Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The People Under the Stairs (1991)



Wes Craven had pretty much ditched his early style by 1991, when The People Under the Stairs was released.  Stuff like Deadly Friend and Shocker were basically bereft of the surreal mean-spiritedness that made Last House and The Hills Have Eyes such striking works.  So it's odd that this film seems to be a blend of the two Cravens.  In some ways, it's a grim throwback—there's some legit nastiness happening as we wind through the plot.  But we've also got Craven-the-entertainer's presence, in the comedy and the slick shots.  It's an engaging, if not super-successful, mix.

Fool is named Fool because his sister is into Tarot cards, okay.  Their family is about to be evicted from their slummy apartment because mom has cancer and no one is winning bread.  So a family friend enlists Fool in a great house robbery plan.  Unfortunately, they rob the house of the craziest people in town, who happen to have people under the stairs.  The stair-people are monstrosities worthy of having their own movie, but they take a backseat to Home Alone-style house traps for much of the film.

The real villains are Man (Everett McGill) and Woman (Wendy Robie), who seem to have wandered into this film from a John Waters/David Lynch date night.  They're perverse rich people (much like Wes Craven himself!) who are the real power behind the degradations of the ghetto.  They own property for which they charge exorbitant rents and use the proceeds to buy more secret passageways and more leatherman-slave outfits.

This is not a subtle script.  But it is an ambitious one.  We get straight horror, blatant fairy-tale nods, unnecessary comic hijinks, and allegories aimed at the heart of capitalism.  Unsurprisingly, this glut of stuff doesn't blend seamlessly, so it sometimes feels like we're switching genres as much as we're switching rooms.    Speaking of rooms, we spend a lot of time in them and a jarring amount of screen time is devoted to interiors.  That, along with the rather limited script, gives this thing the feel of an overlong episode of Tales from the Darkside.  There's just not enough story to justify a feature here.  At one point, there's an escape from the house, but then we get to re-enter the house later and watch an escape all over again!  

I think there is promise here and the story would benefit from A) being fleshed out with subplots, so we don't have to watch the same story twice and B) having a different director at the helm.  While I was watching this, I was dreaming about someone with a flair for mean bastardry being at the helm.  If TCM-era Tobe Hooper had made this, there would be more grime and fewer punches pulled and it might have been a classic.  As it stands, People Under the Stairs is intriguing and worth watching, but ultimately not cohesive enough to be a winner.

**3/4

Friday, August 22, 2014

Parents (1989)

The late 80s were lousy with black comedies.  Some, like The 'Burbs, could be acclaimed as minor triumphs. Others, like Lucky Stiff, are as justly forgotten as Nancy Kerrigan.  Parents probably falls right on the median point between small reward and unloved obscurity.  It trades in a common currency for 80s black comedy, cannibalism (cf. Lucky Stiff, Eating Raoul), but tries to wring some art out of a concept that's a little too tiny for its loftier goals.


A kid named Michael moves with his parents to a new town.  Mom and Dad love meat, and vegan viewers will want to keep buckets handy for the all the shots of ribs and briskets.  Michael isn't so keen on meat or on his parents, who seem to be exhibiting very weird behavior.  We as adult viewers aren't so likely to be confused by Mom and Dad getting caught in various acts.  But it's maybe harder to explain why Dad is apparently packing home bodies from his nebulously creepy job at Toxico Chemicals.


Parents keeps its ambiguity much of the time.  It's definitely suggested that Dad and Mom are into bad business, but it's also implied that Michael is struggling with some developmental, or just mental, issues.  He's much scrawnier than the kids in his class (and eventually befriends the schoolgirl version of a kaiju, to really hammer home the point).  He also doesn't react as a kid learning about cannibalism would.  His facial blankness never changes and only occasionally does he let out a gasp, never a scream or tears.  In one scene, he apparently doesn't recognize a teacher speaking directly to him, a few inches from his face.


So is Parents a real suburban nightmare or just some troubled kid's fever dream?  You decide, because it probably doesn't matter anyway.  The mixed materials never really gel that well and prevent the good acting and great photography from saving the film.  Even if it's not a classic,  though, Parents is probably worth one look.  It's a horror-comedy that doesn't skimp on the horror and a good example of a film that could probably never be made now.  


**3/4

Horror Hotline: Big Head Monster (2001)

Hyped quite a lot way back when and now I'm not sure why. Horror Hotline: Big Head Monster has occasional flashes of hotness, but generally ends up feeling like a low-rent Ringu.  An American film crew arrives in Hong Kong to document the workflow of a local Coast to Coast-style supernatural-themed radio show.  By coincidence, they show up just in time to capture a call about a "big-head baby", a deformed infant in a cage which some soccer kids discovered in the 1960s.  Curses and spooky stuff have a lengthy shelf life and so our heroes end up immersed in the arcane.  And the film basically details their attempts to solve the mystery as a baby-sized body count gets a little bigger.  It looks good and is well-acted, but the script doesn't do enough to differentiate this from the zillions of other vengeful-ghost movies floating around out there.  They spent all their creativity on that title, I guess.

**1/2

Friday, August 15, 2014

Pulgasari (1985)

The story of Pulgasari: a kaiju monster movie filmed in North Korea, its star and director were kidnapped and later forced to participate in its creation (after finishing a bunch of propaganda films for the Norks).  Toho Studios staff lent a hand, including a suit actor who worked on a bunch of Godzilla films.  

The story of Pulgasari: in feudal times, an overweening and king-centered government cracks down on its peasant subjects.  In an effort to stop freedom fighters/terrorists, the government confiscates all the iron from the villagers.  A shocking amount of time is expended on complaints about stolen farm equipment and iron pots.  The village blacksmith is taken into custody and, with his last bit of life, fashions a pulgasari (see image above) out of rice.  When his daughter bleeds on it, it comes to life and joins the peasants in toppling the dictatorship.  It also eats iron.  Iron has a huge presence in this movie.

It's impossible to not carry a bunch of preconceptions to a North Korean monster movie set in feudal times.  But, to give credit, the film did surprise me a few times.  As you'd expect, given its crazy-ass production history, it sometimes ends up as a jumble of stuff.  We get peasant villagers who dress like 1980s KISS guitarists.  We also get a soundtrack that frequently reverts to equally 1980s synth songs, which clashes harshly with the period setting.  Non-synth music also appears, mostly ponderous Shostakovich-type stuff, and I wondered if this was the director chafing against the restraints of Kim Jong Il, rebelling in the only way he possibly could.

Maybe more surprising is the way this film, made in one of the world's foremost dictatorships, hews closely to a blatant anti-government message.  The king and crew are jet-black bad guys here, with no subtlety included.  The subtext is definitely the triumph of the collective in the form of the courageous villagers, but I would think it's still risky to wave the black flag in a country where daily life orbits around a pudgy, officious bureaucrat-god.  Speaking of gods, it was also surprising to see a communist-helmed film devote so much time to superstitions like exorcists and their beseeching of God.  So weird.

Despite these intermittent quirks, the most surprising thing about Pulgasari the film is how uneventful it is, especially compared to Pulgasari the film production.   It's professionally shot, and acted by people who could be professionally shot if they don't perform well.  The camerawork and utilization of crowd scenes reminded me of 1960s fantasy/adventure films like Sinbad or whatever.  The whole thing seems very antique and it's easy to forget that it was made in the 80s, blasts of synth aside.  It's also pretty standard fare, plotwise: heroic kaiju helps, then falls into traps, then escapes.  Repeat ad nauseam.  

The very, very end unleashes the insanity that we've expected throughout the film.  Having squished the king, Pulgasari starts just lying around a lot and eating all the iron in North Korea.  So, to prevent the farmers from having to make tools out of something else, which would somehow eventually lead to world war, our protagonista kills Pulgasari and herself.  And, years later, North Korea becomes the leading light of nations that we know and love today.  

It is tough to evaluate this.  The circumstances of its production and the putrid nature of North Korea pull down the grading curve.  Watching this and The Act of Killing in the same stretch was a real one-two punch for me.  But the work is the work, to the exclusion of everything else, and judging the film just on its merits, it's mostly meh.  I know you feel like you have to see it, given its origins, but what ended up on the screen is mostly pretty rote and skippable.  PS the director, Sang-ok Shin, and his lady later escaped North Korea, and Shin went on to produce a bunch of 3 Ninjas sequels.  The world is far stranger than you would ever guess.

**1/2

Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Conspiracy (2012)



If you're starting to doubt that there's life to be wrung out of the whole found-footage conceit, you should definitely watch The Conspiracy.  This is one of the most well-designed and original horror flicks I've seen in forever.  A pair of documentarians start delving into the world of conspiracy theorists, especially one loud and hirsute man.  His world is as baffling and illogical as you'd expect: a map of newspaper tragedies on his walls, a freaking brilliant conspiracy-theorist version of Second Life on his computer.  As you'd expect, the notion of a grand conspiracy becomes less outlandish as we proceed and learn more about the world.


But this film is so carefully constructed that even ostensibly predictable things seem fresh and interesting.  Yeah, okay, we know that the resolution probably won't be "lol, there's no conspiracy,  of course", but, by the time we get to the inevitable, we're really invested in our two lead characters and the labyrinthine world they're penetrating.  We're totally on board for the ride.

The movie makes great use of its conceit, too.  The first part of it is tightly-edited and paced well, just like a really good documentary would be.  Clean visuals, coherent narrative, the works.  It ties everything together neatly, just like a grand theory of conspiracy.  But, once things start falling apart for our leads, the film itself starts falling apart and becomes the shaky-cam standard we love in our found footage affairs.  There's a masterful build to a satisfying and delightfully uncertain finale, and I have developed a serious crush on The Conspiracy.  

It seems like we're in a time of expanding horizons for horror.  There are definitely still movies about zombies and vampers being pumped out, but we've also got stuff like Kill List and this exploring territory beyond the traditional.  It's very exciting and very welcome, especially when the final product is this accomplished.

***1/2

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Alien Abduction (2014)

Pretty much the only remarkable thing about Alien Abduction is the camera on which the footage is found.  It's incredibly durable and, at one point, even falls from a tremendous (above airplane-level) height and the only damage is a shattered lens.  Adamantium?  It's mean of the movie to put this spoilery, ridiculous scene right up front, like giving you a bowl of ice cream before force-feeding you five gallons of salt water.  The remainder of the movie is assembly-line bland.  A family goes camping at several remote sites near a mountain that's had nighttime sightings of strange lights.  The youngest kid is autistic and obsessively films everything, you know, like autistic people do in real life.  Suddenly, ALIENZ! attack.  Survival happens for a while, thanks to the efforts of a mountain-man stereotype, but too much of this movie falls into well-traveled found-footage ruts.  You expect jump scares after camera shakes and lots of running and that's what/all you get.  The cast and effects are serviceable, but unspectacular.  Altered and Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County are still the gold standards for this kind of thing.  This Alien Abduction, while not objectionable, seems very unnecessary.

**1/2

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Night of Terror (1933)

At the early stages of Night of Terror, I was confused as to why this energetic, entertaining old dark houser didn't have more of a following.  The credits immediately set a course for fun, as we meet our characters inside a gypsy's crystal ball, and things just get better from there.  But, after about 15 minutes or so, the film starts to falter and shed everything that made it special.  


There's a maniac on the loose and, of course, he looks like a cross between Torgo and every hobo at the hobo camp.  We open in medias death, with the maniac stalking and slaying a parked couple.  Then we get rapid-fire cuts of townspeople discussing these killings.  


So far, so good!  Then it's off to the rich home of the rich Rineharts and their multi-ethnic servants.  One of them Rinehart boys is a scientist who has found a formula that creates safe suspended animation.  "Think of all the submarine crew lives this could potentially save!" is seriously his argument.  But he has to test it first, which means getting literally buried in a coffin for some reason that's never explained.  


Pretty soon, our two plotlines will converge.  In the meantime, we get to enjoy gloriously stupid dialogue, like so:

DEGAR: Perhaps you'd like the evening papers?
RICHARD RINEHART: No, there's nothing in the paper.
DEGAR: Nothing...but MURDER! 

A+.  Besides ridiculous exchanges like that, we also get almost John Waters-style crazy bitchiness, as when one character says, "Think of it, including servants in his will!  I'm disgusted!"  


Soon enough, alas, the frantic energy burns itself out and we're left a generic thriller that seems to get lazier and lazier as time ticks away.  Sometimes, something bubbles up that's worth seeing, such as the baffling performance of Oscar Smith as "Martin the Negro chauffeur".  He's here to fill the traditional frightened-black role of hiding behind chairs and such, but his delivery is just impenetrable.  We get long pauses in the middle of sentences and stammering that I guess is meant to convey fear, but sounds more like a stroke victim having an episode.


Otherwise, this movie fights hard to squander the good will it's earned and take its place in the serried ranks of horror mediocrity.  The very end is a small redemption, but it's not enough to make up for what Night of Terror did to us during its last 45 minutes of life.  The early promise it shows almost leads it up to ***, but its crimes and deficiencies mean that it will be stopped at the border.  


**3/4

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Den (2013)

Lovecraft taught us all about the oldest and strongest fears of mankind, but what about the newest ones?  The ones that arise with the invention of technology, the evolution of communication?  What if the same tools that are bringing us together are really traps?  Why is it called the InterNET, the World Wide WEB?  Why?  y?


There are Internet things that are worse than 4Chan and even Buzzfeed, and even though The Den probably doesn't give us the definitive exploration of those dark places, it's still a fine little film.  Elizabeth (the beauty above) is a student doing a graduate project on Internet communication, specifically a Chatroulette/Omegle-style talk-to-strangers site called The Den.


The early goings are fairly light-hearted.  We get confirmation for what we already know, that the Internet is full of flakes and weirdos.


A Nigerian prince money-transferer even makes a cameo.  But, soon, things get darker, both in the random scenes to which Elizabeth connects and in the attention she's drawing from the Internet's Very Wrongest People.  Stranger danger!


The Den ain't perfect, but there's a lot to like.  The webcam/vidchat gimmick gets exploited pretty effectively—we get lots of switching between character Den accounts and the plotline takes some fun twists and turns.  I was wary of a film comprised mostly of webcam shots, but this movie does a bang-up job of keeping this stuff interesting.  I also loved the portrayal of the police in this film, i.e. that they were either apathetic or completely unprepared to deal with brutal crime in a 3.0 world.  "I ran your picture of a throat-cutting through Google reverse image search, guess that's all we can do!"  


The Den ain't perfect and these are some reasons why: there's a little too much of the film to accommodate the material and it probably would've benefited from more trimming.   Especially concerning are the film's final scenes, when we ditch the static webcam stuff and move into a more Saw/Hostel sort of sphere.  These scenes would have been quite nice as a quick final punch, but they occupy like 15-20 minutes and it's just too much.  Like a lot of recent stuff (I'm talking to you, The Purge), it does hint at a broader concept that would make a great lengthy horror flick, but there's just not enough of that in the minuscule slice we get served this time.  And, for people who care about such things, The Den gets also progressively less believable as time passes.  Whatevah.


Overall, though, I'd say it's worth your time.  Not a lot of people are exploring this kind of content in a successful way, so jump on the good stuff when you can.  And this was pretty good.

***

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Bloody Birthday (1981)

Some movies could never be made today.  Song of the South is a solid example and so is Bloody Birthday, the pitch for which would be "Okay, these three autistic kids run around and murder everybody in this tow—" And you'd never get to finish because the movie executives would have security toss you out.


Astrology, the science of the stars, tells us that children who are born during an eclipse will be born without compassion or empathy, looking at other humans as mere pieces of furniture or like silverware.  Hence, these are the three lunatic killers in our horror movie.


I know, I was pretty skeptical, too.  But 2/3 of the trio are very effective.  Grownup scream queens could learn a lot from Elizabeth Hoy as blonde girl maniac Debbie Brody.  She shifts from angelically sweet to a convincing monster-face on a dime.  Andrew Freeman as killer nerd Steven Seton is also quite effective, like an young and evil alternate-universe Egon Spengler.  Who loves peepholes.


I'm assuming the blonde boy actor was actually born during an eclipse because he lacks the charisma of the other two.  Anyway, even though this is called Bloody Birthday, the kills are not really that bloody.  Having kids kill with guns and arrows and such is more realistic, but not as spectacular as some of your more prominent 1980s horror deaths.


The most disturbing thing in the movie is this clown with an I CAN'T SAY NO shirt.  Why would God let this happen?


A lot of Birthday plays out as you'd expect, with adults dying in assorted ways and surviving adults never suspecting the kids.  Some of it lets you know the creators were trying, though.  You can see the ambition in the framing of the shots and in the way a character is named "Sheriff Brody".


I really dug a lot of the kill scenes, since the movie takes great pains to rarely show the kids directly killing.  All the shots are stitched together, like A) kid picks up knife, B) victim recoils in fear, C) kid raises knife and looks mighty pleased, and D) victim dies.  No actual interaction, probably to spare our baby killers, but the deliberate workarounds become interesting in themselves after a while.  And allow editing to take its well-deserved spotlight.


This isn't a classic and I'd be loathe to rate it above April Fool's Day or something, but it's generally a fun outing. Maybe because it's such an early entry, it seems to really pump the transgressive potential out of the killer-kid thing.  And two of the juvenile cutthroats are just endlessly entertaining.  Unless you're just dead-set against killer kids or proto-slashers, you should find something to enjoy in this!  PS I would like a T-shirt with the shot below, thx.


***

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

The film announces its fantasticness upon its birth, during the opening scene.  We get an argument between a wax museum proprietor and his angry financial backer, in which the backer accuses the proprietor of sacrificing profits for art.  Why don't you create a Jack the Ripper or Burke & Hare instead of all this history crap? says the financier.  Then he starts a fire and waddles off, leaving the wax artiste to get baked.


I'll remind you that this verbal dialectic about pure art versus the commercially-viable macabre is THE OPENING SCENE TO A HORROR MOVIE.


You can tell immediately that Mystery isn't going to be constrained by genre limitations or stripped of its ambitions.  Departing from burnt, waxy London, we land in New York, where it's New Year's Eve, and bored morticians are sad about the low body count.  There's an amazing proto-jump scare that's topped with a pretty good joke, giving us our first real taste of the movie's genre-bending character.  Soon enough, we learn that waxman Igor, who was apparently burned right into a wheelchair, is reopening his shop in NYC.


It's 1933, it's a horror film, so that means we're probably going to see Fay "Overwrayted" Wray and here she is, as the girlfriend of a wax museum assistant. Wray is here to be pretty and imperiled and she does all that well enough.  


But the queen bee MVP of this film is clearly Glenda Farrell as Florence Dempsey, a wisecracking lady journalist.  I can't remember the last time I was this impressed by a performance.  Farrell delivers her lines at whiplash speed and, at one point, gets this extended Ayn Rand-sized monologue that she races through.  It's an almost athletic performance and she's awesome to watch whenever she's on the screen.  Thankfully, Florence is a pivotal character as she unravels the titular mystery, so we get lots of opportunities to enjoy her.  I'm not sure what Fay Wray's character does for a living.  Professional girlfriend?  Professionally pretty?  Who knows?


The wax museum scenes are certainly creepy enough, especially when we get to stuff like the stabbed Marat or the beetle-browed Napoleon.  This film doesn't skimp on the hard stuff, as we get a fair share of violence, plus junkies, bootleggers, and girly magazines called NAUGHTY STORIES.


But the movie's constantly shifting tones from grim images to light banter.  Some people will loathe the crazy patchwork quality on display here, but I loved it.  So interesting!


They even threw in a little expressionism in the woman-swallowing sets at the end of the movie.


And that ending!  Motherfuck!  Frequently, even very enjoyable pieces will fumble their finales, but Mystery sticks it for the win.  Everything from the big reveal to the masterfully-edited final chase scene is just delightful to watch.  This definitely exceeded my expectations and I could see it gaining even more of my heart after I rewatch it.  Which I will. 


***1/2

Patrick (2013)

Much like Maniac, a re-envisioning of a noted-but-flawed original, although I don't think Patrick succeeds as smashingly as that Elijah Wood hit.  The basics of the plot get ported over from 1978's Patrick—comatose Patrick lies around all day, involuntarily spitting, until a comely nurse arrives.  At this point, Patrick's Carrie-esque psychic abilities start manifesting themselves.  He specializes in hand damage, but also does some fine work with cars and mirrors. 


At least the visuals are significantly better.  This Patrick is very carefully constructed, with killer overhead shots and perfect color choices.  With the old architecture, subdued lighting, and muted colors, it feels like a period piece, until someone pops out a cell phone or earbuds to remind you that it's not.  


The acting's pretty solid, too.  And the score by Pino Donaggio is top-notch.  But here's the problem: a lot of this film brings yawns.  The early goings are slow, which is to be expected if you're setting up relationships and characters and stuff.  But, even after telekinesis is happening and blood gets loosed, it's still plenty unengaging.  One difficulty might be that our protagonista is established through interaction with a motionless hunk of flesh.  There's not much to draw viewers in, y'know?


In fact, the shift in tone from crawlingly slow to wow-explodey doesn't really mesh too well.  Especially when some very ill-advised CGI effects are added.  And, as stated, even the sudden injection of action into the plot didn't do much to charm me.


I'm a big advocate of remakes of the right kind of movies (one that could be improved by a second attempt).  Patrick would certainly seem to qualify and yet I suspect that this remake's only enduring legacy will be the immortal line "Patrick wants his handjob".  Such are the vagaries of fortune.


**1/2

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Son of Kong (1933)

So King Kong did pretty well and they apparently fast-tracked this sequel.  Fay Wray refused to reprise her role, but they did manage to get some of the original cast to sign on for a second outing. 


Including Robert Armstrong as Carl Denham!  He brought King Kong to New York, remember, and now everyone's mad about property damage and killings, etc.  Denham is hiding out in a cheapo boardinghouse of sorts, but he is still comically beset by journalists and process servers.  This whole schism of wacky antics and angsty regret about Kong-caused genocide runs through the whole movie.


It was going to be difficult to pull off a Kong postscript no matter what, but I think I would have liked either a remorseful approach or an lol approach to prevail throughout the movie.  The mixture of the two sometimes doesn't gel well.  Although it's hard to fault scenes like the one below, which is Denham escaping the boardinghouse by wearing a bashed tub as a mask.


Denham's an interesting character in this film.  The movie totally utilizes Armstrong's comic timing, but, in a lot of ways, Denham's a sour jackass.  When he finally gets one lawsuit notice too many, he up and leaves New York for the high seas.  Through a series of circumstances, he meets former ballerina-cum-guitar gal Hilda (Helen Mack).  He wins her heart by berating her, a technique he later applies to the Son of Kong.


More circumstances lead a portion of our cast back to Skull Island, where they encounter said Son, trapped in quicksand.  Note that the "son" of Kong is white, so we might need to get Maury on the case here.


Henceforth, the film plays pretty much like a retread of the first Kong.  Monster fights, romance, all that.  The effects are well up to par and everything's executed well, but it does feel a little tedious and unnecessary at times.  Remember how Ghostbusters II was pretty much Ghostbusters again, but less fun?  Same thing here.


One thing that is noticeably different is that Son is way more kiddied up compared to the first movie.  The Kong we have here is cutesy and goofy and makes "Aww, geez!" faces directly at the camera.  He pounds down on a cave bear, but otherwise lacks a lot of the menace that his dad brought to the screen.  Denham is responsible for most of the aggression here, calling Lil' Kong a "dummy" and a "half-wit" when coconut accidents occur.


It would be a big stretch to consider this a horror film (one could say the same about King Kong, but at least it had deliberately frightening scenes).  Son is far more of a light adventure film.  How light?  Well, one character's recently dead parent is dismissed in the dialogue with, essentially, "Aw, that's too bad.  Well, keep your chin up!"  Granted, we've already fled from the consequences of all the people the first Kong killed, but it's still quite glib.


Overall, pretty fun, if a serious step down in quality compared to the first Kong.  This is really more reminiscent in tone of Mighty Joe Young or something, if not a Rankin-Bass cartoon.  It feels like something you'd see on Saturday morning, sandwiched between cartoons and "Solid Gold".

***