Sunday, October 31, 2010

Friday The 13th (2009)

The original Friday The 13th was unique in that (spoiler) the killer everyone remembers - Jason Vorhees - didn't take center stage until the second movie, and he didn't even pick up his iconic hockey mask until part three. I was wondering what direction the remake of this classic film would take, and, perhaps not surprisingly, it rushes through the origin story (via an admittedly captivating flashback/introduction scene with an attractive camp counselor, followed by an abridged campfire tale) in order to feature the villain everyone wants to see - Jason. Though, I thought it was rather interesting to see the whole progression from introducing Jason, to his rise as the killer, and the adoption of his iconic look, all in one film.

Still, the result, while not a bad movie, failed to impress me terribly much. A lot of the characters (young adults, not teens) were hard to care about, being the stereotypical obnoxious jerks that you expect to get killed off in a slasher flick. But Danielle Panabaker (who I recognized as the hot teenage daughter in the magnificent film Mr. Brooks) looked amazing in her pink tank top and jean miniskirt (later swapped for a pair of skinny jeans in the evening). And while the naked flesh on display was mostly of the porn star variety (not that I'm complaining, exactly) there were a couple of hot scenes out in the woods and one really steamy sex scene, which deserves mention despite the characters involved being utterly without redeeming personalities.

As I read some comments from other viewers about this film, it becomes clear to me that this movie does indeed feel quite a lot more like another Friday The 13th sequel than a remake. And the way it's set up, it could well be a reboot of the sequel franchise - that is, a remake of the following story while still holding the original film as more or less canon. In any case, it's got the gore and nudity one ought to expect from a slasher, but I have trouble getting especially excited about it. If you like the series, it's worth a look. Or if you hate the series, but want to know what all the fuss surrounding "Jason" is all about, you could get away with watching a single film if you pick this one. I'd still recommend the original, however.

Halloween (2007)

I was not expecting Rob Zombie's remake of the greatest Halloween film ever made to be this good - but it was. Concern over remakes is well-founded - especially when dealing with movies that are as good as John Carpenter's original Halloween was; but I can say that they picked the right man for this job.

Rob Zombie's version of the story spends more time on Michael Myers' childhood, building up the killer. I had heard about this, and sympathized with comments by fans who feared that making Michael human would take away much of the terror of the character, who represents an inhuman monster - the bogeyman, "pure evil" as Dr. Loomis would say. But Zombie's portrayal of the character didn't have that effect on me - he was just as terrifying. Even though I could sympathize with him to an extent (that bully totally had it coming), it's still quite clear to me that he's a monster, even as a child, and that's frightening.

And the back story adds to the tale (the mask fetish element was particularly intriguing); it makes the movie more well-rounded. Actually, the beginning was probably the most uncomfortable part of the movie. Michael's father was an abusive cripple (though his mother was a hot stripper, and his sister was just hot). But there's lots of swearing and abuse and general poor treatment between the family members, and it's very uncomfortable to watch, even more so than when Michael later goes on his killing spree. But even though you almost want to cheer him on, I think the film effectively gets across the point that what he's doing is genuinely sadistic, and whether they deserve it or not, you still can't quite defend it - and that's what keeps it terrifying.

The original Halloween still maintains its place at the top of the slasher bin, but I really am impressed with the remake. It's probably the best Halloween sequel that's been made; I wouldn't be ashamed to put them on a shelf together. I think that fans of the original will be happy with all the homages (or perhaps simply preserved plot points) Rob Zombie pays to the original film (if you're concerned, Malcolm McDowell's portrayal of Dr. Loomis is spot-on), and I was myself delighted that, in addition to picking out some great songs for the soundtrack, the original Halloween theme by John Carpenter was preserved. That is, perhaps, the greatest scary movie theme ever composed. So simple, yet frightening.

And before I close this review that's going on longer than I anticipated, I have to mention the nudity. (It's me, remember? :p) I give two thumbs up for the nudity in this movie. The film still had the same sort of modest, be-careful-with-the-camera-angle approach towards nudity that is the modern paradigm*, but with far more allowances for peeks here and there, which is what deserves my accolade. Ideally, I'd prefer an even more liberal approach towards nudity in which it is treated almost as happenstance - instead of choosing between carefully guarding it and intentionally letting it slip - but that's a lot to ask in this climate, and I'd be very happy even just to see more movies with an approach like Rob Zombie has here, with more allowances for peeking.

*An aside: Do people really have sex under the covers? Doesn't it get hot? And wouldn't it be hard to keep the covers in place with all that moving around? And anyway, looking is part of the fun, why cover things up? Though perhaps my perspective is clouded, as a voyeur and an exhibitionist...

Halloween Movie Marathon

Halloween is all about horror. Of the celebrated pastimes - haunted houses, candy, and costume parties - watching scary movies is the easiest thing to do alone in the comfort of one's home. Barring a fiendly invitation to some fright fest (one of these years...), I like to spend Halloween watching some special themed programming. And this year, I decided to revisit the unholy trinity of slashers via their recent remakes. Stay tuned for my reviews:

Halloween (2007)
Friday The 13th (2009)
A Nightmare On Elm Street (2010)

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Music for Halloween

In the rock world, people like to call October "Rocktober". It's a fun play on words, but, as much as I love rock music, I figure, I listen to it all year round. There's nothing, in my opinion, characteristic about October, of all the months of the year, that makes it particularly suited to listening to rock music. On the other hand, October is the Halloween month (I like to call it "Shocktober"), which is the perfect excuse to pull out some scary music to set the mood. I don't have a whole lot of music specifically reserved for listening to around Halloween (although I do have a lot that fits the bill), but there are a couple things I like to pull out every year, and that I think perfectly match the atmosphere of the holiday.

Tangerine Dream is known for their synthy atmospheric music, as well as their long line of soundtrack albums. In all honesty, I haven't heard a whole lot of their work (though I love their soundtrack to the film Legend so much that I think it makes the film), but I picked up their first few albums on a tip a few years back and I think those albums are just great. The music is very spacey, with a bit of a sinister flavor - listening to it kind of makes you feel like you're lost in space, you don't know how to get home, and you don't know what might be floating out there in that endless expanse that surrounds and engulfs you. It's a perfect mood setter to put on in the background while you're doing other Halloweeny stuff, or for listening to in the dark, if you have some time to kill. I recommend Nebulous Dawn, a collection of the band's first four albums (Electronic Meditation, Alpha Centauri, Zeit, and Atem, plus a few early singles) from the early '70s, which gives you a good 3+ hours of audio atmosphere without repetition.

If you're looking to go a bit harder, and tap into the violence of the holiday, I can't recommend Monolithe II enough. It's loud, crashing, metal music, but it's slow and plodding, not fast and frenzied like a lot of metal is. I don't have a doctorate in metal, but I've heard it being described as a "funeral doom" style. Even though my primary interest isn't in metal music, I love this disc - which consists of a single 50-minute long tour de force. Even the vocals, done in the growling style that I usually can't stand, fit in perfectly. If you want to set a more evil mood - evoking mental images of demons and devils and the walking undead - rather than the subtler atmosphere of Tangerine Dream, and if you want more volume and more power, give Monolithe II a try. Personally, I'll play TD up until Halloween to set the mood, then I'll blast Monolithe on the day of to really get into the holiday.

Hannibal Rising (2007)

I had heard some disparaging comments about Hannibal Rising prior to viewing it, so I wasn't expecting it to be very good. I was wrong. However, it's a very different kind of Hannibal movie, which could explain some fans' dislike of it. First, it's a prequel that fleshes out Hannibal's past, and his rise to murderous cannibalism, so a younger actor replaces Anthony Hopkins' celebrated portrayal of the charismatic killer. Second, I would categorize this movie as more of a drama than a horror (albeit a horror-themed drama) since the focus of the story seems to rest more on establishing a character's biography than telling a scary tale. This is the same reasoning I used to conclude that Interview With The Vampire is more of a [gothic] drama than a straight horror.

According to this film, Hannibal grew up in war-torn Europe, witnessing the death of his family, and - most significantly - the cannibalization of his little sister by a bunch of starving mercenaries. After several years of enduring this emotional trauma, he decides to strike back against the men who ate his sister, and hitches up with his Asian aunt (by marriage, uncle deceased) living in France. He seems to have a knack for killing, and his intelligence certainly helps him to stay alive and free. But in the process of getting his revenge, Hannibal develops a taste for murder, and devolves into the bloodthirsty monster we know.

I guess a lot of fans have complaints about Hannibal's back story, and whether giving him such a sympathetic past doesn't water down our fear of him. There are plenty of worthwhile complaints to be made against this story, as it relates to the rest of the Hannibal series, but I don't think that changes the fact that, in my opinion, it's a good movie. An effective drama. I do, however, agree with everyone who says that it would be interesting to see the years between the end of this movie, when Hannibal arrives in North America, and the beginning of Red Dragon - the years where he worked as a psychiatrist, leading up to his initial capture by FBI agent Will Graham. Having now seen the entire series of Hannibal films (that currently exist, to my knowledge), that's a story that I think would be a good one to see. Although I do also sympathize with others who feel that Hannibal Lecter's legacy is getting a bit drawn out by now. Either way - it's not my choice to make. I would unhesitatingly recommend The Silence of the Lambs, on account of its classic status; but my personal recommendation is reserved for Manhunter!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Red Dragon (2002)

Watching Red Dragon was a surreal experience, for two reasons. First, the basic plot is similar to The Silence of the Lambs, in that an FBI agent solicits Hannibal Lecter's help in tracking down a(nother) serial killer. And second, the story had been filmed once before, as Manhunter, which I watched only days earlier. But Manhunter is sort of outside the main Hannibal series because it was filmed before Silence, which was immensely popular; and, most notably, introduced Anthony Hopkins as the iconic portrayal of Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lecter. So what we've got with Red Dragon is the story I'm familiar with from Manhunter, but with the Hannibal from Silence of the Lambs, complete with the same prison and prison staff. So I'm getting flashbacks to both of those films, while simultaneously picking out (without trying) all the differences between this adaptation of the story and the previous one. It all makes for a confusing viewing.

Still, it was a good film. Better than Hannibal. But I still like Manhunter better. William Petersen as the agent who originally caught Hannibal was captivating in Manhunter. I have to admit, Edward Norton may be a good actor, but I didn't believe him as much, in the same role in Red Dragon - the gritty FBI agent who gets into the minds of the serial killers he tracks down. As for the killer, he was pretty creepy. I thought the killer in Manhunter seemed more real, this one has got the whole schizophrenic psychosis thing going on and I'm not sure if that whole fantasy aspect makes it more, or less scary. I would say it's another case of Hollywoodizing the horror. It's really fascinating watching two adaptations of the same story, filmed in two completely different decades (mid-eighties versus early noughties). I'm sure there's some interesting cultural observations to be made there, but I'm not going to go into that.

I'm sure my appreciation of this film was hurt somewhat by the fact that I already knew the story, from watching Manhunter. Murder mysteries are just that type of story where a lot of the suspense and draw comes from not knowing how you're gonna get from A to B. Instead of really getting into the clues, since I already knew where they were all headed, I spent my time remarking at the similarities and differences between the adaptations. I want to say that this one was less effective than the previous one, but that could just be my bias of having seen the earlier one first. One thing I can say with certainty is that Red Dragon does not have the stylistic pizazz of Manhunter.

The Great Red Dragon
and the Woman Clothed in Sun,
by William Blake

"We live in a primitive time, don't we, Will? Neither savage nor wise. Half measures are the curse of it. Any rational society would either kill me, or put me to some use."

- Hannibal Lecter

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Hannibal (2001)

So after watching The Silence of the Lambs, I was intrigued by the ending and curious where the story was headed. And I decided that now was as good a time as any for me to watch the other titles in the series. Hannibal is the sequel to Silence. Silence was a good movie, but I feel that Hannibal jumps the shark. A quick recap of the plot is enough to make that apparent: Hannibal, now escaped from prison and living in refuge in Florence, is tracked down by a greedy Italian fed for the reward (outbidding even the FBI) set up by a wealthy landowner, and former victim of Hannibal's, who wants personal revenge. This man, who tore off his own face at Hannibal's suggestion ("it seemed like a good idea at the time"), which was then fed to dogs, now wants to feed Hannibal to (trained) flesh-eating hogs for his own amusement. I am not making this up.

The character of Clarice Starling returns, now a fully fledged and experienced FBI Agent, though replacing Jodie Foster is Julianne Moore, for a slightly different take on the character. She gets shamed and driven to desperation by the hypocritical practices of the FBI, and is used as bait to lure out Hannibal. But the weirdness continues as it becomes more and more obvious that Hannibal is infatuated with Clarice, and there is a hint that Clarice may have some interest in reciprocating. I have heard that the ending to the book this film is based on is much different from how the movie ends. Weirder, but probably more appropriate, considering the direction the story has been going.

There are some good scenes in this movie, particularly the whole exciting part before Hannibal leaves Florence, but overall I don't think it has the charm of Silence, or the brilliance of Manhunter. Hannibal's character is still as creepily charismatic as ever, but he seems a little less terrifying than before - which is odd, because you'd think he'd be even scarier out of prison. But the story requires us to sympathize with him, even to the point of making him a victim (if not at all helpless) to the other villain, who is truly despicable (and boy does he get his comeuppance). But in the wake of previous greatness, I feel that Hannibal falls a little bit flat.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

I can't say that The Silence of the Lambs was better than Manhunter, but it was a good movie. I think it was more effective at creating a "horror" atmosphere, but as a result, it was less realistic and believable than Manhunter, in my opinion. Stereotypical mentally deranged serial killers (aside from the cultured and charismatic Hannibal himself), a prison that looks very much like an actual dungeon, a newbie FBI agent-in-training getting in over her head. All of this contributes to the fear, but it ends up feeling more like a Hollywood fantasy than the gritty story that Manhunter was.

But enough comparisons. One of the most fascinating aspects, to me, of Hannibal Lecter's character, is the fact that, in addition to being a serial killer, he is a psychiatrist. Not only is he well-mannered (when he wants to be) and highly intelligent, but he makes it his business to get into people's minds - and he does it well. He acts as though he has control of every situation - even when he's chained and caged like an animal - and it seems almost as if he can read your mind and guess at your deepest fears and secrets. Yet, he's almost likable. I think the concept of this psychopath dealing with other people's problems (some of whom may go on to to become killers themselves), in the capacity of being a psychiatrist, is intriguing and itself could make a good story. Perhaps another title in the series takes that approach.

The best scene in the film (aside from Hannibal's celebrated breakout), is the revelation that explains the meaning of the title. It's very creepy, yet I wish it was more of a literal motif than a symbolic one. It's rather naively optimistic, as the screaming of the lambs will never be silenced. But I guess that contributes to the despair of the film. I liked the interactions and the uncomfortable relationship between Hannibal (the Cannibal) and Clarice (FBI agent-in-training). He's a killer and she's a copper, and yet there's some level of mutual understanding between them, and a certain amount of respect. It's touching, really - in a creepy kind of way.

Manhunter (1986)

I decided I would watch The Silence of the Lambs, since it's such an iconic film, and I feel guilty being a horror fan and not having seen it (plus, it stars Jodie Foster). Quick research revealed that there are actually several titles in the series, which I believe are all based on novels by Thomas Harris, anchored around the character of cannibal/serial killer Hannibal Lecter. I'm not quite dedicated to watching them all right away, but I figured it might be a good idea to watch the one that comes before The Silence of the Lambs - Manhunter (based on the novel Red Dragon, which was actually later redone as a film with that title).

Manhunter was a great film. I had heard that the plot of The Silence of the Lambs involved an FBI agent getting help from Hannibal behind bars, trying to track down a different serial killer, so I thought this previous story might involve the capturing of Hannibal, but it actually turned out to be quite similar to the plot just described. Hannibal is already behind bars, and the man who caught him is dragged out of early retirement to try and catch a different serial killer (the "Tooth Fairy"), with a little help from Hannibal. The movie is fantastic, though. It's a really effective hard-boiled crime thriller, with a good dose of mystery. Who is the killer? What is his motive? How can he be captured? A lot of the focus is on law enforcement's attempts to track down this killer before he strikes again, and specifically on the mental state of the aforementioned agent (who previously captured Hannibal) as he tries to get into the mind of the killer without losing himself. There's a very real "gazing into the abyss..." theme going on here.

The movie has a stylistic quality that, at times, borders on the sublime. The soundtrack, while being (mostly) firmly entrenched in an eighties aesthetic, works effectively, in my opinion. And the climax scene is the best use of the knockout song Innagaddadavida in a movie that I've ever seen (never mind that it's the only one I can recall). There's one point at which it's just so kickass awesome, it's the kind of scene where you no longer think, "I'm watching a movie", and you just totally get into it and think to yourself, "this is awesome". I love movies that can make me feel this way.

This is a highly recommended title, and quite frankly, I'm not sure if The Silence of the Lambs can top it! I'm gonna find out shortly, though.

Dog Soldiers (2002)

Dog Soldiers is a newer movie (2002), and it has that "indie" feel, complete with the occasionally shaky camera, instead of the "movie magic" sheen that bigger, mainstream productions have. But honestly, that's the worst criticism I have against this movie. It's a gritty story, with plenty of humor, and some good characters. Much attention has been paid to the homages this movie makes to other classic films, but I think it manages to remain fun and not derivative. Certainly, the plot is not original - soldiers holding out in a remote location - but the fact that they are in the Scottish Highlands, and fighting werewolves, adds a little spice to the recipe. It's not the end-all be-all werewolf movie that I'm looking for, but I recommend it to those who find the premise intriguing.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Paranormal Activity 2 (2010)

How does a movie cause a grown man to be scared to go to bed at night? Do you know how, when you climb into bed, your mind starts reviewing the things you've seen and done and said throughout the day, as you begin to drift off to sleep? And do you know, the way that a nightmare makes you feel? When you wake up from it, and your skin is tingling, and you're sweating, and you turn the light on just to push away the darkness? And you try extra hard not to think about what happened in your nightmare, because the mere thought of it gets you frightened, and you know, that if you don't push it out of your mind, the second you close your eyes, it'll come back, and you won't be able to get back to a peaceful sleep?

Now imagine a movie that makes you feel the way a nightmare makes you feel. It gets you frightened and all tingly. And then think about trying to go to bed after watching that movie. Your thoughts keep straying unavoidably toward the movie, and each time you think about it, you get scared all over again. The only way to sleep like this is to try your hardest to push those thoughts out of your mind, long enough to slip into a hopefully dreamless and restful sleep. Hopefully.

Paranormal Activity 2 follows the same basic formula as the first one. This is a good thing insofar as the first one's formula was a success (I mean at being scary, not at making money, regardless of whether or not that is also true), so it's basically taking a winning formula and using it again. The potential drawback is that the movie may become overly repetitive and predictable. The predictability didn't bother me much, seeing as, even if you know the direction it's headed, you still can't know exactly what's going to happen when; and the repetitiveness didn't bother me either, as I felt they added enough new elements to this film to make it a novel experience in comparison to the first.

One of those is the cast. In the first movie, you had a lonely couple struggling with their ghost problems. In this one, you have a whole family - mom, dad, vulnerable toddler, loyal watchdog, and, my favorite, cute teenage daughter. You might think more people means less scary, but that didn't really turn out to be the case. We also get, in addition to the handheld camera POV we had in the first movie, a whole security system set up inside the house, with multiple stationary views of the house, with night vision, allowing for more consistent coverage of the hauntings.

And another thing, I felt that they successfully upped the ante in terms of the hauntings in this movie, which is exactly what I would expect from a sequel. It's hard to talk about the scares without spoiling the surprise, so if you haven't seen the movie yet, you might not want to read the next few sentences. The whole pool cleaner thing was far more funny than scary, but it was clearly intended to be that way, and the humor enhanced the audience's sympathy for the characters, I think. My favorite specific haunting is probably when the cupboards shoot open. I felt that was very creepy/effective. But I really can't say anything bad about any of the scares. I felt satisfied by the climax, which, as frightening as the first movie's was, this one was even more chaotic and exciting.

One of the other interesting aspects of this movie is that it manages to be as much a prequel to the first one as a sequel. Most of the action in the movie occurs before the setting of the previous installment, and the plot fleshes out much of what happened in that one, giving it more perspective, and answering some questions. Yet, the movie experience itself, the way that it expands on the first, feels very much like a sequel, so I think it's interesting that the movie manages to be both sequel and prequel simultaneously. And without spoiling too much, the ending very obviously leaves room for a third installment.

I had an observation while watching this movie, which is worthy of mentioning. We go to a movie like this to be scared - essentially for the purpose of entertainment. Of course, if we sympathize with the characters, the idea of being taunted and terrorized by a ghost or demonic spirit is sick and sadistic, and our natural feeling is to say, "stop, why are you doing this?" And you start to think, what is it like from the demon's perspective? Is he scaring these people just for his own amusement? And then you realize, we're sitting here watching this movie, and scared as we are, in the backs of our minds, we're secretly thinking, "I hope the demon does something horrible", because we know it will make for a great scare, and will thus greatly entertain us. And so, it seems, we are participating in the torture, we are, in effect, allying with the demon's sadistic games, and while simultaneously fearing for the characters we want to continue watching their torture...

Paranormal Activity 2 was a great film. I think it was even better than the first, and it's fully possible that it was even scarier (to me) than the first. That's a hard thing to gauge, because fear is subjective, but there's no question that it was at least as scary as the first. I'm excited to be able to say that I went and saw it at its opening midnight showing - and I survived my first night after viewing it! No nightmares so far, but I had to go to sleep with the light on and the radio playing.

It was fun watching the movie last night with a packed audience. As is always the case, sometimes they'll react in certain ways or at certain times that interfere with the flow of the film as you're perceiving it, but it was a mostly constructive atmosphere, in which they laughed at the jokes and jumped at the scares - and it's always fun to experience that type of communal atmosphere, when you can tell that other people are enjoying the movie, too. I think there were actually some girls crying, and possibly somebody who had to run out in the middle of the show (can't say for sure it was due to fear, but one can speculate). I myself felt the tears streaming down my cheek at one point. I wasn't crying out loud, but just the intenseness of the fear was permeating my body, causing me to have that kind of a reaction. Terrifying. Awesome. I'd like to see a third installment in this series, but the bar is set high. I can imagine some angles that would work, though. I guess only time will tell.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Hypothetical Halloween Marathon

Note: This feature was originally posted on Bridge To Better Days. I am reposting it here for archival purposes. It has been backdated to the date of its original posting.

I was just confronted with an irresistible prompt, asking what 25 movies I would pick for a Halloween weekend marathon. Usually, making lists of this sort is a lot of hard work, and I tend to avoid it rather than risk battling my perfectionist impulses. But in this case, I couldn't resist. I committed myself to picking out the best 25 horror movies I could think of in a reasonable amount of time, with an eye towards what would be good in a public Halloween marathon (so I wanted to have variety, and focus on some of the classics of the genre, but every title is one I'm proud to put on there, and that I'd enjoy watching on Halloween weekend), and this is what I came up with. I will talk you through my selections.

We start with the quintessential slasher trio. If you think Halloween and horror movies, you can't avoid thinking of slashers. And it's rather convenient that the first one we start with is actually titled Halloween - John Carpenter's groundbreaking film that is the epitome of slasherdom. We follow that up with its slasher cousins, Friday the 13th, and the supernatural A Nightmare on Elm Street.

We'll supplement this trio with the gruesome Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and follow that with Motel Hell, to add some humor and lighten the mood - briefly. And speaking of Hell, we'll throw in the great Hellraiser, which also successfully weaves humor with unquestionable horror. And then we'll toss in The Howling, because every Halloween movie marathon needs at least one good werewolf film.

Now begins our zombie sub-marathon. We shall present the original George Romero trilogy with Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead (all original versions). And if watching the progression of the zombie apocalypse isn't fun enough, we'll finish with The Return of the Living Dead, with just enough humor to revive your cold fear-stricken corpse and prepare it for the rest of the weekend marathon.

Next up we'll run Dario Argento's Suspiria, which provides a terrifyingly beautiful audio-visual setpiece for Halloween, and introduces us to a mini-theme on witches and paganism. This will continue with the original version of The Wicker Man, and follow into The Blair Witch Project, the first of a "reality horror" double shot that includes Paranormal Activity.

Now with ghosts on the mind, we shall present the special effects-laden Poltergeist, a far cry from the previous low budget reality horror. That will lead into The Exorcist, widely regarded as one of the most terrifying films of all time. Fear of the devil will serve you well as we continue with Jacob's Ladder, one of my favorite horror films of all time, and a truly terrifying psychological puzzle of a movie.

After descending the ladder, we will ascend to the heavens, but instead of the divine, we'll find Alien - another terrifying classic! We'll come back down to earth for the overlooked Fire In The Sky, an effectively frightening telling of the standard alien abduction tale. And then we'll confront John Carpenter's The Thing (from another world), buried deep in the Antarctic ice.

And while we're digging, we may as well go spelunking and experience cave-horror The Descent. The paranoia is enhanced by claustrophobia. This will kick off the final leg of the marathon - modern horror. The vampires come out in the next feature - 30 Days of Night - this nightmare taking place amidst the Alaskan ice. The marathon closes with a modern two-shot resurrection of apocalyptic zombie horror - 28 Days Later, and its sequel 28 Weeks Later. If you can survive all of that, you must be a hero.


I'm considering putting Evil Dead in there, because even though the sequels are more humorous than horrific, and the fanbase is kind of...not in tune with my style...the first one was pretty good, to be honest.

I might swap out The Wicker Man for that one, because as much as I adore The Wicker Man (and I do), and as terrifying as the ending is, it's kind of less of a straight horror, and I'm a little concerned that it's more seasonally appropriate for the spring than the fall. That's the reason why I didn't include Black Christmas, because it just belongs at Christmas and not Halloween. But the truth is, Christian holiday sensibilities are far more ingrained in the public consciousness than pagan ones are.

And as for the werewolf movie, I do really like The Howling, but I'm not convinced it's the best werewolf movie I'll ever see, necessarily. I've heard good things about one called Dog Soldiers, which I intend to watch, hopefully between now and Halloween if I get the chance. I can't predict that it'll make me change my mind, though.

There is one obvious omission from the above list, and that's a good Asian horror. I chose not to include Audition because it's a little...intense...and also kind of a slow burner. Creepy movie, but I wasn't sure it fit in the context of the marathon. I'd put in Ju-on (a.k.a. The Grudge), which I really liked (all those years ago that I watched it), but I'll confess the true reason I didn't include an Asian horror title: I don't feel that I've seen enough of them to know which titles are the "classics" (apart from which ones were popular enough to be remade in America) and which are truly the "best", and I don't want to throw one on just because I've seen it and liked it. But if I did want to, I could see myself putting Ju-on up there in the ghost block.

You'll notice the majority of these films are "serious" horrors, with a couple exceptions for breathing space. That's just because I'm more into serious movies, and those exceptions are just the few funnier ones I've seen that stand far enough above the crowd that I don't feel uncomfortable placing them alongside the others.

One thing you don't see is anything older than 1968. Sorry, not trying to be ageist, but I think the whole aesthetic of horror films pre-70s-ish is just fundamentally different from that of the films listed above. So, apologies to Monster Mash fans, but no Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, Wolfman, or Boo Berry here.

I did briefly consider Carnosaur, but that opens up a whole new world of low budget, b movie, and grindhouse/exploitation films. Perhaps that could be a whole different marathon. No Attack of the Giant Killer Iguanas (or similar) here either, because that type of old movie tends to be more cheesy than scary.

Also, I didn't consider Horrorfest movies at all, because they're too indie and non-mainstream. I would definitely put Autopsy on that list without shame, though. And maybe a few others. But that opens up yet another can of worms, and let's just leave those worms in the can, shall we?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Cell (2000)

The Cell starts out with a fascinating premise - experimental technology that allows one to dive into the dreamspace of a coma patient, presumably in the hopes of being able to coax the patient out of the coma from within, by confronting their demons and rearranging their mental states. Throw in a deranged serial killer and a race against time, and you've got a compelling plot. And the artistry of the dreamspaces fills in the gaps and fleshes out the surreal atmosphere of the film.

Said dreamspaces are indeed a wonder to behold. They add a lot of color (proverbially and literally), giving the film a fantasy element to counterbalance the very real horror at the heart of the story. And that horror comes in the form of a disturbed SM freak, who enjoys the torture of drowning young women in a custom-made sealed underground cell. After years of following him, the FBI manages to finally track him down, only to lose him to a sudden attack of a rare form of schizophrenia that puts him in a coma. Meanwhile, he had just picked up his latest victim the night before, and she has hours to live, if the FBI can't find her. Trouble is, the killer is the only one who knows where she is, and he's definitely not talking - whether he'd want to or not. And so they must enter his mind and coax out his secret.

It's hard to criticize this film, because it's very unique and very dreamy, and is such a great premise. I like the idea of "going into a serial killer's mind", as morbid as that is. I'm fascinated with the concept of the "origin of evil", and what drives a person to commit unspeakable acts. Yet I felt a little unfulfilled on that count. There were some pretty creepy scenes, but I had the feeling that they didn't go quite deep enough into the killer's darkness, or stay there long enough. In the end, I think the fantasy won out over the horror, though horrific it was, and though the fantasy was impressive.

One part that captivated me was a discussion during a break from mind-diving, between the trained coma-counselor and the FBI agent. He explained the killer's traumatic history, and she expressed sympathy for what he had been through. The movie addresses the morally difficult questions of whether a killer is born or bred, and whether we should feel sympathy for him. She wants to heal his shattered soul, which I would argue is the noble and righteous thing to do, yet there is an argument to be made for the simple elimination of evil of this level.

But what captivated me was how the counselor believed that a rough childhood could explain a life of heinous crime, yet the FBI agent was convinced that it wasn't sufficient. When challenged, he didn't explain, but merely spoke in certain terms that he knew for a fact, that a person could go through much worse and not grow up to have a desire to do such terrible things to another human being. I believe him. I think such trauma can certainly contribute to a terrible outcome, but I don't think that's the necessary outcome, that another person could come through it differently. I think there is both nurture and nature at work. Yet I can still sympathize with the killer, without in any way condoning his crimes.

However, the FBI agent's conviction convinced me that he must have experienced much worse as a child, having come through it virtuously, so when it came his turn to dive into the mind of the killer, I thought there would come a chance for his demons to be explored. I don't think that really happened, and I was a bit disappointed that the plot didn't seem to follow through on that point. Maybe I was seeing more into that discussion than was meant to be there. In any case, I really do like the premise of going inside people's minds, and I want to see more of it!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Midnight Meat Train (2008)

The Midnight Meat Train is disturbing. And for a movie based on a short story by Clive Barker, I'd say that's just about right. I meant to see this film back when it was released in theaters (barely), since I had recently read the story, but I didn't get a chance on account of the distributors (or whoever was in charge) sabotaging it. Now that I've finally seen it, it's been too long for me to compare it to the original story, as all I can remember are the main details. But what's important is that the film successfully captures the essence of the story and channels Clive Barker's twisted imagination.

I don't remember whether this was part of the plot in the original story, but I liked the main character's role as a photographer, trying to make it in New York City. As a photographer myself (though not a street photographer), I could relate to his struggle to get the shots he needed - the really good shots, that would impress people and get his foot in the door, and that would fulfill his dream of finding the true heart of the city (a destiny he would fulfill in a most unexpected way). It was really palpable the danger this photographer put himself in the middle of, all for the sake of being in the right place and the right time, in order to get that magic shot. And that one shot of the gangbanger, it really was just as captivating as the plot required it to be. This movie really made me think about what it takes to be a good photographer, and the kind of risks you have to take. That alone is kind of scary, and we haven't even touched on the serial killer in the story yet.

The gore in this movie was pretty heavy. Some of the CGI was ridiculous, like the flying eyeballs. I'll admit, even as someone who can handle a gory movie (Cannibal Holocaust anyone?), I thought the gore was a little much. If you like that kind of thing, that's fine, but I could do without quite so much of it. On the other hand, there was only a tiny hint of nudity (I'm not counting the "meat" on the train, because that's just gross :p), and a really disturbing sex scene (pretty much fully clothed). But at least it was in tune with the Clive Barker aesthetic.

Spoiler Warning!

Having read the story, I knew exactly where the movie was headed toward the end. And I'll say, it's a fantastic touch to the story. You got this mystery about a serial killer on the subway, and then at the end, there's this grotesque left turn into Lovecraftian horror. I was concerned about how the monsters at the end would be depicted in the movie, especially after seeing some of the ridiculous gore effects. I knew the depiction of the monsters would make or break the film for me. I'm happy to say that I was impressed with how it turned out. You didn't see a whole lot of them, so they weren't overexposed, but you saw enough to be freaked out, and they looked pretty convincing. And the ending itself, just gloriously horrifying, which is the way it should be.

End Spoilers

This film is a cut above the standard modern dime-a-dozen horror fare, and I'm happy about that, as a fan of Clive Barker. As I've said, the gore is a bit heavy, but the most important thing is that this movie manages to get under your skin and freak you out, which is what horror films are supposed to do. Also, I think this is the first time I've seen a serial killer whose preferred killing tool is a meat tenderizer. Always points for originality. ;-)