Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Celluloid Horrors Movie Reviews

A low budget horror film raking in millions of dollars? At least that’s what movie studio executives have to be saying to themselves after seeing the phenomenon that is Paranormal Activity. At the time of this review, the movie has grossed over 7 million dollars and has not even had a nationwide release yet. This film has no big name actors nor does it have a known director. What it does have is old school tension and buildup that we horror fans grew up with.
The film follows a young couple who believe that their house is haunted. They decide to do something about it by purchasing a digital video camera to document their haunting. We are treated to a Blair Witch style filming technique with the male lead “Micah,” doing most of the shooting. We follow the couple from the time that they hear and see minor nuances from their haunting all the way to the climatic ending. The pacing of the film is done in a way that first introduces you to the characters Micah and Katie and gradually builds up the suspense of the haunting and the tension that arises between the couple. The movie provides just enough suspense and scares when needed without blowing its load too early. One other point I like to discuss is the films lack of gore and visual scares. While I’m normally a gore hound I found the films lack of gore fitting and appropriate.

Warning Spoiler Ahead!
(Skip this paragraph if you don’t want the film spoiled)

Much like the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the gore and scares are left to the imagination of the viewer. With the exception of a few scenes, much of the scares come from noises and sounds the demon makes. You never actually see the demon itself which I was glad that we did not see it. In my opinion we can think up much scarier images of monsters and demons in our own heads. The way the demon actually looks is left up to the viewer. Had the director shown the demon, the fright factor of the film would have been lost. What’s scary to the director or some special FX guy may be child’s play to me or someone else. Too often horror directors feel the need to spoon feed viewers with their scares and monsters. This film allows the viewer to determine what they think is scary. One last spoiler before I move on with the review, why do films continue to show a glimpse of the last scene of the film in the fucking movie trailer? One of the last images from this film is shown in the films trailer that can be see online and on TV. This partially ruined the ending for me as I was waiting for this event to happen once I was able to tell that the film was coming to a climatic close.

End Spoiler

This film does not include your usual bullshit boo scares that current horror movies rely heavily on. While loud noises are heard throughout the film, it is not used as the primary means of scares. The actors provide some of the scares which help in making this film multi faceted. By the end of the film you’re not only interested in the demon that’s haunting this couple but also in the effect it’s had on the couple’s relationship. This film works mainly because almost everyone either knows someone who has experienced unexplained events in their home or has experienced it themselves. It dwells on people’s fears of what happens in our homes when we are sound asleep.
I have heard “scariest film of 2009,” when reading about this film online. While I absolutely agree with that statement, it is also not saying much since we haven’t had a horror movie that was actually scary in the past 2 years. As long as you don’t hype yourself up too much before you watch the film you will leave satisfied and possibly hard of sleep.

--Steven M. Duarte

Trick ‘r Treat
Michael Dougherty (director and writer)
Cast: Anna Paquin, Brian Cox, Dylan Baker
2009 R 82 mins.

Trick ‘r Treat is a throwback of a film, a return to the great anthology fright films of yesteryear. To say that they don’t make them like this anymore would be a sad, but accurate, understatement. On the surface it resembles the last great horror anthology film, Creepshow, in more than one way. Perhaps the strongest link between the two is a reliance on comic book imagery. That being said, there are a few significant differences that makes new film stand out on its own.
While Creepshow had the cartoon Creep, Trick has Sam, a weird little trick-or-treater with a large, round, smiling sack mask, a bag full of wicked candy, and a tendency to be just at the right place at the right time to witness numerous nightmares firsthand. Not to mention causing a bit of murderous mischief himself. Cute, cuddly, killer Sam is easily one of the best things about this film. He’s got an iconic, marketable, and memorable look, and evil is always more frightening when it comes in the pint-size body of a child.
Then there are the stories. Creepshow had several set at different times and in different locals. All of Trick ‘r Treat’s tiny terror tales takes place on a single Halloween night in the same small town in Ohio. The tales are also interconnected as characters from each cross paths with one another on their way to each of their own dark fates. And such fates, and tales, they are.

There’s the creep with the tainted candy and a taste of murder, but who is also a family man and pillar of the community. There’s the bus full of strange, disturbed children whose parents get tired of covering up their shameful family secrets and arrange for them to take a one way fieldtrip to an abandoned quarry, only to have the terrifying tykes return thirty years later for one last trick on All Hallows Eve. Then there’s the four girls that are out for some woodland fun and to have the youngest member of their pack have a truly memorable “first time experience”. Oh, and did I mention sweet, little Sam? Add to that list vampires, pumpkin carving, ghosts, werewolves, and all manner of long legged beasties and you have one Halloween movie that touches on all of the season’s spooky signatures. Trick ‘r Treat is a fun fright film and one I can highly recommend for anyone wanting to expand their Halloween horror movie library.

--Brian M. Sammons

Zombieland (2009)
Review by Nickolas Cook

Director : Ruben Fleischer
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin, Amber Heard, Bill Murray

Horror comedies, for the most part, tend to fall apart for me. Sure, there have been some great exceptions to the rule (Return of the Living Dead, Shaun of the Dead, Monster Squad, Night of the Creeps), but sometimes Hollywood forgets what makes a horror film funny is a hard to get tension between truly horrific and outrageous behavior.
ZOMBIELAND easily makes the grade.
From it’s opening of 80s like video montage, Metallic’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” in the background, this movie knows what horror fans, especially zombie horror fans, love best. In some ways, ZOMBIELAND works like a teen version of The Zombie Survival Guide, but with a great subtext of antisocial behavior in a society that leans ever more towards an isolationist mentality. Hell, even the main characters avoid using real names, instead they take on the name of the city they come from.
Woody Harrelson (who is amusingly comfortable in the middle of a cast that wasn’t even born when he was playing Woody on ‘Cheers’) plays Tallahassee, a cynical survivor of the zombie apocalypse who wants only one thing: a good supply of Twinkies. Jesse Eisenberg plays Columbus, a nerdy antisocial teenager who finds new life in the undead world. When they decide to band together for safety’s sake, they meet a couple of grafter sisters who make them look like morons…well, more than usual anyway.
Music is a big part of what makes the film so funny; it’s used in sly reference in key scenes, so make sure to listen to the background music. It’s the little jokes like that which work best. At times the broad stuff doesn’t come together quite so well.
And there is a surprise cameo from Bill Murray that keeps you laughing to the end.
Twinkies and Bill Murray? How can this love be wrong, you say.
If you want some solid laughs and lots of gore, make sure to catch ZOMBIELAND at a theater near you. Might want to make sure it’s in a mall, just in case you need to hunker down for the end.

--Nickolas Cook

The Hills Run Red
Director: Dave Parker
Writers: David J. Schow, John Carchetta, and John Dombrown
Cast: Sophie Monk, Tad Hilgenbrinck, and William Sadler
2009 R 81 mins.

Back in the slasher heyday of the early 80s a more than slightly deranged filmmaker made a horror movie called The Hills Run Red about a psycho killer named Babyface that shakes his “death rattle” before attacking. The movie was quickly condemned by everyone for being too violent. It was pulled from theaters and soon the reclusive director disappeared along with all traces of his film, save for a cheesy theatrical trailer. Years later a young film buff obsessed with the slasher flick tracks down the director’s daughter, who was a young girl in the film, and coerces her into joining him and a couple of friends in an extended backwoods search for the missing film.
What could go wrong with that?
The Hills Run Red is an interesting and hard to classify film. Initially it appears to be a standard slasher film, but it quickly turns into more of a dark mystery. In fact, unlike any other slasher nobody dies until almost halfway through the movie. The only body count before that comes from grainy, flashback scenes from the missing movie that may or may not be actual kills, recorded snuff-film style. Once the kills start coming in earnest the film goes back to being a slasher flick. There are the trademark creative use of tools as weapons, a fair share of blood splattered about, and one of the most memorable looking killers to grace the screen in a long time. Babyface is a menacing psycho that reportedly cut off his own face as a child and replaced it with a doll’s face to appease his abusive father. And yet even then this movie isn’t content to stay pigeonholed for long. The creators of this film are well aware of the usual slasher film stereotypes and they wisely play with them to great effect.

Even the recent torture porn subgenre makes a thankfully short appearance in Hills as the movies rolls on and before it’s over there will be plenty of twists, turns, and bloody bodies to satisfy fright fans of all types. It is that quick changing malleability that is perhaps the greatest strength of this movie. It tries to be all things to all horror fans and for the most part it succeeds. Humor, mystery, torture, twists, a distinctive masked slasher, blood and guts, and even some gratuitous T&A, The Hills Run Red can be said to have it all. Well, except for vampires, but that’s not a bad thing. It is a great, fun film and one not to be missed in these days of mindless remakes, I highly recommend it.

--Brian M. Sammons

Monsters vs. Aliens (2009)
Review by Nickolas Cook

Directors: Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Seth Rogen,
Hugh Laurie, Will Arnett, Kiefer Sutherland, Rainn Wilson, Stephen Colbert and Paul Rudd

On the happiest day of her life, young Susan Murphy (Witherspoon) is hit by a super powered meteorite fragment from an alien planet. Regaining consciousness, she hurries to the altar to her husband to be (Rudd) when she begins to grow into a giant. After crashing her own wedding (literally), she is abducted by the US military and sent to live in a secret warehouse with a collection of other monsters. Her strange new friends include B.O.B. (Rogan), a Blob like creature created from food by products gone wrong, Dr. Cockroach, PhD (Laurie), a mad genius who inadvertently transformed himself into a cockroach with his teleportation device (ala The Fly), The Missing Link (Arnett), a thawed out prehistoric fish man (a sort of ‘Creature From the Black Lagoon’ with more humor) and a giant 300 foot tall caterpillar named Insectisuarus. When an alien invasion staged by Gallaxhar (Wilson) befalls the planet, the monsters are promised freedom if they can stop it. What follows is hilarious and just plain fun.
This is a smart, well put together, animated film (originally shown in 3-D) that has so much to offer its viewers- from the hardcore horror/sci-fi geeks like me, to the casual film addict who might not know catch all the great horror sci-fi cultural references. It’s laugh out loud funny at times, and subtle at others. But nothing crude that will leave the kiddies feeling left out of the jokes. The cast is spot on for their parts, giving us believable emotional context, and surprisingly adult reactions to their predicaments- something that I see in animated films more and more these days- filled with characters you fall in love with and root for. And the soundwork on MONSTERS VS. ALIENS easily deserves an Oscar nomination. The screen is alive with action and thrills.
Don’t miss this one, folks. You’ll be glad you watched it.

--Nickolas Cook

Vampyr- Der Traum des Allan Grey (1932)
Review by Nickolas Cook

Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Cast: Julian West, Maurice Schutz, Rena Mandel, Jan Hieronimko, Sybille Schmitz, Rena Mandel and Henriette Gerard

Danish Carl Theodor Dreyer directed one of the most stylish and eerie horror films of the genre. “Vampyr”, filmed entirely on location outside of Paris, France, in a real castle, is the story of a young man traveling across country, who gets caught up in a surrealistic nightmare of death and bloodsuckers. Based loosely on Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’, this was Dreyer’s first talking picture, and you can see his still heavy reliance on sight over sound. He finds some disturbing images to convey unease and death throughout the picture instead of having his characters talk about it. Such as when shadows move independently of human hosts or in weirdly inhuman fashion. The accoutrements of death are everywhere- coffins, graves, crosses, black veils on pale faces. The silent film aesthetic helps to deliberately structure the tale and the pace of the narrative as well.
But in many ways it’s Dreyer’s use of sound that make for a creepy atmosphere for which this film is so well known. From the ringing bells to the ticking clocks, we get a sense of slow death in the world around our young hero, Alan Grey. There’s a dreamlike quality that reminds one of similar waking nightmare movies, such as ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ and ‘The Shining’. You never know what’s real and what’s in Grey’s imagination.
The strange fluidity of the camera adds to that sense of floating above the narrative.
This was released recently on a Criterion version. Expensive, but well worth it for the serious horror collector. You will find this vampire movie creates more atmosphere than any ten knockoffs being regurgitated into theaters these days.

--Nickolas Cook

The Haunted House of Horror (1969)
Review by Nickolas Cook

Director: Michael Armstrong
Cast: Frankie Avalon, Jill Haworth, Dennis Price, Mark Wynter, George Sewell, Gina Warwick, Richard O'Sullivan, Carol Dilworth, Julian Barnes, Veronica Doran, Robin Stewart, Jan Holden, Clifford Earl and Robert Raglan

Made by the smaller cousin of the giant Hammer Studios, Tigon British Film Productions, “House of Horror” is the first example of the teen slasher movie, long predating the likes of ‘Halloween’, ‘The Prowler’, and ‘Friday the 13th’. Although being British, you won’t find the screen splashed with blood, this creeping little movie still has all the elements you find in the later sub-genre of boobs and blood. Tigon made some really great dark ahead of their time horror movies in the 60s, including two my favs of that time period, ‘Blood on Satan’s Claw’ and ‘The Creeping Flesh’).
The setup is a familiar one now, but not so much for 1969’s horror fare. A group of young adult Bohemian types (and, yes, that’s Frankie Avalon hanging out with all those decidedly English young people) get together for a party but become bored quickly with the usual booze, sex and drugs. They decide it’d be a lark to go check out a supposed haunted house, a place where one of their friends, the shy withdrawn, Richard (Barnes) once lived as a child. Once inside the house, they have a séance for laughs, which soon prompts them to split up. In small groups or alone, they wander the darkened halls and stairs, guided only by dim candlelight- sound familiar yet? A mysterious knife wielding killer takes down one of their number and his grisly body is soon discovered.
Instead of calling the police, they are talked into hiding the body by Chris (Avalon) for fear that a spate of past minor drug problems will lead to an instant arrest for all of them.
Well, bad goes to worse as the crew begins to turn on one another, until they decide to go back in to the house to recreate the atmosphere so they can figure out who the killer is among them. Along the way, we’re given a couple of sly red herrings to keep us off balance and guessing who might be the killer (but I guarantee you will not guess the ending). The last five minutes of ‘House of Horror’ have to be some of the best use of ambiguity ever put to film. The final scene is chilling and pathetic. Surprisingly violent movie for its time.
There’s a nifty late 60s mod soundtrack, lots of gorgeous English lasses, and some hip but dated dialogue. In short, this is an impressive, under the radar production that deserves a new audience. Hopefully someone will get off their kester and give this a proper DVD release soon.

--Nickolas Cook

Blacula (1972)
Review by Nickolas Cook

Director: William Crain
Cast: William Marshall, Vonetta McGee, Denise Nicholas, Gordon Pinsent, Charles Macaulay, and Thalmus Rasulala

Transylvania: 1780 and Count Dracula has invited the proud African, Prince Mamuwalde (Marshall), and his lovely wife to his castle to discuss slave trade between nations. When Prince Mamuwalde tells Dracula to stuff it, the good Count takes his revenge on the prince by making him a bloodsucker and locking him away inside the bowels of the castle for all eternity.
Cutto: 1970s Transylvania and two gay interior decorators have made the score of a lifetime by buying up all that old dusty furniture from the Count’s old castle—including a very peculiar casket containing Blacula’s remains.
When the casket is opened in modern day Los Angeles, CA. that’s when the fun starts. Blacula begins his reign of terror, blood sucking anyone dumb enough to get in his way, or anyone who can expose him for the unholy creature he’s become. But his secret is soon out, when he discovers Tina (the gorgeous Vonetta McGee) is the reincarnation of his lost wife. Soon, a group of intrepid Van Helsing wannabes (Rasulala and Pinsent) track his hiding place to an abandoned factory where the final battle ensues, and Blacula is destroyed in a blast of redemptive sunlight (at least until 1973’s sequel, ‘Scream Blacula Scream’).
Boy, it doesn’t get much more fun than this movie.
American International Pictures was the leader in producing some of the greatest blaxploitation movies ever. They knew the elements that made them work: the cast, the music, and the antiestablishment and racial subtexts. But they also knew hot to turn the tropes on their head, while making for an entertaining movie that never bogged itself down into too much politics and social awareness: horror with jive assssssssss attitude.
‘Blacula’ still works today, despite the clunky technical limitations and the dated dialogue and music. In fact, in many ways, those are exactly the things that still give it charm. When William Marshall slips into his cape for the first time you can’t help but get that great little horror shiver up your spine.
‘Blacula’’s success made possible the subsequent success of such films as ‘Ganga and Hess’, ‘Sugar Hill’ and ‘The House on Skull Mountain’, and helped them find a multi-racial audience.
It’s one of the few to display true pathos and empathy for its villain. Marshall brought a suave classiness to the role that no other actor ever could; and for many, he became the face of blax-horror films for all time.

--Nickolas Cook

Blackenstein (1973)
Review by Nickolas Cook

Director: William A. Levey
Cast: John Hart, Ivory Stone, Joe De Sue, and Roosevelt Jackson

Made solely to cash in on the success of AIP’s 1972 ‘Blacula’, ‘Blackenstein’ (also known as ‘Black Frankenstein’) may be the rock bottom of the blaxploitation horror genre. The acting is abysmal, the story unbelievably ridiculous and the direction mostly subpar. But you can’t help love watching at least once.
Eddie (Joe De Sue) is a paraplegic who had his legs and arms blown off by a mine in Vietnam before being shipped home to his lover, Winifred (Ivory Stone), who just happens to be a PhD in Physics, and just happens to know a Nobel Peace Prize winning geneticist, Dr. Stein (John Hart). When the docs join forces to put old Eddie back together again they weren’t counting on the Igor-like lab assistant (Roosevelt Jackson) falling in love with Winifred and sabotaging their experiments on Eddie. Well before you can say ‘It’s alive!’, poor old Eddie grows back his legs and arms, and a square afro, to boot, and becomes Blackenstein! scourge of poodles and pimps everywhere. Meanwhile, Winfred, out smart enough to get a PhD, can’t seem to put two and two together well enough to figure out what’s gone wrong. And while she is trying to figure it all out, Blackenstein is off killing a lot of people who have nothing to do with the story. And it gets worse from there, folks.
This is a textbook example how not to make a movie, and especially a blax-horror film. There’s no attempt at antiestablishment charm. The bland dialogue is lifeless; the terrible music utterly out of context throughout the entire movie; tons of insignificant face shots that convey nothing to the narrative; and the special effects are anything but. And where the hell is the storm coming from? We keep seeing clear exterior night shots of Stein’s mansion, but inside the place we hear thunder and see lightning erupt every few minutes. This truly has to be the ‘Plan Nine From Outer Space’ of blaxsploitation horror.

--Nickolas Cook