Friday, November 11, 2011

Hallowen Coverage: The 'Down to Milk Duds Edition'

(...and now we owe the Milk Duds people an apology for that one, don't we?)

Anyway, it's run a bit later than we'd have liked, but at last, we come to the end of the October feature at the Third Row. It's been a lot of ups and downs, but also been a lot of great practice at getting these out in a more presentable and, to a degree, timely fashion. With fewer movies to manage in the weeks to come, hopefully this will help future reviews get sorted on a regular basis, starting next week.

That's right, not rid of me that easily.
...or you are if you just don't come back...
...please come back...

ANYWAY. This marks the last week of this year's Halloween run. The final four were a pretty odd spread after everything we've done to this point, but for the most part, I still feel it was a satisfactory way to send the month out.

Having said that, let's begin.

"...no. It's not a Goddamn Voldemort costume."


10/28. Nosferatu the Vampyre

Up until it was suggested for this list, I had no idea Werner Herzog had done a remake of this film. Learning that he did however, and that he gave the title role to his colleague, the talented and potentially insane Klaus Kinski, I was automatically curious. I went in expecting well made insanity from the duo that, prior to this, had brought us Aguirre, Wrath of God. The film I got was unexpected, but certainly welcome. It was a good movie, certainly, but surprisingly not as insane as I was expecting (although some of the behind the scenes stories regarding the treatment of the rats echo back to the more classic tales of the proverbial gauntlet that is Herzog movies.) In terms of horror as well as a vampire story, this one might seem a bit daunting on the first watch - it takes its story from F.W. Murnau's silent film of the same name, but also takes advantage of the fact Bram Stoker's book that Murnau was loosely adapting is finally public domain, and changes up names accordingly. The result is a variation on the Dracula story that is equal parts traditional but also altogether unique. Alongside that, the movie is a very slow burn. Many have criticized the film as running too long and too slow, and while I can see where the complaints have some basis, I would say it's worth seeing anyway.
This is fueled in part by two things. The first, Kinski's performance as Dracula. The rest of the cast are all largely good, don't get me wrong, but it's Kinski's turn as the film's titular vampire that really sells this. While adorning the similar batlike makeup of silent actor Max Schreck, he manages to capture a sad sort of humanity in the Count: world-weary and tired of his immortality. Even just looking at him in many scenes, one can see a weariness in his eyes that Kinski delivers perfectly. The other strong suit that makes this film worth the watch - to be perfectly blunt, it's beautiful. No. Really. Herzog has a great eye for visuals on this movie, as well as with his music cues. Alongside some great locales, he is able to shoot some striking sequences within the film. Even a somewhat surreal sequence with minimal dialogue in which Lucy (Isabelle Adjani) wanders through the village in the throes of plague is handled in such a way that it feels more artistic than horrifying. As remakes go, I'm not sure I can rightly say this one surpasses its predecessor, in part since it changes enough to rightly stand on its own two legs (as any proper remake really should.) I will, however, say this certainly qualifies as a good case study, along with last entry's The Thing, for why remakes can be respectable if placed in the right hands.


Despite Kenner's best attempts to keep the incident silent,
it was only a matter of time before photos of Stretch Armstrong's
suicide made their way to the public.

10/29. Uzumaki

When I learned there was actually a live-action adaptation of Junji Ito's horror manga of the same name, I had to do a bit of a doubletake at first. This was cause I wasn't sure how one would be able to properly adapt the three-volume, somewhat episodic story of a small town caught up in the throes of a curse that induces obsession, madness, and finally David Cronenberg-level body horror (all themed around, as the title suggests, spirals.) It's a great read, but one that presents a challenge to put on the big screen. For all my misgivings, especially in learning that director Higuchinsky was adapting from the manga before it was completed, I was fairly satisfied with the film in question. It's definitely not the most faithful of adaptations, to be certain - alongside having to retool parts of the story that hadn't been told yet, as well as working within the confines of a movie length, the film has something of a lighter air to it than the original manga, with many scenes carrying a bit more of a humorous over the top element to them. While this may irritate purists, and even I admit I was put off at first, it still holds up for the film itself, as even without the humorous scenes, the movie never seems to try to lay on the full nightmarish feel that Ito's story gains as it picks up to its borderline apocalyptic finale. Story aside, the movie does still prove fairly competent otherwise - while some of the acting may be a bit over the top compared to the other J-horror features on this list, it still fits within the film itself, and the effects are actually quite good (especially given the general level of FX budgets in Japanese cinema.) Though the CG may be a bit dated now, the sequences of bodies literally spiralling on themselves still look fairly well done 11 years later.
Is this a flawless adaptation? Not really by any stretch. By the same token, however, it technically isn't by design. The lack of an 'official' ending to the source gives it the opportunity to take on more of its own direction to a degree. The end result is a film that, while somewhat flawed, is still largely entertaining. Just remember it's not going to be a carbon copy and enjoy the descent.

"Really now, Hutter, do I sneak into YOUR room while you sleep?
Sure, I do it to other people, but I haven't done it to you yet!"

10/30. Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie Des Grauens

And so, as we come to the home stretch, we come up on F.W. Murnau's silent vampire classic (and for those wondering why I did the Herzog remake first, that was all thanks to loading up the titles in a randomizer and letting it sort them out, I swear.) As silent film goes, this movie has actually held up quite well. There's a few jolts in the editing, likely a result of the film's rather hectic hisory (it was nearly lost to the ages in a copyright dispute with Bram Stoker's widow.) Despite this, much of it remains in good shape and, for its time, is still a good movie to watch. The acting and FX, while showing some of the style of the time period, don't feel exceedingly aged. In particular with regard to actor Max Shreck as Graf Orlok, the vampire of the title. Both his performance and the makeup they used for his appearance still manage to work well. The story, for all of its allegations of copyright infringement, has actually changed quite a bit making for its own unique experience and one that, even if one recognizes Stoker's work, they won't necessarily predict. To be honest, I actually think the ending for this version is a bit better, if somewhat less climactic. Also, I feel the film's portrayal of the vampire is probably one of the best I've seen done in film: half the time, it strikes without being seen on camera, and is instead, within the setting, mistaken for plague. Finally, one thing I will say Murnau's version got arguably better than Herzog's was the emphasis on the plague element. In the remake, while it's present, it doesn't feel as strong a presence as it is in this version, where we see town policies in effect to try and halt its spread, and even the inevitable mob paranoia that ensues as a result of the 'disease'.
For an additional bit of trivia on the note of their depiction of the undead, this film has a secondary claim to fame as actually being the originator of the 'Vampires die in sunlight' concept. Prior to this, it mostly just slowed them down, as far as I can tell. Just another of the many ways this film has cemented its place in history. One that, if you have any interest in silent film, film history, or vampire cinema, it would be worth your time to look into.
On an additional note, while there are a lot of different copies of this movie circulating out there care of public domain, for what it's worth, I'd vote to see if you can get the version distributed by Kino entertainment. This is done for three reasons:
1) Many of the other public domain versions are made of earlier cuts of the movie, where certain scenes may be missing as they weren't available at the time
2) Many of the other editions use altered soundtracks. This particular release does feature a rerecording of the original musical score.
and
3) To be perfectly honest, their cleaned up remaster looks amazing for the film's age. Many of the other versions I've seen released under numerous other labels haven't held up anywhere near as well in quality as this one did.

...and no, I'm not getting paid by them to say this. They genuinely do good treatments for silent film.

That said, now on to the final entry to cap off this wild, somewhat erratic month.

Though the awkward silence at the table is mutual
only one of them is quiet due to their dead daughter
the other just saw one of the cooks spit in the soup
Try and guess which is which!


10/31. Don't Look Now

You know, while this isn't exactly the most 'Halloween'-suited film on this list by a long shot, I have to say, I feel it's appropriate the randomizer picked this to wrap up the month. This is, strangely enough, due to why it isn't the most Halloweenish movie on the list. If you were to just watch a sliced out segment of this movie, you might not even realize it's considered a horror film. Much of the movie is based around the character study of couple John and Laura Baxter (played by Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) and their coping after the death of their young daughter in the movie's prologue. It's only as the film goes on that one begins to get caught up in the mystery that makes up the undercurrent of the movie. This mystery, of course, being what makes this so fitting as a closer for this month - this is a film where, if you keep attentive during the buildup (which is good, don't get me wrong) it pays off in the final scene. I won't go into the full details of that, though I imagine some may have had part of it spoiled for them care of either the internet or Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments (both of which, often, ironically tend to omit the part that really makes the ending such a jolt, focusing on the more immediate reveal) suffice it to say, it definitely shows the effort put into both Allan Scott's script (adapted from a Daphne Du Maurier story) and Nicolas Roeg's direction. Like many of the other worthwhile titles on this list, it's an interesting film in that it functions both as a good horror story and frankly as just a good story in general. The two leads both lend a lot of genuine emotion to their roles, to the point that many believed their then controversial sex scene wasn't just an act. There is a genuine chemistry between Sutherland and Christie, even when one considers the rift that's formed between their characters over the loss of one of their children. As an additional bonus, this film also joins Picnic at Hanging Rock and Nosferatu the Vampyre in the 'Wish You Were Here' category of films that really make the most of their location and manage to get some great setting shots as a result. I know I've said this several times, but it bears repeating here, this definitely isn't one I can guarantee will be a hit (...Hell, I can't promise that with any film thanks to general human nature.) However if you don't mind a slow burn with a rather surprising payoff (that disguises itself under another payoff) then this could definitely be worth your time. Worst case scenario, even if it doesn't necessarily perform for you as a horror, at least you'll get a fairly well made character piece out of it.

With that rather curious finale, we here at the Third Row now, after two weeks delay, declare this month's October sweep to be closed. We'll be attempting this next year and, hopefully, have it running in a much more timely fashion.
Speaking of, please come back next week when we'll hopefully have things running back up to par again...starting with one film that's been on the Third Row's chopping block for the better part of a year now.

See ya then!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

First Week of November Clearance Candy Edition 1

Well, as promised, we here at the Third Row are going to continue, late as it is, to finish up the October month of horror (and rest assured in future years, this will actually end IN October.)

We realize we missed Halloween back there. Though, to be fair, so did much of the East coast, but that's another matter. Consider this the first of two entries akin to that other great Halloween tradition -- The candy the stores are marking down to get rid of so they can bus in the (far too early) Christmas goods.

With that, let's dim the lights and here we go...


"...I TOLD you we'd get stuck.
Now are you going to call for help or do I have to?"


10/21. The Others

Another from the files of 'How the Hell has it taken me this long to watch this movie?' I remember being aware of this film when it came out, and I had absolutely nothing against it. Quite the opposite, I was immediately reminded of a personal favorite ghost story by the ads alone (in the event one has to ask, it was 'The Turn of the Screw' by Henry James, which itself was also adapted into the movie 'The Innocents' back in the 60s.) So why did I not see this sooner? I have no idea, actually. Just didn't get around to watching until now was all. Suffice it to say, it was worth it. It's kind of surprised and, dare I say it, a bit refreshing to see a modern horror film still evading some of the conventional tropes. I don't just mean railing on gore here (which I wouldn't say is entirely without merit, as explicated on further below) but also the lack of traditional jump scares and broadcasted terrors. But I'll refrain from the usual old man railings on the state of horror and stick to this film. The other surprising thing was realizing I'd gone for as long as I had on seeing this movie and not had the ending spoiled for me. I have to hand it to them that, while there were definitely clues leading up to it, this still didn't feel like a film where it would be necessarily obvious. Even beyond that, the movie as a whole feels rather well put together, in particular in terms of its casting and setting, the latter of which feels appropriately like its own separate world while still feeling grounded in an actual period of history. It may have taken me ten years to see this, but all things considered, still glad I did finally get around to it.

This episode would go down in the annals of
television history as the single most disturbing
This Old House ever filmed.

10/22. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

For a classic I hadn't rewatched in years prior to this event, I have to say I'm really impressed with how well this movie's aged. I mean, compared to when I first watched this ages ago, I think I'm actually getting more out of it now than I did back then. A good chunk of this comes down to two things. The first is the way the movie is shot. Thanks to the pseudo-documentary style Tobe Hooper employs, one feels less of that usual 'fourth wall' separation one gets from many more recent films. Plus, I will admit, when younger, I believed John Laroquette's intro that this actually happened...granted, he wasn't TECHNICALLY lying, given the movie's backstory, but nevertheless. Between the shots taken, the grade of the film, and the somewhat chaotic display of some of the sets, there is enough of a sense of realism in many cases where one actually feels like they're almost within the film. Especially in Leatherface's infamous workshop, where one could start smelling the decay and not be at all surprised. The actors also lend their part to this realism as well. When one reads up on the behind the scenes for the movie, much of the stories are how this production puts its cast through Hell, and you can see it within the film. This was an intense experience, and the work reflects it accordingly, furthering that sense of grim faux-reality that pervades this film on the level that it does. The other of the two things I mentioned above, is what this film says about its viewers. I know, this sounds pretentious as Hell, but hear me out. This is one of those films where it's interesting to watch people's reactions to it. Especially the violence. Many speak of this movie as though it were a grand guignol style display of blood and gore. When one watches the movie, however...it's actually rather light on on-screen gore. In fact, compared to a lot of other films, it's fairly light in its bloodletting. Where it strikes a chord is less with what's shown and more what's implied, such as in one jarring sequence where one of the ill-fated travellers is killed with a mallet. You see none of the damage, but the wet sounds as the mallet makes contact speak volumes. In a way, the film is almost like a cinematic rorschach test. The amount of violence and gore you see within the film says more about you than it does about the movie itself (also makes a great way to respond to criticisms of the movie...if only for an interesting thought exercise.)
...and on a final note - that high-pitched squeal in the movie STILL chills me to this day.

Amid another year of song numbers and stilted comedy Jerry's reenactment of the torture scene from Reservoir Dogs with his grandkid would be the part of the retirement home talent show that would be remembered most.

10/23. The Devil's Backbone

Like the earlier entry regarding Picnic at Hanging Rock, I'd say The Devil's Backbone is another one of those films I wouldn't necessarily qualify as a horror as many seem to. There is indeed a supernatural element to it, and it does lead to some effectively creepy moments, but the overall nature of the film seems to be, technically speaking, more of a drama with a supernatural element to it. This isn't to say the film isn't without its scare factor, but like del Toro's later work on Pan's Labyrinth, the scares are balanced between the supernatural and the real. It's appropriate he considers the two films sibling pieces, as both offset their supernatural with the horrors of how war effects people, both using the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. In this case, the supernatural takes the form of a ghost story, and presents itself quite well. As things proceed, we soon learn there are things in this film more fearful than ghosts. Part of what surprised me in this case compared to del Toro's other work is there is less of an overall sense of an immersive dark fantasy compared to the realms presented in the above Pan's and his directorial debut in Cronos. In this case, there is no other world to escape into, it remains locked into the stark, war-torn world of Spain that young Carlos and his friends have been consigned to. In its own way, it takes del Toro's already signatorily dark style and manages to make it darker. Despite that, it's still as fascinating to watch as his other films, and one can see why he considers it to be one of his best. The film has a lot to say for itself and, like many of his other films, does a good job of taking the fantastic and making it feel human. Not a film to go into if you're just looking for a quick horror story, but definitely one would recommend seeing.

Fun fact:
As of this entry, four states of the union will excuse charges of grave robbing if you explain it's for a scavenger hunt. Go ahead, try it. You might be one of the lucky ones.

10/24. Let's Scare Jessica to Death

Remember a few entries back when I discussed how I feel paranoia is an underutilized concept in horror? This is another one of those films that makes such distrust its bread and butter to a marvelous effect. In particular, this takes it to an extent that is also rarer in film than it really should be - the concept of the unreliable narrator. Often, when this is employed, it's for little things. This movie, however, is one of those rare cases where you're left wondering if the entire movie has been painted by the narrator's paranoia. The titular Jessica, in a great turn by Zohra Lampert, is herself even unsure in many cases of what's real and what isn't. We hear her assertions as much to herself as the audience, as to what it and what isn't, and, like her, we are left wondering in the end if everything she saw was real, or just her losing her mind. Alongside the uncertainty, the story we see, or at least seem to see, is itself a rather fresh take on the vampire legend, exploring the concept in a different, but still familiar light. In some regards, the film shows its age as a product of the early 70s, moreso in aesthetic than in terms of the film aging problematically, but it's still something worth warning since some do get thrown by that. If you don't mind the idea of the early 70s look, however, you could be in for a fairly unique piece of both supernatural and psychological (both or none at all, depending on your interpretation) horror that you won't see many films similar too any time soon.

As the fear of the mythological hairy palms dissipated,
it was only inevitable the proverbial Old Wives would start escalating their claims of side effects.

10/25. The Thing

One of the few, the proud, the remakes that don't suck. Part of me's almost tempted to leave this at that, but that would be not only criminally lazy (especially for the fact these entries are late as it is) but also, despite the praise, still underselling this film. While he will probably always get most of his recognition for creating the original Halloween, this definitely outstrips it as one of John Carpenter's best. This is especially true as it functions beyond just playing a rehash on a familiar tune. In fact, all it really shares in common with the earlier Howard Hawks rendition of the movie is the title and the fact they adapted the same source material. In that regard, Carpenter takes the point, crafting a film much closer to the original John G. Campbell short story. Further, basing things more on that, he crafts a film that, on its own merits, does a phenomenal job with crafting an air of suspense and paranoia. Carpenter and his cast and crew do a phenomenal job with one of the trickiest concepts to do right in film - an enemy that could literally be anyone or anything. The latter in particular pays off, care of a full FX and make-up crew lead by Rob Bottin crafting a veritable menagerie of mutations and creatures whose design is a nightmarish reworking of the lifeforms they once took the shape of. Thanks to this, there's no monster design throughout the film to consistently get used to, and the audience is left wondering what form this invader could take next. This isn't to say the effects alone carry the film, as arguably some of the biggest elements of suspense in the film actually come in the lead-ups to the monstrous reveal, including the now classic 'blood test' scene. Like the earlier Texas Chainsaw, this is a movie where the people in charge realize the best weapon in their arsenal is the audience's imagination, and they use it to the fullest, as well as flexing their own in the process.

I will give the Italians one thing
Their version of 'hidden object' games are easily more hardcore than ours.

10/26. Cannibal Holocaust

One of the most controversial horror films on known record to this day, and I'm only now getting to it. This project's been an eye-opener. Thinking this'll have to be repeated next October.
That said, in the grand debate over whether this movie is cutting social satire or exploitative garbage...I'm actually surprised to find myself feeling a little of both. On the one hand, this is currently neck and neck with I Spit On Your Grave for this year's award for 'Film I've Felt the Least Comfortable Watching' and is one I'd have to do some actual psychological prep work to watch again, primarily with regards to the depictions of slaughter, both human and animal (and to a degree, staged and real.) With regard for what happens to the people...well...here's where I was actually impressed with the film from a writing perspective, if not from a visual one. For starters, I liked how they handled the...er...reveal on the final act. Traditionally in horror, if a protagonist is a jerk whose horror is reaping the rewards of their behavior, the film will show you that early on so it's established they deserved this. In this case, we start the film assuming these were naive victims, only for us to slowly learn they were, ironically, the callous monsters they were so hoping to find in the jungle. This element, really, is what gives a lot of justifiable ammunition to the arguments of this movie as satire. In an age where documentaries on certain topics still raise questions of authenticity in what the filmmakers may have nudged, tweaked, or conveniently left out to support their arguments, there's a certain grim familiarity in seeing the ill-fated film crew in this openly assaulting a suspected cannibal tribe purely to stage the illusion that they were attacked by another tribe (in one of the many disturbing displays of the movie.) By the time the fateful final reel is unfolding, there's a mixed sense of both revulsion and gratification - we can't help but be, understandably, disgusted by the acts we're seeing (which, for a bizarre bit of trivia, were so realistic looking the Italian government believed Deodato murdered his cast members and actually took him to court over it) but the people they are being carried out on are such utter bastards, a part of us, however small, can't help but feel they brought this down on themselves. This theme of shameless sensationalism also extends beyond just the film crew, whose drama is the 'film within the film' to the faux-documentary that is the main movie covering what happened to them. As we build to the vicious finale, there is concern over what protagonist Monroe (Robert Kerman) sees on the tapes, but the TV station still wants to run...until they see it for themselves.
Definitely not a movie to watch if you consider yourself to be weak of stomach, but at the same time, I will say a much smarter film than the initial premise would have you believe (despite the fact that, allegedly, there is much debate over how much of that was by design and how much was coincidental. Deodato has reportedly both confirmed and denied, depending on the interview, that the film had any statement on sensationalism in it.) I'm still feeling rather mixed on it even as I write this. I'm not even sure when I'll be able to really say one way or another on this. This is one where I'd say give it a shot for yourself, disclaimers noted, and see what you think. Just don't say I didn't warn you though...this alongside ISOYG for "If you're not sure, just let this one slide."

We here at the Third Row endorse only the finest in infant protection
Audio monitors, video monitors, even hiring a
creepy man with glowing eyes to watch your child as they sleep.
Trust us, they're worth every penny.

10/27. The Baby's Room

For a film I went in on comparatively blind, I was surprised by this one. To clarify, this is both a plus and a minus, for reasons I will go into. This was part of the Spanish 6 Films To Keep You Awake series of horror films they aired on TV. In watching, you definitely get a sense of their made for TV budget, but it's not in a bad way. This entry at least makes good use of its lower budget, relying more on its script and the ideas therein, as well as a few admittedly well placed jump scares, to get its ideas across. That said, I'm not sure I'd rightly agree it's a film that would keep me scared to close my eyes. This isn't to say it's badly done. Actually, the idea is quite interesting, I'm just not rightly sure I'd say it works too well as a horror movie, though it starts in that mold. To wit, we start with a classic case of a young couple and their new home, an old house they've just bought and are happily moving into with their young baby. One night while settling in, with a new baby monitor they got from the in-laws, they overhear what sounds like a voice in their baby's room. Spurred on by this, the husband Juan (played by Javier Guttierez) invests in an infrared camera...and discovers a mysterious figure sitting by his baby's crib. For the first part of the film, one feels like we're getting a traditional ghost story. What we actually get, both for better and for worse, is something entirely different. As Juan researches the matter, it becomes a story of parallel realities and other worlds. It handles the concept fairly well and at times actually feels like an episode of the Twilight Zone, which is a definite plus. The drawback is, novel as the idea is, the scares kind of take a back seat to the interesting ideas. That aside, for a made for TV movie, it carries itself quite well on most fronts. I think the one other thing I would count as a strike against this would be the secondary plot string introduced in the movie's prologue and then later continued via an old woman. It seems like it could have been interesting as a way to help carry the film along, and at a few points it does do its job of helping give Juan the extra momentum in his quest for answers. The problem is, a lot of the time, it just feels like dead weight, adding needless scenes to the movie that would have been better suited to either more directly fleshing out the concepts or at least trying to return some of the eery moments from the first half of the movie. As a straight up horror title, this is kind of a disappointment. As a movie in general though, it's actually still a rather interesting take on the parallel worlds concept. If you're looking for a nice piece of science fiction (somewhat, the concepts are inherently sci-fi, but they don't really go into the nature of them) this is actually a nice little surprise to look into. May not leave you afraid to turn off the lights, but could raise some interesting thoughts about 'what ifs'.

--

4 days left now. Hopefully these will be up within the next day or so. Keep your eyes out, since after this, we'll be trying to get this back to work on a regular pace again!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Two in two days

It's a Halloween miracle!
...wait a second. That doesn't work at all!

Anyway, we move now into week 3. From here, we'll see how the other's fare tomorrow.

Years after this fateful incident, the only question asked more than 'What happened?' was 'Why didn't we think of legal waiver slips?'

10/14. Picnic At Hanging Rock
Well, as with many others on this list so far, this movie surprised me. I know many listed this as a horror film, but after watching it, I'm not sure I agree with this assessment. I feel it is still a very good film, but not necessarily one I would call a horror film.  At least not in the traditional sense. The film plays more as a drama/character study that happens to involve something of a supernatural element (in the sense that the disappearance of the girls in question is never explained, in the film or to the viewers.) Instead, the majority of the movie is concerned with the aftermath of their disappearance: the actions taken in trying to find them, the suspicions that arise, and generally the rash actions by those trying to sort out why four happy young girls vanished without a trace. It's still a fascinating movie to watch in its own right, don't get me wrong, just understand, the decision to label it as a horror film is rather misleading. That aside, the film does still have many things in its favor. The acting is quite good, especially for a cast largely consisting of unknowns. Likewise, the script handles the subject matter well in its focus and not really making any wild leaps to answer questions. Finally, and arguably one of the biggest points for me, the movie has some beautiful cinematography. Peter Weir and Russel Boyd make full use of the Australian landscape much of the film takes place in, resulting in some visually astonishing sequences. Even when nothing's happening, some of the establishing landscapes are still stunning. Certainly an unexpected find in this month, but one I'm glad for regardless.

Incidentally, the movie also sets a new speed record in horror
in that the black guy's dead before the movie even starts.

10/15. Land of the Dead
Twenty years after completing his initial trilogy with 'Day of the Dead', George Romero returns to the zombie saga that he made legendary with this return in 2005. Thankfully, where other directors get rusty when they haven't been able to stretch their legs for a franchise in two decades (obligatory crack at George Lucas goes here,) Romero proves he still hasn't lost his sense of what made these films in the first place. While the setting is indeed different, in this case focusing on a world where the zomie outbreak has already happened and the humans who've been dealing with it since then, as well as how the zombies themselves have adjusted over time. Despite this evolved setting, and the fact this is the only 'Dead' movie to feature established big name actors among its cast (in particular John Leguizamo and Dennis Hopper,) it still maintains the two things that people remember Romero's zombie movies for the most - their sense of gore and their social commentary. The gore itself, to this day, still carries as believable within the setting, in the sense that it never feels exploitative, or as just 'gore for gore's sake', sure a few things get lingered on, but it's still part of larger scenes where things are moving forward. As for the commentary, in this case, Romero addresses a setting where there is a clearly structured order of 'haves' and 'have nots' being enforced...in true Romero fashion, this self-destructs in due time.  But the message, while present, never feels like its being forced on the viewers. I wasn't sure what to expect from the movie when I started it, but I walked away genuinely pleased to see Romero hadn't lost his touch on these films over the years.

In the annals of bizarre internet 'vs' battles, it was only a matter of time before we wound up getting to 'Bikers vs Satanists'

10/16. Werewolves on Wheels
I'll say this outright now - I had more fun with this film than I really probably should have. It's not a great film by any stretch, the story is present maybe half the time, and for those parts, not really much to write home about, the production values haven't aged well, and the acting...actually, the acting is an interesting bit of trivia. As far as the story is concerned, much of the acting tends to be pretty awkward, and at points, even comedic. In other parts, however, in the interest of capturing a degree of authenticity, director Michel Levesque just filmed his biker gang cast as they were. As a result, many of the moments of just goofing around are, while somewhat nonsequitir within the film, a nice early experiment in reality filmmaking. For all of the faults mentioned above, there is a definite enjoyment to be had in this rather campy tale of a Hell's Angels-styled gang called Devil's Advocates running afoul of a demonic cult who then curses one of their members with a nasty case of...well...the title says it all. Alongside the generally interesting interactions, the film's on-plot scenes are just too ridiculous to hate. While I realize it's a tired cliche, this is one of those films where one really would do best to just sit back, turn your brain off and enjoy the ride...well, OK, leave some of your brain on and you might get some extra enjoyment out of verbally beating the crap out of it (...best done with others though.)

Satan
Prince of Darkness

Lord of Lies

and apparently precocious little scamp

10/17. The Exorcist
Is this film one of the scariest of all time? That's a matter for some debate, and not necessarily a claim I'll agree with. I will say this though, it is still one of my personal favorite horror films to date. For a film involving the occult, and the numerous risky elements that can bring to a production made in the early 1970s, I still can't help but be impressed with how well much of this film has aged. Given many of the effects carried out within the movie, ranging from the now-classic head rotation to the infamous use of a crucifix (which further convinces me that, despite assertions otherwise, filmmakers in the 60s and 70s had a lot more freedom in what they could get away with in their work,) one would be braced to see this film showing a lot more of its age 38 years later. Despite that, many of the scenes still look fairly well made. This isn't just to praise the film on effects alone either.  For a film exploring the concept of demonic possession, the movie takes itself with enough of a degree of seriousness that it makes for interesting viewing. One of those cases where the Kubrick rule of having a director who's a vicious perfectionist pays off (in this case, the tales of some of the terrors William Friedkin inflicted on his cast are bordering on legend.) Alongside their generally surviving the film, the cast also turn in largely good performances, including Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller (who even got an Oscar nomination for this role) and Linda Blair in a breakout role from before her entire career went off the rails in the 80s. Several mixed to awful sequels later, the original has still endured as a very solid horror movie. I'm still not rightly sure I'd call it the scariest movie of all time in any sense...but it's still one I enjoy watching all the same.

...OK, MAYBE it's finally time I clean this place.

10/18. Kairo (Pulse)
This film, so far, takes the prize for being possibly the most unsettling experience on this list. I had heard very little about it going in, beyond the theme of technology within the film and the knowledge that it inspired a largely panned US remake (...that somehow still managed to spawn two direct-to-video sequels. I know, I was surprised too.)
The film I got was equal parts terrifying and, to my surprise, sobering. I won't give too much away so as to rob you of your reason to see the movie, but rest assured, if you've slugged your way through the American version, you haven't even really seen it. The ghosts themselves, while sufficiently creepy, take a backseat in terms of being disturbing to this film's greater theme about technology and the alienating effect it has on us. The truly terrifying part of this movie isn't what the ghosts can do that's not of this Earth, but what they show us of ourselves. A mirror is put to some of the darkest parts of one's self, with the express intent of driving people to the edge - and even the form of their decline is believable. Dancing on the line between a biting social commentary, a unique ghost tale, and even some strands of apocalyptic horror, it's rather sad that the remake completely missed what made the film so disturbing to begin with, settling for altogether bland shocks. Again, loathe as I normally am to invoke this adjective for a film, this is one of the smartest horror films I've seen in a while...which is part of what makes what it has to say that much more disturbing.

"Dear, don't get me wrong, I love you
but if you do this 'This Little Light of Mine' routine every night, I WILL kill you."

10/19. Hour of the Wolf
Billed as acclaimed director Ingmar Bergman's only horror film (though I would make the case for the use of other horror elements in some of his other works, such as The Seventh Seal,) this is quite probably one of the strangest entries for this month. Made even more so by the fact it's not entirely by design. Well, parts of it are, but parts of it are the result of production changes.  Bergman had said in interviews after the fact that, given the chance, there were certain things he would do over again, such as changing the character focus. The resulting film is one that's equal parts flawed and fascinating to watch. Despite his use of supernatural elements in other of his works, this is purely a tale of psychological horror. Taking its title from the time between midnight and 1 AM, the movie explores disturbed artist Johan Borg (played by Max von Sydow) as he sorts out his inner demons, both to himself and his wife Alma (played by Liv Ullmann, the one Bergman would later admit would have been a better focal point.) These demons are explored both through monologue and, as the film goes on and Johan's madness begins to take form, literal interpretations. In this regard, I will give Bergman one thing: some of Johan's inner demons are, for the age of the movie, still rather effective today. In particular, the Old Woman in the Hat manages to stay unsettling for reasons you'll know when you see her. Due to the earlier mentioned issues with focus, the story becomes rather muddled. An effect which, for both good and bad, lends itself to a fair number of interpretations of just what happens in the movie. Bergman has certainly made better films in general, but for his first and only delve into straight horror, the movie is still an interesting one to watch, warts and all.

...I'm just gonna let this image speak for itself.
Any caption for this movie would just be excessive.

10/20. House
After the disturbing nature of Pulse, and the psychological maze of Hour of the Wolf, this movie couldn't have come at a better time this month. Normally, Japanese horror is known for being very creepy and nightmarish, often with eery children. House (literally titled Hausu in Japan) has none of that. The product of director Nobuhiko Obayashi, from a story by his pre-teen daughter Chigumi, the film is marked by an appropriately childlike sense of whimsy as well as an appropriately 1970s sense of visual craziness. The story is fairly straightforward - a group of young girls, played by largely inexperienced, but still capable actresses, all visit the country home of one of the girls' aunts. What follows is one of the most surreal and fun haunted house movies I've seen to date. If you're expecting a taut, well paced and intricately plotted ghost story, I'll warn you that you're barking up the wrong tree. Obayashi's film wears its origins on its sleeve with pride, giving a bizarre blend of over the top special effects and, at times, animation that feels like something straight out of Monty Python. It's genuinely a tough film to try and explain in just text if you have no familiarity with it. It is really a film that you have to see to properly get a sense of, given how much of the movie is tied into its unique visual style. There's many films on this list that are good for getting creeped out and disturbed, but when everything's said and done, you can count on a movie like House to really help you unwind after everything settles down again.

---

and now, the race is on. Will subsequent entries make it up before tomorrow night, or will the rest be the classic post-Halloween candy. We're about to find out, folks. In the meantime, a Happy Halloween in either case.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Late, but still alive

Well, real life threw things for a bit of a loop (but even though this is a blog, I won't divulge on the details) but the plan for the October reviews is still going to continue. Rest assured, we're working hard here to get as many as we can up before the 31st, but some of these may run a bit late...
...think of it as being like all that great discounted candy everyone dives like a hawk for on November 1st.

Having said that, wave 2 begins here:

You know, this cursed video wasn't that bad the first time around... But after the hundredth internet parody, it's largely lost its charm

10/7. Ringu
Another of those films that I will admit I really should have seen sooner than for this list. Between its own reputation and the additional appeal care of the Americanized remake (which I will admit, I likewise haven't seen) this was, and still is, a pretty prominent horror film in several circles. Seeing it with no real expectations beyond a very basic knowledge of the backstory, I have to say I was actually rather pleased with what I saw. For the entire reputation the Ring brandname has generated in the years that followed, part of what I wound up really liking about this film was the simplicity of it. No needless deceptions or last-minute twists that you can tell were put in just to get one last gasp out of the audience, but a simple, straightforward 'curse' storyline. The curse itself being simple with several clearly set rules, though the cast has to learn them the hard way, and no exceptions or variations just for the sake of plot. Further on the simplicity point, I think part of what I enjoyed about this film overall was the fact that it wasn't like it was trying to be creepy per se. It had some disturbing elements, to be certain, but it never felt like they were just trying to make that classic 'evil stalks you at every turn' element that seems such a regularity in curse movies. You're given enough to confirm that this curse is indeed on the level, and much of the rest is just the combination of straight up mystery and the countdown till the curse is supposed to take hold. While there are still supernatural elements along the way, you don't feel inundated by them. As a result, the film feels more, strange as this is to say, real. Alongside the praise for how the subject matter was approached, the film is fairly well acted and several moments have fairly strong direction. I almost feel inclined to quit while I'm ahead, knowing the penchant for sequels and remakes to up the ante, and upset the good balance this film had going for it.

You know...I considered numerous captions for this film
Many of which I immediately felt guilty for afterward
Somehow how, this tagline says it better than I could have.

10/8. I Spit On Your Grave
This movie...wow. I added this to the queue on a suggestion from a friend (who, in the future, may join me for a more in-depth discussion on it and the controversy surrounding it,) Suffice it to say, it was definitely an interesting experience. I'm normally not one for the 'revenge' genre of horror most of the time, so I had no real sense of what to expect here. What I got was a film that was on the one hand, downright disturbing to watch, but on the other, sickly gratifying when it gets to the 'revenge' part of the equation. This is definitely NOT one for anyone with a shaky constitution - the film pulls no punches with the fact it involves rape and some rather brutal killings in vengeance. That said, once the shock settles, the film wasn't bad. I wouldn't necessarily say it's one for someone to go out of their way for, as it's definitely NOT for everyone (I again stress that warning from earlier). However, if you have any interest in controversial film history, or seeing what your cinematic stamina is, this film could be worth giving a watch. For all its faults, it is still fairly competent, if unsettling, in the story it tries to tell.
Also, for an interesting piece of trivia to consider when watching this - the lead role in the film was played by Camille Keaton, wife of the movie's director, Meir Zarchi. Now, as you watch this film, consider to yourself what the talks at night must have been like between the two while working on this project together.

"...of all the things you could have borrowed from Hitchcock, was doing this in a shower too much to ask?"
10/9. Dementia 13
Here's a fun fact for you to pull out at parties as a conversation starter (mileage may vary depending the manner of film geeks you run with who may already know this) - prior to his directing such classics as the Godfather saga and Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola cut his directorial teeth on a low budget horror film about ax murder at an Irish castle.
No, really. Hence the world has Dementia 13. As a film, it's a bit of a 50-50 prospect. It's not a bad film, really. It's definitely not as distinctive as Coppola's other films, but it's still a fairly entertaining piece of 60s horror. I think, if I had to mark anything as a strike against it, it would be the fact the story is actually pretty derivative. Not in a generic sense either. I mean watching this movie, one will automatically note similiarities to Hitchcock's Psycho, right down to the protagonist bait-and-switch. Just so we're clear, while I dock the movie points for this, I'm not just taking a cheap accusation here. Coppola has openly admitted in years after the movie's production that they were basically trying to make a film akin to Psycho at the time. In this vein, if you've seen the latter, you can pretty well guess where the former's headed. Despite this setback, however, it's still a pretty interesting imitator, and, as students of the Psycho school go, has its fair share of its own personality to stand up on (as opposed to, say, the infamous Gus Van Sant remake of the movie.) Paired with a cast of both relative unknowns and a few veteran actors, most notably Patrick Magee as the movie's doctor turned detective, the film manages to step out of the shadow of the movie it was trying to emulate. It doesn't manage it all the way, but it still does so enough to actually be worth remembering as imitations go.

"...and after I set fire to the barn, Lassie will save me instead of the real Timmy.
His body will be lost in the farm and no one the wiser!"

10/10. The Other
Next to the rules about going into the basement and getting laid, one of the critical rules anyone familiar with horror knows - children are evil. Always. Even when they aren't, there's always the potential to be. This is a film that plays that in its truest form. Unlike the earlier tots in last week's features, children can't fall back on Satan's influence in this film. Instead, Robert Mulligan gives us a rather curious tale of twins and the time-honored 'One of them WILL be evil' rule. Said twins, played by child actors and real life twins Chris and Martin Udvarnosky, actually wound up impressing me in this regard for two reasons. For one, as child actors go, they're actually fairly good in their roles in this movie. For another, the way the 'evil' twin is handled in this is thankfully understated. There are none of the familiar traits. No otherworldly stare, no withdrawn behavior, no creepy lines, Holland simply acts like a normal child, albeit one who seems to have no real sense of right and wrong compared to his brother Niles. As a result, there's none of that disbelief that comes from people being unable to process that the eerily staring child is responsible for the seemingly wild chain of tragic accidents befalling everyone around them. (Actually, that's not entirely fair to the Omen. Damien didn't start throwing off the obvious EVIL vibes until later installments, to the point his remake version was only missing the horns.) Anyway, to sum that up, the children in this film actually feel like children which is rarer in horror then one would expect. The adult cast, for their part, also carry their parts well, including an appearance by a young John Ritter in a supporting role. The script and direction actually have an interesting feel about them, as the setting at first feels more like a slice of Americana with the time and place it occurs in. This, of course, makes the seeming accidents that much bigger shocks within the setting when they happen. In fact, the whole film doesn't carry its horror elements outright. They are there, and lead to a couple of rather shocking moments, but if you just walked in, you wouldn't necessarily realize it was a horror film right away. There's also a bit of a twist to the film which, if you're actively looking for it, you will probably figure out on your own, but at the same time, I commend it for being one that's executed in such a fashion that it works without feeling like they were trying to feed you clues from the get go. Overall, while I'm not sure I'd necessarily call this a lost classic, I do feel it's a rather overlooked film that could benefit from a bit more love if you're looking for a bit of psychological horror.

"OK...no more arguing over this. We're going to put this to a vote
and we're going to pick ONE station and stay there. If I see even one hand
going for the dial after that, I WILL use the shotgun!"

10/11. Night of the Living Dead
"They're coming to get you, Barbara!" One of the quintessential classics for this list, as well as for horror in general. For the age of this film, it's impressive to see how well it's aged. The scares are still pretty jolting and the effects have actually held up quite well. I have to say, films like this make it tricky to do a write-up because they're so ingrained in the pop culture, it becomes a challenge of 'what can I say that hasn't already been said several times over?' ... despite that, I'm sure as Hell gonna try. As the film that both launched George Romero's 'Dead' series, which we'll be revisiting more in the next week's entries, and is prettymuch considered THE zombie movie, I still find it impressive that, alongside being an impressive gorefest, this film has held up as being surprisingly intelligent. Even outside of the social commentary, which is a staple of Romero's zombie titles, and is likewise present in this, the film never feels like it's just revelling in gore for gore's sake as many zombie films do (not that that's necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes, letting the blood flow for a bit of brainless carnage can be just the dumb fun one needs.) Instead, the film carries itself as most any survival movie would. It just so happens that the disaster in this film is the dead rising with a taste for the flesh of the living. The characters, both their performances and the actions taken, as well as the reports of the situation in the world at large, really do feel like what could be expected of people within a disaster of the sort that unfolds within the movie. Even the film's shocking ending, both in its political message and just as is, is a plausible outcome of what could go down in a situation like this. While it may still be looked down on in some circles, the film has pretty well earned the accolades it receives to this day.

Amid all the orgies, drug use, and weird costumes,
THIS would be the year where Burning Man participants would consider
"...maybe we went a little too far."

10/12. The Wicker Man
Of all the films on this list, this seems to be the single biggest case of 'Mileage May
Vary.' I know some people who love it, some who hated it, and some who liked the idea, but just weren't that crazy about the execution. Personally, I wasn't that crazy about it the first time I saw it myself. I didn't dislike it, but I was really kind of uneven on how to feel about it. It wasn't until I rewatched it a few years later that I really came around on the movie. I still maintain it's definitely not one for everyone, but I'd still say it's worth at least giving a try to see how you feel about it. The story is an interesting one, even if the ending has been spoiled in some circles. Much like The Usual Suspects, even knowing the ending, it's still interesting to watch how it unfolds (well, interesting or downright bizarre depending who you are.) Nevertheless, despite the lack of many outright scares, although having its share of a few memorable creep-out moments along the way, the film pays off for its slow burn quite effectively in a finale that, as an idea, is still fairly disturbing to this day. Alongside this, the film has a fairly solid cast, with particular shoutouts to leads Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee, in the role that proved he still had a future beyond just playing Dracula time and again.
Additionally, in the event you watch this and do enjoy the film, I'd also recommend reading up on the movie's production history. Its trek to the big screen was a long and rocky one, but one that was propelled along by the sheer love for the project many of the people involved had (most famously, Lee was so determined to see this film happen that he offered to give up his own paycheck to help shore up lacking funds.)
and yes, since you may see this mentioned in other reviews for it, the film does have a few musical numbers that may seem odd to watch...that's just the culture the movie takes place in. Just bear with it, as the culture shock is part of the idea of the film to begin with.

So remember, the next time you're thinking about filming a
found footage horror film -- someone's eventually going to retrieve your body
Be considerate. Die where they can find it easily.

10/13. Lake Mungo
If there's one thing this project has taught me so far, it's this: for all the foreign markets whose horror films have gained recognition and acclaim in the past 10 years, the Australians have been due for their turn in the limelight. The other thing it's taught me in this light - they actually seem to have a better handle on how to do the faux documentary/found footage horror film than we do over here. In this case, the film provides a much slower burn than the earlier feature in The Tunnel. Instead, we're given a fake documentary exploring a modern day ghost story revolving around the unfortunate drowning of a girl and her grieving family's attempts to cope. This is another film where I will warn this may not be to everyone's interests - as I've already said, it takes a rather slow buildup, and at times, you even wonder if there's anything truly supernatural at play or if you, and the family, are being taken for a ride. Likewise, in the end, not every mystery is resolved. When it comes to the final reveal, you're left with as many questions as the family within the movie. Some will be answered, others you will need to decide for yourself once you've processed the information. If you've got nothing against ambiguity in a film, then this is a rather interesting one to try your luck at parsing out.
...and no, I'm not lying when I say this is a ghost story, even if it may not seem it at first. Just keep a sharp eye out, one of the best marks of a ghost story is one that leaves you wondering just what you've seen.


and that makes week 2. Hopefully, week three will be up soon.

Monday, October 10, 2011

What you are about to see is an experiment.

Well kids, as was promised, we're working on trying to get the Third Row back up and running on a regular basis again. In order to get back to writing on a regular basis, and practicing brevity, we're trying a little experiment this month.

As everyone knows, barring those of you with crippling short term memory loss, or records of hardcore substance abuse, this is October. With this being the token month when networks play horror films on an almost constant basis. As in, come the last two weeks, if you can not find a horror film playing, you're either up in the wee hours, or you are doing something wrong.

With this in mind, what better way to ring in the month than to salute some of these horror films. So, for each day of this month, in an attempt to get his sorry punk-ass working, the guy sitting in the third row is going to watch a horror film, with an 'end of the week' write-up.
...which, we realize, means this one should have gone up over the weekend, but this is a work in progress, bear with us.

Now sit back and prepare for the first wave of this month's offerings:

Trick or treat, folks

Will you just send help already?!
I've seen enough of these types of films to know my odds of survival are bad enough as it is!

10/1 The Tunnel

Well, with this, we officially kick off Octoberfest (Without the Germans and beer.)

Somewhat appropriately enough (or as appropriately as a randomizer will allow for) we start the month off with the most recent title on the lineup, the 2011 Australian film 'The Tunnel.'
I'm just gonna start off by saying, I've always had kind of a love-hate relationship with the 'found footage' sub-genre of horror. Sure, it can sometimes yield good results, but it seems that for every [REC] or The Last Broadcast, you're just as likely to find a Cloverfield or Blair Witch Project (...that's right. Didn't much care for either of them. No, I don't care if that's heresy.) So I went into this movie with a bit of apprehension.
I have to admit, I was pleasantly surprised. For one thing, it seems to actively avoid many of the tropes that seem to pervade so many found footage films.
Even the premise, while conventional in a way, also kind of dodges the usual 'camera crew is actively looking for something horrible' trope, instead starting us off with something more akin to a political controversy. It isn't until the team has snuck into the film's titular tunnel system that the film's true nature slips through. Further on this, the film's approach to its horror is strangely refreshing as well. For much of the movie, the strongest element of fear comes from their locale (abandoned train tunnels beneath Sydney.) Even without the threat that emerges, these tunnels themselves become rather unsettling the further in the intrepid and unfortunate film crew go.
Finally, I will say this, in a set of films that, all too often, fall flat on the final reveal, this film is surprisingly good at adhering to the 'less is more' rule of fear. Even after everything is said and done, you have almost no idea what is down in the tunnels with them. That uncertainty, as well as the fact that, with one scene aside, never show any more than they have to, actually wound up making this film much more effective to me than I expected it would be. I will concede, this has convinced me the 'found footage' movie still has some life left in it afterall.

As an additional fun fact, this film has also earned itself a small footnote in cinematic history as being one of the first films to make legal distribution through BitTorrent a part of its distribution plan.
Doesn't really have much to do with the rest of the film, just an interesting note is all.

"I don't care HOW good those hors d'ouvres were,
we're never going to another party at Polanski's again!"

10/2 Rosemary's Baby

OK. I'm gonna start this off by saying this now. I do NOT condone of what Roman Polanski did. I feel the man is a talented director, but that does not square his actions. That said, this is not to be discussing his actions off the set, this is to discuss his movie.
...though I must admit, I do find it somewhat perversely ironic that he would direct a film whose big catalyst is the protagonist being drugged and raped.
...OK NOW I stop that.

Anyway. This is one of those classics I'm rewatching for this project. On that I have to say, it's also one that honestly gets better the more I see it (OK...in light of that intro, that just sounds wrong, but I don't mean it THAT way.) This is a film where I first went in expecting a classic case of occult horror, a genre I've always had something of a soft spot for. In that regard, the film comes up rather light. In turn, however, it delivers much more on a level that is sadly underrated in modern horror: paranoia. The second half of the film, as Mia Farrow's title character slowly, but surely, begins to realize that she really can't trust anyone, is still among the most disturbing things I've seen in a horror film to date. Made even more effective by the fact that, until the end, the film never truly gives us any particular reason to believe the suspicions either. So alongside our suspicion of everyone else, we're also left to question our perspective character as well. For all of the above grievances with Polanski (NO! No...not gonna go there again) I will say this for the man - back in the day, he had a knack for being able to convey paranoia and uncertainty brilliantly in film.
This isn't, of course, to sell short the others involved in this film as well. The rest of the cast especially help make the film work as well as it does. From John Casavetes as Rosemary's husband Guy, to the stable of veteran actors who play the many people Rosemary grows to distrust (including Ruth Gordon, scoring a well-deserved Oscar win for her work as their ever-present doting to the point of being insidious next door neighbor.)
Overall, while the main gist of the film is meant to be supernatural, the film is still, at its heart, classic 'nothing is what you think it is' at its finest.

(and yes, I realize my choice in caption is running counter to my vow at the start of this. I checked with my lawyers, it's not legally binding. You have no case here!)

Surviving a Dario Argento Movie Rule #1
Windows are your enemy.

10/3 Phenomena/Creepers

You know, if there's one thing I've always felt a bit ashamed of as a horror fan, it's been the fact that, over all these years, I've seen very little in the way of Italian horror.

Prior to my viewing of this, all I'd seen was two offerings by Dario Argento (his classics Suspiria and Deep Red, which may get discussed in future years.) So in putting together this year's list, I knew I wanted to get something on here that I hadn't seen before from the field of Italian horror.
Enter Dario Argento's 'Phenomena,' (although, in terms of access, I wound up watching the truncated, US edited release retitled 'Creepers') like Argento's other offerings, a film that's a rather curious blend of supernatural elements and a slasher mystery.
Not having heard anything about this film going in, I wasn't entirely sure what I was in for. What I got was a film with many of the classic Argento elements, some strong use of visuals, a unique storyline for a horror film, and a great soundtrack (albeit a bit of a difference from Argento's usual score by Goblin. They still have a part to play in this one, but there are also other parts of music by bands such as Franky Goes to Hollywood and Iron Maiden.)
Pretty solid casting in the two leads, horror veteran Donald Pleasance (in the years before he got booked into Halloween sequels for the rest of his days) and Jennifer Connelly in her first leading role (it's still damn fun to see the earliest work from Oscar respected actors nowadays.) Admittedly, this film wasn't quite on the same level of classic as other Argento films (though part of that may be thanks to the fact I was watching the edited version). Despite that, it's still a fairly enjoyable film with some unique touches to it.
Shaky execution aside, the film still boasts some well-shot sequences and still a few decently jolting surprises, including one which will forever add to my leeriness of those 'faceless children' cards stores insist on putting at every bloody corner. Overall, while Argento has done better, it's still a well worth the watch. Just try and watch the uncut version if you can (...to this end, I may be adding that to the queue for next October.)

She's just been told how much she's getting in royalties from the Billy Idol song of the same name
...while the mask doesn't show it, she's thrilled.


10/4 Eyes Without a Face

This was another film I went into with no idea of what to expect, other than the very basic summary: a doctor whose daughter was in an accident was left with no face...so to speak. In hoping to treat his daughter, as well as advance his own research, he decides to try a bold new (and altogether illegal) experiment - kidnapping women, removing their faces, and transplanting them onto his daughter's. It a gesture that merrily dances the line between 'loving father' and 'No. Really. What the Hell, Dad!?'
While the plot sounds somewhat schlocky, I was pleasantly surprised to find the story was actually quite well done. While the story does have its shares of some violence, most notably a surgery scene that, for a movie made in 1959, is still rather effectively disturbing in its execution, much of this is really more focused on the characters involved in this sordid scheme that's somewhere between a dysfunctional family and the high-class European cousins of the Leatherface clan (...OK, THAT's a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the idea.)
In particular, acknowledgments need to be given for actress Alida Valli, who plays the earlier mentioned faceless daughter, Louise. For her part, she has a rather curious challenge from an acting standpoint - she spends a good chunk of the film with her face concealed by a mask (for those of us playing at home, picture a feminine predecessor to the now famous Michael Meyers mask. All respect and love to John Carpenter, but the 'blank' mask as a disturbing element predates him by a good 19 years.) While she still has a few scenes following one procedure where we see her normal face, she spends much of the movie having to convey her emotions behind this blank slate. With this challenge in mind, she still does a good job conveying the daughter's shares of confusion and later guilt on discovering her father's experiments.
While the father's storyline is something of a mix of mad science and police investigation, it's still also worth investigating, since he does seem to have some inkling of concern for his daughter, even if his ambitions as a doctor do tend to outpace that love in many cases.
I won't say this film is necessarily one for everyone, especially with its ending, it is a rather curious example for its time, as well as a nice proof the French aren't completely out of the game on horror.

No, we're not there yet. If you keep asking that, I will let the hitchhikers have you.

10/5 Penny Dreadful

Released as part of the '8 Films to Die For' series of horror films, this was one of my first encounters with the slowly growing market of indie release horror films, often by big names working outside of the usual studio mechanics. Admittedly, this may not have been the best first encounter with them, but I definitely give them points for the attempt.
The premise is equal parts different and, admittedly, a bit cliched. The titular Penny is trying to get over a former trauma that's given her a phobia of cars. As part of this, she and her therapist (Mimi Rogers as the token big name in this project) head on a drive into the mountains to help her adjust and get over her fears.
...and then things get a bit more stock standard, as our lead finds herself repeated tormented by a sinister hitchhiker as the bodies start stacking up.
I wanted to be able to speak well of this film, but at the same time, it did not make that easy for me. It's certainly an ambitious film, but it also trips itself up at many points.
The sharp, stylized camera work runs anywhere from really helping to capture the feel of a scene, to moments where it feels excessive and almost comedic. Likewise, the story seems unable to decide if it wants to play more to the psychological horror and mindgames inflicted on Penny, or whether it wants to up the body count. The latter hurts in that it adds several extra strands of story purely for the sake of giving us more kills...I mean, I'm not one to say 'no' to a bit of extra brutality in a horror film...but at the same time, I'd like it to actually fit the film, instead of bussing in a bunch of extra characters that serve no purpose than to just get slaughtered.
Likewise, the final act feels rushed, and somewhat vague. Perhaps this was deliberately so (I've heard some speculate on the film's finale being similar to the ending of High Tension, but unless I see a statement from the director on this, I'm gonna take that idea with a HUGE grain of salt), but if it is, it still feels like it could have been done better.
I wouldn't say it's a bad film per se, but it's definitely one that has room for improvement. Actually, that could be an interesting reason to watch it - figuring out what you think could have been done differently to help a story with a fair amount of potential prove worthwhile.

In his later years, Patrick Troughton would look back on this as the third worst
Dr. Who convention story of his life...
...to his dying day, he wouldn't disclose the details of days #1 and 2.

10/6 The Omen

...so, the randomizer apparently decided the 'classics' theme for this week was 'Everyone Look What Satan Slept With This Time.'
That said, this is another one of those films I wind up appreciating more each time I watch it...and, loath as I am to admit it, I kind of have to thank the infamous remake for helping highlight parts of WHY I find this film holds up as well as it does.
The story...OK, do I need to recap the story for people? Satan knocks up a jackal, thanks to some cultist switcheroo, their offspring is snuck into the loving parentage of an American ambassador and his wife. Five years of loving upbringing quickly go (almost literally) to Hell, as Satan's little progeny begins to come into his own and those who try to warn the boy's father (played by Gregory Peck, once again proving he can take almost any role and make it a well fleshed out one) wind up dying in various, sundry, and disturbingly creative deaths.
Speaking of those deaths, the cast of victims is certainly worth their own accolades as well, Lee Remick, David Warner, Patrick Troughton (that's right, this movie kills The Second Doctor) and Billie Whitelaw...OK, she's not so much a victim of the Devil's love of Rube Goldberg, but damned if her turn as the sinister Mrs. Baylock isn't the stuff that distrust for nannies is made of.
Anyway, while Satan's perhaps overwhelming fondness for the game Mousetrap is certainly a memorable element of the film, it's far from the only one. Outside of the memorably gory demises, the film is still a fairly well composed mystery story. Especially when you consider the fact that, if you look at it from the perspective within the film itself, the events really DO seem like they could just be flukes. It's largely thanks to the Oscar-winning score by Jerry Goldsmith (including the nominated song 'Ave Satani') that we can realize the evil that's actually going on.
Though the film has spawned many imitators and sequels of varied quality, it's still held up well in its own right. When watching this one, just forget everything that came after it, and enjoy what, in its own right, is still a great supernatural mystery at its core, armed with a capable script, a great cast, and a phenomenal score.
That's right Damien...it's all for you!

Be sure to come back next Friday when we'll hopefully have the next installment up on time!

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Scratching At the Casket Lid: The Staggering Return to the Third Row (...Again)

Well readers, after another extended period of being closed down, for reasons debated anywhere from violation of the health code to illegal deals in the bathrooms, the Third Row is continuing to try out-do the late Bob Hope for bids at cheating death. (...too soon?)

I realize we've had a lot of starts and stops here. Honestly, I've been trying to remedy this. Both in terms of getting a regular pattern going, and just working out a lot of the bugs in my writing (I'll be one of the first to acknowledge I can go longer than I should like 'old man recalling their time in the war' long...it tends to explain why the Hell I get held up a lot of the time.) Going to try and get back on a regular schedule, and to this end, gonna be doing a lot of trial and error. Figuring out what works to get things back to a good pace instead of leaving this held up for months at a time. To this end, expect to see a project lined up for October that should hopefully get my lazy backside back to work on a weekly basis again.

In the meantime, before we get back to evaluating and/or castigating the wild kingdom of cinematic oddities, it seemed best to try and bring things back with another overview piece. This time, rather than a full year in review (which will happen anyway...although can't say what's gonna be on it just yet this time. I only have one of those picked out so far) we're gonna look over the summer season: that veritable smorgasbord of adaptations, remakes, and some fresh ideas peppered throughout.
It's like reaching into a bag that's 60% candy*, 40% broken glass.

*For reasons of health, we are contractually obligated to warn some of the candy may or may not have been unwrapped or left on the floor...such is the gamble here.

So sit back readers, grab a drink and join us in the third row as we look back at the last three months in film that I could be bothered to see.

Mr. Projectionist, if you please:

The 'Draw Me' matchbook horse
Inspiration and bane of even prehistoric man

-Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

[Yeah, I know this was actually made in 2010. I didn't get the opportunity to see this in theaters till early this summer.]
I never thought I'd hear myself say these words, so I'll just get them out of the way now: I wish I'd seen this in 3D. I'm normally not a big proponent for that, but this is honestly one of the few films I've seen where I felt like it honestly could put its 3D to good use.
This also made me realize I need to see more of Werner Herzog as a documentarian (my prior experiences with the man have been on his work in features, where he's largely considered insane. Talented as Hell, but insane.) Between an interesting concept and some wonderful camera work, Herzog gives viewers the opportunity to see a piece of history we ordinarily would never get the chance to see. The resulting documentary is equal parts informative, fascinating, and strangely enough, tranquil. With minimal reliance on voice-over narrative, Herzog lets many of the images found speak for themselves. As the movie goes on, it feels immersive just exploring these caverns in silence. At points, the movie almost seems to lull one into a trance (which, despite how this may sound, is not a bad thing. It's just amazing how calming the film can be.)
Of course, classic insane Herzog still makes an appearance during a rather curious epilogue, but you know what you're getting into with the man in question. Point is - even if you're not big on ancient history, this is still fascinating to see - even if not for the information, at least how well it's presented.

OK...ONE joke
Of these three women, one will die trying to ford a river 5 feet deep

Another will die of dysentery
and the last will survive to the end of the game...
try and guess which is which!


-Meek's Cutoff

OK. Before I start, I'll say this much. I challenged myself, in writing this, to do so without any references to the game Oregon Trail. Which, I have to say, cuts down a LOT of my write-up for it. But here goes...
This was a bit of an odd film to watch at first. I wasn't even sure the best way to word it until one of the friends I saw it put it best (and this is a phrase that usually I don't like the use of since so often it feels, dare I say it, pretentious, but...) this is one of those rare cases where I will honestly say a film qualifies for the phrase 'It's not so much a movie as an experience.'
To try and sum up this movie in a plot would come up with astonishingly little. The movie itself really feels more like a general look at the lives of settlers moving west. What sort of plot there is isn't even a linear 'conflict-climax-resolution' so much as it's the general problems faced by the people living in those times. The movie enters their lives almost as seamlessly as it leaves them, making it feel less like we're watching a laid out story and more just, in another phrase I'm usually very hestitant to use, a sort of slice of life film...that just happens to be focused on pioneer life.
Even the cast, which includes some fairly recognizable names (including Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, and Paul Dano) all effectively blend into their roles moreso than you'd see in other films.
...I know, this all sounds a bit nebulous, but really, this is one of those films that text doesn't properly do justice to. If it has gotten you curious, by all means check it out. This is honestly one where it just has to be seen first-hand. No soundbite can really encapsulate it.
[...and if you see it and decide you didn't like it...look at it this way. There's certainly much worse ways you can spend an hour and 45 minutes. I'll likely be pointing you to them in future entries.]

The Heavenly Glow -
just another of the many talents Conan honed during his time off the air.


-Conan O'Brien Can't Stop

This was one where I first went because of just general interest in the subject matter (which, as the title would suggest, is Conan O'Brien, and more specifically following his 'Banned from Television' tour across the US.) Going in, I expected laughs, which were delivered quite a bit. At the same time, however, the movie actually surprised me in just how far past the laughs they were willing to show us. This went beyond what could be written off as a mere vanity project and actually showed us a fully fleshed out Conan off-stage. As a result, alongside being a generally funny man, we see a loving father, a devoted showman, a prankster with an occasionally cruel sense of humor (while many of the moments are still amusing, it's hard to deny that Conan DOES sometimes act like a jerk) and even just as an average person.
Probably one of the most effecting moments of the movie is a scene in which, after having entertained several guests backstage, Conan vents some pent up exhaustion and general frustration with the waves of people he doesn't really know coming backstage to talk with him. It's a bit uncomfortable to see him like this, but at the same time, we can see where he's coming from in his general irritation.
Don't get the wrong idea though, the movie is still largely about the showman and the laughs, but at the same time, it's refreshing that their behind scenes footage reminds us that, for all his fame and talent, he's still human just like the rest of us. It doesn't try to build him up or rip him down. It just shows him to us in as straight a light as it can and lets us decide. I kind of wish more documentaries took this approach. But that's a matter for another time.

Ah, the time-honored custom of who can pick the most inappropriate song to sing at the wedding....
...you mean that's not an actual custom?
...I have some apologies to make.

-Bridesmaids

This actually surprised me on a few levels. I first saw this on the recommendation of a friend (thanks for that, by the way) who assured me that, despite what initial advertisement might imply, the film is still pretty damn enjoyable gender regardless. This is actually more true than I expected. The film surprised me on a couple of levels. For starters, yeah it does succeed quite well as a comedy. The humor kind of runs the gamut on styles, but largely all still works. The other thing that caught me off guard, and again, the ads kind of downplayed this a lot, was the fact the film has a surprisingly dark streak running in it. The kicker is, said dark streak probably ties into one of the biggest reasons I'd say the film really works for a lot more people than initially advertised - it plays to something a LOT of people have been going through: that sense of "have I screwed up in my life? Am I ever going to get anywhere, or is it all downhill from here? Etc etc" That kind of fear of failure hangs over Kristen Wiig's protagonist pretty strongly during the film and, while it does lead to a few laughs, there's also several moments where you genuinely feel bad for this person whom Murphy's Law apparently called in a hit on (to this end, the 'could this get worse' element is kept all pretty plausible. It doesn't feel like it's been blown up to comedic proportions.) Despite that, the film isn't a downer. A bit more cynical than one would expect from initial promotions, but still an enjoyable movie.

Mr. Sudeikis, Mr. Day, step aside and you won't be hurt. Mr. Bateman, if we find you wandering off the Arrested Development movie set again, we WILL restrain you!

-Horrible Bosses

This summer got pretty good at balancing the laughs with the misery in its comedy. Admittedly, Horrible Bosses doesn't play to that fear of failure nearly as much as Bridesmaids did, but at the same time, there are some dark elements in play (well...beyond the fact the plot of this film is three friends seeking to murder their monstrous employers.) One thing I have to give both comedies here is their openly acknowledging something that still seems largely off the radar in mainstream film at this point, despite it having been a problem for years now - the fact the job market has seen better days. Much better days. In here, it's made a particular grim punchline of a scene where the afforementioned three friends all contemplate quitting their jobs and finding new work. This optimism is crushed by the arrival of another friend of theirs who had previously worked for Lehman Bros...and has been unemployed since. It's still a funny moment, but there's a solid sense of "...oh." that comes with it, as the usual escape a film would provide is no longer there. ...of course, that aside, the film in general is still just a well-done black comedy.
If I had to give it one other acknowledgment here, it has to go to the fact that, while leads Bateman, Day, and Sudeikis are all playing relatively true to form (and doing quite well with it,) much of the supporting cast are all playing outside of their traditional 'types' (well, OK, Kevin Spacey has played monstrous individuals in film before, and does a good job of it here, but by comparison, Jennifer Aniston, Colin Farrel, and Jamie Fox are all definitely riffing on their traditional types, and actually handling it better than one might expect. Hell, I actually prefer Aniston playing crazy to her normal roles.) A pretty pleasant, if morbidly entertaining, surprise.

and now we come to the block that made up a good chunk of this summer's film offerings...the comic book movies.

"...and when you get back to the set of Mad Men, be sure to remind the rest of the cast that they've now all been bumped down to the 'easy mode' list for my Six Degrees game."

-X-Men: First Class

The more I look back at this film, the more on the fence I feel about it. On the one hand, I definitely had fun watching it, and there were parts I enjoyed. On the other, even I can't deny the film was hampered by several problems with budget and casting. Then again, I can understand on the former. After the problematic runs of X-3: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the franchise has been hurting lately. The idea of doing another film was probably seen as extremely risky, and the film kind of shows this. Between its low budget and seeming distance from standard Marvel hallmarks (this may be the first Marvel adaptation in years without the obligatory Stan Lee cameo) you could tell this was a film the powers that be didn't have much faith in during production. With those setbacks in mind, it does prove a step in the right direction for a franchise that's been ailing for years. Plus, for all the earlier mentioned problems, it does have its pros as well (the script has some decent parts to it alongside its shortcomings, and for each of the problem bits of casting, there are also a few well-chosen cast members, in particular Michael Fassbender as Magneto and Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw, who you can tell he enjoyed playing as a vintage Bond villain.) Not sure I'd say it's one to go out of the way for, but it's one of the more entertaining offerings to come out of the X label in a while.

Before
After

Yeah...Branagh does that for people.

-Avengers Trailer #1... ...I mean Thor.

OK, I just want to make this clear...while I make fun of the fact these films are mostly being teasers for Marvel's big Avengers bonanza, I do it out of love. Like the above mentioned First Class, this wound up being a film I kind of came around on the more I looked back at it after the fact. At first, I felt it was enjoyable, if a bit uneven. While I still feel it's somewhat uneven, the film still holds together better than I had initially thought. Though the idea of Branagh directing a comic book movie felt a bit odd at first, he certainly proved up to the task, making the film both entertaining in general as well as holding up as a comic book movie.
The only real drawback to the film is largely the kind of unavoidable consequence of a story unfolding in two settings. The intrigues of Asgard wind up overshadowing the parts of the film taking place on Earth. At the same time, the Earth segments are necessary as a means of developing the titular Norseman from being just a brash, somewhat petty blowhard into someone who genuinely learns to care about other people for a change. Plus, they are still entertaining and well handled in their own right. In the end, this shortcoming is about the worst you can hold against the film, and even that's not hurting it that much. While I had initially voted otherwise, I think I might have to give this the vote for best of the comic movies of the season.
...that said, I would also like to take a moment to thank and curse Conan O'Brien, whose redubbed Thor trailers made parts of the movie hard to watch and keep a straight face during.

Once again proving the old adage:
If you're doing it to beat up Nazis, anything's acceptable...even steroids!

-Avengers Trailer #2 (Subtitle: Captain America: The First Avenger)

With Avengers bearing down on us like a freight train, Marvel is now scrambling to get the last of the characters established. As of this movie, the last player is in place. Was it worth it? Overall, yeah, but at the same time, I would have been curious to see how this could be addressed as an independent property. I mean, in and of itself, it's not a terrible film. The WWII setting is a fresh touch for a comic movie (and it's nice to see director Joe Johnson trying to reclaim his old Rocketeer magic again...even if he only gets some of it back.) The cast are generally well chosen, with particular shout outs to Tommy Lee Jones and Hugo Weaving.
The effects...kind of a mixed bag (some impressive, if a touch unsettling, while others...I've just kind of come to terms with the fact Red Skull just isn't a design that really converts well to live action. I commend the attempts made so far for trying, but...) This one definitely has a few more shortcomings going against it compared to Thor, but overall, still makes for a fairly fun summer movie. I think probably the one thing that hampers it the most, as someone else pointed out, is the fact the film basically exists purely to set up Cap for the Avengers movie. I would have been interested to see what they could do with the story if they didn't have to use it as a means to an end, and purely something to stand on its own merits.
Now we just need to wait till next summer to find out of this has all been worth it.

"OK, how's this? You can have this CGI ring AND my career for the summer,
and all you have to do is give me an actual, non-CG suit for this movie.
Deal?"

-Green Lantern

You know that feeling of disillusionment many people got after they first left the theater seeing The Phantom Menace for the first time? That half disappointed, half slightly angered feeling from realizing something they'd been waiting for, even ignoring any number of warning signs, just wasn't worth it after all. For years, I never quite got this feeling (largely because I got through the prequels under a shield of denial that kept telling me "...well, maybe it'll be worth it with II and III." This, combined with the general slow realization of the shortcomings over the 6 year span meant what should have been a painful revelation after Episode III turned out to be little more than "...yeah, overall that was crap.")
...what does Star Wars have to do with this? Thanks to GL, I finally understand that feeling described above.
People had misgivings about the movie from its first teasers (understandably so...even while optimistic I wasn't gonna kid myself and say the CG on that suit looked good) but still I kept the faith. As a fan of the comics, I held out some hope, since I honestly think the premise has potential. Plus it would have been nice to see DC score a win for something beyond Batman.
What they delivered was a movie that...simply put...was the embodiment of disappointment for me. Both as an adaptation and a straight-up movie, this was an unfortunate mess of interesting ideas that failed to gel and really shouldn't have all been in one spot. Actually, to properly go into my problems with this movie would require a separate write-up in and of itself (which will likely be following this. Seriously, it's not often I come across a film even I have a hard time finding a silver lining to, but damned if they didn't find it here. The full review for this was almost therapy.)
I still remain stunned that DC apparently wants to do a sequel despite this film's weak performance...but the fact they reportedly want a new director and plan to somewhat reboot things leaves to hope maybe they learned from the experience.
...or, this is that Star Wars denial shield back up to full.

Alien invaders, sure.
Daniel Craig with a high tech wrist blaster, yeah no biggie.
Learning your opening weekend tied with the Smurfs...
THAT was what it took to get the shocked face from Ford.

-Cowboys and Aliens

Sometimes, there's something to be said for a film that delivers exactly what it promises in the title. Sure, it occasionally leads to disappointments like Snakes on a Plane, but to be fair, that was less because it delivered what it promised, and more cause the internet hyped it to Hell and back. This wasn't a deep or moving film, but as a popcorn title, it was pretty damned enjoyable...even if the most fun of it for me wasn't entirely intentional (Harrison Ford as a crusty, cantankerous old man was worth the price of admission alone.) Like First Class, I wouldn't call this one a must-watch, but as far as a 'just for fun' offering goes, it's certainly an enjoyable piece of cheese...just one you enjoy more with a beer than wine is all.

That about wraps up the summer here.

Come back next week when, hopefully, we'll be back to delivering the regular works (likely starting with the above mentioned autopsy of the Green Lantern movie.)

Until then, I leave you with a 'till next time' and the sight of Harrison Ford murdering a smurf.