Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Brian Sammons Hi-Def Horror Hoedown!

CASE 39 (2009)– Blu-ray review

Director: Christina Alvart
Cast: Renee Zellweger, Ian McShane, Bradley Cooper

If you are planning to watch this movie then stop reading this review and just go do that now. No, this is not because I’m about to trash this film mercilessly. Honestly, CASE 39 isn’t that bad. But I will tell you something about it that may throw up warning flags, signals, flares, and everything else conceivable of just how little faith the makers of this film had for it. And how often when the makers of the movie felt bad about their product were you actually like, “well they were wrong, that film was great!” Yeah, that’s never happened to me either. So if you want to see this supernatural thriller with as clear a mind as possible, stop reading right…now!

Don’t believe the 2010 release date for this “new” movie, it is actually over four years old. It was shot in 2006 and then shelved for years until being first released in the UK in March 2010 and then later, begrudgingly in North America in October in an attempt to cash in on the Halloween vibe. So that should tell you just how awesome CASE 39 is. You know, I seem to remember another fright flick staring Renee Zellweger that was shelved for a long time. THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE NEXT GENERATION, aka THE RETURN OF THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (you know, the one with Matthew McConaughey in it) and we all know how great that flick was. Hmm, what’s with Ms. Zellweger and choosing incredibly bad horror films to be in?

Now rest assured, CASE 39 is nowhere as awful as that CHAINSAW film, but it is a far cry from being good. This movie has Renee as a beleaguered social worker named Emily whose latest case (number 39) involves the creepy little girl from the SILENT HILL movie, who amazingly looks exactly like she did in that 2006 fright film flop. When was this movie made again? Oh right…anyway Zellweger goes to meet the young girl, Lilith (get it!) and her over-the-top creepy and so obviously abusive parents. Demented daddy all but takes a blowtorch to the little girl in front of the social worker so Emily knows they’re no good. She enlists the aid of a police detective buddy played by a woefully underutilized Ian McShane. Mr. McShane, of HBO’s DEADWOOD fame, is easily the brightest spot of light in this dreary, slow, and clichéd movie. Well in short order Emily and the cop save sweet, innocent Lilith from being cooked in an oven Hansel and Gretel style by her kookie parents. The social worker becomes the little girl’s foster parent and they both lived happily ever after.

Yeah right. Did anyone believe that was going to happen even for a second when they watched this film? Just like I’m pretty sure I can tell you without thrown up the usually spoiler warnings that, surprise, surprise, the little girl turns out to be evil. Yes her mad mom and dad were just trying to get rid of the spawn of Satan in an overly elaborate and silly manor. What, was there no guns, knives, rope, poison, blunt objects or sharp sticks handy? So all too soon Emily realizes that the creepy little girl named Lilith has “the soul of a demon”. She can kill people by showing them their fears, convince preteens she barely knows to kill their parents over the phone, and throws supernatural tantrums when she doesn’t get ice cream.

The rest of the movie plays out following the Evil Kids 101 playbook to the letter. Once again, it’s not a really bad film, but it doesn’t have an ounce of originality, kind of drags at times, and you can see the surprises coming from a mile away. The direction is mediocre at best but the film never has any mystery, suspense, dread, or anything else you’d look for in a horror film. The acting ranges from phoning it in by Renee Zellweger to Ian McShane’s good but too little used performance. The special effects are of the CGI variety and look competent for the most part, although the glimpses of the demon do look a tad silly. There are a few splatters of blood but no real gore to speak of.

Matching the “meh” feel of the movie, the Blu-ray from Paramount is just about average, The picture looks crisp and clear, even if the movie seems happy to live in muted world of grey, brown, and blue. There are a few nice featurettes, four of them to be exact of various lengths and a smattering of deleted scenes. But there’s nothing else, not even a commentary track.

So just like CASE 39 the Blu-ray for it gets a just passing grade of C. As such I cannot recommend this film or rail against it. It might be a decent enough rental if you are a big fan of creepy kid flicks, but it’s not necessarily something you have to add to your home library.

THE LAST EXORCISM (2010)– Blu-ray review

Director: Daniel Stamm
Cast: Patrick Fabian, Ashley Bell, Iris Bahr

It’s got to be really hard to do any movie with even the slightest links to demonic possession, exorcisms, the devil, or anything so related with the big, black, massive shadow of THE EXORCIST looming over everything. Remember back to the yesteryear of 1999 and there was a whole slew of “Satan’s waiting” films to capitalize on new millennia madness. Yeah they pretty much all sucked and that went double for the one with Arnie Schwarzenegger in it. Worst they were just faded carbon copies of the Friedkin/ Blatty masterpiece. So now whenever I go to see a film about Satan doing naughty things inside innocent people I’m prepared for the worst. Well color me pleasantly surprised then with THE LAST EXORCISM. I walked into it hoping that it would be mildly entertaining at best and instead found myself really enjoying it. That so rarely happens to me that I love it to death when it does. So grab your bible, crucifix, and holy water and let’s jump into this LAST EXORCISM together.

This is one of those “found footage” films, or as I like to call them, “first person shaky-cam flicks”. You know, like CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, CLOVERFIELD, and the like. Its shot as a documentary on a sort of exorcist for hire named Cotton Marcus who has been casting the devil out of people since he was a little boy. The problem is, he doesn’t believe in any of it. He’s a charlatan, but perhaps a well-meaning one as he honestly seems to think that what he’s doing for the “possessed” helps them in some way. Cotton shows the camera crew that follows him around some of his exorcism tricks then decides to take one LAST EXORCISM to show them how he works in action. This consummate entertainer (he performs card tricks at his church and actually at one point does a sermon on how to bake banana bread as a bet to show that when he gets rolling, no one’s really listening) goes down Louisiana way to help a farmer get a devil out of his teenage, homeschooled daughter. And…well that’s where I’m going to leave you. Yeah it’s a dirty trick, but I’m not going to ruin any of the surprises this film has to offer. I will say that naturally things don’t go by the scammer’s playbook and Cotton must come to terms with his own lack of faith.

I will say that the movie is well made and exceptionally acted. Patrick Fabian as the “reverend” Cotton is great. You know he’s a huckster, but you can tell he’s also a pretty good guy. That’s a rare trick to pull off right. However he is nearly outshined by Ashley Bell who plays the young, possibly possessed, possibly just crazy girl in need of some serious help. To say that she gives this movie 150% would not do her credit. When the crazy stuff really starts to happen with her just remember she’s doing all that herself. Very little “special effects” were used to pull off her very frightening performance. But honestly everyone in this film does an amazing job and with a story, setting, and cast this Intimate it will be made or broken by the people on screen. Luckily in this case the actors pull it off.

As cool as this movie is, and it is that, the Blu-ray from Lionsgate is as equally impressive. First it is a combo package offering both the BD and the DDV of the movie. Now let’s get to the extras. There are three, count ‘em; three audio commentary tracks. Quite impressive when you consider that many movies still can’t be bothered to do one. There’s the usual one by the director and stars, another by the producers which include the always divisive Eli Roth (who, for the record, I always end up liking when I hear him in these things), and the third is really cool and different. It has no one in it that was involved with the movie but instead has commentary by a clinical psychologist, a minister, and a victim of hauntings. Yeah if you don’t believe in such things this track can be a bit silly, but then why are you watching this movie?

To further inform you about this movie, and arm you should you become the target of demonic possession, there’s a protection prayer you can recite, a documentary about real life exorcisms, and on the lighter side there’s the usual making of the movie featurette, a whole bunch of audition tapes from the actors, a number of trailers, footage from the Cannes Film Festival and so many more goodies that it gets hard to keep track of them all.

As I said at the start, THE LAST EXORCISM was a very pleasant surprise. I enjoyed it throughout but especially liked the ending. I can honestly say that it is the best exorcism movie since THE EXORCIST (ok, maybe EXORCIST 3: LEGION, that one was pretty good too) so if you’re looking for your little girl possessed by the devil fix, this one will hook you up nicely. Considered it highly recommended.

BURIED (2010)– Blu-ray review

Director: Rodrigo Cortes
Cast: Ryan Reynolds

Minimalistic horror seems to be a thing now. A few years back there was OPEN WATER with a couple stranded in the ocean. Last year there was FROZEN that had three people stuck on a ski lift. Now there’s BURIED and it has one guy, in a box, for an hour and a half.

Now no matter how good or bad this movie is, one thing cannot be argued; it’s a movie about one guy, in a box, for an hour and a half. If that doesn’t sound thrilling to you then go ahead and stop reading. But if you’re up for something a little different and want to see an actor give it his all try to keep a film going for 90 minutes while lying in a small, dark box, then this may be the movie for you.

Ryan Reynolds does a good job playing Paul, a contractor who drives a truck in Iraq. One day his convoy is attacked and he is buried alive with a lighter and a cellphone. His abductors want a million dollars or they will leave him to die. His employers only seem interested in covering their own butts. Everyone he calls is either not home or they have a hard time believing what has happened to him. The story boils down (very quickly) to Paul talking to various people on the phone and trying to get out of his early grave. Sure there is a bit more to it than that. There’s something about the terrorists wanting Paul to make his own ransom video with the cellphone, and one of his female coworkers also being abducted, and then the friendly little snake that crawls into his coffin to say hello, but those almost seem to be distractions to increase the runtime of the film to feature length than anything of real substance. There is a nice bit of drama as the coffin Paul is in begins to crack and the sand begins to pour in, threatening to cut short what little time he has left.

Ultimately what’s going to make or break this one man show is, obviously, that one man. Luckily Mr. Reynolds is on top of his game here. He runs the emotional gambit from scared to furious and from sad to what he does best; being sarcastically funny. I’ve always been a bit of a fan of Ryan Reynolds and this movie goes a long way to further cement that appreciation. That also means that I can easily say that I thoroughly enjoyed all the actors in this movie. I can’t think of too many films where I said that.

The Blu-ray/DVD combo pack by Lionsgate is as sparse on extras as the film is on cast. There’s a documentary and a couple of trailers and that’s it. That’s kind of disappointing, but then like I’ve said, this is a movie about one guy locked in little box, so I kind of expected the minimalistic approach. Also the picture quality can only be so good when the cinematography is mostly limited to close ups in the dark.

BURIED will not be a film for everyone, especially with today’s A.D.D. generation of movie watchers. However it is a good movie and if you like plausible horrors as opposed to supernatural ones then this is the terror flick for you. Sadly it doesn’t get more real than some evil bastards stuffing a guy in a box to make a point and this film spotlights that kind of terror very effectively.

A BAY OF BLOOD (aka CARNAGE, TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE)(1971)– Blu-ray review from Arrow films

Director: Mario Bava
Cast: Claudine Auger, Luigi Pistilli, Leopoldo Trieste

Perhaps Italian horror maestro Mario Bava’s masterpiece, or at least easily making his top three, this is as influential in the horror world as it is confusing to get its name right. That’s because this bit of giallo/proto-slasher goodness has almost a dozen different titles depending upon what country you’re talking about. In Italy it had three different names during pre and post production and it was first releases as THE ECOLOGY OF MURDER. In the US it first came out under the ho-hum title of CARNAGE. It was also known by the much better (and my favorite) name of TWITCH OF THE DEATH NEARVE. It was also called BAY OF BLOOD, with an without an ‘A’ in front of it, and in order to cash in on the infamy of a certain Wes Craven film, it was also called LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT PART 2 in some circles. In the UK it was called BLOODBATH for a while. There are also several other possible titles that I couldn’t confirm, but hey I think I made my point. Anyway…

If you want to know how influential this 1971 film was then know it is widely believed by just about everyone that it was the blueprint for the flood of slasher flicks that were to follow a decade later. In fact, let’s play a game. If I say FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 what comes to mind? Ok, Other than Jason running around with a pillow case over his head? Chances are it’s the kills, as they are the most memorable parts of any slasher flick. Well two of the best murders were the guy in the wheelchair that gets a machete smacked upside head vertically and the two kids who get shish kabobed together with a spear while doing it in a bed. Well both of those kills were stolen scene for scene (ok, minus the wheelchair) from A BAY OF BLOOD. But more than stealing individual kills, BLOOD was one of the first body count films, where people get offed in creative and very bloody ways, one by one until the end of the movie.

Now to be sure, A BAY OF BLOOD does have much more of a story going for it than that. In fact, it’s pretty unique and more of a gory murder mystery than a standard stalk and slash. It begins with an old woman in a wheelchair (hmm, maybe that’s where FRIDAY PART 2 got the idea) getting killed by someone in the giallo signature black gloves. But then, surprise, it’s revealed that the killer was the old lady’s husband. But before you can say, “gee, that wasn’t so mysterious” he then gets stabbed to death by someone else. Yeah, pretty cool, huh? That’s like little Mikey Myers getting killed off in the first act of HALLOWEEN after bumping off his sister and the move just going on without him. The rest of the film is pretty much standard slasher fare with some young pretty people showing up to party, get naked, drink and screw, and then get sliced and diced with flair.

Like I said; slasher blueprint.

To say anything more would ruin the surprises, not to mention one hell of a weird ending you’re sure to not see coming. So let’s talk about the Blu-ray from my friends from merry old England, the always reliable Arrow Films. The transfer is very well done, the colors are crisp and clear, the shadows deep and dark, and no pops or marks appear on the screen. So for just being the best looking copy of this 40 year old horror classic I’ve ever seen that should be reason enough for you to get it. However Arrow, in their usual fashion, has loaded it up with some nifty extras. There are two chunky behind the scenes/making of/the cast and crew remembers featurettes, a twelve minuet special where Joe Dante (director of GREMLINS, THE HOWLING and others) talks about Mario Bava and this ground breaking film. Then Edgar Wright (director of SHAUN OF THE DEAD, SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD and others) introduces and discusses trailers for both the CARNAGE and TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE versions of the film. A pair of radio spots round out the extras.

If you have never seen this film, under any of its countless titles, then you are simply not a true horrorhead. Sorry, but this is mandatory viewing to get your membership card. If you have seen it then chances are you love it, and now you have the best version ever available. Best of all, like all of Arrow Film’s Blu-rays, it is region free so you can enjoy it on either side of the pond, down under, at the North Pole, or anywhere else you so desire.

MACHETE (2010)– Blu-ray review

Directors: Robert Rodriguez & Ethan Maniquis
Cast: Danny Trejo, Steven Seagal, Michelle Rodriguez, Jessica Alba, Robert De Niro

This is the gory, goofy, modern day grindhouse flick that was first glimpsed as a “fake” trailer in 2007s sadly underperforming GRINDHOUSE double feature. Well defying all expectations and logic, the fake movie about a Mexican ex-Federale set up to take the fall for shooting a senator and out for revenge has now become reality, but is it any good?

Hell yeah, it is, and not only that, it was one of my favorite films of 2010. Sure it’s not a horror flick, but it does have more decapitations, not to mention a killer disembowelment, then a whole slew of slasher movies. That alone should get the gorehounds excited, but beyond the groovy gore this movie has loads of inappropriate laughs, one of the biggest being a naked woman retrieving a cellphone from a very unusual place, lots of action in both gun and sword fight form, several gorgeous ladies for the guys to ogle, and Cheech Marin as a shotgun packing priest! What’s not to love?

The star of the show is perennial character actor Danny Trejo who does an admiral job in his first lead role as the titular man named Machete. He also gets a lot of high caliber costars to help him shoulder his burden. Michelle Rodriguez, Jessica Alba, Jeff Fahey, and the aforementioned Cheech Marin are just some of the familiar faces you’ll find here. But there are also some notable stand outs in the mix too. First and foremost was Robert De Niro who looked to be having a ball hamming it up, but it was nice to see that Don Johnson was still alive and well. I can’t recall the last time I saw him in anything. However for me the real treat was Steven Seagal who not only played a bad guy but was actually in a movie to hit the theaters and not just the DVD bargain bins. Imagine that! Oh, and one more things for the gorehounds; the wizard of gore, Tom Savini has a small but memorable roll as a gun for hire.

In addition to the blood, action, naked ladies and star power, this movie was just made for us. There’s a scene straight out of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, Machete swinging through the air with the aid of some poor slob’s lower intestine, Michelle Rodriguez totally rocking an eye patch, a hit man in a Lucha Libre mask, three beheadings with a single machete swipe, a convoy of low-riders going off to war and much more weirdness. Even with all that, MACHETE still has more to offer, like a very personal message on the hot button topic of immigration and border control. Thankfully Rodriguez wisely chose to use comedy and splatter to hide the social commentary so it doesn’t keep hitting you upside the head. There’s nothing worse than going to see an action flick and getting preached at for ninety minutes.

The bad news is that as cool as the film is, the Blu-ray from 20th Century Fox is a bit of a letdown. There are no documentaries, interviews or featurettes and not a single commentary track to be seen. Come on, it’s now 2011 and that’s just sad no matter how you cut it. The one saving grace to these not-so-special features are a collection of ten deleted scenes that are actually worth watching. Not only do they show a dropped subplot where Jessica Alba had a drunk, slutty twin sister, but a completely removed charter, Rose McGowan as a sex lady assassin who must have played one too many games of POSTAL and uses a cat as a silencer. I can only assume Rose’s part was cut out do to her on again, off again (is it back on again?) relationship with director Robert Rodriguez. Whatever the case, it sucks she was cut, but at least you can see some of her efforts here.

Disappointing extras aside, MACHETE is a great little flick that does fun like few movies do today. I watched it from start to finish with a smile on my face and I can easily recommend it for fans of off-the-wall films.

--Brian M. Sammons