Friday, August 31, 2012

CHERNOBYL DIARIES (2012) movie review

Chernobyl Diaries (2012) d. Parker, Bradley

First off, it’s worth noting that despite titular indication and Paranormal Activity’s Oren Peli on board as a co-writer/producer, this is not another entry in the “found footage” sweepstakes. Granted, there are some instances of cell phone recordings illustrating previous offscreen scenes’ mayhem, but for the most part this is a straightforward narrative about a group of college grads concluding their whirlwind European tour with a trip to Kiev; within said stop, they swap out their Moscow plans for an “extreme tourism” excursion into Pripyat, the neighboring town of ill-fated Chernobyl, the real-life epicenter of a nuclear reactor meltdown in 1986.

Parker develops an impressive atmosphere of gloom and desolation amidst the deserted – and still radioactive – town, as well as some engaging sequences of attack and retreat by unidentified, and perhaps supernatural, antagonists. Instead, it’s the three-headed screenplay (Peli, Carey Van Dyke, Shane Van Dyke) that proves the weak link, failing to deliver a satisfying “why” to the strange occurrences. The result is a series of creepy boo scares that lack resonance, dissipating within the cold light of cinema lobby hindsight and reflection.

COLD FISH (2010) movie review

Cold Fish (2010) (1st viewing) d. Sono, Shion

From the writer/director of Suicide Club, Hair Extensions and Himizu comes this wicked black comedy about milquetoast husband Mitsuru Fukikoshi drawn in by charismatic rival fish shop owner Denden, only to have him and wife Asuka Kurosawa instantly exert authority over the milder man’s personal life. And when we say personal, we mean it: child appropriation, spouse molesting, and that’s all before the multitude of murder to which Fukikoshi finds himself an unwitting accomplice.

Sono miraculously balances the increasingly desperate scenarios with an exuberance that buoys the disturbing subject matter, Denden and Kurosawa’s joyous high-wire psychotic enthusiasm driving the breakneck narrative so fast that we, like our hapless protagonist, can barely make sense of it all. Brought to you by the good folks at Sushi Typhoon, this is closer in tone to Takashi Miike’s Visitor Q than, say, the splatterfests of Battlefield Baseball or Machine Girl.

DARK SHADOWS (2012) movie review

Dark Shadows (2012) d. Burton, Tim

Hands down the most mismarketed movie of 2012. I freely admit that, based on the “Man, weren’t the 70s kerrrr-aaaaazy?” trailer that Warner Bros. was using the push Burton’s latest Johnny Depp lovefest, I was already dialed in to hate this sucker right down to the ground, and I’m not even on intimate terms with the source material. (Even though Dan Curtis cult television incarnation had monsters in it, my six-year-old spidey senses still knew it was a soap opera.) The truth is that while there are a fair share of groaners (hidden passages revealing rooms filled with macramé, endless 70s musical references incorrectly assessed as inherently funny), the tale of Depp’s revived Barnabas Collins and his reintegration into society after 200 years of vampiric slumber is an energetic, elevated comedy that, for the most part, works. Sure, Burton allows his star to occasionally overindulge in supercilious line readings and it’s hard to believe the classy Collins clan would indulge in the decade’s tackier décor – in short, when Burton goes for the cheap laugh, the movie falls flat. But when he and his A-list ensemble (which includes Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Eva Green, Jonny Lee Miller and Chloe Marie Grace) stay within the exaggerated fantastic lines drawn, the results are surprisingly satisfying.

MEGAN IS MISSING (2011) movie review

Megan is Missing (2011) d. Michael Goi (USA)

Setting a found footage film within the particular circle of hell that is “party-hearty 14-year-old girls” is a daring enough premise as it is, since it is bound to test the patience and empathies of anyone who is not a party-hearty 14-year-old girl. We are introduced to shy, decent Amber Perkins and tramptastic mean girl Rachel Quinn – somehow inexplicably BFFs – through cell phone chats and self-recorded video footage, but when Quinn is presumably kidnapped by a social network stalker, it sends shock waves through the community, particularly for odd duck Perkins.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

THE UNDEAD (1957) movie review

Undead, The (1957) (2nd viewing) d. Corman, Roger

I’ve been meaning to revisit this largely ignored Corman feature (surprising, considering how well the majority of the B-king’s AIP horror features have been kept alive via MGM’s Midnight Movies collection) for a while now, first brought to my attention by Bruce Lanier Wright’s excellent tome Nightwalkers: Gothic Horror Movies and procured via the internet gray market a few years back.

Inspired by the Bridey Murphy phenomena of the ’50s, screenwriters Charles Griffith and Mark Hanna introduce to us streetwalker Pamela Duncan, hired by a spiritualist to explore her past lives through hypnosis. We follow her back through the ages to a non-specified time – let’s call it fairy tale land – where Duncan is accused of witchery, a charge furthered by romantic rival Allison Hayes (Attack of the 50 Foot Woman), who actually is a witch. Along the way, we also encounter thickheaded minstrel/gravedigger Mel Welles (Little Shop of Horrors), Billy Barty as Hayes’ grating silent-laughing imp, and inimitable character actress Dorothy Neumann as helpful hag Meg Maud.

It’s a whole lot of nonsense, but like the majority of Corman’s efforts, it’s well paced and entertaining nonsense, directed with energy and vision.

TWICE-TOLD TALES (1963) movie review

Twice-Told Tales (1963) d. Salkow, Sidney

Mildly engaging trio of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s supernatural stories that acquires the star (Vincent Price) of American International’s Poe series, but director Salkow displays little of Roger Corman’s enthusiastic storytelling zeal. (The opening image of a rather limp skeleton hand opening a rather limp volume doesn’t inspire much confidence.)

In the first story, “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” old coots Price and Sebastian Cabot (via some dodgy old-age makeup) discover a youth-restoring elixir. When it also revives their long-dead sweetheart Mari Blanchard, romantic rivalries are sparked anew.

“Rappuccini’s Daughter,” the best of the bunch, offers the dark fable of an embittered scientist (Price) who infuses daughter Joyce Taylor with the essence of a toxic plant, making her touch lethal to human contact. All this plays havoc with suitor Brett Halsey’s social life, as he learns that his first kiss with the lovely lass could be his last.

The final tale, an incredibly truncated version of “The House of the Seven Gables,” follows the scheming Pynchon family searching the ancestral mansion for a hidden inheritance, amidst family curses, ghostly music, and otherworldly lovers. This dramatically uneven segment features spectral effects both impressive (model houses imploding in slow motion) and ridiculous (Price lamely throttled by a disembodied skeleton hand).

As anthology films go, this is by no means a disaster, just not terribly inspired.

TRUE NATURE (2010) movie review

True Nature (2010) d. Steele, Patrick (USA)

Having heard about this supernatural thriller for several years on the interwebs, I finally reached out to writer/director Steele who was gracious enough to pass along a review copy. Having finally viewed it firsthand, the DVD companies’ reticence is understandable, as this is a difficult film to categorize and harder still to sell. Within its intriguing premise (young woman Marianne Porter mysteriously returns home after a year-long disappearance, crippled with disturbing visions…or are they memories?), there is much to equally recommend and repel.

TAKE SHELTER (2011) movie review

Take Shelter (2011) (1st viewing) d. Nichols, Jeff

Oil rig worker Michael Shannon starts experiencing horrific visions of an apocalyptic storm to come – is he a prophet or merely going off the deep end? Nichols, who directed his own script, keeps us guessing at all times, injecting Shannon’s schizophrenic mother (Kathy Baker) and a healthy dose of self-doubt into the mix, further complicated by his protagonist’s refusal to confide in an understandably frustrated wife Jessica Chastain. Things come to a head when Shannon begins expanding the backyard tornado shelter, an endeavor that strains not only the family finances, but the understanding of his community. A slow burn to be sure, but Nichols and his star hold our sympathies and attention throughout.

THE SKIN I LIVE IN (2011) movie review

Skin I Live in, The (2011) (1st viewing) d. Almodovar, Pedro

Stylistic and visually dynamic dark fantasy about an eminent plastic surgeon (Antonio Banderas, in fine form) who loses his wife in a car crash, shortly after which his emotionally precarious daughter is sexually assaulted at a party. These two tragic events spark the remainder of the eye-popping narrative, which deserves to unfold organically without any further extrapolation on my part. However, I will say that one should probably check one’s logic circuits at the door, because several plot machinations don’t hold up well to close scrutiny, as dramatically delicious as they might be. The extraordinarily fetching Elena Anaya (Room in Rome), when not sporting her birthday suit, spends a welcome amount of time in a skintight body stocking – a seemingly exploitative move that achieves deeper resonance with repeat viewings.

MY SOUL TO TAKE (2010) movie review

My Soul To Take (2010) d. Craven, Wes

I first heard about this feature via the pages of HorrorHound, where Craven described it as being a project where he was given complete creative freedom to do whatever he wanted. If that truly ended up being the case, the man should never be left unsupervised again because not since the doldrum days of Deadly Friend or Shocker has the writer/director so profoundly bungled the task at hand. The scattered yarn features a revived serial killer stalking a group of youths who were all born the night that he was shot dead by police 17 years prior. Lazy, sloppy, often incoherent plotting takes turns with snoozy kills, with Max Theirot’s social reject acquiring the consciousness of his expired peers for no apparent reason or payoff. A real strikeout.

MIMIC trilogy (1997-2001-2003) movie reviews

Mimic (1997) d. Guillermo del Toro (USA)

Combating a plague-like virus being spread by the common cockroach throughout NYC, genetics engineer Mira Sorvino whips up a new strain of insect, the Judas Breed, which disguises itself as its prey before devouring it. This new species has been engineered to die out after one generation, but (surprise!) things do not go as planned – three years later, a mysterious rash of murders is taking place in the Manhattan subway system, the perpetrators being the mutated offspring of the Judas buggies who have now developed the ability to camouflage themselves as humans.

Much has been made of the Weinstein brothers’ studio interference with del Toro’s original vision (a “director’s cut” has been recently released to Blu-Ray), and while I have not yet seen this version, my biggest issues with this often engaging creature feature has nothing to do with deleted scenes or plotlines, but rather with the ridiculously banal dialogue spoken by the capable cast (Jeremy Northam, Josh Brolin, Charles S. Dutton, Norman Reedus and F. Murray Abraham) and the ill-advised attempts at quirkiness, Alexander Goodwin’s spoon-slapping autistic being the most blatant offender. The Rob Bottin-designed “Long John” bugs – one played by del Toro regular Doug Jones – are memorable, although the darkly-lit scenes rarely show them off to their fullest effect.

Overall, not a bad movie, but also not one I have a lot of nostalgia for. Drive Angry’s Patrick Lussier served as co-editor, with the director and Matthew Robbins adapting Donald A. Wollheim’s short story.

Mimic 2 (2001) d. Jean de Segonzac (USA)

The lone carry-over from the original cast, Alix Koromzay stars as an obnoxiously unlucky-in-love entomologist moonlighting as a public high school teacher who discovers her place of employ is ground zero for the latest infestation of the Judas Breed. For a straight-ahead “B” monster movie with limited funds and ideas, I actually enjoyed this more than I expected to. Not to say that it’s “good,” but still reasonably enjoyable cheese with far fewer pretensions and Oscar winners than its predecessor. Special effects makeup wiz “Gruesome Gary” Tunnicliffe whips up some wicked splattering, scattering and skittering sequences.

Mimic 3: Sentinel (2003) d. J.T. Petty (USA)

The most remarkable thing about this second sequel is how well it conceals its presumably meager budget constraints with a story that focuses more on suspense and what we don’t see than on big bug beasties romping through every scene. Writer/director Petty, who knows a little something about stretching a dollar via solid characterization and atmosphere (Soft for Digging, S&Man, The Burrowers), offers up a variation on Hitchcock’s Rear Window as much of the action is perceived from the window and camera lens of Karl Geary’s shut-in, a victim of his own weakened immunological system. The less-is-more approach may not appeal to those looking for a quick beer n’ pizza creature feature, but it’s hard not to admire Petty’s spin on the material and the big-bam-bloody-boom finale (ignoring, of course, the WTF happy ending coda).


Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012) d. Bekmanbetov, Timur

Adapted from Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel by the author himself, this bit of tongue-in-fanged-cheek alternative history posits the 16th President of these United States (Benjamin Walker) as a man seeking lifelong vengeance upon the undead creatures that claimed his parents’ lives as a child. From the opening titles, we know we’re in for a fantasy, and Bekmanbetov – who dazzled me years ago with his epic Russian Night Watch and Day Watch features – is a supremely successful visualist who expertly combines a drained color palette which invokes the austerity of time gone by with eye-popping stunts and blood-drenched vamp offings. (Rail-splitting Honest Abe’s selection of an axe as his weapon of choice also had me smiling.) Perhaps not as much “fun” as it could have been, but I appreciated the fact that Grahame-Smith and Bekmanbetov treat their outlandish subject matter as straight-faced as could be imagined. With Dominic Cooper, Rufus Sewell, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and former Late Show with David Letterman “Lyle the Intern,” Jimmi Simpson.

CABIN FEVER (2002) not quite a movie review

Cabin Fever (2002) (4th viewing) d. Roth, Eli

You know what? I’m not even going to review Roth’s divisive flesh-eating virus/cabin in the woods mash-up, not here, not in an official capacity anyway. First off, we’re got an in-depth discussion about the film over on Kitley’s Krypt as part of their Cinematic Crossroads program (a raucous round-table that includes Herr Kitley, Liquid Cheese 's Dave Kosanke, Big Gay Horror Fan 's Brian Kirst, Dead Weight writer/director John Pata and myself) which covers more ground with more divergent opinions.


Secondly, I think it’s pretty fascinating that a flick I initially hated upon first viewing I’ve now seen on three subsequent occasions, as well as listening to all four (count ‘em FOUR) commentary tracks. As a result, my relationship with the film has changed; I’m now so familiar it’s like an old schoolmate. Interestingly enough, my feelings toward Roth have undergone a veritable roller coaster of status updates. At first, I liked him/hated his movie. Then I hated his movie a little less/liked him a little more. Liked him less as he entered his "Tarantino Jr." period but liked Hostel more than CF, then really didn’t like him, his Hostel sequel or his undeserved ubiquity in every horror-themed documentary or TV show. Nowadays, I’m somewhat sad that this horror geek-done-good has turned into a Hollywood player who’s seemingly lost touch with his roots and moxie. He’s directed a mere three features in a decade, dividing his time between “developing” projects that consequently implode and serving as a “presenter” of mainstream fright fare. Curious to see what the future holds.

PROMETHEUS (2012) movie review

Prometheus (2012) d. Scott, Ridley

There are some smart ideas going on in Scott’s return to the Alien universe (screw the Fox marketing department dancing about – this is a prequel; quit trying to have it both ways, jerkfaces), but the wealth of missteps in terms of characters’ inconsistent and/or irrational behavior ultimately proves the more distracting of the two sides.

There’s little denying the strength of the visuals on display, and the CG landscapes are jaw-dropping in their detail and austerity (the keyboard-spawned creatures are decidedly less successful), but the human drama that elevated early efforts like Alien and Blade Runner above their production values is notably absent. Prometheus’ flatly drawn characters are incapable of generating empathy or interest (especially within the maelstrom of Christian symbolism – given great illustration here

Mostly, I found myself wishing Scott had possessed the courage to create a stand-alone return to sci-fi instead of shoring it up with constant referencing of his 1979 xenomorph zeitgeist, since these details only served to detract and distract from the matter at hand. Our Space Jockey, once a sublimely fascinating enigma, has been transformed into something so crushingly literal – I mourn I’ll never be able to unsee what I have seen.

And for those looking for a bit of a laugh, check out this bit of alternative screenwriting (spoilers ahead) HERE

Monday, August 27, 2012

THE THEATRE BIZARRE (2011) movie review

Theatre Bizarre, The (2011) (1st viewing) d. Various

After all the hype and build-up over the prospect of six promising horror directors contributing their talents to an anthology film, the result is a crashing disappointment – a collection of not-bad shorts that bear no commonality except their unified missing of presumed dramatic targets.  There’s not a true stinker in the bunch (though Jeremy Kasten’s ridiculously literal, Udo Kier-featuring framing devices might just as well been left on the cutting room floor), and equally so, there is not one of the five tales that rises above its middlin’ brethren. 

All exhibit squandered promise, and the fault for the most part lies in the disparate scripts (written or co-written in five of the six cases by the directors) that lack a true punchy punchline among them.  Richard Stanley’s “Mother of Toads” has atmosphere galore – and Catriona MacCall – but drives a frustratingly straight narrative line of a witch bewitching her victims.  Buddy Giovinazzo’s “I Love You” has the opposite problem, wearing a hole in the carpet over its thin breakup story, and Douglas Buck’s polished “The Accident” lacks any real horror at all, content with depicting what happens when motorcycle meets Bambi.  Tom Savini’s “Wet Dreams” (with script by John Esposito) comes closest to actually delivering goods promised, as James Gill continually experiences nightmares of gruesome emasculation; by contrast, David Gregory’s “Sweets” has little to no story at all –just a calorie-busting freak show.  Karim Hussain’s “Vision Stains” possesses the most intriguing premise of the bunch – a female serial killer who steals the intraocular fluid of her victims and injects it into her own eyes, experiencing her prey’s “life flashing before their eyes” and documenting these stories – so when it sputters out with only the weakest EC-inspired comeuppance whimper, it’s doubly disheartening. 

Were these student films or rank novices, expectations might not have been so high, but the roster of talent on board deserves a higher level of scrutiny, and as such, disappointment reigns.

DYLAN DOG: DEAD OF NIGHT (2011) movie review

Dylan Dog: Dead of Night (2011) (1st viewing) d. Munroe, Kevin

When I saw that this critically reviled and underperforming horror comedy had somehow appeared on the BIFFF 2012 programming lineup, I resigned myself to chasing it down once I got back to the States, knowing as I did that it was streaming on Ye Olde Netflixe. While it probably didn’t deserve its “official selection” status, it sure as heck wasn’t the shitestorm I was expecting.

Brandon Routh (star of Superman Returns, even though Routh didn’t) is the New Orleans-based titular investigator of paranormal criminal action (based on Tiziano Sclavi’s comic series), and the actor does a serviceable job as the neo-noir world-weary detective, chasing down vampires, werewolves and ’roid raging rogue zombies in pursuit of Anita Briem’s monster hunting papa’s murderer.  The mixture of practical effects and CGI are actually handled quite well, and while there aren’t exactly thrills a-plenty, the mystery aspects probably stack up against your standard episode of Supernatural. Where it falls down is in Thomas Dean Donnelly and Joshua Oppenheimer’s hyper-jokey script and in Sam Huntington’s Will Ferrell wannabe turn as Routh’s eager beaver partner saddled with the lion’s share of the punchline shrieking.  It’s too bad Munroe didn’t stick to the understated characterizations, which play surprisingly well in the face of the mystical and fantastic goings-on.

CABIN IN THE WOODS (2012) movie review

Cabin in the Woods, The (2012) (1st viewing) d. Goddard, Drew

I know, I know, every Cabin review starts off with “can’t say too much for fear of spoiling the surprises” and I will honor that agreement.  What I can say is that as an entertaining deconstruction of horror films, you’d be hard pressed to find a more compelling example of “intellectual popcorn.”  Director Goddard co-wrote the clever script with producer Joss Whedon as a response to the failure of American studios to yield anything but torture porn and torturous remakes (appropriating the intellectual properties of superior foreign efforts or capitalizing on name recognition from the 70s/80s genre pool) and the duo’s witty dialogue is the sharpest tool in their box.  Which is not to dismiss the pic’s florid production design or its capable cast of victims and antagonists or the plentiful splatter, all of which suit the turn admirably.  

But I cannot deny leaving the cinema feeling slightly unfulfilled and it may just be a matter of personal taste; while I certainly enjoyed the tweaking of genre conventions, especially by those clearly in the know, at the end of the day I wished for genuine terror, horror or revulsion.  Instead, Goddard and Whedon play at and around it, point up the ridiculousness of established tropes, but never deliver an game-changing twist of the knife themselves. 

It’s all good and fine to say there’s something wrong with the state of affairs, but this is not news to the proud and faithful genre fan.  What we want is to be shown the way to something new, something better… a desire that is left unquenched.  Not to say I wasn’t entertained, but like many a tasty Chinese meal, I was eyeballing the menu after the fortune cookies had come and gone, a place in my stomach still left wanting.

THE DEVIL'S ROCK (2011) movie review

Devil's Rock, The  (2011) d. Campion, Paul

On the eve of D-Day, New Zealand Army officer Craig Hall stumbles onto a bunker inside the German-occupied Channel Islands only to find a lone Nazi soldier (Matthew Sunderland) and a female prisoner chained to the wall.  But things are not, as you might guess, as they seem; dark activities are afoot and the evil that men do occasionally resides in the form of beautiful women (in this case Gina Varela).  Impressive Weta Workshop makeup effects collude with fine performances, the result being an impressively minimalistic horror effort that plays out very much like a gory stage drama even if the central “mystery” is pretty easy to figure out. 

(Oh, and if I were the filmmakers, I’d want to punch out whosever idea it was for the silly “chick in Nazi uniform” DVD cover art.  Not only is it misleading, it’s not even good exploitation.)

PARANORMAL XPERIENCE XP3D (2011) movie review

Paranormal Xperience (aka XP 3D) (2011) (1st viewing) d. Vizcanio, Sergi (Spain)

Five medical school students of varying degrees of obnoxiousness embark on a extra credit field trip to an abandoned mining town supposedly haunted by the spirit of a vicious psychotic doc. It's your standard run-of-the-mill supernatural slasher, with some fair gore effects (and some less successful CGI ones), all done with a Spanish accent and in 3D (the preferred medium of slasher flicks these days, it seems).

205: ROOM OF FEAR (2011) movie review

205: Room of Fear (2011) d. Matsutani, Reinier (Germany)

Freshman Jennifer Ulrich discovers that her new dorm room has a dark past, one that seems to connect back to the mysterious disappearance of room 205's former occupant Julia Dietze whose video diary reveals a dark, violent sexual history. It's a worthwhile if unremarkable ghost story/body count flick, one that doesn't make too many demands on the viewer, and delivers the goods promised.

ZOMBIE ASS (2011) movie revew

Zombie Ass: Toilet of the Dead (2011) d. Iguchi, Noboru (Japan)

The final official screening of BIFFF 2012 and they could not have programmed it better. mad genius Iguchi (Machine Girl, Dead Sushi) blows it out his backside with this hilariously twisted spin on the walking dead, afflicting victims with genetically engineered tapeworms that overwhelm the consciousness and turn them into meat puppets. As the title might indicate, these being organisms that reside in the digestive system, there’s also the unfortunate gastrointestinal side effects of random defecation and wind breakage – yes, you’ve got a fleet of shambling, farting, crapping zombies who are as inclined to point their backside at you (so that the toothy parasite can infest a new host) as they are give your flesh a munch. If you hadn’t already guessed, none of this is to be taken too seriously, the pleasures lying in the massive body count and ridiculous splatter effects that befall the hyperactive ensemble. Not for everyone, but damned if that wasn’t one of the most enjoyable big screen viewing experiences I’ve ever had, and I’ve had a few.

BEAST (2011) movie review

Beast (2011) d. Boe, Cristoffer (Denmark)

A rough, raw and mystifying dissection of a crumbling marriage, but this is one domestic drama you’re not likely to see on the Lifetime channel. Scraping the same gut-level, non-realistic emotional scar-tissue terrain as Cronenberg’s The Brood or closer yet, Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession, the ferocity between former soul mates Nicolas Bro and Marijana Jankovic is so visceral it cannot be contained by a conventional narrative. Instead, it operates on a metaphorical level, depicting body-horror events (which may or may not be happening) that leave viewers reeling in disorientation and fascinated revulsion. It’s an incredible high-wire collaboration between writer/director Cristoffer Boe and his three leads (Nikolaj Lie Kaas is equally effective as Jankovic’s adulterous partner) – the onscreen events are defiantly ambiguous and non-realistic, but they perfectly nail the off-balance feeling of a once raging love now cooled. Recommended.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

CHARLIE ZONE (2011) review

Charlie Zone (2011) d. Melski, Michael (Canada)

Glenn Gould plays a disgraced Native American (Canadian) boxer now on the skids, picking up change from playground brawls later uploaded to the internet, is approached to kidnap teen addict Amanda Crew from the crackhouse lair she now calls home. We’ve seen this story before, but there are enough interesting character touches, mostly stemming from Gould’s character’s Indian background, that kept me involved. There are enough gruesome scenes of torture and seamy subtext to satisfy genre fans, and the performances are all quite notable. True, the low budget constraints occasionally show their true colors, but for the most part, it feels like a personal thriller that comes from co-writer/director Melski’s heart.

THE AWAKENING (2011) review

Awakening, The (2011) (1st viewing) d. Murphy, Nick (UK)
A handsomely mounted period British ghost story (though, when are they not?) starring Rebecca Hall as a specter-debunking expert called to a beleaguered boys school where the terrified tots report seeing an ambulating apparition. Smartly scripted and well-acted, but my failure to be wowed stems from its covering such similar ground as The Orphanage, Haunted, Turn of the Screw, The Others, The Woman in Black, etc. yet never really distinguishing itself among them. No spoilers here, but it seems like the films listed above managed to bring something truly unique to the table – I’ll be very surprised if people are talking about this five years from now (much like this year's Woman in Black).

THE ARRIVAL OF WANG (2011) review

Arrival of Wang, The (2011) (1st viewing) d. Manetti, Antonio/Manetti, Marco (Italy)

A young interpreter is brought to a top secret underground bunker to interview a political prisoner…only said prisoner turns out to be even more alien than she initially imagined. A really intriguing concept, but one that runs out of new ideas about halfway through, feverishly treading some pretty redundant and/or ridiculous water until it gets back on track for the final reveal. Would have benefitted from a smarter second act, but the two central performances by Ennio Fantastichini and Francesca Cuttica are very well realized and the end is a wingding. With a firm grip on the fast forward button, life should work out fine.

EDIT: Looks like folks in the UK will be seeing a DVD release soon, so hopefully it won't be much longer for us over here on the other side of the pond. Thanks to Chris Churchill for the update!

PANIC BUTTON (2011) review

Panic Button (2011) (1st viewing) d. Crow, Chris (UK)

While there’s much to be admired in this microbudget flick about four guests of a UK social networking site caught in a psychotic mastermind’s elaborate “dream trip to New York” snare, the fact that it is so blatantly “Saw on a plane” diminishes the achievement considerably. From the “game” aspect to the Jigsaw-like modulated tones of the unseen antagonist (here dubbed “Alligator” in keeping with his cute cartoon avatar) to the “do this or you/he/she dies” scenarios presented to the hapless (and insufferably obnoxious) quartet, we’ve seen this picture at least a dozen times before, and it’s coming mighty late to the party. Crow hopefully earns his stripes here and will be rewarded with other, better scripts (I’m still shaking my head that four, count ‘em four screenwriters couldn’t come up with something less transparently derivative).

ELEVATOR (2011) review

Elevator (2011) (1st viewing) d. Svendsen, Stig (USA)

Another low-budget effort about a group of people trapped in a confined area (a prominent theme for the festival this year), stripped down to its barest bones with this single set, near real-time thriller about the titular flying box that gets stuck between floor with an impressive but not unbelievably diverse mix of individuals on board. Tensions predictably rise, but screenwriter/producer Marc Rosenberg has a few original tricks up his sleeve, and Svendsen keeps the energy and shocks clipping right along. The always welcome John Getz shares the screen with Chicago actor Joey Slotnik and a septet of others (including the long absent Shirley Knight), and suffice to say, things don’t turn out pretty as the best and worst in all comes to the fore.

IRON SKY (2012) review

Iron Sky (2012) (1st viewing) d. Vuorensola, Timo (Finland)

Where did the Nazis go in 1945? To the moon, of course. Appro po of this deliriously energetic sci-fi comedy, little time is wasted on explanations or justifications and that is absolutely as it should be. Given circumstances, as insane as they might be, as accepted wholeheartedly, thanks to the conviction of the performances and the handsome production design, all marshaled by director Vuorensola’s giddy pace throughout. A lot of comedy is derived from political satire (such as the Sarah Palin-like U.S. President’s desperate angling for re-election), as well as a healthy absurdist stripe throughout, the most prominent running gag being Christopher Kirby’s African American astronaut-turned-Aryan homeless guy. It’s silly, it’s clever, it looks great, and even if it isn’t funny all of the time, the darn thing moves. Also notable for the fact that of its 7 million Euro budget, 1 million came directly from interested and invested fans themselves, easily one of the biggest consumer-based funding efforts in history and every penny of it appears onscreen with superb visual effects and art direction.

RETREAT (2011) review

Retreat(2011) (1st viewing) d. Tibbetts, Carl (UK)

Mixed bag pressure cooker about an on-the-rocks couple (Cillian Murphy, Thandie Newton) taking a holiday on a remote Scottish isle, with tensions running high long before a mysterious and wounded soldier, played by Jamie Bell, appears on their doorstep, claiming a massive viral outbreak has occurred and commandeering their lodging. While the performances are all capable enough and there is a estimable amount of tension generated when Bell’s story’s starts to feel a little suspicious, the production is hamstrung by the fact that the “two men-one woman alone together” dynamic has been done to death, and there’s no new emotional ground unearthed here. Murphy is a milquetoast who eventually grows a pair when pushed far enough by the alpha male Bell, and Newton is alternately strong or shrieking, depending on the circumstances. The frequent lapses in motivation and resourcefulness left me fairly cold, but I should also state that Murphy and Newton rarely hit my sweet spot anyway, so it could be just personal taste.

THE INCIDENT (2011) review

Incident, The (2011) (1st viewing) d. Courtes, Alexandre (Belgium/France)

A power outage strands a quartet of staff kitchen workers in an asylum for the criminally insane with the inmates freely roaming the halls. The prison riot scenario has been played out before, but darned if this doesn’t feel both fresh and tense, thanks to some well fleshed-out characters and well executed fleshy gore effects. Another fine low budget effort that uses its claustrophobic locations to their fullest extent.

KILLER JOE (2011) review

Killer Joe (2011) (1st viewing) d. Friedkin, William (USA)

When trailer park living nogoodnik Emile Hirsch decides to do away with his stash-stealing mom in the hopes of cashing in her insurance policy to pay off his debts, he seeks out the services of ice-cold lawman/hitman Matthew McConaughey to do the deed. Adapted by Tracy Letts from his own stage play, the story is opened up beyond the confines of the trailer home, which reduces some of the claustrophobia but one can understand why Letts and Friedkin might not want to repeat themselves having already covered similar geographic ground (Bug’s motel room). While the assembled cast are a worthy bunch (Thomas Haden Church, Gina Gershon, Juno Temple), the whiff of “Hollywood white trash” lingers over the proceedings in that these are clearly beautiful people trying to glam down for the project. Hirsch is the least successful of the bunch, never truly inhabiting his despicable character (a role originated 20 years ago onstage by a pitch-perfect Michael Shannon). Letts stays fairly true to his original text, and the stylized dialogue – think Mamet in the trailer park – has an artifice that never allows it to be truly immersive, but it’s still fascinating early material from the future Tony Award winner (August Osage County). On the whole, there’s enough to recommend the film, though like Bug before, it will likely prove divisive among viewers.

ONE WAY TRIP (2011) review

One Way Trip (2011) (1st viewing) d. Welter, Markus (Austria/Switzerland)

A group of attractive twentysomethings head off into a remote part of Switzerland in search of some hallucinogenic mushrooms. They encounter a father/daughter team of psychos. Rain soaked 3D slashing ensues. Though it shares a similar narrative to the Irish feature Shrooms, it’s a completely perfunctory but perfectly serviceable slasher flick. Its distinguishing traits? It's from Austria. And in 3D. That's about it.

BLOODWORK (2011) review

Bloodwork (2011) (1st viewing) d. Wostenberg, Eric (USA)

A experimental drug testing group, under the observant eye of sexy doc Tricia Helfer (Battlestar Galactica’s Number 6), begins to experience some wicked little side effects…who woulda thunkit? But even if there aren’t a whole lot of surprises in this routine scenario, screenwriter David Nahmod and director Wostenberg’s scrappy little indie horror ensemble sink their teeth into the proceedings (literally, in several cases) and don’t let go. There’s some decent gore, the acting is passable, and one particularly ironic twist of the surgical knife that had me nodding my head in approval at Nahmod’s ingenuity. Bottom line, you could do worse.

DEAD BALL (2011) review

Deadball (2011) (1st viewing) d. Yamaguchi, Yudai (Japan)

The brains behind such Japanese splatter titles as Battlefield Baseball, Tokyo Gore Police, and Meatball Machine teams up with the maniacs at Sushi Typhoon for this over-the-top earth-shaking goregasm. More a collection of set-pieces than any kind of coherent plot, the storyline follows former baseball prodigy turned juvenile delinquent Tak Sakaguchi as he is forced to join the prison’s ball club. Given that Sakaguchi’s fastball explodes his father in the pre-credits sequence, this can only lead to a red sauce cornucopia, and Yamaguchi keeps the mayhem running at high speed and volume. (Even so, the slight story and exaggerated characters grow a little tiresome over the course of the 100-minute running time.)

Thursday, August 23, 2012

JULIA X (2011) review

Julia X (2011) d. Pettiette, P.J. (USA)

A serial killer (former Hercules star Kevin Sorbo) encounters more resistance than expected from his latest victim Valerie Azlynn, who turns out to have more on the ball and tricks in her toolbox than your average screaming mimi. Basically an extended battle scene between raging psychotic and scrappy Final Girl, one that, in spite of some memorable violent sequences and plot twists, wears a hole in the carpet with its endless running over the same ground for 90 minutes. Fun for a while, but then wears out its welcome – probably would have made a terrific half-hour short, as all the Karo syrup and CGI splatter in the world can’t cover up the padding here.

THE WOMAN (2011) review

Woman, The (2011) d. McKee, Lucky (USA)

Working from a script by himself and bad boy novelist Jack Ketchum, McKee unfolds a haunting fairy tale about a feral female (Pollyanna McIntosh) captured by Sean Bridgers’ evil ogre of a family man, keeping her in his workshed while his complicit family pitches in to conceal and contain their new prize. There is some extreme, uncompromising violence and degradation on hand, but the real damage is inflicted on a psychological level (a Ketchum staple) with the weak-hearted preyed upon by the smiling monster dressed as Man. Great performances, and if taken as a mythic parable as opposed to realistic drama, it definitely goes down easier on a narrative level. One slight quibble: the jarring alt rock tune-filled soundtrack, which left me wondering if McKee was trying to fit in songs from every one of his friends who had a band.

CALVAIRE (aka THE ORDEAL) (2004) review

Calvaire (aka The Ordeal) (2004) d. du Welz, Fabrice (Belgium)

This rare genre offering from Belgium presents a few novel twists on the well-worn “travelers off the beaten path” trope. After his car breaks down en route to the next holiday gig, low-rent crooner Laurent Lucas stumbles into a backwards backwoods community devoid of women. Taking shelter at Jackie Berroyer's nearby inn, he soon finds himself captive in a nightmarish scenario that manages to surprise and unnerve without resorting to eviscerations. Kudos to director du Welz, who co-wrote the script with Romain Protait, for his skillful evocation of dread-filled atmospherics, as well as one of the strangest dance sequences ever to pass through a camera lens. Watch for appearances from Eurobabe Brigette Lahaie and High Tension’s Phillipe Nahon.

ZOMBIE 108 (2012) review

Zombie 108
d. Chein, Joe (Taiwan)

The first midnight offering of BIFFF 2012 bears the distinction of being Taiwan’s vanguard (and at this point) only full-scale zombie feature. Unfortunately, other than that, there isn’t a whole lot of distinction to be had, since it’s pretty much just another high-energy undead flick pitting cops and gangsters against the shambling hordes. The characters range from silly (a bon mot-tossing American free runner) to thoroughly unpleasant (a nauseating nutjob holding half a dozen women – and another handful of zombies – captive in his basement). The makeups (especially on our aforementioned sadist, who looks like nothing more than someone wearing a latex mask, complete with visible seams) and zombie characters are another mixed bag, evoking as much eyeball-rolling as thrilled gasps. Bottom line, with the exception of the main druglord’s arm’s balloon/squid prosthetics, there’s nothing here you haven’t seen before and better.

THE DIVIDE (2011) review

Divide, The (2011) (1st viewing) d. Gens, Xavier (USA)

In the wake of a nuclear attack on the U.S., a disparate group of apartment dwellers take refuge in Michael Biehn’s basement shelter, creating a petri dish of human interaction. As one might imagine, things do not go smoothly: tempers flare, might makes right, and the thin veneer of social cordiality slips away as food and water rations dwindle.

The performances are strong across the board in an ensemble that also includes Courtney B. Vance, Lauren German, A History of Violence’s Ashton Holmes, Rosanna Arquette (in probably the most demanding, least glamorous role of her career) and breakout star Michael Eklund who should enjoy a bump in visibility following his charismatic villainous turn here. Unfortunately, there are gaping logistical holes in Karl Mueller and Eron Sheean’s script, and much of the characters’ behavior does not ring true considering the circumstances – one of those many occurences where people only act the way they would if they were in a movie. Not to say that humanity’s ugly side wouldn’t show its face; if anything, it seems to take far too long for things to head south with this particular grouping of individuals.

If you’re able to switch off your brain and simply revel in the theatre of human cruelty and degradation, there are rewards to be had, but only if.


Sennentuntschi: Curse of the Alps
d. Steiner, Michael (Switzerland)

Based on a classic cautionary legend, Switzerland’s first big budget horror effort is a doozy. A feral woman (Rubber’s Roxane Mesquida) shows up in a mountain village following a priest’s suicide, sparking a wave of dread throughout the god-fearing citizens. Police lieutenant Nicholas Ofczarec dodges the hysteria and ends up falling for the mysterious girl left in his care, though flashbacks to her experiences with a trio of mountain farmers hint that she may not be as innocent as she seems.

While there is a serious stripe of sexual violence throughout, a device I usually find to be a tiresome and lazy means of eliciting sympathy for and/or vilifying characters, the rape scenes here go beyond mere cinematic shorthand, leaving us miles from the standard revenge pic. Steiner and co-writers Stefanie Japp and Michael Sauter also walk an intriguing line between twisted realism and supernatural goings-on, one that never quite resolves itself (for better or worse depends upon the viewer, I suppose – I would have preferred a slightly less obtuse resolution).

A superbly realized production, one that hopefully will soon find its way to DVD in spite of its unwieldy title.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Fool's Views 8/9 – 8/20

Howdy, kids! Yep, it’s been nearly two whooooooole weeks since the 21-day flurry of Fantasia, and how best to celebrate the reprieve from the madness? Why, watching a boatload of flicks, of course! The difference being that I was able to resume my regular role of program director, actually choosing the features to watch on any given day. Considering I’d been sitting on a pile of flicks both borrowed and queued (including a Nicholas Winding Refn triple feature), it wasn’t hard to fill the slots and the time.

No surprise, Kitley’s Krypt dictated a few of my choices, fulfilling my Kryptic Army assignment for July (giant monsters) as well as joining my fellow blood brothers and sisters in celebrating the great man’s birthday, breaking in Jon’s new backyard DVD projector and movie screen with a gooey double feature complete with sing-a-long cards and trivia prizes. Such a wonderful gathering of food, friends and fun, one that came hard upon the awesomeness that was Flashback Weekend/Wizard World Comic-Con. I love this town. (Blessings to Jason Coffman as well, for his generosity in lending out an array of recent fright fare.)

As always, feel free to leave your two cents worth – we’ll make sure you get some change back.


THE GREEN SLIME (1968) review

Green Slime, The (1968) (3rd viewing) d. Fukasaku, Kinji (Japan)

From the opening drum fill of Charles Fox’s mind-blowing funk rock theme to Ekisu Productions’ unforgettable screeching cyclopean beasties, this Japanese sci-fi effort (employing an entirely Western cast) benefits from high energy pace alongside an unabashedly pulpy narrative. A meteor on collision course with Earth is diverted thanks to a explosive -planting mission to the projectile’s surface (a plot device Michael Bay would later co-opt for 1998’s big-bam-boom Armageddon). While the plan is successful, a globule of the titular pulsing sludge hitches a ride within a spacesuit’s folds to the local space station; worse, the floating city’s decontamination process boosts the alien life form’s growth pattern, evolving the spongy green foam into red-eyed tentacled creatures capable of emitting lethal electronic shocks. Headlined by square-jawed, impeccably coiffed hero Robert Horton and Richard Jaeckel’s blue-eyed blue-collar captain – each vying for impossibly eyelashed stunner Luciana Paluzzi’s affections – Fukusaka’s action-packed space melodrama juices its corny kiddie sci-fi fare trappings with effective scenes of claustrophobia and a surprisingly high (and graphic) body count. (The director would achieve lasting infamy three decades later with his epic adaptation of the taboo-smashing, kids-killing-kids manga, Battle Royale.)