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 ( 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 ( 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 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... his dying day, he wouldn't disclose the details of days #1 and 2.

10/6 The Omen, 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's all for you!

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

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