Wednesday, August 21, 2013

House at the End of the Street (2012)

House at the End of the Street is that horror movie that Jennifer Lawrence appeared in after the release of the first installment of The Hunger Games. I was excited when I noticed that Jennifer was starring in a horror movie - I absolutely loved her in the grim Winter's Bone and the downtrodden Poker House. But the title unfortunately recalls Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left (remade in 2009) - I micro-reviewed both of those films in this post. Not that Last House (either one) was a bad film - on the contrary - but I was left thinking that House at the End of the Street couldn't be more than a repetitive clone of The Last House on the Left. Meanwhile, watching the trailer, I thought that it was supposed to be some sort of ghost movie...

So anyway, I finally sat down to actually watch the movie. And it does start out somewhat similar to Last House. Jennifer Lawrence is Elissa, the teenage daughter of an absent rock n roll star, who has moved from Chicago out to the country with her mom, with whom she has somewhat of a rocky relationship. They shack up in a beautiful house that sits right next to the property where a terrible crime was committed several years earlier - a girl killed her parents in cold blood and then went missing in the forest. They soon discover that the girl's brother is still living in that house, and when he turns out to be a rather sensitive guy, rather than a wacko, Elissa starts to develop feelings for him.

At this point, it quickly becomes clear that this movie is not going to be a clone of The Last House on the Left. As a matter of fact, it doesn't quite develop the way you expect it to, which is so refreshing among today's trend of formulaic horror. There are some genuinely shocking twists, and for this reason I will refrain from revealing too much information about what happens. I found myself really getting into the story and the characters, and the climactic ending is very cleverly put together, subtly, but like a puzzle with all the right pieces in place.

I was really surprised and very impressed with this movie. It doesn't have the reputation or the fanfare of movies like The Conjuring, or the Evil Dead remake, but I think that it's a really good example of a well put-together modern horror movie, and I urge horror fans who have not seen it to give it a watch. I would definitely rank it as a sleeper hit, and I'm happy to do so, because I have oodles of respect for Jennifer Lawrence as an actress. If more horror films were as carefully constructed as this one, then maybe more talented actors would be more eager to star in them.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Kick-Ass 2 (2013)

I made the mistake of missing the first Kick-Ass in theaters, but it wasn't a mistake I was going to make twice.

In general, I don't get excited for superhero movies - and there have been a lot coming out lately. I was not oblivious to the comic book culture around me growing up, but I was never a diehard fan. Batman was one exception that I've always liked, possibly because it's more of a darker, gothic take on the superhero story (and, technically, Batman's not a superhero, just a clever, gutsy billionaire). That was reflected well in Tim Burton's film adaptations, and the more recent trilogy by Christopher Nolan emphasizes the realism of the story. Another exception was Watchmen, which I really liked (both the film and graphic novel), because it is a more serious and mature take on superheroes, and also approaches the theme from a realistic perspective.

The immediate appeal of Kick-Ass for me was that it was also a realistic take on the question: what would it be like if people started dressing up like superheroes to fight crime in the real world? Of course, Kick-Ass embraces humor and a cartoonish level of violence, so it's not entirely serious or grounded in reality, but in this case, I think that adds to its outlandish appeal. I mean, one of the highlights of the first Kick-Ass movie was the character of Hit-Girl, an 11 year old deadly assassin played brilliantly by the precocious Chloe Grace Moretz (one of my favorite young starlets, who has also played a vampire in Let Me In, among many other roles).

Much to my satisfaction, Chloe shines in Kick-Ass 2, and maintains a central role in the story. And better yet (at least in my opinion), the balance between Hit-Girl and Mindy Macready is, compared to the first Kick Ass, tipped more towards the girl behind the mask. Obviously, it's her masked persona that makes her unusual and memorable, but Chloe is such a fantastic actress, that it is a pleasure to get to see more of her, and the humanization of her character just makes her portrayal of Hit-Girl that much more poignant when she dons the costume.

Kick-Ass himself returns as the titular hero, as does the last movie's villain, Red Mist, who reinvents himself (in his characteristically comical fashion) this time as the world's first supervillain. Several new heroes join the fray (including an unrecognizable Jim Carrey), as the costumed vigilante trend grows in popularity, in an organic plot development that recalls to me the same thing that occurred in Watchmen's history. Mindy, meanwhile, is trying real hard to leave the crime-fighting business, and meets her match instead in the popular girls at school, in a subplot that almost seems to foreshadow her upcoming role in the Carrie remake, but proves to be more entertaining than its cliche setup might suggest.

I honestly don't know how I would compare the first Kick-Ass to its sequel - I like them both a lot. I think that the first Kick-Ass has the edge on badass action and the superior climax, but the sequel has much of what you loved from the first one - in both the violence, humor, and dramatic departments. Plus you get to see a whole lot more of Mindy behind the action in part 2, which is a big plus for me. I think the bottom line is that if you liked Kick-Ass, you probably won't be disappointed with the sequel. I, for one, would definitely see it again.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Richard Tennant Cooper

I suppose I am setting a premise with this post, as I don't think I have ever reviewed a painting before (although before my last post I'd never reviewed a radio program, either), but maybe it's something I should do on occasion, as I can think of at least two other paintings and one artist in general I like, that have a horror-based theme.

Anyway, I was browsing the web, and I came across this blog called Metal on Metal, which appears to be as much about disturbing and provocative art (right up my alley), as it is about presenting metal albums and songs. And I found one entry on an artist by the name of Richard Tennant Cooper, that caught my attention.

The selection of his art presented on the blog (click the link above to see what I'm talking about) seems to revolve around the subject of disease and bodily decay, but he illustrates those concepts with a feel for the fantastical as well as horror. For example, in one painting, he conceptualizes diphtheria's effect on a child as a ghastly phantasm strangling the child's neck. In another, typhoid is represented by a grim reaper poisoning a river with a vile, black substance. In yet another, a sickly woman on her death bed is attended by a ghostly reaper with an hourglass in its hand. Chloroform is personified by little gremlins crawling over a medical patient's body. And in one of the more conceptually rich images, cancer is depicted as a giant, ghostly claw clutching at a woman's breast, yet it is being stabbed by another woman with a knife, allegedly symbolizing "science's fight against cancer".

Obviously, from a medical perspective, viewing death as a phantasm existing on the spiritual plane, or disease as its ghastly minions, is superstitious and in conflict with the standard operation of modern medicine. Yet, on a conceptual level, purely as a fantasy, it strikes a dark chord within me. It is a powerful, almost seductive, belief, that these agents that plague us are not merely unthinking organisms but antagonistic, evil creatures with supernatural powers; frankly it makes reality seem boring in comparison.

Obviously, the more mundane reality is reassuring (unless we extend our superstitions to the positive forces - i.e., of God - as well (of course, faith healing doesn't work nearly as effectively as medicine)), but the fantasy is so much more sensational, it just seems so much scarier to me. It's the same feeling, incidentally, I got when I listened to that radio program on vampires. In another age, when society had less understanding of the workings of the world, people actually believed in these things, and they didn't seem so outrageous as they do today. And that thought just chills my bones.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

WKBW Halloween Show 1973

A friend recently linked me to a recording of a radio show aired on Halloween night back in 1973, on a station in Buffalo, NY. You can listen to it for free here. It's a good several hours long, but I think it's a worthwhile time investment. Of course, you have to allow yourself to warm up to the format first. It's not a music program but actually a series of scary tales, including a localized reenactment of the infamous War of the Worlds broadcast.

I was born too late to really experience the period where "radio dramas" were popular. I'm used to sitting at my computer listening to music (sometimes on the radio), but a radio drama requires that you actually pay attention to what's being said (and read). But there are no visuals, so unless you have the time to sit around and stare at the ceiling, it's not quite as engaging as watching the television. Ideally, if you're sitting at the computer, you could find something visually-oriented to do (like browsing images, or performing photo manipulations - which is what I did) to occupy you while you listen to the stories. Then, the time just melts away.

As I said, the broadcast starts with a localized dramatization of War of the Worlds. I actually picked up a CD recording (I think of Orson Welles' original broadcast) several years ago, so it's not the first time I've heard this story on the radio, but it's still interesting to hear the radio station put something like this together. Knowing the story, and knowing that it's fiction, tends to take away some of the excitement I'm sure, but as a historical curiosity, it's fun to listen to. [And a thought had occurred to me - this story of alien invasion is great, but from the perspective of the modern zeitgeist of horror, it seems that stories of the zombie apocalypse would be perfectly suited to this sort of faux-news radio format - maybe that's how World War Z should have really been done...]

But the show doesn't end there. Following the War of the Worlds are several extended (about half an hour-ish) programs that range from documentaries to, basically, short stories narrated on air. The first of these is a program on vampires, that splits itself between those two formats. In the first half, it paints a compelling portrait of a pre-modern world where superstition reigns, and describes how people could actually believe in something as fantastical as vampires. It's fascinating, and it makes me think that the scariest thing is living in a world you don't understand, where things like the dead coming back to life, transforming into bats, and sucking blood from the living is frighteningly plausible. The second half of the program is somewhat less intriguing, but is a fictional narrative about a woman's night-time encounter with a vampire. After listening to this program - I swear to god I am not kidding - I looked out my window and there were bats circling around just outside my bedroom window! It's almost sad that I'm so jaded that it didn't even scare me... But it was still one hell of a creepy coincidence.

Also on the show is a story called The Darkness, about two investigators who visit a crazy old woman's house where they discover a most disturbing secret. The players do an excellent job - in this story as in all the others - of crafting a compelling atmosphere, that really puts you in the scene. There's also a story about a couple who win a haunted bed at auction, and the fairly predictable havoc that it wreaks. Another one of the show's highlights is The Monkey's Paw, which will be familiar to you if you've ever seen the related episode of The Simpsons' Treehouse of Horror. Nevertheless, it builds to a terrifying crescendo, and is not to be missed. Finally, the show ends with a program that discusses UFOs, and interviews some people who have claimed to witness them.

If any of this sounds remotely interesting to you, and if you don't mind stepping back to indulge in some entertainment from the past (I listen almost exclusively to music several decades old, so this isn't much of a problem for me), then I definitely recommend this program to you - it's worth getting over the inevitable listener's curve that is a result of radio dramas not being very prevalent in this day and age. It is several hours long, though, so either make sure you set out a good block of time for it (with something to occupy your hands/eyes to keep you from getting bored), or else you can certainly split it up and listen to the different programs at different times. Also, I listened to it as it was introduced to me, but I would highly recommend pulling it out around October to either get you in the mood for Halloween, or to actually save it for your Halloween celebration, as it does a fantastic job of creating atmosphere.