Aug 9, 2020

THE HOUSE WHERE EVIL DWELLS (1982)


Long before the short-lived J-horror phenomenon breached American shores, resulting in one good remake and boatloads of bad ones, The House Where Evil Dwells was already proving that Japanese ghosts could be so, so entertaining. Best described as a bold-faced rip-off of The Shining attempting to coalesce with America's then-fascination with everything ninja, this 1982 oddity about an American family living abroad while its patriarch finishes writing his "story" - and who then confront a trio of hilarious looking ghosts  - has to be seen to be believed. Hopefully the included screen grabs have done a pretty good job of indicating the sheer stupidity on hand and have enticed some unaware lovers of cinema cheese into pursuing this title: how utterly mad The House Where Evil Dwells is willing to go is a thing that every horror fan needs to experience.

The opening of the film, in which a full-on sexy affair is taking place while the unknowing husband is out walking around holding his lantern thing you only ever see in movies set in Japan, does a pretty good but albeit strange job of establishing the conflict of the plot: after the cheating wife gives to her lover a netsuke (a small totem) that she obtained from a witch, and which seems to be of a woman fucking the devil, the husband comes home to see their tryst in full kimono-shedding mode, so he understandably flips out and kills them both before committing harakiri, which is suicide by blade, not the former sports newscaster. (You know, this guy.)

At this point - yep, you guessed it - our American characters enter the story, and the house where all this sexy murder stuff went down, and are immediately haunted by the aforementioned ghosts of an Asian flavor.


The House Where Evil Dwells is insane, lovingly pedestrian, and earnest in its stupidity. Its attempts to be horrific consist of blue-tinted superimposed ghosts walking around, knocking shit off the wall, or temporarily possessing our married couple characters solely to puppet them into saying really inappropriate things and cause marital distress. But what those silly ghost appearances set up, the screaming ghost faces appearing in soup, or the hilarious moaning haunted crabs that chase a young girl up a tree, definitely help to knock down.

What sucks about The House Where Evil Dwells - that is, beyond the typical kind of suck you come to expect from very low-budget horror flicks - is its pace. To be honest, unless ghostly things are occurring, The House Where Evil Dwells isn't really that interesting. It's slow, and dull, and momentarily brought to life by okay performances (unless we're talking about the daughter character, who's at her least offensive when she's not saying a word). If blue ghosts are egging each other on to commit harm or tomfoolery, then great; otherwise, The House Where Evil Dwells is boredom on celluloid. Still, it's a house where I'd want to spend all my time where I'm probably shooing demon crabs out of my nagaya with my bamboo houki.

Fans of campy and "oops, it's stupid!" horror entertainment shouldn't miss it, or else moaning ghost faces will end up in your soup, and they will be so awful.



Aug 7, 2020

ECHOES (2016)


Anna (Kate French), a blogger who has been offered her first screenwriting assignment, is struggling to get a workable draft to her manager (and lover), Paul (Steven Brand), so Paul suggests they abscond to his house in the desert to give her a change of scenery and perhaps a bout of inspiration. There only a day, Paul announces that he has to leave to go deal with a client, and Anna suggests she stay behind, hoping that her isolation will force her to be productive. Without a car, and with Paul's dog, Shadow, her only company, Anna tries to do just that, but instead begins to suffer from increasingly worsening instances of the nightmares she's been having for a while now - that of an ash-faced figure with black eyes. With each new visitation from his demon figure, she is left with a new piece of the puzzle, so Anna begins to follow the trail of clues until she pieces together the mystery of her haunting - and what she discovers might have best been left undiscovered.

Echoes, simply put, doesn't really work - not as a ghost film, not as a mysticism film, and not as a murder mystery film. It really wants to be all three, but because of the time it has to share among those other sub-genres, all of them are left feeling unfinished and obligatory. What's suggested by the film's opener - someone haunted by sleep paralysis, a genuinely fascinating phenomenon - is abandoned nearly immediately after in favor of more waking-nightmare/possession nonsense that audiences have seen so many times before.

Speaking of things audiences have seen before, it would appear that writer/director Nils Timm has certainly seen The Conjuring, being that more than one visual trick is stolen from James Wan's surprise 2013 shocker. From flapping sheets revealing ghostly forms to black-eyed monsters possessing their victims, so much of Echoes has been done before and in far better ways that its title is actually perfectly ironic.


One of Kate French's eyebrows alone is sexier than any screenwriter I've ever seen, so her casting as such is dubious at best, and shameless at worst. As a lead she's merely competent, although the script doesn't demand she do much beyond look scared or take sad sit-down showers. Her constant appearances in tight tank tops or skintight exercise pants do more to show off why she was cast than anything having to do with her range as a performer. Alternately, Steven Brand offers up a nice performance as Paul. At first the audience isn't sure what to make of him, but he's likable and charming, and proves to offer the most defined character and solid performance in what is admittedly a small and intimate film with less than a handful of speaking parts.

Echoes brings nothing new to the table, but perhaps it will bring more attention to the phenomenon of sleep paralysis. Leafing through its Wiki entry is infinitely more intriguing and entertaining than anything that Echoes has to offer. Even the most die-hard aficionado won't feel the need to add Echoes to their collection. It's a bland and generic story that jumps from one overused trope to the next, none of which is as satisfying as what the summary promises. Sleep paralysis, also known as Old Hag Syndrome, is a strange ailment affecting an alarmingly high number of people, and has slowly become more and more common knowledge over the years - a shame that the film did away with the concept after an intriguing opening. Echoes is a rental at best.


Aug 5, 2020

BACKTRACK (2016)


The ghost film is my weakness. It's one I will always go out of my way to watch, regardless of pedigree or budget, because I am endlessly fascinated by the supernatural. If I were a human being still capable of actually feeling fear, instead of having been dulled by a steady diet of horror films since I was in elementary school, you might say ghost films come the closest to providing me with a handful of reasonable scares. And that makes sense--that of the more metaphysical sub-genre, the ghost film rides the closest alongside the idea of life, most certainly death, and perhaps something beyond it. The concept of ghosts and haunted houses still pervade so much of our pop culture. Even the Travel Channel has built an audience of millions off their only popular program, "Ghost Adventures," the tie that binds ghost-hunting to traveling being that the hosts often get in a van and drive somewhere.

It's rare when a good ghost film is released. And unless James Wan is directing, chances are those good ghost films aren't at the multiplex, but rather somewhere hovering in the ether between VOD and direct-to-video. Much like any other genre, but especially horror, there's a reason why you've never heard of most titles found on page 37 of Netflix's streaming titles. So much bad horror is released in one calendar year that it's almost staggering. It's also sad, because so many of these so-called filmmakers aren't trying to make a film. They're assembling 90 minutes of forward momentum and spending most of their budgets on the Photoshopped cover that does its best to shield the fact that the film isn't even worth falling asleep to.


Somewhere between this Redbox fodder and James Wan resides filmmaker Michael Petroni's Backtrack, an Australian-produced supernatural mystery that offers up a handful of fine performances, an intriguing concept, and even a few well-timed and well-staged scares that actually border on frightening. Make no mistake that Backtrack is very aware of its influences, taking most of its DNA from The Sixth Sense, but it goes about it in the freshest way possible: that the patients of Brody's Peter Bower are actually ghosts isn't a twist that's saved for third-act reveal (obviously this factoid is included in the home video release's official synopsis anyway), but rather it's something discovered early on which kicks the main conflict into gear.

Brody, too, seems aware of the influence of Shyamalan's still-best film, as he likely realized he was also playing a sad psychologist a little too close to the dead. Brody, strapping on a serviceable Australian accent, is very calm, stoic, sad, and still in his performance, but not in a way that's boring to watch. He's supposed to be playing a man barely holding it together following the death of his daughter, for which he blames himself, and it's reflected in his every scene, during which he always seems moments away from bursting into tears.


The beloved Sam Neill makes scattershot appearances as Bower's own psychologist, looking pretty distinguished in a rounder face and full beard, though the motives of his character are unclear and never fully explained, leaving his presence in the film somewhat unsatisfactory.

 Above all, writer/director Michael Petroni didn't want to make a horror film so much as  a film about life that just happened to contain elements more commonly found in genre films. He tried something similar with a previous film, Till Human Voices Wake Us, which could likely be used as a litmus test to determine if Backtrack is for you. Again, like The Sixth Sense, Backtrack vies to be something more than just a ghost film. It wants to be about life, regret, the significance of the past, and the pain of memories. It does all those things quite well, marrying it to a traditional mystery propelled by supernatural elements (and no lie, the use of "ghosts" in the film are definitely eerie), but what it results in feels a little too similar, however well made it may be.


Despite being a ghost movie, which, yes, does allow for a few jump scares here and there, Backtrack is actually kind of a quiet film. The dread and sadness dwell in the silent corners of every scene in which Bower appears, complemented by a melancholy score by composer Dan Cornelius. Backtrack is the kind of film whose strength comes from the quiet rather than screaming ghosts.

Backtrack is a horror film (kind of) for adults. What this means is that it's not interested in using ghosts to constantly scare the audience, but rather to make our lead character tap into his subconscious to determine why he is seeing them in the first place. Ghosts are used as a concept but not a catalyst. And, is Peter Bower seeing ghosts for real? Or ghosts from his past that won't let him rest until he confronts the memories he's long since buried? If you're looking for a straightforward haunt film, keep walking, but if you're up for something a little different and a little more mature, then give Backtrack a try.


Aug 4, 2020

SWALLOWED WHOLE BY A MONSTER


"No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone."

Aug 3, 2020

THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE (2016)


In the horror genre, there are generally two approaches that filmmakers opt to take: the gory gross-out, or the subtly creepy. Seldom do the two ever marry into a quality final product. The Friday the 13th series contains many entries that are lots of fun, for instance, but unless your fear threshold is comparable to a six-year-old’s, there’s nothing about them the least bit scary. And, likewise, some of the eeriest contributions to the genre were able to scare their audiences while shedding only a handful of blood, relying instead on mood, unsettling camera angles, or well-timed visuals.

In very few instances do visceral imagery and subtle scares come together with success. The Exorcist is probably the most notable exception, perhaps along with The Shining, although compared to today’s standards, a modern audience might not be as impressed with either. And this is what makes The Autopsy of Jane Doe, directed by Trollhunter’s André Øvredal, such a welcome and unlikely surprise. As scripted by Richard Naing and Ian B. Goldberg, the first act unfolds in near-real time as a father-and-son coroner team are delivered a body unearthed from below the floorboards at a local murder scene – one which needs a cause of death attributed as soon as possible. With the body of the young girl now on the coroners’ table, she is slowly dissected, the parts of her examined and tagged – all of which unfolds in a genuinely realistic manner. Indeed, nearly all of this first act unfolds with an almost scientific approach, even as the coroners begin discovering that there are certain “impossible” things about the body – its condition, its reaction to stimuli, and…well, lots more. And as you might imagine, as her body is slowly taken apart, it’s extremely graphic, but never in a way that feels exploitative or vapidly shocking. The film treats this act as respectfully as we would expect a real coroner to treat his or her real specimen, and as you watch the methodology and the men’s attention to their work, you forget you’re watching something intended as horror in lieu of something more fact-based and grounded.


At the end of this act, while the mystery behind the anonymous girl’s body is being slowly put together, the graphic portion subsides, giving way to a more traditional, but no less effective or well done, series of ghostly encounters within the underground winding hallways of the Tilden family’s coroner office. Echoing the successful supernatural films of James Wan, The Autopsy of Jane Doe relies on old school techniques – and hardly any CGI – to craft a series of scares to unnerve the audience, and nearly all of them work. Glimpses of something unnatural through smoke, a mirror’s reflection, behind a crack in a door; unfortunate cases of mistaken identity – yes, they may be cliché, but when they work this well, I’m totally fine with it.

My favorite thing about The Autopsy of Jane Doe is its reliance entirely on history, mythology, and our own knowledge of both to tell its story. Thankfully (and I really doubt this is a spoiler), this isn’t a case of a girl’s spirit returning to warn the son that the father is the reason why she was found six feet under. There isn’t some lame last-minute twist that reveals either of them to be the killer, or crazy, or caught in hell, or some other overused twist that’s been done countless times before. What you see is what you get — there’s no twist coming to save the audience and relieve them from the terror that’s before them on the screen, to gently pat them on the head and say, “Don’t worry, this isn’t really happening.” It is. And, if you ask me, it’s about time that it did.


Brian Cox is a reassuring face in the genre, because – and I’ll go on record right now – he’s never been in a bad horror film. Likewise, he’s somehow managed to star in a handful of major or minor horror classics: The Ring, Trick ‘r Treat, Manhunter, voice work for the severely underrated and underseen zombie film Exit Humanity. No actor’s filmography is flawless of the occasional bad film, but it’s usually the horror genre which causes that actor’s downfall. With Cox, it manages to be the opposite. And The Autopsy of Jane Doe is no different. As usual, he’s excellent, unfazed by the disdain that many of his esteemed peers have for the genre. His younger counterpart, Emile Hirsch (making his horror debut), takes the same approach, and his somewhat picky reputation for the roles he takes additionally elevates The Autopsy of Jane Doe into something worthy of further adoration. This isn’t just some crap write-off for either actor, but something with compelling content that matches context pound for pound.

Odd as it may sound, but Øvredal designs the “dead” body of Jane Doe to look like a flawless work of art — white, unblemished skin; dark hair; and preternatural eyes. She — and the rest of the film — present as sterile and institutional but also inexplicably with an artistry seldom seen in the genre anymore. What colors there are seem bright and dynamic; during the first act, fluorescents are the only source of light, but the picture is bright and even somewhat inviting. However, as the events surrounding Jane Doe darken, so does the picture.


For much of the film, dialogue, only, is what drives the momentum forward — that and a handful of random soundtrack interludes, included repeated and increasingly creepy use of an old traditional folk song from the 1950s. But once the horror really kicks in, the musical score by Danny Bensi & Saunder Jurriaans kicks in along with it and really works in complementing the on-screen visuals that Øvredal concocts. The Autopsy of Jane Doe, like all great horror films, really makes full use of its audioscape, relying on both loud and sudden moments along with silence, or the faint sound of moving air, to unnerve.

It’s probably too early to label The Autopsy of Jane Doe as an “instant classic” as many critics seem eager to do, but it certainly deserves the same reputation as recent horror powerhouses like The ConjuringIt Follows, and Insidious, just to name a few. Horror fans are passionate people, which means they complain a lot — in a constant desire for original material, in something more than just tepid PG-13 scares. Well, here it is. Graphic and scary, and made by a handful of professionals determined to make not just an effective horror flick but an honest-to-gosh good film, The Autopsy of Jane Doe is the antithesis to the reboots, remakes, redoes, and repurposed content flooding multiplexes and streaming services everywhere. With enough graphic and ghostly content to please even the most practiced horror viewer, it’s an excellent addition to the genre that deserves far more title recognition than it might be receiving.


Aug 2, 2020

I'M HOME


"Any big hotels have got scandals. Just like every big hotel has got a ghost. Why? Hell, people come and go. Sometimes one of 'em will pop off in his room, heart attack or stroke or something like that. Hotels are superstitious places. No thirteenth floor or room thirteen, no mirrors on the back of the door you come in through, stuff like that."

Aug 1, 2020

AUGUST IS AUGHOST


I am someone who loves nearly every sub-genre of horror there is, though some more than others. My sub-genre of choice has changed over the years, from slashers to zombies to a short-lived affair with horror-action (of which there isn’t nearly enough). 

But I always come back to the haunted house sub-genre. There’s something about a ghost story that feels timeless, more culturally intrinsic, and mythological. Ghost stories are passed down, told around campfires, but really, it’s because they are the most in tune with our own fear of death. In a way, all  horror flicks are about death, but the ghost sub-genre forces you to postulate on what death actually is. As I grow older, I become more and more interested in, but also terrified by, the haunted house movie. I don’t see that ever going away. From big studio stuff to quiet indie stuff to completely anonymous streaming stuff – if your plot include the words “haunted” and “ghost,” then I’ll come running.

Which leads us to Aughost – the next and most awfully titled blog theme yet. Throughout the month of August, I’ll be blogging about the haunted house/ghost genre, and, as usual, I’ll be focusing on lesser known titles both great and terrible. Come with me through the creaking front door and see what horrors (or total silliness) awaits us on the other side... 

Jul 31, 2020

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)


George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead changed everything. And I’m not just talking about the advent of “the zombie” as we know it. I’d go further and argue it planted the seed for the idea that cheap horror films usually destined for drive-ins and double-feature theaters could smuggle in themes relating to the social experience. For anyone who has closely followed Romero’s career, or at least the genesis of Night of the Living Dead, then you already know Romero has spent his entire life modestly dismissing the idea that he purposely cast a black man (Duane Jones) as Ben, the lead, as nothing more than critics reaching for something that wasn’t intended. “He was the best actor we knew,” was Romero’s go-to line, and the film’s “upstairs” versus “the basement” argument — segregated worlds — that reached a fevered pitch between two dominant men of different races, or the hordes of cops and rednecks with their snarling German shepherds, or the very end when Ben is shot down in the house in too casual of a manner, or when his dead body is handled with hooks and chains, was all just a coincidence. Romero asserts that the script was the same during production as it had been before they’d cast Jones in the lead. 

I can take Romero at his word when it comes to all this. I can accept Jones got the job for his acting alone and not for what his casting would symbolize. But I can’t believe that Romero didn’t know, deep down, that audiences wouldn’t walk away from Night of the Living Dead without reading into all of that themselves, anyway. With a grin, Romero would admit he was fine with people calling him a prescient and philosophical storyteller — and if we’re being honest, he was — but he still cast an African-American man in the lead during a time when that wasn’t happening, which was further bolstered by the character of Ben being much more than just “the black guy.”


From a construct point of view, Night of the Living Dead isn’t within throwing distance of polished. It’s hasty, at times disarmingly edited, and offers a few instances of weak performances from its cast (almost all of whom doubled up in other behind-the-scenes production roles). It very much feels like a stolen film — something shot on weekends (it was) with scenes picked up guerrilla style. (Romero and co. having stolen an exterior Washington D.C. interview sequence, with Romero cameoing as a reporter, while the Capitol Building looms in the background, is one of the ballsiest moments of guerrilla film-making I’ve ever seen.) All of this aids Night of the Living Dead’s purposeful design, which was to deny the polished look of other genre films from that era or earlier (Psycho had been released eight years prior, but looked like a newer production) and instead present as newsreel footage. It was documentary-like in its use of a static camera, serving more as a witness to the tension and terror unfolding in that house without ever distracting with its fluid or showy presence. Romero wanted Night of the Living Dead to feel raw and real, and because it was made with the intent of highlighting experience over entertainment, it does.

What’s perfect about Night of the Living Dead is that you, the viewer, can manifest your own allegories about what it’s really about: racial unrest, generational rebellion (the hippie movement was in full swing), a reaction to the Vietnam war, communism, anti-establishment, and who knows what else? In the excellent documentary The American Nightmare, Romero referred to Night of the Living Dead as “one culture devouring another and changing everything,” and while he meant this about the film’s themes, he very well could have been talking about genre film-making in general. Like most genre filmmakers, Romero fell off his game in later years, going back to the same zombie well too many times, but that will never diminish his mark on the horror genre, and it will never change the fact that phenomena like the Resident Evil franchise (film and video game), The Walking Dead (and its spinoff), IZombie, Netflix's The Santa Clarita Diet, and so many other shows and film series wouldn’t exist without him. If the world is just, then, like his own zombie creations, George A. Romero will never truly die.

Jul 30, 2020

THE 'RE-ANIMATOR' SERIES (1985-2003)



In a sort of sequel to my previous write-up for Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight, in which I launched back to my childhood to better explain my affinity for that particular title, I discovered Re-Animator on that same exact mid-’90s summer evening (when my unassuming extended family discovered the hard way that I was a weirdo into horror and gore and everything in between).

Once the closing credits on Demon Knight were rolling and my horrified family were filing out of the room, all while I rubbed my hands together and wondered when I might ever see such genius dummy heads again, my uncle flashed me a mischievous grin and asked, “So you like all that gory stuff, huh?”

“Yup!” I said, the only time in my life I’ve ever said “yup” because doing so makes you a douche bag.

He walked over to a shelf filled with VHS tapes and procured one. He slid it into the VCR, gave me a wink, and said, “Enjoy!”

Re-Animator then happened in front of me, and I've never been the same.

1985’s Re-Animator is silly chaos, but such an unmitigated joy to watch. An ’80s splatter-movie take on Frankenstein, it features two doctors, Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) and Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) experimenting with a serum that has the power to resurrect the dead. Along for the ride are Meg ('80s B scream queen Barbara Crampton), her father, Dean Halsey (Robert Sampson), and Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale), the human villain of the flick who intensely hates Dr. West for his arrogance and who also intensely desires Meg in the most basest of ways. Because the concept of creating an elixir to resurrect the dead has never gone wrong for anyone in the horror genre, Re-Animator does not feature people getting their heads ripped off, their bodies torn in half, or every other kind of crimson-spattered gore piece you can think of. Just kidding! One by one, our cast become unfortunately entrapped in the madcap adventures of West and Cain, each of them falling victim to the duo's dripping experiments...and some of them finding their way back to the land of the "living."

Let me tell you: when an eleven-year-old sees Re-Animator for the first time, it feels like magic. Dangerous, filthy magic. It feels like a snuff film or the kinds of films that linger behind the curtain in the local video store below the sign that reads ADULTS ONLY. It feels like you are watching something that you should not be watching. This is how it felt for me. Between all the wonderful violence and gore, which at that time had topped anything I’d ever seen, and the fact that I didn’t recognize a single actor in the film, giving it an additionally “underground” feeling, I basically felt that by watching Re-Animator I was breaking the law, and any minute the Mom Police would kick down the door and beat me with 37 wooden spoons. This unrelenting gore and cadre of unrecognizable actors re-enforced, in my eleven-year-old brain, one very scary notion: everything in Re-Animator had happened for real, and now everyone was dead. For real.

Source.
Being that Re-Animator was a trashy take on the Frankenstein story, it was only appropriate that the sequel follow one of the most famous sequels in film history: Bride of Frankenstein.

Following the bloody, brainy, bony, and heady events of “the Miskatonic Massacre,” Drs. Herbert West and Dan Cain are somehow free and clear of any wrongdoing and continuing both their practice as fledgling necromancers as well as their very odd friendship. Meanwhile, at Miskatonic Hospital, an evidence room is stuffed with the dismembered parts of all the resurrected dead who tore shit up during the massacre, and for reasons unexplained, will not decompose. (This is eight years later, by the way, which makes this extra weird.) There’s also a room containing a fair number of these resurrected dead whom the hospital don’t know what to do with, so they kind of wander around like free-range chickens. As you might suspect, those wacky doctors and their serums of life-givers create another series of conflicts that begin with drooling dead and crawling arms and end with a lot of blood on the walls.

The spirit of Re-Animator resides fully within Bride of Re-Animator, despite the script being very obviously rushed into production. Years before this sequel came to fruition, the original Re-Animator team tried to raise money for another very different kind of sequel. Called House of Re-Animator, this sequel would see Dr. West being called to the White House during the Reagan Administration to, assumedly, resurrect the deceased commander-in-chief, and would've also involved the resurrected Meg. (This script was rewritten in 2006, with the targeted undead "president" being updated to Vice President Dick Cheney, who by then, was obviously the one running the country.) Instead, the script was rewritten from the ground up, and the concept for Bride of Re-Animator was born.

Bride of Re-Animator hits a lot of the same beats as its predecessor, all while throwing in quite a handful of homages to series inspiration H.P. Lovecraft. (“It’s just rats in the walls,” Dr. West says at one point, along with the sewing of bat wings onto a decapitated head, which then flew around the room.) People and limbs still come to life. Female nudity is still firmly on display. But derivativeness aside, Bride of Re-Animator actually nails one aspect and gets a lot of mileage out of it, and it all comes from the title. It’s also the very last thing you’d expect from any Re-Animator film: love.

Every one of our characters are connected to each other because of this, but also happens to cause the most fucked up love triangle polygon of all time. Dr. Cain lets Dr. West talk him into their next challenge — the creation of life rather than just the resurrection of the dead — by convincing him to place his departed love Meg’s heart in the corpse of Cain's recently dead patient (Kathleen Kinmont, Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers). The detective hot on the doctor duo’s trail (played by Claude Earl Jones, Dark Night of the Scarecrow) is on a personal crusade to avenge his departed wife, who ended up as one of Dr. West’s experiments and currently inhabits the free-range chicken room. Meanwhile, there’s Francesca (the gorgeous Fabiana Udenio, who would go on to play Alotta Fagina in Austin Powers), a new love interest for Dr. Cain, and a source of consternation for Dr. West, who seems to want Dan all to himself. And then there’s the undead bride, who loves Dan because she’s got Meg’s heart, but yet West is in love with her because he created her.

See? Love!

Being a sequel, Bride of Re-Animator doesn't live up to the original, but weak script aside, I’ll be damned if it’s not trying at every turn. Directed by Re-Animator producer Brian Yuzna, Bride of Re-Animator feels every bit like a sequel, thematically and stylistically. The returning faces certainly help in that regard (and Bruce Abbott brings along a lot more hair), but the spirit of unrestrained, maniacal gore and mayhem are what make Bride of Re-Animator one of the better horror sequels birthed from an ’80s classic. I was a little hesitant in checking this one out after having seen it (and being disappointed by it) so many years ago, but after an iffy beginning, it easily found its groove. Every bit as gory, goofy, and ridiculous as Stuart Gordon’s beloved original, Bride of Re-Animator is a worthy entry in the Re-Animator series.


Beyond Re-Animator was shot in 2003 under the watchful eye of a returning Yuzna. Though there’s much to criticize about this final sequel, its biggest problem is when it was made: Beyond-Animator is a 2000s sequel to an '80s franchise, trying to exist in the same era as “smart” ironic slashers and PG-13 J-horror remakes. To me, lots of horror franchises birthed during the ‘80s belong to the ‘80s, and attempts to modernize some of them haven’t gone particularly well. (Tsk-tsking right at you, Friday the 13th 2009.) Of course, Beyond Re-Animator should be lauded for trying to launch a franchise comeback and offering some counter programming, but not only does it stick out for this reason, it also sticks out because it can’t afford what it clearly wants to be: unprecedented bodily madness.

Largely funded by Spanish film company Fantastic Factory/Filmax, Beyond Re-Animator was shot in Barcelona and Valencia, Spain, with roughly half a cast of Spanish actors, and right off the bat it makes things feel too different. Normally you might think, “Well, the whole movie takes place in a prison, so it’s not unbelievable that many of the prisoners are Spanish,” but that just makes you a racist. Still, this idea does make Beyond Re-Animator stick out and could have been remedied by acknowledging the obvious Spanish flavor and tweaking the script so that the infamous Herbert West had been hidden away overseas in an effort to continue hushing up his awful experiments at Miskatonic University.

Jeffrey Combs as Herbert West, the re-animator, doesn’t miss a single beat and easily steps back into the ghoul doctor’s shoes — it’s everyone else who don’t seem fully confident in their roles. And as previously mentioned, Beyond Re-Animator, given its more modern 2000s production, is the first entry to try its hand at visual effects. Nearly all of them are a failure, especially when it comes to the evil warden’s decapitated and re-animated…er…member. (Yes, this happens. If you ever wanted to see a dick puppet fight a rat puppet, you’ve reached your final destination.)

Beyond Re-Animator was clearly made in the same spirit of the original, and by film’s end, when chaos has totally overtaken the prison, it’s larger in scope than anything the previous films attempted, and that’s absolutely commendable. But unlike its predecessors, the comedy seems cheap--manufactured only to one-up the series’ previous shock moments, whereas the horror aspect this time around just feels corny. In Re-Animator, a headless corpse lowers its own decapitated head into the nether regions of a naked hapless female. That’s shocking, yes, but it’s also a unique gotcha moment that works as intended because it hadn’t been done before. In Beyond Re-Animator, someone’s dick gets ripped off and then later comes to life. Voilà: a killer wang. Sure, this, too, hasn't been done, but only because it's low hanging fruit of a joke, and that’s pretty much the example of Beyond Re-Animator trying too hard to be shocking: falling back on lazy dick jokes.

Personally, for me, the Re-Animator train stops here. There is a "remake" floating around out there in the world, but one which features zero personnel from the original trilogy, and which seems to have been made either because the writings of H.P. Lovecraft are now in the public domain, or because, like Creepshow 3 and Day of the Dead 2: Contagium (not a word), its rights-holders were cleaning out their filing cabinets and said, “Oh, shit, we own this?”

As for the future, it seems like a perfect climate to resurrect the long mooted House of Re-Animator for a third time. We already have a racist, misogynistic moron in the White House and roughly 30% of the country are okay with this. Imagine the fun that could be had with a resurrected Donald Trump bleeding from his mouth and eating brains on national television and his base finding ways to talk about how he’s still the greatest president in the history of the country. That script, alarmingly and sadly, writes itself.

If that doesn't materialize, I'll take this as a solid back-up. Look at that cast!

Source.

Jul 28, 2020

THE CRAZIES (1976)


The Crazies is unofficially looked upon as a spiritual prequel to Night of the Living Dead, even if it followed on that landmark film six years later. But the idea of a toxen leaking into the earth and infecting the people of a small town and turning them into drooling, primitive monsters seems to go hand in hand with Romero’s already established ghoulery. Take that, add a batch of in-fighting that begins to plague our band of survivors traversing the countryside and trying to survive this radical transformation of their world, and the two films seem very spiritually linked. Whereas Night of the Living Dead purposely kept the potential causes for the zombiegeddon vague, having newscasters speculate on-air about all the different potential catalysts, The Crazies points its finger directly at the U.S. government first, and then the military later. Even if, when compared to Night of the Living Dead, The Crazies doesn’t seem as ghoulish or eerie, it’s a whole lot more angry, and Romero, ever the socially conscious filmmaker, knows what he’s doing.

Romero is most well known for his long-running zombie series, with films like The Crazies (or Season of the Witch, or There’s Always Vanilla — both below) sometimes falling by the wayside. And there’s a combination of reasons why, first and foremost being that his zombie films had a huge impact on the zeitgeist at the time, and attracted audiences who didn’t normally like horror films and tempted them into a theater showing Dawn of the Dead. Except for his non-zombie centric (well, mostly) Creepshow, Romero only seemed to fire on all cylinders when it came to his shuffling undead. 


The Crazies contains that same sense of renegade spirit and a socially important message, but its biggest detractor — the worst you can have in any film, but especially horror — is its languid pace. The Crazies, after a strong opening and slices of now-iconic imagery — all those faceless men in Hazmat suits — meanders from point to point, struggling to find ways to keep this cross-countryside night-time journey consistently thrilling. It’s why — and you won’t hear me say this often — its 2010 remake is actually the superior film. Sure, like the Dawn of the Dead remake, it sidestepped social commentary in favor of creating a more viscerally entertaining B-movie, and considering that was its only goal, it was a success.

As an early Romero effort, it’s interesting to see the early formulation of ideas and his anti-establishment persona, and it’s also neat to see Romero and co. actors pop up with whom he had already worked or with whom he’d eventually work (the biggest probably being Richard Liberty, who would play Dr. “Frankenstein” in Day of the Dead.) These days, The Crazies is looked upon more as a curiosity than even a minor classic, and it’s for good reason. It’s undistilled Romero, and for that alone it’s worth seeing, but it lacks the gut-punch of Night of the Living Dead and the confidence of its mall-set sequel. 

Jul 27, 2020

COOTIES (2015)


Cooties is one of those films that, as you're watching it, you almost start to dislike just because you want it to be better than it is. And that's not to say Cooties isn't good, or very funny, because it is, but it's because the film was nearly there - immortal status - that it starts to suffer for it. The cast have remarkable chemistry, each providing a dose of their own real personalities (the reason they were cast in the first place), with Rainn Wilson's Wade playing an even more exaggerated version of Dwight from The Office, while Elijah Wood gets to show off his rarely seen comedic chops beyond Wilfred, where he generally plays the straight man, anyway. (Him telling his students to read pages from his unpublished manuscript as he sits down, closes his eyes, and places his hands over his smiling mouth, as if he wants to take it all in and bask in the inevitable appreciation of his elementary school students, is unexpectedly hilarious.) 

Much like any horror-comedy, or any comedy in general, some jokes land and some don't, but the ones that do are frequently funny. Co-writer Leigh Whannell (screenwriter for the Saw and Insidious series) absolutely steals the show as Doug, the socially awkward and possibly serial-killing biology teacher who rattles off all the film's best lines (especially during the Breakfast Club-ish confessional scene).


Directors Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion, in the midst of all the carnage, manage to show off some pretty striking directorial flare, most notably in the slow-motion sequence somewhat reminiscent of another zombie opus, World War Z, in which the audience gets a ground-zero look at how quickly the zombie virus can spread, when a zombified student tears across the playground scratching deep wounds into the arms of other students. The surreal but savage and brutal construction of this sequence, despite it taking place in a cheeky black comedy, wouldn't feel out of place in a more traditional horror film. The tremendous musical score by Bulgarian composer Kreng marries bits of John Carpenter to traditional orchestra and sounds fantastic.

Where the film fumbles is with its use of Jorge Garcia as an acid-dropping crossing guard who spends most of the film isolated in a van hallucinating from the drugs he's taken. While this does mostly come off as entertaining, it also feels like it belongs entirely to its own story; it could have been fully excised without affecting the film, even improving its pace. Cooties also falls victim to a Return of the King-ish too many endings. Once the film embarks on a change of location during the third act (and following a dispatching of a certain character), Cooties feels like it's just around the corner from ending, but when it insists on continuing, it starts to feel dangerously close like overstaying its welcome.


Not since Troma's terrible Beware: Children at Play has a film so unashamedly both put children in danger and made them the adversaries, and thankfully Cooties, despite its very recognizable cast and mainstream release, doesn't relent when it comes to bloodletting and bodily carnage. The nice thing about Cooties is that, unlike Beware: Children at Play (or anything from Troma), you get all the mayhem with none of the desire to take an immediate shower. 

Though the zombie comedy thing has been done to death, Cooties proves that there's still life in the concept yet. It boasts an engaging and amusing story, more good jokes than bad, and a cast whose chemistry is infectious makes Cooties worth catching.


Jul 26, 2020

[REC] 4: APOCALYPSE (2014)


What a weird road the [REC] series has traveled. After the successful release of the first film, which can be fairly described as a modern classic, its directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza were smart enough to realize that to a successful sequel should revisit all the things that made its predecessor so effective: the claustrophobic surroundings of that Barcelona apartment building, the cast of quirky characters slowly transforming into hideous mutants, the emaciated hammer-swinging thing residing in the attic, and most importantly, the inclusion of the found-footage aesthetic. [REC]2, a clever sidequel, posits: say, what else could be going on in that apartment building? And while on paper that sounds like a total cop-out, it worked just fine. Going beyond its ability to strike gold twice utilizing an identical concept, it took things one step further by introducing a rather interesting idea: what if this "disease" being passed from person to person via bite and turning everyone afflicted into bleeding, shrieking, gooey ghouls was, in actuality, demon possession? With this idea in motion, the ghouls of [REC] didn't have to just scream and hurtle at their prey. Now they could sprout wings, or crawl upside down on the ceiling. Now there was the simmering suggestion that it would not be a scientist who could potentially find a cure, but a priest. Now we suddenly had The Exorcist in the back of our minds, and that ain't a shabby association to call forth.

While some factions of the audiences didn't fully embrace this new demonic twist, [REC]was wildly popular, and so it wasn't long before not one but two more sequels were announced: [REC]3: Genesis, and [REC]4: Apocalypse. However, in a surprising move, the co-directors also announced that each of them would be tackling one of the sequels solo, and even more surprising, abandoning the found footage aesthetic that had helped to make the series so far stand out from its flesh-ripping cinematic colleagues. And so, with two solid films already winning over most horror fans, audiences waited to see just what kind of new ideas its creators would bring to the table.

They got their answer: stupid.

Paco Plaza took the first swing with [REC]3Genesis, a film severely hampered by its overly aggressive but laudable attempts to avoid treading derivative ground. While a worthy endeavor, the dropping of the found footage technique, the insertion of constant and too-silly humor, and setting the film prior to the events of the first all led to an entry that was uneven, inconsistent, and lacking in any thrills.

With the long-confirmed fourth and final entry in the [REC] series looming on the horizon, this one under the guidance of a solo Balagueró, audiences once again waited to see if the franchise would go out with a bang instead of a whimper.

It hasn't.

That law of diminishing returns refuses to ever cut audiences a break, so [REC]4Apocalypse eventually arrived, unseating [REC]3 from its very brief record of being the weakest of the series. In what amounts to an even stupider film than Friday the 13th: Jason Takes Manhattan, [REC]4 has our characters running loose on a barge as one by one its collection of military soldiers and doctors fall victim to the very "disease" they have been trying to cure. Manuela Velasco, Spain's own beautiful doppelganger for Marisa Tomei, reprises her role from the first two films as the battered and bloodied Ángela Vidal, who following her nightmarish experience in that demon-infested apartment building has been whisked away to this same barge, filled with the aforementioned military personnel. Very far from shore, and cut off from the rest of the world, she and several others find themselves quarantined by a gaggle of doctors in an effort to figure out what is causing the disease, and how to cure it.


While [REC]is in some ways an improvement over its predecessor, thankfully jettisoning all the cheap cartoon humor and contributing an entry that actually feels like it belongs to the [REC] series, unfortunately it gets nearly everything else wrong. The attempt at series continuity by utilizing Velasco is certainly appreciated, but her character is utterly misused, setting her up as a red herring for much of the film's running time until the third-act twist that, to be fair, is a genuine surprise, but to be fairer, is surprising because of how cheap and shameless it is. The twist "works" not because the film was successful in subtly setting it up, but rather because it was unmercifully lazy - the kind of "gotcha" moment played out in that theoretically non-existent wasteland of Offscreen Land where Balagueró insisted on hiding it like an Indiana Jones relic, because to have seen it play out on screen under the pretenses with which we were already provided would have made the twist obviously lazy.

Say, speaking of lazy, why take the time in having the virus spread from one person to the next when you can just say, "Oh crap, the food's infected," and demonize a whole slew of people at once? And if [REC]suddenly doing an about-face on the whole "demonic possession spread by bite" thing and instead having it spread through some dripped-on lamb wasn't bad enough, a really unnecessary and unintentionally silly adversary has been added to the mix to chase around our human cast: monkeys. And not just monkeys, but badly-rendered CGI monkeys, their "realism" at a level usually reserved for Planters' Nuts commercials.


Director Balagueró seems to miss the found-footage technique he and his co-director had employed on the first two films, but while he doesn't resurrect the gimmick for this go-round, he attempts to bridge the gap between amateur POV shooting with traditional film, utilizing the ever-popular handheld approach that is at best disorienting, and at worst downright nauseating. Occasionally, filmmakers are sometimes tempted to obscure the lack of substance in their film by depending on all manner of disorienting camera techniques to fool their audiences into thinking something dramatic is happening, and here Balagueró is no different. Close-ups of blood being drawn or weathered men standing around talking are shot with all manner of quick zooms by its cinematographer who seems to have swapped out a tripod for a stair-machine. What's supposed to seem interesting and intense is actually quite dull.

Speaking of dull, [REC]takes entirely too long to get going, and once it does, it has no fucking idea where it wants to go. The revelation of demonic possession spreading from one person to the next introduced in [REC]2 is barely a footnote here, as if the filmmakers realized far-too-late they had written themselves into a corner. "Oh crap, if they can fly, then what's the point of quarantining everyone on a ship?" etc. But no wings are sprouted, no ceilings are walked on. And without being able to use, no hyperbole, one of the creepiest and most effective images in modern horror - that of the sickly gaunt Nina Medeiros swinging her hammer blindly in the dark - Balagueró opts for an altogether different path: instead of Ángela running for her life through the dark bowels of a ship, pursued by something so monstrous that the only thing it has in common with mankind is a disturbing depiction of its form, instead Ángela can be found running through the bowels of a ship, being pursued by...monkey sounds. LOUD monkey sounds.


Still, this idea does make for a killer dramatic moment: with the stirring Zimmer-like musical score by the talented Arnau Bataller beginning to mount, Ángela flees her tiny-primate pursuers through the dark, desperately heaving herself through nooks and crannies of the ship, and finally she sees the way out; she throws herself to freedom, screaming, in near hysterics; she surprises another character who happens to be searching for her at that very moment, and before he can say a word, she looks at him with near-madness in her eyes, and in one long triumphant cry of release, bellows, "MOOOOOOONKEEEEEEEEYS!"

[REC]is the fourth part of a once-solid series that lost its way halfway through. It wants to use CGI to ensure a dramatic ending, but it can't afford it. It wants to have a big cast, but doesn't know what to do with any of them, that is beyond having all of them running around in the dark yelling "Vamos!" at each other. It wants to expand on the previously established [REC] cannon, but then...it doesn't. This proclaimed final entry in the series still not only manages to set up a [REC]5, but one that promises this series will still be swinging blindly in the dark.


Jul 24, 2020

DEAD SHACK (2017)


The zombie comedy. People are still making these!

But you know what they say: you can’t keep a chuckling ghoul down.

To its credit as a zombie comedy (a zombedy, if you will), Dead Shack is at least funny. Not consistently funny, with most of its gutter-mouth Superbad-inspired humor landing very flat, but I’d at least say that Dead Shack spends more of its time being funny than not funny. Donavon Stinson as Roger, the family’s patriarch, is hands-down the biggest purveyor of the film’s best humor. His interactions with Lisa, his hard-drinking girlfriend, especially, are tremendously dry and strange and often very funny.

Being that we’re dealing with a zombie movie, Dead Shack is also violent. Very violent. And it’s that wonderful old school practical violence that I’ve really come to miss in genre entertainment. Heads come off, neck wounds spurt geysers of blood, axes fly into and connect with bodies, etc. It’s a joyful romp of gore — this, at the very least, won’t disappoint genre fans.


Since I’m fairly certain I’m not the only one who thinks the zombie market has become saturated, you’ll be pleased to know that Dead Shack at least has somewhat of a unique concept, mostly in the form of Neighbor (she’s never given a name) played by Lauren Holly, who suits up in SWAT gear and corrals the hapless directly into the mouths of her zombified family. It’s interesting in that she’s clearly the villain of the piece, yet the audience develops empathy toward her anyway because she’s clearly not in her right mind and is having tremendous difficulty dealing with the death of her family.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Dead Shack never turns into one of those …of the Dead scenarios where shit hits the fan in the final act and hordes of zombies begin stampeding through shopping malls and underground military bases. Dead Shack keeps things pretty intimate in that regard, though the stakes still remain fairly high.

If you’re a fan of the zombie genre, Dead Shack certainly ranks as one of the better titles you should seek. Lord knows the zombie thing has been done to death (ha!), but every so often there’s a reason to not completely dismiss it out of hand, either. You can thank Dead Shack for that newest slice of redemption.



Jul 23, 2020

CARGO

Stranded in the midst of a zombie apocalypse, a man sets in motion an unlikely plan to protect the precious cargo he carries: his infant daughter.

Directed by Ben Howling & Yolanda Ramke

Produced by Ben Howling, Yolanda Ramke, Marcus Newman, Daniel Foeldes


This is so good.

Jul 22, 2020

THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS (2016)


There is no one on planet Earth more sick of zombies than I am. Even before The Walking Dead premiered to firmly launch both zombies and maudlin mediocrity into the mainstream, Danny Boyle’s “non-zombie” zombie movie, 28 Days Later… (it’s a zombie movie, btw), the Resident Evil franchise, and a thriving direct-to-video market ensured there would be no shortage of flesh-ripping clumsy ghouls. That zombie movies are still being made, not in spite of but directly because of The Walking Dead, has pushed the sub-genre to the stage of saturation, and regardless of well-meaning producers who claim to have done something different, they are all very much the same. A foreign body creates a virus; a virus creates a ghoul; a ghoul creates many ghouls; many ghouls create a ghoul apocalypse; a ghoul apocalypse creates a franchise; a franchise creates exasperation.

Upon the release of The Girl with All the Gifts, based on the novel by M.R. Carey, I’ll admit I didn’t pay much attention. And when the words “dystopian future” and “young lead female character” filtered into my brain, I shut it down entirely, writing it off as yet another film based on an alternafuture young adult book series featuring a strong and plucky girl to lead yet another revolution.


Within moments of the film’s opening, I knew I was in for something different – and not a film ready to rely only on zombie carnage and helicopter shots of a post-human world. Instead, The Girl with All the Gifts is a philosophical, scientific, and at times alarmingly charming new take on the zombie story, looking beyond the cause of the zombie outbreak (called “hungries” here) and at a future where a zombie crossbreed species exists and calls into question the well-worn “us vs. them” concept that has been at the forefront of every zombie movie conflict. Told from the point of a young “girl” named Melanie (an extraordinary Sennia Nanua), one of a dozen special children being held in captivity and studied by what appears to be the last of the world’s military, The Girl with All the Gifts looks not to the far reaches of outer space, a government lab, or to an unspoken cause for all the zombiery on which our characters can ruminate. It looks to the very world we inhabit – something birthed from nature – that brings about the downfall of man. A far less stupid version of The Happening, but with the same basic concept, The Girl with All the Gifts suggests that our planet soon tires of us and relies on fungus – yes, fungus – to bring about the destruction of man.

Director Colm McCarthy, making his feature directorial debut after a long career in television, wants to take this material as seriously as a Vietnam-era George Romero, Danny Boyle, or even Jim Mickle with his underappreciated Mulberry Street, and he does quite handily, falling back and letting the camera linger on intimate environments and small moments between characters. Astoundingly, the audience is thrust into the same confusing environments where Melanie thrives, but where we’re struggling to put together who she is, where she is, and what’s being done to her, she’s instead existing in a place where she always has; she knows nothing else about the outside world, so the cold manner in which she’s treated by the soldiers who point automatic weapons at her face as her shackles are done, or undone, isn’t the least bit surreal to her. That’s been her whole life. 

And this is where The Girl with All the Gifts will begin to feel familiar.

 

At the core of every zombie movie has been the aforementioned “us vs. them” conflict, but always with a suggestion that the “us” had the potential to be far more monstrous than the “them.” Helen Justineau (Gemma Arteron) is the special children’s teacher; someone who shows them kindness and love. Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close) wants to cut them open and look for the cure to the infection she believes to be inside. Sgt. Parks (Paddy Considine) hovers somewhere in between, not allowing his empathy for young Melanie to supersede his purpose and drive to survive. The Girl with All the Gifts tows that familiar line but with new and ponderous ways, leaving you to wonder about the final sequence and what it means – who’s really in charge? And who, really, is the enemy? Us, or them?

The very unusual musical score by composer Cristobal Tapia De Veer, comprised of a chorus of robotic-sounding human voices and something akin to a theremin, sounds both utterly foreign but completely appropriate for the zombie-ridden environment. It also makes for one of the best musical scores of the year. There aren’t too many instances when the audioscape comes alive in the typical blockbuster movie sense, but when there’s carnage, you hear it — so much that it nearly pierces you with its surprising intensity.

Zombie fans unfettered by mass consumption of their favorite ghouligans have no reason not to love The Girl with All the Gifts. Even those, like me, who need a long breather from the zombie phenomenon will find a lot to respect and adore in this latest take on the walking dead. Anchored in place by a preternaturally confident performance by Sennia Nanua, it’s the best kind of horror film one could ever hope to see — something that’s not just horrific, but about something.