DiCaprio Gets Bear Mauled and Buried Alive in ‘The Revenant’

Bears are mankind’s most beloved incredibly dangerous animals. We’ve made the world’s most famous stuffed toy out of them. We’ve made several lovable cartoon characters out of them.  We’ve tamed them to do circus tricks. We named an embrace after them that’s supposed to be a wrestling hold, but do a Google image search for “bear hug” and it’s 95% cuddly friendliness. Bears are great, except for when they remember that they’re unstoppable, overpowering mounds of muscle, jaws and claws that would easily win the 100-meters in the Olympics.

45-seconds into the latest trailer for Alejandro Inarritu and Leonardo Dicaprio’s upcoming The Revenant, we get a nice display of how terrifying bears can be. Granted, I don’t exactly live a life of thrills and adventure, so this could probably be taken with a grain of salt, but this new trailer for The Revenant is one of the most intense things I’ve seen this month. Perhaps the best quote to capture the feeling you might get while watching this trailer comes from a friend of mine who just texted me, “Was that a real bear attack?” As brutal as it apparently was to shoot this film, I’m pretty sure Inarritu wouldn’t have called “Cut!” had it been genuine. I’m anticipating that the full-length version of the mauling on the big screen is going to be a bit tough to sit through.

To make matters worse, DiCaprio then gets buried alive by a grizzled man played by what appears to be Tom Hardy Lee Jones, right after Tom murders Leo’s teenaged son. Naturally, once DiCaprio finds the strength to crawl out of his ridiculously shallow grave, revenge is in order. And I’ll be happy to witness that revenge, as the Lee Hardy TomJones character already strikes me as a massive asshole, what with his murderous pursuits and such. Still, that is the kiddie-pool of graves. Shoddy, lazy workmanship, that. I’m pretty sure all he did was keep DiCaprio warm. Might as well put a blanket on him.

Continue Reading

And Now a Perfectly Morbid ‘House on Haunted Hill’ Poster

House on Haunted Hill color poster Jonathan Burton

The original House on Haunted Hill is one of those horror classics that’s more famous than it is genuinely “good.” It has a 96% rating over on Rotten Tomatoes, but even many of the good reviews are quick to deploy adjectives such as, “cheesy,” and “campy.” Most people who’ve seen the movie probably come away with the same impression. It’s fun, even memorable, and has some good, spooky ideas and moments, but for the most part it’s also shamelessly silly. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; not every horror flick should be an earnest affair. House on Haunted Hill was one of William Castle’s many gimmick-driven fright flicks, and it’s perfectly fine with being a morbid joke.

Fitting with that vibe is the above poster I came across that’s up for sale now on Mondotees.com. The suggestion of the woman hanged by a skeleton is certainly grim, but it’s actually an homage to the original poster, which was far more macabre, as you can see below.   House-on-Haunted-Hill-original-poster

The new poster–created by Jonathan Burton–is more coy about presenting the actual hanging, which makes it a bit grimmer by suggestion, though not as directly gruesome. The stiff woman in the original poster looks more like she’s just posing on her tip-toes. The partial view we get of the woman in the new poster has a sort of weightlessness to it that makes her look like she might be either a swinging body, or a floating spirit reliving its demise.

I prefer the look of the skeleton in the original, with its dingy bones. Its outsized scale also calls to mind the giant skeleton specter of a famous Japanese woodblock print. The skeleton in Burton’s new poster is just a little too “friendly,” clearly smiling right at us. But I think the knowing, calm expression of the seated Vincent Price is just about perfect. He looks like he’s expecting you to come in and take a seat so he can interview you for a job. “Oh, the living skeleton who appears to be killing someone to my left? Don’t mind him. That’s just Larry. He’s mostly harmless, I assure you.”

This new House on Haunted Hill poster also comes in black and white. I’m not really the type to decorate my home with movie posters, but I appreciate them, and were I the type, I think I’d go for the black and white version.

House-On-Haunted-Hill-print

Continue Reading

About That Crimson Peak Trailer…

Over on the BNC, I wrote about the trailer for Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak (if you haven’t seen it, you can watch it at the bottom of this post). Having rewatched it now, I feel like there a few more things I want to mention.

This cast is interesting. It occurs to me that I’ve only seen Hiddleston as Loki and in Midnight in Paris. So while my initial reaction is to say he’ll be great, I don’t have a very large body of work to personally base that opinion on. Jessica Chastain is a force. First thing I saw her in must have been Take Shelter, and she’s been good to excellent in everything since. Charlie Hunnam has a presence to him. I’m not going to hold the last few seasons of Sons of Anarchy against him, any more than I’m going to hold Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland against Mia Wasikowska. I don’t know how big of a role Jim Beaver will have in this–in a way he feels like the odd man out–but he might be my favorite actor in the cast. All in all, if the film doesn’t live up to its potential, it doesn’t appear that performances will be to blame.

Speaking of Tim Burton, I think his Dark Shadows might have been the last big budget, major studio release to take on the Gothic horror genre. That was a parody of the genre though, and between now and October, the recently released (and critically well-received) What We Do in the Shadows, which also has some fun at the expense of Gothic fiction elements, should reach a wider audience. I can’t remember the last time a notable, serious and unabashed take on Gothic Horror hit the big screen. The recent remake to The Woman in Black comes close, but doesn’t fully commit. Crimson Peak looks more reminiscent of films such as Black Sunday and House of Usher, both of which came out over fifty years ago. It’s hard to predict how audiences will receive Crimson Peak based on this. I’m hoping that people will appreciate it for something different from what they’ve grown accustomed to in horror movies.

And hey, speaking of October, am I wrong in thinking that this trailer seems to have a very early official release for a horror film? Last year at this time, Annabelle was still filming, and still received an October release. Its first teaser didn’t come out until July. Granted, that was a very different film, far less ambitious, but nonetheless highly anticipated. Two years back, The Conjuring had its first trailer officially drop in February as well, but that was in advance of a June release. We’re over half a year away from Crimson Peak coming to a theater near you. I actually find this promising. Somebody at the studio has faith in this picture; they’re giving it the blockbuster marketing treatment, at least in terms of building anticipation well in advance.

Overall, the Crimson Peak trailer has me eager to see it, but I’m even more excited by the talent surrounding the film, and the potential it has to be something unique in today’s film and horror fiction landscape. More often than not, studios use October as a dumping ground for quick-buck horror flicks–some of which are still good, but most of which are crafted specifically to capitalize on the Halloween season. This time it looks like we’re getting a picture that has every intention of being truly magnificent. 

Continue Reading

Horror Films “The Witch,” “Knock, Knock” and “It Follows” Made a Splash at Sundance

The Sundance Film Festival has, in the past, been something of a showcase for a variety of genre flicks. Reservoir Dawgs, The Blair Witch Project, Saw, Primer, El Mariachi all became notable at least in part due to the attention they received at Sundance. This year horror films have had a pretty strong showing at the festival, with three in particular standing out receiving high praise and/or considerable attention.

The Witch: A New England Folktale has been lauded as one hell of a scary flick at The Dissolve, Indiewire, Variety and elsewhere. It was apparently attracting quite a crowd, already a decent sign. The fact that it has apparently lived up to the expectation that such crowds would suggest is a better sign. Headline terms such as “Impressively Eerie” and Uniquely Spooky” all but certify that this is one to watch for when it reaches a wider audience.

The premise is as straightforward as the title. A period piece set in the 17th century, it concerns an isolated family in a rural area dealing with evils that are the result of malevolent witchcraft.

The-Witch-movie-sundanceWhile we’re on the subject of stories featuring witches, I figured I’d chime in briefly on the discussion about whether stories exploiting, focusing on or otherwise incorporating the real, murderous offenses that were witch trials are “troubling” or what have you. While I think it’s a fair issue to bring up, I also think it’s pretty easy to shoot down. Witchcraft, as presented in most works of genre fiction, is an element of lore. Witches are akin to ghosts, vampires, werewolves, and zombies; they are staples of horror. Actual, organized murders committed against innocent people during witch trials are obviously an appalling piece of history, but fiction is obviously a separate thing. Any halfway reasonable person shouldn’t see a movie where fictional, evil witches are presented as legitimately threatening and frightful as a justification for horrible shit that happened in the real life. Just like any halfway reasonable person wouldn’t see the actions of the fictional characters in the movie The Skeleton Key as justification for lynchings. And I think I’ve already laid out my stance on this blog that art and criticism shouldn’t cater or bend to zealots and lunatics who can’t qualify as at least “halfway reasonable.”

Moving on, It Follows has been on the radar for a little while already, having debuted to enthusiastic reviews last May in Cannes. The enthusiasm hasn’t waned: Slashfilm claims it is “the scariest horror film in years,” which, granted, is one of those phrases that seems suspiciously pre-made for blurb quote. It’s also generic enough to nearly be meaningless. (How many years? Two, three? Twenty-three? And “scariest in years” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s actually scary if nothing within the unknown number of years referenced has been all that scary to the reviewer.)

With that said, the unusual premise is already enough to bring it attention. It Follows concerns a sexually transmitted supernatural curse that causes the recipient to be, well, followed by an entity disguised as a human. It simply pursues you, patiently and relentlessly, never resting, with a brutal death being the end result of it catching you, and the only way to be rid of it is to have sex with someone else, but even that comes with a catch. On paper, it’s a little difficult to say whether this premise is silly or avant garde. It sort of sounds like The Ring with the videotape replaced by coitus. But regardless of your initial impression of the story idea, the execution has garnered almost universal praise, the horror and setting being described as “dreamlike,” “panic-rousing,” and “arresting.” And I have to admit, the trailer really sold me on it as an unconventional, highly unnerving horror flick.

So that makes two horror movies from Sundance that I’m eager to catch when they get an official release.

And that leaves us with Eli Roth’s Knock, Knock. Truth told, I’m not the biggest Eli Roth fan. I haven’t hated his movies, or even strongly disliked any of them, but I’m pretty indifferent to his “old-school, exploitative gore” aesthetic. I’m not averse to gore, but if you’re going to go Grand Guignol and showcase it in a manner that makes the gore the primary reason for the film to exist, then everything about it and the rest of the film needs to be amazing. To quote the Wu-Tang’s late, great ODB, “[You] wanna perform a massacre, [you] better be coming with some motherf*ng sh* that’s spectacular.” Color me critical, but I’m going to stop short of saying Cabin Fever or Hostel qualify as grand spectacle (I haven’t seen Green Inferno, so I can’t comment on that).

Now that I’ve just spent a paragraph waxing negative regarding Eli’s reliance on gore, here’s where I tell you that Knock, Knock apparently marks Roth’s first foray into psychological horror. This seems odd, considering it’s a remake of an obscure, 70’s exploitation home-invasion film titled Death Game, which inexplicably isn’t also the title 1,000 Bruceploitation movies, but that’s what we have here. The film stars Keanu Reeves as a successful everyman, the good father and good husband sort, who ends up being put in “fresh, difficult and exceedingly awkward situations” after opening the door one night, while the family’s away, to let in two young seductresses who claim to be lost and need to use the phone. So… what sounds like the setup to a purely comedic sex romp, is supposedly a “glorious taboo thriller.”

knock-knock-Reeves

Or is it? The reviews for Knock, Knock aren’t nearly as effusive as those for It Follows and The Witch, but the discord among reviewers makes the film seem promising in a different way. Roth is said to “[add] elegance” to Death Game’s set up, according to Variety. Alternatively, Shock Til You Drop, calls it an exercise in “absurdist psychocomedy” whose psychological torture elements cause it to bend toward tonal disarray as it progresses. While SlashFilm says it’s scary and thrilling, while Eric Walkuski at Joblo called it straight up camp along the lines of Nicholas Cage’s Wicker Man, and says Reeves horribly miscast. (Reeves, for his part, considers the movie to be a “morality tale,” which gives insight into what he thinks of his role and the tone of the film.) So what we potentially have here is an elegant, psycho-comedic horror / thriller slice of camp featuring a star in a role and type of film he’s never been in before, who may or may not be up to the task, and helmed by a director who sees this as film as a professional “turning point.” I’m not saying that adds up to a must-see movie experience, but it definitely has me curious.

Lionsgate is banking on their being people more people like me out there, as they’ve picked up distribution rights for a nice $2.5 million. The Witch was picked up for distribution by A24, and It Follows already has a theatrical and VOD release scheduled for March 27th. So again, that’s three genre flicks for fans to definitely look out for, and that doesn’t even count the Irish creature-feature The Hallow, the Canadian Hellions–set on Halloween–or the horror documentary The Nightmare, none of which received as much fawning or attention as the others, but all of which look pretty interesting in their own right.

While horror, like any other genre, is never at a dearth for subpar fare, there seems to have been a resurgence for more thoughtful, carefully crafted, well executed, and critically acclaimed fright films in the past five years or so. If the early word coming out of Sundance is any indication, 2015 looks to continue that trend.

Continue Reading

Halloween Recommendation: Trick ‘r Treat (The movie, not the activity)

If you haven’t done so, do yourself a favor and pick up Trick ‘r Treat for annual Halloween viewing. It’s a pretty perfect horror love letter to the season of jack-o-lanterns and gratuitously sexy costumes for the ladies.

Anthology horror films are often uneven. One good story here, one or two bad stories there, then one or two middling “could take it or leave it” stories and voila, there’s your film. Trick ‘r Treat doesn’t much suffer from unevenness, in part because all of its stories improbably belong to a shared universe–hell, not even a universe; all these separate Halloween horror hi-jinks happen in the same small town and on the same night–and the movie is cleverly presented in a non-linear fashion. You get a snippet of a story here, a bit more of another one there, then that segues into the third, then eventually we lock in for an extended stretch on one tale or another, see it through to its climax before moving on yet again. Then toward the end there’s a satisfying denouement for everything we’ve witnessed.

I mention the “improbability” of the story’s setting, which is a bit pedantic given that we’re talking about a story heavy on supernatural characters. A lot of people tend to read something like that and think, “why are you complaining about implausibility / realism in a story that features the undead and the literal spirit of Halloween.” Two responses to that: one, even a story with unrealistic creatures and an unrealistic setting has to maintain plausibility within the context of its own rules and the general rules of its genre; two, who says I’m complaining? The ridiculousness of one small town becoming an inadvertent nexus for multiple, very loosely related supernatural occurrences is one of the “invisible” elements of the movie that keeps it fun and ideal for the season, despite going into some very grim subject matter. No half-assed explanations are offered or needed. The comedic elements, soundtrack and performances are move obvious signs that this isn’t designed to be extremely dark or scarring, but the setting and circumstances inform us of the same without calling attention to themselves.

trick r treat posterHere’s a simple breakdown of the vignettes in Trick ‘r Treat: to set the tone, a woman in the opening violates a simple Halloween “tradition” (that I had never heard of before) and pays dearly; the local elementary school’s principal has to deal with backyard body disposal (and a son who’s eager to carve up a jack-o-lantern); a prank based on the legend of a horrible school bus massacre produces even worse results than you’d expect the words “prank” or “legend of a massacre” to produce in a horror flick; a young woman dressed as Red Riding Hood is stalked by a proverbial “wolf” who appears to be a vampire; and finally a curmudgeonly recluse refuses to get into the spirit of the season, and ends up getting tormented by the literal spirit of the season. The Little Red Riding Hood story (starring Anna Paquin) is probably the least of the bunch as a whole–still good, but not in the same class as the others–but it comes with a delightfully insane and audacious payoff. The rest of the stories are all running stride for stride for 1st place. I’d add more detail, but it’s so much better for you to see it for yourself.

As I mentioned in the previous recommendation, Halloween has a unique festiveness to it. It’s a grand masquerade where everyone who wants to participate is invited. It brings with it an understanding that it’s okay to have fun with scary ideas. It’s a release that allows us to be a bit frivolous with even some of the grimmest, darkest ideas imaginable. Atmosphere counts for a lot with any horror story, but especially for suitable Halloween fare. Execution as well. It helps keep the story relatively accessible and fun despite some shit that’s pretty disturbing if you think more than half-a-second about it. Trick ‘r Treat doesn’t pull punches, but it picks you up, brushes you off and offers you a drink after it chins you. I can’t praise it enough.

 

Continue Reading

Gone Girl and Others: Connecting the Dots to Politicize Fiction

Fiction has long been a battleground for political and philosophical warfare. The latest movie and novel commandeered by many commentators–professional and recreational–is Gone Girl. And it strikes me as a little absurd.

A little preface before I go on. For starters, I’m not big on post-modern “death of the author” stuff for this precise reason. As soon as you tell an author that their opinion of the meaning of their own work isn’t more valuable than someone else’s interpretation, you allow the interpreter to comment directly on the author themselves. The work by itself isn’t misogynistic, racist, xenophobic, etc.; the author, by necessary extension is also what the book is accused of, and I can’t be cool with accusing someone of that unless it’s blatantly obvious. Secondly, in general, I tend to have a bias toward investing more in the story itself than deeper meanings and politics of the story, particularly when you can’t draw a straight line between the story or a character and what they’re allegedly supposed to represent in the real world. Lastly, be warned, spoilers ahoy.

Getting right to the point, the biggest controversy over the movie adaptation of Flynn’s novel Gone Girl is whether or not the female antagonist, Amy, is a misogynistic character representing sexist stereotypes of a crazy manipulative woman who fakes sexual assault and abuse to get her way. Now, it’s obviously sick and sad that such stereotypes exist, and I’d be an idiot to think that there are no people out there, already nursing those beliefs, who wouldn’t see Amy as reinforcing their fucked up notions of how women are programmed to behave. But those people are nutjobs who are liable to see anything as reinforcement of their beliefs. We have to pay attention to the nutjobs, as Bill Burr hilariously pointed out once upon a time, but we shouldn’t be letting them drive the gotdamn conversation. Amy is not just a “crazy woman scorned who went over the edge,” or some shit. She’s a supervillain. She’s Hannibal Lecter. She’s Tom Ripley. She’s Ferris Bueller. She’s an urbane psychopath, the murderer in what amounts to a satirical horror-thriller. I’ve met some pleasant people in my day. I’ve met some fucked up people. I’ve even met one person who literally attempted to murder me. None of these people are anywhere near the level of Amy’s character. She’s an exceptional fictional sociopath. A Bond villain who sets a trap for her victim, steps away to let the trap play out, and actually succeeds. She is in no more directly representative of any group of “normal” people in the real world than Victor Zsasz or Catherine Tramell.

If you want to somehow relate her to certain negative female stereotypes, you have to at least recognize and acknowledge that A) you’re playing connect the dots, and B) at least a couple of those dots don’t exist unless you draw them in yourself. This is happening presently with Gone Girl, but it’s far from the first work of pop fiction to have this happen, and it won’t be the last. My favorite example of extreme dot-connecting for a relatively recent, popular movie comes from The Dark Knight. I love this example because of–to me, at least–how ridiculous it is when you take what the actual story gives you at face value instead of letting confirmation bias skew your view of it.

Near the end, Batman has to rely on invasive, city-wide surveillance to stop The Joker from bombing the shit out of hundreds of people on two different boats. People ran with this as a commentary on government surveillance being ultimately good for us, to fight terrorism and secure safety. Problem is, that assessment doesn’t hold up. You can’t draw a straight-line to that conclusion; the line you’re drawing to get there has to curve around all of this obvious shit laid out in the movie:

– No official, recognized authority figures are in charge of this surveillance. It’s just one guy: motherfucking Batman. The most famously justice-obsessed and morally inflexible superhero of all time. The only guy who you can trust would only be using this for good instead of evil because he’s pathologically motivated to do the right thing. That guy. And even then he’s only using it out of desperation because…

– He’s not fighting anything remotely resembling a real world terrorist who is limited by the laws of nature. He’s fighting a monster clown who appears wherever he wants to like a phantom, and whose litany of crimes warrants its own list.

  • Kills several cops
  • Car bombs a judge
  • Sneaks acid-poison-stuff into Police Commissioner’s favorite drink in his own damn office
  • Gets into the front row of the Commissioner’s funeral so he can take a direct shot with a loaded rifle at the Mayor, despite the fact that everyone in the city is looking for him
  • Launches an expertly coordinated assault on a police transport caravan that necessitates taking out a SWAT van and police helicopter and re-routing the entire transport
  • Blows up a police station
  • Sneaks enough explosives into a hospital to blow it up despite the fact that everyone in the city is looking for him
  • Sneaks several drums of explosives onto two evacuation ferries despite the fact that everyone in the city is evacuating from / looking for him

– Despite all of this, it’s made clear by the end of the movie that the only good guys who are aware of this surveillance machine think it’s wrong and see that it’s rendered non-functional after they finally get their man

Now, that’s a whole lot of information, and some people might be inclined to say that if you have to write all of that to defend the movie’s “politics” then those politics are indefensible. But the thing I shouldn’t have to write all of that; it’s all right there in the movie for anyone who’s bothering to pay attention to what they’re watching. It’s all the stuff in a story that clearly tells a reader or viewer, “Hey, the actions taken by these characters are informed by what happens to them in this exact work of fiction. Don’t try to apply everything that they do to the general rules of the real world because outside of the context of these precise circumstances that I’ve written–also known as the gotdamn plot–these actions and motivations might not make sense.” Sure it’s easier to ignore all of the obvious stuff if it inconveniences the point you’re trying to make, just like it’s easier to ignore the proof that the Earth is round if it inconveniences your assertion that the Earth is flat. But the “easier” argument isn’t necessarily the correct one, or even an argument that deserves to be made, particularly if you have to ignore the facts of the situation to make it.

The same goes for countless other stories that people love to erroneously politicize. Gone Girl is just the story d’jour. The movie blatantly shows us that Amy’s tactics and manipulations are the work of an evil genius who catches more than a few breaks for her plan to work smoothly, and whose only tactical “flaw” is hubris. It’s right there in the movie for you to see: more than likely this is not the behavior of anyone you will ever, ever, ever meet in your life. I know a lot of smart people, but very, very few master-plan-crafting geniuses, and exactly zero master-plan-crafting geniuses who can or would singlehandedly and near-flawlessly use their talents to destroy several other lives across a time span of a decade or more, manipulate national media and multiple levels of law enforcement, improvise a new course of action when the game changes, and not only not get caught, but come out on the other end looking like the good guy, and having gained even more than you wanted in the first place. Go read that last sentence again. Have you ever even been the same building with someone who would even think to try to pull all that shit off, much less succeed? Unless you’re Will Graham, I’m going to wager that no, you probably haven’t. She isn’t a misogynistic character. She’s Michael Myers, just with dialogue and a clearly stated motive. She is, in every sense, not a real person.

So I say all of this to point out that, you know… not every movie is Birth of a Nation. I know that there are irrational, reprehensible people out there who harbor irrational, reprehensible beliefs, and they can look at any work of art, or any news clip, or any historical text, or anything and twist a malformed interpretation out of it to show it “supports” their irrational, reprehensible views. And we should pay attention to those people, because they can be dangerous. But with a work of fiction, those people should not be driving the conversation about that work of fiction. We should not look at a story and say, “Well, this could be corrupted and misinterpreted by somebody with fucked up views so that they could argue that it reinforces their fucked up views, so therefore the work itself must actually be supporting those fucked up views.” No. Stop that. That does not make sense, and you know it doesn’t.

That is all.

 

Continue Reading

Halloween Recommendation: “Kill, Baby, Kill”

Horror fiction comes in a lot of different flavors: ideal Halloween horror is, I think, suitably scary, but not oppressively dire. It’s a fairly festive time of year, after all. I want to watch or read something that makes my skin crawl, but not necessarily something that makes me want to weep for humanity. I have no problem with “heavier” horror stories, but there’s a time and place for everything, and I’m not sure Halloween is quite the time for Ligotti levels of  super-grim, gut-punching, mind-chewing horror. That said, everybody’s tolerance level for that sort of thing is different, so just bear all of that in mind as I pitch these books, movies and random other things to you for the rest of the month.

Enough preface and yammering: Today’s recommendation is Mario Bava’s film Kill, Baby, Kill. The title sounds worthy of a ridiculous exploitation flick, something involving bikers and revenge and scantily clad women. But it’s actual a period-piece horror flick set in a small European village where people are dying (or, more specifically, killing themselves) under mysterious circumstances. Well, not so mysterious to the locals. They have no illusions about what’s causing these deaths. But there are a couple of newcomers in town who will need some convincing that what’s taking place is supernatural.

Bava, for any who may not know, was basically the grandfather of the Italian horror boom of the 60’s and 70’s. His most famous horror film (and likely most famous in general) is the black and white gothic horror flick, Black Sunday. But Kill, Baby, Kill is, for whatever my opinion is worth, the better movie. Hell, Scorcese calls it Bava’s masterpiece, so it at least has that going for it.kill_baby_kill_1966_poster_01

The story of Kill, Baby, Kill is wonderfully simple: there’s a vengeful spirit in town that is liable to surface and kill anyone who goes into the wrong place, or who speaks of the ghost aloud. A doctor and a prodigal daughter come to the town at the same time as the latest kill and are immediately entwined in the mystery. Don’t expect any plot twists or developments you haven’t seen before, but that’s kind of beside the point. The fun here is in the execution and the visuals. Bava paints the picture with colors that are beautifully lurid, and luridly creepy. In some scenes it’s almost like a gothic, golden-age comic come to life. Bava has all sorts of eerie fun with shadows, contrast, giggling ghost girls, spiral staircases, creepy dolls, and a brief chase scene that pops up out of nowhere in the middle of an already surreal moment that finally drives our stoic lead over the edge. The special effects are patently practical, and all the more effective because of that.

For all the death and omnipresent dread saturating the atmosphere of the film, it’s not a dour picture. In fact, it has its moments that some might call campy. I simply think it has gusto. If you were waiting for the weekend to kick off your early October, Halloween horror binging, Kill, Baby, Kill isn’t a bad place to start. And at less than 90 minutes, it will fit nicely on either end of a double-feature night. For those of you with Netflix, it’s currently available to stream. So stop reading and go put it on your viewing list.

I’ll be back soon with a fresh recommendation.

Continue Reading

Quick Movie Recommendation: Pontypool

Pontypool is a horror movie (labeled a “psychological thriller” on Wikipedia… presumably because it has really good reviews, and is intelligently and patiently presented, so clearly it can’t be a horror story, even though it has all of the obvious qualities of a horror story. Okay, rant over), that you can watch right now on Netflix.

Set in the small town of Pontypool, Ontario in the midst of a mini-blizzard, it takes places almost entirely within a radio station where a “no punches pulled” talk radio host finds himself besieged with reports of strange and violent happenings taking place in the typically quiet little town. Much of the story’s initial dread is built up through second-hand accounts of what’s taking place outside the walls of the radio station (which is actually located in the basement of a church), which would seem to violate the “show don’t tell” rule that is particularly applicable to films, but it’s insanely effective nonetheless. In fact, hearing about what’s happening builds up the tension better than seeing might, given how often and unimaginatively such scenes of horror are often presented in movies. I’ll spare you the spoilers, but it’s well acted overall (the leads in particular are excellent), sells the hell out of the scares when they start coming. It’s witty, it’s creative, it’s stark, and it’s reasonably unpredictable. It has a moment or two of needless exposition (one that clumsily and abruptly spells out the whole mystery a little early in the film, when there was still a bit more suspense to be mined). But it also has some moments of sincere emotion, which is something too many horror movies don’t seem all that interested in at all (odd, given that horror is an emotion). Not much more you can ask for.

 

Continue Reading

Things I’ll Never Understand: How Anyone Can Like Jurassic Park 3 More Than The Lost World

Okay, okay, the “gymanstics versus raptors” scene from Jurassic Park 2 was pretty bad, but JP3 had a little kid who survived on dinosaur island by himself for several days. Not only did he survive, he managed to obtain T-rex piss and used it to fend off other dinosaurs.

…HOW?

Not just how does anyone possess the cajones to write that into a plot, but how does anyone tolerate that but find the impromptu parallel bars scene in The Lost World unforgivable. Yes, the latter was a contrived, ridiculously improbable moment, but it’s at least remotely plausible. (Also, it lasts for all of four seconds.) But a kid surviving alone on an island infested with prehistoric predators who make minced meat of armed mercenaries just because he read a few books about dinosaurs? Bull. Shit. I was reading tomes on dinosaurs when I was a kid too; none of that knowledge would have served me well had I found myself somehow stranded on Isla EverythingWantsToEatMe.

The Lost World had that crazy sequence with the trailers hanging over the cliff side that featured endless intensity. It had the raptors stalking prey through high grass in ever so menacing fashion. The mere idea of Pete Postlethwaite as a big game hunter coolly taking down one of the most legendary Apex predators in the history of existence just gets cooler with each passing year. TLW had a dinosaur rampaging through San Diego. Granted, I still don’t know how the T-rex managed to sneak its way onto the boat or eat everyone on board, even the people in what appeared to be extremely closed quarters, but still, let’s recap:

Tyrannosaurus Rex stomping through San Diego.

Or. Or.

Fourteen-year-old miracle super survivalist living alone on dinosaur island by somehow stealthily filling a thermos with T-Rex urine.

C’mon. C’maaaahhhhn…

Even when I was a kid and was eager to live vicariously through fictional characters I still would have found the latter absurd and the former pretty damn awesomeI know that some people also found The Lost World to be too dark compared to the original, and hated the forced semi-environmentalist message, and those are pretty valid criticisms, but JP3 was the gotdamn Batman Forever of the franchise. It was like everyone involved said “What if we take this cool, exciting story concept and make it as silly as possible. Like, borderline Adam Sandler comedy silly. Remember the scene where Laura Dern had to inspect a pile of dino-shit in the first flick? Let’s do that again, only with more dino-shit and played completely for laughs.” JP3 paved the way for a potentially franchise-crushing Jurassic Park IV that was going to feature dino-human hybrids before the collective disdain of nearly everyone who heard the concept made Universal rethink that approach. That’s an idea that reeks of, “Ah what the hell, this thing is already way off the rails. Let’s see how completely whacked out we can go from here.”

The Lost World is a flawed, flawed film, but JP3 is worthless.

That is all.

Continue Reading

The Woman in Black: Then vs. Now

Disclaimer: This post is full of spoilers.

The latest version of the Susan Hill novel The Woman in Black arrived in theaters a week ago and made a solid impression at the box office. By no means is it a great film, in fact it might be too generous to even call it “good,” but it’s a strong effort if nothing else.

As a fan of the earlier, 1989 adaptation of the novel, I came into the movie with mixed expectations. I knew not to expect the restraint and maturity of the earlier film. Having never read the original novel (shame on me, I know (EDIT: This has since been rectified)) and without the benefit of having seen the stage play (by all accounts excellent), I had no idea as to whether or not this newest film would be more or less faithful to Susan Hill’s original story. As such, all I could really hope for was that this new film would still elicit some competent chills, and on that front I wasn’t terribly disappointed. In some respects this newest adaption improves on its predecessor, though I still prefer the 1989 film overall for its sophistication.

For me, the first thing that stands out about the 2012 film is how much more effort it puts into being “horrifying” when compared to the 1989 version. From the interspersed, almost random scenes depicting a mysterious woman in white, to shot after shot after shot of creepy dolls (apparently, every toy doll in the early 20th century was made entirely of children’s nightmares), this movie spends every damn second of its run-time reminding you that you’re watching a horror movie. Everything that isn’t blanketed in shadows or fog is bathed in frigid, pallid hues that suck any sense of hope out of the atmosphere. The setting is a bog-town that doesn’t merely look foggy and cold, but like it exists on some forsaken, shroud-filled corner of the Earth where ghosts are part of the natural habitat. This is a town where it would be weird if there wasn’t at least one haunted house nearby.

This isn’t an inherently bad thing, but again, the original film was more to my liking because it didn’t seem to be trying so damn hard. It had atmosphere to spare, yes, but it wasn’t drenching with dread. It didn’t look like it was filmed on location in purgatory. It’s like the difference between a pretty girl who’s wearing too much makeup, too much perfume and too little of everything else, and a pretty girl who knows she doesn’t need to overdo it. They might both be considered objectively attractive, but subjectively, the confidence of the latter is preferable. The 2012 film has its charms, certainly, but it also seems to be masking its insecurities behind a barrage of sensory distractions when it isn’t necessary.

In the latest version of the film, Arthur Kipps (played by Daniel Radcliffe) starts off with a dead wife (the aforementioned woman in white) whom he believes may be trying to communicate with him from beyond the grave.  We see next to nothing of his family life, save for a short scene early on where his son helps inform the audience that his dad is a sad sad man who misses the hell out of his wife. Radcliffe does what he can with such a limited, almost lifeless character, but there’s not a hell of a lot of room for creativity here. This is a forlorn figure who infects an already disconsolate story with a greater sense of despair and inevitability. He’s damn near a dead man walking; emotionally distant, preoccupied with spirits and the afterlife. In the 1989 film, Kipps is an ordinary man who happens into a horror story. He was given a chance to connect with the audience as a real person, a guy who is allowed to smile and quip; a guy who seems like he hasn’t lost his will to live. This makes it more frightening when the Woman in Black gets around to terrorizing him, because he’s a regular person you can relate to. In the 2012 film Kipps is more like some kind of human horror magnet. If you met him on the street you’d think, “I bet he hangs out in graveyards on his days off.”

In a way, however, this serves the story. It gives Kipps cause to revisit the blatantly haunted Eel Marsh house, home of the titular Woman in Black. The 1989 film didn’t really need to give Kipps a reason to stay, since nearly all of the supernatural happenings occurred over the course of one night, and the house is isolated on an island that can’t be reached when the tide rolls in. In the newest adaptation, which expands on the story to some benefit, Kipps spends a few nights in the house, even going back one final time to perform what amounts to an impromptu, amateur exorcism. If not for his demeanor and interest in “spiritualism,” you’d be able to make the same (often lazy) complaint / joke that people usually make in regard to haunted house movies: why not leave the house immediately and stay the hell away.

The new movie also expands the story in ways that slightly improve on the story of the original film. The townspeople here are given legitimate cause to keep Arthur Kipps away from the house and be evasive about why they’re being so damn inhospitable to him. The townspeople in the original film are practically indifferent to the possibility that sightings of the Woman in Black usually lead to a child’s death. Indeed, in the original film, the Woman in Black seems more like an harbinger of some forthcoming fatal accident. It’s implied that she is the catalyst for said accidents, but it’s unclear if she’s directly involved. In the 2012 version, she is blatantly malevolent, actually influencing the children of the town to commit suicide whenever she is seen by someone. She is also only ever seen on the grounds of her home or on the road that leads to it, so it makes sense for the locals to do what they can to keep anyone and everyone away from the old house.

This new film also gives the character of Sam Daily, one of very few people in town who is actually helpful to Kipps, a decent reason for assisting Kipps during his stay, instead of being one of the many folks trying to chase the young lawyer away. He has good cause, like most others, to believe that the Woman in Black is responsible for the suicides of local children, given that his own son drowned himself at her behest, but his wife (played in rather over-the-top fashion) is apparently possessed by his son’s “lost” spirit. Daily is in deliberate denial about the Woman in Black, because to accept her for what she is would mean accepting that his boy isn’t waiting for him in heaven, but trapped in town like the ghosts of all of the other children the Woman in Black has claimed. It’s the kind of grim, subtle terror the movie introduces, but doesn’t have any interest in exploring, unfortunately.

Although this isn’t a “Hollywood” production, strictly speaking, this is ultimately a Hollywood-style modern horror flick. It’s more interested in delivering a series of big scares than letting the terror patiently develop as the movie progresses. Again, not inherently a bad thing, and the movie actually delivers some wonderfully conceived moments of horror. While I’m a fan of patient, ethereal, psychological horror, I’m also a big fan of intense, unsubtle, visceral horror as well. I think that loud scare chords are an overused tactic, but there’s something wonderful about a well-executed, visually and audibly arresting moment of horror. The 1989 film’s signature moment comes when the Woman in Black visits Kipps in his bedroom while he’s in the midst of a fever dream. She comes charging into the scene so suddenly it looks like an editing mistake, and she’s unleashing a bizarre screech that sounds like a hoarse old woman is trying to imitate Godzilla’s roar. It’s much scarier than I’m making it sound here, I assure you.

The 2012 film has a call-back to that splendid moment during its climax, with the Woman in Black charging Kipps until her hate-filled face fills the entire screen. But the most brilliant and affecting moment in the film for me came when the mud-caked ghost / zombie of a child that drowned in the marsh crawls out of the disgusting muck of its cross-marked grave and comes toward the house it used to call home. Kipps witnesses this through the window of an upstairs bedroom, a cheap (but effective) “mirror scare” follows, and then he walks downstairs to find something is trying to open the front door. It’s reminiscent of the moment in “The Monkey’s Paw” when the unseen, dead and mangled son tries to come home as his mother has wished. It’s an excellent scene that earns the right to milk the horror for all it’s worth.

There are other very-strong moments in the film as well. A scene where the titular character slowly stalks toward a sleeping Kipps is staged so well it manages to be a standout despite it’s predictability (at that point in the movie, there’s zero chance she’s going to do him any actual harm or even manage to physically interact with him).

More subtly, the movie raises interesting, unsettling ideas about what it’s like to actually be a ghost, particularly the kind of ghost that the Woman in Black is. Full of hate, self-tormented, driven to suicide by madness and grief, unable to forgive or be at peace. Unable to think of anything but vengeance, even after the party that wronged her is long gone. Even before her death, the Woman in Black’s madness and suffering is chronicled in a series of letters that Kipps reads, wherein her penmanship degenerates from elegant to nearly-illegible scrawling as her madness grows. That has to be a miserable existence, to say nothing of the ghost children trapped on Earth along with her. The original film gives us a chronicle of the haunting from the perspective of the Woman in Black’s surviving sister (the original target of the spirit’s wrath), who recorded an audio diary on a Dictaphone before she died. Seeing both films gives me the luxury of enjoying both perspectives, and makes me more eager to read the book and see what more there is to discover.

As I mentioned initially, I still prefer the original film version of The Woman in Black by a good margin, but I’m not upset with this “remake.” While it doesn’t measure up to its predecessor, and certainly has its faults and missed opportunities, it also adds something to a story that is nuanced enough to warrant exploration.

Continue Reading