Friday, October 19, 2012

Trick or Treat, Motherf--

...I mean, we're back!

Well, this has officially been a busy week in the Third Row.  Between the multi-part NYCC report (which ran anywhere from informative to cantankerous) and now we round out the week with the next installment of the Halloween festivities (that I really need to find a better name for...seriously, anyone got anything?)

So go get something to drink, cause this is gonna be a slightly longer entry...

Starting things off, we have

Despite the popular mythology of Satan demanding blood sacrifices as loyalty, the actual Prince of Darkness is a bit more fratboy in his initiations.

10/11 - Häxan

Appropriately, we bridge from last week's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to starting this week with our other silent film entry this year.  Benjamin Christensen's Häxan (translated - Witch) is something of an odd film in a number of ways, really.  On the one hand, it presents itself as a documentary.  At the same time, however, it chooses to convey some of its information through a separate narrative within the film encompassing an entire process of witchcraft trials.  As you can guess from the title off the bat, this film is purporting to cover the subject of witchcraft.  In this light, the first few chapters do play out in a sort of lecture style, with information text cards intercut with either old artwork or diagrams demonstrating the points they're making.  This section is largely concerned with discussing many old beliefs about the universe and evil, as that's going to form the basis of much of the film.  From there, we come to a few small segments of semi-narrative, demonstrating some of the aspects of the culture that witchcraft fears grew in (things like a man being cursed by a witch or a pair of men conducting a covert autopsy in the interests of science who are then accused of witchcraft.)  After that we come to the story that makes up the bulk of the film - focusing on the family of a dying man who believes he was cursed and who then accuse a local crone of the misdeed.  Most of this narrative in particular is focused on the entire process by which confessions are derived through torture and subsequently other people are named either from fear or retaliation.  In this regard, the film actually does, for its time, a pretty solid job of really demonstrating the fearful nature which allowed the trials to become as prominent as they did.  It's also in here and the earlier segment that the film really shows some of the director's ambition, as well as how this would go on to be the most expensive silent Scandinavian film in history - the many scenes of black masses and consorting with demons actually hold up well as old school special effects and makeup go.  If there's any weakness this film has, it lies in the fact the film's age trips up some of its ideology - most notable in the final part, which posits parallels between what was once seen as witchcraft and hysteria.  This part professes some now very outdated ideas regarding psychology, and it does trip up the film somewhat (though for when it was made, you can only hold them just so responsible here.)  The overall product is certainly interesting enough to give a look - a blend of early documentary, some supernatural horror narrative, and a pretty bold eye for the silent era carried along by a pretty capable cast of actors (in particular Marie Pedersen as the old woman whose accusation makes up the bulk of the film.)  I'm not gonna say it's anything that will keep you up at night, but as a piece of film history, it's certainly a memorable one to watch.

Bad - Getting violently stabbed by the pizza boy
e - The realization that, alongside the horrible pain, your last thought stands to be that you won't be getting that complimentary Crazy Bread after all.

10/12 - Perfect Blue

Yeah, I don't mind saying it: one of the more disturbing entries this year is an animated film.  Anyone who's seen it can understand why I'm saying this, anyone who hasn't...well...give it a watch and see what you think.  As one of the few anime directors to get major attention in the west that isn't Hayao Miyazaki, Satoshi Kon made a name for himself with some pretty mind-bending fare, ranging anywhere from surreal dives into people's dreams to a time-shifting story exploring an actress's past.  In this case, he turned that mind-bending skill more toward the angle of psychological horror, and in the process a pretty scathing look at the entertainment industry.  The story follows Mima Kirogoe (voiced by Junko Iwao,) a singer in a Japanese pop trio which has gained itself a sizable fanbase (it's pretty telling that all the fans we see in the beginning of the film are all older guys.)  At a concert, she announces she's planning to quit the pop scene and pursue a serious acting career.  At first, this seems like a good idea...then things start going awry.  Between stalkers, violent acts to those around her, and the mounting pressure within the industry to do things she would rather not be doing in the interests of advancing her own career (surprisingly, sleeping with directors isn't on there...but it's still pretty dubious all the same,) Mima finds her life coming unwound hard and fast.  Throw in bodies piling up that she may or may not have a connection with, and we're soon as confused as she is over what's real, what's staged, and what's illusion.  After a while, you almost forget that it's an animated movie and just get caught up in the entire mystery.  It speaks pretty well for Kon that he can pull this off, and even with animated people, still present some legitimately creepy scenes (including a scene in a parking lot that manages to make pop music unsettling.)
Also, as an additional piece of trivia goes - director Darren Aronofsky had secured the rights to do a live-action film of this at one point...and for those who are wondering, surprisingly this wasn't for making Black Swan.  It was actually to do a similar scene from this movie in his own Requiem for a Dream (though it's pretty obvious this also inspired parts of BS as well.)

Bloody remains in ominous paper - Nothing says 'Don't Steal Other People's Stuff From the Company Fridge' quite as well...

10/13 - A Tale of Two Sisters

Again with bridging themes this much for the randomizer doing its job.  In this case, the shared ideas of Asian cinema and things not being as they initially seem go hand in hand on these two films.  In this case, it's a South Korean thriller by director Kim Ji-Woon (itself based on a folktale.)  This is one of those films that I have to commend for the fact it actually managed to throw me for a loop in a few cases.  It starts off with a seemingly straightforward story - two sisters that have been under psychological care are being brought home to live with their father.  On getting there, they find a stepmother waiting for them who is less than thrilled by their presence.  It comes across as your classic 'evil outside stepparent vs two siblings who will look out for each other' idea at first...and that's just the first fast one it pulled.  Much of this film is good at the idea of keeping you trying to make sense of what's happening, as it seems even the characters are even themselves lost in delusions as things go on.  Even at the very end, there are some lingering moments of wondering just how much of what you've seen was actual story.  Alongside Ji-Woon's direction and script, a big part of what helps keep the mystery here is the performances from the cast - in particular Im Soo-Jung and Moon Geun Young as the titular sisters, Su-mi and Su-Yeon.  In particular Soo-Jung as the older sister really helps carry a lot of the film and is vital to helping maintain the uncertainty the helps keep the narrative going.  Not necessarily a downright scary film, but a very fascinating puzzle to mull over and enjoy in any case.

Pictured - Bruce Campbell's 'Another Successful Convention Over' Face

10/14 - The Evil Dead

You know, I think this is one of those films I've come to appreciate more and more as I rewatch it.  This isn't to say I've ever disliked the film, cause I have enjoyed it.  It's more, for the longest time, I was among those who considered this the weak end of the Evil Dead trilogy.  I think this was in large part since it lacked that sort of slapstick angle that helped keep 2 and 3 trucking through the bad effects and that total unwillingness to take itself seriously.  As I look at it more though, I think that's actually part of its charm for me.  Yeah, it's a low-budget horror film with effects that time has been downright ruthless to and it doesn't try to play itself for laughs.  That adds to it for me - it's the kind of film that has a lot of heart going for it despite its budgetary limitations.  While a lot of it is kind of goofy now, there are some elements of it that actually have aged better than they would appear on first glance.  Some of the scenes, for example, still manage to actually make for a couple of decent jolts (the moment when the possessions first begin, for example, I still think is a great bit of build-up to a memorable payoff.)  Additionally, even amid a lot of rather b-grade moments now, a few of the effects still hold up well (what can I say?  The pencil stab scene STILL makes me cringe.)  Also, while I love the persona that Ash would become in the later films, I think the way he's depicted within the first film really does work with the most serious style here - yeah, Bruce doesn't deliver award-winning acting, but it's still a pretty game effort at showing someone who's trying to keep their cool in a situation that is rapidly flying out of his hands.  Looking at it now, while it's a different flavor from the rest of the trilogy, I'd still say the classic Evil Dead has just as much merit behind it as its successors do.  It's a different sort of enjoyment now, but still worthy of being counted alongside the other two.

One thing I will say for this movie's haunted house - very few others would let you see their score card displayed quite so openly.

10/15 - Burnt Offerings

Hmm...this actually seems to be the only haunted house movie on the list this year.  A bit more surprising is the fact that I've not actually touched on...actually a LOT of the classics from this sub-section.  Will have to fix that in the future.
In this case, it's kind of a curious one.  I wouldn't call it one of the greats, but it's got some interesting ideas to it in any case.  For one thing, the idea that it's not so much ghosts that inhabit the building so much as the building itself is alive.  Others have done this before, but it's still a worthwhile angle to see played with here.  Likewise, this is a case of a film where the house latches on to one person in particular in the group, in this case mother Marian Rolf (Karen Black) to act on their behalf, though it also seems to try and take control
of the others at times to get what it wants.  It's actually pretty interesting that, for the most part, there are no actual ghosts within this movie.  About the only thing that comes close is a grinning chauffeur that becomes a recurring hallucination for the father, Ben (Oliver Reed.)  Most of the time, it's more personified in the fact the house seems to drive people to less than characteristic behaviors that leaves them wondering.  As time goes on, it becomes increasingly clear the building has its own plan for the people...and they're not gonna like it.  Admittedly, outside of this idea, it feels rather formulaic.  Despite that, however, it still makes a game effort with its story, even if it doesn't elevate itself to a timeless classic as a result.  I mean, there's very few things I can call majorly memorable about it, but at the same time, there's not a lot I can say actively bad for it either.  It's a pretty good variation on the genre, but not really one I'd call a must-see.  If you get the chance, go for it, but don't go overboard for it.

A disappointed Slenderman turns away, his fleeting hopes of at least getting some candy this Halloween dashed into the dirt...

10/16 - Marble Hornets

This is probably one of the most curious entries I've encountered on the list so far.  One part for its fairly unconventional narrative style (it's actually a series of short webfilms compiled together after the fact to make a full narrative) and one part for its role in the growing internet urban legend that is Slenderman.  Started as a small web series by a couple of users from the website SomethingAwful, this has become one of the  forerunners in terms of internet-based horror films.  On finally sitting down to watch it, I can certainly see where the appeal comes from.  I mean, at first I was a bit mixed on the movie, in part due to the fact it was giving Blair Witch vibes (one of these days I will probably finally sit down and go over why that film didn't do it for me.)  As it went on, however, I wound up getting into the narrative - itself one man's attempts to try and sort of why a friend of his would so suddenly and erratically abandon his student film, and in the process gets himself mixed up in something unknown and horrifying as well.  Oddly, I think one of the things I wound up really liking about this film was the fact that, in the end, we still aren't any surer of what's happened than the protagonist, Jay, is.  We know he's gotten mixed up in something that seems to exist beyond our comprehension, and that leads to a couple of pretty effective jolts at points in the movie, but like Jay, we're still left unclear as to just what the Hell it is.  Maybe this will be explaining in the upcoming 'Part 2' they apparently are planning to make, but even if that never comes, I'd be happy with the film as it currently is.  It still stands as an interesting demonstration of what motivated filmmakers using the internet right can do  outside of the traditional studio norms and make a pretty damn creepy story out of the deal too.  I actually almost feel more impressed with what it means by virtue of existing than what it means as a horror film on its own.

For some reason, the look here almost evokes a happy dog to me...a somewhat psychotic dog with a taste for human brains, but a happy dog never the less.

10/17 - Return of the Living Dead

...and after the unsolved creepiness of Marble Hornets, this was just a needed jump up for air.  Penned by Dan O'Bannon (of Alien fame,) this was designed as a sort of follow-up to Romero's classic horror film (albeit they didn't realize at the time he was working on his own in the now seminal Dawn of the Dead.)  As a sort of 'brother from another mother' movie, it works out pretty well.  It bases its premise in part off the idea that the entire notion of the original Night of the Living Dead was itself an actual event, albeit one whose facts were fudged for the movie (in particular this leads to a great scene as the cast lament at the fact the movie's method for disposing of the undead doesn't work on the zombies in their film.)  At the same time, however, the movie plays itself with a black sense of humor and definitely plays up a lot of its subject matter for laughs.  Especially amusing is, despite its joking style, this also adds to some of the well known zombie tropes (this, for example, is the film that popularized "BRAAAAAAAAAAINS!")  It makes for a pretty fun shot in the arm for the zombie genre, even if it is in something of a copyright grey area.  Dancing just on the line between goofy comedy and a tongue-in-cheek self-awareness of the material it's playing with, it's actually a pretty strong zombie movie and comedy.

Scene from the movie, or Nic Cage prepping for Ghost Rider 3 - You decide.

10/18 - The Serpent and the Rainbow

Odd confession time - while I have a great deal of respect for the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, as well as his 1970s offerings, I think this might take my vote for favorite Wes Craven movie.  I think part of why it stands out to me is because it's a very different sort of film - both for him and for the zombie genre, as it were.  Loosely basing itself on the book of the same name by Wade Davis, Craven puts together a narrative delving into the voodoo culture of Haiti.  It feels like a different sort of film for him, and he definitely handles the material well - finding unsettling material both within the dark underbelly of voodoo and with crossing the local authorities as a result (probably one of the most disturbing scenes within the movie is a torture scene made after an arrest.)  While it plays some of the elements a bit more along the lines of the supernatural than the simply unusual realm of drugs that makes up the original true story, those elements really help add to the story - creating questions of what's real, what's drug-induced hallucination, and whether or not there is truly any power within voodoo or not.  It's the act of keeping that line blurred that helps keep the movie worth following to me.

This is just one of the many examples of how the London Olympics were almost THAT much more hardcore before the ideas were sadly nixed.

10/19 - 28 Days Later

With this, we round out the week, and mark a breather in the zombie movies.  That's right, I'm saying this isn't a zombie movie, and not just because Danny Boyle says no.  The more I look at it, the more I see this film as being part of the sadly more underappreciated 'plague' style of horror films.  I mean, the Rage virus itself doesn't actually reanimate the dead - rather it infects the living and drives them completely insane.  It's actually more akin to a hypervirulent version of rabies than an actual zombie story.  Though I would be lying if I said the story doesn't contain some of the other hallmarks of what's usually used in the zombie story, though a medical outbreak can cause them to happen as well.  Interestingly, said viral outbreak also happens under disturbingly plausible circumstances (how many animal rights groups do stop to consider what they might be unleashing onto the world when they raid labs?)  Much of the actual outbreak happens off-screen as we spend more of the film with protagonist Jim (Cillian Murphy) trying to make sense of the living Hell he's woken up into.  It's more of a story of survival in the aftermath of this massive outbreak, and in time, the question of whether or not those who haven't been infected can be trusted or not.  So, yeah, in some ways, it does have a lot of the familiar elements of a zombie film, but, again, those are still pretty common for disease too.  Beyond splitting hairs about the sub-genre, I have to say, in general, this is just a really well done thriller for Boyle.  He builds some great elements of suspense, especially early on when we're as in the dark as Jim about just what this virus has done to the world, though even still maintaining that dread once we've learned all the details.  Likewise, the supporting cast are all quite strong, with some great performances from Naomie Harris, Brendan Gleeson, and Christopher Eccleston each handling the outbreak in their own ways.  Honestly, of this year's entries, this is one of the ones I'd place on the high end for worth seeing if you haven't already.

Well, that actually has us all up to speed again.  Excellent!

Until next Friday when we have these back on a regular pace again!

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