Friday, October 18, 2013

Halloween Week 3: Lord of the Dead

Well, as I warned last week, the first part of this week's entries is decidedly not for those of a claustrophobic persuasion. Otherwise, this has been an interesting week. Besides the above mentioned phobia-baiting, we have an anthology movie, our second sequel for the year - though this time we actually covered the start already - a murderous clown (It isn't Halloween without one!) and two... ... ...we'll discuss them when we get to them.

Now then, we've got a full week ahead, so let's get to work


10/12 - The Descent

Unusual fun fact to keep in mind watching this movie: none of this was filmed in actual caves. This is, of course, understandable, for the risks such an environment would pose to both cast and crew, but it then makes it rather surprising to look at the caves in this and realize they were all artificially constructed. Just one of those minor bits that works in this movie's favor.

Of course, they couldn't afford to have the caves look bad in this feature. So much of this film's strength lies in its claustrophobic atmosphere, and director Neil Marshall knows it. Even before the film's monstrosities, a race of sub-human creatures living in the caverns, make their appearance, the film is already playing on its audience with just how unnerving the caves are. A strong example of this is shown early on in the cave-in scene that causes the film's leads to get trapped in the cave in the first place. It leads to a tense moment where the movie's protagonist Sarah (Shauna Macdonald, who has since admitted not all of her fear in those caves was fake) is trapped in a tunnel that could collapse on her. Even realizing the film isn't likely to kill her off that soon, it's hard not to tense up as her teammates try to get her out of there. Likewise, a sequence with trying to cross a gap where the team has to improvise a rope way across leads to some solid tension awaiting the drop.

...all this before the crawlers (the director's name for them) arrive. Once they take to the scene, the movie shifts gears in a way that still maintains the disturbing element, but finds new ways to make it unsettling. The first half could almost be read as a straight drama - we're introduced to the team, we learn some of their background, and what happens to them in the caves, while unsettling, could still be the stuff of a very tense dramatic film. Once the group realizes they're not alone in the caves, that survival becomes much more primal and much more disturbing. Particularly in the case of Sarah and Juno (Natalie Mendoza)- the two figures at the center of this- who find their survival instinct may take them places a person wouldn't ordinarily wish to go.

The blood flows, the bodies start stacking up, and the film's last act becomes genuinely disturbing in a whole new way. The claustrophobia of the first half now feels strangely mild compared to the growing risk of how much of one's humanity a person will risk to stay alive. The result is messy and nihilistic...but luckily, that's by design. Further adding to the luck, it all works - alongside the impressive sets and tense direction, the cast are all well suited to the material. In many cases, the fear and agitation that grows among the group as things go wrong feels natural in a way that almost leads one to wonder how much of the sets were getting to some of them.

I know it's a cliched line to use here, but really, this is one of those films where, once it gets rolling, it won't let you stop for air. Thankfully, because it's really a big part of what makes this work as well as it does.

"You know what's funny?  You're one of the only people to get in the car with me that actually lives to tell about it.
Feels pretty cool, huh?"

10/13 - The Vanishing

I'd say this film is a breather after the roller coaster into Hell that was The Descent, but that would be somewhat disingenuous under the circumstances.

More accurately, George Sluizer's The Vanishing (or Spoorloos, for the linguistic purists in the house,) is a very slow burn. In fact, the movie mainly can be seen to have one particular scare to it - but the build-up to it, and it subsequent payoff are such that it's more than worth the trip leading up to it.

Of course, even without the scare, it's still a very well made movie. Rather than being a straight up horror, it's a mystery for much of its run-time. At the start, we're introduced to one of our two leads, Rex Hofman (Gene Bervoets) on a road trip. At a fateful stopping point, his girlfriend Saskia (Johnana ter Steege) disappears with no one the wiser as to how it happened. What follows is two stories running concurrently - one of Rex's slow descent into obsession to find out what became of Saskia, the other concerning one Raymond Lemorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu in a genuinely disturbing performance) a prominent family man and sociopath who may hold the key to Rex's mystery.

One of the curious things about this dual-story technique is how Sluizer (with a script by Tim Krabbé, based on his own novel) give both stories enough focus without actually crossing paths until the final act. This is more impressive given the two different moods each story conveys: Rex is a man driven by loss and not knowing what happened, who slowly becomes consumed by it, even to the point of losing his fiance (Gwen Eckhaus, playing supportive, but realizing its limits in this case.) In his storyline, the events remain unknown until they cross over with Raymond's. Raymond's meanwhile, is in large part told in flashback as he slowly confirms our suspicions of his involvement in the disappearance while all the while avoiding the big mystery - just what did he do with her? By the time Rex and Raymond meet and Raymond lays out the bait to answer the question, we're just as eager as Rex to learn the truth...and it still remains among the most famous/infamous endings in horror cinema when it gets there.

It's certainly a different breed of horror for this time of year, but not a bad one. Sluizer and his cast put together a story that both unsettles and strikes a chord. We feel bad for Rex in his obsession as we feel disturbed by Raymond's methodical practice of his methods. Both fascinate in completely different ways, and the film never misses a beat with either.

If you don't mind a more low-key buildup to one HELL of a payoff, this is a mystery worth pursuing.

I'm starting to notice horror films have a VERY exaggerated impression of the damage a single shovel swing can do to a human head. Right now Nekromantik holds the prize with a swing that was apparently made with the shovel of the gods.

10/14 - Nekromantik

...OK. Either there's a problem with this movie, or there's a problem with me. I'll present my case and let you decide and either continue reading or contacting the proper authorities.

I've been sitting on my thoughts on this one for a while before trying to set them into text. I wanted to be fair to this movie, because it's a film that's VERY easy to write off, in no small part based on the fact it's a movie about necrophilia (let's just get THAT elephant into the room now.)

Even after my initial reactions, I even checked out several other critical responses to this movie to see if there was anything I may have missed in interpretation.

With all that in mind, I should probably just get this off my chest and get rolling, huh?

For a movie as notorious and infamous as this was built up to be, this was...incredibly boring.
Which feels weird to say under the circumstances, I admit, but that's really the best word for it. I almost wish if I was gonna castigate this movie, I could at least say I was among those disgusted/offended by it. I couldn't even fall there (though I DO admit the actual on-screen animal brutality wasn't netting this one brownie points any more than it did for Cannibal Holocaust. Though at least there, Deodato answered for it in court. I've not found any word on if Jörg Buttgereit got called on it.)

Part of the problem is the fact the movie seems to be unsure of just what it's trying to say for itself. I mean, there's certainly some nuggets of idea within it, particularly in how it presents its main character, Rob Schmadtke (Daktari Lorenz,) a quiet man working for a street cleaning company with an unusual fixation on death. Luckily (?) for him, his girlfriend (Beatrice Manowski) not only is OK with this, she shares in his predilection, which is the one way he can get away with the collection of parts he's collected from corpses on the job. One day, after a somewhat comic interlude involving a botched shooting, Rob gets the chance to bring home a full human corpse for he and his girlfriend to use in a three-way (that's right...get all those stiff jokes out of your systems now, guys.) This is the element of the movie that's at the heart of a lot of the controversy, and the moment where I started realizing my starting question of this movie. While I recognize the controversy value in the idea of a couple having a three way with a rotting corpse, for some reason, I really couldn't feel that disgusted. In fact, I couldn't feel much of anything, beyond noting that, and this is something I will give the movie, the musical score is actually pretty nice, if a touch repetitive within the movie itself.

Anyway, after this rather long sequence, Rob's predilection for the dead starts to interfere at his job - where he's promptly fired. His girlfriend, willing to support a love for dead bodies, but apparently not that big on the fact he's unemployed, leaves him and takes the corpse with her - never mind the fact said corpse is similarly jobless, which sort of undermines her whole complaint.

What follows feels like the awkward cousin of Eraserhead, as we follow Rob through his coping with the breakup, which includes a dead animal and two homicides (for a guy whose girlfriend criticizes for not really standing up for himself, he's picking an odd way to fix the problem) and an ending that...well...I won't say for spoilers, but somehow, for a film like this, it really feels like there was no other way this could end.

There's just so many things about this movie that didn't land right for me, and I find it strangely alarming that none of them are the things they probably should be. I can see where the film seems to want to be going at points - in particular with the exploration of the link between the notions of love and death, which is an idea the film rolls with right out of the start. Unfortunately, it never feels like the film says enough about the idea. It does at least start to build the link, but never really makes a statement about it beyond it being there. Likewise, despite the fact the film centers on two necrophiliacs, the film never really seems to explore it for much beyond as a tool of shock. In fact, a lot of this movie seems like it's uncertain of if it wants to go for something to say or just go for the shock value. To the point where many of the shocks have no real sting to them whatsoever. Further adding to this problem is the fact that many of the scenes feel like they're being extended purely to play for time (the first five minutes of the movie, for example, include two somewhat prolonged sequences of characters urinating that don't really add anything to the film. Especially since one of the two is dead shortly thereafter.)

Perhaps it's me. Perhaps I really am that jaded as a person now, but outside of being mildly put off by the actual animal killing in this one, much of the rest of the shocks in this really just didn't do anything for me at all. I was neither intrigued nor disgusted. They were simply there, and, in many cases, just wind up feeling like padding. The above pictured shot, for example, runs for a good five seconds of just that twitching. Which seems kind of minor in text, but when you consider the fact there's a lot of similar time management decisions in a movie that only runs for 75 minutes, it's hard not to hold it against the director.

This isn't to say the film is entirely devoid of merit. Like I said above, the movie's score is quite nice, and, with a few exceptions, many of the film's effects are actually well done. Unfortunately, these only do just so much to tip the scale on a movie that just feels like so much nothing a lot of the time. More so since it feels like the movie is trying to be something at times, but never really seems to go all in.

Unless there's something of a German perspective required that I'm missing here, anyway. I'm game to try and discuss this if someone feels so it is though, the movie just felt like a swing and a miss to me.

Sadly, on a few of Takashi Miike's jack in the boxes were ever produced before they were promptly pulled from the market. Sad day in the toy industry, that one.

10/15 - Three... Extremes

As promised, we have this year's anthology entry. This one is actually a bit of a different style from last year when I discussed Trick 'r Treat. Where that film had all of its stories united by the common theme of Halloween, Three... Extremes operates on something of a different style of anthology. Outside of going to some pretty dark territory as horror stories go, there really isn't a united theme. It's not even held by a unifying nation - the films are from three distinct voices from Asia (China, South Korea, and Japan in particular,) each flexing their unique styles with some genuinely unsettling results.

Like many good anthologies, it's tough to really pick a single favorite here. Even moreso given the directors in question here include Park Chan-Wook and Takashi Miike. Though I do have to admit, Chan-Wook's segment of this, Cut, a story in which a director (Byung-hun Lee) is taken hostage and tormented by an extra from his movies (Won-hie Lim, in a blend of comic and disturbed) is one I was pretty surprised by. In no small part because of Chan-Wook's penchant for black comedy that really helps propel this movie along, both in terms of the character interactions and some of the camera work and cuts. It has a sort of twisted energy that keeps the segments 40~ minute runtime moving along with almost as much manic glee as Lim's stranger shows. Despite that constant motion, the film's big reveals are handled in such a way as to still jolt when the time comes.

From there, the next standout is the Chinese segment, director Fruit Chan's Dumplings. This also takes the prize for being easily the most squirm-inducing of the three stories, involving an aging actress (Miriam Yeung) who undergoes an unusual treatment to restore her youth overseen by a mysterious woman (Bai Ling, playing an interesting sort of latter-day witch type.) The secret of the find it out early into the story, but I will nevertheless refrain from saying here, simply because it's something that just hits so much better when you see it on screen. The result, while not explicitly gory, is still fairly gruesome just thanks to how it plays in the mind's eye. It's a segment that works with the imagination brilliantly and Fruit Chan plays it with a sufficiently light touch to sell the premise.

Rounding out the three, but certainly none the lesser for quality, is Takashi Miike's Box. A story of a young girl who is haunted by dreams of herself being buried in a box that, as the story goes on, we start to learn may not be just the dreams we think they are. This is one of those stories where one of the biggest strengths is Miike's penchant for atmosphere. The story itself is certainly good, and I have to admit to being rather surprised at several points in the directions it took. Further, the casting on this segment is well chosen, with particular praise for Mai and Yuu Suzuki, playing the protagonist and her twin sister as children - it's always a good sign when child actors can deliver a good performance, particularly with an unusual role like this one. Both of these things, however, while strong, still aren't quite as memorable as the entire feel of the movie set up by Miike and cinematographer Kôichi Kawakami. It conveys both the winter colds and the warmer dark areas of the flashbacks quite well just by the lighting within the sequence.

This is certainly an ambitious spread for an anthology - rather than a thematic story element, it's three short works highlighting three veterans of Asian horror. Under the circumstances, each brings a solid A-game, and the result flows better than I was initially expecting going in. To the point where I'm also considering looking into the feature length version of Chan's story that was reportedly remade from this after this anthology was released.

Sometimes, something to be said for something short and sweet
OK, maybe sweet isn't the right word.

At the time, spiking the director of the community theater's coffee with LSD seemed like it'd be a fun joke.
...then we all saw what it did for his production of
Jesus Christ Superstar.

10/16 - The Exorcist III: Legion

OK, I'm jumping the gun sequel-wise here. In all fairness, as a general rule, I will try to respect sequel order here, but Legion is kind of a curious case for two reasons:

1) Exorcist II: The Heretic is... ... ...well, let's put it this way, I could probably do an entire article on the ultimately erratic nature of the entire Exorcist franchise. The Heretic, in living up to its namesake, so sharply diverges from the themes of the first film that it's no surprise many of the people involved with the original disown it.
2) Legion was actually penned to be an official sequel even at the novel stage - so much so that the film version is even directed by the author of both original books.

So we may discuss II here at some point down the line, either for Halloween or a piece all on its own. Understand in the meantime, this is kind of a shift from my usual style (albeit one I think Blatty would agree with.)

Anyway, as a follow-up to the first movie, I'm actually pretty surprised with this movie on the rewatch. On the one hand, it's a rather different film in terms of its core story - rather than focusing specifically on the afflicted possessee as the center of the story, the possession itself is actually kept off to the side this time around. In fact, at the start of this movie, the only real ties we have to the first movie are the returning characters of Lt. Kinderman (here played by the late George C. Scott [who, fun fact, would be turning 87 today if were alive. THE MORE YOU KNOW,] as Lee J. Cobb was unfortunately dead at the time) and Father Dyer (now played Ed Flanders.) Otherwise, the story is, itself, a sort of murder mystery, as bodies start turning up connected to a series of murders by a killer who has been dead for years. In fact, outside of some curious dreams - which include some rather interesting celebrity cameos -  much of the first half is light on the supernatural. It isn't until the reveal of the mysterious Patient X (played in a dual role by returning actor Jason Miller and Brad Dourif, in another role showing that, for as bizarre as his choices are, he's not an untalented actor) that the film starts to reclaim its otherworldly elements. Thematically, the story is closer to the first film than The Heretic, in this film exploring another case of lapsed faith care of Scott's Lt. Kinderman. Shifting that idea to this character allows them to look at the similar concept through fresh eyes - where Damien Karras's loss in faith before was born out of personal loss in his life, in Kinderman's case, it comes as a result of his time as a police officer leading him to regularly come face to face with some of the worst sides of humanity. In this light, casting Scott in the role is actually a good call on Blatty's part, as he is able to capture that world-weary cynicism well here.

Unfortunately, while the sequel nature of the film does lead to some of its more interesting elements mentioned above, it's also one of the film's weaknesses in a way. Most notably with regards to the last act of the film, which Blatty has gone on record as saying was a rewrite/reshoot done under protest, as the studios felt that an Exorcist sequel needed an actual exorcism (the original book, Legion, doesn't end with one.) As a result, much of the last act feels somewhat clumsily added in, and Kinderman's crisis of faith is given a rather awkward finale. Which is a shame, as the first section of this movie, while not award-winning, is still a fairly solid follow-up in its own right. Blatty shows some decent skill as a director with some sequences, such as a long take in a hallway that does a surprising job at building up suspense over several minutes before the payoff. Unfortunately, that last act is a hard stumbling block to get over.

Blatty has since said, given the chance, he'd like to put together the cut he had initially filmed - and personally, I'd be curious to see it. Unfortunately, the footage remains missing at this point. Still, it stands as a decent effort haunted by the shadow of what might have been.

By this point in the screaming, ice cream isn't really gonna do much good.
He's welcome to keep trying though.

10/17 - We All Scream For Ice Cream

OK, I may need to start tagging some of the other Masters of Horror titles for this list in the future. They're shorter films, but more importantly, they're interesting as quick takes that operate a bit more freely of studio requisites.

Which brings us to this installment from the series, and the above-mentioned homicidal clown. This film manages to strike a weird sort of balance. In some regards, there's parts of the premise that feel goofy as Hell, primarily how deaths are meted out in this tale of revenge. On the other hand, when the film wants to build up some creepiness, it makes a nice play for it, even if you're not already naturally unnerved by clowns.

It's got some of the classic horror elements going for it in some ways - a group of friends united by a dark secret from their past that is now coming back to haunt them is a pretty time-honored launching point for horror stories. Not that this is a bad thing, mind you; there's a good reason people come back to it - it works. In this case, it actually does lead to one of the more memorable parts of the casting, at least. As the victim turned spirit of revenge in this version, I was actually somewhat surprised by the performance shift in William Forsythe as the film's antagonist, Buster. In flashbacks, he actually comes across as genuinely good with children - playing the innocent believably in his role, which then makes his later stints of creepy-voiced revenge a pleasant surprise in terms of range. The rest of the cast run the gamut from decent, to a couple of over the top parts that at times feel a bit much (Colin Cunningham as a former bully now just turned local scum lays it on just a little too thick here.)

Alongside Forsythe, the other thing I really have to give this film points for it s some of its visual effects. Most notably with regards to how Buster claims his victims - it's an idea that, on paper, feels incredibly goofy. Even the first few quick times we see it on screen, I had a hard time taking it seriously. Once the film showed the death in terms of a full playout, I have to admit to being impressed with the caliber of the effects. For a relatively lower budget to work from, these are grimly creative kills and quite well done in their execution.

In a way, this was actually a fun little revenge story. Like the series it's a part of it, it's the kind of film that shows some nice potential for things to come, and on its own is an entertaining little piece of horror. Not the kind of thing that may necessarily keep you up at night (unless, again, you're a serious coulrophobe*) but still, a pretty fun scare for an hour, and just enough to leave one wanting more.

Well played, guys. I'm intrigued to see more.

*that's fear of clowns for those playing at home.

So many fond memories of summer camp here.  This takes me back...

10/18 - Beware! Children at Play

Well, here's another famous first for this year - this marks our first Troma movie featured on the Halloween run.

...and oh, LORDY is it out there.

I think probably one of the best gauges for this movie comes when you watch the Director's Cut DVD and it includes a prelude by Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman explaining the response when the movie's trailers were first rolled out. The reactions from the audiences were pure shock over the film's finale - in which the local town's adults take the fight back to their murderous children...and the fight goes about how you'd subsequently expect.

There's a reason why I bring this anecdote up here - because, as many have said before me, really the finale is this movie's high point. Much of the movie before it alternates between being hilariously bad and just bad. The margin between, of course, will vary from person to person. I have to admit, the low-budget kills in this one ARE pretty damn funny to me (in particular in the case of a Bible salesman who winds up on the wrong side of a scythe.) Otherwise, the acting, writing, and direction aren't exactly doing this movie any favors here.

Well, the acting does SOME, but not by design.

But I'm getting off course, so let's dive into the best part of this - good old-fashioned child murder! Really, it's hard NOT to discuss this, cause it is both the film's most famous and infamous scene. Both for the sheer over the top nature of seeing a group of grown adults absolutely massacre a group of children, and for the fact it's done with a healthy dose of the Troma level-effects and acting just makes an already insane moment even more priceless. Keep a close eye on the already dead children - the breathers are easy to spot.

I kind of wish I could say more for this movie, but the fact is, I can only say just so much before I go past roasting to cremating this. The movie is VERY much a Troma title, in all the best and worst ways (even the ADR is off, giving the movie an effect not unlike a B-grade kung-fu dub.) I'm not sure I'd put this on the same level as some of their other titles like The Toxic Avenger or Cannibal!, but it's not without its somewhat psychotic charms. I think I'm almost more inclined to forgive this one over Nekromantik simply because this is a movie that's so unapologetic about what it is and what it's trying to do that it's genuinely hard to hold much against it. It's z-grade and wears that like a badge of honor. So much so that it loops around at points landing pretty safely into 'so bad it's good' territory.

Outside of the finale, I'm not sure there's anything about this one I'll remember...but oh MAN, what a finale to remember.

Well, that was a very insane way to end this week.

Pretty wild selection this week, and I don't mind saying looking forward to next week's spread too.

Till then, folks!
Also, we may have some new material to offer up over the week regarding a local event here. More details to come!

...and hey, we're now halfway through this year's run.

So far pretty good. We've even avoided having another child fatali--

...son of a bitch.
Well, there's always next year!

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