Wednesday, September 29, 2010

HEAD TRAUMA (2005)

This low-budget thriller seems to be moderately adored, but it did little for me. Chalk it up to my hatred of bums or dislike of twisty psychodramas, but it just never captivated me.

George (Vince Mola) is a bum who returns to his hometown to assume possession of his dead grandmother's house. I can't call him "homeless", considering he has a house and all, but he is 1000% bum. Flask full of rotgut, Salman Rushdie beard, the whole nine yards. He builds a tent inside the house and makes a trap out of string and empty beer bottles. After suffering HEAD TRAUMA! (spoiler), he begins having visions of a ghostly figure in a parka and a hanging woman.
This is filmed in a pretty stylish fashion. I dug the muted colors and cinematography. The acting wasn't really all that choice, but not egregiously bad on the low-budget scale either. What really hardened my heart towards the film was the lack of sympathetic characters. As I said, my personal prejudice might be darkening my perception—I interact with very unsympathetic and unmotivated homeless people everyday, not the ones who would be happy to have a job, but the ones who would happily sell grandma's house for more drink money. The ones who have abused or alienated everyone who might have helped them. George reminds me of those guys. Knowing that there are reasons for his couch-slouch ways doesn't do enough for me in terms of rendering him a charming protagonist. He's not fun to hate after the fashion of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST or whatever, either. He's just there...a layabout.

The young next-door neighbor who helps George repair the house in penance for giving him HEAD TRAUMA is probably my fave actor (Jamil A.C. Mangan, btw), but we don't spend enough time with his character or George's long-lost love interest to develop any sort of feeling for them. We're mostly stuck with George, in his tent, boozin' and hallucinatin' it up for much of the film's running time.

In the end, not terrible, but nothing that I'll remember much a month from now. #5 of 31.

THE SENDER (1982)

Fun psychic-phenom film that divided a nation back in 1982. I checked Google News Archive and found hectoring articles from suited journos bewailing "why the moviegoing public is so hung up on this sappy stuff".

Dunno what sap the Toledo Blade means, unless it's fake blood, which shows up in THE SENDER more often than one might expect. The movie doesn't pussyfoot around with prolonged openings, either. It kicks right into gear as Zeljko Ivanek's character (later identified as John Doe #83) wakes up beside a road and promptly tries to drown himself. ("this newcomer is terrific at looking bewildered", lolcats, Toledo Blade!)

He's rescued and taken to the mental hospital of Dr. Gail Farmer (the VERY Sigourney-esque Kathryn Harrold). From thence, we learn that he's a "sender" who can transmit his dreams or nightmares into others' waking existences. Oh yeah, and his perhaps-ghost mom shows up, too!
Suffice it to say that little of this makes a lick of sense. I submitted a plot outline of THE SENDER to several peer-reviewed journals of dream-transmission logic and none of them could make heads nor tails of it. Why can't more movies be the way I want them to be, with dancing scenes such as those of PRIDE & PREJUDICE, only for hours instead of minutes? THE SENDER would be far better if it were about a boy who went to Westhampton instead of a mental hospital, and had lactose intolerance instead of dream-transmission problems.

Love, The Toledo Blade.

For people who don't mind their fantastic films being a little fantastic, THE SENDER offers great kicks. Mental-hospital horror is as underappreciated as farm horror and the best kind incorporate surrealistic touches. SENDER has them in spades, from swarms of rats to bleeding doors. It also has good dialogue, especially in the first part of the film, when we meet the cuckoos at the hospital. A sneering crazy calls John Doe a "rookie" and I'm in love. It's also filmed very well, so you can add director Roger Christian to the list of this film's crew who probably should have had a more storied career (perhaps his most [in]famous film is BATTLEFIELD EARTH).

Is it more ambitious than was probably wise? Yes, indeed. But I'd rather watch an interesting and ambitious failure than some staidly beautiful play-it-safe Oscar bait. And, FYI, confusion and illogic in this kind of film are features, not bugs. Explaining things to death is the curse and flaw of all too much modern horror. If we had more like this (RETURN TO THE SENDER, pls), I'd be a happy camper.

#4 of 31.

Monday, September 27, 2010

FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY (1973)

Another TV movie, this one another version of the old tale, screenwritten by novelist Christopher Isherwood. And, for a small-screen effort, it's quite sprawling and impressive. As in, you will need a whole afternoon to watch the three hours plus of this film.

At the outset, there are warning signs. The first half is not a thrill ride and some of the dialogue is worrisome. When the creature debuts looking like a male model and Dr. Frankenstein proclaims, "Now you shall be the greatest dandy in town!", my stomach turned with fear. Surely this wouldn't be a TWILIGHT-style whitewash job! The usage of solar power rather than lightning also seemed like an all-too-modern alteration. Thankfully, things get more excited midway through...

...once the Creature starts losing his looks. He's so horrified that he runs away, momentarily
befriending the world's best-dressed blind hermit. This series of scenes also leads to the introduction and flourishing of the two awesomest characters, Dr. Polidori and Prima, the lady creature.

Prior to this point, the movie had merely been adequate. The dialogue in particular was no great shakes. But clearly they'd just been saving the WIN for James Mason as Dr. Polidori! He's wonderfully bitchy and boorish ("Violence is unavoidable, but clumsiness is inexcusable!!!"), while still saying the things the audience wishes to say ("You and your SOLAR ENERGY!!"). I was confused as to why the guy who plays a minor character got top billing until I saw this performance. It's so fun and splendid and it's a real shame that you have to wait ninety minutes to really see it.

The other thing that makes the second half oh-so-much-better than the first is Jane Seymour'sportrayal of Prima. I'm not going to bring the curse of Elsa Lanchester down upon myself, but I will say that Seymour is ONE OF the best lady creatures to ever hit the screen. She chokes cats and licks blood out of her claw-wounds and doesn't just scream, but goes full ninja on the creature when they meet.

This is a good film. It's not a revelation that mandates a shifting of favorites, as the Langella DRACULA was, but it's a decent enough entry. The main stumbling block for most is going to be its length. It was aired as a miniseries and tends to drag in places, particular in the first portion of the film. But it's far better to finish strong (as this does) than exhibit promise and taper off (as the creature does).

#3 of 31.

Friday, September 24, 2010

LEFT BANK (2008)

Recommended by the ever-reliable Emma Blackwood, this Belgian import brings the atmosphere and creepiness, indeed. It's tough to discuss it without giving too much away, but suffice it to say that adorers of WICKER MAN and ROSEMARY'S BABY will have reason to smile.

Elina Kuppens is solid gold as Marie, a young athlete whose burgeoning track career is postponed by exhaustion and injury. Since running had apparently been her life, she chooses to fill the void with another athlete, an archer named Bobby who lives on the Left Bank of Antwerp. After moving into his apartment, Marie uncovers sinister secrets about the apartment's previous tenant and the building itself. And her body starts falling apart even faster.

This is an extremely well-written and well-shot film. The beauty of the Belgian landscape stands in strong contrast to the malevolence at work inside the Left Bank building. Director Pieter Van Hees conjures strong imagery and masterfully mixes scares, surreal episodes, and more conventional scenes. The writing is without flaw, as LEFT BANK builds and builds to its conclusion with no missteps and without resorting to needless jump-scares or other shopworn tricks of the fright trade.

And those actors! I'm definitely going to invest some time into seeing more work from this cast, ESPECIALLY Elina Kuppens. While other actors might play Marie as a little too self-involved, she handles the character perfectly. When she says that, essentially, she won't be happy with second best, it's a moment that could lose audience sympathy. And yet we never dislike Marie and feel more & more apprehensive as she gets dragged deeper into danger.

This is, among other things, a movie about bodies. Not necessarily in the Cronenberg way, although there is some squishiness here, at least for a boy who grew up Baptist like me. But Marie, when we meet her, is living solely on the strength of her body. When that's taken away, she immediately turns to another body (Bobby). Sexuality shows up every day in this film, both in terms of the frequent congress with Bobby as well in his opposite number, the scholarly Dirk (who flubs his shot at physical interaction with Marie).

The Emma Blackwood review pointed at the other major theme that caught my interest: the independence or dependence of women. Marie is clearly a self-sufficient figure, not the typical scream queen who faints at shadows or can't open pickle jars. She's a very gifted athlete who (we're told) rarely socializes. Her major problems begin when she begins a relationship with Bobby. Most of the other women in the film don't have male counterparts: Marie's mom is a divorcee (who said that it didn't work because her husband couldn't stand strong women); the neighbor in Left Bank is apparently raising her daughter solo; and Bobby's grandmother has no grandfather that we see. Relationships, it's hinted, correlate with problems: Dirk's girlfriend vanished under mysterious circumstances. Feminist horror scholars, all two of them, will find many bones to dig in this film.

An exceptional film that would probably be less overlooked if it came out of Britain or France. I'd be very surprised and saddened if word of mouth didn't garner it a reputation. #2 of 31.

Monday, September 20, 2010

DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW (1981)

DARK NIGHT, originally aired as a made-for-TV film, has garnered quite the cult following over these long years and, truth be told, it is a solid small-screen piece of work. Let's just see if it merits the neglected-classic status that some have deigned to give it...

Larry Drake demonstrates, early in his career, why he went on to feature roles in LA LAW, DARKMAN, and DR. GIGGLES (I suppose). He plays the hell out of Bubba, a mentally-challenged man who befriends a local girl, much to the illogical chagrin of a postal worker, a mechanic, a farmer, and another guy. A mix-up leads to the foursome seeking vengeance (this includes an awesome scene in which Bubba's mom derides Postal Dude's law-enforcement authority). Stuff happens that you'd expect and, after ten or so minutes, we've got the table set for a supernatural revenge soiree.

DARK NIGHT is sort of hampered by its TV-movie origins. Things are paced for commercial interruption. The sets aren't elaborate and the camerawork is a little restrained (no Rob Zombie insane crane shots here) and some of the acting really feels like TV acting.

BUT the setting is great! Farm horror is a sadly neglected subgenre. The setting gives you all you need: isolation; space; ears of corn for the pack animals and actors. It's perfect for low-budget genre stuff because you don't have to build fields of wheat—God already did it for you! Plus farms are quite creepy by nightfall.

AND this is a well-paced film! It might let slip its small-screen origins in places, but it's never boring the way that too many "feature films" are. DARK NIGHT is tight and taut, wasting no time on extraneous scenes, living a lifestyle quite unlike its DARK KNIGHT cousin. If the story is nothing mind-blowing (more or less a TALE FROM THE DARKSIDE writ large), it's handled exceptionally well. It's not an epic vision along the lines of PHANTASM or DAWN OF THE DEAD, but it is a fun campfire tale done right. Not a classic in wider terms of the genre, but arguably a classic on the TV-horror scale.

Worth your time for sure.

PS I'm resuming my tradition of watching 31 horror films that I've not seen before over the course of October. I'm getting a mild jump on it, since I'm quite busy these days. If you want to call it cheating and complain to the Blog Certification Board, be my guest, cretin.

Monday, September 6, 2010

TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972)

So I took August off. Fuck you — I had lots of Katherine Paterson to read and needed time to update my Twitters.

Do you enjoy it when people say, "I'm not racist, but", as I do? I would marry it or fan it on Facebook. I'm not monoculturalist, but I'm not certain that the British were the right people to handle a Tales from the Crypt adaptation. I don't know if they have the right sensibilities to transfer the squalidness of the better stories to a screen. This anthology is decent enough, but I can think of many other Crypt tales that I'd rather see and many other anthologies that I'd rather watch. This seems kind of restrained at times.

I had a very Joan Collins weekend, as I watched EMPIRE OF THE ANTS (and blehhh), then noticed that she kicks off this anthology! In the familiar tale of a psycho Santa that was repeated in the TFTC TV series. That Joan Collins sure was pretty (and busy and talented) and there was nothing really wrong with this, but there's nothing there that would be worth crossing the street to see.

The street plays a role in the next sequence, in which our hero, an adulterer, abandons his wife and kid to run off with some harlot. But God will have none of that and summarily crashes their car. More than one twist ending arrives before it ends. So far, the overriding theme of the film is WOMEN ARE EVIL WHORES RUN AWAY.

And now things are looking up because omg it's Peter Cushing! Playing a Cockney garbageman! This one comes closest, I think, to capturing what was most magical about TFTC (likable or hateable character, morality play, ghoulish humor, and such). Plus it's PETER CUSHING in a role that (I think) he only did here (and I don't mean garbageman). He REALLY elevates what is a fine, but not remarkable story. This made me a little sad because I will never see a new Peter Cushing movie.

But I stopped crying, eventually. The next segment is "The Monkey's Paw". Not literally, I mean, but basically that's what it is, even though they reference "The Monkey's Paw" in the dialog. META. This one is fine, too, not exceptionally great and DEATHDREAM shouldn't start grasping at its throne in worry, but executed well enough to be enjoyable. 2 for 4 thus far. PS Never marry a WOMAN! She will just get you killed, then consign you to eternal pain and cry about it because of her FEELINGS.

The last segment has a good, creepy concept (a home for the blind is a fantastic setting for a horror story), but is dragged out a hair too long. This balances the very rapid, terse feeling of the first two tales, but the pendulum swings a bit too far the other way. Waiting and waiting for the payoff.

This has an armada of faithful fans, but I just didn't feel that satisfied by film's end. If I have to convince myself to have fun and spin wild tales (like the Crypt Keeper here is the pre-pubescent version of the series Crypt Keeper) during a TALES FROM THE CRYPT movie, something is wrong. It wasn't a total disappointment, like this review or SHUTTER ISLAND, but I still wanted more. Maybe VAULT OF HORROR, which is disc the second of this set, will give me what I crave. TALES FROM THE CRYPT I have not loved.