Aug 9, 2012


Films like Aegri Somnia, tales of nightmarish figures and landscapes as experienced through the eyes of our "unreliable" lead character, date back as far as 1920 with the German silent film classic, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. And since then we have seen plenty films about folks traversing their own personal hell and madness only to reach that inevitable conclusion where it turns out they are either dead, insane, in hell, or all of the above! 1990’s Jacob’s Ladder might just be the definitive take on the concept, and seems to have heavily inspired writer/director James Rewucki to make Aegri Somnia, whose title translates to “a sick man’s dreams.”

Edgar (Tyhr Trubiak) lives a miserable life. And who wouldn’t be miserable when everything’s in black and white? (Jokes!) He works a miserable job, goes home to a miserable and hateful wife, and can barely speak in full sentences without inserting Obama-like 20-second pauses in between his words. On one particular day, after a spat with his wife, she goes into the bathroom and takes her own life. This event will propel him into his self-imprisoned world of madness and guilt, where walking nightmares come to life and taunt him from dark corners. These brief trips into his subconscious begin to escalate, leading him to a very dark and dangerous revelation.

Along with Jacob’s Ladder, Aegri Somnia owes an awful lot to David Lynch’s 1977 oddity Eraserhead. From the black and white landscape to the introverted lead character to the deluge of pregnant pauses, Aegri Somnia is very much a spiritual reinterpretation of what might be one of the oddest but most accessible of Lynch's surreal repertoire. But Aegri Somnia also exists in a post-1980s world, featuring very familiar yet somehow unique-feeling set pieces and creatures. Dark-cloaked, rag-covered, and barbwire-encircled monsters whisper into Edgar’s ears and very much recall Clive Barker’s collection of demonic angels from his Hellraiser stories. And they jitter, chatter, and move unnaturally like the things following Tim Robbins in Jacob’s Ladder. Eerie images of bloody bathtubs and things in your periphery vision are the stuff of Freddy Krueger. It’s an interesting, engaging, creepy, yet flawed hodgepodge of horror cinema. 

By the time the ending happens, you can’t help but say, “no shit,” but much like the recent Shutter Island, the film isn’t so much about the ending as it is the journey. And it’s about our damaged character realizing what we as the audience already have a sneaking suspicion about: that he’s obscenity-screaming, Tom-Cruise-grinning insane.


While Aegri Somnia never manages to consistently capture the viewer from the first frame to the last (which can be fully attributed to the need for one more tightening pass in the editing room rather than a failure to tell a story), I must give all the credit in the world to writer/director James Rewucki. What he was able to accomplish on what must have been a very modest budget is an immediate cause for praise, regardless of the film’s overall success. It is a quiet film about quiet madness, and because of this the film will lose audiences more attuned to dripping monsters, whipping chains, and bloody murder. In fact, I can see most audiences downright hating it. Generally I am a big fan of films that try to bestow upon its audience the same feeling of insanity or hell that its characters are experiencing. Like Silent Hill, or The Cell before it, where the films lacked in strong stories or central characters it made up with fantastic visuals, and at the very least affects on a visceral level, if not on an emotional one. Aegri Somnia very much belongs in that category. It really does feel like a nightmare, and the visuals it contains are some of the most impressive I’ve seen within the low-budget horror world. (*And as an aside, the scene where Edgar buries his wife is shot fucking beautifully.)

While it's easy for abstract filmmakers to be labeled as pretentious simply because they want to present their film in an out-of-the-box manner, I do find Rewucki's choice to alternate sequences in black and white as well as color, along with the creatures' propensity for randomly whispering lines from T.S. Eliott, a little dubious. I'm sure Rewucki had a reason for doing both (you could make the argument that the creatures which haunt Edgar are the "hollow men" of which Eliot wrote, but if so, what's the significance of that poem to him in the first place?), but I just don't understand what that point was. And claims of pretension are caused not by abstract expression, but when there seems to be no rhyme or reason to utilize the tactic; and so the danger of Rewucki being labeled as such becomes dangerously close to being a fair criticism.

Regardless of my ultimate reaction to the film, I’ve been thinking about it off-and-on for the last three days. Filmmakers consider such a reaction to be a strength, whether that reaction be overwhelmingly positive or negative. Three days ago I had decided Aegri Somnia wasn't a film I ever had to see again, but the more I think about it, the more infectious the desire to revisit Edgar's nightmarish world is becoming.

Aug 6, 2012


Based on a story by John Steinbeck, Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944) was one of the first to confine a cast of people to one location and base its entire forward plot on dialogue only. Beyond the obvious, there is no “conflict” other than what is born from the characters’ exchanges. The more these stranded men and women converse, the more they unearth about themselves, and the more their true natures are revealed. 12 Angry Men would come along thirteen years later, mine that concept, and become one of the most famous and well-regarded “bunch of people confined to one place” films of all time. It is a tough job to craft such a concept – something based entirely on dialogue – but it’s come back in a big way the last ten years with varying success. Buried, with Ryan Reynolds, was mostly well received in the horror community, while Saw was an irritating heavy-handed morality tale. Lastly, we have Devil, a laughable tale of people trapped in an elevator with the prince of darkness himself.

And now we have Elevator, the newest film to try its hand at this one-location concept. More Lifeboat than Devil, a bunch of Wall Street workers find themselves prisoners of their malfunctioning elevator while on their way to an after-hours reception. Among them are Don and his news reporter girlfriend, Maureen; Celine, Don’s pregnant co-worker; Henry Barton, the president and CEO of the company, along with his granddaughter; George Axlerod, another employee as well as “comedian” of the night’s event; and Jane Redding, an investor. Through unfortunate happenstance, the elevator becomes trapped in between floors. And not soon after, it’s revealed that one of them has a bomb strapped to their chest.

And the games begin.

"Mind if I irritate?"

A concept like Elevator really relies solely on the story it’s telling. With cameras trapped along with our cast, what director Stig Svendsen can accomplish stylistically is severely limited. He has nothing to propel his film except the skeleton of the story, and his actors. While the performances are competent, and the story is engaging and never boring, once the “big reveal” is made, it never becomes thrilling or pulse pounding. It never gives you that “on the edge of your seat” moment when you can feel the danger our characters are in. With a bomb quite literally ticking down, what’s supposed to make the viewer more and more nervous never really gets past “sucks for them.”

Elevator really wants to be a condemnation on American culture. The problem is it doesn't know where to start, and when it finally does, it doesn’t go far enough. Early in the film, after the elevator comes to a dead halt, comedian George eyes Mohammed, the security specialist of the building, with great suspicion. Mohammed, after all, is Iranian, and to us ‘mericans, all Iranians = bad. But the problem with this subplot is that beyond just trying to make George look like a complete prick, the movie does nothing with it. There is no lesson learned. There is no redemption for Mohammad’s lineage or George’s close-minded point of view. There's no chance for Mohammed to prove himself in George's eyes, nor does George ever have to rely on Mohammed for anything that would alter his point of view. Besides being played for tension-breaking comedic effect, nothing ever comes of it. Nor does anything come from Maureen’s decision to stream the events occurring within their elevator car (she’s a reporter, remember), which to us seems completely inappropriate and offensive, but would most likely occur in real life. Though she, too, is facing certain death, she holds her phone at arm’s length. I suppose by film’s conclusion, when it appears that our characters are beyond salvation, Maureen realizes that she’s just as expendable as the folks she’s been filming both inside that elevator and outside it during her whole career, but again, not enough is done with it. She never has her moment where she finally feels what it's like to be on the other end of the camera. And let's face it, it’s hard enough to get one person to believably realize the error of their way during a film’s climax, but trying to force half-a-dozen people to do the same, while admirable, just doesn’t have the kind of pay-off the filmmakers are going for. Too much time is spent setting them all up, but none of them are ever brought to a satisfying conclusion.

Speaking of no pay-off, the not-so-shocking revelation that (spoiler) Don happens to be the father of Celine’s baby, is completely wasted within the events of the film. What should have been shocking enough to warrant at least a ten-minute diatribe between Don, Maureen, and Celine is literally over in seconds. Celine looks embarrassed, Maureen cries and looks horrified, and Don looks kind of guilty. But it’s so soon forgotten and never mentioned again that you wonder why the filmmakers bothered to include it. Maureen never says one nasty thing to Celine, nor does Celine ever attempt to apologize. It doesn’t create any tension. You could have removed that mini-twist and the rest of the film, as presented, would have gone on seamlessly.

The only real morality-tale weight comes from the twist that (again, spoiler), Jane Redding is the one who has the bomb strapped to her chest. For you see, it was after her husband received very poor investment advice from Henry Barton’s company and lost everything that he killed himself. And Jane has come to reap revenge upon the company that destroyed her life. It’s an interesting act of domestic terrorism inspired once again by American greed and selfishness. But it also has the subtlety of a nuclear explosion.

Elevator is a decent time waster. No one will ever call it their favorite film, but nor will they call it a terrible one. It’s vanilla ice cream. It’s white bread. You won’t regret having watched it, but it’s one you’ll wish had contained a little more zest. 

Although someone does pee in a purse. So...there's that.

Aug 3, 2012


My father was only 48 when he died of lung cancer. Looking back on that time in our lives, which by now has been reduced to a scattered mosaic of thoughts and recollections, one thing stands out, and still remains with me to this day: the utter unfairness of that. It was shattering to lose him in general, and at his relatively young age, but for him to succumb to a disease that implied he hadn't taken care of himself, or that he'd been careless -- that was a cosmically offensive finale for a man who prided himself on living as healthy a lifestyle as possible. For lung cancer to grow inside someone who'd never once smoked -- and he didn't; not cigarettes, not cigars, not even pipes -- made about as much sense as...well, I don't even know. Any halfhearted metaphor I could muster would sound petty in comparison.

Granted, I was young when this happened; I'd yet to learn the lesson that cancer didn't follow the rules. It didn't matter if my father smoked two packs a day or none, ever, in his life. Cancer was cancer was cancer. It cared hilariously little for textbook arguments. It cared little that my father ate healthy, got his eight hours, and walked our dog, Betsy, to the park and back every morning, without fail. His only real vice – if you could call it that – was a single glass of red at dinner.

Despite this, whichever god- or non-godlike force that drew his number didn't care about the particulars. It pointed at him -- just another anonymous human being in a sea of billions -- and assigned him his fate. And like all the other personal tragedies that befell him during his life, he accepted it without a fuss. He didn't rail against it, didn't muse aloud, "Why me?," didn't go seeking sympathy.

That wasn't his style.

Aug 2, 2012


Whether they mean/meant to or not, zombie movies have been aping George A. Romero since 1968. Perhaps you've heard of his first film. It was about a night in which the living were dead, and the dead were living. What he created all those years ago (after borrowing a bit from Richard Matheson's "I Am Legend") is now taken for granted as official and legendary zombie mythology, and assumed to be thousands of years old. Actually, it's roughly only forty, and comes not from a Native American shaman or cave wall drawings, but some old hippie stoner from Pittsburgh.

Zombies are slow. They are dead. Only a blow to the brain will kill them. If one bites you, you will turn into one. Don't call them zombies (even though they are).

Zombie Apocalypse (with a '2012' crammed in for its video release) is a SyFy Channel original movie and produced by The Asylum. Are you running for the hills yet? I don't blame you. But seriously, ain't half bad.

Ramona (Taryn Manning of "Sons of Anarchy") has hit the post-outbreak zombified streets with two of her friends, Kevin and and Billy. Zombies happen, as do bite wounds, but another group of survivors come along and save their bacon. Kevin is left as zombie chew toys, but Ramona and Billy are "adopted" by the survivors, led by Mack, and co-opted by Julian, a literary author quoter, Cassie, a woman hoping to become reunited with her husband and mourning the death (?) of her son, and Henry (Ving Rhames, in his third zombie movie appearance). Together they will do what everyone else who has survived the zombie outbreak so far does: try to keep surviving. 

Honestly, Zombie Apocalypse is actually a decent little movie. The acting is competent, and magically, none of the actors ever come across as irritating. The characters aren't overflowing with development, as some receive a little more back story than others, but you will at least know a little about each person. You're definitely provided with enough to reciprocate a modicum of care, as I'll admit to being movie-concerned during a sequence in which two characters become isolated from the group and surrounded by the dead.

Speaking of the dead, I must absolutely give Z.A. credit for something which may sound trivial (and please correct me if I am wrong), but this is the first zombie film I've seen to not only contain both walking AND running zombies, but also provide an explanation as to why some walk and some run (the walkers have been dead longer; the runners are "fresher"). Even in Romero's films it's established that zombies are slow and shambly, but will occasionally and uncharacteristically rush at a victim with little regard for continuity.

The make-up effects are pretty effective, save for the few moments when patches of a zombie's skin are inadvertently captured and reveal no rot or marring of any kind. The kills are cool, and for once I can say I've seen new ways in which to off a zombie. That ice skate kill is as ridiculous as it is awesome.

The script is smart, and contains so many classic bits from the "what-if" conversations we've all shared with friends around a late-night diner booth. What if a zombie apocalypse were to happen? What weapons would you use? Would you drive, or hoof it? Would you use bikes? Flamethrowers? What about animals? Do you think they would turn? It honestly feels as if the film were conceived by genuine zombie enthusiasts, and not just by people who threw something together containing zombies since they are very much in the forefront of current entertainment.

But alas...because this is a SyFy Channel original...the usual nitpicks arise. I always give credit where credit is due in terms of scope and ambition, and the filmmakers were mostly able to pull off a post-apocalyptic setting with very little money, but much of the CGI utilized in the film is at best laughable. Scenes with zombified animals come off as especially cartoonish, but there is enough evident care behind the scenes to let this slide. 

In some scenes there is very little regard to exposition continuity. Meaning, it's noticeable when a character clarifies that to kill a zombie you need to destroy the brain, but then zombies are later brought down with shots/slices to the stomach, anyway. And it's also noticeable when a character says, "If you shoot an arrow at a zombie, retrieve the arrow if you can safely do so," then shoots a zombie with an arrow and runs right by it, not stopping to retrieve said arrow, even though it could have been done safely. 

There is some truly horrendous dialogue, ie, "Are there any humans in here?", which a character calls out not once but twice, and leads me to wonder: do zombies really need that clarification? If they're in an unseen room and eating some fingers, will they hear that this dude is demanding to see humans only, realize they aren't the requested demographic, and go back to eating? No, of course they won't. They want fresher fingers. 

Plus, for a movie in which thousands of bullets are sent smashing through teems of ghoul faces, there isn't a single scene of anyone reloading. Just sayin'.

Curiously, certain events or allusiuons are placed throughout the film that suggest a resolution or explanation for them is right around the corner...but then no such explanation comes. There are several scenes in which characters declare the zombies are getting smarter, are learning, but this leads to no real pay off. And in a scene where it's explained that Cass' son is attacked by zombies but not definitely killed, there's an established fear that she may run into a zombified version of her son later down the road...which never happens.

I wonder why all that is. Were there hopes or plans for a Z.A. 2? Was this some kind of pilot for a television show (which is a highly dubious question)? If no to both, then why introduce these developments only for them never to pay off? 

Still, I dug this movie quite a bit. It's not perfect, comes nowhere close, and isn't trying to be. And for the sake of clarification, let me state this: had this been a theatrically released movie with a multi-million dollar budget, I would have ripped it a new asshole. It wouldn't come anywhere close to a watchable rating. It would endeavor to smell the fart fumes wafting off a simple rating of "terrible." But this was not that heavy weight. This was made for SyFy, people. SYFY. Have you seen their films? Of course you have. Your brain will forever be infected with much of their output. As such, because of its lineage, Z.A. deserves a lot of credit. It wasn't just run-of-the-mill garbage. 


Romero's films will always be looked at as cannon, and fledgling zombie filmmakers of the world have long made their peace with that. Every zombie movie that soon will be - one that contains flesh eating, brain destroying, and a contagious virus - will always and forever be a sequel to Romero's films, whether they like it or not. As it stands, Zombie Apocalypse happens to be one of the better ones.

Aug 1, 2012


Sam stayed with his grandmother when his parents went to Mexico for their vacation. “We are going to bring you back something nice,” his mother told him. “It will be a surprise.” Before they came home, Sam’s parents looked for something Sam would like. All they could find was a beautiful sombrero. It cost too much. But that afternoon, while they were eating their lunch in a park, they decided to buy the sombrero after all. Sam’s father threw what was left of their sandwiches to some stray dogs, and they walked back to the marketplace. One of the animals followed them. It was a small, gray creature with short hair, short legs, and a long tail. Wherever they went, it went. “Isn’t he cute!” Sam’s mother said. “He must be one of those Mexican Hairless dogs. Sam would love him.”

“He’s probably somebody’s pet,” Sam’s father said. They asked several people if they knew who its owners were, but no one did. They just smiled and shrugged their shoulders. Finally, Sam’s mother said, “Maybe he’s just a stray. Let’s take him home with us. We can give him a good home, and Sam will love him.”

It is against the law to take a pet across the border, but Sam’s parents hid the animal in a box, and no one saw it. When they got home, they showed it to Sam. “He’s a pretty small dog,” said Sam. “I’m not sure what kind he is,” his father said. “I think it’s called a Mexican Hairless. We’ll find out. But he’s nice, isn’t he?”

They gave the new pet some dog food. Then they washed it and brushed it and combed its fur. That night it slept on Sam’s bed. When Sam awakened the next morning, his pet was still there. “Mother,” he called, “the dog has a cold.” The animal’s eyes were running, and there was something white around his mouth. Later that morning Sam’s mother took it to a veterinarian. “Where did you get him?” the vet asked. “In Mexico,” she said. “We think he’s a Mexican Hairless. I was going to ask you about that.”

“He’s not a Hairless,” the vet said. “He’s not even a dog. He’s a sewer rat—and he has rabies.”