Thursday, December 26, 2013

AMOK TRAIN (1989)

AKA BEYOND THE DOOR III.  I probably rented BEYOND THE DOOR a billion times when I was a teenager.  I rented it, realized that it sucked, and promptly forgot about it, then grabbed the box at the next video store trip and repeated the experience.  I still can't remember anything about BEYOND THE DOOR, so I have no idea how connected AMOK TRAIN is, storyline-wise.  I know that it does start off with some fantastic lipstick/orange shirt synergy.


This lady is in the film just long enough to establish that a group of students are going on a dream trip to Serbia!  The Alabama of Europe!  One of them is of Serbian ancestry and is embarrassed about that and also about being a virgin.  Her mother is very eastern Euro in appearance and rate of worrying.


Let's test your ethnic identification skills: circle the Serbian virgin in this picture.


The kids are met by "The Professor", who has a very eastern Euro Van Dyke beard and promises to take them to a pre-Christian passion play.  It's explained right in the dialogue that this doesn't make sense, since passion plays are Christian by definition.


But just in case you don't pick on this subtle hint that SOMETHING IS WRONG, we then travel to the Serbian holler, which pretty much looks like rural Alabama with dwarfs instead of albinos.  


If AMOK TRAIN is valuable at all, it's in its pre-HOSTEL depictions of the Wrong Part of Europe as a deadly, untrustworthy place full of dwarfs and strange beards and cackling granny versions of Messiah Marcolin.  It's taken for granted that the Serbians we meet are all rubes or devil worshippers.  It's hard to imagine the same sort of trope happening if the kids were going to France or Prince Edward Island or Compton.


The kids escape and board the amok train, whatever that means.  Now the interminably long and incredibly boring portion of the movie begins.  Missteps abound.  e.g. Serbian Virgin has a conversation with the evil train in which the evil train says, "Oh, dear".  


A horror film whose cynosure is a train ride filmed in real time is probably not going to succeed.  Yet there are some highlights if you look hard enough.  The body count in AMOK TRAIN is pretty low, but I liked the gore that we get.  There's not enough of it to shift your opinion of the film, but it's definitely one of the movie's stronger assets.  


The typical "how do we stop the train?" stuff is pretty thrilling on occasion, especially when it's integrated with the train's supernatural elements, like when it plows through a lake or whatever.  I liked the contrast of the train with individual trucks and other vehicles.  Gross evil mass transit vs. honest gas-using car culture is a good motif to explain the changes in crypto-Soviet states.


The TL;DR on this, though, is "mostly sucks".  

RATING: 4

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

THE HAUNTING (1999)

After mulling it over, I think I have less of an issue with remakes than lots of horror folks.  To me, if you're not going to get upset about another version of Othello or Antigone (how many do there need to be???), you should likewise be tolerant of films taking good material in another direction.  That's not to say that certain remakes aren't a bad idea—I can't imagine EXORCIST working as well in a modern, even more skeptical setting—but the main stumbling block for me is general lack of quality.  Horror remakes aren't the problem; bad horror films are.  


Look at all the stars!  And yet I actually forgot that there was a HAUNTING remake until it showed up on Netflix, which should please people who are fearful of classics being dislodged by their remake spawn.  We open with Eleanor (Lili Taylor) having a spat with her bitchy sister while her bratty nephew destroys the apartment.  Said apartment ain't gonna be Eleanor's for long, thanks to her mom's will's provisions.  Fortunately, opportunity knocks in the form of a newspaper ad.


Opening with Eleanor barking back at her dingbat family is kind of a really bad decision, character-wise.  Because immediately she heads to Hill House where the titular haunting will go down and where she will inexplicably transform into the mousy, fragile Eleanor of the original film.  Jarring, but we must press on.  This HAUNTING happens in a more wealthy America and you can see the lucre flushed into this more ostentatious Hill House.


The set design, interior and exterior, could legit be this film's MVP.  What we see is all very carefully staged with color and shadow splashed masterfully throughout the frame.  It tilts toward the surreal, which can only help a film about supernatural business.  I also enjoyed the Jerry Goldsmith score.  Relish this positivism, because it's just about time to bitch.


THIS SCRIPT.  The stuff that's just slopped over from the first film or the Jackson novel is fine, if delivered in a pretty uninspired way.  But the changes!  Spoilers!!  This HAUNTING is far more of a conventional good-vs.-evil thing than the original film, with Eleanor/Nell at one point screaming about "FAMILY" (after she beats up a CGI griffin with a metal pole).  HAUNTING '99 loses the undercurrent of perverse sexuality that powered the novel and first film; instead, we get your basic loud-noises horror film, just with a weirdo protagonist for no reason.  It's pretty crazy that the '60s version of THE HAUNTING is way more challenging than its '90s cousin.  And kind of depressing.


I don't hate Owen Wilson, but I do hate what he represents.  I don't watch Owen Wilson comedies, so whenever I see him, I assume it's because he's been drafted into a genre I like.  And, usually, it's to add comic relief or lite comedy, such as happens here (or that I'm watching PARIS AT MIDNIGHT, which means I've been tricked again).  HAUNTING '99 constantly undercuts its own tensions, slicing wildly at its own throat and Achilles' tendons, by making Wilson deliver lines about Teletubbies and other wacky topics that no one now remembers.  Plus Wilson has a carpet-riding scene that ties Taylor's griffin battle and Zeta-Jones saying, "YOU DON'T EVEN CARE ABOUT INSOMNIA" as this film's most excruciating moment.


This film is incredibly concerned about Lili Taylor's hair.  There are three different scenes in which her hair is the object of total attention, two of which involve the haunting manifesting itself through Lili Taylor's hair.  I couldn't find the scene in which she has a devilock, but it's the cutest.  The screencap below is a runner-up, must-seeable for different reasons, awful CGI ones.


This might have been better if they'd made the whole thing in MS Paint.  The CGI in this is hit or miss, but FX in general are badly overused.  Subtlety is generally your best practice in a haunted house film, but, after it finishes spinning its wheels for 1/2 its running time, this HAUNTING vomits angry ghost faces and nonplussed cherubs all over your screen.  Bitchy Hill House is an especially egregious example.


This isn't a failure because it's not THE HAUNTING (the real one).  It's a failure because what it's trying to do isn't worthwhile.  A haunted-house movie with poor characterization and multiple camp classic scenes and 15 minutes of Lili Taylor hair probably won't turn out well, no many how many pixels and credit cards you throw at it.  Soulless and loud, like a lot of 90s horror, and I think my run of 90s stuff has come to a close.  Next year needs to be scuzzier, with stuff screened in theaters that reek of cheap cleaning products, and having little to do with Lili Taylor hair.


RATING: 3

Friday, December 13, 2013

ARACHNOPHOBIA (1990)


We'll start with a long prologue, about 12 minutes' worth, set in exotic and rocky locales and introducing us to our film's primary villain, the big-ass spider of the Amazon.  A team of entomologists are gathering rare fauna by gassing them with poisonous vapors and packing away their multicolored corpses into these giant ashtray-type tubes.


But those tubes won't hold the last corpse, the human-sized corpse of a photographer who is bitten to death by a spider.  The spider hitches a ride to a town in the States, where a new doctor is just settling in and having rib-tickling run-ins with the quirky locals.  Watch for John (CHUD) Goodman as a funny fat guy.


ARACHNOPHOBIA is that kind of movie, one that often shoves horror elements to the back of the room so that small-town comedy can hog the spotlight.  It's a very latter Spielbergian kind of movie, consumed with the interplay of a doctor and his nuclear family and sometimes only secondarily with an infestation of exceedingly venomous spiders.


Spiders, even big ones, don't really scare me that much, so I'm probably not best qualified to praise the joys of ARACHNOPHOBIA.  Even so, it feels like the movie often misses out on how lithe and good at hiding spiders can be.  Too often, they basically just show up en masse.  Sure, they creep into popcorn bowls and shoes, but rarely emerge from cracks or corners. 


Sometimes ARACHNOPHOBIA throws us a disquieting image, but mostly this is pretty safe and unthreatening lite-90s horror.  Amblin produced it and, naturally, its tempo is mostly ambling, pleasant and never bothering to jar you or stick in your brain.  Nothing objectionable, but not much worth celebrating either.


RATING: 5

Friday, December 6, 2013

LIFEFORCE (1985)

Have you talked to your family about naked space vampires yet?  LIFEFORCE might help with that difficult, but necessary conversation.   A crew of astronauts encounter Halley's Comet and find a strange floating ship hanging out in its cone.  They board and are then immersed in a very ALIEN environment.


It's hard not to cite ALIEN in these early scenes, not long after ALIEN screenwriter Dan O'Bannon's writing credit for this has faded.  But originality doesn't mean goodness or vice versa, plus LIFEFORCE soon introduces an element that ALIEN didn't.


Naked space vampires.  That's Mathilda May, totally exposed in front as the girl vamp.  The exploratory astronauts take all these naked people back to their ship along with the corpse of a batlike thing.  


Everything seems fine with the nudes under glass AT FIRST, but this is a horror movie and soon people are shrinking down to Nicole Ritchie size, but more raisin-y, and then dying.  And this is just the prologue!  Most of LIFEFORCE takes place on Earth, where the vampires and the single astronaut survivor have a showdown in London.


More Mathilda May nudity occurs, with hysterically creative blocking to shield her tutu from public viewing.  At this point, the nudity levels in LIFEFORCE level off, but the insanity levels shoot right to the moon.


Some of the vamp-victim effects are questionable, but stick through the middle portion of this film and you'll be rewarded with all sorts of baffling nonsense.


Young Patrick Stewart is not even in the top ten of strange things that the film throws at you.  We get psychic bondage, lines like "Despite appearances, this woman is a masochist!", a secretary named Miss Havisham, and about thirty minutes of vampire street riot mayhem.  These vamps don't suck blood, they ingest the lifeforce of their victims, and LIFEFORCE straddles the line between its more science-first revision vampism and traditional tropes and atmosphere.


I generally evaluate movies by asking three questions.  What were the filmmakers trying to do?  How worthy is that goal?  How well did they succeed?  LIFEFORCE evades any attempt at answers.  It's a mishmash of stuff (ALIEN, QUATERMASS, French softcore) that demands attention through its bold weirdness.


RATING: 6

Sunday, December 1, 2013

THE RELIC (1997)

This is a relic in lots of ways.  This film appeared in the middle of the moody-brooding nineties, sandwiched somewhere between LAWNMOWER MAN and the HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL remake, but it has the science-haunted heart of a fifties giant-creature flick.  Look all around you and you'll find science.  It's there in the brain chemical and protein genealogy of the giant monster.  It's there in Penelope Ann Miller's enjoyable performance as scientist heroine Dr. Green.  It's there in the time we devote to scientists bickering over grant money, as Dr. Ayn Rand pulls out her luxurious hair in heaven.


A Chicago museum is about to unveil its exhibit on superstition, much to the dismay of superstition-hating Dr. Green.  Unfortunately, a murdered body is unveiled first and the police arrive with tough cookie Lt. D'Agosta in the lead (Tom Sizemore, also really good here).  The case is apparently solved at the halfway point of the film, but the red herring leads to red blood being slopped all around the mammoth exhibits and ceramic cavemen.


As stated, the film recalls science-inflected B-movie fun of the fifties.  There's precious little evidence of the cynical grungy nineties happening outside those museum doors.  People talk about lattes like they've just been invented and the Internet gets namedropped as a novelty.  Otherwise, this could be set in 1955.


Some might point to the poorly-lit decor as an edgy nineties thing (or a weakness), but it's clearly just a stylistic choice.  Stuff gets lit when it needs to be and keeping the film dark does help to make monster concealment feel more natural.  Even though, yeah, sometimes it is pretty strange to see people having a normal conversation in a museum that looks like a recessed cave.


Peter Hyams directed and shot this and it sure seems like he knew what he was doing when we get a really pretty piece of lighting contrasted with the surrounding unlit scenes.


He knew what he was doing with the monster, too.  THE RELIC wisely keeps it hidden.  We get flashes of its limbs and tail to suggest massive size, and we also get aristocrat facial reactions that suggest impressive monster design.


What we finally see of it is pretty choice.  I love how the monster moves, with this bouncing gallop like a tiger or Tigger.  The science behind its origins will also entertain, if you love B-movie explanations as much as I do.  Despite the science, THE RELIC is mostly a well-done brain-free fun film.  It doesn't have a lot to say about human nature or the nature of truth or what is beauty, but if you want to see heads torn off and panicked people in tuxedos falling down stairs, this is for you.


RATING: 6