Tuesday, December 17, 2013

2013 Movie Releases (In Review)

It's that time of year again - time to look back at the year's movie releases and tally up all the movies I got to see in the theater, the ones I wanted to see but missed, and the ones I caught later on at home. This was a busy year at the theater for me, thanks in part to the influence of a friend with a passion for going out to the movies.

January started off strong with not one but two movies of the horror variety, the trailers for which managed to successfully entice me into catching them at the theater. One was the new Texas Chainsaw reboot or sequel or whatever you want to call it. Purists probably won't like it, but I thought it was good fun, and Alexandra Daddario was super hot in the lead role (which is always a plus for me).

The other January release was a movie titled Mama, with an intriguing plot involving feral children and the suspected ghost of their mother. There was a scene in the trailer that successfully spooked me - a rare occurrence for a nightmare-hardened horror hound such as myself - so I decided to give it my money. It maybe wasn't as good as I hoped, but I liked that the ending wasn't forcibly saccharine, and the young Megan Charpentier put in a captivating performance. It was worth seeing.

Around spring time a few more movies of interest to me came out - only one of which was actually horror. That one was the hotly-anticipated remake of Sam Raimi's cult classic supernatural gorefest Evil Dead. I was excited about it from the first time I saw the red band trailer, and it did not fail to deliver. Opinions among fans are, as always, mixed, but I thought it was fantastic. And much to my delight, it took the more serious route of the first Evil Dead, avoiding the ridiculous slapstick humor that marred its sequels.

Of the other two spring releases, I saw one of them twice (because it was just that good), but the other one I didn't get to see at all, on account of its limited release and me living in the boonies. :-( The one I did see was Spring Breakers, which, being a member of the MTV generation who grew up in the '90s, was a bit of nostalgia (at least in the sense of me sitting in front of the TV dreaming of going on Spring Break, and not actually being there). But, for me, the whole success of the movie hinged on its marketing potential of casting "innocent" Disney-esque actresses (Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson) in sultry roles for a sleazy film. It worked brilliantly.

The spring movie that I didn't get to see was The Bling Ring, which I am very disappointed about, on account of my obsession with Emma Watson. I didn't see the remake of Maniac, starring Elijah Wood, which is a horror film, until later in the year. But I did go back and watch the original, and being sufficiently impressed by it, I made a point to view the remake when it turned up on Netflix. It exceeded my meager expectations of a modern remake of such a morally ambiguous tale. I recommend it.

A number of horror movies came out in the middle part of the year, not all of which I went to see. The Purge proved to be a big hit, and boasts a very intriguing premise, but reviews were less than stellar, and I decided to wait and watch it at my convenience (yet to happen). I also passed up Insidious: Chapter 2, even though I watched the first Insidious this year and liked it. But by September I was going to an awful lot of movies, and felt like some of them I could wait to see at home. You're Next is another one that looked (and sounded, based on reviews) interesting to me, but I passed over for the time being.

But let's talk about the movies I did see. June brought this year's great zombie fest, a big budget adaptation of a novel titled World War Z. It was not the best zombie movie of the 21st century, but it was better than I hoped for after hearing about all the turmoil going on behind the scenes. In July, The Conjuring came out, boasting of being based on a true story - which is nothing special for a horror film, but here it's the details that matter. It's based on the most disturbing case a real life pair of paranormal investigators ever encountered during their entire lifetime of investigations. The movie writes a big check, epically tackling the haunted house and exorcism motifs, and if it doesn't quite live up to its ambitions, it's still a pretty thrilling watch.

Late summer brought a few not-specifically-horror movies that I had my eye on. One of those was the sequel to Kick-Ass, one of the more, ahem, kick-ass comic book/superhero movies in my opinion, featuring my gal Chloe Grace Moretz in the iconic role of Hit-Girl (this time enduring the challenges of adolescence, a theme she repeats in a bit part of the comedy anthology Movie 43, as well as her much-anticipated starring role in the remake of Carrie).

I was interested in Elysium, also, which looked to be a sci-fi dystopia story with some potential, but ultimately missed it. I did catch Riddick, however, an action-heavy sci-fi horror crossover that stands as the third part of the ongoing saga of the titular bad-ass space fugitive. Eschewing the sci-fi ambitions of the middle part of that saga - The Chronicles of Riddick - it harkens back to the tighter horror-based themes of Pitch Black, probably for the better. Like the rest of the saga, it's not going to top any "best of" lists, but it is fun, and it has its moments. And one thing Riddick does right that Pitch Black messed up, is scary creature designs.

Perhaps somewhat ironically, there was only one big horror release in October that I went to see, and that was the big remake of Carrie starring Chloe Grace Moretz. I was very excited about it, being a huge fan of Chloe, knowing the horror roles she's taken on in the past (for example, the vampire in the American remake Let Me In). And lest my review give you the wrong idea, I did enjoy the movie. Chloe lights up the screen in every role she takes. However, it was a bit hard seeing her as the downtrodden girl, after watching her as the ultimate bad-ass just two months prior. And there was something about the movie that failed to reach that next level. It was, in the end, very derivative of the original, and though well composed - many of the elements are as good if not better than the original - doesn't feel spontaneous or dangerous enough. Still, it's worth seeing, and even more so if they eventually release some kind of director's cut that takes a few more chances.

November was the month for the release of the second part of The Hunger Games saga, Catching Fire. I was underwhelmed by the first Hunger Games movie, which I rewatched in anticipation of the sequel, feeling that many of its parts didn't come together, and it wasn't as captivating or compelling as the book it was based on. Thankfully, the second part doesn't suffer from those problems. It is much better than the first, and is, truly, a thrilling movie experience. I enjoyed it so much I went back and saw it a second time, and am looking forward to the continuation of (and conclusion to) the story in the coming years. It's probably my vote for the best movie of the year, except possibly for the Evil Dead remake, with Spring Breakers hanging in third.

December (just this past weekend, in fact) saw the release of the second part of The Hobbit saga, The Desolation of Smaug. My feelings toward it are very similar to those I had for the first part, which makes it hard for me to write a review for it. I just feel very ambivalent about these movies, which is a shame because I adored Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings. But, truth be told, The Hobbit is a lighter story, and these movies reflect that. Even their attempt at buffering them out with the goings on of the Necromancer in Dol Guldur and all that, it still doesn't reach the level of fear and excitement that we saw in LotR. There is far too much CGI, that gives the movie very much the feeling of almost being one of those animated children's movies. I watch these movies because come on, it's The Hobbit, but frankly they don't get me terribly excited (even the whole Mirkwood sequence - one of my favorite parts in the book - fails to thrill terribly much). That having been said, getting to see Smaug in action in this movie, among his hordes of treasure, was very cool.

For the sake of cataloging, I'd like to name a few movies that came out this year that I did not get to see, but want to at some point. I thought that Prisoners sounded interesting, but I was a little concerned at how it might end. Obviously, it's not a feel-good kind of movie, but I'll have to give it a watch some time. I wanted to see The To Do List after a recommendation from my brother, but it failed to materialize in the theaters I had access to, so I'll have to catch it at some other time. In that vein, I was also a little curious about Lovelace. But another movie's hype totally captivated me - that of Blue Is The Warmest Color. I haven't been able to get my hands on it, and there is zero chance that it'll play anywhere I'll be able to see it, but it's a must-watch (uncensored, full length only!) on my list. I also wanted to see Machete Kills, the bombastic sequel to a neo-grindhouse movie that I enjoyed seeing when the first one came out. And another horror on my list is All The Boys Love Mandy Lane, which I think is actually from several years ago, but only saw daylight this year.

I actually don't know of a lot of movies scheduled for release next year to look forward to, with the exception of - of course - the conclusion to The Hobbit, and possibly also the first part of the last part (confusing, isn't it?) of The Hunger Games. Plus there's this one called Maleficent, which I think is about the evil witch from Sleeping Beauty, but most importantly stars Elle Fanning, Dakota's darling little sister (what, you thought I was gonna say Angelina Jolie? :p). But you know there's always interesting titles coming out. Some good and some not so good. And there's never enough time to watch them all! But I'll do my best to keep up. ;-)

Wow, I think this was the longest Movie Releases in Review yet!

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Courtney Love

Several weeks ago, I happened to hear on the radio a tribute to the "women of rock". Now, as it turns out, it was nothing more than a block of classic rock songs with women's names in the title. A fun enough theme, but it got me to thinking about actual women who rock - the rock goddesses, women who sing or play rock n roll music. And I even got to the point where I considered doing another installment of Zharth's Music Log celebrating women who rock. But what stumped me was the very unfortunate fact that the rock n roll landscape is dominated by men.

But despite stereotypes about testosterone and aggression, this is not because women can't rock, nor even that women don't rock, as the few prominent counterexamples will attest to. Truth is, there is undoubtedly a large amount of social pressure, fueled by the usual gender stereotypes, that serves as a significant barrier for women attempting to "make it" in rock n roll - probably even more so in the decades going back to the sixties and seventies (the heyday of "classic rock") than today.

Now, there's no question that women have made their mark in other genres of music, and rock can come in the form of many guises (punk, metal, country, even pop, and more), but it's rare to find a female musician who truly embodies the rock n roll attitude, in all its raw and anarchic splendor, and actually plays rock music. There are a few I consider within my purview of experience, like Suzi Quatro, and the girls of The Runaways that she helped to inspire, including the very popular Joan Jett. And there's Janis Joplin, who, even with her soul influences, had a true rock spirit. The Wilson sisters, in their band Heart, who were big fans of titan rock band Led Zeppelin, could lay one down from time to time as well.

But then you get to other names. I'm very familiar with the band Fleetwood Mac, and I like Stevie Nicks. And truth be told, she could rock when she wanted to. But I don't know that I'd really call her a rock star; and the other girl in the band, Christine McVie, I never liked as much. And there's Grace Slick, the very popular singer in the psych rock band Jefferson Airplane, but can you really call her a rock star? She seems more into head trips than power trips. And then there are names like Pat Benatar, Chrissie Hynde (of the band The Pretenders), and Patti Smith, but these are artists I only barely know a few songs by, and have never made it into my pantheon of favorites.

So in my attempt to get to know some new rock goddesses, I procured some recordings by two different female musicians, for trial purposes. One of them was Lita Ford, whom I knew from the band The Runaways. She was fairly popular in the '80s, to the point of recording a duet with Ozzy Osbourne. She also has the prominent distinction of being one of the very few female musicians I know who can play lead guitar. (You can imagine my disappointment, as a guitarist, when I discovered that Nancy Wilson plays rhythm guitar, and that the lead guitarist in the band Heart is just another man). Unfortunately, though, Lita Ford's music, while competent, fails to impress, falling within the category of bland '80s hair metal.

The other rock goddess I endeavored to experience was none other than the infamous Courtney Love. Based on her reputation, and listening to a few of her more popular songs on youtube, I thought that maybe here was a woman who could truly rock. It was quite a departure for me, as it is not often that I venture into the realm of '90s music. I grew up in the '90s, yeah, but I was always very strongly anti-conformist, and so I associate the popular music of the '90s with the kids I grew up alongside who liked that music - and they were people I had no desire to emulate.

But, I think I've grown up a little over the years, and I'm not as reticent as I used to be. Still, I find it ironic that between the choice of a lead guitarist who played hair metal, and a singer with ties to Nirvana and its grunge/alt rock scene, I ended up liking the latter a whole lot more. But Courtney Love's music is so raw and energetic, it's exhilarating. I find myself mesmerized by it, listening to songs over and over and over again, which is something I only do with music that really resonates with me.

I keep reading comments that, compared to her later, more pop-friendly arrangements, Courtney Love's earliest recordings are "abrasive" and "unlistenable". Abrasive, absolutely. The anger and excitement in Love's voice is matched only by the frenetic and anarchic noise produced by the band she plays in. But unlistenable? To most, I wouldn't be surprised if that were the case. But I can't stop listening to it! The noise is very Neil Young Arc or Dead Man-like, at least the louder portions - very rock n roll, loose and unpredictable, but heavy. Some of the transitions from gentle, whispering parts to outright screaming even recalls for me one of my favorite elements of post-rock music. And the energy of it all is infectious. I'm in love with it.

Hole's first album, Pretty on the Inside, and other early tracks recorded by the band - like Retard Girl, Dicknail, Drown Soda; I'm also fond of the track Violet from the band's second album Live Through This - most perfectly embody the abrasive, "unlistenable" approach I've come to appreciate so much. It is the most hauntingly affecting debut album I've heard since Bob Dylan's, who was trying to conjure the cursed pathos of Robert Johnson's recordings. If I thought that Bob Dylan's rough ruminations on death were even more compelling than Johnson's folk blues, Courtney Love's blaring outbursts with her no-holds-barred rock band Hole, covering such lurid topics as rape, abuse, abortion, prostitution, humiliation, abandonment...all with a confident if tortured attitude that screams "fuck you", is positively harrowing. It's my new musical obsession.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Catching Fire (2013)

Catching Fire is much better than the first installment of The Hunger Games. It's almost like magic. Something about The Hunger Games just didn't come together, and so I found myself quibbling over all the little problems the movie had. But Catching Fire is so good, none of those things mattered anymore.

I wasn't caught up in the casting of the characters, because what they were doing and saying were more important than all that - you could say I got lost in the characters and forgot about the actors playing them, which is what a good movie should accomplish. The ridiculous fashions of the Capitol didn't bother me as much, either - I actually started to like them (even Effie became likable).

Katniss' interview dress was a lot more impressive (and emotionally effective) this time around, too. And, thankfully, the Capitol grunts weren't just fruity like before, but were finally intimidating - as they should be - with their brutal reaction to the growing resistance in the outlying Districts. The ridiculous shaky cam in the first movie was also absent here, which is a great relief.

How much of all of this is due to the new writers and director, and how much is due to the story itself (The Hunger Games is tasked with introducing this unfamiliar world to its audience, while Catching Fire is free to focus on developing the rising conflict), I don't know. But in Catching Fire, the stakes are much higher, and it shows, and it is a much more powerful and effecting story than The Hunger Games was.

Jennifer Lawrence, too, is much better as the newly-crowned Victor Katniss, evoking more of the haunted pathos of the character than she did last time. They even managed to make the rather abrupt ending work out well, leaving, as it does, the audience clamoring for the next installment of the series, where the revolution inevitably explodes and everything will eventually come to a head.

I'm a lot more excited to see Mockingjay now than I was to see Catching Fire after watching The Hunger Games. But having been so thrilled with the second installment of the series, I'm going to go out and see it again - it's just that good. It's not that often you go out to a movie and get a real, thrilling experience. It's what you always hope for, but so rarely get. I hope they're able to keep it up for the two-part conclusion to the series.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Hunger Games (2012)

It's ironic that I never wrote a proper review for The Hunger Games after I saw it the first time, the day it came out. Because when I read the novel it's based on, I had originally decided that, since this is more of a movie review blog than a book review blog, I would just wait for the movie to come out so I could review it, and refer back to the novel to make comparisons. But then I ended up writing a review for the book, and then when the movie came out, I didn't write a review for it!

Part of the reason for that was because I didn't really know what to say about the movie - I was too caught up with comparing it to the book to really appreciate it on its own merits. But with the second movie - Catching Fire - finally coming out, I thought I'd go back and watch the first one again, now that it's been so long since I've read the book. And yet, I still find myself getting caught up with comparing the movie to the book. Honestly, I think the biggest problem with this movie is that the book it was based on is just soo good.

I mean, it's an ambitious movie - the whole sci-fi dystopia thing, with a strong emphasis on action and human pathos. It's obvious that the film-makers went to a lot of trouble to create a futuristic world - complete with the drastic dichotomy between the starving residents of the poor districts and the fashionable socialites of the Capitol (although there is no excuse for the liberal use of shaky cam, especially in the earliest scenes in this movie). And it works. It's a great story. It builds to an exciting climax, and it hits some powerful emotional notes.

Yet, it doesn't ring quite as true to me as the book did. To me, the casting of a lot of the characters seems slightly off - which is another irony, given that I was convinced Jennifer Lawrence was the perfect choice for Katniss Everdeen, after seeing her in gritty, independent movies like Winter's Bone and The Poker House. But she doesn't seem as put-upon in this movie, in a role that demands it as much as any of her others.

Similarly, the poverty-stricken District 12 doesn't have as much authenticity or character as it did in the book. And Gale seems like more of a teen heartthrob than a rugged woodsman. I understand that The Hunger Games' primary audience is 12 year old girls, but the book is the true source of that appreciation, and I found its brilliance to be based on deeper foundations than such superficial appeals.

And the Capitol residents just look ridiculous. I realize this is at least partially (if not entirely) intentional, because part of the whole point is that the residents of the Capitol are so pretentious and full of themselves, that they'll devour the most ridiculous looking fashions and wear them with a straight face. And that there is some poignancy in the juxtaposition of the cruelty of watching children die for entertainment, and treating it as lightly as Monday night football. But for a sci-fi dystopia society, they just aren't very intimidating.

President Snow, for his part, looks way too kind and fatherly - I pictured him clean-shaven and with a sterner-looking face. And Caesar Flickerman is too boisterous, his charisma doesn't succeed like it does in the book (here, he could be easily mocked, but the most chilling aspect of his character in the book is that his sincerity feels genuine, in spite of the role he plays in these children's traumatic deaths).

During the Games themselves, the mutts have entirely the wrong look - as if the CG team opted to capitalize on the pun in their name instead of emphasizing their more frightening wolf-like aspects, meanwhile completely ignoring their most terrifying attribute - the eyes (although, to be fair, that element might be hard to get across in a movie).

It's inevitable that when a book is adapted to a movie, changes will be made. What's ironic is that The Hunger Games works better as a book than a Hollywood spectacle. But what makes the story great is that it's about so much more than a juvenile deathmatch. A movie is not introspective enough, and doesn't have the time to really get inside its character's head, and bring the world of its setting to life.

In the end, The Hunger Games just doesn't have the impact, the intelligence, and the perfectly calculated rhythm of the book it was based on. I'm still looking forward to seeing the rest of the series, but if you had to make a choice, you're much better off reading the book. And I'm not just saying that as a book snob, who thinks the book is always better than the movie; I'm saying that as someone who spends a lot more hours watching movies than reading books.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Breeders (1997)

Breeders (a.k.a. Deadly Instinct) is a sleazy, sorely-dated sci-fi/horror flick from the late '90s. The plot is simple - a meteor crash lands near a Boston college, releasing an extraterrestrial beast into the tunnels underneath the city. The main characters are a libidinous janitor and teacher, two of the sexy coeds they conspire to seduce, the jealous female principal, a burly detective, and a mysterious woman from space.

The occasional nudity is much appreciated (I'm a sucker for a good locker room scene), even if the characters are not all that likable. Other than that, it's a pretty tedious and uninspiring derivative of greater sources such as Alien and Duke Nukem (without being half as twisted as your typical Japanese hentai about alien monsters who want to breed with Earth women). As such, it's hardly worth the few cheap thrills it has to offer. Even the space vixen in her requisite skimpy leather outfit leaves much to be desired.

The only saving grace is an excellent monster design, which is presented smartly throughout the movie, keeping it mostly shrouded in darkness, showing only bits at a time - enough to give the audience something to fear and admire, but not so much as to reveal its technical flaws (for the most part). It's a shame that it was wasted on such a lackluster movie as this, though, especially considering the wasted potential of its premise.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Theatre Bizarre (2011)

The Theatre Bizarre is a horror anthology that delivers on its promise of the bizarre and grotesque. There is also a bit of sex and nudity, but don't expect it to be very erotic - the context it is presented in is often too repulsive to enjoy it in the traditional way.

The framing story, in which a tortured artist stumbles into a performance theatre staffed with automatons, effectively introduces the strange atmosphere of the anthology, with the bizarre machinations of the automatons - the leader of which, who is the master of ceremonies, is played by Udo Kier, whose idiosyncratic mannerisms I recognized from the role he played in John Carpenter's episode of Masters of Horror, Cigarette Burns. Said MC seems to have some point to make about watching other people's stories and the artifice of the theatre, but it gets a little chopped up through the interruptions of the various segments of the anthology.

The first of which is titled The Mother of Toads and gets off to a good start. An anthropologist with an interest in the occult meets an old gypsy in the French countryside, and discovers that she possesses what she alleges to be a genuine copy of the Necronomicon from H.P. Lovecraft's lore. In it is a creepy diagram of a creature the old woman names the Mother of Toads. But, as is always the case when the Necronomicon shows up in fiction, when the creature itself appears in the story (as you know it must), it doesn't live up to the dramatized illustration. Other than a pretty creepy sex scene, the segment finishes up in a pretty conventional - that is to say, not especially inspired - fashion.

The second segment, I Love You, eschews the supernatural (and to a large part, even the bizarre) for a more down to earth tale of love turned sour. It's actually got a fairly clever twist, in that you start the segment thinking, okay, this guy is a creep, and this girl really needs to get away from him. Then you come to learn that she's not all that innocent, and you actually begin to feel a little sympathy for this guy. Of course, it doesn't end well, and I won't spoil the details, but it's an effectively twisted ending.

Segment number three is titled Wet Dreams, and is directed by special fx guru Tom Savini, who also costars. The story is about a man who keeps having nightmares of being castrated (in one sequence, by what Savini's character - a therapist - describes as a Lovecraftian vagina - thus marking the second direct reference to Lovecraft in this anthology). This segment probably contains the most erotic nudity in the whole anthology, but the sentiment is short-lived, considering the major theme of the segment is genital mutilation. The narrative fucks around a bit with dreams and reality, but in the end it plays out (as you could only imagine, given the subject matter) as a wife's rather conservative (if liberally gruesome) feminist revenge against a cheating husband.

The fourth segment, titled The Accident, hit me from out of nowhere. It's the only segment with zero sex and nudity, and yet it's the strongest one, and it made a powerfully emotional impression on me. It's a very simple story, centered on a discussion of the metaphysics of death, between a little girl and her mother, after witnessing a traumatic motorcycle accident. It's very stark and direct, and yet not without being sensitive. I thought it was beautiful - in that macabre sort of way - and uniquely moving. It's definitely the highlight of the anthology.

Vision Stains is the next segment, and it introduces an intriguing (if not altogether realistic) concept - a woman has discovered that the moments that go flashing by in a person's head in the instant that they die can actually be transferred to another person via an injection of eye fluid. It's an interesting character study, that leads to a chilling climax, if a somewhat mediocre conclusion in comparison. It's also perhaps the most uncomfortable segment in this anthology to watch, what with the drug addiction symbolism and all the needles and syringes (of course, different things squick different people out - whether it's castration or animals suffering, there's something to disturb everyone in this anthology).

The final segment is titled Sweets and is almost certainly the most bizarre segment in the whole anthology. An actor by the name of Guilford Adams does a fantastic job channeling the heartbreak of a man whose girlfriend is coldly breaking up with him, interspersed with scenes of the two of them, during their better days, indulging their sweet tooths to a fetishistic degree. I'm not sure exactly what I'm supposed to take away from this segment, but the unhealthy obsession on binging and consumption ironically does a stellar job of destroying my would-be appetite. After watching it, I don't want to so much as look at food for weeks.

Not unlike going to watch a freak show, you have to have a peculiar kind of taste to enjoy the stories on the marquee at The Theatre Bizarre, but for the sake of satisfying my curiosity, I don't regret watching it. Expect horror, not a lot of eroticism (unless you have some very unconventional desires), but above all, expect the bizarre - and you shan't be disappointed.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A Bay of Blood (1971)

Going off of vague references to its reputation, and its cult status, I thought A Bay of Blood (a.k.a. Twitch of the Death Nerve, and about a dozen other alternate titles), by Italian director Mario Bava, was going to be some kind of ultraviolent bloodbath. In reality, it's pretty much just a European version of Friday the 13th (with partying "youngsters" getting killed off, and it's even got a harbinger in the form of a Tarot-reading gypsy). Not a rip-off, mind you - this movie predated the slasher craze by about a decade, and was a very strong influence on Friday the 13th, with its bay-side location, and at least one or two kills copied shot-for-shot.

It's interesting to note the differences between this film and the typical brainless slasher. The European influence counts for a lot - there is at least some emphasis on creating an artistic presentation, in the filming of the shots and also the music used. And the plot is remarkably grounded (if you've suffered through decades of brainless slashers), where the kills are motivated by actually realistic reasons - like securing a wealthy Countess' inheritance. And later, the not-yet-trope of a soon-to-be-victim getting offed shortly after being startled by discovering a dead body actually makes some sense - the body is not nailed to a door frame (for example) for shock value, but is accidentally discovered by an innocent bystander who must then be killed to preserve the killer's secret.

All of that having been said, it's still a slasher movie, and so it has a tendency to drag on, with minimal exposition (despite the convoluted plot), and not very well-developed characters (so many of which have a motivation to kill), all as an excuse to feature lots of gratuitous violence (and a little bit of gratuitous nudity). But without an intriguing hook - like a cannibal who wields a chainsaw and wears the faces of his victims, or an unstoppable bogeyman, or a man with finger knives who haunts your dreams, it feels terribly...mundane. But what can you expect from a pioneer that was breaking new ground? Unfortunately, the starkness of its allegedly gruesome brutality does not stand the test of time, considering everything we've seen since 1971 (the '80s alone puts this movie to shame). Still, it's an interesting glimpse into the evolution of the classic murder mystery into the modern slasher thanks in no small part to the introduction of (and subsequent change of focus to the) explicit gore fx. Plus, it's got a wickedly chilling ending.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Apartment 143 (2011)

I'm a little bit at a loss as to what to think about Apartment 143. It starts out as a pretty conventional haunting movie, with a small team of paranormal investigators setting up in the apartment of a family who's been experiencing some strange phenomena ever since the mother's death. And that's fine - everybody's got their tastes. Some people eat up zombie movies, others like slashers. I, personally, dig a good movie with some poltergeist activity. And Apartment 143 does have some decent scares, even if my final conclusion is that many of them are kind of cheap, and the overall tone of the movie isn't as effectively exhilarating as, say, Paranormal Activity.

But there's something about this movie that I found simultaneously intriguing, and frustrating, but talking about it requires spoiling (so consider yourself warned). A lot of the time in a movie about some kind of haunting or other, the paranormal investigators that inevitably get involved might tease at various explanations for ghosts and demons or what have you, but ultimately, they tend not to say very much of substance, and it often simply boils down to some kind of paranormal entity (whether the ghost of a dead person or something else entirely) either wreaking havoc or just playing around. Apartment 143 almost seems to want to provide a more scientifically rigorous approach to explaining the paranormal phenomena - by using all their fancy tools of the trade to rule out possibilities one at a time.

And in the end, the source of the problem tends toward being more psychological than anything else. There is a bit of mystery underlying what happened to this family, and how the mother died, and your speculations play into what you think might be causing the strange occurrences, and this provides more of an opportunity for character-based drama than you typically see in these kinds of movies. But to spoil it straight out, the explanation ostensibly involves the hot teenage daughter's Carrie-like superpowers, and the lead investigator (who is actually described as a psychologist, and is clearly a man of experience in these matters) settles on the diagnosis of "schizophrenia".

Which is interesting, because last I checked, schizophrenia doesn't involve subconscious telekinesis, much less demonic possession-like symptoms that defy the known laws of physics. On the other hand, positing an alternate reality where psychic powers such as these are truly in existence, and high levels of stress capable of triggering them as a much-needed emotional release (stereotypically associated with adolescent females) - which, on the other hand, begs the question of why every other family that's been through lots of stress doesn't similarly experience poltergeist activity - it's fascinating to think about how a scientist (or psycho-scientist?) would go about identifying and treating those cases.

Now, maybe if the movie somehow hinted that this was its aim, it might have been a little more fun to play along with. As it stands, it comes off being a little disjointed and confusing, like it's trying to be too many things at once - a haunting, a possession, psychic powers, and mental illness - while not quite seamlessly melding them together. And with the logic a little hard to follow, and some of the scares coming off kind of cheap (though not necessarily unscary), it left me feeling a little bit less than completely impressed. Then again, it's the first movie about a haunting I've seen that actually attempts a decent séance, which is something I've been looking for for a long time. Even with its flaws, it attempts to be something more than a plain old boring ghost movie, so I think it's worth watching.

V/H/S/2 (2013)

Last year, V/H/S brought the anthology format to the found footage subgenre of horror films. Opinions on found footage films vary widely, with lots of people lambasting them for their cheap thrills and amateurish production values. Personally, I'm a fan of found footage. Whereas other genres might not benefit so much from the first person perspective - I can't imagine a drama, for example, being any more effective by viewing it from the point of view of one of its characters - it seems particularly suited to horror.

I'd long wondered at the fact that survival horror video games manage to scare more effectively than most traditional horror films, and the reason is because it puts you right in the middle of the action. Which is what the first person perspective does. It makes you feel more vulnerable, and more paranoid, too, about what could be lurking just outside the frames - whereas a director would be inclined to carefully place his monsters and script the action, there's an element of chaos in some random bloke capturing the nightmare he's stuck in the middle of, and that's unpredictable and exciting.

There are, of course, pitfalls to the found footage format, like the unfortunate prevalence of shaky camera work - I thank my lucky stars that watching such footage doesn't make me sick, because otherwise I'd be missing out on some great stuff. Also, as is frequently complained about, there are many times when a found footage film builds up atmosphere only to let down in its payoff. The Blair Witch Project was guilty of this, although I hesitate to criticize a film too much for it, because the "imagination is worse than reality" approach bears considerable weight (Paranormal Activity, for example, was mostly tease, yet it was by far one of the scariest horror movies I've seen since the day I decided to stop believing in the monsters that live under my bed).

The anthology format is itself marred by too frequently mediocre entries - as, after all, a motley collection of pieces will inevitably vary in quality, and so rarely yield consistent brilliance. On the other hand, if not taken so seriously, an anthology can be more fun than a feature piece, and the diversity of its offerings has the potential to appeal to a wider audience, as everyone will tend to gravitate toward the entries that best suit their tastes. The short story (or film) format also provides an opportunity to experiment with new and exciting themes and modes of storytelling, and to create narratives that come quickly to their point without being bogged down by unnecessary filler.

All of this is to say that you never know what you're going to get. And while V/H/S was an exciting and competent - if flawed - foray into the found footage anthology piece, its sequel manages to be even stronger, and even better than the first, while maintaining the same formula. The first V/H/S suffered from an overabundance of immature, misogynistic characters. That aspect is downplayed here, to better results, while not completely shying away from the topic of sex and nudity that, for many of us, adds that extra spice and flair to entertainment that is otherwise mostly violent in nature. But where V/H/S/2 really shines is in the strength of its pieces, which are both clever and exciting to a surprisingly above average degree. I want to talk about each of them briefly now, and I warn you that there will be spoilers from here on out. So if you haven't seen V/H/S/2 yet and plan to, you should go do that before you read the rest of this review.

Tape 49

The "wraparound" story takes pretty much the same basic form as the one in V/H/S, albeit with less annoying characters. As far as I know, there is no direct connection to the events in the first V/H/S (although it probably allows for its existence in the same narrative universe), and this is an independent case of somebody exploring an abandoned(?) house recently occupied by a fanatic collector of obscure and esoteric VHS tapes featuring some of the creepiest home videos you'll ever lay your hands on. This time around, it's a private investigator who specializes in blackmail, and apparently has a camera fetish, if the way he carries around multiple cameras to film everything he does is any indication.

It's a little ridiculous, and you kinda feel like it's all just a (somewhat unconvincing) ruse to deflect the viewer's typical criticism of "why is he filming this?", but as usual, I have a tendency to consider that sort of thing within the purview of my suspension of disbelief when I'm watching a found footage film. The point isn't so much how realistic the filming of the action is, it's how effective that filming is in putting me in the middle of the action and scaring my pants off (if I'm wearing any). Tape 49 may be the least compelling of the shorts in V/H/S/2 (it is the wraparound, after all), but it does its job well enough, and is probably slightly more coherent than the wraparound in the first V/H/S.

Phase I Clinical Trials

The first tape we're shown doesn't do a great job of quelling our concerns about realism, as it turns out to be the recording of a guy's cybernetic eye implant. I'm not kidding. You have to ask yourself, with that kind of state of the art technology, the recording had to be digital. So who actually took the time to dub it to a VHS tape, and why? I know, you could say the same thing about the webcam footage in The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Younger from the first V/H/S (and that might not be the only one), but still.

I actually think the whole VHS approach works well, because it's like, they're harder to copy and share than digital videos, so there's more of an esoteric feeling about them, like they could have been hiding in a cardboard box in somebody's basement for years, and nobody knows about them, rather than them going viral on YouTube or something, totally evaporating the mystery. But in our technologically advanced age, the whole VHS thing is becoming more and more antiquated, and you have to wonder how all these originally-digital recordings are finding their way onto VHS tapes.

Anyway, like I said, I can file that in the back of my head and just focus on the story. And as ridiculous as the idea of a cybernetic eye implant is, it has the potential for some pretty creepy implications. When the doctor mentioned glitches, I thought maybe it would be another approach at the creepy fx in Tuesday the 17th from the first V/H/S, but - although I think that direction had a lot of potential - it instead chooses to go in the direction of a ghost story.

Now, the idea that a piece of advanced technology would let you see ghosts is a little wonky in my opinion - mixing science with superstition - but I guess if you think about it, if there really are ghosts, it's not completely insane to think that maybe the right kind of scientific advancement would let us see them. So I'll let it slide. It's a pretty scary thought anyway. I mean, imagine if you knew your own eyes were conspiring against you, and even if you convinced yourself that what you were seeing wasn't real (even worse if it is), just seeing it would be enough to unnerve you.

I actually found the ghosts themselves to be less than entirely effective when they actually showed up on screen (except the creepy uncle dude), but just the very setup of the story, with the ghosts and everything, probably scared me more than any of the other shorts in V/H/S/2. So that's saying something.

A Ride In The Park

This one starts out pretty gently. I was watching this guy get ready to go biking in the woods, thinking to myself, I have absolutely no idea which direction this story is going to go. There could be absolutely anything waiting for him in these woods. And, well, it turns out to be zombies. Which is always fun. The rest of the story is relatively conventional, except for one very important twist: we get to watch the majority of the zombie rampage (including a small horde ambushing a little girl's birthday party in a picnic pavilion), from the point of view of one of the zombies.

It sounds so simple, but I don't think I've ever seen that before. It's a brilliant idea! And man, when that zombie digs into the guy's torso, and starts chowing down on his viscera like it was a turkey dinner - it's not that I haven't seen that in a zombie film before (many times, actually), but the first person perspective gives it a whole new freshness, and for the first time made me sympathize with the zombie's hunger, and not simply recoiling in disgust at the thought of it. This was a story that had to be told, and I can't believe I'd never even thought of it. Bravo.

Safe Haven

Then we come to my favorite short in the whole movie. It starts with one of the better premises for a found footage movie I've come across - infiltrating a secretive religious cult under the guise of filming an unbiased documentary. This is one of those ideas so ripe for found footage that it makes you think, "ah, finally!" You're not sure, of course, exactly which direction the story will go. Will it be human atrocities, as cults in the real world are known to commit? It certainly touches that base. But in the end, it goes so much further, revealing the cult to actually be one of devil worshippers with supernatural powers of demon summoning and resurrection.

So often, and especially in the realm of found footage, I find myself thinking at the end of a movie, they didn't go far enough. There was a lot of tease, but not enough delivery. This is true for many themes, but as frequently for stories about Satanism as anything else. Safe Haven doesn't have that problem. It probes the depths, and comes out the other side dripping with blood. Too many times I've seen devil worshipping cults emasculate themselves with all-smoke-and-no-fire rituals that are no more impressive than your local pastor's latest sermon. But this cult leader, he must have done something right. I'd say that V/H/S/2 is worth watching for this segment alone, but it's not like the other segments aren't pretty good themselves.

Slumber Party Alien Abduction

I'll be honest, I was a little disappointed that this one turned out to be a boys' sleepover, and not a girls' slumber party like I was hoping. Interestingly, we find a more natural home for the immature pranking spirit of V/H/S's douchebags in the adolescent boys in this segment. But the concept behind this segment is so perfect (is this really the first time it's been done?), that it's hard not to like it.

Truthfully, there is little buildup, and it's largely one big thrill ride, but there's nothing wrong with that - it is quite thrilling. This alien abduction has more in common with Incident in Lake County than your typical riding-a-beam-of-light nighttime affair, with aggressive aliens that are effectively intimidating by being larger than usual (more man-sized), while still retaining the expected general features (lean body, large eyes), and utilizing bright lights and loud sounds to confuse their prey.

The one significant complaint I have is that, unlike Safe Haven, Slumber Party Alien Abduction didn't go far enough. There's a scene where a boy is being dragged off by an alien, and you know they're taking him to their spaceship, and I'm like, come on, come on, a little bit further - but they never get there. Maybe I'm too caught up on the idea of a found footage alien abduction film that actually goes aboard the spaceship. Oh well. Someday. It's a good segment, but it's such a good concept, that I feel it deserves a full feature treatment, and not just a short anthology segment. Any filmmakers listening?

Monday, November 18, 2013

Maniac (2012)

I watched the original version of Maniac last spring in anticipation of the new remake coming out, based largely on its cult status. And I honestly couldn't tell you much of the details of the movie all these months later, although I did enjoy it. What I do remember is that it had the feel of an exploitation flick, sympathizing with the killer (rather than his victims), without attempting to make any kind of heavy-handed moral commentary, similar to the style of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (but maybe a little more fictionalized). I also remember that it had pretty good gore effects, and a bit of a surreal (but not at all unsatisfying) conclusion.

I was worried that they couldn't (or wouldn't) film such a morally ambiguous tale in this day and age, but I was pleased to discover that Maniac (2012) is surprisingly faithful to the spirit of the original. It made me uncomfortable, and gave me that feeling of wondering, "why would anyone make this movie?" Which is exactly what it's supposed to do. I was also concerned that Elijah Wood would be too attractive or too much of a celebrity to pull off the role of the lead, but he looks just rugged enough, and he does a great job of channeling the dull and detached exterior, but tortured and deranged interior of his character.

The movie is almost exclusively shot in first person perspective, with a liberal sprinkling of reflective surfaces to get Elijah's money's worth, and a few dream sequences that briefly enter the third person. It serves to effectively provide a terrifying look into not just the life, but the warped psyche of the titular maniac. His conversations with strangers (mostly beautiful women) are genuinely awkward, and the glimpses we get into the character's delusions (and the way the symptoms of his "migraines" affect him) are fascinating. The musical score (which almost recalls the days of Pink Floyd doing movie soundtracks) also greatly contributes to the eerie atmosphere of the film. If you liked the original Maniac, I think you'll be pleased with the new remake. It's a disturbing treat of a horror movie.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Devil (2010)

Devil starts with what I think is an intriguing premise - several people get stuck in an elevator, and one of them is the devil in disguise. As the victims gradually get picked off during intermittent blackouts, the candidates for the identity of the killer (whether supernatural or not) are reduced until there's only one left. But what could potentially be a fun game of "guess the killer/devil" is undermined by the realization that if the devil could just as easily disguise himself as any one of these people, then does it even really matter who it is? Thus, the film's mystery (towards which a lot of narrative effort is expended) largely fails to captivate.

Even more egregious an error is that instead of leaving it as a horrifying tale of the fear and chaos the devil is capable of instilling in the hearts of men, the film chooses to construct a morality tale that is as disappointing as the conclusion to M. Night Shyamalan (whose name not-so-coincidentally appears in the credits to Devil as a producer and the one responsible for the "story")'s movie Signs. The devil character himself suffers from inconsistent (but common among religionists) characterization - is his purpose to sow discord and despair, or to administer divine justice to sinners who deserve their punishment?

Meanwhile, the presence of the one character who just happens to know exactly what is going on the whole time, because of a fairy tale his mother told him as a child, even down to the details that essentially explain the "rules" the devil follows (in a world with no shortage of different interpretations of religious mythology), feels extremely contrived, in a way that recalls (but isn't even moderately as forgivable as) that other M. Night Shyamalan movie, Lady in the Water. Finally, for a movie about people stuck in an elevator with the devil, the narrative potential for a descent into the very bowels of hell is completely wasted.

It's too bad Devil isn't a better movie than it is. It does succeed in weaving together a concise story from start to finish, which is not always easy to do, but it just doesn't feel like it's quite good enough for me to care. And there are some sequences that do actually approach scary, but not nearly enough horror for a movie about the devil. It was a good premise, but it wasn't taken far enough, and the strong moral focus seriously maims its impact. You might want to give it a watch sometime, but don't expect too much from it.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Zodiac (2007)

I remember thinking that I wanted to see Zodiac back when it first came out, but I passed up the opportunity, and it took me over five years to finally see it. I had seen a documentary on TV about the Zodiac Killer (the real life serial killer this movie is based on, who was never caught), not too long before that. Zodiac is an ambitious movie, with a long running time clocking in at over two and a half hours. I don't know how many dramatic liberties the movie takes with the real life facts of the case, but from what little I know, it seems at least superficially faithful to the real life story. And aside from simply being a story about a serial killer, and the police's attempt to catch him, the movie capitalizes on the way that this particular killer captured the fear and imagination of the public.

The Zodiac Killer is, especially the way this movie tells it, the JFK assassination of serial killers. He killed several people in and around San Francisco in 1969, and sent several letters to local newspapers containing secret messages written in code, some of which were printed due to threats that the killer would kill more people if they were not. He was smart and careful enough to evade police capture until his public image grew to the point where police were too swamped with copycat wannabes and false confessions to follow up on any real leads. Poignantly frustrating is the fact that on one occasion, police only narrowly missed catching the guy immediately after one of his kills, because they were looking for a man with the wrong description, and, at least in this movie (I'm not sure how accurate this is to the real life case), police finally caught up with a suspect who was very likely the killer, even going so far as to arrogantly taunt the cops interrogating him, knowing that they didn't have the evidence to arrest him.

Zodiac can pretty much be split into two parts. The first part depicts the killer's actions and the ensuing media frenzy they inspired, which serves as a fairly conventional big budget dramatization of the facts of the case, and the personnages involved. Among the latter are stars Mark Ruffalo as the lead police investigator, Robert Downey Jr. as a news reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle, and Jake Gyllenhaal as the quirky cartoonist whose life will become consumed with writing a book about the Zodiac case in the second part of the movie. His pursuit of the identity of the Zodiac Killer after the trail has gone cold becomes an all-encompassing obsession, and it is here that we see how the quest to solve the mystery resembles a conspiracy. Ultimately, the climax depends on whether the writer's obsession is leading him to a definitive answer, or is evolving into an insanity that will tear this man's life apart.

In spite of its long running time, the movie does move at a brisk pace, and you have to stay alert to catch all the little details. I can't really say much about the case's adaptation to the big screen, not being an expert on it myself, but I enjoyed the movie and I thought it was put together very well. The soundtrack is particularly good, taking a lead from the late '60s/early '70s time period where the initial action occurred. I wouldn't really describe it as a horror movie, but I found it to be an effective crime drama, and a compelling intellectual puzzle, as the real case has proven to be. Whether you're a serial killer afficionado, or a conspiracy buff, you'll probably want to give this movie a look.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Hellraiser Marathon

Spoiler Warning: As each title in this series tends to build and expand upon the events and revelations contained in the previous title(s), each of the following reviews may contain spoilers from previous titles in the series.

"We'll tear your soul apart."

Hellraiser (1987)

Based on a story ("The Hellbound Heart") by the deliciously demented horror author Clive Barker (who also directed this feature), Hellraiser is a tale about an ancient puzzle box - sort of like an occult Rubik's Cube - that, when solved, summons a group of pain-worshipping demons known as the Cenobites. But, the twist is that, in true sadomasochistic fashion, this summoning is treated like a prize, rather than a punishment. Indeed, one can imagine that the experience is sought after by edge-players as a sort of esoteric holy grail of ultimate pleasure - arrived at by way of ultimate pain.

In the story, a drifter by the name of Frank gets his hands on the puzzle box, but when the Cenobites are summoned, he gets more than he bargained for. Later, when his brother's family moves into the house he was squatting in, he finds a way to revive his body through blood sacrifice, but the Cenobites don't appreciate him escaping their clutches, and soon his niece Kirsty finds herself caught between her uncle's threats and the very horrors of hell.

Some of the digital fx in Hellraiser are admittedly a little hokey, but I would rate the practical fx as impressive (nearing the level of John Carpenter's The Thing), and the whole piece works remarkably well based on the strength of its concept, and the truly badass creature designs. The actors are all terrific, and really bring life to their characters, giving this story a strong human backbone, so that it's not forced to rely on the superficial appeal of its fantastic premise.

Hellraiser is a dark and imaginative work, refeshingly free of the formulaic cliches that plagued the relentless slasher sequels that were popular in the late '80s. I'd expect no less from Clive Barker. What's surprising (given that mass audiences are so poor at recognizing true quality) is that this movie was popular or profitable enough to establish an entire franchise. But for better and worse, I'm going to delve into that franchise, to see how the series has evolved over myriad sequels.

Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988)

Hellraiser established the basic rules of the puzzle box - that solving it summons the Cenobites from some dimension of hell, and that it is protected by some kind of powerful (though deceptively so, going by his appearance) guardian. Hellbound expands upon the mythos, revealing that there are multiple puzzle boxes in existence, demonstrating that the Cenobites were once human (alluding to what purpose the "Engineer" we saw in the first movie may have), and by exploring further the dimension (appropriately named "Labyrinth") that the puzzle box opens up doors to.

Having narrowly been spared the torment of the Cenobites before, by helping them to capture renegade Frank, Kirsty finds herself in the custody of a psychiatric hospital. Unfortunately for her, her doctor is doing some occult research on the side, and has procured the mattress that Kirsty's stepmother Julia died on. Soon enough, he's reviving her like she did Frank in the first Hellraiser, but his aspirations are far more ambitious - and he's willing to employ the skills of a mute young girl who is exceptionally gifted at solving puzzles to unwittingly open the doors for him to a total transformation of the soul.

Hellbound continues Hellraiser's inconsistent combination of sketchy digital fx and effective practical ones. In addition to the Cenobites we are familiar with - Pinhead, Chatterer, Butterball, and the female - we are introduced to a new one, who substitutes the other Cenobites' dark and foreboding wit with a penchant for cheap puns, for better or worse. Hellbound's story is not as tight, and it is not as strong a movie as the first Hellraiser was, but it's still pretty good, and an effective sequel.

Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992)

Hellbound had the curious plot development whereby our favorite Cenobites (Pinhead included), upon being reminded of their former humanity, turn against Leviathan, the lord of the Labyrinth, and are killed off by the new baddie Dr. Channard (who himself doesn't survive the movie). Hellraiser III smartly brings Pinhead back, even if doing so causes it to muck around with the internal logic of the series. But where Pinhead's cool was derived from his laconic (and eminently quotable) threats in the previous two films, he has a tendency to ramble and oversell his point here. I guess it's a mixed bag, because seeing Pinhead promoted to prominence as the central villain of the piece is exciting, but the story suffers from focusing on the battle for his soul, in lieu of Clive Barker's original concept of sadomasochistic demons summoned from a puzzle box.

The central conflict involves Pinhead's resurrection through a process very similar to Frank and Julia's in the previous films, with the important distinction that he's being revived into the world of the living, where he is not confined to the rules of the puzzle box (namely, whom he's allowed to torture). Meanwhile, a New York City reporter is contacted by the ghost of Pinhead's human soul, who hopes that she may have the strength to send Pinhead back to hell. Unfortunately, the new Cenobites in this movie are not nearly as intriguing as the old ones (Pinhead himself admits this), and the derelict, in his brief appearance, is a lot less creepy than he was in the first Hellraiser. Pinhead's blasphemies, on the other hand, are a real joy to watch, but it's a shame they're not couched within a better movie. The fact is, Hell on Earth has a very direct-to-video kind of vibe to it, and it's just not as good as the first two installments in the Hellraiser series.

Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996)

Hellraiser: Bloodline opens on a space station in the year 2127. Now, this can go one of two ways. It can be an awesome Dead Space/Event Horizon-like mix of hell in space. Or it can be another Jason X. Disappointingly, it opts for the latter, but buffers it with two other time periods in what amounts to a tedious chronicle of the L'Merchant (a.k.a. Lemarchand) family's bloodline, going back to the naive 18th century toymaker who crafted the first infernal puzzle box on a commission.

Unfortunately, the potential for a great story about the origin of the puzzle box is mostly wasted on an uncharismatic libertine in a very Interview With The Vampire kind of setting, yet it's the least eye-rolling part of the Merchant family history. Pinhead appears (with a creepy pet that straddles the line between cool and awkward) in the present day to apply not-so-subtle pressure to the architect descendant of the toymaker to finish the building he's working on based on the puzzle box's blueprints, which is secretly meant to be a full-on gateway to hell (with no explanation for the source of the Merchant family's supernatural powers of design) - instead of the secret "light room" that Merchant's post-21st century descendant is working to perfect in order to, hopefully, destroy the puzzle box and the demons it has summoned once and for all.

This is just further evidence of the dilution of Clive Barker's original concept, with the Cenobites (basically Pinhead with a few lame-o one-off gag characters each new movie) searching for ways to escape hell and invade Earth instead of tempting foolish humans with the tantalizing promise of transcendent pain. Honestly, it comes off very much like some fanfic writer inexplicably got hold of the reins to the series. I didn't think Hellraiser would go downhill this fast, but at least it got two good movies in before the decline.

Hellraiser: Inferno (2000)

I heard a rumor that the Hellraiser sequels from here on out actually began life as independent projects, with Pinhead written in after the fact (presumably to boost the films' audiences). It kinda makes sense, given that Bloodline put a finish to the Cenobites and the puzzle box, effectively ending the series, but doing so over a hundred years in the future of the timeline, leaving the door open for any number of Pinhead appearances in the ensuing years. Of course, it means that the following titles are probably not going to really feel like "Hellraiser" movies in a complete sense. However, even in the first Hellraiser, the puzzle box existed to support the story, and not exactly drive it, and the Cenobites were all the more terrifying for the briefness of their appearances.

Inferno tells the story of a vice-ridden police detective who finds that the only puzzle he can't seem to solve is the one that is his own life. When he gets his hands on The Lament Configuration after investigating what appears to be a brutal homicide, he enters a very Silent Hill-like nightmare where he is stalked by visions of the Cenobites, and is singled out for psychological torture by an especially cunning serial killer who is known only on the street as "The Engineer". It turns out to be a pretty dark and captivating mystery, even though you know Pinhead is going to show up at the end.

The Hellraiser mythos is slightly out of place here - as the Cenobites are repositioned as a sort of avatar of infernal justice, punishing sinners, rather than the selfish hedonists they're supposed to be, and their preferred avenue of torture is far more psychological than physical in this movie - but, honestly, it doesn't feel like that bad of a fit, and the story works so well, that I can't fault it for a few rough edges around the seams where I can imagine the script was modified to insert the Hellraiser mythology. As a stand-alone story about one man's interaction with the puzzle box, and a closer look at what goes on in the mind of someone being tortured by the minions of hell (again, more psychologically than physically), this is a pretty good Hellraiser sequel, and the best one since Hellbound.

Hellraiser: Hellseeker (2002)

Hellseeker (these titles are getting to be pretty arbitrary) follows very much in the footsteps of Inferno, in depicting another man's personal hell after coming into contact with the puzzle box. The difference is, this movie features the return of Ashley Laurence as Kirsty from the first two Hellraisers, giving it a "canonical" taste that the last movie didn't have. However, she's a good fifteen years older or so, and is almost unrecognizable. The derelict makes another appearance, as well, but his character hasn't been quite so memorable since the first Hellraiser.

The man at the center of the movie finds himself suffering from amnesia after a car crash resulting in the disappearance and presumed death of his wife. Bizarre hallucinations further complicate his struggle to make sense of his life and the tragedy that recently occurred. Like Inferno, the movie is peppered with short visions of the Cenobites, while Pinhead himself, playing a kind of puppet master role behind the scenes of the movie's torments, appears in limited but effective amounts.

Appropriate for the movie that features the return of Kirsty's character, the Cenobites are the closest they've looked (and felt) to the first movie in all of these sequels, yet with the grittier and less colorful fantasy style typical of these later titles. The movie itself - again much like Inferno - unfolds like a nightmarish mystery, recalling more shades of Silent Hill (and most certainly Jacob's Ladder). I think that I probably enjoyed it even more than Inferno. I'm pleased that after the ridiculous third and fourth installments of Hellraiser, the series has picked up its quality a bit, relying more on the dark psychological themes than the potential for tongue-in-cheek humor and action in its premise.

Hellraiser: Deader (2005)

By this point, the Hellraiser films have fallen into a comfortable formula. The bulk of the story constitutes a psychological thriller, with lots of mystery, and then, by the end of the film (with little hints here and there, including the puzzle box being doctored into the story at some point), Pinhead and the Cenobites show up for the grande finale. Unfortunately - and this is most likely exacerbated by the fact that these movies were reconstituted to be Hellraiser films and not originally intended to be such - the rules of the puzzle box are not entirely consistent from film to film, and many plot-convenient liberties are taken. Deader is probably the worst yet, with the Hellraiser mythos feeling most out of place.

The basic gist of the story this time around is that a gonzo journalist heads to Romania to investigate a suicide cult ("the Deaders") after the newspaper she works for receives a snuff film that appears to suggest that the cultleader has the ability to resurrect the dead. What she finds there is the puzzle box (of course), and a really convoluted plot that seems bent over backwards to involve Pinhead and his gang lording over the souls of the cultmembers, and the leader's unclear plan to escape the Cenobites' clutches, which inexplicably involves the journalist.

Yeah, it really doesn't make a lot of sense. However, there are some extremely creepy sequences in this movie, and even though Pinhead's role in the plot doesn't make a whole lot of sense, when he shows up at the end to dish out punishment, it just kicks ass. It's like a stupid Friday the 13th movie where you can't help but dig the sex, drugs, and nudity, and cheer when Jason does his thing. Except, of course, the Hellraiser series has always been darker and more adult. If you don't mind the movie not really coming together in the end, then I think it's worth watching, just for the nightmare fuel.

Hellraiser: Hellworld (2005)

While I like the de-emphasis on Pinhead and the Cenobites in the last several movies (not because they aren't awesome, but because they're more effective that way), all of these not-really-Hellraiser movies are getting tiring, and I find myself craving a movie that's really designed to be a Hellraiser movie from start to finish. As Pinhead said in Deader, be careful what you wish for - you might get it. Actually, I don't think that's the case here, but this is one of the better integrations of the Hellraiser mythology into an otherwise independent story we've seen for years.

Hellworld takes the unique approach in introducing a cast of characters (almost like the typical slasher cast of young adults) who actually know of Hellraiser in the popular culture, being long-time fans (and addictees) of a computer game based on the Hellraiser mythos (kind of like a sadomasochistic World of Warcraft) - called Hellworld. But when they're invited by the game to a special party for diehard Hellraiser fans in The Leviathan House - a house allegedly built by the designer of the original puzzle box, and said to be haunted - shit gets a little too real.

Excitingly, Lance Henriksen stars as the host of the party, and a Hellworld fanatic. It's kind of lowbrow, but I think it's actually a fun premise, that takes advantage of the opportunity to poke a little fun at itself, and it makes a neat little "what if?" - you get to see what Hellraiser would be like if it were a slasher movie. It does rely more on cliche than is usual for a Hellraiser film, and it runs a little long, but the climax is pretty chilling. To borrow a cliche myself, it may not be the best Hellraiser sequel, but I don't think it's the worst (like others might tell you), either.

Hellraiser: Revelations (2011)

Revelations starts - surprisingly - as a found footage film, although that doesn't last very long (which, intriguing though the idea is, is probably for the better, given this movie's poor grasp of how to make found footage work). Two of your typical American male horndogs are headed to Mexico to get wasted and/or laid, but instead (or, more likely, in addition) they find - you guessed it - the puzzle box. Back home, their families deal with the aftermath of their loss, and try to piece together just what happened, until hell finds them, too.

It's a really bad sign when they couldn't get Doug Bradley to play Pinhead in a Hellraiser movie. Like Robert Englund to Freddy Krueger, the character of Pinhead has been defined by Doug Bradley's portrayal, and this is the first time another actor has stuck the pins in his head, so to speak. As such, it comes off like a rip-off of the real Pinhead, in an over-acted knock-off of a real Hellraiser movie (which is saying something, given that at least half the Hellraiser sequels weren't even meant to be Hellraiser films at some point during their creation).

Revelations actually borrows quite a lot from the original Hellraiser - so much so, that it feels like it could have been meant as a remake. It's too bad it wasn't better written and better directed, because it has some good themes, and suitably gritty gore effects (if not as flashy as the original Hellraiser). Plus, there is at least one exciting scene that is disturbingly erotic - for a series based on the more exotic pleasures of the flesh, scenes that are genuinely erotic in a less-than-conventional way are not as abundant as I would have liked. (Granted, the Cenobites' idea of pleasure is a lot different than mine, but still). But, I'm afraid that alone can't save the film from b-level direct-to-video hell.

Conclusion: Birthed from the twistedly clever mind of Clive Barker, the original Hellraiser spun a perverse tale that melded the torments of hell with the pursuit for ultimate pleasure, combining a human story of temptation and betrayal with the supernatural forces of darkness. It inspired an entire franchise, and although its sequels failed to capture the magic of the original, it turned Pinhead, servant of the puzzle box, with his hooks and chains, into a cultural icon of both fear and desire. Here are my picks for the entries in the Hellraiser series that I think are most worth your time:

Hellraiser (1987)
Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988)

Note: The first two Hellraiser movies are, in my opinion, the only "real" Hellraiser movies that are worth seeing. But if you're not puritanical about your Hellraiser mythos, then I recommend the following as more or less stand-alone films, with cameos by Pinhead and the Cenobites:

Hellraiser: Inferno (2000)
Hellraiser: Hellseeker (2002)

And, if you've got some time to kill, and your expectations are not too high, you might check these out, too:

Hellraiser: Deader (2005)
Hellraiser: Hellworld (2005)

Monday, November 4, 2013

Cronos (1993)

Cronos is esteemed filmmaker Guillermo del Toro's first feature film, about an aging antique store owner who comes across a rare, centuries-old artifact developed by an alchemist who discovered the secret to immortality, at the price of an addiction-like craving for blood. It is sort of a Mexican tale of vampirism, with more of a scientific than a gothic mechanism at work. Ron Perlman (who stars as the titular character in del Toro's adaptation of Hellboy) costars as the roughshod nephew of a greedy industry head who craves immortality and has been searching for the Cronos device for decades.

Certainly, Cronos is a human story with heart, but I'll take the heartless creatures in 30 Days of Night over del Toro's alchemical vampire any day of the week. Del Toro is inarguably a talented filmmaker and creative storyteller, and he has a most admirable dedication to the dark side of human imagination, but I think that maybe his sensibilities don't completely mesh with mine. Pan's Labyrinth was a very good movie, and I have yet to see The Devil's Backbone, which I hear good things about, but I think that, especially considering how much he worships monsters, del Toro has yet to grow into the reputation he's been given.