not to be.
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY* — Ugh. This thing doomed us to the last few years of found footage horror movies?
Regular readers will know I’m not, in principle, an anti-found footage guy. When I saw BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, I was blown away, and looking forward to seeing more films take the genre and experiment with it. For some reason, it took almost 10 years for another film to come along and really do something interesting (CLOVERFIELD). And last week time I gave the thumbs-up to TROLLHUNTER, which also does something clever with the format; but in part its success is the way it’s simultaneously a satire of the more recent developments of the genre, as well as a great and original example of it.
Anyway, I’m not hating on PA because it’s a found footage movie — though as in many films of the genre, eventually I found myself thinking “why in the hell would any real person continue shooting and framing this?” And unlike many of my friends who have seen it and found it completely un-scary, I do think it has some legitimate frightening moments. But they come far, far too late in the film, by which point I, as a viewer, had basically checked out. Too little, too late. I did my best to give the film its shot at getting me — I watched it at night, alone in the house, with the lights off — and like I said, when the few heart-pounding moments came, I was able to engage with them. But there just weren’t enough of them to make it worthwhile.
Also, I hated the characters and wanted them to die. Wanted it. From the very first scene. Remember when I raged about the shitty yuppies in the Chase commercials? They made a movie about them where they’re tormented by a demon. Tell me you’re not rooting for the demon.
They’re just so smarmy and the husband is such an asshole — really he’s the problem more than she is, character-wise — and their actions and reactions are just plain inhuman. The husband vacillates back and forth whether or not he actually believes any of this stuff is going on, even after it’s pretty clear something is going on. And despite being tormented every night for three weeks straight, with the haunting becoming more aggressive and eventually even manifesting in the daylight hours, the couple 1) never leave the house (“jobs”? lol!) and 2) are somehow always sleeping peacefully by 3 A.M. when the next attack comes. I’m sorry, if I’m being attacked by a supernatural force in my bedroom every night, I wouldn’t be sound asleep under the fucking covers in bed. By night 14, we’d be sleeping in fucking shifts with round-the-clock coffee brewing and all the goddamn lights on.
The “they never leave the house” bit is at least addressed — they make the point it’s the girl who is actually haunted, not the house. Wherever she goes, the demon will go. So if they tried to take refuge at a friend’s house, or a hotel, it wouldn’t do any good. But, for one thing, it wouldn’t hurt to actually demonstrate this by having them try staying at a friend’s house for a night and have it go all to shit. Could be a cool scene. I know the film was shot in the writer-director’s house and the whole point was to constrain the film there, but after a while the excuses for doing so get pretty thin, and overall it feels contrived.
For another thing — okay, a hotel or a friend’s house won’t work. How about a church, you yuppie fucks? At one point they very seriously consider consulting an exorcist. If this really is a demon, if you’re really willing to investigate that possibility, try a night in a church to see if it provides the sanctuary it’s named for. And if a Catholic church doesn’t work, try a Lutheran one. If that doesn’t work, shit, try a mosque and a synagogue and whatever the fucking Scientologists stay in. I’m the opposite of a religious man, but get an invisible, malicious force to start tormenting me in the night and I’ll start re-evaluating my options. And trying a church couldn’t be any worse than trying nothing at all and sleeping in the same haunted goddamn house for three weeks.
Again, I know. The point was to keep the production in the house for cost purposes. But real people with brains wouldn’t act the way these characters do, and it took me out of the film. A cool, inexpensive idea I sure as hell wish I’d thought of — but not a very good movie at all.
LO* — Another off-beat, experimental horror film, in which a young man summons a demon called Lo to rescue his girlfriend from Hell. The film is essentially black box theatre, with no sets to speak of, and with the main character spending the entire running time sitting inside a small pentagram on the floor, his only protection from the demons and other horrors who come to tell him his girlfriend was not who — nor what — she seemed.
Being an experimental film, by its nature some things work and some don’t. I like the fact it’s a horror-comedy, and at times both the horrific and comedic moments really work; and a few moments of legitimate drama shine here too. But in a lot of places this feels like a pretentious off-off-Broadway show, with characters saying things I think probably looked good on the page but sound clunky and contrived spoken aloud. The longest such stretch comes toward the end, when Justin, the main character, starts discussing the nature of love with the demons. It could be worse, but it’s not great. The performances — particularly between Justin and Lo — are at their best when they’re understated and wry, at their worst when they turn into broad, community theatre mugging.
The limitations of the concept, and having to work around them, result in some clever and unique ideas in execution — “flashback” sequences are literally done as community theatre-style productions, with over-the-shoulder shots giving us a view of what’s going on backstage; and when Lo brings two damned souls up from Hell to tell Justin what it’s like, the visualization of the idea is both cheesy theatre and legitimately creepy — but also a certain repetitiveness in structure and behavior. Lo can only rear up and roar so many times before I’m over it. And some moments really feel drawn out and padded — not a good sign in a film with an 85 minute runtime. But, it also had a great “surprising yet obvious” ending, which for all the film’s quirks and foibles and occasional padding left me satisfied when it was over.
I think it’s a great concept and reasonably well-executed. Writer-director Travis Betz shows he has real talent and a highly creative mind. It just needs some refining.
THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW — A creepy and unusual film, one of the lesser known of Wes Craven’s career. It feels a lot like a Carpenter film of the same era, to me, but it could be I’m just not as familiar with Craven as I am with Carpenter. Nominally a “zombie” film, it reaches past the Romero-born popular zombie mythology, clear back to the origin of the notion and the word zombie itself — the voodoo culture of Haiti.
A pharmaceutical company — which, it’s interesting to note, is not corrupt or otherwise villainous — has become interested in Haitian zombification, through which human beings can be made to appear dead, with no pulse nor response to stimuli, then be revived with no ill effects up to 12 hours later. The pharmaceutical company believes this must be done with some form of heretofore-unknown drug, which could save millions of lives as a new form of anaesthetic. The victims of zombification in Haiti awaken as shambling slaves to the voodoo priest who drugged them, but the company considers this is to be purely psychological — the voodoo priest’s only power over his victims is their belief he has power over them. So they send in an agent who has brought other tribal remedies out of the tribe and into the pharmacy to discover the mystery drug and return with a sample to be analyzed and replicated.
Of course, being a Wes Craven horror film, the voodoo priest’s power is real, and the pharmaceutical company’s agent finds himself targeted by the wielder of this dark and primal magic.
Oddly, I find I don’t have much to say about this one. It was interesting (legitimately, not in the way where you hate it but want to sound like you’re being positive), and if the above synopsis interests you, you should check it out. But I suppose the lack of real stand-out moments or performances is probably why it’s one of Craven’s forgotten works.
SPLICE — A science-gone-wrong story of two genetic engineers who splice together a bunch of DNA willy-nilly for some reason (something about special proteins for a pharmaceutical company — also not the villains in this film) and get something part human but mostly not. They can’t seem to decide what to do or how they feel about it and shit gets weird… but not really weird enough.
With a premise like this, I think you want a strong personality and sensibility behind the camera, someone who’s really going to produce a film that sticks with you through its powerful imagery, even if the story itself goes in one ear and out the other. But the direction, while perfectly competent, is nothing to write home about, and while engaging in the moment the film is ultimately forgettable and I’m not sure what lesson I’m supposed to get out of it. Some cool effects work, though.
ONE EYED MONSTER* — Porn star Ron Jeremy (as himself) is struck by a strange light from the sky, causing an alien consciousness to possess his famously monstrous penis. The penis then detaches itself from Jeremy and proceeds to murder the cast and crew of Jeremy’s latest adult film in classic B-movie monster fashion. And it’s way more fun to watch than should be allowed.
The best part of it is that almost everyone plays it straight. They let the absurdity of the concept, and the fact that they’re taking it so seriously, get the laughs, rather than pulling faces and acting like morons and calling it humor. Charles Napier delivers a showstopping “USS Indianapolis”-esque monologue about a rogue penis massacring his platoon in ‘Nam and driving him to alcoholism and you believe every word of it.
You do see the disembodied penis, but not as much as you might expect. I’d put this on the same level as a KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE — it’s ridiculous, it knows it’s ridiculous, and it plays out its premise with total sincerity and was a great party viewing.
JESUS CHRIST, VAMPIRE HUNTER* — By contrast with the previous film, this one is not as fun as it sounds, I’m afraid. It’s got an amazing pitch — Jesus returns only to find the world overrun by vampires, and sets out to save the last remnants of humanity from the undead threat. I’m totally willing to ignore all the sense that doesn’t make within any version of Christian or vampire mythology and go along for a rip-roaring schlocky ride.
Unfortunately, this movie offers no such rip-roar. It isn’t even coherent enough to be bad, it’s just confusing. Everything ONE EYED MONSTER does right, JCVH does wrong. It’s one big wink at the camera but I don’t know what the wink signifies because I’m not in on whatever the joke really is.
I think the most interesting part, to me, is how it feels exactly like a 1970s super 8 amateur film (actually shot on 16mm, but let’s not quibble), quite like the ones the kids in SUPER 8 were making, but was made in 2001. On the one hand, I’m impressed at how perfectly they channelled the amateur aesthetic, incoherence, and bizarre narrative choices such as a narrator who only makes things more baffling and a song and dance number out of and into nowhere. But it may not be as meta as that — it may actually be an amateur, incoherent, and sincere attempt at a film. Obviously the premise is silly on its face, but it still could have been a good silly movie. According to the internets, this was shot on weekends over a two year period. I bet the people involved had a ton of fun for those two years, but the 90 minutes which resulted are kind of excruciating.
No pun intended.
BIRDEMIC* — … Holy shit, you guys.
- Somewhere along the line — I don’t remember where — I heard that the main difference between a comedy and a tragedy was that a comedy ends in a wedding, and a tragedy ends in a funeral. In the case of urban myths, they almost always end with a brutal, senseless murder, or the protagonists’ skin-of-their-teeth escape from one. Sometimes both.